Archive for March, 2014

Chameleon Models and Their Dangers

| Nicolai Foss |

Here is a new paper by major Stanford finance scholar, Paul Pfleiderer on what he calls “chameleon models” and their misuse in finance and economics. Lots of catchy concepts, e.g., “theoretical cherry picking” and “bookshelf models,” and an fine critical discussion of Friedmanite instrumentalism. The essence of the paper is this:

Chameleons arise and are often nurtured by the following dynamic. First a bookshelf model is constructed that involves terms and elements that seem to have some relation to the real world and assumptions that are not so unrealistic that they would be dismissed out of hand. The intention of the author, let’s call him or her “Q,” in developing the model may to say something about the real world or the goal may simply be to explore the implications of making a certain set of assumptions. Once Q’s model and results
become known, references are made to it, with statements such as “Q shows that X.” This should be taken as short-hand way of saying “Q shows that under a certain set of  assumptions it follows (deductively) that X,” but some people start taking X as a plausible statement about the real world. If someone skeptical about X challenges the assumptions made by Q, some will say that a model shouldn’t be judged by the realism of its assumptions, since all models have assumptions that are unrealistic. Another rejoinder made by those supporting X as something plausibly applying to the real world might be that the truth or falsity of X is an empirical matter and until the appropriate empirical tests or analyses have been conducted and have rejected X, X must be taken seriously. In other words, X is innocent until proven guilty. Now these statements may not be made in quite the stark manner that I have made them here, but the underlying notion still prevails that because there is a model for X, because questioning the assumptions behind X is not appropriate, and because the testable implications of the model supporting X have not been empirically rejected, we must take X seriously. Q’s model (with X as a result) becomes a chameleon that avoids the real world filters.

29 March 2014 at 5:26 am Leave a comment

Doux Commerce Bleg

| Nicolai Foss |

Andrew Smith, University of Liverpool Management School asks for the help of the readers of O&M:

I’m currently exploring the literature on the theory of the capitalist peace. I’m very familiar with the vast literature by IR scholars and political economists on the theory of the capitalist peace/commercial peace (i.e., the idea that commercial interdependence among nations reduces the likelihood of warfare). This literature is dominated by works using panel data (e.g., Gartzke, 2007).

What I need to find out more about is the literature on the possible microfoundations of the capitalist peace—i.e., work by psychologists and experimental economists on whether repeated participation in inter-ethnic and international trade actually influences the cognitive processes of the individuals involved and makes them less warlike. Does experience with economic exchange with non-members of the group (family, clan, tribe, nation, etc) make people more pacific? Does it make individuals less violent? Montesquieu speculated that this would be the case a long time ago when he advanced his “doux commerce” thesis. Albert Hirschman said that Montesquieu’s theory was the conventional wisdom in the Enlightenment. However, I’m interested in what modern social scientists have said about this theory. Francois and van Ypersele (2009) found that level of trust reported by adults in the US is positively correlated with the competitiveness of the sector in which they work. Their research was not about international economic relations and diplomacy. However, it does tend to support the thesis that a competitive market economy has a civilizing influence. I would be interested in knowing if there is other research by psychologists, experimental economists, and others that is relevant to the doux commerce thesis.

28 March 2014 at 12:41 pm 2 comments

Contracts as Technology

| Peter Klein |

That’s the title of an interesting new law review article by Kevin Davis (New York University Law Review, April 2013). Just as we can treat organizational structure as as sort of technology, and study the introduction and diffusion of new organizational forms with the same theories and methods used to study technological innovation and diffusion, we can think of contracts as structures or institutions that emerge, are subject to experimentation and competition, and evolve and diffuse. Here’s the abstract:

