Author Archive

I Agree with Larry Summers

| Peter Klein |

Justin Fox reports on a recent high-powered behavioral economics conference featuring Raj Chetty, David Laibson, Antoinette Schoar, Maya Shankar, and other important contributors to this growing research stream. But he refers also to the “Summers critique,” the idea that key findings in behavioral economics research sound like recycled wisdom from business practitioners.

Summers [in 2012] told a story about a college acquaintance who as a cruel prank signed up another classmate for 60 different subscriptions of the Book-of-the-Month-Club ilk. The way these clubs worked is that once you signed up, you got a book in the mail every month and were charged for it unless you (a) sent the book back within a certain period of time or (b) went through the hassle of extricating yourself from the club altogether. Customers had to opt out in order to not keep buying books, so they bought more books than they otherwise would have. Book marketers, Summers said, had figured out the power of defaults long before economists had.

More generally, Fox asks, “Have behavioral economists really discovered anything new, or have they simply replaced some wrong-headed notions of post-World War II economics with insights that people in business have understood for decades and maybe even centuries?”

I took exactly the Summers line in a 2010 post, observing that behavioral economics “often seems to restate common, obvious, well-known ideas as if they are really novel insights (e.g., that preferences aren’t stable and predictable over time). More novel propositions are questionable at best.” I used a Dan Ariely column on compensation policy as an example:

He claims as a unique insight of behavioral economics that when people are evaluated according to quantitative measures of performance, they tend to focus on the measures, not the underlying behavior being measured. Well, duh. This is pretty much a staple of introductory lectures on agency theory (and features prominently in Steve Kerr’s classic 1975 article). Ariely goes on to suggest that CEOs should be rewarded not on the basis of a single measure of performance, but multiple measures. Double-duh. Holmström (1979) called this the “informativeness principle” and it’s in all the standard textbooks on contract design and compensation structure (e.g., Milgrom and Roberts, Brickley et al., etc.) (Of course, agency theory also recognizes that gathering information is costly, and that additional metrics are valuable, on the margin, only if the benefits exceed the costs, a point unmentioned by Ariely.)

Maybe Larry and I should hang out.

22 September 2015 at 12:03 pm 6 comments

More on the Linear Model of Science and Technology

| Peter Klein |

51eaYmA7XfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As Joel Mokyr notes, one of Nathan Rosenberg’s important contributions was to debunk the “linear model” in which basic science begets applied science, which begets useful technology.

Technology in his view is not the mechanical “application of science” to production; it is a field of knowledge by itself, quite different in its incentives, its modes of transmission, and its culture. It is affected by science, but in turn provides “pure research” with its instruments and much of its agenda. In many cases, [Rosenberg] noted, scientists were confronted by the fact that things they had previously declared to be impossible were actually carried out by engineers and mechanics and had to admit somewhat sheepishly that were possible after all.

The same issue is raised in Margaret Jacob’s book The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which “argues persuasively for the critical importance of knowledge in Europe’s economic transformation during the period from 1750 to 1850, first in Britain and then in selected parts of northern and western Europe.” In other words, as noted by Erik Hornung:

She especially focusses on the marriage between theoretical sciences and applied mechanical knowledge which helped creating many technological innovations during the Industrial Revolution. She, thus, aims at rectifying the prevalent hypothesis that technological progress resulted from tinkering of skilled but science-ignorant engineers. An impressive set of new archival sources supports her argument that English engineers were, indeed, well aware of and heavily influenced by recent advances in natural sciences.

14 September 2015 at 5:03 pm Leave a comment

Mokyr on Rosenberg

| Peter Klein |

Further to Dick’s post on Nathan Rosenberg, here is an obituary from Joel Mokyr, who with Rosenberg’s passing is probably the most eminent living historian of innovation and technology. The review appeared on EH.Net.

The economic history profession has lost one of its most original, creative, and wide-ranging minds in the passing of Nathan Rosenberg on Aug. 24, 2015. Rosenberg was one of the founding fathers of Cliometrics, a member of the first group of Cliometricians that with coining the term “congregated at Purdue University in the late 1960s, and which included other luminaries among them Lance Davis, Jonathan Hughes, and Stanley Reiter (who is widely credited Cliometrics”). By 1970, this group had moved away from West Lafayette and dispersed to institutions such as Northwestern and CalTech. Rosenberg was hired by the University of Wisconsin, and was a member of a different group of influential and distinguished economic historians in Madison, including at one time or another Jeffrey Williamson, Peter Lindert, Morton Rothstein, Rondo Cameron, and Claudia Goldin. While at Wisconsin, Rosenberg was the editor of the Journal of Economic History and instrumental in its growing focus on the new economic history that was theoretically informed by economics and quantitatively more sophisticated — the very essence of the Cliometric Revolution.

In 1974, Rosenberg moved to Stanford, where he taught for more than a quarter century until his retirement in 2002. As department chair at Stanford between 1983and 1986 he helped build the department and maintain its position as one of the top economics departments in the country. Moreover, his leadership guaranteed that economic history remained an integral part of the undergraduate and Ph.D. programs and includes some of its most distinguished practitioners such as Gavin Wright and Avner Greif, as well as younger and promising scholars. Today, thanks to Rosenberg’s initiative and entrepreneurship, the Stanford department is housed in a gorgeous building named after Ralph Landau, whose support for research and teaching in economics was first stimulated by a fortuitous meeting with Rosenberg. The partnership with Landau, a chemical engineer and entrepreneur fascinated by economics, led to a fruitful scholarly collaboration between him and Rosenberg, especially in two well-regarded collections they edited together. Thanks in large part to Rosenberg’s resourcefulness, the graduate program at Stanford has thrived and produced many distinguished members of the economic history profession and applied economists working on innovation. While not all of them worked with him directly, his influence on the flourishing of economic history at Stanford was undeniable. Many of the former graduate students he trained and inspired co-authored and co-edited papers and books with him, such as David Mowery with whom he wrote Technology and the Pursuit of Economic Growth (Cambridge University Press, 1989). Without exception these young economists admired and adored him; two of them, Scott Stern and Shane Greenstein, were my former colleagues, and the three of us were instrumental in Northwestern awarding him an honorary doctorate in 2006, in the same class of honorary degrees as the then little-known junior senator from Illinois. If ever there was an academic conspiracy that can be called a true labor of love, this was it. (more…)

7 September 2015 at 9:25 pm Leave a comment

Woodward on Alchian

| Peter Klein |

Alchian and me, circa 2000.

Alchian and me, circa 2000.

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.”

24 August 2015 at 8:03 am Leave a comment

Foss Wins Best Article Award

| 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….

20 August 2015 at 3:42 pm 2 comments


| Peter Klein |

rs_300x300-150728134433-600.Cecil-The-Lion.jl.072815No 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.

29 July 2015 at 6:01 pm 9 comments

Piece Rates and Multitasking

| Peter Klein |

pieceA 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.

20 July 2015 at 8:32 am 1 comment

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Our Recent Books

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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