iPhones and ringtones: a parable of markets.

"Markets in everything!"

There is a problem in the New Statesman office. Like so many companies, we have a growing abundance of iPhones. At least half of the 40 million they've sold are here somewhere, by my count. But all these people having the same phone leads to a downside: the distinctive Apple message alert goes off, and everyone checks their screens thinking that they are the ones with a new text.

There is an easy, socially optimal solution to this problem, of course: everyone changes their text tone to something new, we all grow to recognise our individual tones, and confusion need never reign again.

Unfortunately, what is socially optimal is not individually optimal. I don't want to change my ring tone, because I've already learnt to respond to it. If everyone else changed theirs, then I could keep mine the same. But those incentives are the same for everyone else; no-one wants to be the first mover, and everyone hopes to be a free-rider.

Why? Well, an economist might say its because there are no markets in action. If everyone could bid to be the person who gets to keep their old ringtone, then people would have an incentive – in the form of cold, hard cash – to switch, while the person who most wants to keep their phone sounding the way it used to forks out the money equivalent to how much they care. If we truly have an efficient market, then this cannot fail to make everyone better off. And if the highest someone is prepared to pay is lower than the lowest it would take to make everyone switch, then we are already at the optimal solution.

The alternative to markets, of course, is government intervention. We don't have a government, but we do have an editor, who could very easily impose a rule mandating that employees use custom ringtones. That would work almost as well, although it wouldn't be the optimal solution. And with that, there's always the risk of corruption. What happens when our he gets an iPhone?

Markets in everything, even ringtones. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.