If technology means, “useful knowledge about how to produce things at low cost”, then contracts should qualify. Just as mechanical technologies are embodied in blueprints, technologies of contracting are embodied in contractual documents that serve as, “blueprints for collaboration”. This Article analyzes innovations in contractual documents using the same kind of framework that is used to analyze other kinds of technological innovation. The analysis begins by laying out an informal model of the demand for and supply of innovative contractual documents. The discussion of demand emphasizes the impact of innovations upon not only each party’s incentives to collaborate efficiently, but also upon reading costs and litigation costs. The analysis of supply considers both the generation and dissemination of innovations and emphasizes the importance of cumulative innovation, learning by-doing, economies of scale and scope, and trustworthiness. Recent literature has raised concerns about the extent to which law firms produce contractual innovations. In fact, a wide range of actors other than law firms supply contractual documents; including end users of contracts, specialized providers of legal documents, legal database firms, trade associations, and academic institutions. This article discusses the incentives and capabilities of each of these potential sources of innovation. It concludes by discussing potential interventions such as: (1) enhancing intellectual property rights, (2) relaxing rules concerning the unauthorized practice of law and, (3) creating or expanding publicly sponsored clearinghouses for contracts.

See also Lisa Berstein’s comment. (HT: Geoff Manne)

17 March 2014 at 3:49 pm 1 comment

“PowerPointless”

| Peter Klein |

A clever and funny entry for our ongoing series on the use and abuse of PowerPoint. It’s aimed at classroom presentations but applies, a fortiori, to any professional meeting, including (especially?) academic conferences. I especially appreciate this:

If your audience can understand everything it needs to from your slide show only, . . . cut out about 50 percent of the slides and 90 percent of the text. . . . Your slide show by itself should be incomprehensible. Because, to paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein, its most important part is what’s not on it. (I.e., you actually talking with people.)

I  have a few quibbles, e.g., I generally avoid animations (having each point appear only as you mention it), but overall this is great advice, amusingly illustrated.

slide

7 March 2014 at 9:54 am 4 comments

Epistemic Mind Games

| Dick Langlois |

I had a brief mental hiccup today when I received an email advertisement from Stanford University Press for a book called Epinets: The Epistemic Structure and Dynamics of Social Networks by Mihnea C. Moldoveanu and Joel A. C. Baum. Because the ad carried prominently the SUP logo — a stylized fir tree — and because epinette is the Canadian French word for spruce tree, I thought for a nanosecond that I was being offered a treatise on conifer biology, penned by a man whose name means “tree.” But no. It’s a book of organizational sociology. “Drawing on artificial intelligence, the philosophy of language, and epistemic game theory, Moldoveanu and Baum formulate a lexicon and array of conceptual tools that enable readers to explain, predict, and shape the fabric and behavior of social networks.” Might be worth glancing at, if only to find out what epistemic game theory is. (Perhaps it is as opposed to ontological game theory.)

Of course, the Palo Alto of the Stanford seal is not a spruce. It’s a coast redwood, also called a sequoia.

6 March 2014 at 7:50 pm Leave a comment

Temporary versus Permanent Behavioral Responses

| Peter Klein |

As a behavioral economics skeptic I was intrigued by a recent NBER paper on worker responses to a change in the employment contract. Rajshri Jayaraman, Debraj Ray, and Francis de Vericourt studied an Indian tea plantation that changed its employment contract to weaken pay-for-performance incentives and found, initially, a substantial increase in output, suggesting a “happy-is-productive” effect that would make the pop psychologists proud. “This large and contrarian response to a flattening of marginal incentives is at odds with the standard model, including one that incorporates dynamic incentives, and it can only be partly accounted for by higher supervisory effort. We conclude that the increase is a ‘behavioral’ response.”

Alas, the effect was only temporary, becoming entirely reversed within a few months:

In fact, an entirely standard model with no behavioral or dynamic features that we estimate off the pre-change data, fits the observations four months after the contract change remarkably well. While not an unequivocal indictment of the recent emphasis on “behavioral economics,” the findings suggest that non-standard responses may be ephemeral, especially in employment contexts in which the baseline relationship is delineated by financial considerations in the first place. From an empirical perspective, therefore, it is ideal to examine responses to a contract change over an substantial period of time.

This looks to me like a Hawthorne effect. Given that much of the empirical literature in behavioral social science uses relatively short time horizons, I wonder how many of the findings can be explained this way? How many key “behavioral” results are short-term responses to changing management practices, workplace conditions, the employment contract, etc., rather than indicators of something more substantial about human behavior and motivation?

5 March 2014 at 11:40 am Leave a comment


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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).