Posts filed under ‘History of Economic and Management Thought’

Riding Off into the Sunset

| Peter Klein |

Indiana-Jones-rides-off-into-the-sunset-640x277Organizations and Markets went live 25 April 2006, ten years ago today. Blogs were the newest and coolest thing. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. People communicated by email and (occasionally) by text message. BlackBerry and Nokia dominated the phone market. Nicolai Foss had no gray hair. (OK, he still has none.)

In the first month we had almost 11,000 pageviews; in the first five years we averaged about 500 posts per year and around 300,000 views, 1,000 comments, and too many impassioned, enlightening, and fun exchanges and arguments to count. (Below are some of our all-time most popular posts.) Besides Nicolai, Lasse, Dick, and myself we joined by terrific guest bloggers such as Benito Arruñada, Cliff Grammich, Craig Pirrong, David Gordon, David Gerard, David Hoopes, Glenn McDonald, Chimao Hsieh, Mike Sykuta, Peter Lewin, Randy Westgren, Ross Coff, Joe Mahoney, Scott Masten, Steve Postrel, and Steve Phelan.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. In the last couple of years we noticed our page views, unique visitors, comments, and similar stats trending downward. Partly this reflects the rise of social media, for two reasons: First, posts from O&M and similar blogs are syndicated on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other platforms, meaning that readers can view and engage blog content without actually visiting the site itself. Second, and more important, social media sites provide an alternative source of blog content. In 2007, we posted all kinds of stuff on O&M — not only longer, more thoughtful pieces but also conference announcements, pointers to papers, news, gossip, and other items of a more ephemeral nature. Nowadays, people (ourselves included) are more likely to post these items to Facebook or Twitter, which is where people go to read and comment. In any case, for a variety of reasons, our posting frequency has dropped sharply since 2011.

In short, we think the group-blog format is a bit dated. And so, it’s been a great ride, but we’ve decided to hang up our keyboards and move on to other things. The ten-year anniversary is a perfect time to make a change. Seriously, a decade is an eternity in internet time! Many of the group and individual blogs in our original blogroll from 2007 have been mothballed or merged into other sites. (Who even remembers what a “blogroll” is anyway?) (more…)

25 April 2016 at 1:35 am 14 comments

Popular Economics Readings

| Peter Klein |

CDYFOCnUsAEllehThe Open Syllabus Project is a useful repository of course reading lists from almost every academic discipline. (Hey, we had the idea first!) A fun feature is the ability to browse by popularity, i.e., to see the most frequently assigned readings in a particular field. Of course, the sample consists of syllabi posted on public websites, so it may be biased toward particular kinds of courses or universities. Still, the findings are interesting. This article complains that The Communist Manifesto is near the top across all disciplines, but confusingly bounces back and forth between economics and other fields and doesn’t distinguish among textbooks, research monographs, and research articles.

I made my own list of most popular items under Economics, excluding textbooks and other non-research materials. The results are interesting:

  1. Coase, “The Problem of Social Cost”
  2. Smith, The Wealth of Nations
  3. Keyness, The General Theory
  4. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”
  5. Marx, Capital
  6. Pritchett, “Divergence, Big Time”
  7. Coase, “The Nature of the Firm”
  8. Tiebout, “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures”
  9. Akerlof, “The Market for Lemons”
  10. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society”
  11. North, Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance
  12. Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom
  13. Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents
  14. Friedman, “Monetary Policy”
  15. Solow, “A Contribution to the Theory of Economic Growth”
  16. David, “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY”
  17. Spence, “Job Market Signaling”
  18. Marx, Communist Manifesto
  19. Dornbusch, “Expectations and Exchange Rate Dynamics”
  20. Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth
  21. Friedman, “The Role of Monetary Policy”
  22. Grossman and Helpman, “Protection for Sale”
  23. Diamond, “Social Security”
  24. Kremer, “Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990”
  25. Stigler, “The Theory of Economic Regulation”
  26. Freeman, “Are Your Wages Set in China?”
  27. Duflo, “Schooling and Labor Market Consequences of School Construction in Indonesia”
  28. Arrow, “Uncertainty and the Welfare Effects of Medical Care”
  29. Rogoff, “The Purchasing Power Parity Puzzle”
  30. Barro, “Are Government Bonds Net Worth?”

Pretty much all classics, and not surprising to see any on a reading list. But some surprising omissions. No Samuelson, Becker, Lucas, Krugman, Sargent, Kahneman, or Fama, just to mention a few Nobelists. No Shleifer, Tirole, Mankiw, Holmstrom, Simon, Jensen, Kreps, Alchian, Demsetz, and others with highly cited SSCI or RePEC papers. Of course, these are undergraduate as well as graduate syllabi, so highly technical articles assigned to PhD students are less likely to make the cut. Still, this might be a good “Books and Articles Every Economist Should Know” kind of list.

