The Tyranny of the Market

This new book is by sometimes columnist and U. Penn economist Joel Waldfogel, of "Deadweight Loss of Christmas" fame.  The subtitle is "Why You Can’t Always Get What You Want."

This well-written monograph is the best extant non-technical treatment of fixed costs and how they limit product diversity.  On a given night, you can’t see a live performance of Samuel Beckett in Topeka, Kansas but maybe you can in the larger New York City; fixed costs are why they won’t set up the stage and hire the cast for only five viewers.

But Waldfogel is more pessimistic about the market than I am.  The book’s opening example is about how hard it is to find radio stations in underpopulated areas; satellite radio is mentioned on p.120 but I would have started with its reach and also its limitations (and here).  There is internet radio as well.  The first example in the empirical chapter is that it takes $900 million on average to develop a new drug, but regulations and the FDA are not mentioned.

I can recommend this book but I do not agree with its central conclusion: "Markets do not avoid the tyranny of the majority."  There are very few areas of my life, if any, where markets force me to follow the wishes of the majority.

Oddly the biggest problem is not mentioned and that is style and marketing.  Retail outlets do not carry many items, not because they couldn’t hang some of the stuff from the ceiling, but rather because they wish to project a focused image.  In other words, the real problem, when there is one, is the very limited attention spans of the consumers and the ad watchers and the product line gossipers.


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