What’s the Price?

Theologian Roger Olson turns to a non-theological subject, the way prices are computed in contemporary markets. He observes,

For example, many city newspapers are basing subscription rates on: length of time a subscription has been steady, zip code and income statistics, even home values. One subscriber might pay (for example) $25 for a month’s home delivery while another subscriber, a mile away (but possibly even next door), pays $35 for a month’s home delivery of the exact same newspaper. The difference is based on computer models that take into account the factors mentioned above and more.

Prices for medical services have long been mysterious. If you can find a published price, that price usually isn’t “real,” i.e., a price anyone actually pays. The actually-paid price varies depending on what kind of insurance you have (or don’t have). With so many health plans now offering rising deductibles, we all know we’ll be paying more, but with no clear information about the price of anything, we lack the information to make wise decisions or comparisons. Of course, if we can only afford cheaper offerings (“afford” is a euphemism for “the government has declared that we MUST buy insurance, and what they offer is, by their fiat, affordable“) we must operate in narrower networks where comparison is irrelevant because our choices are mostly already made for us.

This is also a reason I hate buying cars. There may be good reason to buy a new car before your old one gives up the ghost, but what’s the price? Some places praise themselves for delivering us from haggling by offering us a standard price. But is that a good price? We have to take their word for it. Others offer us such a mix of prices and features for the same thing, that befuddlement is the norm (at least for me; you’re likely smarter than I am). There’s the price of the car, the price of the various financing options, the price they say they’ll pay on the trade in, etc. They refer to Blue books (not Wittgenstein’s, I assume) and Black books, but what they offer with one hand, they take away with the other.

Or, let’s try higher education. Colleges have long had a published price. But is that the real price? As in car-buying, education buying offers so many options that many don’t pay the published price. What will we pay? Who knows?

Now, as Olson notes, prices are determined individually in terms of “perceived ability to pay.” Corporate computers have collected all our data. They’ve tracked our buying habits for years, and putting the Big Data together, decide on a price, personalized according to our “willingness” to pay – and their willingness to sell.

Markets exist not merely for the trading or acquisition of goods; that’s what happens on the surface. Markets function as epistemic devices for the social identification of value. Traditionally, an invisible hand did most of the work. Buyers and sellers each had some information, but commonly not all. With the corporate computer replacing this invisible hand, information is even more asymmetric than before. The corporations will do our knowing for us; all we need do is decide.

As more of the consumer economy goes this direction, maybe corporate pricing magic will lead to more and happier consumers. I don’t think it will lead to wiser consumers, however. Except, maybe, that insofar as consumers desire wisdom, they will simply decide to remove themselves from the process as much as possible and simply buy less.

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