Posts filed under ‘Business/Economic History’

Tom McCraw

| Dick Langlois |

I was saddened to hear today of the passing of Tom McCraw at the young age of 72. I didn’t always agree with him: he was a strong admirer of the Progressives, and even tried implausibly to suggest in Prophet of Innovation, his great biography of Schumpeter, that Schumpeter would have agreed with Progressive policies had he been alive today. But McCraw was a gentleman, a fine writer, and an important figure in business history. Prophet of Innovation is a terrific book. I wish I had written it.

7 November 2012 at 10:35 am 2 comments

Henry Manne at Missouri, on the Crisis in Higher Education

| Peter Klein |

Missouri friends, please join us next Tuesday for a lecture by Henry Manne on the governance and organization of US higher education institutions:

The Crisis in Higher Education:
Origins and Problems of University Governance

Henry G. Manne
Dean Emeritus, George Mason University Law School

Tuesday, October 23, 2012, 3:30-4:45pm
MU Student Center, Room 2206
University of Missouri

Sponsored by the Liberty and Justice Colloquium, University of Missouri
Free and Open to the Public

Henry G. Manne is Dean Emeritus of the George Mason School of Law and an expert on insider trading, legal education, university governance, and law and economics. He has also taught at St. Louis University, the University of Wisconsin, George Washington University, the University of Rochester, Stanford University, the University of Miami, Emory University, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University.

Dean Manne is an Honorary Life Member of the American Law and Economics Association, which honored him as one of the four founders of the field of Law and Economics. He launched the Law and Economics Center at Emory University and the University of Miami before bringing it to George Mason University. His monograph, An Intellectual History of the School of Law, George Mason University, traces the development of the law and economics.

Dean Manne’s other writings include such seminal works as Insider Trading and the Stock Market, Wall Street in Transition (with E. Solomon), and “Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control” Journal of Political Economy, 1965). He is also a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal. In 1999, the Case Western Reserve Law Review published the papers from a symposium honoring the many contributions of Dean Manne to the law and economics movement as The Legacy of Henry G. Manne. The Liberty Fund recently published The Collected Works of Henry G. Manne in three volumes.

Dean Manne holds a B.A. from Vanderbilt University (1950), J.D. from the University of Chicago (1952), J.S.D. from Yale University (1966), LL.D. from Seattle University (1987), and LL.D. from the Universidad Francesco Marroquin in Guatemala (1987).

16 October 2012 at 10:04 pm 5 comments

Obama on Small Business

| Peter Klein |

President Obama’s gaffe about business creation — “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen” — has been met with the usual reactions. Defenders claim he simply used infelicitous language to describe the vital role of government in providing essential goods, while critics point out, for instance, that he didn’t even get it right on the Golden Gate Bridge (which received no federal money). I actually feel sorry for the guy. It was an pretty dumb thing to say, politically, and may end up hurting him more than Romney’s role in “exporting American jobs” (gag) hurts the challenger.

The idea that no one builds a business on his own, without help from other people, is in once sense trivially true, as Leonard Read never tired of explaining. No one person knows how to make a pencil, let alone a microprocessor. As a defense of government spending on infrastructure (not only roads and bridges, but things like the internet), it falls completely flat. Of course some entrepreneurs profit from government spending on infrastructure — not just directly (e.g., road contractors, engineering companies hired by ARPA, etc.) but indirectly (from lower transportation or transmission cost, net of tax payments). But such anecdotes do not at all “justify” the expenditures. As I once wrote about the internet:

[E]nthusiasts tend to forget the fallacy of the broken window. We see the internet. We see its uses. We see the benefits it brings. We surf the web and check our email and download our music. But we will never see the technologies that weren’t developed because the resources that would have been used to develop them were confiscated by the Defense Department and given to Stanford engineers. Likewise, I may admire the majesty and grandeur of an Egyptian pyramid, a TVA dam, or a Saturn V rocket, but it doesn’t follow that I think they should have been created, let alone at taxpayer expense.

A gross benefit to particular entrepreneurs from a government program does not, by itself, demonstrate net benefits to the taxpaying community. Vague references to spillovers and multipliers may sound good in a press conference, but are no substitute for serious analysis.

