Archive for September, 2008

Paulson, Bernanke, Congress: We Need Your Help!

| Peter Klein |

With our economy in crisis, the US Government is scrambling to rescue our banks by purchasing their “distressed assets”, i.e., assets that no one else wants to buy from them. We figured that instead of protesting this plan, we’d give regular Americans the same opportunity to sell their bad assets to the government. We need your help and you need the Government’s help!

Use the form below to submit bad assets you’d like the government to take off your hands. And remember, when estimating the value of your 1997 limited edition Hanson single CD “MMMbop”, it’s not what you can sell these items for that matters, it’s what you think they are worth. The fact that you think they are worth more than anyone will buy them for is what makes them bad assets.

Here’s the link (via Sean Corrigan, and please excuse the language). Remember, if people can’t get rid of their bad assets, they will have to cut back their spending, hurting local businesses, which will then be unable to spend, hurting other businesses, and so on, generating a “consumption crunch” that will cause the next Great Depression. Please, somebody, break some windows!

30 September 2008 at 11:26 am 1 comment

Best of “On the Economy”

| Peter Klein |

Tom Keane’s greatest (interview) hits, featuring Nassim Taleb, Bill Gross, Robert Lord Skidelsky, Mohamed El-Erian, Eugene Fama, Peter Peterson, James MacGregor Burns, Peter Bernstein, Allan Meltzer, Martin Feldstein, James Poterba, Peter Fisher, David Malpass, Milton Friedman, Thomas Schelling, Myron Scholes, William Sharpe, Edmund Phelps, Gary Becker, Robert Mundell, Robert Solow, Amartya Sen, Robert Lucas, Kenneth Arrow, and Paul Samuelson.

30 September 2008 at 11:08 am Leave a comment

A Critique of Modern Law and Economics Research

| Peter Klein |

From Eric Engle. How can I not link to a paper with “Theoretical Puffery” in the title? (Thanks to Mark Thornton for the pointer.)

Law and Economics: Theoretical Puffery, Exaggerated Claims and Counterfactual Models

Eric Engle
Universität Bremen; Harvard University – Berkman Center for Internet & Society

September 15, 2008

Economic analyses of law predominate in the United States because they can claim to be objective and scientific thus verifiable and the basis of predictions and reproducible experiments. However, several of the claims of economic analysis of law go too far and are entirely unrealistic. This explains why economic analysis of law has not been taken up outside of the U.S. to the extent it has in the U.S. This article points out the unrealistic presumptions within law and economics theory (homo economicus and efficient markets, mostly) and the unrealistic claims of law and economics (that the law is and should be a mirror of the economy). Economic analysis of law cannot and should not serve as a general basis of legal decision making. However, as a special theory applicable as a method for determining certain issues economic methods can well inform legal decision making helping judges to shape justice correctly. This article exposes the competing schools within law and economics and presents a defensible version of economic methodology applied within legal discourse.

30 September 2008 at 8:59 am 6 comments

Nationalization of US Credit Markets: Where Is the Analysis?

| Peter Klein |

Over and over during the last week we’ve been told that unless Congress, the Treasury, and the Fed take “bold action,” credit markets will freeze, equity values will plummet, small businesses and homeowners will be wiped out, and, ultimately, the entire economy will crash. Such pronouncements are issued boldly, with a sort of Gnostic certainty, a little sadness for dramatic effect, and only minor caveats and qualifications.

And yet, details are never provided. The analysis is conducted entirely at a superficial, almost literary, level. “If the government doesn’t act then banks will be afraid to lend, and people can’t get credit to buy a house or expand their business, and the economy will tank.” Unless we rescue these particular financial institution, in other words, a massive contagion effect will swamp the entire economy. But how do we know this? We don’t. First, we don’t even know if there is a “credit crunch.” Nobody has bothered to provide any empirical evidence. Second, even if credit markets are tight, does it matter? Any predictions about the long-term effects are, of course, purely speculative. Sure, borrowers like cheap and easy credit and tighter credit markets will leave some borrowers worse off. But what are the magnitudes? What are the likely effects on the economy as a whole? (Possibly zero.) What are the possible scenarios, what is the likelihood of each, and how large are the expected effects? Where is the cost-benefit analysis? After all, the seizure of Fannie and Freddie, the takeovers of AIG and WaMu, the modified Paulson plan — the effective nationalization of the US financial sector, in other words — ain’t exactly costless. There are direct costs, of course, to be borne by taxpayers, but the possible long-term effects brought about by increased moral hazard, regime and policy uncertainty, and the like are enormous. Even on purely utilitarian grounds, the arguments offered so far are tissue-paper thin. 

Perhaps the dopiest remark I heard today was from Jamie Galbraith on the Diane Rehm show. “I’m a risk-averse person, and the risk of doing nothing is too great.” Huh? Um, shouldn’t a risk-averse person compare the risk of doing nothing with, well, the risk of doing something? Jamie, are the provisions of the bill making its way through Congress this morning risk free?

