Mitchell’s Musings 10-23-2017: Pendulums

21 Oct 2017 10:13 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 10-23-2017: Pendulums

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

When I was a graduate student at MIT in the mid-1960s, the Cold War was in full swing. There was much interest in the economic growth of the U.S. vs. that of the Soviet Union, i.e., in which system would ultimately produce a higher living standard. That debate may seem odd now, given the (much later) unraveling of the Soviet Union, but it was a lively issue then. Among the topics that came up at the time were the ideas of a Soviet economist, Evsei Liberman, whose reformist ideas had found favor (for awhile) with the powers-that-were. Basically, Liberman called for less emphasis on central control and for a more decentralized, market-type system.[1]

One of the prominent faculty members at MIT at the time was the Russian-born Evsey Domar who kept up with things Soviet. I recall him saying back then that the Liberman episode was not the first time the debate within the Soviets oscillated between central controls vs. decentralization. You could imagine the arguments: Central control allowed coordination while decentralization allowed local plant managers to take advantage of local knowledge. The pendulum of ideas would swing back and forth between the two positions.

There are other fields in which the pendulum phenomenon appears. In primary and secondary education, there is the idea that there are basic things that every student should learn vs. the idea that students should have some version of experiential learning which will indirectly teach them the basics but also “soft” skills. The labels on these ideas change, but the pendulum swings between the two views.

One of the more popular videos on a YouTube channel I maintain is a newsreel from the 1940s on “progressive” education (essentially, the experiential view).[2] By the turn of the 21st century, however, the notion of basics had returned in the form of testing of students. Schools, teachers, and students were to be measured by scores on tests. Now, however, there seems to be a reaction against testing. Complaints are heard that teachers are “teaching to the test” whereas students need to learn those hard-to-measure “soft skills” and that “rote learning” should be avoided.

It could even be argued that boom-bust cycles in financial markets involve a swinging pendulum. After a crisis, tighter regulations and official controls (and of course fresh memories of the bust) keep a lid on exuberant expectations. But gradually the unpleasant memories fade. There may even be new generations entering the market who were not around at the last bust. The newer financial players find the old regulations and controls restrictive and press for a more “modern” approach. The spirit of “this-time-it’s-different” arises and the boom continues until one sad day it doesn’t.

I was reminded of the swinging pendulum idea recently by an article in the Los Angeles Business Journal which reported that the generalist MBA was moving out of fashion in favor of management programs that trained in particular functional areas, e.g., accounting, finance, etc.[3] The interesting thing is that when I came to what is now the UCLA Anderson School of Management in 1968, the School primarily offered such programs. There was a generalist MBA offered, too, but students could instead take master’s degrees in the functional areas. The functional area programs shared some generalist core courses (which were also part of the MBA program).

There were pros and cons about the specialized programs. It was said that faculty naturally preferred to teach in advanced specialized courses of their own field of interest to the neglect of the core, i.e., the generalist MBA program was suffering from neglect. It was said that students needed a more generalized education and could pick up functional skills on the job. On the other hand, students tended to gravitate away from the generalist MBA and toward the specialized degree programs once they entered the School.

In the end, the arrival of a new dean led to abolition of the specialist programs in favor of the generalist MBA. In part, the argument seemed to be that the Harvard Business School was MBA focused, so UCLA should follow the leader. But now, UCLA seems to be moving toward specialization, at least in some areas.

Economics has sometimes been criticized for being too focused on final equilibrium solutions and not on dynamic disequilibrium. But the counterargument is that eventually the system being studied will iteratively come to an equilibrium position. Like a pendulum, the swinging length becomes smaller and smaller until the pendulum stops. But some systems are more like pendulum clocks in which forces reinforce the motion and there is no equilibrium, just swinging.

I suspect that in the cases cited above, because both poles of the argument have merit, there is some tendency for factions to form around the two positions. Soviet-style centralized system DO allow more coordination. But they lose the benefit of micro-level knowledge. Students in primary and secondary education SHOULD learn some basics. But they also need soft skills. Future managers DO need generalist skills valuable in any business setting. But having a specialty can give them entry advantages when being considered for hiring.

Since there is no obvious right answer – just a trade-off with uncertain parameters - there may be pressure to champion one position or the other. Those folks benefiting from the status quo tend to defend it. Those who are seeking more authority look to the counter-arguments to gain ascendancy. The more things change back and forth, the more they continue to change back and forth. And there never is an equilibrium.





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