Keynes divided human needs into two categories: (1) basic needs like clothing, food, medical care, and shelter, and (2) our insatiable relative desires which can be defined by what rags like Vogue tell us we need. Although Keynes naturally viewed basic needs as more essential, he envisioned that there would be “a point `that` may soon be reached … when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our future energies to non-economic purposes.” Maybe Keynes was referring to when we are six feet under, because as I look out my window at the continual flow of traffic on Broadway, I can tell you it just ain’t happening in my lifetime.
Keynes predicted that life would become easy as pie when productivity increased, generating more free time and ultimately a lack of personal fulfillment. Where can I sign up? In truth, our standards of living today have increased so much since the 1930s that we are having a hard time keeping up with our “boundless human desires” and “people are working just as hard as ever” according to the Times.
As productivity in the U.S. increases, the difference between our basic and relative needs gets fuzzy and I find myself saying that mama “needs a new pair of boots” and rushing off to Saks instead of buying groceries. Keynes surmised that only a small fraction of our total spending would be motivated by our desire to show off. The NYT concurred, but noted that “decisions to spend are also driven by perceptions of quality, the desire for which knows no bounds.” But I have to ask who creates these deceptions, I mean, perceptions of quality: Is it the ad companies, whose job it is to sell us their life-changing, can’t-live-without-them products, or is it our “boundless human desires”?
Most corporations don’t advertise quality, bragging instead on necessity. In my opinion the MP3 player is one of the greatest inventions of modern times, but I’ve had to replace mine three times in the year that I have owned one. These things were not built to last, but everyone has one because these products — and hundreds more — have been billed as basic needs of our digital consumer culture. We’re eating right out of the advertisers’ hands.
It would seem we have a perfect marriage between insatiable human desire and companies who are more than willing to feed the beast. But only one component of this match made in retail heaven is dependent on the other: Without the consumer, the product peddlers have no purpose. What’s the solution? Don’t look at me. I’m off to the mall, because Victoria’s Secret has a new and improved push-up bra.
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