Remembering Ronald Coase’s Contributions

On September 2nd, Ronald Coase, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Chicago Law School, Nobel laureate, and principal creator of the academic field of law and economics, passed away at the age of 102.  Numerous, lengthy obituaries have appeared in the national and international press.  And in an effective essay posted at the Energy Economics Exchange web site, Severin Borenstein, professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote about the effect that Coase’s thinking had decades ago on his own intellectual development (while lamenting that the Wall Street Journal in its own tribute to Coase had twisted the implications of his work to fit the Journal’s view of the world).

The passing of Professor Coase brings to mind an essay I wrote for this blog in July of 2012, in which I recalled that a group of economists and legal scholars had gathered in December, 2010, at the University of Chicago to celebrate two notable events.  One was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ronald Coase’s “The Problem of Social Cost” (Coase 1960).  The other was Professor Coase’s 100th birthday.  The conference resulted in a special issue of The Journal of Law and Economics.

Robert Hahn (of the University of Oxford) and I were privileged to participate in the conference (a video of our presentation is available here).  We recognized that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Coase’s landmark study provided an opportunity for us to examine one of that study’s key implications, which is of great importance not only for economics but for public policy as well, in particular, for environmental policy.

The Coase Theorem and the Independence Property

In our article, “The Effect of Allowance Allocations on Cap-and-Trade System Performance,” Hahn and I took as our starting point a well-known result from Coase’s work, namely, that bilateral negotiation between the generator and the recipient of an externality will lead to the same efficient outcome regardless of the initial assignment of property rights, in the absence of transaction costs, income effects, and third party impacts. This result, or a variation of it, has come to be known as the Coase Theorem.

We focused on an idea that is closely related to the Coase theorem, namely, that the market equilibrium in a cap-and-trade system will be cost-effective and independent of the initial allocation of tradable rights (typically referred to as permits or allowances). That is, the overall cost of achieving a given emission reduction will be minimized, and the final allocation of permits will be independent of the initial allocation, under certain conditions (conditional upon the permits being allocated freely, i.e., not auctioned). We called this the independence property. It is closely related to a core principle of general equilibrium theory (Arrow and Debreu 1954), namely, that when markets are complete, outcomes remain efficient even after lump-sum transfers among agents.

The Practical Political Importance of the Independence Property

We were interested in the independence property because of its great political importance.  The reason why this property is of such great relevance to the practical development of public policy is that it allows equity and efficiency concerns to be separated. In particular, a government can set an overall cap of pollutant emissions (a pollution reduction goal) and leave it up to a legislature to construct a constituency in support of the program by allocating shares of the allowances to various interests, such as sectors and geographic regions, without affecting either the environmental performance of the system or its aggregate social costs.  Indeed, this property is a key reason why cap-and-trade systems have been employed and have evolved as the preferred instrument in a variety of environmental policy settings.

In Theory, Does the Property Always Hold?

Because of the importance of this property, we examined the conditions under which it is more or less likely to hold — both in theory and in practice.  In short, we found that in theory, a number of factors can lead to the independence property being violated. These are particular types of transaction costs in cap-and-trade markets; significant market power in the allowance market; uncertainty regarding the future price of allowances; conditional allowance allocations, such as output-based updating-allocation mechanisms; non-cost-minimizing behavior by firms; and specific kinds of regulatory treatment of participants in a cap-and-trade market.

In Reality, Has the Property Held?

Of course, the fact that these factors can lead to the violation of the independence property does not mean that in practice they do so in quantitatively significant ways.  Therefore, Hahn and I also carried out an empirical assessment of the independence property in past and current cap-and-trade systems: lead trading; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under the Montreal Protocol; the sulfur dioxide (SO2) allowance trading program; the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM) in Southern California; eastern nitrogen oxides (NOX) markets; the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS); and Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol.

I hope some of may find time to read our article, but a quick summary of our assessment is that we found modest support for the independence property in the seven cases we examined (but also recognized that it would surely be useful to have more empirical research in this realm).

Political Judgments

That the independence property appears to be broadly validated provides support for the efficacy of past political judgments regarding constituency building through legislatures’ allowance allocations in cap-and-trade systems. Governments have repeatedly set the overall emissions cap and then left it up to the political process to allocate the available number of allowances among sources to build support for an initiative without reducing the system’s environmental performance or driving up its cost.

This success with environmental cap-and-trade systems should be contrasted with many other public policy proposals for which the normal course of events is that the political bargaining that is necessary to develop support reduces the effectiveness of the policy or drives up its overall cost.  So, the independence property of well-designed and implemented cap-and-trade systems is hardly something to be taken for granted.  It is of real political importance and remarkable social value.  It is just one of many lasting contributions of Ronald Coase.

