Posts filed under ‘History of Economic and Management Thought’
| Dick Langlois |
As a student of Alfred Chandler, I was excited to see Google’s conversion into Alphabet – which is essentially a multidivisional conglomerate. Chandler chronicled the development of the M-Form structure in the days of the Second Industrial Revolution, beginning with DuPont, and it remains an interesting question whether the same pattern will eventually take shape among the dominant firms of the Third Industrial Revolution.
Generally speaking, a move to the M-Form reflects a maturing of a technology and an industry, when information flows and incentives within a specialized unit – a module, if you wish – become more important than widespread and more flexible information flows within a functional organization. The more radically innovative the company, the more important these widespread information flows. Apple is organized in a functional form, and Microsoft famously returned to a functional form after a few years as an M-Form precisely in order to become more radically innovative in the face of declining revenues from Windows. Of course, Google remains as a functional entity within the Alphabet conglomerate, and the technologies in Alphabet’s other divisions are arguably less related to one another than in, say, the divisions into which Microsoft was once divided. Moreover, Alphabet will keep the two-tiered structure of stockholding that gives considerable power to the three founders, which makes Alphabet less like a vanilla conglomerate and more like the kind of widely diversified pyramidal holding company common around the world but essentially illegal in the United States.
| Dick Langlois |
I joked in a comment on Peter’s last post about naming classes of articles after fairy-tale (or is it Disney?) characters. Is there a Disney moniker for a work that keeps getting reinvented? As I get older, I think about this more often, and I’m probably entering the dread legacy-protection phase of my career.
This came to mind because I happened upon an interesting paper from Nick Argyres and Todd Zenger, which has been out for a while but which I hadn’t seen. The authors propose to synthesize capabilities theory and transaction-cost economics. A worthy goal. Except that Paul Robertson and I did this twenty years ago. Argyres and Zenger point out, as Paul and I did, that neither capabilities alone nor transaction-costs alone can explain the boundaries of the firm. They settle on an account in which firms integrate because of strong complementarities among assets that create hold-up problems if accessed through markets. Their example is Disney’s relationship with and eventual acquisition of Pixar. (I know! A work that gets constantly reinvented is a Buzz Lightyear!) Far from being a general theory of capabilities and transaction costs, however, this is a special case of the general theory Paul and I proposed. We talked specifically about this kind of case (see especially pp. 38-40), which we called the appropriability variant of our account, associated with Teece (1986), to distinguish it from the entrepreneurial variant. In the entrepreneurial variant, firms integrate into complementary activities because of the dynamic transaction costs of using markets. Argyres and Zenger cite my 1992 ICC paper on dynamic transaction costs, but they make it out to be a claim that capabilities alone can explain vertical integration, which is of course the opposite of what the article actually says. They offer the gnomic remark that my definition of dynamic transaction costs “mirrors that of Williamsonian transaction costs.” But isn’t that the point? They really are transaction costs, and you can’t explain vertical integration without transaction costs. I’m sure there are a lot cases like Pixar out there, and I have certainly never denied that hold-up threats are sometimes a cause of vertical integration. But as I learn more about the history of vertical integration as part of the Corporation and the Twentieth Century manuscript I’m now working on, dynamic transaction costs are on the whole much more important than hold-up threats. (Also extremely important is government policy, which is really the point of this new project.) I’m sorry this sounds a bit negative, since the Argyres and Zenger paper really is a terrific article that is right-headed and develops the appropriability variant in much more depth than Paul and I did in our quick sketch.
Another paper that reinvented (and significantly extended) Langlois and Robertson (1995) is Jacobides and Winter (2005). Of course, I can’t very well criticize Sid Winter, since the whole idea of dynamic transaction costs came out of my effort in the 80s and 90s to apply Nelson and Winter (as well as Coase) to the problem of the boundaries of the firm, something that Nelson and Winter themselves had not then gotten around to.
| Peter Klein |
Last weekend the Ronald Coase Institute held a conference, “The Next Generation of Discovery: Research and Policy Change Inspired by Ronald Coase.” The impressive lineup featured Kenneth Arrow, Oliver Williamson, Gary Libecap, Sam Peltzman, John Nye, Claude Menard, Ning Wang, Lee and Alexandra Benham, Mary Shirley, and many others. The Institute has now made both days of the program available on video. Great stuff.
| Peter Klein |
Thanks to Danny Sokol for passing on this paper by Alan Meese.
