In Memoriam: Oliver Williamson

Why does Gokhale Institute exist? Why did all of the students at Gokhale Institute not choose to try and fashion their own degree, by independently getting in touch with faculty members of various universities the world over, and negotiating rates for teaching each subject?

Similarly, why did I join Gokhale Institute as a faculty member? Why do I not try and advertise myself as a guy who can teach different subjects in econ, finance and stats to students the world over, every semester?

Why, as I said at the start of this post, does the firm I work in exist at all?

For that matter, why do firms exist in general? The “miracle” that is Walrasian economics guarantees that in a perfectly competitive economy with no frictions and perfect foresight, everything will be in a state of eternal bliss.

Except, economies are not perfectly competitive. Who teaches you which subject is important to you as students – which is another way of saying that labor is not homogeneous. There are frictions, such as teachers falling ill, or monsoons disrupting schedules, or uh, pandemics occurring every 100 years or so. And there isn’t perfect foresight (see pandemics, previous sentence).

And because we live in an imperfect world, we outsource, as students, the difficult job of finding appropriate professors, managing the physical infrastructure, and awarding degrees to an entity we call “the firm”. The firm exists in order to make it worth our while to get an education without having to spend time figuring everything else out.

Professors outsource the grunt work too the college too. It would be too painful for me to try and figure out which students across the world will want to learn Principles of Economics next year. I outsource the job of filtering the students out so that I get sixty students to teach to the Gokhale Institute. Plus, Gokhale Institute fixes the fees, arranges for the whiteboard, the benches. I just have to strut over into the classroom and teach.

We – you and I – minimize transaction costs by using the Institute as an intermediary. That’s Ronald Coase’s answer to why the firm exists. Read both of his papers (The Nature of the Firm, and The Theory of Social Cost). Here are past mentions of Prof. Coase on EFE.

Now, Prof. Coase had a student. His name was Oliver Williamson.

He extended Coase’s ideas about the firm, and that is why he really and truly matters when it comes to economics. There are many things to learn by reading Williamson, but three concepts stand out, in my opinion:

  1. Contract incompleteness: Imagine that the director of Gokhale Institute tells me that my performance as the course coordinator for the BSc programme hasn’t been good enough, and that he’ll be letting me go by the end of the year (I’m hoping this is only an example.) Will I muster up the same enthusiasm for coming up with new stuff this year, now that I know I am going to be out of a job? Or, on the other hand, imagine that the director says that my performance has been so good that I’m guaranteed this job for the next decade. Will there be a drop in my performance, now that I’m guaranteed the post no matter what? So how to write a contract that overcomes these hurdles? That’s one of the problems he tackled.
  2. Asset specificity: There are many definitions on the internet, but I liked the one supplied by Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution the best. I’ll get to it in a while, but here’s the textbook-ish statement first: “Asset specificity is a term related to the inter-party relationships of a transaction. It is usually defined as the extent to which the investments made to support a particular transaction have a higher value to that transaction than they would have if they were redeployed for any other purpose.”
    And here’s Alex Tabarrok’s explanation:
    “Marriage, for example, takes away some possibilities but it adds others. With marriage, for example, comes a greater willingness to invest in children (n.b. asset specificity, the child is of extra value but only to the specific parties involved in the marriage)”. Asset specificity can help lock in a relationship – whether it be marriage or an employment contract.
  3. Appropriable quasi-rents: Let’s say I create software to enter marks and grades while at Gokhale Institute. I wouldn’t have created this software without being employed at Gokhale Institute, and it is valuable enough to sell to other firms (let’s assume). These AQR’s exist precisely because of the fact that I (with my skill-sets) was hired by Gokhale Institute. Discernible value has been created precisely because the employee was hired by the employer – this specific employee, by this specific employer (non-homogeneity of labor)

There is a whole can of worms that opens up as a consequence of thinking through the implications of what is written above. That can of worms is called industrial organization. Long story short, if you want to study the field of IO – and as a student of economics, you do! – you really need to start with Profs. Coase, and Williamson.

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