18 July 2012 at 9:57 am 5 comments

Entrepreneurship and the Auteur Theory

| Peter Klein |

I’ve been reading Jack Mathews’ The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut, a fascinating — if absurdly one-sided — look at director Terry Gilliam’s struggle to get his 1985 film Brazil distributed in the US. Mathews tells the story as a noble crusade by a brilliant, iconoclastic, visionary filmmaker against the evil studio system, run by corporate toadies who care only about making money, even if it means destroying the artistic unity of the filmmaker’s creative vision. Gilliam had “final cut” rights for a version released in Europe, but his US distributor, Universal, demanded substantial edits, which Gilliam refused to make. Universal, led by Sid Sheinberg (who comes across heroically in documentaries about Steven Spielberg’s Jaws), was completely within its contractual rights to insist on these changes, but the result was a very different film that has been lampooned by critics. (The Sheinberg version was canned and an alternate Gilliam version eventually shown in the US after a long, ugly, public battle between Gilliam and the studio.)

It’s great reading for those interested in movies and the business of making movies. But there’s an interesting entrepreneurship angle as well. Most film critics, including author Mathews, accept the auteur theory of cinema, which sees movies as the highly personal products of a director’s creative vision. The studio approach, which treats moviemaking as a collaborative enterprise designed to make money, is anathema to the auteurs. The case is usually made with familiar anecdotes: 24-year-old Orson Welles had final control over Citizen Kane and created one of the medium’s great masterpieces, while RKO destroyed the follow-up Magnificent Ambersons (and all of Welles’s subsequent films). The studios thought Star Wars would flop, and after George Lucas made his zillions he decided to finance and produce his subsequent films on his own, without studio interference — the dream of every auteur. American art-house darlings like Robert Altman, Peter Bogdonavich, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, etc. are always portrayed as fighting to keep Hollywood from turning their edgy, original films into bland, corporate drivel pitched at suburban soccer moms.

As Paul Cantor and others have explained, however, the auteur theory is bunk. Moviemaking is, in fact, a collaborative venture, and many of the best films are studio pictures created by large teams — the best example being Casablanca, which was essentially written by committee. Or, as Cantor puts it: “Just three words: Francis Ford Coppola.” (The Godfather films were studio pictures; virtually everything Coppola did since, with the partial exception of Apocalypse Now, has been a disaster.) And take George Lucas: Does anybody think the problem with the prequel trilogy was too many people standing around saying, “George, you can’t do that”?

Consider the parallels with entrepreneurship. (more…)

6 July 2012 at 1:44 pm 9 comments

Lewin on Austrian Capital Theory

| Peter Klein |

A very nice overview of “Austrian” capital theory and its relevance for the current economic crisis from former guest blogger Peter Lewin.

With the resurgence of Keynesian economic policy as a response to the current crisis, echoes of past debates are being heard — in particular the debate from the 1930s between John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. . . . Hayek pointed out that capital investment does not simply add to production in a general way but rather is embodied in concrete capital items. That is, the productive capital of the economy is not simply an amorphous “stock” of generalized production power; it is an intricate structure of specific interrelated complementary components. Stimulating spending and investment, then, amounts to stimulating specific sections and components of this intricate structure.

See also the recent SO!APbox essay by Rajshree Agarwal, Jay Barney, Nicolai, and me, “Heterogeneous Resources and the Financial Crisis: Implications of Strategic Management Theory.”

4 June 2012 at 11:35 pm 1 comment

The Socialist Car

| Peter Klein |

I blogged previously about Lewis Siegelbaum’s 2008 book Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (or, more precisely, Perry Patterson’s EH.Net review). So I need to say something about the follow up, The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc (Cornell University Press, 2011), an essay collection edited by Siegelbaum. Once again, here’s Patterson:

As was true for Cars for Comrades, this book takes the modern upper-middle-class Western reader far from the contemporary world where drivers need not know what’s “under the hood,” where synthetic oil might not need attention for 15,000 miles or more, and where long-standing institutions for finance, distribution and service of vehicles are seemingly ubiquitous.  Rather, this is a world where two-stroke engines are designed for easy (and frequent) self-service, new car owners are required to install windshield wipers, and new automobiles are provided with extensive repair kits and instructions for disassembly.  This world is also one where private automobiles – and even socially-owned trucks – represent potential threats to the Soviet-style socialist undertaking by providing opportunities for generating illegal incomes and diverting resources toward consumption.  At the core of the rich set of stories contained here are the compromises that everyday citizens, urban planners, and Party officials routinely made as the powerful forces associated with the automobile became more and more apparent throughout the socialist bloc.  In addition, the examples presented in this eleven-chapter volume say much about the increasingly complex information flows required and implied by automobiles that became more and more technically complex over time.

