Monday, August 22, 2011

Coffee tables and the economy

The problem we have as a society is not how to produce more stuff.

Of course we personally like stuff. G and I went out and bought a beautiful new coffee table over the weekend. It will replace a wobbly old IKEA table we bought ten years ago and only kept because we didn't see anything else we liked. The old IKEA one was just the right size to balance wine glasses and food and candles and too many books. The new one will be almost the same size, but elegant - and not in danger of collapse. We did our little bit for the consumer durables numbers.

In general, thouggh, our personal problem is we have too MUCH stuff, especially for a small New York apartment. If we want something new, usually something old has to go. (Bye bye, prefabricated Swedish table!)

Somehow, we can't apply that to books, which multiply on the shelves like rabbits. We just hope Kindle books wil save us by being pleasingly immaterial and giving the shelves a break.

Everyone seems to buy up to the point there isn't enough closet space, the kitchen drawers are filled to overflowing with tools, the garage is filled with junk if you have one, and there's no more space for furniture. No matter how large a house you have, people seem to fill it. People go into debt almost without realizing it to buy clothes and shoes and gadgets and kncik-knacks they don't even have space for.

Maybe what we need as a scoiety is not to generate new goods and services, but new ends.... new purposes.

But this is not purpose as moral crusade either. By that I mean something which tries to change norms of social acceptability alone, and stigmatizes anyone whom does not get with the program. Or a big cause for which everything and everyone must be sacrificed, or some general abstraction like equality or liberty. That sort of political movement has proven very dangerous, and leads from everything from civil society sanctimoniousness up to Maoism. New semi-utopian social movements are just as likely to produce famine and tyranny as progress.

We also need to think more about where new purposes and new needs come from. This is the heart of the issue of economic change - and also the faith that many economists have that somehow new markets and demand will open up as old ones are filled.

The assumption is entrepreneurs will somehow find those new needs and markets. But traditional mainstream economics does not know very much about entrepreneurs, even if they play a major role in Schumpeter's view of the economy.

It all means I need to look at entrepreneurship and how anythingnew gets started as well. How do we discover and satisfy new needs, especially when the future is so unpredictable and uncertain?

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