My thoughts on Daniel Bromley’s critique (3): Are ITQs private property rights?

In my first post in this series I argued that although open access is just about the worst property rights regime to have in a fishery, it is too simple to blame all overfishing on ‘lack of property rights’; rather, we need to go into the details of the institutional setting. In my second post I argued that asking whether private property rights can manage a fishery is a waste of time: marine ecosystems are too complicated to implement any real form of private property.

But wait a minute. Aren’t ITQs supposed to be private property? You can find many articles in the scientific literature and the press, whether they’re in favour of ITQs or against them, that present ITQs as private property. Daniel Bromley does not agree. In his Fisheries article he lists as one of the deceits of fisheries economics its claim that “ITQs are private property rights.” His objection to this idea is that the Magnuson-Stevens act (which is by far the most important fisheries law in the United States) states that ITQs are permits, which can be revoked, limited, or changed by the government without compensation to the owner of the permit.

The reply of some economists is that in practice, even American ITQs are traded between fishers, they are used as collateral for loans, and they are subject to legal disputes over divorce and inheritance, just like houses or cars are. So de jure they might not be private property rights, de facto they certainly are.

In any case, I’m a European, and in Europe we could decide to make ITQs irrevocable rights that have an unlimited life span, and cannot be changed by the government (unless in cases of eminent domain). Would they then be private property rights?

If I were a German I would say: jein. The certificate would be private property: the law can be made such that you can freely trade the certificate, the government cannot take it from you without compensation, you can use it as collatoral, and if you die your kids might fight over it in court. But that’s the certificate – not the fish. As I argued in an earlier post: owning an ITQ does not mean that there’s a fish with your name on it.

As far as I know the closest equivalent of ITQs (assuming the most extreme case of privatization) would be shares in a corporation (or LLC, PLC, SA, BV, NV, whichever country you happen to live in – I’m no legal expert). In the fishery, the ‘company’ would be the fish stock; the ‘dividend’ would be the TAC; the ‘shareholders’ would be the fishers, who, unlike regular shareholders, are supposed to come and catch their ‘dividend’ for themselves. I’m no more a business economist than I am a legal expert, so I don’t know whether I should consider a corporation private property or common property. If I strictly follow Bromley’s terminology I’d guess they are common property, because it is the shareholders who commonly own the asset and have influence – albeit sometimes limited – on the company’s management. But I’m glad I’m writing this on a blog and not in a peer-reviewed article (that’s what blogs are for, aren’t they?).

There are some interesting differences between ITQs and corporate shares, but I’ll save that for later.

My thoughts on Daniel Bromley’s critique (1): Is open access the problem?

In 2008 Daniel Bromley gave a keynote lecture at the biannual conference of the MARE Centre in Amsterdam where he strongly criticized economists for giving flawed adivce to policy makers (to use the more polite terms). The conference organizers must have had a hard time finding an economist willing to write a reply to his lecture, because they even contacted me – I chickened out. I felt I hadn’t been working on fisheries issues long enough yet to have a well-founded opinion on Bromley’s writings. Shortly after his keynote lecture, he published an article in Fisheries with a central message similar to that in his earlier keynote, but phrased in stronger terms – and with a lot more impact. In his Fisheries article he took a few arguments further to the point where just about every economist I know disagreed wholeheartedly (again, I’m being polite here). I discussed it with some of them, and with other fisheries scientists. I also discussed it in class once, but the students, most of whom were no native English speakers and had little economics background, had serious trouble with Bromley’s rather difficult use of vocabulary.

Lately, after coming across other work written by Daniel Bromley (and his co-author, Seth Macinko), I started reading these two articles again. Although I broadly agree with the mainstream economic analysis of fisheries management, I got the impression that perhaps he has been misunderstood by my fellow economists and it would be a shame if his ideas were ignored because of the impression his Fisheries article made on most economists (again, to put it politely). I decided to put my thoughts on his criticism of fisheries economics in a few posts.

To start with, there is the conceptual confusion on what is open access, what are commons, and whether fisheries resources fall under any of those regimes. In casual conversations with colleagues I do find that some of them present fisheries as an example of open access resources; some economics textbooks do the same. But are fisheries open access resources? In his book Environment & Economy: Property Rights & Public Policy Bromley distinguishes four property regimes, similar to the four property regimes in ancient Roman law:

  • No property (res nullius): the classical open-access regime
  • Common property (res communis): a regime where a group of people owns, manages, and uses the resource together
  • State property (latin name not given, but I believe it should be res publica): the government, as a representative of society as a whole, owns and manages the resource, and sets the rules by which citizens are allowed to use the resource
  • Private property (I believe this should be res privata but my Latin is pretty non-existent): an individual owns the resource and has the right to manage and use it as he or she pleases.

If you look at it this way you see that most fish are caught within the Exclusive Economic Zones of individual countries; in fact, only one sixth of global catch comes from the high seas. Within the EEZs aquatic resources are either private property (for example, oyster and mussel fishers own parcels, which they seed, and they have the exclusive right to harvest them) or state property (with regard to most fish species, the government sets the rules on how much to catch, and with which methods). So strictly speaking, open access is more an exception than a rule.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the open access regime is irrelevant to our understanding of fisheries problems. By looking at fisheries under open access, we lay bare the mechanisms that make fisheries policy so difficult: the individual fisher reaps the benefits of catching one more fish, whereas all fishers bear the costs to the resource, i.e. the future productivity lost because the fish is in the basket instead of the sea. In theory, state property regimes are able to deal with this problem as governments can exclude people from fishing. In reality, however, governments have problems of their own that prevent them from keeping in check the forces that lead to overfishing: many fish stocks are shared by several countries, there is lobbying by special interest groups, rent-seeking, and so on. It’s like Hobbes’s Leviathan (named after a sea monster!), which starts with how unrestrained human nature leads to a war of all against all, and then explains how this restraining of human nature should take place. To understand the regime you also need to understand the forces it is supposed to rule.