Speaking of EH.net, the performativity crowd may get a kick out of another recent review, Bruce Carruthers’s discussion of Carl Wennerlind, Casualties of Credit: The English Financial Revolution, 1620-1720 (Harvard University Press, 2011). Notes Carruthers: “It was not simply that early modern capital markets evolved, that financial systems developed, or that English economic institutions changed. These critical transformations were accompanied and even shaped by the analyses offered by people who witnessed the events of the time.”

23 March 2012 at 9:32 am 2 comments

Computers in Higher Education, 1960s Edition

| Peter Klein |

An illuminating passage from James Ridgeway’s 1968 book The Closed Corporation: American Universities in Crisis, a scathing critique of  the university-military-industrial complex. Note the cameo by Jim March:

[University of California officials Ralph W.] Gerard and [R. Dan] Tschirgi are computer fetishists who insist information is knowledge, and that the function of a university is to provide information.

In 1963 and 1964 Chancellor David G. Aldrich, Jr., at Irvine, and Gerard got IBM interested in setting up programs there. The company agreed to install a 1400 system and to supply staff and engineers. An IBM employee, Dr. J. A. Kearns, came along to head the project and was given a part-time appointment at the Graduate School of Administration. The idea was to see whether the computer could be used as a library, for various administrative functions and for teaching.

Gerard paints a glowing picture. He says that one half of the students on the Irvine campus spend at least one hour a week on the computer, and that computers are used in teaching biology, mathematics, economics, sociology and psychology.

After speaking with Gerard, I went along to see the computer in action, and ran into a senior staff man who told me in a jaundiced manner that it wasn’t operating because they couldn’t make the new IBM 360 system work right. This gentleman was exceedingly glum about the possibilities of very many students learning much of anything on the Irvine computers. So was the dean of Social Sciences, James G. March. When I asked him about the use of the machine to teach sociology, he replied grimly that all the computer did was to print out some basic definitions in an introductory course, which, as he pointed out, one could get just as well from reading a book. He went on to say that a minute portion of any introductory course was on a computer, that students spent little time on them, and that most of the time was taken up programming them. March said the difficulty was to devise a system which could answer questions rather than ask them. The most one could really expect was to have a machine pose a problem to the student, who could then go ahead an answer it on his own.

The tech described here is dated but the book itself still packs a punch. In the late 1906s concerns about the close relationships between the federal government (particularly the Pentagon), public research universities, and industry (particularly defense contractors) were new. Now we take for granted that a primary task of the research university is to produce “applied” research in close cooperation with government and industry sponsors, to commercialize its scientific discoveries, to train students for industry, and so on. But this is a fairly recent — mid-20th century — development, and not an obviously desirable one.

28 February 2012 at 11:59 am 3 comments

Review of Allen’s Institutional Revolution

| Peter Klein |

I wrote earlier about Doug Allen’s The Institutional Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Here’s a new EH.Net review by Mark Koyama.

Institutions in Allen’s view minimize transaction costs, where transaction costs include the costs associated with opportunistic behavior. Transaction costs precluded “first-best” institutions from developing in the pre-industrial world. Instead, apparently inefficient institutions such as tax farming, the sale of offices, and the aristocratic dominance of politics persisted for centuries. Allen argues that these apparently inefficient institutions were, in fact, efficient given the existing configuration of transaction costs. This insight, which builds on the ideas of Yoram Barzel, provides a powerful hypothesis for studying institutional change. Allen places particular emphasis on the importance of measurement. In the high variance pre-modern world, measurement was costly or impossible and consequently bureaucrats, soldiers, sailors, and policemen could not be paid on the basis of observable inputs. Alternative institutions had to emerge to deter opportunism and reward effort. These institutions were often elaborate, and sometimes strange; they involved making the bureaucrats, soldiers, or tax collectors residual claimants of some sort. The story of how these institutions disappeared and were replaced by modern institutions is The Institutional Revolution.

The institutional revolution Allen proposes is linked to the industrial revolution because technological change drove institutional change by reducing measurement costs. Standardization reduced variance. This reduction in variance lessened the possibilities for opportunistic behavior and enabled institutions based around the idea of rewarding individuals for their marginal contribution to emerge.

