The free market can be a time-sink

There is an entertaining maxim about linux: “Linux is a great OS  as long as the value of your time is nil.”

Of course, that is unfair; you do spend more time learning linux, but that is compensated by having a deep and intimate  relationship with system commands and window managers. What you miss in the convenience of having access to well-known programs is the resourcefulness of discovering other amazing applications.

I was reminded of that maxim when I started shopping around for new health insurance in Texas. What a pain!  I thought Aetna was a good plan until they increased the rates twice in four months (It was 148$/month; it will soon be $207 /month.

I have made many criticisms about the current health care system. Here is another: time and stress. In order to have the optimal plan and rates, you need to stay informed about current rates and do comparison shopping between different services with different rules. It can get absolutely maddening!  Assuming that I decide to change to another company, that means filling out more paperwork and submitting to a telephone interview with a nurse and possibly a doctor’s visit.

Yes, the free market does bring economic efficiencies, but there is a mental transaction cost associated with change.  In a way, that is why people delay in changing cable companies or Internet hosting companies or  apartments.  You might as well just take off 2 weeks from work to get it done.

That is completely overlooking the fact that some people do not make good consumer choices; some do not even know how to.  One close friend of mine  makes financial decisions which are almost uniformly bad. Part of the problem is time; part of the problem is that this person doesn’t know how to gather the information to make this decision. But this problem is more common than you think. Whether you are researching a car or a college education or  a graphics program or a laptop, it is easy to overlook a vital bit of information.  If you are lucky,   the only cost of your stupidity is a higher price tag.  If you are not so-lucky, you are stuck with a less-than-optimal car or an oppressive cell phone contract.  There are so many gotchas in consumer  services that I have started to sympathize with those who fall into the traps: the 2 year commitments, the late fees,  the flakey monitor. No one can be attentive enough to avoid all these things.

Those who point to the free market as always providing the optimal solution overlook the significant cost in extra time – not to mention the inequities in who has the best information. If you read Consumer Reports (or know about the best way to find consumer information), that can save you time and money.   Imagine that your brother was a doctor, your sister was a car mechanic,your father did IT/technical support, your mother was a a lawyer and your next door neighbor was a nutritionist and your wife was  a stockbroker and CPA? Wouldn’t life be a lot easier?

With health care the people who have the hardest time making sensible consumer choices also tend to be the ones with the least time to do research.  A year or two ago I talked to someone on dialup who was thinking of changing ISPs… to another dialup provider!  The fact that the person didn’t even want DSL tells me that he had no idea how much easier and more convenient DSL would be and how much time it would ultimately save.  But he didn’t understand anything about wifi or routers or broadband modems. He had no idea what he was missing and therefore had no way to make an informed decision. Just surfing for a few minutes at a neighbor’s house using wifi would be enough to change his mind; clearly this person’s friends were clueless as well.  This was not stupidity but just ignorance and the lack of access who knew which solution was most cost-effective. But if this knowledge is not easily available or if a person doesn’t have friends who can recommend things, the person has to shoulder the burden of acquiring the knowledge on his own. Royal bummer! He was planning instead to spend his weekend watching movies!

Even if this ignorant person made an effort to keep up with the  the latest tips, would life  be more fun or more miserable?






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