Readings for Mid-July 2018

Political Philosophy:

Decentralization, Please Hold Your Applause: An interesting argument from Bryan Caplan, in response to ‘For A New Libertarian‘. Studying economics tends to push one in a libertarian direction, and I’ve become interested in the differences within the libertarian political culture, which is a strange brew of characters. A sample: “Libertarianism is a philosophy seeking better libertarians.”  A response might be, ‘if your political philosophy can never be fully realized because of human nature, maybe it isn’t a very good philosophy’. Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom seems applicable here.

Did the Enlightenment Give Rise to Racism?: Really great piece, one I’ll have to give a fuller reading to. The answer is no, by the way.


A good point from Matt Yglesias:

This is something I think about often when trying to understand some phenomenon in industrial organization. I can craft a story to explain something using only economic principles, but there may just be something else entirely going on, such as legal restrictions, deep cultural barriers, or ‘dark’ institutions.


What’s the Purpose of Working in the Foundations of Physics?: Answer: The only people who ask that question come from ‘funding bodies and politicians exclusively.’

The New Story of Humanity’s Origins in Africa: Ed Yong is one of the best science communicators there is. The metaphor of the braided river is the best there is for understanding species evolution. While I think the mental device of the replicator is one of the great tools of evolutionary thinking, and is underrated generally as an explanatory principle, it becomes less useful when thinking about systems evolution. The relevance is that a theory of a continent-wide origin of modern humanity in Africa, or ‘African multiregionalism’, is currently being refined which uses this metaphor for its logic. Original study here, open access.

Scientists use caffeine to control genes: Pretty cool, geneticists have been able to create genes that are activated by the presence of a particular stimulus. In this instance, rats were implanted with cells that would produce insulin in the presence of caffeine. Caffeine has great practical properties to be such a stimulus: it has low toxicity, is cheap and prevalent in the market place already (but not so prevalent as to be everywhere). Until gene therapy advances further, such a solution to diabetes could prove far better than the current system of external injections.


Toward a Theory of Property Rights

Previously we looked at Harold Demsetz’s ‘The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights’, which mostly focused on the efficiency implications of various transaction costs in property rights. In this paper, ‘Toward a Theory of Property Rights’, Demsetz does some more economic exploration of property rights, addressing three topics: the role of property rights in social systems, how property rights might emerge in a society, and what aspects shape the particular bundle of property rights that emerge.

I. The Concept and Role of Property Rights

Property rights are an instrument of society and derive their significance from the fact that they help a man form those expectations which he can reasonably hold in his dealings with others…

[P]roperty rights specify how persons may be benefited and harmed, and therefore, who must pay whom to modify the actions taken by persons. The recognition of this leads easily to the close relationship between property rights and externalities…

What converts a harmful or beneficial effect into an externality is that the cost of bringing the effect to bear on the decisions of one or more of the interacting persons is too high to make it worthwhile…

A primary function of property rights is that of guiding incentives to achieve a greater internalization of externalities. Every cost and benefit associated with social interdependence is a potential externality. One condition is necessary to make costs and benefits externalities [:] The cost of a transaction in the rights between the parties (internalization) must exceed the gains from internalization.

The classic example of an externality is pollution. Imagine we have two firms set up on a river, one downstream from the other. The upstream firm is a steel plant, and the downstream firm is a bottled water facility. The steel plant releases pollution into the water, which then effects the bottled water plant. This pollution is an externality: the steel plant does not have to take account of the harm its actions have on the downstream firm, and so ‘too much’ steel is produced and ‘not enough’ bottled water.

In the Coasean world of low transaction costs, property rights can solve this problem. If the right to the water is assigned to the steel plant, then the bottling firm will either have divert some resources away from bottling and into purification, OR pay the steel firm to produce less. If the rights are assigned to the bottling plant, then the steel company has to produce less steel OR pay the bottling plant to allow it to produce more (which the plant could then use to purchase purification equipment). The amazing result Coase obtained is that the output mix is the same in either case, regardless of who is assigned the rights. The amount the bottling firm would pay the steel firm is the same the steel firm would be willing to pay the bottling firm, were rights assigned to the other.