Alan J. Meese
Antitrust Law Journal 79, no. 3 (2014)
This essay, prepared for a conference examining Robert Bork’s antitrust contributions, examines Bork’s hitherto unknown role in the transaction cost economics (“TCE”) revolution. The essay recounts how, in 1966, Bork helped rediscover Coase’s 1937 article, The Nature of the Firm and employed Coase’s reasoning to explain how various forms of partial integration could reduce transaction costs. As the essay shows, Bork described how exclusive territories, customer restrictions and horizontal minimum price fixing that accompanied otherwise valid integration were voluntary efforts to overcome the costs of relying upon unfettered markets to conduct economic activity. To be sure, Bork did not develop a complete account of TCE capable of informing a full-fledged research program. Nonetheless, Bork did articulate and apply various tools of TCE, tools that reflected departures from the applied price theory tradition of industrial organization.
The essay also offers some brief speculation regarding why scholars have not recognized Bork’s early contributions to TCE. For one thing, Bork did not purport to offer a new economic paradigm. Instead, Bork repeatedly characterized his work as an application of basic price theory, the very economic paradigm that TCE overthrew with respect to the interpretation of non-standard contracts. Moreover, Bork did not persist in his critique of price theory’s once-dominant account of non-standard contracts. After reiterating his views in 1968, for instance, he did not revisit the economics of non-standard agreements for nearly a decade. Finally, when Bork did return to the topic, he deemphasized TCE-based arguments and focused more on the claim that such agreements could not add to the market power already possessed by manufacturers and thus could not produce economic harm. In short, Bork’s failure to reiterate his TCE-based interpretation of non-standard agreements seems partly responsible for the lack of recognition his early contributions have received.
On Bork see also Jack High’s useful 1984 paper, “Bork’s Paradox: Static vs. Dynamic Efficiency in Antitrust Analysis.”
| 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.
| Peter Klein |
Should academic work be classified primarily by discipline, or by problem? Within disciplines, do we start with theory versus application, micro versus macro, historical versus contemporary, or something else? Of course, there may be no single “optimal” classification scheme, but how we think about organizing research in our field says something about how we view the nature, contributions, and problems in the field.
There’s a very interesting discussion of this subject in the History of Economics Playground blog, focusing on the evolution of the Journal of Economic Literature codes used by economists (parts 1, 2, and 3). I particularly liked Beatrice Cherrier’s analysis of the AEA’s decision to drop “theory” as a separate category. The Machlup–Hutchison–Rothbard exchange helps establish the context.
[T]he seemingly administrative task of devising new categories threw AEA officials, in particular AER editor Bernard Haley and former AER interim editor Fritz Machlup, into heated debates over the nature and relationships of theoretical and empirical work.
Machlup campaigned for a separate “Abstract Economic Theory” top category. At the time of the revision, he was engaged in methodological work, striving to find a third way between Terence Hutchison’s “ultraempiricism,” and the “extreme a priorism” of his former mentor, Ludwig Von Mises (see Blaug, ch.4). He believed it was possible to differentiate between “fundamental (heuristic) hypotheses, which are not independently testable,” and “specific (factual) assumptions, which are supposed to correspond to observed facts or conditions.” The former was found in Keynes’s General Theory, and the latter in his Treatise on Money, Machlup explained. He thus proposed that empirical analysis be classified independently, under two categories: “Quantitative Research Techniques” and “Social Accounting, Measurements, and Numerical Hypotheses” (e.g., census data, expenditure surveys, input-output matrices, etc.). On the contrary, Haley wanted every category to cover the theoretical and empirical work related to a given subject matter. In his view, separating them was impossible, even meaningless: “Is there any theory that is not abstract? And, for that matter, is there any economic theory worth its salt that is not applied,” he teased Machlup. Also, he wanted to avoid the idea that “class 1 is theory, the rest are applied … How about monetary theory, international trade theory, business cycle theory?” He accordingly designed the top category to encompass price theory, but also statistical demand analysis, as well as “both theoretical and empirical studies of, e.g., the consumption function [and] economic growth models of the Harrod-Domar variety,” among other subjects. He eschewed any “theory” heading, which he replaced with titles such as “Price system; National Income Analysis.” His scheme eventually prevailed, but “theory” was reinstated in the title of the contentious category.
| Peter Klein |
Russ Coff has assembled an impressive list of syllabi and reading lists for PhD courses in strategy, innovation, research methods, and related subjects. Feel free to send him additional suggestions. Many useful references here for faculty and students teaching or taking these courses, and for anybody wishing to learn more about classic and contemporary literature in strategic management research.