Alois in the middle

 

I am returning to my syllabuses for the next academic year. I am focusing more specifically on microeconomics. Next year, I am supposed to give lectures in Microeconomics at both the Undergraduate, and the Master’s level. I feel like asking fundamental questions. My fundamental question, as it comes to teaching any curriculum, is the same: what can my students do with it? What is the function and the purpose of microeconomics? Please, notice that I am not asking that frequently stated, rhetorical question ‘What are microeconomics about?’. Well, buddy, microeconomics are about the things you are going to lecture about. Stands to reason. I want to know, and communicate, what is the practical utility, in one’s life, of those things that microeconomics are about.

The basic claim I am focusing on is the following: microeconomics are the accountancy of social structures. They serve exactly the same purpose that any kind of bookkeeping has ever served: to find and exploit patterns in human behaviour, by the means of accurately applied measures. Them ancients, who built those impressive pyramids (who builds a structure without windows and so little free space inside?), very quickly gathered that in order to have one decent pyramid, you need an army of clerks who do the accounting. They used to count stone, people, food, water etc. This is microeconomics, basically.

Thus, you can do with microeconomics if you want to build an ancient pyramid. Now, I am dividing the construction of said ancient pyramid in two stages: Undergraduate, and Master’s. An Undergraduate ancient pyramid requires the understanding of what do you need to keep the accounts of if you don’t want to be thrown to crocodiles. At the Master’s level, you will want to know what are the odds that you find yourself in a social structure, where inaccurate accounting, in connection with a pyramid, will have you thrown to crocodiles.

Good, now some literature, and a little turn by my current scientific work on the EneFin concept (see « Which salesman am I? » and « Sans une once d’utopisme » for sort of a current account of that research). I have just read that sort of transitional form of science, between an article and a book, basically a report, by Bleich and Guimaraes 2016[1]. It regards investment in renewable energies, mostly from the strictly spoken view of investment logic. Return on investment, net present value – that kind of thing. As I was making my notes out of that reading, my mind made a jump, and it landed on the cover of the quite-well-known book by Joseph Schumpeter: ‘Business Cycles’.

Joseph Schumpeter is an intriguing classic, so to say. Born in 1883, he published ‘Business Cycles’ in 1939, being 56 year-old, after the hell of a ride both for him and for the world, and right at the beginning of another ride (for the world). He was studying economics in Austria, in the early 1900, when social sciences in general were sort of different from their today’s version. They were the living account of a world that used to be changing at a breath-taking pace. Young Joseph (well, Alois in the middle) Schumpeter witnessed the rise of Marxism, World War I, the dissolution of his homeland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rise of the German Reich. He moved from academia to banking, and from European banking to American academia.

I deeply believe that whatever kind of story I am telling, whether I am lecturing about economics, discussing a business concept, or chatting about philosophy, at the bottom line I am telling the story of my own existence. I also deeply believe that the same is true for anyone who goes to any lengths in telling a story. We tell stories in order to rationalize that crazy, exciting, unique and deadly something called ‘life’. To me, those ‘Business Cycles’ by Joseph Schumpeter look very much like a rationalized story of quite turbulent a life.

So, here come a few insights I have out of re-reading ‘Business Cycles’ for the n-th time, in the context of research on my EneFin business concept. Any technological change takes place in a chain of value added. Innovation in one tier of the chain needs to overcome the status quo both upstream and downstream of the chain, but once this happens, the whole chain of technologies and goods changes. I wonder how it can apply specifically to EneFin, which is essentially an institutional scheme. In terms of value added, this scheme is situated somewhere between the classical financial markets, and typical social entrepreneurship. It is social to the extent that it creates that quasi-cooperative connexion between the consumers of energy, and its suppliers. Still, as my idea assumes a financial market for those complex contracts « energy + shares in the supplier’s equity », there is a strong capitalist component.

I guess that the resistance this innovation would have to overcome would consist, on one end, in distrust from the part of those hardcore activists of social entrepreneurship, like ‘Anything that has anything to do with money is bad!’, and, on the other hand, there can be resistance from the classical financial market, namely the willingness to forcibly squeeze the EneFin scheme into some kind of established structure, like the stock market.

The second insight that Joseph has just given me is the following: there is a special type of business model and business action, the entrepreneurial one, centred on innovation rather than on capitalizing on the status quo. This is deep, really. What I could notice, so far, in my research, is that in every industry there are business models which just work, and others which just don’t. However innovative you think you are, most of the times either you follow the field-tested patterns or you simply fail. The real, deep technological change starts when this established order gets a wedge stuffed up its ass, and the wedge is, precisely, that entrepreneurial business model. I wonder how entrepreneurial is the business model of EneFin. Is it really as innovative as I think it is?

In the broad theoretical picture, which comes handy as it comes to science, the incidence of that entrepreneurial business model can be measured and assessed as a probability, and that probability, in turn, is a factor of change. My favourite mathematical approach to structural change is that particular mutation that Paul Krugman[2] made out of the classical production function, as initially formulated by Prof Charles W. Cobb and Prof Paul H. Douglas, in their common work from 1928[3]. We have some output generated by two factors, one of which changes slowly, whilst the other changes quickly. In other words, we have one quite conservative factor, and another one that takes on the crazy ride of creative destruction.

