| Peter Klein |
Craig Newmark pointed me to this list of “15 Famous Business Books Summarized In One Sentence Each.” I don’t think highly of any of the books on the list except Innovator’s Dilemma, but it’s an interesting exercise. Care to try your hand? I’ll start:
Oliver Williamson, Economic Institutions of Capitalism: Be shrewd in your dealings with suppliers and customers; they may not do what they promised.
Edith Penrose, Theory of the Growth of the Firm: The more you do what you’re good at, the better you get at similar things that may surprise you.
Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy: Fixed rules are better than employee discretion when you’re producing stuff that isn’t bought and sold on markets.
Michael Porter, Competitive Strategy: Be efficient and productive, but pay attention to your rivals and partners, or they’ll eat you for lunch.
John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory: Chicken chicken chicken, chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken.
| Peter Klein |
It finds what you’d expect: When agents are assigned multiple tasks, and evaluated using objective performance criteria, they will tend to favor those tasks that produce measurable outputs, at the expense of equally important, but harder-to-measure tasks. This is why, for example, professors at research universities often neglect their teaching duties. Sure it’s important, but quality is hard to demonstrate, so I’ll concentrate on publications, grants, and other research activities.
Testing the Theory of Multitasking: Evidence from a Natural Field Experiment in Chinese Factories
Fuhai Hong, Tanjim Hossain, John A. List, and Migiwa Tanaka
NBER Working Paper No. 19660, November 2013
A well-recognized problem in the multitasking literature is that workers might substantially reduce their effort on tasks that produce unobservable outputs as they seek the salient rewards to observable outputs. Since the theory related to multitasking is decades ahead of the empirical evidence, the economic costs of standard incentive schemes under multitasking contexts remain largely unknown. This study provides empirical insights quantifying such effects using a field experiment in Chinese factories. Using more than 2200 data points across 126 workers, we find sharp evidence that workers do trade off the incented output (quantity) at the expense of the non-incented one (quality) as a result of a piece rate bonus scheme. Consistent with our theoretical model, treatment effects are much stronger for workers whose base salary structure is a flat wage compared to those under a piece rate base salary. While the incentives result in a large increase in quantity and a sharp decrease in quality for workers under a flat base salary, they result only in a small increase in quantity without affecting quality for workers under a piece rate base salary.
| Peter Klein |
Gladwell has more in common with his academic critics than either he or they realize, or care to admit. Academic writing is rarely a pursuit of unpopular truths; much of the time it is an attempt to bolster prevailing orthodoxies and shore up widely felt but ill-founded hopes.
The subject here is Malcolm Gladwell, a favorite punching-bag here at O&M, but the general point is worth pondering. Despite the myth of the brave academic, wielding his tenured position as a shield against the powerful interests trying to bring him down, academics typically crave influence, acceptance, and security and are attracted to power — in particular, political power — like moths to flame. There are exceptions, of course.
| Peter Klein |
We’ve previously discussed attempts to blame the accounting scandals of the early 2000s on the teaching of transaction cost economics and agency theory. By describing the hazards of opportunistic behavior and shirking, professors were allegedly encouraging students to be opportunistic and to shirk. Then we were told that business schools teach “a particular brand of free-market ideology” — the view that “the market always ‘gets prices right’ and “[a]n individual’s worth can be reduced to one’s worth in the market” — and that this ideology was partly responsible for the financial crisis. (My initial reaction: Where to I sign up for these courses?!)
The Guardian reports now on a movement in the UK to address “the crisis in economics teaching, which critics say has remained largely unchanged since the 2008 financial crash despite the failure of many in the profession to spot the looming credit crunch and worst recession for 100 years.” If you think this refers to a movement to discredit orthodox Keynesianism, which dominates monetary theory and practice in all countries, and its view that discretionary fiscal and (especially) monetary policy are needed to steer the economy on a smooth course, with particular attention to asset markets where prices must be rising at all times, you’d be wrong. No, the reformers are calling for “economics courses to embrace the teachings of Marx and Keynes to undermine the dominance of neoclassical free-market theories.” To their credit, the reformers appear also to want more attention to economic history and the history of economic thought, which is all to the good. But the reformers’ basic premise seems to be that mainstream economics is too friendly toward the free market, and that this has left students unprepared to understand the “post-2008″ world.
