Archive for July, 2011

Confronting Convenient Historical Distortions

| Peter Lewin |

From management professor Richard Rumelt. This is very interesting.

Today, households carry a much greater relative debt burden than they did in 1929, largely due to a 25-year mortgage binge. Between 1980 and 2007, disposable income grew at 5.9% per year while household indebtedness grew at 8.7% per year — a clearly unsustainable situation. As in 1939, this hangover of debt blocks new rounds of consumption and dulls the impact of fiscal and monetary stimuli.

From today’s WSJ: here.

30 July 2011 at 12:00 pm 3 comments

The Downside of Case Studies

| Peter Klein |

As Herbert Simon once noted, while a case study is only a sample of one, a sample of one is infinitely more informative than a sample of none. This is surely true, but cases must be used with caution, particularly when more systematic evidence is available.

A couple months back I saw a Huffington Post piece claiming that, because Lincoln Electric retains workers even during recessions, and Lincoln Electric is a profitable company, firms should not fire workers when the demand for their products declines. QED. The author laments that business schools don’t teach the virtues of a “no-layoffs” policy more generally. As evidence that business schools are corrupt or incompetent, the author shows that management experts do not, in fact, believe that such a policy is desirable.

A more troubling reason is that many professors at Harvard and other MBA schools are deeply skeptical of offering workers such a bargain.

“It’s a terribly non-optimal and inefficient policy,” says George P. Baker, the co-chair of the HBS doctoral program. “Lincoln Electric is a special case. Unless there is some other reason for having it, as part of an incentive system, you would be wrong to recommend it.”

“I’m not unsympathetic to guaranteed employment and the long-term social strengths it builds,” says James Rebitzer, Chair of the Business Policy Department at Boston University’ School of Management, “But I think there are only a very few special circumstances where a commitment to no-layoffs actually improves operating efficiency.”

Harvard students such as Corey Crowell (MBA 2009), who read the [Lincoln Electric] case just days before we met, got the message: “I just worry that the sense of a guaranteed job would create complacency . . . look at the auto industry.”

There you have it. Despite a wealth of theory and evidence that guaranteed lifetime employment is generally harmful to firm performance, if one firm follows such a policy and prospers, then all firms should do so. That business schools don’t embrace the non sequitur is “troubling.” Okey dokey.

29 July 2011 at 9:52 pm 16 comments

No Wonder Our Readers Find Us Witty and Clever

| Peter Klein |

Confirmation bias, it appears, affects not only our scientific and political beliefs, but our aesthetic preferences as well. Now I understand why certain people read!

28 July 2011 at 8:18 am 1 comment

Another Benefit of Globalization

| Peter Klein |

Better management practice:

The Land that Lean Manufacturing Forgot? Management Practices in Transition Countries
Nicholas Bloom, Helena Schweiger, John Van Reenen
NBER Working Paper No. 17231, July 2011

We have conducted the first survey on management practices in transition countries. We found that Central Asian transition countries, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have on average very poor management practices. Their average scores are below emerging countries such as Brazil, China and India. In contrast, the central European transition countries such as Poland and Lithuania operate with management practices that are only moderately worse than those of western European countries such as Germany. Since we find these practices are strongly linked to firm performance, this suggests poor management practices may be impeding the development of Central Asian transition countries. We find that competition, multinational ownership, private ownership and human capital are all strongly correlated with better management. This implies that the continued opening of markets to domestic and foreign competition, privatisation of state-owned firms and increased levels of workforce education should promote better management, and ultimately faster economic growth.

25 July 2011 at 9:55 pm 1 comment

What Do Universities Produce?

| Peter Lewin |

Naomi Riley’s new book on university tenure is creating a bit of a stir. It is of a kind with a number of similar works reflecting growing unease about the traditional arrangements in academe. One reads frequently about the lack of value for money that students get for persistently rising tuition fees. And a colleague of mine says he thought he was hired to do research and found out he was actually hired to create publications — and these can be drastically different things. (Witness the recent post by Nicolai).

I wonder how these arrangements have survived in the marketplace. Clearly, universities are multi-product firms. Education (for which tuition is paid) is only one of the products. Another is “research.” This is supposedly a public good (in large part — I guess some products of research could be proprietary). So it is reimbursed by the public purse — aka we have a rent-seeking situation with all its dysfunctions, including minimal feedback on product quality. There is no constituency of consumers to speak of. In effect the producers (the researchers) end up judging their own work and setting the standards and (perhaps most importantly) the rules of the game. Put this in motion and you get a system that serves only the players of the game — provides them with formidable isolating mechanisms and protections.

