Posts filed under ‘Austrian Economics’

The Medieval Enlightenment in Economic Thought

| 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.

10 December 2014 at 5:39 pm 1 comment

It’s the Economics that Got Small

| Peter Klein |

Joe Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma Desmond: I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

John List gave the keynote address at this weekend’s Southern Economic Association annual meeting. List is a pioneer in the use by economists of field experiments or randomized controlled trials, and his talk summarized some of his recent work and offered some general reflections on the field. It was a good talk, lively and engaging, and the crowd gave him a very enthusiastic response.

List opened and closed his talk with a well-known quote from Paul Samuelson’s textbook (e.g., this version from the 1985 edition, coauthored with William Nordhaus): “Economists . . . cannot perform the controlled experiments of chemists and biologists because they cannot easily control other important factors.” While professing appropriate respect for the achievements of Samuelson and Nordhaus, List shared the quote mainly to ridicule it. The rise of behavioral and experimental economics over the last few decades — in particular, the recent literature on field experiments or RCTs — shows that economists can and do perform experiments. Moreover, List argues, field experiments are even better than using laboratories, or conventional econometric methods with instrumental variables, propensity score matching, differences-in-differences, etc., because random assignment can do the identification. With a large enough sample, and careful experimental design, the researcher can identify causal relationships by comparing the effects of various interventions on treatment and control groups in the field, in a natural setting, not an artificial or simulated one.

While I enjoyed List’s talk, I became increasingly frustrated as it progressed, and found myself — I can’t believe I’m writing these words — defending Samuelson and Nordhaus. Of course, not only neoclassical economists, but nearly all economists, especially the Austrians, have denied explicitly that economics is an experimental science. “History can neither prove nor disprove any general statement in the manner in which the natural sciences accept or reject a hypothesis on the ground of laboratory experiments,” writes Mises (Human Action, p. 31). “Neither experimental verification nor experimental falsification of a general proposition are possible in this field.” The reason, Mises argues, is that history consists of non-repeatable events. “There are in [the social sciences] no such things as experimentally established facts. All experience in this field is, as must be repeated again and again, historical experience, that is, experience of complex phenomena” (Epistemological Problems of Economics, p. 69). To trace out relationships among such complex phenomena requires deductive theory.

Does experimental economics disprove this contention? Not really. List summarized two strands of his own work. The first deals with school achievement. List and his colleagues have partnered with a suburban Chicago school district to perform a series of randomized controlled trials on teacher and student performance. In one set of experiments, teachers were given various monetary incentives if their students improved their scores on standardized tests. The experiments revealed strong evidence for loss aversion: offering teachers year-end cash bonuses if their student improved had little effect on test scores, but giving teacher cash up front, and making them return it at the end of the year if their students did not improve, had a huge effect. Likewise, giving students $20 before a test, with the understanding that they have to give the money back if they don’t do well, leads to large improvements in test scores. Another set of randomized trials showed that responses to charitable fundraising letters are strongly impacted by the structure of the “ask.”

To be sure, this is interesting stuff, and school achievement and fundraising effectiveness are important social problems. But I found myself asking, again and again, where’s the economics? The proposed mechanisms involve a little psychology, and some basic economic intuition along the lines of “people respond to incentives.” But that’s about it. I couldn’t see anything in these design and execution of these experiments that would require a PhD in economics, or sociology, or psychology, or even a basic college economics course. From the perspective of economic theory, the problems seem pretty trivial. I suspect that Samuelson and Nordhaus had in mind the “big questions” of economics and social science: Is capitalism more efficient than socialism? What causes business cycles? Is there a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment? What is the case for free trade? Should we go back to the gold standard? Why do nations to go war? It’s not clear to me how field experiments can shed light on these kinds of problems. Sure, we can use randomized controlled trials to find out why some people prefer red to blue, or what affects their self-reported happiness, or why we eat junk food instead of vegetables. But do you really need to invest 5-7 years getting a PhD in economics to do this sort of work? Is this the most valuable use of the best and brightest in the field?

My guess is that Samuelson and Nordhaus would reply to List: “We are big. It’s the economics that got small.”

