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[Tuesday, February 24, 2004]


A somewhat frivolous exercise in mechanism design

Ryan Bigge has a post (scroll down to February 20th, the direct link doesn't quite seem to work) savaging Kevin Smith for giving an expensive lecture. His anger is understandable, but not, I think, entirely justified; let me ramble for a little about why not.

Facts: the ticket price is $47.50. It's at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto; a quick Google tells me that the capacity there is about 2,600. I'll say right upfront that there's no way I'm paying $47.50 for an evening with Kevin Smith. Not a dis: I thought Dogma was plenty funny, and he's obviously a clever and funny guy. But his take on things is only of limited interest to me. Bigge says

Kevin Smith is very wealthy. If he were not rich, then I could perhaps-maybe understand the ridiculous fee, but what are you thinking man? Do you realize the extent to which you are alienating your fanbase by charging that kind of money?
Let's consider this situation, though. Kevin Smith is very wealthy because a lot of people go to see his movies. Not only that, he has a cult status; people who like his work tend to like it a lot. I'd actually hazard a guess that more than 2,600 people in the Greater Toronto Area would really, really like to go hear him speak, maybe even get a chance to ask questions. I'd guess a lot more than 2,600 people would really like that. Kevin Smith is a scarce resource.

Who gets a sliver of Kevin on the evening of March 12th? It's a social choice problem: we seek to maximize collective utility.

Now, if Kevin Smith were a necessity, like clean water or health-care, the fair options are limited to:

  • Devoting common resources to providing more Kevin; enough so that everybody who needs some gets some. This might degrade the quality some: perhaps it's in a bigger hall, he does several shorter lectures, he's hoarse, worn out, and in a crappy mood by the time he's finished giving as many lectures as needed to satisfy everyone.
  • If we can't, by hook or by crook, obtain enough Kevin to make everybody happy, then we need at least to satisfy a secondary criterion and make sure the decision is absolutely fair, and doesn't discriminate on grounds of, say, income. As with health-care (in Canada), waving a wad of bills doesn't get you ahead in the queue. Since -- unlike medicine -- there is no profession and academic discipline devoted to assessing the comparative needs of individuals for a lecture by Kevin Smith, allowing ticket-distributors to make judgement calls simply opens the door to corruption. First-come, first-serve it is.
Now, first-come first-serve (plus medical judgement calls, but let's not factor those in right now) works OK in health-care because there is basically total information; as soon as you become sick or injured, you are aware of the need for medical attention. Also, by claiming medical attention, you are using a certain amount of a resource for a certain length of time; once they're done with you, that resource is available for someone else. They've had to wait, but with reasonable triage this is just an inconvenience. Contrast this state of affairs with the lecture, and the two first-come, first-serve alternatives there:
  • Advance reservations starting at a set date: Fanboy X finds out a month in advance, is not a huge Kevin Smith fan but thinks it's a cool thing, and puts his name down for a ticket; Fanboy Y doesn't hear until 3 days ahead, and the tickets are gone. He is a huge fan, and is devastated. Those who find out earlier are preferred.
  • No advance reservation, doors open a certain amount of time in advance. Under these assumptions, we get a huge lineup, which rewards those with the spare time to devote to a lineup.
Neither of these "fairer" alternatives is very satisfying, is it? If Mr. Smith were a necessity, then we would have, collectively, to hold our noses and go with one of them as being still less repugnant than discriminating by income. But since he's not... well, a high but not insane ticket price doesn't sound so bad: low enough so that anybody who really wants to go can scrape it together, though certainly at some opportunity cost, and high enough to dissuade the casual "Yeah, I'm not too into him, but what the heck" ticket buyers. (Now, of course, this depends crucially on there not being too many bored rich kids for whom $47.50 is pocket change snarfing up the tickets. For them, I have no rational remedy, except maybe a good swift kick in the arse.)

posted 6:17 PM |

The spine of my country

I missed it, but apparently Margaret Wente took it on herself recently to savage Adrienne Clarkson (Canada's Governor-General, for my readers abroad) and her husband John Ralston Saul for spending public money in the course of their job of representing the country. The Master of Massey College delivered this magisterial rebuke today:

And what a joke are all those frigid little countries like Iceland that the Governor-General goes on and on about? What on earth do we have to learn from a speck on the map like Finland, stuck by the whims of history and geography right next door to a behemoth of a country that is constantly on the verge of overwhelming its economy and culture?

And why doesn't the Governor-General's husband just shut up? Who on earth wants to hear his ruminations on citizenship or Canada's ridiculous place in the world? In Ms. Wente's worldview, we are almost as stupid a little country as those other stupid little countries, with our very own stupid little vice-regal couple going on and on about our stupid vast and empty acres of northland, buzzing as it does with all those irritating and stupid little mosquitoes and stupid little writers...

As it happens, Molly Ivins, one of the best things about Texas, is interested in Saul's ruminations on citizenship. The article she cites isn't available online, I don't think, but the 2000 LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture text is well worth a read. Some bonehead in my neighbourhood has a bumper sticker with a silhouette of a rifle and the words "Our Rights Weren't Won With a Handshake"; here Saul recounts a truer story:

When the Chateau Clique and their allies came out into the streets of Montréal on the night on April 25th 1849 and burnt down the Parliament of Canada, the government responded with moderation. Everywhere else in the West, governments automatically responded to such situations with rifles and cannon. The Executive Council - the cabinet - met on the 27th in the midst of the ongoing disorder and ratified a report which would explain their policy. It stated that the proper mode of preserving order is by strengthening the Civil Authorities. And that the Council deprecate the employment of the Military to suppress such disturbances...

It was one of those perfectly existential moments. Here was a fragile half colony/half country, which already has two languages, as well as many ethnic groups and religions - without even taking into account the aboriginal role as a founding pillar of the society. In 19th century terms it was a powder keg. The government's response would cause this place either to slip down the European/American road towards impossible oppositions, outright violence and a centralized monolithic model. Or the ministers would have to discover another way.

Somehow, LaFontaine and Baldwin reached down into their own ethics and imaginations and decided upon an original and much criticized response. The Imperial government in London, for example, was furious that the streets had not been cleared with volleys of rifle fire. The great western historian W.L. Morton put it that the reformers had decided not to answer defiance with defiance, but to have moderate conduct shame arrogant violence.

posted 11:30 AM |