DRI-306 for week of 3-23-14: Property Rights

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Property Rights

This space endlessly bemoans the depredations of the economics profession, often laments the teaching of economics and occasionally points out shortcomings of economics textbooks. The biggest error of omission made by economists in and out of the classroom concerns property rights. Nothing is more important to the successful function of society. Judging by the attacks launched against them by enemies of free markets, we might expect lively discussions of property rights inside every economics text. Yet they are virtually ignored by mainstream economics.

The great exponent of property rights was the late Armen Alchian, who may have been the greatest economist ever spurned by the Nobel Prize selection committee. Alchian wrote comparatively little, but his few papers are still among the most cited of any economist. They have been fixtures on the reading lists of graduate students for decades – except for his great work on the economics of property rights, which has been pointedly ignored by academia.

Property Rights and Human Rights

As Alchian observed, social critics have long maintained that the system of property rights maintained in capitalist societies conflicts with “human rights.” Ostensibly, this conflict hurts the poor by allowing those with property to exploit those without it. Only a society without private ownership of property can stop this exploitation.

Alchian insisted that property rights – indeed, all rights – must be human rights. The call for abolition of private property is really a call for government ownership or control of property. This has certain unavoidable implications for people of all income levels.

Alchian stated that the very concept of property is best understood as a system of rights governing the care and use of property. That system operates under the logic of economics.

The Three Elements of Property Rights

Alchian’s key writings on property rights are summarized in entries in the Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics and its successor, the Concise Library of Economics. Here Alchian identified the three key elements of a system of property rights.

First among these is control. A right to property entails control over its care and use. This applies particularly, but not exclusively, to physical or tangible property. We are accustomed to this proposition in its positive form; i.e., in the right of people to enjoy and preserve things they own. Its negative form is less familiar. Children enjoy fewer rights than adults because they lack the capability to properly exercise them. Property rights are a good example of this; since tangible property usually demands care and maintenance, children are less able to exercise a right to its ownership.

Second is the right of exclusion. A property right gives the owner the right to exclude others from the possession and enjoyment of the property. Perhaps the most common example of this is the price charged by sellers, which excludes non-payers from the enjoyment of goods for sale. One of the key requisites for a public good – one that must be produced by government because private producers cannot produce it – is “non-exclusivity,” the inability to exclude non-payers. National defense is a public good because once it is provided for one, it is available to all.

Finally comes the right of salability. A true property right gives the owner the right to sell, rent, assign or delegate all or part of the ownership interest in the property at discretion. This is a key distinction between so-called government ownership and private ownership. Although government ownership is frequently referred to as “public ownership,” this is a misnomer. The government, not “the public,” controls the use of the property. In principle, according to the Rule of Law, the government should not exclude the public, but it often does. The public lacks the right to sell, rent or bequeath all or part of its property interest. Thus, no individual owns the property when “the government” owns it.

Both history and theory are replete with examples that sharpen each of these distinctions. We offer a few of these below.

Case Study in Property Rights: The American Indian and European Settlement

North America was settled by Europeans – Spanish, French, English, Germans and Dutch – beginning in the 16th century. Prior to European settlement, the continent was inhabited by aboriginal peoples who came to be called by the mistaken appellation of “Indians.” Over a period of roughly 300 years, the Indians were displaced – that is, removed from their original habitations and resettled.

The continent was populated by a mixture of Europeans, dominated by the English but also including large numbers of French to the north and Spanish to the south. Beginning in the 17th century, the English established numerous colonies in the central section that later gained their independence and became the United States of America. The English and French coexisted more or less peacefully in the English colony of Canada, which later became part of the British Commonwealth. The Spanish colony of Mexico to the south eventually rebelled and gained its independence from Spain.

In Canada and the United States, the displacement of Indians was accomplished through treaty, land purchase and resettlement. This was historically significant, since conquered peoples were generally treated much more harshly. Indeed, for thousands of years, the principal method for mass acquisition of wealth was conquest and plunder – that is, redistribution rather than economic growth. In the U.S., the process was still violent, though, as treaties and resettlement were accompanied by Indian wars lasting from the early 17th centuries until the end of the 19th century.

