The Euthanasia of the Consumer

Have you ever paid so much for something that you had to wonder whether it was really worth it? What prices would trigger that feeling for you? $25 for toothpaste? $2,500 for a Broadway ticket? Armies of data analysts are working hard right now to help companies identify and charge those individualized prices to you.

This practice, called “price discrimination” in economics jargon, and “dynamic pricing” by industry, was pioneered in its new data-driven form by the airlines, which explains why you feel uneasy telling the passenger sitting next to you what you paid for your ticket. But serious debate about the merits of the practice has coalesced only in the past year around Broadway ticket prices, as charges for the top shows, such as Hamilton, have spiked into the $800 range.

While consumers rage about the practice, two commentators have leapt to its defense. Harvard economist Greg Mankiw claimed to be “happy about” paying $2,500 for a ticket to Hamilton. James B. Stewart, usually a perceptive critic of business practices, seemed to agree in a recent Times column that complaints reflect “anticapitalist bias.”

Dynamic pricing is neither necessary for capitalism nor consistent with it. But the practice does impoverish consumers, which is why they have good reason to be angry.

Mankiw and Stewart want us to believe that dynamic pricing is necessary for what economists call “rationing:” the problem of deciding which of a group of consumers, all of whom can afford to pay a price sufficient to cover the costs of production, should get access to a product when the supply of that product is limited. There are only 1,319 seats in the Richard Rogers theater in New York, where Hamilton plays, but on any given night many more prospective ticket buyers are willing to pay enough to cover the costs of the production. Rationing determines who gets to attend.

There are many ways to ration. Charging a price equal to cost, and providing access on a first come, first served basis, remains a popular approach. Any restaurant that takes reservations follows this approach, as does Southwest Airlines, which allocates many of the best seats on its flights to those who check in first online.

Another approach, which generates additional profits for businesses, is to grant access only to those who can afford to pay the most. This is what airlines do when they charge a premium for first class seats. Economists once argued that this was the best approach, because alternatives required consumers to waste time standing on lines or getting through to a busy phone number. But online reservations systems, which are virtual queues, have more or less eliminated that problem.

One thing that is not required for effective rationing, however, is dynamic pricing. The distinctive feature of dynamic pricing is the charging of different prices to different groups of consumers. But setting a single fixed price, as Broadway shows did until the early 2000s, does just as good a job. To choose 1,319 Hamilton audience hopefuls, charge the single fixed price that only 1,319 of them are willing to pay.

Mankiw was therefore mistaken when he wrote that only because a scalper could charge him $2,500 was there a ticket waiting for him to buy two weeks before showtime. If the theater, or the scalper, had charged the right fixed price, Mankiw’s ticket would still have been right there waiting for him when he went to buy.

But the ticket would have been a lot cheaper. Dynamic pricing is really about profits. Of the 1,319 Hamilton audience hopefuls who can afford to pay the most, some, like Mankiw, who has reportedly earned more than $42 million in royalties on his popular introductory economics textbook, can afford to pay much more than others. Dynamic pricing allows a ticket seller to segment these hopefuls into groups based on characteristics that suggest how much each is willing to pay, and raise price to those groups that are able to pay more. Broadway’s embrace of dynamic pricing has probably played a role in generating the $1.45 billion profit enjoyed by the industry last year.

But so what if consumers pay higher prices, the fact that they are still willing to buy means that they are still benefiting, right? Wrong. Getting a good deal on a purchase is not just a luxury that the economy can do without. It is the essence of what it means to enjoy a product, whether a theater ticket or a loaf of bread.

When consumers pay prices so high that they wonder whether the deal was worth it, the pleasure they get from the transaction is vanishingly small, because they must give up so much in order to gain access to the product. Because consumers still buy at such prices, the economy continues to grow, and indeed profits soar, but consumers are shut out of the fruits, engaged in joyless consumption, paying a pound of flesh for a pound of meat. By charging prices just low enough that consumers continue to buy, firms help consumers to destroy the lived value of their own wealth, which is why dynamic pricing is the euthanasia of the consumer.

Fortunately, this future has not quite arrived — firms are still learning how to categorize consumers into finer and finer groups – so some of us continue to enjoy good deals. Mankiw certainly got one, declaring that his ticket was “worth every penny.” Clearly, the scalper failed to charge him a price anywhere near the maximum he could afford.

One percenters like Mankiw suffer the least from dynamic pricing because there are so few of them, allowing them to hide among the merely affluent, and enjoy prices targeted at this less fortunate group, at least for now. Mankiw’s ticket was probably priced for lawyers or doctors, not forty-millionaires. The rest of us can try to hide too among the less fortunate, but the deals we get will not be as good, because our incomes do not differ as much from the incomes of other buyers in lower wealth segments.

Stewart observes that dynamic pricing “yields bargains along with premium prices.” But he does not seem to realize that these bargains are not by design. That $39 deal Stewart found for the show Donna Murphy was not meant for him, but for the American of median income – $53,889 — for whom $39 for a show is not something to write home about.

As firms get better at segmenting consumers, they will eventually be able to keep Stewart out of the economy seats, and to class Mankiw with other forty-millionaires, charging him enough ($100,000?) to make him think twice about declaring his good fortune to The New York Times.

Far from being anticapitalist, dynamic pricing eliminates some of the benefits of wealth, because it ensures that the more a consumer can afford, the more the consumer will be asked to pay. The practice takes us a step closer to the world of Marxist fable, in which each takes only according to his need. By contrast, rage at dynamic pricing reflects the rather capitalist desire of consumers to get the most out of their hard-earned cash.

So what should shows do? To their credit, shows have not yet used dynamic pricing to set prices as high as they could, which is why scalpers have made huge profits on resale. Rather than listen to Mankiw and try to capture the scalpers’ profits by raising their own prices, hit shows should fight the scalpers tooth and nail, on behalf of their audiences, perhaps by following the airlines in honoring only tickets presented by named purchasers. And then they should do the decent thing and start to charge prices that cover only their costs, including a reasonable return to investors, but not a penny more.

Stewart worries that without dynamic pricing, shows would be unable to pay their investors. But investors are just another production input, like sets or stagehands, each of which has a finite cost. Dynamic pricing is about what to do with what remains after those costs have been covered.

To be sure, profits from dynamic pricing could stimulate investment in more shows, but the profits also cause consumers paradoxically to derive less pleasure from those shows, as they are forced to give up more and more in order to get access to them.

The question, ultimately, is whether the audience should be made to exist for the show, or the show for the audience. Consumers already understand how that question has been answered by the airlines. As dynamic pricing spreads across the economy, from taxis to rental apartments, we must also soon ask that question of the entire economy. Broadway can take a stand. And consumers can either “get used to it,” as Stewart recommends, or rebel.