More on non-rival goods

Writing about my local radio options, around tax time when I always feel guilty about not giving enough money away last year, led to an expensive tour past the web cash registers of several public radio stations.  My conscience is salved, but I’m still nettled by the system I have to deal with.

First,  as pledge time arrives, there’s the lameness whereby the rain of pleading and wheedling raineth both upon the the just who have pledged or paid and on the unjust, and of course all the free riding by the latter. (KQED apparently has a scheme this year where you can listen online without pledge cadging if you pay your dues, but it doesn’t work in your car.)

But the larger problem is that having bought membership in a few local radio stations, I will still listen to only one station’s worth of content. With streaming, especially now that my phone is a pocket computer with web access and pretty good earphones, to many I didn’t give anything to.  This is surely one of the glories of the web; instead of being stuck with the providers near me, broadcasting through the air  in that old-fashioned way, I can listen to radio stations all over the world. TV too; my cable system doesn’t offer Al Jazeera English but my computer does.  What I don’t have is a way to pay, reasonably proportionally, for content when I’m getting it from hither and yon and when I don’t know in advance what I will want to hear next year.  I guess I could pledge nickels and dimes at dozens of sites, but that would look insulting to the stations and unless we all do it (and waste absurd amounts of time clicking  and typing sixteen digit numbers) it’s quixotic and ineffective.

Broken; not “needs improvement” or “could be updated for current conditions”, broken is what this economic model and its trading rules are.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to pay once and for all, conveniently and quickly, for a year’s worth of content no matter where I choose to get it, and be assured the providers will not only get money with which to make more and pay for their kid’s braces, but also get a price signal about how many of us stayed tuned in to this and didn’t care to hear or see that.  Why is the technology so far ahead of the institutional and political machinery it demands?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

7 thoughts on “More on non-rival goods”

  1. As an occasional musician, I would like a way to get paid very small amounts of money for very small amounts of distributed music – without involving ASCAP, BMI, PayPal, iTunes, or any other middleman likely to make life difficult (c.f. Paypal vs Wikileaks). Ideally, I’d like banks to create standards for micropayments, allowing a client’s player software to get a one-time $.10 voucher from their bank, and submit it to my webserver along with a request for a tune. My webserver would automatically deposit the $.10 with my bank (perhaps $.095 after a 5% transaction fee).

    As long as the client’s bank lets the client set withdrawal limits and/or clawback provisions to limit fraud (e.g. malware), I’d consider this a good and practical solution.

    In the case of webcast radio, this would allow free, donation-based, or pay-per-minute/hour/year streaming, and client software could automatically pay the small amounts while requiring a client’s OK for expensive content (as defined by the client).

  2. I’m thinking this may be too simplistic a reading of the realities of the market out there. Comparing it, say, to the traditional models of content delivery paid for by advertising and/or cable/satellite subscription, the same issues invariably arise. When I pay my cable bill, I don’t watch 99% of the content provided. Am I paying for them? In a sense. When listening to the radio, I’m paying for content by exposing myself to advertising. I think this could be pretty congruent with pledge drives. Even if I don’t support every station I listen to, neither do I purchase most products advertised.

    Where this seems to get very tricky is in the ability for the modern consumer to “hide” from advertising – vastly increasing the degree to which they are a “free rider”. I’m thinking of DVR fast-forward and ad-blocking for browsers. I don’t see why a similar DVR-style technology hasn’t yet been deployed in car stereos, enabling the pausing or fast forwarding of recorded over-air content.

    One (partial?) “fix” to the model you are asking for could come in a matter of framing. For instance, I listen to a variety of podcasts. Yet I subscribe to one public radio station. I also have a portion of my paycheck sent to the United Way. I tend to think of this as a charity-budget, based on what I feel is a fair economic contribution. I could spread it around more, so to maybe better reflect my consumptive habits (although my current allotments are not entirely arbitrary – these calculations are complex!) and likely thinning it in the process.

  3. Parks are sort of a semi-rival good, since my enjoyment is less if there is a rival picnicker’s blanket six inches from mine, where radio yearns to be free, right? As a child of one of the founders of KPFA, I remember worrying during pledge drives that not enough money would come in for us to eat. There was a program guide, sent to members – this got less effective when Xerox got widely available. The BBC solution is to charge everybody who has a radio, and this leads to resentment from Sky news consumers – in this country hostility to tax funding for NPR is heavily concentrated on the right, and has a lot to do with the feeling that NPR is a Democratic Party mouthpiece. Cable TV has been charging for access, as has Sirius.

    We do charge for Yosemite, which is very much a rival good these days. And we SHOULD charge for roads, which you could call semi-rival in off peak hours but of which my enjoyment is hugely diminished by others at rush hour. I think your commenter Eric Buddington is onto something, if the transaction costs can be small enough.

  4. Actually different parks have opposite signs: I don’t want to go to an empty urban park, it’s more fun with more people around (hence the genius of making the big parks in NYC off-leash for dogs between 9PM and 9AM). But I’d rather you didn’t appear on the scene when I’m backpacking in the Sierra. Fisher’s scheme helps a lot with the problem of making me pay for stuff I deplore or don’t use: if I listen to something more, that supplier gets more money. We would have to portray the tax as an entitlement to the collective cultural patrimony, but that’s better than a ticket earmarked for the culture of a rich or educated few.

  5. Public urban parks are more complex than that: we know that different designs and amenity provision attracts different types of users; their design can exclude or accommodate according to preference and culture, as well as proximity and access. The genius of the Olmsted parks was how they accommodated so many different activities – both directed and self-directed.

  6. “Where this seems to get very tricky is in the ability for the modern consumer to “hide” from advertising – vastly increasing the degree to which they are a “free rider”. I’m thinking of DVR fast-forward and ad-blocking for browsers.”

    This seems an extraordinarily strange way to think — some sort of pre-modern model where listening to advertising is some sort of penance for enjoying TV/radio.

    The point of advertising is, ultimately, to inform you and persuade you to buy something. If you are not in the market for what is being sold, or are already aware of its attractions, then what harm is being done by skipping over the ad? This is especially true in the world of DVRs and 30 second skips — each .5 seconds you take to see a fragment of an ad before skipping to the next one, nonetheless reinforces “brand awareness” or whatever the hell it is supposed to do. Consider, eg, movies: I generally watch the ad for what looks like an interesting movie once. I now know it exists, and can make a decision to see it or not. Nothing is changed by my skipping the next fifty instances of the ad.

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