Archives For armen alchian

The great economist Armen Alchian turned 98 yesterday.  Armen is the father of the UCLA tradition in economics.  I had the great honor of having Armen on my dissertation committee and cannot imagine being prouder of my association with him.  Armen’s contributions to economics as diverse as they are penetrating.  Armen was one of the few economists capable of producing fundamental insights and advancements in macroeconomic and microeconomic theory, quantitative methods, as well as produce pathbreaking work in the economics of property rights and the theory of the firm.

Armen’s classic paper with Harold Demsetz (AER, 1972) coupled with Klein, Crawford and Alchian’s seminal analysis of vertical integration and the holdup problem (JLE, 1978) give him a prominent spot in the theory of the firm literature and transaction cost economics.  Those papers rank 12th and 30th, respectively, in  Kim et al‘s list of the top economics papers since 1970.   Alchian’s other scholarly contributions are remarkable.  Consider his collected works in two volumes.  Perhaps most well known among them are neither of the two papers discussed above but “Uncertainty, Evolution and Economic Theory” (1950), in which Armen lays out the case for a survival principle to be applied to efficient individual behavior – notwithstanding heuristics and irrational motivations.  Armen was ahead of his time in considering (along with the work of Becker and others at the time) rationality as an outcome of market institutions rather than merely an assumption.  Alchian’s work on learning and the costs of production was equally pathbreaking (see Reliability of Progress Curves in Airframe Production, 1963).

Armen’s contributions to economics as a teacher were equally remarkable.  Nobel Laureate William F. Sharpe captures some of this in his autobiographical exposition explaining Alchian’s influence on his own career:

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. When I returned to pursue the PhD degree, I took a field in microeconomics with Armen and he also served as chairman of my dissertation committee.

Former FTC Chairman Timothy Muris and my GMU colleague characteristically cuts to the heart of matters:

Armen Alchian was unexcelled in teaching economics to lawyers. He often presented economics socratically – a technique familiar to lawyers. For years Armen was one of the most popular instructors in Henry Manne’s programs for teaching economics to lawyers. In short courses, he taught literally hundreds of federal judges and law professors.

TOTM readers will be familiar with my annual posts calling for a Nobel Prize for Alchian.  Susan Woodward, a former co-author of Alchian, has authored a wonderful chapter on Alchian’s contributions to law and economics that will appear in the Cohen & Wright Pioneers of Law and Economics volume.

As Armen’s long-time collaborator William Allen put it in his own letter to the Nobel Committee on Armen’s behalf:

Economics is a broad discipline in methodology, as the Committee is fully aware, ranging from detailed historical, institutional, legalistic description to totally abstract, arcane theory. All such approaches, techniques, and emphases are appropriate. But there is much specialization among the members of the fraternity. And, increasingly, the profession has dealt in rigorous, elegant manipulation, even when the work is purportedly empirical—and even when the substantive results hardly warranted such virtuoso flair. Professor Alchian is a splendid technician, and he has contributed significantly and conspicuously to general “theory.” But, in contrast to many, he has always appreciated that the final payoff of Economics is elucidation of the real workings and phenomena of the world. I know of no one at any time who has had a finer sense of how to use economic analytics to explain the world. Sometimes the explanation requires involved, complex analysis, and Professor Alchian does not fear to use the tools which are required; what is uncommon is his lack of fear in using the MINIMUM tools which are required. In large part, his peculiar genius (the word is used advisedly) is to make extraordinarily effective use of elemental, and often elementary, techniques of analysis. And a host of people—many of whom are now in strategic positions in universities, in government, in the legal system, in the world of business and finance—have enormously benefited from the tutelage of Professor Alchian. … I present Armen Alchian as a giant—a giant who, because of his lack of pretension, is easily overlooked by laymen and even by some supposed professionals—who has greatly honored his profession and uniquely contributed to its usefulness. He would grace the distinguished fraternity of Nobel Laureates.

Well said.  Here are some Alchian links for interested readers:

William Allen is right that it is precisely because of Armen’s lack of pretension Armen Alchian is too often overlooked as a true intellectual giant and ambassador of economics.   Here’s hoping the Nobel Committee bestows the award upon in recognition of his contributions.
Happy 98th Birthday, Armen.

