Posts filed under ‘Jargon Watch’

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

What Are “Transaction Costs” Anyway?

| Peter Klein |

A friend complains that management and entrepreneurship scholarship is confused about the concept of transaction costs. Authors rarely give explicit definitions. They conflate search costs, bargaining costs, measurement costs, agency costs, enforcement costs, etc. No one distinguishes between Coase’s, Williamson’s, and North’s formulations. “Transaction costs seem to be whatever the author wants them to be to justify the argument.”

It’s a fair point, and it applies to economics (and other social sciences and professional fields) too. I remember being asked by a prominent economist, back when I was a PhD student writing under Williamson, why transaction costs “don’t simply go to zero in the long run.” Indeed, contemporary organizational economics mostly uses terms like “contracting costs,” and since 1991 Williamson  has tended to use “maladaptation costs” (while retaining the term “transaction cost economics”).

When I teach transaction costs I typically assign Doug Allen’s excellent 2000 essay from the Encyclopedia of Law and Economics and Lee and Alexandra Benhams’ more recent survey from my Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics (unfortunately gated). Doug, for example, usefully distinguishes between a “neoclassical approach,” in which transaction costs are the costs of exchanging well-defined property rights, and a “property-rights approach,” in which transaction costs are the costs of defining and enforcing property rights.

What other articles, chapters, and reviews would you suggest to help clarify the definition and best use of the “transaction costs”? Or should we avoid the term entirely in favor of narrower and more precise words and phrases?

6 February 2014 at 12:28 pm 17 comments

Postrel on Dynamic Capabilities

| Peter Klein |

Former guest blogger Steve Postrel weighs in on the future of the dynamic capabilities approach (reprinted, with permission, from a thread on Steve responds to the question, “Is the dynamic capabilities approach outdated?” with some typical insightful remarks.

Since DC is primarily an ex post facto construct measured by sampling on the dependent variable — i.e., if the firm successfully adapts, then it had DC — its prominence is not a sign that it is doing much intellectual work. . . .

[T]o a first approximation, arguments for the importance of DC have tended to be of the form “We know a priori that firms need to be able to change their operational capabilities from time to time; we have examples of successful firms that have adapted in this way and examples of less-successful firms that haven’t; therefore we can say that the successful adapters had more of this valuable thing we will call ‘dynamic capability.'”

Certainly there have been empirical papers that do better than that, by, for example, trying to look at firms that have adapted multiple times, or by identifying specific organizational structures and practices that might enhance adaptability. The difficult issue with looking at a “precursor” like experience is that theoretically experience could reduce DC by causing specialization and lock-in. Other putative precursors suffer from the ex post measurement problem — how do we know if a firm has the right knowledge for adaptation until we see whether it succeeds?

I suspect there are also deeper conceptual problems because DC is equivocal even with perfect measurement. It would be pretty hard to specify what one meant by the “amount” of DC a firm has or to compare the “amounts” that any two firms have. DC is certainly not a completely ordering relation and I’m not sure it’s even a partial order. Without presenting formal models and going back and forth between those and peoples’ intuition about what DC is “supposed” to mean, however, one really can’t pin these problems down enough to tell if they are serious. . . . (more…)

10 December 2013 at 9:42 am 3 comments

Critical Agrifood Scholarship

| Peter Klein |

A friend tipped me off to this, um, interesting paper on farmers markets, which the authors place within the larger field of “critical agrifood scholarship.” We all know what “critical” means, and I’m familiar with much of the agrifood literature, but I didn’t know about this particular field. I learned a lot from the paper about the slow-food movement’s ability to “create political transformation,” and build a “radicalized space” even though such markets “cluster around property and privilege.” The authors seek to “unpack the racialized and class-inflected narratives at play in farmers markets [and] to extend the alternative agriculture movement’s strategic rupturing of the veil of commodity fetishism to include the systemic inequalities on which both conventional and alternative agriculture depend.” How about that thesis statement! In passing, the authors manage to chide the slow-food movement’s “complacency with capitalism and consumerism, systems that are inherently exploitative and divisive,” while adding editorial remarks to such important scientific phenomena as “the working class performances of ‘god, guns and country’ that fill the rhetoric of the GOP.”

