Who Gets What – and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design by Alvin E. Roth

Money doesn’t buy you everything.  As much as money has pervaded our lives, there are countless things that we choose to do that are not primarily based on cost or potential profit.  The process of me selecting this book to read was based on a number of factors.  Certainly, the $3.99 price tag helped, but of all books around $3.99, why this one.  The main answer is that Kindle promoted this book in its selection of books under the category, Monthly Deals, $3.99 or Less.  So, one huge selection force is Amazon corporate.  Why did Amazon promote this book?  The answer is most likely linked to profit.  While this book may not have the greatest profit margin (or maybe it does), perhaps Amazon has some sweetheart deal with the publisher.  In exchange for Amazon promoting a publisher’s favorite authors, the publisher throws in a few hundred, perhaps thousands of titles for free or a few cents each?  Increasingly, we must accept the sad fact that a huge portion of our daily choices are being overtaken by such corporate deals that are not designed for our best interests but rather profit. 

 But out of perhaps thousands of monthly deals, why did I pick this one?  Well, if Amazon truly had any idea who I was, they would know one simple, big decision-making factor in my life.  I am drawn to the peculiar and novel.  If you say that most people think about the money market or money economics, and you have a book about the other market that does not primarily involve money, you’ve hooked me.  But going beyond selecting books, there are other countless choices we make.  Arguably, by the example I’ve given, I’ve shown that even when money is involved, our primary concern is not the cheapest or most profitable option.  In other words, I don’t see it as two markets, one involving money and one not.  Rather, I see it as one market, and a spectrum where money is most prominent to nonexistent.  For example, my choice of a used car would be highly limited to the most reliable car with the lowest mileage for around $10K.  That would reduce my choice to a few Japanese sedans after which my choice would primarily be color.  On the other end of the spectrum, my choice for a date has very little to do with the lowest cost option and most profitable.  Certainly, it would be nice to marry into wealth, but if I were to pursue women with that at the forefront, chances are, I would enter an unhappy marriage. 

 So what drives our decisions besides cost or profitability?  I interned at a business school, and my job was compiling the reputation rankings of businesses.  As social creatures, reputation is perhaps the most overlooked decision factor in our lives.  I would even argue that it has been sabotaged.  When we entered the Agrarian Era and created surplus of grain or wealth, we created a hierarchical system.  Those who held the most grain or wealth were all the sudden considered the most important people, and your importance diminished accordingly with less wealth.  So instead of deciding to value people or treat people based on their character which was defined to us by others through their reputation, we valued people and treated others based upon their wealth.  Of course, nobody openly admitted to this, because it would sound shallow and unnatural, so we invented the concept of social status, rank, nobility, aristocracy, royalty, and coolness.  We valued people based upon how they showed off that they possessed wealth.  You can argue that reputation simply shifted from character to wealth, but I still believe that when you talk about someone’s reputation, we are truly talking more about their character and trustworthiness than their wealth. 

 When people buy laundry detergent these days, most buy a reputable brand which usually means a well-known, well-advertised corporate brand like Tide or Cheer.  Throw an unknown brand on the shelf called, “Wash Well” and chances are, it will fail miserably.  Interesting to note that an increasing number of people are no longer enthralled by brands but rather eco-sustainability.  If Wash Well advertises that they have no artificial dyes or additives and use natural ingredients, it may well sell quite well.  But where does that eco-friendly attitude come from?  It comes from culture, and the eco-warriors and nature-lovers have been rather successful in impacting culture.  Although, you could also argue that once you gain a certain level of wealth, you are no longer concerned with the cheapest most reliable brand but rather the eco-friendly nature of products all your other rich friends can afford, hence, buying eco-friendly products is not about saving the planet as much as it is a marker of your wealth! 

 As much as we would like to think of ourselves as individuals making unique individual choices, even rebellious, anti-conformists like myself, find myself making definitely conformist choices based on what other rebellious, anti-conformists are doing.  Fact is, unless you’re a sociopath or completely lack social instincts, the vast majority of your choices from deciding breakfast to a career is based on some conformity to what you perceive as your cultural role or script.  The concept of random choices is only random within the framework of a theme you have already chosen.  In other words, a truly effective AI will be able to properly select the right books and music for you with a 99% chance of making you very happy and ultimately this will move toward partners and presidential candidates. 

