Tchotchkes and Circus

Over the Thanksgiving weekend our Australian member pointed out a striking contrast. A constant topic of conversation among our group, being mid-career professionals from New York and Washington, D.C., it the outrageous price of houses. We are all at that age where we are looking and scheming, but for myself I have completely written off the prospect of ever owning a house in any place where I would like to live, namely the big city.

In the midst of one of these rants, Dean, a man with a considerable lust for gadgets mind you, pointed out that increasingly the most important things in life — housing, education, healthcare — are astronomically expensive, pushing completely unaffordable to normal middle class people. Meanwhile all the trivial junk — banana hangers, juicers, fruit dryers, bread makers, cheese straighteners — becomes ever more cheap.

This is just the economic continuation of bread and circus: as the most important things in life recede ever farther from grasp, people are distracted by trivial entertainment and petty satisfactions.

Often enough, this is offered up as adequate consolation in the bargain of trade liberalization. Yes, yes, mid-level skilled jobs may be fleeing the country at an alarming rate but this is completely offset — so the argument goes — by the stunning decrease in prices. People’s wages may have stagnated, but the goods they seek to purchase have decreased in price so their real standard of living has improved. The fly in the ointment is that the price of imported goods — cheese straighteners et. al. — has decreased while the price of domestically produced goods — healthcare, houses, education — has continued to increase apace. Or perhaps what we are witnessing is correct valuation of these dear goods: as the return on investment in these life-investments has grown, their value, like blue-chip stocks, has grown accordingly. Whatever the case, what we are witnessing is the reverse of Robert Reich’s thesis from The Work Of Nations: rather than investing in our immovable capital, namely our nation’s citizens, we are allowing them to crumble in favor of tooth brushes that match the bathroom curtains.

Owing to I-don’t-know-what — morbidity about the future and infatuation with the shimmer of the present — the calculation by which your average person discounts future prosperity is all out of whack. Contra the Virginia Postrel thesis, life may be ever more stylish and well designed, but it is simultaneously more mean and slim in its life-investment aspects. What we are experiencing is a hollowing out of the human economy. The aesthetics are just the latest in bread and circus. And I’m not talking ivory tower abstractions about what constitutes the good life — some sort of life of mind and real freedom versus crass materialist comfort. As Hans Roslings has amply demonstrated (e.g. Debunking ‘Third-World’ Myths with the Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen,”, TED, Monteray, California, February 2006) and as I’ve learned as a supervisor, basic health is perhaps the most important prerequisite to prosperity. Education is the foundation upon which future wellbeing is built. To the extent that we defer human investment in favor of spending our money on the day-to-day, we undermine our capacity to keep the circus of gadgets going.