Archive for May, 2011

The Treasury Bill as Myth and Symbol

| Peter Klein |

My father was a historian and helped organize local events to commemorate the bicentennials of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 and Constitution in 1987. I particularly remember the Freedom Train, a traveling exhibit housing memorabilia such as original copies of the Declaration, Constitution, Louisiana Purchase, and (I learn from Wikipedia, though I don’t remember these) Judy Garland’s dress from the Wizard of Oz and Joe Frazier’s boxing trunks.

Several years later, my Dad gave a conference paper (unfortunately unpublished) on “The Constitution as Myth and Symbol.” He noted that for many Americans, the founding documents, along with the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, images of George Washington and Betsy Ross, etc., play the same kind of role as a Britain’s crown jewels, the Bastille, or Lenin’s tomb. The Constitution is important, in other words, not only for its text — some would argue the text is largely ignored today anyway — but for its symbolic value. It represents a particular myth of the American founding, usually associated with reason and noble ideals (Bernard Bailyn, Ayn Rand, Schoolhouse Rock) but occasionally with power or material self-interest (Charles Beard, Bertell Ollman).

In following the debates over raising the US debt ceiling I”m struck by the frequent claim that defaulting on public debt is unthinkable because of the “signal” that would send. If you can’t rely on the T-Bill, what can you rely on? Debt instruments backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States” are supposed to be risk-free, almost magically so, somehow transcending the vagaries of ordinary debt markets. The Treasury Bill, in other words, has become a myth and symbol, just like the Constitution.

I find this line of reasoning unpersuasive. A T-bill is a bond, just like any other bond. Corporations, municipalities, and other issuers default on bonds all the time, and the results are hardly catastrophic. Financial markets have been restructuring debt for many centuries, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it. From the discussion regarding T-bills you’d think no one had ever heard of default risk premia before. (Interestingly, this seems to be a case of American exceptionalism; people aren’t particularly happy about Greek, Irish, and Portuguese defaults but no one thinks the world will end because of them.) So, isn’t it time to de-mythologize all this? Treasuries are bonds just like any other bonds. There’s nothing magic, mythical, or sacred about them. A default on US government debt is no more or less radical than a default on any other kind of debt.

30 May 2011 at 8:59 pm 3 comments

Henry Manne on Entrepreneurship

| Peter Klein |

Important new paper by Henry Manne on entrepreneurship (Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Spring 2011). It won’t surprise you to know that Henry has a solution to the problem of encouraging entrepreneurial behavior among corporate managers: allow them to trade on inside information.

Entrepreneurship, Compensation, and the Corporation
Henry G. Manne

This paper revisits the concept of entrepreneurship, which is frequently neglected in mainstream economics, and discusses the importance of defining and isolating this concept in the context of large, publicly held companies. Compensating for entrepreneurial services in such companies, ex ante or ex post, is problematic — almost by definition — despite the availability of devices such as stock and stock options. It is argued that insider trading can serve as a unique compensation device and encourage a culture of innovation.

28 May 2011 at 4:06 pm 1 comment


| Peter Klein |

Wikipedia on market fundamentalism: “a pejorative term applied to an exaggerated religious-like faith in the ability of unfettered laissez-faire or free market economic views or policies to solve economic and social problems.”

Alvin Plantinga (from Tom Gilson via T-bone) on religious fundamentalism:

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize [my model of Christian epistemology]. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term “fundamentalist.” On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like “son of a bitch,” more exactly “sonovabitch,” or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) “sumbitch.” When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of “fundamentalist” (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like “stupid sumbitch” (or maybe “fascist sumbitch”?) than “sumbitch” simpliciter. . . . The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like “stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine.”

Maybe I should be more careful calling people “Keynesians.”

27 May 2011 at 2:49 pm 7 comments

AEA Drops Double-Blind Reviewing

| Peter Klein |

An announcement from the American Economic Association:

On April 15, 2011, the Executive Committee voted to drop “double-blind” refereeing for the Association’s journals. The change to “single-blind” refereeing (the referees’ identity remains undisclosed) is effective July 1, 2011. Easy access to search engines increasingly limits the effectiveness of the double-blind process in maintaining author anonymity. Double-blind refereeing also increases administrative costs of the journals and makes it harder for referees to identify an author’s potential conflicts of interest arising, for example, from consulting.

26 May 2011 at 12:52 pm 16 comments

Competitive Advantage, Network Advantage, and Vienna

| Peter Klein |

At last week’s ACAC Joel Baum gave a very interesting presentation (ppt) on the institutional and intellectual histories of two important strands in management thought, the literature on competitive advantage and the literature on network advantage. These two strands developed largely in isolation but, as it turns out, can both trace important parts of their development to the University of Vienna and the Austrian school of economics. Check out the genealogies below, captured from Joel’s slides. First, two diagrams on the origins of the competitive advantage approach (click to enlarge):

Now, two on the origins of network advantage theory: (more…)

25 May 2011 at 2:45 pm Leave a comment

The Evolution of Entrepreneurial Skill

| Peter Klein |

Market competition is often characterized as an evolutionary selection process. “[O]ne of the main functions of profits is to shift the control of capital to those who know how to employ it in the best possible way for the satisfaction of the public. The more profits a man earns, the greater his wealth consequently becomes, the more influential does he become in the conduct of business affairs” (Mises, “Profit and Loss,” 1951). Within a given population, then, the market process selects for those individuals with the greatest levels of entrepreneurial skill. But can the emergence of entrepreneurial skill as a human trait itself be explained in terms of natural selection? Here’s one attempt:

Evolution and the Growth Process:
Natural Selection of Entrepreneurial Traits

Oded Galor, Stelios Michalopoulos
NBER Working Paper No. 17075, May 2011

This research suggests that a Darwinian evolution of entrepreneurial spirit played a significant role in the process of economic development and the dynamics of inequality within and across societies. The study argues that entrepreneurial spirit evolved non-monotonically in the course of human history. In early stages of development, risk-tolerant, growth promoting traits generated an evolutionary advantage and their increased representation accelerated the pace of technological progress and the process of economic development. In mature stages of development, however, risk-averse traits gained an evolutionary advantage, diminishing the growth potential of advanced economies and contributing to convergence in economic growth across countries.

This is a (mathematical) theory paper with “entrepreneurship” modeled as tolerance for risk, so some readers will find the execution less interesting than the idea. But it is good to see these kinds of big-picture issues addressed in the mainstream literature.

23 May 2011 at 10:49 am 8 comments

Klein Even Bigger

| Lasse Lien |

More has been added to Peter’s already considerable pile of honors and distinctions. This time it’s the European Management Review’s best paper award for 2010 for “Toward a Theory of Public Entrepreneurship,” European Management Review 7: 1-15 (2010) by Peter G. Klein, Joseph T. Mahoney, Anita M. McGahan, and Christos N. Pitelis. (Here’s the version at the publisher’s website.)

Congratulations to Peter and coauthors!

20 May 2011 at 10:30 am 4 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).