To a non-Keyensian and non-Marixian like me, these arguments seem to come from a bizarro world where the sky is green, water runs uphill, and Janet Yellen is seven feet tall. It’s true that most economists reject economy-wide central planning, but the vast majority endorse some version of Keynesian economic policy complete with activist fiscal and monetary interventions, substantial regulation of markets (especially financial markets), fiat money under the control of a central bank, social policy to encourage home ownership, and all the rest. We’ve pointed many times on this blog to research on the social and political views of economists, who lean “left” by a ratio of about 2.5 to 1 — yes, nothing like the sociologists’ zillion to 1, but hardly evidence for a rigid, free-market orthodoxy. I note that the reformers described in the Guardian piece never, ever offer any kind of empirical evidence on the views of economists, the content of economics courses, or the influence of economics courses on economic policy. They simply assert that they don’t like this or that economic theory or pedagogy, which somehow contributed to this or that economic problem. They seem blissfully unaware of the possibility that their own policy preferences might actually be favored in the textbooks and classrooms, and might have just a teeny bit to do with bad economic policies.
I’m reminded of Sheldon Richman’s pithy summary: “No matter how much the government controls the economic system, any problem will be blamed on whatever small zone of freedom that remains.”
| Peter Klein |
Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales tackle the elusive concept of corporate culture in a new NBER paper. Using survey data from the Great Place to Work Initiative they show that firm performance is higher, other things equal, when employees perceive top management as trustworthy and ethical. They control for corporate governance variables and try to separate the effects of an ethical culture from the halo effect that distorts perceptions of high-performing firms. The data are cross-sectional, so it’s impossible to say that a strong corporate culture causes strong performance, rather than the other way around, but the findings are extremely interesting nonetheless.
| Peter Klein |
The University of Dundee’s Scottish Centre for Economic Methodology is hosting a conference 18 November 2013, “Origins of the Theory of the Firm: Ronald Coase at Dundee, 1932-1934.” The program looks really interesting:
- Keith Tribe, “Dundee and Interwar Commercial Education.”
- Billy Kenefick, “‘A great industrial cul-de-sac, a grim monument to “man’s inhumanity to man.” ‘ Dundee by the early 1930s.”
- Carlo Morelli, “Market & Non-Market Co-ordination: Dundee and its Jute Industry – The Case Study for Ronald Coase?”
- David Campbell, “Agency, Authority and Co-operation in the Firm: Coase, Macneil, Marx.”
- Alice Belcher, “Coase and the Concept of Direction: How Valuable are Legal Concepts in the Theory of the Firm?”
- Brian Loasby, “Ronald Coase’s Theory of the Firm and the Scope of Economics.”
- Alistair Dow & Sheila Dow, “Coase and Scottish Political Economy.”
- Eyup Ozveren & Ilhan Can Ozen, “Coase versus Coase: What if the Market Were One Big Firm Instead?”
- Neil Kay, “Coase, The Nature of the Firm, and the Principles of Marginal Analysis.”
| Peter Klein |
Central to the “Austrian” understanding of business cycles is the idea that monetary expansion — in Wicksellian terms, money printing that pushes interest rates below their “natural” levels — leads to overinvestment in long-term, capital-intensive projects and long-lived, durable assets (and underinvestment in other types of projects, hence the more general term “malinvestment”). As one example, Austrians interpret asset price bubbles — such as the US housing price bubble of the 1990s and 2000s, the tech bubble of the 1990s, the farmland bubble that may now be going on — as the result, at least partly, of loose monetary policy coming from the central bank. In contrast, some financial economists, such as Laureate Fama, deny that bubbles exist (or can even be defined), while others, such as Laureate Shiller, see bubbles as endemic but unrelated to government policy, resulting simply from irrationality on the part of market participants.
