The "something for nothing" society

While visiting Germany in the summer, I was struck by the prevalence of adverts saying something on the lines of "Sie sparen können". I've never seen a society so obsessed with saving, not in the sense of putting money away (though they do that too) but in the sense of reducing costs. Never mind the quality, look  at the price. "You can save". Always.

Penny-pinching is by no means limited to German households. Ever since we collectively decided, on September 16th 2008, that the money had run out, we have all - households and businesses - been scrimping and saving like mad, reluctant to spend money in case we too run out. We look for bargains, delay purchases until end-of-season sales, and avoid paying for things unless we absolutely have to. We have become a "something for nothing" society.

At an individual level, this seems sensible. Most people have limited incomes, and wages have stagnated for a long time now. Businesses, too, have felt the pinch: sales have fallen, and they have been forced to reduce prices and cut costs to the bone. Money is scarce, so we must use it carefully. Thrift and prudence are the way to prosperity. Generosity is a luxury we can't afford.

But this is the madness of crowds. When everyone is cutting costs, hunting for bargains and trying to get something for nothing, no-one can make any money. And this bears down on incomes. If businesses are forced to cut prices, they won't increase wages and they may lay off staff or cut working hours. When the employed find their incomes squeezed, they stop using the services of small businesses and the self-employed. When small businesses and the self-employed can't find work, their incomes crash and many go out of business. Miserliness doesn't lead to prosperity, and deflation is not benign. It causes depression and poverty, particularly among those who lead precarious lives.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in today's internet-based small businesses. People have come to expect expect things they find on the internet to be free, or nearly so: music, writing, statistics, apps.... It has never been so easy to create and publish original material, and never so difficult to earn an income from doing so.

Journalists worry that their industry is dying, because of competition from millions of free blogposts and the growing tendency of internet surfers to dip into lots of publications rather than concentrating on a few. The days of being able to rely on subscriptions from devoted readers are over: if you put your publication behind a paywall, you lose readers. Most online journals have learned to allow access to at least some articles free. The biggest exception to this is the academic publishing world, which still manages to keep most of its publications gated. But there are moves to undermine this, as academics themselves publish ungated working papers and new sites spring up that help them to do so.

There is a real dilemma here. Information is a social good. Arguably, it should be free. After all, what is the point of academic research if the only people who can read it are those who can get past an academic paywall, which generally speaking means other academics? What is the point of data that is difficult and expensive to obtain? What is the point of articles that are only read by a few people? But if information is completely free, the labour of those who produce that information goes unrewarded. Intellectual property becomes worthless.

This has, of course, long been a problem in the entertainment world. People love to be entertained, but they really don't want to pay for it. They don't see entertaining people as "work". After all, performers love to perform, don't they? Why should we pay them for doing something that they love?

This creates a real dilemma for performers. Most do, indeed, love performing. If they refuse to perform unless they are paid, therefore, they risk not doing what they love. They also risk not eating. Whether a performer gets paid well for their work depends on two things: whether they are bloody-minded enough to refuse to perform if the pay isn't good enough, and whether they have another source of income that pays the bills, so they don't have to take badly-paid jobs. Performers who are either too devoted to their art or too poor to survive without it don't earn money.

Journalism and the performing arts are, of course, service industries. We still seem wedded to the idea that proper work is "making stuff", and working in a service industry isn't proper work so doesn't deserve proper pay. But as "making stuff" increasingly becomes the province of robots, service industries are the future of employment. And at present, we haven't got our heads round the idea that people in service industries should be well paid. It's not just in the entertainment world that making a decent income is next to impossible. The worst paid workers in society are those in the care sector and the hospitality sector. We really don't want to pay people to look after our children, our elderly parents and our sick and disabled relatives. Nor do we want to pay people to clean our houses and offices and serve us meals. Apparently we can't afford it.

