Notes on Inequality

| Peter Klein |

Everyone’s talking about inequality. I confess don’t find inequality terribly interesting, intrinsically. Of course, inequality that results from special government privilege — the incomes of top executives at Lockheed Martin or Goldman Sachs, the speaking fees earned by Hillary Clinton, the wealth of US sugar farmers — should be analyzed and criticized, and those privileges removed. Firm policies that result in pay differentials — pay-for-performance schemes, for example — are important and interesting, not because they generate inequality per se, but because they have systematic and significant effects on firm behavior and performance. Of course, inequality may have important long-run social and cultural effects, but these are highly speculative and not obviously actionable.

I haven’t yet read Thomas Piketty’s new book but am aware of — and amazed by — the buzz it’s generating. I suspect most of the excitement reflects confirmation bias: people who think inequality is the major issue of our time naturally think this is the most important economics book of the decade, probably before reading it. (Naturally, I’d love to exploit that formula in marketing my own books.)

I do have a few thoughts on how the discussion is framed, in light of Piketty’s work. First, Piketty and his admirers define “capital” as a homogeneous, liquid pool of funds, not a heterogeneous stock of capital assets. This is not merely a terminological issue, as those familiar with the debates on capital theory from the 1930s and 1940s are well aware. Piketty’s approach focuses on the quantity of capital and, more importantly, the rate of return on capital. But these concepts make little sense from the perspective of Austrian capital theory, which emphasizes the complexity, variety, and quality of the economy’s capital structure. There is no way to measure the quantity of capital, nor would such a number be meaningful. The value of heterogeneous capital goods depends on their place in an entrepreneur’s subjective production plan. Production is fraught with uncertainty. Entrepreneurs acquire, deploy, combine, and recombine capital goods in anticipation of profit, but there is no such thing as a “rate of return on invested capital.” (more…)

23 April 2014 at 10:32 am Leave a comment

Spender on Strategy

| Dick Langlois |

The always-interesting J.-C. Spender has kindly sent me a copy of his new book from Oxford, Business Strategy: Managing Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Enterprise. Not surprisingly, this very much the kind of book readers of this blog will find interesting. In addition to covering (and interpreting) standard practitioner and academic models of strategy, the book spends considerable time on language, persuasion, and rhetoric. Those of you who teach strategy should definitely have a look.

16 April 2014 at 12:18 pm Leave a comment

New ISNIE Awards

| Peter Klein |

images (4)The International Society for New Institutional Economics has established four new awards, named after the pioneers of new institutional social science: the Ronald Coase Best Dissertation Award, Oliver Williamson Best Conference Paper Award, Douglass North Best Paper or Book Award, and Elinor Ostrom Lifetime Achievement Award. Details on the awards, and a call for nominations for the Coase, North, and Ostrom awards, are on the ISNIE site. (Sadly, my suggestion for a Best Organizational and Institutional Economics Blog Award was not heeded.)

8 April 2014 at 8:55 am Leave a comment

Firm Boundaries Matter

| Peter Klein |

Do firm boundaries — defined as ownership of the relevant capital goods — affect firm behavior and performance? Or is the firm best understood as a nexus of contracts, in which ownership boundaries represent arbitrary legal distinctions? Coase, Williamson, Hart, and Foss and Klein take the former position, while Alchian (sometimes), Demsetz, Jensen, and Meckling lean toward the latter.

A very interesting paper from Amit Seru, “Firm Boundaries Matter: Evidence from Conglomerates and R&D Activity,” offers some empirical evidence on the effects of boundary choices on innovation, finding significant and important effects.

This paper examines the impact of the conglomerate form on the scale and novelty of corporate R&D activity. I exploit a quasi-experiment involving failed mergers to generate exogenous variation in acquisition outcomes of target firms. A difference-in-difference estimation reveals that, relative to failed targets, firms acquired in a diversifying mergers produce both a smaller number of innovations and also less novel innovations, where innovations are measured using patent-based metrics. The treatment effect is amplified if the acquiring conglomerate operates a more active internal capital market and is largely driven by inventors becoming less productive after the merger rather than inventor exits. Concurrently, acquirers move R&D activity outside the boundary of the firm via the use of strategic alliances and joint-ventures. There is complementary evidence that conglomerates with more novel R&D tend to operate with decentralized R&D budgets. These findings suggests that conglomerate organizational form affects the allocation and productivity of resources.

Here is a longer, less technical write-up on the Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation blog.

2 April 2014 at 10:35 am 1 comment

Chameleon Models and Their Dangers

| Nicolai Foss |

Here is a new paper by major Stanford finance scholar, Paul Pfleiderer on what he calls “chameleon models” and their misuse in finance and economics. Lots of catchy concepts, e.g., “theoretical cherry picking” and “bookshelf models,” and an fine critical discussion of Friedmanite instrumentalism. The essence of the paper is this:

Chameleons arise and are often nurtured by the following dynamic. First a bookshelf model is constructed that involves terms and elements that seem to have some relation to the real world and assumptions that are not so unrealistic that they would be dismissed out of hand. The intention of the author, let’s call him or her “Q,” in developing the model may to say something about the real world or the goal may simply be to explore the implications of making a certain set of assumptions. Once Q’s model and results
become known, references are made to it, with statements such as “Q shows that X.” This should be taken as short-hand way of saying “Q shows that under a certain set of  assumptions it follows (deductively) that X,” but some people start taking X as a plausible statement about the real world. If someone skeptical about X challenges the assumptions made by Q, some will say that a model shouldn’t be judged by the realism of its assumptions, since all models have assumptions that are unrealistic. Another rejoinder made by those supporting X as something plausibly applying to the real world might be that the truth or falsity of X is an empirical matter and until the appropriate empirical tests or analyses have been conducted and have rejected X, X must be taken seriously. In other words, X is innocent until proven guilty. Now these statements may not be made in quite the stark manner that I have made them here, but the underlying notion still prevails that because there is a model for X, because questioning the assumptions behind X is not appropriate, and because the testable implications of the model supporting X have not been empirically rejected, we must take X seriously. Q’s model (with X as a result) becomes a chameleon that avoids the real world filters.

29 March 2014 at 5:26 am Leave a comment

Doux Commerce Bleg

| Nicolai Foss |

Andrew Smith, University of Liverpool Management School asks for the help of the readers of O&M:

I’m currently exploring the literature on the theory of the capitalist peace. I’m very familiar with the vast literature by IR scholars and political economists on the theory of the capitalist peace/commercial peace (i.e., the idea that commercial interdependence among nations reduces the likelihood of warfare). This literature is dominated by works using panel data (e.g., Gartzke, 2007).

What I need to find out more about is the literature on the possible microfoundations of the capitalist peace—i.e., work by psychologists and experimental economists on whether repeated participation in inter-ethnic and international trade actually influences the cognitive processes of the individuals involved and makes them less warlike. Does experience with economic exchange with non-members of the group (family, clan, tribe, nation, etc) make people more pacific? Does it make individuals less violent? Montesquieu speculated that this would be the case a long time ago when he advanced his “doux commerce” thesis. Albert Hirschman said that Montesquieu’s theory was the conventional wisdom in the Enlightenment. However, I’m interested in what modern social scientists have said about this theory. Francois and van Ypersele (2009) found that level of trust reported by adults in the US is positively correlated with the competitiveness of the sector in which they work. Their research was not about international economic relations and diplomacy. However, it does tend to support the thesis that a competitive market economy has a civilizing influence. I would be interested in knowing if there is other research by psychologists, experimental economists, and others that is relevant to the doux commerce thesis.

28 March 2014 at 12:41 pm 2 comments

Contracts as Technology

| Peter Klein |

That’s the title of an interesting new law review article by Kevin Davis (New York University Law Review, April 2013). Just as we can treat organizational structure as as sort of technology, and study the introduction and diffusion of new organizational forms with the same theories and methods used to study technological innovation and diffusion, we can think of contracts as structures or institutions that emerge, are subject to experimentation and competition, and evolve and diffuse. Here’s the abstract:

If technology means, “useful knowledge about how to produce things at low cost”, then contracts should qualify. Just as mechanical technologies are embodied in blueprints, technologies of contracting are embodied in contractual documents that serve as, “blueprints for collaboration”. This Article analyzes innovations in contractual documents using the same kind of framework that is used to analyze other kinds of technological innovation. The analysis begins by laying out an informal model of the demand for and supply of innovative contractual documents. The discussion of demand emphasizes the impact of innovations upon not only each party’s incentives to collaborate efficiently, but also upon reading costs and litigation costs. The analysis of supply considers both the generation and dissemination of innovations and emphasizes the importance of cumulative innovation, learning by-doing, economies of scale and scope, and trustworthiness. Recent literature has raised concerns about the extent to which law firms produce contractual innovations. In fact, a wide range of actors other than law firms supply contractual documents; including end users of contracts, specialized providers of legal documents, legal database firms, trade associations, and academic institutions. This article discusses the incentives and capabilities of each of these potential sources of innovation. It concludes by discussing potential interventions such as: (1) enhancing intellectual property rights, (2) relaxing rules concerning the unauthorized practice of law and, (3) creating or expanding publicly sponsored clearinghouses for contracts.

See also Lisa Berstein’s comment. (HT: Geoff Manne)

17 March 2014 at 3:49 pm 1 comment

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Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Peter G. Klein and Micheal E. Sykuta, eds., The Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics (Edward Elgar, 2010).
Peter G. Klein, The Capitalist and the Entrepreneur: Essays on Organizations and Markets (Mises Institute, 2010).
Richard N. Langlois, The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism: Schumpeter, Chandler, and the New Economy (Routledge, 2007).
Nicolai J. Foss, Strategy, Economic Organization, and the Knowledge Economy: The Coordination of Firms and Resources (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Raghu Garud, Arun Kumaraswamy, and Richard N. Langlois, eds., Managing in the Modular Age: Architectures, Networks and Organizations (Blackwell, 2003).
Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, eds., Entrepreneurship and the Firm: Austrian Perspectives on Economic Organization (Elgar, 2002).
Nicolai J. Foss and Volker Mahnke, eds., Competence, Governance, and Entrepreneurship: Advances in Economic Strategy Research (Oxford, 2000).
Nicolai J. Foss and Paul L. Robertson, eds., Resources, Technology, and Strategy: Explorations in the Resource-based Perspective (Routledge, 2000).

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