A more nuanced “Carousel of Progress”

Aug 11 JDN 2458707

I recently got back from a trip to Disney World; while most of the attractions are purely fictional and designed only to entertain, a few are factual and designed to inform and persuade. One of these is the “Carousel of Progress”.

The Carousel of Progress consists of a series of animatronic stages, each representing the lifestyle of a particular historical era. They follow the same family over time, showing what their life is like in each era. When it was originally built, the eras shown were 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1960s; but over time they have updated the “present day” stage, and now they are 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1990s. The aim of the attraction is to show how technology has made our lives better.

The family they show is upper-middle class; this makes sense, as most of the audience probably is as well. But to really understand the progress we have made, we need to also consider the full range of incomes.

In this post I will go through a similar sequence of eras, comparing the lifestyles of not just the middle class, but also the rich and the poor.

In what follows, I’ve tried to create that, using the best approximate figures on standard of living I could find from each era. The numbers are given in my best guess of the inflation-adjusted standard of living; obviously they’re much more precise in the 1980s to today than they are for earlier eras.

I’ve summarized all these income estimates in the graph below (note the log scale):

 

Carousel_of_Progress

This means that, after a bumpy ride through the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution, we did actually raise the floor—the poor today are about as well off as the middle class in ancient times. But we raised the ceiling an awful lot faster; the rich today are something like a thousand times as rich as the rich in ancient times.

 

50 AD: Roman Empire

Rich: Patrician

Life is good! My seaside villa is one of the finest in Rome, and my industrious slaves fulfill my every need. At my personal zoo I recently acquired a lion and an elephant. I dine on only the finest foods, including wine from my personal vineyard. An aqueduct feeds directly into my personal baths. The war in Gallia seems to be going well; I look forward to my share of the spoils.

Wealth: $4 million

Income: $200,000

Middle class: Plebeian

Things could be worse. My family has a roof over our heads and bread on our table, so I’m grateful for that. But working all day on the farm is exhausting, and we can’t afford servants to help. My oldest son is a gladiator, though so far he has not attained the highest ranks of the profession. My youngest son was recently drafted into military service in Gallia; I pray for his safety.

Wealth: $10,000

Income: $10,000

Poor: Proletarian

Wealth: $0

Income: $1,000

Living in a hovel I don’t even own with my four children and begging on the streets isn’t an easy life, but at least I’m not a slave. Most of our food is provided by public services. With the war raging in Gallia, one of our small blessings is that we are actually too poor to be drafted into service.

1000 AD: Medieval England

Rich: Duke

While living in a castle is nice, I sometimes wish an end to the frequent raids and border skirmishes that made these high walls necessary. Still, I can’t complain; I own plenty of land, and have plenty of serfs to work it. I am in good favor with the king, and so His Majesty’s army has helped protect my lands against invasion. I have all the feasts, wine, and women a man could ask for.

Wealth: $2 million

Income: $100,000

Middle class: Knight

I can’t complain. It is an honor to be a knight in His Majesty’s army, and I am proud that my family was able to earn enough wealth to buy me a horse, a sword, and the training necessary to reach this rank. I own a little bit of land, but my lord has called upon me for a new campaign, I’m hoping to buy a larger estate with the spoils I earn from it. My family has plenty of food to eat, though if the well runs dry I’m not sure where we’ll get more water.

Wealth: $5,000

Income: $5,000

Poor: Serf

Live grows harder by the day, it seems. My lord keeps demanding more and more work from us, but already the land is producing as much as it can bear. Though we are responsible for planting and harvesting the wheat, often the bread never makes it to my family’s table.

Wealth: $0

Income: $500

1600 AD: Renaissance Venice

Rich: Noble

With the advent of global trade and colonization, wealth has flooded into Venice, and I have had the chance to claim some portion of that flood. I dress in the finest silks, and eat exotic foods from lands as distant as India and China. Servants fulfill my every need. How could life be better?

Wealth: $10 million

Income: $1 million

Middle class: Merchant

I am a proud member of the trader’s guild. Though it our trade ships that carry wealth from across the seas, we often find that wealth passing on up to the nobles, leaving little for ourselves. Still, I have my own land, my own house, and plenty of food for my family.

