Quantifying Values(1)

Alan Freeman (a.freeman@greenwich.ac.uk)
Fri, 16 Jan 1998 13:01:49 +0000

Quantifying Values (2): What would we learn?

Duncan's (2 January) says

>I think it would be desirable to discuss exactly what the point of such an
>exercise would be, that is, what scientific questions the dataset is
>supposed to be able to answer"

and asks:

>what exactly would we know if such a set of accounts existed that we can't
>figure out now?"

I think that these are useful questions to discuss. Juriaan has already (3
January) given four answers. I'd like to add the following considerations:

What could we figure out?

I'm not exactly sure whether 'figure out' is the word we're looking for.
'Understand' would be closer to what I think we can do. It's fairly
well-established that when Galileo confronted the Jesuits, his system was
worse at predicting astronomical observations; the Ptolemaic system was
more 'empirically' accurate. But he was right and they were wrong. It is
'true' that the earth goes round the sun. Eppur si muove.

Moreover there are a whole series of useful questions which the accounts
just don't let you ask, such as 'how much did rentiers consume?' or 'how
much did education did workers receive?' The categories we need to ask
these questions don't exist in the accounts, which only speak of consumers.

The nub of the problem is this: all intellectual activity distinguishes
essence from appearance, whatever else might be claimed. Official
economics, in my opinion, supplies a false essence (whose plausibility
arises from the fact that it rationalizes immediate appearance). NIPA
statistics say the sun goes round the earth. When a statement such as
'output last year was 584,541 billion pounds' or worse still 'workers
contributed 362,758' this is a literally false statement, with the same
order of falseness as the statement that 'at 12 o'clock the sun was in the
South and moving Westwards'. What actually happened, I think, is that the
workers contributed 584,541 and the 219,783 of this was transferred to the

In consequence (and this is the connection with Marx) if one wants to ask
whether the data confirms or denies Marx's assertions - or anyone else's,
for that matter - then the results will always confirm the official theory
because it was built by the official theory, built from the ground up in
opposition to Marx: it has a use-value measure of value, it doesn't
recognise classes, it measures 'real output' on a replacement cost basis,
and so on.

Now, if we want, we can continue working with the NIPA accounts and making
a kind of mental translation every time we speak, in the way that we do in
dealing with loose talk about the sun. We say 'the sun is in the South
moving West' and when forced to think about it we say 'what I mean by that
literally false statement is that 'I am facing the sun, moving East'. But
this is an incoherent way to think, and deprives one of the ability to see
any connections between things. Moreover, it permits the official economics
constantly to make false statements: above all when they deduce
*qualitative* facts from the quantitative data. For example, they say that
banks contribute to wealth, when actually they don't (and even the NIPA
statisticians admit this, at least in the UK, but very quietly and not in
front of the children).

But this, to me, is like continuing to talk about Phlogiston when Oxygen
has been discovered. One *can* make almost every statement one wants about
Oxygen by calling it 'negative Phlogiston'. One *can* dispense with the
Theory of Relativity (which at the end of the day is only a different
reading of the same data). Or one can speak as if the sun goes round the
earth. But why go to such tortuous lengths when there is an alternative
that is much simpler and explains things better?

Why would ours be any better?

It might then be asked: "what's so good about your theory that justifies
you producing your own accounts; aren't you doing the same as the official
statisticians?" This is a more complex question. My response to that would

(1) The most important thing, IMO, is to discuss *value*, and to force
economics to discuss it. One important point I am trying to make in NIPA(2)
is that the value categories are already present in the NIPA accounting
techniques; what is scandalous is that they pretend value doesn't exist
when everything they do is premised on a theory of value: *their* theory of
value. They even charge tax on it. Therefore, supposedly 'neutral' data
isn't neutral at all but carries a definite ideological charge (for
example, it categorises state pensioners as parasitical and rentiers as
creators of wealth).

(2) to study Marxist theories, we need data constructed according to Marx's
categories. Otherwise we don't have a level playing field: we are not
making a scientific comparison between rival theories

(3) However I don't conceive of this as counterposing an alternative
'correct' ideology, as if the answer to the Pope in Rome was to set up a
Pope in Avignon; the antidote is to make the ideology explicit by
demonstrating other presentations of the facts, and leave the good citizens
of the new world order to draw their own conclusions.

(4) The mere fact of challenging the official version of the statistics is
a healthy jolt to official economics. I don't believe official economics is
scientific (I'm not clear if this belief of mine is shared by everyone else
and I'd be interested to know). But its statements, which rule and ruin the
lives of billions of people, are taken and accepted as absolute and
unchallengeable truth, with the status of a 'hard science'. And most of
these statements are based on 'their facts'. I think merely demonstrating
that this isn't the only version of the facts would be a healthy thing to
do. I think this *is* a scientific activity in an age of unreason, because
it restores the right to make economic judgments to the only class which
does in fact have the capacity to construct a genuine science of economics,
wiping out the right of the economists to rule like Mediaeval Popes on
what are acceptable facts and what are not.

(5) Yes, it's true that there might be third, fourth and fifth alternative
versions of the data: with or without domestic labour, taking into account
environmental depredation or not, and so on. When there is no science,
where no one account of the facts has definitively proven itself (and will
not, under capitalism, since the capitalist class will never tolerate a
scientific account of their own economy) I think the scientific procedure
is to deny priority or authority to any particular system but to lay bare
instead the general principles according to which alternative accounting
systems may be derived, so as to put all attempts at theoretical
interpretation on an equal footing.