In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Another Technical Note
  2. La Ligne Maginot
  3. Actress Notes
  4. Technical Day
  5. Peripheral Explanation
  6. More Immigration Links
  7. Another Graphic Detournement
  8. Peripheral Artists (5): Mikhail Vrubel
  9. Illegal Update

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Facts of the Day | Main | Stephen Bodio Blogs »

June 16, 2005

Questions for Free Market Fans

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've noticed a certain kind of dustup -- or maybe a certain pattern of dustup -- that puzzles me.

Here it is:

  • Someone -- an economist, a sociologist, a trend-spotter -- will notice something about how we live. A much-remarked-on recent instance is Barry Schwartz, who in his book "The Paradox of Choice" argues that many people find the consumer-cornucopia conditions we live with these days bewildering, even paralyzing. Schwartz then goes on to make some policy suggestions.

  • The book (or article) is received and argued-over almost entirely as a collection of policy proposals. People line up on one side or the other. In the case of Schwartz: "Lotsa choice is a good thing, and besides, arguing that it's not is the equivalent of wanting to control the market!" Vs: "Lotsa choice is mind-fogging, and a sign of decadence, and something political oughta done about it!"

  • Meanwhile, an important part of what Schwartz has done -- the part that interests me the most -- goes neglected: Has Schwartz in fact noticed anything valid? If so, what's it like to live in these conditions? Do people -- do you? do I? -- find lotsa-choices overwhelming? In what ways? And what kinds of ways have all of us worked out, or not worked out, to deal with it?

Why such an overemphasis on "What to do about it?" And why such an underemphasis on "Is it true? And what's it like?"

Much of the blasting-away in these cases comes from free-market types -- people I'm a fan of and a cheerleader for. I seem to recall that Tyler Cowen and Arnold Kling -- both of them terrific -- have had goes at "happiness research." And Virginia Postrel -- also terrific -- has taken issue with Barry Schwartz.

If memory serves, all three quarreled with their subjects less on the basis of perceptions and observations -- What makes people happy? Is choice a lot to deal with? -- than on the basis of the kinds of (often social-democratic) policies such findings tend to incline the authors towards.

Confounding the observation with the policy-prescription seems like such an elementary reasoning goof ... In the case of Schwartz's book: Perhaps he's right where his observation is concerned. Perhaps many people do find it dizzying to have to sort through shelf after shelf full of toothpastes in order to find their tube of Crest. Perhaps these confounded-by-choice experiences are even a central part of our existence today.

As for Schartz's policy prescriptions? Well, maybe they're great, maybe they're suck-ola. But they aren't the same thing as his observations and his studies. In any case: Demonstrating how stupid Barry Schwartz's policy preferences are does not invalidate Barry Schwartz's observations.

A current example: at Asymmetrical Information, Mindles K. Dreck posted snarkily about a Stacy Schiff NYTimes column. Schiff's theme was the absurd boundlessness of consumer choice today. A brief pause to say that I really enjoy Asymmetrical Information, and that I think Mindles K. Dreck is first-class. I'm having a good time taking issue with someone whose brain I like and admire.

Still! Dreck dumps on Schiff for being a Barry Schwartz-ite, perhaps even something just this side of a Stalinist. Curious, I read the Stacy Schiff column and -- although I didn't enjoy the column for a variety of reasons -- Schiff nowhere advocates controlling the market. She doesn't advocate passing any laws either. She's just saying -- if in an annoying tone of voice -- "Sheesh, it can get to be a lot, no?"

I might have criticized Schiff's column for lofty carrying-on, or for preaching to the choir, or for a bad attitude. But I can't see attacking it for being anti-choice or anti-consumer in any politically meaningful way. I can't imagine why even a devoted free-marketeer would have been irked by the column.

Full of caffeine, I jumped into the Asymmetrical Information discussion with this comment (slightly edited here):

The discussion here seems to be set up as an either/or: you're either for more consumer choice, or you're a statist asshole who wants to Stalinize everyone else's life ...

But why can't we take another tack entirely? Why not recognize that some if not many people -- OK, maybe not you specifically -- sometimes do find it more than a little bewildering to be living in such consumer cornucopia conditions? Why shouldn't stopping at this point for a few seconds not be legit? Why not just discuss what we (or many other people) find contempo life to be like without instantly advancing to the policy-decision stage?

I think there's lots of value in pausing over the "what it's like" part of the discussion before roaring ahead into the "what must be done" part. It's interesting in its own right, and it helps people get oriented. If the free market is about being able to participate as you want -- well, when you're feeling blurry and confused (ie., overwhelmed by huge amounts of choice), how do you figure out what you want?

Comparing notes about questions like these is important in a free market, and (IMHO anyway) free market fans should encourage these discussions, not try to scold them away. Rapping about how you like to buy the toothpaste you like is important. It's interesting. It's part of how you contend.

If some people say they find ever-growing-choice overwhelming, then that ought to be taken note of, not suppressed or hustled out of existence, too. Perhaps someone will find your way of coping helpful. Perhaps you'll learn something from someone else.

Perhaps someone will quiet down and realize he might (or might not) shop the way you do. In turn, that'll have an effect on the market -- the market will become more (and not less) responsive to what people really want, which in some cases may be stores that carry fewer items on the shelf.

Which is a way of freeing up the market, not narrowing it down. One person might shop -- might choose to shop -- where there are 99 kinds of toothpaste on display, but someone else might prefer to shop where only 5 are available. That's a freer, not a tighter, market. But how can we get to these points without first allowing the "what's it like for you?" conversation to occur?

I confess that in some online discussions I feel like the wife in a cliche marriage. The classic scenario is that, at the end of the day, Wifey wants to sift and sort through her experiences and feelings. Meanwhile, the Hubster urges Wifey to cut to the facts and make a decision about what to do, dammit. Wifey, offended by what she experiences as a slight, goes on the attack; Hubster expresses bewilderment ... In certain blog-discussions, I find myself taking the wifely side: I don't want to make decisions and take action, I want to pause over the experience and the feelings. Ah, well, so be it: Call me a girly-man, I don't care.

Between you and me, I have a suspicion that the reason free marketeers are quick to leap to the policy-decision part of these discussions -- to force the conversation to that point, really -- is that they want to dismiss the initial observations of people like Schwartz. That's their real agenda: they don't want to hear the complaints. Why? Because they're afraid that if they were to allow that such observations have some validity, people would rush off and pass anti-market laws.

Maybe I'm being unfair about motives here. But it's hard for me to understand the free-market dismissal of the "What's it like?" phase of the discussion otherwise. I think I have a good riposte to this move, though: Why are free-marketeers working so hard to control the conversation? By trying to control the free market of ideas, aren't they violating their own freedom-is-everything principles?

All of which has led me to scratch my head over a Larger Question about free marketism. Let me start with some personal examples:

  • Part of the pleasure of my morning walk is walking through Madison Square Park. Recently, workers maintaining the park have given up using rakes and brooms and have started using gas-powered leaf-blower equipment instead. Noise, smoke, and dust are everywhere. It's likely that a bureaucrat at City Hall saw a chance to save money by using two guys with machines instead of six guys with hand equipment for the morning cleanup. Nonetheless, the result of this decision has been that the experience of walking through Madison Square Park has been much degraded for hundreds of passersby. All of whom are taxpayers, btw -- people paying the salary of the bureaucrat who made this pro-leaf-blower decision.

