Posts Tagged 'F. A. Hayek'

Thomas Piketty and Joseph Schumpeter (and Gerard Debreu)

Everybody else seems to have an opinion about Thomas PIketty, so why not me? As if the last two months of Piketty-mania (reminiscent, to those of a certain age, of an earlier invasion of American shores, exactly 50 years ago, by four European rock-stars) were not enough, there has been a renewed flurry of interest this week about Piketty’s blockbuster book triggered by Chris Giles’s recent criticism in the Financial Times of Piketty’s use of income data, which mainly goes to show that, love him or hate him, people cannot get enough of Professor Piketty. Now I will admit upfront that I have not read Piketty’s book, and from my superficial perusal of the recent criticisms, they seem less problematic than the missteps of Reinhart and Rogoff in claiming that, beyond a critical 90% ratio of national debt to national income, the burden of national debt begins to significantly depress economic growth. But in any event, my comments in this post are directed at Piketty’s conceptual approach, not on his use of the data in his empirical work. In fact, I think that Larry Summers in his superficially laudatory, but substantively critical, review has already made most of the essential points about Piketty’s book. But I think that Summers left out a couple of important issues — issues touched upon usefully by George Cooper in a recent blog post about Piketty — which bear further emphasis, .

Just to set the stage for my comments, here is my understanding of the main conceptual point of Piketty’s book. Piketty believes that the essence of capitalism is that capital generates a return to the owners of capital that, on average over time, is equal to the rate of interest. Capital grows; it accumulates. And the rate of accumulation is equal to the rate of interest. However, the rate of interest is generally somewhat higher than the rate of growth of the economy. So if capital is accumulating at a rate of growth equal to, say, 5%, and the economy is growing at a rate of growth equal to only 3%, the share of income accruing to the owners of capital will grow over time. It is in this simple theoretical framework — the relationship between the rate of economic growth to the rate of interest — that Piketty believes he has found the explanation not only for the increase in inequality over the past few centuries of capitalist development, but for the especially rapid increase in inequality over the past 30 years.

While praising Piketty’s scholarship, empirical research and rhetorical prowess, Summers does not handle Piketty’s main thesis gently. Summers points out that, as accumulation proceeds, the incentive to engage in further accumulation tends to weaken, so the iron law of increasing inequality posited by Piketty is not nearly as inflexible as Piketty suggests. Now one could respond that, once accumulation reaches a certain threshold, the capacity to consume weakens as well, if only, as Gary Becker liked to remind us, because of the constraint that time imposes on consumption.

Perhaps so, but the return to capital is not the only, or even the most important, source of inequality. I would interpret Summers’ point to be the following: pure accumulation is unlikely to generate enough growth in wealth to outstrip the capacity to increase consumption. To generate an increase in wealth so large that consumption can’t keep up, there must be not just a return to the ownership of capital, there must be profit in the Knightian or Schumpeterian sense of a profit over and above the return on capital. Alternatively, there must be some extraordinary rent on a unique, irreproducible factor of production. Accumulation by itself, without the stimulus of entrepreneurial profit, reflecting the the application of new knowledge in the broadest sense of the term, cannot go on for very long. It is entrepreneurial profits and rents to unique factors of production (or awards of government monopolies or other privileges) not plain vanilla accumulation that account for the accumulation of extraordinary amounts of wealth. Moreover, it seems that philanthropy (especially conspicuous philanthropy) provides an excellent outlet for the dissipation of accumulated wealth and can easily be combined with quasi-consumption activities, like art patronage or political activism, as more conventional consumption outlets become exhausted.

Summers backs up his conceptual criticism with a powerful factual argument. Comparing the Forbes list of the 400 richest individuals in 1982 with the Forbes list for 2012 Summers observes:

When Forbes compared its list of the wealthiest Americans in 1982 and 2012, it found that less than one tenth of the 1982 list was still on the list in 2012, despite the fact that a significant majority of members of the 1982 list would have qualified for the 2012 list if they had accumulated wealth at a real rate of even 4 percent a year. They did not, given pressures to spend, donate, or misinvest their wealth. In a similar vein, the data also indicate, contra Piketty, that the share of the Forbes 400 who inherited their wealth is in sharp decline.

