My current study interest is economics, so here is an economics question for you. Is there “good” economic activity as opposed to “bad”? Does the quality of economic activity matter? As the “wealthiest” nation in the world, are we getting a proper “bang” for our buck?
In an exchange with another blogger (Johnny Kaje) this morning I discussed a couple of new projects in the news that I would put in the “bad” category, namely a new $85 million new casino east of Seneca and a $37 million Noah’s ark exhibit in Kentucky planned by Creationists. The casino will be entertainment for some, but gambling is ultimately addictive and destructive. I suppose the ark is entertaining too, but it perpetuates superstition and violates rationality.
Consider if you will the evolving nature of economic activity. When the nation was founded, most people were farmers. Even people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were gentleman farmers. In those days the motive for most work was to obtain the necessities of life, food, clothing, shelter and the mundane implements of daily living.
Today is different of course. According to Economy Watch [ http://www.economywatch.com/world_economy/usa/different-sectors-of-economy/ ] agriculture currently contributes only 1% of the GDP.
“Services” make up about 78%. That is productivity in action for sure, productive because of government-subsidized automation and risk-management. One could make the case that the biggest challenge for the economy now is simply finding something for the rest of us to do while the farm machines and automated factories chug along.
From an economist’s point of view, busy-work seems just fine. But, isn’t it ironic that so much of what occupies our attentions now is superficial? Here are some examples.
- Jewelry. Diamonds are forever, or so DeBeers famously says, but they are chunks of crystalized carbon which at a distance are indistinguishable from cubic zirconium.
- Toys. I recall times when our boys seemed to have more fun with pots and pans or the cardboard box something came in than with the thing itself. They were things like dolls, tops, slingshots, hula hoops, balls, Tonka trucks, and sports equipment. Now the toy market seems permeated with battery power. Almost everything talks, plays music or makes other sounds. In my experience, toys with battery power serve mainly one purpose: to raise the complexity and price of the product, obsolescence built in.
- Art. An electrician in Paris recently revealed that he had a large trove of
hitherto unknown pieces of Picasso’s art, estimated to be worth millions. While Pablo was a talented guy who could capture the visual essence of something with a few strokes, what makes an original worth millions? All in the mind of course. Make that the ego. Copies of masterworks are cheap and, like diamonds, can be indistinguishable from the real thing at a distance.
- Social networking devices. Being able to stay connected obviously fills some deep need in the human psyche, but how many of us, especially here in Joplin, need a gizmo that shows us what’s playing at the movies, where to shop for something, what the weather is like in Seattle, or what our friends are shopping for at the moment?
The happiest people I have known were small farmers, my mother’s people. My uncle raised cattle and the crops to feed them. He loved the life and while he liked to play “ain’t it awful” about the rest of the world, I don’t think he and my aunts would have changed places with anyone. The work was physical, predictable and gratifying. They were serenely independent, and their lifestyle was in stark contrast to those who endure a job for a paycheck.
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, goes the aphorism. I suspect old Nick likes superficial busy work about as well as idleness, and if so he is getting his way. Our culture is a mile wide and an inch deep. A fitting symbol for it would perhaps be a battery-powered creche.