Saturday, 10 December 2016

Oliver Hart interview

Guy Rolnik interviews this year's Nobel Prize in Economics co-winner Professor Oliver Hart about incomplete contracts and the theory of the firm.

Half an hour well spent.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

1776 was more about representation than taxation

A question not often asked about the American Revolution, Did Monarchists resisting an incipient democracy movement in Britain prevent a compromise that could have placated the American colonists?

Jen Deaderick writes in the December 2016 NBER Digest:
"No taxation without representation" — the rallying cry of the American Revolution — gives the impression that taxation was the principal irritant between Britain and its American colonies. But, in fact, taxes in the colonies were much lower than taxes in Britain. The central grievance of the colonists was their lack of a voice in the government that ruled them.

The political underpinnings of the American Revolution have been discussed and debated for more than two hundred years, and there are multiple explanations of the causes and multiple analyses of the revolutionary dynamic. One question about the revolution that has remained difficult to answer is why, if a little representation in Parliament could have prevented a war for independence, did King George III not grant it?

This question is the motivation for Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens' study Why Not Taxation and Representation? A Note on the American Revolution (NBER Working Paper No. 22724). They note, in drawing attention to the role of representation as a spark for revolution, that the average British citizen who resided in Britain paid 26 shillings per year in taxes, compared with only one shilling per year in New England, even though the living standard of the colonists was arguably higher than that of the British.

Most accounts of the events that led to the American Revolution depict a conflict between the colonies and a unified British government. In fact, the researchers argue, the reality was more subtle. They draw on a variety of historical accounts to describe the tension between two rival British interest groups, the landed gentry and the democratically inclined opposition, and to explain the failure to reach a compromise that would have granted representation to the colonies. In particular, they focus on how extending representation would have affected the relative influence of these two groups.

The researchers consider events a century before the American Revolution to have set the stage for the domestic tensions in Britain at the time of the colonial protests. In 1649, during the English Civil War, a rebellion of Parliamentarians overthrew — and beheaded — King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell, who ruled for most of the subsequent decade, supported expanding representation in government beyond landowners, and his government was sympathetic to grievances like those raised by the American colonies many decades later. Following Cromwell's death in 1658, however, Royalists returned to power and sought to restore the historical ruling class.

When the colonies asked for representation in the middle of the 18th century, the monarchy was still recovering from its dethroning, and the landed gentry, now returned to primary power, still felt vulnerable. The researchers point out that the Royalists were contending with factions that sought to bring democracy to Britain. While these opposition groups did not hold significant power, if representatives from the American colonies were invited to join Parliament, they likely would have sympathized with the opposition and expanded their influence. The researchers see this tension as critical to understanding why Britain was so reluctant to enfranchise the colonists.

There were proposals to settle the colonial crisis peacefully, most notably by Thomas Pownall and Adam Smith. Smith, for example, proposed "a system in which the political representation of Great Britain and America would be proportional to the contribution that each polity was making to the public treasury of the empire." Such proposals were rejected by the ruling coalition in Britain. "The landed gentry, who controlled the incumbent government, feared that making concessions to the American colonies would intensify the pressure for democratic reforms, thus jeopardizing their economic and political position," the researchers find.

Ultimately, the opposition of the landed gentry to the demands for representation by the American colonies pushed the colonies to rebellion and independence, but helped to delay the development of the incipient democratic movement in Britain.

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.