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The Mystery of the Bobbleheads:
Can someone explain to me why people seem to be willing to pay several hundred dollars a piece for plastic dolls given away for free by a magazine? I am referring, of course, to the Supreme Court bobblehead dolls distrubuted by The Green Bag. I'm a subscriber to and a big fan of The Green Bag, and I can see why a lawyer might want to pay $20 or even $30 for a bobblehead doll of a famous judge. It's an amusing conversation piece, and that's worth twenty bucks. But why are people paying over $300 for these dolls? What am I missing?
Ugh (mail):
It's just like an artist whose paintings hugely appreciate after they die. O'Connor has retired, therefore no one will bobbleheads of her anymore and there is scarcity. Plus, she's the shiznit.
7.30.2005 10:55pm
42USC1983 (mail):
Status. Since so few people have them, lawyers want them. Yet another way to say, "I have something you don't." It'd be sad if it weren't so funny.
7.30.2005 11:03pm
DJ (mail):
Since Prof. Kerr invited speculation, here's mine: The lawyers who are buying these things for hundreds of dollars are (unlike, say, your average law professor) quite wealthy. A few hundred dollars to these guys is like $20 to the good professor. Just a drop in the bucket. Or, perhaps, a bobble of the bobblehead.

You ask. I answer.
7.30.2005 11:17pm
=?=:
Perhaps, because the market values them as worth that? I admit, I'm a collector. The free market is what it is, you know.
7.30.2005 11:31pm
Thief (mail) (www):
A really bad way to practice your argument before SCOTUS?

"Of course the justices do realize there is no inherent right of privacy in the Constitution?"

(9 Bobbleheads nodding yes)

"I thought so."
7.30.2005 11:39pm
theDA (mail):
come on, their heads bobble.

theDA
7.31.2005 12:01am
Christine Hurt (mail) (www):
We have Junior Spivey bobblehead that we got for free on "Junior Spivey Bobblehead day" at the Brewers game. In a week or two, he was traded. Maybe our Brewer-uniformed bobblehead has increased in value. Anyone?
7.31.2005 12:08am
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
Predicted future supply and demand? Shouldn;t this be cross-referenced to the Becker-Posner blog for comment?
7.31.2005 12:41am
Buck Turgidson (mail):
Why does a free-market guy ask questions in puzzlement over the direction a free market is taking? And why does anyone needs to justify himself in the way he spends his own money?

I always assumed that Orin Kerr--much like the rest of the Conspirators--is a libertarian. Libertarians should not be asking questions of this sort--they know the answers to them in advance or they know that there is no reason for them to know the answer (in other words, the answer is unimportant). Does that make Kerr a wavering libertarian?
7.31.2005 12:52am
John Jenkins (mail):
The question is why would someone value a bobblehead that much. What are there reasons. Prof. Kerr clearly understands supply and demand, the question is: why the demand?
7.31.2005 1:20am
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
It's a bobble bubble, irrational exuberance combining ebay,
existing markets for sports collectibles, and expectation of scarcity. Look how much those rare Thurgood Marshall bobbleheads are worth.
7.31.2005 1:42am
Mark Olson (mail) (www):
large uncounted sacks of excess cash?
7.31.2005 4:43am
Charles Iragui:
These toys have become trophies, so are decommoditized (price unchained from cost). Their value is probably coming from the perceived display potential. Paradoxically, the higher the price the more attractive they may become: the price is becoming part of the conversation piece value.
7.31.2005 9:24am
Sam Heldman (mail):
money laundering.
7.31.2005 9:25am
Assistant (mail):
Because lawyers need something frivolous and expensive to bring it home to their struggling, underpaid secretaries how much they matter compared to a lousy, stinking plastic Halloween ornament.
7.31.2005 9:48am
erp (mail):
Aren't lawyers only supposed to ask questions if they already knew the answer? Or is that only in court? BTW- o/t these comment strings are doing wonders for my hipness, she's the shiznit. I will positively be the first one on my block to use that one.

The answer to the question is, because they can.
7.31.2005 10:57am
Justice Fuller:
Buck Turgidson asks:

"Why does a free-market guy ask questions in puzzlement over the direction a free market is taking?"

Buck, I assume you feel the same way about David Bernstein's many posts about 'irrational' housing prices in Arlington, Virginia?
7.31.2005 1:14pm
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
I'm with Buck. And yes, irrational housing prices is a contradiction in terms- unless it really isn't.

A price is dictated, as best as poor little uneducated-in-economics me can understand, by SUPPLY and DEMAND.

These are not "just" bobbleheads, which aren't the cheapest toys on Earth but don't cost $200 to make or buy usually. These are limited edition, highly detailed, extremely specifically individual bobbleheads of supreme court justices, put out by a reputable manufacturer. There's only a few of them; they're hard to get. The supply is limited, although knockoffs are possible, but my guess it that a knockoff would be easily identified (the number is small, they're not fungible, a small detail wrong makes it instantly obvious, the typical purchasers are familiar with counterfeiting and unlikely to engage in it).

In a scarcity situation, with lots of "friendly interest" from people including both poverty-stricken professors and high-powered appellate litigators- think Judge Roberts has one yet?- the price is quite likely to skyrocket, especially on EBay where speculators will see a trend (increasing sales, fanned on by Howard's incessant fixation on them) and jump on said bandwagon.

