Who do you subsidise?

One basic rule of pricing is that it is impossible for all buyers to have the same consumer surplus (the difference between what a buyer values the item at and what he paid). This is because each buyer values the item differently, and is thus willing to pay a different price for it. People who value the item more end up having a higher consumer surplus than those who value it less (and are still able to afford it).

Dynamic pricing systems (such as what we commonly see for air travel and hotels) try to price such that such a surplus is the same for all consumers, and equal to zero, but they never reach this ideal. While the variation in consumer surplus under such systems is lower, it is impossible for it to come to zero for all, or even a reasonable share of, customers.

So what effectively happens is that customers with a lower consumer surplus end up subsidising those with a higher consumer surplus. If the former customers didn’t exist, for example, the clearing price would’ve been higher, resulting in a lower consumer surplus for those who currently have a higher consumer surplus.

Sometimes the high surplus customer and the low surplus customer need not be different people – it could be the same person at different times. When I’m pressed for time, for example, my willingness to pay for a taxi is really high, and I’m highly likely to gain a significant consumer surplus by taking a standard taxi or ride-hailing marketplace ride then. At a more leisurely time, travelling on a route with plenty of bus service, I’d be willing to pay less, resulting in a lower consumer surplus. It is important to note, however, that my low surplus journey resulted in a further subsidy to my higher surplus journey.

When it comes to markets with network effects (whether direct, such as telecommunications, or indirect, like any two-sided marketplace), this surplus transfer effect is further exacerbated – not only do low-surplus customers subsidise high-surplus customers by keeping clearing price low, but network effects mean that by becoming customers they also add direct value to the high surplus customers.

So when you are pleasantly surprised to find that Uber is priced low, the low price is partly because of other customers who are paying close to their willingness to pay for the service. When you pay an amount close to the value you place on the service, you are in turn subsidising another customer whose willingness to pay is much higher.

This transfer of consumer surplus can be seen as an instance of bundling, but from the seller’s side. Since a seller cannot discriminate effectively among customers (even with dynamic pricing algorithms such as Uber’s surge pricing), the high-surplus customers come bundled with the low-surplus customers. And from the seller’s perspective, this bundling is optimal (see this post by Chris Dixon on why bundling works, and invert it).

So the reason I thought up this post is that there has been some uncertainty about ride-hailing marketplaces in Bangalore recently. First, drivers went on strike alleging that they weren’t being paid fairly by the marketplaces. Then, a regulator decided to take the rulebook too literally and banned pooled rides. As i write this, a bunch of young women I know are having a party, and it’s likely that they’ll need these ride-hailing services for getting home.

Given late night transport options in Bangalore, and the fact that the city sleeps early, their willingness to pay for a safe ride home will be high. If markets work normally, they’re guaranteed a high consumer surplus. And this will be made possible by someone, somewhere else, who stretched their budget to be able to afford an Uber ride.

Think about it!

Cross-posted at RQ

Bangalore Book Festival

So today I made my way to Gayatri Vihar in the Palace Grounds to visit the Bangalore Book Festival, on its last day. It was interesting, though a bit crowded (what would you expect on the last day of an exhibition? and that too, when it’s a Sunday?). I didn’t buy much (just picked up two books) given the massive unread pile that lies at home. However, there was much scope for pertinent observations. Like I always do when I have a large number of unrelated pertinent observations, I’ll write this in bullet point form.

