Posts Tagged ‘firm’


It is extraordinary that the hegemonic economic theory in the world today—neoclassical economics—still lacks an adequate theory of the firm.

It beggars belief both because neoclassical economics is the predominant theory that is taught to hundreds of thousands of students every year and used to make sense of the world and formulate policy in countless think thanks and government agencies and because the firm (or enterprise or corporation) is one of the central institutions of capitalism. It’s where many (but of course not all) goods and services are produced, value and surplus-value are created, and profits generated for capitalists.

And yet the neoclassical notion of the firm, even when developed by Nobel Prize-winning economists (such as Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom), is not much more than an empty box—without any real history and, as it turns out, without any links to politics.

Daniel Carpenter, the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Director of Social Sciences at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, certainly thinks that’s a problem in terms of making sense of how firms came to be constituted historically and what their effects are on contemporary society.

Q: The neoclassical theory of the firm does not consider political engagement by corporations. How big an omission do you think this is?

 I think it’s an immense omission. For one, we can’t even talk about the historical origins of many firms without talking about corporate charters, limited liability arrangements, zoning, public contracts and grants, and so on. To view these processes as legal and not political is a significant mistake. I’m currently writing a lot on the history of petitioning in Europe and North America, and in areas ranging from railroads, to technology-heavy industries, to extractive industries, to banking, firms (or their investors) had to bring a case before the legislature, or an agency of government, or both. They usually used petitions to do so. 

 Beyond the past and into the present, there are a range of firm activities that we can’t understand without looking at politics. Industrial organization considers regulator-firm interactions, but does not theorize the fact that now most firms have regulatory affairs and compliance offices, or the fact that firms hire not just lobbyists but lawyers to do a lot of political work for them.

 And in the future, the profitability and survival prospects of many firms in the coming years will depend heavily, in a polarized environment, on the political skills of managers. The theory of the firm was developed in an era (1950s – 2000) when globalism was the rule. What might it look like if Trump and Brexit are the new norm?

Today, of course, many citizens are concerned about the corrupt links between the capitalist firms in which they work and the governments that are supposed to represent the people. In my view, that concern was one of the causes of the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election.

The problem is, neither the post-Brexit British government nor the Trump administration has given any indication they’re going to solve the problem of the firm. Quite the opposite. Both have tied themselves to the very same capitalist firms that have wreaked havoc on society for decades now.

Meanwhile, neoclassical economists continue to build their models based on a theory of the firm that bears no relationship to the way firms operate in the real world, manipulating market rules and political actors to their own ends.


Technically, there is no Nobel Prize in economics. What it is, instead, is the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, which members of the Nobel family and a previous winner (Friedrich von Hayek) have criticized.

So, where did the prize come from? As Avner Offer explains,

The Nobel prize came out of a longstanding social conflict. On one side, central banks and the better-off striving to keep property intact and prices stable; on the other, everyone else’s quest for economic security. The Swedish social democratic government clipped the wings of the central bank – Sveriges Riksbank – in pursuit of more housing and jobs. In compensation, the government allowed the central bank to keep some funds, which the bank used in 1968 to endow the Nobel prize in economics as a vanity project to mark its tercentenary.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Neoclassical Economics (as I dubbed it 5 years ago) was awarded jointly to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom. Officially, the 2016 prize recognized “their contributions to contract theory.” Unofficially, as I understand their work, it was all about attempting to solve a longstanding problem in neoclassical economic theory: the theory of the firm.

Historically, neoclassical economists (and, for that matter, not a few heterodox economists) simply assumed capitalist firms maximize profits. But, in the context of a market system, there’s no particular reason a non-market institution like “the firm” should exist (instead of, for example, everyone—workers, managers, suppliers, buyers, and so on—entering into market exchanges in parking lots or coffee shops each morning).* And yet corporations, many of them employing hundreds of thousands of workers and making record profits, have become central to the way capitalist economies are currently organized. Moreover, once you look inside that “black box,” a great deal more is going on. Workers are hired to perform necessary and surplus labor in the course of producing commodities by managers, who run the enterprise on a daily basis and receive a cut of the surplus from the board of directors, who themselves need to be elected by shareholders (who, together with money-lenders, merchants, government officials, and many others, inside and outside the enterprise, receive their own portions of the surplus). Corporations, as it turns out, are pretty complicated—political, cultural, and economic—institutions.

But when neoclassical economists like Hart and Holmstrom look inside the firm what they see is a single issue—a relationship between a “principal” and “agents.” Principals (e.g., capitalists) are presumed to enter into agreements—voluntary contracts—with agents (e.g., workers) to advance a goal (e.g., of maximizing profits). As they see it, contracts are risky because, first, principals and agents often have conflicting interests (e.g., principals want maximum effort while agents are presumed to engage in risk-averse, shirking behavior) and, second, measuring fulfillment of the goal is imperfect (that is, not all the actions of the agents can be perfectly observed). The whole point of contract theory, then, is to devise a relationship such that—through a combination of incentives and monitoring—agents can be made to work hard to fulfill the goal set by the principal.

