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Gary Becker: A Personal Appreciation

[The following is from former guest blogger Peter Lewin, who wrote his PhD under Gary Becker at Chicago.]

| Peter Lewin |

Professor Gary Becker died yesterday at the age of 83. At the time of his death, he was arguably the most highly respected living economics scholar.

The blogosphere will soon be flooded with obituaries, appreciations, and evaluations of his work by people better placed than I to offer them. Given, however, that I was privileged to have been able to study with him for a short period of time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and that he acted as the chairman of my Ph.D. dissertation committee, I would like on the occasion of his passing to offer a few words of personal appreciation.

Becker will be remembered mostly for his work on human capital and the economics of the family. It is hard to overstate the influence of his contributions to these fields. Indeed, he pretty much created them — though one must not minimize the contributions of others early scholars like Simon Polacheck, and especially the independent and complementary work of Jacob Mincer.

By his own account, Becker came to these subjects through the influence of his mentor Milton Friedman whose approach led him to see economics as the study of people “in the ordinary business of life” (as Alfred Marshall would have it). But his first foray beyond the traditional borders of the subject was not in those subjects (human capital or the economics of the family) but rather in the economics of discrimination, a very volatile subject at the time. He literally wrote the book on The Economics of Discrimination (see also here). It seemed to him at the time that the conversation on civil rights and segregation was hopelessly confused by the lack of an understand of the social processes at work, an understanding that was accessible using the eternal principles of economics to investigate how people act on their preferences, whatever they are and whatever we may think of them. So he quite controversially investigated the likely results of economic processes in which people had given (race or gender) preferences and showed quite simply that, as long as people were free to act in open markets as employers, workers, or consumers, the act of discrimination would carry a price. For example, discriminator-employers who indulged their preferences who be outcompeted by those who hired the most qualified person for the job, and, in this way, open competition would tend to erode discriminatory outcomes (if not discriminatory attitudes). (more…)

4 May 2014 at 4:48 pm 10 comments

Time to Say Goodbye, but Not Really

| Peter Lewin |

After a most enjoyable and productive tour as a guest blogger on this site (at least for me), the time has come to say goodbye.

I do so at an auspicious moment, having just received my copy of Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment. This book brings together important work by two of the hosts of this site in a very accessible format that promises to spread their message to many who have yet to hear it. To understand the firm one must understand entrepreneurship and vice versa. We live in a dynamic world in which individual judgments concerning the value of resources and the path of future events play a key role and organizational structures develop to give traction to those judgments. For an unrepentant Austrian subjectivist like me it is all very exciting. I look forward to observing further developments as an observer and casual participant on this blog, and elsewhere.

I would like to warmly thank the hosts of this blog Dick, Nicolai, Lasse, and Peter for extending to me the invitation to participate and look forward to ongoing productive associations with all of them.

19 April 2012 at 2:45 pm 1 comment

New Article from Langlois

| Peter Lewin |

Since it hasn’t been mentioned here yet, I would like to take the liberty of recommending a great “how it all fits together” article by Dick Langlois forthcoming in the Review of Austrian Economics, entitled “The Austrian Theory of the Firm: Retrospect and Prospect.” I just reread it with great pleasure (I saw it a few years ago at a seminar). With characteristic Langlois ease (or so it seems) Dick weaves the connections between Coase, Hayek, Lachmann, Richardson, Pensrose, Chandler, Foss, Langlois, and others to provide a very clear picture.

1 March 2012 at 10:55 am 3 comments

Perceptions of Opportunities – Part 2

| Peter Lewin |

The second review article in the latest issue of AMR by Venkataraman, Sarasvathy, Dew, and Forster (VSDF) is more ambitious than the first by Shane, discussed in Part 1. In fact one might describe the ambition motivating the article as grandiose. VSDF “seek to recast entrepreneurship as a science of the artificial” an entirely new way of looking at entrepreneurship in the interest of uncovering (what I take to be universal) principles that can serve as the basis of a new empirical and policy-useful science of entrepreneurship. [I see this article as a companion piece to the article by Sarasvathy and Venkataraman (SV) in ET&P January, 2011, in which this grandiose vision is even more apparent.]

The science of the artificial(supposedly a distinct category of science from natural or social science) is derived from the work of Herbert Simon (1996).

As a theory develops it splits into two streams: (1) “basic” research that continues to refine the causal explanations and (2) “applied” research that seeks to alter the variables of explanation. At that point the phenomenon of interest has become an artifact. …

A science of the artificial is interested in phenomena that can be designed [and controlled]. … Design lies is the choice of the boundary values; control lies in the means to change them. (24).

So a useful theory is itself an artifact something that can be used to understand and (importantly) control aspects of the (social) world. And, I suppose, the new science of entrepreneurship will eventually develop such artifacts. [At the end of the article they talk about “recasting opportunities as artifacts” – so I am not sure how this is all connected.]

