Saturday, 18 May 2019

Coase and Plant on the market versus the firm

In a 1937 paper, "Centralise or decentralise" Arnold Plant writes,
"[...] centralisation is the means by which the collaborating enterprises secure the advantage of specialised services or equipment which would not otherwise be available to them on such favourable terms, if at all. If the service or merchandise in question is freely bought and sold on any scale in a well-organised market, there will be no need for centralisation of firms. It is the absence of a well-organised market which may justify firms in pooling their requirements".
He sees a clear trade-off between market provision and in-house production. When markets are available and relatively cheap their use makes sense. But when they are expensive, or unavailable, production in a firm makes sense. Today we would express this by saying when transaction costs are high we use the firm but when they are low we use the market.

Plant's line of argument has a somewhat modern, Coaseian, feel to it. The question this gives rise to is, For how long had Plant been thinking in this way? And did he discuss this line of reasoning in classes that Coase took? Or does the causation run in the opposite direction? Plant's paper was published in 1937 and we know that Coase's analysis of the firm was largely complete by 1932. Did Coase discuss his approach with his former teacher? Or did the two of them reach similar conclusions independently?

I'm not sure we know enough to answer these questions, but it does raise an interesting possibility about the development of Coase's ideas on the firm.

  • Plant, Arnold (1974). 'Centralise or decentralise?'. In Arnold Plant, "Selected Economic Essays and Addresses (174-98), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. First published in Arnold Plant (ed.), "Some Modern Business Problems: A Series of Studies", London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1937.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The 2018 trade war

Has the trade war with China been good for American businesses and consumers? The first results are in, and David Weinstein tells Tim Phillips who the winners and losers are.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Latest Blogwatch column

My Blogwatch column from the latest issue (Issue 63, December 2018) of the NZAE magazine Asymmetric Information

Being neoclassical before it was cool to be neoclassical: the case of the theory of the firm

This paper looks at the contribution made by pre-1870 writers in economics (proto-neoclassicals) to what would later become known as the neoclassical theory of the firm. In particular we briefly consider the work of Dionysius Lardner, Johann von Thunen, John Stuart Mill, Charles Ellet, Jr. and Antoine Augustin Cournot. This paper shows that the proto-neoclassical "theory of the firm" gave rise to the neoclassical theory of markets.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

The division of labour and the mainstream theory of the firm

This paper looks at the influence (or lack of influence) that ideas to do with the division of labour have had on the mainstream economic theory of the firm. The notion of the division of labour goes back at least to the ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese but it took two thousand years before the division of labour was used to create a theory of the firm. It was only in the 20th century that such a theory started to be developed.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Dave Rubin interviews Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen (Economics professor, George Mason U.) joins Dave to discuss his new book “Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals” covering topics like government regulation, why he identifies as a “small L” libertarian, and economic ideas like Universal Basic Income, climate change, the cryptocurrency revolution, his sensible plan for immigration etc.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The effects of the Australian National Firearms Agreement

There has been, not too surprisingly, much discussion of the government's idea of a compulsory 'gun buyback' scheme, see for example, Peter Cresswell at the Not PC blog. This legislation the Deputy PM says will cost somewhere around $300 million. An obvious question is what will this money buy us?

One way to see the likely outcomes is to look at the effects of the Australian National Firearms Agreement (NFA) introduced after the mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996. Some studies suggest the effects of the NFA may not have been large. Lee and Suardi (2008), for example, state that
"The 1996-97 National Firearms Agreement (NFA) in Australia introduced strict gun laws, primarily as a reaction to the mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996, where 35 people were killed. Despite the fact that several researchers using the same data have examined the impact of the NFA on firearm deaths, a consensus does not appear to have been reached. In this paper, we re-analyze the same data on firearm deaths used in previous research, using tests for unknown structural breaks as a means to identifying impacts of the NFA. The results of these tests suggest that the NFA did not have any large effects on reducing firearm homicide or suicide rates."
But there is some evidence that the Australian reforms, as a whole, reduced suicide and homicide rates. Leigh and Neill (2010) say
"In 1997, Australia implemented a gun buyback program that reduced the stock of firearms by around one-fifth. Using differences across states in the number of firearms withdrawn, we test whether the reduction in firearms availability affected firearm homicide and suicide rates. We find that the buyback led to a drop in the firearm suicide rates of almost 80 per cent, with no statistically significant effect on non-firearm death rates. The estimated effect on firearm homicides is of similar magnitude, but is less precise. The results are robust to a variety of specification checks, and to instrumenting the state-level buyback rate".
But you have to be careful with the Australian case as the NFA had several aspects to it, only one of these aspects being a buyback scheme. Leigh and Neill (2010) also say
"Perhaps a more likely explanation of the strength of the relationship found is that the NFA led states with relatively weak legislation or enforcement relating to sale, ownership and storage of firearms to strengthen their regimes relative to states with initially stronger standards. There is evidence that states with relatively high firearm ownership and therefore high gun buyback rates also had relatively weak regulation prior to 1996. Then, our estimates need to be interpreted as reflecting a combination of both the removal of firearms and the relative strengthening of legislation and enforcement. We might expect to see smaller effects in the case of a buyback that was not accompanied by stricter firearm legislation".
Thus there was more going on in the Australian case than just a buyback, and it's difficult to know which bits of the reforms drive the results.