Much academic and popular history has condemned the acquisition of land from Indians by Europeans and, later, Americans. “We stole the land from the Indians” is a common phrase used to describe the process. This seems an odd way to characterize a process of negotiation and purchase, the historical successor to conquest, eradication or subjugation. More important is the implication that the proper course events would have been for Indians to have retained title to “their property.” This premise deserves careful study.

The social organization of American Indians was tribal. For most, though not all, their lifestyle was nomadic. In what later became the eastern U.S., the land was heavily forested in both the north and south. Most tribes subsisted by hunting deer. Historian Stanley Lebergott quoted one tribal chief: “[W]e must have a great deal of ground to live upon. A deer will serve us but a couple days, and a single deer must have a great deal of ground to put him in good condition. If we kill two or three hundred a year, ’tis the same as to eat all the wood and grass of the land they live on, and this is a great deal.”

This explains why Indians claimed such large quantities of land as “theirs.” They hunted deer. Deer were voracious consumers of forest grassland. (Today, deer thrive in urban American settings; a recent Wall Street Journal letter writer complained that deer are “urban locusts.”) Indians, in turn, consumed large numbers of deer. Deer would ravage a section of land, then migrate in search of fresh forage. Rather than build fixed settlements, Indians would follow the deer.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, America – like the world – was overwhelmingly rural and agrarian. The overwhelming preoccupation was producing enough food to sustain life. Lebergott estimated that, by the early 1800s, the eastern Indian lifestyle demanded roughly two thousand acres, or three square miles, to produce enough calories to feed one Indian. This is consistent with contemporary accounts like the quoted passage above. In contrast, the American settlers who cleared land and build farms needed only two acres per person. In other words, the descendants of the European invaders had become one thousand times more economically productive than the Indians. The incentive for settlers to displace Indians on the land was enormous.

Even more to the point, the Indians’ claim to property rights was very weak. They could not control the use of the land they claimed as theirs, nor could they exclude non-users. Their only resort was sporadic violence against encroachments, which was by no means synonymous with enforcement of property rights since was violent, punished the innocent along with the guilty and affected only a small minority of the “violators.” Given their inability to command the first two elements of property rights, they could hardly execute the third. Thus, the basis for denying most Indian tribes a property-right claim to most of the North American continent rested on the same logic as that by which we deny most property rights to children. In both cases, the claimant lacks the competence and capability of exercising the claim.

Rather than grant Indians a dubious de jure property right they were sure to lose de facto anyway to white settlers, American governments in the early 1800s – particularly the administration of President Andrew Jackson – paid Indian tribes off and resettled them on federally owned land outside the boundaries of the United States. (Jackson maintained that it was unconstitutional to execute treaties with Indian tribes as if they were foreign nations, then force state governments to accept resettlement within their borders. He insisted that sovereign states were not bound by the terms of a treaty between the federal government and a foreign nation.)

There was much to regret about the execution of this approach, but the property-rights logic that underlay it was sound. It is quite clear now that salvation for Indians lay in assimilation with modern civilization rather than adherence to tribalism and outmoded economic organization. By treating Indians as wards of the state and preserving the reservation system and a separatist way of life for Indians, the federal government was guilty of the same false paternalism that has condemned much of the American underclass to inferiority today.

What about the western Indians, who occupied the plains and deserts of the Midwest and west? Once again, the predominant lifestyle was nomadic. In this case, subsistence derived from the buffalo or (more properly) bison, who roamed the plains in profusion during the 17th and 18th centuries. Once again, Indians followed the bison, which followed a seasonal pattern of migration throughout the plains. They hunted buffalo with bow and arrow – Plains Indians were amazingly proficient at driving arrows through the hides and deep into the muscular bodies of bison – and by stampeding the animals over cliffs. Although legend says that Indians were thrifty in their use of each part of the bison carcass, the truth is that carcasses were often left to rot.

As with the eastern Indians, the Plains Indians were highly unproductive compared with American settlers. Cattle fed upon grass proved to be vastly more profitable than bison – they dressed out better, their meat was in better demand, cattle could be domesticated whereas bison could not.  Despite the fact that the subjugation of warring Indians predated the near-extermination of the bison by about a decade, no serious attempt was made to establish the bison as a domestic meat animal on the western prairie.

