The Coase Theorem states that under perfect property rights, perfect information, perfect contract enforcement, and negligible transaction costs, Pareto efficiency can be achieved even when there are large externalities. It was designed as an argument against Pigovian taxation, which tries to use taxes to create incentives against externalities such as pollution.
The usual argument against the Coase Theorem is that transaction costs are rarely negligible and contracts are often unenforceable, so the Pareto-efficient solution to externalities that it provides is unrealistic. (In fact, Coase himself agreed with this critique, and instead argued that regulation of externalities needs to be done on a case-by-case basis with attention to the detailed context.)
Yet this is not the real problem with the Coase Theorem. The real problem is the criterion of Pareto-efficiency: An arrangement can be Pareto-efficient without being fair, just, or even economically efficient in any real sense.
As a reminder, Pareto efficiencysimply says that no person can be made better off without making some other person worse off. It doesn’t say anything about how well off people are relative to one another—inequality—or how they got what they have—justice. It doesn’t even really entail economic efficiency: Supposing that the marginal utility of wealth is always positive, if one man claims all the wealth in the world and lends it out to everyone else at interest, that does seem to be Pareto-efficient—we can’t make anyone else better off without taking something from His Majesty the Supreme Emperor—but it clearly isn’t economically efficient in any desirable sense.
And this is what’s wrong with the Coase Theorem: The kind of Pareto efficiency it generates allows for—indeed, in many cases demands—what we would ordinarily call extortion.
What is extortion, after all?
If a member of the mafia comes to your house and says, “What a nice place you’ve got here; what a shame if anything happened to it!” and then demands you pay him $500 a month, that’s extortion. He has the power to inflict a negative externality on you, and he promises not to as long as you pay him. (Here, the contract enforcement actually comes from the reciprocity in the indefinitely iterated game, and doesn’t require an outside enforcer.)
Extortion is when one party has the power to create a negative externality upon another (e.g. burn your house down, punch you in the face). They make a deal: They won’t create that negative externality, provided that you compensate them (pay them money). Is this Pareto efficient? Absolutely! They’re as well off as they would be if they hurt you, and you’re better off. But is this how we want to run a society? I don’t think so.
In the cyberpunk future in which we now live, there is a market emerging that fits the requirements of the Coase Theorem as well as any which has ever existed; and sure enough, in the absence of adequate regulation it is turning to extortion.
I am referring of course to the market for online advertisements. Perfect property rights? Not quite, but that intellectual property enforcement is very strong. Perfect contract enforcement? Not perfect, but highly reliable, like any mature market in a First World country. Perfect information and negligible transaction costs? As close as humanity has ever come.
Note that there is a vital difference between this and, say, YouTube Premium. With YouTube Premium, you’re actually paying for the opportunity to use an ad-free version of the service. So instead of advertisers paying Google to run ads on the content you watch, you’re simply paying for the content you watch. That’s great. I have no objection to that. In fact, I strongly prefer it to the ad-supported model. Paying for content makes you the customer. Accepting ads in return for free content makes you the product.
No, I’m talking about businesses posting ads, and then offering you the chance to pay them to get rid of those ads. (Maybe a cut would go to the content provider, but that’s not really important here.) The key is that the people who make the ads get the chance to get revenue from you paying to skip them.
In Coase terms, that sounds great! Instead of me having to put you through a miserable ad that probably won’t lead you to buying anything anyway, you just pay me $0.25 or something directly. I’m better off, you’re better off, everyone’s happy.
But in fact, everyone is not happy, because here’s what I can do: I can go out of my way to make the ads as obnoxious as possible, so that you have no choice but to pay me to skip them. I’m not the first one to make this point: It’s the subject of an SMBC comic and a major plot point in a Black Mirror episode.
This is precisely the same process as extortion: Threaten a negative externality, demand compensation in return for not doing so.
I think what Coase missed in his original argument is that negative externalities aren’t always by-products of otherwise productive activities. We often—nay, usually—have the power to inflict negative externalities upon other people with no productive purpose. If externalities were always by-products, negotiation as Coase imagined it could allow us to achieve the productive benefit without the externality cost. But when externalities can be generated independently, they are a means of extracting rent from those too weak to resist you.
What’s the solution to this problem? It’s boring: We have to tax and regulate externalities after all.
I don’t think most people—or even most economists—have any concept of just how fundamentally perverse and destructive our financial system has become, and a large chunk of it ultimately boils down to one thing: Selling debt.
Certainly collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and their meta-form, CDO2s (pronounced “see-dee-oh squareds”), are nothing more than selling debt, and along with credit default swaps (CDS; they are basically insurance, but without those pesky regulations against things like fraud and conflicts of interest) they were directly responsible for the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession and Second Depression.
But selling debt continues in a more insidious way, underpinning the entire debt collection industry which raises tens of billions of dollars per year by harassment, intimidation and extortion, especially of the poor and helpless. Frankly, I think what’s most shocking is how little money they make, given the huge number of people they harass and intimidate.
John Oliver did a great segment on debt collections (with a very nice surprise at the end):
But perhaps most baffling to me is the number of people who defend the selling of debt on the grounds that it is a “free market” activity which must be protected from government “interference in personal liberty”. To show this is not a strawman, here’s the American Enterprise Institute saying exactly that.
So let me say this in no uncertain terms: Selling debt goes against everything the free market stands for.
One of the most basic principles of free markets, one of the founding precepts of capitalism laid down by no less than Adam Smith (and before him by great political philosophers like John Locke), is the freedom of contract. This is the good part of capitalism, the part that makes sense, the reason we shouldn’t tear it all down but should instead try to reform it around the edges.
Indeed, the freedom of contract is so fundamental to human liberty that laws can only be considered legitimate insofar as they do not infringe upon it without a compelling public interest. Freedom of contract is right up there with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right of due process.
The freedom of contract is the right to make agreements, including financial agreements, with anyone you please, and under conditions that you freely and rationally impose in a state of good faith and transparent discussion. Conversely, it is the right not to make agreements with those you choose not to, and to not be forced into agreements under conditions of fraud, intimidation, or impaired judgment.
Freedom of contract is the basis of my right to take on debt, provided that I am honest about my circumstances and I can find a lender who is willing to lend to me. So taking on debt is a fundamental part of freedom of contract.
But selling debt is something else entirely. Far from exercising the freedom of contract, it violates it. When I take out a loan from bank A, and then they turn around and sell that loan to bank B, I suddenly owe money to bank B, but I never agreed to do that. I had nothing to do with their decision to work with bank B as opposed to keeping the loan or selling it to bank C.
Current regulations prohibit banks from “changing the terms of the loan”, but in practice they change them all the time—they can’t change the principal balance, the loan term, or the interest rate, but they can change the late fees, the payment schedule, and lots of subtler things about the loan that can still make a very big difference. Indeed, as far as I’m concerned they have changed the terms of the loan—one of the terms of the loan was that I was to pay X amount to bank A, not that I was to pay X amount to bank B. I may or may not have good reasons not to want to pay bank B—they might be far less trustworthy than bank A, for instance, or have a far worse social responsibility record—and in any case it doesn’t matter; it is my choice whether or not I want anything to do with bank B, whatever my reasons might be.
I take this matter quite personally, for it is by the selling of debt that, in moral (albeit not legal) terms, a British bank stole my parents’ house. Indeed, not just any British bank; it was none other than HSBC, the money launderers for terrorists.
When they first obtained their mortgage, my parents did not actually know that HSBC was quite so evil as to literally launder money for terrorists, but they did already know that they were involved in a great many shady dealings, and even specifically told their lender that they did not want the loan sold, and if it was to be sold, it was absolutely never to be sold to HSBC in particular. Their mistake (which was rather like the “mistake” of someone who leaves their car unlocked and has it stolen, or forgets to arm the home alarm system and suffers a burglary) was not to get this written into the formal contract, rather than simply made as a verbal agreement with the bankers. Such verbal contracts are enforceable under the law, at least in theory; but that would require proof of the verbal contract (and what proof could we provide?), and also probably have cost as much as the house in litigation fees.
Oh, by the way, they were given a subprime interest rate of 8% despite being middle-class professionals with good credit, no doubt to maximize the broker’s closing commission. Most banks reserved such behavior for racial minorities, but apparently this one was equal-opportunity in the worst way.Perhaps my parents were naive to trust bankers any further than they could throw them.
As a result, I think you know what happened next: They sold the loan to HSBC.
Now, had it ended there, with my parents unwittingly forced into supporting a bank that launders money for terrorists, that would have been bad enough. But it assuredly did not.
By a series of subtle and manipulative practices that poked through one loophole after another, HSBC proceeded to raise my parents’ payments higher and higher. One particularly insidious tactic they used was to sit on the checks until just after the due date passed, so they could charge late fees on the payments, then they recapitalized the late fees. My parents caught on to this particular trick after a few months, and started mailing the checks certified so they would be date-stamped; and lo and behold, all the payments were suddenly on time! By several other similarly devious tactics, all of which were technically legal or at least not provable, they managed to raise my parents’ monthly mortgage payments by over 50%.
