Mine! | Michael Heller and James Salzman on EconTalk with Russ Roberts

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Key Takeaways

  • Who’s property is the space between passengers on an airplane?
    • “The fight for ownership is over ambiguity” – James Salzman
    • This ambiguity is more defined on interpretations of ownership agreements and established social norms between passengers than the actual laws of the airline
    • The recline button is the best example: there are no rules by the airline to not recline but rather an ownership agreement between passengers
    • “The language of possession is one that happens almost completely outside the law” – Michael Heller
  • The norms of ownership have regional accents
  • Ownership is a remote control for social engineering – the owner of the resource shapes how the consumer gets things and consequently influences consumption behavior
  • Not all ownership conflicts need to end in polarized ‘I win, you lose’ verdicts
  • Property rights are never static – they fluctuate in the face of scarcity, changes in population, or technological innovation
    • The new book, Mine!, outlines stories and anecdotes designed to communicate that ownership is more dependent on context and circumstance than law

Intro

Owning the Airline Seat

  • James was on a flight when the passenger in front of him leaned their seat back. This raised a question:
    • Who’s property is the space between passengers?
    • The person in front claimed ownership by attachment
    • The person in back claimed ownership by first come, first serve
  • This simple interaction was the inspiration for their new book, which studies the nuance of how we claim and hold ownership
  • “The fight for ownership is over ambiguity” – James Salzman, the value upon ownership of the airline seat has changed over time:
    • People actually use their tray space for work and entertainment
    • People are larger and the space is compacted
    • Induced scarcity: the distance between seats have shrunk
      • Airlines benefit from this conflict because they blame their fellow passenger for violating social norms rather than the lacking service the airline provides
      • The recline button is the best example: there are no rules by the airline to not recline but rather an ownership agreement between passengers
      • Property rights in the airline space are highly correlated to gender and height

Laws & Narratives of Ownership

  • Attachment – my property, my rules
  • Time – first come, first serve
  • Possession – It’s mine because I’m holding on to it
  • Labor – you reap what you sow, it’s yours because you worked for it
  • Self Ownership – it’s mine because it comes from my body
  • Family-based -inheritance upon birth and death

Property Rights

  • “Property rights and ownership are never static” – Michael Heller
    • They fluctuate in the face of scarcity, changes in population, or technological innovation
  • The norms of ownership have regional accents
    • Example: In Chicago, if you dig the snow out for your street parking space and put a chair there, you claim ownership. If the space is stolen, the property owner will deface your violating vehicle.
    • “The language of possession is one that happens almost completely outside the law” – Michael Heller
    • Different regions value laws and narratives variably
  • Strategic ambiguity of property is valuable to corporations
    • 85% of people believe owning a physical book and digital download is the same thing but…
    • Corporations can delete your digital copy but can’t steal the physical copy from your home
  • Ownership is a remote control for social engineering – the owner of the resource shapes how the consumer gets things and consequently influences consumption behavior

Foraging & Trespassing

  • Right to roam – Early American history allowed you by law to be able to forage for plants and materials on your neighbors land
    • The owner could create their own trespassing laws: post signage or build property barriers
    • Barbed wire evolved property rights – “transformed the plains from an expansive open range into a set of defined and enforced tracts of cattle land and farm ground” – Carl A. Miller
    • Present-day state laws prohibit old foraging methods
  • Modern example: When a drone flies over your property, how close is too close to claim trespassing?
    • Drone Slayer – Court case where a judge upheld a property owners right to shoot down a drone that was ‘trespassing’
    • James believes individual property owners could charge real money to utilize their air space for commercial use
  • Many of us when confronted with an ownership lawbreaker stay quiet when it doesn’t negatively affect us

Ronald Coase Application

  • In the town of Sunnyvale, California, one neighbor grew redwood trees too tall and blocked his neighbor’s solar panels
    • They sue each other over conflicting claims of attachment
    • The right to sunlight won in this verdict, the trees had to be topped off
  • Ronald Coase would argue that the solar panel owner would have to reimburse the tree owners
    • The solar panel owner would then debate on if it would be worth it to reimburse or deal with the ramifications of the shade on the production of his solar panels
    • This strategy creates creative options that are not polarizing ‘I win, you lose’ verdicts
    • “Harm is not equally reciprocal when there is no moral issue” – Russ Roberts

Mine!

  • Mine! is supposed to be the Freakanomics for property rights
    • Many resource conflicts can be understood by taking away the notion of fault
    • Taking insolvable conflicts and making them more legible to understanding reciprocity
    • The stories and anecdotes are designed to communicate that ownership is dependent on context and circumstance
Econtalk : , , ,
Notes By Drew Waterstreet

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