In a thorough and convincing paper, “The FTC’s Proposal for Regulating IP through SSOs Would Replace Private Coordination with Government Hold-Up,” Richard Epstein, Scott Kieff and Dan Spulber assess and then decimate the FTC’s proposal on patent notice and remedies, “The Evolving IP Marketplace: Aligning Patent Notice and Remedies with Competition.”  Note Epstein, Kieff and Spulber:

In its recent report entitled “The Evolving IP Marketplace,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advances a far‐reaching regulatory approach (Proposal) whose likely effect would be to distort the operation of the intellectual property (IP) marketplace in ways that will hamper the innovation and commercialization of new technologies. The gist of the FTC Proposal is to rely on highly non-­standard and misguided definitions of economic terms of art such as “ex ante” and “hold-­up,” while urging new inefficient rules for calculating damages for patent infringement. Stripped of the technicalities, the FTC Proposal would so reduce the costs of infringement by downstream users that the rate of infringement would unduly increase, as potential infringers find it in their interest to abandon the voluntary market in favor of a more attractive system of judicial pricing. As the number of nonmarket transactions increases, the courts will play an ever larger role in deciding the terms on which the patents of one party may be used by another party. The adverse effects of this new trend will do more than reduce the incentives for innovation; it will upset the current set of well-­‐functioning private coordination activities in the IP marketplace that are needed to accomplish the commercialization of new technologies. Such a trend would seriously undermine capital formation, job growth, competition, and the consumer welfare the FTC seeks to promote.

Focusing in particular on SSOs, the trio homes in on the potential incentive problem created by the FTC’s proposal:

The central problem with the FTC’s approach is that it would interfere seriously with the helpful incentives all parties in the IP marketplace presently have to contract with each other. The FTC’s approach ignores the powerful incentives that it creates in putative licenses to spurn the voluntary market in order to obtain a strategic advantage over the licensor. In any voluntary market, the low rates that go to initial licensees reflect the uncertainty of the value of the patented technology at the time the license is issued. Once that technology has proven its worth, there is no sound reason to allow any potential licensee who instead held out from the originally offered deal to get bargain rates down the road. Allowing such an option would make the holdout better off than the contracting party. Such holdouts would not need to take licenses for technologies with low value, while resting assured they would still get technologies with high value at below market rates. The FTC seems to overlook that a well-­‐functioning patent damage system should do more than merely calibrate damages after the fact. An efficient approach to damages is one that also reduces the number of infringements overall by making sure that the infringer cannot improve his economic position by his own wrong.

The FTC Proposal rests on the misguided conviction that the law should not allow a licensor to “demand and obtain royalty payments based on the infringer’s switching costs” once the manufacturer has “sunk costs into using the technology;” and it labels any such payments as the result of “hold-­up.”

As Epstein, et al. discuss, current private ordering (reciprocal dealing, repeat play, RAND terms, etc.) works perfectly well to address real hold-up problems, and the FTC seems to be both defining the problem oddly and, thus, creating a problem that doesn’t really exist.

Although not discussed directly, the paper owes a great deal to the great Ben Klein and especially his paper, Why Hold-Ups Occur: The Self-Enforcing Range of Contractual Relationships (to say nothing of Klein, Crawford & Alchian, of course).  Likewise, although not discussed in the paper, Josh and Bruce Kobayashi’s excellent paper, Federalism, Substantive Preemption and Limits on Antitrust: An Application to Patent Holdup is an essential precursor to this paper, addressing the comparative merits of antitrust  and contract-based evaluation of claimed patent holdups in SSOs.

Highly-recommended and an important addition to the ever-interesting antitrust/IP discussion.

There is an antitrust debate brewing concerning Google and “search bias,” a term used to describe search engine results that preference the content of the search provider.  For example, Google might list Google Maps prominently if one searches “maps” or Microsoft’s Bing might prominently place Microsoft affiliated content or products.