  • Audiobooks on audiocassette are, IMHO, a near-perfect medium. You stop 'em, you start 'em -- what's hard about that? Cassettes are handy. They fit in a pocket; even audiotape-Walkman-players fit in some pockets. When you stop at an ATM, what-to-do-with-the-Walkman- while-you-search-for-your-bankcard is a problem easily solved. Recently, though, publishers have started abandoning audiocassettes; "books on tape" are becoming "books on CD." From the point of view of this heavy audiobook listener, CDs are a lousy medium for audiobooks. It's easy to lose your place in a CD audiobook; it isn't unusual for me to spend five minutes trying to re-find where I left off. The size of CDs is awkward. They don't fit in pockets; they need those dumb "jewel boxes" for storage. And CD players -- no matter how slim -- fit in no pocket known to citydwellers. Stopping at an ATM while listening to an audiobook becomes a major logistics challenge.

  • Every couple of weeks, I buy a new box of the same breakfast cereal I've been eating for the last couple of decades. As everyone who visits a grocery store knows, in recent years the number of breakfast cereals available has exploded. Shelf after shelf is filled with new! exciting! and healthy! breakfast cereals. Retailers seldom seem to put the same brand in the same place on the shelves. Result of greater-choice-in-breakfast-cereals for me: It has become much more of a chore than it used to be to locate the one breakfast cereal I like.

  • I used a Palm Pilot happily for a few years. Then the batteries failed ... A hard drive crashed ... I threw the Palm Pilot away and put the appointments and the address book back on paper. (It's not fun moving info into a Palm Pilot, and it's even less fun moving it from a Palm back onto paper. But paper never crashes, and paper needs no batteries.) For various reasons, I maintain five different email accounts, each one of which needs an address book. I like email, and I use it a lot. Still: 20 years ago, all I required to get through a basic day was one paper address book and one paper calendar. These days: good golly but I seem to spend a lot of time moving life-information around, and updating it to multiple accounts.

  • Computers enable me to do nifty things like run a blog. On the other hand, thanks to computers, I have less creative input at my job than I once did; computers have enabled people in other departments (and at other levels) to take over more control of the process than they once had. Thanks to computers, I'm free to express myself as I see fit on my blog. Whee. Meanwhile at work, I'm more of a cog in the wheel and less of a participant than I once was. Hiss.

In other words, my experience of "economic progress" in the last 15 or so years has been largely negative. What has the upside been? Certainly not my salary, which has gone up no faster than inflation. Some neato toys, I suppose.

Yet, despite this, I'm expected to cheerlead for the free-market system?

I do in fact root for generally-freer rather than generally-tighter markets. But this is because I'm able to. I'm not one of the system's losers. I'm also not very materialistic, and I have some ability to rise above my own annoyances; I'm able to say, "Well, OK, I may encounter some frustrations. But generally speaking a freer market seems to work out better for many than a less free market does." But why should we expect other, less noble, people to be able to rise to my level of selflessness? (Small joke.)

Considered from a practical point of view, isn't this a major problem for free-marketeers? If a free market generates lots of frustration and annoyance, then who exactly is going to pitch in to help sustain the conditions that make such a market possible? Only the winning-est of the winners? Games depend on the people playing them, after all; it seems to me that it could be argued that games don't really exist unless people are playing them. The people playing the free-market game better be doing so voluntarily. If they aren't taking part willingly, then what they're taking part in isn't a "free" market.

So: What if a sizable number of a game's participants aren't feeling enthusiastic about the game they're participating in?

Here's another example.

  • I recently read Richard Layard's "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science," which follows the same formula as Barry Schwartz's book. The first half of "Happiness" is a brisk, helpful, amusing, and somewhat moving survey of what's known as "happiness research." The second half consists of a bunch of policy suggestions. Quick verdict: the first half of the book is well worth reading; the second half is a predictable bore.

    One of the findings of happiness research is that many people care more about relative wealth than they do about absolute wealth. In other words, what's important to many people's emotional wellbeing is less how they're doing in an absolute sense than how they're doing compared to their neighbors and associates. A person making $100,000 a year but living among people who make $200,000 might well be less happy than a person who makes only $50,000 a year but who lives among people making $25,000. TV and magazines -- both of which show a lot of people (in ads and on programs) living very prosperous lives -- seem to exacerbate the problem of relative wealth by regularly exposing everyone to images of extreme affluence. People look at sitcoms, soap operas, and stories about movie stars, and many feel worse about their own circumstances than they otherwise would.

Before anyone says "Tough titty, deal with it," let's remember that the votes of these people -- people who are made unhappy and envious by comparing themselves to others -- count as much as your selfless vote does and my selfless vote does.

What interests me for the sake of this posting is this: OK, maybe a freer market is the goose that lays the golden egg. But what if my personal experience of the free market is a bad one? Less dramatically: What if my experience of the free market is simply, "Whoa, dude, this is really an inconvenient pain"? Why should free-market fans think they can count on the continuing participation of people like me? After all, it's only human: If a person thinks his life is more full of frustration and annoyance than it otherwise might be, he's probably going to want to subvert the conditions that are causing him discomfort.

Free marketeers cheer when people freely express their preferences in a market context. But even in free-market terms: Isn't it naive to hope that some people aren't going to freely express themselves by demonstrating a preference for taking down (or reining-in) the free-market system itself?

What if the free market system itself is generating a lot of these people? Further: If these questions have any validity, doesn't this mean that the free market is self-subverting? If so: Do you enforce "the free market" from on high? But that doesn't even sound liberal, let alone "free."

Is there any way around these multiple forms of self-subversion? The free market requires the assent of its participants. What if many of them -- because of conditions created by the free market itself -- just don't feel like giving their assent?

Please: no debates about free markets vs. controlled markets. I'm a fan of freer-rather-than-tighter markets myself, though I think that as a practical matter a certain amount of shading and softening (as well as salesmanship and class) will always be needed to keep the goose laying those yummy golden eggs.

A few of the questions up for discussion: Is free-market absolutism self-subverting? And: If so, what can be done to rescue the free market from its own excesses -- and to sustain a freer rather than a more-controlled market?

By the way: Hey, how about all that choice, huh? I confess that I often feel dizzied by the dozens of toothpastes and hundreds of breakfast cereals on display. More than that: I don't enjoy spending a lot of mental energy and horsepower on buying-and-selling. It doesn't interest me that much. And being presented with a hundred toothpaste options strikes me as a ... well, not very inspiring kind of freedom anyway. I'm resigned to contending with lotsa-choice -- it sure beats the alternative. But wading my way through tons and tons of product to find that one thing I want to buy is genearlly not my idea of heaven.(Although I do enjoy shopping for books and DVDs.) Most of the time, though: I've got other things I'd rather spend my time and energy on.

But who knows? Maybe I simply prefer exploring the "What's it like?" phase of life. And maybe the really, really important phase is the "What do we do about it?" phase. I do live by the immortal words of chief swami Buckaroo Banzai, after all: "Wherever you go, there you are."

On the other hand, and a little more seriously: How can you even know what you want (if anything) if you haven't spent time exploring what your current experience is like?

Friedrich von Blowhard expressed reservations about happiness research here.



posted by Michael at June 16, 2005


Ach, just rip your CD onto an iPod. Press pause, and it'll stay at the same point in your audiobook for weeks if you want. It'll also give you an exact timestamp for where you're at in the book -- handy if you want to "bookmark" something -- just write down the timestamp somewhere. If you want to listen to music and then go back to the book, you can press the main center button after it starts playing, and the scroll wheel will scroll up and down the time bar so that you can get to your exact timestamp in a matter of seconds.

