The Enlightened Economist
I’ve been reading Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the 15th century to the 21st, which has taken a while as it’s 600+ pages. It traces global trends in consumption through the long sweep of history. It addresses the entire chain of production and consumption from resources to waste. The book sets up a tension through all of this material: “The view that being and having are opposites has a very long history. But so has an alternative trajectory that sees people as only becoming human through the use of things.” Among other forces, technology keeps this tension alive over time, as new things keep on appearing. Consumption clearly depended on rising incomes, and the book traces a switch to “The creation of value through consumption, not just production” from the 19th century – it argues that consumer society has its roots in the Industrial Revolution rather than as is often argued the post-war boom. Middle class women were decreasingly likely to have servants and did more of their own housework. John Kenneth Galbraith said consumer durables enslaved women; but even if – as he argued – easier washing meant more washing to have cleaner clothes, why is this not a better outcome? The modern no-growther’s disdain for consumption seems to me to be of a piece with the instinct in the past that gave us sumptuary laws. ” Of course we need to pay far greater attention to resource use and to waste, but it is the affluent who are cavalier about the importance of growing real incomes and consumption – Janan Ganesh in his column today describes them as ‘too-rich-to-care bohemians’. I would have liked more economics, and more figures. The biggest issue I have is that the book never addresses the distinction between material and non-material consumption. It puts really a great deal of emphasis on the physical nature of consumer goods – and then skips to a discussion of some non-material aspect of consumption such as public health measures or public education, or leisure activities like the cinema. The issue of increased expenditure on services and intangibles is dismissed in just over two separate pages, by saying that spending on housing, transport and food combined accounts for the same proportion of the household budget in 2007 as in 1958; and that in the OECD as a whole material consumption rhas continued to rise. The immaterial is embedded in the material, and there is absolutely no reason to be complacent about the environmental footpring of the global economy; but it is surely a significant development in the history of consumption that value is being created largely by the non-material now? Still, it’s probably a good sign when a huge book leaves you more inclined to ask for more rather than wishing there had been less, and the balance tips that way for me despite it being in need of a blue pencil in parts.
Real-World Economics Review Blog
Clearly, the enlightened capitalist press wasn’t particularly keen on showcasing the power basis of accumulation. Small businesses are being looted and taken over by the government while shortages increase and inflation soars at over 60%. Are capitalists profiting from this crisis? No just corrupt politicians and businessmen that collude with state run enterprises all of whom would never survive in a capitalist economy. The leading capitalists and their investment organs are taking over larger and larger chunks of our natural resources, human-made artefacts and collective knowledge; they formulate and steer public policy to their own advantage; and they dominate ideology, education and the mass media. Second, the very power logic of accumulation – the need to strategically sabotage others in order to increase one’s own share of the total – forces capitalists to continue and dig their own graves, so to speak. Now, of course, most capitalists, particularly the smaller ones, are unaware of and certainly won’t admit these power underpinnings of capitalism. For politically correct capitalists with substantial money to invest, Mr. X’s fund offers a carefully hedged, two-pronged strategy: buying and holding do-good companies that profit from saving the planet while shorting firms that harm the environment and governments that misallocate the world’s resources. Now, once upon a time there existed a real, undistorted capitalist system as outlined above. So who are the real capitalists? If you haven’t guessed it by now, real capitalists are those who never accumulate. To be a real capitalist, you have to either lose money or break even with enough income to survive. Many real capitalists are perfectly happy with a steady state. To see real capitalists in action, you need go to their ‘impact investing’ gatherings, where they deliberate saving the world, capitalist style. The mandate of the ‘ethical fund manager’ is simple: leverage the world’s distortions and imperfections by selling short and buying long future variations of inequality, the ups and downs of expected hunger, anticipated ecological degradation and regeneration and other assorted disasters and triumphs – and do it all in such a way that we, your capitalist clients, end up beating the holy average. The problem is that, according to the enlightened capitalist, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, but in one of the worst. So in the end, the only way to beat the big unreal capitalists of the distorted world is to joint them. Why not? Because such a revelation, says the ecological capitalist, would allow corrupt politicians and their crony big businessmen to discredit the no-growth capitalists, thus killing the very chance of ever achieving the homeostatic bliss…. References.