Russ Roberts

Coase on Externalities, the Firm, and the State of Economics

EconTalk Episode with Ronald Coase
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase of the University of Chicago talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his career, the current state of economics, and the Chinese economy. Coase, born in 1910, reflects on his youth, his two great papers, "The Nature of the Firm" and "The Problem of Social Cost". At the end of conversation he discusses his new book on China, How China Became Capitalist (co-authored with Ning Wang), and the future of the Chinese and world economies.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: May 8, 2012.] Russ: Ronald Coase, born in 1910. First, I want to ask you about your youth. How did you get interested in economics, and how did you end up in the United States? Guest: Well, I was born in London. I was born to parents who went to work at 12 years old. So they had very little education. So, I had very little education, either. I was very weak in my legs, and I went to a school for physical defectives run by the local council, and we were taught very little. I remember learning how to make a basket, had to weave it. That was the sort of thing I was taught. I had very little education until I went to the secondary school. Russ: How did you get from a school for physical defectives to become a graduate student in economics? Guest: Oh, I got a scholarship from the local council to go to the secondary school, the Kilborn [?] Grammar, and I went there. And while there, I studied, got a scholarship, and--I'm trying to think just what I did. Hard to--I really didn't start studying until I got to a secondary school, where I had a scholarship. Russ: And in your career, when you were younger, which economists had the biggest influence on you? Who have you come to respect as an economist over the decades? Guest: Oh, I didn't really study much at all. I didn't study economics until I got to the London School of Economics, which I went from the secondary school. Russ: And when you were there at the London School of Economics [LSE], which economists did you learn the most from? Guest: Well, Arnold Plant was the economist who taught me sectional [?] economics, and I knew I didn't really know very much then. I just studied with him. I took a degree in commerce. I never studied economics at all. We just studied a whole range of subjects like accounting and industrial law and so on. Or a commerce degree. Not an economics degree. And we really had very little economics at all.
6:31Russ: Now, that's still can be true in graduate school. Economics has changed a lot since then. And you've been critical of what you call blackboard economics. What does that mean to you? Guest: Blackboard economics is economics which you can put on the blackboard, in which you study an imaginary system. It's not empirically based at all. It's not concerned with what really happens. It's what you imagine could happen and what you imagined didn't happen. So, I've been very critical of modern economics, which is too abstract. That's called blackboard economics. It's something you can put on the blackboard but that doesn't exist. Russ: So, what do you recommend? Guest: I recommend more empirical work. Study what actually happens and start from there. Russ: Modern empirical work in economics is very abstract, as well, though. It has a lot of statistics and aggregates. That's not what you mean by empirical work. I don't think you mean econometrics, right? Guest: Oh, no. I don't mean--the study that people do with a lot of statistics and so on, not finding out what really happens and getting conclusions based on the investigations, not on what actually happens but on bunches of statistics. My view is you should get down and study what actually happens. But economists don't do that, by and large. Russ: No, it's rare.
9:25Russ: Let's talk about the problem of social cost. There was a famous dinner that took place at Aaron Director's house at the U. of Chicago, where everybody thought you were wrong when the dinner started. Including Milton Friedman, who was--according to George Stigler--your biggest and most frequent adversary at that dinner. He talked the most, according to Stigler. But by the end of the evening, they all came over to your side. What do you remember about that dinner? Guest: Well, it was [?]. As was said, people started off thinking that I was wrong. And I couldn't see why they thought I was wrong. What I'd done was to say two and two equals four. And they had said that isn't right, it's five. It was as simple as that. I don't know why they thought I was wrong, since I didn't say it wasn't obvious. Russ: Well, at least to you. I think that they probably thought it was two plus three. So they thought two plus two equals four, but they thought you were talking about five, I think. Guest: Well, whatever it was, it was a complete misunderstanding. Russ: That must have been a lot of fun, the end of that dinner. Guest: Well, it was. But I couldn't understand why they didn't understand what I was talking about before. It was all a bit of a mystery to me. I thought I was stating the obvious and they couldn't accept it. Russ: But in one evening, they couldn't. Sometimes it takes a lifetime for people to change their minds about such things. It's pretty amazing that that group did it in only a few hours. Guest: Well, it did. It changed their views. It changed their views in a very sensible way, because they went on to talk about something called the Coase Theorem, and I never liked "the Coase Theorem." Russ: It is a common phrase. And I'll tell you why in a minute. But why don't you like it? Guest: I don't like it because it's a proposition about a system in which there were no transaction costs. It's a system which couldn't exist. And therefore it's quite unimaginable. Russ: Yeah. It's a straw man on a blackboard, would I think be the best way to describe it. For those who haven't read the paper, you should. It's accessible to anyone who understands English. That's the only language you have to understand. You don't have to understand the language of mathematics. And the idea of the paper is that you are assigning property rights in the face of an externality, in the face of harm being caused by one to another. The first part of the paper says that if--if transactions costs are zero-- Guest: Well, in a way, it's unfortunate that I did that. I only did this in order to explain my views. I thought, let's talk about a system where there were no transaction costs. But it's an imaginary system. There always are transactions costs. Russ: Well, it's like Galileo assuming there is no friction. But of course there is. So you better plan on it. And it depends on--sometimes that friction is better important, sometimes it's less important. But the idea is that if there were no transactions costs, then when you assign property rights to the two parties, because there are no transactions costs, then it's easy for the parties to reassign rights, making side payments. But I always was taught--and I was taught this by Deirdre McCloskey when I was in Econ 300 at the U. of Chicago--was that the real lesson of your paper was that because transactions costs are not zero, you should assign the property rights very carefully. And ideally you should assign them to the party--you should assign property rights so that the person who has the least cost of bearing the externality does so, because they might not be able to reassign the rights. It might be too expensive to renegotiate. So that the assignment of property rights is very important. That's what he told us the Coase theorem was. I know you don't like the phrase, but it's not so bad if at least he gets the insight right. I think the problem in the literature use the first part--if there are no transactions costs as a straw man, to say that you were wrong. Because of course, if there were transactions costs--but you knew that. It was a terrible, unfortunate turn of events in the literature. Guest: Yes. It was a discussion at cross purposes which the [?] had a completely wrong idea of what I was getting at. It took a whole evening of all these economists to get it right. But then in the end they didn't get it right, because they amended something called the Coase Theorem, which I don't like.
