| Dick Langlois |
Attending academic presentations as a spectator – a pure consumer – can be great fun. On November 20, I drove up to Boston for one day of a wonderful conference, put together by the Business History program at Harvard Business School, on the History of Law and Business Enterprise (which probably merited its own separate blog post). This is an area that I am starting to get interested in. The conference was in many ways a showcase for the GHLR perspective on the history of corporate organization – the acronym referring to the work of Timothy Guinnane, Naomi Lamoreaux, Ron Harris, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, all of whom were there. The conference took place across the street from Harvard Stadium on the weekend of the Harvard-Yale game. Harvard won the football game (alas), but the conference was a Yale rout.
And last week I attended a presentation here at UConn that was even more vicarious fun. Our Humanities Institute invited Joel Kaye from Barnard to talk about his new book, A History of Balance, 1250-1375: The Emergence of a New Model of Equilibrium and Its Impact on Thought, which has just appeared from Cambridge. I was the token economist in the audience, even though two of his chapters are about economics. His argument is that medieval scholastic thought changed radically over this period, and produced by its end a different and arguably more sophisticated model of how the economic world works. This “new” model is not the standard Aristotelian version we are normally told about but was in fact something far closer to the views of the Scottish Enlightenment. (Needless to say, his telling of this was far more nuanced.) In addition to Nicole Oresme, whom I had heard of, he relies heavily on the work of Peter John Olivi, an earlier Franciscan theologian, whom I had never heard of. In Kaye’s telling, Olivi came close to something like the idea of the invisible hand. I took a quick look at standard history-of-thought texts, and nobody mentions Olivi at all – except Murray Rothbard, who credits him with discovering the subjective theory of value.
This is really a story about the Enlightenment of the High Middle Ages, which took place among academic clerics in an age of population growth, (extensive) economic growth, and urbanization. As Kaye apparently argues in an earlier book, these academics were constantly confronted with the market – especially in the thriving city of Paris – and were well versed in market practice; indeed, this knowledge of the market and money contributed to advances in physical and biological as well as social sciences. The medieval academic Enlightenment went into decline after the Black Death in the early fourteenth century. The resulting dislocations and the swing in relative prices – in favor of peasants and against landholders, including importantly the Church – reduced the centrality and authority of academic thought, even as they spurred institutional changes that would set the stage for growth in the early modern period. Population in Europe did not return to its pre-plague levels until the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and economic thought took just as long to recover. (I know this is whiggish, but I can’t help it.)
There was perhaps one connection between the two events. At HBS, Ron Harris talked about his ongoing research on the earliest history of the corporate form in the East and the West. Here the commenda contract is the centerpiece. That is presumably what schoolmen like Olivi called by the Latin term societas, which was not, however, the same institution as the societas publicanus of ancient Rome.
| Dick Langlois |
I write on the flight back from the inaugural conference of the World Interdisciplinary Network for Institutional Research (WINIR), which met on the Prime Meridian these last few days. The conference was a great success, not only for its wonderful location in the Old Royal Naval College astride the Cutty Sark but also for the overall quality of the organization and the presentations.
As I have mentioned before, WINIR was created to encourage institutional research from a wide range of perspectives and disciplines. The annual conference institutionalizes this (you might say) by having keynote speakers from five different disciplines. The political scientist was Kathleen Thelen from MIT, one of my fellow editors on the Journal of Institutional Economics; the legal scholar was Katharina Pistor from Columbia; and the sociologist was Geoffrey Ingham from Cambridge, who made some interesting observations about Chinese institutions in the context of the “great divergence” debate in economic history. Serious and well-known scholars all. The economist was Timur Kuran, who updated us on his fascinating work on the economics of the pre-nineteenth-century Islamic waqf. But the most interesting – or at any rate most surprising – keynote was the philosopher Barry Smith from Buffalo, whom some of you may have heard of for his early work on the philosophy of Austrian economics. Smith’s talk was about “ontology,” which in my ignorance I had expected to be an hour of head-breaking essentialism. It turns out that “ontology” now means the practice of classification – giving things the right names and putting them in the right boxes. As much computer science as philosophy, it seemed to me. The main applications are in databases and sciences more generally, including things like Department of Defense databases and Human Genome data. Smith is a world-leading practitioner of this kind of ontology, having founded something called the National Center for Ontological Research. (I must confess that the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard this title was the High-Energy Magic Building at Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University.) Basically, ontology appears to be about modularization and standardization, something quite fitting to talk about in the shadow of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. I discovered that Smith was unaware of the modularity literature, so I plan to send him some references.
Many of the parallel sessions were also of high quality. I could attend only a fraction of them (what with sneaking out to visit the longitude exhibit at the National Maritime Museum). But let me plug a couple of papers by my friends. Giampaolo Garzarelli and Lyndal Keeton modeled “internal exit” in pre-colonial Southern Africa, the fissioning off of subtribal groups to found new polities. (I was impressed with the quality of that entire session.) As I was chairing a competing session later, I missed Roger Koppl and Caryn Devin talking about their paper “Against Design,” written with Stuart Kauffman and Teppo Felin. A version of that collaboration will appear in JOIE as a target article with solicited comments. (more…)
| Dick Langlois |
I was trying to avoid jumping into the fray about Capital in the Twenty-First Century so as not to participate in the mania, as if throwing one more tiny ember into a wildfire would cause measurable additional damage. But I couldn’t resist after seeing an article entitled “How Thomas Piketty Explains American Sports.” Written by someone called Kevin Lincoln in a left-wing mag called Pacific Standard, the article discusses the NBA’s proposal to raise the minimum roster age from 19 to 20, thus reducing the number of one-and-done college players and depriving John Calipari of his livelihood. (Did I forget to mention that UConn won both men’s and women’s national championships this year?) Lincoln correctly points out that such a change is in the interest not only of the D-1 colleges, who get to keep their stars longer, but also of the NBA, since it offloads more player development to the colleges. Sounds perfectly reasonable – exactly the kind of analysis you would expect from, say, a free-market public-choice economist. What on earth does this have to do with Piketty?