Apparently both antitrust investigations and Congressional hearings are in the works; regulators and commentators appear poised to attempt to impose “search neutrality” through antitrust or other regulatory means to limit or prohibit the ability of search engines (or perhaps just Google) to favor their own content.  At least one proposal goes so far as to advocate a new government agency to regulate search.  Of course, when I read proposals like this, I wonder where Google’s share of the “search market” will be by the time the new agency is built.

As with the net neutrality debate, I understand some of the push for search neutrality involves an intense push to discard traditional economically-grounded antitrust framework.  The logic for this push is simple.  The economic literature on vertical restraints and vertical integration provides no support for ex ante regulation arising out of the concern that a vertically integrating firm will harm competition through favoring its own content and discriminating against rivals.  Economic theory suggests that such arrangements may be anticompetitive in some instances, but also provides a plethora of pro-competitive explanations.  Lafontaine & Slade explain the state of the evidence in their recent survey paper in the Journal of Economic Literature:

We are therefore somewhat surprised at what the weight of the evidence is telling us. It says that, under most circumstances, profit-maximizing vertical-integration decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view. Although there are isolated studies that contradict this claim, the vast majority support it. Moreover, even in industries that are highly concentrated so that horizontal considerations assume substantial importance, the net effect of vertical integration appears to be positive in many instances. We therefore conclude that, faced with a vertical arrangement, the burden of evidence should be placed on competition authorities to demonstrate that that arrangement is harmful before the practice is attacked. Furthermore, we have found clear evidence that restrictions on vertical integration that are imposed, often by local authorities, on owners of retail networks are usually detrimental to consumers. Given the weight of the evidence, it behooves government agencies to reconsider the validity of such restrictions.

Of course, this does not bless all instances of vertical contracts or integration as pro-competitive.  The antitrust approach appropriately eschews ex ante regulation in favor of a fact-specific rule of reason analysis that requires plaintiffs to demonstrate competitive harm in a particular instance. Again, given the strength of the empirical evidence, it is no surprise that advocates of search neutrality, as net neutrality before it, either do not rely on consumer welfare arguments or are willing to sacrifice consumer welfare for other objectives.

I wish to focus on the antitrust arguments for a moment.  In an interview with the San Francisco Gate, Harvard’s Ben Edelman sketches out an antitrust claim against Google based upon search bias; and to his credit, Edelman provides some evidence in support of his claim.

I’m not convinced.  Edelman’s interpretation of evidence of search bias is detached from antitrust economics.  The evidence is all about identifying whether or not there is bias.  That, however, is not the relevant antitrust inquiry; instead, the question is whether such vertical arrangements, including preferential treatment of one’s own downstream products, are generally procompetitive or anticompetitive.  Examples from other contexts illustrate this point.

Continue Reading…

The paper is here (HT: Steve Salop).  The AER’s The Top 20 Committee, consisting of Kenneth J. Arrow, B. Douglas Bernheim, Martin S. Feldstein, Daniel L. McFadden, James M. Poterba, and Robert M. Solow, made the selections.  The list is alphabetical, of course, but TOTM readers will observe that it starts off particularly well (see here and here).   A few interesting things jump out, e.g. the multiple appearances from Peter Diamond (and James Mirrlees).  Any big errors or omissions?

Here’s the list:

Alchian, Armen A., and Harold Demsetz. 1972. “Production, Information Costs, and Economic Organization.” American Economic Review, 62(5): 777–95.

Arrow, Kenneth J. 1963. “Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Medical Care.” American Economic Review, 53(5): 941–73.

Cobb, Charles W., and Paul H. Douglas. 1928. “A Theory of Production.” American Economic Review, 18(1): 139–65.

Deaton, Angus S., and John Muellbauer. 1980. “An Almost Ideal Demand System.” American Economic Review, 70(3): 312–26.

Diamond, Peter A. 1965. “National Debt in a Neoclassical Growth Model.” American Economic
Review, 55(5): 1126–50.

Diamond, Peter A., and James A. Mirrlees. 1971. “Optimal Taxation and Public Production I: Production Efficiency.” American Economic Review, 61(1): 8–27.

Diamond, Peter A., and James A. Mirrlees. 1971. “Optimal Taxation and Public Production II: Tax
Rules.” American Economic Review, 61(3): 261–78.