Michael Bordo and John Landon-Lane have released two new working papers on monetary policy and asset price bubbles, “Does Expansionary Monetary Policy Cause Asset Price Booms; Some Historical and Empirical Evidence,” and “What Explains House Price Booms?: History and Empirical Evidence.” (Both are gated by NBER, unfortunately, but there may be ungated copies floating around.) These are technical, time-series econometrics papers, but in both cases, the conclusions are straightforward: easy money is a main cause of asset price bubbles. Other factors are also important, particularly regarding the recent US housing bubble (I suspect that housing regulation shows up in their residual terms), but the link between monetary policy and bubbles is very clear. To be sure, Bordo and Landon-Lane don’t define easy money in exactly the Austrian-Wicksellian way, which references natural rates (the rates that reflect the time preferences of borrowers and savers), but as interest rates below (or money growth rates above) the targets set by policymakers. Still, the general recognition that bubbles are not random, or endogenous to financial markets, but connected to specific government policies designed to stimulate the economy, is a very important result that will hopefully influence current economic policy debates.
| Peter Klein |
Here is a symposium on Doug Allen’s very important book The Institutional Revolution (Chicago, 2011). The symposium features essays by Deirdre McCloskey, Joel Mokyr and José-Antonio Espín-Sánchez, and our own Dick Langlois, along with a reply by Doug. The issue revolves around the role of measurement, and Doug’s thesis that reductions in measurement costs are central to improved economic performance.
My favorite line, from Doug’s reply:
I have read “The Problem of Social Cost” more times than I can recall, and study as I may, I have never found a logical error in it. But here is the point: if the author, both at the time and 30 years later, still failed to fully grasp his own perfect work, then it is an understatement to note that the ideas are subtle.
| Peter Klein |
Michael Porter: “Why Business Can Be Good at Solving Social Problems”
Costas Markides: “Strategy Is about Making Choices”
Clayton Christensen: “Disruptive Innovation”
| Peter Klein |
The WSJ profiles InfiLaw, a network of private-equity backed, for-profit law schools that is challenging the established model of legal education. From what I understand, InfiLaw seems to be the University of Phoenix of law schools, providing vocationally oriented training for the lower-end of the market (but, unlike for-profit business schools, charging upmarket prices).
InfiLaw’s schools aren’t designed to compete with the Harvards and Stanfords. The approach, the company says, has mostly been to target students, including many minorities, whose grade-point averages or LSAT scores don’t qualify them for admission at the top schools. . . .
Some in the academy think InfiLaw is compounding the problems in legal education, which is graduating far more students than there are entry-level jobs for lawyers. Critics, including former students who have sued Florida Coastal, see the company as a predatory outfit that peddles false promises to students in exchange for high tuitions.
Others think criticisms of InfiLaw are based on elitism embedded within the legal academy,
As we’ve noted before, it is unlikely that newer, private, for-profit colleges, universities, and professional schools can compete head-to-head with the traditional schools, but why should they? Certainly there is room for more creativity, experimentation, and innovation, structurally and pedagogically, in legal education, as with other forms of higher learning. InfiLaw may be ineffective, or even a scam, but viva la diversité!
| Peter Klein |
Kudos to Richard Ebeling for a nice piece on Herbert J. Davenport, one of the most American economists of the early twentieth century, mostly forgotten today. (One exception: Daveport was the founding Dean of the University of Missouri’s business school, which named its donor society after him.) Davenport, one of Frank Knight’s teachers, was an early adopter of the subjective theory of value introduced by Carl Menger and, along with Philip Wicksteed and Frank Fetter, helped to spread the marginal revolution in the English-speaking world.
Davenport was also a contributor to the economic theory of entrepreneurship, as noted by Ebeling:
Here was the mechanism by which the logical causality between demands and supplies was brought into actual implementation in the complexity of market activities. The entrepreneur stood, Davenport argued, “as the intermediary in the case, representing in his hiring and buying of productive factors, the demand of the purchasing public, and representing in his cost computations, the degree of scarcity of the productive factors relative to the demand for their products.”
