The global positioning system (GPS) was originally developed for military purposes but has been made available to private companies since 2000. Allowing private companies to build new products and services using this technology has resulted in a massive increase in technological advancement in the US that provides significantly more economic benefit than the cost of operating the GPS system. Estimates place the value of GPS at $1.4 trillion from 1980 to 2019, but the federal government spends relatively little to operate the system.
Whenever an action creates a negative externality, the private individual allocates too many resources toward the production of that item. This happens because the producer is focused on their own profit maximization problem and is not accounting for any external costs associated with production. When it comes to meat packing or factory farming, producers don’t take into account the external costs of pollution or the potential risk of bacterial infection. Regulating such industries can mandate that firms take into account the social costs of production rather than the private cost of production.
Tony joins his colleagues for lunch at a local pub to discuss potential leads for their newspaper, but he’s disturbed by a gentleman loudly munching on chips behind him. The man appears to be ignorant of the external costs he’s imposing on those around him and is focused on only his own satisfaction.
When people are unaware of the external costs they are imposing on others, they tend to overconsume, literally. Since there aren’t clear property rights, it’s not clear who should make the determination of appropriate volume. Tony could pay the man to stop eating his chips, but Tony may argue that the man should have to pay for the right to eat his chips so loudly. It’s harder to reach a solution without clearly defined property rights.
Mumbai drivers are apparently notorious for honking, even when the light is red and people can’t move. The Mumbai police decided to incentivize drivers in order to reduce some of the noise pollution in the city. The police installed noise meters and if the decibel level reaches a certain threshold, the timer on the lights resets. A message flashes to let drivers know that the more they honk, the longer they wait!
Another fun policy intervention occurred in Europe to help drivers slow down.
This opening cartoon depicts Dre dutifully maintaining his castle and describing the lengths men go to in order to protect their castle. Unfortunately, we can’t always control what neighbor’s do with their castle and their decision to throw parties and disturb us is (seemingly) out of our control. The Coase Theorem would argue that so long as transaction costs are low, people should be able to bargain and sort out external costs imposed by private actions. The insinuation by Dre in this scene is that the transaction costs may be just a bit too high.
Clip recommended by James Tierney:
Howard and Bernadette are bothered by their neighbor’s (Andy) new flood lights, which appears to look out over their backyard and right into the hot tub they have built. Andy doesn’t see the problem because his flood lights are in his backyard and provide him some sense of security, but they are a nuisance to Howard and Bernadette.
Instead of talking to their neighbors directly, like the Coase Theory would suggest, they head to the city zoning office to try and report the issue in the hopes that he has violated some city zoning ordinance. When they realize that will take too much time, they try to get Sheldon’s help, but Sheldon is cautious because Bernadette and Howard didn’t get permission to build their backyard deck, nor renovate their shower.
In Howard and Bernadette’s mind, government regulation should only be used for externalities. Their deck and bathroom aren’t affecting third parties so they don’t see the need to have them approved.
Things seem off in The Good Place, but it turns out that the as the world becomes more complicated, seemingly identical actions (like giving flowers) can have unintended consequences that most people don’t realize. Our private actions can have social costs that we’re unaware of and would probably try to avoid if we were fully informed of their costs.
Joe wants to go on a cross country road trip, but he’s being a bit of a bother. He isn’t taking into account his actions and how they may be impacting others. For example, his decision to goof off in the drive-thru line for food bothers Cleveland, but also the people waiting in line to get food. Negative externalities occur when an individual is making private decisions (like goofing off), but not considering how that impacts the people around them (like the others in line).
This clip was submitted by Isaac Messinger.
After accidentally creating a large hole in the wall of the Krusty Krab, a customer mistakes the hole for a drive thru window and places and order. Mr. Krabs, being a the savvy businesscrab that he is, quickly adds a menu and microphone system to facilitate the drive thru. It becomes so popular people are waiting in line and causing a huge traffic jam (could use this to talk about a negative externality too!) in Bikini Bottom. The police visit and threaten to issue Mr. Krabs with a ticket and then the mayor comes in to complain as well, but Mr. Krabs has a solution. Adding a second drive thru to reduce the line, but that doesn’t work out too well. Watch what happens as diminishing marginal returns sets in.
Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) pick up a hitchhiker, but proceed to drive him crazy with their childish antics. While the two of them see no problems with their behaviors, they don’t take into account the cost they impose on the hitchhiker. The hitchhiker quickly realizes that the cost of the trip may not be worth the benefit he gets from the no-cost ride.
Thanks to Michael Romano for the suggestion.