Another Failure of the Market System?

As at least one result of last year’s and this year’s financial meltdown, economists and politicians are back to debating the relative merits of “free markets” versus “regulated markets,” and everyone has a different idea of how much, if any, regulation is required for a given sub-market, i.e., securities, mortgages, housing, health care, etc.

One of the problems with these kinds of debates is that often the debaters aren’t actually debating what they think they are. What do I mean by this? I’ll give you a very prosaic example. On a Tuesday, in mid-day, I went into a food retail giant — WalMart. Among the items I was seeking were a particular brand of non-allergenic shaving gel and a variety of cat food. I’m particular about the shaving gel because I have sensitive skin, not that the brand that works best for me is either more or less expensive; it’s priced the same as the others by that company, presumably because the base is the same, and all that differs is the additives, or the lack thereof. The cat food is also standard, neither more nor less expensive than the others, and since my cats prefer it to all others, many of which they turn their noses up at, I buy that brand.

When I got to the shaving gel shelf, there were no cans of my variety. Every other variety — except the one I wanted — was stacked to overflowing. This is far from the first time this has happened. It’s so frequent that I usually buy two, and often pick up some when I don’t even need any. Needless to say, the same was true of the cat food… and that was nothing new, either. I’ve seen the exact same thing happen year after year with other items, as well as these products, in other grocery chains. Now… in a truly “rational” market, why would a retail seller have the shelves filled with items that don’t sell and continually sell out of those that do without restocking more frequently? For two reasons. First, in most grocery chains, we’re not talking about the sale of product, but the “lease” of shelf space to the manufacturer, who clearly puts a higher premium on trying to sell a wider range of products than in maximizing profit from a best selling item. Second, customer product preferences often vary from store to store, or region to region, and many manufacturer clearly must believe that the cost of maximizing sales of a given consumer product on a store-by-store or even a regional basis is less profitable than adopting a standard shelf-stocking model.

This has been a problem for F&SF sales in the big-box stores, because, depending on locale, F&SF sales can be the largest fiction seller in a store… or the worst, and sometimes that depends on as little as whether the section manager, or even one employee, is enthusiastic about a given genre. But again, the primary consideration for some booksellers isn’t necessarily maximizing sales, but minimizing costs. Of course, if you don’t sell enough books, or anything else, minimizing costs merely prolongs the time before you have to declare bankruptcy — which has been one of the problems, in my opinion, facing Borders.

In terms of healthcare, similar questions arise. One question that many, many women raise is why so many healthcare plans stint on things like birth control and preventative care, while paying for erectile dysfunction drugs and expensive heart procedures for older white males? Is it because health plans are run largely by men with those priorities or because there’s a wealthy section of the health-care marketplace, albeit through generous insurance plans, willing and able to pay for those health services? Or are there other economic reasons?

The biggest reason for the housing and financial services meltdown lay in the fact that there was a far greater profit margin — short-term, to be sure — in selling houses — and mortgages — to borderline homeowners than in servicing honest and reliable homeowners.

All of this leads back to one question: Rational and profitable economic behavior for whom… and at what cost to everyone else?