Free markets, fee markets, and flea markets

Melvyn Magree

I also thought of the title “Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  This column is shaping in my mind to be a bit of both.

Flea markets may be truer to the free market norm than corporate “free markets”.  In a flea market you get to handle the merchandise.  For example, you get to pull a record out of a jacket to check its condition.  In a “free market” many goods are so encased in plastic that you can’t even see how the gadget works.  In a flea market, prices are often clearly marked.  In a “free market”, there are so many unspecified add-ons that you have no idea of the final price.  These markets become “fee markets”.  Some of these “free markets” won’t even tell you the basic prices; think telecommunications where you have to call to find the basic price.

The only drawback to a flea market is all sales may be final.  In a “free market” you may be able to return an item that didn’t satisfy you, even if you had used it briefly.  You can see this in many stores where a carton is taped shut; sometimes the store may even lower the price for the next buyer.

Fee markets are those that add so many fees that your wallet screams when you learn the final price.  Cars often have many fees added to the price, sometimes posted, often not.  Title, license, and up-front money for a car loan.  Telecommunication companies don’t even give you an approximation of all the fees that they are required to charge you.  Granted, these can vary from state-to-state, but I haven’t even seen a range of fees mentioned.  The only exception, you guessed it, is Consumer Cellular which does give the range somewhere or other in their website.
No, I was not paid or otherwise rewarded for touting Consumer Cellular yet another time.  I am just impressed with the amount of information they provide compared with all the other providers I’ve used over the years.

Interestingly, many people would rather pay an outrageous fee to avoid paying more taxes to achieve the same goal.  How many people are willing to pay extra for access to the express lane, but complain loudly about paying taxes to provide more express buses?  Buses that would each remove twenty to forty cars from the road.  Or even more depending on the number of trips a bus makes at peak times.

In the Twin Cities that could be a lot of trips.  Once it was rush hour with only city streets or a few four-lane freeways.  Now with many eight-lane freeways, it is rush day.  Aren’t you glad you live in Duluth with its “rush minute”?

Supposedly the free market finds the best price for everything, even things that shouldn’t be for sale.

Prices for many things that were in range for most people are in some cases getting out of range for many people.  Think sporting event tickets.  Michael J. Sandel complains in “What money can’t buy” that when he was a boy the spread between the cheapest and most expensive tickets was relatively small.  Now with skyboxes going for more than many people spend annually for rent or mortgages, even the “cheap seats” ain’t cheap anymore.

Free tickets even have a price.  The Catholic Church had a lottery for free tickets to see Pope Francis go through Central Park in New York.  Scalpers are now reselling those tickets for as high as $3,000!  Free marketers, including Catholic free marketers, argue that the poor should be able to sell their tickets to buy groceries.  Is it the poor or the well-off selling their tickets to the scalpers?  My guess is that the well-off have better access to scalpers.

The “free market” can be counter-productive.  Studies involving blood and organ donations have shown that when people are paid to give blood or organs they are less likely to do so than when they donate blood or organs out of a sense of public service.

Being paid for good grades or reading books can be counter-productive.  If the payment stops, grades may go down.  When payment stops for reading books, a person may lose interest in reading books as a life-long passion.

I think some people and organizations are getting paid to provide advertising to a captive audience.

I can’t stand the nattering of the announcer at one of my favorite gas stations.  “We have a special on milk today” or candy bars or electronic cigarettes or…  I buy gasoline and nothing more.  I buy the gasoline because it is a locally-owned station and I can get a whopping five cents off for paying cash with a previous receipt or proving I am a member of Whole Foods Co-op.

I wonder if all these restaurants and fitness centers that have wide-screen TVs all over the place are getting paid to have them on.  I find them very distracting.  The picture even gets to my brain while counting reps or listening to podcasts.  It’s one thing in a sports bar where many go specifically to watch sports on TV.  But in a restaurant where people meet to enjoy good food and conversation?

Lately I found that even gas stations have small screen TVs on the pumps.  I complained to a cashier about this and she acknowledged that many people were unhappy with it.  I added that I might go elsewhere for gas.

Maybe this is a good reason to stay in the woods and not even turn on MPR with all of its pleas for donations or announcements for this program or podcast or …