One implication is that the larger the share of revenue accounted for by tuition (as with liberal arts colleges) the higher the quality of teaching should be. And a growing share of tuition dollars should put pressure on these isolation mechanisms. Of course, where this tuition is paid mainly by the state (state schools) this would not be the case.

So, its a bit of a puzzle to me why the liberal arts colleges don’t have a larger market share. Why do the big “research” schools maintain their prestige attraction when they cost so much and produce such low quality teaching? Maybe its a kind of screening effect — the job market rewards students who graduate from prestigious schools so good students tend to go there and the teaching is irrelevant — a network effect.

24 July 2011 at 1:34 pm 18 comments

Two New Papers …

| Nicolai Foss |

… by Yours Truly. The Academy of Management Review just published my paper with Siegwart Lindenberg, “Managing Joint Production Motivation: The Role of Goal Framing and Governance Mechanisms,” and Organization Science just published “Linking Customer Interaction and Innovation: The Mediating Role of New Organizational Practices,” by me, Keld Laursen and Torben Pedersen.  Here are the abstracts: (more…)

24 July 2011 at 10:10 am 1 comment

More Serious Stuff

| Nicolai Foss |

Economists may have models of zero intelligence traders, but so far there are no models of zombie traders (that I know of). Possible inspiration for future modeling efforts here.

24 July 2011 at 9:49 am 1 comment

The Male Organ Hypothesis Vindicated

| Nicolai Foss |


22 July 2011 at 5:53 am 4 comments

2011 Oliver E. Williamson Prize

| Peter Klein |

The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, co-founded by Oliver Williamson in 1985, has created a new best article prize in his name. The first winner is “Juvenile Delinquency and Conformism” by Eleonora Patacchini and Yves Zenou. Details about the award and this year’s winner and runners-up are available at Oxford’s JLEO site. Congrats!

21 July 2011 at 9:35 pm Leave a comment

The Decline of Peer Review

| Dick Langlois |

Glenn Ellison has a paper in the new issue of Economic Inquiry called “Is Peer Review in Decline?” Here’s the abstract.

Over the past decade, there has been a decline in the fraction of papers in top economics journals written by economists from the highest ranked economics departments. This paper documents this fact and uses additional data on publications and citations to assess various potential explanations. Several observations are consistent with the hypothesis that the Internet improves the ability of high profile authors to disseminate their research without going through the traditional peer review process.

An alternative explanation is that the distribution of productivity among departments has gotten flatter, and Ellison can’t definitively reject that possibility. (Luigi Zingales and his coauthors had argued that the Internet has reduced the advantages for productivity of being at a top university.) But the explanation Ellison favors has to do with the increasing costs of the review process, especially at top field journals, where editors (he claims) have been increasingly demanding revisions. Because the costs of the review process are high and the benefits modest for prestigious authors, they increasingly avoid these journals.

18 July 2011 at 2:24 pm 2 comments

The Menger Sponge

| Lasse Lien |

Earlier the investigative arm of O&M (with only limited hacking of phones and bribing of police officers) discovered the sensational news that Peter is named after a bottle with no inside and no outside, the endlessly fascinating Klein bottle. Apparently this sort of thing is quite common in Austrian circles. We can now reveal that Menger is named after a sponge, the Menger sponge, which is described in greater detail here.

(Actually the Menger Sponge is named after Karl the mathematician, son of Carl.)

18 July 2011 at 9:06 am 6 comments

Gans on Google+

| Nicolai Foss |

I have been using Google + for about a week now. I am unimpressed, and I think I will remain unimpressed. Quite simply, it doesn’t do a lot for me. On his HBR blog, the always thoughtful Joshua Gans points out that because Google+ is a network technology it must build sufficient installed base. However, G+ may face difficulties doing just that, because it offers users rather little extra problem-solving value compared to the existing alternatives:

Facebook provides “hyper-local news,” allowing people to broadcast news, opinions, and interests to their social circle in a way that feels authentic. Twitter, because it is essentially public and open, delivers news fast and also permits users to follow famous or interesting individuals.

Google+ does both of these things in one. But because the problems are already solved separately, then Google+ only solves the increment: you can view private and public content on the one “page.” To be sure, some harmonization across content platforms can be valuable to consumers. But Google+ is only adding the increment and not the whole lot. So while it might be argued that if Google+ happened five years ago, its technical implementation might have made it a clear winner, that is not the world we find ourselves in now.

