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Quantity vs. Quality in Economists
Students of economics have long complained that economics texts focus too much on quantity and not enough on quality when evaluating goods. The same issue arises when comparing economists themselves. The career of Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase, who died this week at age 102, is a polar case.
Economists advance by publishing articles in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals. The all-time leader in the number of articles published is the late Harry G. Johnson. Despite dying young at age 53, Johnson compiled the staggering total of 526 published articles during his lifetime.
The use of advanced mathematics and abstract modeling techniques has enabled economists to rack up impressive publications scores by introducing slight mathematical refinements that add little to the substantive meaning or practical value of their achievement. When asked to account for the comparative modesty of a list of publications only one-fourth the size of Johnson’s, Nobel Laureate George Stigler countered, “Yeah, but mine are all different.”
Coase stands at the other extreme. His complete list of articles numbers fewer than twenty, but two of those are among the most-frequently consulted by economists, lawyers and other specialists, not to mention by the general public. He published a long-awaited, widely noticed book in 2012 despite having passed his centenary the year before. His life is an advertisement for the value of quality over quantity in an economist.
Another notable aspect of Coase’s work is its accessibility. In an age when few professional contributions can be read and understood by non-specialists, much less by interested non-economists, Coase’s work is readily comprehensible by the educated layperson. Now is the time to rehearse the insights that made Coase’s name a byword within the economics profession. His death makes this review emotionally as well as intellectually fitting.
Why Do Businesses Exist?
At 26 years of age, Ronald Coase was a left-leaning economics student. He pondered the following contradictory set of facts: On the one hand, socialists ever since Saint-Simon had advocated running a nation’s economy “like one big factory.” On the other hand, orthodox economists declared this to be impossible. Yet some highly successful corporations reached enormous size.
Who was right? It seemed to Coase that the answer depended on the answer to a more fundamental question – why do businesses exist? Be it a one-person shop or a huge multinational corporation, a business arises voluntarily. What conditions give birth to a business?
Coase found the answer in the concept of cost. (In his 1937 article, “The Nature of the Firm,” Coase used the term “marketing costs,” but the economics profession refined the term to “transactions costs”.) A business arises whenever it is less costly for people to organize into a hierarchical, centralized structure to produce and distribute output than it is to produce the same output and exchange it individually. And the business itself performs some activities within the firm while outsourcing others outside the firm. Again, cost determines the locus of these activities; any activity more cheaply bought than performed inside the firm is outsourced, while activities more cheaply done inside the firm are kept internal.
Like most brilliant, revolutionary insights, this seems almost childishly simple when explained clearly. But it was the first lucid justification for the existence of business firms that relied on the same economic logic that business firms themselves (and consumers) used in daily life. Previously, economists had been in the ridiculous position of assuming that businesses used economic logic but arose through some non-economic process such as habit or tradition or government direction.
Today, we have a regulatory process that flies in the face of Coase’s model. It implicitly assumes that markets are incapable of correctly organizing, assigning and performing basic business functions, ranging from safety to hiring to providing employee benefits. To make matters worse, the underlying assumption is that government regulatory behavior is either costless or less costly than the correlative function performed by private markets. As Coase taught us over 75 years ago, this flies in the face of the inherent “nature of the firm.”
The “Coase Theorem”
In mid-career, while working amongst a group of free-market economists at the University of Virginia, Ronald Coase made his most famous discovery. It assured him immortality among economists. Just about the best way to make a name for yourself is to give your name to a theory, the way John Maynard Keynes or Karl Marx did. But in Coase’s case, the famous “Coase Theorem” was actually devised by somebody else, using Coase’s logic – and Coase himself repudiated the use to which his work was put!
To appreciate what Coase did – and didn’t do – we must grasp the prior state of economic theory on the subject of “externalities.” Tort case law contained examples of railroad trains whose operation created fires by throwing off sparks into combustible areas like farm land. The law treated these cases by either penalizing the railroad or ignoring the damage. A famous economist named A. C. Pigou declared this to be an example of an “externality” – a cost created by business production that is not borne by the business itself because the business’s owners and/or managers do not perceive the damage created by the sparks to be an actual cost of production.