16:16Russ: So, part of your paper was a reaction to A. C. Pigou, who argued that, in the face of an externality--positive or negative--we need to change the price that people face. If it's a positive externality, we should subsidize it. If it's a negative externality, we should tax it. And your point is that that's not necessarily true; and that in particular, sometimes it's better to do nothing and let the people who are harmed find an alternative way to avoid the externality or pay for reducing the harm by the person whose actions are creating it. And yet, despite your paper, and despite--now it's been over 50 years; and it had a huge influence. Many people say it created the whole field of Law and Economics. It forced economists to look at transactions costs; it forced them to look at externalities in a different way. And yet the Pigou approach remains very much the standard way that people think about these things, even despite the fact that, I think, you did a very good job of calling it into question. Do you think I'm right? Guest: Oh, you are right. Why people make the mistakes they make, I can't understand. But they go on doing it. And economics doesn't progress in the way I'd like to see progress. But a few [?] is very common in all human activities. Russ: Well, it's particularly common when it's hard to experimentally test results in complex systems. So, people can persist believing lots of things that aren't necessarily true. It could be true. But they can't prove that they're true. They can't confirm their suspicions and ideas. In social science, very difficult. If you had your way--which no man does--but if you had your way, what would you like that paper to have achieved? What would you want to have happen in the real world from having written that paper? What policy implication the paper has for legislative and legal systems? Guest: I don't know that you couldn't end up with the policy unless you study how things actually happen in the real world. And that's what I'd like to see people do. Not all this abstract theorizing, all this mathematics. I'd like to see people go study how things actually work. Then you would learn something. Because by and large, that's what economists do. That's why I call it blackboard economics. It's abstract. Russ: And of course, in the policy world, politics plays a big role. It's not just a search for the truth. I think about your 1959 paper on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which had some of the ideas of the problem of social cost in it. And you talked about the advantages of assigning property rights and letting people buy and sell access to the air for broadcasting. Which eventually something like that happened. It took about 40 years. Guest: Yes. Russ: Were you surprised at that? Guest: No, not after you've studied how things actually operate. It's a surprise that it took as little time as 40 years. No, it's not possible to study how things are dealt with without realizing the importance of the stupidity of human behavior. It's awful when you think how the war needn't have happened--the First World War, which I lived through, was an absolute tragedy, with millions of men were killed for now apparent reason. And the Second World War, when Hitler started it, needn't have happened at all. It could have been stopped years before. But no one did it. And Chamberlain, if you remember, went and saw Hitler a year or two before the war started, got a peace [?], which he waved in the air. He said this is "peace in our time." And the war started only two years afterwards. Russ: Yeah, it was a bad prediction. And I can't say I remember it the way you do, but I do remember it. Speaking of that time, did you have contact with Keynes and Hayek, two great economists of that era in England? Guest: Yes. I was very friendly with Hayek. I liked him, and he liked me. But we didn't have great contact. He tended to deal with these big questions, and I'm always interested in how the actual system operates. Therefore, in much smaller matters than Hayek. Russ: And how about Keynes? Did you know Keynes? Guest: I can tell you--I was helping when Britain was trying to get a loan from the United States immediately after the war, and I was talking to one of Keynes's assistants. And Keynes came in the room and walked over to us and the man I was talking to us said, "This is Coase, who is helping us with the statistics. I don't think you know him." And Keynes said, "No, I don't." And walked off. And that's my life with Keynes. Russ: That's short. That's very funny.
24:55Russ: Let's talk about your 1937 paper, "The Nature of the Firm." You were trying to answer a question--an interesting question, remains a good question; it was a good question in 1937, it's still a good question, which is: If capitalism and markets and prices, the Hayekian system of communicating information via price signals, if it works so well, why do firms exist? Because firms are almost by definition top down rather than bottom up. They use command and control rather than purchases within the firm, although there are exceptions to that. Some firms do use price signals for their decision-making inside the firm. But many firms do not. Their decisions are made not by prices but by fiat, by decisions on the top. Now, you wrote that paper when you were very, very young, the first part of it, correct? Guest: That's right. I wrote it while I was an undergraduate. It seems obvious to me. If you go into a firm and you say to someone: Why did you do this? He'd say: Because I was told to do it. He doesn't talk about pricing at all. Almost of all the things you do within a firm are not controlled directly by prices at all. Your boss tells you what to do and you do it. Russ: How did you come to write that paper as an undergraduate. Guest: Oh, I was interested in how firms actually operate, and if you start studying how firms actually operate you find that they are not concerned with prices directly at all. A person who is working in a firm does what he's told. That's the way it operates. Russ: So, a firm is an island of socialism in a capitalist world. Guest: Oh, well, I was a socialist at that time. I had [?] some influence [?]. I didn't start with the views I now have, but I was a socialist; my parents voted for the Labour Party, and one important person that we knew was who was Ernest Bevin [?], General Secretary of the Transport and General Worker's Union, which was the largest union in Britain. So in those early days I was a socialist. And that may have had some effect in leading me to "The Nature of the Firm." Very likely. Russ: So, your insight was that firms act like socialists because it's cheaper. Guest: That's right. Russ: And it's cheaper because it's not free to use the price system. Guest: It's cheaper because the price system is a very expensive system. If you think of all the things you have to know in order to make a bargain it's obvious it's not a cheap system. And a system that avoids negotiations is one that saves a lot of costs. Russ: So, one of the things that I love about that paper is it forces you to think about these costs, which you might not notice. It forces you to notice that some systems that you think might not work so well actually might work better than you think. But it's hard to test those ideas, right? One of the implications of the paper is that when transactions costs are high, you are more likely to use command-and-control. But it's hard to measure transactions costs; it's hard to quantify the theory. Is that correct or is it irrelevant. Guest: It's very relevant. But the state of economics is such that people don't try to measure these things, to study them, and so people can engage in discussions and explanations without any real knowledge of what happens in the real world.
31:47Russ: So, in modern Industrial Organization, although your paper has had a huge impact and began a whole field within Industrial Organization focused on institutional issues, the new institutional economics, which influenced many, many other scholars, at the same time there was the blackboard part of Industrial Organization, which is Game Theory, and other aspects of Industrial Organization. But Game Theory became the predominant way that people thought about the behavior of the firm. Where Game Theory is focused on strategic interactions between players with significant market power. What was your reaction to that literature and its influence on the study of the firm? Guest: I think the influence was wholly bad, because people developed high theoretical approaches instead of approaches based on what actually happens. And it's only recently really that people have begun to study what really happens as against engaging in what I call blackboard economics. Russ: Do you think we understand--when I look back at the last 70 years of thinking about the firm, I'm not sure we've made much progress. It's true that people do occasionally spend some time at looking at what actually goes on. There's one view that says the people who figure that out keep it to themselves, because it's profitable. But other people than yourself, people like Harold Demsetz, have decried the state of modern theories of the firm. The defenders of Game Theory certainly have remained enthusiastic about it, despite your critique. And it is still a dominant approach, I think, for business students. I think many business students still are taught a great deal of Game Theory. The question is: What would you want them to learn instead? It's one thing to say: Economists should learn more about firms. But have we learned anything in the last 70 years that would be useful to a future executive or manager? Or student of economics? Guest: I don't think so. I think the treatment by economists has by and large got worse, if that's possible. I think the time has come when we should study what actually happens, study firms and how they operate and learn from that. That one thing is going to happen. In that narrow sense, I'm optimistic. Russ: But you could argue that that approach of studying what actually happens at firms, that that's the essence of, say, the Harvard MBA, which is a case study approach, where you look at particular examples of what firms did in different situations. Sometimes it's an issue of strategy or marketing. And rather than make a grand, general theory, you go on a case-by-case basis. The problem with that is that every case is a little bit different, so it's hard to generalize, hard to have a body of knowledge. Maybe all you end up with is a body of cases. Guest: Well, we shouldn't give up an approach because it's hard. Life is hard. We shouldn't be looking for easy ways to do things but for ways to solve the problem. Russ: I agree with that.
36:37Russ: Let me ask you a little bit about politics. Your paper on the "Problem of Social Cost" and your paper on the lighthouse, "The Lighthouse in Economics," which was published in 1974, which we have yet to talk about. It's a wonderful paper, one of my favorite papers. I remember in graduate school coming across it and being so excited about it. These papers have been used by people who are laissez faire, or free-market oriented, to suggest the obvious case for government intervention in the case of externalities or government intervention with a tax, or in the case of the lighthouse, with public provision of a public good. But that case is not so obvious. What is your feeling about the political implications of those papers? Guest: I'm just a person who thinks that the government should give up everything. How much the government should give up will be found by studying how the government operates. But the assumption that governments always do the right thing is not true. They make lots of errors, and where they are most likely to make errors can be found by studying how governments operate. My approach to the subject of what governments should do is to be based on studies of how governments actually operate. And I've had a lot of experience. I worked for the British government for many years, and I saw how decisions are made. And stupidity is very common. Russ: Well that's why competition and trial-and-error are often a better solution than one size fits all. Guest: In some areas. I wouldn't say that's true in all areas. If you study military and the conduct of war and so on, you find the errors are enormous. I don't know whether you are familiar with what happened leading up to the war [WWII], but it was absolute stupidity. Hitler could have been stopped early on, but no one did it. And the result was a horrible war, the [?] which we still experience today. Russ: No doubt. But we were talking about understanding what government actually does, and you emphasized that it's important to study government. You were at the U. of Virginia when James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock and others were pioneering what came to be called Public Choice. What was it like there and what do you think of that work? Guest: Well, I was there at the time when Buchanan was trying to build up a department, and I went there from Buffalo to be part of that. What we didn't realize was that the Dean at Virginia thought we were all a lot of right-wing extremists, and he opposed everything we were trying to do. And finally succeeded in preventing Buchanan from what he wanted to do, which was to build up a department. And Buchanan left, Tullock left, I left. Warren Nutter didn't leave because when he got an offer of a job at, I think, UCLA, the Vice-Chancellor vetoed it. The reason was that Warren Nutter, who was making estimates of the Russian production ended up with a figure no where near the official figure of the British government. This was thought to be due to his bias. We now know the one that whose own figures were too high. Russ: As if the British government didn't have a bias, either. Going back to Buchanan and Tullock and Nutter--what did you think of their work? And what do you think of it now? Is it the kind of economics you like or not like? Guest: Well, by and large it goes along lines that are not mine, and so I admired them; I didn't necessarily agree with them. I just got on with my own work. Russ: Yeah, you've always listened to your own drummer. Thank God. It's a different drummer, and it's made economics a much more interesting field because of that.
44:43Russ: Let's turn to your latest work, which is on China. How did you get interested in China? Guest: Well, I've been interested in China very superficially for a long time. I was very impressed by reading Marco Polo; and this was China in the 13th century. And it was a country in many ways ahead of what was going on in Europe or in Britain. And I thought it was a country that had great potential. And I still do. Russ: So, your new book is titled How China Became Capitalist, and is co-authored with Ning Wang: How capitalist is China? Guest: Well, it is very capitalist, but it is not capitalism as we know it. It's capitalism with Chinese characteristics; and this you would expect. But the country is being transformed and it's not being transformed as people in Europe commonly think as a result of the Chinese government's operations, but as the result of what we call the Marginal Revolution--change is taking place despite the Chinese government. There are these village enterprises. Unemployed people who start businesses. It's all going forward in China without the control of the Chinese government. The Chinese government commonly doesn't know what's going on. Russ: But there's still a large government role in the economy, and they steer a lot of resources. As I understand it, the government has done a lot of the building, much of it infrastructure, probably not going to be useful, not productive. You are emphasizing the importance of the things they don't know about; but they do know about some things, and they are very active. Correct? Guest: The government is doing a lot of things, most of them being failures. It's an economy which is under the Chinese Communist Party, but the Chinese Communist Party commonly doesn't know what's going on. Russ: How do you think that happened? There was a point where they had a much tighter control over things. Why did things loosen up to allow things to happen that they didn't know about, and why did those things become so much more important? Guest: Well, I think China is a very big country, and it's very difficult to control. It's very difficult to know what's going on. And so things can happen. There's a Chinese saying, and I don't know that I have it completely correct: The mountain is high and the emperor is far away. Russ: That's a nice expression, even if you have it wrong. It's a very Hayekian expression. It's about the knowledge problem, right? There's local knowledge that only the people in the vicinity have. I would add: The mountain is high, the emperor is far away, and sometimes he has no clothes. Guest: Yes, well. Russ: Do you think Chinese prosperity is--we talked earlier about Warren Nutter's estimates of Russian production and that they were much lower than the official estimates and ended up being lower than what we found out to be actually the case. I wonder if anybody actually has any idea of what's actually going on in China, especially when so much of what is measured is probably government activity that I'm not sure they are measuring it correctly. I'm not sure you can measure it correctly. I'm not sure. The standard of living there has improved--there's no doubt about that. How much, I think is hard to say. Do you think it will persist? Guest: Well, Fogel [?] has made his estimates, which are very great on the future; and I think he's probably right. Whether the growth in China as he has estimated, we don't know. But it could be. It could be higher, because there is a large possibility for further growth in China. The output per capita, the productivity of what is in China, is now very low. Output is great because their population is great. Russ: Right. People, I think on many fronts, misunderstand the impact of China's success and its significance. I believe it's a good thing for the world, and a good thing for the Chinese people, because the Chinese people are part of the world, so I'm happy to see them doing better. But a lot of people think it's bad for the United States, and I don't agree with that. Do you? Guest: No, I don't. Our productivity per head is far greater than that in China. And likely to continue. Russ: What do you think is the state of property rights in China, these days, as someone who has spent much of his life thinking about the importance of property rights and the assignment of property rights and the costs of reassigning property rights. How is China doing on that front? Guest: Very badly. China has a long way to go to catch up with the West in terms of productivity, in terms of the institutions required to make a really good economic system. And that's why I think we are going to see further growth in China. It's got a long way to go. Russ: And of course we don't know if their political system will create the right incentives for that growth. Guest: All it gives are bad incentives. But [?] happens largely outside the government control. The [?] farming, for example, agriculture, has developed opposed by the government or even illegal by the government, but it's gone ahead because the government cannot control everything; and the same is true in many other areas. So, you have an extraordinary situation where under the Chinese Communist Party, you have had a growth of markets and private ownership and so on. Russ: In those private settings, are there contracts? Informal contracts? Are they using the legal system but in the wrong way? Guest: It's a very undeveloped legal system. And things have happened without a proper legal system. That's why it's now being developed; why we can expect the growth in China is going to continue. It's because there is a long way to go. And it's not very innovative. They produce large parts of their stuff on the basis of orders from abroad. What is produced is not determined in China but is determined in Europe and the Americas. Russ: And right now they are the workshop of the world. Whether they will be something different in 25 years, I guess remains to be seen. Guest: That's right. They do things that other people describe and want done. But that won't continue. And as China becomes more innovative, their production will become more valuable and more significant. We know very few Chinese--I'm trying to think what the word is--trademarks. Russ: Patents. Guest: It's all developed in America and Europe. And then the Chinese do the things to order. Russ: That will change. Guest: And these changes in Chinese production will go up and become more valuable. And it's got a long way to go. And it's a big country. A quarter of the world's population.
58:20Russ: One last question. You've mentioned a few times that there is a lot of stupidity in the world. And having been born in 1910, you've been blessed and unfortunate enough to see a great deal of it. World wars, genocide, bad economics. But there have been lots of good things. And overall since 1910, the world has gotten remarkably more pleasant, if you survived those things. Of course it depends where you were born and where you grow up. But it makes you wonder. I'd like to hear your thoughts on the future, whether you are an optimist or a pessimist about the human enterprise. Guest: Well, I'm an optimist. The opportunities are so great. And I think we will take advantage of them, very slowly of course, and [?] will come further mistakes, but I'm optimistic about the future. And I hope I'm right. Russ: So do I. It's been a great honor to have you on the program and I really appreciate your taking the time to be with us today.