But something else is also going on here, a misunderstanding, derived from a fundamental ambiguity, about what capital actually means. Capital can refer either to a durable physical asset or to a sum of money. When economists refer to capital as a factor of production, they are thinking of capital as a physical asset. But in most models, economists try to simplify the analysis by collapsing the diversity of the entire stock of heterogeneous capital assets into single homogeneous substance called “capital” and then measure it not in terms of its physical units (which, given heterogeneity, is strictly impossible) but in terms of its value. This creates all kinds of problems, leading to some mighty arguments among economists ever since the latter part of the nineteenth century when Carl Menger (the first Austrian economist) turned on his prize pupil Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk who wrote three dense volumes discussing the theory of capital and interest, and pronounced Bohm-Bawerk’s theory of capital “the greatest blunder in the history of economics.” I remember wanting to ask F. A. Hayek, who, trying to restate Bohm-Bawerk’s theory in a coherent form, wrote a volume about 75 years ago called The Pure Theory of Capital, which probably has been read from cover to cover by fewer than 100 living souls, and probably understood by fewer than 20 of those, what he made of Menger’s remark, but, to my eternal sorrow, I forgot to ask him that question the last time that I saw him.

At any rate, treating capital as a homogeneous substance that can be measured in terms of its value rather than in terms of physical units involves serious, perhaps intractable, problems. For certain purposes, it may be worthwhile to ignore those problems and work with a simplified model (a single output which can be consumed or used as a factor of production), but the magnitude of the simplification is rarely acknowledged. In his discussion, Piketty seems, as best as I could determine using obvious search terms on Amazon, unaware of the conceptual problems involved in speaking about capital as a homogeneous substance measured in terms of its value.

In the real world, capital is anything but homogeneous. It consists of an array of very specialized, often unique, physical embodiments. Once installed, physical capital is usually sunk, and its value is highly uncertain. In contrast to the imaginary model of a homogenous substance that just seems to grow at fixed natural rate, the real physical capital that is deployed in the process of producing goods and services is complex and ever-changing in its physical and economic characteristics, and the economic valuations associated with its various individual components are in perpetual flux. While the total value of all capital may be growing at a fairly steady rate over time, the values of the individual assets that constitute the total stock of capital fluctuate wildly, and few owners of physical capital have any guarantee that the value of their assets will appreciate at a steady rate over time.

Now one would have thought that an eminent scholar like Professor Piketty would, in the course of a 700-page book about capital, have had occasion to comment on enormous diversity and ever-changing composition of the stock of physical capital. These changes are driven by a competitive process in which entrepreneurs constantly introduce new products and new methods of producing products, a competitive process that enriches some owners of new capital, and, it turns out, impoverishes others — owners of old, suddenly obsolete, capital. It is a process that Joseph Schumpeter in his first great book, The Theory of Economic Development, memorably called “creative destruction.” But the term “creative destruction” or the title of Schumpeter’s book does not appear at all in Piketty’s book, and Schumpeter’s name appears only once, in connection not with the notion of creative destruction, but with his, possibly ironic, prediction in a later book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that socialism would eventually replace capitalism.

Thus, Piketty’s version of capitalist accumulation seems much too abstract and too far removed from the way in which great fortunes are amassed to provide real insight into the sources of increasing inequality. Insofar as such fortunes are associated with accumulation of capital, they are likely to be the result of the creation of new forms of capital associated with new products, or new production processes. The creation of new capital simultaneously destroys old forms of capital. New fortunes are amassed, and old ones dissipated. The model of steady accumulation that is at the heart of Piketty’s account of inexorably increasing inequality misses this essential feature of capitalism.

I don’t say that Schumpeter’s account of creative destruction means that increasing inequality is a trend that should be welcomed. There may well be arguments that capitalist development and creative destruction are socially inefficient. I have explained in previous posts (e.g., here, here, and here) why I think that a lot of financial-market activity is likely to be socially wasteful. Similar arguments might be made about other kinds of activities in non-financial markets where the private gain exceeds the social gain. Winner-take-all markets seem to be characterized by this divergence between private and social benefits and costs, apparently accounting for a growing share of economic activity, are an obvious source of inequality. But what I find most disturbing about the growth in inequality over the past 30 years is that great wealth has gained increased social status. That seems to me to be a very unfortunate change in public attitudes. I have no problem with people getting rich, even filthy rich. But don’t expect me to admire them because they are rich.

Finally, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with Gerard Debreu. Well, nothing really, but I couldn’t help noticing that Piketty refers in an endnote (p. 654) to “the work of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Kenneth Arrow and  Claude Debreu” apparently forgetting that the name of his famous countryman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 1983, is not Claude, but Gerard, Debreu. Perhaps Piketty confused Debreu with another eminent Frenchman Claude Debussy, but I hope that in the next printing of his book, Piketty will correct this unfortunate error.

UPDATE (5/29 at 9:46 EDST): Thanks to Kevin Donoghue for checking with Arthur Goldhammer, who translated Piketty’s book from the original French. Goldhammer took responsibility for getting Debreu’s first name wrong in the English edition. In the French edition, only Debreu’s last name was mentioned.