The property-rights claims of Plains Indians were just as weak as those of eastern Indians, for similar reasons. The Plains Indians could not control use of the vast prairies, nor could they exclude interlopers. For many decades, a staple plot of Hollywood movies was the eviction of Plains Indians by greedy, unscrupulous whites hoping to profit thereby. Usually the motivation is gold, newly discovered by treaty violators in some place such as the Dakota Black Hills. In reality, gold discoveries were few and far between. The real motive behind the displacement of Plains Indians was cattle, not gold. White ranchers were vastly more productive on the plains than were Indians.

To be sure, the forest Indians of the east and the Plains Indians of the west do not encompass all Indians. Some Indians, like the Pueblo and Navaho in the west, did establish viable settlements and agricultural lifestyles. They did have valid property claims. Thus, their property rights should have been respected for the same reasons that the questionable claims of most Indians were rejected.

Pure Theory of Excludability: Alchian and Allen Offer a Proof By Negation

The most legendary of all economics textbooks may be University Economics (later reissued as Exchange and Production), by Armen Alchian and William Allen (AA). Blissfully sparse in its use of mathematics but lively and witty, it offers perhaps the most complete exposition of economic logic in any general textbook. Among its many famous applications is the authors’ imaginative defense of property rights, which takes the form of a “proof by negation.”

AA ask us to envision the following world: Automobiles exist, but are not privately owned. Instead, they exist as a common resource. Each is equipped with an auto-start that vitiates the need for an ignition key. Individuals are invited to make use of any car they find on the street, use it as long as required – purchasing their own gasoline – then leave it for someone else to use.

What would such a world be like?

A little thought suggests that the most salient automotive characteristic of that world would be that we would be driving a fleet of clunkers and junkers. Why? Because nobody would have an incentive to invest in either maintenance or repairs, at least beyond the point it took to get them to their immediate destination. From any one individual’s viewpoint, what would be the point of investing any substantial amount of money in an automobile that you would probably never see again once you reached your destination and left the car to go inside a building? Remember that everybody is not only entitled but expected to appropriate any unoccupied car for his own use. If you bought a new radiator for a car you picked up on the street, you might as well kiss that investment goodbye after leaving the repair shop and reaching your house.

With nobody wanting to repair cars to any significant degree or invest in preventive maintenance, their condition would deteriorate rapidly. People would carry their own motor oil, since they would likely have to add it to any vehicle to prevent the engine from blowing a gasket. Long trips would be a risky venture.

Another feature of this brave new world of socialized car ownership would be that everybody would drive off the bottom of their gas tank. Who would bother topping off the tank – unless undertaking a long trip – only to have somebody else drive off to enjoy most of the gas they purchased? For those who have not been subjected to this form of restraint, it can be a nerve-wracking experience calling for continual mental discipline.

AA suggest their example as an intellectual corrective for people who continue to regard property rights as a form of exploitation. Once absorbed, it can be applied to other forms of property to derive some idea what life without private property would be like. Alternatively, we can refer to the closest approximations provided by history. Visitors to socialist countries like Soviet Russia and Communist China often remarked upon the poor condition of the infrastructure and capital stock, usually without realizing that the lack of stock ownership and capital markets had killed off most of the incentive to maintain those capital goods.

Case Study in Salability: Property Rights and Species Preservation

The loss of species to extinction has been a chief selling point for the environmental movement ever since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. Schoolchildren are taught the harrowing lesson of the passenger pigeon and the buffalo and told that only placing species on government’s “endangered species list” can save them. Typically, the grant of endangered status entails special protections and stern injunctions against harm.

A country whose wildlife has faced chronic preservation problems is Africa. Its exotic wildlife has always occupied a special place, if only because of its magnetic attraction for tourists. The elephant has been especially threatened because the unique properties of the ivory in its tusks have made it tremendously valuable. Poachers have reduced the elephant to the point of extinction in parts of its natural habitat.

The reflexive response throughout Africa has been twofold: ban elephant hunting and ban trade in elephant by-products like ivory. In Kenya, the government banned the hunting of elephants, but poachers decimated the elephant population from 140,000 to 16,000. In Tanzania, the government likewise banned hunting in 1970, but the elephant population was reduced from 250,000 to 61,000 in little more than a decade. In neighboring Uganda, the situation was even worse; its elephant population dropped from 20,000 to only 1,600.

