Archive for May, 2011
| Peter Klein |
My father was a historian and helped organize local events to commemorate the bicentennials of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 and Constitution in 1987. I particularly remember the Freedom Train, a traveling exhibit housing memorabilia such as original copies of the Declaration, Constitution, Louisiana Purchase, and (I learn from Wikipedia, though I don’t remember these) Judy Garland’s dress from the Wizard of Oz and Joe Frazier’s boxing trunks.
Several years later, my Dad gave a conference paper (unfortunately unpublished) on “The Constitution as Myth and Symbol.” He noted that for many Americans, the founding documents, along with the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, images of George Washington and Betsy Ross, etc., play the same kind of role as a Britain’s crown jewels, the Bastille, or Lenin’s tomb. The Constitution is important, in other words, not only for its text — some would argue the text is largely ignored today anyway — but for its symbolic value. It represents a particular myth of the American founding, usually associated with reason and noble ideals (Bernard Bailyn, Ayn Rand, Schoolhouse Rock) but occasionally with power or material self-interest (Charles Beard, Bertell Ollman).
In following the debates over raising the US debt ceiling I”m struck by the frequent claim that defaulting on public debt is unthinkable because of the “signal” that would send. If you can’t rely on the T-Bill, what can you rely on? Debt instruments backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States” are supposed to be risk-free, almost magically so, somehow transcending the vagaries of ordinary debt markets. The Treasury Bill, in other words, has become a myth and symbol, just like the Constitution.
I find this line of reasoning unpersuasive. A T-bill is a bond, just like any other bond. Corporations, municipalities, and other issuers default on bonds all the time, and the results are hardly catastrophic. Financial markets have been restructuring debt for many centuries, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it. From the discussion regarding T-bills you’d think no one had ever heard of default risk premia before. (Interestingly, this seems to be a case of American exceptionalism; people aren’t particularly happy about Greek, Irish, and Portuguese defaults but no one thinks the world will end because of them.) So, isn’t it time to de-mythologize all this? Treasuries are bonds just like any other bonds. There’s nothing magic, mythical, or sacred about them. A default on US government debt is no more or less radical than a default on any other kind of debt.
| Peter Klein |
Important new paper by Henry Manne on entrepreneurship (Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Spring 2011). It won’t surprise you to know that Henry has a solution to the problem of encouraging entrepreneurial behavior among corporate managers: allow them to trade on inside information.
Entrepreneurship, Compensation, and the Corporation
Henry G. Manne
This paper revisits the concept of entrepreneurship, which is frequently neglected in mainstream economics, and discusses the importance of defining and isolating this concept in the context of large, publicly held companies. Compensating for entrepreneurial services in such companies, ex ante or ex post, is problematic — almost by definition — despite the availability of devices such as stock and stock options. It is argued that insider trading can serve as a unique compensation device and encourage a culture of innovation.
| Peter Klein |
Wikipedia on market fundamentalism: “a pejorative term applied to an exaggerated religious-like faith in the ability of unfettered laissez-faire or free market economic views or policies to solve economic and social problems.”
I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize [my model of Christian epistemology]. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term “fundamentalist.” On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like “son of a bitch,” more exactly “sonovabitch,” or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) “sumbitch.” When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of “fundamentalist” (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like “stupid sumbitch” (or maybe “fascist sumbitch”?) than “sumbitch” simpliciter. . . . The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like “stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine.”
Maybe I should be more careful calling people “Keynesians.”
| Peter Klein |
An announcement from the American Economic Association:
On April 15, 2011, the Executive Committee voted to drop “double-blind” refereeing for the Association’s journals. The change to “single-blind” refereeing (the referees’ identity remains undisclosed) is effective July 1, 2011. Easy access to search engines increasingly limits the effectiveness of the double-blind process in maintaining author anonymity. Double-blind refereeing also increases administrative costs of the journals and makes it harder for referees to identify an author’s potential conflicts of interest arising, for example, from consulting.
