Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Unequal Pricing

So I continue to ponder Cory Doctorow's Whuffie, Charles Stross's fast/medium/slow money, and other exotic speculative currency.

But the one I'm thinking about this afternoon isn't from science fiction -- not as far as I know, anyway -- but from Georg Simmel's The Philosophy of Money (1900).

I'm interested in a somewhat adapted, purified and thinned-out version of what Simmel describes as "the system of unequal prices corresponding to the means of the consumer" (p.343). It is a kind of antithesis to the Thomist just price, and you can also hear echoes of a remark of Nietzsche's in Human, All Too Human:
[...] a shilling in the hand of a rich heir, a day-labourer, a shop-keeper, a student are quite different things: according to whether he did almost nothing or a great deal to get it, each ought to receive little or a great deal in exchange for it: in reality it is, of course, the other way round (§25)
I don't want to get into the Simmelian context too much, although it's worth mentioning that Simmel isn't proposing a reform: he is exploring an "ideal formation" (p.344) in which the antitheses between individual and society, and between object and subject are overcome. If you want a discussion which sticks closer to what Simmel actually wrote, look at the last chapter of Nigel Dodd's generally excellent The Social Life of Money (2014).


This is a rather persnickety and belaboured post, by the way. Don't be fooled by the mention of Doctorow and Stross at the top. They don't reappear and there's no fun.


So. Imagine a world in which the costs of all goods and services are expressed as proportions of the consumer's net wealth. Instead of a hotdog costing "$2," it might cost something like "0.0015%." For Bill Gates, that might translate to around $120m, and a little extra for onions.

(Let's also imagine that such a world is something of a #dataviz utopia -- and that consumers wouldn't have to calculate prices in dollar terms themselves, but would get to see each price displayed in both its percentage form (applicable to everyone) and its dollar form (applicable to that consumer specifically). I will use dollars throughout, by the way, although I could have picked any currency).

There is an intuitive egalitarian appeal to such a world. Fragments of it already exist, for example, in tiered prices for the waged and unwaged. Could we create such a world? Is it coherent?

(1) Unless a minimum price were established (denominated in the traditional way rather than as a percentage), each person might have technically inexhaustible purchasing power, after the fashion of Zeno's paradoxes. Whether you bought something costing 10% or 25%, your purchasing power would be the same afterwards.

(2) Even under the most generous assumptions about the transparency and reliability of banking information, the measurement of net wealth might be problematic. (In particular, people might tend to develop forms of value which lie just outside the sphere of official assets. In other words, people might develop sophisticated ways of looking poor. See also (6) below. It might also be difficult to calculate the value of interest-bearing assets and liabilities, if interest rates were considered to be prices, and therefore required adjustment according to the net worth of the borrower).

(3) There might be little or no incentive to accumulate wealth, since every increase in an individual's wealth would be perfectly cancelled out by corresponding increases in prices from that individual's perspective. You might even imagine people would stop working to the extent that society would fall apart.

(4) Prices might cease to signal information about supply and demand, and therefore fail as a mechanism for allocating productive resources. You might even imagine Soviet-style gluts and shortages.

(5) In particular, the profit or loss associated with any particular product might be extremely volatile. The sale of a hotdog to Bill Gates might involve a larger transfer of wealth than, for example, the sale of Microsoft to someone with very little money. Wealthy individuals might be pursued by swarms of hotdog vendors looking for that one big sale.

(6) If the system did last, it would be gamed by unscrupulous individuals like you and me. Let's assume that we trust each other or, at least, that we're in love. The first thing I might do is transfer 90% of my wealth to you as a gift. Thereafter, I would make all purchases for both of us, transferring things to you as gifts as appropriate. If necessary you could occasionally send me a tiny fraction of your wealth to top me up.

For example: assume a pogo-stick costs 1%. (Let's also set aside the Zeno's paradox aspect of (1) for the moment, by assuming that the percentages in this example lock in a dollar price at the time of the first purchase, and do not generate new dollar prices thereafter). Without this strategy, you and I could only buy 200 pogo-sticks at the cost of $1 each. Using this strategy, we could buy 2,000 pogo-sticks, which is more like it.

More generally, the issue of who was "actually" making any purchase would be a thorny one.

(7) For reasons similar to those brought up in (1) q.v., it would be complicated for people to pool together to buy things too expensive for them to afford individually, or to price anything at above 100%.

So it does not look good for our world of unequal prices.

But a little second-order thinking is also indicated. Here things get complicated and provisional. I'm sketching the barest outlines, which I hope to add to gradually (although I'll probably never get past a bit of crosshatching and shading).

