Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sorry Adam Smith...we figured out your loophole

The "invisible hand" of the market.  The corrective force that keeps the overall market in line.  The idea Adam Smith came up with is pretty simple: The purchasers of the goods and services available help to determine the cost of the items.  They make rational decisions to buy something based on the cost and quality of the good, coupled with their taste.  Goods that either cost too much, are not well made, or that fall out of the prevailing taste will disappear from the market, cheap crap won't flood the market, and in the end, supply will be kept in line with demand.

Of course, this is theoretical, but the theory was pretty sound.  But it was based on an assumption that is no longer true: people are rationally concerned about how they spend their limited money.

With the advent of the common use of credit cards and debit cards, people have become inured to the bad feelings that come from spending money.  Swipe the card and the item is bought.  No one is opening a wallet, counting money and feeling it physically depart.  With a credit card I can spend more than I actually have, secure in the knowledge that I can then pay it off a little at a time for an indefinite period.  And the more I do this, the higher my credit limit will rise and the more I can purchase. (Of course, the crash that comes later when I can no longer make those monthly payments is a problem...) So people no longer treat their money in the same way they used to when it felt like a more finite resource.

So there is no longer the presumption of rational spending. People disregard price, and may even disregard taste as they make decisions about how to spend their money, because the money is no longer as valuable to them as it once was. So price is removed from the invisible hand's arsenal.

Nor are the products as valuable; they can be easily returned.  Buy it and decide you don't like it? Return it and the money goes back on your card.  Broken?  Poorly made? Return it for a refund or even exchange it for a similar item.  And, if you can't do either of those, the credit card company will step in and help you out.  Since there is no longer a need for the average consumer to worry about the quality of the items, quality is no longer a part of the invisible hand.

And taste...ah, taste.  I shall not begin to rant about how homogeneous we have become as a society, but I will say that as this has happened, the idea that the market contains a variety of versions of the same item and this can influence people's purchasing decisions is no longer as true as perhaps it once was, and thus the invisible hand is less effective.

The end result of all of this?  Well, on the one hand the consumer is less potent a force in the marketplace, and can not influence the behaviors of corporations through spending decisions. A self-inflicted wound to be sure, but a problem for the marketplace none the less.  On the other hand, and in the larger picture, it means that we can't rely on the market to regulate itself.  Laissez faire policies can not and should not be followed, for there is no "natural" brake on the behaviors in the marketplace.  Which means we need tighter regulatory systems and a greater oversight on the behaviors of the actors in the marketplace, especially those in a position to manipulate swaths of the market.

I would argue that as part of the general Welfare, it is the responsibility of the government of the United States to act to protect consumers if the market is no longer able to regulate itself.  Dodd-Frank is only the beginning of the regulations that the SEC and other agencies need to begin to implement if the market is to maintain any sense of integrity and the consumers aren't going to get hosed.

And it wouldn't hurt if the consumers began to wean themselves from credit cards and make a swing back to using more cash to restore some integrity to the invisible hand of the market...

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