Oct 152008

In my previous post on the crisis, I claimed that we are suffering from too much savings and not enough consumption. The worldwide pool of money seeking growth investments is too large to be sensibly invested in any sort of production or service-providing corporation. The reason for that is that consumption is just too low, and is not likely to be able to rise to the levels needed to sustain such investment.

In other words, because it has been so wildly successful, the industrial economy — or industrial-market money system — has pretty much reached its limits. Think of an economy in this sense as the ways in which a social system or several are knitted together through the distribution or exchange of an entity — or class of entities — both scarce and desirable. In the industrial economy those entities, primarily, are standardized goods (or standardized services), along with the standardized work needed to make them — and of course, equally standardized money.

Standardization of the things exchanged is key for a money economy to survive. If goods were each unique, their prices would be all over the map, and would mean nothing. We have some idea of the worth in money of any new pickup truck relative to a quart of non-fat milk because each is standardized to a great degree. You won’t find a new pickup truck worth only $2 if that’s the price of two quarts of milk, neither will you find a standard pickup for sale for $1 million dollars, for instance. (Unique objects, such as paintings, do have prices that vary even more wildly than that. A whole economic system revolving around paintings would not have much use to make of standardized dollar bills.)

Without predominance of standardized goods in people’s work and consumption lives, money tends towards meaninglessness. Without money, no markets, such as we know them. No stock markets either. That is where we are headed, I believe.

OK, so how does success limit the future growth of the system based on standardized goods? We do know it’s successful in the following sense. Endless numbers and kinds of such goods and services are now available, and the glory of the system is that it gets more and more efficient at doing all that. In other words, productivity is growing, in fact, the increase even seem to be speeding up. As the world grows more connected, ever more efficient means spread ever faster. New management techniques, for instance, can radically reduce the need for workers and can be learned from one industry and applied to many others in only a few years. New forms of automation spread rapidly, as computer applications is one industry are adapted to others with minimal tweaking. (Likewise, it gets ever easier to move most standardized work to wherever workers are willing to work for the least pay.)

Productivity (or, more precisely, “labor productivity”) means simply how much or how many goods or services a worker can produce in a given amount of time. No reason that can’t keep growing forever. Here’s the catch, though: Why produce what cannot be consumed?

Let’s call “consumptivity” the amount of goods and services a person can consume in a given amount of time. (A few others use this word, but I define it a bit differently than some. For me, it indicates the ability to consume goods and services, regardless of whether or not one has the money to buy.) If consumptivity cannot rise forever, then rising productivity will either lead to a shortening work day, or to growing unemployment, to the point where the entire industrial economy employs hardly anyone. That would mean the whole basis of the money economy will eventually disappear, as I shall show in more detail a little further along.

That would not be relevant, of course, if consumptivity can possibly keep rising endlessly. But it can’t. In terms of attention, here is the dilemma: with more and more efficient production, standardized goods and services can be turned out with less and less attention per item. In general, however, consumption that takes less and less attention does not make sense. There may be exceptions for strange pursuits such as hotdog eating contests, where minimal attention goes to each hot dog consumed. But most of the time, a good or service is only of real value to us if we do pay some attention for some or all of the following reasons:to learn of the item in the first place; to seek it out; to obtain it; to learn how to use it; to figure out how to keep it or access it; (most importantly) to actually enjoy or use it; to maintain it; to clean up after it; to display it to others, and so on. If the attention you pay is too little, having the actual item is no better than having the cheapest possible imitation of it. Since the total attention you can pay in your life is limited, if you keep increasing consumption there will clearly come a point when you cannot sensibly consume any more. Even if you are fairly irrational in your consumption habits, you will still reach a limit.

