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Retrospectives: The Marginal Cost Controversy

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  • Brett M. Frischmann
  • Christiaan Hogendorn

Abstract

From 1938 to 1950, there was a spirited debate about whether decreasing-average-cost industries should set prices at marginal cost, with attendant subsidies if necessary. In 1938, Harold Hotelling published a forceful and far-reaching proposal for marginal cost pricing entitled "The General Welfare in Relation to Problems of Taxation and of Railway and Utility Rates." After several years and many pages of discussion, Ronald Coase gave a name and a clear formulation to the debate in his 1946 article "The Marginal Cost Controversy." We will tell much of the story of this controversy by comparing the frameworks of Hotelling and Coase, while also bringing in other contributors and offering some thoughts about contemporary relevance. The arguments marshaled by Coase (and his contemporaries) not only succeeded in this particular debate, as we shall see, but more generally served as part of the foundation for various fields of modern economics, particularly institutional, regulatory, and public choice economics as well as law and economics. Yet the underlying issues are quite difficult to resolve, and the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments for marginal cost pricing can turn on specific elements of the industry.

Suggested Citation

  • Brett M. Frischmann & Christiaan Hogendorn, 2015. "Retrospectives: The Marginal Cost Controversy," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 29(1), pages 193-206, Winter.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:29:y:2015:i:1:p:193-206
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.29.1.193
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Christiaan Hogendorn, 2012. "Spillovers and Network Neutrality," Chapters, in: Gerald R. Faulhaber & Gary Madden & Jeffrey Petchey (ed.), Regulation and the Performance of Communication and Information Networks, chapter 8, Edward Elgar Publishing.
    2. Alfred E. Kahn, 1988. "The Economics of Regulation: Principles and Institutions," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262610523, December.
    3. Lipsey, Richard G. & Carlaw, Kenneth I. & Bekar, Clifford T., 2005. "Economic Transformations: General Purpose Technologies and Long-Term Economic Growth," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199290895.
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    Cited by:

    1. Brett M. Frischmann & Alain Marciano & Giovanni Battista Ramello, 2019. "Retrospectives: Tragedy of the Commons after 50 Years," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 33(4), pages 211-228, Fall.
    2. Christiaan Hogendorn & Brett Frischmann, 2017. "Infrastructure and General Purpose Technologies: A Technology Flow Framework," Wesleyan Economics Working Papers 2017-001, Wesleyan University, Department of Economics.
    3. Marian W. Moszoro & Pablo T. Spiller, 2016. "Coase and the transaction cost approach to regulation," Chapters, in: Claude Ménard & Elodie Bertrand (ed.), The Elgar Companion to Ronald H. Coase, chapter 19, pages 262-275, Edward Elgar Publishing.
    4. Alain Marciano, 2019. "Ronald H. Coase (1910–2013)," Post-Print hal-02306814, HAL.
    5. Moszoro Marian W., 2016. "Coasean Quality of Regulated Goods," The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 16(4), pages 1-13, October.
    6. Valentiny, Pál, 2018. "Coase-kép másképp: középpontban a közszolgáltatások [Coase otherwise: Public utilities]," Közgazdasági Szemle (Economic Review - monthly of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), Közgazdasági Szemle Alapítvány (Economic Review Foundation), vol. 0(4), pages 346-381.
    7. Oriol Carbonell-Nicolau, 2020. "An alternative to natural monopoly," Journal of Regulatory Economics, Springer, vol. 58(2), pages 184-192, December.
    8. Christiaan Hogendorn & Brett Frischmann, 2020. "Infrastructure and general purpose technologies: a technology flow framework," European Journal of Law and Economics, Springer, vol. 50(3), pages 469-488, December.

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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • B21 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought since 1925 - - - Microeconomics
    • D24 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations - - - Production; Cost; Capital; Capital, Total Factor, and Multifactor Productivity; Capacity

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