Alberto Alesina and Oliver Williamson: Taking Political and Economic Frictions Seriously

Very sad news this week for the economics community: both Oliver Williamson and Alberto Alesina have passed away. Williamson has been in poor health for some time, but Alesina’s death is a greater shock: he apparently had a heart attack while on a hike with his wife, at the young age of 63. While one is most famous for the microeconomics of the firm, and the other for political economy, there is in fact a tight link between their research agendas. They have attempted to open “black boxes” in economic modeling – about why firms organize the way they do, and the nature of political constraints on economic activity – to clarify otherwise strange differences in how firms and governments behave.

First, let us discuss Oliver Williamson, the 2009 Nobel winner (alongside Elinor Ostrom), and student of Ken Arrow and later the Carnegie School. He grew up in Superior, Wisconsin, next to Duluth at the frigid tip of Lake Superior, as the son of two schoolteachers. Trained as an engineer before returning to graduate school, he had a strong technical background. However, he also possessed, in the words of Arrow, the more important trait of “asking good questions”.

Industrial organization in the 1960s was a field that needed a skeptical mind. To a first approximation, any activity that was unusual was presumed to be anti-competitive. Vertical integration as anticompetitive was high on this list. While Williamson was first thinking about the behavior of firms, the famous case of U.S. vs. Arnold, Schwinn reached the Supreme Court. Schwinn, the bicycle company, neither owned distributors nor retailers. However, it did contractually limit distributors from selling bikes to retailers that were not themselves partnered with Schwinn. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled these contracts an antitrust violation.

Williamson was interested in why a firm might limit these distributors. Let’s start with the ideas of Mr. Coase. Coase argued that transactions in a market are not free: we need to find suppliers, evaluate quality, and so on. The organization of economic activity therefore attempts to economize on these “transaction costs”. In the Coasean world, transaction costs were nebulous, and attracted a great deal of critique. As Williamson, among many others, points out, both buying from a supplier and vertical integration require transaction costs: I need to haggle over the price of the component or else the price of the whole company! Therefore, in an unchanging world, it is not clear that integration does anything to reduce the transaction costs of evaluating what my partner – in procurement or in merger – is capable of. In the case of Schwinn, the transaction costs must be incurred whether we are debating how to split profits with a particular retailer for the upcoming year, or the price of a pallet of bicycles sold to that retailer.

Williamson’s model is richer. He takes change in the relationship as first order: the famous “unprogrammed adaptations”. The relationship between Schwinn and its retailers requires actions by both over time. Because we are not omniscient, no contract will cover every eventuality. When something unexpected happens, and we both want to renegotiate our contract, we are said to be facing an unprogrammed adaptation. For instance, if advertising is useful, and e-scooters unexpectedly become popular after Schwinn and their retailer sign their initial contract, then we will need to renegotiate who pays for those ads. Of course, we will only bother to negotiate at all if Schwinn and the retailer jointly profit from their relationship compared to their next best options, generating so-called “appropriable quasi-rents”.

We now have an explanation for Schwinn’s behavior. They expect frequent haggling with their retailer about which bicycles to advertise, service standards for repairs, employee training, and so on. If these negotiations fail, the next best option is pretty bad – many small towns might only have one full-service bicycle shop, the Schwinn bikes are more popular than alternatives, and Schwinn itself has neither the resources nor the knowledge to run its own full-service chain of retailers efficiently. Schwinn therefore uses exclusive retail contracts to limit the number of retailers it must negotiate with over service standards, advertising, and the like.

While we have focused on the application of transaction costs to antitrust, Williamson’s basic framework extends much further. He saw the problem as one of “choice” versus “contract”. The canonical topic of study in economics is choice: “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses,” as Lionel Robbins famously puts it. However, constraints also matter. Agents can act only within the bounds of the law, as a function of what other firms are capable of, and so on. Some of these constraints are public – e.g., what tariff rate do we face, are we allowed to put a price on kidneys for exchange, and so on. Williamson focused our attention on private constraints: the contracts, governance structures, and tools to align incentives which help us reach efficiency when information is asymmetric and contracts are incomplete. The timing was perfect: both Williamson and his professor Ken Arrow, along with Alchian, Demsetz, Klein and others, saw how important this “private ordering” was in their work in the 1960s, but that work was largely qualitative. The formal advancements in game theory in the 1970s gave us the tools that permitted formal analyses of contracting let us transform these ideas into a modern field of industrial organization.

Williamson was in no way an ideologue who ignored the possibility of anticompetitive behavior. Indeed, many canonical anticompetitive strategies, such as “raising rivals’ costs” whereby a firm encourages legal restrictions which raise its own cost but raise rival costs to an even greater degree, originate with Williamson. I also particularly like that Williamson both wrote serious economics, but also frequently translated those results for law journals in order to reach a wider audience. Erik Hovenkamp and I tried to follow this legacy recently in our work on the antitrust of startup acquisitions, where we wrote both a theoretical version and a law review article on the implications of this theory for existing legal practice.

Transaction cost economics is now huge and the both the benefits and critiques of this approach are serious (for more, see my course notes on the theory of the firm). Every economist, when looking at “unusual” contracts or mergers, now follows Williamson in simultaneously looking for the strategic anticompetitive explanation and the cost-saving explanation. The name of this balance? Literally, the Williamson tradeoff!