Dixit, Avinash K., and Joseph E. Stiglitz. 1977. “Monopolistic Competition and Optimum Product
Diversity.” American Economic Review, 67(3): 297–308.

Friedman, Milton. 1968. “The Role of Monetary Policy.” American Economic Review, 58(1): 1–17.

Grossman, Sanford J., and Joseph E. Stiglitz. 1980. “On the Impossibility of Informationally Efficient Markets.” American Economic Review, 70(3): 393–408.

Harris, John R., and Michael P. Todaro. 1970. “Migration, Unemployment and Development: A Two-Sector Analysis.” American Economic Review, 60(1): 126–42.

Hayek, F. A. 1945. “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” American Economic Review, 35(4): 519–30.

Jorgenson, Dale W. 1963. “Capital Theory and Investment Behavior.” American Economic Review, 53(2): 247–59.

Krueger, Anne O. 1974. “The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society.” American Economic
Review, 64(3): 291–303.

Krugman, Paul. 1980. “Scale Economies, Product Differentiation, and the Pattern of Trade.” American Economic Review, 70(5): 950–59.

Kuznets, Simon. 1955. “Economic Growth and Income Inequality.” American Economic Review,
45(1): 1–28.

Lucas, Robert E., Jr. 1973. “Some International Evidence on Output-Inflation Tradeoffs.” American Economic Review, 63(3): 326–34.

Modigliani, Franco, and Merton H. Miller. 1958. “The Cost of Capital, Corporation Finance and the
Theory of Investment.” American Economic Review, 48(3): 261–97.

Mundell, Robert A. 1961. “A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas.” American Economic Review,
51(4): 657–65.

Ross, Stephen A. 1973. “The Economic Theory of Agency: The Principal’s Problem.” American Economic Review, 63(2): 134–39.

Shiller, Robert J. 1981. “Do Stock Prices Move Too Much to Be Justified by Subsequent Changes in
Dividends?” American Economic Review, 71(3): 421–36.

One of my favorite stories in the ongoing saga over the regulation (and thus the future) of Internet search emerged earlier this week with claims by Google that Microsoft has been copying its answers–using Google search results to bolster the relevance of its own results for certain search terms.  The full story from Internet search journalist extraordinaire, Danny Sullivan, is here, with a follow up discussing Microsoft’s response here.  The New York Times is also on the case with some interesting comments from a former Googler that feed nicely into the Schumpeterian competition angle (discussed below).  And Microsoft consultant (“though on matters unrelated to issues discussed here”)  and Harvard Business prof Ben Edelman coincidentally echoes precisely Microsoft’s response in a blog post here.

What I find so great about this story is how it seems to resolve one of the most significant strands of the ongoing debate–although it does so, from Microsoft’s point of view, unintentionally, to be sure.

Here’s what I mean.  Back when Microsoft first started being publicly identified as a significant instigator of regulatory and antitrust attention paid to Google, the company, via its chief competition counsel, Dave Heiner, defended its stance in large part on the following ground:

All of this is quite important because search is so central to how people navigate the Internet, and because advertising is the main monetization mechanism for a wide range of Web sites and Web services. Both search and online advertising are increasingly controlled by a single firm, Google. That can be a problem because Google’s business is helped along by significant network effects (just like the PC operating system business). Search engine algorithms “learn” by observing how users interact with search results. Google’s algorithms learn less common search terms better than others because many more people are conducting searches on these terms on Google.

These and other network effects make it hard for competing search engines to catch up. Microsoft’s well-received Bing search engine is addressing this challenge by offering innovations in areas that are less dependent on volume. But Bing needs to gain volume too, in order to increase the relevance of search results for less common search terms. That is why Microsoft and Yahoo! are combining their search volumes. And that is why we are concerned about Google business practices that tend to lock in publishers and advertisers and make it harder for Microsoft to gain search volume. (emphasis added).

Claims of “network effects” “increasing returns to scale” and the absence of “minimum viable scale” for competitors run rampant (and unsupported) in the various cases against Google.  The TradeComet complaint, for example, claims that

[t]he primary barrier to entry facing vertical search websites is the inability to draw enough search traffic to reach the critical mass necessary to become independently sustainable.

