Posts filed under ‘People’
| Peter Klein |
Armen Alchian’s friend and colleague Susan Woodward has a nice piece in a forthcoming Journal of Corporate Finance special issue on Alchian. Here are a few passages that may be of special interest to O&Mers:
Orley Ashenfelter asked Armen to write a book review of Oliver Williamson’s The Economic Institutions of Capitalism (such a brilliant title!). I got enlisted for that project too (Alchian and Woodward (1988)). Armen began writing, but I went back to reread Institutions of Capitalism. Armen gave me what he had written, and I was baffled. “Armen, this stuff isn’t in Williamson.” He asked, “Well, did he get it wrong?” I said, “No, it’s not that he got it wrong. These issues just aren’t there at all. You attribute these ideas to him, but they really come from our other paper.” And he said “Oh, well, don’t worry about that. Some historian will sort it out later. It’s a good place to promote these ideas, and they’ll get the right story eventually.” So, dear reader, now you know.
This from someone who spent his life discussing the efficiencies of private property and property rights—to basically give ideas away in order to promote them? It was a good lesson.
Of course, the book review also had a brilliant title: “The Firm is Dead: Long Live the Firm!” It also introduced the term “plasticity” as a not-quite-substitute for asset specificity. (I still prefer the more precise term relationship-specific investment.) And this:
Armen had no use for formal models that did not teach us to look somewhere new in the known world, nor had he any patience for findings that relied on fancy econometrics. What was Armen’s idea of econometrics? Merton Miller told me. We were chatting about limited liability. Merton asked about evidence. Well, all public firms with transferable shares now have limited liability. But in private, closely-held firms, loans nearly always explicitly specify which of the owner’s personal assets are pledged against bank loans. “How do you know?” “From conversations with bankers.” Merton said said, “Ah, this sounds like UCLA econometrics! You go to Armen Alchian and you ask, ‘Armen, is this number about right?’ And Armen says, ‘Yeah, that sounds right.’ So you use that number.”
| Dick Langlois |
I was saddened to learn that Masa Aoki passed away on July 15. He was only 77. Masa was a towering figure in the economics of institutions and organizations, and a true gentleman.
| Peter Klein |
This is actually Richard Epstein writing about Henry Manne, but Richard nicely captures the essence of Henry’s thinking:
The combination of law and economics is a major discipline in … modern law schools, but I do not think that it was always presented to Henry’s liking. In his view, the student’s purpose was to show the power of markets to overcome key problems of information and coordination, not to run a set of exhaustive empirical studies to show that corporate boards would function better if they increased their number of independent directors by 5 percent.
Other Manne items on O&M are here. As I noted in another post, Manne was expert in specific technical areas of law (most obviously, insider trading and corporate takeovers) but very much a generalist in his overall outlook. As Manne once recalled about a 1962 seminar led by Armen Alchian, “All of a sudden, everything that I had done intellectually for thirteen years came together, with this one idea of Alchian’s about the real nature of property rights and the Misesian notion of people making choices, with every choice being a tradeoff,” In other words, a simple and powerful theoretical framework goes a long way in analyzing a broad range of issues — much different from today’s emphasis on behavioral quirks, clever experiments, and similar minutiae.
| Peter Klein |
Congratulations to Henry Butler for being named Dean of the George Mason University School of Law. Henry has been director of GMU’s Law and Economics Center, and previously directed the Searle Center at Northwestern. In these roles he has been a prolific economic educator, following in the footsteps of his mentor Henry Manne (aka “Big Henry,” Henry Butler being “Little Henry”).
Younger readers may not know that Henry Butler is also a significant contributor to the early theoretical and empirical literature in transaction cost economics, particularly through two papers with Barry Baysinger, “Corporate Governance and the Board of Directors: Performance Effects of Changes in Board Composition” (JLEO, 1985) and “The Role of Corporate Law in the Theory of the Firm” (JLE, 1985). These papers argued that, contrary to a naive reading of the nexus-of-contracts literature on the firm, institutional constraints such as contract law do have an effect on firm organization and governance. One strand of the research literature on the firm, taking its cue from Alchian and Demsetz (1972) and Jensen and Meckling (1976), maintained that the legal structure of the firm is relatively unimportant for organization and performance, as market participants can simply price out, and contract around, any constraints imposed by the legal system. Baysinger and Butler, following Coase and Williamson, showed that legal rules, particularly those related to incorporation, do matter in the presence of transaction costs. Their work on boards showed that board structure and composition affect firm performance, while emphasizing that boards and other governance mechanisms including corporate law are interdependent.
| 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 |
Very sorry to report the passing of Henry Manne yesterday at the age of 86. Manne made seminal contributions to the literatures in corporate governance, securities regulation, higher education, and many other subjects. Here are past O&M posts on Manne and his contributions. I tried several times to get him to guest blog on O&M but couldn’t pull it off.
