Sunday, December 13, 2015

McCloskey on the Coase Theorem

The Coase Theorem is an important part of economics research, agricultural or otherwise. The standard definition of the theorem is that in a world with zero or very low transactions costs, bargaining over a disputed right between two parties will lead to an efficient allocation of resources regardless of which party is legally awarded the property right. (If you are familiar with the Coase Theorem, you can skip the next paragraph.)

A classic example (which is found in Coase's paper "The Problem of Social Cost" is that of the railroad and the farmer. As trains traveled down the track in the 1900s, they emitted sparks that potentially could set fire to farmers' crops. If this were to happen, who should pay for the lost crop? In a world where transactions costs (that is, costs associated with acquiring information, monitoring the other party, or executing the trade) are zero, it doesn't matter who a court decides is responsible. If it's less costly for the railroad to put on a spark-catching device, the farmer will pay the railroad company to do so. If it's less costly for the farmer to plant his crops farther from the railroad, the railroad company will pay the farmer to do so.

Of course, we don't live in a world of zero transactions costs, so it does matter to whom the court grants the property right. Transactions costs also make it difficult for governments to figure out how to solve the problem. If the government decided it wanted to make farmers reduce their planting to solve the problem, there would be significant costs associated with determining just how far to restrict planting away from the tracks. In the opposite case, the government (that is, the taxpayer) would have to incur a cost to determine precisely which device the railroad should use to contain the sparks. These costs don't disappear in the cases of tradeable permits in fisheries or pollution. The government still has to determine the extent and details of these artificial markets.

It seems strange, but Coase himself maintains that the theorem (as described in the first two paragraphs of this post) is not about his work. He says that it's really George Stigler's theorem, but that Stigler was kind enough to name it after him. This is where McCloskey comes in. Her Summer 1998 column in the Eastern Economic Journal makes some bold claims about the Coase Theorem and, I think, provides some interesting insights, which I reproduce below.

Her interpretation is at odds with the way most interpret the Theorem. Her interpretation, which she says is Coase's (and I have reason to believe it is... Coase spent a lot of time arguing against what he called "blackboard economics"), is a caution to people who take the typical form of the theorem as an argument for "markets are always best" or "government solutions are always best."

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

PERC Weighs in on EPA's WOTUS Rule

Over the past year, I've explored several aspects of EPA regulation (here, here, here, and here). In a blog post last month at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), law professor Jonathan Adler discussed the conservation aspect of the EPA's contentious new definition of "waters of the United States" (WOTUS). In the post, he makes some good points about the ways in which an expansion of federal government conservation efforts could affect private or state government conservation.

Adler says that previous court restrictions on EPA's authority were the impetus behind the new definition of "waters of the United States":
The new definition was prompted by the failure of prior agency definitions to withstand judicial review. In 2001, and again in 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the agencies’ overly expansive notion of their own jurisdiction. Authority to regulate activities touching upon “waters of the United States” is broad, but not infinite, the Court ruled, and must ultimately connect to the nation’s navigable waters. Already multiple suits are pending in federal court challenging the new WOTUS definition for failing to heed this guidance.
He writes that the underlying theory behind the new definition is that conservation can be maximized if and only if federal regulatory authority is maximized. However, Adler claims that there are potential crowding-out effects associated with the new definition. He gives a couple of examples:
Consider the case of wetlands, which are subject to the Clean Water Act under the new WOTUS rule insofar as they are adjacent or otherwise connected to navigable waters and their tributaries. If federal regulation does not cover all wetlands—and it does not—other steps are necessary to maximize wetland conservation. Yet conservation groups and state and local governments cannot know where their efforts are most needed if they do not know where federal regulatory authority ends and the need for additional efforts begins. 
The expansion of federal regulatory jurisdiction also threatens to penalize and discourage conservation efforts more directly. Among other things, the Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of pollutants, defined to include clean “fill material” such as dirt, in the nation’s waters without a permit, and the WOTUS rule defines waters to include many wetlands. This means that even the most well-intentioned conservationists may need a federal permit to undertake ecological restoration on private land. Why does this matter? Because obtaining such permits can be costly and time-consuming—and failure to comply can bring criminal penalties. And as has been shown in the context of endangered species, excessively punitive regulations can discourage voluntary conservation on private land.
Adler concludes:
There are more than 100 million acres of wetlands in the United States, and approximately three-fourths of these are on private land. This means that insofar as federal regulatory efforts discourage private conservation, they can have significant, unintended consequences. The unrestrained expansion of regulatory jurisdiction may be good for federal agencies, but it’s not always good for conservation.
What's clear is that this new definition, whatever form it takes, will have substantial effects on agriculture and conservation. We don't yet know whether those effects will be positive or negative on net.

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Ag Econ Research & Extension
Jayson Lusk discusses an article on returns to publicly-funded agricultural research and extension. He also tackles the question: "Is ag econ academic research cited?" and answers in the affirmative.

Is Econ 101 Worthless?
David Henderson and Don Boudreaux respond to Noah Smith's contention that most of what we teach in Econ 101 is wrong.

Healthcare Reform
Two perspectives on recent developments related to Obamacare: one from Shikha Dalmia and another from Paul Krugman.

I, Pencil Revisited?
George Leef responds to a criticism of the famous essay "I, Pencil."

Regulatory Announcements
The Obama administration picks some interesting dates to announce new regulations.

A student gives a creative example of an externality.
David Henderson's student has a good understanding of Public Choice.

A new edition of Alchian and Allen's textbook.
Don Boudreaux lists some myths busted in a forthcoming edition of Alchian and Allen.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Hockey Stick of Banking Regulation

Since the early days of the financial crisis, we've heard from many sources that it was caused by deregulation in the financial sector. Some economists and commentators blamed the crisis on general deregulation, while others pointed to the repeal of specific regulations over the last couple of decades as potential causes.

Recently, the Mercatus Center published RegData, which is a comprehensive measurement of regulatory restrictions by industry and by regulator. This index gives us a better picture of the regulatory environment at the industry level. I've referred to RegData in previous posts about EPA and USDA regulation of agriculture (here, here, here, here, and here).

In this post I provide some graphs and a brief discussion of banking regulation since 1970. This is an especially important issue in agriculture since ag lenders are likely to face liquidity issues due to low farm profits in coming years.