Douglass C. North, 1920-2015

I received word today that Douglass North passed away yesterday at the age of 95 (obit here). Professor North shared the Nobel Prize in Economic with Robert Fogel in 1993 for his work in economic history on the role of institutions in shaping economic development and performance.DoughNorth_color_300-doc

Doug was one of my first professors in graduate school at Washington University. Many of us in our first year crammed into Doug’s economic history class for fear that he might retire and we not get the chance to study under him. Little did we expect that he would continue teaching into his 80s. The text for our class was the pre-publication manuscript of his book, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Doug’s course offered an interesting juxtaposition to the traditional neoclassical microeconomics course for first-year PhD students. His work challenged the simplifying assumptions of the neoclassical system and shed a whole new light on understanding economic history, development and performance. I still remember that day in October 1993 when the department was abuzz with the announcement that Doug had received the Nobel Prize. It was affirming and inspiring.

As I started work on my dissertation, I had hoped to incorporate a historical component on the early development of crude oil futures trading in the 1930s so I could get Doug involved on my committee. Unfortunately, there was not enough information still available to provide any analysis (there was one news reference to a new crude futures exchange, but nothing more–and the historical records of the NY Mercantile Exchange had been lost in a fire).and I had to focus solely on the deregulatory period of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember joking at one of our economic history workshops that I wasn’t sure if it counted as economic history since it happened during Doug’s lifetime.

Doug was one of the founding conspirators for the International Society for New Institutional Economics (now the Society for Institutional & Organizational Economics) in 1997, along with Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson. Although the three had strong differences of opinions concerning certain aspects of their respective theoretical approaches, they understood the generally complementary nature of their work and its importance not just for the economic profession, but for understanding how societies and organizations perform and evolve and the role institutions play in that process.

The opportunity to work around these individuals, particularly with North and Coase, strongly shaped and influenced my understanding not only of economics, but of why a broader perspective of economics is so important for understanding the world around us. That experience profoundly affected my own research interests and my teaching of economics. Some of Doug’s papers continue to play an important role in courses I teach on economic policy. Students, especially international students, continue to be inspired by his explanation of the roles of institutions, how they affect markets and societies, and the forces that lead to institutional change.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving in the States, Doug’s passing is a reminder of how much I have to be thankful for over my career. I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to know and to work with Doug. I’m grateful that we had an opportunity to bring him to Mizzou in 2003 for our CORI Seminar series, at which he spoke on Understanding the Process of Economic Change (the title of his next book at the time). And I’m especially thankful for the influence he had on my understanding of economics and that his ideas will continue to shape economic thinking and economic policy for years to come.

Markets, Incentives and a Krugman (et al.) Fail

Pity the poor teenager taking an AP Economics course whose father is an economist. Especially when the local school district has adopted a text that is based on Paul Krugman’s Economics (3rd ed., coauthored with Robin Wells). Even more especially when the father-economist has a fundamental disagreement with much of what Mr. Krugman has become since surrendering his academic credentials for political punditry. Yeah, that’s my lucky kid.

So of course, I had to thumb through the text. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised to find on only the third page of Module 1 a gross error in explaining the trouble with command economies. After explaining the failed history of command economies, the text asserts (p. 3):

At the root cause of the problem with command economies is a lack of incentives, which are rewards or punishments that motivate particular choices.

Where to start? How about with the simple fact that incentives always exist, no matter the type of economy. And there were plenty of incentives in the former Soviet Union (the textbook example of a command economy–literally in this case). I remember the late Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan sharing the story of his visit to Moscow shortly after the fall of the Soviet empire during which he was surprised to learn of a market for burned out light bulbs — because people could use them to steal working light bulbs from their workplaces when they couldn’t get light bulbs in the stores. People responding to incentives. It’s The Basics 101. The problem with command economies is not a lack of incentives–but a lack of incentives that are based on the wants of consumers themselves and a lack of incentives for innovation or efficiency. In short–the absence of the incentives created by a free market economy.

