Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Cultural Billionaires

The best phones in the world are typically accessible to the middle class. Perhaps they are one of the bigger purchases but they are not completely out of reach. Getting an iPhone, Nexus or Galaxy diamond encrusted or plated in gold arguably makes it a worse phone. Technology is fast reducing the marginal cost of data, and data and communication provide much of the worlds entertainment. If the marginal cost approaches zero, competition will force the price close to zero.

People bemoan income inequality. Those with lots of income save more, so wealth inequality is likely much higher than income inequality. There is however a limit to what you can do with money. Conspicuous consumption is often conspicuous because it is wasteful. Spending £2000 on a bottle of wine doesn't result in a better wine, it results in someone being pleased because the can spend £2000 on a bottle of wine. Wasteful spending has a beneficiary. If someone is determined to spend their money lavishly, there will be someone will to take it off them. At some point some billionaires also get kicks by conspicuous philanthropy.

Slowly but surely the saying that the 'best things in life are free' is becoming closer and closer to the truth.

Perhaps we are moving up Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The last big social shift came in the Industrial Revolution when the mass of the population was thrust out of poverty through massively increased productivity but also a destruction of their way of life. There was pride in being a small scale baker or smith - but there were many benefits from the huge leaps in real income associated with sacrificing that pride. What happens when you don't have to work... but you find something you want to do?

Society has been preoccupied with survival for most of the development of the human species. Many people worry about what will happen when mechanisation and artificial intelligence replace the need for unskilled labour. What will most people do? Will not having to work make us lazy?

Perhaps there will be another huge cultural shift like in the Industrial Revolution, but this time it will be towards 'the finer things' - living well with nature, being nice to each other, 'self actualisation'.

All this is still some way off for the vast majority of the planet still going through the Industrial Revolution, but if we take a step back and think how far we have come, it makes me fascinated by how far we can still go.

Exciting times.

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