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COMMENTS (27 to date)
Greg G writes:

Wow. It is remarkable how sharp he is at his age. And remarkable how sharp he was at all his previous ages. He is a fiercely independent thinker. Nice job getting the most out of him in the interview Russ and nice job of providing the necessary background for those of us not that familiar with this material. Thanks for that.

Benny Bai writes:

Thanks Russ for this interview. Really looking forward to reading his latest book on China.

Greg A writes:

Terrific podcast. Really enjoyed hearing Ronald Coase at age 101. To be engaged in the profession at that age is remarkable.

peter1957 writes:

"The mountain is high and the emperor is far away". The Chinese expression is "Shangao huang di yuan". Interestingly, this common Chinese saying is used to describe local governments and sometimes even employers who hand down orders from afar. It is not used as often to describe the central government. But the point seems to be all the same: problems are better solved among parties who are impacted directly from certain events, rather than by external authorities. This is my nutshell interpretation of Prof. Coase's idea. Then again, I'm going by the definition of the "Coase Theorem", which Prof. Coase himself had flouted a few times during the course of the interview.

MH writes:

Thanks Russ -- Even for the most fortunately situated, in this age of increasingly ubiquitous a/v event recording and redistribution, it seems like opportunities to hear highly influential (and widely misinterpreted) thinkers respond candidly to good, clarifying questions are still quite rare. This podcast was a real treat.

