Over the weekend my son and I saw WALL*E, Pixar’s new story about the adventures of a robot living on a post-environmental apocalypse Earth in which the land has been entirely covered by mountains of trash. As it turns out, more than 700 years before humanity had ditched the planet under the leadership of BnL Corp., the super-retailer that seems to have taken over the world, replacing not only the government but all other economic actors. Despite the apparently heavy-handed plot that I just summarized, WALL*E is a delightful movie, and the obvious jabs at Wall*Mart and other big-box retailers are delivered with such charm and — oddly given the post-apocalyptic setting — understatement that some-time Wall*Mart apologist that I am, I found myself carried effortlessly along by the story. That said, the vision of a world ruled by BnL Corp. got me thinking about the implicit theory of the firm underlying Pixar’s dystopia.
Firms, of course, are an embarrassment to economic theory. If the market is so good at coordinating the production of goods and services, why would you even see firms, which exist as islands of central planning in a sea of unplanned spontaneous order? Since Coase’s ground breaking article in the 1930s, the answer has been “transaction costs.” The central planning of the firm necessarily imposes costs given the informational constraints that managers necessarily labor under. On the other hand, so long as those costs are less than the cost of coordinating the same activity through spot contracts in the market, the firm is more efficient than the alternatives. So what gives with BnL Corp.? Why would one firm get so big as to engulf all others? Here are some thoughts.