Cancel your Friday morning tutes, people: it’s Commball time. With the big night fast approaching, it’s time to answer the important questions. How long will I need to get ready? What should I do for pres? Will anyone notice that my bowtie is a clip-on? What valuable lessons in economics can this experience teach me?
Ok, so maybe not the last one. We added that in. Because even if it’s never crossed your mind, it has ours. Does that make us abnormal? Probably. Undeterred, the ESSA editorial team has thrown together some observations economical to get you in the mood. Presenting: Commballnomics.
Words fail to express the sheer, unbridled euphoria with which I was seized when I discovered that, thanks to ESSA, I would not have to line up for my Commball ticket. I had been saved. Never again would I join the march of the puffer-jacket-clad penguins at 4:30 on a Thursday morning. Never again would I brace the elements armed with nothing but a partially-broken umbrella. Never again would I endure the slings and arrows of jeering passersby as, mocha-clad, they gleefully stroll past en route to their heated lecture theatres.
The Commball lineup is notorious, and rightly so. Desperation is rife amongst prospective ball-goers, with camping out the night before not unheard of. Last year, hoping to enforce some fairness/decorum/sanity, CSS decided to lay down the law., They threatened that anyone arriving before 5am would be escorted from the premises by security.
Hah. Yeah, right. My friend and I weren’t so easily fooled, so we wound our alarms back and made our way in to join the line at 4:30. Sure enough, with no security guards in sight, the line was filling fast. We sprinted to the back and settled in for the morning. By 4:50, new arrivals were being turned away: the tickets were already sold out.
As I watched those who had done the right thing trudge back to their cars, I almost felt bad for them. Almost.
Why did it have to be this way? Wouldn’t everyone be better off if we just agreed to show up later? Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation talking, but that sounded like a good idea to me. Why should everyone ruin their days by entering into an alarms race (get it)?
It’s not hard, of course, to see why this has little chance of success. Suppose everyone does agree to a leisurely 10am start. If I could assume that everyone else was going to honour the arrangement, I’d be all smiles. If I timed it right, I could get my ticket and my sleep in all in one. I’m a master crowd navigator, so I’d back myself to get to the front of the line if everyone arrived at the same time.
But what if someone doesn’t honour the agreement? After all, there’s nothing to compel them. What’s stopping someone from getting to South Lawn at, say, 9:30? Or 9:00, just to be on the safe side? CSS could try using the security guard threat again, but I’ve seen firsthand how easy it is to call that bluff. It seems, then, that to get my ticket I’ll have to rely on the kindness of strangers. If enough people deviate from the arrangement, I’ll miss out.
Unless, that is, I join the dark side. If I’m so sure I can’t beat the cheats, why not join them? Sure, I’d like a sleep in, and sure, I’d like a fair process as well. But it’s not so comfortable up on your high horse when you’re faced with the prospect of missing out altogether.
The problem? There are plenty of others going through the very same thought process. Just as I go early because I’m afraid they will, they go early because they’re afraid I will. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle of treachery. And there’s no reason to think it’ll stop at 9:00, either. A race to the bottom, it seems, is inevitable. Time to switch the alarm on, then.
We have a name for this situation in economics: it’s called the prisoner’s dilemma. Doing the right thing would be great if everyone else did it too, but it’s better to do the wrong thing than to be the only one doing the right thing. Where prisoner’s dilemmas are concerned, nice guys really do finish last.
Commball is many things. Cheap ain’t one of them. This year, tickets are up 3.7%, from $135 to $140. For the smart arses among you, inflation was only 1.5%, so that’s a real price increase.
If you’ve had an economics lesson or two, you might think you’re a fair chance at explaining this. Demand is downward-sloping, right? So if the price goes up, demand’s going to go down*.
Simple, right? Not quite. If you’ve had three economics lessons or four, you might have been introduced to a second, all-important concept: elasticity. If your demand curve has a steeper slope, you can jack up the price of your product without putting people off. And what causes inelasticity? Market power, amongst other things. The amount of competition you face makes a big difference to the sorts of prices you can charge.
Sure, CSS doesn’t quite have a monopoly on balls. There is some competition. If you’re willing to forego your dignity and dress up in a Kermit the Frog onesie, you could always go to the Arts ball. But if you’d rather be drinking goon in a tux or an evening dress because, you know, you’re a little bit classy, it’s slim pickings. Those marketing majors in their pink and blue t-shirts know this all too well. With a fixed supply and mind-boggling excess demand (just remember the ticket line), CSS have got it made. They can set the price at whatever they want: Commball will still sell out.
In fact, it’s not absurd to suggest that demand could even be upwards-sloping, at least across a certain range. Commball thrives on its image of prestige, an image which would be threatened if the ball was ten bucks a head. And this reasoning might not be as shallow as it sounds. CSS doesn’t take a profit, meaning that all the proceeds from tickets go into the event. The more you pay, then, the more you get out of the ball.
We’ve all been there. You’re stumped. You’re looking at your wardrobe. A closet full of clothes, but nothing to wear. And then, from behind your florals and your frills, your neons and sequins, peeks Old Faithful. Your LBD.
“Maybe I’ll just wear that to Commball,” you tell yourself. “Maybe I’ll forgo the $600 Sass and Bide dress I have my eye on.” Of course, these options aren’t mutually exclusive. You might ‘accidentally’ purchase a $600 dress that… well, is black. “Oh, but it’s different!” you reassure your mother (but really yourself), when she wryly observes that your black dress collection could clothe a small country. “Look at this detailing here!” You know, of course, the real reason for all the black. Black is safe. It’s a staple, and it can never go wrong. For anyone. Which is why every Tori, Denise and Helen will be rocking their best and baddest black numbers on Thursday night.
Economists have a name for playing it safe: risk aversion (actually, normal people have that name too). Risk averse consumers are everywhere, from those who take out car insurance to those who stick to the black. Their opposite numbers are the risk loving consumers, those who love to flirt with danger and derive more utility from high risk, high reward situations. Not hard to see what that means here: a dress to stand out from the crowd.
So the question is: which one are you?
You may well be thinking: ‘Well, Olivia, I’m a pretty risk averse consumer, so I would go for that black dress stuffed in the back of my cupboard.” Sure, generations of beautiful, black-dress-clad models on every page of every magazine have made it generic. But maybe I’m ok with that! Maybe I’m content just to blend in.
But as you study your black dress – as you pick apart each seam of disappointment, each stitch of inadequacy – you might well find yourself wishing you were one of those fearless risk lovers. You’ve always wanted to be that person: that untameable risk-taker others are in awe of. But then you have a thought. Maybe you are! Maybe everyone at Commball is too scared of the risk of blending in. But not you. Maybe the real risk-seeker goes so with the trend they are against the trend: understated. Perhaps you are one of those rare creatures, a risk-loving party animal, after all.
If you enjoy jumping out of aeroplanes, trekking across mountain ranges, or wrestling wild bears (or even if you don’t!), then take on that black. Be fearless! Wear something generic, unassuming and forgettable! Nothing says danger like being the most conservative person in the room.
So go ahead, wear that LBD. Take a risk. You will be heralded throughout Commball-history as remarkably unremarkable, fiercely unexceptional, violently basic. And, if someone else shows up in that same Sass and Bide dress, that $600 worth of over-priced mediocrity, then go up and congratulate them. It’s not easy being as risk-loving as you. The two of you can laugh at all the over-saturated peacocks of Commball (of which I will be one). Because no-one has the guts to rock the little black dress just like you.
*I’d have that logic backwards if CSS had raised the price after doing extensive market research and perceiving a shift in the demand curve. But let’s just assume they didn’t.
The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.