17 July 2011 at 10:41 am 3 comments

Grade Inflation

| Peter Klein |

Via Steve Kates, some data on US grade inflation that may or may not surprise you. I leave discussion of root causes to the discussion thread.

Contemporary data indicate that, on average across a wide range of schools, A’s represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. D’s and F’s total typically less than 10% of all letter grades. Private colleges and universities give, on average, significantly more A’s and B’s combined than public institutions with equal student selectivity. Southern schools grade more harshly than those in other regions, and science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than those emphasizing the liberal arts. At schools with modest selectivity, grading is as generous as it was in the mid-1980s at highly selective schools. These prestigious schools have, in turn, continued to ramp up their grades. It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.

17 July 2011 at 10:15 am 2 comments

Pomo Periscope XXII: There Is No Such Thing as a Free Diversocrat

| Nicolai Foss |

The California budget crisis may be tough on the university system. But as Heather MacDonald points out in City Journal, California universities (specifically, UC San Diego) are still adding “diversity fat even as it snuffs out substantive academic programs.” As she notes, the opportunity costs of pomo are becoming very visible indeed:

UC San Diego just lost a trio of prestigious cancer researchers to Rice University. Rice had offered them 40 percent pay raises over their total compensation packages, which at UCSD ranged from $187,000 to $330,000 a year. They take with them many times that amount in government grants. Scrapping the new Vice Chancellorship for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion could have saved at least one, if not two, of those biologists’ positions.

17 July 2011 at 9:34 am 1 comment

Sovereign States Default, Repudiate; Sun Still Rises

| Peter Klein |

Frivolous commentary on the US debt crisis (like this) attributes to opponents of raising the debt ceiling the view that “defaults don’t matter.” Sensible people recognize, of course, that default (and even repudiation) are policy options that have benefits and costs, just as continuing to borrow and increasing the debt have benefits and costs. Reasonable people can disagree about the relevant magnitudes, but comparative institutional analysis is obviously the way to go here. (Unfortunately, most of the academic discussion has focused entirely on the possible short-term costs of default, with almost no attention paid to the almost certain long-term costs of continued borrowing.)

I’m a bit surprised no one has brought up William English’s 1996 AER paper, “Understanding the Costs of Sovereign Default: American State Debts in the 1840’s,” which provides very interesting evidence on US state defaults. It’s not a natural experiment, exactly, but does a nice job exploring the variety of default and repudiation practices among states that were otherwise pretty similar. Here’s the meat:

Between 1841 and 1843 eight states and one territory defaulted on their obligations, and by the end of the decade four states and one territory had repudiated all or part of their debts. These debts are properly seen as sovereign debts both because the United States Constitution precludes suits against states to enforce the payment of debts, and because most of the state debts were held by residents of other states and other countries (primarily Britain). . . .

In spite of the inability of the foreign creditors to impose direct sanctions, most U.S. states repaid their debts. It appears that states repaid in order to maintain their access to international capital markets, much like in reputational models. The states that repaid were able to borrow more in the years leading up to the Civil War. while those that did not repav were, for the most part, unable to do so. States that defaulted temporarily were able to regain access to the credit market by settling their old debts. More surprisingly, two states that repudiated a part of their debt were able to regain access to capital markets after servicing the remainder of their debt for a time.

Amazingly, the earth did not crash into the sun, nor did the citizens of the delinquent states experience locusts, boils, or Nancy Grace. Bond yields of course rose in the repudiating, defaulting, and partially defaulting states, but not to “catastrophic” levels. There were complex restructuring deals and other transactions to try to mitigate harms.

A recent CNBC story on Europe cited “the realization that sovereign risk, and particularly developed market sovereign risk exists, because most developed world sovereign was basically treated as entirely risk free,” quoting a principal at BlackRock Investment Institute. “With hindsight, we can say . . . that they have never been risk free, it’s just that we have been living in a quiet time over the last 20 years.” Doesn’t sound like Apocalypse to me.

(See earlier posts here and here.)

13 July 2011 at 10:30 pm 2 comments

Old Economics Test Questions

| Peter Klein |

The University of Missouri’s sprawling new student center recently opened Mort’s, a reproduction of an old campus hangout called The Shack, made famous by Beetle Bailey creator and Mizzou alumnus Mort Walker. I snapped the photos below from the entrance to Mort’s, which is full of old Walker cartoons. I spied a 1950 cartoon featuring an economics test. Click to enlarge the strip.