But pushing down prices in service sectors has unfortunate consequences, not just for those working in that sector but for society as a whole. If everyone expects to pay rock-bottom prices, or preferably nothing at all, price is no longer an indicator of quality and Gresham's Law prevails. Why put in the time and effort to produce good writing or deliver good care? You won't be paid for it. There is no point in being more than perfunctory. If you love your work, and feel that you can make a difference by doing a good job, you will simply be exploited. Might as well sell lemons.

The tendency for poor work to drive out good when prices are very low degrades service industries. We decry the declining quality of online articles and long for something better written and researched, not seeing that this is the inevitable consequence of avoiding paying for good writing (I confess, I avoid paywalls too). This is bad enough. But in the care sector, reluctance to pay for quality is disastrous. When good quality care is driven out by bad, the result is abused children, neglected elders and suffering among the sick and disabled. And when benefits are cut because well-off people with good jobs object to those less fortunate than themselves apparently getting something for nothing, suffering is amplified. Miserliness creates misery.

Scrimping and saving in the private sector can be offset by generosity in the public sector. When people and businesses won't spend, government must. But we have now convinced ourselves that government has run out of money too, and so must scrimp and save like us. When government becomes as miserly as the private sector, the only source of income becomes external trade. This can work well if other countries are enjoying the good life, as Germany discovered in the mid-2000s. But when the whole world decides that there is no money left and everyone - government, business, households - must scrimp and save, the result is global misery.

When every country in the world is pursuing an export-led growth strategy, export-led growth becomes impossible. We simply end up with competitive monetary easing as countries try to steal demand from each other, falling global trade and declining global growth. That is where we are now. Historically, such a position has been followed by growing use of tariffs and barriers to trade and restrictions on the movement of goods and people. And since everyone likes to find someone else to blame for their own problems - and governments are particularly keen on this - global miserliness tends to lead to social and political unrest, cross-border skirmishes, local conflicts and outright war.

We desperately need a change of attitude. And I think that attitude change must come from the micro, not the macro, level. From individuals changing their behaviour. We need to stop scrimping and saving and learn to enjoy the good life again.

So if you are in the habit of bargain hunting and trying to get something for nothing, think again - especially if you are fortunate enough to be in a secure well-paid job. Look for quality, not price. Expect to pay for quality goods and services. And be generous. It is generosity, not miserliness, that creates prosperity.

Related reading:

IMF World Economic Outlook - IMF

Image (unsurprisingly) from Since they are advising people on how to get something for nothing, I didn't pay for my use of the image. I'm sure they won't mind, will they?


  1. Commentators discussing deflation overlook the fact that certain high profile industries have operated in a deflationary mode for decades with great success. I refer to sectors of high technology such as semiconductor, and products where semiconductor is a high proportion of the bill of materials.

    Consumers expect new features, higher performance with each new generation, at fixed or lower price.

    Two models survive. Highly differentiated products that command high margin, and high volume commodity. Marketeers are forever trying to find the hybrid high volume high margin and sometimes succeed, eg iPhone.

    The underlying characteristic I see is an intense drive to innovate with each new generation. Either innovativation performance and design, or innovative production methods.

    I suggest those in industries facing a deflationary future look closely at semiconductor and ask whether their industry had innovated as much over the last 20 or 30 years. Unlikely.

    1. John i think you have missed the point completely,innovation may mask over/undervalution just has investment can ie money chasing better returns,but over/undervaluation fundamentals will always come back to haunt those that ignore then,only by paying a fair price for everything can everything survive & that includes money let alone prosper! because workers are the buying market & the difference between any price & it's true value to society is the damage it does to economies,whether to high or to low!

  2. "Our purpose is to show that .... an undue exercise of the habit of saving is possible, and that such undue exercise impoverishes the Community, thorows labourers out of work, drives down wages, and spreads gloom and prostration through the commercial world which is known as Depression in Trade...." Mr. Hboson quoted by J.M. Keynes in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Looking at profit margins at all times high, the notice of 'no-one can make any money' strikes me as very odd.

