24 Jul 2014

Ronald Coase, institutions and water

A LONG time ago, TS sent this:
Ronald Coase died this past week at age 102. I think many people continue to misinterpret/misuse his core ideas and theories, i.e., the hard core right using his stuff to support the argument that any government regulation or intervention is bad. As you know, he advocated for property rights (which government would facilitate) to help us efficiently manage our environmental challenges, among other things.

I think you've applied some of his insights to your writing on water, e.g., setting up water rights for people so they could sell some of their unused allocation to people who need water (example, farmers to urbanites).

I'd love to see a post applying Coase's ideas to water management.
I'll leave the summaries of Coase's work to Wikipedia, the Nobel Committee, Encyclopedia of Economics, this podcast, and this application of Coase to environmental issues. Go read more if you want a better view of one of the more original minds in economics.

Now why was Coase original? First, because his formal education only extended to his BSc in Commerce. Second, because he insisted on looking into the "real world" for problems and solutions. Third, because he brought a clean ("outside the box") perspective to economics.

Coase was an accidental iconoclast who used common sense to make a difference.

So, how can we apply his ideas to water?

Let's begin by defining the words that he used to establish entirely new dimensions of economics:

"Transaction costs" occur in the course of finding a trading partner, making and completing a deal. Economists who assume "zero transaction costs" have never bought a used car or gone on a date. Matching takes time; information is buried or obscured; some deals cannot be pursued to their conclusion.

"Property rights" don't just define who owns what in terms of private goods. Their absence or mis-specification affects club, public and common pool goods. Many problems, Coase would argue, arise from poorly-specified property rights.

"Institutions" are the informal norms and formal rules that affect our interactions. Good institutions clarify property rights and lower transaction costs. Outdated or missing institutions mean that property is mismanaged (inducing anything from litter to war) and transaction costs are high -- often leading to "missed opportunities."

I use Coase's ideas everyday. Sometimes, I decide it's not worth "spending" more time to get slightly cheaper fruit (maybe). Sometimes, I leave my bike unlocked because I am among property-respecting types (or community-minded types that will catch out thieves). Sometimes, I wonder why my roommates leave dirty dishes in the sink.

I can also apply Coase's ideas to water. You cannot have a water market without clear rights, low transaction costs, and an "institutional" acceptance of trading commodity water.

You cannot police water pollution without assigning the right to pollute (or be free of pollution). Even with those rights, you cannot enforce them when the transaction costs of finding the polluter or measuring pollution are too high. These will be even higher if there's no authority in charge of measuring pollution, since an individual may not have the incentive (costs>benefits) of measuring pollution that affects other people. Coase, thus, codified "the logic of collective action."

Taking Coase from a different angle, you might oppose over-complex water tariffs that require lots of measurements (transaction costs), violate property rights (lawns versus people), or fail to integrate with systems handing water before or after it's diverted into taps.

All of these examples have the same things in common. They bring a pragmatic, problem-solving perspective to issues that cannot be "solved" with the same global algorithm. Coase always began with the foundation of how things really worked (or failed) -- not an academic "simplification" that threw out the baby with the bathwater.

Bottom Line:It doesn't matter what Coase said. It matters that you apply his pragmatic perspective to identifying and removing the barriers to outcomes you want.