Archive for May, 2006

“The Train Wreck That Is Strategy” and Game Theory

| Nicolai Foss |

In a comment on my co-blogger’s post of yesterday, a commentator argues that there is no real alternative to formalism, and then provokingly continues:

If you need any demonstration of the need for formalism in theory-building within the social sciences, take a look at the train wreck that is Strategy. As we are discovering using formal methods, most of what passes for foundational theory in strategy is wrong.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain what exactly he means by “foundational theory in strategy” and why it is “wrong.”

I think that formalization is definitely an important goal of social science research and is worth striving for (See Patrick Suppes’ very convincing argument on the “desirability of formalization in science”). Formalization certainly also makes life easier in a number of ways. For example, in my teaching I have found it literally impossible to convey what agency theory is fundamentally about without using game theory.

However, what may be at issue is exactly how important it is and, in connection to this, whether the practice of building formal theory per se should occupy the highest position in the reputational hieararchy of economics. (more…)

23 May 2006 at 1:34 pm 10 comments

Formal Economic Theory: Beautiful but Useless?

| Peter Klein |

Greg Mankiw, reflecting on the "poetry" of Paul Romer's growth theory, offers this assessment of modern, mathematical, neoclassical economic theory: "Too much of it is beautiful but useless."

Let's leave beauty in the eye of the beholder, for now, and focus on the second part of Mankiw's description. How much has formal, mathematical economic theory contributed to our understanding of the world? What economic phenomena do we understand better today than we did, say, before World War II, when the principal language of English-speaking economists was, well, English? (more…)

22 May 2006 at 1:22 pm 8 comments

Passion, Blogging, and Manuel Castells

| Nicolai Foss |

It seems that one of the functions of blogging is to allow people to exercise the passion that they cannot exercise anymore in the writing they do for journals (I have to mention, however, that my co-blogger and I were recently taken to task by a journal reviewer for not exhibiting sufficient “passion and excitement” in the conclusion part of a joint paper).

Look at the econ journals prior to World War II. Plenty of flames and shouting. Admittedly, much of it unproductive, but highly entertaining (e.g., check out John Maynard Keynes’ wildly hysterical, over-the-top review of Hayek’s Prices and Production in Economica 1932; discussed in this book. Of Hayek’s gloomy book, Keynes said: “The abyss yawns — and so do I”).

Whatever the scientific merits of the average paper in the Econometrica or the Journal of Economic Theory, one is not exactly struck by the level of “passion and excitement” that they project. (more…)

21 May 2006 at 8:53 am Leave a comment

Natural and Artificial States, and Firms

| Peter Klein |

Among the last published papers of the libertarian polymath Murray N. Rothbard — one of my intellectual heroes — is his 1994 article “Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State.” Here Rothbard distinguishes sharply between the state, as a political entity, and the nation, a “complex and varying constellation of different forms of communities, languages, ethnic groups, or religions.” He goes on to develop a theory of appropriate national boundaries, based on the principle of volunary association and the empirical claim that people tend to associate with particular familial, linguistic, cultural, and religious groups. “One goal for libertarians should be to transform existing nation-states into national entities whose boundaries could be called just, in the same sense that private property boundaries are just; that is, to decompose existing coercive nation-states into genuine nations, or nations by consent.”

A March 2006 working paper by Alberto Alesina, William Easterly, and Janina Matuszeski, “Artificial States,” proposes several measures of the degree to which state boundaries are “natural” — corresponding roughly to Rothbard’s nations — or “artificial.” One measure identifies state borders that split ethnic groups into separate states, while another uses fractal geometry to characterize borders as straight or squiggly, assuming that straight borders are more likely to be articifially drawn and not corresponding to natural geographic or ethnic boundaries. The authors show that their measures are closely correlated with the usual measures of national economic performance (the more natural, the better).

What does all this have to do with organizations? The capabilities literature distinguishes between firm boundaries that are “natural,” or organic, and those that are artificially constructed. (more…)

19 May 2006 at 4:28 pm 4 comments

Multi-Culturality and Economic Organization

| Nicolai Foss |

Transaction cost scholars have increasingly become interested in the way economic organization is shaped by the “institutional environment,” for example, how the legal regime impacts internal organization or the boundaries of the firm (e.g., this paper). A paper that seems to have stimulated much of this is Oliver Williamson’s 1991 paper on “Comparative Economic Organization.”

To my knowledge relatively little interest has been devoted to the how the softer rules of the game, notably those that may be placed under a “culture” heading may impact economic organization, although quite some research in international business has dealt with this (e.g., this paper).

As far as I know no research has dealt with the implications of “multi-culturality” within a given territory for economic organization. (more…)

19 May 2006 at 4:10 pm 10 comments

Capabilities as Compensation

| Peter Klein |

Lots of blogospheric buzz today about this paper on local production externalities and researcher compensation (Mankiw, Caplan). The paper examines output and pay for economics and finance professors and concludes that the productivity effect of being at an “elite” university — i.e., having daily personal contact with top-notch colleagues and students — has fallen sharply over the last three decades. (Advances in information technology are seen as the likely cause.) Moreover, as compensation theory would predict, these spillover effects and faculty salaries appear to be substitutes; as the intangible benefits of co-location decrease, universities must increase wages to retain top staff.

The empirical approach used in the paper has obvious applications to the knowledge-management and capabilities literatures more generally. To the extent that the firm’s capabilities are consumed by employees — XYZ Company is an exciting, dynamic, enjoyable place to work — the firm should be able to pay lower wages, other things equal. Using panel data and fixed effects it should be possible, econometrically, to estimate firm-specific capabilities that are reflected in below-market wages. I’m not aware of any capabilities or knowledge-management papers that utilize this approach, however. Am I wrong?

18 May 2006 at 12:49 pm 1 comment

Those Right-Wing Economists

| Peter Klein |

Several posts below allude to arguments by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Sumantra Ghoshal, and others that economic models and concepts (agency problems, transaction costs, opportunism, and the like) are taking management theory in the wrong direction and are harmful to management practice. A subtext of these arguments is that economists are ideologically biased toward the free market, against community and informal social ties, and toward cynical, atomistic, and even “reactionary” views of human nature. (Even if we’re not actually dismal.)

Surveys of economists’ political preferences reveal a more complex picture, however. A forthcoming article in Public Choice by Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern analyzes a 2003 American Economic Association member survey:

The responses show that most economists are supporters of safety regulations, gun control, redistribution, public schooling, and anti-discrimination laws. They are evenly mixed on personal choice issues, military action, and the minimum wage. Most economists oppose tighter immigration controls, government ownership of enterprise and tariffs. In voting, the Democratic:Republican ratio is 2.5:1.

A Democratic-to-Republican ratio of only 2.5 to 1 may seem shockingly low to our colleagues in sociology or cultural studies, but hardly seems to indicate pervasive “right-wing” bias.

17 May 2006 at 9:34 am 16 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).
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).