Thursday, 12 July 2018

Talk on Adam Smith by Jesse Norman

At a time when economics and politics are both increasingly polarized between left and right, this book, Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why it Matters, which Jesse Norman will discuss at this event, returns to intellectual first principles to recreate the lost centre of public debate. It offers a Smithian analysis of contemporary markets, predatory capitalism and the 2008 financial crash; it addresses crucial issues of inequality, human dignity and exploitation; and it provides a compelling explanation of why Smith is central to any attempt to defend and renew the market system.

Monday, 9 July 2018

A brief note for @LewSOS

This note is a brief explanation for comments I made in an interesting twitter exchange with @LewSOS.

To start lets us define a socialist economy. I will follow those, on both sides, involved in the socialist calculation debate and define socialism as the state ownership of the means of production. Nothing strange in this.

This raises the question of what is ownership? Here I follow Grossman and Hart (1986) in defining ownership in terms of control rights. You "own" an asset insofar as you have control rights over that asset. As Grossman and Hart put it
We define a firm to consist of those assets that it owns or over which it has control; we do not distinguish between ownership and control and virtually define ownership as the power to exercise control.
This terminology seems consistent with standard usage. For example, Oliver Wendell Homes (1881) writes,
But what are the rights of ownership? They are substantially the same as those incident to possession. Within the limits of policy, the owner is allowed to exercise his natural powers over the subject-matter uninterfered with, and is more or less protected in excluding other people from such interference. The owner is allowed to exclude all, and is accountable to no one but him.
Clearly, in fact by definition, under socialism the state has residual control rights. Who then had control rights under the Nazi government? In particular, did private individuals have control rights over "their" assets? Adam Tooze in his book “The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy” (well worth reading, all 800 pages of it!!) makes a number of comments with regard to state involvement in the economy and control over business: to take a few examples,
Now capitalism's deepest crisis left German business powerless to resist a state interventionism that came not from the left but the right
The first years of Hitler's regime saw the imposition of a series of controls on German business that were unprecedented in peacetime history.
As we have already seen, the New Plan, which effectively regulated the access of each and every German firm to foreign raw materials, created a substantial new bureaucracy, which controlled the vital functions of a large slice of German industry.
Managing this burdensome system of controls was the primary function of a new framework of compulsory business organizations imposed by Schacht between the autumn of 1934 and the spring of 1935. In each sector, the existing multiplicity of voluntary associations was fused together into a hierarchy of Reich Groups (for industry, banking, insurance, and so on), Business Groups (Wirtschaftsgruppen, for mining, steel, engineering and so on) and Branch Groups (Fachgruppen, for anthracite as opposed to lignite mining, and so on). Every German firm was required to enrol. Each subdivision in each Business Group was headed by its own Fuehrer. These men were nominated by the existing associations, vetted by the Reich Group and appointed by Schacht. The primary role of the Business Groups was to act as a channel between individual firms and the Reich Ministry of Economic Affairs. Decrees came down from the Ministry via the Business group. Complaints, suggestions and information travelled upwards from the firms, via the Business Groups to Berlin. The organization was tireless in the production of publications, guidelines and recommendations for the best practice. On the basis of emergency decrees first issued during the latter stages of World War I, the Business Groups were also empowered to collect compulsory reports from their members, establishing an unprecedented system of industrial statistics. After 1936 they were authorized to penetrate even further into the internal workings of their members, with the introduction of standardized book-keeping systems.
So far-reaching were the regime's interventions in the German economy - starting with exchange controls and ending with the rationing of all key raw materials and the forced conscription of civilian workers in peacetime - that one is tempted to make comparisons with Stalin's Soviet Union.
[...] though there clearly was a dramatic assertion of state power over business after 1933, naked coercion was applied selectively [...]
What this points to is a high level of state control over business. While control over business was widespread, ownership was not taken over by the state in the manner of the Soviet Union. In Germany “ownership” formally remained in the hands of private individuals. But while it is true that "formal" ownership remained with private individuals, a question has to be asked as to what happened to "real" ownership. As Aghion and Tirole (1997) point out for the case of organisations, there is a difference between formal authority (the right to decide) and real authority (the effective control over decisions). Formal authority need not confer real authority.

A similar situation can occur with ownership when the state regulates business activity. Formal ownership (the right to decide) may not confer real ownership (the effective control over decisions) in so much as many of the control rights normally associated with ownership are not in the hands of the formal owners. Formal owners may be left with only residual income rights and a limited range of control rights. Given the level of regulation of the Nazi economy, many of the rights usually thought of as making up (real) ownership had been effectively usurped by the state. Avraham Barkai writes in his book "Nazi Economics: Ideology, Theory, and Policy", Oxford: Berg Publishers Ltd., 1990.
In an off-the-record talk with a newspaper editor in 1931, Hitler defined the basic principle of his economic project: "What matters is to emphasize the fundamental idea in my party's economic program clearly-the idea of authority. I want the authority; I want everyone to keep the property he has acquired for himself according to the principle: benefit to the community precedes benefit to the individual ["Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz"]. But the state should retain supervision and each property owner should consider himself appointed by the state. It is his duty not to use his property against the interests of others among his people. This is the crucial matter. The Third Reich will always retain its right to control the owners of property.
So while formal ownership remained with the private sector, this was little more than just an empty shell since real ownership had been (mis)appropriated by the state.

At the Fraser Institute economics professor Steven Horwitz has a brief essay on Fascism. On the topic of the economics of fascism, Horwitz writes,
What emerged as the fascist economic system then was a combination of the socialist rejection of capitalism and the nationalist rejection of internationalist socialism. It’s not coincidental that “Nazi” was short for National Socialist German Workers Party. The very name suggests that the fascists started from a socialist premise (including the emphasis on being a “workers” party), but added the “nationalist” (and specifically “German”) twist.

Rather than have full-blown socialism as we saw in the early years of the Soviet Union, the fascists generally preferred hybrid forms that often maintained the appearance of elements of capitalism but with a much larger role for the state in allocating resources. A look at the Nazi Party platform of 1920 shows the very strong influence of socialism in the economic planks, including objections to the earning of interest, the desire to nationalize industries, the confiscation of profits, and land reform. Not all of these were put into place when Hitler gained power, but the Nazis’ antipathy toward capitalism is quite clear, even as they often co-opted big business into their power structure in during their reign. The trappings of private ownership were often preserved, but the Nazis used the power of the state to try to ensure that private ownership was used as a means toward the national ends that they defined.

The Italian model was similar in its broad outlines, though different in its execution. The Italians were more clear than the Germans about the way in which market competition was destructive of national goals. They didn’t see Russian socialism as a solution for the reasons noted above. Instead, they argued for industry-level partnerships among labor, capital, and the political class. The idea was that by working collectively, these cartel-like organizations could resolve questions of what to produce, what price to charge, what wage to pay, and the like all without the need for cut-throat competition among firms or workers, or the use of strike threats between workers and capitalists. By putting national interests first, these collectives could plan out production industry by industry and ensure a cooperative peace among Italians. So, once again, the system kept some of the trappings of capitalism, such as nominally private ownership, but set them in a system where collective planning of a limited, and nationalistic, sort was the overarching structure.

Both of these systems are probably most accurately called “corporatism.” In such a system, we get these sorts of private-public collaborations in which private ownership is combined with state control and privileges for labor, and where all are expected to serve some larger national goal. It looks like private ownership, which is often the source of the claim that fascism is a form of capitalism, but the degree of distrust of the unplanned order of free markets and the de facto power that falls into the hands of the state to set goals both point to it as being more accurately a form of socialism or planning.
In short, I would argue that you can reasonably see the Nazi economy as being socialist.


