Translator: Nga Nguyen
Reviewer: Queenie Lee So, there are these two guys
that walk into a bar, “No, I’m not going to go there.” It could be the beginning of a joke. But I really want it
to be the introduction to the notion of artificial scarcity. And you’ll see why in a minute. So let’s go back to the bar. The first guy, he approaches the first woman
that he sees, offers her a drink. She turns him down. He, then, decides
to work his way down the bar, and of course, all the women
watching this, they see what he’s up to, and they all turn him down. Now, our guy, I’m going
to call him the anti-hero. He hasn’t learned from this experience in the real world. So he decides to go to the virtual world. He goes to the Internet
and joins Cupid.com, and he tries the same technique,
and sure enough, with the same result. They all turn him down. So our anti-hero is in trouble. But you know what?
Cupid.com is in trouble too. And the reason they are, is that the women
who have joined Cupid.com are being inundated
with offers from men for dates. They get turned off, they quit. And as they quit, men quit.
Cupid is in trouble. Who are you going to call,
to solve this problem? No, the answer is more obvious
than Ghostbusters. (Laughter) You call an economist. (Laughter) Don’t laugh, you call an economist. (Laughter) In fact, you call two of them. This is Muriel Niederle of Stanford,
and Dan Ariely of Duke. And they’ve spent a lot of time, studying the problem
of artificial scarcity and abundance, in the online dating context,
which is the reason Cupid called them up. And they wanted to know
how to fix their problem, and the two economists said they had an idea that was
as simple as it was profound. Just put a sharp limit
on the number of date offers that men could make
to women each month. This is the notion of artificial scarcity. Taking what looks like
an abundant resource, which is date offers, and artificially constraining them. And the economist said to Cupid
that if you do this, the men will take their offer seriously. They’ll look at more than just
the women’s pictures, and they actually look at their profiles. And the women will know this, and they’ll be more likely
to accept date proposals. Artificial scarcity help save Cupid.com and other dating sites
that copied the technique. Today, online dating
is a two billion dollar industry in North America alone. Now, I want to talk about a lot more than online dating
and artificial scarcity. Much bigger topic. I want to try to show to you
how economists and their ideas have contributed to the rise
of the entire Internet economy and to some of the iconic
companies within it. I’m sure many of you
are familiar with the notion of “Name-Your-Price” travel. That was invented by Priceline. Well, “Name-Your-Price” travel
was really not the key to their success. Because, if you could name your price,
what price would you bid? Zero, right? Or one or two. And obviously the airlines
or the hotel charges would not accept the offer. The key to Priceline
was not their great advertising. It wasn’t the fact
that you could do searches online. No, the real key to Priceline success, by the way, it’s a 60 billion dollar
company, market cap today. The real key is they make you
this proposition. They say that if you bid a particular price
for a hotel room or a flight, and Priceline decides to accept it,
you’re bound to pay it. This is called
the conditional price offer. And in basically what it does,
it induces you, as the traveler, to take your offer seriously, in the same way that the artificial restriction
on the dating proposals that Cupid.com did for men. So who is the brilliant guy
behind the conditional price offer? (Laughter) He’s a smart guy, but Captain Kirk
was not the inventor of the idea. He was the pitchman,
and he still is for Priceline. No, the real genius behind Priceline
was this guy: Jay Walker. Jay studied economics
as an undergraduate at Cornell. And he actually listened and thought two steps beyond
what his lecturers told him at Cornell, and came up with the idea
of the conditional price offer, which led to Priceline and revolutionized
the entire travel industry in the US. I have another example. It’s one that you’re also
very familiar with. It’s a search page at Google. It could be in any other search engine, and what I want you to pay attention to
is that right-hand side, the ads over there. Google collects
about 50 billion dollars a year from advertisers, large and small, seeking placement on that right-hand side. They auction off the sites. But that’s not how the system started, because when Google was launched, online advertising was in its infancy, and Google, believe it or not, went door to door,
advertiser to advertiser, trying to get them to place an ad
next to a search term. Highly laborious, you quickly can see
this is not going to scale, as the number of searches
exploded on Google. And so the founders of Google
asked two young engineers, Eric Veach and Salar Kamangar, to come up with an automatic system
that would solve this problem. Well, they were instinctively
attracted to auctions. But they were thinking about
another problem. That is if they auctioned off the sites, they feared that the advertisers
would bid a very low price and then incrementally
raised their prices just a little bit and keep the auctions going forever. And if this happened, and a lot of searches
were also going on at the same time; the whole site would crash. So, as an engineering solution,
they came up with this idea. That the winning auction,
or the winning placement will be the price, the second highest price
that was bid plus one penny. This would cut off the auctions,
really simplify the process, and in the process, also solve another problem
called “the winner’s curse.” I’m sure many of you
have participated in auctions, may have regretted winning because you felt like you paid too much. Pretty obvious point. But the CEO of Google
at the time, Eric Schmidt, still wasn’t sold on the second
price auction as the way to go, until he ran into this man. Totally by accident in a party. This is Hal Varian. At the time, he was Dean
of the Information Sciences School in Berkeley, and a world-leading expert
on auctions and also the Internet. Schmidt asked Varian, “Does this second price auction
