If you are too young to remember when Julia Roberts came into her own as an actress, rewatch Erin Brockovich. No one can flash a smile as well as Roberts. And the zesty character of an everyday single mom taking on corporate America in a David and Goliath story is a perfect match for Julia.
But this real-life tale is a redemption tale for markets. Wait- you don’t have to go googling the plot to confirm the intent of the story was to exemplify market failure of the classic kind. The firm (in this case the Pacific Gas & Electric Company- but there were many) in an effort to maximize profits, refused to look into claims of contaminants seeping into the neighboring soil and water. In order to keep track of things, let’s name the marketplace with the anchoring of the firm. Let’s call this traditional collection of goods, customers and firm, M1. PG&E is striving to provide goods and services to their consumers at the best prices. It’s a win for everyone in M1!
But not so fast. Erin Brockovich steps in as an activist and donates hundreds of hours of her (unpaid) labor to help determine that the residents near the plant are suffering from externalities of M1. This is where most people stop and claim that capitalism doesn’t work because M1 has not taken into consideration the surrounding community. Truth be told, they just haven’t finished watching the movie. Because it is soon readily apparent that M1 is contained in M2. And it is in M2 that Brockovich and her law firm and the community residents are going to form a common interest and push back on M1.
Here’s a good spot to encourage the reader to look back through the menu to categories explained at Home-Economic. The activity in a social sphere is governed by groups sharing a common interest, and the efforts or sacrifices they are willing to contribute towards that goal and the ongoing and updated norms which guide their behavior. The young paralegal revved up the M2 by going to the group (audience) and educating them to the claims at hand. This spurs on further efforts to make M2 more efficient by rectifying the public health concerns being externalized by M1.
As many law firms know, if claims of this nature are successfully demonstrated, the courts will order a balancing of accounts through a financial settlement. This not only pays those harmed for the externalities, it also makes it clear to other firms that being negligent will end badly. In this case it took $335 million in 2006 to bring M2 back into balance.
Note too that this process also occurs for positive externalities. For instance, a company produces widgets in M1 at a certain cost to consumers. Then there is a technology improvement in a broader market, call it M2. Once the firm has access to the public good of knowledge of a new process/technology, then product prices drop and consumers in M1 internalize the benefit through lower prices.
The question isn’t whether the market is failing. The question is what market are we in and where is the inefficiency.