  • Aghion, Philippe and Jean Tirole (1997). ‘Formal and real authority in organizations’, “Journal of Political Economy”, 105(1): 1-29.
  • Grossman, Sanford J. and Oliver D. Hart (1986). ‘The costs and benefits of ownership: a theory of vertical and lateral integration’, “Journal of Political Economy, 94(4): 691-719.
  • Holmes, Oliver Wendell (1881). “The Common Law”, Reprint. Boston: Little, Brown, 1946.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Can governments pick winners?

The short answer is, most likely, no. Two minutes on this question from Dave Donaldson.
Examples of geographical clustering in industries, such as Silicon Valley, suggest that firms have potentially positive external effects on other firms' productivities. Dave Donaldson discusses his research on the extent to which this is taking place, the strength of these economies of scale - for firms, workers, and consumers - and the role the government can play to foster this.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

It really does exist!!

I was beginning to wonder.

Now go out and buy it! All of you!!

Race and economic opportunity in the United States

The sources of racial disparities in income have been debated for decades. This column uses data on 20 million children and their parents to show how racial disparities persist across generations in the US. For instance, black men have much lower chances of climbing the income ladder than white men even if they grow up on the same block. In contrast, black and white women have similar rates of mobility. The column discusses how such findings can be used to reduce racial disparities going forward.
This comes from a posting at on Race and economic opportunity in the United States by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Maggie R. Jones and Sonya R. Porter. The findings of the study are:
Finding #1: Hispanic Americans are moving up in the income distribution across generations, while Black Americans and American Indians are not.

Finding #2: The black–white income gap is entirely driven by differences in men’s, not women’s, outcomes.

Finding #3: Differences in family characteristics – parental marriage rates, education, wealth – and differences in ability explain very little of the black–white gap.

Finding #4: In 99% of neighbourhoods in the United States, black boys earn less in adulthood than white boys who grow up in families with comparable income.

Finding #5: Both black and white boys have better outcomes in low-poverty areas, but black-white gaps are bigger in such neighbourhoods.

Finding #6: Within low-poverty areas, black–white gaps are smallest in places with low levels of racial bias among whites and high rates of father presence among blacks.

Finding #7: The black–white gap is not immutable: black boys who move to better neighbourhoods as children have significantly better outcomes.
The implications of the study are given as:
Differences in rates of mobility out of and into poverty are a central driver of racial disparities in the US today. Reducing the black–white gap will require efforts that increase upward mobility for black Americans, especially black men.

Our results show that the black–white gap in upward mobility is driven primarily by environmental factors that can be changed. But, the findings also highlight the challenges one faces in addressing these environmental disparities. Black and white boys have very different outcomes even if they grow up in two-parent families with comparable incomes, education, and wealth, live on the same city block, and attend the same school. This finding suggests that many widely discussed proposals may be insufficient to narrow the black–white gap themselves, and suggest potentially new directions to consider.

For instance, policies focused on improving the economic outcomes of a single generation – such as temporary cash transfers, minimum wage increases, or universal basic income programs – can help narrow racial gaps at a given point in time. However, they are less likely to narrow racial disparities in the long run, unless they also change rates of upward mobility across generations. Policies that reduce residential segregation or enable black and white children to attend the same schools without achieving racial integration within neighbourhoods and schools would also likely leave much of the gap in place.

Initiatives whose impacts cross neighbourhood and class lines and increase upward mobility specifically for black men hold the greatest promise of narrowing the black-white gap.There are many promising examples of such efforts: mentoring programmes for black boys, efforts to reduce racial bias among whites, interventions to reduce discrimination in criminal justice, and efforts to facilitate greater interaction across racial groups. We view the development and evaluation of such efforts as a valuable path forward to reducing racial gaps in upward mobility.

When it comes to entrepreneurs, youth isn't everything

While it is a widely held belief that youth and entrepreneurship go hand in hand, research finds that more successful entrepreneurs launch their enterprises in their 40s than in their 20s.

