Remembering Prof. Ronald Coase (1910 – 2013)

Ronald H. Coase

I’m deeply saddened of the passing of Professor Ronald Coase . Quoting The Telegraph (emphasis & link added), “Professor Ronald Coase, who has died aged 102, won the 1991 Nobel Prize in Economics by injecting a note of reality into the world of market theories; in a 60-year career he wrote only about a dozen significant papers and used little or no mathematics, yet his impact on his discipline was profound.” The Verge is not too far off the truth when using the title, “Ronald Coase, the ‘father’ of the spectrum auction, dies at 102” as you can watch Coase explained how he first read the key idea from a student note and then adopt the idea of using prices to determine radio frequency spectrum use in this video clip.

Earlier this afternoon, in an exclusive video interview with Prof. Ning Wang, co-author of Prof. Coase’s last book “How China Became Capitalist” (published 2012),  Wang talked about visiting Coase last week, working with Coase from 2008-2012 on “How China Became Capitalist“, Coase’s love of China, and more.

On a personal note, while I’ve never met Prof. Coase in person, I was lucky to be exposed to Coase’s insightful economic ideas since the mid 1980s,  including those ideas in “The Lighthouse in Economics” via Prof. Steven Cheung‘s Chinese articles and Coase’s original English articles. For Coase’s 99th birthday in 2009, I spent many hours converting the 2003 Coase Lecture into a 6 parts YouTube with annotated time codes in the video description allowing easy access to specific sections.

I love the following quotes by Coase,

You don’t know what you can learn until you try to learn.”– from a 2010 interview  when he was 100 years old.

new ideas are most likely to come from the young who are also the group who are most likely to recognize the significance of those ideas.” – from his 2003 lecture.

Goodbye Prof. Coase.

Other articles:

Ronald H. Coase, Founding Scholar in Law and Economics, 1910-2013, University of Chicago
Ronald Coase, 1910-2013, The Ronald Coase Institute
Ronald Coase, Nobelist Who Studied Corporations, Dies at 102. Bloomberg
Ronald Coase Was The Greatest Of The Many Great University Of Chicago Economists, Forbes
Remembering Ronald Coase, Harvard Business Review
* “The Man Who Resisted ‘Blackboard Economics’ – Nobel laureate Ronald Coase taught that economists should study real markets“, WSJ
* “Ronald H. Coase, retired U. of C. professor won Nobel Prize, 1910-2013“, Chicago Tribute

Sept 16th update:

* “The man who showed why firms exist – Anyone who cares about capitalism and economics should mourn the death of Ronald Coase“, The Economist

* “Ronald Coase, a Pragmatic Voice for Government’s Role“, New York Times

P.S. 1: In the coming days, I will try to update and add more contents to this article. Last update: Sept 4th, 2013

P.S. 2: In case you wonder what is “Coase Theorem”? Here is an excerpt from a 1997 Reason magazine interview with Coase.

Reason: Could you state the Coase Theorem? How do you explain it to people?

Ronald Coase: It deals with questions of liability. Whether someone is liable or not liable for damages that he creates, in a regime of zero transaction costs, the result would be the same. Now, you can expand that to say that it doesn’t matter who owns what; in a private enterprise system, the same results would occur.

Take the case of a newly discovered cave. I say, whether the law says it’s owned by the person where the mouth of the cave is or whether it belongs to the man who discovers it or whether it belongs to the man under whose land it is, it’ll be used for growing mushrooms, storing bank records, or as a gas reservoir according to which of these uses produces the most value. The law of property determines who owns something, but the market determines how it will be used. It’s so obvious to me that I couldn’t understand the fuss. All it says is that the people will use resources in the way that produces the most value, that’s all. I still think it’s an obvious point. You wouldn’t think there was a need for a Coase Theorem, really.

But the people at the University of Chicago thought it was an error. Some people thought I should delete this section from my article on the FCC. The person who most desired this was Reuben Kessel, who was a very good economist, but he was supported by Aaron Director and George Stigler and others at the University of Chicago. I replied that if it was an error, it was a very interesting error and I would just as soon it stayed in. And it did stay in.

Then George Stigler invited me to do something at a workshop in Chicago and I presented something on another topic. I said I’d like to have an opportunity to discuss my error. Aaron Director arranged a meeting at his home. Director was there, Milton Friedman was there, George Stigler was there, Arnold Harberger was there, John McGee was there–all the big shots of Chicago were there, and they came to set me right. They liked me, but they thought I was wrong. I expounded my views and then they questioned me and questioned me. Milton was the person who did most of the questioning and others took part. I remember at one stage, Harberger saying, “Well, if you can’t say that the marginal cost schedule changes when there’s a change in liability, he can run right through.” What he meant was that, if this was so, there was no way of stopping me from reaching my conclusions. And of course that was right. I said, “What is the cost schedule if a person is liable, and what is the cost schedule if he isn’t liable for damage?” It’s the same. The opportunity cost doesn’t shift.

There were a lot of other points too, but the decisive thing was that this schedule didn’t change. They thought if someone was liable it would be different than if he weren’t. This meeting was very grueling for me. I don’t know whether you’ve had a conversation with Milton Friedman, but an argument with Milton Friedman is a pretty strenuous affair. He’s very good. He’s very fair, but he doesn’t let you slip up on anything. You’re constantly being pressed. But when at the end of whatever the time was–say, an hour–I found I was still standing, I knew I’d won. Because if Milton can’t knock you out in a few rounds, you’re home.”

Note: This article has been cross-posted to by me.

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