Virginia Postrel on Style
Nov 27 2006

Author and journalist Virginia Postrel talks about how business competes for customers using style and beauty, going beyond price and the standard measures of quality. She looks at the role of appearance in our daily lives and the change from earlier times when style and beauty were luxuries accessible only to the wealthy. She also talks about her donation of a kidney to a friend and how that affected the intensity of her feelings about the policies surrounding organ donations.

Mailbag (Time mark 55:43-58:30)
    • On
Richard Thaler on Libertarian Paternalism
    . John Brothers makes two comments: What if government actually did a good job of setting up Medicare effectively? Support would increase, but woe to us if we try to change or improve it later. Markets and systems change over time. Also: Getting gov't to do better is not the same as trying to get the gov't to do less. Both take time and energy.
    Pietro Poggi-Corradini observes: Where gov't. is in competition with the private sector, some of these improvements would happen because the gov't. would want to attract more employees to its own cafeteria. Perhaps Thaler just wants to give the government consulting advice or be a government adviser. Doesn't that joint/conflicting interest suggest that "libertarian paternalism" is an oxymoron?
    • [Additional resource: the podcast
The Economics of Paternalism
    with Ed Glaeser.--Econlib Ed.]
Addendum: Check out a follow-up question addressed in this Mailbag (Time Mark 1:10:00)
Sally Satel on Organ Donation
Sally Satel, psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the challenges of increasing the supply of donated organs for transplantation and ways that public policy might increase the supply. Satel, who...
Johanna Blakley on Fashion and Intellectual Property
Johanna Blakley of the University of Southern California talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the fashion industry and the role of intellectual property. In the fashion industry there is limited protection for innovative designs and as a result, copying...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Tim Sydney
Nov 27 2006 at 10:33pm

Virginia Postrel’s discussion of style and aesthetics actually had a roundabout link with her discussion on the economics of kidney donation.

To a large extent the opposition to kidney markets is based on a form of aesthetic imperialism where those who neither need kidneys or who are apparently unwilling to donate their own, impose their ethical viewpoint on others. It is interesting that we have a large lobby of social liberals who adamantly object to religious conservatives imposing their moral viewpoints on non-violent private behaviour, these stalwarts seem missing-in-action on this issue.

There is a similar problem in the ambulance sector. Here in Australia we have a highly competitive tow truck industry and state government run monopolies of ambulance service. The result is that tow trucks usually arive at the scene of a vehicle accident well before any ambulance. As a result state governments are now imposing regulations to ensure tow truck drivers know emergency first aid. If and when the idea of private competitive ambulance service is raised the objection is always ‘ethical’. It’s degrading to think first aid would be provided by businessmen with mercenary motivations, better to bleed to death waiting for civil servants to show up!

The ethical imperialism of the state ambulance monopoly seems comparable to the motives of the kidney rationing lobby.

Chris Meisenzahl
Nov 29 2006 at 1:05pm

I enjoyed this podcast quite a bit. I especially liked the commentary on watches and fountain pens, as I enjoy both. 😉


Stuart Berman
Nov 29 2006 at 11:29pm

Another brilliant podcast – your material is consistently thought provoking.

It seems that a good way to ‘market’ organ donations would be some kind of ‘assurance’ that donors would be guaranteed a replacement kidney (organ) should the need arise so that the donation becomes in essence an insurance policy. A free market of organs would probably obviate the guarantee however public sentiment needs a little persuasion.

Comments are closed.




Podcast Episode Highlights
0:43Substance of Style discussed. Aesthetics is increasingly important, and is a source of economic value. Why, when we are also told to ignore packaging and external beauty? Proposals:
    • 1. Sensory pleasure is valued

    2. Meaning conveyed by style is valued: pursuit of new pleasures, status signals future pleasure
5:49Social critics say it's all about mindless competition. Some object to studying design at all.
9:01Aesthetic design is not just directed to the rich. Target, Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Toilet brush example. Robert Frank, Luxury Fever; James Twitchell, Branded Nation.
12:58Does good design add function as well as form? Examples of just form: Apple charges more for its black MacBook. Motorola.
17:22Beaded shoes example. Measuring technological improvements is hard. Interpreting the CPI.
19:43Hotel room example.Starwood, Weston, Sheraton. All white "Heavenly Bed." Holiday Inn slogan, 1975: "The Best Surprise Is No Surprise."
27:15Variety matters as standard of living and familiarity increase. "What have you done for me lately?" Adam Smith: Specialization limited by extent of market. Large and mass markets now differ. Internet, Chris Anderson, The Long Tail. Visa, Mastercard, trusted intermediaries.
35:03Kidney donations. Risk comparable to cosmetic surgery, but legal restrictions against giving consideration for any organ transplant stands in the way of human kindness.
45:29Hospitals often refuse kidney donations between friends, though willing to do it between complete strangers or within families.
52:59Thoughts on Milton Friedman's recent death. Friedman and Stigler. "Friedman never became soured.... He always believed you could change people's minds through argumentation and evidence."