Rather than simply penalizing the railroad, Pigou observed, the economically appropriate action is to levy a per-unit tax against the railroad equal to the cost incurred by the victims of the sparks. This would cause the railroad to reduce its output by exactly the same amount as if it had perceived its sparks to be a legitimate cost of production in the first place. In effect, the railroad “pays” the costs of its actions in the form of reduced output (and reduced use of the resources necessary to provide railroad transport services), rather than paying them in the form of a fine. Why is the former outcome better than the latter? Because the purpose is not to hurt the railroad as retaliation for its hurting the farmer, the way one child hurts another in revenge for being hurt. A railroad is a business – in effect, it is a piece of paper expressing certain contractual relationships. It cannot feel hurt the way a human being can, so the fine may make the farmer feel better (if he or she received the fine as proceeds of a tort suit) but does not compensate for the waste of resources caused by having the railroad produce too much output. (“Too much” because resources will have to be devoted to repairing the damage caused by the sparks, and consumers value the resources used to do this more than the farmer values the loss.) In contrast, when the costs are factored into the railroad’s production decision, everybody values the resulting output of railroad services and other things as exactly worth their cost.
Of course, the catch is that somebody has to (1) realize the existence of the externality; and (2) calculate exactly how much tax to levy on the railroad to neutralize (or internalize) the externality; and then (3) do it. In the manner of a philosopher king, Pigou declared that this task should be assigned to a government regulatory bureaucracy. And for the next half-century (Pigou was writing in the early 1900s), mainstream economists salivated at the prospect of regulatory agencies passing rules to internalize all the pesky externalities that liberals and bureaucrats could dream up.
In 1960, Ronald Coase came along and gave the world a completely new slant on this age-old problem. Consider the following type of situation: you are flying from New York to Los Angeles on a low-price airline. You have settled somewhat uncomfortably into your seat, survived the takeoff and are just beginning to contemplate the six-hour flight when the passenger in front of you presses a button at his side and reclines his seatback – thereby preempting what little leg room you previously had. Now what?
This is not actually the example Coase used – it was used by contemporary economist Peter Boettke to illustrate Coase’s ideas – but it is especially good for our purposes. Using the same logic Coase applied to his examples, we reason thusly: It would be completely arbitrary to assign either of us a property right to the space preempted by the seatback. Why? Because the problem is not to stop bad people from doing bad things. Instead, we are faced with a situation in which ordinary people want to do good things that are in some sense contradictory or offsetting in their effects. On the airplane, my wish to stretch out is no more or less morally compelling than his to recline. The problem is that we can’t do both to the desired extent at the same time without getting in each other’s way; e.g., offsetting each other’s efforts.
Indeed, this is true of most so-called externalities, including the railroad/farmer case. Case law usually treated the railroad as a nefarious miscreant imposing its will on the innocent, helpless farmer. But the railroad’s wish to provide transport services is just as reasonable as the farmer’s to grow and harvest crops. It is not unthinkable to enjoin the railroad against creating sparks – but neither should we overlook the possibility of requiring the farmer to protect against sparks or perhaps even not locate a farm within the threatened area. Indeed, what we really want in all cases is to discover the least-cost solution to the externality. That might involve precautions taken by the railroad, or by the farmer, or emigration by the farmer, or payment by the railroad to the farmer as compensation for the spark damage, or payment by the farmer to the railroad as compensation for spark avoidance.
In general, it is crazy to expect an uninvolved third party – particularly a government regulator – to divine the least-cost solution and implement it. The logical people to do that are the involved parties themselves, who know the most about their own costs and preferences and are on the scene. These are also the people who have the incentive to find a mutually beneficial solution to the problem. In our airline example, I might offer the man in front of me a small payment for not reclining. Or he might pay me for the privilege of reclining. But either way, we will bargain our way to a solution that leaves us both better off, if there is one. One of us would object to any proposed solution that did not leave him better off.