The concept of “over-accumulation” was coined by economist David Hershey, and with the ascent of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century into bestsellerdom, it’s something that anyone with even a passing interest in economics is probably familiar with. In our current economy, actors who have gathered large amounts of capital tend to invest it in the creation of further capital for themselves rather than funneling it back into production. In turn, the economy stagnates, with the world’s financial resources concentrating in the hands of the rich with no money left over to raise wages for the working class.
Yes, this scheme will probably raise the wealth (a little) of NBA owners. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the accumulation of capital. For both owners and players, the NBA is all about people getting wealthy from entrepreneurial insight and scarce valuable skills — exactly contrary to Piketty’s predictions.
The author is obviously economically illiterate — how exactly can people “create further capital for themselves” without somehow “funneling it back into production”? Yet the fact that someone smart enough to write a free-lance article would connect the NBA to Piketty speaks, it seems to me, to what the Piketty phenomenon is all about. In my view, we should not be comparing Piketty with Marx or Keynes. We should be comparing him with Dan Brown. Like the Da Vinci Code, Capital is an otherwise unremarkable book that managed to put together a volatile mix of elements. Both books captured some kind of zeitgeist, of course, but they did so in a remarkably precise way. They rely on similar elements: a theory of how the world works that doesn’t stand up to minimal scrutiny but is easy to understand, seems to explain the mysterious and ineffable, and, most importantly, confirms the gut prejudices of its readers. Capital is not as much a conspiracy theory as the Da Vinci Code; it’s a nineteenth-century story about aggregate income shares. But it is also an empty-enough vessel into which readers (especially those who haven’t actually read it) can pour their own conspiracy theories. The NBA is the Opus Dei of capitalist sports.
While we’re on the subject, I also want to mention that, to my mild surprise, the best review of Piketty I have run across is by Larry Summers. He gathers together all the technical criticisms in many other reviews and then adds a few of his own. While he pats Piketty on the back for his wonderful interest in inequality, he leaves the theoretical claims in a tattered pile on the floor.
| Dick Langlois |
The always-interesting J.-C. Spender has kindly sent me a copy of his new book from Oxford, Business Strategy: Managing Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Enterprise. Not surprisingly, this very much the kind of book readers of this blog will find interesting. In addition to covering (and interpreting) standard practitioner and academic models of strategy, the book spends considerable time on language, persuasion, and rhetoric. Those of you who teach strategy should definitely have a look.
| Dick Langlois |
I had a brief mental hiccup today when I received an email advertisement from Stanford University Press for a book called Epinets: The Epistemic Structure and Dynamics of Social Networks by Mihnea C. Moldoveanu and Joel A. C. Baum. Because the ad carried prominently the SUP logo — a stylized fir tree — and because epinette is the Canadian French word for spruce tree, I thought for a nanosecond that I was being offered a treatise on conifer biology, penned by a man whose name means “tree.” But no. It’s a book of organizational sociology. “Drawing on artificial intelligence, the philosophy of language, and epistemic game theory, Moldoveanu and Baum formulate a lexicon and array of conceptual tools that enable readers to explain, predict, and shape the fabric and behavior of social networks.” Might be worth glancing at, if only to find out what epistemic game theory is. (Perhaps it is as opposed to ontological game theory.)
Of course, the Palo Alto of the Stanford seal is not a spruce. It’s a coast redwood, also called a sequoia.
| Dick Langlois |
February 28 is the deadline for submitting an abstract to the first conference of the World Interdisciplinary Network for Institutional Research (WINIR), which will take place 11-14 September 2014 at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Keynote speakers include Timur Kuran. Information and abstract submission at the WINIR website.
| Dick Langlois |
Everyone knows that people who want to go into government jobs have high pro-social preferences and impeccable honesty. Well, not so in India, according to Rema Hanna from the Kennedy School at Harvard, who spoke in our department seminar series Friday. Here is the abstract:
In this paper, we demonstrate that university students who cheat on a simple task in a laboratory setting are more likely to state a preference for entering public service. Importantly, we also show that cheating on this task is predictive of corrupt behavior by real government workers, implying that this measure captures a meaningful propensity towards corruption. Students who demonstrate lower levels of prosocial preferences in the laboratory games are also more likely to prefer to enter the government, while outcomes on explicit, two-player games to measure cheating and attitudinal measures of corruption do not systematically predict job preferences. We find that a screening process that chooses the highest ability applicants would not alter the average propensity for corruption among the applicant pool. Our findings imply that differential selection into government may contribute, in part, to corruption. They also emphasize that screening characteristics other than ability may be useful in reducing corruption, but caution that more explicit measures may offer little predictive power.
I wonder what her colleagues at the Kennedy School think of this. Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what your country can do for you.