29 January 2016 at 3:41 pm 1 comment

M is for Multidivisional Structure

| Dick Langlois |

As a student of Alfred Chandler, I was excited to see Google’s conversion into Alphabet – which is essentially a multidivisional conglomerate. Chandler chronicled the development of the M-Form structure in the days of the Second Industrial Revolution, beginning with DuPont, and it remains an interesting question whether the same pattern will eventually take shape among the dominant firms of the Third Industrial Revolution.

Generally speaking, a move to the M-Form reflects a maturing of a technology and an industry, when information flows and incentives within a specialized unit – a module, if you wish – become more important than widespread and more flexible information flows within a functional organization. The more radically innovative the company, the more important these widespread information flows. Apple is organized in a functional form, and Microsoft famously returned to a functional form after a few years as an M-Form precisely in order to become more radically innovative in the face of declining revenues from Windows. Of course, Google remains as a functional entity within the Alphabet conglomerate, and the technologies in Alphabet’s other divisions are arguably less related to one another than in, say, the divisions into which Microsoft was once divided. Moreover, Alphabet will keep the two-tiered structure of stockholding that gives considerable power to the three founders, which makes Alphabet less like a vanilla conglomerate and more like the kind of widely diversified pyramidal holding company common around the world but essentially illegal in the United States.

17 August 2015 at 8:38 am 1 comment

Capabilities, Transaction Costs, and Buzz Lightyear

| Dick Langlois |

I joked in a comment on Peter’s last post about naming classes of articles after fairy-tale (or is it Disney?) characters. Is there a Disney moniker for a work that keeps getting reinvented? As I get older, I think about this more often, and I’m probably entering the dread legacy-protection phase of my career.

This came to mind because I happened upon an interesting paper from Nick Argyres and Todd Zenger, which has been out for a while but which I hadn’t seen. The authors propose to synthesize capabilities theory and transaction-cost economics. A worthy goal. Except that Paul Robertson and I did this twenty years ago. Argyres and Zenger point out, as Paul and I did, that neither capabilities alone nor transaction-costs alone can explain the boundaries of the firm. They settle on an account in which firms integrate because of strong complementarities among assets that create hold-up problems if accessed through markets. Their example is Disney’s relationship with and eventual acquisition of Pixar. (I know! A work that gets constantly reinvented is a Buzz Lightyear!) Far from being a general theory of capabilities and transaction costs, however, this is a special case of the general theory Paul and I proposed. We talked specifically about this kind of case (see especially pp. 38-40), which we called the appropriability variant of our account, associated with Teece (1986), to distinguish it from the entrepreneurial variant. In the entrepreneurial variant, firms integrate into complementary activities because of the dynamic transaction costs of using markets. Argyres and Zenger cite my 1992 ICC paper on dynamic transaction costs, but they make it out to be a claim that capabilities alone can explain vertical integration, which is of course the opposite of what the article actually says. They offer the gnomic remark that my definition of dynamic transaction costs “mirrors that of Williamsonian transaction costs.” But isn’t that the point? They really are transaction costs, and you can’t explain vertical integration without transaction costs. I’m sure there are a lot cases like Pixar out there, and I have certainly never denied that hold-up threats are sometimes a cause of vertical integration. But as I learn more about the history of vertical integration as part of the Corporation and the Twentieth Century manuscript I’m now working on, dynamic transaction costs are on the whole much more important than hold-up threats. (Also extremely important is government policy, which is really the point of this new project.) I’m sorry this sounds a bit negative, since the Argyres and Zenger paper really is a terrific article that is right-headed and develops the appropriability variant in much more depth than Paul and I did in our quick sketch.

Another paper that reinvented (and significantly extended) Langlois and Robertson (1995) is Jacobides and Winter (2005). Of course, I can’t very well criticize Sid Winter, since the whole idea of dynamic transaction costs came out of my effort in the 80s and 90s to apply Nelson and Winter (as well as Coase) to the problem of the boundaries of the firm, something that Nelson and Winter themselves had not then gotten around to.

2 June 2015 at 10:28 am Leave a comment

Video from Coase Conference

| Peter Klein |

Last weekend the Ronald Coase Institute held a conference, “The Next Generation of Discovery: Research and Policy Change Inspired by Ronald Coase.” The impressive lineup featured Kenneth Arrow, Oliver Williamson, Gary Libecap, Sam Peltzman, John Nye, Claude Menard, Ning Wang, Lee and Alexandra Benham, Mary Shirley, and many others. The Institute has now made both days of the program available on video. Great stuff.

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Photo courtesy of John Nye.

