Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The fundamental assumption of scarcity

"Scarcity is the most basic concept in all of economics. Scarcity means that we do not ever have enough of everything, including time, to satisfy our every desire. Scarcity exists because human wants always exceed what can be produced with the limited resources and time that nature makes available" -Economics Today; The Macro View. Roger Leroy Miller

There it is. The most basic concept in all of economics. I still can't get over this. I've essentially put aside econ for the summer to focus more on the study of religion and myth, but every once and a while this little kernel comes popping into my head and sets off a whole chain of thoughts, mostly ending with 'These people are staggering in their imbecility'. But I'll to try to be civil today.

Embedded in this concept of scarcity is the idea that A) desires are mostly material, and B) they are satisfied by the acquisition of more material things. The response to A, no doubt, from economists would be that their field is the study of the distributive systems of material goods and services, and therefore any other type of desire is not within their purview. As a staunch interdisciplinarian, I say that's dangerously narrow-minded, but we'll let that one go for the moment.

The second point makes the problem of A more acute because the truth is that the desires of human beings have more to do, once a certain level of basic necessity is reached, with companionship, meaning, and happiness, for example, than with more stuff. And when those non-material needs are not being met, this is when, generally, people try to fill those holes with the compulsive consumption of material goods, if possible (and often in America by accruing debt).

This is really what consumer capitalism is all about. Advertising agencies sell this perfect ideal of what you and your life should be like that's all super-fit, super-good-looking people, usually laughing and always having the 'time of their lives', and by extension so can you, if you buy the product on offer. And when that product fails to magically produce this perfect life, then you're life feels a little shabby, and you feel depressed, and you now need that dopamine uplift that you get when you buy stuff. Okay, so this is a generalized you that doesn't really exist, and the problem isn't anywhere near this neatly expressible, but this is one of the tricks of the advertising/consumption interaction. Around about the early 1900's advertising stopped being about informing the consumer about the product, and more about persuading that consumer that they needed a product that they had formerly got along fine without. And it's been a downhill runaway snowball to today's consumer capitalist craziness.

And that's really the thing. This idea of scarcity is not a fundamental idea to economics. It's fundamental to this one particular economic system, consumer capitalism. This one system that by it's design (although not necessarily intentionally or consciously so on anyone's part [though not necessarily not so either]) maintains the notion of scarcity and deprivation in a world of plenty, if not plenty well distributed. Even when you have plenty you can be made to feel deprived by the level of consumption appearing in magazines, movies, television, etc.

I would also guess that the relation between satisfaction and material consumption is curvilinear if not downright parabolic. The law of diminishing returns definitely applies at a certain stage. The advance in satisfaction from say four to five million dollars worth of consumption is no where near what I bet the jump from 10 to even as little as 30, 000 dollars is. Clearly, the latter person is going to get more bang for their buck.

Unsuprisingly, I'm drifting around here. The point is that at root our desires beyond this basic necessity are really non-material, and trying to fill those non-material desires with material goods is always going to be a hollow process that leaves the individual feeling empty, if that individual stops for a moment to smell the roses. This, I imagine, is what fuels the craziness on wall street. It's hollow men trying to fill the void of meaninglessness in a life devoted to money with the things that money can buy.

So, I really had a better grip on this this morning when I was going through it in my head, but now it's all just coming out in dribs and drabs, and isn't really amounting to much. Mostly I'm just making horrid generalizations that don't give us much in the way of forward progress. Maybe I'll try again tomorrow.

No comments: