Michael Heller’s Prescription for Gridlock
Michael Heller is one of America’s leading authorities on property. He is the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of Real Estate Law at Columbia Law School.
His new book The Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives was released in 2008. In The Gridlock Economy, Heller draws on everyday experiences - from airport delays to new-style rap music - to show why the structure of ownership matters so much more than people may realize. Private ownership usually creates wealth, but too much ownership has the opposite effect - it creates gridlock. This is a free market paradox that Heller discovered and it's the dynamic at the center of our gridlock economy.
Question: How can under use be addressed?
Michael Heller: Well, the first and most important way to start dealing with gridlock, to fixing gridlock is to spot it and make it visible. So, with this conceptual tool that I’m giving you, the tool of the tragedy of the anticommons, everyone of us, it isn’t just policy officials, it isn’t just regulators, as a matter of fact, every single one of us individually, if we’re a cancer patient or a family of someone who is or an inventor or an innovator or an entrepreneur or someone who is concerned about the state of what’s happening in Washington, this is the tool for helping you think about and frame ways to intervene in your own business, in your own family life, in the economy, as an advocate, as an entrepreneur, with this tool you can begin to spot the gridlock dilemmas that are around you. And my hope is that once you can spot them, people will begin to be able to come together with others who are facing similar problems and then say, “Hey, we have a solution that works in this other anticommons area, let’s see if we can make it work here.” So, just like the tragedy of the commons help bring together the environmental movement, my hope is that this unifying umbrella, the single conceptual breakthrough or idea gives the tool the people need to begin to come together to work together.
Question: How do you get private owners to agree to a common good?
Michael Heller: So the steps to a solution, first are getting people to realize that underuse is as costly to our economy as overuse, so one of the ways that we get that is noticing that the fact that we only have 1% of our electricity coming from wind power isn’t just a given, isn’t a force of nature. It’s a choice that we’ve made about structure of ownership. So, once we see that we can change that, we can begin to talk with those utility companies along the way and those states along the way of potential routes. And, we actually in this country already have the authority to fix this. Let me give you a precedent which is the same problem that we have with wind power, we have a related problem with cellphone towers just a decade ago. We couldn’t build cellphone towers to have nationwide phone service, because, again, every single community want that they’d be nationwide service, they just didn’t want the tower in their community. They wanted it the next community over. So, in the 1996 Telecom Act, so 12 years ago, Congress made a federal law that communities couldn’t block cellphone towers. The downside? We have some ugly towers, you know, but we don’t necessarily want them. The upside is that we created 200,000 cell phone towers in this country. We’ve created a basic infrastructure that we need for the next generation of cell technology. We can do the same thing with wind power. Two years ago, in 2005 Energy Act, Congress gave the president the authority to override state objections to national transmission networks. So, the president actually has the authority to fix the transmission problem. So, one insight maybe from the economy perspective is to say to the president, “Hey,” you know, “this is a gridlock problem. You have the power to fix it, and here’s some language that you can use, and in talking to people and explaining to people what the problem is and why you’re doing that.” We only give patents to promote invention. We say, “We’ll give you a monopoly on this idea for a period of time to encourage you to invent something.” But it turns out that today more patents are leading to less innovation. So, the point of the patent system is to create innovation, we have to think about ratchet in the other way as well… We can get more innovation, more drugs, save more lives, but maybe narrowing a little bit what it means to have a patent. We don’t want to end patents, we just want to make patents serve the original purpose, the only purpose for which they were intended, which is to spur innovation.
Once people spot instances of gridlock, they can begin to address them collectively, says Michael Heller.
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