TCS Daily

Almost Free

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 30, 2003 12:00 AM

We've been cleaning up and throwing things away at my house, and it seems that every week for the past couple of months we've deposited a pile of trash roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle alongside the curb. I'd feel guilty about what it's doing to my garbageman's quality of life, except that when I look up and down the street I see that my neighbors are all doing the same thing.

I'm sure that conservation of mass laws aren't actually being violated, despite the appearance that I throw away more stuff than I buy. But it's certainly the case that my household -- no great paragons of mass consumption -- buys, and throws away, a lot of stuff. It's also the case that, as my neighbors' trash demonstrates, we're not alone.


And this leads to a number of thoughts. One is that the more stuff you have, the less new stuff you want. Buying gifts has gotten steadily harder for me because everyone already has everything that they want. Absent some obvious big "must have" item, of which there were none this Christmas shopping season, it's hard to tell what people might want that they don't already have. And even where items you don't already own are concerned, space is an issue: I don't have the counter space for any more kitchen gadgets.


My solution was to give a lot of gift certificates (including gift certificates for things like restaurant meals and spa visits, that aren't "stuff" at all) because the likelihood was that any material object that I bought would either be redundant or unwanted. Judging by news reports that this is a record year for gift-card sales, I'm not the only one who felt that way.


Another thought is that we have more stuff because it's cheap. I finally replaced an old TV this weekend. The one I replaced was 15 years old. It was a 20-inch Mitsubishi that I paid something like five hundred dollars for when I bought it, with my very first book royalty check. Over the years, it's given good service, moving gradually from the living room (where it was replaced by first a twenty-five incher, then a thirty-two incher) to the bedroom. I replaced it with a 27-inch Panasonic that cost me half what the Mitsubishi did, and that has a better picture. Just for fun -- er, I mean, as part of my extensive research for this column -- I looked to see what twenty-inch sets cost, and found one that looked pretty good -- certainly better in many ways than my old one -- on sale for $129. That's roughly a 75% deflation in 15 years, before allowing for quality improvements.


It hasn't been too long since a 27-inch color television was a rich man's toy. Now it's an inexpensive second (or third) TV for many households. And lots of things are the same way. Power tools, clothing, kitchen appliances (microwave ovens for under $100 are common nowadays), video cameras, and, of course, computers, are a lot cheaper. So is food.


Some sourpusses decry this phenomenon: If things are cheaper, they complain, people will just buy more things. And, worse yet, they'll be the things that people want to buy, not the things that sourpusses want them to have! (Anna Quindlen famously moaned that post-liberation Afghans were buying TVs and VCRs instead of, I guess, books by Anna Quindlen).


But the complainers are always with us. What I've been wondering is whether we're already seeing the early stages of an economic transformation, in which "stuff" -- because it's cheaper, and widely available -- is of less importance, both socially and economically. Mass production is already delivering some of what nanotechnology promises for the future, and we can see a dim echo of the future Age Of Abundance in today's Christmas trash heaps. Will low-cost goods be the antidote to, rather than the cause of, crass materialism?
Already, ownership of fancy goods is less a mark of social status than it used to be. Huge wide-screen TVs are, in my part of the world at least, associated as much with trailer parks as with wealth. ("You never see a double-wide without at least a 50-inch TV," a salesman told me. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but a common view). Fancy watches, now no more accurate than the cheap ones, are a mark of pretension, not status. And services -- scorned as unproductive in the day of Adam Smith -- are now moving up the ladder. Massage therapy and restaurant meals are comparatively high-margin growth businesses, while television sellers are fighting things out in a market where prices are plummeting. Plumbers and cleaning services, meanwhile, are doing well.


A glimpse of the future? I suspect so.



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