My office at the WirtschaftsUniversitat Wien is located in a very isolated part of the campus, so much so that most of the time it isn’t worth the time trekking into the main campus and all its glorious amenities everyday to eat lunch (or in a particularly busy week, dinner as well). So if I am feeling lazy (which is most of the time), I have to settle for the places that are less than five minutes walk away. Now I said that my office is at the far end of the university campus, but it is by no means out in the middle of nowhere. It is directly behind a main train station and also the headquarters of one of Austria’s biggest banks. Surprisingly though, the availability of decent, quick, cheap food is in short supply. There is a McDonalds, which I must admit I go to about once a month when I do not feel like speaking too much German during a payment transaction. There is a franchise from a chain of bakers that sell all sorts of confectionary and baguettes, but nothing substantial. There are outside kiosks that sell kebabs and sausages, but nothing you could eat for lunch that you wouldn’t regret by 3pm. There are also two Asian restaurants, both within five minutes walk from me, operating less than 100m apart, that sell almost exactly the same products for exactly the same price. If I have to eat a meal in the area, I almost always choose these.
There are minor differences of course, but both sell the same basic mix of rice, noodle and sushi dishes for under €5, eat-in or takeaway. They are such close substitutes that if I go to one and see a long line, I automatically start walking for the other one to get exactly the same thing. I like both of these places, and never (in advance) favour one over the other. The problem is, neither of these restaurants has always been there. Neither has been there for even three months. I have been working in that area for 18 months, and this is the first time in that period that there has been active business in both of those units at the same time. In this time period, one was a specialist Indian curry place that charged prices that flew too close to the sun: it lasted four months. The other unit was basically exactly the same as it is now, except it removed the ‘Mc’ prefix from the title in order to satisfy McDonalds. Both before and after these previous endeavours, each unit was empty for at least six months. There have been two periods, one for seven months, the other for two months, that there were no Asian restaurants in the area. It seems that they both operate in the cursed business units that exist in every neighbourhood, in every street, in every town all over the world. One year it could be a launderette, a few months later a solarium, the next year a cheap reusable printer cartridge refilling station.
The chances that both my Asian restaurants survive are not very good. The chances that one of them survives are slightly better. I do like the choice of going to either of these places whenever I feel like it, but surely having one in the area is better than having none. All else being equal, the restaurant that gets the most business will have the greater chance of survival. Although my say in the fate of these two restaurants is minimal, I do have my thrice-weekly business to give, and it seems to me that if I give this business to one of them rather than distributing it equally between them, then I have done all I can to ensure the presence of quality Asian food in my locale. As already mentioned, they are quite similar. The customer service in both are standard, they are both the exact same distance from my office. One of them has a much nicer place to sit and eat, while the other one has a much better choice of sushi. My life would not be much different if one of them survived or the other. If both of them survive, it would be amazing, and if neither of them survived it would be awful.
This is usually the point where I attempt to academicise the problem and apply some (social) scientific knowledge. Many will have seen straight through my framing of the problem and noted that there are two candidates running for office, and that an individual has one vote to cast. This vote is one of many, and more than likely will have only an incremental effect on the overall election result. However, this vote is added to the votes of many similarly rational individuals, and in theory these rational individuals will choose the best candidate to survive this electoral process. In my story, if only one restaurant can survive, the free market dictates that the business that makes the most profit will endure. Some individuals may favour Candidate A’s stance on the sushi issue, while others are heavily sentimental about Candidate B’s romantic allusions to the small-town colloquial diners of yesteryear. When all the votes are counted the consensus of the people will judge the outcome fairly, one way or the other.
There are other analogies to be made apart from this political aspect. Game theorists will easily spot the potential to model how I came to my decision about how to ensure the survival of one Asian restaurant, given that having none was the worst outcome, and that keeping both was highly unlikely. It is nothing but a best-response strategy to a simple problem. You could make the same model from analysing the choices of a woman who has two romantic partners, likes them equally, but wants a partner in the long run. This probably won’t be possible if she keeps both of them. The difference here however is that my two Asian restaurants are unlikely to get angry at each other (and at me), when they realise the infidelity. Choosing is difficult sometimes. It does make life more interesting sometimes though. I never enjoyed watching football as much until I finally manned up and decided to stick with one team until the bitter end. You live life on the edge when you get off the fence and choose a side, one minute you are up and the next minute you are crashing back down. Then the cycle repeats. Apparently it is better to have a fence to look up to when you are down than to be constantly balancing on its edges.
Unfortunately however, like most of the human race, I am not a rational individual and do not take into account the laws of logic and game theory in the mundane everyday decisions of my existence. I only take these laws seriously when it comes to my profession. I will more than likely continue hedging my vote between both of my Asian restaurants, as for some reason my vote would be for choice, and diversity. As mentioned a few times already, these two restaurants are almost exactly the same, so it is even worse: my vote would be for diversity, even in the face of homogeneity. If you can’t choose then maybe the choice should not be yours to make. I can’t choose between these two restaurants, and that will marginally chip away at their respective profits. Maybe both of those restaurants fold up and close, but some other restaurant, or solarium or printer refilling station will take their place, and who is to say that this is not what that community deserves? Not I, for I didn’t even vote in this election.