AMERICA & THE AESTHETIC ECONOMY
Over at VodkaPundit, Stephen Green writes a semi-review of The Substance of Style, in which he finds a hopeful answer to a nagging worry about the future of the economy:
Thanks to modern methods of production, the expanding umbrella of free trade, and low-cost shipping, most anyone can produce most anything, in most any country.
Let me repeat that, because it's a vital economic fact: Most anyone can produce most anything in most any country. The profit margins--hence wealth--in manufacturing are nothing great, and will get smaller. Oh, whatever is the latest and greatest in high tech will still earn big fat margins, but nothing else. Cars, home electronics, power tools, you name it--anyone can make them, everyone will make them, and nobody will be making big bucks doing so. If, that is, they make the plain vanilla versions.
So are we doomed to be poor, what, with our ever-shrinking and out-sourced manufacturing base? Hardly. When everything people need to live is cheap, then there will still be lots and lots of money to be made selling things people want.
And what people--wealthy people, like even lower-middle-class Americans--want, is something cool. Something hip, something pretty, something special. And look and feel--or "hip & cool"--is what Americans excel at designing and marketing.
In the comments, some people took issue with Stephen's national pride, pointing out that Japan, for instance, is even better--or at least more obsessed with--figuring out cool. That's right. There are certainly other countries, notably Japan and Italy, that are well positioned to do well as the frontier of competition moves toward aesthetics.
What Americans actually do well is to produce economic value, without a whole lot of sentimentality about whether what the market values is what it should value or whether the good old days were better. This economic pragmatism, combined with the creativity required to identify and produce new sources of value, is more distinctive than its manifestation at the moment, whether that's in delivering "cool" or manufacturing and distributing mass quantities of laundry detergent.