| Peter Klein |
At last week’s ACAC Joel Baum gave a very interesting presentation (ppt) on the institutional and intellectual histories of two important strands in management thought, the literature on competitive advantage and the literature on network advantage. These two strands developed largely in isolation but, as it turns out, can both trace important parts of their development to the University of Vienna and the Austrian school of economics. Check out the genealogies below, captured from Joel’s slides. First, two diagrams on the origins of the competitive advantage approach (click to enlarge):
Now, two on the origins of network advantage theory: (more…)
| Peter Klein |
Market competition is often characterized as an evolutionary selection process. “[O]ne of the main functions of profits is to shift the control of capital to those who know how to employ it in the best possible way for the satisfaction of the public. The more profits a man earns, the greater his wealth consequently becomes, the more influential does he become in the conduct of business affairs” (Mises, “Profit and Loss,” 1951). Within a given population, then, the market process selects for those individuals with the greatest levels of entrepreneurial skill. But can the emergence of entrepreneurial skill as a human trait itself be explained in terms of natural selection? Here’s one attempt:
Evolution and the Growth Process:
Natural Selection of Entrepreneurial Traits
Oded Galor, Stelios Michalopoulos
NBER Working Paper No. 17075, May 2011
This research suggests that a Darwinian evolution of entrepreneurial spirit played a significant role in the process of economic development and the dynamics of inequality within and across societies. The study argues that entrepreneurial spirit evolved non-monotonically in the course of human history. In early stages of development, risk-tolerant, growth promoting traits generated an evolutionary advantage and their increased representation accelerated the pace of technological progress and the process of economic development. In mature stages of development, however, risk-averse traits gained an evolutionary advantage, diminishing the growth potential of advanced economies and contributing to convergence in economic growth across countries.
This is a (mathematical) theory paper with “entrepreneurship” modeled as tolerance for risk, so some readers will find the execution less interesting than the idea. But it is good to see these kinds of big-picture issues addressed in the mainstream literature.
| Lasse Lien |
More has been added to Peter’s already considerable pile of honors and distinctions. This time it’s the European Management Review’s best paper award for 2010 for “Toward a Theory of Public Entrepreneurship,” European Management Review 7: 1-15 (2010) by Peter G. Klein, Joseph T. Mahoney, Anita M. McGahan, and Christos N. Pitelis. (Here’s the version at the publisher’s website.)
Congratulations to Peter and coauthors!
| Peter Klein |
About a decade ago I served a term as a Senior Economist with the Council of Economic Advisers. The Junior Economist assigned to work with me was a young Harvard PhD student named Dan Elfenbein. Dan turned out to be not only the brawn, but the brains of the partnership as well. (He may have had me in the looks department too.) Dan has gone on to do great things at Washington University and I was delighted to see him receive the ACAC Best Paper Award yesterday for his joint work with Anne Marie Knott, “No Exit: Failure to Exit under Uncertainty.” Here’s the abstract:
Delayed exit is a substantial economic problem. Studies indicate if VCs exited ventures optimally, returns would triple, and if corporations divested underperforming business units, shareholder wealth would increase 13.6%. A prevalent explanation for delayed exit is behavioral biases associated with escalated commitment. In general however exit will exhibit inertia even absent bias. This arises both from decision maker efforts to avoid Type I error while discovering the long run prospects of an endeavor (passive learning) and from the option value of exit. Solutions to exit delays differ depending upon which source predominates, yet empirical tests to date have not disentangled the relative importance of these sources. We characterize exit delay in the population of U.S. banks between 1984 and 1997, and examine its causes. We find that a substantial proportion of exit occurs beyond “rational” benchmarks that incorporate option value. While the bulk of this delay appears to represent efforts to minimize Type I error, there is also evidence of the behavioral biases associated with escalated commitment.
As noted by Bill Bogner at the awards seminar, this makes Dan the only two-time winner of this important award.
Also at ACAC: A fascinating address by Joel Baum about the intellectual history of two strands of literature, one on competitive advantage and one on network advantage. It turns out these strands share a common intellectual heritage, one I’ll have more to say about later. (Hint: the University of Vienna plays a critical role.) Rebecca Henderson also gave an excellent talk about the role played by relational contracts within firms (from a joint research project with Bob Gibbons, the leading authority on relational contracting). Relational contracts are often seen as more flexible and adaptive than formal contracts but, as Rebecca pointed out, it is difficult for managers to implement strategic changes when they cannot commit to explicit rewards and punishments — hence relational contracting may impede the adoption of superior work practices (such as the Toyota Production System). Look for a forthcoming Gibbons-Henderson paper in Organization Science spelling this out.
| Peter Klein |
The Atlanta Competitive Advantage Conference, otherwise known as ACAC, starts tomorrow. I’m there, along with former O&M guest bloggers Joe Mahoney, Steve Postrel, and Russ Coff, and a whole bunch of interesting and important people in strategy, organization theory, entrepreneurship, innovation, HRM, and more. Check out the program, as well as the main site with information about past and future events. Besides the workshops and paper sessions there are special events like a symposium with Jay Barney on the RBV after 20 years and keynotes from Rebecca Henderson and Joel Baum. The only thing ACAC needs is a spokesperson — I think Gilbert Gottfried might be available.