Posted by: Felix on June 16, 2005 07:18 PM

Felix beat me to it... I've heard good things about the combination of MP3 players and audiobooks.

Posted by: Michael non-Blowhard on June 16, 2005 07:43 PM

"Is free-market absolutism self-subverting?"

I think the available evidence indicates that it is not. Over time, the available choices in almost every area continue to increase. Certainly we lose some choices over time (books on tape, for instance), but we gain a variety of other choices at the same time (books on CD, books on flash memory, books on hard drive, free downloads of old titles -- see Baen Books, whatever).

If it were the case that there were not a demand for these sufficient to support the new industries, we should have seen collapses in choice quantity by now. I haven't seen them; perhaps your experience is different. In fact, the rhetoric of the vocal opponents of our current commerce system decries the consolidation of the market, not its diversification (see McDonalds, Barnes and Noble, etc.). I'm not sure how to justify the two complaints at the same time, but then they aren't my complaints.

"What do we do about it?"

My choice has been to aggressively use rating and referral systems like those provided by Amazon, and to seek out credible reviews. When it works (and when I work at it), it works quite well. At times this can be a bit daunting, but I certainly like it better than the alternatives I've seen. At the least, we have a better ability to find out about really bad choices in advance of making a decision than we did in the past.

The primary source of mental stress for me is that I've made a poor choice that I will discover shortly after committing to it, but that mostly comes down to a "greener grass" problem. I try to remember that almost any choice is probably adequate, and write the inadequate choices off as learning experiences*. Sometimes it works.

I should probably also mention, however, that the very possibility of finding enough information to make an informed choice can increase the stress of making an uninformed choice. I think this is something of a Puritan hangover -- "You could have made a better choice if you weren't so lazy. Work harder!"

ps. I do find it interesting that of the two specific laments you mention (books on tape, and cereal), one is a complaint about a lost choice.

* Of course it might be well to remember that the only thing worse than a "learning experience" is a "moral victory".

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 16, 2005 07:50 PM

Consider what subverts free markets. It's either "force" or "fraud."

Force, as in political force, Stalinism, backed up by the barrel of a rifle.

Or fraud, the sophisticated, self-conscious motive to deceive, with the goal of furthering your own ends.

The proliferation of consumer "choice" is simply "fraud" dressed up as a lively end-cap in your supermarket. It offends the sensibilities of those who resent its sophistication.

That sophistication and the mechanics underlying that fraud are impressivel. They're unsettling. And they force us to re-adjust our bullshit meters one again. And again.

That's life. And wherever we go. There we are. Cant' quit on the BS meter. Go to keep going. Wherever it takes us.

No pro- or prescriptions needed or necessary.

Posted by: heron543 on June 16, 2005 08:03 PM

Well *of course* we measure our wealth in relative terms. We rarely want what we don't have, or we'd be pathetically unhappy our entire lives. Most of us don't mourn our lack of flying cars and 500 year lifespan. But once they start becoming common, of course we'd feel badly if we missed it.

More importantly, there's no rule that says that the path of economic progress has to make us happier. I'm always amused by the "revealed preference" that free-marketers use to "prove" that we really want more choice or more goods or whatever. The fact that people might choose A when choosing between A and B doesn't mean that they'd have been wouldn't have been happiest if A had never existed.

However, there's a lot to be said about the fact that most solutions are probably worse than the problem, at least where minor irritations like too much choice are concerned.

Posted by: Tom West on June 16, 2005 08:47 PM

Free-marketeers are like everybody else...they jump ahead of the conversation you want to have because they've had the arguments a million times already.

Is free-market absolutism self-subverting?

Nah. We're producing a new generation every day that gets to experience the joys of seemingly limitless choice. If it was just us old fogies, well, maybe. I get tired of clutter and clatter, too, but I'm always glad it's there for the folks who want it. I'd never want to reduce my grandkid's options.

I don't enjoy spending a lot of mental energy and horsepower on buying-and-selling.

Don't be so picky about your toothpaste, hoss. Grab one and go and get on with life.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 16, 2005 08:50 PM

As far back as I was mature enough to pay attention to social and policy issues (when I was in high school, probably) I've from time to time read complaints about this sort of thing, usually from the woolly-socks-and-sandals crowd. And there was always a political or policy sub-text. I don't recall if consumer confusion was mentioned (though it almost had to have been), but there was a lot of harping on how "inefficient" such a system was, and that something really ought to be done. Somewhat related were characterizations of advertising as being manipulative, yet "inefficient". The question of being inefficient COMPARED TO WHAT (other than someting Platonic) didn't seems to come up much. In my judgment, the topic of multiple products was raised in the first place as one of a long series of attempts to create ideological wedge issues. This is why Schwartz got attacked: it was seen as a new battle in an old war. I've only read about his book, so this is a bit top-of-the-head, but Schwartz's innovation is that he has tries to turn the multiple-product thing into a (mental) HEALTH issue. The poor sappy American advertising-addled consumer is too stoooopid to cope. And needs the mandarins to come to the rescue.

I don't claim to be typical, so I'll simply mention a few things about my shopping habits to add to the Blowhards Knowledge Base on this matter.

When I shop for clothing, I'm extremely picky. If I can't find a sport jacket or necktie that I like, I simply don't buy -- I almost never settle for substitutes unless I have no choice. (Usually prompted by a deadline imposed from the outside -- Lady Friend: "Don, you simply MUST buy a suit to wear at Wendy's wedding a week from Saturday!") But I LIKE lots of clothing choices because this enhances the chance that I'll find something I like.

And I never even seriously considered buying a PDA because I knew my life was simple enough to manage with paper and pencil (I'm no technophobe: I design and program software systems at work).

When I need to replace a cellphone, I get one with the fewest features, or nearly so.

Where faced with a gazillion different breakfast cerials or toothpaste tubes, I stick to the brand and type I've been used to buying. The time spent looking for my targets is minimal; it's only a problem if I'm in a store I'm not familiar with and I have to figure out the stocking layout, which a differnt matter entirely.

I suppose my bottom line is that I seem to funtion just fine in our abundant market.

Finally, every society from ancient Egypt to Renaissance Italy to the Soviet Union to modern America has had its haves and have-nots, and they were always easy to spot; this is nothing new, so I see no unusual backlash or negative feedback loop compared to other times and places. I went through a bad financial patch 12 years ago and did feel bitter about (especially) government workers with soft jobs and nice cars. TV sit-com lifestyles and advertising weren't really important factors contributing to my attitude, though they were present. My mental health was okay because I knew I was to blame for my problems. What was I saying a while back about not being typical...?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 16, 2005 09:44 PM

The shelving of breakfast cereals, indeed of many supermarket items, is anything but random. Manufacturers promoting new items pay supermarkets to give the items desirable eye-level shelf space. Another example: most supermarkets shelve canned soups according to some formula I don't quite recall, though it seems to be the case that soups used mainly as recipe ingredients, e.g. tomato or cream of mushroom, get bottom-shelf treatment.

Posted by: Peter on June 16, 2005 11:05 PM

Do I find that there are too many choices in the world? No way.

And if/when I do, I simply ignore the vast majority of the possibilities and simply make a choice.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 17, 2005 03:20 AM

i think this is a great post!

