Coase in theory and Coase in practice

While out and about yesterday, I read a little book from the IEA that I’d only dipped into before,

, edited by Cento Veljanovski. It’s a useful introduction to Coase (although he wrote so clearly that there’s no excuse for not tackling his classic papers, The Nature of the Firm and The Problem of Social Cost.)

[amazon_image id=”0255367104″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Forever Contemporary: The Economics of Ronald Coase (Readings in Political Economy)[/amazon_image]

The book has chapters providing a biography and a general overview, and then several looking at the applications of Coaseian thinking in different areas such as water, environmental protection, public goods provision, financial markets and even the sharing economy. It starts with the Coase theorem: that when property rights are clearly assigned and there are no transactions costs (such as those involved in acquiring information, negotiating, monitoring compliance etc), then there are no externalities leading to a divergence between private and social costs: the parties involved will negotiate their way to the efficient outcome. ‘Externalities’ are symmetric, he argued: if you claim a right to clean air, you are costing me the opportunity to pollute. Who compensates whom will depend how the property rights are assigned. If you indeed have your clean air right, I will have to bargain with you to pay you for the pollution; if I have the right to produce emissions, you will have to pay me to desist.

Coase made it clear he took the existence of transaction costs very seriously, and argued that every situation had to be carefully assessed to determine the most welfare-enhancing course of action. He certainly challenged the market failure framework established by Pigou, still used to consider the rationale for public policy interventions. Coase has often been taken to say more generally that it’s always best to leave it to the market, because people can bargain their way to solutions – and that is certainly the interpretation this volume puts on him, as you would perhaps expect from the IEA.

I think one has instead to take Coase at face value, and in each situation look at the incentives people face and the transaction costs involved in private bargaining and in the public sector alike – this determined empiricism is why I like Coase so much. As the essay here by Stephen Davies notes: “The boundaries of what is possible in this regard have shifted over time.” The useful bibliography of Coase’s work shows how seriously he took his own conclusion that you have to look in detail at each industry, its history and specificities before pontificating; as is well known, he described anything else as ‘blackboard economics’. Indeed, the people who arguably took him most seriously were the later Nobel winners, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, who each in their won way focused on the detail of the institutions that exist to co-ordinate individual actions.

In a nice case study, Davies looks at how turnpike roads – toll roads- were the common means to expand Britain’s main road network in the late 18th and early 19th century. They were an example of club goods – non-rival in consumption, but excludable. Later of course in the UK roads came to be considered a pure public good to be provided by the state. Now we have one toll motorway, and some talk of more. Other countries, including statist France, have many toll roads. There is no right answer.

The book ends with a chapter on the sharing economy, a very interesting essay on the implications of a large decline in certain transactions costs.

There won’t be much here that is new to people who are already familiar with Coase, but – with the caution about its free market slant – it is a clear and accessible guide for students. And available free online as a pdf.


Measuring and markets

I’ve been reading Michel Callon’s introduction to the edited volume

It’s about the performativity of economics, a question that interests me (although I do struggle with the academic jargon of sociology; at least my own subject’s jargon is familiar). Callon writes: “The most interesting element is to be found in the relationship between what is to be measured and the tools used to measure it. The latter do not merely record a reality independent of themselves; they contribute powerfully to shaping, simply by measuring it, the reality that they measure.”

[amazon_image id=”0631206086″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Laws of Markets (Sociological Review Monographs)[/amazon_image]

Needless to say, the question of how the classification and structures embedded in economic statistics shape the reality of the economy (through affecting understanding, behaviour and policy) is of keen interest to me. For instance, part of the debate about productivity is about what it measures, but also partly about what it defines. What is productivity when products play a minority role in economic activity? The Callon intro doesn’t ultimately enlighten: it seems to me to place too much weight on economics as a subject, for markets existed long before economists did. There has to be some two-way influence between reality and the attempt to make systematic a description of it. In fact, I don’t think economics is as different from some other subjects as the performativity analyses suggest. For instance, classification in biology is not completely dissimilar. I also wish other social scientists would acknowledge that economists *do* think a lot about the specifics of markets as social institutions – see, for one, John McMillan’s brilliant book

[amazon_image id=”0393323714″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Reinventing the Bazaar: A Natural History of Markets[/amazon_image]


Still, there is something in this territory. It’s particularly important for sustainability that the concepts and measurements economists define and gather place ‘the economy’ in nature and the physical world. To be continued…


Big blue plenty

Courtesy of the terrific weekly newsletter from Benedict Evans, this link to a terrific article about Krushchev’s 1959 visit to IBM in what later became Silicon Valley. This is a good excuse to plug again one of my favourite books,

by Francis Spufford. The book also has a supplementary website with some fascinating short essays by the author – like this one on ‘plenty’ or (lack of)

Among the many reasons I love

is that it must be the first time a literary author has been able to describe the formal equivalence between a competitive general equilibrium and a centrally planned economy, as set out in the socialist calculation debate of the 1930s. Anyway, the book starts with Krushchev’s 1959 US visit, although not his admiration of the cornucopia of food and democratic access in the IBM cafeteria in San Jose. It is a gripping read, a true story told with the verve of a novel.