Two Notable Events Prompt Examination of an Important Property of Cap-and-Trade

In December of 2010, a group of economists and legal scholars gathered at the University of Chicago to celebrate two notable events. One was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ronald Coase’s “The Problem of Social Cost” (Coase 1960).  The other was Professor Coase’s 100th birthday.  The conference resulted in a special issue of The Journal of Law and Economics, which has just been published (although it is dated November 2011).

My frequent co-author, Robert Hahn (of the University of Oxford), and I were privileged to participate in the conference (a video of our presentation is available here).  We recognized that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Coase’s landmark study provided an opportunity for us to examine one of that study’s key implications, which is of great importance not only for economics but for public policy as well, in particular, for environmental policy.

The Coase Theorem and the Independence Property

In our just-published article, “The Effect of Allowance Allocations on Cap-and-Trade System Performance,” Hahn and I took as our starting point a well-known result from Coase’s work, namely, that bilateral negotiation between the generator and the recipient of an externality will lead to the same efficient outcome regardless of the initial assignment of property rights, in the absence of transaction costs, income effects, and third party impacts. This result, or a variation of it, has come to be known as the Coase Theorem.

We focused on an idea that is closely related to the Coase theorem, namely, that the market equilibrium in a cap-and-trade system will be cost-effective and independent of the initial allocation of tradable rights (typically referred to as permits or allowances). That is, the overall cost of achieving a given emission reduction will be minimized, and the final allocation of permits will be independent of the initial allocation, under certain conditions (conditional upon the permits being allocated freely, i.e., not auctioned). We call this the independence property. It is closely related to a core principle of general equilibrium theory (Arrow and Debreu 1954), namely, that when markets are complete, outcomes remain efficient even after lump-sum transfers among agents.

The Practical Political Importance of the Independence Property

We were interested in the independence property because of its great political importance.  The reason why this property is of such great relevance to the practical development of public policy is that it allows equity and efficiency concerns to be separated. In particular, a government can set an overall cap of pollutant emissions (a pollution reduction goal) and leave it up to a legislature to construct a constituency in support of the program by allocating shares of the allowances to various interests, such as sectors and geographic regions, without affecting either the environmental performance of the system or its aggregate social costs.  Indeed, this property is a key reason why cap-and-trade systems have been employed and have evolved as the preferred instrument in a variety of environmental policy settings.

In Theory, Does the Property Always Hold?

Because of the importance of this property, we examined the conditions under which it is more or less likely to hold — both in theory and in practice.  In short, we found that in theory, a number of factors can lead to the independence property being violated. These are particular types of transaction costs in cap-and-trade markets; significant market power in the allowance market; uncertainty regarding the future price of allowances; conditional allowance allocations, such as output-based updating-allocation mechanisms; non-cost-minimizing behavior by firms; and specific kinds of regulatory treatment of participants in a cap-and-trade market.

In Reality, Has the Property Held?

Of course, the fact that these factors can lead to the violation of the independence property does not mean that in practice they do so in quantitatively significant ways.  Therefore, Hahn and I also carried out an empirical assessment of the independence property in past and current cap-and-trade systems: lead trading; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under the Montreal Protocol; the sulfur dioxide (SO2) allowance trading program; the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM) in Southern California; eastern nitrogen oxides (NOX) markets; the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS); and Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol.

I encourage you to read our article, but, a quick summary of our assessment is that we found modest support for the independence property in the seven cases we examined (but also recognized that it would surely be useful to have more empirical research in this realm).

Politicians Have Had it Right

That the independence property appears to be broadly validated provides support for the efficacy of past political judgments regarding constituency building through legislatures’ allowance allocations in cap-and-trade systems. Governments have repeatedly set the overall emissions cap and then left it up to the political process to allocate the available number of allowances among sources to build support for an initiative without reducing the system’s environmental performance or driving up its cost.

This success with environmental cap-and-trade systems should be contrasted with many other public policy proposals for which the normal course of events is that the political bargaining that is necessary to develop support reduces the effectiveness of the policy or drives up its overall cost.  So, the independence property of well-designed and implemented cap-and-trade systems is hardly something to be taken for granted.  It is of real political importance and remarkable social value.

Reflecting on a Century of Progress and Problems

As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, the problem of the commons is more important to our lives – and more central to economics – than a century ago when the first issue of the American Economic Review appeared, with an examination by Professor Katharine Coman of Wellesley College of “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation” (1911).  Since that time, 100 years of remarkable economic progress have accompanied 100 years of increasingly challenging problems.