  • There were some 200 stalls. Actually, there might have been more. I didn’t keep count, despite the stalls having been numbered. Yeah, you can say that I wasn’t very observant.
  • All the major bookshops in Bangalore barring the multicity ones had set up shop there. I don’t really know what they were doing there. Or were they just trying to capture the market that only buys in fairs? Or did they set up stall there just to advertise themselves?
  • It seems like a lot of shops were trying to use the fair to get rid of inventory they wanted to discard. All they had to do was to stack all of this on one table and put a common price tag (say Rs. 50) on every book in that collection, and it was enough to draw insane crowds
  • One interesting stall at the fair had been set up by pothi.com an online self-publishing company. I’ll probably check them out sometime next year when I might want to publish a blook. Seems like an interesting business model they’ve got. Print on demand!
  • I also met the flipkart.com guys at the fair. Once again, they were there for advertising themselves. Need to check them out sometime. Given the kind of books I buy, I think online is the best place to get long tail stuff.
  • There was an incredibly large number of islamic publishing houses at the fair! And have you guys seen the “want qur an? call 98xxxxxxxx for free copy” hoardings all over the city? Wonder why the Bajrang Dal doesn’t target those
  • There was large vernacular presence at the fair. I remember reading in the papers that there was a quota for Kannada publishers, but there was reasonable presence for other languages also, like Gult, Tam, Mellu, Hindi
  • A large number of stalls were ideology driven. Publishing houses attached to cults had set up stalls, probably to further the cause of their own cult. So there was an ISKCON stall, a Ramakrishna Mutt stall, a Ramana Maharshi stall, etc.
  • Attendance at most of these niche stalls was quite thin, as people mostly crowded the stalls being run by bookstores in order to hunt for bargains. Attendance was also mostly thin at publisher-run stalls, making me wonder why most of these people had bothered to come to the fair at all.
  • I saw one awesomely funny banner at the place. It was by “Dr Partha Bagchi, the world leader in stammering for last 20 years” or some such thing. Was too lazy to pull out my phone and click pic. But it was a masterpiece of a banner
  • Another interesting ideological publisher there was “Leftword books”. Their two sales reps were in kurtas and carrying jholas (ok I made the latter part up). And they were sellling all sorts of left-wing books. Wonder who funds them! And they were also selling posters of Che for 10 bucks each
  • I wonder what impact this fair will have on bookstores in Bangalore in the next few days. Or probably it was mostly the non-regular book buyers who did business at the fair and so the regulars will be back at their favourite shops tomorrow.

I bought two books. Vedam Jaishankar’s Casting A Spell: A history of Karnataka cricket (I got it at Rs. 200, as opposed to a list price of Rs 500) and Ravi Vasudevan’s “Making Meaning in Indian Cinema”.

Arranged Scissors 2

One of the greatest sins in the normal relationship process is tw0-timing. If your statistically significant other figures out that there is yet another other who might also be statistically significant, she is not going to take things lying down. The most likely scenario will be that the yet another other will indeed become statistically siginficant – since the original SSO puts ditch. It might be a stretch but I’ll anyway say that tw0-timing is probably the worst mistake you can commit in the course of a relationship.

The arranged marriage market puts no such constraints. Even if you are ten-timing, people won’t mind. Especially if you are an NRI. The typical NRI process goes like this. Boy lands and is given a “shortlist” – a sheaf of CVs and photos. During the drive home, the shortlist is made shorter. The next day, “interviews” are arranged with each girl in the shorter list, typically at her house. End of the day, after sampling data from various sources, boy picks the one that he thinks will be likely to be most statistically significant in the long term.He takes her out for lunch the next day, puts a ring on her finger the following day and flies off, promising to return in a few months for the wedding. Occasionally, he claims he can’t get leave from his employers for another year and so puts off thaaLi also before he returns to vilayat. Girl can follow him later. For now she’ll follow him on Twitter (sorry, bad PJ).

Local boys don’t have it that lucky. At least, it is unlikely that they ten-time. There are two quirks of the arranged marriage market which pull in opposite directions when it comes to two-timing. On one hand is discretion. You don’t announce that you are “seeing someone” until it’s all fixed and proposal has been made and accepted. Discretion also means that you don’t want to be caught together in public. It also means that you can’t write funny things on each other’s facebook walls. And it obviously rules out PDA – in fact, all forms of DA are strongly discouraged until the contract has been signed. Heck, my cousin was putting DA during her engagement and that led to much gossip and condemnation. So no DA till marriage.

