The Economics of Nonexistence: Love, Rock and Roll, and the Void

Void Can nonexistence be a saleable commodity? Can the free market establish its price? Two stories for your consideration: A public bid to dismantle a rock and roll band, and a Beverly Hills company that will invest in your divorce.

Breakup checks

An annoyed guy in Seattle tried to raise $10 million, to be given to the rock band Weezer if its members agree to immediately and permanently break up. Why? Angry Internet Dude (his name is James Burns) said he didn't think Weezer's fans liked any of their new albums.

“This is an abusive relationship,” he said, “and it needs to stop now.”

“Every year, Rivers Cuomo swears that he's changed, and that their new album is the best thing that he's done since Pinkerton, and what happens? Another pile of crap like 'Beverly Hills' or 'I'm Your Daddy'.”

But his main grievance wasn't aesthetic: it was attentional. “If we reach at least $10,000,000,” his pitch said, “then we get a chance to possibly stop hearing about a shitty new Weezer album every goddamn year.” It was a joke, of course, as Burns felt obliged to explain: “I figured since the internet wasted so much of my time with all the ridiculous articles about the new Weezer album, I thought I’d return the favor and waste some of the internet’s time.”

Attention Surplus Disorder

He didn't collect much money, but the campaign was a media smash. It went viral because it was pretty funny – not very nice to the guys in Weezer, but still funny – and no doubt because people are sick and tired of certain ideas and topics being forced into their attentional space. The campaign inverted the typical Internet economic model: Instead of paying to grab an audience's attention, the audience was paying to take it back. It's like a hostage negotiation, with attention the kidnap victim and $10 million the ransom.

Vaporware

This phenomenon suggested several economic concepts which, as far as I know, may be completely new:

Eyeball to Eyeball

Internet sales types love to talk about “eyeballs” – how to attract them, how to keep them, and how much each is worth. (Well, not each eyeball individually. Presumably they're priced as pairs – except for the occasional one-eyed person's, whose eye would presumably have twice the value of the average person's. But I digress.)

This amounts to competitive bidding for eyeballs, with those who would capture said units competing with those who possess them. Maybe someone has studied the economics of advertising and worked all this out in a more professional way, but the market would presumably develop a unit price for attention – say, a penny per second.

If the public wanted to buy its attention back, how would that work in the marketplace? Wouldn't it be asymmetrical, with corporate buyers always able to drive the price beyond the reach of any individual?

People would have to pool their resources. Thst's what Burns did with his $10 million proposition. Weezer Drummer Pat Wilson replied by counter-offering a “deluxe breakup” for $20 million. I like that. As William Shatner says in the Priceline ads: “Now you're negotiating!”

Nothing for Something

I can't think of another time in history when a public, collective offer was made to purchase the nonexistence of something. Contract killings don't count, because the person being voided isn't a party to the agreement. Neither does blackmail, which is a highly asymmetrical negotiation.

I don't think very much money was raised, but it could be argued that whatever Burns collected represented the actual market value of Weezer's nonbeing – suppressed, of course, by the fact that people knew it was a joke. The cessation of other public careers probably would have raised considerably more money – Larry Summers' White House position, for example – but the choice of Weezer as a target was unexpected and added to the marketability of the idea.

The Price of Freedom

There's a new company in Beverly Hills called Balance Point Divorce Funding. It will partially subsidize the cost of divorce when one spouse (usually, but not always, the husband) has a lot more money than the other. Others, like Churchill Divorce Finance in New York, do the same thing. They invest in the cost of lawyers and living expenses in return for a percentage of the settlement. Companies already invest in lawsuits the same way. But this time, as the movie line goes, it's personal.

These investors have to be as cautious and thorough as any venture capitalist looking at a start-up: What's the total opportunity? What is the range of possible outcomes? Is the person I'm investing in sound and reliable?

Churchill directs its sales pitch to attorneys – wisely, since they're guaranteed timely payment (though they have to cut their rates). Churchill's seven-step application process begins when the attorney and client fill out an extensive application. Then their “underwriters”(yes, they use the term) evaluate the applicant. Once they've approved the deal, applicants can start drawing on the money.

These companies provide some social value by leveling the playing field between spouses. But, in return, the divorce process is no longer the wife's alone. While the New York Times explains that the Beverly Hills company “can't compel clients to settle,” CEO Stacey Napp made her position clear: “Ms. Napp says she urges clients to set aside emotions and negotiate a settlement. Indeed, she says she will not take clients who seem unwilling to compromise, fearing that their pursuit of justice will undermine Balance Point’s pursuit of profit.”

