Sunday, October 4, 2015

Missing Markets: The Bane Of Our Existence

Reply to: Traditional Economics Don’t Make Sense For Open Business Models


Imagine that you’re trying to decide whether to play golf (X) or write a story on Medium (Y). The question is… how should you allocate your time? Your time is a limited resource. Your time is scarce. Given that your time is scarce, it makes sense to allocate your time to whichever activity will provide you with the most benefit. 

Whenever people talk about post-scarcity economics… it’s a pretty good sign that they are clueless. Even if you were immortal you still wouldn’t be able to play golf and write stories at the same time. And [“Her” spoiler alert]… even if you were an incredibly advanced artificial intelligence capable of writing stories, playing virtual golf and engaging in a gazillion other activities at the same time… all the resources that you allocated to these gazillion activities couldn’t also be allocated to all the other gazillions and gazillions of possible activities. 

Scarcity will always be relevant… so prioritization will always be relevant. 

The way that market economies work is that everybody can help influence everybody’s priorities. If I had to allocate one of my dollars to X (you playing golf) or Y (you writing stories)… then I’d allocate it to Y. This is because I don’t derive any benefit from X. 

This is going to sound incredibly obvious but… you can never be me. And you are not omniscient. These incredibly obvious facts of life have incredibly powerful implications. You can never truly know how much benefit I derive from either X or Y. But, when I allocate my dollar to Y rather than X, then you can know that, from my perspective…

Y > X

It stands to reason that… the more people that give you their dollars for you to do Y… the more likely you are to do Y… and the more benefit you’d create for society. 
Let’s review the economic truisms…

  1. Scarcity is, and always will be, relevant
  2. Nobody’s omniscient
  3. Incentives matter

Is this traditional economics? Well… it’s certainly economics. And it most definitely makes sense when we’re talking about open business models.  

This is what Medium might look like if they had a half-way competent economist on their payroll…

I would be able to use paypal to put money into my digital wallet. Then, if I benefited from your story, I could click the appropriate *heart* button. Let’s say that I clicked the 25 cent button. In less than a second, 25 cents would be transferred from my digital wallet to your digital wallet. I essentially gave you 25 cents of incentive to write stories rather than play golf. I increased your opportunity cost of playing golf by 25 cents.

Our society has a lot of people in it. And each person can engage in an infinite variety of activities. Market economies work because we can help encourage people to engage in the most beneficial activities.

All the biggest problems that we face as a society are not caused by markets… they are caused by the absence of markets. 

Right now we don’t have a market in Medium just like we don’t have a market in the public sector. These markets are missing because people don’t understand basic economics. People are under the impression that “recommending” or “liking” or voting can ensure that society’s limited resources are put to their most valuable uses. 

Solving the biggest problems in the world boils down to helping people understand basic economics. Then people would understand the point of markets… markets would be created wherever they are missing… and our collective intelligence and ingenuity would eliminate the world’s biggest problems. 

To help further illustrate the problem with missing markets… let’s consider this passage that you wrote…

I find this weird in so many ways. Let me highlight just one — consumption provides utility. Under this logic a tree has no utility unless it is cut down and “consumed”. I expect all of you question the logic of this. A tree can provide great utility without being consumed. It provides shade on a hot day, its leaves cleanse the air we breath, its branches provide homes for birds, its roots prevent erosion, and to many it is a thing of beauty. To assert that a tree has no utility if it is not consumed is, to me, a bizarre premise.

Benefit is in the eye of the beholder. Benefit is entirely in the eye of the beholder. 

In theory you benefit from trees being conserved rather than developed. It’s only a theory because you do not currently have the freedom to put your own taxes where your words are. Right now we don’t have a market in the public sector. A major and fundamentally important market is missing. It’s missing because people don’t understand basic economics. 

Creating a market in the public sector would be incredibly easy. People would be given the freedom to choose where their taxes go. I refer to this as “pragmatarianism”. Here’s the FAQ

Once we created a market in the public sector… then you could decide whether more trees (X) was more important to you than more defense (Y). 

If you decided that X > Y… then you’d allocate more taxes to X and less taxes to Y. Evidently, from your perspective, the world needs more trees more than it needs more tanks. 

I’d probably be in the same boat as you. How many other people would be in the same boat? We don’t know. We don’t know the demand for conservation just like we don’t know the demand for defense.
Right now you’re saying, more or less, that the supply of conservation is wrong… but why in the world would you expect it to be right? How could it possibly be right when the demand for conservation is unknown? If the supply could possibly be right without the demand being known… then markets would be entirely pointless. 

If we created a market in the public sector then the supply of conservation would be entirely determined by the demand for conservation. And then you’d be more than welcome to argue that the demand for conservation was inadequate. Would taxpayers find your arguments/information convincing? If so, then they’d give more of their taxes to the EPA. 

Sharing information isn’t the easiest thing. It takes time and effort. So if you take the time and make the effort to share your information about the environment with other people… then it becomes a lot more worthwhile to do so when the recipients of your info have the freedom to immediately act on it. 

If you’re a door and door salesman then you’re not going to waste your time making your sales pitch to a kid that answers the door. You’re going to ask to speak to whoever can make the decision to purchase your product. 

With our current system… congress controls the purse. So all the sales pitches are made to congress rather than to the public. The public is treated like some kid. This is a problem because, with our current system… the kid is responsible for determining who controls the purse. 

The only way that the public is going to make sound decisions about the environment is if they are given the relevant information. And the only way that it’s going to be worthwhile for the public to be given relevant information about the environment is if they have the freedom to control the money that they earned.

Missing markets are the cause of rational ignorance. The effects of ignorance, rational or otherwise, are extremely detrimental. Therefore, it would be extremely beneficial to create markets wherever they are missing. 

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