 One of the problems of modern society is that we don’t use reputation anymore.  If you have a lot of money and can prove it by wearing fancy clothes and driving fancy car, nobody seems to care about your character.  The main argument for government is that if you didn’t force everyone to contribute, those in need would suffer or die.  But this ignores the history of humanity.  Humanity triumphed over all other primates and wild animals, because of our social instinct, and that social instinct created the concept of reputation and character.  We liked and supported those who shared and cared for others.  In fact, we even liked ourselves better when we shared and cared for others.  In fact, the act of sharing and caring for others gave us greater satisfaction and happiness than taking.  Without government, we would not descend into anarchistic chaos and savagery.  We would rather return to primitive culture where reputation and character managed our treatment of one another.  In other words, if Sean had a very successful year and made a lot of money, and someone in need asked Sean for help, we would expect Sean to help them.  If Sean, however, turned his back and told him to fuck off, Sean’s reputation would be greatly damaged.  This would greatly impact his bottom line, because we only buy things from people or brands we trust.  Whether Sean is a nice guy or not, it would be in his best interest to share and be charitable.  With government, all Sean has to do is pay some politician to excuse him from paying taxes and voila, we all still love and adore Sean not because of his reputation but rather because he has found out a great way to enrich himself.  It doesn’t make any sense.

 One interesting way to analyze how you make decisions is to look at how you pick potential dates from an dating app.  As a guy, naturally, I’m drawn to an attractive face with a healthy, fit body.  Unfortunately, this is shallow, but women can be just as guilty looking for height and clues about income.  But once that threshold has been attained, what features come into play.  For me, a big turn off are women who appear shallow and friendless with lots of selfies.  I figure they will be poorly socialized and just a headache to be around with lots of petty arguments about nothing.  A turn on are women who pose in exotic locations indicating an open, adventurous, mature mind.  Thinking of my sister who has traveled well and is considerably shallow and petty, my logic is flawed.  Then again, my sister probably would pose with objects of wealth as well.  At the same time, a woman who looks overly bohemian, I figure would not like me.  I’m not a total hippie.  Here, I uncover a simple fact that we over-generalize, that we pick up on visual cues to indicate demographic categories that we think we fit into.  Would I be comfortable with a woman wearing a sports jersey indicating an interest in sports?  Yes.  Would I be comfortable with a woman wearing cosplay indicating geekiness but adventurous playfulness?  Yes.  Would I be comfortable with a woman throwing gang signs and wearing baggy jeans and a white tank top?  No.  What the presidential elections have taught us is how well the election machinery has turned choice into a science.  Instead of trying to sell us the positions and policies of each candidate, they have instead chosen a much more effective route as I have shown with dating choices.  They have given us candidates that appear to appeal to our particular demographic culture.  If we consider ourselves sophisticated, well-educated urbanites, our obvious choice is not Trump.  If we consider ourselves under-represented, ignored, poor, rural whites, Trump is our obvious choice.

 Choice brings us to the concept of freewill.  We are all born with an instinct to desire freedom, the freedom to choose.  We think of restriction as a bad thing and freedom as a good thing.  This is because as animals, when we are restricted by some obstacle or even another animal, we are less likely to take care of ourselves and our needs.  However, when animals became social, things became complicated.  By working with other animals, we increased our aggregate chances of survival.  However, there were often times when we needed to sacrifice a few members in order to benefit the collective.  In the past, we often discarded or even attacked members who were not pulling their weight or being sharing and caring.  We considered them selfish, greedy, and uncooperative, and they had a bad reputation, and we cast them out or mistreated them accordingly.  We do the same thing today, except instead of those who do not share or care, we look down upon those who lack wealth, the poor.  Instead of viewing the poor as misfortunate and in need of help, rather, we consider them victims of their own weaknesses whether that be addiction, mental illness, PTSD, or criminality.  Instead of personally giving them a hand, we put on the gloves of government, and if they are still in need after government assistance is offered, we blame them for not taking government assistance.  In any event, we consider the weakest and poorest in society, the most undesirable and least worthy of our care and consideration.  In other words, we have become the very antisocial, selfish people lacking character that we used to cast out long ago. 