But now we discover (what we should have known all along) that “learning by doing” is not the only way to obtain the data necessary to generate relevant search results: “Learning by copying” works, as well.  And there’s nothing wrong with it–in fact, the very process of Schumpeterian creative destruction assumes imitation.

As Armen Alchian notes in describing his evolutionary process of competition,

Neither perfect knowledge of the past nor complete awareness of the current state of the arts gives sufficient foresight to indicate profitable action . . . [and] the pervasive effects of uncertainty prevent the ascertainment of actions which are supposed to be optimal in achieving profits.  Now the consequence of this is that modes of behavior replace optimum equilibrium conditions as guiding rules of action. First, wherever successful enterprises are observed, the elements common to these observable successes will be associated with success and copied by others in their pursuit of profits or success. “Nothing succeeds like success.”

So on the one hand, I find the hand wringing about Microsoft’s “copying” Google’s results to be completely misplaced–just as the pejorative connotations of “embrace and extend” deployed against Microsoft itself when it was the target of this sort of scrutiny were bogus.  But, at the same time, I see this dynamic essentially decimating Microsoft’s (and others’) claims that Google has an unassailable position because no competitor can ever hope to match its size, and thus its access to information essential to the quality of search results, particularly when it comes to so-called “long-tail” search terms.

Long-tail search terms are queries that are extremely rare and, thus, for which there is little user history (information about which results searchers found relevant and clicked on) to guide future search results.  As Ben Edelman writes in his blog post (linked above) on this issue (trotting out, even while implicitly undercutting, the “minimum viable scale” canard):

Of course the reality is that Google’s high market share means Google gets far more searches than any other search engine. And Google’s popularity gives it a real advantage: For an obscure search term that gets 100 searches per month at Google, Bing might get just five or 10. Also, for more popular terms, Google can slice its data into smaller groups — which results are most useful to people from Boston versus New York, which results are best during the day versus at night, and so forth. So Google is far better equipped to figure out what results users favor and to tailor its listings accordingly. Meanwhile, Microsoft needs additional data, such as Toolbar and Related Sites data, to attempt to improve its results in a similar way.

But of course the “additional data” that Microsoft has access to here is, to a large extent, the same data that Google has.  Although Danny Sullivan’s follow up story (also linked above) suggests that Bing doesn’t do all it could to make use of Google’s data (for example, Bing does not, it seems, copy Google search results wholesale, nor does it use user behavior as extensively as it could (by, for example, seeing searches in Google and then logging the next page visited, which would give Bing a pretty good idea which sites in Google’s results users found most relevant)), it doesn’t change the fundamental fact that Microsoft and other search engines can overcome a significant amount of the so-called barrier to entry afforded by Google’s impressive scale by simply imitating much of what Google does (and, one hopes, also innovating enough to offer something better).

Perhaps Google is “better equipped to figure out what users favor.”  But it seems to me that only a trivial amount of this advantage is plausibly attributable to Google’s scale instead of its engineering and innovation.  The fact that Microsoft can (because of its own impressive scale in various markets) and does take advantage of accessible data to benefit indirectly from Google’s own prowess in search is a testament to the irrelevance of these unfortunately-pervasive scale and network effect arguments.

Nobel Speculation Time

Josh Wright —  8 October 2010

Every year around this time, I repeat my prediction that Armen Alchian, Harold Demsetz, and Ben Klein will win the Nobel Prize for contributions to the theory of the firm, property rights, and transaction cost economics.  I understand that last year’s prize makes this combination less likely, but I see no reason to deviate.  I make the case for that combination, one that I think compares quite favorably to the more frequently discussed trio of Hart-Holmstrom-Tirole, in the linked post.  One can also imagine an Alchian / Demsetz prize for narrowly grounded in their work on property rights.

