(photo from Wilhelm Schickard Museum of Computing History)
In isolation, it’s a good thing that many common luxury items have become so much cheaper over the years. Not those items that are luxuries because they cost a lot of money (like diamonds and whatnot), but those things that, while wholly unnecessary, enhance the enjoyment of life. Despite an overall decline in real inflation-adjusted incomes, the average American today can more easily than ever afford a tennis racquet or pair of skis suitable for an Olympic athlete, a professional-quality musical instrument, or a giant TV that can simulate the experience of being at a movie theatre or sporting event. (Never mind that it is now much more expensive to actually attend either of those things in person.)
So what’s the downside? Let’s forget the worries that these cheap luxuries spoil us somehow, or make us unappreciative of what really matters in life*, and focus on the practical concerns. First, of course, there’s the fact that all of this “stuff” (as George Carlin put it) eventually turns into garbage (of course, Carlin used a more colorful word). Further, that garbage has to go somewhere, usually far away from where the majority of people are who bought the stuff. At the moment, garbage is still less fungible than a shipping container of notebook computers, so it doesn’t go all the way back to China, Indonesia, or Mexico, but it does move quite a bit. In the USA, on balance, the states that import food export garbage.
The second concern is the distortion in relative cost and
accessibility between luxuries and essentials like food, housing, healthcare, and
a clean environment, as well as those nonessentials that are generally accepted
to be good for you, like a college education. These are all objectively more
expensive than they were two decades ago, but subjectively – in relation to
other items – even more so. More parents than ever can afford a computer to
help their kids get into college; fewer can afford to pay for the tuition.
Some distortions are funny or mildly disturbing, depending on your perspective: here on Martha’s Vineyard, one meal at a restaurant for a family of four costs more than a Blu-ray player, a technology that would have amazed people in the 1980s. Others are more serious threat to the health and welfare of individuals and society. Cheap “luxury” foods, usually artificially inexpensive due to commodity corn subsidies, play a significant role in driving the extreme increase in obesity, especially among children in poor and working poor households. On our island, it’s less of a concern than elsewhere. The near-total prohibition of fast food chains certainly helps; regardless, with our many local sustainable farms and the efforts of groups like the Island Grown Initiative, VCS, and others, I think our community would have more than a fighting chance at resisting the temptation of dependency on the dollar menu.
In the end, this may be a worrisome trend, but surely it’s a product of recent technological innovation, global free trade, and expanding population, right? A peculiar blip in time where a cheeseburger made entirely of commodity corn costs less than two ears of fresh corn? Maybe – but read what George Orwell had to say in 1937, on the eve of WWII in an increasingly industrial England:
From George Orwell (1937), "The Road to Wigan Pier," Chapter 5: