Does Burning Man have a favorite economist?

Not one of the major contributors to Macro economics was a Burner.

A recent discussion I was having about the future of Burning Man raised the question:  “is it really part of Burning Man’s values to do end runs around scalpers?  Is that a key part of the mission?  What’s wrong with letting the Market decide who goes to Burning Man?”

Let me stop right here to say:  I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT HOW BURNING MAN WILL HANDLE TICKET SALES IN THE FUTURE – DON’T ASK ME.  LIKE MANY OF YOU, I OCCASIONALLY TALK ABOUT THINGS I HAVE NO INVOLVEMENT WITH.  THE SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS, FOR EXAMPLE … AND THE U.S. SPACE PROGRAM.  THIS WAS THAT KIND OF CONVERSATION, HAD WITH SOMEONE WHO WAS NOT A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ORGANIZATION, AND HAS NO INVOLVEMENT IN BURNING MAN TICKET SALES.  HE WAS ALSO NOT AN ASTRONAUT. THANK YOU.

Most of you are turning a little red now – I was – but it’s a relevant question.  What is the appropriate relationship between Burning Man and market capitalism?  “Decommodification” is a key Burning Man principle … yet when Burning Man is critiqued from the political left, it’s generally for not being decomidified enough.  There are people who see the fact that we still sell tickets as proof that we are in league with Halliburton.

When it comes to capitalism, where’s the sweet spot for Burning Man between “Too Much” and “Oh, for God sake get a job you smelly hippie”?

Is “creative destruction” creative enough for us?

I think a compelling case can be made that Burning Man does have a vital interest in thwarting scalpers … but I think it’s not expressly because of decommodification.

What does that mean?  Well, like most of Burning Man’s principles, Decommodification is clearly not an absolute value.  Tickets are sold, ice is sold, and there’s not a hard-and-fast ban on plug-and-play camping.  So clearly “no commerce” isn’t a rule for its own sake:  there are times we do it and times we don’t.

My sense is that decommidification is a key principle because the early participants of Burning Man found that there comes a point at which taking commerce out of the equation heightens the experience that we’re aiming for.

In another space I’ve suggested that the 10 Principles are aspirations, but that the key Burning Man activity is the creation of a kind of experience – a verb for which “to burn” is the infinitive form.  I’d suggest that Burning Man’s organizers realized – correctly – that past a certain point it is easier “to burn” when money is off the table.  I’d even go so far as to suggest that money … and the table … are a big part of what makes it difficult “to burn” outside of Burning Man.   Money has waaaay too much bullshit.

From this vantage point you can see why we’d want to keep scalpers and third parties out.  Their desire isn’t to be part of our process or to help more people burn – it’s to profit for its own sake by making the process of getting to Burning Man more difficult.  That just doesn’t support the experience we’re trying to develop.  One has to be a pro-market partisan to say “a process that makes distribution more difficult for participants is better because it allows for the uninterrupted flow of capital.”

Although I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what was said by TicketMaster about all-access passes to John Galt’s underground fortress.

Works for me – but it also doesn’t rule out a market-based system for tickets.  If the principle is to decommodify when commerce makes “burning” more difficult, then commerce is likely still legitimate when it supports the “burning” experience.  Selling ice directly to Burners on site is a perfect example:  the idea is to get ice to people who need it without wasting any.  The market based solution is perfect.  It can be done without gouging – it can even be done in such a way that it becomes a whimsical experience in and of itself – and it makes everyone’s lives so much easier, allowing them to focus on art and experience.  Meanwhile people who don’t actually need ice are deterred from grabbing extra by the nominal cost

In this case, market-based activity supports what Burning Man is trying to do – we burn easier with it than without it – and it therefore has a place.

The line the Org is trying to walk with plug-and-play also reflects this.  On the one hand, the more havens of exclusivity pop up on the playa the more difficult it will become for the playa as a whole to enter into the magic collaborative state we strive for – and the existence of a “servant class” at Burning Man is toxic.  On the other hand …

… well, there isn’t really an other hand.  These are terrible things.  But it’s also true that new approaches to Burning Man can bring their own energy and that hard-and-fast rules about “how to burn correctly” tend to backfire.  So instead of gunning for commercial activity happening outside the playa (where all plug-and-play transactions have to take place already), the Org is asking how this activity … which is an opportunity to spread Burning Man’s message and culture … can be drained of the toxicity.

Burning Man’s not interested in an ideological debate about market forces:  this is a case where a principle follows from practical issues about how we can work with this.  Sometimes commerce can get us closer to where we want to be than Gifting can.

So while Decommodification is one of Burning Man’s core principles, that doesn’t make the culture reflexively anti-market.   Burning Man is pragmatic on questions of market capitalism.  Often this pragmatism puts us on the side of economic radicals because, let’s face it, our society has an unhealthy obsession with wealth … and like all obsessions, that has to be put aside if one wants to pursue a more profound experience of life.

Anybody who’s in it for the money will never really be able to get Burning Man.

But no one can deny that market capitalism often brings out creativity, efficiency, and motivation.  When those are part of a toxic package, it’s not worth it.  But we’d have to be willfully ignorant to try and throw qualities like creativity and self-motivation away in those cases when commerce can be drained of poison and used for the common good.

Aren’t creativity, motivation, and the common good key elements of what we’re going for?

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

5 thoughts on “Does Burning Man have a favorite economist?

  • That’s a great post, Caveat. I think the most interesting questions of the next wave of Burning Man questions are economic ones. You’re certainly right that money is a sustaining force for the burning experience in some key ways. It’s the event’s main interface with the default world, so the relationship is much more complicated than “no money, period.”