[amazon_image id=”0571225241″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Red Plenty[/amazon_image]


(Im)moral markets

A snippet from Dani Rodrik’s


“As Albert Hirschman reminds us in his magisterial book

, the thinkers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries reasoned that the proft-seeking motive would countervail baser human motivations such as the urge for violence and domination over other men. The term ‘doux’ (sweet) was often appended to ‘commerce’ to suggest commercial activities promoted gentle and peaceful interactions. …. These early philosophers [eg
] encouraged the spread of markets, not for reasons of efficiency or for the expanson of material resources but because they thought it would promote a more harmonious, more ethical society. It is ironic that thre centuries later markets have come to be associated in the eyes of many with moral corruption.”

Shades of Deirdre McCloskey’s


[amazon_image id=”0393246418″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science[/amazon_image]


Designing markets

One of the (many) things I like about market design is the name. It’s a reminder that markets are social institutions too, and that there is a wide spectrum of ways of organising the allocation of resources. So often only the two extremes are discussed: ‘free’ markets (dependent only on property law and contract enforcement – oh, and social norms and culture, and infrastructure, and standards and…. but I digress); and ‘the state’ (with its benign and omniscient ability to analyse market failures and tell people what to do so they are fixed…. oh, wait).

Al Roth’s new book describing his career’s worth of market design, culminating in his Nobel prize with Lloyd Shapley, is a truly excellent overview of the subject.

is a very clear and non-technical description of what can cause markets to malfunction, and how to make them do a better job of matching up supply and demand. It includes the work for which he is most famous, on designing an exchange  to enable the matching of kidney donors and recipients, where no money changes hands in the market-like process.

[amazon_image id=”000752076X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Who Gets What – And Why: The Hidden World of Matchmaking and Market Design[/amazon_image]

The first section is a warm-up describing the pervasiveness and importance of markets, and some of the problems market design addresses. The second and third sections are the meat in the sandwich. Roth first of all explains why some markets will collapse, with many examples. The fundamental need is for a ‘thick’ market with plenty of buyers and sellers, in which people have enough time to make their decision, but neither the need nor the opportunity to act strategically. The problems are therefore: incentives to jump the gun ahead of most people in the market – which causes everyone to try & do so once somebody does; trades that occur too fast so people on the slower side of the market cannot make good decisions; rules that cause people to have to devise strategies other than expressing their true preferences; and ‘goldilocks’ communications between participants, not too fast/frequent and not too slow. The following section sets out market design solutions to each kind of problem.

For example, the ‘too soon’ problem featured in the market for first jobs for junior doctors in the US, as 2nd tier hospitals would make earlier and earlier binding and exploding offers to medical students – exploding meaning the candidate had as little as half an hour to say yes before the offer expired. They wanted to make sure they had the best students, but the good students faced the dilemma of a sure job versus the chance of a job at a competitive but better hospital. Attempts to reform the system always foundered on a lack of trust between hospitals. The solution was the famous ‘deferred acceptance’ algorithm run by a central clearing house: it ensures offers can be held until it is clear each student will not get a better one. Every hospital and every student gets their best possible match given everyone’s preferences.

The ‘too fast’ example is high frequency trading, where the millisecond speed means the market is actually thin at each moment. The proposed solution – not yet adopted by regulators – is to insist that all trades occur together once every second.

Matching students to schools is the example of a system that forced strategic behaviour under the old rules in New York and Boston, where Roth’s solutions have been implemented. Parents had to decide disguise their real preferences to reflect the fact that certain schools would only take pupils who had put them as first choice, and that some were so popular that the 2nd or 3rd choice had to reflect a realistic ‘insurance’ option. The deferred acceptance algorithm, with adjustments to reflect policies such as a sibling rule, was again the solution, making it safe to express true preferences.

The later chapters of the book cover other issues, among them signalling, and repugnant markets. Roth also emphasises two important factors: the role of culture in shaping how markets work (gastroenterologists vs orthopedic surgeons have sufficiently different professional cultures that their matching markets needed to be set up differently); and the need to work alongside politicians who might not take every bit of the economists’ advice. The context changes too, calling for redesigns – for example, the medical student matching market needed to be updated when more couples started looking for jobs in the same city.

has jumped to near the top of my list of books to recommend to students and non-economists to help explain (a) what a lot of economists actually do when they get involved in public policy and (b) why the standard political debate about ‘free markets versus government intervention’ is so utterly inadequate and misleading. Highly recommended.