'Fair and square' pricing? That'll never work, JC Penney. We like being shafted (MSNBC)In days gone by, price tags were simple. An apple cost 10 cents. A cup of coffee cost $1. But today, the consumer marketplace is far more complicated, giving sellers the opportunity to create confusion. Many items have follow-up costs that make the original price tag meaningless.Computer printers are the classic example. You might get a great deal on a printer, but if the ink is expensive, you lose in the end. In fact, Gabaix argues that it's impossible for consumers to intelligently shop for printers. No consumer knows how much ink costs -- the cartridges don't come in standard sizes, the amount of ink used to print varies and ink costs are unpredictable. That makes the true price of a printer "shrouded," in Gabaix's terminology. Not quite hidden, but not quite clear, either. Advantage seller. It's easy for printer companies to lowball printer price tags and overcharge for ink, enabling them to print money.If you think about it, shrouded price tags are everywhere. The hotel website might say "$99 a night" but you know the bill will be more like $120 or $130. Pay TV companies promise $30-a-month service, which ends up costing more like $50. And what happens when you buy a TV with a store credit card that offers an upfront discount but a complex interest charge? And so it goes.Consumers complain about this constantly. That's the basis of the Red Tape Chronicles in fact. At its best, the maddening mixture of coupons, rebates, sales and fine print fees can feel like a game. At worst, it's being cheated. You'd think shoppers would love a chance to buy from a store that doesn't play these games, the way car buyers (allegedly) like shopping at no-haggle auto dealerships.They don’t, says Gabaix, and Penney should have known better.“I think it was an ill-advised move,” he said.All this price manipulation is really an information war, he says. Shoppers hunt for the tricks that let them save money. Stores hide booby traps that let them take money. It's a bad system, one I've labeled "Gotcha Capitalism." But it is the system we have now.
That explains why I pay 42 dollars month for my 25 dollar a month cell phone plan. At least I’m not locked into a long term contract. Say, aren't transparent pricing and perfect knowledge key aspects of economic modelling? Is there anywhere in the economy where you pay a fair and honest price for a product or service?
One of the main criticisms of consumer-driven health care is that, today, consumers have no way of figuring out how much a particular health care service costs. Indeed, one of the reasons that health care is so expensive in America is because people have no idea what they’re paying for it. Hence, it’s important for reformers to encourage hospitals and doctors to become more transparent about the prices they charge for these services. But an Arizona bill to do just that was killed—by the state’s Republican legislature.Yesterday, Chad Terhune of the Los Angeles Times told the story of Jo Ann Synder, a woman who was charged $6,707 for a CT scan, after she had undergone colon surgery. Her insurance plan, Blue Shield of California, billed her for $2,336, and paid for the rest. But Snyder was shocked to discover that, if she had paid for the scan herself, out-of-pocket, she would have only had to pay $1,054.“I couldn’t believe it,” she told the Times. “I was really upset that I got charged so much and Blue Shield allowed that. You expect them to work harder for you and negotiate a better deal.”Los Alamitos Medical Center, Terhune found, charges $4,423 for an abdominal CT scan. Blue Shield’s negotiated rate is about $2,400. But Los Alamitos told Terhune that its cash price for the scan would be $250.
And a few weeks ago, Thomas Friedman wrote a column about How our entire society has become a market society where absolutely everything can be bought and sold. Now it’s Nicholas Kristoff’s turn:
... how far do we want to go down this path?• Is it right that prisoners in Santa Ana, Calif., can pay $90 per night for an upgrade to a cleaner, nicer jail cell?• Should the United States really sell immigration visas? A $500,000 investment will buy foreigners the right to immigrate.• Should Massachusetts have gone ahead with a proposal to sell naming rights to its state parks? The Boston Globe wondered in 2003 whether Walden Pond might become Wal-Mart Pond.• Should strapped towns accept virtually free police cars that come laden with advertising on the sides? Such a deal was negotiated and then ultimately collapsed, but at least one town does sell advertising on its police cars.“The marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives,” Sandel writes. “We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.”“Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”Where would this stop? Do we let people pay to get premium police and fire protection? Do we pursue an idea raised by Judge Richard Posner to auction off the right to adopt children?We already have tremendous inequality in our country: The richest 1 percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But we do still have a measure of equality before the law — equality in our basic dignity — and that should be priceless.“Market fundamentalism,” to use the term popularized by George Soros, is gaining ground. It’s related to the glorification of wealth over the last couple of decades, to the celebration of opulence, and to the emergence of a new aristocracy. Market fundamentalists assume a measure of social Darwinism and accept that laissez-faire is always optimal.That’s the dogma that helped lead to bank deregulation and the current economic mess. And anyone who honestly believes that low taxes and unfettered free markets are always best should consider moving to Pakistan’s tribal areas. They are a triumph of limited government, negligible taxes, no “burdensome regulation” and free markets for everything from drugs to AK-47s.If you’re infatuated with unfettered free markets, just visit Waziristan.
Markets and Morals, Nicholas Kristoff, The New York Times