So yeah – one of the “advantages” of this discretion is that it allows you to two-time. What tugs from the other side is the time to decision. Due diligence in the whole process is outsourced, to the bankers. Typically it is finished even before the parties concerned get a chance to  explore each other – and in this, this process differs from the typical M&A process. So now that the due diligence has already been done, bankers prefer that the parties reach a decision quickly.

I don’t know how this happened, but the time to decision is fairly short. In olden days, I’m told that the due diligence was the beginning and end of the deal process. All that the parties had to do was sign. Things slowly improved – to showing photos, to being shown glimpses, to being allowed to talk for two minutes. I don’t know where things stand in terms of the general market, but I’ve been trying to insist on a proper blading process to allow enough time for tiki-taka.

Ok here is the grand unification for this post. The time to decision is a function of discretion and ability to two-time. Given the discretion that has normally been practised (i suppose this came about because societies were tightly knit and small and things would become awkward for all parties involved if each expression of interest were made public), the cost of two-timing became quite low. Thus, in order to make sure that the counterparty is not two-timing their kid, parents started demanding that decisions be made early. This cut both ways – the counterparty’s parents also wanted to make sure their kid wasn’t being two-timed. From the point of view of bankers, the short time-to-deal was an absolute win.

From the point of views of the interested parties, all it did was to increase the incentive for Common Minimum Programmes. Time allotted is generally too short to properly check out the counterparty, and you need to prioritise. You want to check for obvious mistakes. In the short time, you want to make sure that the counterparty is not an obvious misfit. Realizing that you will never have that time to figure out propely if a prospective counterparty has those “spikes”, you settle for someone who “clears the basic cutoffs”.

You thus get yourself a common minimum programme spouse.

Earlier in the series:

Arranged Scissors 1 – The Common Minimum Programme

Why Breakfast is an integral part of South Indian cuisine and not in North Indian

I suppose the more perceptive of you would have noticed this – that breakfast forms an integral part of South Indian cuisine, while it is totally absent (apart from parathas) in the North. The more inquisitive of you would have asked yourselves this question, and would have perhaps asked some friends and relatives and acquaintances also. The luckier among you would have found some answers. I think I belong to this category, too. And I hereby share my theory with you.

The fundamental concept here is that South Indian food is predominantly rice-based while North Indian food is roti-based. Yes, you have the accompaniments – sambar and dry curry in the south, and dal and sabji in the north. But let us focus on the staple component here. Let us think back a few generations, when large joint families were the norm. Division of labour meant that most women would spend most of their time cooking.

Now, those of you who have cooked, or even observed someone cooking, would have noticed that the process of cooking rice is “scalable”. On the part of the cook, cooking 10 kilos of rice takes only marginally greater effort compared to cooking 1 kilo of rice. On the other hand, rotis are non-scalable. There are minor economies of scale in terms of time taken to get the stove going, but the amount of effort involved in cooking is directly proportional to the number of rotis to be made. Roti-making is thus non-scalable. Also, observe that roti-making is high-involvement. It requires the undivided attention of a cook. On the other hand, you can just set rice to boil, and go sing a song while it gets cooked.

So the funda here is that given the non-scalable process of making rotis, whenever there were large families involved, North Indian women would have to spend a large part of their time making rotis. The long and tedious process meant that women had little time left over after cooking lunch and dinner. Contrast this with the rice-eating South, where due to the scalable process, women had a lot more free time compared to their Northern counterparts.

Another thing we need to remember here is that rice is more easily digestible than wheat, and hence doesn’t “last as long”. Hence, the rice-eater will need to eat at more regular intervals as compared to the wheat-eater. The wheat-eater can easily survive on two meals a day, but this is not the case for the rice-eater. There is the need for that one extra meal.

So, people, this is why breakfast, which is an integral part of South Indian cuisine, is practically absent in the North. There was demand – rice-eating south indians couldn’t survive on two meals a day. There was also the requirement for variety, for one couldn’t eat the same thing thrice a day. And there was supply – the free time the South Indian woman had, thanks to the scalable process she adopted for making lunch and dinner. This explains why South Indians evolved such an excellent breakfast cuisine, while people in the North eat bread.