Archive for June, 2013

Mokyr on Cultural Entrepreneurship

| Peter Klein |

I am wary of adding yet another conceptual margin for entrepreneurial action but I highly recommend a new (and for the moment, ungated) paper in the Scandinavian Economic History Review by the distinguished economic historian Joel Mokyr on “cultural entrepreneurship.” Starting from a broadly Schumpeterian perspective, Mokyr focuses on individuals who introduce and disseminate novel ideas:

[E]ach individual makes cultural choices taking as given what others believe. It is not a priori obvious how that affects one’s choices. It may affect them positively because conformism implies that there is some social cost associated with deviancy, or because people may reason that if the majority believes a certain thing, there may be wisdom in it (thus saving on information costs). But there can be a reverse reaction as well, with non-conformists perversely rebelling against existing beliefs. What matters for my purposes is that for a small number of individuals, the beliefs of others are not given but can be changed. I shall refer to those people as cultural entrepreneurs. Their function is much like entrepreneurs in the realm of production: individuals who refuse to take the existing technology or market structure as given and try to change it and, of course, benefit personally in the process. Much like other entrepreneurs, the vast bulk of them make fairly marginal changes in our cultural menus, but a few stand out as having affected them in substantial and palpable ways.

Succinctly expressed: “cultural entrepreneurs are the creators of epistemic focal points that people can coordinate their beliefs on.”

Mokyr’s focus, like Schumpeter’s, is not entrepreneurship per se, but its effects, particularly on long-run economic growth, and his entrepreneurship construct is somewhat undertheorized. But he provides fascinating examples, ranging from Mohammed and Luther to Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and Adam Smith. He focuses in particular on Bacon and Newton, describing Bacon’s work as “the coordination device which served as the point of departure for thinkers and experimentalists for two centuries to come. The economic effects of these changes remained latent and subterranean for many decades, but eventually they erupted in the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent processes of technological change.” Newton and the Royal Society “raise[d] the social standing of scientists and researchers as people who should be respected and supported and [provided] them with a comfortable material existence.” (Mostly good.)

I’m not an expert on cultural theory or history and am not sure how much the “cultural entrepreneur” construct ads to our understanding of cultural change (other than relabeling, a frequent worry in entrepreneurship studies). But the paper is a great read, highly provocative and informative, and addresses big questions. Check it out.

26 June 2013 at 8:43 am 4 comments

Autocrats in the Lab

| Peter Klein |

We noted before the Taylorite quality of many great restaurant kitchens. From Pierre Azoulay we learn that scientific laboratories are also sometimes organized as rigid hierarchies, presided over by an autocratic PI. (The key references is Pasteur.) Pierre suggests a sorting between PI and researcher characteristics so that labs run by autocrats are about as productive as labs run by softies. Probably the same is true in many groups. This reminds us that the Demsetz-Lehn critique applies to lots of work in management. If there is competition among organizational forms, and heterogeneity among individuals, then we shouldn’t expect one form to outperform the others, on average — a lesson often forgotten in empirical management research.

24 June 2013 at 2:13 pm 2 comments

The Pace of Modern Life

| Peter Klein |

Technological advance and economic growth are ruining modern life — people don’t write long letters anymore, they don’t spend time together at meals, they speak quickly, and nobody stops to smell the roses. So said critics starting in 1871. A new entry for our “Nothing New under the Sun” series (via Josh Gans). NB: Some of you will tag 1871 as the start of modernity, for a different reason!

19 June 2013 at 9:49 am 6 comments

ISNIE 2013

| Peter Klein |

ISNIE is holding its annual conference next week in Florence. I hope to see many O&Mers there. Eric Maskin and Samuel Bowles are keynoting, and there are special tracks or sessions to honor Elinor Ostrom (who passed away last year) and Oliver Williamson (who recently turned 80).

15 June 2013 at 5:06 pm 1 comment

Do Prices Determine Vertical Integration?

| Dick Langlois |

The title of this paper, by Laura Alfaro, Paola Conconi, Harald Fadinger, and Andrew F. Newman, caught my eye. Then the abstract really caught my attention.

What is the relationship between product prices and vertical integration? While the literature has focused on how integration affects prices, this paper shows that prices can affect integration. Many theories in organizational economics and industrial organization posit that integration, while costly, increases productivity. If true, it follows from firms’ maximizing behavior that higher prices cause firms to choose more integration. The reason is that at low prices, increases in revenue resulting from enhanced productivity are too small to justify the cost, whereas at higher prices, the revenue benefit exceeds the cost. Trade policy provides a source of exogenous price variation to assess the validity of this prediction: higher tariffs should lead to higher prices and therefore to more integration. We construct firm-level indices of vertical integration for a large set of countries and industries and exploit cross-section and time-series variation in import tariffs to examine their impact on firm boundaries. Our empirical results provide strong support for the view that output prices are a key determinant of vertical integration.

The surprising part is not the empirical result, which is interesting. The surprising part is that the underlying theory of vertical integration in the paper is no more sophisticated than what’s in the abstract: vertical integration is always more efficient than using the market, because a lot of people like Williamson and Hart and Moore have said so. Since integration implies fixed costs, firms (in perfect competition) won’t engage in this wonderful and indisputably efficient practice unless prices are high enough to cover the fixed costs. Readers of this blog will not need me to tell them what’s wrong with this. But I like the empirical result, which is consistent with my own suspicion that tariffs provide cover for firms to engage in inefficient vertical integration. The right spin on this result may well be the Michael Jensen story: lack of competitive pressure from the product market enables managers to retain earnings, which they spend on buying divisions or integrating into things they could buy more cheaply on the market.

7 June 2013 at 2:47 pm Leave a comment

Advice to Journal Editors

| Peter Klein |

The Story of French, a fun and interesting history of the French language by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, offers a number of valuable insights for writers and editors. Aspiring journal editors could learn from François de Malherbe (1555–1628), described by Nadeau and Barlow as “the biggest and most brazen language snob the world has ever seen.” Despite being “a fretful fault-finder who spent his life attacking, both verbally and in writing, every mistake — or what he regarded as mistakes — he could find and anyone who made one,” Malherbe had sound editorial instincts. In particular, he valued simplicity and clarity and despised unnecessary verbiage.

As a pastime, Malherbe edited Ronsard’s poetry, removing about half the words. His future biographer, Honorat de Racan, once asked him, “Does this mean you approve of the rest?” Malherbe responded by erasing what was left on the page.

Tough, but fair. . . . Anyway, Malherbe was clearly onto something. He “preached the virtues of clarity, precision, and rigor” while denouncing “ornamentation, repetition, archaisms, regionalisms, and hyperbole.” Perhaps academic journals need a few more Malherbes.

6 June 2013 at 9:31 am 2 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).
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