7 February 2012 at 10:16 pm Leave a comment

Charles Dickens, Capitalist

| Peter Klein |

Did you know 2012 is the centenary of Charles Dickens’s birth? Dickens is often lumped with Carlyle, Shaw, Ruskin, etc. as a Romantic, Victorian, literary anti-capitalist. (Carlyle indeed disliked capitalism, but not for the usual reasons.) But Dickens, as I originally learned from Paul Cantor, was a wildly successful capitalist and entrepreneur, a driving force behind the great nineteenth-century innovation of the serialized, commercial novel. Consider the following from one Dickens scholar:

Stephen Marcus has called Dickens “the first capitalist of literature” in the sense that he worked within apparently adverse conditions to take advantage of new technologies and markets, creating, in effect, an entirely new role for fiction. In Charles Dickens and His Publishers, Robert Patten quotes Oscar Dystel (president and chief executive of Bantam Paperbacks) on the three “key factors” in his development of a successful paperback line: availability of new material, introduction of the rubber plate rotary press, and development of magazine wholesalers as a distribution arm. As Patten points out, parallel factors operated in the Victorian era: a plethora of writers, new technologies, and expanded distribution. And as methods of papermaking, printing, and platemaking increased in efficiency, so did means of transportation. By 1836, a crucial network of wholesale book outlets in the Strand, peddlers, provincial shops, and the royal mailmade possible by the development of paved roads, fast coaches, and eventually the national railway systemhad been consolidated. The final task facing early publishers was, then, to develop the newly accessible market for their commodity. By lowering prices, emphasizing illustrations and sensational elements, and increasing variety of both form and content, publishers created readers within the largest demographic groups: the rising middle and working classes, where readers had essentially not existed before. . . . (more…)

23 January 2012 at 10:00 am 6 comments

Is Jim Collins Reading O&M?

| Peter Klein |

Über-guru Jim Collins has taken more than his share of hits here at O&M, mainly for lack of attention to experimental design (1, 2, 3). It appears that his new book,  Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck: Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (Harper, 2011), finally tries to address this issue with an attempt at causal identification. If the dust-jacket blurb is to be believed, Great by Choice introduces to the Collins project the concept of treatment and control:

With a team of more than twenty researchers, Collins and Hansen studied companies that rose to greatness — beating their industry indexes by a minimum of ten times over fifteen years — in environments characterized by big forces and rapid shifts that leaders could not predict or control. The research team then contrasted these “10X companies” to a carefully selected set of comparison companies that failed to achieve greatness in similarly extreme environments.

This looks like a step in the right direction, but Collins is still selecting on the dependent variable — in a quasi-experimental design one normally chooses the treatment and control groups based on behaviors, not outcomes. (You don’t compare 100 healthy people to 100 sick people, you compare 100 smokers to 100 otherwise similar nonsmokers or 100 people on a medication to 100 similar people on a placebo to see which get healthy or sick.

For more, see Collins in the NYT or this interview from Knowledge@Wharton. I don’t have the actual book but I tried searching keywords from the Amazon “Look Inside,” and didn’t get any hits for “Knight,” “Schumpeter,” “dynamic capabilities,” or other appropriate key words, so I’m not expecting much theory here.

4 December 2011 at 3:39 pm Leave a comment

Can a Strong Central Government Credibly Commit Not to Intervene?

| Peter Klein |

When the subject is large financial or industrial companies, the answer is clearly no. Government promises not to rescue failing banks or large firms are cheap talk, not credible commitments. A central government strong enough to bail out politically connected organizations will bail them out; the only government that can credibly commit not to intervene is one that is not legally empowered to intervene. And no modern state is willing to give up that discretionary authority. Here is evidence from Korea:

Ending “Too Big To Fail”: Government Promises vs. Investor Perceptions
Todd A. Gormley, Simon Johnson, Changyong Rhee
NBER Working Paper No. 17518, October 2011

Can a government credibly promise not to bailout firms whose failure would have major negative systemic consequences? Our analysis of Korea’s 1997-99 crisis, suggests an answer: No. Despite a general “no bailout” policy during the crisis, the largest Korean corporate groups (chaebol) – facing severe financial and governance problems – could still borrow heavily from households through issuing bonds at prices implying very low expected default risk. The evidence suggests “too big to fail” beliefs were not eliminated by government promises, presumably because investors believed that this policy was not time consistent. Subsequent government handling of potential and actual defaults by Daewoo and Hyundai confirmed the market view that creditors would be protected.

