| Peter Klein |
As a second-year economics PhD student I took the field sequence in industrial organization. The primary text in the fall course was Jean Tirole’s Theory of Industrial Organization, then just a year old. I found it a difficult book — a detailed overview of the “new,” game-theoretic IO, featuring straightforward explanations and numerous insights and useful observations but shot through with brash, unsubstantiated assumptions and written in an extremely terse, almost smug style that rubbed me the wrong way. After all, game theory was supposed to add transparency and “rigor” to the analysis, bringing to light the hidden assumptions of the old-fashioned, verbal models, but Tirole combined math and ad hoc verbal asides in equal measure. (Sample statement: “The Coase theorem (1960) asserts that an optimal allocation of resources can always be achieved through market forces, irrespective of the legal liability assignment, if information is perfect and transactions are costless.” And then: “We conclude that the Coase theorem is unlikely to apply here and that selective government intervention may be desirable.”) Well, that’s the way formal theorists write and, if you know the code and read wisely, you can gain insight into how these economists think about things. Is it the best way to learn about real markets and real competition? Tirole takes it as self-evident that MIT-style theory is a huge advance over the earlier IO literature, which he characterizes as “the old oral tradition of behavioral stories.” He does not, to my knowledge, deal with the “new learning” of the 1960s and 1970s, associated mainly with Chicago economists (but also Austrian and public choice economists) that emphasized informational and incentive problems of regulators as well as firms.
Tirole is one of the most important economists in modern theoretical IO, public economics, regulation, and corporate finance, and it’s no surprise that the Nobel committee honored him with today’s prize. The Nobel PR team struggled to summarize his contributions for the nonspecialist reader (settling on the silly phrase that his work shows how to “tame” big firms) but you can find decent summaries in the usual places (e.g., WSJ, NYT, Economist) and sympathetic, even hagiographic treatments in the blogosphere (Cowen, Gans). By all accounts Tirole is a nice guy and an excellent teacher, as well as the first French economics laureate since Maurice Allais, so bully for him.
I do think Tirole-style IO is an improvement over the old structure-conduct-performance paradigm, which focused on simple correlations, rather than causal explanations and eschewed comparative institutional analysis, modeling regulators as omniscient, benevolent dictators. The newer approach starts with agency theory and information theory — e.g., modeling regulators as imperfectly informed principals and regulated firms as agents whose actions might differ from those preferred by their principals — and thus draws attention to underlying mechanisms, differences in incentives and information, dynamic interaction, and so on. However, the newer approach ultimately rests on the old market structure / market power analysis in which monopoly is defined as the short-term ability to set price above marginal cost, consumer welfare is measured as the area under the static demand curve, and so on. It’s neoclassical monopoly and competition theory on steroids, and hence side-steps the interesting objections raised by the Austrians and UCLA price theorists. In other words, the new IO focuses on more complex interactions while still eschewing comparative institutional analysis and modeling regulators as benevolent, albeit imperfectly informed, “social planners.”
As a student I found Tirole’s analysis extremely abstract, with little attention to how these theories might work in practice. Even Tirole’s later book with Jean-Jacques Laffont, A Theory of Incentives in Procurement and Regulation, is not very applied. But evidently Tirole has played a large personal and professional role in training and advising European regulatory bodies, so his work seems to have had a substantial impact on policy. (See, however, Sam Peltzman’s unflattering review of the 1989 Handbook of Industrial Organization, which complains that game-theoretic IO seems more about solving clever puzzles than understanding real markets.)