[Marxism] Growth of the productive forces and qualification of labour-power in the United States

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Sat Jun 12 07:45:51 MDT 2004

In a previous post, I mentioned how the average number of labour hours per
year by American workers has declined markedly across the last century,
while more workers worked for money. The corrolary of that is, that the
average number of years workers spent in schools went up.

In an interesting article, Scott Baier, Sean Mulholland, Robert Tamura and
Chad Times called "Income and education in the United States 1840-2000 (Sept
2003), they estimated the average years of schooling of the American
population, and calculated a kind of "human capital-coefficient" such that,
for each additional year of schooling, a 9 percent increase in the value of
output per worker occurs.

In 1840, of 6.3 million or so white Americans over 20 years old, the US
census found that about 9% could not read or write (the literacy or
illiteracy of black slaves wasn't a concern in those days).  The increase in
real output per worker between 1840 and 2000 averaged about 1.6 per cent per
year. Here is the average educational level of the US population they
estimated, in round figures (with some simple interpolations for missing

1840 - 1 year schooling
1850 - 2 years of schooling
1860  - 3 years of schooling
1880 - 4 years of schooling
1890 - 4.5 years of schooling
1900 - 6 years of schooling
1910 - 6.5 years of schooling
1920 - 7 years of schooling
1930 - 7.5 years of schooling
1940 - 8 years of schooling
1950 - 9 years of schooling
1960 - 10 years of schooling
1970 - 11 years of schooling
1980 - 12 years of schooling
1990 - 12.5 years of schooling
2000 - 13 years of schooling

Using the figures of Baier et. al., I can calculate a corresponding index of
real output value per worker for 1840-2000 (with some simple interpolations
for missing years) where 1840=100:

1840 - 100
1850- 126
1860 - 147
1870 - 166
1880 - 186
1990 - 213
1900 - 239
1910 - 264
1920 -  289
1930 - 342
1940 - 396
1950 - 516
1960 -  636
1970 - 879
1980 - 1123
1990 - 1196
2000 - 1269

As you can see, not only do Americans experience on average about thirteen
times more years of schooling now, than they did in when Marx scribbled his
Paris Manuscripts, the output value that an average US worker can produce
also is about 13 times larger now than it was back then.

A worker could produce 4 times more output value in 1940 than he did in
1840, and between the second world war and now, a worker produced about 3.5
times more.

This doesn't mean of course that more education necessarily "causes" higher
productivity, that depends much more on the amount of capital invested and
equipment used per worker. In many ways it is the other way round: a higher
organic composition of capital requires more skilled labor, and as Samuel
Bowles & Herb Gintis suggested in "Schooling in Capitalist America", the
pattern of schooling tends to adjust to the requirements of the workplace.

But it does mean that the average US worker today is a rather different
creature than he was in Marx's own time. If you plot the figures on a graph,
you can see the historical trend better. These figures suggest that the
basic historic effect of the long post-WW2 economic boom and technological
change in the USA was to increase average value of output per worker
something like 140-150%, in other words, it more than doubled. But the
increase in average output value per worker in the era of more sluggish real
economic growth since that time, i.e. from 1980 until today has been vastly
lower, only about 13% or so.

The average number of years of schooling per head of US population does keep
increasing, but economically speaking it doesn't correspond to a
proportionate increase in output value per worker. That's the basis of a
whole set of cultural phenomena which are politically highly significant.

Source: http://www.prism.gatech.edu/~mi26/statehcy.pdf


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