More importantly, the focus on incentives misses the point in a way that has significant implications for what the text goes on to say about economic policy. At the root of the problem with command economies was the lack of information available to decision-makers about the wants and desires of an entire population of individual consumers with different tastes and preferences and about the conditions of scarcity and desires in dispersed local markets across the society’s economy. As F.A. Hayek (another Nobel Prize winner) explained, the fundamental role of markets is to discover and reveal information based on the complex interactions of individuals across product types and geographic space.These interactions result in prices that reflect the relative scarcity and value of goods across society. Those prices create incentives, and those incentives are fundamentally important in guiding individuals to use their resources in ways that innovate, create value, and serve consumers. But the incentives are secondary–derived from the information discovery role of the market that cannot be replicated in a command economy.

Why is this such an important distinction? Because of the way the text goes on to describe the objective of policy making. After (fairly accurately) explaining how prices create incentives, the authors state (p. 3):

In fact, economists tend to be skeptical of any attempt to change people’s behavior that doesn’t change their incentives. For example, a plan that calls on manufacturers to reduce pollution voluntarily probably won’t be effective; a plan that gives them a financial incentive to do so is more likely to succeed.

The implication? All we need to do is create incentives (implicitly, in the form of taxes, fines or subsidies) to create financial incentives for manufacturers (or people) to do what we want them to do. But this line of argument ignores the more fundamental question of determining whether the plan makes social or economic sense in the first place. What is the economic basis for whether we uses fines or subsidies and how large they should be? At what point, if any, would doing nothing be economically more efficient than doing something? By taking away the fundamental information function of the market and jumping immediately to incentives, we skip the whole messy discussion of the information requirements by legislators, bureaucrats and policy makers in coming up with “the plan” to begin with. All we need to do is trust the omniscience and beneficence of policy makers to know what the “right price” is–and to set arbitrarily the incentives to get the outcomes we want. But that’s exactly why command economies fail.

The root problem of a command economy is not that there are no incentives, but that there are socially inefficient incentives. The incentives are socially inefficient because it is impossible for a central authority to know the value individual citizens place not only on existing goods and services, but on the latent value of potential goods and services that can only be discovered by innovation and experimentation–and a central planner cannot think beyond her own imagination in the realm of possibilities. And it’s not only true of Soviet-style planned economies, but of any central decision-making authority–including the US federal government–even in the context of a heavily market-dominated economy.

Note: AP Economics students (and teachers), remember….the correct answer on the test may not be the right answer in reality. Answer the questions from the textbook based on the information in the textbook. But in your real life as a consumer of information and participant in the market place of ideas and politics, be sure to get to the fundamentals rather than the superficial.

Legal and Illegal Cartels in Europe

There’s what looks to be an interesting workshop next month (10 September) in Belgium  on the organization and behavior of cartels in different legal environments. From the workshop webpage:

Economists and policy analysts know very little about the conditions under which cartels are formed in different legal environments, how they behave against outsiders, how they behave against deviating insiders, and how they react to changes in the economic environment. This event will provide a space to discuss these aspects, based on two projects funded by SEEK.
One of the projects studies cartel organization – a topic on which there is little information to date – through the lens of legal cartels. While such cartels did not have to fear detection and prosecution, they faced the same internal organizational challenges as illegal cartels. The focus is on comparing empirically, in specific sectors, the organizational forms of legal cartels in countries with different legal regimes. The project has collected data on Austrian, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and American legal cartels.
The other project has developed new theoretical insight into the anatomy of hard-core cartels and combined it with a rich data set on the recent German cement cartel. The results of this project will be presented to the audience attending the event. The private data set comprises about 340.000 market transactions from 36 customers of German cement producers and encompasses most of the period during which the cartel was functioning, as well as a period after the collapse of the cartel.

The conference is jointly sponsored by Bruegel and SEEK. For more details on speakers or if you’re close enough to be able to attend, check out the website for details.

New POLCON Data Set Released

Witold Henisz (Wharton) has just released the latest update to his POLCON (political constraint) index, which includes data up through 2012. The previous (2010) release included data only up through 2007. The POLCON data uses a spatial modeling technique to synthesize a number of variable characterizing the structures and ideological alignments of countries’ political system, including the number and types of veto points and the party control (and fractionalization) of different government bodies.

The data are made available for no fee except the promise of an appropriate citation. The 2013 release is available for download in both STAT and Microsoft Excel formats and a code book is provided.

This index is an excellent resource for scholars interested in cross-country comparisons that take into account political uncertainty, and Henisz has been doing the academic community a great public service in maintaining and updating this resources since its inception.