All that is needed for internalization…is ownership which includes the right of sale. It is the prohibition of a property right adjustment, the prohibition of the establishment of an ownership title that can thenceforth be exchanged, that precludes the internalization of external costs and benefits.

So if it is costly to set up the rights to the water, then the internalization cannot proceed. In the real world, where pollution affects a great many people, transaction costs make such internalization extremely difficult. Perhaps those affected by pollution would all be willing to pay a polluter to reduce their output, but the difficulty in setting up such transactions is a major obstacle, and so individual property rights to clean air and water have never been established.

(From here, many leap to the conclusion that government action is therefore needed to address the pollution externality; this may be the case, but not necessarily so. See his previous paper as to why.)

II. The Emergence of Property Rights

But as the world changes, so does the cost-benefit calculation of establishing property rights. If pollution were such as to become extremely odious, the benefits of reducing it could become so great as to outweigh the costs of establishing property rights. Demsetz:

If the main allocative function of property rights is the internalization of beneficial and harmful effects, then the emergence of property rights can be understood best by their association with the emergence of new or different beneficial and harmful effects…

It is my thesis in this part of the paper that the emergence of new property rights takes place in response to the desires of the interacting persons for adjustment to the new benefit-cost possibilities.

The thesis can be restated in a slightly different fashion: property rights develop to internalize externalities when the gains of internalization become larger than the cost of internalization.

This makes intuitive sense, but is there evidence for such a claim? Demsetz points to an example among the Native Americans during the establishment of the European fur trade in North America. The story goes like this: in the Labrador Peninsula, the Innu people had no tradition of property rights in land prior to European contact, but developed a robust system as the fur trade grew.

Recall the ‘tragedy of the commons’, the situation where common, non-exclusive ownership of a resource leads to its overexploitation. This results because the externality of the reduced resource pool is not incorporated into the price individuals pay.

The Innu people certainly hunted the forests of Labrador and Quebec, but their numbers were never such that the externality of reduced hunting game was greater than the cost that would result from setting up such a system. However, once the demand from Europe greatly increased the value of fur animals, the cost of the externality became such that the Innu found that a system of property rights was on balance of positive value.

The principle that associates property right changes with the emergence of new and reevaluation of old harmful and beneficial effects suggests in this instance that the fur trade made it economic to encourage the husbanding of fur-bearing animals. Husbanding requires the ability to prevent poaching and this, in turn, suggests that socioeconomic changes in property in hunting land will take place. The chain of reasoning is consistent with the evidence cited above.

It’s a nice story but I have idea how close to accurate it is historically. Still, the framework of analysis is sound and I think it very helpful in thinking about why property rights exist where they exist, both geographically and sociologically.

Links for June’s End


The Elusive Quest for Prosperity in Mexico: Typically excellent article from Dani Rodrik serving as the preface to a surely fascinating book on development in Mexico by economist Santiago Levy.

Using Cladistics in Economics: As a formally trained evolutionary biologist turned economist, I’m always thinking about what economics can learn from biology.

The Dramatic Expansion of Corporate Bonds: It seems that in the post-Recession world of low interest rates and increased bank regulation, investors have turned to other instruments in the search for yield. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen, but it should remind us that we can’t simply regulate away risk, and trying to clamp down too hard in one part of the economy (here, banks) just funnels activities into other parts of the economy that may be less desirable socially.

Jawboning Makes a Comeback: It wasn’t that long ago that common sense dictated that the control of inflation lay with the government, and not the central bank. Today it seems almost unimaginable for the government to dictate wage or price levels, and yet it was so as recently as the 1970s. Even when not directly controlling price levels, it was common practice for elected officials to conference with business leaders to convince them of the wisdom of a particular path. It is this latter practice that seems to be coming back into vogue, particularly in Japan.

A Bombshell Evaluation of Community Driven Development: CDD has been one of the trends in development policy, and it makes intuitive sense. Rather than dumping money into an outside entity for projects often totally divorced from the desires of a community, CDD aims to directly engage with the local people and work to give them what they need. Alas, outcomes on net don’t seem to have that much impact, though there are some positives.