  5. Related to the above, are profit margins across the board actually at an all times high ? (I suspect this may only be the case once one strips out the retail sector).

    .. and actually, if they are, isn't one of the issues that capital itself has 'saved' that margin for itself rather than handing it out in higher workers wages - which again makes sense for the individual but not in aggregate.

  6. "The days of being able to rely on subscriptions from devoted readers are over: if you put your publication behind a paywall, you lose readers."

    See what is happening to the venerable Daily Telegraph. Like it or not, you always had to respect it. No more. The paper is circling the drain in order to get clicks. The Financial Times are successful at selling their journalism, but only because of the captive audience from financial service companies. Without that they couldn't sell subscriptions costing hundreds of pounds each year.

  7. Ex article as ever, Frances.

    If I may be allowed a qualification, I think you may be conflating two phenomena, though. Though there is clearly a relation between two models.

    One is "supermarket bargains". These are rarely free lunches. More a case of "X% off [whatever a notional RRP, or a competitor's price at last week's/most recent comparison, or similar, may be pitched at]", BOGOF, or else "Buy 5, get a sixth half-price", or [massive print now:>] £1 [tiny print:>] off normal price [hence, say, only £5.99 instead of £6.99], or: "ONLY £blah-blah!!!" [with our voucher, redemption code, etc.]. Or the dreaded "Special Purchase" (of trash specially imported that has no original mark-down requirement, and so ill-fitting, garish, lacking durability or whatever that no idiot would have bought it at a higher price, .... and only an idiot would buy at this price...].

    Sometimes therefore there is little-to-no actual reduction to speak of, but a brandished appearance of a bargain that skirts as close to sharp practice as the law possibly permits. (Illegal sharp practice is of course not v reliably productive of profit, though there are always those who take that risk.)

    "Sie können [soundsoviel] sparen " may be what we like to think of as the "good old-fashioned" traditional "percentage reduction", but in Germany as in Britain, watch out for the provisos and catches, some of which I have just enumerated. It's usually all about optimising firm and label names, maximising clientele, (at the construction stage especially) turnover and (sooner or later) top profit.

    Germany has in fact ALWAYS been very save-money-conscious, since 1949 if not before. The careful squirrel may be among the first to fall for bargain nuts - it reassures the thrifty saver that all prudence measures are being rigorously observed. Poor crickets are often less bothered than richer ants when it comes to putting wise purchases in baskets & trolleys, as well as putting away money in banks. (Apologies to M LaFontaine.) Until the point where needs must take the cheapest, or cheapest-looking ...

    Another issue, I think, is free labour, free services. Which is I think the true subject of your article, and complaint. Formulated with feeling.

    The creation of a climate, lucky for some, where free is expected. The driving down of reward, the race to the bottom of quality in too many cases.

    This may have some similar features to the supermarket model - "Massive African elephant FREE (if you subscribe)" - but in many ways is different, I think. It's the mindset of illegal music downloads. "Why should I pay (and also go through the extended rigmarole and security risks of registering my most intimate details online) when i can get it absolutely complimentary, gratis and for sweet fanny adams????"

    Well, even before we come to considerations of fairness, valuing of (esp good) work and appropriate reward for labour, in many cases you do actually get what you pay for ... nothing (or at least unsatisfactory to execrable) comes of nothing.

    1. Yes, I agree, there are two different phenomena here. One is the thrift mentality that drives people to look for bargains and think they are getting good value for money when prices are low, when actually they have sacrificed quality. The second is I shrink a secular trend in service industries to drive down prices to zero on the grounds that people "shouldn't have to pay for them". This is both more insidious and more malign, I think, since service industries are the future or work. People have somehow to accept that service - in all its forms - is something that they SHOULD "have to pay for". Otherwise what they will get is rubbish service and a poorer economy.