 But interestingly enough, the phenomenon of social sacrifices to benefit the collective has been turned upside down.  In most social structures in nature, a few outliers are sacrificed for the benefit of the majority.  In modern human society, it is the majority that are sacrificed for the benefit of the few elite.  We have all been fooled into thinking that we are the majority who benefit from the sacrifices of a few outliers when in fact, we are the ones suffering for the benefit of a few.  This brings us to the question of whether freewill is just as good if we are fooled or not.  Most Americans believed they had a free choice to make for President, and nobody put a gun to their heads, but was it really a free choice?  They spent twelve years being brainwashed by schools into thinking that you picked the most popular of two choices, that straying from popular choices often led to incorrect exam answers, that conformity was rewarded and rebelliousness punished.  Then almost every other television commercial or Internet ad tells you to pick one over another.  Did most Americans truly make a free choice or was it just an illusion?  Every day that Americans go to work and obey their bosses and suffer the antisocial, bullying and intimidating threats of a boss or passive-aggressive implications of denying promotions or firing you, are they truly making a free choice to participate in this?  While they may argue that they can freely quit, they also would argue that they would just wind up with another tyrannical boss. 

 One big test of whether you are free or not is simply in the feedback you get from your mind and body.  If you believe you are free, and that your free choices lead to you improving your chances of fulfilling your needs and overcoming your fears, your body should not be stressed all the time.  You should occasionally feel satiated, happy, and fulfilled.  I would guess that most people fail this test.  While they may believe that they are free, they are incessantly stressed, fatigued, frustrated, angered, humiliated, and annoyed.  They just can’t connect the dots.  Instead, they rationalize.  They blame.  In a desperate search to find the cause of their unhappiness, they look for misleading causes like immigrants, race, farfetched conspiracy theories, and personal failure.  Or they may look at the symptoms of stress as the causes of stress.  The symptoms of stress include lack of exercise, poor diet, sleeplessness, and constant irritability.  So they try to get more exercise, eat better, take sleeping pills, and try to meditate.  However, the real cause of their suffering is actually the fact that they have no real freedom, that they only have imagined freedom, that their choices are not true but manufactured for them.  If you lived in a cage, but a cage surrounded by TV screens that showed open pastures, your mind may tell you that you are free, but your body would remain restless and agitated.  How absolutely ironic that humans have abandoned their freedom for an ideology that has convinced them that the only way to improve the human lot is to restrict their liberties and impose government order upon them, an order ultimately controlled by a few elite.  Humans are agitate and frustrated and yet they keep convincing themselves by continuing to pass more laws and taxes, if only government had more power, if only we were taxed a few more quarter percents. 

 One important key of choice is abundance and scarcity.  How often do you find yourself paralyzed by an abundance of choice?  Perhaps one of the faults of modern society is the overabundance of choices.  When we look at a huge menu, it is actually offsetting to see so many choices, and even when we do make a final choice, we often lament about what could have been a better choice.  However, if we are given a short menu, we are more satisfied with the choice we make, because we are more convinced that the other choices were inferior.  One of the reasons that poor people marry earlier is that they have fewer choices.  In modern society, partner choices are amplified first by warehousing us in huge high schools and then concentrating us in even larger universities and then in even larger metropolitan centers.  Finally, the Internet offers us easy access to tens of thousands of potential partners.  The choices paralyze us, and even when we find a good match, we are always wondering if we could do better with all the abundant options available.  When our rulers want us to make a decision, it often creates an illusion of scarcity, that we have one of two options.  When our rulers don’t want us to make a decision, it throws out endless options.  However, we are often forced to make a decision, and this is when abundance leads us to making an impulse choice.  When you are at the supermarket and you have one of a hundred breakfast cereals to choose, you can spend all day there.  Since you must ultimately leave, you wind up making an impulse choice.  What controlled that decision?  The answer is mostly emotional, and this is where advertising comes in.  When stressed and overwhelmed by abundant choices, we fall back to a script, any script.  Our analytical minds shutdown and our minds scramble for a script.  What they find is a readymade script written by advertisers.  Weeks and months previously, advertisers sent us messages about how people like us picked this brand of cereal, because they were healthy, active adults who looked like they enjoyed life.  Unconsciously, we remember that advertisement, so unconsciously, we pick Cereal X while believing it was all a free choice.