As Armen’s long-time collaborator William Allen put it in his own letter to the Nobel Committee on Armen’s behalf:

Economics is a broad discipline in methodology, as the Committee is fully aware, ranging from detailed historical, institutional, legalistic description to totally abstract, arcane theory. All such approaches, techniques, and emphases are appropriate. But there is much specialization among the members of the fraternity. And, increasingly, the profession has dealt in rigorous, elegant manipulation, even when the work is purportedly empirical—and even when the substantive results hardly warranted such virtuoso flair. Professor Alchian is a splendid technician, and he has contributed significantly and conspicuously to general “theory.” But, in contrast to many, he has always appreciated that the final payoff of Economics is elucidation of the real workings and phenomena of the world. I know of no one at any time who has had a finer sense of how to use economic analytics to explain the world. Sometimes the explanation requires involved, complex analysis, and Professor Alchian does not fear to use the tools which are required; what is uncommon is his lack of fear in using the MINIMUM tools which are required. In large part, his peculiar genius (the word is used advisedly) is to make extraordinarily effective use of elemental, and often elementary, techniques of analysis. And a host of people—many of whom are now in strategic positions in universities, in government, in the legal system, in the world of business and finance—have enormously benefited from the tutelage of Professor Alchian. … I present Armen Alchian as a giant—a giant who, because of his lack of pretension, is easily overlooked by laymen and even by some supposed professionals—who has greatly honored his profession and uniquely contributed to its usefulness. He would grace the distinguished fraternity of Nobel Laureates.

Indeed.  See also Fred McChesney’s entry on Alchian’s pathbreaking contributions to economic science is available here, and David Henderson’s entry on Alchian in the Concise Enyclopedia of Economics here.

Thomson-Reuters also adds Kevin M. Murphy (another Bruin, at least as an undergraduate!) to their “Watch list” this year, which is also a splendid idea.

Gordon Tullock remains, along with Armen, at the very top of the list of the most deserving.

I’m seeing a lot of predictions for Thaler / Schiller.  That would be the prize that least surprises me.

 

At Econ Journal Watch.   Professor Allen offers a wonderful personal history of the UCLA Economics Department, including the rise and fall of what he describes as “the Alchian Department.”    The entire article is worth reading, but I include here an excerpt from Professor Allen’s Nobel (and University Award) nomination on behalf of Armen:

Economics is a broad discipline in methodology, as the Committee is fully aware, ranging from detailed historical, institutional, legalistic description to totally abstract, arcane theory. All such approaches, techniques, and emphases are appropriate. But there is much specialization among the members of the fraternity. And, increasingly, the profession has dealt in rigorous, elegant manipulation, even when the work is purportedly empirical—and even when the substantive results hardly warranted such virtuoso flair. Professor Alchian is a splendid technician, and he has contributed significantly and conspicuously to general “theory.” But, in contrast to many, he has always appreciated that the final payoff of Economics is elucidation of the real workings and phenomena of the world. I know of no one at any time who has had a finer sense of how to use economic analytics to explain the world. Sometimes the explanation requires involved, complex analysis, and Professor Alchian does not fear to use the tools which are required; what is uncommon is his lack of fear in using the MINIMUM tools which are required. In large part, his peculiar genius (the word is used advisedly) is to make extraordinarily effective use of elemental, and often elementary, techniques of analysis. And a host of people—many of whom are now in strategic positions in universities, in government, in the legal system, in the world of business and finance—have enormously benefited from the tutelage of Professor Alchian. … I present Armen Alchian as a giant—a giant who, because of his lack of pretension, is easily overlooked by laymen and even by some supposed professionals—who has greatly honored his profession and uniquely contributed to its usefulness. He would grace the distinguished fraternity of Nobel Laureates.

Amen.  Allen then observes:

This story should end in triumph. But neither the UCLA Alumni Association
nor the Nobel committee met its clear obligation. I wrote a two-page letter to the chairman of the campus group asking if the major problem of the Association was lack of competence or lack of integrity. The Swedes deserved a similar inquiry.

My own, less eloquent, case in favor of an Alchian / UCLA School Nobel is here; Fred McChesney’s entry on Alchian’s pathbreaking contributions to economic science is available here, and David Henderson’s entry on Alchian in the Concise Enyclopedia of Economics is here.

Disclosure: Snarky comments concerning the distinction between the Nobel Prize in Economics and the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences will be deleted for lack of originality.