What ever happened to sexy stews?

One of the things that’s interesting about having been a television child in the 1970s is that my worldview was shaped by a series of unexplained present-tense crises and a vision of the recent past that looked so much warmer and more welcoming. The 1950s looked like Happy Days. The early 1960s looked like JFK and all the TV shows that bragged about being IN COLOR. Only in the 1970s did TV start to look dark and gritty, like the world outside.

One of the interesting things about taking up economics and history relatively late in life is that I can begin to unravel the mysteries of the world of my childhood.

Here’s one:

What happened to all those
sexy stewardesses?

The sign that you were a jetsetting playboy used to be that you had a stewardess or two on your arm. On TV, one guy would be trying to get some other guy to be the necessary second guy for a double date: “They’re stewardesses, Bob … stewardesses!”

If I’d thought about it at all in my youth, I probably would have come up with candidate answers such as

  1. Everything’s getting worse; or
  2. Damn feminists!

I suppose it’s possible that I could have come up with a more economically sophisticated answer, such as

  1. Supply & Demand: more passengers means more stewardesses means less exacting selection standards means moving lower toward the hump of the bell curve.

Here’s an answer I would never have dreamed of:

Price Fixing
Yes, it’s possible that there are fewer attractive stewardesses for similar reasons to there being fewer nuts in Murray Rothbard’s Baby Ruth, or rip-off “toy” “surprises” in my childhood box of Cracker Jack.

Let’s review the basics.

A price ceiling, when legal prices are not allowed to rise to their market-clearing level, causes shortages. There are more buyers at the legal price than there are sellers. Only the most efficient producers can afford to produce the controlled goods, because only they still have a margin between their costs and the legal price. Less efficient producers stop producing the controlled goods, steering those resources where there’s more profit, or at least less risk of loss. Price ceilings explain bread riots and the so-called oil crisis of the 1970s. (No, it wasn’t French aristocrats or Arab sheiks at fault.)

A price floor, when legal prices are not allowed to fall to their market level, causes gluts. There are fewer willing buyers than there are willing producers at the inflated prices. For agricultural goods, the result is that the government buys up all the surplus with coercively acquired funds. This hurts domestic taxpayers and foreign farmers. It also steers resources away from the goods people actually want, thereby hurting consumers as a whole. A too-seldom recognized form of price-floor-fixing is minimum wage law. Unemployment is a labor glut. Same economic laws apply.

So that’s the review of basic price fixing, but the above summary assumes uniform goods at established quantity and quality.

With many goods, quality can vary significantly, not always in easy-to-measure ways. If people are used to paying 25� for a Baby Ruth, to use Rothbard’s example, then the Baby Ruth company is going to be loath to raise the price to 50�, even if inflation has doubled all their input costs. What they do instead is cut whatever costs they can to keep the price at a quarter. So maybe they cut the number of peanuts in half, dilute the chocolate with cheaper vegetable oil, and make the candy bar 10% smaller. The product looks the same on the outside, and many people won’t notice the difference on the inside. But fans of the Baby Ruth chocolate bar will notice that the quality has fallen.

In my case, it wasn’t the falling quality of the candy I noticed, but the ever-crummier toy surprise in a box of Cracker Jack. Grownups would tell me about the whistles and decoder rings their childhood boxes of Cracker Jack had contained. Meanwhile, I watched plastic toys become cardboard-and-plastic toys become pure cardboard crapola.

Those are inflation examples, but similar dynamics are at work under a legislated cost ceiling of 25� for candy.

If price ceilings drive quality down, do price floors drive quality up?

In a sense, yes.

Suppose you used to be able to employ 3 unskilled, fresh-off-the-boat immigrants to perform a job at $1/hour each. And suppose a skilled craftsman for that job can do the same work as 3 unskilled men, but he charges $5/hour. Some people will employ the more expensive, higher quality craftsman, and others will employ the 3 less expensive, lower quality unskilled workers. Historically, the craftsmen don’t like the unskilled competition, so they launch a minimum wage campaign: how dare anyone pay less than $4/hour?!

With the new price floor on labor, the 3 marginal workers are all unemployed while the demand rises for the “higher quality” labor product of the craftsmen.

It’s not exactly the same thing with sexy stewardesses, but very close. According to Tom DiLorenzo’s Mises U 2005 lecture on monopoly and competition, when the airlines were all cartelized, it was illegal for them to compete with each other on price. The result was that (1) only a certain jet set could afford to fly with any regularity, and (2) the airlines competed for these wealthier passengers not by cutting costs and lowering prices, but with comfy seats, free booze, and stews who looked like fashion models.