For instance:

(1 + 2*) It just seems silly that unequal pricing should fall at the first hurdle, which is no taller than a comb.

So what if all your assets, not just financial ones, were counted in your net wealth? If each purchase automatically increased your net wealth by the same amount which you spent, then your purchasing power would not be inexhaustible. Rather, purchasing power would be a function of a kind of personal liquidity, rather than of wealth per se.

Let's say a peach costs 5% (because peaches are furry and gross) and a nectarine costs 99% (mmm), and you've got $100. Can you buy them both? It all depends how your net wealth is calculated. If your peach purchase reduces your net wealth to $95, then you can still have your nectarine (at the bargain price of $94.05). But if the value of the peach is added to your net wealth, then no you can't (the nectarine still costs $99 for you and you now only hold $95 in cash).

In this undiscerning form, unequal pricing involves some pretty unrealistic assumptions. Your peach asset will very quickly have depreciated into a gleaming peach-stone and a faint lingering smile: you won't be able to sell it on. In fact, depreciation becomes the central dynamic of resource allocation. So it might be worth investigating a range of procedures which would increase net wealth to only partly counterbalance expenditure, in order to reflect depreciation, or some concept like it. As an extremely simple example, however, there could be a fixed reduction across the board -- 50% of the price that you pay is added to your net wealth.

But let's set all that aside. Let's assume that assets are not added to your net wealth. Let's also assume that a price must legally be at least above zero: would purchasing power necessarily be inexhaustible?

Not if there were a minimum price, which could exceed your net wealth when it dropped to a very low level. A minimum price of 1c might emerge spontaneously. (Paradoxically, when you are down to your last cent, you can only buy the most lavish extravagances -- things which cost 100% -- otherwise the vendor won't be able to make change for you).

Alternatively, prices could be given by law a lower floor (e.g. $3). Or there could be a tiered system of price floors: for instance, groceries might cost a minimum of $1, durables might cost a minimum of $10, and big things like a Master of Science in Plant Biology or a prop from an Avril Lavigne music video might cost a minimum of $100. This more legislative approach raises the question of what should be allowed to count as single transaction: would there be a greater incentive to bundle multiple goods into a single good?

Even more important is how to determine such a taxonomy of goods and services (which price floors should apply to what) and at what levels the price floors should be set.

Perhaps those questions ought to be object of political struggle. (For instance, political struggle in a constitutional democratic form, so that more extreme changes require correspondingly stronger mandate, and changes to the system of struggle itself require the strongest mandate of all).

And/or perhaps price floor levels could be set to some extent outside of the political sphere -- that is, perhaps they could take on some of the flexibility associated with market-determined prices. They might thereby also take on some of their functions: to signal to producers to increase or decrease production, and to trigger mutations in consumers' preferences (e.g. innovations which modify the extent to which different goods are experienced as legitimate substitutes).

To take this a bit further: a completely deregulated scenario probably includes loopholes which cancel the whole unequal pricing conceit altogether: we might see producers setting extremely low "prices" (e.g. 0.0001% on all goods), and carefully differentiating the "price floors" to operate in exactly the same way as prices operate in our economies.

A weakly regulated scenario creates more interesting possibilities. For instance, producers might be free to price their goods (in percentage terms) however they like, and also free to choose their minimum floor (in absolute terms) but only from a fixed range of options, decided politically. A producer might have to decide whether a particular good belongs in the $1, $10 or $100 floor category. Or perhaps (if there were a few more tiers available, and a little closer together) producers might be able to compete not only on price, but on the interplay between percentage price and price floor.

There are also interesting lines of speculation in regards stronger regulation of price floors. One of these involves the data generated by price inquiries -- that is, the tailored calculation which confronts each individual consumer. This might be taken as a potentially useful estimate not of demand in the traditional sense, but of something resonant with demand -- consumer attention, or consumer preoccupation, perhaps. For example, you could envision the price floor of a particular good gradually rising, to help production meet rising consumer demand. It would of course be next to impossible to distinguish "real" attention to a potential purchase from "performed" attention, as part of an attempt to nudge price floors in a particular direction, without real intention to buy.

An alternative to the minimum floor(s) constraint is a periodicity constraint. Instead of the dollar cost of the good being calculated in relation to the consumer's net worth at the moment just before purchase, it could be calculated with reference to their average net wealth over some past period -- for instance, over the duration of the month prior to that in which the purchase is being contemplated. Prices would effectively be re-calibrated at the end of each month: if someone was impoverished before the end of the month, they would still face the same relatively high tailored prices that had been calculated and fixed at the beginning of that month. Structurally, unequal pricing might come to resemble a kind of automatic jubilee system. Depending on the details, the incentive structure could look very peculiar.

