Full text: Brief von Bertram Schefold an Josef Steindl

In his paper Professor Steindl raises the question whether macroeconomists should 
be interested in Sraffa’s Standard commodity, ’since measurement and aggregation 
must ultimately be of concern to them’, particularly ’when longer series of data are 
used.’ The answer he gives is in the affirmative: in section 6 of the paper it is 
contended that Sraffa’s concept has meaning ’both for the comparison of one 
economy over time, and for the comparison of entirely different economies’. In this 
brief comment I shall not enter into a discussion of the more technical parts of 
Professor Steindl’s argument and especially his elaboration on the Standard System. I 
shall rather focus attention on some conceptual issues and point out differences 
between Professor Steindl’s reading of Sraffa and mine. 
In my opion the key to a proper understanding of the concept of the Standard 
commodity can be found in an oral intervention of Sraffa’s at the 1958 Corfu 
Conference on the theory of Capital. There Sraffa argued that ‘one should emphasize 
the distinction between two types of measurement. First, there was the one in which 
the statisticians were mainly interested. Second, there was measurement in theory. 
The statistician’s measures were only approximate and provided a suitable field for 
work in solving index number problems. The theoretical measures required absolute 
precision... If we found contradictions, then these pointed to defects in the theory, and 
an unability to define measures of Capital accurately’ (cf. Lutz and Hague, 1961, pp. 
305-306; emphasis added). This distinction appears to be also lurking in the back in 
the following passage taken from Sraffa’s Introduction to Ricardo’s Works: 'The 
search for what has been called "the chimera of an invariable Standard of value" 
preoccupied Ricardo to the end of his life. However, the problem which mainly 
interested him was not that of finding an actual commodity which would accurately 
measure the value of com or silver at different times and places: but rather that of 
finding the conditions which a commodity would have to satisfy in order to be 
invariable in value - and this came close tb identifvina the problem of a measure with 
that of the law of value’ (Sraffa, 1951, pp. xl-xli; emphasis added). Ricardo’s 
unfortunate tendency to confound these two radically different issues caused a lot of 
confusion and turned out to be an obstacle in the way of a proper understanding of 
the role of the Standard commodity in Sraffa’s approach to the theory of value and 
distribution. Indeed, many Interpreters wrongly considered Sraffa’s ingenious concept 
an attempted solution to ’the’ Ricardian problem.

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