    2. *think* not *shrink*, obviously....damn Apple predictive text

  8. finance your customers, seems to work for the big boys

  9. A functioning economy should allow anyone to work/consume as much or as little as they want as long as work and consumption are lifetime balanced. Is it wise to frame either saving or spending as morality questions?

    Between readers and writers, what is the transaction? Are readers buying entertainment or education, etc or are writers buying status, self esteem, etc through the attention of others? Depending on the balance of these forces, could it be that writers should sometimes "pay" readers? (and same for all mass reproducible art forms.)

    As for "not every can be an exporter", is it bad that everyone tries? Even if structurally half won't succeed due to the net zero sum, could it be that everybody becomes more productive (prosperous) in the process than they'd be if they didn't try? Also, is it not, within reason, possible for humanity to net export to the future, by building (and hoarding) things that future generations or our future selves will use?

    1. I can't agree that intellectual property should be at zero or even negative price. Once you start saying that producers should not be paid for production - even if that production is words or music - you have fundamentally undermined capitalism. There is absolutely nothing in capitalism that says people should not be paid for doing things that give them self-esteem or status. On the contrary, in most industries self-esteem and status go hand in hand with higher earnings - indeed we could say that high earnings are a measure of status. Why should writing or music be different?

      I have no problem with everyone trying to export, except when they do so by
      deliberate repression of domestic demand and imports. Globally, when everyone cuts back on imports, exports fall.

      "Net export to the future" is an interesting way of describing saving and investment. Do we really need yet another term for these, though? And if the price of our hoarding is that one in four young people is out of work, have we really invested for the future at all?

    2. & that's the flaw with capitalism,i if you have to pay for every comment you wish to hear you would still have to budget for what you hear & almost certainly miss out on what you need to hear ii Money dictates what they feel should be heard to maintain the status quo,whilst crowding out what needs to be heard to but right the wrongs iii only collectives/Institutions can offer alternative ideas & solutions even if held in secret like the science world did in the middle ages,otherwise the flat earth teachings just becomes flat earth economics teachings!

    3. I'm not saying producers "should not" (or "should") be paid. A market economy is just a set of rules to regulate production so that demand = supply, not a moral system. When market outcomes disagree with moral requirements you need outside intervention.

      What I'm trying to understand here is what happens to art production when the art market operates under market rules.

      In that context, I think "self esteem" and "status" are best understood as a negative cost of production. For any given job, we could say the cost to the producer is:

      cost of work = time + pain - pleasure

      For net pleasurable activities, the "revenue" (in utility terms) from pleasure can overwhelm the "expense" of time, hence production cost that can be zero or negative (the producer deriving net utility from mere production). That can apply to any activity, it's just a bit more obviously so in art, or software (that's the way volunteer open source projects works: programming can be more fun than it costs in time).

      The issue is compounded that when someone consumes an art product, they themselves become producer of extra status/self-esteem for the artist to consume, getting extra "revenue" that way, which makes the cost even lower. The status transaction is normally implicit, because status trades are not amenable to explicit pricing and unbundling, but it does not mean it doesn't matter, because if people get lot of non-cash utility doing something, they'll do more of it, so it will become more abundant, until sometimes the cash element goes to zero.

      I don't think there's anything wrong as such with some human exchange not involving cash (accounting can be tedious!). Technological improvements making it easier to reproduce art and for art consumers to deliver status back simply extend the scope of non-cash activities.

    4. My point was rather about expectations. If the expectation from consumers is that producers of art, software, whatever, are producing for pleasure and therefore don't need to be paid, it is immensely difficult for those who DO need to be paid for it to make a living. Volunteering assumes an alternative source of income. Improvements in status and self-esteem don't buy food or pay essential bills. That is what consumers who object to paying for art, software, whatever, forget.

      There is nothing new about this, of course.

  10. While visiting Germany in the summer, I was struck by the prevalence of adverts saying something on the lines of "Sie sparen können". I've never seen a society so obsessed with saving, not in the sense of putting money away (though they do that too) but in the sense of reducing costs. Never mind the quality, look at the price. "You can save". Always.

