"[The] validity [of the Cambridge Criticism of neoclassical theory] is unquestionable, but its importance is an empirical or an econometric matter that depends upon the amount of substitutability there is in the system. Until the econometricians have the answer for us, placing reliance upon neoclassical economic theory is a matter of faith. I personally have the faith; but at present the best I can do to convince others is to invoke the weight of Samuelson's authority." -- C. E. Ferguson (1969) [as quoted in Carter (2011)].1.0 Introduction
In this post, I describe two different meanings of "substitutability", as used in the literature and economists' remarks on the Cambridge Capital Controversy1.2.0 Joan Robinson's Criticism
Imagine two island capitalist economies, Alpha and Beta, each in a steady state and with access to the same technology. Suppose for some reason, the distribution of income happens to be different in the two islands. Then the capitalists on the islands will, maybe, have adopted different techniques of production and be producing a different mixture of commodities for final output. Consequentially, the structure of capital goods, both in composition and in quantities, will differ between the two islands.
An (illegitimate) thought experiment is to imagine the distribution of income slowly changing from as it is on one island to the distribution on the other. One might mistakenly consider the capital equipment slowly changing through the composition appropriate to imaginary intermediate islands. This claim ignores the reality of what Joan Robinson called historical time. One is treating a process occurring in time as if it occurring in space, ignoring that past bygones are gone, and assuming no difficulties exist in getting into equilibrium.
Neoclassical2 economists frequently ignore the structure of capital equipment and the plans of the entrepreneurs. One meaning of "substitutability" is the assumption that capital goods can be instantaneously taken apart and reassembled to be appropriate for whatever equilibrium is being considered. The tranverse from one equilibrium to another is abstracted from. Robinson satirized this meaning of substitutability by designating the capital good in, say, the Solow-Swan growth model with such names as "ectoplasm", "leets", and "mecanno sets". Post Keynesians, including Sraffians, are generally suspicious of this approach. (Any fans of Austrian school economists want to chime in in the comments?)3.0 Substitutability and Smooth Microeconomic Production Functions
Another meaning relates to the smoothness of production functions. One might say substitutability exists when derivatives (including, second, third, etc. derivatives) exist for all production functions. That is, substitutability exists in these examples, but not in these ones. (But what would you say about this one, where the cost-minimizing technique varies continuously with the interest rate, and output and each capital good are produced with fixed-coefficients?)As far as I know, capital-reversing, for example, is consistent with substitutability, in this sense of smooth production functions. I, too, will invoke the weight of Samuelson's authority, even though I reject it in the former case. I would like, however, to see an explicit numeric example. 4.0 Conclusion
I believe C. E. Ferguson was referring to my section 2 meaning of "substitutability". That is, when neoclassical economists claim that Sraffians rely on a lack of substitutability for their critique of neoclassical economics, they should not be objecting to a lack of differentiability of microeconomic production functions.Footnotes
- Other usages are ignored in this post. For example, J. R. Hicks' "elasticity of substitution", as used in his mistaken Theory of Wages (1932), is not treated here.
- As far as I am concerned, "neoclassical" is a meaningful and appropriate word in this context.
- Scott Carter (July 2011). C. E. Ferguson and the Neoclassical Theory of Capital: A Matter of Faith, Review of Political Economy, V. 23, N. 3: pp. 339-356