Wealth: $10,000

Income: $10,000

Poor: The Pebbles

I had a good job working in construction until recently, but I was laid off. I could no longer afford my rent, so now I live on the streets. I feel as though I work constantly but never can find a way to get ahead.

Wealth: $0

Income: $2,000

1750 AD: Pre-Revolutionary France

Rich: Noble

Viva la France! Life is better than ever. Servants do all my work, while the wealth produced by my fields and factories all goes to me. I barely even pay any taxes on my grand estates.

Wealth: $20 million

Income: $2 million

Middle class: Bourgeoisie

I live reasonably well, all things considered. My family has a home and enough food to eat. Still, taxes are becoming increasingly onerous even as the nobles become increasingly detached from the needs of common people like us. Still, we may as well accept it; I doubt things will change any time soon.

Wealth: $15,000

Income: $15,000

Poor: Peasant

Life is hard. I work all day on the farm to make wheat, and then the nobles tax it all away. We have to make our own clothes even as the nobles luxuriate in silks from around the world.

Wealth: $0

Income: $500

1900 AD: United States

Rich

My coal mine has been a roaring success! I am now one of the richest men who has ever lived. I even have my own horseless carriage. Servants are getting more expensive these days, though; even though I’m richer than my grandfather I can’t afford as many servants.

Wealth: $1 billion

Income: $100 million

Middle class

“Well, the robins are back. That’s a sure sign of spring. What year is it? Oh, just before the turn of the century. And believe me, things couldn’t be any better than they are today. Yes sir, we got all the latest things: gas lamps, a telephone, and the latest design in cast iron stoves. That reservoir keeps five gallons of water hot all day on just three buckets of coal. Sure beats chopping wood! And isn’t our new ice box a beauty. Holds 50 pounds of ice. Milk doesn’t sour as quick as is used to. Our dog Rover here keeps the water in the drip pan from overflowing. You know, it wasn’t too long ago we had to carry water from a well. But thanks to progress, we’ve got a pump right here in the kitchen. ‘Course we keep a bucket of water handy to prime it with. Yes sir, we’ve got everything to make life easier. Mother! I was reading about a fellow named Tom Edison, who’s working on an idea for snap on electric lights.”

Wealth: $18,000

Income: $18,000

Poor

I live on the streets most of the time. I eat food out of the garbage. What little money I have is earned by begging. I’m not proud, but it’s all I can do to survive.

Wealth: $0

Income: $2,000

1920 AD: United States

Rich

Life is sweet. My electric company is raking in the dough these days; seems they can hardly find enough copper to lay all the new cables we need to supply all the folks buying into our grid. I have four automobiles now—all top of the line of course. The times, they are a-changin’: Can you believe they gave women the vote? Eh, well, I suppose they can hardly vote worse than us men do already.

Wealth: $5 billion

Income: $500 million

Middle class

“Whew! Hottest summer we’ve had in years. Well, we’ve progressed a long way since the turn of the century 20 years ago. But no one realized then that this would be the age of electricity. Everyone’s using it: farmers, factories, whole towns. With electric streetlights we don’t worry so much about the youngsters being out after dark. And what a difference in our home. We can run as many wires as we need in any direction for Mother’s new electrical servants: electric sewing machine, coffee percolator, toaster, waffle iron, refrigerator, and they all go to work at the click of a switch. Take it easy! You’ll blow a fuse! Queenie! Leave ’em alone. Well, the days of lugging heavy irons from the old cookstove to an ironing board are gone forever. With an electric iron and electric lights, Mother now has time to enjoy her embroidery in the cool of the evening. Right, Mother?”

Wealth: $20,000

Income: $20,000

Poor

Life on the streets is still hard, but at least they’ve got these new soup kitchens to feed me and my family, and with running water in the city we can sometimes get clean water to drink. That newfangled electricity stuff is supposed to be the bee’s knees, but we sure can’t afford it.

Wealth: $0

Income: $4,000

1940 AD: United States

Rich

My steel company is doing extremely well, particularly with the war in Europe raising the price of steel. We just bought our very own airplane; isn’t that marvelous? With Britain under siege and France already fallen to the Krauts, I think we’re gonna end up in the war soon—FDR certainly has been making noises to that effect. If I were poor, I’d be worried about my sons getting drafted; but I’m sure we won’t have to worry about that. No, I’m just looking forward to my stock returns when they start churning out tanks instead of cars in Detroit!

