In The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, a thought-provoking book, I came across this.
The fact that the nutritional quality of a given food (and of that food's food) can vary not just in degree but in kind throws a big wrench into an industrial food chain, the very premise of which is that beef is beef and salmon salmon. It also throws a new light on the whole question of cost, for if quality matters so much more than quantity, then the price of a food may bear little relation to the value of the nutrients in it ... As long as one egg looks pretty much like another, all the chickens like chicken, and beef beef, the substitution of quantity for quality will go unnoticed by most consumers...Sounds like Akerloff's information asymmetry to me.
I have in the past conflated this type of information asymmetry, where lack of knowledge of quality drives high-quality items out of the market, with Gresham's Law, where a government requirement to accept unequal things as equal (such as silver and gold coinage) drives the more valuable out of the market. My bad. In both cases the bad drives out the good, but for different reasons.
Pollan's book, in addition to the above Lemon problem, also cites what I think is an example of Gresham's Law: the USDA definition of the word "Organic" conflates many farming practices but none entirely, allowing the least-common-denominator to appropriate the word in the marketplace. Perhaps this sort of informational hollowing-out is inevitable in marketplaces because of information friction. But what happens when information friction comes way down?
It's interesting to think about the different possible trade-offs:
[M]any consumers don't aim for such purity — particularly if they know that the meat is being raised ethically and in an environmentally sound manner. Many hog farmers raising animals according to various “natural” standards have found that customers come back once they learn about the practices each farm employs, even if they are not certified organic.Niman Farms has invested in a brand name to communicate its practices to its customers. But the cost of building a brand is more than the cost of being organic, so many farms decide to be certified Organic instead. This is the marketing tradeoff: build a brand or commoditize.
The 12-year-old Niman Ranch uses a network of small farms certified by the Animal Welfare Institute. They may feed hogs nonorganic corn, but otherwise meet USDA organic standards, said Paul Willis, a founder and director of pork for Niman Ranch, and the extra expense isn't worth the “piece of paper” that would certify his farming practices.
He compared his Iowa farm — a 20-acre pasture on 900 acres and 2,000 hogs — to an industrial farm down the road that has 6,000 pigs inside a building of no more than a couple acres. He composts pig manure on his fields, unlike his neighbor, who pumps thousands of gallons of liquid waste underground, where it can leach into the Iowa River.
His customers know his standards, and buy even [though] he doesn't have the “organic” label. “I guess,” Willis said, “it comes right down to how much of a purist you want to be.”
The alternative, letting the customers bear the expense of finding a product that matches their particular needs, is too high: the vast majority of customers in most markets have such a large overlap of requirements that search costs are more efficiently borne by the seller.
But online, the search cost is the expense of tweaking the buying algorithm. This argues that, unlike many traditional markets, online markets should supply more information that can be used to determine quality and less commoditization.
Other posts in this series:
Information and Markets, 1
Information and Markets, 2
Information and Markets, 3