One theme that I would have loved to hear more on was the implications of both "organic" and "strategic" impediments to the possibility of ultimately understanding firm-level (or any large, strategically-minded firm's) behavior -- or even, per Coase' suggestion, the very possibility of even "empirically investigating what actually goes on" within firms -- esp. under the sort of conditions (e.g., active countermeasures to reduce the chances of any unfavorable discoveries, binding commitments and/or industry "blackballing" practices that assure that no unwelcome finding ever sees the light of day, et al.) that are SOP in today's economy. Perhaps I misinterpreted his hypothetical "Guns of August" example, but it seems to me that the only way that Coase's insights might have helped to prevent the unintentional outbreak of WWI would have been *if* the relevant decision makers -- i.e., those who clearly failed to "empirically investigate and/or understand what was actually going on" within the institutional confines of their adversaries -- had actually possessed to capacity the "look past" and "see through" all of the the various feints, diversions, strategic obfuscations, and closely guarded secrets that the soon-to-be-belligerents intentionally maintained explicitly for the purpose of rendering "what was actually going on" completely opaque to outsiders. As someone who witnessed that same kind of behavior among private sector decision makers precipitate an international economic catastrophe of (roughly) similar magnitude, I would suggest that this as-yet unanswered question continues to have profound and far-reaching implications for the applicability of Coase' methodology to the study of present-day economic institutions, including firms. In fact, if there is any one reason that explains why, as you noted, the "study of the firm has not made much progress in the last 70+ years," IMO this is it. If no progress has been made in understanding firms, it's primarily because "being clearly understood" by third parties in any way that might be inconsistent in any way with its "official image" or "brand" is absolutely antithetical to (every) firm's private interests.

I wonder: does Coase -- or do you -- have any advice about how someone with a sincere interest and willingness to undertake time-consuming empirical research might actually go about discovering "what is actually going on" within present-day firms in an environment when 99% of the time 99% of the world's firms are unwilling to let any outsider learn any more than what the insiders have strategically chosen to present via various voluntary (but possibly deceptive) and/or statutory (but possibly deceptive) public disclosures?

Regards,

MH

P.S. In China, the phrase "the mountain is high and the emperor is far away" (i.e., 天高帝遠) is commonly understood to refer to the tendency for actual state capacity to impose "order" (in both senses, including protecting citizens from criminal predation) to decay rapidly as distance from Beijing increases. This may be slightly different from the interpretation that you suggested online...

Schepp writes:

Thank you Dr. Coase.

Ralph writes:

I always think of socialism as the ultimate monopoly: the government has almost absolute market power with both horizontal and vertical monopoly. East Germany organized its different sectors as vertical monopolies to ensure supplies to meet the goals of the central planning authority. That vertical organization, and access to West German hard currency, made it the most successful of the Soviet satellite states. In 1989, the Economist said East Germany was the least likely to reform given its economic success: I read that article in 1989 as I rode a train to Berlin to see the Wall come down.

Sometimes 'what's actually going on' is bigger than economics.

In the real world, even if the emperor is near there are still the Seven Chinese Brothers demonstrating the creativity and talent to work around his commands.

I agree with you Russ, that each individual firm would have a different internal politics. Game theory may be able to model them individually, but first there has to be a determination of just who the players are. It would be even more variable within smaller firms where personal relationships are more important than position titles.

Great podcast Russ.
Thanks,
Ralph

Robert R. writes:

Russ, very well done interview. Ronald Coase is a brilliant scholar, a truth teller and also charming and a gentleman. One can easily imagine how he may have responded to the critiques he received at Aaron Director's dinner, by thoroughly and patiently explaining to the bevy of doubting, high-powered and highly confident (arrogant?) Chicago economists that his analysis was in fact correct. What a memorable and frequently discussed event that must have been for all fortunate enough to have participated.

Thanks and regards,
Robert R.

Richard Sprague writes:

I liked the section on China.

Btw, I couldn't quite hear, but I think he said "Vogel has made his estimates", meaning the Harvard Social Sciences professor Ezra Vogel who recently published a book on Deng Xiaoping.

Todd Chambery writes:

Lovely-- loved it. Thanks.

philemonloy writes:

It's supposed to be "Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away" (天高皇帝遠), not "Mountain is high...". There's even a wikitionary entry on this.

John writes:

What a privilege and pleasure to hear Ronald Coase interviewed! Great job, gentlemen.

Many thanks to Professor Roberts for explaining that "the real lesson of your paper was that because transactions costs are not zero, you should assign the property rights very carefully." When I'd read "On the Problem of Social Costs" as a class assignment in law school 20 years ago, the professor taught us that the lesson to be drawn from the article was that it didn't matter to whom the law assigned a right because rights will always be purchased by the persons who value them most. Just another example of how many years it's taken me to un-learn so much of the nonsense I was taught in school.

