The demise of Barnes and Noble

Near the end of the twentieth century, there was a battle between small bookstores and the big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders, typified in the film You’ve Got Mail.  The chains won because they had lower prices, larger stocks, and served as mini-community centers where people liked to hang out. It was sad to see the independent bookstores die but the replacement was actually a nice addition to the neighborhood. The Barnes and Noble business model was to create attractive places to spend time, with play areas for children, a cafe with ample seating, and racks and racks of magazines. The idea was that the more time you spent there the more money you would spend and it worked for at least ten years. Yet, at the height of their dominance, the seeds of their destruction could be plainly seen. Amazon was growing even faster and a new shopping model was invented. People would spend time and browse in B and N and then go home to order the books on Amazon. The advent of the smartphone only quickened the demise because people could order directly from the store. The large and welcoming B and N store was a free sample service for Amazon. Borders is already gone and Barnes and Noble is on its last legs. The one I frequent will be closing this summer.

The loss of B and N will be a blow to many communities. It’s a particular favorite locale for retirees to congregate. I think this is a perfect example of a market failure. There is a clear demand for the product but no viable way to monetize it. However, there already is a model for providing the same service as B and N that has worked for a century and that is called a library. Libraries are still extremely popular and provide essential services to people, and particularly low income people. The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore has a line every morning before it opens for people scrambling to use the computers and access the internet. While libraries have been rapidly modernizing, with a relaxation of behavior rules and adding cafes, they still have short hours and do not provide the comforting atmosphere of B and N.

I see multiple paths forward. The first is that B and N goes under and maybe someone invents a new private model to replace it. Amazon may create book stores in its place that act more like showrooms for their products rather than profit making entities. The second is that a philanthropist will buy it and endow it as a nonprofit entity for the community much like Carnegie and other robber barons of the nineteenth century did with libraries. The third is that communities will start to take over the spaces and create a new type of library that is subsidized by tax payers and has the same hours and ambience of B and N.

Productivity, marginal cost, and monopoly

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In any introductory economics class, one is introduced to the concept of supply and demand. The price of a product is expressed as a function of the number of products that suppliers would produce and buyers would purchase at that price, respectively. Supply curves have positive slope, meaning that the higher the price the more suppliers will produce and vice versa for demand curves. If a market is perfectly competitive, then the supply curve is determined by the marginal cost of production, which is the incremental cost of production for making one additional unit. Firms will keep producing more goods until the price falls below the marginal cost.

Increases in productivity lead to decreases in marginal cost, and since the advent of the industrial revolution, technology has been increasing productivity. In some cases, like software or recorded music, the marginal cost is already zero. The cost for Microsoft to make one more copy of Office is miniscule. However, if the marginal cost is zero then according to classical microeconomic theory firms would produce goods and give it away for free. Public intellectual Jeremy Rifkin has been writing about a zero marginal cost society for several years now, (e.g. see here and here), and has proposed that ubiquitous zero marginal cost will lead to a communitarian revolution where capitalism is overturned and people will collaborate and share goods along the lines of the open software model, which has produced the likes of Wikipedia, Linux, Python, and Julia.

I’m not so sanguine. There are two rational strategies for firms to pursue to increase profit. The first is to lower costs and the second is to create monopolies. In completely unregulated markets, like drug trafficking, it seems like suppliers spend much of their time and efforts pursuing monopolies by literally killing their competition. In the absence of the violence option, firms can gain monopolies by buying or merging with competitors and through regulatory capture to create barriers to entry. There are also industries where size and success create virtual monopolies. This is what happens for tech companies where a single behemoth like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, or Amazon, completely dominates a domain. Being large has a huge advantage in finance and banking. Entertainment seems to breed random monopoly status where a single artist will garner most of the attention even though objectively there may not be much difference between the top and the 100th best selling artist. As costs continue to decrease, there will be even more incentive to create monopolies. Instead of a sharing collaborative egalitarian world, a more likely scenario is a world with a small number of entrenched monopolists controlling most of the wealth.