| Peter Klein |
As a fan of the Godfather films, and a student of conglomerate diversification in the 1960s and 1970s, I’m surprised that I didn’t know, until today, about the connections between Gulf & Western CEO Charles Bluhdorn and the mafia. Paramount, the studio that made Godfather I and II, was at that time a Gulf & Western subsidiary (along with dozens of companies in industries ranging from auto parts to clothing, books, financial services, mining, sugar, cigars — you name it). Gulf and Western was at that time organized as a holding company, or what Williamson calls an “H-form” firm, not a more tightly integrated “M-form,” or multidivisional organization. H-form subsidiaries are operated as highly autonomous units, with little interference from company headquarters, so one wouldn’t expect Bluhdorn to have had much day-to-day contact with Paramount executives.
But apparently he intervened quite a lot. Today’s WSJ featured a piece on Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, what some regard as a Golden Age of American cinema (besides Godfather, think Chinatown, Nashville, The Conversation, Rosemary’s Baby, etc. — all Paramount films). Evidently Bluhdorn was substantially involved with the production of Godfather, helping make casting decisions and even firing (and re-hiring) producer Al Ruddy. Why such close concern? Paramount executive Peter Bart thought that Bluhdorn had “the mind of a criminal” and was involved with “financiers who had close ties to the mob community.” One of these, I learn from a 2009 Vanity Fair article, was Michele Sindona, a mob-connected banker who died (by poisoning) in an Italian prison. Initially, the Mafia wanted the film scrubbed — unwanted attention and all that — but then relented and helped with production. Several mobsters acted as extras while others helped behind the scenes. A few of the major players, such as Al Lettieri, who played Sollozzo, and Gianni Russo, who played Carlo, were mob connected. Here’s how Russo described getting his part: “Charlie Bluhdorn had a lot of good friends. So I had some people call him and say, ‘You know, this guy Gianni Russo is a very close friend of ours.’”
| Peter Klein |
At this year’s Austrian Scholars Conference I gave a presentation playfully titled “Frank H. Knight: The Forgotten Austrian.” The title was tongue-in-cheek, of course, as Knight was no Austrian. Though friendly with Hayek personally, Knight was a harsh critic of Austrian capital theory, particularly as formulated by Böhm-Bawerk and Hayek. (Knight conceived capital as a permanent fund of value, with interest determined by the technical marginal productivity of capital, rejecting notions of production structures and time preference.) Knight was also a key developer of perfect competition theory — anathema to Austrians — though mainly to illustrate the importance of uncertainty, not to serve as a welfare bechmark.
Still, there are many interesting similarities between Knightian and Austrian economics. Regular readers of O&M already know that Mises’s approach to entrepreneurship, uncertainty, and the firm is basically the same as Knight’s. Knight rejected positivism, calling it “the emotional pronouncement of value judgments condemning emotion and value judgments” (Knight, 1940). He often sounded like a Misesian praxeologist: “If anyone denies that men have interests or that ‘we’ have a considerable amount of knowledge about them, economics and its entire works will simply be to such a person what the world of color is to the blind man” (Knight, 1956). Indeed, critics dismiss Knight’s epistemological writings as “extended Austrian-style disquisitions on the foundations of human knowledge and conduct and the like” (LeRoy and Singell, 1987) — the ultimate insult! (more…)
| Peter Klein |
Arthur Goldhammer on the upcoming French elections:
This will be Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s challenge, since he will be running, if he runs, in part on his credentials as an economist. He has to make sure that this word means something other than “scold” or, worse, “tool of capital.”
I would imagine that heading the IMF is not a particularly popular launching point for the Presidency either. In other countries being a leader of the Socialist Part might hurt but, well, this is France.
| Peter Klein |
Speaking of organizational structure, here’s former O&M guest blogger Craig Pirrong on Al Qaeda:
There is a concerted effort underway to portray Bin Laden as exerting operational control over Al Qaeda, based on material collected during the raid on his compound. Color me skeptical.