Regards,

John

Raja writes:

"What actually happens" ... funny how many economists would be quick to reject the all-knowing central planner yet are still tied to the idea of the all-knowing central economist. Because observing "what happened" requires complete knowledge, which is impossible. Seems this basic tenet has been systematically purged from the field. Would love to hear from a solid anti-empiricist some time but I imagine they have all moved on to something else.

Rodrigo writes:

Russ,

Great job! Thinking hard and deep about important questions may take a long time to payoff, but it generaly does as shown by Coase works.

What about a interview with Armen Alchian, another giant in the field? That would be a real pleasure as well.

Thanks again for such a nice interview as usual!

One of your brazilian fans,
Rodrigo


GZ Sun writes:

Thanks, Russ! A great job well done.

To Richard: Fortunate enough to have attended some seminar/conference talks by Professors Coase, Vogel and R Fogel on China in the past two years or so, I tend to believe that Coase refers to Fogel of Chicago, not Vogel of Harvard, when speculating on the future of China.

GZ

Bradley Calder writes:

He is one of the most well known economists in China. His collected works are in the Shenzhen Public library.

Jim Feehely writes:

Hi Russ,

Congratulations on this interview with a great economist (and in my view the class is very small indeed) and thinker. Still remarkably lucid at 101+.

A little while back I enjoyed reading his book 'The Firm, The Market and The Law'. I read it to seek an understanding of the basis of New Institutional Economics. Not sure it illuminated that purpose, but I was impressed with the behavioural analysis at the basis of his thinking; i.e. that civilised humans are naturally inclined to cooperation, even though competition is innate in humans as a survival mechanism. But society, particularly commercial society, emphasises only competition to the exclusion of cooperation and collaboration in opposition to the very thing that lies at the root of civilisation.

The real shame is that conventional neo-classical market economics continues to ignore Ronald Coase's insights because he has stated very inconvenient truths about what he calls 'blackboard economics'. For example, the revelation that transaction costs are far from zero challenges the fundamental hegemony of the efficient market hypothesis on which all debt and equities markets are based. But have we done anything about that fundamental error that Coase has pointed out? Not a thing. That is alarming given that Coase has not been effectively rebutted to my knowledge. But I am happy to be directed to any cogent rebuttal.

That there are transaction costs in all dealings also means, in my view, the whole theroetical edifice of economic efficiency is also wrong. But economics plows on reducing everything to 'price' so that its theoretical efficiency can be measured. It ignores transaction costs simply because they are difficult to measure and do not reveal themselves through price signals.

If Coase is right, then the whole system of price signalling under the efficient market hypothesis is plain wrong. And I think he is right. That he is right is demonstrated, for example, by the lunacy of the Alberta tar sands industry. The players there will cheerfully admit that up to 5 times (it may be actually more) the energy stored in the product is expended in extracting the product. And how is this justified? - the price of oil!

I also respectfully take issue with the point made above by Ralph, a point often made by your correspondents. It reveals the general ignorance of what socialism is. Indeed, the point, in reflection, reveals a misunderstanding of what capitalism is. East Germany was never socialist, or indeed communist. Neither was the whole Soviet Union. Those economies were simply state directed capitalism. China has always been capitalist and continues to be, albeit operating under state direction. It was very refreshing to hear Ronald Coase agree with me on that point. Now I know there are at least 2 of us. Hardly a movement yet, but I remain hopeful.

But if the West continues to misunderstand China as communist, it will never be able to properly engage with the world power of the 21st century. What spooks the capitalist cheer squad in the West so much about China is that it is at once the biggest sovereign nation on earth and essentially the biggest corporation on earth. And China approaches capitalism on its own terms - no religious belief in any magic in free markets, whilst understanding the fundamentals of exchange when it comes to dealing with the outside world, a millennium old Chinese cultural understanding.

For those who use 'socialism' as a analogue for state control, please actually inquire into what socialism seeks to be; i.e. the social ownership of the means of production (a very short definition to be sure). But social ownership of the means of production does not have to be achieved through central government. Central government control is essentially a product of the nation state, not the philosophy of socialism. Accordingly, there has never been a genuine socialism experiment, save for some radical small communities around the world over the past century or so. But there has never been a free market either, a point with which the very durable Ronald Coase also agrees.

I did note that he referred to himself as having been socialist; i.e. past tense. Even the mighty weaken in the face of the fundamental contradictions of corporate capitalism.

Once again Russ, thank you for securing Ronald Coase - a real treat. Now for Chomsky before we lose him,

Cheers,
Jim Feehely.

I think GZ Sun is correct about the difficult-to-hear name. It has to be Fogel.

In context, Coase says

Well, [?] has made his estimates, which are very great on the future...
Not only does the questionable spot sound more like "Fogel" than "Vogel," but also Robert Fogel has been doing work on estimating China's future, with sizeable predictions on their economic growth. See Fogel's 2010 article in Foreign Policy on "Why China's Economy Will Grow to $123 Trillion by 2040": http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/01/04/123000000000000.