This is from the July 2018 issue of the NBER Digest. Alex Verkhivker gives a summary of the NBER working paper Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship (NBER Working Paper No. 24489) by Pierre Azoulay, Benjamin Jones, J. Daniel Kim, and Javier Miranda.
Star innovators such as Bill Gates, who was 19 when he started Microsoft, Steve Jobs, 21 when he started Apple, and Mark Zuckerberg, 19 when he launched Facebook, have reinforced the longstanding impression that young people are the wellspring of entrepreneurship. Systematic data on firm founders, however, suggest that this impression is false.

In Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship (NBER Working Paper No. 24489), Pierre Azoulay, Benjamin Jones, J. Daniel Kim, and Javier Miranda provide evidence that, on average, successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged. They analyzed administrative data from the U.S. Census Bureau on more than 2.7 million business founders whose companies subsequently hired at least one employee. The mean age of founders was 42. When looking at the highest-growth startups in the economy, the mean age at founding rose still higher — to 45.

The study explores not just the age of founders, but the factors that are correlated with firm success. Founders with prior work experience closer to the specific industry of the startup, and founders with longer experience in that industry, have substantially greater success rates. "For the 1 in 1,000 highest-growth firms, founders with three or more years of experience in the 2-digit industry see upper tail success at twice the rate" of founders with no experience in the 2-digit industry, the researchers report.

The study takes two approaches to examining growth-oriented startups. The first considers technology orientation, which can suggest the potential for high growth. The second considers the actual outcome for the firm, based on the three-, five-, or seven-year time window after founding.

Using third-party venture capital databases, the researchers determine whether a given company has received venture capital financing. They argue that such funding is suggestive of substantial growth potential. They also use employment growth and sales growth as defining characteristics of a high-growth new venture.

"...[C]omputing-oriented ventures as well as wireless telecom ventures appear to have the youngest founders," they write. "Yet even here the mean founder ages range from 38.5 to 40.8..."

The study also explores geographical heterogeneity, and separately considers California, Massachusetts, and New York. These three states account for the majority of high-growth startup activity in the U.S. Even in these states, successful entrepreneurs are still middle-aged. The youngest entrepreneurs in this part of the analysis, whose mean age was 38.7, were founders of venture capital-supported companies in New York.

When the set of 2.7 million founders was reduced to the 1,900 associated with companies that were both located in entrepreneurial hubs and received venture backing, the mean age of founders was 39.5.

The researchers conclude with a comment about current practices in the venture financing industry. "To the extent that venture capital targets younger founders, early-stage finance appears biased against the founders with the highest likelihood of successful exits or top 1 in 1,000 growth outcomes."

Friday, 29 June 2018

Two minutes on the minimum wage

Professor David Neumark a very quick summary of the research into the effects of minimum wage policy.

To read Professor Neumark's 2018 Adam Smith Lecture on “How policymakers should think about the minimum wage” see here. Well worth the read.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The gender earnings gap in the gig economy

A new NBER working paper on the gender wage gap.

The Gender Earnings Gap in the Gig Economy: Evidence from over a Million Rideshare Drivers
by Cody Cook, Rebecca Diamond, Jonathan Hall, John A. List, Paul Oyer

The growth of the "gig" economy generates worker flexibility that, some have speculated, will favor women. We explore this by examining labor supply choices and earnings among more than a million rideshare drivers on Uber in the U.S. We document a roughly 7% gender earnings gap amongst drivers. We completely explain this gap and show that it can be entirely attributed to three factors: experience on the platform (learning-by-doing), preferences over where to work (driven largely by where drivers live and, to a lesser extent, safety), and preferences for driving speed. We do not find that men and women are differentially affected by a taste for specific hours, a return to within-week work intensity, or customer discrimination. Our results suggest that there is no reason to expect the "gig" economy to close gender differences. Even in the absence of discrimination and in flexible labor markets, women's relatively high opportunity cost of non-paid-work time and gender-based differences in preferences and constraints can sustain a gender pay gap.