Fascinating new Rick Bookstaber musing about technology & the “consumption trap” in modern economies. The gist of his argument, contra Robert Reich, is that the marginal propensity to consume declines with income, which is problematic enough for redistribution advocates, but the problem gets worse when you consider that technology increasingly blurs the behavioral gap between the rich and the less well-off. We just wanna / We just wanna have Facebook fun. [-]
We are in the year 2025. Because of advances in production technology, much of the path from extracting the required renewable resources through to the production and distribution of most of the items we demand can be accomplished with automated methods overseen by a small cadre of engineers. …
The main items we demand, beyond food, clothing and shelter, are the nth generation game systems. Computer games have progressed to the point where they are approaching the level of Nozick’s experience machine. They allow us to be anyone we want in whatever world we want, accompanied by whomever we want, all with full sensory feedback. …
….The entertainment industry has disappeared; it is all free, operated with the same open-source ethos that spelled doom for most commercial software enterprises over the past decade. Which also means no more advertising. We pretty much know what we want to buy, and depend on those in our FriendWeb™ (version 4.6) to guide us.
If you look hour by hour at what anyone is doing, it is hard to differentiate the super rich from those a few rungs above subsistence level. Given our evolved interests, most of us are spending a fraction of our income on consumption. There just isn’t a lot that we demand. What we do demand is cheap, and doesn’t require much of any labor to produce.
… Sadly for those grounded in the middle class, this means more of these things are moving out of reach. But no matter. It all seems silly and abstract to most of us, like the amusing eccentricities of the English upper class a century or two before. Maybe that is because we are no longer taunted by magazine covers and ads (because there are no magazines or ads), maybe it is because the demise of the entertainment industry has also led to the demise of the iconic celebrity, or maybe it is just that we don’t really care what those outside our circle of gamers are doing.
We are a society that basically eats, sleeps, works and then veges out. Not surprising, I guess, given that the tip of the spear of the economy, such as it is, are those same kids who a decade or two earlier were living at home with their parents after college, after graduate school – well, some still are. Though many of us now have our own prefabricated SmallHouse® (McMansions are a thing of the past; no one needs all that space, and, like mink stoles post-Mad Men, social norms regard these as the extravagances of a bygone era). That plus a car, food (the former rarely used, and both produced very inexpensively), our two-hundred dollar experience machine games, and we are happy as a clam.
I don’t know exactly how this economy works, but I can tell you that it is not working well. What are all of Reich’s workers doing for jobs now? Where is the money coming from for even this minimally consumptive society? What levers can we pull to get ourselves out of this stagnant economy, to reduce unemployment? We are approaching our second lost decade, and nothing seems to work. Not that most people care.
There used to be a lot written about the liquidity trap, where monetary policy can no longer function as a spur to economic recovery. Now it is all about the consumption trap creating similar limits on the ability of fiscal measures to push up employment and production.