29 September 2008 at 11:11 am 4 comments

Government Funding and the Economic Organization of Scienctific Research

| Peter Klein |

A prominent climate scientist, Richard Lindzen of MIT, argues that the politicization of climate science over the last decade is but a symptom of a larger, more general problem caused by government science funding: namely an emphasis on demonstrable results that satisfy the public and have “practical” implications, rather than the pursuit of scientific truth (via Sean Corrigan).

For a variety of inter-related cultural, organizational, and political reasons, progress in climate science and the actual solution of scientific problems in this field have moved at a much slower rate than would normally be possible. Not all these factors are unique to climate science, but the heavy influence of politics has served to amplify the role of the other factors. By cultural factors, I primarily refer to the change in the scientific paradigm from a dialectic opposition between theory and observation to an emphasis on simulation and observational programs. The latter serves to almost eliminate the dialectical focus of the former. Whereas the former had the potential for convergence, the latter is much less effective. The institutional factor has many components. One is the inordinate growth of administration in universities and the consequent increase in importance of grant overhead. This leads to an emphasis on large programs that never end. Another is the hierarchical nature of formal scientific organizations whereby a small executive council can speak on behalf of thousands of scientists as well as govern the distribution of ‘carrots and sticks’ whereby reputations are made and broken. The above factors are all amplified by the need for government funding. When an issue becomes a vital part of a political agenda, as is the case with climate, then the politically desired position becomes a goal rather than a consequence of scientific research. This paper will deal with the origin of the cultural changes and with specific examples of the operation and interaction of these factors. In particular, we will show how political bodies act to control scientific institutions, how scientists adjust both data and even theory to accommodate politically correct positions, and how opposition to these positions is disposed of.

The paper is well worth reading by social scientists and organization theorists. Business-school faculty will recognize the parallels with the call for “relevance” in management education (see the links in Teppo’s recent post). And there are important connections to the arts and humanities; recent scholarship, for example, challenges the notion that public funding produces better art (painting, music, literature, drama) than patronage or commercial funding (Cantor, Cowen, Scherer). Some readers may respond, with Pilate, “What is truth?” Somebody has to pay the bills, in other words, and that party will want something in return. (more…)

29 September 2008 at 10:17 am Leave a comment

Mankiw: Defer to the Philosopher-Kings

| Peter Klein |

One of the most disappointing economist responses to the proposed bailout is Greg Mankiw’s. While not exactly endorsing the Paulson-Bernanke plan itself, Greg supports the process through which it emerged. His argument, essentially, is this: Paulson and Bernanke are very smart and have access to better information than the rest of us, so we should stop complaining and go along with whatever they propose.

I find this stunningly naive, for four reasons:

1. It ignores differences in theoretical frameworks or models. No doubt Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Oskar Lange, Paul Samuelson, and Joseph Stiglitz were or are highly intelligent people. Do we have to accept all their policy conclusions? Surely intelligent specialists can come to different conclusions not only because they have access to different information (the Friedmanite view), but because they have different understandings of how the world works. (This is especially true when long-run, rule-utilitarian consequences are at stake.)

2. It ignores the distinction between theoretical and applied economics. Even if people agree on theoretical questions, they may disagree on the application of theory to specific historical situations, which is a matter of judgment, not intelligence.

3. It ignores private interests. Paulson and Bernanke are not disinterested, Platonic philosopher-kings pursing the common good. Presumably they are pursuing private interests, just like every other political actor. Has Greg never heard of public choice?

4. It ignores concerns other than economic efficiency. Economists, like everyone else, have normative opinions. Some may oppose the bailout not on utilitarian grounds, but because they think giving taxpayer dollars to failing enterprises is immoral, regardless of  possible contagion effects.

27 September 2008 at 7:57 am 6 comments

GM-Fisher: Yet More

| Peter Klein |

The debate over the acquisition of Fisher Body by General Motors, like the Energizer bunny, keeps going, and going, and going. . . . The new issue of Industrial and Corporate Change has two more papers, “Lawyers Asleep at the Wheel? The GM–Fisher Body Contract” by Victor Goldberg and “The Enforceability of the GM–Fisher Body Contract: Comment on Goldberg” by Ben Klein. Here are the abstracts:

Goldberg: In the analysis of vertical integration by contract versus ownership, one event has dominated the discussion — General Motors’ (GM) merger with Fisher Body in 1926. The debates have all been premised on the assumption that the 10-year contract between the parties signed in 1919 was a legally enforceable agreement. However, it was not. Because Fisher’s promise was illusory the contract lacked consideration. This note suggests that GM’s counsel must have known this. It raises a significant question in transactional engineering: what is the function of an agreement that is not legally enforceable?

Klein: Goldberg unconvincingly claims that the General Motors (GM)–Fisher Body contract was in fact legally unenforceable. But even if Goldberg’s contract law conclusion were correct, it is economically irrelevant. It is clear from the actions of Fisher and GM and from the testimonial and other contemporaneous evidence that both transactors considered the contract legally binding and behaved accordingly. Therefore, proper economic analysis of the Fisher–GM case should continue to assume contract enforceability, and the economic determinants of organizational structure illustrated by the case remain fully valid.

26 September 2008 at 12:43 pm 2 comments

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Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
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