    This is a truly strange statement, hard to interpret as saying anything much beyond, "I don't much like Germany" (and have trouble with the grammar).

    Interesting argument about service industries, otherwise.

    1. What a remarkably silly statement. If I didn't like Germany much, why would I go there on holiday?

    2. How can an economist who expresses bemusement at the (quaint) extent of a society's apparent obsession with saving at any level fairly be interpreted as being hostile to that country?

  11. European governments are engaged in wholesale industrial sabotage.
    They are effectively destroying the autumn harvest of the industrial surplus by not allowing distribution .
    Saving is the only option for survival given the extreme monopoly of credit.

    Its a top down economic consequence albeit with grave sociological consequences.

  12. Refer to page 94 (special feature) of the Sep 2015 UK energy trends publication.
    Trade in wood pellets.
    Anybody with a basic grasp of thermodynamics will quite rationally save in the interests of continued survival.

    The UK has seen a 15 fold increase in its wood pellet imports.
    In the final graph you can observe it has carried the entire renewable sectors carbon thingy industrial sabotage requirement.
    Despite this a major drop of surplus energy production was witnessed in 2014 ( a basic and predictable thermodynamic outcome )
    79% of wood pellets come from North America.......can you imagine how little surplus energy is available for consumption after harvesting , conversion to wood pellets , multiple transportation interchanges and the sheer distance of travel........
    Many multiples of even UK deep mining.
    Not to mention the horrendous environmental damage associated with strip mining of a low quality fuel to be lost mainly in electricity transformation loss.....

    I should think these guys are giving us no other option to save.

  13. As always capitalism is at war with peasant like redundancy although very little remains to be extracted.

    Dorks definition of current rationing / scarcity policy and it is indeed war rationing is the simple transfer of surplus energy to the consumer war economy.

    We can see this very very clearly in the Ireland of

    The war has stepped up in tempo hereabouts.

    The total banning of bituminous coal use in rural areas (no local pollution excuse can be used now )
    The cessation of peat briquette production /consumption.
    On the same day that Bord Na Monas decided to tilt at Windmills a American biomass plant plant was announced for Cork.
    The agenda is very clear.
    To trap serfs inside these monopolies now ever larger cages.

  14. Why are European governments not only resisting but destroying local and national redundancy ............

    Typically using green memes to hammer into our now almost totally destroyed local economies.
    This green fascism is quite astounding.
    Any green energy economist that is not paid off will tell you that biomass is only effective when it is burned directly (for heat and cooking) in a local peasant economy.

    Using biomass or for that matter peat in a national electricity burn wastes most of its energy during transformation.
    Although at least in Ireland's peat burning power era harvesting and burn occured in the general area of the station.
    The idea is obviously to create real physical scarcity.

    These people are not fools.
    They simply have a different agenda .
    the dynamics of finance capitalism has now totally divorced itself from the production /distribution and consumption chain.

  15. The Industrial surplus should be free it it is not
    Instead of people free to choose where they wish to spend their money ( let's say the local shop or pub) they are forced to engage with discount stores.
    This indeed creates its own pathology.

    Net national income is small in euro countries.
    In Ireland for example (2013) 23 + billion is lost to depreciation while 19 billion + is subtracted via net tax reductions , this is the rent paid to the money monopolists .

  16. 2013

    Irish GDP : 174+ billion
    Net national product : 107+ billion..

    The money is not available to spend.
    We have a purchasing power crisis after all.
    A direct consequence of the money monopolists policy decisions.

    German discount stores follow in the wake of this ship of financial capitalism state.

  17. wealth comes from work [capital+productivity] and savings [capital]. period. we need to thing about better system than this which is based on consumption rather than figuring out how to force people to spend more - which is pure madness.