At the very least such results should highlight the need to very clear as to what we are talking about when discussing the likely effects of the government's proposed legislation. Are we talking about the whole package of reforms that the government wishes to introduce or are we just talking about the buyback scheme. It is possible that the whole package could have worthwhile effects, while the buyback scheme by itself would not. It is also possible that the whole package may not be worthwhile.

One reason for not rushing into any new legislation is to give time for a proper valuation of the empirical evidence to be done.

  • Lee, Wang-Sheng and Sandy Suardi (2008). "The Australian Firearms Buyback and Its Effect on Gun Deaths", Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series Working Paper No. 17/08 August.
  • Leigh, Andrew and Christine Neill (2010). "Do Gun Buybacks Save Lives? Evidence from Panel Data", IZA Discussion Paper No. 4995, June.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Price v's policy for reducing emissions

At the New Zealand Initiative, Matt Burgess makes an important point about the advantages of using price rather than policy to reduce emissions. Prices act like information signals that allocate resources to their best uses in the economy. This, as Matt points out, means that prices can do easily what policymakers find almost impossible, dealing with the trade-offs involved with choosing between different methods of reducing emissions. When should we stop investing in one particular method of emissions reduction and invest in other methods instead? Policymakers find this an almost insurmountable problem.
When governments want to reduce emissions, they have a choice between using policy or price.

Policy includes rules – for example, 100% of electricity must be generated from renewables – as well as incentive payments, such as electric vehicle subsidies.

Alternatively, governments can price carbon using cap-and-trade, or tax carbon directly.

The fact that emissions occur in millions of places in the economy strongly affects the relative performance of policy and price.

Consider the following question: At what share of renewable electricity does further investment in renewable electricity cease to be competitive with other ways of reducing emissions?

For policymakers, this is an astonishingly difficult question.

It is not just a matter of working out how the per tonne carbon abatement cost rises as the share of renewables approaches 100%. That is hard enough.

It is also about understanding the consequences for downstream users of electricity, who comprise the rest of the economy.

At a very high share of renewables, the cost of electricity will tend to increase. For downstream users, that affects emissions: If electricity costs more, they will be less willing to switch from petrol to electric vehicles, or to switch their industrial processes from coal or gas to electricity.

For policymakers, working out how the share of renewables affects overall emissions is impossibly complicated.

But for a carbon price, whether through cap-and-trade or a tax, discovery of the ‘right’ share of renewable electricity is easy.

Confronted with the relative cost of emissions-intensive coal and gas generation against green alternatives, buyers of electricity decide their willingness to pay.

For some users, green energy is attractive. For other users, coal and gas has real advantages and means a high willingness to pay.

For a problem like emissions, price enables discovery of the answer to non-obvious questions like how much coal and gas generation to retain. Price can access information that is lost to top-down policy.

Policy’s disadvantage is measurable. A survey of the literature on the performance of government emissions reduction programmes reveals governments spend perhaps $5 to avoid harm from emissions worth $1, on average.

Under cap-and-trade like an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), retaining coal and gas generation does not increase overall emissions. These high-emissions generators stay in business only by outcompeting alternative emissions sources for the right to emit.

The government recently calling the ETS its “main tool” for achieving its emissions targets is a step in the right direction.