Posts filed under ‘Public Policy / Political Economy’

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

Notes on Inequality

| Peter Klein |

Everyone’s talking about inequality. I confess don’t find inequality terribly interesting, intrinsically. Of course, inequality that results from special government privilege — the incomes of top executives at Lockheed Martin or Goldman Sachs, the speaking fees earned by Hillary Clinton, the wealth of US sugar farmers — should be analyzed and criticized, and those privileges removed. Firm policies that result in pay differentials — pay-for-performance schemes, for example — are important and interesting, not because they generate inequality per se, but because they have systematic and significant effects on firm behavior and performance. Of course, inequality may have important long-run social and cultural effects, but these are highly speculative and not obviously actionable.

I haven’t yet read Thomas Piketty’s new book but am aware of — and amazed by — the buzz it’s generating. I suspect most of the excitement reflects confirmation bias: people who think inequality is the major issue of our time naturally think this is the most important economics book of the decade, probably before reading it. (Naturally, I’d love to exploit that formula in marketing my own books.)

I do have a few thoughts on how the discussion is framed, in light of Piketty’s work. First, Piketty and his admirers define “capital” as a homogeneous, liquid pool of funds, not a heterogeneous stock of capital assets. This is not merely a terminological issue, as those familiar with the debates on capital theory from the 1930s and 1940s are well aware. Piketty’s approach focuses on the quantity of capital and, more importantly, the rate of return on capital. But these concepts make little sense from the perspective of Austrian capital theory, which emphasizes the complexity, variety, and quality of the economy’s capital structure. There is no way to measure the quantity of capital, nor would such a number be meaningful. The value of heterogeneous capital goods depends on their place in an entrepreneur’s subjective production plan. Production is fraught with uncertainty. Entrepreneurs acquire, deploy, combine, and recombine capital goods in anticipation of profit, but there is no such thing as a “rate of return on invested capital.” (more…)

23 April 2014 at 10:32 am 19 comments

Cheating and Public Service

| Dick Langlois |

Everyone knows that people who want to go into government jobs have high pro-social preferences and impeccable honesty. Well, not so in India, according to Rema Hanna from the Kennedy School at Harvard, who spoke in our department seminar series Friday. Here is the abstract:

In this paper, we demonstrate that university students who cheat on a simple task in a laboratory setting are more likely to state a preference for entering public service. Importantly, we also show that cheating on this task is predictive of corrupt behavior by real government workers, implying that this measure captures a meaningful propensity towards corruption. Students who demonstrate lower levels of prosocial preferences in the laboratory games are also more likely to prefer to enter the government, while outcomes on explicit, two-player games to measure cheating and attitudinal measures of corruption do not systematically predict job preferences. We find that a screening process that chooses the highest ability applicants would not alter the average propensity for corruption among the applicant pool. Our findings imply that differential selection into government may contribute, in part, to corruption. They also emphasize that screening characteristics other than ability may be useful in reducing corruption, but caution that more explicit measures may offer little predictive power.

I wonder what her colleagues at the Kennedy School think of this. Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what your country can do for you.

24 February 2014 at 6:09 pm 3 comments

CFP: Coase Memorial Issue of Man and the Economy

| Peter Klein |

An important announcement from Ning Wang, editor of Man and the Economy:

Man and the Economy
Call for Papers for a Special Issue in Memory of Ronald Coase

“R. H. Coase: The Man and His Ideas”

Man and the Economy will devote a special issue (December 2014) to the life and ideas of Ronald Coase, the 1991 Nobel Laureate in Economics and Founding Editor of this journal. During his long academic life, Coase devoted himself to economics, which, in his view, should investigate how the real world economy works, with all its imperfections. Coase viewed and practiced economics as a social science, a study of man creating wealth in society through various institutional arrangements. To honor the memory of Coase, we welcome original research articles that extend and develop the Coasian economics, including empirical studies of the structure of production and exchange. We also welcome critical and constructive commentaries that clarify and elaborate the Coasian themes, from a law-and-economics/new institutional economics perspective, which include, but not limited to, topics on transaction costs, property rights, theories of the firm and China’s economic transformation. In addition, we also welcome personal reflections and reminiscences of Coase as a colleague, a teacher, an editor, and/or a friend.

Submissions must be made online via the Journal’s website:

Deadline for submissions is September 30, 2014.

12 February 2014 at 8:51 am Leave a comment

Business Groups in the US

| Peter Klein |

Diversification continues to be a central issue for strategic management, industrial organization, and corporate finance. There are huge research and practitioner literatures on why firms diversify, how diversification affects financial, operating, and innovative performance, what underlies inter-industry relatedness, how diversification ties into other aspects of firm strategy and organization, whether diversification is driven by regulation or other policy choices, and so on. There are many surveys of these literatures (Lasse and I contributed this one).