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If Williamson was interested in “private ordering”, Alesina was focused on the public constraints on behavior. He was without question at the head of the table when it came to winning a Nobel for political economy. Economists, by and large, are technocrats. We have models of growth, of R&D, of fiscal policy, of interstate coordination, and so on. These models imply useful policies. The “public choice” critique, that the politicians and bureaucrats implementing these policies, may muck things up, is well known. The “political business cycle” approach of Nordhaus has politicians taking advantage of myopic voters by, for instance, running expansionary, inflation-inducing policy right before an election, generating lower unemployment today but higher inflation tomorrow.

Alesina’s research goes further than either of these approaches. Entering the field after the rational expectations revolution arrived, Alesina saw how skeptical economists were of the idea that politicians could, each election cycle, take advantage of voters in the same way. I like to explain rational expectations to students as the Bob Marley rule: “You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” Rather than myopic voters, we have voters who do not perfectly observe the government’s actions or information. Politicians wish to push their preferences (“ideology”) and also to get re-elected (“career concerns”). Voters have differing preferences. We then want to ask: to what extent can politicians use their private information to push preferences that “society” does not necessarily want, and how does that affect the feasibility of political unions, monetary policy, fiscal policy, and so on?

One important uncertainty is that voters are uncertain about who will win an election. Consider a government which can spend on the military or on education (“guns” or “butter”), and can finance this through debt if they like. A benevolent social planner uses debt to finance investment such that the tax burden is distributed over time. In a political macro model, however, Alesina and Tabellini (RESTUD 1990) show that there will be too much debt, especially when elections are close. If I favor military spending more than education, I can jack up the debt when I am in power with military spending. This not only gets me more military today, but also constrains the other party from spending so much on education tomorrow since society’s debt load will be too high. In equilibrium, both parties try to constrain their rival’s action in the future by using debt spending today. The model makes clear predictions about how debt relates to fundamentals of society – political polarization, and so on – without requiring irrationality on the part of any actor, whether voter or politician.

It is not hard to see how the interests of economists are so heavily linked to their country of origin. Many of our best macroeconomists come from Argentina, home of a great deal of macroeconomic instability. Americans are overrepresented in applied micro, no surprise given the salience of health, education, and labor issues in U.S. political debates. The French, with their high level of technical training in schools and universities, have many great theorists. And no surprise, the Italians are often interested in how political incentives affect and limit economic behavior. Once you start applying Alesina’s ideas, the behavior of politicians and implications for society become clear. Why do politicians delegate some tasks to bureaucrats and not others? The hard ones the politicians might be blamed for if they fail get delegated, and the ones that allow control of distribution do not ((Alesina and Tabellini 2007 AER). Why doesn’t the US have a strong welfare state compared to Europe? The distortions from taxation, relative income mobility, or political power of the poor are relatively unimportant to the racial fractionalization which also explains changes in European preferences over time (Alesina, Glaeser and Sacerdote, Brookings 2001 and Alesina, Miano and Stantcheva 2018).

Perhaps the most salient of Alesina’s questions is one of his oldest (Alesina and Spoloare, QJE 1997): why are there so many countries? Are there “too many”, and what could this mean? In a crisis like Covid, would we be better off with a European fiscal union rather than a bunch of independent countries? Big countries can raise funds with less distortion, public goods often economies of scale, and transfers within countries can handle idiosyncratic regional shocks – these are both assumptions and empirical facts. On the other hand, the bigger the country, the less agreement on how to value public goods. Consider a region on the outskirts of an existing country – say, Sudtirol in Italy. If they secede, they pay higher taxes for their public goods, but the public goods provided are much closer to their preferences. In a democratic secession, these Sudtirol voters do not account for how their secession causes the cost of government in the remaining rump of Italy to rise. Hence they are too likely to secede, versus what a social planner prefers.

We can see this effect in the EU right now. An EU fiscal union would reduce the cost of providing some public goods, insurance to shocks among them. However, the Germans and Dutch have very different public goods preferences from the Italians and Greeks. A planner would balance the marginal cost of lower alignment for the average EU citizen against the marginal benefit of lower public goods costs. A German elected leader will weigh the marginal cost of lower alignment for the average German citizen (worse than that of the EU median citizen!) against the marginal benefit of lower public goods costs (less important, because it doesn’t account for cheaper public goods for Greeks and Italians when Germany joins them to borrow funds jointly). We therefore get too little coordinated fiscal action. This lack of action of public goods makes some Europeans skeptical of other aspects of the EU project: one of Alesina’s final op-eds was on was on the disastrously nationalistic EU response to Covid. Luis Garicano, the well-known Spanish economist and current MEP, has a very interesting discussion with Luigi Zingales on precisely this point.

It’s positive enough that Alesina’s work was well-respected in political science and not just economics. What I especially like about Alesina, though, is how ideologically confusing his policy advice is, especially for an American. He simultaneously supports a lower tax rate for women on the basis on intrafamily dynamics, and was the leading proponent of expansionary austerity, or spending cuts during recessions! The tax rate idea is based on the greater elasticity of labor supply of women, hence is a direct application of the Ramsey rule. Expansionary austerity is based on a serious review of austerity policies over many decades. He pushed these ideas and many others in at least 10 books and dozens of op-eds (including more than 30 for VoxEU). Agree with these ideas or not – and I object to both! – Alesina nonetheless argued for these positions from a base of serious theory and empirics, rather than from ideology. What worthier legacy could there be for an academic?

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