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Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Significant Unmet Material Needs

Can we sustain economic growth long term if we all become so rich that there's nothing left that we want to buy. Like Jim, the number of existing products that I'd like to buy is pretty limited. If I really want something, I go buy it.

We're certainly above median income, but after 100 years of 3 percent growth, we'll all be on average about 20 times richer, so it's likely even most of the poor will be able to have a pretty comfy lifestyle at that point.

But how about products that don't yet exist?

Eventually I'll need to replace my perfectly good car and I could just get the exact same thing. But let's say there was a car that had the handling and power of a Ferrari and the comfort of a Caddy and cost only $10K. How about if it could drive itself so I could read the paper or write on this blog? And while we're at it, make it so it could fly so I could visit Jim in one hour door to door or Howie in 4 hours. That wouldn't be bad. No, not bad at all. That'd be good. I'd like one of those.

And we have a really nice kitchen that we remodeled a few years back. But let's say there was a different kind of kitchen: one that cooked gourmet meals for you if and when you wanted it to, and one that kept itself clean and well stocked. That wouldn't be bad. No, not bad at all. That'd be good. I'd like one of those.

In fact, what if the whole house could keep itself clean and maintained. And the yard too for that matter. And it happened so automatically that you never had to think about it. You could take it for granted and just enjoy it. And it might as well be built on an artificial floating island (that looked like a natural island) with white sand beaches. I could just walk outside with my fishing pole, catch a fish, and take that fish into my kitchen which would cook it up for me. That wouldn't be bad. No, not bad at all. That'd be good. I'd like a house like that.

And how about a ride on the space elevator? Or a vacation to the moon or mars? I hope to see travel like that become commonplace in my lifetime. Ah, yes, my lifetime. I'd also like to add a few years and greatly increase my health and fitness. No end to what I'd be willing to spend on that.

Obviously I don't need any of these things. But if they existed I would certainly contemplate buying them. And we can't even imagine what new products will be available in 100 years. Consider the past. If you showed half the gadgets we own to someone 100 years ago, they wouldn't even be able to comprehend what they were looking at. In the same way, there's no way for us to comprehend what will be commonplace in 100 years, or maybe even just 30 given that technology seems to be accelerating.

If there were not going to be any new products but somehow economic growth continued, I agree that eventually we'd all be materially saturated and it would be difficult to sustain any further economic growth. And its funny how easy it is to assume that everything's already been invented and that the market is saturated. Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of IBM said "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers". It seems he underestimated a little.

But as long as technology produces new wonders, I think economic growth can be sustained a long, long, long time.

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