【英文精读】One of the giants

时间:13-09-12 栏目:学习 作者:liva 评论:0 点击: 4,665 次

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One of the giants

Ronald Coase, the economist who explained why firms exist, died on September 2nd, aged 102

“I HAVE made no innovations in high theory,” was how Ronald Coase modestly summed up his life’s work. “My contribution to economics has been to urge the inclusion…of features of the economic system so obvious that…they have tended to be overlooked.” Attention to the overlooked helped Mr Coase transform both law and economics.

Born in the London suburb of Willesden in 1910 to working-class parents, Mr Coase had an academic temperament and an interest in science but lacked a taste for mathematics, a flaw that might have kept him out of economics in later decades. He studied “commerce” at the London School of Economics (LSE), a course tailored to those destined for middle management (“a choice of occupation for which I was singularly ill-suited”).

The degree included instruction in economics, and he quickly fell for the dismal science. A one-year travelling scholarship gave him the chance to apply what he had learned. He chose to tour America’s industrial cities in the hope of answering a question that troubled him: why did companies exist?

Economists of the time were enthralled by the special magic of the price mechanism. In a free market prices should adjust to allocate resources where they are most valued. A certain price for wool, for example, encourages farmers to raise sheep and bring wool to market to meet consumer demand. As more is produced and demand is sated the price falls, discouraging farmers from wasting time and resources producing unwanted goods. Yet whereas some parts of the economy rely on prices to guide materials and labour to their best uses, others do not. Within firms tasks are doled out by fiat and strategies are set by the Politburo of the corporate board. Mr Coase wanted to know why.

As he watched American car plants in action, he realised that the existence of the firm compensated for a critical flaw in the price-setting mechanism. In the real world it is often costly for buyer and seller to arrive at a final price. “Transaction costs”, like the need to negotiate or draw up contracts, prevent the price mechanism from working smoothly. Firms would exist, he reckoned, when it was cheaper and easier to co-ordinate activity within a centrally planned organisation than to spell out contract details for every step in the production process. Mr Coase first presented his proposition in a lecture in Dundee in 1932, at the tender age of 21. In 1937 he published “The Nature of the Firm”, an article based on the Dundee lecture.

An entire field of research would eventually be built on this paper, but it garnered scant attention at first. Mr Coase bounced around British academia in the 1930s and 1940s, from Dundee to Liverpool and back to the LSE, researching the workings of public utilities as he went. In 1951 he migrated to America and proved similarly itinerant, until an article on radio-spectrum property rights caught the eye of scholars at the University of Chicago.

In 1959 he was invited to Chicago to air his views. His audience included future Nobel prizewinners like George Stigler and Milton Friedman: confident, room-commanding men sceptical of Mr Coase’s conclusions. Over the course of a two-hour discussion the measured Mr Coase won them around. He was asked to write up his arguments and in 1961 produced “The Problem of Social Cost”, another landmark text. By 1964 Mr Coase was on the University of Chicago’s faculty.

His debates with the Chicago academics centred on market “externalities”: economic choices that impose social costs or benefits on others. Factory pollution may disturb or poison nearby residents, for example. Earlier generations of economists diagnosed a market failure that governments could set to rights. The polluting factory does not face any costs from spouting black smoke over a town: the costs are “external” from its perspective. A tax on pollution would internalise the cost, however. The price mechanism would work once more, as the tax encouraged the factory’s managers to reduce pollution to socially optimal levels.

Coase was clear

Mr Coase’s work suggested another answer. In the world of theory, without transaction costs, no government intervention would be needed to address externalities. The factory owners and the residents could work out side-payments on their own. Residents might pay the factory to emit less or the factory might pay the town for leeway to pollute more. Either way an efficient outcome should result without government help. This Panglossian view became known as the Coase Theorem. (Post-Soviet “shock therapists” who supported rapid privatisation in the belief that markets would reallocate resources handed to oligarchs were sometimes accused of “vulgar Coase-ism”.)

Yet Mr Coase himself recognised life is more complex than theory. Neither private bargaining nor a pollution tax can make a market perfectly efficient given transaction costs like the expense of monitoring a factory’s emissions. Mr Coase reckoned the law had a critical economic responsibility: to minimise the disruptive effect of these costs on markets. A system of clear and easily transferable property rights (in this case, the right to pollute) can play a role like that of the firm, allowing useful economic activity to take place that might otherwise be gummed up by the hassle of negotiating and enforcing contracts. His insight revolutionised policy. Tradable emissions permits, which helped eliminate acid rain as an environmental problem in America, are a direct application of his work.

Almost 70 years after that first Dundee lecture Mr Coase won the Nobel prize for economics. “A scholar must be content with the knowledge that what is false in what he says will soon be exposed,” he noted in his speech. “As for what is true, he can count on ultimately seeing it accepted, if only he lives long enough.”

