All Commentary
Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Microcultures of Consumerism: The Blenders

The invisible hand and the Vitamix

Who knew that the market for blenders is so complicated? I feel like I just waded into an incredible thicket of expertise, vociferous opinion, infinite choice, and high-fashion kitchen confusion.

It began inauspiciously enough. I needed a blender because everyone seems to be making smoothies. Surely this is no big deal, I thought. I need a machine that grinds stuff up and turns it into a drinkable liquid. I’ll head to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and grab one.

How difficult can this be?

I found out pretty quickly. At first I shopped based on price. Here is one for $20. Perfect. But wait, here is one for $50 that seems fancier. And here is one for $100 that seems mighty impressive. But hold on one moment. Here is the one that seems like The Thing. It is a super impressive and highly value blender called the Ninja!

My goodness, it is $150!

Sounds crazy, right? Except that in 1955, the average blender sold for $350 in inflation-adjusted dollars. It seems like the premium blender is now half as much as it was 60 years ago and is probably more than twice as good. What’s not to love?

But let’s think about this more deeply. How can a blender that costs that much sit so close by to one that costs a fraction as much? If you never made it out of an introduction to economics class, you might suppose that competition would lead to one price. No one would willingly spend nearly 8 times more on a blender than is seemingly necessary. Surely not. Both blenders can’t possibly survive.

But then again, the blender market is like every other market. There are low-end products. Maybe they break quickly, maybe not. There are the middle-brow products that seem reasonably priced and they are solid. Then there are the luxury goods that people buy partly for quality but, let’s admit it, largely because of the status.

So, for example, let’s say that I really want to dig deep and buy the Ninja blender. Someone comes over and says, “Wow, you have a Ninja blender? Do you just love it?”

That comment alone might make the extra spending worth it all. And let’s say that no one ever comes over and says that. Maybe every time you use it, you think: “I have a Ninja blender!” That might be all you need.

Or it could be like what just happened. I asked a co-worker: “What blender do you have?”

She said, rather nonchalantly, “A Ninja.” I expressed astonishment and she beamed with pride and told me every detail. She started dancing around and talking about her great life with her blender. Then another coworker piped up and said he has a Ninja blender too and that it is so powerful that he can make a smoothie out of a brick.

All of this is great, and I’m very happy for these people. What I finally did point out is that neither of them have a VitaMix Professional Series 750 in Candy Red. The retail price on this honey of a blender: $750!

Just raising this point introduce genuine controversy.

It turns out that Ninja Ultima owners are extremely resentful of the owners of the Vitamix Professional Series 750 in Candy Red. They have tried to show me as series of web links that prove that the Ninja is just as good as the Vitamix, even if some people say that the Vitamix is easier to clean. In any case, the Ninja owners are absolutely convinced that the Vitamix people have wasted their money.

Suffice it to say that passions run very high on this topic.

As with every consumer good on the market. Whether it is blenders, or dryers, or soap, or shoes, or dresses, or coffee makers, or sunscreen, the market has offered us an amazing array of products from which to choose. And, contrary to what the rationalist might expect, it is not always about quality and price. It is often about status, identity, personality, social standing, and a thousand other considerations known and unknown.

The makeup of every sector of the market is as complex and ever changing as the human personality itself — indeed, a flourishing market looks very much like the diversity and complexity of the social order. You can’t plan it. You can’t slice and dice it and model it to perfection. It’s an ever changing kaleidoscope of preferences and speculations crashing into physical realities and economic possibilities with results that can’t be anticipated or fully understood by the human mind.

But the socialist says: this is all a ridiculous waste. We should not have the kind of society in which people are allowed to blow $750 on a blender! But they should think again. We do indeed want the kind of society in which anyone can create and innovate and advertise, even to the point of making outrageously expensive products. And we want the kind of society in which people are actually free to use their own resources to purchase what they want, even if it seems crazy.

What I find particularly remarkable is that the Vitamix company has managed a profit even given the competition. How can you persuade people to spend 37 times the lowest price available on a product that, more or less, seems to do the same thing? That takes some doing, as impressive as any feat in sports or academics. If it seems so easy, try it yourself.

Why not treat this achievement as evidence of genius?

Compare real markets with the fake markets that government tries to create. Obamacare’s authors imagined that they knew precisely what kind of health care we all want. Public schools posit that they knew what kind of education we want. And government police and courts are premised on the idea that there is only one kind of security and one kind of justice. The results in every case are homogeneous — and awful.

The whole of human products and services should be like the blender market. We should have the freedom to create and consume.

What blender did I buy? I went for the $20 one. And you know what? It blended up a beautiful smoothie. I’m happy. The seller is happy. The world is a slightly better place to live in because of this mutually beneficial exchange.