That's their real agenda: they don't want to hear the complaints. Why? Because they're afraid that if they were to allow that such observations have some validity, people would rush off and pass anti-market laws.

that is so right about alot of things though, and one of the with the issue of markets is that people don't actually understand them, or they dont understand everything about them.

ugh, and when you think about it, this markets are perfect, or you're on the "road to serfdom" kind of slippery slope argument that comes out when you only read classical economists, or hayak and their policy perscriptions (or more often policy perscriptions that people attribute to them) because those ideas of economics eventually turned into ideas of political philosophy. If you know the world then OBVIOUSLY you can fix it! right? everyone does it!

So anyways, while the classical economists had some idea of what was going on they didnt have it all, and the assumptions that they made in creating their models show their blindspots, and the blindspots of people who buy wholeheartedly into them... (anarcho-capitalist libertarians anyone?)

The instutions that back up markets, and culture and human relations, are however much more complicated evolve over longer periods of time, and determine a country's, or an economies, or a market's path and development, much more frequently than simply the existence of markets, if people can't take advantage of the markets, then the market fails....

this is on the New instiutional economics which takes a deeper view of what makes economics and markets work... (the link is pretty sparse but its a start here

Posted by: azad on June 17, 2005 04:12 AM

Excellent post, Michael.

My own views on the market are much along the lines of your own. I live in Hong Kong, and I can see the fruits of the free market all around me -- and yet you're right not to write off the stresses inherent to some choices.

One area you didn't mention was education. My wife and I have just been through the process of choosing a pre-school for our daughter. This is a staggeringly big deal here. Since the HK government doesn't run preschools, but everyone sends their children to one, it's an almost perfectly wide-open educational market. And in response to the stresses of making the choice -- and being chosen by the right school, of course -- people here do some pretty crazy, even immoral, things sometimes.

I'm a big fan of school choice/vouchers, but I harbor few illusions about the choice process. I'm willing to deal with this, but it's easy to see why a lot of people would rather save the energy needed to make an informed choice and just leave the whole thing up to educrats (unfortunately they then tend to spend that energy backbiting and sniping about the education their children have been allocated -- but that's another post).

Posted by: mr tall on June 17, 2005 05:48 AM

The trouble with drawing policy conclusions from e.g. Schwartz or Layard (an economist, of course, not a psychologist)from my point of view is this: I have never seen any research in psychology yield results that ran contrary to the political beliefs of the researchers. Layard is a centrist, a supporter of European-style "mixed economies". And what do you know? Research shows that such economies maximise the happiness of their citizens! It might be true, but wouldn't it be nice if just one experiment offended its originators' world view sometime?

Posted by: James Hamilton on June 17, 2005 07:30 AM

The free market requires the assent of its participants. What if many of them -- because of conditions created by the free market itself -- just don't feel like giving their assent?

Here's an interesting point: do you know what it takes to establish a free market? Stable, exchangeable property rights. That's it. That's all you need.

A free market is not something we impose upon others, it is the default. It's simply what happens when people are allowed to own things, and to trade them.

Yes, the free market has many flaws and it can be very troublesome, and yes, some regulatory 'softening' is probably a very good idea, even necessary. But don't forget to evaluate it in light of the alternatives!

Can you even imagine the consequences of a non-free-market solution to the problems you described? As an earlier poster pointed out, all involve either force or fraud. All involve either taking your property, or not allowing you to trade it for what you want.

That's no way to run a railroad...

Posted by: Mike on June 17, 2005 08:35 AM

There are way too many blogs. As an avid blog consumer, it's confusing having to sort through so many to find the few I like. It's inefficient too, considering all the blogs no one ever reads. Let's cut the number of blogs down to a manageable size, shall we?

Posted by: Outer Life on June 17, 2005 09:23 AM

Outer Life sums up the issue neatly.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 17, 2005 09:39 AM

Will we be reading shortly,
"I am the True Blog. Worship no other blog before thee. They are all false blogs and will lead you down paths away from me."

Should "2 Blowhards" be appointed the One True Blog and only blogs listed on their site are the true apostles of Blowhardania?

And if so, do they take bribes for such listings?

Posted by: DarkoV on June 17, 2005 10:02 AM

When my son was about 4, we booked an efficiency on the Jersey shore and went down to the supermarket to stock up on supplies. Because this was a vacation, I allowed him to choose the junk food snack of his choice. I thought the poor kid was gonna have a nervous breakdown: Doritos? Cheetos? Barbecue chips? Peanuts? We spent an hour looking through all the options until I thought I was going to explode and he burst into tears.

Posted by: Rachel on June 17, 2005 10:02 AM

I may be fighting a losing battle here, but what I'm hoping to stimulate isn't debate about whether or not to restrict markets -- I'm agin' it! especially where the US of A is concerned! and I assume 99% of us are agin' it too -- but a notes-comparing orgy about what it's like to live in such cornucopia circumstances.

An EZ for-instance: buying my breakfast cereal. Once upon a time, there were 20 breakfast cereals. Finding and buying mine was a snap -- I didn't need to think about it. These days there seem to be around 200 breakfast cereals on display. And the display is ever-changing. Cool! On the other hand, what interests me -- finding and buying mine -- has become more of a pain than it once was. Gotta sort through the shelves of options. Gotta fight the distractions and temptations. Where once I didn't really have to do any thinking about this buying-breakfast-cereal thing, these days I seem to have no choice but to wrestle consciously with thoughts, decisions and temptations.

Hardly the world's worst fate, of course. On the other hand, it's ... something. Where buying-cereal is concerned, my experience is split between thinking that it's great the market is so much broader than it once was and annoyance at how much more of a chore suiting myself has become.

Managing-options has become a challenge, because the options have become so numerous and alluring. (I'd imagine this isn't the case for younger people, who take the electronic-bazaar atmosphere for granted. But I'm not a younger-people.) And it includes many facets: resisting temptation; knowing when to stop considering options and just go for it; not getting dragged-down by buyer's remorse ...

Also: finding myself (what I want, who I am, what suits me, what my preferences are) in the midst of all the busy-ness can be a challenge -- the flashing lights and beeping cash registers are so... distracting and amusing, after all. It seems clear to me that a lot of people lose themselves in their fantasies of buying and selling (and in the pursuit of the one-thing-that'll-really-please-them too).

It's such a wonderfully glittering collection of temptations, diversions and distractions. With your head tinkling and twinkling, how do you connect with your (ahem) true soul?

By the way, it's not that I don't think it's possible to be happy and know your (ahem) true soul. It's just that the "how do you do so in the midst of a bustling market universe" is an interesting question ...

But if y'all want to carry on with the debate over whether markets should be restricted or not, don't let me get in the way!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 17, 2005 10:44 AM

Michael, Wait until your cereal is discontinued because you're the only one still buying it--that'll really pose a challenge. There are days when I suffer from overload and days when I get positively giddy about the selection of stuff out there. Had I money enough, I'm sure my shoe collection would put Imelda Marcos' to shame. But since I don't, I manage somehow to restrain myself. And it's not just the number of selections in the stores, either. A while back, I read an article in Slate about private social security accounts in which the writer said he didn't want to have to worry about which fund to choose from; he didn't want to have to make another decision.

