Ronald Coase and his Theorem

Ronald Coase, the author of “The Nature of the Firm” (1937), turns 100 on December 29th, reports The Economist. Wow! If you have not heard about Coase — which is likely if you are not an economist — you have a treat waiting for you.
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ICT, Choice and Democracy 2.0

Upstream and Downstream Choices

It is fairly well understood that information and communications technologies (ICT) tools expand choice. We all have access to a very large set of information and have the freedom to choose what we want to read, watch, listen to, etc., etc. ICT expands our “downstream” choice. What is not as well understood is that it expands our “upstream” choice also. It is a two-way medium, unlike say broadcast and print media which only allows us downstream choice: using ICT we send back information indicating our choice and thus guiding what comes downstream.

In other words, ICT expands the menu of options we have and also gives us the ability to change that menu. Options that are not exercised fall off the menu and this leads to more efficient outcomes since resources are not wasted on things that people don’t value. All this is trivially true and one can be guilty of stating the obvious except for the fact that we have yet to make full use of the power of upstream choice that ICT affords in scores of areas which would make economic and political freedom more meaningful.
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Global Poverty and the Cell Phone

A magazine article in the New York Times of April 13th has the rather mistaken and misleading title “Can the Cell Phone End Global Poverty?” (Hat tip: Abhishek Sarda). The article title is misleading because it doesn’t even remotely attempt to answer that question. It is instead about what is called a “human-behavior researcher” or “user anthropologist,” in this case someone who works for Nokia and essentially tries to figure out how people actually use their phones and thus how phone companies should design phones for greater usability.
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It is transaction costs all the way – Part 2

In my last post I claimed that the fundamental role of ICT is reduction of transaction costs. What, you may ask, is transaction costs? The answer is this: pretty much everything is transaction costs, with a little bit of physical stuff thrown in.

In California, you can buy a loaf of bread for about $2. The basic materials that go into the making of the bread — wheat, primarily — is about $0.07. Then there is some energy required for baking it and transporting it. Add a dime for that. The total material cost is therefore about 17 cents. The difference between the cost of the inputs and the price of the product is the value added. In our case, it is $1.83. That is, about 92% of the price of the bread is value added.

How do you allocate the value added in this case? Most of it has to be assigned to services — from the marketing of the bread, to the stocking of it in the store shelf. The cost incurred in bringing a loaf of bread to the market (less the cost of the material, the fuel and labor involved in the baking and transportation) is transaction costs.

Of course, costs seen from a different angle are revenues and incomes. And part of revenues are profits (if prices exceed costs.) The generalization of these costs are transaction costs.

Transaction costs are ubiquitous. Consider what happens in any organization, say a car manufacturing firm. Cars are produced by people using machines to transform steel and other stuff. If you add up the costs — labor, material, and machines — the car would not cost all that much. But when you add the fact that there are other people employed by the car firm who have nothing to do with the manufacturing of cars, you realize that they represent transaction costs. For instance, you have managers, and accountants, and secretaries, and human resources divisions, … the list goes on. They all represent transaction costs. And the greater the transaction costs, the higher the cost of production. Why do firms exist? Because they reduce transaction costs.

Ultimately, one can explain pretty much all organizations as an attempt to systematically reduce transaction costs. Economies of scale, scope, and agglomeration themselves arise from the reduction of transaction costs.

Information and communications technologies reduce transaction costs. Here is a simple demonstration of that. The next time you make a phone call, ask yourself what it would have cost you if you could not have made that call.

For instance, I called the store to find out if they had indeed installed the AC in my apartment. (They had not.) If I could not have made the call, I would have had to spend at least two hours and a lot of money to travel to the store to find out that information.

I will continue to ramble on the transaction costs theory of the universe in the next few posts. As they say on the radio, stay tuned.

It is transaction costs all the way – Part 1

It is worth pondering this question: What exactly is the role of ICT in any economy?

This week, I would like to address myself to that question in detail. The answer can be succinctly stated as: It reduces transaction costs. It will take a pretty long time to explore that answer. But first a few personal experiences to set the stage would be appropriate.