Once the industry was deregulated, however, the inefficient giants went out of business and the survivors found that they had to compete by cutting costs and lowering prices. At cheaper airfares, we unwashed masses started to fly more often, and airline flights became commoditized. Get me from here to there. I’ll pack my own lunch and bring my own booze, thank you very much. If I want to stare at unattainable fashion models, I can bring a magazine.

There are plenty of people who will see this as an inherent failure on the part of the market — Just look at how small the bag of peanuts is! Can you believe they charged me for that tiny bottle of scotch? — but more people can travel more conveniently for less money.

If you want something fancier, you can pay for a first-class ticket. The fact that so many people don’t fly first class tells us those dollars are better spent elsewhere.

I guess that leaves us free marketeers leading a lonely cheer for average-looking flight attendants.

… b’bye now …


10 Responses to What ever happened to sexy stews?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting analysis.Though I understand the origin, I believe that the term “Price Fixing” should be renamed to more accurately reflect its economic impact. I would suggest “Price Breaking”

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think feminism still has a lot to do with it. The stewardesses in business and first class (British Airways) are not noticeably hotter looking. Since these classes are much less price sensitive one would expect more ‘intangible’ competition via things like hot women. That isn’t happening. It wouldn’t be PC.

  3. The answer to the disappearance of the ‘sexy stews’ is more simple than you think. Unions have doomed all US carriers to staff their flights with fat, mean, surly women, many of whom can barely squeeze down the aisle. I know this to be true – I was a steward (= straight male flight attendant) for nine years. The strengthening of the flight attendant unions made it possible to change workplace rules regarding age and appearance. Litigation, course, also played an important role. Most foreign airlines are not subject to the same discrimination regulations, so when you fly on most foreign carriers – especially the Asian ones, you’ll find the women to be uniformly young, beautiful, and sexy. In Japan, women can work as “cabin attendants” only until they are 26. Try that here! Here, the longer the flight (and especially international flights) the more likely your stews will look like your mother, only with an extra sixty pounds and a lot of attitude and emotional baggage. The union system ensures that only the most senior (hence older and fatter) members will get the easier long distance flights or the higher pay of the international flights. For a young single person looking for fun and travel, there’s no better job and thus no shortage of supply. Non union carriers such as Delta offer wages and benefits equal to or better than many of the union dominated carriers, but all have suffered deep cuts due to a variety of factors including the rising price of fuel. The next time you are barked at rudely by a uniformed porker serving drinks on your flight, thank her union.

  4. Jim says:

    I like the creative free market analysis. However, I will point out that the airline industry is far, far away from being a free market industry. Virtually all of it current inefficiencies (and in my opinion, it’s terribly inefficient) are caused by the heavy government regulation and gov’tsubsidation of the airline industry.

  5. P.M.Lawrence says:

    A couple of points.In this context, certainly in association with “sexy”, stew is an old word meaning brothel.The labour glut of unemployment does not simply come from minimum wage legislation but from the fact that there is an effective minimum wage, the “living wage”, that someone in a cash economy and with no private resources needs to live. The actual failure is from the history of depriving people of private resources.That is, in subsistence economies people only had to settle for top up wages, and the labour market could clear (colonialists actually had to deprive people of their resources to get them <>into<> the labour market).The history of today’s developed economies includes those subsistence resources being removed for no or inadequate compensation, so “wage slaves” had to work for whatever they could get. Early free trade allowed cheap foreign food into places like Britain, so they weren’t outright destroyed. Our legacy from those days is that few people have the small private resources that would free them from the need for a living wage.The long run solution could be one of a number of possibilities, e.g. a modernised distributism. But a good short term approach would be Professor Kim Swales’s adjustments to GST/VAT, which could also form the first stage of a transition.For anyone who is interested, I have more discussion of the Swales approach at my publications page, http://member.netlink.com.au/~peterl/publicns.html.

  6. PM,If we’re going to tell a history of today’s developed economies. We’d have to include the blatant transition from subsistence to prosperity of growing sectors of the labor market thanks to free and open economies of labor. I don’t understand what top up wages are, or the conception of settling. If you mean settle in the sense that there were no other preferable conditions or opportunities available at the time than of course I agree. But the real question then is what has provided for the greater opportunity individuals of similar skill sets have today?Markus’ point is a simple one but I think you have missed it. He is pointing out that when price controls are imposed upon a labor market. The sellers of labor positions (airline higherers in this case) will allocate the resource (stewardess positions) according to non-price mechanisms. Seeing as how it is still within their interests to obtain benefit from the transaction we could expect them to dole out the positions to the hot chicks over the ugly ones.Labor history in regards to subsistence wages has nothing to do with this scenario. Stewardesses never had to scrap by, and the labor market for flight attendants isn’t exactly the bulk of our labor force.