Of course, it would be useful for bargaining purposes to have an assignment of property rights; that is, a specification that I have the right to my space or that the man in front of me has the right to recline. That way, the direction of compensatory payments would be clear – money would flow to the right-holder from the right-seeker.
What if bargaining does not produce an efficient outcome, one that both parties can agree on? That means that the right-holder values his right at more than the right-seeker is willing to pay. But in that case, no government tax would produce an efficient outcome either.
On the airline, suppose that I value the leg room preempted by the reclining seat at $10. Suppose, further, that airline policy gives him the right to recline. If I offer him $6 not to recline, he will accept my offer if he values reclining at any amount less than $6 – say, $5. Notice that we are now both better off than under the status quo ante bargain. I get leg room I valued at $10 – or course, I had to pay $6 for it, but that is better than not having it at all, just as having the airline’s cocktail is better than being thirsty even though I had to pay $5 for it. He loses his right to recline, but he gets $6 instead – and reclining was only worth $5 to him. He is better off, just as he would be if he accepted an airline’s offer of $500 to surrender his seat and take a later flight, as sometimes happens.
We cannot even begin to estimate how many times people solve everyday problems like this through individual bargains. The world would be vastly better off if we were trained from birth in the virtues of a voluntary society where bargaining is a way to solve everyday disputes and make everybody better off. That training would stress the virtues of money as the lubricant that facilitates this sort of bargain because it is readily exchangeable for other things and because it is the common denominator of value. Instead, most of us are burdened by an instinctive tribal suspicion that money is evil and bargaining is used only to seek personal advantage at the expense of others. Experienced businesspeople know otherwise, but throughout the world the Zeitgeist is working against Coase’s logic. More and more, government and statutory law are held up as the only fair mechanism for resolving disputes.
University of Chicago economist George Stigler used Coase’s logic to devise the so-called Coase theorem, which says that when the transactions costs of bargaining are zero, the ultimate price and output results will be the same regardless of the initial assignment of property rights. This is true because both parties will have the incentive to bargain their way to an efficient improvement, if one exists. The assignment of property rights will affect the wealth of the bargainers, because it will determine the direction of the money flow, but economists are concerned with welfare (determined by prices and quantities), not wealth. No government regulatory body can improve on the free-market solution.
Coase disagreed with the theorem named after him – not because he disputed its logic, but because he foresaw the results. Economists would use it to look for circumstances when transactions costs were low or non-existent. Instead, Coase wanted to investigate real-world institutions such as government to compare its transactions costs to those of the market. He knew that real-world transactions costs were seldom zero but that government solutions almost never worked out as neatly in practice as they did on the blackboard. In fact, he invented the phrase “blackboard economics” to refer to solutions that could never work in practice, only on a theoretical blackboard, because real-world governments never had either the information or the incentive necessary to apply the solution.
Why China Became Capitalist
Ronald Coase devoted his last years to learning how and why China evolved from the world’s last major Communist dictatorship to the world’s emerging economic superpower. In Why China Became Capitalist, he and his research partner Ning Wang delivered an account that contravened the popular explanation for China’s rise. China’s ruling central-government oligarchy has received credit for the country’s emergence as the growth leader among developing nations. Since the Communist Party retained political control throughout the growth spurt, it must have been responsible for it – so the usual explanation runs. Coase and Wang showed that government’s presence as the agency in charge of political life does not automatically entitle it to credit for economic growth.
