DIY and The Limits of Comparative Advantage

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the perils of over fetishizing comparative advantage and outsourcing in our personal lives, which is a long way of saying I bought a Sodastream.

Like many economists, I am wary of self-congratulations for doing something yourself. Don’t get me wrong, hobbies are good, but we shouldn’t suffer the delusion that making a table yourself is a particularly good use of your time. And, so help me god, if I hear you diminish the merits of any restaurant offering because “you could make for yourself for half the price” I will slap the menu out of your hands, hand you a crisp ten dollar bill, and send you home to make your own damn meal.

My loyalty to economics thus declared, I must say there is a case to be made for making exactly the thing you want. Ricardian comparative advantage- I make my low opportunity cost item, you make yours, we trade, everyone wins, it’s important at the micro and macro of our lives, but the bulk of rewards to purchasing private goods in the market instead of producing them yourselves is from the comparative advantage derived from specialization, capital, and scale. It would take me hours to make a batch of homemade Oreo-style cookies, but it’s pretty silly when you consider there are billions of dollars in technology, capital, and expertise dedicated to making just those specific cookies. Unless I were to get some sort of meditative three-steps-of-self-actualization-on-the-path-to-nirvana value out of the process of making those cookies, I’m far better off just grabbing a couple stacks at the grocery store and paying a professional to help me process the shame.

But what if I don’t want exactly the product being offered? Everything comes with a cost, and that includes scale of production. Nabisco sells $550M of just Oreos every year, but they don’t do that by trying to sell them to everyone. It might seem that way, but they really don’t. Yes, I know they have 25 flavors now, so yes, they having expanded into narrower niches since their single-flavor days, but their target remains the 4.29 million Americans consumed 8 or more packages in 2020. If you want to sell a half-billion dollars worth of cookies, you need to sell them cheap, and that means you need to sell a lot of them. You don’t sell a lot of cookies going door to door asking people what they want and then giving it to all of them. You sell a lot of cookies by hunting for the middle of the distribution. Observed used to call the implied bullseye here the lowest common denominator, but now that we are fully-evolved humans who don’t need to sneer at what most people want, we can simply say that sellers are looking for a part of the distribution of preferences with enough mass to support your business.

In soda-land, that means you are definitively not selling to me. Coca-Cola is a literal miracle product, but its also obesity-in-a-can for 43-year-old dudes who count walking somewhere as exercise. I enjoyed the “TEN” calorie product series, but those lasted less than 3 months on the market and probably ended the careers of no fewer than a two dozen career soda executives. At the other end of the sugar spectrum, I don’t like a lot of the Lacroix flavors and they tend to be over-carbonated for my precious bubble-specific sensitivities. Where is the perfect soda for those of us who want 1 to 3 grams of fructose from real fruit juice suspended in a matrix of lightly-bubbled seltzer water?

Where it’s not is the marketplace. That’s fine, the world doesn’t owe me exactly my preferred bundle of product dimensions in everything I consume. I wouldn’t want them to either. Like most people, if the market did ever produce a good just for me, I couldn’t afford it. We need the scale that comes from meeting lots of wants all at once, even when those wants don’t perfectly match my own.

And that’s why we buy Sodastreams. And woodworking tools. And sewing machines. And pizza ovens. Sometimes we go DIY not because we’re denying the merits of comparative advantage, but rather because we’re accepting that there of some products where second-best market solution just won’t cut it.

Which, by the way, is one of the great ironies of modern life in a developed economy. We’re so rich, we can absorb the opportunity cost of our hobbies and weird DIY hyper-niche consumption preferences. We can make our own stupid mole-cherry-lime soda at home because that’s what we want. Because in the modern world, the greatest bourgeois luxury isn’t the stuff you buy, it’s the stuff you make yourself.

4 thoughts on “DIY and The Limits of Comparative Advantage

  1. Zachary Bartsch June 28, 2021 / 1:19 pm

    I’m going to push back some on your Nirvana requirement from self production. Comparative advantage considers not only pecuniary costs. People have different incomes and preferences, of course. But, they also have different scarcities of time. So, while Oreos might only cost $2.99, that might pale in comparison to the low value of time that somebody can afford.

    Time and money are not perfectly convertible and they cannot be perfectly described by the same single budget. Our budget is a vector that includes both.


    • mdmakowsky June 28, 2021 / 7:10 pm

      Time and money are never perfectly convertible, but it’s interesting nonetheless to see not even if we assume they are, there is still plenty of room for “niche autarky” because each of preferences sits somewhere in a population distribution. Some of those preferences will be way off in the tails, which means not only that failure to outsource isn’t a failure to optimize, its also a going to create a scenario where autarky will increase with income i.e. niche autarky will appear to increase with the best first-order approximation of the opportunity cost of time!


  2. James Bailey June 28, 2021 / 2:02 pm

    Good points. Among other tradeoffs, Oreos are made to have long shelf lives. If I were making my own I’d try for a softer cookie, even if this meant shorter shelf life.

    Liked by 1 person

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