Posts filed under ‘Austrian Economics’

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

Notes on Inequality

| Peter Klein |

Everyone’s talking about inequality. I confess don’t find inequality terribly interesting, intrinsically. Of course, inequality that results from special government privilege — the incomes of top executives at Lockheed Martin or Goldman Sachs, the speaking fees earned by Hillary Clinton, the wealth of US sugar farmers — should be analyzed and criticized, and those privileges removed. Firm policies that result in pay differentials — pay-for-performance schemes, for example — are important and interesting, not because they generate inequality per se, but because they have systematic and significant effects on firm behavior and performance. Of course, inequality may have important long-run social and cultural effects, but these are highly speculative and not obviously actionable.

I haven’t yet read Thomas Piketty’s new book but am aware of — and amazed by — the buzz it’s generating. I suspect most of the excitement reflects confirmation bias: people who think inequality is the major issue of our time naturally think this is the most important economics book of the decade, probably before reading it. (Naturally, I’d love to exploit that formula in marketing my own books.)

I do have a few thoughts on how the discussion is framed, in light of Piketty’s work. First, Piketty and his admirers define “capital” as a homogeneous, liquid pool of funds, not a heterogeneous stock of capital assets. This is not merely a terminological issue, as those familiar with the debates on capital theory from the 1930s and 1940s are well aware. Piketty’s approach focuses on the quantity of capital and, more importantly, the rate of return on capital. But these concepts make little sense from the perspective of Austrian capital theory, which emphasizes the complexity, variety, and quality of the economy’s capital structure. There is no way to measure the quantity of capital, nor would such a number be meaningful. The value of heterogeneous capital goods depends on their place in an entrepreneur’s subjective production plan. Production is fraught with uncertainty. Entrepreneurs acquire, deploy, combine, and recombine capital goods in anticipation of profit, but there is no such thing as a “rate of return on invested capital.” (more…)

23 April 2014 at 10:32 am 19 comments

Gordon Winston

| Dick Langlois |

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of Gordon Winston, an interesting economist who should have been better known (to readers of this blog) than he was.

I’m sure I knew of Gordon when I was a student at Williams in the early 1970s, but as I didn’t take any economics as an undergraduate, I never had any contact with him. I really first met him when he interviewed me for a job at Williams in 1983 (which I didn’t get — not his fault). We kept in contact for a number of years after that, including during at least one Liberty Fund conference in the 1980s.

Gordon is probably best known for his later work on the economics of higher education, which I use in teaching. But readers might be even more interested in his earlier work on the timing of economic activities, which resulted in a 1982 Cambridge book by that title. In essence, Gordon was trying to work out in detail how to think about time in a production-function model of economic activity, something that the late Armen Alchian had adumbrated in his famous paper “Costs and Output” (the original 1958 RAND working paper version of which is now available here). Gordon cites Lachmann and Shackle, but I think his biggest influence was Georgescu-Roegen. The book ought to be especially interesting to grad students, since I suspect it opens up a lot of ideas for further exploration.

9 January 2014 at 2:22 pm Leave a comment

Top Posts of 2013

| Peter Klein |

It’s been another fine year at O&M. 2013 witnessed 129 new posts, 197,531 page views, and 114,921 unique visitors. Here are the most popular posts published in 2013. Read them again for entertainment and enlightenment!

  1. Rise of the Three-Essays Dissertation
  2. Ronald Coase (1910-2013)
  3. Sequestration and the Death of Mainstream Journalism
  4. Post AoM: Are Management Types Too Spoiled?
  5. Nobel Miscellany
  6. The Myth of the Flattening Hierarchy
  7. Climate Science and the Scientific Method
  8. Bulletin: Brian Arthur Has Just Invented Austrian Economics
  9. Solution to the Economic Crisis? More Keynes and Marx
  10. Armen Alchian (1914-2013)
  11. My Response to Shane (2012)
  12. Your Favorite Books, in One Sentence
  13. Does Boeing Have an Outsourcing Problem?
  14. Doug Allen on Alchian
  15. New Paper on Austrian Capital Theory
  16. Hard and Soft Obscurantism
  17. Mokyr on Cultural Entrepreneurship
  18. Microfoundations Conference in Copenhagen, June 13-15, 2014
  19. On Academic Writing
  20. Steven Klepper
  21. Entrepreneurship and Knowledge
  22. Easy Money and Asset Bubbles
  23. Blind Review Blindly Reviewing Itself
  24. Reflections on the Explanation of Heterogeneous Firm Capability
  25. Do Markets “React” to Economic News?

Thanks to all of you for your patronage, commentary, and support!

31 December 2013 at 7:55 am 1 comment

Kirzner and Entrepreneurship Research

| Peter Klein |

downloadPer Bylund and I have written a paper on Israel Kirzner’s influence on the entrepreneurship literature. It’s titled “The Place of Austrian Economics in Contemporary Entrepreneurship Research” but deals mainly with Kirzner. Comments are appreciated.

The paper was written for a forthcoming special issue of the Review of Austrian Economics on Kirzner’s contributions. We take a nuanced position: While Kirzner’s work underlies the dominant opportunity-discovery perspective in the entrepreneurship research literature, this perspective is increasingly challenged among entrepreneurship scholars, for some of the same reasons that Kirzner’s theoretical framework has been criticized by his fellow Austrian economists. Nonetheless, it is impossible to make progress in entrepreneurship studies, or the Austrian analysis of the market, without engaging Kirzner’s ideas.

9 December 2013 at 9:33 am 1 comment

Solution to the Economic Crisis? More Keynes and Marx

| 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.”

11 November 2013 at 10:24 am 4 comments

Easy Money and Asset Bubbles

| 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.

28 October 2013 at 9:40 am 1 comment

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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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