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Armen Alchian, The Economists’ Economist

The first time that I ever heard of Armen Alchian was when I took introductory economics at UCLA as a freshman, and his book (co-authored with his colleague William R. Allen who was probably responsible for the macro and international chapters) University Economics (the greatest economics textbook ever written) was the required text. I had only just started to get interested in economics, and was still more interested in political philosophy than in economics, but I found myself captivated by what I was reading in Alchian’s textbook, even though I didn’t find the professor teaching the course very exciting. And after 10 weeks (the University of California had switched to a quarter system) of introductory micro, I changed my major to economics. So there is no doubt that I became an economist because the textbook that I was taught from was written by Alchian.

In my four years as an undergraduate at UCLA, I took three classes from Axel Leijonhufvud, two from Ben Klein, two from Bill Allen, and one each from Robert Rooney, Nicos Devletoglou, James Buchanan, Jack Hirshleifer, George Murphy, and Jean Balbach. But Alchian, who in those days was not teaching undergrads, was a looming presence. It became obvious that Alchian was the central figure in the department, the leader and the role model that everyone else looked up to. I would see him occasionally on campus, but was too shy or too much in awe of him to introduce myself to him. One incident that I particularly recall is when, in my junior year, F. A. Hayek visited UCLA in the fall and winter quarters (in the department of philosophy!) teaching an undergraduate course in the philosophy of the social sciences and a graduate seminar on the first draft of Law, Legislation and Liberty. I took Hayek’s course on the philosophy of the social sciences, and audited his graduate seminar, and I occasionally used to visit his office to ask him some questions. I once asked his advice about which graduate programs he would suggest that I apply to. He mentioned two schools, Chicago, of course, and Princeton where his friends Fritz Machlup and Jacob Viner were still teaching, before asking, “but why would you think of going to graduate school anywhere else than UCLA? You will get the best training in economics in the world from Alchian, Hirshleifer and Leijonhufvud.” And so it was, I applied to, and was accepted at, Chicago, but stayed at UCLA.

As a first year graduate student, I took the (three-quarter) microeconomics sequence from Jack Hirshleifer (who in the scholarly hierarachy at UCLA ranked only slightly below Alchian) and the two-quarter macroeconomics sequence from Leijonhufvud. Hirshleifer taught a great course. He was totally prepared, very organized and his lectures were always clear and easy to follow. To do well, you had to sit back listen, review the lecture notes, read through the reading assignments, and do the homework problems. For me at least, with the benefit of four years of UCLA undergraduate training, it was a breeze.

Great as Hirshleifer was as a teacher, I still felt that I was missing out by not having been taught by Alchian. Perhaps Alchian felt that the students who took the microeconomics sequence from Hirshleifer should get some training from him as well, so the next year he taught a graduate seminar in topics in price theory, to give us an opportunity to learn from him how to do economics. You could also see how Alchian operated if you went to a workshop or lecture by a visiting scholar, when Alchian would start to ask questions. He would smile, put his head on his forehead, and say something like, “I just don’t understand that,” and force whoever it was to try to explain the logic by which he had arrived at some conclusion. And Alchian would just keep smiling, explain what the problem was with the answer he got, and ask more questions. Alchian didn’t shout or rant or rave, but if Alchian was questioning you, you were not in a very comfortable position.

So I was more than a bit apprehensive going into Alchian’s seminar. There were all kinds of stories told by graduate students about how tough Alchian could be on his students if they weren’t able to respond adequately when subjected to his questioning in the Socratic style. But the seminar could not have been more enjoyable. There was give and take, but I don’t remember seeing any blood spilled. Perhaps by the time I got to his seminar, Alchian, then about 57, had mellowed a bit, or, maybe, because we had all gone through the graduate microeconomics sequence, he felt that we didn’t require such an intense learning environment. At any rate, the seminar, which met twice a week for an hour and a quarter for 10 weeks, usually involved Alchian picking a story from the newspaper and asking us how to analyze the economics underlying the story. Armed with nothing but a chalkboard and piece of chalk, Alchian would lead us relatively painlessly from confusion to clarity, from obscurity to enlightenment. The key concepts with which to approach any problem were to understand the choices available to those involved, to define the relevant costs, and to understand the constraints under which choices are made, the constraints being determined largely by the delimitation of the property rights under which the resources can be used or exchanged, or, to be more precise, the property rights to use those resources can be exchanged.

