Monday, June 17, 2013

Competition Depends On How We Hold Wealth

As someone who will always have a soft spot for retail, I remember with fondness when shopping trips as a young girl meant dresses of every variety imaginable - not only all in my size, but in the same section of a single department store! One local department store, for instance, had built a circular room in which a girl could walk around the racks which held junior sizes. But at some point shortly thereafter, the racks which held places for many clothing designers suddenly changed, and one would find endless repetition of the same theme, perhaps with a few variations in color or lines (yep, I wanted to be a fashion designer once) and at that point I started sewing clothes to have a bit more fun with the process. When do the limitations brought on by "efficiencies" start to, totalitarian?

But something eventually made me put the sewing machine away. Even though too many racks of clothes looked the same in a single store, somewhere (other stores and places) they would in fact be different, and there were so many more of these mass manufactured clothes that the multiple differences I remembered - as a young teenager - finally came together again, on the clothes racks of nice thrift stores.  For decades, the "pickings" only got better and better. Oftentimes, second hand clothing for women meant more fun to be had, than browsing among the limitations of style in full price environments. But with the Great Recession and its ensuing protectionism, that multitude of choice started to slip and hasn't been the same sense. What's more, the mass production once taken for granted had somewhere in those years been handed over to the "winners" of the process, which then set about presenting themselves as different choices and options, when oftentimes they really were not.

In some sense, perhaps, how important is that really? Do we even need more "stuff", and why not just make do with the winning "efficiencies" of the present? Yet at the very least it matters for the bargain hunting consumer: certainly it matters for the person without adequate income. After all, there was a time when - because of gains in mass production - clothes prices really came down and stayed that way for a long time. But now, with the winners holding sway, it's not uncommon to find clothes put together in that same "discount" mass market fashion, but at what feels more like top notch prices which once represented a higher quality. In other words, what happened to the compromise we made with "cheaper" made and somewhat bland clothes in exchange for lower prices? Sometimes it seems as though some of the "winners" took that away.

When we think about how this process actually came about, sometimes the evolution of the one percent makes more sense, in that we made that form of wealth holding almost inevitable by the limitations we created in our own environments for retail in the first place, in terms of overhead and expense. We simply miss the point, when we think that taxing the one percent will somehow make everything "right". Let's bring back the environments that make the one percent unnecessary in the first place. If they had stayed with the less expensive product by which they lured us in, that would have been one thing. But every time the competition gets knocked out, the prices get knocked back up and the earlier good deflation flies away with the breeze.

The fact that lots of suppliers lost out is of course chalked up to competition, and for the most part people don't think about it that much. Plus, antitrust laws have become quite confusing, depending on circumstance and who tries to make those laws work for their own.  But one wonders why the process of constantly losing out needs to be considered inevitable. Isn't there something we can do about the retail environments we created that our potential suppliers need to deal with, which made it difficult for many of them to stay in the game in the resulting breakneck competition with one another? I found myself wondering about that again, when a 60 Minutes segment spoke of how the Italian eyewear manufacturer Luxottica has affected the pricing of most every eyewear retailer in the U.S. - also just one of the stories detailed in Barry C. Lynn's book "Cornered".

For the most part, I think of holding wealth differently in terms related to knowledge use and services potential, for that aspect of wealth creation represents quite a struggle on its own. But in order for services product to find greater balance in the economy, we still need to evolve our environments for physical product, as well. While putting together yesterdays post, I continued to wonder afterward how monetary values for some product might shift, were local economies actually able to innovate and create for their own in ways not tied to the rents expected of those within special institutional arrangements. So much rent is wrapped up in institutional gridlock that it's impossible to really know what good deflation might result, if that stranglehold were broken. Even if local economies were only able to use some of those innovations locally (monetarily, at least), in some cases there may be times when "reinventing the wheel" is not such a bad thing.

However, the gridlock exists in other ways besides knowledge use, it also matters how tightly we define the environments by which product can be displayed, which is one reason why so much of retail "escaped" to the Internet in the first place. The very act of doing so made retail more utilitarian, in that one shops more of necessity than as a social experience.

So, for us, one primary question now is: how do we feel about that? Are we happy with the Internet as the place to go, or do we still wish to recapture some elements of the earlier shopping experience - both social and in terms of wider choice sets by potential providers? Sometimes we forget that economics is also how we feel about our present collective roles as producers and consumers,  and so shrug our shoulders at what's offered to us as "a fact of life". But maybe it doesn't really have to be that way. So, instead of railing at the institutions that created those earlier forms and expectations, we are better off recreating more appropriate versions of reality more closely approximate of our own.

Sometimes we try to look to the future from aspects of life that seem "inevitable" which are really not. They are just sets of circumstances which evolved from earlier choice sets we made - choice sets which may not be so relevant as they once were. For instance, the rise of automobile use created certain kinds of environment expectations that continue to work for those in certain income categories and lifestyles, but no longer work the same way for others who find themselves needing to create different kinds of environments which better reflect the kinds of lifestyle choices they are making now. Along similar lines, Nassim Taleb has this to say about complaining (HT Shane Parrish, Farnam Street):
The best way to strengthen something is to complain about it. Complaining about bankers, politicians, Harvard, etc. is signaling their robustness: everyone complains yet they are still there, so there has to be something to their existence.
People need to seek action, not complaint. Instead you need to move, do something, establish competing circuits to harm them directly...then people will join you after they start seeing blood.
The point for me is not to "harm them directly" or "start seeing blood"! Just the same, for anyone who wants to be able to start anew when it's impossible to do so under present circumstances, one has to keep trying to find or create something that works better, or else give up. Interestingly enough, people don't get a lot of respect from others for giving up, either, hmm. Arnold Kling just put up a post entitled "We Need 250 States". I need to go read it and some of the links, and see what some of those folk think about redefining wealth creation.

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