Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Is Trump's deal with Carrier a form of crony capitalism? (updated)

Short answer, yes.

Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University, gives a longer and more sophisticated answer in an interview on npr. Cowen comes in about the 4 minute mark.

Update: John Cochrane gives this Carrier Commentary.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

The division of labour and the firm: Robinson (1931)

This material relates to Robinson (1931).

One of the earliest attempts to relate the division of labour to the size of firms was Robinson (1931). In The Structure of Competitive Industry Robinson offered an analysis of the factors that determined the optimum size for a firm. For Robinson the interaction of five factors determined the size of the firm: technique, management, finance, marketing and risk of fluctuations. These various theoretical optima have then to be reconciled in the size or constitution of a real firm after allowing for difficulties and anomalies of growth. The division of labour has a role to play with regard to technique and management. Because of this we will concentrate on these two factors here.

For Robinson the optimum firm is that firm which in existing conditions of technique and organising ability produces at the minimum of long-run average costs. Under the conditions of perfect competition we would expect to see the optimum firm emerge but under conditions of imperfect competition, Robinson notes, it may not materialise. Consider, for example, the case of monopolistic competition in which a firm will be in equilibrium at less than the minimum of average cost.

The first application of the division of labour to the size of the firm that Robinson considers is the relationship between the division of labour and the optimum technical unit. Robinson follows Adam Smith in seeing three different reasons for the division of labour giving rise to more efficient production. First is the increase in dexterity of workmen; secondly, the saving of time which is commonly lost in passing from one type of work to another; and thirdly, the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and thus enable one person to do the work of many.

With regard to the issue of dexterity, Robinson notes Smith's observation that a person who works at a given task for some time is likely to develop a skill or knack for doing that task. In addition the division of labour can allow those people with a natural skill for carrying out a given task to specialise in that task.

Adam Smith (and Robinson) also saw an advantage in the division of labour in that specialisation at a task saved the time that would otherwise be spent on passing from one task to another. Time could be saved because workers do not have to move between machines or processes. Also time would be lost if machines had to be reset to perform a different function. The division of labour saves time by concentrating both workers and machine upon a given function, and a larger factory enjoys an advantage over a smaller one in so far as it makes this concentration possible.

The third economy Smith saw is due to the development of specialised equipment to carry out the tasks that the manufacture of an item is divided into. Separation of a process into its constituent parts makes development of machines to carry out those parts easier.

It is important to keep in mind when considering the size of a firm that the principle of the division of labour requires a firm of sufficient size to obtain the maximum profitable division of labour. This size will differ across industries depending on the nature of the production process for that industry and how detailed a division of labour can be implemented for that particular process. Larger firms will, often, have the capacity to implement a greater division of labour than a smaller firm, giving the larger firm an advantage in terms of efficiency.

The next issue discussed by Robinson is what he calls `the integration of process'. Robinson explains that often a large firm has fewer rather than more processes of manufacture. They can utilise a large machine which has been designed to takeover what would otherwise be a series of manual, or at least less completely mechanical, operations. A complicated machine can perform two or three or more consecutive processes and it can thereby eliminate the labour and time which would be required to up the work on each of the successive earlier machines. Only large firms can keep such a machine running at its full capacity and this fact gives the large firm an advantage over the smaller, and less mechanised, firm. But this difficulty can be overcome by the small firm as long as the size of the market for the process is large enough. If a given process requires a scale of production too great for a smaller firm the small firm can outsource the process to specialist firm. But such outsourcing if only possible if the extent of the market for a particular process is large enough to allow the division of labour to develop to the point where a specialist firm is viable. Robinson refers to this outsoucing as 'vertical disintegration'.

The second of the areas for which Robinson sees the division of labour having a role to play is with regard to management. A manager in a small firm will have multiple tasks to preform, some of which he will be good at, others that he will not be so good at. In a larger firm a division of labour can develop which allows managers to specialise on those function for which they are best suited. The larger firm gains in two ways from its division of managerial labour: 1) special abilities to be used to their fullest extent. Talents are not wasted by having managers carry out functions which could be better assigned to another manager with a particular ability at that function. 2) a manger who specialises in a given task will increase their knowledge of that task.

A potential downside of the managerial division of labour is the problem of coordination. As the division of labour becomes greater the problems associated with the coordination of the different parts of the production process also increases. As new tasks are created by dividing up the production process, new administrative functions are also created to coordinate the ever more disjoint production process. The advantage that a larger firm has over the smaller depends, in a large part, on how well it solves this coordination problem.

An additional theoretical problem with Robinson's discussion follows from the implicate assumption in the competitive model that complete contracts can be written. In such a world it is not clear why a firm is needed to carry out production at all. As Coase (1937) first highlighted in a world of complete contracts any organisation form can mimic any other meaning that production could be carried out via the market just as efficiently as within a firm.

