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Pollution Rights

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 6: Trusteeship of Creation (pages 79-100)

Think, for example, about carbon. At present, our economic engine is emitting far too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; this is destabilizing the climate. We desperately need a valve that can crank the carbon flow down. Let’s assume we can design and install such a valve. (I explained how this can be done in my previous book, Who Owns the Sky? It involves selling a limited quantity of “upstream” permits to companies that bring fossil fuels into the economy.) The question then is, who should control the valve?

Unfettered markets can’t be given that responsibility; as we’ve seen, they have no ability to limit polluting. So we’re left with two options: government or trusts. Government is a political creature; its time horizon is short, and future generations have no clout in it. Common property trusts, by contrast, are fiduciary institutions. They have long time horizons and a legal responsibility to future generations. Given the choice, I’d designate a common property trust to be keeper of the carbon valve, based on peer-reviewed advice from scientists. Its trustees could make hard decisions without committing political suicide. They might be appointed by the president, like governors of the Fed, but they wouldn’t be obedient to him the way cabinet members are. Once appointed, they’d be legally accountable to future generations.

Now imagine a goodly number of valves at the local, regional, and national levels, not just for carbon (which requires only one national valve) but for a variety of pollutants. Imagine also that the valve keepers are trusts accountable to future generations. They’d have the power to reduce some of the negative externalities — the illth — that corporations shift to the commons. They’d also have the power to auction limited pollution rights to the highest bidders, and to divide the resulting income among commons owners. That’s something neither the Fed nor the EPA can do.

These trusts would fundamentally change our economic operating system. What are now unpriced externalities would become property rights under accountable management. If a corporation wanted to pollute, it couldn’t just do so; it would have to buy the rights from a commons trust. The price of pollution would go up; corporate illth creation would go down. Ecosystems would be protected for future generations. More income would flow to ordinary citizens. Nonhuman species would flourish; human inequality would diminish. And government wouldn’t be enlarged — our economic engine would do these things on its own.

One final point about valves. It’s not too critical where we set them initially. It’s far more important to install them in the right places, and to put the right people in charge. Then they can adjust the settings. ...

“Let us suppose,” economist Ronald Coase wrote in 1960, “that a farmer and a cattle-raiser are operating on neighboring properties.” He went on to suppose further that the cattle-raiser’s animals wander onto the farmer’s land and damage his crops. From this hypothetical starting point Coase examined the problem of externalities and proposed a solution — the creation of rights to pollute or not be polluted upon. Today, pollution rights are used throughout the world. In effect, Coase conjured into existence a class of property rights that didn’t exist before, and his leap of imagination eventually reduced real pollution.

“Let us suppose” is a wonderful way for anyone, economists included, to begin thinking. It lets us adjust old assumptions and see what might happen. And it lets us imagine things that don’t exist but could, and sometimes, because we imagined them, later do.

Coase supposed that a single polluter or his neighboring pollutee possessed a right to pollute or not be polluted upon. He further supposed that the transaction costs involved in negotiations between the two neighbors were negligible. He made these suppositions half a century ago, at a time when aggregate pollution wasn’t planet-threatening, as it now is. Given today’s altered reality, it might be worth updating Coase’s suppositions to make them relevant to this aggregate problem. Here, in my mind, are the appropriate new suppositions:

  • Instead of one polluter, there are many, and instead of one pollutee, there are millions — including many not yet born.
  • The pollutees (including future generations) are collectively represented by trusts.
  • The initial pollution rights are assigned by government to these trusts.
  • In deciding how many pollution permits to sell, the trustees’ duty isn’t to maximize revenue but to preserve an ecosystem for future generations. The trusts therefore establish safe levels of pollution and gradually reduce the number of permits they sell until those levels are reached.
  • Revenue from the sale of pollution permits is divided 50 percent for per capita dividends (like the Alaska Permanent Fund) and 50 percent for public goods such as education and ecological restoration.

If we make these suppositions, what then happens? We have, first of all, an economic model with a second set of books. Not all, but many externalities show up on these new ledgers. More importantly, we begin to imagine a world in which nature and future generations are represented in real-time transactions, corporations internalize previously externalized costs, prices of illth-causing goods rise, and everyone receives some property income.

