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My Book Reviews

Category: Economics
Published: 1996
Read: 2003
Reviewed: Sep 2010

Winner-take-all markets are markets where almost all of the rewards go to the fewest top-performing players in any competitive arena. The main thesis of the book is that winner-take-all markets result in a mis-allocation of resources (specifically an "arms race" of unproductive consumption and investment) and do result in outcomes that are neither efficient nor equitable. The author draws on many areas of the American economy as examples, including: CEOs, movie stars, lawyers, athletes, and authors. He then attempts to deconstruct the reasons how winner-take-all markets emerge. The main reason is that rewards that depend on relative performance will lead to excessive investment, known in economic terms as "overcrowding". Some of the specific dynamics that contribute to the trend are "network economies" and self-reinforcing processes (like positive feedback effects) where winning begets winning.

Overall, this book was decent, but not mind-blowing. The increase of winner-take-all markets has been a very influential and under-recognized trend over the last few decades. The book deals with the interesting (and important) philosophical question about what the economic reward system of a society should be. This question is particularly relevant today where there is rising income inequality and a mature economy that is closer to a zero-sum game than in the past. Although the book talks about these issues (specifically about the overworked American), I don't think there was enough philosophical debate.

The book points out specific examples of winner-take-all markets, particularly: steroids, the popularity of tennis versus golf, the selection of wives, and cosmetic surgery. But the book drops the ball, in my opinion, when it doesn't connect winner-take-all markets to such elementary concepts such as "diminishing marginal utility". The book also spent too little time on the concepts they did mention, like: the tragedy of the commons, game theory, overconfidence, decision-making, branding, and risk preferences.

I also think that the lessons of winner-take-all markets could have extended to the financial markets, specifically the dynamics of market bubbles. There was a line in the book that said, "as social beings, people have a keen interest in reading the same books others read, and seeing the same movies." Well, as social beings, people also have a keen interest in buying the same stocks, which leads to a self-reinforcing trend that leads to a bubble. I also think that globalization, being such an important trend, is a topic that should have been covered, even if briefly.

One of the author's main themes is that winner-take-all markets lead to overinvestment in areas that have little social value. But I think the author made a major mistake by stressing this point. Although I agree with his moral values (that we live in a shallow society that values status and money), the lesson is NOT that the losses from inefficient investment due to overcrowding are a result of investing in things we don't need. The lesson is that overcrowding leads to unproductive investment no matter what that money is invested in. The whole concept of overcrowding is based on the idea that the amount of investment (i.e. the supply of investment) is too high compared to the market's supporting demand for that investment - not compared to what a person's subjective values-based opinion believes that demand should be. If Americans want their values to be based on shallow consumption, then that - by itself - doesn't constitute unproductive investment. Even though the concepts of shallow consumption are related to the consumption theories in the book, they are actually irrelevant. By bringing up the debate about shallow consumption, the author creates the unnecessary risk that the anti-consumerists who are reading his book will misinterpret the book's main theme, which I think has happened to some extent.

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