Wealth: $2 billion

Income: $200 million

Middle class

“Well it’s autumn again and the kids are back in school. Thank goodness! Here we are in the frantic forties and the music is better than ever. And it’s amazing how our new kitchen wonders are helping to take over the hard work. Everything is improving. Electric range is better. Refrigerators are bigger and make lots more ice cubes. But my favorite is the electric dishwasher. Now Mother spends less time in the kitchen and I don’t have to dry the dishes anymore. Oh, I spend a lot of time here. Have to. Now that television has arrived, Grandma and Grandpa have taken over my den. Television has changed our lives. It’s brought a whole new world of culture into our home.”

Wealth: $24,000

Income: $24,000

Poor

The Depression was hard on everybody, but I think it was hardest on us poors. This New Deal business seems to be helping out a lot, though; on one of the new construction projects I was able to find work for the first time in months. I’m worried we’re going to be brought into the war soon, but if I get drafted at least that means three squares a day.

Wealth: $0

Income: $4,000

1960 AD: United States

Rich

Running an oil company is not for the faint of heart; they keep adding more onerous regulations every year. Still, profits are bigger than ever. I just wish Uncle Sam would stop taking such a big cut; Commies, all of them. I can barely afford upkeep on my yacht these days with all the taxes.

Wealth: $2 billion

Income: $200 million

Middle class

We just got a color TV at home, and we’ve been watching around the clock. We get all four channels! And my new T-bird is a real beauty; paid a fortune for her, but worth every penny. Society is improving, too; with Rosa Parks and whatnot, I’m guessing things are about to get a lot better for colored folks especially. After that, I’m thinking it’ll be the gays’ turn next; I wonder how long that will take.

Wealth: $30,000

Income: $30,000

Poor

Life is still hard, but I think it’s better now than it’s ever been, even for poor folks like me. Thanks to Welfare, I’m not even as poor as I could be. It’s tough to make ends meet, but at least I can afford a place to live and food to eat. And I’m pretty healthy too: Antibiotics and vaccines mean that we are finally safe from some terrible diseases, like polio. It seems crazy: Just a generation ago the President had a disease that now even folks like me are protected from.

Wealth: $0

Income: $6,000

1980 AD: United States

Rich

They told me I was crazy to invest in these “personal computing machines”, but I saw the writing on the wall. Computers are the future, man. They’re gonna be everywhere, and do everything. We’re gonna have robots and flying cars, and if I have anything to say about it, I’m gonna own the factories that make them.

Wealth: $5 billion

Income: $500 million

Middle class

We have our own PC now. I use it for work, but my kids use it mostly for computer games. I still can’t beat my daughter at Pong, but I can at least hold my own at Pac-Man these days. I hear that programming skills are going to be in high demand soon, so I’ve been trying to teach the kids BASIC.

Wealth: $50,000

Income: $50,000

Poor

Nixon’s Welfare “reform” really hit my family hard. If I don’t find work soon, they’re going to cut my benefits; but if I could find work, what would I need benefits for? Jimmy Carter made some things better, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be re-elected. Can you believe that old actor Ronald Reagan is running?

Wealth: $0

Income: $8,000

2000 AD: United States

Rich

I sure played my cards right in the stock market, buying those tech firms just before the Internet boom really hit. Now I have my own jet and I’m thinking of buying a yacht. Maybe I’ll diversify into real estate; it looks like housing prices are heading north.

Wealth: $10 billion

Income: $1 billion

Middle class

Our home has almost doubled in value since we bought it; we took some of that out as a home equity loan, which helped us buy laptops for our kids. It’s amazing what they can do now; we used to have a big clunky desktop, and these little laptops would run circles around it. We also installed a 56k modem; I’m a little worried about what effect the Internet will have on the kids, but it seems like that’s where everything is going.

Wealth: $60,000

Income: $60,000

Poor

I hate working in fast food, but it beats not working at all. I really wish they’d raise minimum wage though; once you figure in inflation, we’re actually making less than people did ten years ago. I think I qualify for Welfare or something, but the paperwork has gotten so crazy I couldn’t even deal with it. I’m just trying to get by on what I make at the burger joint.

Wealth: $0

Income: $10,000

2020 AD: United States, Present Day

Rich

I knew my app startup would be a success, but even I couldn’t have predicted we’d make it this far. Bought out by Apple for $40 billion? I could hardly have dreamed it myself. I am living the high life; I’ve got my own helicopter now, and a yacht 50 feet long (#lifestyle #swag!). I just upgraded my Google Glass to the new model; it is awesome AF. I think I might move out of the Bay Area and get myself a mansion in Beverly Hills.

Wealth: $20 billion

Income: $2 billion

Middle class

Why is rent so expensive? And how am I ever going to pay off these student loans? After college I managed to land an office job because I’m pretty good with Excel, but it’s still tough to make ends meet. Smartphones are cool and all, but it would be nice to actually own my own home. I think my parents had planned for me to inherit theirs, but we lost it in the subprime crash. Eh, things could be worse. #FirstWorldProblems.

Wealth: $62,000

Income: $62,000

Poor

Things were really bad a few years ago, but they seem to be picking up a little now; I’ve been able to find a job, at least. But it doesn’t pay well; I can’t barely afford rent. I don’t have what they call “marketable skills”, I guess. I should have gone back to school, probably, but I didn’t want to have to deal with student loans. Maybe things will be better once Trump finally gets out of office.

Wealth: $0

Income: $12,000

2040 AD: United States, Cyberpunk Future

Rich

I guess I picked out the right crypto to buy, because it gave me enough to buy my own AI company and now I’m rolling in it. My new helicopter is one of those twin-turbofan models that runs on fuel cells—I was sick of paying carbon tax to fuel up the old kerosene model. I just got cybernetic implants: No phone to carry around, nothing to get lost! I hear they’re working on going to neural interface soon, so we won’t even need to wave our hands around to use them.

Wealth: $40 billion

Income: $4 billion

Middle-class

I used to have a nice job in data analysis, but they automated most of it and outsourced the rest. Now I work for a different corp doing customer service, because that’s the only thing humans seem to still be good for. I have to admit the corps have done some good things for us, though; my daughter was born blind but now she’s got artificial eyes. (Of course, how will we ever pay off those medical debts?) And I really wish someone had done something about climate change sooner; summers these days are absolutely unbearable.

Wealth: $65,000

Income: $65,000

Poor

Wealth: $0

Income: $15,000

I lost my trucking job to a robot, can you believe that? But how am I supposed to compete with 22 hours of daily uptime? Basic income is just about all the money I have. I haven’t been able to find steady work in years. I should have gone to college and studied CS, probably; it seems like salaries in AI get higher every year.

How much should we value statistical lives?

June 9 JDN 2458644

The very concept of putting a dollar value on a human life offends most people. I understand why: It suggests that human lives are fungible, and also seems to imply that killing people is just fine as long as it produces sufficient profit.

In next week’s post I’ll try to assuage some of those fears: Saying that a life is worth say $5 million doesn’t actually mean that it’s justifiable to kill someone as long as it pays you $5 million.

But for now let me say that we really have no choice but to do this. There are a huge number of interventions we could make in the world that all have the same basic form: They could save lives, but they cost money. We need to be able to say when we are justified in spending more money to save more lives, and when we are not.

No, it simply won’t do to say that “money is no object”. Because money isn’t just money—money is human happiness. A willingness to spend unlimited amounts to save even a single life, if it could be coherently implemented at all, would result in, if not complete chaos or deadlock, a joyless, empty world where we all live to be 100 by being contained in protective foam and fed by machines. It may be uncomfortable to ask a question like “How many people should we be willing to let die to let ourselves have Disneyland?”; but if that answer were zero, we should not have Disneyland. The same is true for almost everything in our lives: From automobiles to chocolate, almost any product you buy, any service you consume, has resulted in some person’s death at some point.