How the Watergate Babies Broke American Politics: A really interesting history of the post-Watergate era, perhaps underappreciated in explaining how we got to where we are. File under ‘law of unintended consequences’.

Linguistics and the Second Amendment: Index to a series of posts using linguistic study to interpret the contemporary meaning of the notoriously vague Second Amendment. I love the idea of using the wealth of texts (via ‘big data’) from the end of the 18th century to try and situate the precise meaning of phrases that may have otherwise been lost to time.

When is Nationalism a Good Thing?: Short interview with the author of the new book Nation Building. Those of a liberal persuasion tend to be skeptical of nationalism, but there may be instances where it can be useful. In other words, we should think of nationalism as a means, not an end.


The Zen of Chaos: A theory of experimental/noise music.

Exploring the Digital Ruins of ‘Second Life’: For those of us old enough to remember the first days of the world wide web, the decay of Second Life presented here reminds me of the now lost dream of that early time. A truly free, open web of the kind that Second Life epitomized never came to fruition; instead, it seems more and more likely the future of the internet will be increasingly gated, accessed only through semi-curated platforms: YouTube, Facebook, etc.


The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights, Part III

[Part I] [Part II]

Even if the case for a zero priced public good is made on second best efficiency grounds, the question remains of how to pay for the provision of that good. Governments can use the power of taxation to reallocate resources towards the production of the public good, but this has consequences of its own. Depending on how the tax is levied, it will lead to distortions elsewhere in the economy. Demsetz returns to the bridge example:

[T]he alternative methods of financing the building of bridges may also lead to inefficiency, especially by degrading valuation information elsewhere. This is most easily seen by supposing that an excise tax is levied on other goods to finance bridges. Such a tax will lead to inefficiently small rates of production of these other goods… [T]he levying of an income tax will inefficiently reduce the quantities of income generating activities undertaken by those taxed. A tax on property values, even one on rent, would tend to discourage the seeking out of more valuable uses of property. A head tax would have the least effect because it is not concentrated on particular activities. Even a head tax, one could argue, would alter a person’s choice of community… Taxes exclude just as do prices, so that on grounds of exclusion there is not much principle to guide us. Given these indirect costs of alternative methods of financing the provision of public goods, the desirability of zero-pricing is not at all clear, especially if the cost of policing is low.

Here Demsetz reminds us that we can’t consider the efficiency calculation of a public good in a vacuum. The possibility of distortion from taxes elsewhere in the economy should be taken into account as well. Usually economists hand wave away this question, or assume that the least distortionary tax can be used, but in matters of public policy in the real world it is rarely the case that the question of a public good and how to pay for it are entirely separate.

A recent example is illustrative. In Washington, DC, the city council recently raised taxes on rideshare transactions to pay for funding for the Metro, moving from a 1% to a 6% tax. Leaving aside whether the Metro is a public good (in the technical sense, obviously not since it is exclusionary), why should rideshares in particular be taxed to pay for Metro? If the desired social goal is increased mobility of people (usually the justification for public transit), then why would you tax the most flexible transit option available? From an economic standpoint, it makes no sense. From a political economy/public choice standpoint, the tying together of such proposals makes more sense: perhaps the marginal Lyft ride is converted to a public transit trip, leading to more revenue. 

Are there ways of getting around this problem of high exchange/police costs so that we can avoid the distortions of taxation? There are two alternatives Demsetz presents: extending the firm, and the practice of sale-in-combination (eg tie-ins).

Extending the firm is a fairly intuitive idea. If transactions costs are high and regular a firm will find it advantageous to simply buy their negotiating partner. Often this is vertical integration, where a producer buys the provider of a vital input; imagine Ford buying a steel plant. We’re currently seeing this happen in the health care sector, where insurance companies, PBMs, and pharmacies are starting to merge, partly to reduce the costs of constant negotiation.

