[OPE-L:1078] Moral depreciation again

John R. Ernst (ernst@pipeline.com)
Fri, 16 Feb 1996 00:19:54 -0800

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Both Duncan and Allin have posed some interesting ideas and questions
concerning the question of "moral depreciation."

Duncan says[in OPE 1072]

Maybe the first thing to do to sort these issues out is to locate the
problem of moral depreciation theoretically. It seems to me it's an issue
of how capitalists compete: if they anticipate more rapid obsolescence of
capital in one sector than another, they will require a higher profit
rate in the first sector to compensate for their anticipated capital
losses. On the other hand, it doesn't seem to affect the new production
of value by living labor.

John says:

Implicit in Duncan's statement is the notion that "moral depreciation"
is a deduction from surplus value or profit. If two capitalists invest
differing amounts for differing periods, he and I would agree that
they must earn the same rate of profit. But why assume that the
amount of moral depreciation is a deduction from profits? To be
sure, as we have seen on this list, when we focus on "cheaper"
machines an argument for such a deduction can be made. But
if we focus on "better" machines, my view on this matter may
be clearer.

Let's take the case of one capitalist. If he invests in
a new machine and assumes it will last, say, 10 years, then he
can compute his anticipated rate of profit. Assuming constant
social values and that his expectations are met, then he will
abandon that machine after 10 years. Do we assume that the
machine is physically useless at the end of the 10 years? I
don't think so. To be sure, it is physically aged, but still
could, generally, be used but not profitably. Indeed, we could
well add the assumption that the machine's physical life is
20 years. Still after 10 years, in capitalist society -- useless.
Anticipated obsolescence is a by-product of technical change
in capitalism.

But note that in its ten years of life, as the machine's value was
transferred to the output, the workers were exploited and surplus
value extracted without any deductions.

How then do I address Allin's comment in OPE-1074?

Alline says:

I agree: the "pricing to cover moral depreciation" argument makes good
sense at a microeconomic level (comparison between sectors). But, to
repeat an earlier question to John, how is that argument supposed to
'scale up' to the economy as a whole? If capitalists are able to raise
prices _generally_ to cover themselves against moral depreciation, why
didn't they raise prices already, to make higher profits?

John says:

The "scale up" to which you refer means that instead of replacing the
machine in the above example after 20 years of use, the capitalist
is forced to replace it after only 10 years. This "waste" is social
not natural. (Perhaps an ecological reason to abandon capitalism?)


I still need to cover the case(s) where it is not a question of the
better machine but the cheaper as well as cases where those better
machines show up at times unforeseen by the capitalist.

What I will admit is that even the fear of unforeseen "moral
depreciation" does induce capitalists to lengthen the working
day as well as to intensify labor. In such cases, capitalists
are forced to deduct the loss from the surplus value produced.
My point is that not all "moral depreciation" falls into
this category. Rather, capitalists in setting up their
depreciation schedules do know that the machine will be obsolete
before it is physically worn out.