 A lot of problems the author points out in markets without money can be solved with money.  Take for instance ticket scalping and purchasing rushes.  When a ticket for a popular concert comes out, everyone jumps on their computers at 10 AM to buy the ticket and it’s a mad rush.  The best tickets go to the first buyers.  But then most of those first buyers have no intention of going to the concert.  They are professionals who know how to be first and then sell their tickets in secondary markets for a huge profit.  Others sell fake tickets.  All this would be averted if the seller was simply allowed to start off selling the best seats at exorbitant prices.  If the concert meant so much to you that you would be willing to spend two month’s salary on a ticket, why shouldn’t you be able to get what you want?  This is the beauty of money.  It efficiently allocates demand with supply.  Instead of secondary markets reaping all the profits of expensive tickets, the seller and provider of the service reaps all the profits. 

 I probably should get around to the book right?  While the book has stimulated a lot of thought, it doesn’t really do a good job of covering the concept of nonmonetary markets, and it’s full of contradictions.  First of all, it covers monetary markets.  How do you cover nonmonetary markets with monetary markets.  It claims that thick markets are bad, because it causes congestion, so thinning the market through early deals is a good thing like what Airbnb does with reservations.  Of course, making reservations is nothing new and it has nothing to do with the unique properties of nonmonetary markets.  But this is a contradiction to the previous chapter where the author is talking about how early offers for university students, lawyers and med students is a bad thing.  The most important factor in a market is regulation and how much.  The author does not cover this.  He calls for a well-regulated market which is meaningless.  What is my well-regulated is not your well-regulated.  As a free market proponent, regulations should be minimal and ensure that every participant has equal opportunities, access, and access to information.  Transactions should be voluntary.  For instance, the healthcare market sucks.  It’s rigged.  I don’t have the freedom to buy Canadian drugs or easily get operations in other countries.  I don’t get to shop across state borders.  While my choices are voluntary, my choices are restricted in favor of large healthcare cartels.  On the other hand, the restaurant market is relatively free.  Nobody forces me to shop at a corporate chain.  Corporate chains cannot muscle out independent restaurants from a shopping center or neighborhood.  Yelp has provided access to information about the quality of the restaurant.  All restaurants tell you the price up front so there are no surprises. 

 The problem with nonmonetary markets is made clear with Communism where supply and demand is not set by prices but rather central command.  In most nonmonetary markets, the ones creating the rules are the ones determining who gets what.  In a monetary market, the one with the best offer determines who gets what.  The author fails to even discuss by what mechanism (if money is eliminated) do people exchange goods and services?  The dating market is a great example that the author neglects.  Instead of transacting money, each participant engages in hopes of receiving benefits from the other participants (no innuendo intended).  When I look for a date, certainly I have sex on my mind, but I’m also looking for companionship, friendship, support, collaboration in life’s challenges, and perhaps a family down the road.  The standard is compatibility in addition to health signified by beauty, height, athleticism, etc.  The currency is time.  If I find someone desirable, I give them my time.  This person is worth seven hours of my time each week.  If they are undesirable then the time value goes down to zero. 

 One of the key concepts is reputation.  This spans all markets.  My credit score indicates my financial reputation.  Kids incorrectly believe that the number of friends they have on FB indicates their reputation as sociable, popular people but it’s actually quite the opposite.  When we date people, we’re looking at health and compatibility but we’re also looking at their reputation.  Reputation is basically your trustworthiness, your ability to exchange things with others in a friendly, beneficial, kind, and constructive manner.  Someone with a poor credit score indicates that they don’t pay their bills.  They take and don’t give equally.  Someone with a bad reputation exploits other parties through cheating, intimidation, and failure to reciprocate.  A market is an interesting place where mostly strangers interact briefly with one another and hope to gain and not lose.  The reason we have long-term relationships is because we can rely on someone who is trustworthy, and we expect the give and take to be generally equal.  In order to make markets work, not only should there be rules to ensure that players don’t exploit one another, but there should be some system of knowing each other’s reputations. 

