Thursday, 16 November 2017

Book contract signed

I have just signed a contract with Routledge for them to publish my second book, "A brief prehistory of the theory of the firm". The manuscript is due first thing in December (I have much work to do over the next couple of weeks) and thus with luck the book will appear a few months later.

Keep an eye out and save up so you can be one of the first lucky people to own a copy!


    Preface and acknowledgements
    A note on the numbering of equations, tables and figures


    Chapter notes

The division of labour and the firm

    Ancient philosophers

    Medieval period

    Pre-classical economics period

    19th century

    20th century

    Chapter notes

Development of a theory of production or the firm

    Pre-classical economists

    The classical economics period

    The neoclassical era

        Behavioural and managerial models

        Contemporary criticisms of the neoclassical model

        Coase versus Demsetz on the neoclassical model

        Profit maximisation

    Malmgren (1961)

    Chapter notes

Possible reasons for the neglect of the firm

    Chapter notes


Monday, 13 November 2017

Common ownership, competition, and top management incentives

An interesting looking revised version of a working paper from the Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics at Yale University on "Common Ownership, Competition, and Top Management Incentives" (pdf). The paper is by Miguel Antón, Florian Ederer, Mireia Giné, and Martin Schmalz.

The abstract reads:
We show theoretically and empirically that managers have steeper financial incentives to expend effort and reduce costs when an industry’s firms tend to be controlled by shareholders with concentrated stakes in the firm, and relatively few holdings in competitors. A side effect of steep incentives is more aggressive competition. These findings inform a debate about the objective function of the firm.
The basic conclusion of the paper is,
We found that the sensitivity between top managers’ wealth and their firm’s performance is weaker when the firms’ largest shareholders are also large shareholders of competitors. The wealth-performance relation for managers is steeper when firms are owned by shareholders without significant stakes in competitors.
Thus you will get more competition when a firm is owned by shareholders without significant stakes in competitors.

Trade, merchants, and the lost cities of the Bronze Age

An interesting new NBER working paper on Trade, Merchants, and the Lost Cities of the Bronze Age by Gojko Barjamovic, Thomas Chaney, Kerem A. Coşar and Ali Hortaçsu.

NBER Working Paper No. 23992
Issued in November 2017
NBER Program(s): ITI
We analyze a large dataset of commercial records produced by Assyrian merchants in the 19th Century BCE. Using the information collected from these records, we estimate a structural gravity model of long-distance trade in the Bronze Age. We use our structural gravity model to locate lost ancient cities. In many instances, our structural estimates confirm the conjectures of historians who follow different methodologies. In some instances, our estimates confirm one conjecture against others. Confronting our structural estimates for ancient city sizes to modern data on population, income, and regional trade, we document persistent patterns in the distribution of city sizes across four millennia, even after controlling for time-invariant geographic attributes such as agricultural suitability. Finally, we offer evidence in support of the hypothesis that large cities tend to emerge at the intersections of natural transport routes, as dictated by topography.
Alex Tabarrok writes on this paper at Marginal Revolution:
In a stunningly original paper Gojko Barjamovic, Thomas Chaney, Kerem A. Coşar, and Ali Hortaçsu use the gravity model of trade to infer the location of lost cities from Bronze age Assyria! The simplest gravity model makes predictions about trade flows based on the sizes of cities and the distances between them. More complicated models add costs based on geographic barriers. The authors have data from ancient texts on trade flows between all the cities, they know the locations of some of the cities, and they know the geography of the region. Using this data they can invert the gravity model and, triangulating from the known cities, find the lost cities that would best “fit” the model. In other words, by assuming the model is true the authors can predict where the lost cities should be located. To test the idea the authors pretend that some known cities are lost and amazingly the model is able to accurately rediscover those cities.

Dennis Rasmussen on Hume and Smith and "The Infidel and the Professor"

In this audio from EconTalk Russ Roberts interviews Dennis Rasmussen about Rasmussen's new book "The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought".
How did the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith influence their ideas? Why do their ideas still matter today? Political Scientist Dennis Rasmussen of Tufts University and author of The Infidel and the Professor talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book--the intellectual and personal connections between two of the greatest thinkers of all time, David Hume and Adam Smith.
A direct link to the audio is available here.

Its a book that's well worth reading.

Claudia Goldin on the gender earnings gap

Claudia Goldin (Professor of Economics at Harvard University) writes, in the New York Times, on How to Win the Battle of the Sexes Over Pay (Hint: It Isn’t Simple.)