Another confusion, by the way, is that between open access resources and common property resources. The confusion started when the American ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote his Science article named The Tragedy of The Commons, where he explained how common lands will inevitably be degraded because the individual land user reaps the benefits of an extra sheep while imposing the costs of overgrazing on all users. Daniel Bromley has repeatedly argued against this article and I understand why. The problem is the choice of words: commons. Commons are owned, managed, and used by an exclusive group of users who have every possibility and motivation to make good arrangements and stick to them. In fact, researchers like Elinor Ostrom found that many commons are managed quite well. The “Tragedy” that Hardin describes takes place in open access regimes, like the high seas. Unfortunately the confusion is still omnipresent: just this week The Economist refers to the Tragedy of the Commons to discuss the problems with high seas fishing.

To me, this underlines the importance of defining your concepts well, and being wary of oversimplification. It’s too easy to use the broad brush of open access to paint all problems with resource overexploitation. We need to get into the details to really understand the matter. How are rights, priviliges, obligations, and such distributed? How do they work on paper (de jure) and how do they work in practice (de facto)? How are things like decision-making, monitoring, and enforcement organized, and what resources do they need? What is the role of official laws on one hand and unofficial norms and customs on the other hand, and where do they contradict? I feel that these questions have been overlooked in the debate that was unleashed after Bromley’s Fisheries article.

My impressions of the 2013 ICES Annual Science Conference

My impressions after a week of presentations, discussions, and lots of delicious food:

  • Of all the interdisciplinary conferences I’ve been to so far, the ICES meeting was the most scientific (read: least political, notwithstanding ICES’s role as advisory body for fisheries policy), and the most constructive in its interaction with social scientists (read: economists). Besides EAERE (which I consider a disciplinary meeting) I was once at an ESEE meeting, and once at the European Congress for Conservation Biology. I had mixed feelings about those for their tendency to bash “mainstream economics” (whatever that may be) and to blur the line between science and activism. Perhaps it’s because those communities have the hidden assumption that nature is best left alone by man, whereas fisheries scientists investigate, by definition, a form of interference in nature.
  • Is it just me, or is there a major disconnect between textbook fisheries economics and the practice of fisheries management? Concepts we teach (notably maximum economic yield and the role of the discount rate) are nowhere to be seen – in fact, I once heard a fisheries industry representative refer to maximum economic yield as “a plaything for economists”. In our teaching we hardly pay attention to the stochastic nature of fish stocks, but these days fisheries science is all about reference points and harvest control rules – which only make sense in a stochastic context.
  • Economists can make big contributions to fisheries management by further strengthening how fisheries models describe human behaviour. So far those contributions were largely confined to modelling where fishers fish, but what about investments in gear, or boats? Let alone market structures, global developments (tilapia!), value chains, and policy-makers.
  • Iceland is like an extreme version of Norway. Thought the Norwegian landscape was rugged? Iceland has volcanoes, and geysers! And where I thought Norwegians don’t give a hoot what the rest of the world thinks of hunting and whaling, only Icelanders can serve raw whale meat and rotten shark to a crowd of foreign scientists. (And it was delicious! The whale, that is.) Neither do Icelandic pubs have qualms with playing the entire Velvet Underground & Nico, including John Cale’s ear-piercing viola solo in Heroin.

Wise words from the Bird

Originally I planned to include in my PhD thesis the following quote:

Learn all that stuff and then forget it.

At the time I thought it was Miles Davis who said that, but it might as well have been Charlie Parker (sorry Miles, Bird makes for a better blog post title). I’m not really into jazz: the quote tricked me into looking up some Miles Davis and Charlie Parker on Spotify but after a few songs I always decide to turn on Pelican instead. The closest to jazz that I listen to frequently is the Tom Waits. I absolutely love Tom Waits. Oh, and Ethiopians like Mulatu Astatke or Getatchew Mekuria, but only when I’m in the mood.

But this quote – wow, I could tattoo it on my forehead if I were into that kind of thing (don’t worry, I’m not). It defines how I view the theories I work with, as well as the musical traditions I play. I consider myself a mainstream economist, but I do have my question marks regarding the behavioral and ethical models applied in my field. I don’t think there is any meaningful way of measuring existence value, if it exists at all. I don’t believe economic valuation can capture moral or religious considerations. I appreciate the role that social norms, traditions, or downright stupidity can play in human behavior. But I also think that it is too easy to throw your hands in the air and declare the entire body of neoclassical economics as overly abstract nonsense, or worse, to refuse to learn microeconomics because economists did not predict the latest financial crisis.

The bottom line is that you can only criticize a theory if you fully understand it. By the same token, you can only renew a musical tradition if you master its techniques, its rhythms, its harmonies, and its social context. Miles and Bird could only invent and develop bebop because they understood what came before it. Likewise, if you want better economics, well, make sure that you first understand the orthodoxy.

On the other hand, there is also the “forget it” part. Don’t let the tradition hinder your creativity. Dare to break its rules, to explore its boundaries. Dare to question a theory’s hidden assumptions, don’t accept such excuses as “this is how we have always done it.” Know the rules, but don’t obey them.

The quote, by the way, never made it into my thesis. My professor thought it cynical, as if I recommended the reader to forget all I wrote. I didn’t agree, of course, but I also figured that if he interpreted the quote like that, so would many others. So I left it out. I still regret that decision.