New York newspaper says “add shame to penalty for gouging”

Michael Giberson

Is price gouging like highway robbery? The Journal News, from the suburbs north of New York City, said: “Add shame to penalty for gouging“:

Given the extraordinary cost of just about everything in New York, it is often difficult to distinguish price-gouging, which is both illegal and despicable, from the usual highway robbery, which is just sort of expected. Then there are those merchants, as seen during Superstorm Sandy, who make the distinction so abundantly clear that all doubt is removed. Stiff fines and restitution should await these offenders, should the allegations hold up; a measure of public shaming ought to be part of the menu of sanctions as well.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, following up on familiar pre-storm threats and warnings, announced enforcement actions Thursday against a dozen gas station operators who allegedly kicked motorists when they were down — after rampaging Sandy darkened many gasoline stations, disrupted gasoline supplies and caused consumers, many toting gasoline cans, to endure interminable waits outside stations. Long lines and even rationing weren’t all that they faced.

For example, there were Mobil stations in Katonah, at 80 Bedford Road, and in Spring Valley, at 189 Route 59, where gasoline sold for $4.79 and $4.65, respectively, according to the allegations from the AG’s Office. Those prices — like all the charges highlighted by Schneiderman — were for a gallon of regular, and decidedly higher than normal, even in this high-cost region.

There was the BP station in Elmont where the price was an attention-getting $6.99; prices at the Shell in East Elmhurst, according to complaints, ranged from $4.89 to $7.90.

But they had nothing on the purported gouging leader, the Mobil at 3424 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, “where a consumer waiting in line for over an hour was just three cars from the pump when she was told that she would be charged $50 for five gallons of gasoline — $10 per gallon.” Stations nearby charged $3.95.

If I may interject, I think it is useful to distinguish between cases of suddenly higher prices and cases in which stations charge higher than the publicly posted price.

The “Stations nearby charged $3.95” will be an incomplete accounting of the cost, since they must have had lines too. It would be great if the New York Attorney General’s office collected data on time spent in lines, might be useful in helping to calculate the full cost of low station prices.

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Markets make you more trusting, but not necessarily more trustworthy

Michael Giberson

In a randomized control experiment, subjects unconsciously primed to think about markets were more trusting in a subsequent anonymous economic exchange. The authors note that the positive effect of trust on economic growth is well documented — in particular, widespread market activity requires people to trust anonymous strangers — but scholars have been divided on whether markets promote trust or tend to undermine it. The authors’ report that market priming leads subjects to become more trusting of anonymous strangers.

While market-primed first movers in the exchange were clearly more trusting, market-primed second movers showed only a small,  statistically insignificant, positive effect on trustworthiness. In each case the comparison is to similarly situated subjects exposed to a neutral priming exercise. You might sum it up as: markets make you more trusting, but not necessarily more trustworthy.

The study is “The causal effect of market participation on trust: An experimental investigation using randomized control,” by Omar Al-Ubaydli, Daniel Houser, John Nye, Maria Pia Paganelli and Xiaofie (Sophia) Pan. The authors are all with George Mason University but for Paganelli at Trinity University (Texas).

ABSTRACT: In randomized control laboratory experiments, we find that those primed to think about markets exhibit more trusting behavior. We randomly and unconsciously prime experimental participants to think about markets and trade. We then ask them to play a trust game involving an anonymous stranger. We compare the behavior of these individuals with that of a group who are not primed to think about anything in particular. Priming for market participation affects positively the beliefs about the trustworthiness of anonymous strangers, increasing trust.