24 October 2011 at 10:18 am 4 comments

Business and American Literature

| Peter Klein |

Thanks to Shawn Ritenour for the pointer to Algis Valiunas’s National Affairs piece, “Business and the Literati.”

The business of America may be business, but the business of American literature in the past century has been largely to insist that the nation is, in pursuing business, wasting itself on unworthy objects. In the eyes of most novelists and playwrights who deal with the subject, business is not an honorable vocation, but rather an obsessive scramble for lucre and status. Tycoons are plunderers. Salesmen are poor slobs truckling to their bosses, though most of them aspire to be cormorants and highwaymen, too. The mass desire to strike it rich has launched a forced march to nowhere. In short, American literature hates American business for what it has done to the souls of the rich, the poor, and the middling alike.

Right-thinking people now take it for granted that, in criticizing business, American literature has saved (or at least elevated) the nation’s soul. But after a century of slander, that assumption needs revisiting.

17 October 2011 at 10:21 am 3 comments

Schumptoberfest

| Peter Klein |

Kudos to former guest blogger David Gerard for helping organize and host the conference with the über-cool name, Schumptoberfest, 21-23 October at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. David Hounshell is giving the keynote address, and the rest looks good too.

4 October 2011 at 5:38 pm Leave a comment

Two Finance Papers of Interest

| Peter Klein |

Two recent review-type papers from NBER:

Behavioral Corporate Finance: An Updated Survey
Malcolm Baker, Jeffrey Wurgler
NBER Working Paper No. 17333
Issued in August 2011

We survey the theory and evidence of behavioral corporate finance, which generally takes one of two approaches. The market timing and catering approach views managerial financing and investment decisions as rational managerial responses to securities mispricing. The managerial biases approach studies the direct effects of managers’ biases and nonstandard preferences on their decisions. We review relevant psychology, economic theory and predictions, empirical challenges, empirical evidence, new directions such as behavioral signaling, and open questions.

A Brief History of Regulations Regarding Financial Markets in the United States: 1789 to 2009
Alejandro Komai, Gary Richardson
NBER Working Paper No. 17443
Issued in September 2011

In the United States today, the system of financial regulation is complex and fragmented. Responsibility to regulate the financial services industry is split between about a dozen federal agencies, hundreds of state agencies, and numerous industry-sponsored self-governing associations. Regulatory jurisdictions often overlap, so that most financial firms report to multiple regulators; but gaps exist in the supervisory structure, so that some firms report to few, and at times, no regulator. The overlapping jumble of standards; laws; and federal, state, and private jurisdictions can confuse even the most sophisticated student of the system. This article explains how that confusion arose. The story begins with the Constitutional Convention and the foundation of our nation. Our founding fathers fragmented authority over financial markets between federal and state governments. That legacy survives today, complicating efforts to create a financial system that can function effectively during the twenty-first century.

3 October 2011 at 1:42 pm Leave a comment

The Institutional Revolution

| Peter Klein |

I’m very excited about Doug Allen’s forthcoming book The Institutional Revolution (University of Chicago Press). Trained by Yoram Barzel (and hence part of the Tree of Zvi), Doug is a leading contemporary scholar on property rights, transaction costs, contracting, and economic history. His work on agricultural contracting with Dean Lueck, including their 2002 book The Nature of the Farm, is a classic contribution to the economics literature on economic organization. He also has a very good introductory textbook. More information is at Doug’s informative (and amusing) website.

Here’s the cover blurb for the new book:

Few events in the history of humanity rival the Industrial Revolution. Following its onset in eighteenth-century Britain, sweeping changes in agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, and technology began to gain unstoppable momentum throughout Europe, North America, and eventually much of the world—with profound effects on socioeconomic and cultural conditions.

In The Institutional Revolution, Douglas W. Allen offers a thought-provoking account of another, quieter revolution that took place at the end of the eighteenth century and allowed for the full exploitation of the many new technological innovations. Fundamental to this shift were dramatic changes in institutions, or the rules that govern society, which reflected significant improvements in the ability to measure performance—whether of government officials, laborers, or naval officers—thereby reducing the role of nature and the hazards of variance in daily affairs. Along the way, Allen provides readers with a fascinating explanation of the critical roles played by seemingly bizarre institutions, from dueling to the purchase of one’s rank in the British Army.