Posted by: Rachel on June 17, 2005 11:35 AM

Which raises another question: definitions of "freedom." In Anglo countries, we tend to think of freedom as synomynous with "a bigger marketplace." I spent enough time in France to realize that for many French people freedom means something different. They like (or did back in the '70s, when I was there) having choices restricted -- because part of their understanding of "freedom" was "freedom from the bother of wrestling with an infinite number of consumer choices." They don't think of themselves as consumers, they think of themselves as ... unique! Magnificent! Human, in a erotico-cultured-tragic sense. They wanted to be free to "be French" -- to eat cheese, drink wine, flirt in cafes, have picnics, go to films and watch people flirting in cafes and eating cheese, etc. As far as they were concerned, spending a lot of time wrangling with consumer-choice was oppressive, not liberating. These days, I guess they're going the consumerist direction themselves, or more so than they used to...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 17, 2005 11:42 AM

I'm amused that you used the term "free marketism." I've used it myself before, and I wish the concept were more prevalent -- i.e. that some people, in their use of economic terminology, are actually advocating a particular set of values and a world view that corresponds to it in much the same way that socialism or Buddism do. What they aren't doing is elucidating a very fair or complete picture of how markets function.

I've long been an advocate of viewing most regulation (at least in functioning democracies) as a market-produced response to conditions or problems that arise within the marketplace rather than as restrictions or hindrances imposed from outside. Unfortunately, this is a difficult position to sell because the "faith" of many free-market advocates disallows them to consider regulation as being anything other than harmful to the freeness of markets.

I thouroughly enjoyed your piece.

Posted by: aporitic on June 17, 2005 12:00 PM

I don't think of freedom as a more open marketplace. But I do think a more open marketplace allows me more freedom. For instance, if I don't like my job, I can take another that has better hours, or higher pay, or more vacation time--whatever it is that I want. Now take the French: They've opted out of a truly free market in order to enjoy a government-mandated 35-hour work week with 6 weeks of vacation. But with a 10.3 percent rate of unemployment, how much longer can they sustain those mandates? And with that high a rate of unemployment, who'd leave an unsatisfying job in search of greener pastures?

Posted by: Rachel on June 17, 2005 12:12 PM

Premise: the overabundance of product for sale (material, intellectual, service, etc) around us in US (and US being a world model, eventually everywhere), is here already.
There is no point in wondering how does it feel to be a consumer inside "buy me! no, me! no, I'm the best one!" market ocean: we all know it, swim in its waves and contribute to it. At least those of us that live inside the consumer paradise (and it is a paradise) and not in Kongo or Cambodia.

There is also no point to turn into a modern day luddite and try to put a brake to a natural developement, weeping for the good old days of one and only cereal.

As with any developement (I'd use "progress" if I wasn't a charitable and considerate person; I'd discount my position for benefit of the disillusioned fatalists among us) - as with any developement some old public functions are dying, some new emerge, as market requires.
Once popular profession of chimneysweep now puzzles students in English literature class.
Endless choices, on the other hand, lead to more specialization.

So the next logical step, I think, is growing demand for experts and advisers, The Specialists: financial (investment choices), shopping (consuming choices), intellectual, emotional, health, etc.

I'm speaking as one, of course. Partially, my job often involves to find a product most suited for the needs of my client, considering multitude of factors he might not be aware of. When I have no time nor inclination to research things I don't know of myself, I too turn to the experts.

So is, btw, one of the reasons I tune into this blog: I need expert opinion on movies/books/etc which I can trust to (but not necesarily follow).

As to the happiness - no, acquiring things doesn't lead to happiness (unless you're a crazy collector of matchboxes), but having easy access to conveniences frees your brain, time, and money for what you prefer to do with it.

Even if it means spending endless hours on a bench in Central Park eaglewatching.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 17, 2005 12:17 PM

Michael: This may or may not be what you're looking for.

When I first moved to NYC for grad school, I found myself overwhelmed, to the point of near paralysis, with all the super exciting cultural opportunities open to me. Every weekend it seemed like there were 5 or 6 different bands/movies/readings/shows I wanted to get to, not to mention all the books and articles I wanted to read and all the cool people I wanted to hang out with.

But I ended up doing, well, not too much. I don't blame anyone but myself, and my own inability to get my shit together, but faced with an overabundance of cultural goodies I just gave up.

Then I moved to Burlington, VT for a couple of years. Burlington has lots of neat/cool cultural stuff going on for a town its size, but it's no NYC. Paradoxically, though, I ended up doing a lot more cultural stuff while I lived there: I went to more concerts, I saw more art movies, I got more involved in community activities. Where in NYC, any given weekend saw me trying to choose between 7 or 8 different ways to spend my time (and money), in Burlington, it was usually pretty obvious what I was going to do, since on any given weekend there was hardly ever more than one or two things going on that I actually would want to do.

And here's the interesting (to me) part: I've done more cultural-type stuff since moving back to NYC 3 months ago than I did when I was here for 2 years. I think my time in Burlington, a place with fewer choices, helped me learn to deal with the overabundance of choices back here in the big city. Why? Well, partly I'm grateful for having all these choices again, but I also think that Burlington was a good place for me to "practice" making these kinds of choices.

Posted by: J.W. Hastings on June 17, 2005 12:38 PM

"That's their real agenda: they don't want to hear the complaints. Why? Because they're afraid that if they were to allow that such observations have some validity, people would rush off and pass anti-market laws"

And that fear is well-founded - we've suffered through a hundred years of people making observations that some aspect of our capitalist society feel short of Utopia and then rushing off and passing anti-market laws.

(Why doesn't that seem to work the other way?)

"I've long been an advocate of viewing most regulation (at least in functioning democracies) as a market-produced response to conditions or problems that arise within the marketplace rather than as restrictions or hindrances imposed from outside."

Where's the market for regulations? Where's the individual choice?

Well, there's 50 states to choose from... but when things are regulated at a state level and people actually have the temerity to do any sort of individual choosing, this is typically described as a "race to the bottom", which of course is a bad thing.

Now of course a market system will lead to a plethora of choices - one of its most endearing features is that any Joe Blow can try to come up with a different and better tool for doing things, whether it's cleaning your teeth or reading a book or getting from Point A to Point B or curing disease, and when hundreds of millions of them are connected by cheap communication and travel, you wind up with a lot of people trying to sell you a lot of tools and no one to tell you which one to use unless you decide to ask for advice - from whichever advice-giver you trust most.

This makes life easier for you, since you're likely to wind up with better tools, and it makes life better for those who try to sell them to you, since they get money and a chance to contribute to society. And if you're overwhelmed by the choices, you might as well choose at random - you won't do worse than the bureaucrats that would choose in your stead at several points in the supply chain in alternative systems that don't overwhelm you with choices.

And yes, damnit, I do mourn the missing skycars and the slow deterioration of my body - because a less regulated market system could have done better than the one we have. At least the bureaucrats didn't notice the computer revolution until it was too late to stop it, giving us a peek at what everything could have been like...

Posted by: Ken on June 17, 2005 12:45 PM


I'm having a hard time identifying with your angst, I guess. I too hate many choices, but I've found it pretty easy to navigate around them. I buy my breakfast cereal at Trader Joe's, a store that strictly limits the selection in each category. My home computer is an Apple so I don't have to deal with all of Window's choices and configurations and customizations that torture this technophobe. I once owned a closet full of gray suits and white shirts just to minimize the choices I had to make each morning as I got dressed. (I secretly yearn for the return of the drab green Mao suit.)

So I am hardly glorifying in our orgy of choice, you see, but I'm not nearly as unhappy about it as you appear to be. Maybe it comes down to my satisfaction with having the freedom to choose not to choose?

And what's stopping you from choosing to live the life of the French, anyways? Cut back on your work hours, hang around cafes (you have those in the Village, don't you?) eating cheese and drinking wine and discussing the finer points of cinema while smoking Gauloises. Oh wait, smoking's illegal in cafes. Good! Another choice restricted.