    But when it comes to tickets, the economics get super-funky. There are two currencies here: money and tickets. We’ve got to distribute both to get people to Burning Man, but not in the same ways nor under the same principles. Can we tease them apart in some way, such that the ticket market supports our goals and discourages scalping?

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  • Every time someone mentions selling a Burning Man ticket for more than
    face price there are objections that that violates the principle of
    decommodification. I don’t think that is right.

    The principle is stated:

    “Decommodification. In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our
    community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by
    commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready
    to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the
    substitution of consumption for participatory experience.”

    I love this principle. Commodification ignores and simplifies complex
    relations, obscuring origins and narrows things to a single service or
    standard unit. Trying to commodify the Burning Man experience would
    destroy it. But I don’t think commodification has anything to do with
    selling tickets for more than face price.

    The wrinkle is that tickets to Burning Man are already goods for sale,
    a commercial transaction. The question is if changing the price that
    they are being sold for – in effect, creating a market for tickets –
    transforms them into a commodity.

    Commodification can mean two different things.

    In business theory, commodification is a process through which
    qualitatively different things are made equivalent and exchangeable
    through the medium of money. This can have many insidious effects,
    and is something that we strive to avoid at Burning Man. But I can’t
    see the connection to charging more for a ticket – transferable tickets
    are already fungible goods with a price attached.

    In Marxist political theory, commodification describes assignment of
    economic value to something not previously considered in economic
    terms. Another way of saying this is that commodification is the
    process by which something which does not have an economic value is
    assigned a value and hence how market values can replace other social
    values. It seems like there is an argument here if you are careful to
    separate value and price. Earlier this summer Burning Man tickets
    were valued by some individuals more than their monetary price. By
    restricting the resale price to the face price, you are resisting
    creating a market. But now that we are weeks from the burn, tickets
    are oversupplied. This has caused tickets to begin selling below the
    face value. I have heard zero objections to this, even though it
    commodifies the ticket every bit as much as selling for more than face
    price.

    So in both senses, the ticket is already a commodity. But scalping is
    still widely perceived as violating community norms. Why?

    I think the real objection is that markets generally deal poorly with
    issues of procedural fairness and equitable distribution, and critics
    see paying more than face price as producing greater levels of
    inequality in power and participation while reinforcing existing
    vulnerabilities.

    With that in mind, if we want to encourage people not to pay over face
    price, lets do it for the right reasons. If the goal is to maintain
    equitable distribution, call it radical inclusion. If the goal is to
    distribute tickets in a way that you think will best benefit the
    community rather than personal profit, call it civic responsibility.
    If the goal is to prevent scalpers, call it communal effort.

    But don’t call it decommodification.

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  • I’ve come to believe “decommodification” is mostly about “not making people a commodity”. When I go to a bar, I walk up to a person and order a drink which I then pay for. The bartender has been commodified (in the Marxist sense, per Colin’s comment) in that that human being is completely interchangeable, and the most valuable bartenders maximize profit-per-hour. When you remove money from the equation (like a bar on the Playa) the bartender is not bound by that relationship at all. Hence, giving away drinks “decommodifies” the bartender.

    Now as for tickets, scarcity messes with ticket sales which make the price go up in a free market (and thats as far as I know in economic theory). But scarcity is fundamentally incompatible with “radical inclusion”. When there’s scarcity, no socioeconomic system works — there are always some who are left with not enough. So with tickets, there’s no such thing as a truly fair way to do things. 2012 brought the lottery which applied “random” to the distribution of tickets which many assumed was an attempt to be “fair”. I wonder if there is a _radical_ solution to ticket sales that amplifies the unfair nature of scarce tickets.

    Off the cuff, what would happen if people could bid for tickets in multiples of whole-ticket prices, but any overbid becomes a free ticket for someone else and removed from the set of tickets available for purchase? So if you bid 2x ticket price, you would get one ticket but one more ticket would be free to someone else and not available for purchase.

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  • So wait… you were discussing tickets with the owner of the San Francisco Giants?

    Tickets. That one very well might be like the equation x^2 + 2x + 10 = 0. There is no real solution to that quadratic. There are imaginary solutions. So imagine another event somewhere. Something other than dust, like sand, snow, clay, or morning dew. They are happening, they are growing, and you can get a stupid ticket for under $50 in most cases. In my limited experience, you can get out of them exactly what you put in – which can potentially make them more personally amazing than that sold out event.

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  • I also see a big difference between the desire for decommodification on the playa, where we strive to have our week there be independent from large-scale economic forces, and the desire many have that admission to the even not become only for the wealthy. Both can be worthwhile but they are not inherently linked.

    However, there is a hard reality to be faced if demand exceeds supply, and it can’t be escaped. Attempt to escape it and you get things like we saw last year. When there is a gap between what people are prepared to pay, and what people are charged, there is a value to be captured, and people will seek to capture it. They might be scalpers. You might try to give it to lottery winners :-)

    But I think the best thing you can do with it is to have the community itself gain from that value. Sell most tickets at market price, and if that exceeds the price needed to cover event expenses, take that money and put it into the community, either by financing more art, or subsidizing tickets for those who can’t afford the market price. If a lottery is the only way you can think of to allocate subsidized tickets, so be it, but apply that only on the 10,000 subsidized tickets, not on the entire body. But you can also do things like let camps subsidize their less wealthy members. Or spend some on improving gate and exodus to the benefit of all, to increasing potty service frequencies, and a few other things. As long as it’s going into the community rather than just into the pockets of owners or scalpers, I doubt there is nearly as much of a problem with market prices as people think.

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