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Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives [Hardcover]

Michael Heller
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

17 Jun 2008
25 new runways would eliminate most air travel delays in America. Why cant we build them? 50 patent owners are blocking a major drug maker from creating a cancer cure. Why wont they get out of the way? 90% of our broadcast spectrum sits idle while American cell phone service lags far behind Japans and Koreas. Why are we wasting our airwaves? 98% of African American-owned farms have been sold off over the last century. Why cant we stop the loss? All these problems are really the same problem-one whose solution would jump-start innovation, release trillions in productivity, and help revive our slumping economy. Every so often an idea comes along that transforms our understanding of how the world works. Michael Heller has discovered a market dynamic that no one knew existed. Usually, private ownership creates wealth, but too much ownership has the opposite effect-it creates gridlock. When too many people own pieces of one thing, whether a physical or intellectual resource, cooperation breaks down, wealth disappears, and everybody loses. Hellers paradox is at the center of The Gridlock Economy. Todays leading edge of innovation-in high tech, biomedicine, music, film, real estate-requires the assembly of separately owned resources. But gridlock is blocking economic growth all along the wealth creation frontier. A thousand scholars have applied and verified Hellers paradox. Now he takes readers on a lively tour of gridlock battlegrounds. Heller zips from medieval robber barons to modern-day broadcast spectrum squatters; from Mississippi courts selling African-American family farms to troubling New York City land confiscations; and from Chesapeake Bay oyster pirates to todays gene patent and music mash-up outlaws. Each tale offers insights into how to spot gridlock in operation and how we can overcome it. The Gridlock Economy is a startling, accessible biography of an idea. Nothing is inevitable about gridlock. It results from choices we make about how to control the resources we value most. We can unlock the grid; this book shows us where to start.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (17 Jun 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465029167
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465029167
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 16.1 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,157,542 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


The last decade has produced enough books challenging received wisdom to fill a small--and stupendously popular library called the Compendium of Counter-intuition, [including Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink," James Surowiecki's "Wisdom of Crowds ," Chris Anderson's "Long Tail"]. The newest addition to the collection is "The Gridlock Economy," . . . The difference is that Heller, unlike most of the authors of counterintuitive books, is actually a leader in the academic field he is scrutinizing. . . . Heller has managed to pull off one of the most perceptive popular books on property since "Das Kapital,"" --"Slate Magazine"

About the Author

Michael Heller is one of America's leading authorities on ownership. He is the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of Real Estate Law at Columbia Law School and has served as the school's Vice Dean for Intellectual Life. He lives in New York and Los Angeles.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tweaking ownership to optimize resource use 12 Dec 2008
By Rolf Dobelli TOP 500 REVIEWER
Michael Heller has provided an informative, thought-provoking contribution to the discussion of property rights. Using real-life examples, he demonstrates the disaster that happens when too many people own small portions of a resource. Like squabbling siblings who inherit the family home, one holdout can prevent anyone from using or selling it. No one benefits. That's gridlock. Similarly, overuse or neglect often spoil unregulated, unprotected public resources: Licensing requirements prevent companies from developing new drugs because all the potential components are separately patented. Overzealous trademarking and copyrighting undermine the traditions of fair use, blocking artists' creativity. Heller's book is surprisingly entertaining for a work on intellectual property, real-estate law and economics. After you read it, you will never think about resources and ownership in quite the same way again. getAbstract recommends it to lawyers, artists, economists, research and development professionals, and anyone who's been wondering why you rarely see the characters in a screen play singing the happy-birthday song when they blow out the candles. (Answer: It's under copyright until 2030.)
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4.0 out of 5 stars Too many cooks... 19 Aug 2013
Heller's basic thesis is interesting, new (to me) and sound. When too many owners own a resource, getting agreement to exploit it becomes more and more difficult. Chapter One gives you the reasoning for this, the rest of the book is basically a series of anecdotes to prove his point, ranging from land division to patent trolls blackmailing potentially life saving drugs or useful innovation in telecoms and other high tech.

It's a "tragedy of the anticommons" just like Hardin's "tragedy of the commons". in Heller's words.
The tragedy of the Commons is actually rare. Most societies manage common resources pretty well. Otherwise, we wouldn't see these tragedies. We see anticommons tragedies (but we don't see them, according to the author) only because they are new and mostly created by government, in particular patents and regulations.

In truth, the problem is as old as Abraham. Societies have invented patch solutions for this for ages. Cousin marriage in Norfolk and Pakistan, primogeniture elsewhere, limited liability companies, condominiums, etc.

Even Apple and Samsung seem to have reached a sort of truce, as I write. We'll see you in court, but we'll do a deal on the steps.

I am therefore more optimistic than the author, who puts the lost benefit from fragmentation at billions if not trillions of dollars. Some change of the laws is necessary, but beware what you wish for.

Fragmentation may also be beneficial. A son or grandson of the ruling class in China (family of the eight "immortals") is at last on trial for corruption. There are benefits as power is dispersed through the generations, not just costs.

Highly recommended, in short. But take some salt along as well.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  25 reviews
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific. Clear, Informative, Smart. 18 July 2008
By Econjunkie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There are an awfully lot of good books on the economics of private ownership out there. What makes this one special is it really takes apart what has become the most underreported and underestimated side of inefficiency, and that is property being broken into units so small, they aren't of use anymore. This is important, for example, because it has hindered medical innovation, by forcing people to wait out a nearly endless stream of patents before developing a new drug to combat, say, alzheimer's.

Another big positive of the book is it's nice to give credit where credit is due, and Heller invented the study of this stuff. It's great to hear it right from the horse's mouth.