See also: Identification versus Importance

23 November 2014 at 2:58 pm 8 comments

Opportunity Discovery or Judgment? Fargo Edition

| Peter Klein |

In the opportunity-discovery perspective, profits result from the discovery and exploitation of disequilibrium “gaps” in the market. To earn profits an entrepreneur needs superior foresight or perception, but not risk capital or other productive assets. Capital is freely available from capitalists, who supply funds as requested by entrepreneurs but otherwise play a relatively minor, passive role. Residual decision and control rights are second-order phenomena, because the essence of entrepreneurship is alertness, not investing resources under uncertainty.

By contrast, the judgment-based view places capital, ownership, and uncertainty front and center. The essence of entrepreneurship is not ideation or imagination or creativity, but the constant combining and recombining of productive assets under uncertainty, in pursuit of profits. The entrepreneur is thus also a capitalist, and the capitalist is an entrepreneur. We can even imagine the alert individual — the entrepreneur of discovery theory — as a sort of consultant, bringing ideas to the entrepreneur-capitalist, who decides whether or not to act.

A scene from Fargo nicely illustrates the distinction. Protagonist Jerry Lundegaard thinks he’s found (“discovered”) a sure-fire profit opportunity; he just needs capital, which he hopes to get from his wealthy father-in-law Wade. Jerry sees himself as running the show and earning the profits. Wade, however, has other ideas — he thinks he’s making the investment and, if it pays off, pocketing the profits, paying Jerry a finder’s fee for bringing him the idea.

So, I ask you, who is the entrepreneur, Jerry or Wade?

11 November 2014 at 4:53 pm 15 comments

Westgren on Entrepreneurial Opportunities

| Peter Klein |

opportunity-magnetMy colleague Randy Westgren has two thoughtful posts on entrepreneurial opportunities (1, 2). Randy shares my unease with the construct of opportunity, which began as a metaphor introduced by Israel Kirzner, only to be reified by entrepreneurship scholars looking for a central organizing construct. My own view is that the concept of opportunity is redundant at best, misleading at worst. Randy expresses the same idea: “If the opportunity is so important to the entrepreneurial process, why are there so many mediating actions and decisions between the existence and the outcomes? How much of the outcomes does the existence of the opportunity explain?” He goes on to propose some useful taxonomies for making sense of the literature. More to come.

12 July 2014 at 6:50 pm 1 comment

Business Cycles and the Structure of Production

| Peter Klein |

A new paper from former guest blogger Peter Lewin:

A Financial Framework for Macroeconomic Cycles: The Structure of Production is Relevant

Peter Lewin
University of Texas at Dallas – School of Management – Department of Finance & Managerial Economics

Nicolas Cachanosky
Metropolitan State University of Denver

A comprehensive understanding business-cycles needs to account not only for the allocation of resources over time, but also for resource allocation across industries at any point in time. Intertemporal disequilibrium has been a common theme of many theories of the business-cycle. But to properly understand how these “time-distortions” take place and how the price-mechanisms that drive them work, a clear and well-defined conceptualization of the “average length” of the structure of production, is required. The insights provided by Macaulay’s duration and Hicks’s Average Period do this. We show that financial duration and related concepts have a direct connection to macroeconomic stability. By doing this we point to important implications for macroeconomic policy. We claim not only that a low interest rate contributes to the creation of asset bubbles, we show also the market mechanism through which the real sector is affected. We argue that to accept that duration matters for resource allocation is to accept the core of the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle (ABCT) and, therefore, that to reject the ABCT core thesis suggests also rejecting the importance of duration for resource allocation.

Management and entrepreneurship scholars new to business-cycle theory might find this, this, and this to be useful background reading.

30 May 2014 at 9:06 am 2 comments

A Note on “Human Capital”

| Peter Klein |

Like Peter Lewin, Walter Block, Mario Rizzo, and Peter Boettke, I greatly admire the late Gary Becker, a pioneer in many areas of economics and sociology, a strong proponent of economic and personal freedom, and by all accounts a terrific teacher, mentor, and colleague. But I confess that I have always had qualms about the concept of “human capital,” along with the analogous constructs of social capital, knowledge capital, reputation capital, and so on. These are metaphors for capital in the narrow sense, and I worry that the widespread use of “capital” to denote anything valuable and long-lived obscures important issues about actual, physical capital that can be divided up, measured, priced, and exchanged. Witness the confusion over “capital” as Thomas Piketty uses the term. Here is something I wrote before:

[O]ne of my pet peeves [is] the expansive use of “capital” to describe any ill-defined substance that accumulates and has value. Hence knowledge, experience, and skills become “human capital” or “knowledge capital”; relationships become “social capital”; brand names become “reputation capital”; and so on. I fear this terminology obfuscates more than it clarifies.