My lack of expertise regarding the work of Herbert Simon (something which I am now more encouraged to remedy) prevents me from pronouncing with confidence on this part of the article. Suffice it to say that the meaning and contribution of this new “science of the artificial” is far from clear to me. I am left with a feeling that if it is indeed such an important and path-breaking meta-scientific turn, the authors should be able to explain it better. It should be more accessible and transparent. I am left highly skeptical, but I urge readers of this post to read the article and perhaps enlighten me and others. (more…)

5 February 2012 at 1:32 am 8 comments

Perceptions of Opportunities – Part 1

| Peter Lewin |

The January 2012 issue of the AMR (available here for subscribers or those with academic access) features two review articles assessing the progress of the “Promise” examined in the well-known article by Scott Shane and Sankaran Venkataraman (AMR 2000: The Promise of Entrepreneurship as a Field of Research) — one from each of the original co-authors. The first is an interesting, if somewhat pedestrian, article by Scott Shane. The second is a much more profound and ambitious contribution by Venkataraman together with Saras Sarasvathy, Nicholas Dew, and William Forster.

In the decade since that article there has, indeed, been a significant shift in the focus of research in entrepreneurship. Most notable, perhaps, is the focus on entrepreneurial “opportunities” — familiar to Austrian economists from the work of Israel Kirzner, but by now a standard element in the story. Each of the articles spends considerable time revisiting questions about the nature of entrepreneurial opportunities and provides its own resolutions. Here I will provide just a quick overview of this part of Shane’s article. (I intend to provide one for the second article soon).

In considering the “nexus of opportunities and individuals” offered originally in “Promise” as a reason to shift attention from the person to the function, Shane addresses the question of whether entrepreneurial opportunities should be considered “objective” or “subjective” — a question that has proliferated in this research stream, albeit with varying focus and terminology. The problem is, it seems to me, that the notion of “opportunity” is one that depends on the formation of a mental image by some individual or individuals. Opportunity implies plan — a plan of action to use, transform, combine, existing resources in a profitable way. Without the plan there is just the world. So how can “opportunity” be objective? This is related to the question: are opportunities “discovered” (Alvarez and Barney: Organizaҫões em Contexto, 2007) or are they created; or in the words of Venkataraman, et. al. are they made or found? (more…)

23 January 2012 at 3:38 pm 18 comments

Keynes-Hayek again!

| Peter Lewin |

I am not sure if this book has already been review on this blog space — I haven’t seen it. Similarly, I haven’t seen any other reviews, so these are my fresh impressions. The book is Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics by Nicholas Wapshott (W. W. Norton: 2011).

With the growing interest in Hayek as the antidote to the resuscitated Keynes, this book is timely providing for the reader lively insight into the life and times of these two key individuals. In terms of the details of the lives of Keynes and Hayek the book appears to be well researched. I learned a few things from it — interesting details about events and personalities. On Keynes particularly one gains a sense of the power of the man and how a whole generation of economists at the LSE and Cambridge were won over by his revolutionary vision. Though Wapshott provides a lot of material on Hayek, I could not fight the impression that it was Keynes who captured his interest (and admiration?) most. Hayek is presented in all of his aspects, including the not so wholesome ones. The picture of Keynes seems less forthcoming, or differently spun to cast a more favorable light. But maybe that is just me and my biases.

When it comes to the economics, however, the case is much clearer. Wapshott is very weak on this part of the story, especially when it comes to Austrian economics. He is able to do a fairly good job of Keynesianism, again positively spun — including the story of multiplier. It adds to the plausibility of Keynes’s appeal. But when it comes to explaining the essence of Hayek’s opposition, his treatment is very inadequate at best and complete wrong at worst. Like Keynes himself, Wapshott does not understand capital theory and the time structure of production. So he gets the story of the business cycle wrong. He simply parrots in a formulaic way the ingredients of Hayek’s case. His treatment of Mises is almost a caricature. He does not understand the nature of the Austrian turn from classical economics and has some misleading things to say about the concept of “value.” Likewise he does not understand the differences and similarities between the economics of the Austrians  and the Monetarists and invents bogus differences. I found this part of the book frustrating.

So, the question in my mind is: do I recommend this book to my macro/money students? I think I probably will, with suitable warnings, just because it is such a vital and interesting story.

13 January 2012 at 1:19 pm 6 comments

The First (Unlikely) Significant Entrepreneurial Team?

| Peter Lewin |

Who was the most significant entrepreneur in the bible (old Testament)?

I ask my students this trying to lead them to Joseph. As a result of his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, not only he, but the whole of Egypt reaps enormous profit. He recognizes the meaning in the dreams and counsels Pharaoh on how to profit from impending misfortune — thus also alleviating the misfortune of many others (by investing in times of plenty to cover the looming famine).

But, thinking about this a bit more, one may argue that what we have here is a veritable entrepreneurial team. After all, it is Pharaoh who has the dream, the vision, though he needed Joseph to interpret it. One without the other was nothing — together they were everything. And then there is the fact that that Pharaoh exercises his judgment in believing Joseph. He takes a huge risk and elevates this lowly, condemned Jewish prisoner to the highest office. He puts aside his ego and courageously follows his better judgment. Surely Schumpeter should have been proud, no?

21 December 2011 at 12:16 am 6 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).
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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