Posts filed under ‘Business/Economic History’
| Peter Klein |
An interesting paper from Mara P. Squicciarini and Nico Voigtländer examines the role of “knowledge elites” — individuals at the upper tail of the human capital distribution* — in French economic growth around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Key passage:
To measure the historical presence of knowledge elites, we use city-level subscriptions to the famous Encyclopédie in mid-18th century France. We show that subscriber density is a strong predictor of city growth after 1750, but not before the onset of French industrialization. Alternative measures of development confirm this pattern: soldier height and industrial activity are strongly associated with subscriber density after, but not before, 1750. Literacy, on the other hand, does not predict growth. Finally, by joining data on British patents with a large French firm survey from 1837, we provide evidence for the mechanism: upper tail knowledge raised the productivity in innovative industrial technology.
In other words, growth is driven by the knowledge (and, presumably, skills, preferences, and beliefs) of the elites, not the population at large.
Squicciarini and Voigtländer don’t deal directly with the distribution of income and wealth (they do show that regions with higher Encyclopédie subscriber density had higher per-capita incomes), presumably those individuals in the upper tail of the knowledge distribution were also one-percenters in income or wealth. This brings to mind one of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s arguments about inequality, namely that it spurs technological innovation:
[I]t is a commonplace that things which are now provided inexpensively to the many, say spices or the newspaper, were originally luxuries which could be offered only because some few were willing and able to buy them at high prices. It is difficult to say what the economic development of the West would have been . . . if the productive effort had been aimed at providing more of the things needed by all, to the exclusion of a greater variety of things desired by minorities [i.e., elites]. . . . History shows us that each successive enlargement of the opportunities to consume was linked with unequal distribution of the means to consume.
I suspect Squicciarini and Voigtländer’s knowledge elites were largely the same as de Jouvenel’s “minorities” (in a robustness check for reverse causation, Squicciarini and Voightländer use membership in scientific societies as a proxy for knowledge elites, and these scientific societies were the primary producers and consumers of scientific instruments, for example). What would Monsieur Piketty say about this, I wonder?
| Peter Klein |
New economic historians have turned their back on traditional historians and sought their place among economists. This has provided good jobs for many scholars, but the acceptance by economists is still incomplete. We therefore have two challenges ahead of ourselves. The first is to argue that economic development can only be fully understood if we understand the divergent histories of high-wage and low-wage economies. And the other big challenge is to translate our economic findings into historical lessons that historians will want to read. These challenges come from our place between economics and history, and both are important for the future of the New Economic History.
His broader claim is that the disciplines of economic history and economic development should be more closely integrated. “Both subfields study economic development; the difference is that economic history focuses on high-wage countries while economic development focuses on low-wage economies.”
| Peter Klein |
A new NBER paper on 19th-century manufacturing firms in Massachusetts finds that incorporation rates, ownership concentration, and and managerial ownership varied systematically with technology (factory versus artisanal production, use of unskilled labor, etc.). In other words, governance forms were not determined primarily by the legal or regulatory environment, social and cultural issues, the desire for legitimacy, or other noneconomic factors, but by standard agency considerations.
Corporate Governance and the Development of Manufacturing Enterprises in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts
NBER Working Paper No. 20096, May 2014
This paper analyzes the use of the corporate form among nineteenth-century manufacturing firms in Massachusetts, from newly collected data from 1875. An analysis of incorporation rates across industries reveals that corporations were formed at higher rates among industries in which firm size was larger. But conditional on firm size, the industries in which production was conducted in factories, rather than artisanal shops, saw more frequent use of the corporate form. On average, the ownership of the corporations was quite concentrated, with the directors holding 45 percent of the shares. However, the corporations whose shares were quoted on the Boston Stock Exchange were ‘widely held’ at rates comparable to modern American public companies. The production methods utilized in in different industries also influenced firms’ ownership structures. In many early factories, steam power was combined with unskilled labor, and managers likely performed a complex supervisory role that was critical to the success of the firm. Consistent with the notion that monitoring management was especially important among such firms, corporations in industries that made greater use of steam power and unskilled labor had more concentrated ownership, higher levels of managerial ownership, and smaller boards of directors.
| Peter Klein |
That’s the title of an interesting new law review article by Kevin Davis (New York University Law Review, April 2013). Just as we can treat organizational structure as as sort of technology, and study the introduction and diffusion of new organizational forms with the same theories and methods used to study technological innovation and diffusion, we can think of contracts as structures or institutions that emerge, are subject to experimentation and competition, and evolve and diffuse. Here’s the abstract:
If technology means, “useful knowledge about how to produce things at low cost”, then contracts should qualify. Just as mechanical technologies are embodied in blueprints, technologies of contracting are embodied in contractual documents that serve as, “blueprints for collaboration”. This Article analyzes innovations in contractual documents using the same kind of framework that is used to analyze other kinds of technological innovation. The analysis begins by laying out an informal model of the demand for and supply of innovative contractual documents. The discussion of demand emphasizes the impact of innovations upon not only each party’s incentives to collaborate efficiently, but also upon reading costs and litigation costs. The analysis of supply considers both the generation and dissemination of innovations and emphasizes the importance of cumulative innovation, learning by-doing, economies of scale and scope, and trustworthiness. Recent literature has raised concerns about the extent to which law firms produce contractual innovations. In fact, a wide range of actors other than law firms supply contractual documents; including end users of contracts, specialized providers of legal documents, legal database firms, trade associations, and academic institutions. This article discusses the incentives and capabilities of each of these potential sources of innovation. It concludes by discussing potential interventions such as: (1) enhancing intellectual property rights, (2) relaxing rules concerning the unauthorized practice of law and, (3) creating or expanding publicly sponsored clearinghouses for contracts.
