| Peter Klein |
Armen Alchian’s friend and colleague Susan Woodward has a nice piece in a forthcoming Journal of Corporate Finance special issue on Alchian. Here are a few passages that may be of special interest to O&Mers:
Orley Ashenfelter asked Armen to write a book review of Oliver Williamson’s The Economic Institutions of Capitalism (such a brilliant title!). I got enlisted for that project too (Alchian and Woodward (1988)). Armen began writing, but I went back to reread Institutions of Capitalism. Armen gave me what he had written, and I was baffled. “Armen, this stuff isn’t in Williamson.” He asked, “Well, did he get it wrong?” I said, “No, it’s not that he got it wrong. These issues just aren’t there at all. You attribute these ideas to him, but they really come from our other paper.” And he said “Oh, well, don’t worry about that. Some historian will sort it out later. It’s a good place to promote these ideas, and they’ll get the right story eventually.” So, dear reader, now you know.
This from someone who spent his life discussing the efficiencies of private property and property rights—to basically give ideas away in order to promote them? It was a good lesson.
Of course, the book review also had a brilliant title: “The Firm is Dead: Long Live the Firm!” It also introduced the term “plasticity” as a not-quite-substitute for asset specificity. (I still prefer the more precise term relationship-specific investment.) And this:
Armen had no use for formal models that did not teach us to look somewhere new in the known world, nor had he any patience for findings that relied on fancy econometrics. What was Armen’s idea of econometrics? Merton Miller told me. We were chatting about limited liability. Merton asked about evidence. Well, all public firms with transferable shares now have limited liability. But in private, closely-held firms, loans nearly always explicitly specify which of the owner’s personal assets are pledged against bank loans. “How do you know?” “From conversations with bankers.” Merton said said, “Ah, this sounds like UCLA econometrics! You go to Armen Alchian and you ask, ‘Armen, is this number about right?’ And Armen says, ‘Yeah, that sounds right.’ So you use that number.”
| Peter Klein |
Nicolai is far too modest to mention it (and no, he did not make me do this), but he has won Sloan Management Review’s best article prize:
The editors of MIT Sloan Management Review are pleased to announce the winners of this year’s Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize, awarded to the authors of the most outstanding MIT SMR article on planned change and organizational development published between fall 2013 and summer 2014.
This year’s Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize goes to the spring 2014 MIT SMR article by Julian Birkinshaw, Nicolai J. Foss, and Siegwart Lindenberg, entitled “Combining Purpose With Profits.”
In this article, the authors examine a familiar and important question for managers: How can the tension between purpose and profits be best managed? The authors explore the kinds of structures companies need to put in place to provide clarity and direction for employees while also serving to both motivate individuals and draw people together in a common pursuit.
As the judges for the prize pointed out, the tension between purpose and profit is well-known, and many companies claiming to have “pro-social goals” have difficulty backing up their claims. However, the judges were impressed with the examples the authors presented of companies that have actually been able to balance purpose and profit. Some were familiar (such as Whole Foods Market and Tata Group), but others were less so (such as the Swedish bank Svenska Handelsbanken and HCL Technologies, an India-based IT-services company).
The pro-social goals the companies emphasize — for example, putting employees first or investing in local communities — are hardly elaborate or surprising. What is important is that companies put systems in place to meet these goals. For instance, at Tata, where the pro-social goal is “to improve the quality of life in the communities we serve,” the supporting systems include charitable trusts that own the majority of the equity capital of the Tata Sons holding company. Pro-social goals require what the authors call a “counterweight,” such as an employee council or a measuring system, to ensure that the pro-social goals continue to have influence.
The judges thought the article was well aligned with the beliefs of Richard Beckhard, who insisted that what truly motivates employees is the sense that what they do matters and serves a purpose that goes beyond organizational profitability or personal gain. As the judges observed, “What engages people is the broader, value-centered question of why we do what we do — precisely what the three authors of this year’s winning article make evident.”
This year’s panel of judges consisted of distinguished members of the MIT Sloan School faculty: Schussel Family Professor and chairman of the MIT Sloan Management Review managing board Erik Brynjolfsson, retired senior lecturer Cyrus Gibson, and Erwin H. Schell Professor of Management John Van Maanen.
Nicolai, you can do great things, when you pick the right coauthors….
| Peter Klein |
No doubt you’ve heard about Walter Palmer, the American dentist who shot the lion, “Cecil,” in Zimbabwe, pushing aside Sir Tim Hunt as the Internet’s Most Hated Person. (Aside from calling Palmer cruel and depraved — even wishing his death by bow and arrow — some are labeling him a sociopath, which makes me wonder, are lions now considered members of society? Orgheads?)
