Posts filed under ‘Nothing New under the Sun’
| Peter Klein |
Justin Fox reports on a recent high-powered behavioral economics conference featuring Raj Chetty, David Laibson, Antoinette Schoar, Maya Shankar, and other important contributors to this growing research stream. But he refers also to the “Summers critique,” the idea that key findings in behavioral economics research sound like recycled wisdom from business practitioners.
Summers [in 2012] told a story about a college acquaintance who as a cruel prank signed up another classmate for 60 different subscriptions of the Book-of-the-Month-Club ilk. The way these clubs worked is that once you signed up, you got a book in the mail every month and were charged for it unless you (a) sent the book back within a certain period of time or (b) went through the hassle of extricating yourself from the club altogether. Customers had to opt out in order to not keep buying books, so they bought more books than they otherwise would have. Book marketers, Summers said, had figured out the power of defaults long before economists had.
More generally, Fox asks, “Have behavioral economists really discovered anything new, or have they simply replaced some wrong-headed notions of post-World War II economics with insights that people in business have understood for decades and maybe even centuries?”
I took exactly the Summers line in a 2010 post, observing that behavioral economics “often seems to restate common, obvious, well-known ideas as if they are really novel insights (e.g., that preferences aren’t stable and predictable over time). More novel propositions are questionable at best.” I used a Dan Ariely column on compensation policy as an example:
He claims as a unique insight of behavioral economics that when people are evaluated according to quantitative measures of performance, they tend to focus on the measures, not the underlying behavior being measured. Well, duh. This is pretty much a staple of introductory lectures on agency theory (and features prominently in Steve Kerr’s classic 1975 article). Ariely goes on to suggest that CEOs should be rewarded not on the basis of a single measure of performance, but multiple measures. Double-duh. Holmström (1979) called this the “informativeness principle” and it’s in all the standard textbooks on contract design and compensation structure (e.g., Milgrom and Roberts, Brickley et al., etc.) (Of course, agency theory also recognizes that gathering information is costly, and that additional metrics are valuable, on the margin, only if the benefits exceed the costs, a point unmentioned by Ariely.)
Maybe Larry and I should hang out.
| Peter Klein |
We’ve featured some cool vintage diagrams before, such as the New York and Erie Railroad organizational chart and the diagrams of the Mundaneum. Here’s an information flow diagram from 1922, represented as a cutaway view of the Washington Star newspaper offices. As Jason Kottke notes, it provides “a fascinating view of how information flowed through a newspaper company in the 1920s. Raw materials in the form of electricity, water, telegraph messages, paper, and employees enter the building and finished newspapers leave out the back.”
| Peter Klein |
At this week’s Strategic Management Conference in Madrid I participated in an interesting session on Media Innovations, along with Will Mitchell and Wiley’s Caroline McCarley. My remarks focused on academics and their use of social media. How (if at all) can professors use blogs, videos, wikis, and other social media products to disseminate their research, to improve their teaching, and even to discover new ideas? Are social media and “serious” activities like research and class preparation substitutes or complements? Should untenured faculty avoid such distractions?
I began my remarks — where else? — with Kim Kardashian. Biologist Neil Hall made a bit of a splash a few months back by introducing the Kardashian Index, basically the ratio of an academic researcher’s Twitter followers to citations in peer-reviewed journals. (For a rough approximation, just divide Twitter followers by Google Scholar cites.) Someone with a very high K-index, the story goes, has a large popular following, but hasn’t made any important scientific contributions — in other words, like Kim, famous for being famous.
Science published a rejoinder suggesting that the K-index gets it wrong by implying, incorrectly, that popular and scholarly influence are inversely related. Indeed, among the top 20 natural scientists, by Twitter followers, are some scientific lightweights like Neil deGrasse Tyson (2.4 million Twitter followers and 151 citations), but also serious thinkers like Tim Berners-Lee (179,000 followers and 51,204 cites) and Steven Pinker (142,000 and 49,933). I haven’t run the numbers for economists and management scholars but I think you’ll find the same general pattern. E.g., among the biggies on the LDRLB Top Professors on Twitter list you find a mix of practitioner-oriented writers with modest academic influence (Bill George, Richard Florida, Stew Friedman, Gary Hamel) and scholars with huge citation counts (Mike Porter, Clay Christensen, Adam Grant).