And there is an even more urgent reason, in fact: There are many things we are currently not doing that could save many lives for very little money. Targeted foreign aid or donations to top charities could save lives for as little as $1000 each. Foreign aid is so cost-effective that even if the only thing foreign aid had ever accomplished was curing smallpox, it would be twice as cost-effective as the UK National Health Service (which is one of the best healthcare systems in the world). Tighter environmental regulations save an additional life for about $200,000 in compliance cost, which is less than we would have spent in health care costs; the Clean Air Act added about $12 trillion to the US economy over the last 30 years.

Reduced military spending could literally pay us money to save people’s lives—based on the cost of the Afghanistan War, we are currently paying as much as $1 million per person to kill people that we really have very little reason to kill.

Most of the lives we could save are statistical lives: We can’t point to a particular individual who will or will not die because of the decision, but we can do the math and say approximately how many people will or will not die. We know that approximately 11,000 people will die each year if we loosen regulations on mercury pollution; we can’t say who they are, but they’re out there. Human beings have a lot of trouble thinking this way; it’s just not how our brains evolved to work. But when we’re talking about policy on a national or global scale, it’s quite simply the only way to do things. Anything else is talking nonsense.

Standard estimates of the value of a statistical life range from about $4 million to $9 million. These estimates are based on how much people are willing to pay for reductions in risk. So for instance if people would pay $100 to reduce their chances of dying by 0.01%, we divide the former by the latter to say that a life is worth about $1 million.

It’s a weird question: You clearly can’t just multiply like that. How much would you be willing to accept for a 100% chance of death? Presumably there isn’t really such an amount, because you would be dead. So your willingness-to-accept is undefined. And there’s no particular reason for it to be linear below that: Since marginal utility of wealth is decreasing, the amount you would demand for a 50% chance of death is a lot more than 50 times as much as what you would demand for a 1% chance of death.
Say for instance that utility of wealth is logarithmic. Say your currently lifetime wealth is $1 million, and your current utility is about 70 QALY. Then if we measure wealth in thousands of dollars, we have W = 1000 and U = 10 ln W.

How much would you be willing to accept for a 1% chance of death? Your utility when dead is presumably zero, so we are asking for an amount m such that 0.99 U(W+m) = U(W). 0.99 (10 ln (W+m)) = 10 ln (W) means (W+m)^0.99 = W, so m = W^(1/0.99) – W. We started with W = 1000, so m = 72. You would be willing to accept $72,000 for a 1% chance of death. So we would estimate the value of a statistical life at $7.2 million.

How much for a 0.0001% chance of death? W^(1/0.999999)-W = 0.0069. So you would demand $6.90 for such a risk, and we’d estimate your value of a statistical life at $6.9 million. Pretty close, though not the same.

But how much would you be willing to accept for a 50% chance of death? W^(1/0.5) – W = 999,000. That is, $999 million. So if we multiplied that out, we’d say that your value of a statistical life has now risen to a staggering (and ridiculous) $2 billion.

Mathematically, the estimates are more consistent if we use small probabilities—but all this assumes that people actually know their own utility of wealth and calculate it correctly, which is a very unreasonable assumption.

The much bigger problem with this method is that human beings are terrible at dealing with small probabilities. When asked how much they’d be willing to pay to reduce their chances of dying by 0.01%, most people probably have absolutely no idea and may literally just say a random number.

We need to rethink our entire approach for judging such numbers. Honestly we shouldn’t be trying to put a dollar value on a human life; we should be asking about the dollar cost of saving a human life. We should be asking what else we could do with that money. Indeed, for the time being, I think the best thing to do is actually to compare lives to lives: How many lives could we save for this amount of money?

Thus, if we’re considering starting a war that will cost $1 trillion, we need to ask ourselves: How many innocent people would die if we don’t do that? How many will die if we do? And what else could we do with a trillion dollars? If the war is against Nazi Germany, okay, sure; we’re talking about killing millions to save tens of millions. But if it’s against ISIS, or Iran, those numbers don’t come out so great.

If we have a choice between two policies, each of which will cost $10 billion, and one of them will save 1,000 lives while the other will save 100,000, the obvious answer is to pick the second one. Yet this is exactly the world we live in, and we’re not doing that. We are throwing money at military spending and tax cuts (things that many not save any lives at all) and denying it from climate change adaptation, foreign aid, and poverty relief.