Posted by: Outer Life on June 17, 2005 12:46 PM

Outer -- Actually I don't feel much angst about lotsa-choice, and I've dealt with it in many ways like you have: Apple, small stores, etc. I choose the Gap and Banana Republic because they limit choices. Come to think of it, I lead a rather French life: a four-day work week, lots of loafing around and doting over food and the arts.

But if I can point this out: you're skipping over the process that led you to make the limiting-your-choices choices that you made. Before achieving Zen serenity, you had to 1) notice that there were a gazillion choices around, 2) know yourself well enough to figure out that you like living in a simpler world, and 3) execute.

That's all I'm hoping to do: drag people into a bit of a discussion about that phase of things. And many thanks for volunteering the info you did about how you contend!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 17, 2005 01:02 PM

For me, this is easy.

I can easily shop at smaller stores that offer less selection. I'm sure most of us can.

Personally, I find myself at the bigger stores, every time.

This tells me that distraction is a price I'm willing to pay for selection. After I admit that, the entire question just sort of shrinks up into a little ball and disappears.

Posted by: Mike on June 17, 2005 02:14 PM

Choice is an illusion. Go to the cereal aisle and read the ingredients on all the boxes. It's all pretty much the same stuff.

If I'm presented with choices, I want some variety.

I guess the issue becomes more of quality verse choice.

Posted by: Steven K. on June 17, 2005 04:26 PM

For what it's worth, I think that the most interesting point coming out of the original posting and the following comments is the relative inability of our society to slow down and consider evidence, rather than rushing to evaluate courses of subsequent action. Am I right in thinking this was a major point of yours, Michael?

Interestingly, though in many ways it results in less choice (standardisation, fewer entries, nooks and crannies), modernist urbanism did the same thing. Nobody really stopped to consider people's experiences of the city, how people used the city, or according to what logic or principles the urban fabric (dismissed as 'chaos') was composed and transformed. Instead, a lot of 'The Urban Crisis' books whose analysis was dismissed, but whose prescriptive hullabaloo resulted in a lot of nasty urban renovation/revitalisation projects, with infinitely less variety and dynamism than the traditional fabrics they replaced (which were not, to be sure, without problems).

So I guess this problem of cutting excessively to the policy-recommendation chase predates special interest magazines and satellite TV. I wonder where it comes from?

Enjoyed the post, and its larger question.


Posted by: Desmond Bliek on June 17, 2005 04:38 PM

Steven K.: "Choice is an illusion. Go to the cereal aisle and read the ingredients on all the boxes. It's all pretty much the same stuff."

Rumor has it that there are other aisles in the store. (Unless it's Cereal is Us, of course, then you're stuck.) I'm told that some people even eat eggs for breakfast, the heretics.

Of course it's pretty much all carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen (with a few trace elements). If that's the way you look at making food decisions, then any discussion of a multiplicity of choices is unlikely to be interesting -- "1996 Mosel? Same ingredients as Ripple and Thunderbird. No choice at all."

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 17, 2005 05:07 PM

As a former marketing researcher, let me point out that what has been going on for decades in the American retail industry has been the retailers off-loading costs onto the shoppers. For example, you are now expected to buy larger and larger quantities, which reduces the retailer's warehousing and interest charges, while increasing your costs. This vastly lowers the nominal price you pay, but are you really better off financially if you need to add a storage room to your house and to buy and SUV to carry home these huge cases of stuff? I don't know, but I suspect that the retailers are better at calculating the full costs of doing business than I am, so I may well be getting the short end of the stick, since I tend to be focused on the sticker price rather than the full cost of the consumption process.

Among the big box retailers, I would recommend Costco because they actually try to reduce their customers' cost of choosing products. They offered a reduced selection with some assurance that this is a good combination of price and quality. I needed to buy a basketball pole and backboard, and I was pleased to see that instead of offering four models, forcing me to become an expert decisionmaker in something I don't ever expect to buy again, they offered one model, and it turned out to be fine. I've been burned once or twice by Costco's selecting products that weren't right for me, but most of the time, they've made shopping much easier.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 17, 2005 05:35 PM

One possibly pertinent reference here.

I am in the middle of a book called "The Reasons of Love," by Harry Frankfurt,the same Harry Frankfurt whose book, "On Bullshit" has now made the NYT best-seller.

Frankfurt starts out with differentiating between things we "desire" or "want" and things we "care about".

The abundance of choice and the advertising machine that supports may be just playing to desires and wants, and not those things we "care about." All of it is nothing more than a tease.

"Caring about" something requires a much more active, rational intent and a sustained effort over time. I think most of us have a much, much shorter list of things we care about, while at the same time being surrounding by flashing lights and flashier colored cereal boxes whose goal is to stimulate or wants and desires, but are not ever really going to register with us as things we actually "care about."

I don't know. Seems to make sense as I make my way through the book. We'll see what happens when Frankfurt gets to "Love," as opposed to cereal boxes.

Posted by: heron543 on June 17, 2005 07:10 PM

"Of course it's pretty much all carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen"

As soon as I submitted my post I drew the same conlcusion and wondered how long it was going to take someone to point this out.

I always dread having to replace items that I've owned for a long time because without exception the new items are always of lesser quality than what I am replacing. Don't try and distract me with cool features. I want quality. I want something to last a long time.

I guess it comes down to what we individually vs. as a society value and desire in our goods.

If we are looking for quality, which is usually based on our experiences with previous products, then there is much less to choose from.

Posted by: Steven K. on June 17, 2005 09:53 PM

You nailed it with the wifey thing.

Most men - especially libertarianish economists - are problem-solvers and regard a complaint as indicating that something needs to be fixed. Consider this conversation:

A: "I don't like the way the couch looks in this room. It clashes with the drapes."
B: "What color or fabric would you prefer? Maybe we could get it reupholstered."

Notice that B skipped right past the problem. He could have spent a while agreeing with the complaint, but instead focused on /addressing/ it. He answered the subtext rather than the text, and interpreted that as: "I'm not happy with the status quo in our room decor and would like to change something." The focus is on what needs to change. To people with the male/problem-solver/engineer/economist worldview, whining about a perceived problem is pointless unless there's something to be done about it.

Consider an alternative complaint:

A: "I really hate how blue the sky is. Every time I look outside during the day and the sun is out from the clouds, the sky is always blue. Sky-colored. You know? I sometimes wish it were green. Hey, if we passed a law requiring everybody to wear colored contact lenses all the time, then people wouldn't have to deal with all this blueness up there!"

What's funny about A's complaint? It's about a fact of life, something immutable. The sky is blue, and a sensible person accepts that.

So when I - being a guy - hear somebody complain about something, it implies to me that they think a solution exists. And that's the interesting part of the story. If no solution exists, or if the implied solution is obviously worse than the problem, that means the problem doesn't really exist. It's not a problem - problems have solutions - it is merely an observation.

I'm not denying that observation may have validity for the person who makes it. But it's just whining. You find voluntary choice irritating? Fine. Me, I find gravity irritating. It'd be so much nicer if I could cross the room by just pushing off one wall and coasting until I reach the other one. See what I'm getting at? There's no reasonable alternative to voluntary choice. It doesn't just lay the golden eggs, it lays all the eggs; without it we'd have no breakfast. So I just can't take the complaint seriously unless it comes with a proposal that passes muster. Otherwise it's just griping. "Yeah, but whaddaya gonna do?" Shrug.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on June 18, 2005 12:01 AM

Great article, Michael. I'll put my cards on the table up front and say I'm a vaguely leftish pro-free-market person, putting me into a rather small political grouping.

