The Kaleidic Career

30 March 2007 at 12:19 am Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

Old-timers may remember Ludwig Lachmann’s metaphor of the kaleidoscope, popularized in his 1976 essay “From Mises to Shackle: An Essay on Austrian Economics and the Kaleidic Society” (Journal of Economic Literature 14, no. 1: 54-62). Lachmann borrowed the metaphor from G.L.S. Shackle, who wrote of a society “interspersing its moments or intervals of order, assurance and beauty with sudden disintegration and a cascade into a new pattern.” In this fundamentally disorderly system, Lachmann maintained, there are no systematic equilibrating tendencies. As Roger Garrison succinctly put it, “In a kaleidic world, one pattern of prices gives way to another, but there can be no claim that a given pattern is any closer to a general equilibrium, or represents any higher degree of coordination, than the one that preceded it.”

Personally, I find the kaleidic metaphor rather unhelpful. As I’ve noted before, I see the Kirzner-versus-Lachmann debate over the “tendency toward equilibrium” that dominated Austrian economics during the 1980s as a big distraction. The point is not whether markets actually converge to some kind of long-run equilibrium, but whether in the absence of any change in the underlying data prices would tend to converge toward “final” equilibrium values. The founding Austrians such as Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, and Mises thought the profit motive was sufficient to establish such tendencies, but they were not primarily interested in long-run equilibrium prices. Instead, they sought a framework for explaining the actual, day-to-day prices that unfold in historical time. (Look for a paper on this soon.)

Anyway, the kaleidic metaphor eventually fell out of favor with Austrian economists. But now it’s back, in the context of the “kaleidic career.”

From the current issue of the Academy of Management Perspectives (February 2007) I learn of Lisa Mainiero and Sherry Sullivan’s book The Opt-out Revolt: Why People are Leaving Companies to Create Kaleidoscope Careers. As defined by reviewer Yehuda Baruch:

A “Kaleidoscope Career” is created and evolved on the individual’s own terms, defined by the individual’s own values, life choices, and parameters, rather than by the corporation. As an individual’s life changes, his or her career pattern may alter to adjust to these changes rather than relinquishing control and allowing a corporation to dictate time and energy demands imposed by work. People amend, modify, and adjust (the kaleidoscope) the patterns of their careers by rotating the varied aspects of their lives in order to arrange their relationships and roles in new ways.

That sounds reasonable. But at some points the metaphor seems a bit strained:

Like a kaleidoscope that produces changing patterns when the tube is rotated and its glass chips fall into new arrangements, workers shift the pattern of their careers by rotating different aspects of their lives to arrange their roles and relationships in new ways. They evaluate the choices and options available through the lens of the kaleidoscope to determine the best fit among their many relationships, work constraints, and opportunities.

I haven’t read the book. I wonder if Lachmann or Shackle make the index?

NB: Amazon bundles the book with Pfeffer and Sutton’s book on evidence-based management. Not a good sign….

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Austrian Economics, Management Theory.

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