Posts filed under ‘History of Economic and Management Thought’

The Use of History in Management Research and Education

| Peter Klein |

Another book recommendation, also courtesy of EH.Net. The book is Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods (Oxford University Press, 2014), edited by Marcelo Bucheli and R. Daniel Wadhwani. (Bucheli is author of an excellent book on the United Fruit Company.) Organizations in Time is about of the use of history in management research and education. Perhaps surprisingly, the field of business history is not usually part of the business school curriculum. In the US at least, business historians are typically affiliated with history or economics departments, not management departments or other parts of the business school. EH.Net reviewer Andrew Smith notes the following:

Until the 1960s, economic history and business history had an important place in business school teaching and research.  Many management scholars then decided to emulate research models developed in the hard sciences, which led to history becoming marginal in most business schools. History lost respect among positivistic management academics because historians made few broad theoretical claims, rarely discussed their research methodologies, and did not explicitly identify their independent and dependent variables. Historians in management schools became, effectively, disciplinary guests in their institutions.

The period from 2008 to the present has witnessed a revival of interest in history on the part of consumers of economic knowledge in a variety of academic disciplines, not to mention society as a whole. . . . It is now widely recognized that there needs to be more history in business school research and teaching. However, as Marcelo Bucheli and Dan Wadhwani note in the introductory essay, this apparent consensus obscures a lack of clarity about what a “historic turn” would, in practice, involve (p. 5).

This volume argues that the historic turn cannot simply be about going to the historical record to gather data points for the testing of various social-scientific theories, which is what scholars such as Reinhart and Rogoff do. Rather than being yet another device for allowing the quantitative social sciences to colonize the past, the historic turn should involve the adoption of historical methods by other management school academics. At the very least, people in the field of organization studies should borrow more tools from the historian’s toolkit.

Read the book (or at least the review) to learn more about these tools and approaches, which involve psychology, embeddedness, path dependence, and other concepts familiar to O&M readers.

23 July 2014 at 7:59 am Leave a comment

More Pioneers of Entrepreneurship Research

| Peter Klein |

Besides the essay on Mark Casson discussed below, the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal has released forthcoming profiles of Ian MacMillan (by Rita McGrath), Arnold Cooper (by Tim Folta), and Steve Klepper (by Rajshree Agarwal and Serguey Braguinsky), as part of its series on “Research Pioneers.”

2 July 2014 at 10:42 am Leave a comment

The Paradox of the New Economic History

| Peter Klein |

MIT’s Peter Temin on the “paradox of the New Economic History,” from his keynote speech to the BETA-Workshop in Historical Economics (published as an NBER working paper):

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.”

21 May 2014 at 11:55 am Leave a comment

The Piketty Code

| Dick Langlois |

I was trying to avoid jumping into the fray about Capital in the Twenty-First Century so as not to participate in the mania, as if throwing one more tiny ember into a wildfire would cause measurable additional damage. But I couldn’t resist after seeing an article entitled “How Thomas Piketty Explains American Sports.” Written by someone called Kevin Lincoln in a left-wing mag called Pacific Standard, the article discusses the NBA’s proposal to raise the minimum roster age from 19 to 20, thus reducing the number of one-and-done college players and depriving John Calipari of his livelihood. (Did I forget to mention that UConn won both men’s and women’s national championships this year?) Lincoln correctly points out that such a change is in the interest not only of the D-1 colleges, who get to keep their stars longer, but also of the NBA, since it offloads more player development to the colleges. Sounds perfectly reasonable – exactly the kind of analysis you would expect from, say, a free-market public-choice economist. What on earth does this have to do with Piketty?

The concept of “over-accumulation” was coined by economist David Hershey, and with the ascent of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century into bestsellerdom, it’s something that anyone with even a passing interest in economics is probably familiar with. In our current economy, actors who have gathered large amounts of capital tend to invest it in the creation of further capital for themselves rather than funneling it back into production. In turn, the economy stagnates, with the world’s financial resources concentrating in the hands of the rich with no money left over to raise wages for the working class.

