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Innovative Enterprise or Sweatshop Economics? In Search of Foundations of Economic Analysis

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By integrating the history of industrial development in Britain and the United States with the ideas of leading economic thinkers, this essay demonstrates the absurdity of perfect competition as the ideal of economic efficiency.

In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter asserts: “perfect competition is not only impossible but inferior, and has no title to being set up as a model of ideal efficiency.” For neoclassical economists, the large corporation is a “market imperfection” that, compared with “perfect competition,” should result in higher product prices and lower industry output. Yet business history reveals the capability of the most productive enterprises to generate massive quantities of output at low costs to attain large market shares with buyers benefiting from low prices even as employees receive higher pay and shareholders ample dividends. By integrating the history of industrial development in Britain and the United States with the ideas of leading economic thinkers, this essay demonstrates the absurdity of perfect competition as the ideal of economic efficiency. Indeed, I show that, in their desire to make the market rather than the firm the main arbiter of resource allocation, neoclassical economists have enshrined the sweatshop as the foundation of their analysis, with profoundly negative consequences for understanding how a modern economy actually operates and performs. In doing so, neoclassical economists ignore not only the economic history of capitalism but also the intellectual history of their own discipline. I conduct a journey through two hundred years of economic thought – from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) to Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand (1977) – to derive analytical foundations for a theory of innovative enterprise that can explain and explore firm- level sources of productivity growth in the economy. What then do more sophisticated theories of the firm rooted in the neoclassical tradition have to offer? In a section of this essay that I call (borrowing a phrase from Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means) “Economic Theory for ‘an Era of Corporate Plundering’,” I outline the shortcomings of Williamsonian transaction-cost theory and Jensenian agency theory for analyzing the role of the business corporation in the operation and performance of the economy. From the perspective of the theory of innovative enterprise, I demonstrate how the methodology of constrained optimization trivializes the business enterprise while the ideology that companies should be run to maximize shareholder value legitimizes financial predators, many senior corporate executives among them, in the looting of the industrial corporation. The “era of corporate plundering” since the mid-1980s has contributed to extreme concentration of income among the richest households and the erosion of middle- class employment opportunities. Finally, I call for a transformation of economic thinking so that the innovative enterprise is at the center of economic analysis. The theory of innovative enterprise exposes as costly intellectual failures “perfect competition” as the ideal of economic efficiency, “constrained optimization” as the prime tool of economic analysis, and “maximizing shareholder value” as the ideology of superior corporate governance. The theory of innovative enterprise provides, moreover, a clear and compelling rationale for sharing the gains of business enterprise among stakeholders in the broader community, in conjunction with government policies that seek to support sustainable prosperity, characterized by stable and equitable economic growth.