The paradox of choice thing is kind of interesting. I'm a bit sceptical of the research, really, since what actual academic work has been done seems to focus on getting people to choose where there is no interesting choice. Choosing jam in Draegers (for right coast people - a very expensive grocery store with a massive range of everything) is the classic example, IIRC. Obviously choice does have a cost, but equally obviously ordinary economics can deal happily with this idea, and no particularly sweeping conclusions should be drawn. You spend as much of whatever resources you like (time probably) making your choice, and then choose randomly from the objects remaining. This is, in fact, what people do. Funny that.

Where making a choice really does matter (choosing a home, a spouse, a job) you find large and complex secondary markets focussed on providing information to the immediate buyer, and new ones appear all the time. Its interesting, but I'm not sure its much more than that.

Psychologists say there's a thing called "cognitive closure", which is the point in thinking about something where you can say "right, done with that" and move onto something else. Apparently men seek cognitive closure more rapidly than women and conservatives seek it more rapidly than liberals (although I rather suspect the people responsible for that research were liberals). That might explain something about why, in conversations about economics, free-markety people, who tend to be conservative men, try to get rapidly to the bit about policy conclusions, so they can stop thinking and get on with the denouncing of enemies.

When it comes to the "whither the free market ?" question I must admit to some confusion about what the question really means. When you (Michael) say the free market requires the consent of its pariticpants, what would withdrawing consent actually look like ? Moving to Cuba ? Presumably that's not what you mean. Not buying stuff ? Not really an anti-market move in itself. Presumably what you mean is people heading in an anti-market political direction. That does happen, doesn't it ? When people feel hard-done-by, or see others they feel need to be saved. There's been waves of anti-market sentiment in most mostly-free-market counties, which generally haven't had such great outcomes, but in general we seem to live in a dynamic equilibrium where regulations get created in response to "wrong" market outcomes, and then more regulations get created to patch up the "wrong" consequences of the regulations, and so things stay more-or-less on track.

Posted by: Simon Kinahan on June 18, 2005 02:32 AM

Glen Raphael is exactly right.

and SS says:

For example, you are now expected to buy larger and larger quantities, which reduces the retailer's warehousing and interest charges, while increasing your costs.

No, you have the option of buying larger quantities. Hard to blame Costco for offering you that option. You can still stop at the normal supermarket, or the corner grocery, or whatever.

I suggest that people who complain about choice just make a rule and pick the very first product in the aisle. Either that or move to a Soviet-style country which forecloses choice. Quickly they will find out that the choices they LIKE to make (such as which blogs to read, or books to buy, or people to call) are foreclosed.

What we have here is laziness masquerading as social concern and agitation for paternalism. Perhaps a police officer should be assigned to pick out Stacy the NY Times writer's groceries, clothes, and underwear for the period of a month. Maybe then she'll stop whining about what is actually a good thing.

Posted by: blah on June 18, 2005 05:26 AM

I suggest that people who complain about choice just make a rule and pick the very first product in the aisle.

*sigh*. I understand the irritation of admitting that unbridled market forces could conceivably not maximize human happiness of every human being on the planet, but ignoring human behaviour is not the right way to do this.

Many of us want to choose the best product among our choices, even for things we don't care greatly about. This means that we spend time trying to choose among a great number of similiar, but different enough products. The fact that 95% of us could have our needs met by 2-3 well-differentiated products which we could then easily choose among is a source of irritation. The extra competition doesn't exist for *my* benefit but for the benefit of the competing companies.

I certainly acknowledge that there are people (and different people for each product) who *do* benefit from the extra choice. I'm not irritated that others don't share my belief. However, I'm not going to supress my opinion and pretend that I do benefit from the extra choice (in most things, anyway...)

Posted by: Tom West on June 18, 2005 10:29 AM

"As a former marketing researcher, let me point out that what has been going on for decades in the American retail industry has been the retailers off-loading costs onto the shoppers."

Or, unbundling and letting consumers opt out of services that they don't feel like paying for.

"For example, you are now expected to buy larger and larger quantities, which reduces the retailer's warehousing and interest charges, while increasing your costs. This vastly lowers the nominal price you pay, but are you really better off financially if you need to add a storage room to your house and to buy and SUV to carry home these huge cases of stuff?"

It depends. You can pay them to store it, or you can store it yourself, whichever works out best for you. Now, since law enforcement tends to be a joke in cheap neighborhoods, people tend to buy large houses in expensive neighborhoods just to avoid getting shot - since they have all that extra space they didn't really have any other good use for, they might as well use it to store groceries instead of paying for an expensive house and the extra logistical costs of trading in smaller quantities of groceries.

Posted by: Ken on June 18, 2005 12:04 PM

Recently, I experimented with a shopping service. I received a grocery list, checked off the items I wanted, included the brand name and other “important” information, and gave it to a “personal shopper.” Voila – the groceries miraculously appeared in my fridge, shelves and even, in a bowl, on the table.

Then I felt cheated. No, that’s not right … I worried about being cheated. No, that’s not right either. I worried what I was missing, the happenstance purchases that come when I see cherries, for example, suddenly in season and beautifully displayed. On my list there was a place to check “cherries.” I could do that. But I wouldn’t see the cherries in the store.

Of course, I could limit myself to the list and simply enjoy what I needed, which was one of the original reasons for getting a shopping service in the first place. It took awhile to limit myself to that which I needed, not wanted. A strange mental switch. But now that that switch has been made, I find myself using the shopping service less and less frequently. I know what I need, make the list, run to the store and pointedly shop. I make monthly runs to Costco to stock up on the sorta crap that I get there, toilet paper, for example. What the shopping service did for me is re-teach the difference between want and need and simply allow good choices to remain “out there” in a platonic sense, for someone else to make, not me. I found that necessary choices are quite few. The trick was to recover a sense of the necessary and discipline myself to ignore the rest.

This same lesson was extended to all purchases. I buy clothing only when I need it – rarely. I buy the kids’ clothing when they need it, writing down exactly what I’m going to buy, and then going to buy it. The lesson here, for me, is that choice is a choice. I choose not to choose. I choose not to maximalize or fret over better, cheaper, cuter, tastier purchases. I know they are out there … so what. The choices I make are good enough.

I have an ugly word that I use when I have to remind myself of this mental switch – decherrying. My life has been decherried. Gross, yes, but it works for me.

Posted by: Kris on June 18, 2005 01:01 PM

Tom: it is ludicrous to assume that every human being on the planet should be happy every instant of the time. We're bound to be unhappy about something; it's in our nature to be less than perfectly happy. So why shouldn't the something that we're dissatisfied with be excessive choice? Doesn't that beat most of the alternatives, especially the most obvious one of too little choice?

Maybe the market is "maximizing the human happiness of every human being on the planet", but the maximum level of happiness for people isn't 100%. Plus there are inevitable tradeoffs such that some of the things that make other people happy make you unhappy and vice-versa. So just as there are facts of the world that make you unhappy (sky too blue, gravity too strong, life too short...), there are facts of society that make you unhappy (too many choices in the supermarket aisle, too many people standing in line at the movie theater, too few unattached people of the opposite sex attracted to you...)