  7. Bob from Seattle says:

    Gary North had some < HREF="http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north9.html" REL="nofollow">thoughts on the matter<> too:<>In the good old days, the flight attendants’ union had not yet gained a stranglehold on the airlines. The union enforces strict seniority rules now. Some of these women knew the Beach Boys. Their kid sisters dated them. Repeal the Wagner Act and shut down the National Labor Relations Board, and stewardesses will get younger and better looking. The pilots will see to that.Another factor: back in propeller days, it took twice as long to fly coast-to-coast. Stewardesses had a lot of free time, and they chatted with young men in suits. That was back when most passengers were men with good jobs and no discount coupons. The prop flights offered marriage opportunities ? upward social mobility for most of the girls. Jets ruined this. So did price competition: planes filled with wives and small children.<>

  8. P.M.Lawrence says:

    Daniel J. D’Amico, “…the blatant transition from subsistence to prosperity of growing sectors of the labor market thanks to free and open economies of labor…” only applies after the full transition. People in developing countries haven’t experienced it yet, and even in developed countries it only happened to later generations. Also, there’s “survivor bias”, meaning that the Highland Clearances (say) had a lot of casualties; the benefits only applied to people who could hang in there long enough, and their descendants. The Luddites were actually right that they <>themselves<> would suffer from the improvements, no matter that things were getting better overall.The top up wage applies to people who still have some subsistence resources. They don’t need a full living wage, but on the other hand they do need some wages since they can’t survive by opting out of the cashe economy either. This usually applies in the transitions of a developing economy (including western ones, in past eras). “Settling” for a wage is the idea that, without these other resources, workers need a full living wage. If the market clearing wage is less than that, they instead go in for wandering begging or banditry, which makes the externality of “vagrancy costs” since that needs more policing which can only be paid for by other elements of society.You are mistaken is saying “the real question then is what has provided for the greater opportunity individuals of similar skill sets have today?”, because the older questions still apply in developing countries and these are the ones we compete with in those areas under globalisation.So, our individuals with these skill sets are competing with people who do not need the same wages, and the “iron law of wages” makes our people in these areas uncompetitive. For us, vagrancy costs have been replaced by social security costs, and they are mopped up not by new equivalent work but by unemployment benefits – unless and until they reskill and stop being directly comparable. But change is going on too fast for everyone to reinvent themselves continually and get ahead of the game.I didn’t miss Markus’s point, I expanded on the theme and brought out other aspects as well. There was no need to revisit what he had said, which was accurate as far as it went, but there was a need to bring out the other stuff that puts a different light on some things. We shouldn’t go all Pangloss about these economic changes.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hello,I read your comments.I am asking also where are those sexy stewardesses?I work at Bru Apt and we(my collegues/even the female collegues/and I)are seeing everyday the crews of AA, UA and Delta and we call them the retired crews. We think there is no crew member younger than 50, and they have all Rubianic formats (look at the womans on the paintings of the Flemish painter Rubens)We tought that the younger ones would be flying inside the US and that flying oversee would be reserved for the crews with more years within the company.I was recently on a trip in the US and I took 8 flights and the crews where the same as I see at Bru Apt; old and Rubianc format.And than the ugly shoes; that they have on their feets; and that uniform.Within the crews of BA, AF,KL, LH, VS, TV, SN, LX and other European companies there is a mixt of young and older crews. Sometimes you are lucky and there is an entirly young crew on board of your flight.Also the uniforms of the those crews are modern and are beautifull tailored and the have classic shoes that are matching with the uniform.I think someone has the right to do a work what he oe she loves but if you are in contact with passengers you have to consider that you have to take care of yourself. One of my collegues is over the 50’s and she looks better than what I saw as crew on my 8 flights.I know a stewardess or steward is there for safety reasons and serving food and drinks is not they main reason why they are on board. Maybe everything will change.Aloha

  10. Anonymous says:

    Hello,Since the last comment on the item of stewardesses nobody has answerd on it.OR nobody read it or the item is not intresting.greetings

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