The Future of Socialism is Privatizing the Atmosphere

Scott recently wrote a quite interesting review of John Roemer’s ‘Future for Socialism’. It sounds rather like Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Funnily enough his vision for socialism also reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s plan for property-owning democracy. I haven’t read the underling book, so I can’t comment on that, but I can talk about Scott’s writing. More importantly, it provides an excellent excuse to talk about how to save the environment by privatizing the atmosphere.

Central planning could never work, so a socialist economy doesn’t need it. Bosses and managers seem to be doing a good job keeping their firms profitable, so they can all keep their jobs under socialism. Everyone has different skills, so clearly in a truly socialist system they deserve different wages, in fact whatever wage the market will bear.

…you give everyone an equal amount of these stocks. When the corporations make money, they pay them out in the form of stock dividends, which go to the people/stockholders. So every year I get a check in the mail representing my one-three-hundred-millionth-part share of all the profits made by all the corporations in the United States.

We’ll assume that when Scott says ‘Stock Dividend’, he actually means ‘non-stock dividend.’ A stock dividend is when a company gives extra shares to its existing shareholders. This increases the number of shares outstanding, but has no real economic impact. What Scott presumably means is ‘cash dividend’, which is when a company gives cash to all its shareholders.

However, this immediately opens up a problem with the next part.

Roemer proposes a law that stocks cannot be sold for money, only coupons and other stocks. Every citizen is given an equal number of coupons at birth, trades them for stocks later on, and then trades those stocks for other stocks. This allows smart citizens to invest wisely, and allows a sort of “stock market” that sends the correct signals (this business’s stock price is decreasing so maybe they’re doing something wrong) but doesn’t allow stock accumulation by wealthy capitalists.

While I applaud Roemer’s attempt to make use of the valuable signals sent by prices, his plan for preventing people from selling their shares won’t work. If such a policy was instigated, there would probably be strong demand from people for a way to turn their shares into cash. They’d even be willing to accept a discount for the sake of the liquidity cash offers. So some companies would sell all their assets and pay out all the money as one massive liquidation dividend. By announcing this in advance, the company would basically become a way to turn your shares into cash – just swap your other shares for its shares, and then wait for the single massive dividend.

In this system, businesses would raise funds not by selling stock but by seeking loans from banks.

This is where it really gets crazy. Earlier on Scott said that companies would pay out all their profits as dividends. So they can’t issue new equity, and they can’t retain the profits they’ve earned: companies would eventually become 100% debt financed. As soon as they hit the slightest downturn, without a buffer of equity to absorb losses, they would all go bankrupt. And bring the banks down with them. Then you have zero companies, shareholders would envy those who got their money out before the end, and the living would envy the dead.

So perhaps we’ll lighten the requirement that companies have to pay out all their profits. Companies that routinely raise new equity will be in trouble, like tech companies, but lets assume they solve that problem. Utilities also rely on continued equity issuance, so we won’t be able to charge our devises anyway.

More seriously, this would present massive problems for new companies. Or rather, it would prevent there being any new companies. The way you found a company is by investing some money and becoming the owner of a startup – effectively, the startup sells stock to you. Without this, there’s no way to found a new company. So we have a finite number of companies, that occasionally go bankrupt, take each other over, or liquidate themselves. These companies own all the factors of production, leading to a less and less competitive economy, dominated by a couple of few firms, with absolutely no fear of new entrants shaking up their cosy oligopolies.

So there are some problems with Roemer’s ideas. In fairness to Scott, he spots a lot of other problems himself, and he doesn’t even have an economics background. In fairness to Roemer, perhaps Scott misrepresented him. Lets just say that Roemer-as-paraphrased-by-Scott’s plan has some serious disadvantages.

However, it did make me think of an interesting idea I had a while ago. Here is an way of using joint-stock corporations to solve collective action problems.

How to solve the problem of pollution by privatizing the atmosphere.

At the moment, people are incentivized to over-pollute. If my factory releases dangerous emissions, I get much of the benefit, in the form of profits from selling my product (along with my customers, employees, suppliers etc.) I pay only a fraction of the costs though – most of the pollution effects other people. Since I gain much of the benefit, and little of the cost, I tend to pollute too much.