To an economist well-versed in property rights, the reason for these failures was that the ban on hunting or harvesting elephants for commercial use was born of good intentions but was bound to produce bad results. In fact, it had the effect of killing thousands of elephants!

How could this possibly be true? How could people so sensitive to the welfare of these noble creatures do something so brutal, so insensitive, so utterly contrary to their intention? Alas, reason and emotion are completely different expressions of human thought. A surplus of the latter does nothing to promote the former; if anything, emotion tends to hinder the exercise of reason.

The laws against killing elephants had no effect on poachers because poachers are criminals by definition. They would have deterred ordinary people from killing elephants, but they actually encouraged poachers by killing off the legal market for elephants and elephant by-products, thereby making all things elephantine much more valuable in the black market. Being criminals, poachers were delighted to violate the law and sell their kill in the black market. In effect, the government was operating a price-support mechanism for the benefit of poachers.

One way to protect elephants as a species is by preventing the killing of existing elephants. The elephant-protection laws failed utterly in this respect. An even better means of species protection is by encouraging the breeding of more elephants. And the elephant-protection laws failed even more dreadfully here by destroying the legal incentive to breed elephants by destroying the legal market for them.

What a travesty of logic! Is it any wonder the results were so counterproductive? Well, it is one thing to sneer at failure, but another to actually succeed where good intentions alone have failed. Does ivory-tower economics have anything to show in the way of actual results?

In 1979, the African countries of Zimbabwe and Botswana created private property rights in elephants and allowed harvesting of elephants for commercial purposes. In a little less than 15 years, Zimbabwe’s elephant population rose from 30,000 to about 70,000. Botswana’s rose from 20,000 to 68,000.

The really amazing thing about this case study is that people are amazed by it. After all, we butcher many millions of cattle, chickens, hogs and sheep every year, but these species are not endangered because the legal market for them provides a continual incentive for their preservation and maintenance in good health and sufficient numbers to ensure viability. It seems as though people switch off their reasoning faculties when environmental subjects like species preservation arise.

Property Rights and Economic Development

In South America, economic development has been frustratingly elusive. A country such as Brazil possesses vast supplies of people and natural resources and seems on the verge of breaking through to developed-nation status. A country like Argentina was once among the world leaders in industrial production and economic growth, but now lags far behind. Venezuela has gone from being a continent leader in economic growth to Third-World status and near-chaos.

The insecurity of property rights throughout the continent has been identified as a leading culprit in this lack of enduring progress. It is difficult for investment to flourish in a climate where bribery is commonplace and cronyism runs rampant, where expropriation is a continual threat and financial-market transparency cannot be assumed.

Alchian’s Ghost

Today regulation looms larger in the lives of business and consumers than ever before. The ghost of Armen Alchian hovers over our shoulders. He does not haunt us. He is friendly, but admonitory and stern.

DRI-248 for week of 1-26-14: Economics as Movie ‘Spoiler’: Some Famous Cases

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Economics as Movie ‘Spoiler’: Some Famous Cases

Motion pictures evolved into the great popular art form of the 20th century. In the 21st century, many popular cultural references derive from movies. One of these is the “spoiler” – prematurely revealing the ending of a book, play, movie or presentation of any kind.

Economists sometimes experience a slightly different sort of “spoiler.” Their specialized understanding often defeats the internal logic of a presentation, completely spoiling the author’s intended effect. Movies are especially vulnerable to this effect.

The casual perception is that our attitude toward movies is distorted by the high quotient of improbably beautiful and talented people who populate them. While it is true that physical beauty has always been highly prized by Hollywood, it is also true that plain or even ugly people like Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Jean Gabin and Rodney Dangerfield have become champions of the movie box office. The locus of unreality in movies has actually been the stories told.

Movies are best regarded as fairy tales for adults. They over-emphasize dramatic conflict and exaggerate the moral divide between protagonist and antagonist. It is difficult to find a real-world referent to the “happy ending” that resolves the typical movie. Protagonists are all too often “heroes” whose actions exceed the normal bounds of human conduct. In recent years, this tendency has escalated; veteran screenwriter William Goldman has complained that movie protagonists are now not heroes but “gods” whose actions exceed the bounds of physics and other natural laws.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that movie plots have sometimes ignored the laws of economics in order to achieve the stylized dramatic effects demanded by the medium. Since public knowledge of economics is, if anything, less well developed than knowledge of natural science, these transgressions have generally gone unremarked. Indeed, the offending movies are often praised for their realism and power. Thus, it is worthwhile to correct the mistaken economic impressions left by the movies, some of which have found their way into popular folklore.