31 March 2015 at 11:20 am Leave a comment

“Robert Bork’s Forgotten Role in the Transaction Cost Revolution”

| Peter Klein |

E1725-27Thanks to Danny Sokol for passing on this paper by Alan Meese.

Robert Bork’s Forgotten Role in the Transaction Cost Revolution

Alan J. Meese
Antitrust Law Journal 79, no. 3 (2014)

This essay, prepared for a conference examining Robert Bork’s antitrust contributions, examines Bork’s hitherto unknown role in the transaction cost economics (“TCE”) revolution. The essay recounts how, in 1966, Bork helped rediscover Coase’s 1937 article, The Nature of the Firm and employed Coase’s reasoning to explain how various forms of partial integration could reduce transaction costs. As the essay shows, Bork described how exclusive territories, customer restrictions and horizontal minimum price fixing that accompanied otherwise valid integration were voluntary efforts to overcome the costs of relying upon unfettered markets to conduct economic activity. To be sure, Bork did not develop a complete account of TCE capable of informing a full-fledged research program. Nonetheless, Bork did articulate and apply various tools of TCE, tools that reflected departures from the applied price theory tradition of industrial organization.

The essay also offers some brief speculation regarding why scholars have not recognized Bork’s early contributions to TCE. For one thing, Bork did not purport to offer a new economic paradigm. Instead, Bork repeatedly characterized his work as an application of basic price theory, the very economic paradigm that TCE overthrew with respect to the interpretation of non-standard contracts. Moreover, Bork did not persist in his critique of price theory’s once-dominant account of non-standard contracts. After reiterating his views in 1968, for instance, he did not revisit the economics of non-standard agreements for nearly a decade. Finally, when Bork did return to the topic, he deemphasized TCE-based arguments and focused more on the claim that such agreements could not add to the market power already possessed by manufacturers and thus could not produce economic harm. In short, Bork’s failure to reiterate his TCE-based interpretation of non-standard agreements seems partly responsible for the lack of recognition his early contributions have received.

On Bork see also Jack High’s useful 1984 paper, “Bork’s Paradox: Static vs. Dynamic Efficiency in Antitrust Analysis.”

6 February 2015 at 9:20 am Leave a comment

The Medieval Enlightenment in Economic Thought

| Dick Langlois |

Attending academic presentations as a spectator – a pure consumer – can be great fun. On November 20, I drove up to Boston for one day of a wonderful conference, put together by the Business History program at Harvard Business School, on the History of Law and Business Enterprise (which probably merited its own separate blog post). This is an area that I am starting to get interested in. The conference was in many ways a showcase for the GHLR perspective on the history of corporate organization – the acronym referring to the work of Timothy Guinnane, Naomi Lamoreaux, Ron Harris, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, all of whom were there. The conference took place across the street from Harvard Stadium on the weekend of the Harvard-Yale game. Harvard won the football game (alas), but the conference was a Yale rout.

And last week I attended a presentation here at UConn that was even more vicarious fun. Our Humanities Institute invited Joel Kaye from Barnard to talk about his new book, A History of Balance, 1250-1375: The Emergence of a New Model of Equilibrium and Its Impact on Thought, which has just appeared from Cambridge. I was the token economist in the audience, even though two of his chapters are about economics. His argument is that medieval scholastic thought changed radically over this period, and produced by its end a different and arguably more sophisticated model of how the economic world works. This “new” model is not the standard Aristotelian version we are normally told about but was in fact something far closer to the views of the Scottish Enlightenment. (Needless to say, his telling of this was far more nuanced.) In addition to Nicole Oresme, whom I had heard of, he relies heavily on the work of Peter John Olivi, an earlier Franciscan theologian, whom I had never heard of. In Kaye’s telling, Olivi came close to something like the idea of the invisible hand. I took a quick look at standard history-of-thought texts, and nobody mentions Olivi at all – except Murray Rothbard, who credits him with discovering the subjective theory of value.

This is really a story about the Enlightenment of the High Middle Ages, which took place among academic clerics in an age of population growth, (extensive) economic growth, and urbanization. As Kaye apparently argues in an earlier book, these academics were constantly confronted with the market – especially in the thriving city of Paris – and were well versed in market practice; indeed, this knowledge of the market and money contributed to advances in physical and biological as well as social sciences. The medieval academic Enlightenment went into decline after the Black Death in the early fourteenth century. The resulting dislocations and the swing in relative prices – in favor of peasants and against landholders, including importantly the Church – reduced the centrality and authority of academic thought, even as they spurred institutional changes that would set the stage for growth in the early modern period. Population in Europe did not return to its pre-plague levels until the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and economic thought took just as long to recover. (I know this is whiggish, but I can’t help it.)