First, it’s hard to imagine how he could exercise any control at anything but the broadest strategic and conceptual level while he was relying on couriers to communicate with subordinates. Second, this hierarchical model is contrary to virtually all that has been written about Al Qaeda going back to its early days: the organization has been consistently portrayed as networked and distributed rather than hierarchical. Indeed, the conventional characterization of Al Qaeda represents it as more of a franchise operation in which the franchisees have considerable autonomy.
But let’s assume for a moment that the organization was hierarchical, and that operational elements required direction and approval from Bin Laden to implement any attack. If that’s true, we may have actually done ourselves a disservice by killing Osama. For it would be almost trivially simple to get inside AQ’s OODA (“observe, orient, decide, and act”) loop and disrupt and destroy its operations. Even if we didn’t know what AQ was up to, we could disrupt their plans just by mixing (randomizing) our strategies, by unexpectedly changing up the way we do things. If response to such changes required the locals carrying out missions to report back to OBL via a painfully slow communications system, await a decision, and wait for the decision to be couriered back, they would be unable to do anything serious. In this case, killing OBL would free the locals to be more flexible and responsive — and hence more dangerous. It would permit AQ to become more of a network, less predictable, and more able to adapt to our moves.
I too doubt this emerging meme on OBL as operational figure, perhaps for somewhat different reasons: I assume that any official information about the operation and its significance is primarily propaganda, not transparent disclosure. Naturally the Administration would want to exaggerate the significance of Bin Laden’s, um, “retirement.”
| Peter Klein |
People are going to do what they are going to do, and you’re there to assist them. They don’t need me, they are going to do it anyway. They are going to do it for their whole lives. Maybe they could use a little help from me. At Google, we give the impression of not managing the company because we don’t really. It sort of has its own borg-like quality if you will. It sort of just moves forward.
This quote from Google CEO Eric Schmidt is getting some buzz (e.g., Phil Bowermaster, via Ewin Barnett). It gives the impression of a wikified firm, or an emergent organization (to use Hayekian terminology). Indeed, Google makes extensive use of teams, information sharing, and delegation, and the firm has a fairly flat organizational structure. The “Ten Golden Rules” internal document, written in 2005 by Schmidt and Hal Varian (and quoted in the Google HBS case), says “the role of the manager is that of an aggregator of viewpoints, not the dictator of decisions.” But there are decisions, and management, like George W. Bush, is the Decider. As with 3M, Google allows engineers to spend 20 percent of their time on their own projects. Still, these projects are subject to approval and monitoring. After all, the Borg believe in tight coordination!
| Peter Klein |
In what should be considered a classic case of the failure to take a possibilistic approach, consider this statement by Tsuneo Futami, a nuclear engineer who was the director of Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1990s: “We can only work on precedent, and there was no precedent. When I headed the plant, the thought of a tsunami never crossed my mind.”
Futami was not alone in his thinking. Experts throughout the nuclear industry and government regulatory agencies not only failed to predict the likelihood of a giant earthquake and tsunami, but also failed to examine the vulnerabilities of Fukushima Daiichi’s design to a natural disaster of this scale. Instead, they relied on a history of successful operation as an assurance of future safety. As a result, they ignored or underestimated a number of major risks that have since doomed the plant.
In other words, decision makers do not enumerate possible outcomes, assign probabilities to each, compute expected values, and act accordingly, a la Luce and Raiffa (1957). Instead, they use heuristics, follow precedent, update priors, and so on. In Knightian terms, they use judgment.
My forthcoming book with Nicolai explores these aspects of Knightian judgment in much greater detail. Look for some excerpts to follow.
| Peter Klein |
From Walter Miller’s dystopian classic A Canticle for Liebowitz:
It was said that God, in order to test mankind which had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah, had commanded the wise men of that age . . . to devise great engines of war such as had never before been upon the Earth, weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of Hell, and that God had suffered these magi to place the weapons in the hands of princes, and to say to each prince, “Only because the enemies have such a thing have we devised this for thee, in order that they may know that thou hast it also, and fear to strike. See to it, m’Lord, that thou fearest them as much as they shall now fear thee, that none may unleash this dread thing which we have wrought.”
But the princes, putting the words of their wise men to naught, thought each to himself, If I but strike quickly enough, and in secret, I shall destroy those others in their sleep, and there will be none to fight back; the earth shall be mine.
Such was the folly of princes, and there followed the Flame Deluge.
| Lasse Lien |
Here’s a new WP of mine (with T. Hillestad). Check out the sublimely boring title. We figure that the more boring we can make the title, the better what follows will appear. Earlier I have tended to do it the other way around, i.e. fancy title and intensely boring thereafter.
