Transaction costs prevent lots of trades. So many that we often aren’t aware of their potentiality. Michael Munger asserts that transaction costs are so prohibitive that we tend to accumulate a lot of stuff that we could otherwise do without. That’s what he says in “Why we can’t break up with our stuff — yet“.
Transaction costs of all kinds have fallen dramatically over time. One of the greatest innovations in “transactions technology” was the avoidance of barter with the broad acceptance of a medium of exchange (money). Without a medium of exchange, trade requires a “double coincidence of wants”, which often makes the effort to engage in trade impractical. No less important was the establishment of secure property rights such that the integrity of a contract or transaction was protected, whether enforced by possible repercussions from other traders or through the police power of the state. Secure property rights and the use of money facilitated the development of markets and pricing that conveyed better information about scarcity. Other historical developments that reduced transaction costs include better transportation, communication, packaging, and more efficient distribution and supply chain management. In a variety of complex transactions, such as real estate, standardization of contracts has reduced transaction costs.
Those costs have been reduced dramatically of late by new communication and computing technologies. The size of these reductions is difficult to quantify in such prominent examples as Uber ride-sharing and Airbnb home-sharing, but there is no question that the new supplies of rides and accommodations would not have materialized absent the enabling on-line “apps”. The ease, low-cost and minimal risk of these transactions is incredible.
Suppose that hotels in Soho average $400 per night for a suite and that Airbnb rentals in Soho average $300. It’s fair to say that the average Airbnb host in Soho, without Airbnb, faced transaction costs in arranging for qualified occupants of at least $100 plus Airbnb’s fees. Probably much more. Now, it’s true that the hotel suites and the Airbnb rentals are fundamentally different “products”, but they are alternatives for meeting a particular need.
Similar reductions in transaction costs are occurring across a wide variety of sectors besides transportation and vacation rentals: trading in new and used goods, handymen, concierge services, snow plowing, home-sitting, food delivery, and hook-ups are but a few examples.
Munger’s twist on this story is that dramatically lower transaction costs will mean we’ll all need to own much less “stuff” on average, because we can “share”, or at least buy what we need at minimal transaction cost. Or, what we have will be used more intensively because we can share it profitably.
Munger mentions the high cost of owning an auto that he uses for about 5 out of 168 total hours in a week. The costs include dedicated “storage” space, both at home and at work, and sometimes the extra cost of “storing” it in airport parking. He could certainly afford to arrange alternative forms of transportation. Is owning the auto worthwhile because the transaction costs of the alternatives are too high? Well, Munger owns a nice car and he probably likes to drive it, so there is more to it than transaction costs. Still, if we mention the “convenience” of having a car at one’s disposal, that is really an expression of transaction costs avoided via ownership.
If the cost of arranging an acceptable and ready alternative is minimal, why own a car? This decision is very real in certain congested locales with costly real estate (e.g., parking New York City). In short, Munger believes even fewer individuals will bother to own personal autos, or that those cars will be less idle (rented to users), as technology reduces transaction costs:
“Why do I pay to store my car rather than let other people use it and collect rent? Transaction costs. …But we are living in the beginning of a pivotal era that will transform our relationship to ‘stuff’ (we’ll need less of it) and to each other (we’ll share more). For all of human history until about 1995, the desire to reduce transaction costs was tied to the desire to sell a particular product. Now, entrepreneurs are combining three things — mobile platforms, software apps, and internet connections — to sell reductions in transaction costs with no product attached. And that combination will change everything.“
Will that also mean fewer personally-owned kitchen appliances? Home furnishings? Clothing? Power tools? Stereo components? Probably not. Even if it’s easy to find a willing renter for my power tools or stereo components from time-to-time, I might not want to bother with the required exchanges (at pick-up and return). I use power tools from time-to-time, but I won’t want to shlep back and forth to rent them from someone when I could own them myself at relatively low cost. Perhaps I’ll rent a tiller or a power washer, but not a power drill. Maybe I could hire a gopher on the Air-gopher app to get the tools I need and return them when I’m done, but that adds back to my transaction costs. So there are certain limits to how far this can go in reducing our “stuff”.
Nevertheless, there is no question that there will be many new trades and competitive opportunities to exploit as transaction costs fall, and that implies more choice, lower prices, and less waste in the larger allocative sense. Those, I believe, are the major benefits of sharing technologies. For example, if you enjoy cooking but are the sole member of your household, imagine an app that allows you to sell your extra preparations to other individuals, or to give them away at a minimal transaction cost. Or, if you are able to perform odd jobs but prefer to take them at your convenience, you will likely be able to bid for projects of your choice. If you have a talent for teaching guitar, you could solicit business and even provide the lessons remotely through an on-line app. The major impediment to the development of such market innovations is potential interference by government or other entrenched interests who wish to prevent competition. Licensing laws and various forms of regulation and taxes could easily smother or eliminate the benefits of sharing technologies, and that would be a shame.
I’ll close with a digression on Munger’s hypothesis: why do I own or keep a lot of “stuff? It’s not all about transaction costs. Most people harbor nostalgic feelings for their “stuff”. I hate parting with my old shirts, old drivers licenses, theater programs, and ticket stubs. Most of those things have approximately zero market value. Some people believe it’s just plain wasteful to pitch something that can be put back into working order, like an old lawnmower. Transaction costs might be to blame, but the failure to junk the mower in the first place may be driven by a depression-era instinct for penny-pinching. The hoarder might simply underestimate the benefits of a new mower, or perhaps they deserve credit for undertaking a restoration project they enjoy.
I find myself hoarding all kinds of things that I think might be useful to me somehow, someday. Particularly things like miscellaneous nuts & bolts, sundry pieces of hardware, wire, old fixtures, pieces of lumber, and my late Dad’s old tools. I’m certain I won’t ever use 95%+ of these items, but it’s reassuring to have the inventory. Then again, every time I need an odd item, I find myself in my basement work room searching through all that stuff. Invariably, I end up on my way to the hardware store to get what I need. So much for minimizing transaction costs. What would it cost me to pitch all of it? An afternoon of painful evaluation… yet that too represents a transaction cost!