There was perhaps one connection between the two events. At HBS, Ron Harris talked about his ongoing research on the earliest history of the corporate form in the East and the West. Here the commenda contract is the centerpiece. That is presumably what schoolmen like Olivi called by the Latin term societas, which was not, however, the same institution as the societas publicanus of ancient Rome.

10 December 2014 at 5:39 pm 1 comment

On Classifying Academic Research

| Peter Klein |

Should academic work be classified primarily by discipline, or by problem? Within disciplines, do we start with theory versus application, micro versus macro, historical versus contemporary, or something else? Of course, there may be no single “optimal” classification scheme, but how we think about organizing research in our field says something about how we view the nature, contributions, and problems in the field.

There’s a very interesting discussion of this subject in the History of Economics Playground blog, focusing on the evolution of the Journal of Economic Literature codes used by economists (parts 1, 2, and 3). I particularly liked Beatrice Cherrier’s analysis of the AEA’s decision to drop “theory” as a separate category. The MachlupHutchisonRothbard exchange helps establish the context.

[T]he seemingly administrative task of devising new categories threw AEA officials, in particular AER editor Bernard Haley and former AER interim editor Fritz Machlup, into heated debates over the nature and relationships of theoretical and empirical work.

Machlup campaigned for a separate “Abstract Economic Theory” top category. At the time of the revision, he was engaged in methodological work, striving to find a third way between Terence Hutchison’s “ultraempiricism,” and the “extreme a priorism” of his former mentor, Ludwig Von Mises (see Blaug, ch.4). He believed it was possible to differentiate between “fundamental (heuristic) hypotheses, which are not independently testable,” and “specific (factual) assumptions, which are supposed to correspond to observed facts or conditions.” The former was found in Keynes’s General Theory, and the latter in his Treatise on Money, Machlup explained. He thus proposed that empirical analysis be classified independently, under two categories: “Quantitative Research Techniques” and “Social Accounting, Measurements, and Numerical Hypotheses” (e.g., census data, expenditure surveys, input-output matrices, etc.). On the contrary, Haley wanted every category to cover the theoretical and empirical work related to a given subject matter. In his view, separating them was impossible, even meaningless: “Is there any theory that is not abstract? And, for that matter, is there any economic theory worth its salt that is not applied,” he teased Machlup. Also, he wanted to avoid the idea that “class 1 is theory, the rest are applied … How about monetary theory, international trade theory, business cycle theory?” He accordingly designed the top category to encompass price theory, but also statistical demand analysis, as well as “both theoretical and empirical studies of, e.g., the consumption function [and] economic growth models of the Harrod-Domar variety,” among other subjects.  He eschewed any “theory” heading, which he replaced with titles such as  “Price system; National Income Analysis.” His scheme eventually prevailed, but “theory” was reinstated in the title of the contentious category.

9 December 2014 at 2:35 pm 1 comment

PhD Strategy Syllabi

| Peter Klein |

Russ Coff has assembled an impressive list of syllabi and reading lists for PhD courses in strategy, innovation, research methods, and related subjects. Feel free to send him additional suggestions. Many useful references here for faculty and students teaching or taking these courses, and for anybody wishing to learn more about classic and contemporary literature in strategic management research.

25 November 2014 at 9:21 pm 2 comments

It’s the Economics that Got Small

| Peter Klein |

Joe Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma Desmond: I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

John List gave the keynote address at this weekend’s Southern Economic Association annual meeting. List is a pioneer in the use by economists of field experiments or randomized controlled trials, and his talk summarized some of his recent work and offered some general reflections on the field. It was a good talk, lively and engaging, and the crowd gave him a very enthusiastic response.

List opened and closed his talk with a well-known quote from Paul Samuelson’s textbook (e.g., this version from the 1985 edition, coauthored with William Nordhaus): “Economists . . . cannot perform the controlled experiments of chemists and biologists because they cannot easily control other important factors.” While professing appropriate respect for the achievements of Samuelson and Nordhaus, List shared the quote mainly to ridicule it. The rise of behavioral and experimental economics over the last few decades — in particular, the recent literature on field experiments or RCTs — shows that economists can and do perform experiments. Moreover, List argues, field experiments are even better than using laboratories, or conventional econometric methods with instrumental variables, propensity score matching, differences-in-differences, etc., because random assignment can do the identification. With a large enough sample, and careful experimental design, the researcher can identify causal relationships by comparing the effects of various interventions on treatment and control groups in the field, in a natural setting, not an artificial or simulated one.

While I enjoyed List’s talk, I became increasingly frustrated as it progressed, and found myself — I can’t believe I’m writing these words — defending Samuelson and Nordhaus. Of course, not only neoclassical economists, but nearly all economists, especially the Austrians, have denied explicitly that economics is an experimental science. “History can neither prove nor disprove any general statement in the manner in which the natural sciences accept or reject a hypothesis on the ground of laboratory experiments,” writes Mises (Human Action, p. 31). “Neither experimental verification nor experimental falsification of a general proposition are possible in this field.” The reason, Mises argues, is that history consists of non-repeatable events. “There are in [the social sciences] no such things as experimentally established facts. All experience in this field is, as must be repeated again and again, historical experience, that is, experience of complex phenomena” (Epistemological Problems of Economics, p. 69). To trace out relationships among such complex phenomena requires deductive theory.

Does experimental economics disprove this contention? Not really. List summarized two strands of his own work. The first deals with school achievement. List and his colleagues have partnered with a suburban Chicago school district to perform a series of randomized controlled trials on teacher and student performance. In one set of experiments, teachers were given various monetary incentives if their students improved their scores on standardized tests. The experiments revealed strong evidence for loss aversion: offering teachers year-end cash bonuses if their student improved had little effect on test scores, but giving teacher cash up front, and making them return it at the end of the year if their students did not improve, had a huge effect. Likewise, giving students $20 before a test, with the understanding that they have to give the money back if they don’t do well, leads to large improvements in test scores. Another set of randomized trials showed that responses to charitable fundraising letters are strongly impacted by the structure of the “ask.”

To be sure, this is interesting stuff, and school achievement and fundraising effectiveness are important social problems. But I found myself asking, again and again, where’s the economics? The proposed mechanisms involve a little psychology, and some basic economic intuition along the lines of “people respond to incentives.” But that’s about it. I couldn’t see anything in these design and execution of these experiments that would require a PhD in economics, or sociology, or psychology, or even a basic college economics course. From the perspective of economic theory, the problems seem pretty trivial. I suspect that Samuelson and Nordhaus had in mind the “big questions” of economics and social science: Is capitalism more efficient than socialism? What causes business cycles? Is there a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment? What is the case for free trade? Should we go back to the gold standard? Why do nations to go war? It’s not clear to me how field experiments can shed light on these kinds of problems. Sure, we can use randomized controlled trials to find out why some people prefer red to blue, or what affects their self-reported happiness, or why we eat junk food instead of vegetables. But do you really need to invest 5-7 years getting a PhD in economics to do this sort of work? Is this the most valuable use of the best and brightest in the field?

My guess is that Samuelson and Nordhaus would reply to List: “We are big. It’s the economics that got small.”

See also: Identification versus Importance

23 November 2014 at 2:58 pm 8 comments

Rich Makadok on Formal Modeling and Firm Strategy

[A guest post from Rich Makadok, lifted from the comments section of the Tirole post below.]

Peter invited me to reply to [Warren Miller’s] comment, so I’ll try to offer a defense of formal economic modeling.

In answering Peter’s invitation, I’m at a bit of a disadvantage because I am definitely NOT an IO economist (perhaps because I actually CAN relax). Rather, I’m a strategy guy — far more interested in studying the private welfare of firms than the public welfare of economies (plus, it pays better and is more fun). So, I am in a much better position to comment on the benefits that the game-theoretic toolbox is currently starting to bring to the strategy field than on the benefits that it has brought to the economics discipline over the last four decades (i.e., since Akerlof’s 1970 Lemons paper really jump-started the trend).

Peter writes, “game theory was supposed to add transparency and ‘rigor’ to the analysis.” I have heard this argument many times (e.g., Adner et al, 2009 AMR), and I think it is a red herring, or at least a side show. Yes, formal modeling does add transparency and rigor, but that’s not its main benefit. If the only benefit of formal modeling were simply about improving transparency and rigor then I suspect that it would never have achieved much influence at all. Formal modeling, like any research tool or method, is best judged according to the degree of insight — not the degree of precision — that it brings to the field.

I can’t think of any empirical researcher who has gained fame merely by finding techniques to reduce the amount of noise in the estimate of a regression parameter that has already been the subject of other previous studies. Only if that improved estimation technique generates results that are dramatically different from previous results (or from expected results) would the improved precision of the estimate matter much — i.e., only if the improved precision led to a valuable new insight. In that case, it would really be the insight that mattered, not the precision. The impact of empirical work is proportionate to its degree of new insight, not to its degree of precision. The excruciatingly unsophisticated empirical methods in Ned Bowman’s highly influential “Risk-Return Paradox” and “Risk-Seeking by Troubled Firms” papers provide a great example of this point.

The same general principle is true of theoretical work as well. I can’t think of any formal modeler who has gained fame merely by sharpening the precision of an existing verbal theory. Such minor contributions, if they get published at all, are barely noticed and quickly forgotten. A formal model only has real impact when it generates some valuable new insight. As with empirics, the insight is what really matters, not the precision. (more…)

14 October 2014 at 11:25 am 18 comments

Tirole

| 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, NYTEconomist) 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.)

13 October 2014 at 2:31 pm 17 comments

“Why Managers Still Matter”

| Nicolai Foss |

BxrnIo-CQAA8lk7Here is a recent MIT Sloan Management Review piece by Peter and me, “Why Managers Still Matter.” We pick up on a number of themes of our 2012 book Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment. A brief excerpt:

“Wikifying” the modern business has become a call to arms for some management scholars and pundits. As Tim Kastelle, a leading scholar on innovation management at the University of Queensland Business School in Australia, wrote: “It’s time to start reimagining management. Making everyone a chief is a good place to start.”

Companies, some of which operate in very traditional market sectors, have been crowing for years about their systems for “managing without managers” and how market forces and well-designed incentives can help decentralize management and motivate employees to take the initiative. . . .

From our perspective, the view that executive authority is increasingly passé is wrong. Indeed, we have found that it is essential in situations where (1) decisions are time-sensitive; (2) key knowledge is concentrated within the management team; and (3) there is need for internal coordination. . . . Such conditions are hallmarks of our networked, knowledge-intensive and hypercompetitive economy.

29 September 2014 at 10:02 am 8 comments

The Use of History in Management Research and Education

| Peter Klein |

Another book recommendation, also courtesy of EH.Net. The book is Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods (Oxford University Press, 2014), edited by Marcelo Bucheli and R. Daniel Wadhwani. (Bucheli is author of an excellent book on the United Fruit Company.) Organizations in Time is about of the use of history in management research and education. Perhaps surprisingly, the field of business history is not usually part of the business school curriculum. In the US at least, business historians are typically affiliated with history or economics departments, not management departments or other parts of the business school. EH.Net reviewer Andrew Smith notes the following:

Until the 1960s, economic history and business history had an important place in business school teaching and research.  Many management scholars then decided to emulate research models developed in the hard sciences, which led to history becoming marginal in most business schools. History lost respect among positivistic management academics because historians made few broad theoretical claims, rarely discussed their research methodologies, and did not explicitly identify their independent and dependent variables. Historians in management schools became, effectively, disciplinary guests in their institutions.

The period from 2008 to the present has witnessed a revival of interest in history on the part of consumers of economic knowledge in a variety of academic disciplines, not to mention society as a whole. . . . It is now widely recognized that there needs to be more history in business school research and teaching. However, as Marcelo Bucheli and Dan Wadhwani note in the introductory essay, this apparent consensus obscures a lack of clarity about what a “historic turn” would, in practice, involve (p. 5).

This volume argues that the historic turn cannot simply be about going to the historical record to gather data points for the testing of various social-scientific theories, which is what scholars such as Reinhart and Rogoff do. Rather than being yet another device for allowing the quantitative social sciences to colonize the past, the historic turn should involve the adoption of historical methods by other management school academics. At the very least, people in the field of organization studies should borrow more tools from the historian’s toolkit.

Read the book (or at least the review) to learn more about these tools and approaches, which involve psychology, embeddedness, path dependence, and other concepts familiar to O&M readers.

23 July 2014 at 7:59 am Leave a comment

More Pioneers of Entrepreneurship Research

| Peter Klein |

Besides the essay on Mark Casson discussed below, the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal has released forthcoming profiles of Ian MacMillan (by Rita McGrath), Arnold Cooper (by Tim Folta), and Steve Klepper (by Rajshree Agarwal and Serguey Braguinsky), as part of its series on “Research Pioneers.”

2 July 2014 at 10:42 am Leave a comment

The Paradox of the New Economic History

| Peter Klein |

MIT’s Peter Temin on the “paradox of the New Economic History,” from his keynote speech to the BETA-Workshop in Historical Economics (published as an NBER working paper):

New economic historians have turned their back on traditional historians and sought their place among economists. This has provided good jobs for many scholars, but the acceptance by economists is still incomplete. We therefore have two challenges ahead of ourselves. The first is to argue that economic development can only be fully understood if we understand the divergent histories of high-wage and low-wage economies. And the other big challenge is to translate our economic findings into historical lessons that historians will want to read. These challenges come from our place between economics and history, and both are important for the future of the New Economic History.

His broader claim is that the disciplines of economic history and economic development should be more closely integrated. “Both subfields study economic development; the difference is that economic history focuses on high-wage countries while economic development focuses on low-wage economies.”

21 May 2014 at 11:55 am Leave a comment

The Piketty Code

| Dick Langlois |

I was trying to avoid jumping into the fray about Capital in the Twenty-First Century so as not to participate in the mania, as if throwing one more tiny ember into a wildfire would cause measurable additional damage. But I couldn’t resist after seeing an article entitled “How Thomas Piketty Explains American Sports.” Written by someone called Kevin Lincoln in a left-wing mag called Pacific Standard, the article discusses the NBA’s proposal to raise the minimum roster age from 19 to 20, thus reducing the number of one-and-done college players and depriving John Calipari of his livelihood. (Did I forget to mention that UConn won both men’s and women’s national championships this year?) Lincoln correctly points out that such a change is in the interest not only of the D-1 colleges, who get to keep their stars longer, but also of the NBA, since it offloads more player development to the colleges. Sounds perfectly reasonable – exactly the kind of analysis you would expect from, say, a free-market public-choice economist. What on earth does this have to do with Piketty?

The concept of “over-accumulation” was coined by economist David Hershey, and with the ascent of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century into bestsellerdom, it’s something that anyone with even a passing interest in economics is probably familiar with. In our current economy, actors who have gathered large amounts of capital tend to invest it in the creation of further capital for themselves rather than funneling it back into production. In turn, the economy stagnates, with the world’s financial resources concentrating in the hands of the rich with no money left over to raise wages for the working class.

Yes, this scheme will probably raise the wealth (a little) of NBA owners. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the accumulation of capital. For both owners and players, the NBA is all about people getting wealthy from entrepreneurial insight and scarce valuable skills — exactly contrary to Piketty’s predictions.

The author is obviously economically illiterate — how exactly can people “create further capital for themselves” without somehow “funneling it back into production”? Yet the fact that someone smart enough to write a free-lance article would connect the NBA to Piketty speaks, it seems to me, to what the Piketty phenomenon is all about. In my view, we should not be comparing Piketty with Marx or Keynes. We should be comparing him with Dan Brown. Like the Da Vinci Code, Capital is an otherwise unremarkable book that managed to put together a volatile mix of elements. Both books captured some kind of zeitgeist, of course, but they did so in a remarkably precise way. They rely on similar elements: a theory of how the world works that doesn’t stand up to minimal scrutiny but is easy to understand, seems to explain the mysterious and ineffable, and, most importantly, confirms the gut prejudices of its readers. Capital is not as much a conspiracy theory as the Da Vinci Code; it’s a nineteenth-century story about aggregate income shares. But it is also an empty-enough vessel into which readers (especially those who haven’t actually read it) can pour their own conspiracy theories. The NBA is the Opus Dei of capitalist sports.

While we’re on the subject, I also want to mention that, to my mild surprise, the best review of Piketty I have run across is by Larry Summers. He gathers together all the technical criticisms in many other reviews and then adds a few of his own. While he pats Piketty on the back for his wonderful interest in inequality, he leaves the theoretical claims in a tattered pile on the floor.

17 May 2014 at 1:10 pm 4 comments

A Note on “Human Capital”

| Peter Klein |

Like Peter Lewin, Walter Block, Mario Rizzo, and Peter Boettke, I greatly admire the late Gary Becker, a pioneer in many areas of economics and sociology, a strong proponent of economic and personal freedom, and by all accounts a terrific teacher, mentor, and colleague. But I confess that I have always had qualms about the concept of “human capital,” along with the analogous constructs of social capital, knowledge capital, reputation capital, and so on. These are metaphors for capital in the narrow sense, and I worry that the widespread use of “capital” to denote anything valuable and long-lived obscures important issues about actual, physical capital that can be divided up, measured, priced, and exchanged. Witness the confusion over “capital” as Thomas Piketty uses the term. Here is something I wrote before:

[O]ne of my pet peeves [is] the expansive use of “capital” to describe any ill-defined substance that accumulates and has value. Hence knowledge, experience, and skills become “human capital” or “knowledge capital”; relationships become “social capital”; brand names become “reputation capital”; and so on. I fear this terminology obfuscates more than it clarifies.

I don’t mind using these terms in a loose, colloquial sense: By going to school I’m investing in human capital or diversifying my stock of human capital; if this gets me a high-paying job I’m earning a good return on my human capital; as I get old I forget new things, so my human capital is depreciating rapidly; and so on.

But we shouldn’t take these metaphors too literally. In economic theory capital refers either to financial capital or to a stock of heterogeneous alienable assets, goods that can be exchanged in markets and analyzed using price theory. Their rental prices are determined by marginal revenue products and their purchase prices are given by the present discounted value of these future rents. Knowledge is not, strictly speaking, capital, because it is not traded in markets does not have a rental or purchase price. What markets trade and price is labor services, and it is impossible to decompose the payments to labor (wages) into separate “effort” and “rental return on human capital” components. Some labor services command a higher market price than others because they have a higher marginal revenue product. Some of this wage premium may be due to intelligence or experience, some due to complementarities with other human or nonhuman assets, some due to hard work, and so on. But these are all determinants of the MRP, and hence the wage, not different kinds of factor returns.

Moreover, the entrepreneur needs cardinal numbers to compute the value of his capital stock, to know if it is increasing or decreasing in value, and so on. I can’t measure my stock of human capital, I don’t know for sure if it is increasing or decreasing over time, I can’t calculate the ROI of a specific human-capital investment, etc., because there are no prices and no measurable units. Knowledge may be “like capital,” in the sense that it lasts, that you can add to it, that you benefit from it, etc., but it isn’t literally a capital good like a machine or a refrigerator.

If we think going to school is valuable and increases lifetime earnings, why don’t we just say, “going to school is valuable and increases lifetime earnings,” rather than, “there is a positive return on investments in human capital”? Is there a good reason to prefer the latter, besides scientism?

6 May 2014 at 9:18 am 11 comments

Gary Becker: A Personal Appreciation

[The following is from former guest blogger Peter Lewin, who wrote his PhD under Gary Becker at Chicago.]

| Peter Lewin |

Professor Gary Becker died yesterday at the age of 83. At the time of his death, he was arguably the most highly respected living economics scholar.

The blogosphere will soon be flooded with obituaries, appreciations, and evaluations of his work by people better placed than I to offer them. Given, however, that I was privileged to have been able to study with him for a short period of time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and that he acted as the chairman of my Ph.D. dissertation committee, I would like on the occasion of his passing to offer a few words of personal appreciation.

Becker will be remembered mostly for his work on human capital and the economics of the family. It is hard to overstate the influence of his contributions to these fields. Indeed, he pretty much created them — though one must not minimize the contributions of others early scholars like Simon Polacheck, and especially the independent and complementary work of Jacob Mincer.

By his own account, Becker came to these subjects through the influence of his mentor Milton Friedman whose approach led him to see economics as the study of people “in the ordinary business of life” (as Alfred Marshall would have it). But his first foray beyond the traditional borders of the subject was not in those subjects (human capital or the economics of the family) but rather in the economics of discrimination, a very volatile subject at the time. He literally wrote the book on The Economics of Discrimination (see also here). It seemed to him at the time that the conversation on civil rights and segregation was hopelessly confused by the lack of an understand of the social processes at work, an understanding that was accessible using the eternal principles of economics to investigate how people act on their preferences, whatever they are and whatever we may think of them. So he quite controversially investigated the likely results of economic processes in which people had given (race or gender) preferences and showed quite simply that, as long as people were free to act in open markets as employers, workers, or consumers, the act of discrimination would carry a price. For example, discriminator-employers who indulged their preferences who be outcompeted by those who hired the most qualified person for the job, and, in this way, open competition would tend to erode discriminatory outcomes (if not discriminatory attitudes). (more…)

4 May 2014 at 4:48 pm 10 comments

Gary S. Becker, 1930-2014

| Peter Klein |

Gary Becker died yesterday at the age of 83. Becker was a living legend of the Chicago school, and an active scholar, even chairing a current dissertation committee. Hayek called Becker “one of the most gifted men of the Chicago school” and “theoretically a more sophisticated thinker” than Milton Friedman or George Stigler.

Here are past O&M references to Becker, including Becker’s comments on organization theory in light of Williamson’s Nobel Prize. And here’s a short paper by me on T.W. Schultz’s human-capital approach to entrepreneurship, about which Becker showed little interest, despite his development of Schultz’s human-capital construct. Brian Loasby has a nice chapter on “Human Capital, Entrepreneurship, and the Theory of the Firm” in the Oxford Handbook of Human Capital, edited by Alan Burton‐Jones and our friend J.‐C. Spender (Becker’s foreword is online).

I attended the 1992 meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society, when Becker was president. Someone arranged for Becker to meet with me and the other graduate students. The sense among the student attendees was that MPS was becoming, under Becker’s leadership, too mainstream, respectable, and tame. Where were the radical libertarians, Austrians, and other free thinkers? As I recall, poor Becker was bombarded with a bunch of questions along these lines, which he handled kindly and gracefully. He had nothing but good things to say about Mises, Hayek, Hazlitt, and the other MPS founders. A fine gentleman.

A friend of mine was at Chicago in the 1990s when Becker was in his mid-60s and already a Nobel Laureate. Like most economists in the department, my friend went to the office and worked Saturdays and Sundays. Becker was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. “He’s not only the smartest person here,” I was told, “but the hardest worker!”

4 May 2014 at 2:19 pm 3 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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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).
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