  • Coase, R. H. (1937). `The Nature of the Firm', Economica, New Series 4 No. 16 November: 386-405.
  • Robinson, E A G. (1931). The Structure of Competitive Industry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Stories from the stone age First Farmers pt.2

Neolithic Revolution the Caucasian Resurrection.

Stories from the stone age First Farmers pt.1

Out of the Stone age and into the Neolithic one of human's most incredible accomplishments 6000 yrs before the pyramids. The story of Near Eastern "The First Farmers".

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Can Trump make the U.S. a ‘global subsidy cop’?

Has Trump actually come up with something right to do with trade? Are global subsidies a bad thing? Should we complain if other countries subsidise their industries? If other countries want to subsidise our consumption of imports should we care? Scott Lincicome argues that if the U.S. wants to end the practice of other countries subsidising key industries, it would require the U.S. to clean up its own business giveaways.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Resource misallocation & productive growth

Chang-Tai Hsieh, IGC steering group member, explains why some firms are more successful than others, using Indian firms as a case study. The Indian example shows that entrepreneurs can find ways around inefficient regulation. The problem of course is that the workaround is not fully efficient, a better policy would be to remove the bad regulation in the first place. But as noted by Hsieh politicians aren't willing to go there. Another example of bad politics driving out good economics.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A challenge to mercantilists

A challenge from Don Boudreaux at the Cafe Hayek blog. Boudreaux issues the following challenge to any protectionist/mercantilist/economic-nationalist who might wish to take it on:
Identify one plausible economic problem caused by free trade that is unique to trade and commerce that spans political borders. Just one. That is, identify a problem with free trade that arises when people are free to buy and sell internationally but that does not arise when people are free to buy and sell intranationally.
In other words, what economic problems can we avoid by restricting international trade that we don't have to deal with in internal trade?  I've got to admit I've yet to think of anything even remotely plausible as an answer to this challenge.

The "Adaptation Cost" theory of the firm

This material is covers chapters 3 and 4 of Wernerfelt (2016). These chapters are, in turn, based on Wernerfelt (1997) and Wernerfelt (2015), respectively.

Wernerfelt considers two questions to do with the firm that he thinks important but go largely unanswered in the standard theory of the firm literature: What determines the choice between the use of the market, a firm or a contract? Why are all of these mechanisms so commonly used?

His answer to these questions is contained in the "Adaptation Cost" theory of the firm.

Start with a situation where a worker is providing a particular service to an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur's needs change so that the worker's service would have to also change if he is to stay with that entrepreneur. But the worker's productivity will suffer if he, either, changes the service he provides or changes to another entrepreneur and in either of these cases costs would have to be incurred due to the process of bargaining over the terms of a new agreement.

But the costs of worker adaptation are not just those of bargaining, there are also costs, in terms of lower productivity, if the worker has to change, either, to a new service or a new business. A worker is most efficient when he is "double specialised". That is, when he is continually providing the same service to the same business. If this "double specialisation" is not possible it is often second-best to specialise in one of the two dimensions and deal with occasional adaption in the other dimension. Some such adaptations, whether it be between two businesses or two services, are more costly than others.

The basic theory of the Adaptation Cost theory was developed in two papers by Wernerfelt, Wernerfelt (1997, 2015). To begin with the 1997 paper (chapter 3 of Wernerfelt 2016). The focus is on workers who supply businesses with services. The problem is that the needs of the businesses change. Three mechanism to deal with the changing needs are considered: employment, sequential contracting and price lists. In chapter 3 adaptation costs are mainly price determination costs only, since production costs are held constant.

Under the employment mechanism, workers and entrepreneurs negotiate on a once-and-for-all basis over the wage and a large set of services to be supplied on demand. This is similar to the situation in Simon (1951). Here a firm is made up of an entrepreneur and a number of workers who provide the entrepreneur with services via the employment mechanism while the scope of the firm is determined by set of workers thus employed by the entrepreneur. The downside of this is that since there are a large number of things to be bargained over the initial bargaining costs are large, but once agreement is reached there are no further costs incurred so the gains from trade are realised in each period.

Under the sequential contracting mechanism a new price gets negotiated whenever the business's requirements change and thus bargaining costs are incurred on each such occasion. However as the bargains are simpler than those required for the employment contract - the parties are bargaining over a single, known service - the per-occasion bargaining costs are lower.

With the price list, a set of price are agreed upon ex ante and then the list is referred to as needed. As with the case of sequential contracting the per-service bargaining costs are low but if the initial bargaining is over a very long list of prices those costs are high. Here the diversity of needs - how long the price list needs to be - is important to the relative attractiveness of the mechanism.