The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 rescued China from decades of terror, famine and dictatorship. Mao’s designated successor, Hua Guofeng, was an economist who outlined a program of state-run investment in heavy industry called the “Leap Outward.” This resembled the various Five-Year Plans of Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin in general approach and in overall lack of results. Hua’s successors, Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, abandoned the Leap Outward in favor of an emphasis on agriculture and light industry. Although Deng was the political figurehead who garnered the lion’s share of the publicity, Chen was the guiding spirit behind this second centralized plan designed to spur Chinese economic growth. It placed less emphasis on production of capital goods and more on consumer goods. Chen allowed state-controlled agricultural prices to rise in an effort to stimulate production on China’s collective farms, which had failed disastrously under Mao, resulting in approximately 40 million deaths from famine. He also allowed state-run enterprises a measure of autonomy and private profit, heretofore unthinkable under Communism.
Although these central-government measures were the ostensible spur to China’s remarkable growth run, Coase and Wang assign actual responsibility to the resurgence of China’s private economy. Private farms had always existed as part of the nation’s 30,000 villages and towns, much as neighboring Russians continued to nurture their tiny private plots of land alongside the Soviet collective farms. And, just as was the case in Russia, the smaller private farms began to outdo the larger collectives in productivity and output. Mao fanatically insisted on agricultural collectivization, but his death freed private farmers to resume their former lives. By late 1980, the Beijing government was forced to officially acknowledge the private farms. In 1982, China formally abandoned its costly experiment with collective agriculture and de-collectivized its farms. Official grain prices were allowed to rise and grain imports were permitted.
Agriculture wasn’t the only industry that flourished at the local level. Small businesses in rural China labored under official handicaps; their access to raw materials was not protected and they had no officially sanctioned distribution channels for their output. But they bought inputs on the black market at high prices and groomed their own sales representatives to scour the nation drumming up business for their goods. These local Davids outperformed the state-run Goliaths; they were the real vanguard of Chinese economic growth.
Growth was slower in China’s major cities. Mao had sent some 20 million youths to the countryside to escape unemployment in the cities. After his death, many of these youths returned to the cities – only to find themselves out of work again. They demonstrated and formed opposition political movements, sometimes paralyzing daily life with their protests. This forced Beijing to permit self-employment for the first time – another Communist sacred cow sacrificed to political expediency. This, in turn, created an urban class of Chinese entrepreneurs. This led to yet another government reaction in the form of Special Economic Zones, somewhat reminiscent of the U.S. “enterprise zones” of the 1980s. Economic freedom and lower taxes were allowed to exist in a controlled environment; Chinese officials hoped to encourage controlled doses of capitalist prosperity in order to save socialism.
Gradually, the limited reforms of the Special Economic Zones became more general. Increased freedom of market prices was introduced in 1992, taxes were lowered in 1994 and privatization of failing state-run enterprises began in the mid-1990s. For the first time, China began to replace local and regional markets with a single national market for many goods.
Coase and Wang identify perhaps the most important but least-known capitalist element to arise in China as the improved pursuit of knowledge. They accurately attribute the recognition of knowledge’s role in economics to Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek and note the increasing popularity of books and articles by Hayek, his mentor Ludwig von Mises and classical forebears such as Adam Smith. The economics profession has pigeonholed the subject of knowledge under the heading of “technical coefficients of production,” but the authors know that this is only the beginning of the knowledge needed to make a free-market economy work. The knowledge of market institutions and the dispersed, specialized “knowledge of particular time and place” that can only be collated and shared by free markets are even more important than technical knowledge about how to produce goods and services.
The upshot of China’s private resurgence has been to make the country a “laboratory for capitalist experimentation,” according to Coase and Wang. That laboratory has brewed a recipe for unparalleled economic growth since the 1990s, leading to China’s admittance into the World Trade Organization in 2001. The final piece of the puzzle, the authors predict, is a true free market for ideas – the one thing that Western economies have that China lacks. When this falls into place, China will become the America of the 21st century.
Thus did Ronald Coase add a landmark study in economic history to his select resume of classic works.
Quality vs. Quantity
Never in the history of economics has one economist achieved so much productivity with so little scholarly output. Ronald Coase economized on the scarce resources of time and human effort (ours) by devoting the longest career of any great economist to specializing in quality, not quantity, of work.