As the U.S. and other economies have grown, the carrying-capacity of the planet – in regard to natural resources and environmental quality – has become a greater concern, particularly for common-property and open-access resources.  In an article that appears in the 100th anniversary issue of the American Economic Review (AER) “The Problem of the Commons:  Still Unsettled After 100 Years” – I focus on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.

100 Years of Economic Progress and More Challenging Environmental Problems

Within the realm of natural resources, there are special challenges associated with renewable resources, which are frequently characterized by open-access.  An important example is the degradation of open-access fisheries.  Critical commons problems are also associated with environmental quality, including the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century – global climate change.

Small communities frequently provide modes of oversight and methods for policing their citizens, a topic about which Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University has written extensively.  But as the scale of society has grown, commons problems have spread across communities and even  across nations.  In some of these cases, no over-arching authority can offer complete control, rendering commons problems more severe.

Although the type of water allocation problems of concern to Coman have frequently been addressed by common-property regimes of collective management, less easily governed problems of open-access are associated with growing concerns about air and water quality, hazardous waste, species extinction, maintenance of stratospheric ozone, and – most recently – the stability of the global climate in the face of the steady accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Whereas common property resources are held as private property by some group, open-access resources are non-excludable.  My article in the AER focuses exclusively on the latter, and thereby reflects on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.  It identifies both the contributions made by economic analysis and the challenges facing public policy.

The article begins with natural resources, highlighting the difference between most non-renewable natural resources, pure private goods that are both excludable and rival in consumption, and renewable natural resources, many of which are non-excludable.

Some of these are rival in consumption but characterized by open-access.  An example is the degradation of ocean fisheries. An economic perspective on these resources helps identify the problems they present for management, and provides guidance for sensible solutions.

The article then turns to a major set of commons problems that were not addressed until the last three decades of the twentieth century – environmental quality.  Although frequently characterized as textbook examples of externalities, these problems can also be viewed as a particular category of commons problems:  pure public goods, that are both non-excludable and non-rival in consumption.

A key contribution of economics has been the development of market-based approaches to environmental protection, including emission taxes and tradable rights.  These have potential to address the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century, global climate change.

Themes That Emerge

First, economic theory – by focusing on market failures linked with incomplete systems of property rights – has made major contributions to our understanding of commons problems and the development of prudent public policies.

Second, as our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated, enabling policy makers to address problems that are characterized by uncertainty, spatial and temporal heterogeneity, and long duration.

Third, government policies that have not accounted for economic responses have been excessively costly, often ineffective, and sometimes counter-productive.

Fourth, commons problems have not diminished.  While some have been addressed successfully, others have emerged that are more important and more difficult.

Fifth, environmental economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.

Conclusions

Although I hope you will read the full article – which is very accessible — I will summarize its conclusions here.

Problems of the commons are both more widespread and more important today than when Coman wrote about unsettled problems in the first issue of the American Economic Review 100 years ago.  A century of economic growth and globalization have brought unparalleled improvements in societal well-being, but also unprecedented challenges to the carrying-capacity of the planet.  What would have been in 1911 inconceivable increases in income and population have come about and have greatly heightened pressures on the commons, particularly where there has been open access to it.

The stocks of a variety of renewable natural resources – including water, forests, fisheries, and numerous other species of plant and animal – have been depleted below socially efficient levels, principally because of poorly-defined property-right regimes.  Likewise, the same market failures of open-access – whether characterized as externalities, following A. C. Pigou (1920), or public goods, following Ronald Coase (1960) – have led to the degradation of air and water quality, inappropriate disposal of hazardous waste, depletion of stratospheric ozone, and the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases linked with global climate change.

Over this same century, economics – as a discipline – has gradually come to focus more and more attention on these commons problems, first with regard to natural resources, and more recently with regard to environmental quality.  Economic research within academia and think tanks has improved our understanding of the causes and consequences of excessive resource depletion and inefficient environmental degradation, and thereby has helped identify sensible policy solutions.

Conventional regulatory policies, which have not accounted for economic responses, have been excessively costly, ineffective, or even counter-productive.  The problems behind what Garrett Hardin (1968) characterized as the “tragedy of the commons” might better be described as the “failure of commons regulation.”  As our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated.

Problems of the commons have not diminished, and the lag between understanding and action can be long.  While some commons problems have been addressed successfully, others continue to emerge.  Some – such as the threat of global climate change – are both more important and more difficult than problems of the past.

Fortunately, economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.  As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, natural resource and environmental economics has emerged as a productive field of our discipline and one that shows even greater promise for the future..