See also Lisa Berstein’s comment. (HT: Geoff Manne)
| Peter Klein |
A common myth is that successful technology companies are founded by people in their 20s (Scott Shane reports a median age of 39). Entrepreneurial creativity, in this particular sense, may peak at middle age.
We’ve previously noted interesting links between the literatures on artistic, scientific, and entrepreneurial creativity, organization, and success, with particular reference to recent work by David Galenson. A new survey paper by Benjamin Jones, E.J. Reedy, and Bruce Weinberg on age and scientific creativity is also relevant to this discussion. They discuss the widely accepted empirical finding that scientific creativity — measured by high-profile scientific contributions such as Nobel Prizes — tends to peak in middle age. They also review more recent research on variation in creativity life cycles across fields and over time. Jones, for example, has observed that the median age of Nobel laureates has increased over the 20th century, which he attributes to the rapid growth in the body of accumulated knowledge one must master before making a breakthrough scientific contribution (the “burden of knowledge” thesis). Could the same hold through for founders of technology companies?
| Peter Klein |
A renewed interest in conglomerates has brought forth a HBR blog post from Herman Vantrappen and Daniel Deneffe, “Don’t Write Off the (Western) Focused Firm Yet.” As they rightly point out, the choice between a focus and diversity “depends on the context in which the business operates. Specifically, focused firms fare better in countries where society expects and gets public accountability of both firms and governments, while conglomerates succeed in nations with high public accountability deficits.” I would put it slightly differently: the choice between focused, single-business firms and diversified, multi-business enterprises depends on the relative performance of internal and external capital and labor markets. The institutional environment — the legal system, regulatory practices, accounting rules — plays a huge rule here, but social norms, technology, and the competitive environment also affect the efficient margin between between intra-firm and inter-firm resource allocation.
The point is that all forms of organization have costs and benefits. There is no uniquely “optimal” degree of diversification or hierarchy or vertical integration or any other aspect of firm structure; the choice depends on the circumstances. Instead of favoring one particular organizational form we should be promoting an environment in which entrepreneurs can experiment with different approaches, with competition determining the right choice in each context. Let a thousand flowers bloom!
Update: From Joe Mahoney I learn that not only was Chairman Mao’s actual exhortation “Let a hundred flowers blossom,” but also he may have meant it sarcastically: “It is sometimes suggested that the initiative was a deliberate attempt to flush out dissidents by encouraging them to show themselves as critical of the regime.” My usage was of course sincere. :)
| Dick Langlois |
I recently ran across this interesting paper on vertical integration and subcontracting in the Japanese kimono industry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By this period, most of the Japanese silk (and cotton) industries had adopted the factory system. But there remained a few industrial districts that relied on the putting-out system. This paper is most interested in presenting a risk-aversion model that explains why “premier subcontractors” got relational contracts in the putting-out system. I’m not sure I buy it, but in any case what caught my eye was something else — a modularity story:
In the weaving industry of Kiryu, the factory system equipped with hand looms had been chosen to weave the luxury fabrics, while the putting-out system had been used for most other fabrics, until the factory system equipped with power looms became dominant for most kinds of fabrics in the 1910s and later. Instead of being replaced, the putting-out system developed and dispersed within Kiryu, especially from the 1860s to the 1900s, when the main products of Kiryu were yarn-dyed silk fabrics. “Yarn dying” means material yarn is dyed before weaving. For the luxury fabrics that were dyed after weaving, the cleaning and finishing processes undertaken after weaving were important, and those processes were conducted inside the manufacturers’ workshops. In contrast, in the production of the yarn-dyed fabrics, dying, arranging warps, cleaning yarn, throwing, re-reeling, and other preparation processes were essential. Because those processes needed special skills, the craftsmen who specialized in each process were organized as subcontractors by manufacturers. … With the moving weight from production of traditional piece-dyed (dyed-after-weaving) fabrics to production of yarn-dyed (dyed-before-weaving) silk fabrics, the throwing process, the finishing process, and the designing process, as well as the weaving process, came to be put-out. Manufacturers decreased the production inside of their workshops and established subcontracting relations with independent artisans. This case suggests that the technological change induced by the change of products from piece-dyed fabrics to the yarn-dyed fabrics affected production organization.
This has a bit of a Christensen flavor to it. When “performance” needs were high — high-end kimonos — the industry used a non-modular technology (dyed-after-weaving) and an integrated organization. When performance needs were lower — lower-quality kimonos — it used a modular technology (dyed-before-weaving) and a vertically disintegrated structure.