I got to know him fairly well in the last few years and he was a charming companion and correspondent — clever, witty, erudite, and a great social and cultural critic, especially of the strange world of academia, where he plied his trade for five decades but always as a slight outsider.
| Peter Klein |
As a second-year economics PhD student I took the field sequence in industrial organization. The primary text in the fall course was Jean Tirole’s Theory of Industrial Organization, then just a year old. I found it a difficult book — a detailed overview of the “new,” game-theoretic IO, featuring straightforward explanations and numerous insights and useful observations but shot through with brash, unsubstantiated assumptions and written in an extremely terse, almost smug style that rubbed me the wrong way. After all, game theory was supposed to add transparency and “rigor” to the analysis, bringing to light the hidden assumptions of the old-fashioned, verbal models, but Tirole combined math and ad hoc verbal asides in equal measure. (Sample statement: “The Coase theorem (1960) asserts that an optimal allocation of resources can always be achieved through market forces, irrespective of the legal liability assignment, if information is perfect and transactions are costless.” And then: “We conclude that the Coase theorem is unlikely to apply here and that selective government intervention may be desirable.”) Well, that’s the way formal theorists write and, if you know the code and read wisely, you can gain insight into how these economists think about things. Is it the best way to learn about real markets and real competition? Tirole takes it as self-evident that MIT-style theory is a huge advance over the earlier IO literature, which he characterizes as “the old oral tradition of behavioral stories.” He does not, to my knowledge, deal with the “new learning” of the 1960s and 1970s, associated mainly with Chicago economists (but also Austrian and public choice economists) that emphasized informational and incentive problems of regulators as well as firms.
Tirole is one of the most important economists in modern theoretical IO, public economics, regulation, and corporate finance, and it’s no surprise that the Nobel committee honored him with today’s prize. The Nobel PR team struggled to summarize his contributions for the nonspecialist reader (settling on the silly phrase that his work shows how to “tame” big firms) but you can find decent summaries in the usual places (e.g., WSJ, NYT, Economist) and sympathetic, even hagiographic treatments in the blogosphere (Cowen, Gans). By all accounts Tirole is a nice guy and an excellent teacher, as well as the first French economics laureate since Maurice Allais, so bully for him.
I do think Tirole-style IO is an improvement over the old structure-conduct-performance paradigm, which focused on simple correlations, rather than causal explanations and eschewed comparative institutional analysis, modeling regulators as omniscient, benevolent dictators. The newer approach starts with agency theory and information theory — e.g., modeling regulators as imperfectly informed principals and regulated firms as agents whose actions might differ from those preferred by their principals — and thus draws attention to underlying mechanisms, differences in incentives and information, dynamic interaction, and so on. However, the newer approach ultimately rests on the old market structure / market power analysis in which monopoly is defined as the short-term ability to set price above marginal cost, consumer welfare is measured as the area under the static demand curve, and so on. It’s neoclassical monopoly and competition theory on steroids, and hence side-steps the interesting objections raised by the Austrians and UCLA price theorists. In other words, the new IO focuses on more complex interactions while still eschewing comparative institutional analysis and modeling regulators as benevolent, albeit imperfectly informed, “social planners.”
As a student I found Tirole’s analysis extremely abstract, with little attention to how these theories might work in practice. Even Tirole’s later book with Jean-Jacques Laffont, A Theory of Incentives in Procurement and Regulation, is not very applied. But evidently Tirole has played a large personal and professional role in training and advising European regulatory bodies, so his work seems to have had a substantial impact on policy. (See, however, Sam Peltzman’s unflattering review of the 1989 Handbook of Industrial Organization, which complains that game-theoretic IO seems more about solving clever puzzles than understanding real markets.)