The executive summary
In sum, the gap is mainly the upshot of two separate but related forces: workplaces that pay more per hour to those who work longer and more uncertain hours, and households in which women have assumed disproportionately large responsibilities.
And now a bit more detail.
Yet it is also true that the time demands of many jobs can explain much of the pay difference, a finding that has sobering implications. Eliminating the gender earnings gap will require changes in millions of households and thousands of individual workplaces.
The gap is larger among more educated people, for example, and varies according to occupation, often in big ways. Among college graduates, it is far larger in business, finance and legal careers than in science and technology jobs. In health care, it is larger when self-employment is high (think dentists) and much lower when professionals are mainly employees (think pharmacists).

What’s more, the gap is a statistic that changes during the life of a worker. Typically, it’s small when formal education ends and employment begins, and it increases with age. More to the point, it increases when women marry and when they begin bearing children.
Similar patterns appear using data for women and men who have earned master’s degrees in business administration. Immediately after graduation, women earn 92 cents for each male dollar. A decade later they earn only 57 cents.

Correcting for time off and hours of work reduces the difference in the earnings between men and women but doesn’t eliminate it.

On the face of it, that looks like proof of disparate treatment. It may seem understandable that when a man works more hours than a woman, he earns more. But why should his compensation per hour be greater, given the same qualifications? But once again, the problem isn’t simple.
The data shows that women disproportionately seek jobs — including full-time jobs — that are more likely to mesh with family responsibilities, which, for the most part, are still greater for women than for men. So, the research shows, women tend to prefer jobs that offer flexibility: the ability to shift hours of work and rearrange shifts to accommodate emergencies at home.

Such jobs tend to be more predictable, with fewer on-call hours and less exposure to weekend and evening obligations. These advantages have a negative consequence: lower earnings per hour, even when the number of hours worked is the same.

Is that unfair? Maybe. But it isn’t always an open-and-shut case. Companies point out that flexibility is often expensive — more so in some jobs than others.

Certain job characteristics have a big impact on the gender earnings gap. I have looked closely at these issues, including the extent to which workers are:
  • Subject to strict deadlines and time pressure
  • Expected to be in direct contact with other workers or clients
  • Instructed to develop cooperative working relationships
  • Assigned to work on highly specific projects
  • Unable to independently determine their tasks and goals
Occupations with a lower level of these characteristics (like jobs in science and technology) show smaller gaps, corrected for hours of work. Occupations with a higher level (like those in finance and law) have greater gaps. Men’s earnings tend to surge when there are fewer substitutes for a given worker, when the job must be done in teams and when clients demand specific lawyers, accountants, consultants and financial advisers. Such differences can account for about half the gender earnings gap.
Ask yourself, do you really care who your pharmacist is versus do you care who your doctor or lawyer is? A particular pharmacist not having to be there to deal with customers mean greater flexibility in hours worked but this comes with lower pay while the fact that people want a particular doctor or lawyer to deal with them means long hours with little flexibility but with higher pay to compensate.
These findings provide more nuance in explaining why the gap widens with age and why it is greater for women with children. Whatever changes have already taken place in American society, the duty of caring for children — and for other family members — still weighs more heavily on women. And if you thought that moving to a more family-friendly nation would eliminate the gap, think again. In several nations, including Sweden and Denmark, a “motherhood penalty” in earnings exists, even though these nations have generous family policies, including paid family leave and subsidized child care.

Such considerations bring us to a very sensitive area: domestic arrangements at home, especially among couples with children. These are personal questions. In theory, gender earnings equality is possible when both parents take off the same amount of time and enjoy the same flexibility at work.
So domestic arrangement with a more equal distribution of childcare may reduce the wage gap but it may also make the family poorer.
From a classic economic standpoint, if one spouse or partner can earn more by working less flexible hours, as a family, the couple would earn more money by having that parent in that job, while the other partner accepts the more flexible one. A man can certainly be the more flexible member of this household — though he typically is not. Such decisions need to be made couple by couple.
So the answer to the pay gap may be in the choices made within the home. And that makes it difficult for public policy to deal with.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Zingales, McCloskey, Karlson and Kuran on populism and the free society

What does populism mean? Why do people buy it? Is the critique against the established elites valid? What are the main causes of the populist threats to the free society? How can public discourse and liberal democracy be restored?

Deirdre McCloskey, Luigi Zingales and Timur Kuran are some of the sharpets minds in academia today. They have all written extensively on the foundations of liberal societies. In conjunction with a special meeting with the Mont Pelerin Society on the populist threats to the free society and the reconstruction of the liberal project hosted by the Ratio Institute in Stockholm Sweden, they got together for a dialogue on some of the most pressing issues of our time. Professor Nils Karlson, CEO of the Ratio Institute and author of the book Statecraft and Liberal Reform in Advanced Democracies (Palgrave Macmillan), was the chair of the discussion.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Immigration with Art Carden

An interview from the Libertarian Christian Institute with economist Art Carden about immigration.


Saturday, 21 October 2017

The division of labour and the firm: Rauh (forthcoming)

An interesting new paper which develops a theory, incorporating the division of labour and specialisation and a stochastic ('O-ring') production function, to explain the incentive structure and size of the firm is The O-ring theory of the firm by Micheal T. Rauh, which is set to appear in the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy.