Engagingly written, The Institutional Revolution traces the dramatic shift from premodern institutions based on patronage, purchase, and personal ties toward modern institutions based on standardization, merit, and wage labor—a shift which was crucial to the explosive economic growth of the Industrial Revolution.

Bonus: Here’s the syllabus from Doug’s course on the economics of property rights.

4 September 2011 at 9:43 pm 3 comments

Technology Quote of the Day

| Peter Klein |

Andrew McAfee:

Jobs and Apple have done the best job of answering with their products the question posed by wiki inventory Ward Cunningham: What’s the simplest thing that could possibly work? As I’ve stressed before, most technologists / nerds / geeks don’t think this way — they think that success comes from cramming in features and functions, bells and whistles.

I’ve made this point many times in my speaking and teaching on technology and innovation, particularly with regard to so-called “QWERTY effects” and the claim that markets with network externalities tend to select suboptimal technologies.  A serious problem in this literature is that “optimal” is almost always defined from the engineer’s point of view, not the consumer’s (e.g., Betamax was “really” better than VHS because the picture quality was higher and the tapes more compact, even though the recording time was shorter and the recorders much more expensive). Aside from what the market chooses, by what standard do we deem one technology more “efficient” — in an economic sense — than another?

As one disgruntled RIM employee complained recently to upper management: “The whole campaign around the [Blackberry] Playbook seems to be ‘IT DOES FLASH! LOOK!’ . . . but honestly, my mother doesn’t know or care about that. She wants to know ‘can I play Angry Birds?’”

26 August 2011 at 10:32 am 1 comment

Entrepreneurship in Africa

| Dick Langlois |

Inspired by Peter Lewin’s recent post on the beauty of Africa, I decided to hop on a plane to Peter’s native South Africa. I haven’t been to a wildlife park, though I have found myself twice down in caves, one containing fossils and one a disused gold mine. I also took in the Apartheid Museum, which seemed to me (as an outsider) to be extremely well done. It didn’t pull any punches but always appeared neutral, even analytical. For me, the museum’s story underscored the point that Walter Williams and others always used to argue while apartheid was going on: that the system required, and was implemented through, central planning and massive government intervention in markets. (Apparently they even had a wacky scheme to move people from their distant segregated homes to and from urban work using high-speed bullet trains.) I was struck by how similar the revolution here was to the contemporaneous one in Eastern Europe. It was a revolt by a middle class that was denied human and political rights — and also economic opportunity — by an increasingly inefficient and distortive state apparatus.

A couple of exhibits at the Apartheid Museum asserted that in the heyday of gold mining the British had “fixed the price of gold.” This price fixing forced the mine owners constantly to lower production costs, which they did by deskilling mining operations – using technology to break the process into simpler tasks (Ames and Rosenberg 1965) — in order to hire cheaper labor. By contrast, the mining museum suggested that there was plenty of skill-enhancing innovation as well, like pneumatic drills replacing the hammer and chisel, which reduced from eight hours to five minutes the time it took a worker to carve out a blasting hole.

Oddly, neither museum mentioned that gold was the monetary standard. (You know this already: it’s not that the “price of gold” was fixed; it’s that the value of the currency was defined in terms of units of gold.) This might sound like an economist’s carping. But I mention it because on this trip I also encountered the strange combination of task design and monetary economics in a strikingly different African context. I’m actually in south Africa not primarily for the tourism (at least in principle) but to visit Giampaolo Garzarelli and his Institutions and Political Economy Group at the University of the Witwatersrand and, as Peter Klein mentioned in an earlier post, to attend a conference on “Open Source, Innovation, and New Organizational Forms,” which took place on Monday. Joel West, another of the participants, has already blogged elsewhere about the conference. One paper, by an MA student from Kenya – Joel has already blogged about this as well – discussed an amazing phenomenon I had never heard about before: crowdsourcing in developing countries using mobile phones. A company called txteagle allows customers to outsource cognitive work by breaking tasks into small pieces, which pieces are then sent to participants via text message. (As phones have become cheaper they have become ubiquitous in the developing world.) For example, the participant could be asked to translate a phrase into his or her local language or to transcribe a voice snippet. The txteagle computers then aggregate the output and use redundancy and artificial intelligence to validate the results. The participant is paid for the task, via the same mobile phone, using M-Pesa, a system I first heard about only a couple of weeks ago. Interestingly, M-Pesa is itself a formalization of a spontaneous monetary system – think cigarettes at a prison camp – in which people without access to banks would save and transact in airtime minutes. The amount a participant can earn in this system is quite meaningful in the context of poor countries with high unemployment.