So future divorcees aren't just selling shares in the nonexistence of their marriage. They're also selling revenge. It may be sweet, but like many sweet things it's expensive.

Other markets in marriage

But why just bet on the down side of life? Why not invest in successful marriages, too? Financiers could help underwrite the cost of wooing, for either or both parties, in return for a share of the economic advantage produced by the marriage. There may not be all that much to share, but marriage costs less than divorce. I mean, how much do boxes of chocolate and shiny red pumps really cost, in the grand scheme of things?

And, since pre-nuptials are already common in this income bracket, how about “divorce insurance”? I feel uniquely qualified to design the product myself, since I've worked in the insurance world and have been both divorced and happily married.

Think of it: Starter loans that subsidize the cost of pursuing a mate, bundled with divorce insurance that's bound and sold on the day of the happy event. Why, I could write a book on the underwriting process alone. But then, couldn't we all?

Marriage Futures

And as for these divorce investments: How long will it be before we see them bundled and sold on Wall Street? Could “marriage credit default swaps” be a factor to the next economic collapse? (It could give new meaning to the term “naked CDS.”)

The Price of Nothing

People quote this Oscar Wilde line in my world nearly as often as they write about Weezer in Jim Burns' world: A miser is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. But these ideas, taken to their logical conclusions, would at least help that miser establish the price of nothing: Weezer's nothingness would cost somewhere between one penny and $20 million.

And as for marriages, the cost of consigning them to the void will become easier and easier to calculate as divorce financiers collect more data. The database will be a fever dream for broken-hearted actuaries.

Other Markets in Nonexistence

But why stop with rock bands and marriages? Why not create markets in other forms of nullification, too?

People

In Children of Men, people are paid for ending their own lives. But the price is set by the government, not the free market. The Liberal Democrats will have none of that! A market in life termination is the logical way to proceed in the new Great Britain.

A death market is merely an extension of the employment principle, where we sell our time for a price. In this case we're selling all of it. Life insurance actuaries already have the data. What's keeping everybody?

Politics

Political parties are a source of worldwide irritation. I think a bidding war between Left and Right is too obvious. I propose to start with Great Britain's Liberal Democrats. The money would be distributed among its members, with greater sums given to (in ascending order) long-term volunteers, minor party officials, national leaders, and so on, right up to Nick Clegg himself.

Why the Liberal Dems? I'm not sure, except they annoy me the same way that Weezer annoys that guy in Seattle. They seem a little too self-satisfied for my tastes. They're like holograms: They look different depending on where you stand. But they seem to fancy themselves as economic innovators. Fine, then: Be innovative. Go away.

Full Faith and Credit

I'm not anti-religion, but organized religion's another matter. Almost every person on the planet dislikes one religion or another. It will be hard to bid for the nonexistence of decentralized religions like Buddhism or Islam, but the others are up for grabs.

Personally, I plan to do the unexpected and start with the Methodists. Sure, they don't do any harm – the national US organization was early and vocal in its opposition to the Iraq War, in fact – but nobody seems really excited about being a Methodist. Look at George W. Bush: He was a Methodist and he invaded Iraq anyway. And it's not like Methodists seem all on fire with the love of Jesus or anything. So why not give them a few bucks to call the whole thing off? A lot of people would appreciate the extra free time on Sunday.

Species

Gnats are just annoying. So are millipedes. But they have no hierarchy capable of handling the negotiations. Bees, maybe? I suppose we could negotiate with the queens, but only one hive at a time.

If the other species on the planet were able to negotiate against us, however, it would be a different story. The benefit to them would be immediate and palpable. We could negotiate a two or three-generation delay and live like emperors until then.

But what would we use for currency?

Golden Years

Let's get back to reality – and Weezer. Western Europe and the United States are in an austerity frenzy. Financial security for the elderly is being dismantled so quickly that soon your only chance for a comfortable old age will involve marrying someone who's had a Balance Point divorce.

Fortunately, Weezer and its antagonists have created the ideal model for our own sunset years: Become as annoying as possible, to as many people as possible, with every passing year. Then, as retirement looms, sit back and watch the offers come rolling in.

Okay, annoying people: See you in Tahiti! In the meantime, please enjoy this brief musical interlude:

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A make-believe equation to describe a theoretical unit of attention (“A”) might be

 Demand

where “E” equal “eyeballs,” or exposure to a subject (i.e. Weezer), “t” is the amount of time spent viewing it, and “I” is the level of interest created. Amateurish, maybe, but you get the gist …

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