Here’s what such a world could look like:

  • Degradation of key ecosystems is gradually reduced to sustainable levels because the trustees who set commons usage levels are accountable to future generations, not living shareholders or voters. When they fail to protect their beneficiaries, they are sued.
  • Thanks to per capita dividends, income is recycled from overusers of key ecosystems to underusers, creating both incentives to conserve and greater equity.
  • Clean energy and organic farming are competitive because prices of fossil fuels and agricultural chemicals are appropriately high.
  • Investment in new technologies soars and new domestic jobs are created because higher fuel and waste disposal prices boost demand for clean energy and waste recycling systems.
  • Public goods are enhanced by permit revenue.

What has happened here? We’ve gone from a realistic set of assumptions about how the world is — multiple polluters and pollutees, zero cost of pollution, dangerous cumulative levels of pollution — to a reasonable set of expectations about how the world could be if certain kinds of property rights are introduced. These property rights go beyond Coase’s, but are entirely compatible with market principles. The results of this thought experiment show that the introduction of common property trusts can produce a significant and long-lasting shift in economic outcomes without further government intervention. ...

Commons Rent

It shouldn’t be thought that the commons is, or ought to be, a money-free zone. In fact, an important subject for economists (and the rest of us) to understand is commons rent.

By this I don’t mean the monthly check you send to a landlord. In economics, rent has a more precise meaning: it’s money paid because of scarcity. If you’re not an economist, that may sound puzzling, but consider this. A city has available a million apartments. In absolute terms, that means apartments aren’t scarce. But the city is confined geographically and demand for apartments is intense. In this economic sense, apartments are scarce. Now think back to that check you pay your landlord, or the mortgage you pay the bank. Part of it represents the landlord’s operating costs or the bank’s cost of money, but part of it is pure rent — that is, money paid for scarcity. That’s why New Yorkers and San Franciscans write such large checks to landlords and banks, while people in Nebraska don’t.

Rent rises when an increase in demand bumps into a limit in supply. Rent due to such bumping isn’t good or bad; it just is.We can (and should) debate the distribution of that rent, but the rent itself arises automatically. And it’s important that it does so, because this helps the larger economy allocate scarce resources efficiently. Other methods of allocation are possible. We can distribute scarce things on a first come, first served basis, or by lottery, political power, seniority, or race. Experience has shown, though, that selling scarce resources in open markets is usually the best approach, and such selling inevitably creates rent.

Rent was of great interest to the early economists — Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill, among others — because it constituted most of the money earned by landowners, and land was then a major cost of production. The supply of land, these economists noted, is limited, but demand for it steadily increases. So, therefore, does its rent. Thus, landowners benefit from what Mill called the unearned increment — the rise in land value attributable not to any effort of the owner, but purely to a socially created increase in demand bumping into a limited supply of good land.

The underappreciated American economist Henry George went further. Seeing both the riches and the miseries of the Gilded Age, he asked a logical question: Why does poverty persist despite economic growth? The answer, he believed, was the appropriation of rent by landowners. Even as the economy grew, the property rights system and the scarcity of land diverted almost all the gains to a landowning minority. Whereas competition limited the gains of working people, nothing kept down the landowners’ gains. As Mill had noted, the value of their land just kept rising. To fix the problem, George advocated a steep tax on land and the abolition of other taxes. His bestselling book Progress and Poverty catapulted him to fame in the 1880s, but mainstream economists never took him seriously.

By the twentieth century, economists had largely lost interest in rent; it seemed a trivial factor in wealth production compared to capital and labor. But the twenty-first century ecological crisis brings rent back to center-stage. Now it’s not just land that’s scarce, but clean water, undisturbed habitat, biological diversity, waste absorption capacity, and entire ecosystems.

This brings us back to common property rights. The definition and allocation of property rights are the primary factors in determining who pays whom for what. If, in the case of pollution rights, pollution rights are given free to past polluters, the rent from the polluted ecosystem will also go to them. That’s because prices for pollution-laden products will rise as pollution is limited (remember, if demand is constant, a reduction in supply causes prices to go up), and those higher prices will flow to producers (which is to say, polluters).

By contrast, if pollution rights are assigned to trusts representing pollutees and future generations, and if these trusts then sell these rights to polluters, the trusts rather than the polluters will capture the commons rent. If the trusts split this money between per capita dividends and expenditures on public goods, everyone benefits.

