Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Too many choices

Virginia Postrel looks at the "too many choices" argument in "Consumer Vertigo", in the current Reason (apparently not yet online). Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice is placed into proper perspective.

The Robin Williams character in Moscow on the Hudson demonstrated the consumer vertigo that many who had just emerged from the Marxist nightmare may have temporarily felt. It was a comic-poignant moment but Schwartz and his followers didn't get it. (Or they are kidding and I don't get it.)

We encountered a young couple in Leipzig recently and engaged them in conversation about how their lives had changed since 1989. The husband complained about "too many choices" in his new post-Communist life. I had the feeling that he was not kidding and (for a change) did not launch into my own patented response(s).

I think that most people agree that super-stores, the Web, Netflix, Amazon and (many, many) other modern outlets are great to have around -- and that there will always be cranks. Also, "too many choices" works as another "market failure" story for the connoisseurs of that stew. They are lost in the modern world.

The scary part is that those who were spooked by rapid change a hundred years ago made the twentieth century difficult in America and hellish abroad.

Yes, this morning's WSJ includes "Plan Paralysis: Why a Wealth of Choices In 401(k)s May Not Make Investors Rich" by Jonathan Clements. This is why we have dartboards -- which may (or may not) make investors rich. This also why we have index funds -- which may (or may not) make investors rich.