In terms of living standards, I think the law of diminishing returns have been reached and that relatively speaking living standards are declining. Now, anecdotally speaking, it seems that the 1960s was the peak of living standards(*). At that time a single income bought a house, a car, and a nice life. Today, most need two incomes to “make a living” and some have problems with that even.

(*) As far as I am concerned the last and greatest achievement was the Saturn V rocket.The second closest was the computer.

Either we must be spending money on stuff that the previous generation did not or we are not as productive as we think anymore, that is, money is worth less and people are not as productive as they think. It is interesting to note that energy use/world capita peaked in the late 1970s. In other words, population growth outran total energy consumption about a generation ago.

I would also like to think that technological advances should have made a difference in terms of standards of living, but it seems to have translated into maximum quantity rather than maximum quality. In other words, rather than surrounding themselves with better things, people chose to surround themselves with more things. There are more rooms in the homes, but the homes are uglier than ever and poorly constructed. Clothes get worn once and then thrown in the back of the closet. New cars break down after 10 years, whereas old motorcycles and bicycles seemingly run forever. This is sad and not sustainable. If the focus was on quality, a person would inherit one Rolex from his father and hand it down to his son rather than buying his way through 25 $25 watches over a life time. He would inherit one Dutch grandfather cycle, take care of it, and hand it down, etc. However, popular culture is all about the new and the novel because that is what is profitable for industrialization.

I’m trying to resist this. I’m slowly learning and trying to replace every day use items with very nice things that are built to last forever (my latest acquisition is an Underwood typewriter). Relative to consumer goods (bads?), such things cost a fortune (I got the type writer on freecycle 😉 . Forsooth, normally we are used to things being quite cheap. Of course this is an illusion because if companies made good things they would soon run out of customers. Therefore most companies have a business model that either involves subscription (phone, cable, utilities, subscriptions) or shoddy products that need replacement — effectively the same as a subscription (would you rather buy a new computer and replace it every 4th year or simply rent it like a cable box. I’m actually tempted towards the latter!). The few companies that make good products charge exorbitant amounts, obviously also because making good products requires more effort. For instance, in my quest to build a small machine shop, I was momentarily taken aback learning that a caliper could easily cost several hundred dollars or as much as a new laptop.

However, that is what it is, and durable quality items are what I would call real wealth. They enhance your life whereas poor products simply take your life away as they need to be replaced when they break down. Not only do they take your life, they also take resources out of the ground and pollute it, when they are put back in. I don’t like it.

Originally posted 2009-04-04 07:47:07.