In economics, when there’s even some monopoly power, the business can set prices and still have people buy their products. There is monopoly power everywhere; local convenience stores can price the way they do because there are some customers who are unable to switch providers or move. And so the businesses can price their products and somehow structure the pricing to be two-part tariff, which mean they can charge you a fixed fee and then layer on additional charges per unit of consumption.
They can take various forms. For example, a bakery can charge you $10 annual membership and give you 10% discount off the breads that you buy from them for the entire year. This way, they charge you a fixed fee and then get you to pay for more per marginal unit of consumption. The gym charges you a single registration fee and then monthly membership. Even devices such as reMarkable which is an e-ink writing tablet is selling its tablet and then charging people for a monthly subscription that allows people to sync their notes to various platforms, have unlimited storage, etc.
Even the smart phones involves getting you to pay for the device, then charging you for apps or gaining more revenue from additional services you use on the phone. The tariff structure has an alluring quality of pricing the overall good at almost marginal cost. Or does it? That’s what economic theory suggests but it is unlikely to be the case on digital goods and services. They are probably being priced at the long run marginal cost plus a premium to support long term development and innovation. Is that an efficient outcome? It’s hard to say.
What is more interesting, is that the two part tariff structure creates more stickiness for the customer to the producer. Having already paid for the first part, the customer tries to make more use of that, averaging down his/her cost per unit of consumption. This is the use of sunk cost fallacy and faulty thinking to trap consumers.
Can prices make the world better? Perhaps one could argue that it already did! Yet for the first in history, putting a price on something free could very well allow us to step into a future that’s remarkably better than the status quo. And that’s the price on carbon.
For the longest time; perhaps for far too long, emitting carbon dioxide is free. To be fair, when we breath out, we emit carbon dioxide. But that is through the food, grown during our lifetimes. One may argue of course that cows belching and the dairy industry creates a lot more greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane as well.
Brushing food industry aside, let’s ask ourselves how a carbon price makes the difference. By charging industries for burning fossil fuel and emitting carbon dioxide through whatever industrial processes, we are saying that the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when it should rightly be stored in minerals and in the ground as oil, gas and coal is harmful to the world. We are saying that people ought to pay a price for releasing the carbon dioxide in the air and causing climate change.
The issue is that we all live in a single atmosphere but the carbon price is different everywhere and we allow people in their own countries to somehow set this price or a regime to manage this price. And then we call it a carbon tax. Or in other places, we put a trading system around it and the traded price becomes the carbon price. There are times when prices work better when they are different in different places. But perhaps not this time. The fact carbon is free or much less costly in one place but not another is just going to encourage more gaming of the system.
The world needs to set a price, and really align on it. There is nowhere in the world where it is cheaper to emit carbon in terms of the environmental and climate costs.
The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing
I don’t think this is the first time I’m putting up this quote. But I’m just wondering today. What are prices for? Why are there prices for things? What does a price mean? If anything at all?
Prices are signals from the perspective of economics. The level that clears the market; where demand matches supply. A high price or low price doesn’t really mean much. It’s unclear if the prices reflects costs of production because there can be market power driving margins. Besides, when storage costs are expensive, a producer might be keen to sell excess supply at lower than production costs.
But prices drives behaviours; they create some kind of incentive to produce, to trade, to buy, and sell. It is some kind of benchmark against which we evaluate our preferences. Because we’d try to figure out if something was ‘worth the price’. And so the market moves; and people try to justify prices with attributes, features, emotional storytelling. And prices in turn drives those stories, emotional expression and comparisons.