So, yeah, occasionally I find making choices difficult. But to me the necessity of making choices is a fundamental part of the human experience. It's part of being an adult. I can delegate some of it by picking the right retail outlet or brand. I can go to Costco and have ONE choice of strawberry jam, go to Safeway and have a small aisle of choices, go to a specialty store and have a large aisle. I can pick one brand that is /my/ brand and always look for that - it's not usually difficult to find. Or I can cultivate indifference and correctly assume that any brand stocked by any major retailor is probably a decent value. (In the cereal aisle I crave diversity and cycle through many over time - I have no permanent favorite)

Too much choice just isn't a problem I have when it comes to shopping. Instead, I have that problem in life. I can find it agonizing to pick the best job, the best career, the best significant other. Compared to that, picking the best peanut butter seems pretty trivial.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on June 18, 2005 01:55 PM

Being happy 100% of the time would be pointless, as you'd never do anything...why would you, you are already happy! This is why heroin junkies don't give much of a shit about anything other than the next shot of smack: it LITERALLY, chemically, makes you 100% happy. "A womb with a view" is the best description I've heard in a one liner.

Anarcho-capitalist libertarians do indeed almost always under-estimate the big deal that all of the institutions underlying the market are. The commenter above who said "all that's needed are strong private property rights" was indeed correct, but what it takes to get THAT is huge: stable, non-corrupt rule of law and a govt. that won't just take whatever it wants (excuse me, 'nationalize' things) are preconditions that are hard to meet historically, and there are other difficulties in getting there.

Posted by: David Mercer on June 18, 2005 04:25 PM is an interesting place to observe the ways people make choices in a market saturated with nearly-identical choices. There are forums where people argue the merits of the Canon x-class camera vs. the Nikon x-class camera. Hundreds of posts appear everyday where people ask the question, "Ok, I'm thinking of Brand-X camera, Brand-Y camera, Brand-Z camera, so what should I do?"

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on June 19, 2005 07:57 PM

Glen Raphael's first June 18th post is great.

Posted by: jult52 on June 21, 2005 11:50 AM

Late to this thread, I know.. but if anyone is still reading it, I'd like to bring up a point that Virginia Postrel has brought up more than a few times in reference to this:

The explosion of choice really lets us be specific about the generally few things that we really care about. You might want that one toothpaste and cereal for the same twenty years but im POSITIVE that there is something out there that you really care about and are really specific about how you want it provided.

Are you really into jeans perhaps? You can get dark, medium, light, distressed, low rise, medium rise, pocket designs, fraying, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. Do you not care about them at all? A pair of 501s are still available for you at Kmart or Target.

We are freer through choice, and restricting choice essentially restricts the ability for people to find and explore the things that differentiate themselves from everyone else.

Posted by: Perry on June 22, 2005 10:56 AM

I don't think you read my article very carefully, if at all. It isn't about policy, and it doesn't simply dismiss Schwartz's observations. It takes this research (very little of which is done by Schwartz himself) quite seriously.

Posted by: Virginia Postrel on June 22, 2005 05:59 PM

On the day that I first read of the jam experiment, where customers bought more jam if there were only 6 varieties available than if there was 24, I had arranged to meet a friend after work outside a Starbucks. I have never drunk a cup of coffee in my life, but while I was waiting for her, I counted the number of options on the menu and got to about 35, not counting the variations available from extra shots of espresso or using soy milk or the like. This made me very skeptical about how applicable the results of the experiment are. If people bought more when offered six options, I would expect Starbucks to offer only six options (or whatever the exact profit-maximising number is). In the absence of some evidence that Starbuck's owners are motivated mostly by the thought of bringing a wide range of coffee options to the masses, even at the price of losing profits, I argue that in the real world offering more options than 6 does improve profits.

The difference between the results of the experiment and the range that Starbucks offers might be reconciled by another thing about the menu. Starbucks does not just present a list of 35 different sorts of drinks. It breaks it down into groups with about 4-6 members in each group. So you're not choosing from a list of 35, you're choosing from about 6-7 options, and then making another choice from a few more options, and then deciding if you want an extra shot of espresso or whatever. And, of course, a lot of people coming into the cafe already know if they want a coffee or not, and if a coffee broadly what sort of coffee they want. Companies don't just shove all the options out there, instead they give tools to navigate it to. My husband's superannuation scheme came with a flowchart as a way of deciding which fund was right for you.

To take the example of breakfast cereals, I don't look for breakfast cereals as a whole group. I look for toasted museli. And in that range there isn't enough choice in NZ - I want a toasted museli with dried fruit and without yoghurt-covered raisins. But, the supermarket does group the muselis together.

As for things that have made my life better (if not necessarily happier) in recent times:
- Cheap international phone calls and cellphones. I was overseas when my brother was in a severe accident (he's recovering amazingly well now). It was good to be able to afford to frequently call my family and not worry about the bills. It was good to be able to call their cellphones and not have to remember multiple different land numbers. I was still very unhappy, but much prefer having that technology to hand to not.

- Blogs. We set one up after my brother's accident so we could tell everyone how he was doing with much less hassle. (Plus poor brother probably wouldn't have survived 20 years ago, but no one objects to too much healthcare.)

- Gore-tex raincoats. In the early '90s hiking books recommended only wearing a raincoat when it was better to be warm and wet rather than cold and wet. The condensation from your body soaked the raincoat from the inside if worn for a decent period of time. Now I wear my Gore-tex raincoat as a windbreak - the water-wicking is so good.

-Light-weight, warm when cold, thermal underwear. The introduction of this may have caused the drop in deaths in trampers (hikers) in NZ due to hypothermia. Now drowning is a bigger risk. No proof, but a sensible hypothesis.

-Cheap international travel. My father-in-law had not meet his brother-in-law until our wedding day. We have been over to Australia from NZ to visit him three times since.

-Bagels introduced to NZ. Toasted bagels. Actually, just about anything to do with food has massively improved in NZ over my lifetime. Even my Dad's cooking has improved since he discovered that supermarkets would sell him cooked chicken and salads, reducing cooking to a matter of taking things out of packages and putting it on plates.

- Different shoe-widths as well as lengths. Not so much of an issue for me as my feet are narrow like European and Asian ones, but a big concern to many NZ women.

- Woodprocessers rather than typewriters. Have used both.

And, just a side-note. Someone mentioned the French floating around, just drinking wine and cheese and not stressing over too many choices. Huh? The French have a vast variety of wine and cheese choices (or at least they do now, don't know about the 1970s). Wines and cheeses come in far more varieties than even breakfast cereals. And in Paris they have a vast array of cafes and movie cinemas to choose from. And shops.

Actually, why do people pick on breakfast cereals and toothpastes when they complain about the consumer society offering too much choice, never wine? Is it a class thing like those people who complain about McDonald's Big Macs and not up-market restaurants' cheesecakes?

Posted by: Tracy W on June 22, 2005 07:40 PM

I actually enjoy the recent increase in choice among toothpastes and other dental supplies. The combination dental-floss toothpicks which came onto the market a few years ago are simply a phenomenal innovation, as was the "glide" dental floss a few years before that. I flossed more after glide dental floss was introduced, and even more after the "plackers" were introduced. I usually brush my teeth twice before I go to bed. After flossing, then rinsing with Listerine, I brush. First with a whitening toothpaste which contains colloidal alumina particles which polish plaque off my teeth thoroughly, then with a prescription high-fluride toothpaste my dentist gave me. While I certainly have no complaints about your ability to complain, I think it sounds a whole lot more like whining than something worthwhile.

Posted by: Lucas Wiman on June 24, 2005 03:38 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?