Barbies, Ties, and High Heels: Goods That People Buy But Wish Did Not Exist

10 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2023

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: October 26, 2023

Abstract

People buy some goods that they do not enjoy and wish did not exist. They might even be willing to pay a great deal for such goods, whether the currency involves time or money. One reason involves signaling to others; so long as the good exists, nonconsumption might give an unwanted signal to friends or colleagues. Another reason involves self-signaling; so long as the good exists, nonconsumption might give an unwanted signal to an agent about himself or herself. Yet another reason involves a combination of network effects and status competition; nonconsumption might deprive people of the benefits of participating in a network, and thus cause them to lose relative position. With respect to real-world goods (including activities) of this kind, there is typically heterogeneity in relevant populations, with some people deriving positive utility from goods to which other people are indifferent, or which other people deplore. Efforts to measure people’s willingness to pay for goods of this kind will suggest a welfare gain, and possibly a substantial one, even though the existence of such goods produces a welfare loss, and possibly a substantial one. We might call this the Barbie Problem: Notwithstanding the success of the (terrific) 2023 movie, it is reasonable to speculate that many children, and even more parents, wish that there was no such thing as Barbie, even if children play with Barbie, and even if parents purchase Barbie. Ties and high heels might count as Barbies. Collective action, private or public, is necessary to eliminate goods that people consume but wish did not exist. Legal responses here are limited, but they might be contemplated when someone successfully maneuvers people into a situation in which they are incentivized to act against their interests, by consuming a product or engaging in an activity they do not enjoy, in order to avoid offering an unwanted signal.

Keywords: signaling, positional goods, networks

JEL Classification: D1, D85, D11, P36

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., Barbies, Ties, and High Heels: Goods That People Buy But Wish Did Not Exist (October 26, 2023). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4614036 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4614036

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