Here is a question from this year's MA exam in microeconomics at GMU.
You can't take it with you. A private owner of a natural resource, like a forest, therefore, will want to clear-cut the forest before he dies in order to maximize his consumption stream (assume the owner has no children or other bequest motive). True or False. Explain.
I was very disappointed to learn that many students got this one wrong. I assume that MR readers will do much better. Answer and discussion in the extension.
False. The owner can sell the forest. As a result, the owner of a forest has an incentive to continue to seed it even if seeds planted today won’t produce trees until after the owner is dead. The same idea applies to any long-lived productive asset.
I think this insight is very beautiful. It’s precisely the fact that the forest is owned that gives the owner an incentive to take into account how other people value the forest.
The basic logic doesn’t require perfect competition or fully efficient markets but if these assumptions do hold then the private owner will choose investment decisions exactly as would a “social planner.”
Bonus questions: What does the logic say about the argument that managers of publicly owned corporations will focus too much on quarterly earnings and not enough on investments that only pay off in the long-run?
What does the logic say about the incentives of a politician who controls an asset like a forest but doesn’t own it?
As usual, and in advance of the Crooked Timber complaints, the points are for thinking about the problem in a logical way, laying out the assumptions and weighing which may or may not hold in various circumstances, and not for arriving at “the answer.” Sorry for being pedantic, but I am a professor.