Funny, but what was Professor Brown smoking when he wrote that question? (Maybe he was just a Keynesian, bless his heart.)

13 July 2011 at 3:18 pm 2 comments

Is the Internet “Transforming” Business?

| Peter Klein |

In the 1990s and early 2000s there was a huge debate about the impact of information technology on productivity. Robert Solow famously quipped, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Robert Gordon, Erik Brynjolfsson, Jack Triplett, and many others participated in this debate, with issues revolving around productivity measurement, workplace incentives, organizational complementarities, and more. (I did some work on this too.) The end result was a rough consensus that IT did increase productivity, but that the effects were modest.

The buzz over “wikified” organizations — open-source communities, highly disaggregated firms, crowdsourced production, and the like — gives me a strong sense of déjà vu. Indeed, we have not been kind to the wikinomics view in these pages. Now Don Tapscott, a leader of this movement, seems to be having second thoughts:

In our 2006 book Wikinomics, Anthony D. Williams and I looked at dozens of companies that have used the Internet to transform their business models and achieve tremendous success.

However, in the five years since the book’s publication, we’ve noticed something striking: the rate of business model innovation has not accelerated. Yes, some individual companies have achieved competitive advantage by exploiting the web and networked business models. But overall the gains have been modest.

The reason, says Tapscott, is that “it’s becoming difficult or even impossible for companies to achieve breakthrough success without changing their entire industry’s modus operandi.” This reminds me of the conclusion from the earlier literature that IT has the biggest effect when combined with complementary organizational practices (e.g., Milgrom and Roberts, 1995), which suggests that change doesn’t occur until all elements of the complementary bundle are in place — maybe a long time after the initial innovation.

12 July 2011 at 12:15 am 4 comments

Legal Rights of Academics and Journalists

| Peter Klein |

Do academic oral historians have the same legal protections as journalists? No, according to the US Department of Justice:

With the filing, the U.S. government has come down firmly on the side of the British government, which is fighting for access to oral history records at Boston College that authorities in the U.K. say relate to criminal investigations of murder, kidnapping and other violent crimes in Northern Ireland. The college has been trying to quash the British requests, arguing that those interviewed as part of an archive on the unrest in Northern Ireland were promised confidentiality during their lifetimes.

This is from Inside Higher Ed via Zachary Schrag, who notes that the DOJ brief

suggests that the Boston College researchers are mere academics, and seizing information from them should be easier than prying it from reporters “because the Constitution and the courts have long recognized the unique role which news reporters play in our constitutional system. See, e.g., Branzburg, 408 U.S. at 681; New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 268-71 (1964). The limited protections afforded news reporters in the context of a grand jury subpoena should be greater than those to be afforded academics engaged in the collection of oral history.”

Lots of interesting stuff above about informed consent, academic freedom, confidentiality, etc.

9 July 2011 at 11:24 pm 5 comments

Somewhere Over the Rainbow!

| Peter Lewin |

I am envious. My brother in law and my nephew are in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. He is sending short reports via his Blackberry. His descriptions are graphic — he is awe-struck. Sounds incredible, beyond imagination — to those of us veteran Africans used to having to search hard for game on our game park safaris. In the Serengeti there is game in exaggerated profusion. Lions, leopards, and cheetah virtually next to each other. Huge migrations of herds, hundreds of thousands strong. A trip for a lifetime. I should live so long.

It seems clear that this wonder of nature (a giant crater-bubble full of wild life) would not exist in the absence of the revenue from international tourism. Though government managed, it is subject to vigorous competition from other game parks in that part of Africa. The area is the traditional homeland of the legendary Masai tribe, who have a cattle-based economy. Population growth, technological change, and the pace of modernity threatened to destroy their world. Now they seem to be flourishing. The Masai have turned out to be successful entrepreneurs! I wonder if this is an instance of Ostrom’s successful local initiatives.

More generally, the preservation of wild-life in Africa has turned on the successful management of a plethora of wild-life game parks (many of them quite small relatively speaking), some having the status of super luxury hotels. There is an irony in there somewhere. (I wonder what it is like to have to manage a wild-life park as a business firm).

Of course most of the environmentalists never tell you about the preservation successes of market competition.

8 July 2011 at 11:48 am 2 comments

Organizational Charts

| Peter Klein |

Bonkers World via Cliff:

8 July 2011 at 8:46 am 1 comment

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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).

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