Posts Tagged ‘efficiency’

It takes an entire civilization to build a toaster. Designer Thomas Thwaites found out the hard way, by attempting to build one from scratch: mining ore for steel, deriving plastic from oil … it’s frankly amazing he got as far as he got. A parable of our interconnected society, for designers and consumers alike.

An energy crisis plagues the Western world. Diminishing supplies and increasing transportation costs are driving up prices. Fuel sources are drying up. Many fear that the current way of life will become unsustainable. Families spend escalating proportions of their income on simple amenities such as heating their homes.

The previous paragraph may accurately depict the modern world. However, it was written about Europe in the sixteenth century. In Before the Industrial Revolution, Carlo Cipolla explains that timber remained the primary fuel of Europeans until the late 1600s. Only when coal was increasingly used as a substitute did timber prices began to diminish. So why did the Europeans wait so long to start burning coal? The answer is that at low prices it simply wasn’t worth the time or effort to extract the coal from the ground. When timber prices rose, coal sellers could undercut the price and still make a profit. This is the law of supply–as the price increases, more people are willing to supply a good.

High oil prices lead to talk about increased consumer costs and windfall producer profits while the most promising aspect is often ignored. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention (and innovation). The resolution to our generation’s fuel problems will most undoubtedly be the same solution as four centuries ago: the development of new energy sources. The need to develop new energy wasn’t there when oil was relatively cheap. High oil prices incentivize the development of new competitive energy sources and methods.

Recently, an interesting feature has been made available on many new jukeboxes. It charges customers a higher amount (usually double the regular cost) to hear selections immediately.


This factor aims to take advantage of the diverse time preferences (what economists call discount rates) that exist among customers. Those who are more determined to hear songs now (and therefore pay extra) are said to have a relatively high discount rate, those who are more willing to wait have a relatively low discount rate.

Compared to the system of “first come, first served”, this is a downgrade for most consumers. Ideally, these additional fees would be transferred to individuals that were skipped to reimburse them for doing so. You can sense the inefficiency because jukebox makers can generate additional revenue by producing no additional service. They do this by pitting customers against each other, essentially accepting bribes to let some avoid waiting.

I do not suggest this system cannot produce better results, only that at a low price, it won’t, due to overuse. After a point, the more customers that use the feature, the worse are the results. Simply illustrated, the worst case scenario occurs when everyone has a high discount rate and pays extra for the option. This has the same result as if none of them do, but costs twice as much.

Will an option to skip someone’s song ever be offered? Jukebox owners would have opportunities to charge double and produce zero. Sounds like a cushy job to me.