A note on the name 'O-ring'. The O-ring production function was introduced by Kremer (1993). The name comes from the fact that it was an O-ring failure that caused the space shuttle Challenger disaster. The basic idea is that the failure of a small component can have large adverse consequences. Here one part of the production process failing causes the whole process to fail.

Rauh assumes a production process that can be divided into a number of distinct tasks. This makes it possible for the tasks to be allocated across workers (the division of labour) and for workers to make investments in task-specific human capital (specialisation). This is the kind of situation just discussed in the Becker and Murphy paper. We saw that an increase in employment gave rise to a greater division of labour, that is, fewer tasks assigned to each worker, and greater specialisation and thus higher productivity. Importantly Rauh postulates an additional feature of the production process: a breakdown at any point in production, which could be due to shirking, poor decision-making or a negative shock, will have serious adverse consequences for the successful manufacturing of the product--this is the 'O-ring' type production function.

This second condition has important implications for the moral hazard problems that arise within a firm. In the first best case, the principal can directly monitor individual worker effort and thus will be able to identify and respond to any shirking by workers with probability one. In the second best case, individual output can be monitored and again shirking can be punished with probability one. Note that in this case a worker who experiences a negative shock will also be punished. In the third best case all workers will be punished, with probability one, if any single worker shirks. In each of the three cases there will be no free rider issues since shirkers cannot hide behind the efforts of their co-workers.

Rauh considers a production process where the set of tasks is the unit interval. The principal chooses the number of workers, and the set of tasks to be performed is divided equally across all workers. Each of the workers is able to choose their production effort and their level of investment in task-specific human capital for each task they are assigned. To produce one unit of output requires one unit of output of each task. This means that you get zero output if any of the workers shirks or suffers an adverse shock in any of their assigned tasks. In line with Becker and Murphy (1992) greater levels of employment implies fewer tasks being assigned to each worker, which in turn means the workers can increase their investments in human capital for each of their reduced set of assigned tasks. This results in greater productivity and thus increasing returns to employment.

The stochastic (O-ring) nature of the production function is thought about in the following way.
"In addition to production effort and investments in human capital, each agent monitors his assigned tasks and makes decisions about whether or not a problem has arisen, whether or not to halt production to fix it, whether he can fix it himself, and which potential solution is appropriate. When there is only one agent, there is a high probability that at least some of these decisions will be faulty because he has limited cognitive resources and performs all the tasks himself. When there are two agents, the probability that either one will make a mistake should be lower because each performs only half the set of tasks and can therefore devote more care and attention to each of them. On the other hand, we now have two probabilities instead of one, so the effect of an increase in employment is ambiguous" (Rauh forthcoming: 2).
More formally, the probability that a worker suffers a negative shock to at least one of the tasks they have been allocated is an increasing function of the proportion of tasks being performed by that worker. Under an assumption of independence, the probability of a product defect is the product of the individual probabilities. If the number of workers is increased this results in two effects. First, it will decrease the probability that each worker will suffer a negative shock. Secondly, it will increase the number of points in the production process at which a negative shock can occur. Rauh then defines a production process as satisfying the O-ring property if the probability of a defect occurring is increasing in the number of workers and converges to one as the number of workers goes to infinity.

Given this background, the main question for the paper is then considered: What limits the size of a firm? For Rauh the answer has to do with the effects (or lack of effects) of moral hazard. Since there is a one-to-one relationship between the division of labour and the level of employment in the paper, the question can be rephrased as, What limits the division of labour? As has been noted above Becker and Murphy (1992) see this limit as be determined not by the extent of the market, as Adam Smith argued, but rather by coordination costs, including agency costs.

When determining the relationship between moral hazard and the size of the firm, "[ ... ] the optimal employment level balances the following considerations: (i) the increasing returns to employment due to specialization and division of labor, (ii) the O-ring property of the production technology, where the probability of team failure increases with the size of the team, and (iii) the marginal cost of employment (the cost of hiring another agent)" (Rauh forthcoming: 2).

In the first best case of no moral hazard Rauh shows that the standard zero incentive, full insurance contract is employed. Effectively the firm is behaving as if it were a perfectly competitive wage-taker despite it being a monopolist. Since, in this case, each worker's payment is fixed, the firm's labour costs (the number of workers times the expected payment to each worker) are linear in workers and the marginal cost of a worker is constant. Importantly, however, given increasing returns to employment, which arises from specialisation and the division of labour, but only linearly increasing costs to employment, these costs cannot limit the extent of employment. Thus, in this case, the extent of the market for labour or the O-ring property must be limiting employment and thus the size of the firm. If it wasn't for these constraints the first best firm would be of infinite size since there are increasing returns to employment.