Yes, this scheme will probably raise the wealth (a little) of NBA owners. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the accumulation of capital. For both owners and players, the NBA is all about people getting wealthy from entrepreneurial insight and scarce valuable skills — exactly contrary to Piketty’s predictions.

The author is obviously economically illiterate — how exactly can people “create further capital for themselves” without somehow “funneling it back into production”? Yet the fact that someone smart enough to write a free-lance article would connect the NBA to Piketty speaks, it seems to me, to what the Piketty phenomenon is all about. In my view, we should not be comparing Piketty with Marx or Keynes. We should be comparing him with Dan Brown. Like the Da Vinci Code, Capital is an otherwise unremarkable book that managed to put together a volatile mix of elements. Both books captured some kind of zeitgeist, of course, but they did so in a remarkably precise way. They rely on similar elements: a theory of how the world works that doesn’t stand up to minimal scrutiny but is easy to understand, seems to explain the mysterious and ineffable, and, most importantly, confirms the gut prejudices of its readers. Capital is not as much a conspiracy theory as the Da Vinci Code; it’s a nineteenth-century story about aggregate income shares. But it is also an empty-enough vessel into which readers (especially those who haven’t actually read it) can pour their own conspiracy theories. The NBA is the Opus Dei of capitalist sports.

While we’re on the subject, I also want to mention that, to my mild surprise, the best review of Piketty I have run across is by Larry Summers. He gathers together all the technical criticisms in many other reviews and then adds a few of his own. While he pats Piketty on the back for his wonderful interest in inequality, he leaves the theoretical claims in a tattered pile on the floor.

17 May 2014 at 1:10 pm 4 comments

A Note on “Human Capital”

| Peter Klein |

Like Peter Lewin, Walter Block, Mario Rizzo, and Peter Boettke, I greatly admire the late Gary Becker, a pioneer in many areas of economics and sociology, a strong proponent of economic and personal freedom, and by all accounts a terrific teacher, mentor, and colleague. But I confess that I have always had qualms about the concept of “human capital,” along with the analogous constructs of social capital, knowledge capital, reputation capital, and so on. These are metaphors for capital in the narrow sense, and I worry that the widespread use of “capital” to denote anything valuable and long-lived obscures important issues about actual, physical capital that can be divided up, measured, priced, and exchanged. Witness the confusion over “capital” as Thomas Piketty uses the term. Here is something I wrote before:

[O]ne of my pet peeves [is] the expansive use of “capital” to describe any ill-defined substance that accumulates and has value. Hence knowledge, experience, and skills become “human capital” or “knowledge capital”; relationships become “social capital”; brand names become “reputation capital”; and so on. I fear this terminology obfuscates more than it clarifies.

I don’t mind using these terms in a loose, colloquial sense: By going to school I’m investing in human capital or diversifying my stock of human capital; if this gets me a high-paying job I’m earning a good return on my human capital; as I get old I forget new things, so my human capital is depreciating rapidly; and so on.

But we shouldn’t take these metaphors too literally. In economic theory capital refers either to financial capital or to a stock of heterogeneous alienable assets, goods that can be exchanged in markets and analyzed using price theory. Their rental prices are determined by marginal revenue products and their purchase prices are given by the present discounted value of these future rents. Knowledge is not, strictly speaking, capital, because it is not traded in markets does not have a rental or purchase price. What markets trade and price is labor services, and it is impossible to decompose the payments to labor (wages) into separate “effort” and “rental return on human capital” components. Some labor services command a higher market price than others because they have a higher marginal revenue product. Some of this wage premium may be due to intelligence or experience, some due to complementarities with other human or nonhuman assets, some due to hard work, and so on. But these are all determinants of the MRP, and hence the wage, not different kinds of factor returns.

Moreover, the entrepreneur needs cardinal numbers to compute the value of his capital stock, to know if it is increasing or decreasing in value, and so on. I can’t measure my stock of human capital, I don’t know for sure if it is increasing or decreasing over time, I can’t calculate the ROI of a specific human-capital investment, etc., because there are no prices and no measurable units. Knowledge may be “like capital,” in the sense that it lasts, that you can add to it, that you benefit from it, etc., but it isn’t literally a capital good like a machine or a refrigerator.