Ultimately, the lesson that I learned from Alchian is that, at its best, economic theory is a tool for solving actual real problems, and the nature of the problem ought to dictate the way in which the theory (verbal, numerical, graphical, higher mathematical) is deployed, not the other way around. The goal is not to reach any particular conclusion, but to apply the tools in the best and most authentic way that they can be applied. Alchian did not wear his politics on his sleeve, though it wasn’t too hard to figure out that he was politically conservative with libertarian tendencies. But you never got the feeling that his politics dictated his economic analysis. In many respects, Alchian’s closest disciple was Earl Thompson, who studied under Alchian as an undergraduate, and then, after playing minor-league baseball for a couple of years, going to Harvard for graduate school, eventually coming back to UCLA as an assistant professor where he remained for his entire career. Earl, discarding his youthful libertarianism early on, developed many completely original, often eccentric, theories about the optimality of all kinds of government interventions – even protectionism – opposed by most economists, but Alchian took them all in stride. Mere policy disagreements never affected their close personal bond, and Alchian wrote the forward to Earl’s book with Charles Hickson, Ideology and the Evolution of Vital Economics Institutions. If Alchian was friendly with and an admirer of Milton Friedman, he just as friendly with, and just as admiring of, Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow, with whom he collaborated on several projects in the 1950s when they consulted for the Rand Corporation. Alchian cared less about the policy conclusion than he did about the quality of the underlying economic analysis.

As I have pointed out on several prior occasions, it is simply scandalous that Alchian was not awarded the Noble Prize. His published output was not as voluminous as that of some other luminaries, but there is a remarkably high proportion of classics among his publications. So many important ideas came from him, especially thinking about economic competition as an evolutionary process, the distinction between the functional relationship between cost and volume of output and cost and rate of output, the effect of incomplete information on economic action, the economics of property rights, the effects of inflation on economic activity. (Two volumes of his Collected Works, a must for anyone really serious about economics, contain a number of previously unpublished or hard to find papers, and are available here.) Perhaps in the future I will discuss some of my favorites among his articles.

Although Alchian did not win the Nobel Prize, in 1990 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Harry Markowitz, Merton Miller, and William F. Sharpe for their work on financial economics. Sharp, went to UCLA, writing his Ph.D. dissertation on securities prices under Alchian, and worked at the Rand Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s with Markowitz.  Here’s what Sharpe wrote about Alchian:

Armen Alchian, a professor of economics, was my role model at UCLA. He taught his students to question everything; to always begin an analysis with first principles; to concentrate on essential elements and abstract from secondary ones; and to play devil’s advocate with one’s own ideas. In his classes we were able to watch a first-rate mind work on a host of fascinating problems. I have attempted to emulate his approach to research ever since.

And if you go to the Amazon page for University Economics and look at the comments you will see a comment from none other than Harry Markowitz:

I am about to order this book. I have just read its quite favorable reviews, and I am not a bit surprised at their being impressed by Armen Alchian’s writings. I was a colleague of Armen’s, at the Rand Corporation “think tank,” during the 1950s, and hold no economist in higher regard. When I sat down at my keyboard just now it was to find out what happened to Armen’s works. One Google response was someone saying that Armen should get a Nobel Prize. I concur. My own Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded in 1990 along with the prize for Wm. Sharpe. I see in Wikipedia that Armen “influenced” Bill, and that Armen is still alive and is 96 years old. I’ll see if I can contact him, but first I’ll buy this book.

I will always remember Alchian’s air of amused, philosophical detachment, occasionally bemused (though, perhaps only apparently so, as he tried to guide his students and colleagues with question to figure out a point that he already grasped), always curious, always eager for the intellectual challenge of discovery and problem solving. Has there ever been a greater teacher of economics than Alchian? Perhaps, but I don’t know who. I close with one more quotation, this one from Axel Leijonhufvud written about Alchian 25 years ago.  It still rings true.

[Alchian’s] unique brand of price theory is what gave UCLA Economics its own intellectual profile and achieved for us international recognition as an independent school of some importance—as a group of scholars who did not always take their leads from MIT, Chicago or wherever. When I came here (in 1964) the Department had Armen’s intellectual stamp on it (and he remained the obvious leader until just a couple of years ago ….). Even people outside Armen’s fields, like myself, learned to do Armen’s brand of economic analysis and a strong esprit de corps among both faculty and graduate students sprang from the consciousness that this ‘New Institutional Economics’ was one of the waves of the future and that we, at UCLA, were surfing it way ahead of the rest. But Armen’s true importance to the UCLA school did not stem just from the new ideas he taught or the outwardly recognized “brandname” that he created for us. For many of his young colleagues he embodied qualities of mind and character that seemed the more important to seek to emulate the more closely you got to know him.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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