In each of the following movies, the major plot point – the movie’s resolution – rests on an obvious fallacy or failure to apply economic logic.

Scrooge (U.S. title: A Christmas Carol) (1951)

We know the plot of this most classic of all Christmas tales by heart. Victorian businessman Ebenezer Scrooge, famed miser and misanthrope, abhors the spirit of Christmas. He is visited by three ghosts, emblematic of his youthful past, his empty present life and the lonely, friendless end that awaits him in the future. Their guidance awakens him to the waste of his single-minded pursuit of material gain and rejection of personal affection and warmth. He realizes the cruelty he has visited upon his clerk, the good-hearted family man, Bob Cratchit. Most of all, he keenly regrets the fate of Cratchit’s crippled son, Tiny Tim, who seems doomed by Cratchit’s poverty.

Having witnessed Scrooge’s emotional reformation, the audience is now primed for the crowning culmination. On the day after Christmas, Bob Cratchit shows up at Scrooge’s office, a bit late and encumbered by holiday festivities. Fearfully, he tiptoes to his desk, only to be brought up short by Scrooge’s thunderous greeting. Expecting a verbal pink slip, Cratchit receives instead the news that Scrooge is doubling his wage – and that their working relationship will be hereafter cordial. Tiny Tim’s future is redeemed, and the audience has experienced one of the most cathartic moments on film.

Unless, that is, the viewer happens to be an economist – in which case, the reaction will be a double take accompanied by an involuntary blurt like “I beg your pardon?” For this is a resolution that just simply makes no sense. In order to understand why, the first thing to realize is that the scriptwriter (translating Charles Dickens’ timeless story to the screen) is asking us to believe that Bob Cratchit has heretofore been working for half of what Scrooge is now proposing to pay him.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, historical novelists like Charles Dickens played the role played by filmmakers in the 20th century. They brought history alive to their audiences. Ideally, they stimulated further study of their subject matter – indeed, many famous historians have confessed that their initial stimulus came from great storytellers such as Dickens and Dumas. But many readers searched no further than the stories told by these authors for explanations to the course taken by events. Dickens was an exponent of what the great black economist Thomas Sowell called “volitional economics.” In this case, for example, the wage paid by Scrooge and received by Cratchit ostensibly depended on Scrooge’s will or volition, and nothing else. No role existed for a labor market. Cratchit was not a partisan in his own cause, but rather a passive pawn of fate.

This is not a theory likely to commend itself to an economist. Scrooge and Cratchit are working to produce services purchased by their customers. Who are these? Well might you ask, for neither Dickens nor the filmmakers chose to clutter up the narrative with such extraneous considerations. Yet it is this consumer demand that governs the demand for Scrooge’s output, which in turn values the productivity of Cratchit’s work. In a competitive labor market, the market wage will gravitate toward the marginal value product of labor; e.g., the value of Cratchit’s product at the margin translated into money with the aid of the market price for Scrooge’s services. And in crowded London, there is no doubt about the competitive demand for the low-skilled labor provided by Bob Cratchit. That is what attracted the Bob Cratchits of the world to London in the first place during the Industrial Revolution.

Two possibilities suggest themselves. Either Bob Cratchit was working for half of his marginal value product previously and is only now being elevated to that level, or Scrooge is now proposing to pay Cratchit a wage equal to twice Cratchit’s marginal value product. The first possibility requires us to believe not only that Cratchit was and is a complete idiot, but that henot Scrooge as Dickens clearly implies – is responsible for Tiny Tim’s tenuous medical situation. After all, all Cratchit had to do was step outside Scrooge’s firm and wander off a block or two in order to better his circumstances dramatically and pay Tiny Tim’s medical tab without having to bank on Scrooge’s miraculous reformation. Cratchit was guaranteed a job at slightly less than double his then-current wage by simply underbidding the market wage slightly. But he inexplicably continued to work for Scrooge at half the wage his own productivity commanded.