  18. In our western societies, people save far too less. Germany is with 12% household savings rate maybe best. Americans save 4%. Chinese are best with 35%.
    The Guardian says that we will soon live up to 120 years.
    If assume that our children live 95 years on average, we will have as many years of work as non-work.
    Around 30 years we are obliged to live on the income of our investments.
    Hence we need both:
    1. Higher savings rates
    2. Higher interest rates by central banks
    In this post Keith Weiner makes clear that central bankers throw the pensioners under the bus.

  19. I have rarely read a more nonsensical post than this one by Frances Coppola.

    1. By - surprise, surprise - "Anonymous".

      But a beautifully structured and wholly cogent counterargument, it must be said.

  20. I can reassure you, Frances:

    Germans also have a saying: "was nix kostet, ist auch nix" - if it costs nothing then it is nothing (worthless).

    As for saving on prices, you will find just as much in France or Spain

  21. Frances,

    Stick to singing.

    1. Ah! Another - surprise, surprise - "Anonymous" witherer.

      But another beautifully formulated and unanswerably cogent counterargument, it must be said.

    2. Peter,

      If you don't get it you're beyond help.

      As for Frances' post, the less said the better.

  22. Your point "why pay people to do what they love?" is worthy of its own post, touching on many intersecting problems we are starting to encounter in late capitalism.

    Most millennials (myself included) were inculcated with the idea that the only path to a fulfilling life is to find what you love to do and make that your occupation - "do what you love and never work a day in your life."

    This line of thinking paradoxically discounts the value of both "loved" and "unloved" work. It reduces the social capital of the dignity of all work, rendering unglamorous but useful occupations socially inferior (and therefore less valuable), and reinforcing the privilege of the professional and creative classes. At the same time, those privileged professional and creative classes are rewarded in other, non-monetary ways (glamour, prestige, intellectual fulfillment, "experience"), all money substitutes in the Reputation and Internship Economies in which only the already-wealthy can afford to "do what you love."

    Another related point is the increasing conflation of mid-skilled professions and entry-level jobs. Whereas, say, an administrative assistant/secretary used to be a fairly well-compensated profession unto itself, in the 70s and 80s it became a stepping stone to a promotion (part of a well-meaning program to elevate working women to higher-level jobs). Soon it became the norm for every well-educated young person to start their career as a personal assistant, then to start as a receptionist, each with a decline in pay and benefits. Now in many offices receptionist and PA aren't even paying jobs any more, and interns fulfill these functions in exchange for "experience."

    As you posited in your post on the sharing economy, we have increasingly monetized our existing assets (cars, flats). Interesting that at the same we are increasingly removing money from the employment/labor equation. Perhaps as asset values rise, the value of labor correspondingly falls.

  23. What everyone inc Frances refuses to face is that millions and millions of elderly have had no option but to very severely cut back on every penny they spend solely thanks to the devastating effect of Funding for Lending has had on savings interest rates because their only other income is miserly state pension
    Far too many people especially Bank of England refuse to face the fact that £360 billion has been directly stolen/robbed/ filched from the incomes of savers

    This is money that would have been spent in the economy instead its gone to propping up feckless borrowers and the pockets of the rich
    It no longer helps the young ,or helps businesses and the anger and resentment is felt right across a huge sector of society

    Whats worse in all of this is Mark Carney has repeatedly insulted savers and the MPC are relying on totally and utterly false so called NMG surveys
    It does not take a genius to very easily see that these surveys are a total farce , look deeper at how participants are chosen , age bands structured and % not declared ,no information on what source participants incomes are derived from coupled with the surveys are all internet based which thereby excludes majority of people so badly hit by loss of savings income and its easy to see just how false everything B of E do or say is

    Until a cataclysmic shake up occurs and G.O faces reality this country will continue to fail and the lack of jobs and futures for the young will continue.

    One can but hope they riot as did the young in France and Cameron and Co face the realities of the totally stupid actions of the last years because none of the austerity ,cutbacks or deprivations forced on decent law abiding and prudent citizens has benefitted anyone but a rich clique of the "money masters "


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