I went on to emphasize (as usual) that, for the most part, these issues are nothing new. Scholars and thinkers throughout history have used whatever media are available to disseminate their ideas to wider audiences. In the 17th-19th centuries there were pamphlets, handbills, newspapers, and lecture halls; in the 20th century radio, magazines, TV, and other outlets. Classical economists like John Stuart Mill published anti-slavery tracts; the Verein für Socialpolitik took positions on important social issues of the day; the American Economic Association was founded to combat lassiez-faire; C. S. Lewis gave his famous wartime radio lectures; Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman dueled in the pages of Newsweek, and Friedman took to the airwaves for the PBS series “Free to Choose.” So academic bloggers, Tweeters, Facebookers, YouTubers, LinkedInners, and Instagrammers are following in a grand tradition. Of course, what’s new today is the scale; without a contract for a newspaper column or TV show, any of us can set up shop, and have the potential to reach a very wide audience. (more…)
| 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?
| Dick Langlois |
Surprisingly, the following passage is not from O’Driscoll and Rizzo (1985). It is the abstract of a new paper by Brian Arthur called “Complexity Economics: A Different Framework for Economic Thought.”
This paper provides a logical framework for complexity economics. Complexity economics builds from the proposition that the economy is not necessarily in equilibrium: economic agents (firms, consumers, investors) constantly change their actions and strategies in response to the outcome they mutually create. This further changes the outcome, which requires them to adjust afresh. Agents thus live in a world where their beliefs and strategies are constantly being “tested” for survival within an outcome or “ecology” these beliefs and strategies together create. Economics has largely avoided this nonequilibrium view in the past, but if we allow it, we see patterns or phenomena not visible to equilibrium analysis. These emerge probabilistically, last for some time and dissipate, and they correspond to complex structures in other fields. We also see the economy not as something given and existing but forming from a constantly developing set of technological innovations, institutions, and arrangements that draw forth further innovations, institutions and arrangements. Complexity economics sees the economy as in motion, perpetually “computing” itself— perpetually constructing itself anew. Where equilibrium economics emphasizes order, determinacy, deduction, and stasis, complexity economics emphasizes contingency, indeterminacy, sense-making, and openness to change. In this framework time, in the sense of real historical time, becomes important, and a solution is no longer necessarily a set of mathematical conditions but a pattern, a set of emergent phenomena, a set of changes that may induce further changes, a set of existing entities creating novel entities. Equilibrium economics is a special case of nonequilibrium and hence complexity economics, therefore complexity economics is economics done in a more general way. It shows us an economy perpetually inventing itself, creating novel structures and possibilities for exploitation, and perpetually open to response.
Arthur does acknowledge that people like Marshall, Veblen, Schumpeter, Hayek, and Shackle have had much to say about exactly these issues. “But the thinking was largely history-specific, particular, case-based, and intuitive—in a word, literary—and therefore held to be beyond the reach of generalizable reasoning, so in time what had come to be called political economy became pushed to the side, acknowledged as practical and useful but not always respected.” So what Arthur has in mind is a mathematical theory, no doubt a form of what Roger Koppl – who is cited obscurely in a footnote – calls BRACE Economics.
| Peter Klein |
It was designed in 1854 for the New York and Erie Railroad and reflects a highly decentralized structure, with operational decisions concentrated at the local level. McKinsey’s Caitlin Rosenthal describes it as an early attempt to grapple with “big data,” one of today’s favored buzzwords. See her article, “Big Data in the Age of the Telegraph,” for a fascinating discussion. And remember, there’s little new under the sun (1, 2, 3).
| Peter Klein |
Joe Salerno’s post at Circle Bastiat, “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Cloud,” could have been an entry in our nothing new under the sun series. Joe highlights a recent HBR blog piece on the physical footprint and energy requirements of server farms, showing that success in the digital age depends, for some players, on access to tangible capital assets and energy. There are important implications:
The notion of a world without scarcity is thus usually propagated by leftist social theorists–but not always. There were some libertarian futurists around in the early 1970s. But lately many libertarians are among the vanguard of those who, dazzled by the marvels of the Digital Age, argue that many goods have become costlessly and, therefore, infinitely producible. Without government interference, they contend, humankind will be able to satisfy more and more of their wants using the resources freely available inside the Cloud.
Our Post-Scarcity libertarians should tell this to the owners of the 500,000 data centers, which contain the hundreds of millions of servers worldwide that constitute the real and indispensable infrastructure of the Cloud.
There are also the wires, cables, switches, cell towers, and client machines (PCs, smartphones, tablets, etc., not to mention smart refrigerators, cars with OnStar, thermostats, and more) that give us access to the cloud. To be sure, Moore’s law allows us to consume this hardware as never before. But software without hardware is like, hmmmm, peanut butter without jelly, Sonny without Cher, a Tim Burton movie without Johnny Depp. Notes Joe: “Once again, common sense observation of the real world reveals the ceaseless struggle of human actors to economize on the use of resources and vindicates the old and true economics of scarcity.”