I don’t mind using these terms in a loose, colloquial sense: By going to school I’m investing in human capital or diversifying my stock of human capital; if this gets me a high-paying job I’m earning a good return on my human capital; as I get old I forget new things, so my human capital is depreciating rapidly; and so on.

But we shouldn’t take these metaphors too literally. In economic theory capital refers either to financial capital or to a stock of heterogeneous alienable assets, goods that can be exchanged in markets and analyzed using price theory. Their rental prices are determined by marginal revenue products and their purchase prices are given by the present discounted value of these future rents. Knowledge is not, strictly speaking, capital, because it is not traded in markets does not have a rental or purchase price. What markets trade and price is labor services, and it is impossible to decompose the payments to labor (wages) into separate “effort” and “rental return on human capital” components. Some labor services command a higher market price than others because they have a higher marginal revenue product. Some of this wage premium may be due to intelligence or experience, some due to complementarities with other human or nonhuman assets, some due to hard work, and so on. But these are all determinants of the MRP, and hence the wage, not different kinds of factor returns.

Moreover, the entrepreneur needs cardinal numbers to compute the value of his capital stock, to know if it is increasing or decreasing in value, and so on. I can’t measure my stock of human capital, I don’t know for sure if it is increasing or decreasing over time, I can’t calculate the ROI of a specific human-capital investment, etc., because there are no prices and no measurable units. Knowledge may be “like capital,” in the sense that it lasts, that you can add to it, that you benefit from it, etc., but it isn’t literally a capital good like a machine or a refrigerator.

If we think going to school is valuable and increases lifetime earnings, why don’t we just say, “going to school is valuable and increases lifetime earnings,” rather than, “there is a positive return on investments in human capital”? Is there a good reason to prefer the latter, besides scientism?

6 May 2014 at 9:18 am 8 comments

Essentialism in Economics and Art

| Peter Klein |

11101494_1_lCarl Menger’s methodology has been described as essentialist. Rather than building artificial models that mimic some attributes or outcomes of an economic process, Menger sought to understand the essential characteristics of phenomena like value, price, and exchange. As Menger explained to his contemporary Léon Walras, Menger and his colleagues “do not simply study quantitative relationships but also the nature [or essence] of economic phenomena.” Abstract models that miss these essential features — even if useful for prediction — do not give the insight needed to understand how economies work, what entrepreneurs do, how government intervention affects outcomes, and so on.

picasso early analytic cubismI was reminded of the contrast between Menger and Walras when reading about Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, the great twentieth-century pioneers of abstract art. Both painters sought to go beyond traditional, representational forms of visual art, but they tackled the problem in different ways. As Jack D. Flam writes in his 2003 book Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship:

Picasso characterized the arbitrariness of representation in his Cubist paintings as resulting from his desire for “a greater plasticity.” Rendering an object as a square or a cube, he said, was not a negation, for “reality was no longer in the object. Reality was in the painting. When the Cubist painter said to himself, ‘I will paint a bowl,’ he set out to do it with the full realization that a bowl in a painting has nothing to do with a bowl in real life.” Matisse, too, was making a distinction between real things and painted things, and fully understood that the two could not be confused. But for Matisse, a painting should evoke the essence of the things it was representing, rather than substitute a completely new and different reality for them. In contract to Picasso’s monochromatic, geometric, and difficult-to-read pictures, Matisse’s paintings were brightly colored, based on organic rhythms, and clearly legible. For all their expressive distortions, they did not have to be “read” in terms of some special language or code.

Menger’s essentialism is concisely described in Larry White’s monograph The Methodology of the Austrian School Economists and treated more fully in Menger’s 1883 book Investigations Into the Method of the Social Sciences. For more on economics and art, see Paul Cantor’s insightful lecture series, “Commerce and Culture” (here and here).

[An earlier version of this post appeared at Circle Bastiat.]

30 April 2014 at 8:50 am 5 comments

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