Susan Woodward, a former colleague and co-author of the late great Armen Alchian, was kind enough to share with me an article of hers forthcoming in a special issue of the Journal of Corporate Finance dedicated to Alchian’s memory. I thank Susan and Harold Mulherin, co-editor of the Journal of Corporate Finance for allowing me to post this wonderful tribute to Alchian.
Memories of Armen
Sand Hill Econometrics
Armen Alchian approached economics with constructive eccentricity. An aspect became apparent long ago when I taught intermediate price theory, a two-quarter course. Jack Hirshleifer’s new text (Hirshleifer (1976)) was just out and his approach was the foundation of my own training, so that was an obvious choice. But also, Alchian and Allen’s University Economics (Alchian and Allen (1964)) had been usefully separated into parts, of which Exchange and Production: Competition, Coordination, and Control (Alchian and Allen (1977)), the “price theory” part, available in paperback. I used both books.
Somewhere in the second quarter we got to the topic of rent. Rent is such a difficult topic because it’s a word in everyone’s vocabulary but to which economists give a special, second meaning. To prepare a discussion, I looked up “rent” in the index of both texts. In Hirshleifer (1976), it appeared for the first time on some page like 417. In Alchian & Allen (1977), it appeared, say, on page 99, and page 102, and page 188, and pages 87-88, 336-338, and 364-365. It was peppered all through the book.
Hirshleifer approached price theory as geometry. Lay out the axioms, prove the theorems. And never introduce a new idea, especially one like “rent” that collides with standard usage, without a solid foundation. The Alchian approach is more exploratory. “Oh, here’s an idea. Let’s walk around the idea and see what it looks like from all sides. Let’s tip it over and see what’s under it and what kind of noise it makes. Let’s light a fire under it and just see what happens. Drop it ten stories.” The books were complements, not substitutes.
While this textbook story illustrates one aspect of Armen’s thinking, the big epiphanies came working on our joint papers. Unusual for students at UCLA in that era, I didn’t have Armen as a teacher. My first year, Armen was away, and Jack Hirshleifer taught the entire first year price theory. Entranced by the finance segment of that year, the lure of finance in business school was irresistible. But fortune did not abandon me.
I came back to UCLA to teach at the dawn of personal computers. Oh they were feeble! There was a little room on the eighth floor of Bunche Hall where there were three little Compaq computers—the ones with really tiny green-on-black screens. Portable, sort of, but not like a purse. Armen and I were regulars in this word processing cave. Armen would get bored and start a conversation by asking some profound question. I’d flounder a bit and tell him I didn’t know and go back to work. But one day he asked why corporations limit liability. Whew, something to say. It is not a risk story, but about facilitating transferable shares. Limit liability, then shareholders and contracting creditors can price possible recovery, and the wealth and resources of individual shareholder are then irrelevant. When liability tries to reach beyond the firm’s assets to those of individual shareholders, shareholder wealth matters to value, and this creates reasons for inhibiting share transfers. You can limit liability and still address concern about tort creditors by having the firm carrying insurance for torts.
Armen asked “How did you figure this out?” I said, “I don’t know.” “Have you written it down?” “No, it doesn’t seem important enough, it would only be two pages.” “Oh, no, of course it is!” He was right. What I wrote at Armen’s insistence, Woodward (1985), is now in two books of readings on the modern corporation, still in print, still on reading lists, and yes it was more than two pages. The paper by Bargeron and Lehn (2015) in this volume provides empirical confirmation about the impact of limited liability on share transferability. After our conversations about limited liability, Armen never again called me “Joanne,” as in the actress, Joanne Woodward, wife of Paul Newman.
This led to many more discussions about the organization of firms. I was dismayed by the seeming mysticism of “teamwork” as discussed in the old Alchian & Demsetz paper. Does it not all boil down to moral hazard and hold-up, both aspects of information costs, and the potential for the residual claimant to manage these? Armen came to agree and that this, too, was worth writing up. So we started writing. I scribbled down my thoughts. Armen read them and said, “Well, this is right, but it will make Harold (Demsetz) mad. We can’t say it that way. We’ll say it another way.” Armen saw it as his job to bring Harold around.