Recession, HR and Change
We document how the recession in the wake of the financial crisis created a general surge in pro-change attitudes and behavior. Next, we examine variation across firms with respect to this change boost. In particular we focus on how and why a firm’s use of HR-measures such as training, pay changes and layoffs matters. We find that training and layoffs increases the relative size of the effect, while pay cuts reduce it. We make sense of these findings by looking at managers’ choice among HR-measures as a signal used by employees to determine their employment risk. The level of employment risk is in turn linked to employees’ investments in change in a nonlinear, U-shaped fashion.
| Peter Klein |
The following is a guest post from David Mitch, Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and an expert on Bert Hoselitz.
The reasonably recent postings on this blog on Bert Hoselitz prompt me to post a correction to my biographical piece on him for the Elgar Companion to the Chicago School of Economics (2010) edited by Ross Emmett and also to make some further comments regarding Hoselitz’ “Austrian” origins. Both the correction and futher observations stem from Yvan Kelly’s very interesting article “Mises, Morgenstern, Hoselitz, and Nash: The Austrian Connection to Early Game Theory” published in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 12, no. 3 (2009).
The correction to my piece is as follows. On p. 274 of my piece, I state that “Prominent leaders of the Austrian School of Economics such as Ludwig Mises and F. A. Hayek had departed Vienna by the time Hoselitz began his university studies.” Yvan Kelly indicates on p. 38 of his article that Hoselitz attended two of Mises’ seminars in 1933 and 1934 based on correspondence that Hoselitz sent to Mises in 1941. I have not yet seen copies of this correspondence. However, I was clearly in error in stating that Mises had departed Vienna by the time Hoselitz began his university studies. Klaus Herdzina’s (1999) biographical essay on Hoselitz cited in my piece indicates that Hoselitz studied at the University of Vienna between 1932 and 1937. I do not know from what sources Herdzina obtained this information; but I based the statement in my own piece that Hoselitz studied at the University of Vienna between 1932 and 1937 on Herdzina’s essay. Hulsmann’s 2007 biography of Mises (p. 678) indicates that Mises stopped his private seminar and left Vienna in 1934. Thus, it would appear that Hoselitz’ studies at the University of Vienna did overlap with the period that Mises was in Vienna and leading his private seminar. And this would thus be consistent with the possibility that Hoselitz attended some of Mises’ seminars. So again, the statement in my piece for the Elgar Companion that Mises had departed Vienna by the time Hoselitz started his studies at the University of Vienna would definitely seem to be in error assuming the Herdzina is correct in his dating of when Hoselitz studied at the University of Vienna. (more…)
| Peter Klein |
Mike Ryall on the MBA curriculum (via Josh Gans):
What is the logic for having world-class academic researchers (who, for the most part, have never managed a business themselves) teach business classes to MBA students? The topics covered in many first-year microeconomics MBA courses, for instance, are a subset of those contained in Section III of Economics for Dummies. There may be good reasons for someone to pay $3,000 for a class taught by a researcher that covers the same topics in this $12 book — greater clarity and/or depth, for instance — but still, at a 250:1 cost ratio, students had better be getting something more for their money. It’s not clear that they are.
The argument is not unique to business schools, but applies more broadly across the college curriculum — hence the threat (to incumbents) of for-profit and other alternatives. Oh, but the University of Phoenix isn’t Harvard, you say? Consider: “In an earlier age, professors took their knowledge certification role seriously (with the fail rates to prove it). Today, many faculty view their role as educating everyone admitted to the program, passing them through, and leaving it to the recruiters to sort things out on the back end.” Of course, at most US colleges and universities, the goal of the undergraduate program is also to pass everyone admitted to the program.
See also: “Why Harvard and Yale Had to Merge” (via Troy Camplin).
| Peter Klein |
Following up an earlier post on apprenticeship: Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr discuss the role of apprenticeship in the diffusion of innovation among skilled craftsmen during the British Industrial Revolution. “Using a sample of 759 of these mechanics and engineers, we study the incentives and institutions that facilitated the high rate of inventive activity during the Industrial Revolution. First, apprenticeship was the dominant form of skill formation. Formal education played only a minor role. Second, many skilled workmen relied on secrecy and first-mover advantages to reap the benefits of their innovations. Over 40 percent of the sample here never took out a patent. Third, skilled workmen in Britain often published their work and engaged in debates over contemporary technological and social questions. In short, they were affected by the Enlightenment culture.”