Alternatively, consider possibility number two. Scrooge is now going to pay Cratchit a wage equal to twice his (Cratchit’s) marginal value product. If Scrooge insists on raising his price commensurate with this wage hike, he will go out of business. If he keeps his price the same, he will now be working for much less net income than all the other business owners in his position. (See below for the implications of this.)

There is no third possibility here. Either Cratchit was (is) crazy or Scrooge is. And either way, it completely upsets Dickens’ cozy suggestions that all’s right with the world, Scrooge has restored the natural order of things and everybody lived happily ever after.

Of course, Scrooge may have accumulated considerable assets over the course of his life and business career. He may choose to make an ongoing gift to Cratchit in the form of a wage increase, as opposed to a bonus or an outright transfer of cash. But it is important to note that this is not what Dickens or the filmmakers imply. The tone and tenor of Dickens’ original story and subsequent films adapted from it unambiguously suggest that Scrooge has righted a wrong. He has not committed a random act of generosity. In other words, Dickens implies – absurd as it now clearly seems – that possibility number one above was his intention.

It is clear to an economist that Dickens has not provided a general solution to the problem of poverty in 19th century England. What if Scrooge were the one with the sick child – would his acquisitive ways then be excusable? Dickens makes it clear that Scrooge’s wealth flows directly from his miserliness. But if miserliness produces wealth and good-heartedness promotes poverty, economic growth and happiness are simply mutually exclusive. After all, the message of the movie is that Scrooge promises to reform year-round, not just one day per year. Henceforward, when approached by collectors for charity, he will refuse not out of meanness but out of genuine poverty, his transformation having stripped him of the earning power necessary to contribute to charity.

In actual fact, of course, Scrooge never existed. Neither did Cratchit. And they are not reasonable approximations of actual 19th-century employers or workers, either. But these figments of Dickens’ imagination have been tragically influential in shaping opinions about the economic history of Victorian England.

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

This comedy from England’s famed Ealing Studios (the world’s oldest movie studio) is justly famous, but for the wrong reasons. It highlights the inefficiency of British socialism and the growing welfare state, but its fame derives from its plot highlight. Inventor Alec Guinness worms his way into the R&D division of a local textile business, where he develops a fabric so durable that it will never wear out. Instead of gaining him the wealth and immortality he craves, it gains the opprobrium of the textile owners, who fear that the fabric will ruin them by cutting replacement sales to zero. They block his efforts at production and the film ends when his formula is revealed to contain a flaw – which he may or may not ever get the chance to de-bug, since he is now a pariahin the industry.

The film is often cited as an example of how big business prevents new technology from empowering consumers – that is, it is cited as if it were a factual case study rather than a fictional movie. Actually, it is a classic example of the failure to deploy economic logic.

Would a textile firm find it profitable to produce an “indestructible” fabric of the sort depicted in the film? Certainly. The firm would achieve a monopoly in the supply of fabric and could obtain finance to expand its operations as necessary to meet the immediate demand. In practice, of course, such a fabric would not really be indestructible in the same sense as, say, Superman’s costume. It would be impervious to normal wear but would suffer damage from tearing, fire, water and other extreme sources. Changes in fashion would also necessitate replacement production. Nevertheless, we can safely grant the premise that the invention would drastically reduce the replacement demand for fabric. But that would not deter an individual firm from developing the invention – far from it.

The film depicts textile firms striving in combination to buy out the inventor. Perhaps overtures of that kind might be made in reality. They would be doomed to failure, though, because in order to afford to pay the inventor’s price the firms would have to compensate the inventor for the discounted present value of the monopoly profits available in prospect. But in order to raise an amount of money equal to those monopoly profits, the firms would themselves have to be monopolists willing to mortgage their future monopoly profits. Textile companies may enjoy legislative protection from foreign competition in the form of tariffs and/or quotas, but they will still not possess the kind of market power enabling them to do this, even if they were so predisposed. Thus, both of the movie’s key plot points are undermined by economic logic.

This reasoning explains why there is so little proof for longstanding allegations that large corporations buy off innovators. While it will often be profitable to acquire competitors, it will normally be prohibitively expensive to buy and suppress revolutionary inventions. The value of a competitive firm reflects its competitive rate of return. The value of a revolutionary innovation reflects the value of a (temporary) monopoly, heavily weighted toward the relatively near future.