In one of his most famous and influential papers, “Moral Hazard in Teams” (pdf, a link to the working-paper version), Holmstrom’s starting point is the idea that there’s a problem of “inducing agents to supply proper amounts of productive inputs when their actions cannot be observed and contracted upon directly” (in other words, moral hazard), especially when they work in teams. He then sets up a model in which he demonstrates that “separating ownership from production”—which also provides the incentive for limited monitoring by the owners (i.e., stockholders)—solves the problem of moral hazard and restores efficiency.**

In other words, the Nobel Prize-winning approach to contract theory is used to demonstrate what neoclassical economists had long presumed: that capitalist firms (and not, e.g., worker-owned enterprises) represent the most efficient way to organize production.

That’s why, from a neoclassical perspective, it is only natural that capital hires labor.


*In fact, Paul Samuelson (in 1957, in “Wages and Interest: A Modern Dissection of Marxian Economic Models,”American Economic Review) once argued that “In a perfectly competitive market, it really doesn’t matter who hires whom: so have labor hire ‘capital’.”

**Hart, for his part (in a paper with John Moore [pdf]), looked at the issue of property rights in relation to firms by distinguishing between owning a firm and contracting for services from another firm. Their model shows, once again in true neoclassical fashion, that the owner of an enterprise—who exercises “control,” not only over assets, but also over the workers tied to those assets—will have more control, leading to higher efficiency, if they directly employ the workers than if they have an arm’s-length contract with another employer of the workers. That’s because, under single ownership, the employer can “selectively fire the workers of the firm” if they dislike the workers’ performance, whereas under contracted services they can “fire” only the entire firm.


The problems surrounding the central institution of capitalism—the corporation—are so widespread and enormous they’ve even provoked concern in sympathetic quarters, such as the Harvard Business School.

This past November, Harvard hosted a conference during which participants attempted to grapple with the tensions between Milton Friedman’s theory of the firm—according to which firms can and should only benefit society by focusing on maximizing shareholder value—and the growing political influence of corporations after Citizens United—when it has become increasingly easy for firms to tweak the rules of the game in their favor.

Now, for the rest of us—citizens, nonmainstream economists, and academics in disciplines outside of business and economics—both the history of corporations and the prevailing neoclassical theory of the firm present so many problems it’s hard to believe Friedman’s ideas are still taken seriously. Long before Citizens United, corporations have exercised a great deal of influence both inside (over their workers) and outside (in politics and in the wider society). That’s why the corporation has been a contested institution—legally, economically, politically—since its inception. Similarly, the neoclassical theory of the firm (initially in its “black box” form, then when the owner-manager agency problem was raised) has swept most of the serious problems under the theoretical rug.*

But for the scholars gathered at Harvard, the key issue (as presented in the brief paper coauthored by Harvard Business School faculty members Paul Healy, Rebecca Henderson, David Moss, and Karthik Ramanna [pdf]) was a relatively narrow one:

if firms have the power to generate profits not only by producing socially beneficial goods and services, but also by tilting public policy and the “rules of the game” to their advantage (whether through aggressive lobbying, effective use of the revolving door between political and corporate appointments, or campaign contributions), then the core assumption that firms can maximize social value by maximizing shareholder value may not hold, and framing managerial responsibility as simply a matter of maximizing shareholder value may well be inappropriate.

Having read the paper, it is extraordinary that there’s no real history—no story about the invention of the corporation as a legal “person,” no Louis Brandeis or the Progressive movement, no Knights of Labor or United Mineworkers, no mention of the role of International Telephone & Telegraph in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile, no Massey Energy killing 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch mine. It’s as if the problem of corporate power only emerged after the 2010 Citizens United decision.

Still, from the perspective of neoclassical economics, even that problem looms large. According to the reigning paradigm (which guides much policy and is taught to hundreds of thousands of students every year), under conditions of perfect competition, free markets (including firms that maximize shareholder value) lead to Pareto-efficient outcomes. But if corporations (whether single firms or industries) can shape the institutions of the market (or the rules and ethical customs that help to maintain them), then all bets are off: “Maximizing shareholder value by deliberately distorting critical market institutions or regulations for private advantage seems unlikely to lead to the maximization of social value.”

That’s why the participants in the Harvard conference were caught between the real implications of Citizens United (that corporations can increasingly bend the social rules to their private advantage) and their continued adherence to the neoclassical theory of the firm (according to which maximizing shareholder value also maximizes social value).

I suppose it’s no surprise, then, which won out at the Harvard conference:

“I went into the conference with the understanding that one could question the premise of the Neoclassical paradigm in economics through logical arguments—e.g., the inconsistencies between Friedman’s assumptions and Stigler’s theory. I left with a sense that logical arguments on their own are unlikely to carry the day, because the Neoclassical paradigm is so powerfully ingrained into the discipline, into the fabric of modern economics,” says Ramanna.


*Including the problem neoclassical economists share with many of their heterodox counterparts, namely, what exactly does it mean that corporations maximize profits or shareholder value? First, how do we define profits or shareholder value, i.e., what is the appropriate metric, over what time horizon should it be defined, and how should it be measured? Second, corporations do many different things, such as exploit workers, give lavish pay to top managers, attempt to eliminate rivals, chart particular short-run and long-term growth path, buy favors and influence legislation, hoard cash, accumulate capital, and so on—why reduce all of what they do to a single dimension?