On the one hand, it was “the entrepreneurs who furnished the demand for all . . . the things which are called production goods,” he explained. On the other hand, it was “the competition of the entrepreneurs of each industry with the other entrepreneurs of the same industry, and the competition of the entrepreneurs of each industry with those of other industries” that brought about the emergence of factor prices. All the money outlays, the objectified market “costs” that an entrepreneur had to incur, all traced back to the demand for other things as reflected in the bids of competing entrepreneurs. . . .
“The various markets in which he [the entrepreneur] must hire and buy are fluctuating in their prices,” he said. “And the price at which he will finally market his product is uncertain . . . His alternative lines of activities, also, are subject to uncertainties.” All of the entrepreneur’s calculations, therefore, were expectiational.
His computations of “costs of production,” Davenport went on, “appears to be backward-looking computation,” but in reality was “only a basis for a further and forward-looking computation.” The entrepreneur’s glance was turned towards those future – uncertain – opportunities that still lie before him, and from which he would have to choose the one that he believed offered the greatest net advantages.
Ultimately, then, the entrepreneur’s “cost” of production was reducible to his individual judgments,
Ebeling is quoting Davenport’s 1913 book The Economics of Enterprise, which hints at the “judgment-based view” of entrepreneurship elucidated more fully by Knight.
| Peter Klein |
1. I didn’t win.
2. The award is for asset pricing — Gene Fama’s work that underlies the efficient markets hypothesis, Robert Shiller’s contributions to behavioral finance, and Lars Hansen’s development of the Generalized Method of Moments (GMM) regression technique, which is often used in studies of asset prices. (I feel bad for Kenneth French, who could also have won with Fama.)
3. Many people had anticipated a possible Fama-Shiller award, recognizing two people working in the same field but using very different approaches and reaching radically different conclusions, much like the Hayek-Myrdal award of 1974. (Hansen was on the short list for an econometrics award, but not usually bundled with Fama and Shiller.)
4. Fama holds that markets are “rational” and bubbles can’t exist. Shiller holds that markets are irrational and that bubbles are common, resulting from “animal spirits.” As usual, the Austrians take the balanced, reasonable, middle ground, holding that asset bubbles do exist, not because of irrational exuberance, but because of central-bank manipulation of the money supply and interest rates. Down with extremists!
5. Fama’s work on agency theory, while less well known than the efficient markets hypothesis, should be of particular interest to O&M readers. His “Agency Problems and the Theory of the Firm” (1980) argued that competition among managers (current and potential) can help mitigate discretionary behavior, and his “Separation of Ownership and Control” (1983, with Mike Jensen) pointed out that contracts can sometimes substitute for equity ownership in reducing agency costs.
6. I’m not a huge fan of Shiller, but I appreciate his position here:
“Economists seem to miss things that are important” because they’re so busy. “Specialization coupled with strong competitive pressures within academia leads to a situation in which academics often feel that they just do not have time to ponder broad issues and learn even basic simple facts outside their specialty,” the Shiller paper says. “Their general knowledge may be embarrassingly limited, and so they may retreat into their own specialty and produce research which contributes in small ways to the development of the field, but fails to pay attention to the larger picture.”
Update: Here’s a detailed explanation of Fama’s contributions from his Chicago colleague John Cochrane.
| Peter Klein |
Via John Hagel, a story on MOOR — Massively Open Online Research. A UC San Diego computer science and engineering professor is teaching a MOOC (massively open online course) that includes a research component. “All students who sign up for the course will be given an opportunity to work on specific research projects under the leadership of prominent bioinformatics scientists from different countries, who have agreed to interact and mentor their respective teams.” The idea of crowdsourcing research isn’t completely new, but this particular blend of MOO-ish teaching and research constitutes an interesting experiment (see also this). The MOO model is gaining some traction in the scientific publishing world as well.
