Friday, 29 November 2013

The desert of plenty

My latest post at Pieria is my belated contribution to the secular stagnation debate. I think it's caused by the growing trend to abundance. But do we really want abundance?
Throughout history, humans have dreamed of plenty. They have longed for there to be abundant supplies not only of essentials, but of luxuries. The promise made to the Israelites wandering in the desert was that they would eventually come to a land “flowing with milk and honey”. And the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation is of riches beyond imagination.
Recent forecasts of forthcoming abundance, too, have focused on the benefits. Imagine a world in which everything was so plentiful that not only the essentials of life but the luxuries, too, were free. There would be no need for money, because nothing could be bought or sold; and there would be no need to work, because there would be no need for income. And if everyone believed that such “superabundance” would last forever, then there would be no need to worry about the future – no need to save or prepare in any way. There would be no point in deferring consumption in expectation of future returns: in a superabundant world, there could be no greater returns in the future. Consumption would be the only virtue. It’s a hedonist’s idea of heaven.
But these “benefits” have a dark side.....
Read on here.

14 comments:

  1. "We can create all we need". Humanity has never been able to and alas never will. We want too much and we are too careless how we get it. Down the millennia fuses have blown more than once on the wealthier groups. My guess is that they have started to blow again. One intriguing reason is that I see that small food suppliers around the world are going into rapid decline.

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    1. I think it is worth distinguishing between wants and needs. We absolutely can create all we need. But we may not be able to create all we want.

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    2. How do we define what we 'need' as opposed to 'want'. Is it that as more of our needs are met, our wants transfer to the need column and is this enough to

      Two items I see as never being abundant are time and new ideas. Are these problems of scarcity that can never be solved?

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  2. I have to say this seems to be a very top-20%-of-the-UK-centric piece. Superabundance might be here for the rich, but is it really here for the bottom 20% in the UK, or 99% of the Third World - i.e. the majority of world population the last time I looked? And these are "pockets of scarcity"?

    gastro george

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    1. Inequality is a way of creating artificial scarcity. Arguably it is the main one. The rich do everything they possibly can to preserve the value of their assets, and they drain everyone else to do so. That's why "within" inequality (inequality within countries) is growing even though "between" inequality is diminishing.

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  3. "And it is scarcity that creates the desire to innovate. In a superabundant world, why would anyone bother to innovate?" This is an opportunistic view of innovation - i.e. you see a gap in the market and try to fill it, and are rewarded by money as the exchange value of scarcity.

    While it is difficult to pin down the many and varied drivers of innovation, there is little evidence that a desire to target and exploit scarcities plays a significant role, though this may come into play at a later stage (i.e. how do we monetise that new mousetrap?). Innate curiosity seems to be a far more significant motivation, and there is no reason to believe that this will decline in the "desert of plenty". In fact, an era of abundance is also an era of increased "free time", which suggests that the quantum of innovative activity might increase.

    It's also worth bearing in mind that the market necessarily acts as a filter, so we tend to be over-aware of innovation that addresses scarcity, because that is what the market rewards. A lot of intellectual capital is expended on "daft" ideas that have no market value. That doesn't make them less innovative, just less monetisable.

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    1. Good point.

      I am deliberately taking a negative view in this post as a counter to some of the posts around at the moment that tend to present abundance as entirely positive. Someone reminded me about the Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, who had everything provided for them so had no incentive to do anything. They were a declining race. I do think there is a risk that once there is no need to create in order to survive, creativity could decline. But I am also hopeful that humans will continue find something to interest them even if they don't need it to survive. On balance I lean to the latter position despite the negative stance in this post.

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  4. As the price began to fall then producers would go out of buisiness as the price fell, thus reducing production and the price would probably settle at just over the cost of production.

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    1. - and that would apply to each element in the production chain

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  5. This is an issue that needs airing.
    We seem to have abundance both of capital and productive labour; if so, we are (on aggregate) rich, but appear to have no clue as to how to manage that.
    This 'problem' must get progressively worse, so timely connected thought is indicated.

    Peter Shaw

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  6. I think the distinction between wants and needs is not clear. Maslow's hierarchy of 'needs' includes things like self esteem, achievement and respect of others. As society grows richer and living standard improve, our aspirations increase. I doubt capitalism will die, more likely it will morph.
    Also some commodities are truly scarce. Land/housing for one is in very short supply (in the UK). Will we ever have the abundance of a spacious house and a garden for all, two things I certainly want/ feel I need?

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    1. Hi Matt,

      Don't be fooled. There is no real scarcity of either housing or land. They are scarce in the UK because we deliberately make them so in order to prop up their value. In other words, they are "waterholes". Only about 8% of the UK is actually built upon.

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