As we started working on this paper (Alchian and Woodward (1987)), I asked Armen, “What journal should we be thinking of?” Armen said “Oh, don’t worry about that, something will come along”. It went to Rolf Richter’s journal because Armen admired Rolf’s efforts to promote economic analysis of institutions. There are accounts of Armen pulling accepted papers from journals in order to put them into books of readings in honor of his friends, and these stories are true. No journal impressed Armen very much. He thought that if something was good, people would find it and read it.
Soon after the first paper was circulating, Orley Ashenfelter asked Armen to write a book review of Oliver Williamson’s The Economic Institutions of Capitalism (such a brilliant title!). I got enlisted for that project too (Alchian and Woodward (1988)). Armen began writing, but I went back to reread Institutions of Capitalism. Armen gave me what he had written, and I was baffled. “Armen, this stuff isn’t in Williamson.” He asked, “Well, did he get it wrong?” I said, “No, it’s not that he got it wrong. These issues just aren’t there at all. You attribute these ideas to him, but they really come from our other paper.” And he said “Oh, well, don’t worry about that. Some historian will sort it out later. It’s a good place to promote these ideas, and they’ll get the right story eventually.” So, dear reader, now you know.
This from someone who spent his life discussing the efficiencies of private property and property rights—to basically give ideas away in order to promote them? It was a good lesson. I was just starting my ten years in the federal government. In academia, thinkers try to establish property rights in ideas. “This is mine. I thought of this. You must cite me.” In government this is not a winning strategy. Instead, you need plant an idea, then convince others that it’s their idea so they will help you.
And it was sometimes Armen’s strategy in the academic world too. Only someone who was very confident would do this. Or someone who just cared more about promoting ideas he thought were right than he cared about getting credit for them. Or someone who did not have so much respect for the refereeing process. He was so cavalier!
Armen had no use for formal models that did not teach us to look somewhere new in the known world, nor had he any patience for findings that relied on fancy econometrics. What was Armen’s idea of econometrics? Merton Miller told me. We were chatting about limited liability. Merton asked about evidence. Well, all public firms with transferable shares now have limited liability. But in private, closely-held firms, loans nearly always explicitly specify which of the owner’s personal assets are pledged against bank loans. “How do you know?” “From conversations with bankers.” Merton said said, “Ah, this sounds like UCLA econometrics! You go to Armen Alchian and you ask, ‘Armen, is this number about right?’ And Armen says, ‘Yeah, that sounds right.’ So you use that number.”
Why is Armen loved so much? It’s not just his contributions to our understanding because many great thinkers are hardly loved at all. Several things stand out. As noted above, Armen’s sense of what is important is very appealing. Ideas are important. Ideas are more important than being important. Don’t fuss over the small stuff or the small-minded stuff, just work on the ideas and get them right. Armen worked at inhibiting inefficient behavior, but never in an obvious way. He would be the first to agree that not all competition is efficient, and in particular that status competition is inefficient. Lunches and dinners with Armen never included conversations about who was getting tenure where or why various papers got in or did not get in to certain journals. He thought it just did not matter very much or deserve much attention.
Armen was intensely curious about the world and interested in things outside of himself. He was one of the least self-indulgent people that I have ever met. It cheered everybody up. Everyone was in a better mood for the often silly questions that Armen would ask about everything, such as, “Why do they use decorations in the sushi bar and not anywhere else? Is there some optimality story here?” Armen recognized his own limitations and was not afraid of them.
Armen’s views on inefficient behavior came out in an interesting way when we were working on the Williamson book review. What does the word “fair” mean? In the early 1970’s at UCLA, no one was very comfortable with “fair”. Many would even have said ‘fair’ has no meaning in economics. But then we got to pondering the car repair person in the desert (remember Los Angeles is next to a big desert), who is in a position to hold up unlucky motorists whose vehicles break down in a remote place. Why would the mechanic not hold up the motorist and charge a high price? The mechanic has the power. Information about occasional holdups would provoke inefficient avoidance of travel or taking ridiculous precautions. But from the individual perspective, why wouldn’t the mechanic engage in opportunistic behavior, on the spot? “Well,” Armen said, “probably he doesn’t do it because he was raised right.” Armen knew what “fair” meant, and was willing to take a stand on it being efficient.