Instead of asking whether a given intervention is cost-effective based upon some notion of a dollar value of a human life, we should be asking what the current cost of saving a human life is, and we should devote all available resources into whatever means saves the most lives for the least money. Most likely that means some sort of foreign aid, public health intervention, or poverty relief in Third World countries. It clearly does not mean cutting taxes on billionaires or starting another war in the Middle East.

The injustice of positional goods

July 15 JDN 2458315

At Disneyland, you can now buy a special pass that will let you skip ahead in line. On several airlines including American, Delta, Spirit, and Southwest, you can pay extra to be allowed to board before other passengers (which has been particularly salient for me on the many flights I’ve been taking this summer). This is only an extreme form of a long-standing phenomenon: Since the beginning of commercial ship and train travel, there have been first-class and second-class tickets.

I don’t have any formal survey data on the matter, but just about everyone I have spoken to about such policies is at least vaguely uncomfortable with them, if not totally outraged. The exception is other economists, who typically don’t express any concern whatsoever. “People are willing to pay for this service because they value it,” they say; “so what’s the problem?”

On this one, I think the economists are wrong and everyone else is right. There is something different about this sort of service.

Part of the difference between first-class and second-class is in actual quality of services that actually incur additional costs (I hate to break it to you, but legroom on an aircraft is just such an example; every inch of legroom on each seat is another row of seats they can’t have, which is another $2000 or so they don’t get in revenue on each and every flight). But part of it is something else, something that costs the company literally nothing.

This makes early boarding a clearer example. What are you buying when you pay for early boarding? On most airlines, it’s not even a better seat; your seat is pre-assigned (Southwest is an exception). We could say you are paying for extra time, but that’s not really even true; the plane leaves at the same time for everyone. From your perspective, you are paying for convenience; you get to settle in on the plane, maybe get started working or whatever, before everyone else. Maybe you’d rather wait on the plane than wait in the airport (though frankly I’m not sure why; the airport has restaurants and comfortable restrooms).

What you are really buying is position. Early boarding is a positional good. Every person who gets bumped forward in the queue is someone else who is bumped backward. The net benefit for all customers as a whole is precisely zero, as is the cost for the company to provide it—and yet, it still has a positive price! This is impressive economic alchemy: The airline has managed to take something with zero marginal cost and zero marginal benefit, and still make money off of it. They have transmuted the lead of something costless and worthless into the gold of profit.

They achieve this by pitting customers against one another. In a post awhile back I talked about rent-seeking, such as lobbying and advertising. Usually it’s the corporations doing the rent-seeking, but early boarding and queue-jumping are examples of corporations intentionally generating a circumstances where they can obtain revenue from the rent-seeking of others.

To be fair, there might be some welfare gains to be had from auctioning off order in a queue. Some people have genuinely higher costs of time than others (a cardiac surgeon’s time is particularly important, for example), and an auction could potentially order people who have very high cost of time first.

But this argument is much weaker than it may at first appear, because people also have very different marginal utility of wealth, and indeed I think the correlation between your willingness to pay for time and your total wealth is considerably higher than the correlation between your willingness-to-pay for time and your actual real cost in terms of pain and suffering.

This is a more general problem, as I’ve discussed in previous posts; but I think it’s especially acute in the case of time, because real cost of time doesn’t actually vary all that much between most people. The reason poor people take buses and rich people take limousines isn’t because poor people don’t care about their time; it’s because they can’t afford limousines. A cardiac surgeon and an economist could very well have the same salary and the same willingness-to-pay for time, but people rarely die when an economist turns up an hour late. (It’s not that our work isn’t important—actually a good development economist can save far more lives than any cardiac surgeon—but it’s not nearly so urgent.) Also, consider the fact that teachers and social workers generally contribute a good deal more to society than derivatives traders (and thus, from a social welfare perspective, their time should be considered more valuable), but they are far less likely to pay for first-class seats. In fact, a first-come, first-served method actually seems better than an auction from a social welfare perspective: If your time is really important to you, you’re more likely to go out of your way to check in as soon as you can. That costly signal provides a sorting mechanism which relies directly upon real costs of time, rather than indirectly via monetary willingness-to-pay.