Still other institutional arrangements have been devised to combine extensions of the firm with the sale-in-combination device. Department stores and shopping plazas are organizational devices for overcoming high police cost. The owner of the department store or shopping plaza can provide a general environment that is conducive for shopping, such as pleasant plantings, escalators, and other customer services that merchants who owned their own land might hesitate to pay for, hoping instead that neighboring landowners would incur the necessary expenses from which all would benefit. The enclosing of land into a single ownership entity which often undertakes to provide services usually provided by government from tax revenues, such as streets, sidewalks, refuse collection, and even police protection, allows the owner to exclude those who refuse to pay rentals which cover the cost of these services… The development of these institutional arrangements provides an interesting challenge to political institutions for the provision of many of the services generally presumed to be within the scope of the polling place.

This logic here has been extended to the idea of private cities, as Alex Tabarrok has written about.

Finally, exchange and police costs are not set in stone. Technological development offers ways of reducing these costs as well. The development of EZpass type technology allows for the far less costly provision of tolling, as well as dynamic pricing. Communications technologies in general have dramatically reduced all kinds of transactions costs. Remote monitoring and big data have reduced monitoring costs, allowing many large corporations to cut out lots of middle management positions and outsource tasks to specialized firms. Demsetz:

Attention is sometimes called to the fact that emerging technical developments will make the use of markets or government more economic than they now are. There are surely many instances where this is true. However, our analysis suggests that technological developments can operated in the opposite direction. At the same time that technology is reducing the cost of using these alternative institutional arrangements for economizing, it is also reducing the cost of constructing parking spaces, of developing fire resistant corn, and of mass producing automobiles. Whether or not it pays to increase the extent to which we exchange via markets, protect private property rights, or use alternative government devices depends on how much we will thereby reduce production cost and crop damage. Markets or their government alternatives should come into greater prominence only if technical developments lower the costs of these institutional arrangements more than they reduce the costs of producing parking spaces and cars and the cost of crop damage.

We must keep in mind costs are all relative; the absolute decrease in communications costs only matters to a firm insofar as it decreases relative to the others costs it faces.

This is an important paper, particularly for anyone interested in public policy issues. As always, it is important to keep in mind the difference between normative and positive claims. The claims about efficiency here are positive ones, and while they can inform our normative judgments, they are not meant to do so alone. There may be some policies we wish to embark on for moral reasons, regardless of the efficiency implications.

The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights, Part II

[Part I] [Part III]

Today we’re continuing with the discussion of Harold Demsetz’s 1964 paper, ‘The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights’. The author will give us a quick recap and then we’ll move onto the implications of his thesis for public goods:

[W]hat if some goods produce side effects which are not exchanged over a market? We answer that the market fails to provide us with incentives which will guide behavior to take account of the side effects… The allegation is that even perfectly competitive markets fail to achieve efficiency. But, this reasoning generally fails to take account of the fact that the provision of a market (for the side effect) is itself a valuable and costly service. Where a market, or the political action which would be its counterpart, does not exist, this service is not being produced…

In such cases [of high cost of market provision] zero amounts of market pricing or the government equivalent will be efficient. In asking the implications of the nonexistence of some markets, we seem to have forgotten the cost of providing market services or their government equivalent. The existence of price to facilitate exchange between affected parties has been too much taken for granted. A price for every good or service is not a necessary condition for efficiency, so that the absence of price does not imply that either market transactions or substitute government services are desirable.

A public good, if you recall, is both non-rivalrous and non-excludable (for a review see Wikipedia). Classic examples include national defense, breathable air, and over the air television. Unfortunately, the term public good is often used rather loosely, typically referring to any good with large positive externalities. It may be more helpful to think of public goods as those that are non-excluded vs non-excludable, as we’ll see.

The relevance of what we have been discussing for public goods is that if the cost of policing the benefits derived from the use of these goods is low, there is an excellent reason for excluding those who do not pay form using these goods. By such exclusion, we, or the market, can estimate accurately the value of diverting resources from other uses to the production of the public good.