For all his reputation as a conservative, Armen was very interested in Earl Thompson’s ideas about socially efficient institutions, and the useful constraints that collective action could and does impose on us. (see, for example, Thompson (1968, 1974).) He had more patience for Earl that any of Earl’s other senior colleagues except possibly Jim Buchanan. Earl could go on all evening and longer about the welfare cost of the status rat race, of militarism and how to discourage it, the brilliance of agricultural subsidies, how no one should listen to corrupt elites, and Armen would smile and nod and ponder.
Armen was a happy teacher. As others attest in this issue, he brought great energy, engagement, and generosity to the classroom. He might have been dressed for golf, but he gave students his complete attention. He especially enjoyed teaching the judges in Henry Manne’s Economics & Law program. One former pupil sought him out and at dinner, brought up the Apple v. Microsoft copyright dispute. He wanted to discuss the merits of the issues. Armen said oh no, simply get the thing over with ASAP. Armen said that he was a shareholder in both companies, and consequently did not care who won, but cared very much about what resources were squandered on the battle. Though the economics of this perspective was not novel (it was aired in Texaco v Pennzoil few years earlier), Armen provided in that conversation a view that neither side had an interest in promoting in court. The reaction was: Oh! Those who followed this case might have been puzzled at the subsequent proceeding in this dispute, but those who heard the conversation at dinner were not.
And Armen was a warm and sentimental person. When I moved to Washington, I left my roller skates in the extra bedroom where I slept when I visited Armen and Pauline. These were old-fashioned skates with two wheels in the front and two in the back, Riedell boots and kryptonite wheels, bought at Rip City Skates on Santa Monica Boulevard, (which is still there in 2015! I just looked it up, the proprietor knows all the empty swimming pools within 75 miles). I would take my skates down to the beach and skate from Santa Monica to Venice and back, then go buy some cinnamon rolls at the Pioneer bakery, and bring them back to Mar Vista and Armen and Pauline and I would eat them. Armen loved this ritual. Is she back yet? When I married Bob Hall and moved back to California, Armen did not want me to take the skates away. So I didn’t.
And here is a story Armen loved: Ron Batchelder was a student at UCLA who is also a great tennis player, a professional tennis player who had to be lured out of tennis and into economics, and who has written some fine economic history and more. He played tennis with Armen regularly for many years. On one occasion before dinner Armen said to Ron, “I played really well today.” Ron said, “Yes, you did; you played quite well today.” And Armen said, “But you know what? When I play better, you play better.” And Ron smiled and shrugged his shoulders. I said, “Ron, is it true?” He shrugged again and said, “Well, a long time ago, I learned to play the customer’s game.” And of course Armen just loved that line. He re-told that story many times.
Armen’s enthusiasm for that story is a reflection of his enthusiasm for life. It was a rare enthusiasm, an extraordinary enthusiasm. We all give him credit for it and we should, because it was an act of choice; it was an act of will, a gift to us all. Armen would have never said so, though, because he was raised right.
Alchian, Armen A., William R. Allen, 1964. University Economics. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA.
Alchian, Armen A., William R. Allen, 1977 Exchange and Production: Competition, Coordination, and Control. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA., 2nd edition.
Alchian, Armen A., Woodward, Susan, 1987. “Reflections on the theory of the firm.” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics. 143, 110-136.
Alchian, Armen A., Woodward, Susan, 1988. “The firm is dead: Long live the firm: A review of Oliver E. Williamson’s The Economic Institutions of Capitalism.” Journal of Economic Literature. 26, 65-79.
Bargeron, Leonce, Lehn, Kenneth, 2015. “Limited liability and share transferability: An analysis of California firms, 1920-1940.” Journal of Corporate Finance, this volume.
Hirshleifer, Jack, 1976. Price Theory and Applications. Prentice hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Thompson, Earl A., 1968. “The perfectly competitive production of public goods.” Review of Economics and Statistics. 50, 1-12.
Thompson, Earl A., 1974. “Taxation and national defense.” Journal of Political Economy. 82, 755-782.
Woodward, Susan E., 1985. “Limited liability in the theory of the firm.” Journal of Institutional and Theorectical Economics. 141, 601-611.