Thursday, April 12, 2012

Austrian Economics Forum Spring '12 #4--Kirzner & Cwik

For our fourth meeting, it was decided that we would discuss the paper that I presented at the Austrian Scholars' Conference in Auburn.  While I love to talk about myself, I decided to include a paper by Kirzner as well. 

The Kirzner paper is "The alert and creative entrepreneur: a clarification."  Basically, this is Kirzner responding to supporters and critics of Capitalism and Entrepreneurship, and then telling them that they are all wrong.

Kizner says that his work is not about how to become a successful entrepreneur.  Rather his work focuses on how the market process is set in motion be entrepreneurial decisions.

The interesting points he puts forward is an almost rewritting of his stance on Schumpeter.  He says that everyone knows of Schumpeter's creative-destroyer and so he did not want to dwell on that aspect of entrepreneurship.  He wanted to show how entrepreneurship coordinates the economy.

He then argues that many misinterpreted his writings to say that the entrepreneur was a passive noticer of opportunities.  He says that a false tension was created between the Schumpeterian "bold, disruptive, innovators or [the] passively alert, harmony-restoring responders to changes that have already occurred."  He then states,

[T]here must be scope for both a creative ("Schumpeterian") entrepreneur (one who generates pure profit) and a "passive," alert ("Kirznerian") entrepreneur (one who snuffs out given profit opportunities by promptly exploiting them.) p. 149 (italics in the original)
Cordato argued that his own work tends to connect the two positions.  He argued that we live in an "open-ended universe."  He means that there is no such thing as a final equilibrium to strive for.  In fact, as new information is added, the equilibrium point changes. 

It was based upon this point that we decided that the next week would center on Cordato's book, Efficiency and Externalities in an Open-Ended Universe.  And so we tabled further discussion on this point for the next week.

Then the discussion turned to my paper, "Greed in Public and Private Institutions."

My paper, as is too often the case, was based upon frustration.  There is a general attitude that anything that happens in the private sector is due to greed, but when we switch to the nonprofit sector, motives are now made of pure light.  Indeed!

Of course people in every walk of life are greedy.  (As an aside, economists throw out the word "greed" because it cannot be precisely defined.  A typical definition of greed is the wanting of something too much.  However, what is "too much"?  Who decides?  As a result, economists use levels of self-interest.)  Self-interest is omnipresent and it propels Adam Smith's butcher, brewer and baker to serve others.  On the other hand, we have a separation of self-interest and the interest(s) of the overall organization.  It is a question of aligning incentives.  In other words, we are examining a principal-agent problem.  What if Bernie Madoff, Ken Lay or other suitable villain was in charge of the State Department or the US Treasury?  Would we even know what they would be up to?

My paper suggests that two questions arise: Can the institution efficiently allocate resources to satisfy the most intense wants and desires of consumers?  And can the principal-agent problem be overcome to ensure that the leadership will carry out its intended purpose or will the leadership use the entity as a means to a selfish (greedy) end?

In my paper, I looked at three institutional settings: for-profit companies, bureaucracies and nonprofits.  I conclude that the for-profit sector can answer both of the questions.  The bureaucracies cannot calculate efficiency, but it does issue rules, orders and regulations to control and guide the behavior of beaucrats.  It is in this way that bureaucracies have a chance of overcoming the principal-agent problem.  The nonprofit sector, on the other hand, is incapable of answering either question.

Overall, the discussion was friendly and supportive.  During the course of the discussion, Cordato asked a good question, "When it comes to bureaucracies, who are the principals?"  I did not have a ready answer for him.  When I wrote the paper, I had Mises' Bureaucracy in the back of my mind.  In it, he uses the model of a king that basically is in charge issuing orders.  And so in my mind, the king was the principal and the bureaucrat was the agent.  How that translates into a representative government is much more complex.  Although, the point that there is a potential solution remains.

Additionally, a student suggested that when it comes to the nonprofit organizations, we can split them into two groups.  The first group is primarily donation driven, while the second is endowment supported.  The first group "has its feet to the fire."  They must be very aware of what the donors expect, otherwise the funding disappears.  The second group is insulated from today's donors because an endowment has been built up.  (For example, think of colleges and universities that have large endowments.)  They are able to upset today's donors because they have the resources in place for tomorrow.  Of course, such an institution cannot upset significant donors forever, but they have a lot more room to be independent.  This insight certainly adds to the discussion that I make in separating the true-believers from the careerists.


Doug McKnight said...

I'd argue that the principals are those who provide the funds to a bureaucracy. Even if the bureaucracy isn't providing desired benefits to these people, it at least has to pretend to be doing so. I hope you'll let me know what you think of the Collective Consumption manuscript that I sent you and that relates to this subject.

Post a Comment