Note that it was a fixed-rate, fixed-term mortgage. The initial payments—what should have been always the payments, that’s the point of a fixed-rate fixed-term mortgage—were under $2000 per month. By the end they were paying over $3000 per month. HSBC forced my parents to overpay on a mortgage an amount equal to the US individual poverty line, or the per-capita GDP of Peru.
They tried to make the payments, but after being wildly over budget and hit by other unexpected expenses (including defects in the house’s foundation that they had to pay to fix, but because of the “small” amount at stake and the overwhelming legal might of the construction company, no lawyer was willing to sue over), they simply couldn’t do it anymore, and gave up. They gave the house to the bank with a deed in lieu of foreclosure.
And that is the story of how a bank that my parents never agreed to work with, never would have agreed to work with, indeed specifically said they would not work with, still ended up claiming their house—our house, the house I grew up in from the age of 12. Legally, I cannot prove they did anything against the law. (I mean, other than laundered money for terrorists.) But morally, how is this any less than theft? Would we not be victimized less had a burglar broken into our home, vandalized the walls and stolen our furniture?
Indeed, that would probably be covered under our insurance! Where can I buy insurance against the corrupt and predatory financial system? Where are my credit default swaps to pay me when everything goes wrong?
And all of this could have been prevented, if banks simply weren’t allowed to violate our freedom of contract by selling their loans to other banks.
Indeed, the Second Depression could probably have been likewise prevented. Without selling debt, there is no securitization. Without securitization, there is far less leverage. Without leverage, there are not bank failures. Without bank failures, there is no depression. A decade of global economic growth was lost because we allowed banks to sell debt whenever they please.
I have heard the counter-arguments many times:
“But what if banks need the liquidity?” Easy. They can take out their own loans with those other banks. If bank A finds they need more cashflow, they should absolutely feel free to take out a loan from bank B. They can even point to their projected revenues from the mortgage payments we owe them, as a means of repaying that loan. But they should not be able to involve us in that transaction. If you want to trust HSBC, that’s your business (you’re an idiot, but it’s a free country). But you have no right to force me to trust HSBC.
“But banks might not be willing to make those loans, if they knew they couldn’t sell or securitize them!” THAT’S THE POINT. Banks wouldn’t take on all these ridiculous risks in their lending practices that they did (“NINJA loans” and mortgages with payments larger than their buyers’ annual incomes), if they knew they couldn’t just foist the debt off on some Greater Fool later on. They would only make loans they actually expect to be repaid. Obviously any loan carries some risk, but banks would only take on risks they thought they could bear, as opposed to risks they thought they could convince someone else to bear—which is the definition of moral hazard.
“Homes would be unaffordable if people couldn’t take out large loans!” First of all, I’m not against mortgages—I’m against securitizationof mortgages. Yes, of course, people need to be able to take out loans. But they shouldn’t be forced to pay those loans to whoever their bank sees fit. If indeed the loss of subprime securitized mortgages made it harder for people to get homes, that’s a problem; but the solution to that problem was never to make it easier for people to get loans they can’t afford—it is clearly either to reduce the price of homes or increase the incomes of buyers. Subsidized housing construction, public housing, changes in zoning regulation, a basic income, lower property taxes, an expanded earned-income tax credit—these are the sort of policies that one implements to make housing more affordable, not “go ahead and let banks exploit people however they want”.
Remember, a regulation against selling debt would protect the freedom of contract. It would remove a way for private individuals and corporations to violate that freedom, like regulations against fraud, intimidation, and coercion. It should be uncontroversial that no one has any right to force you to do business with someone you would not voluntarily do business with, certainly not in a private transaction between for-profit corporations. Maybe that sort of mandate makes sense in rare circumstances by the government, but even then it should really be implemented as a tax, not a mandate to do business with a particular entity. The right to buy what you choose is the foundation of a free market—and implicit in it is the right not to buy what you do not choose.
There are many regulations on debt that do impose upon freedom of contract: As horrific as payday loans are, if someone really honestly knowingly wants to take on short-term debt at 400% APR I’m not sure it’s my business to stop them. And some people may really be in such dire circumstances that they need money that urgently and no one else will lend to them. Insofar as I want payday loans regulated, it is to ensure that they are really lending in good faith—as many surely are not—and ultimately I want to outcompete them by providing desperate people with more reasonable loan terms. But a ban on securitization is like a ban on fraud; it is the sort of law that protects our rights.