| Peter Klein |
The Strategic Management Society’s annual conference wrapped up yesterday. It was an excellent event with many fine papers, panels, workshops, and entertainments. We’ll be posting more about the substance of the conference in the coming days. However, I want to mention today a small gripe, not about the conference, but about the strategic management literature more generally. This is something that struck me in particular during the conference. Specifically, there is too much bad writing. The strategic management field is becoming as bad as some of the humanities — maybe even sociology — in its use of pretentious, clumsy, and awkward words and phrases. You can see this most easily in the paper titles: “An Analysis of the Effects of Intra-Firm Group Identity and Power Imbalance on the Deployment of Collaborative Teams in the North Waziristani Ball-Bearing Industry, 1992-2005.” OK, I made that one up, but it gives you the flavor. I’m reminded of Orwell’s example:
Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern  English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
This is a parody, but not a very gross one.
I’m pretty sure the latter version appeared in the abstract of a recent SMJ paper!
| Peter Klein |
I never miss Hayek’s birthday but sometimes forget to celebrate September 29 as the birthday of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), Hayek’s senior colleague and mentor, whose writings are very influential here at O&M. To learn about Mises you should read Guido Hülsmann’s biography but, if you prefer shorter treatments, you can find biographical essays by Mises’s students Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner. Organization theorists should pay particular attention to Mises’s 1922 book Socialism as well as his (unfortunately neglected) 1944 book on Bureaucracy.
| Peter Klein |
Come to the CSIG Teaching Workshop this Saturday in Atlanta and find out!
| Peter Klein |
Three recent NBER papers on compensation, performance, and productivity:
Ann Bartel, Brianna Cardiff-Hicks, Kathryn Shaw
NBER Working Paper No. 19412, September 2013
Due to the limited availability of firm-level compensation data, there is little empirical evidence on the impact of compensation plans on personal productivity. We study an international law firm that moves from high-powered individual incentives towards incentives for “leadership” activities that contribute to the firm’s long run profitability. The effect of this change on the task allocation of the firm’s team leaders is large and robust; team leaders increase their non-billable hours and shift billable hours to team members. Although the motivation for the change in the compensation plan was the multitasking problem, this change also impacted the way tasks were allocated within each team, resulting in greater teamwork.
William Mullins, Antoinette Schoar
NBER Working Paper No. 19395, September 2013
Using a survey of 800 CEOs in 22 emerging economies we show that CEOs’ management styles and philosophy vary with the control rights and involvement of the owning family and founder: CEOs of firms with greater family involvement have more hierarchical management, and feel more accountable to stakeholders such as employees and banks than they do to shareholders. They also see their role as maintaining the status quo rather than bringing about change. In contrast, professional CEOs of non-family firms display a more textbook approach of shareholder-value-maximization. Finally, we find a continuum of leadership arrangements in how intensively family members are involved in management.
George J. Borjas, Kirk B. Doran
NBER Working Paper No. 19445, September 2013
Knowledge generation is key to economic growth, and scientific prizes are designed to encourage it. But how does winning a prestigious prize affect future output? We compare the productivity of Fields medalists (winners of the top mathematics prize) to that of similarly brilliant contenders. The two groups have similar publication rates until the award year, after which the winners’ productivity declines. The medalists begin to “play the field,” studying unfamiliar topics at the expense of writing papers. It appears that tournaments can have large post-prize effects on the effort allocation of knowledge producers.
Thank goodness I haven’t won the Clark Medal, Nobel Prize, or a MacArthur Award. I want to keep my productivity high!
| Peter Klein |
One doesn’t have to be a strict methodological individualist to appreciate that collectives don’t think, act, and choose. Yet one of the standard tropes of financial journalism is the idea that the stock market, like your broker or your Aunt Sally, “reacts” to this or that bit of economic news. “Stocks Soar on Summers Withdrawal,” screams this morning’s Reuters headline. This reporter has some serious powers of discernment: trading Friday “was subdued ahead of the Federal Reserve’s expected reduction of stimulus measures next week.” “In reaction to the withdrawal of Mr. Summers, the dollar slipped to a near four-week low against a basket of currencies.” And: “Further whetting risk appetite were signs of progress in Syria following a Russian-brokered deal aimed at averting United States military action.”