And, what is definitely most important, it is accessible to any audience. If you are just leaving high school and want to know a good collection of injustices created by capitalism run amok, you would want this book.

If you are a free-market economist (or a college econ student) and want to have a thorough understanding of this form of inefficiency, you would want this book.

But I think this book is best for people that look around and feel like the country has so much potential, so much brainpower, and technological ingenuity, and yet for some reason our economy is on life support. There are a lot of books that point fingers at the failures of officials, and businesses, and individuals, etc. This one not only defines problems but points to solutions, something you almost NEVER come across in popular reading today. A great read all around.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and very accessible read 14 July 2008
By A. Ko - Published on Amazon.com
This book is a great introduction to a very interesting topic, written in a way that is easily accessible and understandable both for those in the legal field and those without any legal background at all. Heller skillfully takes readers on a journey through the many areas of life, both historical and contemporary, that are or have been affected by this concept of the anti-commons. Just a few examples include Heller's discussions about robber barons blocking travel through water channels by collecting tolls every few miles, to the difficulties of obtaining rights to music from numerous different owners to create rap songs with mixed samples, to the inhibitory effects on the development of medical treatments because of too many owners owning tiny bits of gene sequences. It is an eye-opening book, and one that everyone should read.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ownership Gone Awry 20 July 2008
By Izaak VanGaalen - Published on Amazon.com
This book arrives at a very auspicious moment. The key concept is that property ownership is not an unmitigated good, and, worse yet, it can lead to economic gridlock and underutilization of resources. In a rising economy, with property values going upward, this book would probably not sell too many copies; but in a declining market, with many homeowners stuck with adjustable mortgages greater than the value of their homes, the downside of property ownership is now more manifest.

Michael Heller teaches real estate law at Columbia University Law School and he is considered one of the foremost authorities on property law. In the current work, he discusses what he calls the tragedy of the anticommuns. The expression "tragedy of the commons" goes back as far as Aristotle, referring to the absence of individual property rights. Heller's "tragedy of the anticommons" refers to uncontrolled proliferation of individual rights, all clamoring for their own stake with total disregard for the common good. He correctly claims that too many property rights can strangle the market. This is an unpopular and inconvenient idea that runs counter to one of the most fundamental beliefs of capitalism.

Heller argues that property rights create gatekeepers. A gatekeeper is someone whose permission we need to get something done. Modern society is complex, and with more and more gatekeepers, the chances of getting things done becomes more difficult all the time. This sounds like commonsense, and economists have traditionally called this the burden of transaction costs. Heller's take on this issue is new and refreshing in that he creates a new vocabulary in describing it.

One of the examples Heller uses to illustrate his thesis is the gridlock that is taking place in the pharmaceutical industry. Many important drugs remain off the market because there are too many owners of patents all claiming rights to future profits.

Another example is the current mortgage crisis. In the old days when banks made loans and kept them on their books until they were paid off, ownership was clear and simple. Now, after loans have been repackaged and sold to investors many times over, ownership is multiple and no longer clear, making it virtually impossible to restructure them.

Although possibly trendy and definitely contrarian, this book does not give any solutions to the problem, other than understanding them better. Property rights are the cornerstone of capitalism as economists and philosophers since Adam Smith have argued, and as Heller himself argues. However, sometimes respecting everyone's rights strangles the economy and something needs to be done for the common good. This book is an interesting discussion of this dilemma.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heller's Gridlock 28 July 2008
By J. Schmitt - Published on Amazon.com
Michael Heller's Gridlock Economy is this year's must-read popular economics book. As reviewers at Slate, Time, and elsewhere have noted, Heller's book compares well to 2005's mega-hit Freakonomics, as well as Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, James Surowiecki's (of The New Yorker) The Wisdom of Crowds, and Chris Anderson's The Long Tail.

Gridlock Economy shares two important characteristics with those books: a compelling central organizing idea and great writing. The central organizing idea is that "too much ownership" can stifle economic innovation. By "too much ownership," Heller is referring to the kind of situation that arises with increasing frequency across all the key sectors of the new economy including biotechnology, software, computer hardware, music, movies, and finance. Our efforts to promote innovation by granting patents and copyrights (and other government-sponsored forms of intellectual property protection) can often come back to bite us.

Heller provides dozens of interesting examples across the entire range of the new economy. His lead example involves the difficulties that a researcher at a big drug company is having pursuing a promising cure for Alzheimers. To make headway, the researcher needs to purchase or license a host of patents held by a not small number of competitors. Our current patent system gives --for better and, in this case, for worse-- gives each patent holder involved the capacity to hold up this important research. If we're lucky an entrepreneurial "patent bundler" will come along and piece together the necessary patents and licenses. Meanwhile, we're stuck in Heller's gridlock.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars don't miss this paradigm shift in solving economic puzzles 7 July 2008
By V. Rutter - Published on Amazon.com
If you want to understand and make use of a central puzzle at the heart of medical innovation, creative arts, telecomm (and many others), read Heller's new book. His key insight--in academic jargon known as the tragedy of the anti-commons--is that our old-fashioned ways of managing ownership frequently get in the way of creating wealth (and innovation) in the new economy.

Heller illustrates his observation--that in some cases there is such a thing as too much private property--with a jazillion well-researched examples that take you to the interior of big pharma, telecomm, software, and the like. The scope of his examples is breathtaking--and ultimately personal. His solutions run the gamut but focus largely on entrepreneurship...except that it is entrepreneurship informed by recognizing the opportunities and risks of gridlock that are outlined in his book (as well as his articles in Science, Harvard Law Review, and elsewhere).

This is a well-written book that is a pleasure to read and a real page-turner.
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