Here’s one example of that kind of irrationality: What if you accumulate items that you only know you have, never laying eyes on them, because mere legal possession affords you satisfaction just in case you would ever want them? (Remember it is consumption not investment, that we are discussing. However, it turns out something similar is true for as well.) First of all, even knowing you have something requires some attention, and there would surely be no value in accumulating more and more things without ever even knowing it. Besides that, as efficiencies of production and distribution increase, the satisfaction of actually owning something you never see is no different from knowing you could quickly obtain it should you ever want it. Further, if you buy it just to have it , sight unseen, you can’t tell the difference between actually having it and being told you do. Within the industrial system, someone would devise a way to sell purely notional products were this degree of over-consumption to become commonplace. That would employ almost no one.

Or what about simply buying goods not to keep, but to give away to others? It won’t avail. To make your gift be other than nonsensical, the recipients would obviously have to pay attention to them in order to derive any satisfaction. So, again, net consumption for everyone would still be limited.

And so on…This argument can be carried out at any length. The point is that per capita consumption cannot even approximately sensibly grow forever, and that means that the industrial economy eventually has to become less important.

Meanwhile, the pursuit of attention for its own sake is on the rise. This includes artists, writers, movie makers, bloggers, text messagers, contributors to comments on others’ blogs, music, video or photo uploaders, listserv contributors, and so on. The number of such attention-getting attempts that do not require attention payers to pay any money keeps going up. That means , in part, direct competition for the attention that people otherwise could have spent consuming goods and services that are bought. This will bring us to the consumptivity limit even faster.

All right, perhaps I have convinced you that there will be a consumptivity limit someday. But today? Surely I can’t claim that everyone has all the goods they can consume now. Most people in the world in fact don’t have the wherewithal to buy even the minimum needed for a good life. A sizable minority don’t even have enough to eat. I will discuss inequality more in the next installment, but it should be clear that one reason a lot of people have too little is that growing productivity has made many producers — such as small farmers — economically un-viable, forcing them into greater poverty. That is precisely because consumption did not increase as fast as production, on average.

At the same time though, a substantial slice of the population of the better-off countries has already reached a limit at which their consumption of standardized goods is pretty much at a standstill, or only very slowly growing, despite the fact that they are exposed to ever more advertising. And in between there a vast mass of people who could consume somewhat more were their tastes to have a chance to develop and were the institutions that would allow them to consume more in place. However, by the time their desire to consume considerably more would match the capability of institutions — such as electrification, roads, sufficient housing, etc., —productivity would have risen enough so that they and all the others would still not be consuming all that could be produced. In other words, effectively unused capacity to produce keeps rising.

To take one example, consider the incredibly widely adopted cell phone. Over the past two decades the phones have become a standard and useful possession for a huge swath of people the world over. In that time, the phones have added more and more functions, replacing a variety of other gadgets in the process. More and more purveyors have begun offering them, in endless models. But as sales of some models rise, those of others fall, in such away that it is quite clear that far more could be sold should the demand arise. But throughout most parts of the world where cell facilities (such as the needed towers) exist, virtually everyone has one already, and usually a pretty recent model. A few people have multiple cell phones, but there is little point in having as many as ten say. Capacity to produce them could easily rise if demand were to grow, and the phones will probably get much cheaper, but the no matter how cheap, the market is pretty much saturated.

Of course, these phones, especially of the “smart” variety greatly increase opportunities to seek, obtain and pay attention , attention that competes, as I described above, from other consumption. Even very poor people, in this way, become more linked to the attention economy than to the money economy. Change to the new system happens ever faster.

An Aside on Resources
As an aside, let me point out that resource limits do not prevent the rise in productivity. Every kind of material resource, including energy, can be substituted for with easier to make alternatives, once that particular resources becomes problematically scarce. Overall increases in productivity, if anything, speed the process of resource substitution.

We are left with not enough prospects for industrial growth to absorb world savings. Of course, if typical workers could be paid more, so that spending would be closer to the limits of consumptivity, the world would be in more balance longer. But for reasons I will discuss in the next installment, that state of affairs seems less and less achievable. And anyway, it would only slow the inevitable.

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