It would be irrational in a scarcity situation, with a hot collectible commodity (not a beverage or an otherwise quickly-used-and-replaced product, mind you, but a Toy, a Shelf Item for display among one of the most intensely status-oriented professions anywhere), for the price NOT to head north.

People asked me why I was spending time and energy collecting mine (I'm a new subscriber to the Bag). Answer: It's cute, it's mine, I've got it coming to me, and it'll shortly be worth upwards of $200.
7.31.2005 1:31pm
Billy Beck (mail) (www):
Your question, Orin, neatly crystallizes the whole reason why economics, as it currently slouches, is an utterly futile and completely ridiculous enterprise. And the root of this failure can be found in the fact that values are *always* a matter of *individualism*. Anyone who asks, "Of what value?", without the crucial contextual conditioner, "To *whom*?", is bound to fail.
7.31.2005 2:58pm
OrinKerr:
Billy Beck,

I think you're missing the question. I'm not asking a metaphysical question of what value Bobblehead dolls have in the abstract. Rather, I am asking why a decent number of people would rather have a bobblehead doll than $300. Commenters have mentioned several reasons: the people who are buying the dolls have tons of money, the dolls are a limited edition and demand is high, etc. All plausible possibilities.
7.31.2005 3:13pm
Adam Kronfeld (mail):
As someone who (unsuccessfully) bid on several of these bobbleheads at this spring's George Mason University School of Law Association for Public Interest Law Auction I feel I'm eminently qualified to respond to this question. (Which would mark a first in my threeish years of reading VC.)

The two-prong answer is: scarcity and novelty. To law nerds like me, the bobbleheads are just plain cool. Some people get their jollies collecting Hummel figurines, some people blow a few hundred bucks on throwback jerseys, and some people like law-related nicknacks. As for the price, it's no more irrational than the price people pay for baseball cards or figurines like Beanie Babies (or Snow Babies or whatever baby is today's hot collectible); it's simple as supply and demand.
7.31.2005 3:27pm
Tom Hanna (www):
The Dutch need something to invest in since the tulip market went belly up?
7.31.2005 3:53pm
Billy Beck (mail) (www):
Orin -- No, sir. I understand completely.

"I am asking why a decent number of people would rather have a bobblehead doll than $300."

Let me put it like this:

"There is no accounting for some peoples' tastes."

It's an old saw, but it's true. There are some things like this that nobody will ever know.
7.31.2005 4:47pm
Adam (www):
Yes, but raise your hand if you've got a John Jay. :)
7.31.2005 6:13pm
Cheburashka (mail):
Please contact me if you have a Rehnquist or Stevens bobblehead to sell.

Thank you.
7.31.2005 7:45pm
Howard (mail) (www):
I'm raising my hand, Adam.
7.31.2005 8:17pm
Kurt Metzmeier (mail):
I think that they are very well-placed to be valuable collectibles. First, they are issued in small numbers. Second, Supreme Court justices are a solid bet to be of historical interest for future decades, unlike say Ricky Williams or Paris Hilton figurines. Third, they are somewhat fragile and the already scarce issue will experience quite of wasteage as springs break &heads fall off--thereby making them even more valuable.

I say buy'em and store'em. I and, for god's sake, resist the urge to actually bobble them. No one want's to see Justice Scalia lose his head...
8.1.2005 11:46am
Carl Sanders (mail):
I have seen a few of them in real life, and let me say: they are beyond cool. I can't remember which one I got to bobble, but I think it was O'Connor, and if you are a total dork like me you get a little rush. I see them a form of high-quality trading cards with a lot fewer in circulation. I would pay over 100 for a rare-ish Mantle or Mays card (if I was not a student and had an actual job that is), so 200+ for these dolls doesn't seem that outlandish.
8.1.2005 2:40pm
Mark Eckenwiler:
Maybe the bobbleheads have some special attribute, like the dashboard (bobblehead?) doll mentioned in this 1999 contest from the Washington Post's long-running Style Invitational humor competition:
The first-prize winner gets a plastic Latrell Sprewell NBA dashboard doll, donated to the Style Invitational by Charlie Steinhice of Chattanooga. The doll was purchased for $1.99, but we are declaring its value to be $32,000. This is because, in the corner of the package, it says in little letters: "Caution: Choking Hazard."
8.1.2005 3:30pm
criminal defense attorney:
to DA: No wonder we have a crime problem in america. You can't even spell. Perhaps you should get a criminal defense attorney to spell-check your comments befoe you post them. You make my job so easy!
8.2.2005 1:13am
Scipio (mail) (www):
They've got cachet up the ying yang, baby!
8.2.2005 12:39pm
Kev (mail) (www):
Slightly OT: All day long, the Rafael Palmeiro bobblehead in my office has been staring at me as I wonder whether or not the steroid allegations are true. Some of my friends have been going back and forth about it all day, but over here, I'm hoping that he's exonerated down the road.

And even though I have no desire to sell my Raffy bobble, I wonder if his value will go up or down with the outcome of this case.
8.3.2005 3:26am