When the need for a change in service adaptation arise with sufficient frequency, the folk theorem allows us to assume that all trades are efficient under the employment and sequential contracting mechanisms, while under the price list mechanism all trades actually covered by the list are efficient. An implication of this is that there are no trading inefficiencies and thus the only bargaining costs involved are those associated with the mechanism process itself. Given this, the performance of each of the three mechanisms depends only on the costs of adapting to changes in the requirements of the businesses.

In the employment mechanism, costs are a one-time thing related to the negotiation of the wage agreement; for the sequential contracting mechanism the costs are the per-occasion costs of agreeing a price for that particular event; while for the price list mechanism the costs are those one-time costs involved in negotiating the price list plus the loss in the gains from trade for any situations not covered by the list.

Given that the employment mechanism has the lowest costs of adaption - just a verbal instruction - there exists a region in the parameter space, situations in which needs change frequently, in which the employment mechanism (weakly) dominates the other two mechanisms, see Figure 1.

From Figure 1 it is clear that price lists are good when they can be kept short, i.e. there a small number of services needed, sequential bargaining is good when changes are infrequent and employment is good when needs change frequently and many diverse adaptations are required.

Next consider the Wernerfelt (2015) paper (chapter 4 of Wernerfelt 2016). Importantly in this case adaptation costs are expanded to include the costs due to less efficient production. Specifically Wernerfelt assumes that there are gains from specialisation - where specialisation implies little in the way of adaptation - along two dimensions, first businesses and second, services. The former is modelled as an increase in adaptation costs for the worker each time he wants to service a different business. The latter is captured by assuming different workers are good at different things. In this situation three mechanisms are compared: employment, sequential contracting, as before, and markets. Again it is assumed that trade is ex post efficient in all three mechanisms. Wernerfelt concentrates on minimising adaptation costs.

Under the employment mechanism performance is delineated by the gains from trade in each period minus the one-off costs of negotiating the employment contract. The performance of sequential contracting is the gains from trade minus the bargaining costs incurred each period. The important thing about the market mechanism is that it allows workers to specialise in the services at which they are most efficient. "For example, instead of being superintendents they can be plumbers, carpenters, or electricians" (Wernerfelt 2016: 19). The advantage of this is that the gains from trade are increased but the disadvantage is that workers incur business adaptation costs (lose gains from specialisation) every time they switch businesses.

Wernerfelt shows that there are three regions in the parameter space in which each of the three mechanisms (weakly) dominates both of the two other mechanisms.

The relative performance of each of the three mechanisms depends on the frequency with which the needs of the businesses change, the gains from specialisation in an particular service, the business adaptation costs and bargaining costs. See Figure 2 and Figure 3.

Consider Figure 2. Markets are good when workers' between-business adaptation costs are low, that is, the gains from business specialisation are low and thus workers can cheaply switch between businesses; sequential contracting is good when changes in needs are infrequent; and employment is good when the cost advantage of service specialists are small and needs are changing quickly.

Another parameter is shown in Figure 3. Here "service specialisation" - the gains from specialisation in a particular service - is considered. Markets are good when service specialists are a lot more efficient than an employee carrying out many different tasks.

Wernerfelt (2016: 59) illustrates the effects of specialisation, switching costs and adjustment frequency with the example of the maintenance of a medium-sized apartment building,
The owner [of the building] will typically have an employee, the superintendent, perform minor repairs (``the toilet leaks"). The building generates a steady flow of small problems, they tend to be urgent, and the superintendent can solve each of them pretty well. On the other hand, certain minor renovations, such as those having to do with electricity (``install LED light bulbs in public spaces"), are normally done through the market. The jobs are often larger, service specialists can do them better, and the building does not need a full-time electrician. Major renovations, for which advance planning reduces the need for in-process changes, are typically governed by a bilateral contract subject to occasional, though typically costly, renegotiations.

The same example can illustrate the effects of size. A landlord who owns just one or two units will typically go to the market even for minor repairs because these units do not generate enough work to support a superintendent. On the other hand, very large landlords, such as universities, typically use specialist employees (their ``own" electricians) for both repairs and minor renovations.

The major prediction of this theory is that the more frequent are changes in needs the more attractive the employment contract becomes.

  • Simon, Herbert A. (1951). "A Formal Theory of the Employment Relationship", Econometrica, 9(3) July: 293–305.
  • Wernerfelt, Birger (1997). "On the Nature and Scope of the Firm", Journal of Business, 70(4): 489-514.
  • Wernerfelt, Birger (2015). "The Comparative Advantages of Firms, Markets, and Contracts", Economica, 82 no. 236: 350-67.
  • Wernerfelt, Birger (2016). Adaptation, Specialization, and Theory of the Firm: Foundations of the Resource-Based View, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.