And of course when it comes to Disneyland, this argument utterly fails; I see little reason to think that a cardiac surgeon’s vacation time is substantially more valuable to society. (Don’t get me wrong; surgeons need and deserve vacation time—but if they get too much, their performance actually suffers!) So maybe paying for a place in queue isn’t completely rent-seeking, but it’s pretty close.

That is why paying for positional goods feels unjust to most people: Because it is. Charging a price for positional goods is a means of extracting profit from customers without providing any (net) real service. It’s a way of applying price discrimination without even having much monopoly power. If another airline doesn’t let you pay to skip ahead in the queue, you have a slightly lower expected wait time on that other airline, but any revenue they lose from charging a bit less for economy tickets can be easily made up by charging more for the front of the line.

For example, if the first 10% of the line on airline A is decided by selling spots, while airline B chooses at random, and the average time waiting in line to board is 30 minutes, the expected wait times are as follows. Fly airline A and don’t buy a spot: 16.5 minutes. Fly airline A and buy a spot: 1.5 minutes. Fly airline B: 15 minutes. Those 10% are paying for, on average, 13.5 minutes; but you’re only gaining 1.5 minutes. Of course, there are more people waiting that extra 1.5 minutes than saving those 13.5 minutes (9 times as many, in fact). If the per-minute willingness-to-pay were exactly the same, the airline would break even; but they know of course that the willingness-to-pay of that top 10% is considerably higher than that of most of the bottom 90%. If they have any market power at all (which they generally do, by being the only airline serving certain routes, offering loyalty benefits, etc.), they can squeeze out even more profit.

They may even sometimes go out of their way to make life miserable for those who don’t pay extra, increasing the incentive to pay extra. This requires some market power to pull off, but as I said, they often have that. Most airlines don’t offer power outlets at every seat, for example. This is not a serious question of installation cost or even power consumption. We’re talking about a few hundred dollars on an aircraft that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, or a few kilowatts from a system that can generate over one hundred megawatts (of course most of it is used for propulsion, but adding an alternator that would generate an extra few kilowatts of electrical power would still not be difficult or expensive). This is a way of making life worse for the economy-class passengers so they have a stronger incentive to pay for upgraded tickets.

It’s not always easy to tell what is a positional good: First-class seats are ambiguous, for example. But I think a good heuristic is to ask, “Could everyone benefit from this?” If the answer is “No, even in principle”, then you are definitely dealing with a positional good. Not everyone can be first in line at Disneyland. Not everyone can board the plane first. In theory at least, everyone could be provided the same legroom and meal service as a first-class ticket (it would be expensive, but not impossible), so that is at least in part not a positional good.

The “pay-to-win” effect of some video game downloadable content (DLC) is also a positional good, which we can see by the above heuristic: If everyone pays to have the best gun in the game, there’s no point in having the best gun in the game. This is why gamers are rightfully outraged by “pay-to-win” effects, but typically have no objection to paying for DLC that provides them with extra game content (such as new characters, locations, or missions) or cosmetic upgrades (hats, decorations, and “skins”). Personally I tend to think that most DLC is overpriced, and succeeds at being so due to a kind of monopoly power (Mass Effect DLC doesn’t work on Skyrim or vice-versa) but I certainly don’t object to the basic idea of charging additional money for additional content. The reason we object to “pay-to-win” is not that winning the game is so important; it’s that this business model is so obviously a form of rent extraction. (It’s interesting that gamers in China don’t seem to be as bothered by “pay-to-win” as gamers in the US; this runs counter to the standard narrative that American people are competitive capitalists and Chinese people are collectivist socialists, don’t you think?)

There may be some circumstances in which we have no choice but to allow corporations to charge prices for positional goods—especially if we can’t tell whether we are dealing with a positional good or not. But it would not be very difficult to draft legislation that would at least reduce such business practices: We could simply use my “Could everyone benefit?” heuristic. If a business charges money for something that even in principle they could not possibly provide all of their customers, they are charging a price for a positional good, and should be penalized. The benefits of such a policy would be relatively small, but the costs would be even smaller. If we are really concerned about letting cardiac surgeons board aircraft faster (we should really be concerned about deboarding faster—and especially faster security screening!), we could make such a rule that applies to particular classes of high-urgency professions; we don’t need to allow airlines to extract millions of dollars in rent by pitting their customers against each other.