 The book really doesn’t deliver on what could be an amazingly profound analysis of markets in general and nonmonetary markets specifically.  Instead, it verbosely meanders through examples, many of which are historical.  What it does point out, however, is the benefit of computers and algorithms in matching people to organizations with a ranking system.  Of course, we now have the technology to do this with presidential elections.  Instead of just voting for one candidate, we could vote out scenarios.  If my favorite candidate has insufficient votes to win, who would I vote for or against next?  For example, if there are seven presidential candidates, your first choice may be Gary Johnson.  But if Johnson doesn’t receive enough votes in an initial cycle, your vote would then go to any candidate BUT Trump.  What this does is show the world how many people actually support third party candidates.  Of course, with a two-party duopoly, such a system would never get approved, bringing us back to the fact that the people in control of the market get to decide who gets what or at least one of two choices.   

 Another thing to consider is what is natural.  Freedom of choice is natural, but abundance of choices are not.  Never before have humans or any animal faced so many choices.  Often times, animals break down when they get overwhelmed by choice.  Predators go on killing sprees when they encounter animals that are trapped in an enclosure.  It makes no sense for the predator to kill all the animals.  It is basically destroying its food supply.  Likewise, when humans are overwhelmed by choice, their analytical minds shut down and they go on impulse.  Take for instance, food and dating choices.  Today, with the Internet, you have an overwhelming abundance of choice.  What do you do?  Often times, when we fall back to impulse, what we are actually falling back to are unconscious choices which are controlled not only by instincts but culture and pop culture.  When we are overwhelmed by choices, we go to what is familiar and known, and unfortunately, if you’ve had abusive parents, that means picking partners who are abusive or at least emotionally damaged or immature.  When selecting food, we default to what we know or what we see constantly on TV.  Applebee’s!  In other words, too many choices make us less savvy, less smart consumers and relationship pickers. 

 The idea that we can pick one out of a thousand potential partners or consumer goods also gives us the illusion that we can pick the best out of a thousand.  What we fail to realize is that our choice becomes the same as each of those thousand people.  In other words, we see all our new options, but we fail to see all our new competitors.  Advertising also makes us falsely believe that we deserve and can get almost perfect partners or products that will solve all our problems.  What they fail to mention is that the partner or product is not a one-shot deal.  In order to make that partner or product work for us, we need to work with it for a long time.  Love is not found, it is cultivated, cared for, and developed.  If you send a message to a hot person on Match.com, chances are, they get a thousand such messages.  Perhaps the most startling truth is that you are not as desirable as you may think.  In a pool of ten candidates, perhaps you find yourself in second or third place, but in a pool of a thousand candidates, this means you come in 200 to 399 out of 1,000.  Even the most desirable people make the mistake of forgetting that they have competition too.  While modern culture offers us things we never had before in much greater variety, the irony is that this abundance of choice does not make us happier.  We forget that everyone gets these choices too driving up the price of the most desirable things, making them even less attainable.  What we ought to learn is that we should not desire the best of everything, but rather be selective.  In fact, if we aspire to live a natural life, this means dealing with limited options and a frugal existence with the constant gnawing temptation of fantastic delights all around us.  This is the life that would deliver the greatest amount of happiness, affordable and attainable pleasures instead of going into debt for momentary unaffordable delights and seeking unattainable romantic partners. 

 Money can’t buy happiness.  There are countless nonmonetary markets out there, but the problem is, at least for government, they can’t be taxed.  Since government is basically the collusive arm of big business, big business will not support nonmonetary markets and will actually undermine them.  Unfortunately for us, the best things in life are not free, they just don’t involve monetary transactions.  One thing we all value is reputation, and that can’t easily be bought.  I mean, you can improve your eBay reputation by buying and selling things to yourself on different accounts and giving yourself high ratings.  But this is one reason people do things.  I envision a website where you provide meaningful answers, solutions, or advise.  Of course, legal and medical advice is outlawed.  If you get high ratings in one field, the website lists you as an expert.  That expertise is your reputation and would help you out.  You could even list this expertise in your resume.  People love giving advice and being a reputed expert in a field.  They are more than willing to give out free advice in exchange for applause and an expert rating.  The entirety of Wikipedia is a nonmonetary market of knowledge and greater single source of information than anything humans have ever created.    


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