 翻译:

巨人

罗纳德 科斯,著名的经济学家,于9月2日逝世,享年102岁,他向世界阐明了企业存在的原因。

 

罗纳德科斯总结他的一生:在高层理论研究,我并没有做出创新。我对经济领域的贡献在于,将 甄选经济指标引入,而这又是人们常常忽视的。而正是人们对这个问题忽视使得他改变了经济和法律。

 

科斯在1910年在伦敦出生于一个工人家庭,科斯很有学术天分,对科学有浓厚的兴趣,但是他对数学不感兴趣,也许这也是他接下来十年远离经济学的原因。他在伦敦的一所经济学校学习贸易课程,这一课程是给将来的中层管理定制的,这个选择不对我的胃口。

 

 

这个学科包括了经济学的介绍,他很快对政治学产生兴趣。一年的旅行奖学金给了他一个机会可以去将他学到的东西付诸于实践。他选择了美国工业城市,并且希望能够回答一个问题,为什么公司要存在?

 

这个时代的经济学家着迷于价格体制。在一个开放市场,价格应该决定资源分配。比如,羊毛的价格鼓励农民去养羊,并且将羊毛在市场出售满足市场的需求。当生产的羊毛越多,需求就不断被满足,价格就会下降,引起农民减少生产,避免了将时间和精力放在生产不需要的产品上。经济在某些方面依靠价格来引导人力和资源发挥重大的作用,其他方面并非如此。在企业里,高层向下布置任务,企业董事会制定政策,科斯想知道为什么。

 

 

当他观察美国汽车生产工厂时,他意识到了正是因为公司的存在才弥补了这个在价格体制中存在的严重问题。在现实世界中,买家和卖家达成一致要耗费很大的精力。交易成本,例如协商或者起草合约都会影响价格体制的平稳运行。科斯猜想,当有一个有中心规划的机构里,协商各部门行动比在生产过程中为每一步都签订详细合同的成本更低更便捷,企业就出现了。科斯首次提出这样的主张是他1932年在应该伦敦的一次演讲中,那是他才21岁。在1937年,他出版了《企业性质》,这本书给予之前在伦敦的演讲。

 

 

 

后来整个领域的研究都给予科斯的演讲,只不过起初没有人注意这个。在19世纪30-40年代,科斯在英国学术界十分活跃,从伦敦到利物浦,然后又回到了伦敦经济学院,研究公共事业的运行机制。在1951年,又搬到了美国,继续证明类似的理论直到一篇关于射频的知识产权的文章发布才吸引了芝加哥大学学者。

 

在1959年,他被邀请到芝加哥去证明他的观点。他的听众有未来诺贝尔奖得主乔治 斯蒂格勒和弥尔顿 弗里德曼。他们很自信并且怀疑科斯的推论。经过两个多小时的讨论,思维严谨的科斯赢得了众人。他被要求写下他的全部观点,在1961年出版了《社会成本论》。从1964年起,科斯开始在芝加哥大学任教。

 

 

科斯与芝加哥的学者围绕市场的外部性开始争论:经济选择会带来利益或需要社会成本。工厂污染会影响或者危害附近的居民。早起的经济学家得出一个错误的结论政府能够调整市场的失败结论。那些污染性的工厂排出黑烟并没有任何花销,因此这个开销在他们估算之外。如果有污染税,这将会将这个花销内部化,于是,价格机制将会再次生效,因为税收将会促使工厂的管理者减少污染到社会最优的等级。

 

 

 

科斯的研究证实另外一个结论。理论上说,没有交易成本,就不需要政府干预来强调外部性。工厂和居民能够达成单边协议。居民能弥补工厂,让他们减少排放,工厂也能赔偿给居民,使自己多排放,其中任何一种有效的办法都不需要政府的干预。这种趋于至善的观点变成了科斯理论。

 

 

 

 

 

科斯认为实际生活要比理论更加复杂。如果考虑到像监控工厂排放这样的交易成本,不管是私下解决或者立法征税,都不能使市场高效。科斯猜想法律有一种经济责任:减轻市场开销的负面影响。一个清晰并且容易转让财产权利体制(这个例子中,权利指的是污染)能扮演企业一样的角色,它可以保证那些可能被协商和强加 协议弄砸但其实是有利可循的经济活动正常运行。科斯的这般洞察力使得政治发生了变革。科斯的这项研究有直接的效果就是,可交易的排放许可减少了在美国酸雨的发生。

 

 

 

在伦敦演讲70年后,科斯赢得了诺贝尔奖。一个学者应该有他话语里的错误很快被揭露的意识。并且对此感到满意,因为只要他活的长,他就能够寄希望与看见那些正确的道理被接受。

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【英文精读】One of the giants:等您坐沙发呢!

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