Fence SitterA. R. Samson

Scarce items like oil, diamonds, beautiful women who address you with terms of endearment, and billionaires are prized commodities. They are valued because they are in short supply.

A more common finite resource that behavioral economists surely take note of too is time. How we allocate and spend time illustrate the dynamics of supply and demand.

A powerful person, who is known to make large donations to favored causes as well as having the authority to dole out jobs with salaries that allow the purchase of a car twice a month, is certain to be in higher demand than another who is unknown and needs not just an introduction before he delivers a keynote address in a small assembly but also some justification of his surprise inclusion in the event.

Ordinary social dealings even with an occasional partner may also involve the principle of scarcity value.

Someone who is always available and ready to drop everything, including a lunch set three weeks before (I have to attend to an emergency involving my eye bags) just to accompany on a whim the desired object of desire provides a lopsided asymmetry of supply and demand, favoring the latter. The target of lustful thoughts becomes too confident of her amorous charm to even entertain doubts of not always getting her way. She feels free to offend by whimsically bailing out of a previously set appointment if she suddenly feels too lazy to dress up and drive all the way through traffic just for lunch, or even dessert — so, can you just go have your Caesar salad on your own, sir.

The gap between supply and demand in terms of appointments widens when the number of powerful people is overtaken by demand to see them from petitioners or those who simply want to have bragging rights over chance encounters — I was with him at a wedding last week. (Was he a waiter at the reception?)

There are only a set number of waking hours in the day even for people suffering from insomnia, say a maximum of 18. Of these, some minutes are allocated to uncalendared personal time for intimate encounters. (Don’t check with my secretary.) Mathematically then, social and business engagements account for no more than 10 hours maximum, even for workaholics. And that can include travel time and rants over traffic woes and declarations of high personal taxes paid to eliminate such inconveniences — do I need to get a helicopter to get to my gigs?

Availability then of unallocated time is limited and perhaps only available two months hence. Still, the Fence Sitter’s Rule on scheduling states that the farther away the designated date of an appointment, the higher the likelihood of cancellation. Thus, the best schedule for a rush meeting is usually a forty-eight hour time window. Beyond that, cancellation becomes too tempting.

Can scarcity be artificially created?

It is not enough to restrict supply. The other part of the equation involves demand. Thus, a loss of interest or demand can erase even scarcity value. If there is declining demand for a product, in this case somebody’s time, availability or its lack becomes irrelevant. It can become a case then of unsold inventory. In the book trade, unsold items stay on the shelves, and then eventually consigned as “returns.” So, artificial scarcity is difficult to manage in the face of declining demand.

The point of creating artificial scarcity is to increase price or desirability. To restore its value as something treasured, or at least looked forward, can one make time less available? Quitting from the scene is the extreme form of making one’s time unavailable.

And yet this game can end badly and played for keeps. What if no one actually wonders what happened, or worse having one’s absence unnoticed? Unavailability only leads to a search for substitutes and maybe the unexpected conclusion of finding a superior alternative — why didn’t we think of this before?

As in all commodities, including the scarce and therefore pricey ones, disruption can be a simple case of demand moving away or latching on to substitute products. After all, who could have imagined ten years ago that phones would replace cameras, radios, encyclopedias, and intermediaries? Supply becomes irrelevant when demand drops to zero.

A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.

ar.samson@yahoo.com