This is a personal post. Not exactly what I had for breakfast type of post but close.
I clearly remember the moment when a light went off in my head. Brian Wright was teaching and we were talking about EV and CV. Equivalent variation and compensating variation, and the related concepts of “willingness to pay” and “willingness to accept.” As I had come to economics rather late in life, I had had the opportunity to figure out some of the basic concepts in my head. But I did not have the vocabulary to fully express the ideas. So when I got the vocabulary, it was an “aha” moment.
I remember Brian posing the question: so PG&E (the local gas and electricity utility company) is going to string up high-tension cables above your backyard. You know that that increases health risks. In economics terms, negative externalities accompany this action. That raises two questions.
- How much are you willing to pay to stop PG&E from doing so?
- And how much are you willing to accept to allow PG&E to do so?
Note that in the former case, the assumption is that PG&E have the right to string high-tension cables over your backyard and you wish to stop them; in the latter case, you have the right and can disallow PG&E from stringing wires across your backyard. It’s a matter of who owns the rights.
The willingness to pay is bounded by how deep your pockets are but the willingness to accept is open-ended. If PG&E owns the rights,then most likely you are out of luck because you will not be able to pay them enough to deter them from going ahead. If you own the rights, then you can make a pretty neat pile of cash by holding out.
Ronald Coase showed that regardless of who owns the property rights, if there are no transaction costs, then bargaining among the parties is sufficient for the discovery of the economically efficient amount of pollution.
Sometimes I wonder. I wonder if we would continue to have the kind of problems such as Nandigram if basic economics principles were better appreciated by a large percentage of the population. I think a lot of coercion and violence could be avoided. But perhaps I place too much faith in rationality.