I've changed the Highlights but left in the question mark. Thanks, all, for helping with this. I suppose we could get a definitive answer by asking the sound engineer to compare the sounds of "f" and "v" when Coase is speaking, but that wouldn't be nearly as much fun!

Seth writes:

Great podcast.

Coase's new rules:
1) Stupidity matters.
2) Look at what actually happens.
3) Often when you think you are looking at what actually happens, you are really looking at a make believe world.

T Kreider writes:

I think Coase underestimates China. True, they have a "long way to go" but look at where they have come from. Their GDP per capita when they opened in 1978 was in 2005 dollars,

Year..China .........US
--------------------------
1978  $1,000 $25,000 4% US standard of living
1989 $1,800 $32,000 6% US standard of living
1999 $3,000 $38,000 8%
2009 $7,500 $41,000 18%

Now plug in 9% growth for China and 2% growth (per capita) out to 2019 and 2029...

2019 $18,000 $50,000 36%
2029 $40,000 $60,000 66% US stand. of living

This assumes the US GDP will not grow faster than 2%, and it likely will, but the larger point is that there is every reason to think that China is on a convergence path with the US that will happen far faster than almost anyone is projecting.

I predicted in 2001 that China will start democratizing between 2008 to 2015. I'm sticking with it. That may be off, but the Spring Revolution shows how powerful emerging internet/social network technology can be.

And Beijing along with Shanghai now have GDP per capitas at about $20,000, just half that of the US, and where the political elite and influencial live.



Jeff Boyd writes:

Delightful interview but kind of depressing to think that Dr. Coase is doing more at age 101 than I am at 50.

Would like to hear more about how Dr. Coase's life and how his views have changed. He was a socialist at one point in time? What changed his views and when?

Brad Hutchings writes:

Just amazing. What an wonderful tour of his career and the ideas he invented and encountered! Great story about Keynes. He really connected with me with his focus on studying "what is there". I constantly feel like I'm the guy who has to expend all my energy to convince people to just consider "what is there, what is now".

The China observation will prompt me to step my heretic game way up! I am inspired. "The mountain is high and the emperor is far away." Ah, h*&^ yeah!

BTW, if you're listening to the first few minutes and wondering if you can sit through an hour, make the effort. Payoff is quick. Russ does a wonderful job of helping him open up.

MH writes:

re: philemonloy @ May 23, 2012 3:05 AM:

记错了! 應該寫的 "山高皇帝遠"...
http://www.dartmouth.edu/~chinese/Texts/Proverbs/14gb.html

I guess both of us should take more care before misinforming the internets ;-)

re: Raja @ May 23, 2012 4:55 PM:

You don't have to go far to find any number of "solid anti-empiricists" -- in a real sense, anti-empiricism of one form or another is a defining feature of both the formalism-intensive academic & professional economics "mainstream" (e.g., on matters of evidence, theory validation, etc.), and its anti-formalist Austrian discontents, in their unshakeable/non-falsifiable faith in the superiority of unconstrained, atomistic "market" outcomes in all circumstances. IMO, we would be far better off if both camps were a bit more receptive to "reality checks." In fact, when I try to imagine what economics might look like if an appreciation for measurable, empirical reality and falsifiable theories were combined with a less pollyanna-ish and/or fatalistic understanding of the possibilities of decentralized, self-directed (market-based) coordination, the closest approximation that comes to my mind is Bruce Bueno de Mesquita*

*While not a "credentialed" economist, has certainly appeared on EconTalk enough times to merit "honorary" status.

Cheers,

MH

Vjim writes:

Thank you Russ: Gutsy; just wonderful !

Vjim

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Woj writes:

Coase is a fascinating economist and this was a great interview. When reading a different blog this week I came across a quote from Frank Knight that concluded with the following:
"This means that under the conditions of ideal equilibrium (stationary or moving) the function of entrepreneurship itself is entirely absent from the economy.”
Immediately I thought about Coase's paper on "The Nature of the Firm" and how firms shouldn't exist based on traditional economic theory of the time. It's unfortunate that seven decades after both these men shared their ideas, economics is still grappling with the same issue.
This line of thought also led me to think about Milton Friedman's essay "The Methodology of Positive Economics." It seems his view of judging economic theories may have been taken too far.
I offer some further thoughts and a link to the podcast on my blog: http://bubblesandbusts.blogspot.com/2012/06/studying-reality-new-path-for-economics.html

Russ Wood writes:

Thank you for the great podcast with Prof. Coase. The anecdotes about the dinner debate with Milton Friedman and Coase's "meeting" Keynes, by themselves, were worth the time.

I've long admired how you manage to be respectful, even when disagreeing with your guests' views. In this podcast, you showed a gentleness that was both appropriate and charming. Well done.

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