At this moment, based on pollution rights allocated so far, polluting corporations are getting most of the commons rent. But the case for trusts getting the rent in the future is compelling. If this is done, consumers will pay commons rent not to corporations or government, but to themselves as beneficiaries of commons trusts. Each citizen’s dividend will be the same, but his payments will depend on his purchases of pollution-laden products. The more he pollutes, the more rent he’ll pay. High polluters will get back less than they put in, while low polluters will get back more. The microeconomic incentives, in other words, will be perfect. (See figure 6.1.)

What’s equally significant, though less obvious, is that the macroeconomic incentives will be perfect too. That is, it will be in everyone’s interest to reduce the total level of pollution. Remember how rent for scarce things works: the lower the supply, the higher the rent. Now, imagine you’re a trustee of an ecosystem, and leaving aside (for the sake of argument) your responsibility to preserve the asset for future generations, you want to increase dividends. Do you raise the number of pollution permits you sell, or lower it? The correct, if counterintuitive answer is: you lower the number of permits. ... read the whole chapter

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 7: Universal Birthrights (pages 101-116)

Dividends from Common Assets

A cushion of reliable income is a wonderful thing. It can be saved for rainy days or used to pursue happiness on sunny days. It can encourage people to take risks, care for friends and relatives, or volunteer for community service. For low-income families, it can pay for basic necessities.

Conversely, the absence of reliable income is a terrible thing. It heightens anxiety and fear. It diminishes our ability to cope with crises and transitions. It traps many families on the knife’s edge of poverty, and makes it harder for the poor to rise.

So why don’t we, as Monopoly does, pay everyone some regular income — not through redistribution of income, but through predistribution of common property? One state — Alaska — already does this. As noted earlier, the Alaska Permanent Fund uses revenue from state oil leases to invest in stocks, bonds, and similar assets, and from those investments pays yearly dividends to every resident. Alaska’s model can be extended to any state or nation, whether or not they have oil. We could, for instance, have an American Permanent Fund that pays equal dividends to long-term residents of all 50 states. The reason is, we jointly own many valuable assets.

Recall our discussion about common property trusts. These trusts could crank down pollution and earn money from selling ever-scarcer pollution permits. The scarcer the permits get, the higher their prices would go. Less pollution would equal more revenue. Over time, trillions of dollars could flow into an American Permanent Fund.

What could we do with that common income? In Alaska the deal with oil revenue is 75 percent to government and 25 percent to citizens. For an American Permanent Fund, I’d favor a 50/50 split, because paying dividends to citizens is so important. Also, when scarce ecosystems are priced above zero, the cost of living will go up and people will need compensation; this wasn’t, and isn’t, the case in Alaska. I’d also favor earmarking the government’s dollars for specific public goods, rather than tossing them into the general treasury. This not only ensures identifiable public benefits; it also creates constituencies who’ll defend the revenue sharing system.

Waste absorption isn’t the only common resource an American Permanent Fund could tap. Consider also, the substantial contribution society makes to stock market values. As noted earlier, private corporations can inflate their value dramatically by selling shares on a regulated stock exchange. The extra value derives from the enlarged market of investors who can now buy the corporation’s shares. Given a total stock market valuation of about $15 trillion, this socially created liquidity premium is worth roughly $5 trillion.

At the moment, this $5 trillion gift flows mostly to the 5 percent of the population that own more than half the private wealth. But if we wanted to, we could spread it around. We could do that by charging corporations for using the public trading system, just as investment bankers do. (For those of you who haven’t been involved in a public stock offering, investment bankers are like fancy doormen to a free palace. While the public charges almost nothing to use the capital markets, investment bankers exact hefty fees.)

The public’s fee could be in cash or stock. Let’s say we required publicly traded companies to deposit 1 percent of their shares each year in the American Permanent Fund for ten years — reaching a total of 10 percent of their shares. This would be our price not just for using a regulated stock exchange, but also for all the other privileges (limited liability, perpetual life, copyrights and patents, and so on) that we currently bestow on private corporations for free.

In due time, the American Permanent Fund would have a diversified portfolio worth several trillion dollars. Like its Alaskan counterpart, it would pay equal yearly dividends to everyone. As the stock market rose and fell, so would everyone’s dividend checks. A rising tide would lift all boats. America would truly be an “ownership society.” ... read the whole chapter



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Wealth and Want
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