The Formula (1980)

The Formula was one of the most eagerly awaited movies of its day because it starred two of the most legendary stage and screen actors of all time, Marlon Brando and George C. Scott. It also boasted a topical plot describing a conspiracy to suppress a secret formula for producing synthetic gasoline. Who was behind the conspiracy? None other than “the big oil companies” – in the 1970s and 80s, as today, the oil companies were periodically trotted out as public whipping boys for the adverse effects of public policies on energy prices.

The film begins during World War II with the escape into Switzerland of a German military officer carrying secret documents. In the present day, Scott plays a homicide policeman investigating the grisly murder of his former supervisor. The decedent was working abroad for a large oil company at the time of his death, and his boss (Brando) reveals that his duties included making payoffs to Middle Eastern officials. Scott’s character also learns about the existence of a formula for conversion of coal into petroleum, supposedly developed secretly by German scientists during World War II and used by the Nazis to fuel their war machine.

Scott’s character seeks the killer and the formula for the remainder of the film. Each successive information source is murdered mysteriously after speaking with him. Eventually he learns the formula from its originator, who tells him that the oil companies plan to suppress it until its value is enormously enhanced by the extinction of remaining petroleum reserves. Brando’s character blackmails Scott’s character into relinquishing the formula and the film ends with the understanding that it will be suppressed indefinitely. The world is denied its chance at plentiful oil and the oil companies enforce an artificial oil shortage.

Novelist Steve Shagan also wrote the screenplay, but it should be noted that the version of the film released to theaters was the result of a conflict with director John G. Avildsen. Although no claim was advanced about the veracity of events depicted or information presented, the audience is clearly invited to take the film’s thesis seriously. Alas, history and economics preclude this.

The film makes much of the fact that Germany was able to conduct military operations around the world for a decade despite having no internal source of petroleum and only tenuous external sources. Germany must have had the ability to manufacture synthetic fuels, we think; otherwise, how could she have waged war so long and effectively?

The premise is sound enough. Germany’s oil refineries in the Ruhr Valley were perhaps the leading military target of Allied bombings; both crude and refined oil were in critically short supply throughout the 1940s. And there really was a “formula” for synthetic fuel – or, more precisely, a chemical process. But the film’s conclusion is all wrong, almost banally so.

The Fischer-Tropsch process was invented by two German scientists – not in World War II, but in 1925. It was not secret, but rather a matter of public knowledge. German companies used it openly in the 1930s. During World War II, when Germany had little or no petroleum or refining capability, the process provided about 25% of the country’s auto fuels and a significant share of other fuels as well. After the war, the process traveled to the U.S. and several plants experimented with it. In fact, it is still used sparsely today. Possible feedstocks for conversion into petroleum are coal, natural gas and biomass.

The reason that few people know about it is that it is too expensive for widespread use. Biomass plants using it have gone broke. Natural gas is too valuable for direct use by consumers to waste on indirect conversion into petroleum. And coal conversion wavers on the edge of commercial practicality; just about the time it begins to seem feasible, something changes unfavorably.

In real life – as opposed to reel life – the problem is not that secret formulas for synthetic fuels are being hidden by the all-powerful oil cartel. It is that the open and above-board chemical processes for conversion to synthetic fuel are just too darned expensive to be economically feasible under current conditions.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich is the film that sealed the motion-picture stardom of Julia Roberts by earning her an Academy Award for Best Actress. It was based on events in the life of its title character. Erin Brockovich was an unemployed single mother of three who met liability attorney Ed Masry when he unsuccessfully represented her in her suit for damages in a traffic accident. She took a job with his firm interviewing plaintiffs in a real-estate settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric.

In the course of her interviews, Brockovich claimed (and the film portrayed) that she unearthed a laundry list of diseases and ailments suffered by the 634 plaintiffs, who were residents of Hinkley, CA. These included at least five different forms of cancer, asthma and various other complaints. Brockovich was surprised to learn that PG&E had paid the medical expenses of these residents because of the presence of chromium in the drinking water, despite having assured the residents that the water was safe to drink. Eventually, Brockovich interviewed a company employee who claimed that corporate officials at PG&E were aware of the presence of “hexavalent chromium” (e.g.; chromium from multiple sources) in the drinking water and told employees in Hinkley to hide this information from residents. The whistleblower had been told to destroy incriminating documents but kept them instead and supplied them to Brockovich.

