[OPE-L:3511] Hilferding and skill

Allin Cottrell (cottrell@wfu.edu)
Wed, 23 Oct 1996 19:09:57 -0700 (PDT)

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I have now had a chance to look at some of the original
literature Steve cited (thanks, Steve), specifically the
contributions of Bohm-Bawerk, Hilferding and Sweezy. Here
is my take on the matter.

1. Bohm-Bawerk raises the standard charge of circularity
against Marx's account of the role of skilled versus simple
labour in the context of the labour theory of value. That
is, Marx (B-B claims) proposes to "reduce" skilled to
simple labour on the basis of an observable market
magnitude, namely the exchange-value of the product of the
different labours, per hour. That's all very well, says
B-B, but then Marx can't turn around and say that he's using
the resulting "simple-labour-equivalent" magnitudes to
"explain" the relative prices of different commodities.
Point taken; if that were Marx's procedure, it would indeed
be circular.

2. B-B then recognizes that there is an alternative,
non-circular account available within the Marxian
literature. He cites one Grabski as proferring the idea
(since associated with Sweezy) that skilled labour counts as
a multiple of simple labour insofar as the former transfers
to the product the labour-time involved in training, on top
of the direct labour.

3. Implicitly, B-B accepts the Grabski position as
*coherent*, but he claims that it won't do *empirically*,
because the ratio of the rate of value-creation on the part
of skilled labour to that on the part of unskilled labour
greatly exceeds (or *can* greatly exceed?) the ratio that
would be predicted on the basis of the Grabski argument. He
cites an (imaginary?) example where a sculptor creates
(exchange-)value at five times the rate of a stone-breaker.
To rationalize this a la Grabski would require that the
labour-time involved in the sculptor's training stands in
the ratio of 4:1 to the time the sculptor eventually spends
making statuettes, which is absurd.

4. Hilferding comes along and offers a reply to Bohm-Bawerk.
He's most concerned by the circularity charge. He says:

"Average unskilled labor is the expenditure of unskilled
labor power, but qualified or skilled labor is the
expenditure of skilled labor power. For the production of
this skilled labor power, however, a number of unskilled
labors were requisite. These are stored up in the person of
the qualified laborer, and not until he begins to work are
these formative labors made fluid *on behalf of society*.
The labor of the technical educator thus transmits, not only
*value* (which manifests itself in the form of the higher
wage), but in addition its own *value-creating power*. The
formative labors are therefore *latent as far as society is
concerned*, and do not manifest themselves until the skilled
labor power begins to work. Its expenditure consequently
signifies the expenditure of all the different unskilled
labors which are simultaneously condensed therein... In
what it has to give for the product of skilled labor,
society consequently pays an equivalent for the value which
the unskilled labors would have created had they been
directly consumed by society."

Now it seems to me that this is just an amplification of the
Grabski view. The "formative" labors are "stored up" in the
person of the skilled worker, and are then discharged when
the latter sets to work. *Some* of the language above
suggests that Hilferding may have something different from
Grabski/Sweezy in mind, but I don't believe that is really
the case. The confirmation comes on the next page when
Hilferding gives this analogy:

"A man owns ten storage batteries wherewith he can drive ten
different machines. For the manufacture of a new product he
requires another machine for which a far greater motive
power is requisite. He now employs the ten batteries to
charge a single accumulator, which is capable of driving the
new machine. The powers of the individual batteries
thereupon manifest themselves as a unified force in the new
battery, a unified force which is the tenfold multiple of
the simple average force."

This is entirely in line with Grabski/Sweezy. The
alternative which I take Steve to be suggesting would
require that Hilferding's accumulator is magically capable
of delivering *more than* ten times the wattage of the
individual batteries used to charge it.

5. Hilferding does *not* specifically respond to B-B's
claim that the Grabski mechanism can't do the job, as an
empirical matter. He doesn't even mention the quantitative
angle (the *only* numbers he gives are in the battery
analogy, which makes no pretension to actual empirical

6. B-B's "empirical" objection therefore remains an open
matter. But as it stands it seems to be a merely
hypothetical anomaly. To see if there were indeed any real
anomaly, relative to the labour theory of value, would take
proper empirical investigation. Specifically, one would
have to find two reasonably homogeneous occupations of
differing skill levels, A and B, such that:

i) We can construct a reasonable measure of the productivity
(in terms of exchange-value added per hour, day or whatever)
of workers in both A and B. (This condition is crucial, but
not all that easily met.)

ii) We can at least roughly quantify the extra labour-time
required for training workers for A as opposed to B. (Not
terribly hard?)

iii) The greater skill in the one case is plausibly analysed
as a "pure training" effect (as opposed to a
non-reproducible talent commanding a rent).

iv) There is a reasonable approximation to supply-demand
equilibrium in the markets for the products of A and B.

Given all this, if the ratio of exchange-value
productivities for occupations A and B is way out of line
with what I previously called the Sweezy coefficients (but
which, on the above reading, might equally well be called
Hilferding or Grabski coefficients) of the occupations, then
we have, prima facie, an anomaly of the sort B-B raises.
*Then*, we might devote some energy to devising a plausible
account of the anomaly. (I'd actually be quite interested
to try some empirical work along these lines, but it would
not be a trivial task and it will have to wait a while.)