Technically speaking, if the public good becomes excludable, it is no longer a public good; it has become a club good. Regardless, the non-rivalry of such goods does not mean they are costless to produce; the question of how much of society’s scarce resources should be deployed towards the creation of the ‘public’ good remains. Demsetz illustrates with the example of a free to use bridge:

Continue reading “The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights, Part II”

The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights

[Part II] [Part III]

Fundamental to any theory of economics is the notion of property rights. When economists speak of property rights, of course we don’t mean only property in the sense of land, as it is commonly used. Property rights are a social institution in which it is understood that the holder of a property right has exclusive access to the good in question. It is understood in our society that we can’t walk into each other’s homes at will and take food and clothing. That is not the case in every society; why this is so is a question for another day.

Property rights on their own are not enough to result in an efficient allocation of goods. For that, the rights must be exchangeable. In communist societies, an individual had a right to a set allocation of goods (x number of boots per year), but those rights were not exchangeable (de jure, de facto was another matter).

Given property rights and free exchange, markets result in an efficient allocation of goods. However, those are fairly sizable assumptions; what happens when we relax them? That is the question the University of Chicago economist Harold Demsetz sought to answer in his 1964 paper, ‘The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights.’

Continue reading “The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights”

What is Efficiency?

If you’ve ever heard an economist expound on policy, you’ve surely heard the claim that this or that course of action is more ‘efficient’. We economists are prone to toss out this term as our trump card; who can argue they want *less* efficiency?

But just what does efficiency mean? First there is the conceptual division between allocative versus productive efficiency; then there is the separate issue of how to actually *measure* efficiency.

It is important to keep in mind that efficiency is a positive concept, not a normative one (see my post on economic methodology), and that is where much of the confusion lies.

Allocative Efficiency

This is usually the sense in which efficiency is used. Given a set of goods, what does it mean for the goods to be ‘efficiently’ distributed among some persons? A situation is allocatively efficient if all goods are allocated to their highest valued use.

Again, it is important to emphasize that this is not a statement of good or bad; it is merely a way of talking about the world. There are many other potential ways to allocate scarce goods: lottery, first come first serve, feats of strength, and so on. All of these can be debated normatively using different criteria, but this is beside the point of economic inquiry.

Markets are what allow allocative efficiency to be reached. When people are able to freely exchange goods, under the standard assumptions of microeconomic theory, then it follows that an allocative equilibria will be reached. (How this fares in the real world with real humans is another matter).

Productive Efficiency

Productive efficiency is not mentioned nearly as often as allocative efficiency, though it is potentially far more widely spread. When a market is productively efficient, goods are being produced at their lowest cost, and the price of a good is equal to its marginal cost of production.

In the ideal of perfect competition, all firms are using the lowest cost production technology; if they weren’t, they would have to charge more, and they wouldn’t be in business. So the idea of productive inefficiency is most relevant in non-competitive industries, such as government mandated monopolies, or industries with high barriers to entry, where something prevents those with the knowhow to produce goods at lower cost from doing so.

What standards do economists use to judge the efficiency of a situation? The two most common are Pareto and Kaldor-Hicks:

Pareto Efficiency

Simply put, a world is Pareto efficient if no person can be made better off without making someone else worse off. A Pareto improvement then is one that makes at least one person better off while making nobody worse.

What standard is used to judge better off or worse off? Usually with Pareto analysis that’s left up to the judgement of the people involved, and as such the concept is pretty useless in trying to judge actual policy making. Why? Well, *any* change that is made will upset somebody, somewhere. You know the type of person, the one who gets upset at others’ good fortune. As such, the world is already Pareto efficient; no Pareto improvements can be made.

Kaldor-Hicks Efficiency

Given the limitation of Pareto efficiency, the most commonly used efficiency concept is Kaldo-Hicks, which uses monetary equivalents to judge better/worse off. Benefit or harm from a policy change is quantified, and as long as society as a whole sees a net gain in wealth, that is considered a Kaldor-Hicks improvement. Hence, when K-H improvements can no longer be made, the world is considered to be K-H efficient. Another way of stating this is that the dollar value of social resources is maximized.

This is the standard governments use when in cost-benefit analyses, and this is the sense in which trade makes societies better off. Yes, there are some particular losers, but society as a whole is better off. In theory, the gains from trade can simply be redistributed to compensate those losers, but of course that’s easier said than done.