16 December 2009

How markets fail – part one

Filed under: books, Economics, market failure — David Wood @ 1:45 am

I’m currently enjoying reading the new book by John Cassidy: “How markets fail: the logic of economic calamities“.

I was led to this book by the review of it in the Economist:

In “How Markets Fail”, Mr Cassidy, a British writer for the New Yorker, recounts the story of America’s housing boom and its devastating bust. It is more than just an account of the failures of regulators and the self-deception of bankers and homebuyers, although these are well covered. For Mr Cassidy, the deeper roots of the crisis lie in the enduring appeal of an idea: that society is always best served when individuals are left to pursue their self-interest in free markets. He calls this “Utopian economics”.

This approach turns much of the book into a very good history of economic thought…

Having set out the tenets of Utopian economics, the author then pokes holes in them. Individual self interest does not always benefit society, he argues, and draws on a deep pool of research (what he calls “reality-based economics”) to support his case…

I’m half-way through the book.  It’s a bit like a who-done-it page-turner: each additional section introduces new twists and turns.  I can hardly wait to find out what happens next 😉

But in the meantime, in parallel, I’ve got a minor market failure of my own to explore.  I’ll be grateful for insight that any readers can provide.

As well as being a fan of books, I’m a fan of audio books.  I’ve been downloading audio books from Audible.com for at least four years.  They’ve got a good selection.  However, I’m often surprised to notice that various books are missing from their catalogue.  I think to myself: such-and-such a book is really popular: why don’t Audible provide it?

The market failure I mentioned is that Audible frequently do have these books in audio format, but if I ever find them on their site, and click on them to buy them, they for some reason display a most irritating message:

“We are not authorized to sell this item to your geographic location”

It appears that the UI of Audible tries to hide such books from people, like myself, who are based in the UK.  (I’ve heard similar reports from people who are based in Australia.)  But sometimes there are glitches, and some of these books can be glimpsed.

For example, the front page of their website currently promotes an audio book that caught my attention immediately:

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom

Paul Dirac was among the great scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, the most revolutionary theory of the past century, his contributions had a unique insight, eloquence, clarity, and mathematical power. His prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics.

One of Einstein’s most admired colleagues, Dirac was in 1933 the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in physics. Dirac’s personality is legendary…

Back in my days at Cambridge, I learned a lot about Dirac – both from studying mathematics, and from researching the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics.  Some of my lecturers had been taught, some decades earlier, by Dirac himself.  He’s a fascinating character.  I’d never come across a book about Dirac before.  So I jumped at the chance to download this audio book – until I hit the message

“We are not authorized to sell this item to your geographic location”

It doesn’t help me if I log out of the international website, Audible.com, and log into the UK-specific site Audible.co.uk instead.  I’ve learned from bitter experience that books which are “not authorized” for sale from one site fail likewise to show up on the other one.  Nor can I find this audio book on any other site.

What’s going on here? There are at least some customers in the UK who are prepared to spend money to purchase these audio books.  What’s the rationale for a restriction?  Why can’t we willing customers find a market where our “demand” can be balanced by “supply” of these audio books?  (Is it that the owner of the book is somehow reserving the opportunity to sell the audio book, in the UK, in due course, at a higher price than Audible are presently prepared to charge?)

Of course, this particular case of apparent market failure pales in comparison to the failures reviewed in Cassidy’s book – calamitous outcomes such as environmental degradation, lack of development of much-needed medicines that would primarily benefit poorer parts of the human population, and the recent global financial crisis.  My reason for writing about this case is that it is so annoying when it happens!


  1. The geographical restriction on audio books is one of the many failures of copyright law. After purchasing a Sony eBook reader about 6 months ago (and suffering similar restrictions) I became interested in copyright law. It is a fascinating subject. I’ve written fairly extensively about it on my blog under the “copyright” category, see:


    I don’t specifically answer your question – perhaps I’ll research this and make it the subject of a future posting.

    Unfortunately the failures of copyright law have much more serious consequences than the mere unavailability of audio and electronic books. If you are interested in why markets fail then I think you will also be interested in why copyright fails, James Boyle writes extensively about this in “The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind” ( http://www.thepublicdomain.org/ ). From a review:

    “Our music, our culture, our science and our economic welfare all depend on a delicate balance between those ideas that are controlled and those that are free, between intellectual property and the public domain.”

    I thoroughly recommend this book. I also recommend “Free Culture” by Lawrence Lessig (http://free-culture.cc/). Lessig is described as “the most important thinker on intellectual property in the Internet era” by “The New Yorker”.

    Neither of these books directly answer your question. Perhaps more importantly they show that the difficulty you have in obtaining audio books is just a symptom of a much larger and more serious problem.

    Comment by Martin Budden — 16 December 2009 @ 8:35 am

    • Hi Martin,

      Many thanks for a very useful set of links.

      I agree that Lawrence Lessig is an excellent writer (and he’s an excellent speaker too, by the way) who addresses important material.

      The book by James Boyle looks particularly interesting. I’ll find some time to read it. (I tried looking for it on Audible just now, but it doesn’t appear to be available there…)

      When I left Symbian, one former colleague asked me, partly in jest, if I would now devote my time to helping to sort out the mess over software patents and intellectual property. That would be a noble task! (Perhaps I should check out the UK Pirate Party…)

      Comment by David Wood — 16 December 2009 @ 11:49 am

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