make any sense? Why not the first price?” And Varian pondered the question,
and came back to Schmidt, and he said, “You know,
those two engineers, they have reinvented
what this guy came up with.” This is William Vickrey,
he was an economist at Colombia, who proved mathematically, that the second price auction was the ideal solution
to the winner’s curse. And you know what? That won him
the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1996. Well, now you’re Eric Schmidt, you think “Well, economists,
they may be able to help Google.” So he persuades Hal Varian
to leave his tenured position at Berkeley, and join Google
as its first chief economist. Varian then goes on to hire
an army of statisticians and economists, who helped refine the online
ad auction process, and also develop other services
for the Mountain View giant. You know, they say that imitation
is the best form of flattery. Well, guess who was watching,
Microsoft from up north? Their chief competitor
or would-be competitor, Microsoft. They wanted their own Hal Varian. And they got her. This is Susan Athey. Susan is a rock star
economist at Stanford, world-leading expert in auction theory, and she splits her time teaching with also working
as an economist at Microsoft. I have a third example; it’s bigger than the first two. It’s the entire business of web retailing. It’s a 300 billion dollar industry
in the United States alone. And you all know
the poster child of web retailing; it’s Amazon.com. Now many of you may think
that Amazon’s success is due to its fantastic system
of warehousing and inventory control. It’s able to basically send out
all that stuff that you order online. But you know, Amazon
and other web retailers would not be as successful as they are without a highly flexible
transportation system that actually would
deliver all that stuff. And guess who helped bring
that system to reality. Economists. Because back in 1980,
when Jeff Bezos was just a teenager, the airline and the trucking industries
were heavily regulated. Every fare and every route that they
charged, or they flew, or they drove had to be approved by the government. In fact, there was a rule
that set to an airline that owned a trucking outfit: it couldn’t deliver merchandise
more than 20 miles away from the airport, at which the merchandise landed. This rule was obviously in place to protect other truckers
from competition, which of course was the whole point
of airline and trucking regulation in the first place. That’s why economists long opposed it. But they also opposed it
for another reason. There are lots of airlines
and trucking firms. They’re not natural monopolies
in the same way that a local utility is that needs regulation
in order to prevent price gouging. No, airlines and trucks
should never have been regulated. And three of the economists who were most insistent
about this are in this picture: Michael Levine, Alfred Kahn,
and Darius Gaskins, and trust me, there were many more,
who have been writing for decades that we ought to get rid
of this crazy system. Well, there were two politicians,
courageous politicians who finally listened
to these guys and women, and persuaded Congress in 1978,
and 1980 respectively, to dismantle the system of airline
and trucking regulation against the stiff opposition,
of course, of those industries. And you may not recall,
but prices fell after deregulation. But more importantly for my story is that deregulation
unleashed vigorous competition, between the two giants
of the transportation industry: UPS and FedEx. They went on to develop a highly flexible
and efficient transportation system that was ideal for the Internet economy. So that 20 years later, when Jeff Bezos
and other web retailers came along, they were able to tap into
and use this system. In fact, Jeff Bezos,
if you’re watching this, you should send a thank you note to three of the economists
that I showed before and many of the others
who made your fortune possible. I want to conclude with one final example, has nothing to do with the Internet, unless you want to count
the 32 million people, who play some form
of online fantasy sports. I mentioned sports
because I’m a sports nut, and I want to talk to you about Moneyball. I’m sure many of you have seen the movie. It’s based on a book,
yes, go ahead and applaud. Fantastic book and movie,
and it is written by this man, Michael Lewis, who by the way, I think he’s probably one of the best
non-fiction writers in America or the world for that matter. And Moneyball, as you know, was about Billy Beane,
the general manager of the Oakland As who built a great baseball team
on a shoestring budget. But Moneyball really
wasn’t a traditional baseball movie. In the same way, that Bull Durham
or Field of Dreams was. You know, the real hero
of Moneyball was this guy. Now many of you may not recognize him, but I submit to you: he had as big influence on baseball
as Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth. Because he applied
economics and statistics to showing how it’s possible
to produce winning baseball. He invented a field called sabermetrics that was used by Billy Beane
and other baseball teams to build their rosters. In fact, it is used
throughout professional baseball, not just there. Sabermetrics is used
by professional basketball teams, football teams, and even hockey teams have people like Bill James
on their staff. Economic thinking
has revolutionized sports. You know, in the course of my career, I’ve had a good fortune to meet many
many people in the business world. But unfortunately, from my perspective, too many of them
have no respect for economists. They say we’ve never met a payroll –
“we” meaning the economists. What do they know? Well, economists helped
build the Internet economy. Economists help make it possible
for Amazon and other web retailers to deliver all that stuff that you order to your doorstep,
efficiently and promptly 24 – 7. Economists shape the system
of online advertising, especially online auctions. Economists make it possible for you to get five-star hotels
at three-star prices. Economists may even
have made it possible for you to have a date and conceivably for you
to have met your spouse. I think economists deserve some respect. (Laughter) (Applause) That answers it, don’t you?
Thank you very much. (Laughter) (Applause)