Posts filed under ‘Austrian Economics’
| Peter Klein |
Per 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.
| 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 |
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 |
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.
| Dick Langlois |
Surprisingly, the following passage is not from O’Driscoll and Rizzo (1985). It is the abstract of a new paper by Brian Arthur called “Complexity Economics: A Different Framework for Economic Thought.”
This paper provides a logical framework for complexity economics. Complexity economics builds from the proposition that the economy is not necessarily in equilibrium: economic agents (firms, consumers, investors) constantly change their actions and strategies in response to the outcome they mutually create. This further changes the outcome, which requires them to adjust afresh. Agents thus live in a world where their beliefs and strategies are constantly being “tested” for survival within an outcome or “ecology” these beliefs and strategies together create. Economics has largely avoided this nonequilibrium view in the past, but if we allow it, we see patterns or phenomena not visible to equilibrium analysis. These emerge probabilistically, last for some time and dissipate, and they correspond to complex structures in other fields. We also see the economy not as something given and existing but forming from a constantly developing set of technological innovations, institutions, and arrangements that draw forth further innovations, institutions and arrangements. Complexity economics sees the economy as in motion, perpetually “computing” itself— perpetually constructing itself anew. Where equilibrium economics emphasizes order, determinacy, deduction, and stasis, complexity economics emphasizes contingency, indeterminacy, sense-making, and openness to change. In this framework time, in the sense of real historical time, becomes important, and a solution is no longer necessarily a set of mathematical conditions but a pattern, a set of emergent phenomena, a set of changes that may induce further changes, a set of existing entities creating novel entities. Equilibrium economics is a special case of nonequilibrium and hence complexity economics, therefore complexity economics is economics done in a more general way. It shows us an economy perpetually inventing itself, creating novel structures and possibilities for exploitation, and perpetually open to response.
Arthur does acknowledge that people like Marshall, Veblen, Schumpeter, Hayek, and Shackle have had much to say about exactly these issues. “But the thinking was largely history-specific, particular, case-based, and intuitive—in a word, literary—and therefore held to be beyond the reach of generalizable reasoning, so in time what had come to be called political economy became pushed to the side, acknowledged as practical and useful but not always respected.” So what Arthur has in mind is a mathematical theory, no doubt a form of what Roger Koppl – who is cited obscurely in a footnote – calls BRACE Economics.
| Nicolai Foss |
In my Hayek Lecture at last year’s Austrian Economics Scholars Conference I argued that Austrian capital theory is deserving of a comeback as an absolute integral part of Austrian economics. I argued that ACT directs attention to the essential importance of heterogeneity and I argued that notions of capital heterogeneity serves to bring the entrepreneur, transaction costs and institutions directly into our understanding of the growth process.
An essential part of ACT is, of course, the work of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. On the one hand, Böhm’s work is absolutely seminal, on the other hand, its too strong emphasis on aggregates and simplifying assumptions arguably side-tracked the development of ACT in some key ways. Needless to say, to mainstream economists ACT is Böhm-Bawerkian capital theory because it lends itself to formalization.
A recent example of formalizing Böhm’s theory is Renaud Fillieule’s “A comprehensive graphical exposition of the macroeconomic theory of Böhm-Bawerk.” Fillieule makes a strong case for Böhm’s theory as a precursor of Solowian growth theory and of macroeconomics in general. In contrast to many other commentators on ACT, he is familiar with modern Austrian work on the subject. A very elegant article and most definitely worth a read. Here is the abstract:
This paper offers a comprehensive graphical exposition of Böhm-Bawerk’s formalised macroeconomic theory. This graphical model is used here for the first time to study the effects of the changes in the explanatory variables (quantity of capital, number of workers and level of technical knowledge) on the dependent variables (interest rate, wage and period of production). This systematic application of the model shows that some of the conclusions drawn by Böhm-Bawerk are incorrect and need to be amended. A comparison with Solow’s model also shows that Böhm-Bawerk can legitimately be considered as one of the main originators of the standard contemporary approach in macroeconomics of equilibrium and growth.
| 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.