Or instead of discrete periods, the price could be continuously recalculated on the basis of, for example, the average net wealth of the consumer over the previous year. Large spikes and tanks might be smoothed out into a trend-line, to make the flickering leaps in prices a little less disconcerting. Thus someone who suddenly got rich (in dollar terms) would confront a manifold of steadily rising prices, whereas someone who suddenly lost a vast fortune (in dollar terms) would still find everyday items prohibitively exorbitant until they had spent some time in poverty.

(It would be interesting to think about such effects in relation to hedonic adaption; I also wonder if you could make a kind of liberal-moral argument in favour of them, since the poor would still feel the traditional liberal-conservative spur to creative autonomy in an economic mode, insofar as a vast fortune suddenly acquired would give significant power in the short term; should they ever become wealthy people in this way, they would eventually be encouraged to cultivate a good reputation and to invest in public works, not only as intrinsically good activities, but as the best kind of personal insurance against catastrophe. Perhaps).

Such refinements do not necessarily water down the principle of unequal pricing, since without something like them all prices would be completely equalized -- at zero -- by percentage-based pricing.

(3*) Significant changes in work patterns, and significant redistributions of production and consumption, would not have to involve the cessation or even reduction of work, production or consumption. As regards the labour market, see also (4*).

Furthermore, even without an incentive to accumulate wealth, a particular pattern of dollar-denominated "inequality" could persist. For example, relatively low-paid work could continue to be relatively low-paid, by sheer administrative, social and cultural momentum.

Furthermore, even under a system of unequal prices, there could be incentives to accumulate wealth in dollar terms. Wealth denominated in dollars could retain residual, unofficial purchasing power: those wielding larger sums could receive superior treatment on the noncontractable aspects of their transactions. Wealth denominated in dollars could continue to function in the articulation of sociological class and other cultural dynamics, for example.

(4*) Market spaces would not necessarily have to disintegrate. For one thing, insofar as the unequal pricing system would create a tendency to equalise net wealth, the percentage-denominated price of a good might not translate to so broad a spread of dollar-denominated prices as it would without this tendency. As an extreme benchmark, if everyone's level of net wealth were exactly the same, everyone would pay exactly the same price for each good, and the normal predictions and shortcomings of the price mechanism model would apply.

I'd like to do a lot more thinking on this point, however!

(5*) The profit margin on goods produced relatively cheaply and in high volume, and distributed evenly across different net worth cohorts, would not be particularly volatile. Specialised financing could be developed for different kinds of goods which necessitate smaller production runs and slower stock churn. The production costs of some goods could be highly flexible for the same reasons that their profit margins could be highly volatile.

If dollar-denominated "inequality" persisted, geographical, cultural and other factors might in practice create barriers to the purchase of certain goods and services by those who are poorer in absolute dollar terms.

(6*) The strategy described (you and me colluding, so that one of us hoards all our wealth, and the other one of us does all our buying) might attract effective normative censure. It also contains an internal tension insofar as it expresses strictly mercenary motives but relies on extra-economic trust. One possibility is that a counter-strategy of false alignment could emerge: you accept my gift of 90% of my wealth, but then you distribute it among good or hilarious causes as a rebuke.

Or there could be a simple fiscal disincentive: a tax on bank transfers. You and I would probably try to refine our strategy, perhaps acting as if we were in a commercial relationship, rather than a gifting one, to elude the transfer tax.

Alternatively, the strategy or one like it might be generally adopted. This could result in the world crumbling, or it could become incorporated into a relatively stable pattern of production and consumption. Prices for a particular good, in dollar terms, would converge greatly, since nearly all buyers would be the artificially impoverished member of a colluding dyad or cartel. They might however reflect differential levels of trust -- or coercion -- insofar as buyers might withhold a certain amount of wealth as a kind of insurance, even if it meant paying slightly higher prices. If the strategy were widespread, however, it can also be supposed that buyers would be less reliant on a particular hoarder, and if a particular buyer-hoarder dyad broke down, each party could shop around for a new partner. You could also suppose that the population won't divide neatly down the centre: one buyer could surely do the buying for several hoarders. One possibility is that there would often be slightly too many buyers chasing slightly too few hoarders, insofar as anyone losing all their money would be thrust into the buyer (under-?)class by default. But hoarders would also be heavily reliant on buyers, who would have the potential for significant power if they were able to organise politically. Indeed, you might expect a rather more complicated network of gradated strategic poverty to emerge, rather than just the two sharply distinguished classes of buyers and hoarders.

... that'll do for now!

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