Michael A. Heller and James Salzman

Mar 10, 2021


How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives

Doubleday 2021

Today I spoke with Michael Heller about the book he has just published with James Salzman. The title is Mine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives (Doubleday, 2021)

Michael Heller at Columbia University is Professor of Real Estate Law. Before joining Columbia Law in 2002, you taught at the University of Michigan, NYU, UCLA, and Yale Law Schools. Prior to entering academia, you worked at the World Bank on post-socialist legal transition and you even served as a law clerk at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. James Salzman is the Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law with joint appointments at the UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. He was formerly at Duke University. His book, Drinking Water: A History, was reviewed and praised in the New York Times and Washington Post.

Ownership rules have been a key topic in economics and law since the establishment of the disciplines, with economics being much more junior than law. Recently Law and economics or economic analysis of law have become an important field.

Ownership rules are a key issue for Marx, John R. Commons, Oliver E. Williamson, Henry Hanssman. The authors themselves are very erudite academics that have chosen to write a book based on their research but very accessible to everyone in the style of Freakonomics.

The book is about 300 pages, 7 chapters and one epilogue. They reveal six simple stories everyone uses to claim everything. Owners choose the rule that steers us to do what they want. But we can pick a different rule. As Heller and Salzman show, ownership is always up for grabs.

Ownership is not simple, natural. It is intrinsically controversial and linked to inequality. We started our conversation with children arguing for the ownership of a toy at the playground and we ended talking about the tax and ownership regime in South Dakota.

“Mine” is one of the first words babies learn. By the time we grow up, the idea of ownership seems natural, whether we are buying a cup of coffee or a house. But who controls the space behind your airplane seat: you reclining or the squished laptop user behind you? Why does HBO look the other way when you illegally borrow a password to stream their shows? And after a snowstorm, why does a chair in the street hold your parking space in Chicago, but in New York you lose the space and the chair?

This is a very nice book that many will enjoy reading and is advertised by a very cool website with videos that allow you to meet the authors: https://www.minethebook.com/videos/

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Andrea Bernardi

Andrea Bernardi is Senior Lecturer in Employment and Organization Studies at Oxford Brookes University in the UK.

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