I don’t hunt and have no particular emotional attachment to lions, so I find the outrage level bewildering. However, I think this can be a teachable moment. Specifically, there are lessons here about trophy hunting and endangered species. Not surprisingly to anyone who has studied property-rights economics, there is evidence that allowing trophy hunting is a good means of protecting endangered species. This is a version of the general argument that defining and enforcing property rights in scarce resources, including wildlife, provides incentives for individuals to protect and maintain those resources. (You’ve probably heard the quip that the world isn’t running out of chickens and dairy cattle.) Groups like PERC have produce dozens of studies on endangered species and private conservation more generally and there are plenty of nerdier papers too. If Cecil’s unfortunate end helps stimulate thoughtful discussion on how to avoid the tragedy of the commons, then he will not have died in vain.
| Peter Klein |
A canonical result of multitask agency theory is that, when agents are assigned to multiple activities and some are more easily measured than others, piece-rate incentive schemes encourage agents to focus on the measurable activities while shirking the others. Professors at research universities, for example tend to focus on research at the expense of teaching — not because they don’t care about teaching, but because research output is easy to measure, while teaching quality isn’t, so administrators wishing to reward good performance tend to base their evaluations on research productivity. Or so I’ve heard (ahem). The implication is that, to encourage balanced effort and performance across activities, supervisors should rely at least partly on subjective, holistic evaluation criteria, and not just objective, quantitative measures of employee performance, or even do away with incentive compensation altogether.
An interesting paper in the January 2015 Southern Economic Journal offers a different theory, and some experimental evidence to back it up, suggesting that piece rates may actually be better than other schemes under multitasking. The idea is that agents may be uncertain about the principal’s monitoring ability, and the choice of a piece-rate scheme signals that the principal is a good monitor. This signaling effect can, under certain conditions, overcome the standard distortionary effect described above. Put differently, relying on subjective, holistic evaluation criteria, or abandoning performance measurement altogether (Alfie Kohn cheers!), may signal a sophisticated, experienced principal, but may also signal a principal who is too lazy to pay attention to employee behavior at all.
The paper is by Omar Al-Ubaydli, Steffen Andersen, Uri Gneezy, and John List and is cleverly titled “Carrots That Look Like Sticks: Toward an Understanding of Multitasking Incentive Schemes.” (Yes, it is part of the List Project on which we have mixed opinions.) Here is more on multitasking.
| Peter Klein |
I just wanted to bring your attention to a PDW I am organizing for the upcoming AoM meeting, where we will engage in frank and in-depth discussions about the problems and merits of the popular notion of “entrepreneurial opportunity”. We have been fortunate to gather a collection of very strong scholars and independent thinkers as presenters and discussants in this PDW: Richard J. Arend, Dimo Dimov, Denis Grégoire, Peter G. Klein, Moren Lévesque, Saras Sarasvathy, and Matthew Wood. . This illustrious group of colleagues will make sure the deliberations do not focus on a “beauty contest” between “discovery” and “creation” views but instead reach beyond limitations of both.
I encourage you to join us for this session, and to make absolutely sure I won’t send you to the wrong place at the right time I have copied the details straight from the online program:
Title: Entrepreneurial Opportunity: The Oxygen or Phlogiston of Entrepreneurship Research? (session #365)
Date & Time: Saturday, August 08, 2015, 12:30:00 PM – 3:00:00 PM
Hotel & Room: Vancouver Convention Centre, Room 012
Further elaboration follows below. Heartily welcome!
| Peter Klein |
I’ve long been involved with the International Society for New Institutional Economics (ISNIE). (In fact, I first met the esteemed Professor Foss at the inaugural ISNIE conference in St. Louis in 1997.) ISNIE was established as an global academic society promoting the study of institutions within the broad tradition established by the organization’s co-founders Ronald Coase, Oliver Williamson, and Douglass North. ISNIE has been a great success, holding annual conferences in the US and Europe, sponsoring an important working-paper series, and boasting thousands of members from all over the world.
Times change, and over the last two decades the study of institutions has moved from the periphery towards the center of economic, social, political, and legal analysis. The statement, “institutions matter,” which might have been controversial in social science in the 1990s, seems trite today. As such, some of ISNIE’s leaders and members saw a need to reposition and rebrand the society to reflect the current academic and policy climate. Last year ISNIE’s members voted, and this year the board approved, a name change. The organization is now SIOE, the Society for Institutional and Organizational Economics. Along with the change is a new website, featuring news, information, a blog, and many other features. The site is a work in progress and editors Bruno Chaves and Jens Prüfer would be happy to receive comments and suggestions.
I’m looking forward to the next twenty years with SIOE!
| Peter Klein |
This is actually Richard Epstein writing about Henry Manne, but Richard nicely captures the essence of Henry’s thinking:
The combination of law and economics is a major discipline in … modern law schools, but I do not think that it was always presented to Henry’s liking. In his view, the student’s purpose was to show the power of markets to overcome key problems of information and coordination, not to run a set of exhaustive empirical studies to show that corporate boards would function better if they increased their number of independent directors by 5 percent.
Other Manne items on O&M are here. As I noted in another post, Manne was expert in specific technical areas of law (most obviously, insider trading and corporate takeovers) but very much a generalist in his overall outlook. As Manne once recalled about a 1962 seminar led by Armen Alchian, “All of a sudden, everything that I had done intellectually for thirteen years came together, with this one idea of Alchian’s about the real nature of property rights and the Misesian notion of people making choices, with every choice being a tradeoff,” In other words, a simple and powerful theoretical framework goes a long way in analyzing a broad range of issues — much different from today’s emphasis on behavioral quirks, clever experiments, and similar minutiae.