Thursday, October 13, 2005

Do Agents Screw Up the Works?

There is a line of discussion in the economics literature on principal agents. Fundamentally they are people who work in a particular are and influence how things come out - often in unexpected and negative ways.

Think about these three examples -

1) In the last few years or maybe a decade the role of managers has changed in corporate affairs - they have successfully exploited the value of corporations to themselves at the expense of shareholders. Many boards go right along with the shift. Why in the world should Carly Fiorina be due anything for her work with HP beyond her salary - yet in the last year she got not only a bonus but also paid to leave. Don't limit it to Carly (*a favorite topic here) but think about the yahoos at Worldcom, Enron, Adelphia.
2) Politicians once thought for themselves but agents or advisors have taken up the role of running the system - so for many major political figures there is a person behind the Carville or Rove - the problem is that some of these advisors help raise campaign contributions and then give the politician only about half of what they raise back and take the rest as fees. Doesn't that influence the ferocity and duration of political issues and the diminished liklihood of trying to come to the center? The problem is exacerbated by the way we draw district lines so that even though we raise money in tons we still have safe districts.
3) The public employee unions have invaded the political system to negotiate with politicians after giving them loads of bucks. Thus we are left with relatively rich pension systems and other work constraints. Even less responsive than corporate negotiations - the real responsibility is somewhere lost in the "negotiations" the workers negotiate with officials who a) have little or no responsibility to pay the bill for their decisions and are probably going to be gone by the time the bill comes through.

In the next to the last book that Mancur Olson did he talked about the problem of increasing negotiations in the systems we all work with and the transaction costs therein - but in my mind - that problem is deteriorated by the types of agents working in behalf of someone but getting someone else to pay the bill. Wonder how we could reduce those problems?

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