Thank goodness for taxpayer-subsided universities. If there were a free market for higher education, this kind of valuable scholarship would probably be grossly underfunded.

20 April 2013 at 1:32 am 4 comments

No Best Practice for Best Practice

| Lasse Lien |

An important selling point for the consulting industry is that consultants can presumably help a firm identify and implement “best practice.” Surely the consulting industry is an important channel for disseminating knowledge of better ways of doing things, but identifying what constitutes best practice for a given firm in a given situation is no trivial task, and even if the best practice could be identified, transferring it will be a significant challenge.

This begs the question of whether there is a best practice for identification and transfer of best practices, and whether the consulting industry has identified and adopted such a practice. According to this paper Benjamin Wellstein and Alfred Kieser, the consulting industry in Germany is nowhere near a best practice for best practice. This goes for for both inter- and intra-industry transfer. I’ll bet my hat that this finding holds everywhere.

Well, I guess as long as the consulting industry keeps finding better practices for transferring better practices, we shouldn’t be too disappointed that there is no best practice for best practice. (HT: E.S. Knudsen)

20 April 2012 at 4:56 am 4 comments

What Did Keynes Mean by “Animal Spirits”?

| Peter Klein |

Keynes’s idea that investors are motivated by “animal spirits” has come back into vogue with the recent Keynesian revival, but the term is often misunderstood. Keynes referred not to psychological factors that make investors reluctant to invest, but those that make them invest at all — in the face of deep uncertainty, he thought, only a manic, driven, strong-willed person would put capital at risk. When animal spirits are strong, investment is sufficient to maintain aggregate demand; when they lag, aggregate demand falls, and the economy lapses into depression. (Lord Skidelsky approvingly calls this the “mood swings theory” of business cycles — an idea just crazy enough to spawn a recent NBER paper.)

The new issue of Capitalism and Society features a piece on What Keynes Really Meant on this issue, and it’s a good read:

Animal Spirits Revisited

Alexander Dow, Glasgow Caledonian University
Sheila C. Dow, University of Stirling

The term ‘animal spirits’ has returned to academic and public discourse in a way which departs significantly from the original use of the term by Keynes. The new behavioural economics literature uses the term to refer to a range of behaviour which falls outside what is normally understood as rational. This treatment follows from the mainstream dichotomisation between rationality and irrationality. However, Keynes explained that, given fundamental uncertainty, rationality alone was insufficient to justify action. Animal spirits was the name he gave to the (psychological) urge to action which explained decisions being taken in spite of uncertainty; animal spirits for him were neither rational nor irrational. Nor are they beyond analysis. We explore how the nature and role of animal spirits can vary according to context (as between different sectors, types of firm and within firms). This analysis indicates ways in which policy can promote structural change to strengthen animal spirits in the long term as well as offset short-term weakening in animal spirits.

20 December 2011 at 9:39 am 1 comment


| Peter Klein |

An interesting example of scholars in different fields using the same specialized terms to mean entirely different things:

Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach

In this powerful critique, Martha Nussbaum argues that our dominant theories of [economic] development have given us policies that ignore our most basic human needs for dignity and self-respect. For the past twenty-five years, Nussbaum has been working on an alternate model to assess human development: the Capabilities Approach. She and her colleagues begin with the simplest of questions: What is each person actually able to do and to be? What real opportunities are available to them?

Creating Capabilities . . . affords anyone interested in issues of human development a wonderfully lucid account of the structure and practical implications of an alternate model. It demonstrates a path to justice for both humans and nonhumans, weighs its relevance against other philosophical stances, and reveals the value of its universal guidelines even as it acknowledges cultural difference. In our era of unjustifiable inequity, Nussbaum shows how — by attending to the narratives of individuals and grasping the daily impact of policy — we can enable people everywhere to live full and creative lives.

One reviewer suggests the term “capabilitarianism” to describe this approach. Will we soon see management journal special issues on capabilitarianism and dynamic capabilitarianism? Felin and Foss critiques on the lack of microfoundations in capabilitarianism? Calls to join capabilitarianism and transaction costarianism?

4 October 2011 at 5:26 am 2 comments

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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).


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