That second factor is innovation, or, if you want, the entrepreneurial business model. If it is to be powerful, then, mathematically, incremental change in that innovative factor should bring much greater a result on the side of output than numerically identical an increment in the conservative factor. The classical notation by Cobb and Douglas fits the bill. We have Y = A*F1a*F21-a and a > 0,5. Any change in F1 automatically brings more Y than the identical change in F2. Now, the big claim by Paul Krugman is that if F1 changes functionally, i.e. if its changes really increase the overall Y, resources will flow from F2 to F1, and a self-reinforcing spiral of change forms: F1 induces faster a change than F2, therefore resources are being transferred to F1, and it induces even more incremental change in F1, which, in turn, makes the Y jump even higher etc.

I can apply this logic to my scientific approach of the EneFin concept. I assume that introducing the institutional scheme of EneFin can improve the access to electricity in remote, rural locations, in the developing countries, and, consequently, it can contribute to creating whole new markets and social structures. Those local power systems organized in the lines of EneFin are the factor of innovation, the one with the a > 0,5 exponent in the Y = A*F1a*F21-a function. The empirical application of this logic requires to approximate the value of ‘a’, somehow. In my research on the fundamental link between population and access to energy, I had those exponents nailed down pretty accurately for many countries in the world. I wonder to what extent I can recycle them intellectually for the purposes of my present research.

As I am thinking on this issue, I will keep talking on something else, and the something else in question is the creation of new markets. I go back to the Venerable Man of microeconomics, the Source of All Wisdom, who used to live with his mother when writing the wisdom which he is so reputed for, today. In other words, I am referring to Adam Smith. Still, just to look original, I will quote his ‘Lectures on Justice’ first, rather than going directly to his staple book, namely ‘The Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes of The Wealth of Nations’.

So, in the ‘Lectures on Justice’, Adam Smith presents his basic considerations about contracts (page 130 and on): « That obligation to performance which arises from contract is founded on the reasonable expectation produced by a promise, which considerably differs from a mere declaration of intention. Though I say I have a mind to do such thing for you, yet on account of some occurrences I do not do it, I am not guilty of breach of promise. A promise is a declaration of your desire that the person for whom you promise should depend on you for the performance of it. Of consequence the promise produces an obligation, and the breach of it is an injury. Breach of contract is naturally the slightest of all injuries, because we naturally depend more on what we possess that what is in the hands of others. A man robbed of five pounds thinks himself much more injured than if he had lost five pounds by a contract ».

People make markets, and markets are made of contracts. A contract implies that two or more people want to do some exchange of value, and they want to perform the exchange without coercion. A contract contains a value that one party engages to transfer on the other party, and, possibly, in the case of mutual contracts, another value will be transferred the other way round. There is one thing about contracts and markets, a paradox as for the role of the state. Private contracts don’t like the government to meddle, but they need the government in order to have any actual force and enforceability. This is one of the central thoughts by another classic, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his ‘Social Contract’: if we want enforceable contracts, which can make the intervention of the government superfluous, we need a strong government to back up the enforceability of contracts.

If I want my EneFin scheme to be a game-changer in developing countries, it can work only in countries with relatively well-functioning legal systems. I am thinking about using the metric published by the World Bank, the CPIA property rights and rule-based governance rating.

Still another insight that I have found in Joseph Schumpeter’s ‘Business Cycles’ is that when the entrepreneur, introducing a new technology, struggles against the first inertia of the market, that struggle in itself is a sequence of adaptation, and the strategy(ies) applied in the phases of growth and maturity in the new technology, later on, are the outcome of patterns developed during that early struggle. There is some sort of paradox in that struggle. When the early entrepreneur is progressively building his or her presence in the market, they operate under high uncertainty, and, almost inevitably, do a lot of trial and error, i.e. a lot of adjustments to the initially inaccurate prediction of the future. The developed, more mature version of the newly introduced technology is the outcome of that somehow unique sequence of trials, errors, and adjustments.

Scientifically, that insight means a fundamental uncertainty: once the actual implementation of an entrepreneurial business model, such as EneFin, gets inside that tunnel of learning and struggle, it can take on so many different mutations, and the response of the social environment to those mutations can be so idiosyncratic that we get into really serious economic modelling here.

I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund  (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?

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[1] Bleich, K., & Guimaraes, R. D. (2016). Renewable Infrastructure Investment Handbook: A Guide for Institutional Investors. In World Economic Forum, Geneva.

[2] Krugman, P. (1991). Increasing returns and economic geography. Journal of political economy, 99(3), 483-499.

[3] Charles W. Cobb, Paul H. Douglas, 1928, A Theory of Production, The American Economic Review, Volume 18, Issue 1, Supplement, Papers and Proceedings of the Fortieth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association (March 1928), pp. 139 – 165

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