6 August 2011 at 10:01 am 7 comments

Rogoff on Leverage

| Peter Klein |

An important point from Ken Rogoff:

Many commentators have argued that fiscal stimulus has largely failed not because it was misguided, but because it was not large enough to fight a “Great Recession.” But, in a “Great Contraction,” problem number one is too much debt. If governments that retain strong credit ratings are to spend scarce resources effectively, the most effective approach is to catalyze debt workouts and reductions.

For example, governments could facilitate the write-down of mortgages in exchange for a share of any future home-price appreciation. An analogous approach can be done for countries. For example, rich countries’ voters in Europe could perhaps be persuaded to engage in a much larger bailout for Greece (one that is actually big enough to work), in exchange for higher payments in ten to fifteen years if Greek growth outperforms.

I don’t agree with all of the discussion, for example Rogoff’s call for price inflation to mitigate the burden on debtors, but this is a big advance over the vulgar Keynesianism that passes for analysis at the New York Times. (See also Peter L.’s post on Rumelt.) The main point is that a recession like the present one is structural, and has nothing do with shibboleths like “insufficient aggregate demand.” I wish Rogoff (here or in his important book with Carmen Reinhart) talked about credit expansion as the source of structural, sectoral imbalances that generate macroeconomic crises.

2 August 2011 at 2:21 pm 3 comments

Confronting Convenient Historical Distortions

| Peter Lewin |

From management professor Richard Rumelt. This is very interesting.

Today, households carry a much greater relative debt burden than they did in 1929, largely due to a 25-year mortgage binge. Between 1980 and 2007, disposable income grew at 5.9% per year while household indebtedness grew at 8.7% per year — a clearly unsustainable situation. As in 1939, this hangover of debt blocks new rounds of consumption and dulls the impact of fiscal and monetary stimuli.

From today’s WSJ: here.

30 July 2011 at 12:00 pm 3 comments

The Downside of Case Studies

| Peter Klein |

As Herbert Simon once noted, while a case study is only a sample of one, a sample of one is infinitely more informative than a sample of none. This is surely true, but cases must be used with caution, particularly when more systematic evidence is available.

A couple months back I saw a Huffington Post piece claiming that, because Lincoln Electric retains workers even during recessions, and Lincoln Electric is a profitable company, firms should not fire workers when the demand for their products declines. QED. The author laments that business schools don’t teach the virtues of a “no-layoffs” policy more generally. As evidence that business schools are corrupt or incompetent, the author shows that management experts do not, in fact, believe that such a policy is desirable.

A more troubling reason is that many professors at Harvard and other MBA schools are deeply skeptical of offering workers such a bargain.

“It’s a terribly non-optimal and inefficient policy,” says George P. Baker, the co-chair of the HBS doctoral program. “Lincoln Electric is a special case. Unless there is some other reason for having it, as part of an incentive system, you would be wrong to recommend it.”

“I’m not unsympathetic to guaranteed employment and the long-term social strengths it builds,” says James Rebitzer, Chair of the Business Policy Department at Boston University’ School of Management, “But I think there are only a very few special circumstances where a commitment to no-layoffs actually improves operating efficiency.”

Harvard students such as Corey Crowell (MBA 2009), who read the [Lincoln Electric] case just days before we met, got the message: “I just worry that the sense of a guaranteed job would create complacency . . . look at the auto industry.”

There you have it. Despite a wealth of theory and evidence that guaranteed lifetime employment is generally harmful to firm performance, if one firm follows such a policy and prospers, then all firms should do so. That business schools don’t embrace the non sequitur is “troubling.” Okey dokey.

29 July 2011 at 9:52 pm 16 comments

Older Posts Newer Posts


Authors

Nicolai J. Foss | home | posts
Peter G. Klein | home | posts
Richard Langlois | home | posts
Lasse B. Lien | home | posts

Guests

Former Guests | posts

Networking

Recent Posts

Categories

Feeds

Our Recent Books

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).

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 220 other followers