The film does everything but accuse the company of murder in so many words. It reports the jury verdict that awarded the Hinkley residents $333 million in damages. (The standard contingency fee to the law firm is 33%.) Brockovich received a $2 million bonus from her delighted boss. The film received a flock of award nominations in addition to Roberts’s Oscar, made a pile of money and got excellent reviews.

However, a few dissenting voices were raised in the scientific community. Scathing op-eds were published in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times by scientists who pointed out that little or no science backed up the movie’s claims – or, for that matter, the legal case on which the movie was based.

It seems that the only scientific black mark against hexavalent chromium was lung cancer suffered by industrial workers who inhaled the stuff in large quantities. In contrast, the hexavalent chromium in Hinkley was ingested in trace amounts in drinking water. The first law of toxicology (the science of toxicity) is “the dose makes the poison.” Ingestion allows a substance to be attacked by digestive acids and eliminated via excretion; inhalation would permit it to be absorbed by organs like the lungs. Ironically, lung cancer wasn’t among the varieties identified by Brockovich.

What about the lengthy list of cancers grimly recited in the movie? Doesn’t that constitute a prima facie case of wrongdoing by somebody? No – just the reverse. As the scientists pointed out, biological or industrial agents are normally targeted in their effects; after all, they were usually created for some very specific purpose in the first place. So the likelihood of one agent, like hexavelent chromium, being the proximate cause of various diverse cancers is very remote. In any town or city, a medical census covering a reasonable time span will produce a laundry list of diseases like the one Brockovich compiled.

Economics provides equal grounds for skepticism of the movie’s conclusions. The movie imputes both wrongdoing and evil motives to a company. Somewhere within that company, human beings must have harbored the motives and committed the wrongs. But why? The standard motivation behind corporate wrongdoing is always money. The monetary category involved is normally profit. Presumably the imputed rationale would run somewhere along these lines: “Corporate executives feared that admitting the truth would result in adverse publicity and judgments against the company, costing the company profits and costing them their jobs.” But that motivation can’t possibly have applied to this particular case, because PG&E was a profit-regulated public utility.

Public-utility profits are determined by public-utility commissions in hearings. If a utility earns too much profit, its rates are adjusted downward. If it earns too little, its rates are adjusted upward. For over a century, economists have tried but failed to think up ways to get utility managers to behave efficiently by cutting costs. Economists have even argued in favor of allowing utilities to keep profits earned in between rate hearings, hoping that managers will have an incentive to cut costs if the company could actually keep profits in that scenario.

But here, according to the filmmakers, PG&E executives were so fanatically dedicated to safeguarding profits that the company couldn’t keep anyway that they were willing to knowingly poison their customers. They were willing to risk losing their jobs and going to jail (if their deception was uncovered) to guard against losing their jobs for loss of profits that were never going to be gained or lost in the first place. No economist will swallow this.

If the filmmakers had an explanation for this otherwise insane behavior, they didn’t offer in the movie. And without a scientific case or an economic motive, it is impossible to accept the film’s scenario of corporate conspiracy at face value. Instead, the likely motivational scenario is that PG&E executives didn’t confess their crimes and beg forgiveness because they had absolutely no scientific reason to think they had committed any crimes. They didn’t warn Hinkley residents about “known dangers” because they didn’t know about any dangers. They didn’t need to admit the presence of chromium in the drinking water because everybody already knew there were trace amounts of chromium in the drinking water. But they certainly weren’t going to advertise the presence of non-existent dangers for fear that somebody would seize the opportunity to make a legal case where none really existed.

Movies are Fairy Tales for Adults

The moral to these cases is that movies are fairy tales for adults. Given that, the absence of economic logic in the movies is not hard to fathom. How much economic logic did we learn from the fairy tales we heard in childhood?

This is not to indict movies – or fairy tales, either. We need them for the emotional sustenance they provide. Fairy tales help cushion our childhood introduction to reality. Movies help us cope with the wear and tear of daily life by recharging our emotional batteries.

But we must never confuse the fairy tale world of movies with the rational world in which we live. Our ultimate progress as a species depends on our reliance on markets, rational choice and free institutions. Of necessity, movies operate according to the visual logic of dramatic action. We expect reel life to liberate us from the conventions of real life and this is why movies seldom make economic sense.