The problem here is one of negative externalities. Equivalently, it the tragedy of the commons. And what is the solution to the tragedy of the commons? Privatization. If one person owns the field, they have the right incentive to preserve its value.

Similarly, we could privatize the atmosphere. People who wanted to use the air (say, by breathing, or burning fuel) would be charged a fee. This would cause them to internalize the external cost, and restore efficiency to the market for pollution.

Of course, this would be rather difficult to administer. How are we going to charge people for breathing? Do people get charged more for having bigger lungs? If people fall behind on their payments, do we cut off their oxygen? Doing so would plausibly count as theft, as currently they enjoy use-rights to the air.

Fortunately, this can easily be solved. Simply give everyone shares in AeroCorp. Because AeroCorp gets most of its money from coal plants and gasoline companies, it pays a dividend each year well in excess of the breathing price. So everyone’s breaths are just netted against the dividend, and they never have to send any money to AeroCorp. Because polluters now have to pay AeroCorp to emit pollutants, they’re less keen to do so, and the negative externality problem is solved.

We could even have a dual share class system. Every human is given a single A-share at birth. These are non-transferable, dilution-protected, and their purpose is to ensure that everyone can afford to breathe. We also have B-shares. These have the same voting and dividend rights as A-shares, but are transferable and dilutable. These are initially auctioned off in a standard IPO. They money raised will be used to fund AeroCorp’s operating expenses. Trading in these shares would ensure price discovery, efficient capital allocation and allow secondary issuance.

There some problems with this system. For example, the firm would be a monopolist, so would tend to charge polluters too high a fee. As such, society would actually end up underpolluting.

Additionally, we need to ensure the two share classes don’t take advantage of one another. There are probably more A-shares than B-shares, but B-shares will be more closely attended to.

One strategy B-shareholders could use would be to have AeroCorp buyback stock. Ordinarily this would be fine – it would raise the value of A-shares. However, in this instance we’re relying on the dividends paid to B-shares to cover the oxygen charge.

A strategy A-shareholders could use would be to insist on new equity issuance, diluting B-shareholders, then paying out the funds raised as a dividend, thereby benefitting themselves.

These two problems could be solved in an attractively symmetrical fashion by giving the B-shares a veto over buybacks and giving the A-shares a veto over new equity issuance.


5 thoughts on “The Future of Socialism is Privatizing the Atmosphere

  1. So … what exactly is the difference between this plan and just taxing pollution?

    You’ve created an organization – nominally run by “the people”, but really run by their elected representatives (with everyone having one vote each) – with the government-mandated right to charge companies a fee for polluting or pursue them for punitive damages.

    What you have just invented, in fact, is a branch of government that taxes air pollution. Which we already have.

    But, to be fair, that *is* the known solution to coordination problems, so your solution would work – unless it fell subject to the already-existing problems of special interests and politicization.


    • Thanks for the good comment!

      Army1987 makes a good point – this would create a contractual obligation to spread the proceeds in a reasonably equal manner. But that is not the main advantage.

      Existing Cap-and-Trade systems have been partly undermined by special interests (e.g. coal plants) lobbying for, and receiving, a variety of exemptions from the system – commonly by simply giving them carbon credits. It is significantly harder to lobby a private business for such exemptions.

      Having the system be administered by a private company should encourage the efficient administration of the system. As Scott notes, merely having a share price as a metric of performance can be valuable. Management can also be much better incentivized.

      The interests of AeroCorp are not perfectly aligned. In particular, as a monopolist supplier of the atmosphere, it will tend to charge too much, so we will actually end up polluting too little. However, it will plausibly do better than a public bureaucracy. The degree to which AeroCorp might over-charge for emissions is capped at the profit maximizing point; there is no clear upper bound for how much a public bureaucracy might over-change during a period when environmentalism was politically popular. Equally, AeroCorp is unlikely to undercharge too much, whereas a public bureaucracy is somewhat at the mercy of political sentiments – as the recent reforms in Australia show.


  2. Army1987 says:

    So … what exactly is the difference between this plan and just taxing pollution?

    That the proceeds of existing taxes on pollution aren’t equally shared among all citizens.


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