Next Rauh considers the second best contract. Here effort cannot be observed but individual output can. Rauh shows that the optimal (second best) contract involves awarding a bonus to a worker when their individual output is high, i.e., when the worker's effort is first best and there is a positive shock, and replacing the worker otherwise. Rauh shows that the worker’s bonus is decreasing in employment. This follows from the fact that as employment increases the proportion of tasks carried out by each worker falls which increases the likelihood of a positive shock. This increases the expected value of the worker’s payment if the worker selects the first best effect level. This means the principal can reduce the bonus paid to the worker. It is also shown that this reduction in the bonus reduces the expected payment to the worker and this implies that the payment is decreasing in employment as well. If this type of effect is large enough then the marginal cost of an extra worker can decline with employment and could even be negative. In this situation the second best cost of employment could be less than the first best (constant) marginal cost of employment. This would mean the second best firm could be larger than the first best firm. Thus, the second best firm would have weak incentives (low bonus), low expected pay (small worker payment) and an excessive division of labour (and an excessive amount of specialisation). Motivation is provided by the fact that shirking workers will be identified and fired, rather than through the use of incentive schemes. As before, as the level of employment increases fewer tasks are carried out by each worker and the probability of a positive shock converges to one. This means that the second best expected payment to a worker converges to the first best payment. In turn, this means that the second best cost function tends towards the (linear) first best cost function. Thus as with the first best case the increasing returns resulting to employment resulting from the division of labour and specialisation cannot be contained by an asymptotically linear cost of employment. Rauh concludes from this that when the principal can monitor individual output, even if not effort, the size of the firm under moral hazard is again limited by either the total number of workers available or the O-ring property .

Lastly, Rauh looks at the third best situation where the where the principal can observe only team output. Here the results are the opposite of the second best case. This is because the third best incentive relies on the probability that all workers experience a positive shock rather than depending on the probabilities that individual workers experience a positive shock. Given the O-ring property, an increase in workers increases the probability that an individual worker experiences a positive shock but reduces the probability that all workers experience a positive shock. In this case increasing the number of workers decreases the team probability of success and this decreases the expected payments made to workers when they put in the first best level of effort. This means that the principal will increase the third best bonus, which increases the third best expected payment to workers and the marginal cost of employment. From this it is clear that all of the third best bonus, expected payments and the marginal cost of a worker are increasing in the number of workers. This is the opposite of the second best case above.

As the number of workers employed continues to increase, the third best bonus, expected payments and the marginal cost of employment all explode. This is contrary to the second best case where all these variables tended to their first best levels. The third best marginal cost of employment is shown to always exceeds the first and second best marginal costs of employment. This means the third best firm is usually smaller than either the first or second best firms.

Thus for Rauh's model moral hazard concerns only limit the division of labour, and the size of the firm, when the principal can monitor just the output of the whole team. When either worker's effort or individual output can be observed either the extent of the labour market or the O-ring property limit the extent of the division of labour or the size of the firm.

Rauh's paper is interesting in part because it combines, in some ways, the older division of labour approach to the firm with the more modern principal agent approach to the firm. The more modern mainstream approaches to the firm don't emphasise the division of labour with their emphasis being more on incomplete contracts and agency problems. The division of labour approach has largely fallen out of favour.

Well worth a read if you are into the theory of the firm.

  • Becker, Gary S. and Kevin M. Murphy (1992). 'The Division of Labor, Coordination Costs, and Knowledge', Quarterly Journal of Economics, 107 (4) November: 1137-60.
  • Kremer, M. (1993). 'The O-ring theory of economic development', Quarterly Journal of Economics, 108(3) August: 551-75.
  • Rauh, Michael T. (forthcoming). 'The O-ring theory of the firm', Journal of Economics & Management Strategy.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Speaking truth to "power"

Bob McManus writes at the City Journal:
Stephen Colbert, with arguably the sharpest tongue among America’s late-night TV ankle-biters, made his bones at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, laying a vile spiel on President George W. Bush and finding himself the man of the moment. How brave, to speak such truth to power, gushed the usual suspects, and Colbert has been riding that wave ever since.

But he had done no such thing. In the absence of personal risk, haranguing the powerful can be soul-satisfying, and sometimes it forges careers, but it isn’t brave by a long shot. Thomas More spoke truth to Henry VIII, and it cost him his head. Dietrich Bonheoffer spoke truth to Adolf Hitler and was hanged in a concentration camp. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke truth to the Soviet Union and suffered grievously for it. Stephen Colbert piddled on the president’s rug, and he’s been cashing big-bucks checks ever since. See the difference?
Statements have to be costly to be credible. Cheap talk is .... well .... cheap talk. Signals need to be costly if people are to believe them. And there is nothing costly or brave about just sounding off against "power" when that "power" will not respond.