Some of the most interesting research deals with the institutional environment. For example, many US corporations were widely diversified in the 1960s and 1970s when the brokerage industry was small and protected by tough legal restrictions on entry, antitrust policy frowned on vertical and horizontal growth (maybe), and a volatile macroeconomic environment encouraged internalization of inter-firm transactions (also maybe). After the brokerage industry was deregulated in 1975, the antitrust environment became more relaxed, and the market for corporate control heated up, many conglomerates were restructured into more efficient, specialized firms. To quote myself:

The investment community in the 1960s has been described as a small, close-knit group wherein competition was minimal and peer influence strong (Bernstein, 1992). As Bhide (1990, p. 76) puts it, “internal capital markets … may well have possessed a significant edge because the external markets were not highly developed. In those days, one’s success on Wall Street reportedly depended far more on personal connections than analytical prowess.” When capital markets became more competitive in the 1970s, the relative importance of internal capital markets fell. “This competitive process has resulted in a significant increase in the ability of our external capital markets to monitor corporate performance and allocate resources” (Bhide, 1990, p. 77). As the cost of external finance has fallen, firms have tended to rely less on internal finance, and thus the value added from internal-capital-market allocation has fallen. . . .

Similarly, corporate refocusing can be explained as a consequence of the rise of takeover by tender offer rather than proxy contest, the emergence of new financial techniques and instruments like leveraged buyouts and high-yield bonds, and the appearance of takeover and breakup specialists like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which themselves performed many functions of the conglomerate headquarters (Williamson, 1992). A related literature looks at the relative importance of internal capital markets in developing economies, where external capital markets are limited (Khanna and Palepu 1999, 2000).

The key reference is to Amar Bhide’s 1990 article “Reversing Corporate Diversification,” which deserves to be better known. But note also the pointer to Khanna and Palepu’s important work on diversified business groups in emerging markets, which has also led to a vibrant empirical literature. The idea there is that weak institutions lead to poorly performing capital and labor markets, leading firms to internalize functions that would otherwise be performed between firms. More generally, firm strategy and organization varies systematically with the institutional environment, both over time and across countries and regions.

Surprisingly, diversified business groups were also common in the US, in the early 20th century, which brings me (finally) to the point of this post. A new NBER paper by Eugene Kandel, Konstantin Kosenko, Randall Morck, and Yishay Yafeh studies these groups and reaches some interesting and provocative conclusions. Check it out:

Business Groups in the United States: A Revised History of Corporate Ownership, Pyramids and Regulation, 1930-1950

Eugene Kandel, Konstantin Kosenko, Randall Morck, Yishay Yafeh
NBER Working Paper No. 19691, December 2013

The extent to which business groups ever existed in the United States and, if they did exist, the reasons for their disappearance are poorly understood. In this paper we use hitherto unexplored historical sources to construct a comprehensive data set to address this issue. We find that (1) business groups, often organized as pyramids, existed at least as early as the turn of the twentieth century and became a common corporate form in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly in public utilities (e.g., electricity, gas and transportation) but also in manufacturing; (2) In contrast with modern business groups in emerging markets that are typically diversified and tightly controlled, many US groups were focused in a single sector and controlled by apex firms with dispersed ownership; (3) The disappearance of US business groups was largely complete only in 1950, about 15 years after the major anti-group policy measures of the mid-1930s; (4) Chronologically, the demise of business groups preceded the emergence of conglomerates in the United States by about two decades and the sharp increase in stock market valuation by about a decade, so that a causal link between these events is hard to establish, although there may well be a connection between them. We conclude that the prevalence of business groups is not inconsistent with high levels of investor protection; that US corporate ownership as we know it today evolved gradually over several decades; and that policy makers should not expect policies that restrict business groups to have an immediate effect on corporate ownership.

12 December 2013 at 11:40 am Leave a comment

ISNIE 2014

| Peter Klein |

logoThe ISNIE 2014 Call for Papers is now available. The conference is at Duke University, 19-21 June 2014, home of President-Elect and Program Committee Chair John de Figueiredo. Bob Gibbons and Timur Kuran are keynote speakers. ISNIE is one of our favorite conferences, so please consider submitting a proposal! Submissions are due 30 January 2014.

3 December 2013 at 10:04 am Leave a comment

Recent Videos from Top Business Professors

| Peter Klein |

Michael Porter: “Why Business Can Be Good at Solving Social Problems”

Costas Markides: “Strategy Is about Making Choices”

Clayton Christensen: “Disruptive Innovation”

22 October 2013 at 9:26 am 1 comment

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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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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).
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