Of course, this is all pure invention on the part of the reporter. Nobody knows for certain why a stock-price average goes up or down. Think about it. The prices of individual stocks reflect expectations of future dividends and future price movements, and they go up and down as new information is revealed about the firm and its competitors. We can never know for certain what makes people buy and sell particular shares but, in the case of an individual firm, we can reasonably infer that shareholders as a group are reacting to new information about the firm. The firm announces quarterly earnings below analysts’ expectations, the share price tends to fall. A competitor announces bankruptcy, the share price tends to rise. Event studies are a popular technique for quantifying investor reactions to news and events related to particular firms.
But the stock market as a whole doesn’t work this way. Stock prices go up and down, and indexes like the S&P 500 and DJIA go up and down according to the performance of their member stocks. Sometimes the average rises, sometimes it falls. Duh. The idea that movements in the index necessarily embody the reaction of the market as a whole to some piece of aggregate economic news reflects a failure to grasp the concept of an average. Of course, it’s always possible that investors’ beliefs about the prospects for particular stocks reflect shared concerns about the economy as a whole. If the government announces an increase in the corporate income tax rate, the prices of many stocks will likely fall. But this applies only to the most obvious cases. Did lots of investors care about Larry Summers’s withdrawal from the Fed race, enough to make them start buying stocks? Who knows? Clearly financial journalists — who are paid to write about such things — care a lot about the next Fed chair. But we have absolutely no idea how much investors care, and no way at all to attribute this morning’s rise in US equity prices to the Summers announcement or any other piece of economic news.
So please, can we stop taking such pronouncements seriously? The stock market is a social institution, an aggregate of individual trades and traders. Let’s stop anthropomorphizing it.
| Peter Klein |
Tunji Adebesan and I are organizing the second annual teaching workshop for the Strategic Management Society’s Competitive Strategy Interest Group. The workshop is Saturday, September 28, 2:00-5:00pm, part of the upcoming SMS Conference in Atlanta. It’s open to emerging and established scholars in strategic management, organization, and entrepreneurship, or a related field.
This year’s theme is technological innovation and its impact on teaching strategy. The higher-education industry is abuzz with talk about MOOCs, distance learning, computer-based instruction, and other pedagogical innovations. Many of you are already using online exercises and assessments, simulations, and other activities in the classroom. How are these innovations best incorporated into the strategy curriculum? What can strategy scholars say about the impact of these technologies on higher education more generally? Are they sustaining or disruptive innovations, and what do they imply for the structure of the business school, and the university itself?
The interactive, participatory workshop begins with a panel session featuring experts on distance learning, online assessments, simulations, electronic textbooks, social media, and more. Panelists include Michael Leiblein (Ohio State), Jackson Nickerson (Washington University, St. Louis), Frank Rothaermel (Georgia Tech), and Bob Wiseman (Michigan State), along with Tunji and myself. Sample questions: Are MOOCs the future of higher education? Do they work? Can What are best practices for distance learning, and for incorporating online activities into the traditional classroom? Do improved distance-learning and collaboration tools facilitate new models for executive education and corporate training programs? How should strategy teachers make best use of social media, TED talks and other media, iPads, and other tools and apps, especially for younger students? Following the panel session, participants will break into small groups for in-depth discussion and practice using new tools. After regrouping, participants will discuss about what these innovations mean for the higher-education industry, and business schools in particular.
Pre-registration is encouraged but not required. If you’re planning to attend, please let us know by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org so we can plan accordingly. Feel free to email me with questions or comments.
| Peter Klein |
From Jill Bradbury:
The herd strays; crops die.
Who pays? Gain and harm are weighed.
Not Pigou’s frayed nerves.
Feel free to try your hand in the comments.