If we think going to school is valuable and increases lifetime earnings, why don’t we just say, “going to school is valuable and increases lifetime earnings,” rather than, “there is a positive return on investments in human capital”? Is there a good reason to prefer the latter, besides scientism?

6 May 2014 at 9:18 am 8 comments

Gary Becker: A Personal Appreciation

[The following is from former guest blogger Peter Lewin, who wrote his PhD under Gary Becker at Chicago.]

| Peter Lewin |

Professor Gary Becker died yesterday at the age of 83. At the time of his death, he was arguably the most highly respected living economics scholar.

The blogosphere will soon be flooded with obituaries, appreciations, and evaluations of his work by people better placed than I to offer them. Given, however, that I was privileged to have been able to study with him for a short period of time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and that he acted as the chairman of my Ph.D. dissertation committee, I would like on the occasion of his passing to offer a few words of personal appreciation.

Becker will be remembered mostly for his work on human capital and the economics of the family. It is hard to overstate the influence of his contributions to these fields. Indeed, he pretty much created them — though one must not minimize the contributions of others early scholars like Simon Polacheck, and especially the independent and complementary work of Jacob Mincer.

By his own account, Becker came to these subjects through the influence of his mentor Milton Friedman whose approach led him to see economics as the study of people “in the ordinary business of life” (as Alfred Marshall would have it). But his first foray beyond the traditional borders of the subject was not in those subjects (human capital or the economics of the family) but rather in the economics of discrimination, a very volatile subject at the time. He literally wrote the book on The Economics of Discrimination (see also here). It seemed to him at the time that the conversation on civil rights and segregation was hopelessly confused by the lack of an understand of the social processes at work, an understanding that was accessible using the eternal principles of economics to investigate how people act on their preferences, whatever they are and whatever we may think of them. So he quite controversially investigated the likely results of economic processes in which people had given (race or gender) preferences and showed quite simply that, as long as people were free to act in open markets as employers, workers, or consumers, the act of discrimination would carry a price. For example, discriminator-employers who indulged their preferences who be outcompeted by those who hired the most qualified person for the job, and, in this way, open competition would tend to erode discriminatory outcomes (if not discriminatory attitudes). (more…)

4 May 2014 at 4:48 pm 10 comments

Gary S. Becker, 1930-2014

| Peter Klein |

Gary Becker died yesterday at the age of 83. Becker was a living legend of the Chicago school, and an active scholar, even chairing a current dissertation committee. Hayek called Becker “one of the most gifted men of the Chicago school” and “theoretically a more sophisticated thinker” than Milton Friedman or George Stigler.

Here are past O&M references to Becker, including Becker’s comments on organization theory in light of Williamson’s Nobel Prize. And here’s a short paper by me on T.W. Schultz’s human-capital approach to entrepreneurship, about which Becker showed little interest, despite his development of Schultz’s human-capital construct. Brian Loasby has a nice chapter on “Human Capital, Entrepreneurship, and the Theory of the Firm” in the Oxford Handbook of Human Capital, edited by Alan Burton‐Jones and our friend J.‐C. Spender (Becker’s foreword is online).

I attended the 1992 meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society, when Becker was president. Someone arranged for Becker to meet with me and the other graduate students. The sense among the student attendees was that MPS was becoming, under Becker’s leadership, too mainstream, respectable, and tame. Where were the radical libertarians, Austrians, and other free thinkers? As I recall, poor Becker was bombarded with a bunch of questions along these lines, which he handled kindly and gracefully. He had nothing but good things to say about Mises, Hayek, Hazlitt, and the other MPS founders. A fine gentleman.

A friend of mine was at Chicago in the 1990s when Becker was in his mid-60s and already a Nobel Laureate. Like most economists in the department, my friend went to the office and worked Saturdays and Sundays. Becker was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. “He’s not only the smartest person here,” I was told, “but the hardest worker!”

4 May 2014 at 2:19 pm 3 comments

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Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
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