Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Market for Meditation

It has been reported that the guru, Maharishi Mahesh, who recently died, throughout his life made billions from college students who wanted to learn how to meditate and purchased all sorts of Maharishi products in so doing. Take a peek at the website. A commentator on NPR said there are Maharishi products for almost every aspect of your life.

Meditation itself is a fascinating exercise. Authors on Eastern meditation range from those who advocate specific techniques and traditionalist methods, to those who advocate unspecified forms of meditation with every task. Zen "walking meditation", for example. The market for meditation is chalk full of copyrighted ideas and trademarked symbols, and the business of meditation understands that successful differentiation from other practices lead to a certain kind of power. It lowers the search-costs of prospective meditators, and gives them an American-style branded meditation they can seek.

Maharishi, one of the earliest entrants into the American meditation market, offered something college students in the 60s had scarcely heard of, and for which there were no substitutes. Maharishi products therefore had very inelastic demand, meaning that as the price continued to increase dramatically, demand kept increasing as well. The price of meditation rose from $35 to about $250 and as an NPR news piece says, as demand kept increasing Maharishi almost single-handedly introduced Eastern mysticism to the West.

I, on the other hand, have never paid more than $15 for a yoga class. A few years ago I took around five or six different classes. I found that most of the time you can take the first yoga class for free, and if there are enough locations around, you can learn most of the basic ideas for free by skipping around. The advanced or luxury classes like Maharishi's, however, are much more expensive. The price and exclusivity itself are objects of my curiosity.

What is peculiar about the demand for mysticism is its similarity to "Veblen goods", named after Thorstein Veblen. It is some good for which the price increasing increases the quantity demanded. It is related to the "snob effect", although it is difficult to say whether the increased price triggered the increased demand or the other way around. Veblen goods are the opposite of "Giffen goods", which are so inferior the price increasing causes quantity demanded to increase as well. Giffen goods are said not to exist. Increasing incomes in the 60s could easily have lead to the increase in luxury goods like meditation schooling, but this is only conjectural. Low-income earners meditate as well, just as low-income households may spend a larger share of their income on other spiritualisms, like at church.

Utility gained from Maharishi's meditation likely displays a different sort of preference satisfaction altogether, more like satisfaction though Scientology, and that is why some have commented on it as the "Maharishi Effect".

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