Today I called up a local store which sells “white goods” (major appliances such as washing machines, etc.) I wanted to order an air-conditioner. Could I order the AC over the phone, I asked when the phone was finally answered by someone. I was told that I had to come down personally and bring cash. Will they accept a debit card? No. Will they deliver today? They can’t tell me that until I had paid and only then will they check to see if the department that does the delivery has the capacity to deliver today.

I drove to the bank to withdraw the cash. At the bank, the line for withdrawing cash was immensely long. I could not use the ATM because the amount I needed was above the ATM cash withdrawal limit. It took me a half hour before I had the cash in hand.

Next step: drive to the store. The closest branch was in Shivaji Nagar. I told the driver the address and we proceeded to drive the four or five kilometers to the store. It was on ‘L.J.’ road. The traffic was bad, as usual. The driver did not know where L.J. road was. We asked for directions from various taxi drivers. We traveled with hope thinking that this time the directions were right. In about 45 minutes, we had reached the store. It was closed because that branch of the store is normally closed on Mondays. I could not have found this out without going to the store. This was in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India.

I had spent about 2 hours in trying to buy something that in a different setting (for instance in California) it would have taken me all of 5 minutes and that too from the comfort of my home: I would have checked the prices of ACs on the web and ordered it online and paid for it with my credit card. Instead, after about 2 hours of frustration, I was still without what I wanted.

This little episode is indicative of a depressingly large set of similar experiences. The features of this set almost always include having to spend an inordinate amount of time searching. The search cost of locating a place is non-trivial. Street addresses don’t exist. You could be looking for a place with an address with reads “122/1/B Lajpat Nagar II”. You reach 121/1/B. And then you discover that 122 is not adjacent to 121 but is somewhere else altogether. Sequential numbers are not physically close. The house numbers are in the order in which the plots were registered, for instance. Once I spent about an hour hunting around for a place in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. I am sure that I was not the first — nor I was the last person — to waste time and energy (gasoline) trying to locate an address there.

Another feature common to all the episodes includes transportation. On Saturday last, I was invited for dinner at a house that was about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Andheri local train station. I took a bus from the station. It took about 50 minutes for the bus to cover the 5 kilometers. Traffic moves about 8 kms an hour in the city of Mumbai, and at the breakneck speed of 18 kms an hour average on the nation’s highways.

Traffic is not the only thing that is slow. The movement of payments is an important function in any economy. I had to pay my brother Rs 25,000. I mailed him a check to Nasik without asking him first. He called to say that it will take about 3 weeks for that check to clear and so it would be good if I could send him cash or do a wire-transfer.

Cash is inconvenient to handle and carrying large sums is stressful. For furniture shopping, the only acceptable form of payment appears to be cash. Part of the reason is of course tax avoidance. But the slowness with which checks clear could have something to do with it as well.

There are a few things that one can do at a macroeconomic level to push the economy towards its potential such as fixing the monetary and fiscal policy. But they are limited instruments. Fundamentally, what really puts the brakes on the machinery of the economy is a very large number of very small grains of sand which are individually ignored but together form a very potent force. These grains of sand arise from what can only be said to be the overall culture of the economy.

It is an unfortunate fact that the Indian economic culture is dismal and unless that changes, India’s economy cannot reach its potential. Becoming aware of the problem is fundamental to the solution, of course.

In the next piece, we will explore what ICT can do to remove the sand from the Indian machinery.

[Continue reading part 2 of “It is transaction costs all the way“.]

It’s the Small Stuff, Stupid

An ironic bit of popular wisdom goes

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  2. It’s all small stuff.

In the context of economic development, I totally agree with the latter bit, but strongly disagree with the former bit. If we don’t sweat the small stuff, we don’t have much hope of managing the big stuff since the big stuff is exactly what arises from an aggregation of all those small bits of stuff.
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The CAT and Transaction Costs

It is important to remind ourselves from time to time what poverty is all about. Poverty has something to do with production. Not exactly the most esoteric bit of knowledge but often it gets forgotten in the shuffle. To produce you need to have what we call factors of production which are usually broadly classified into land, labor, and capital.
Continue reading “The CAT and Transaction Costs”