Yesterday’s NY Times featured an article about a NY cabbie who offers free rides and apparently cleans up on the generous tips. This reminded me of an experiment conducted by NYU Law a couple years back. A cohort of students were admitted for zero tuition with the hope that they would give more generously as alumni (taking advantage of the federal government’s tax deduction subsidy.) This left me wondering: when does this strategy of giving away a product or service ultimately prodcue greater revenue? And relatedly, are there other situations where deregulating behavior – i.e., eliminating a requirement that people behave in some way – might lead to more “good” behavior (defined in the same way as regulators might) on the part of these people.
When does giving away a product produce greater revenue? In the case of the cabbie, I think that people are tipping him beyond the normal fare for a few reasons. First, passengers probably love the choice to pay what they want. They also appreciate the trust he puts in them by allowing them to define the fee. Finally, they probably enjoy the novelty of a free cab ride. My guess is that giving away a product works particularly well where there is a one-on-one relationship between provider and consumer. But perhaps most importantly, the cost of a cab is generally known (most locals probably have an idea of what a meter fare would have been), and that cost is often BELOW actual market value. I can think of many situations – rush hour, rain, etc – in which most cabs could double their fares and still stay full.
The law school give-away offers students one more benefit (beyond choice, trust, and novelty): time. Students have limited income and NYU’s program offered students a chance to pay NYU after the six-figure incomes kicked in. But I wonder if the law school experiment is paying off? I think people over-tip the cabbie because they appreciate what he is doing for them, personally. And in the law school context, we’re not talking about dropping $20 unnecessarily; it takes serious commitment to get an alum to donate $100K (plus interest). Of course, it helps that Uncle Samuel will subsidize that gift.