12.1.17

FORMERLY UNAVAILABLE AT ANY PRICE.

Don Boudreaux reflects on the first generation of talking computers and other modern marvels.
Google Home is no mere toy. It's got an amazingly high-quality speaker, making Google Home also a great music system. But even if you insist on regarding Google Home — or its competitor, Amazon's Echo — as little more than an elaborate knickknack, the very fact that our economy makes such knickknacks available at affordable prices testifies to our economy's astonishing wealth. Only an extraordinarily wealthy society can afford to devote significant amounts of resources and human creativity to the development and production for mass distribution of elaborate knickknacks.

Yet ironically, Americans' immense prosperity in 2017 is revealed most vividly in riches that are difficult to see if you aren't looking for them. Most of what makes Americans today materially far richer than Americans of 1987 are things that are so familiar now that we take them for granted. Consider just some of the goods and services that were unavailable to ordinary Americans 30 years ago: individual-serve coffee-makers (“Keurigs”), high-definition televisions, downloadable and streaming music, movies and TV shows, Lasik surgery, Viagra, smartphones, GPS navigation, laptop computers, the Internet.

Each of these items was attention-grabbing when first introduced. But they all became so widespread so quickly that they are today part of our landscape.

Even more hidden from view are smaller innovations that were either nonexistent or very rare 30 years ago. One of my favorites is plastic garbage bags, each with its own internal drawstring.

An even better relatively small innovation involved beer. Most beer in 1987 was mass-produced stuff that, brewed with a taste to be drinkable by nearly everyone, had a taste that was distinctive and interesting to no one. Today, of course, store shelves bend under the weight of a seemingly infinite variety of delicious craft-brewed beers and ales.

So grab your favorite brew and raise a glass to the human ingenuity and free markets that continue to increase our prosperity.
In Bier ist auch etwas.  In this instance, the case of beer is a wagon-load of tradeoffs.  The mass-produced stuff was also a paradigm of the false economies of productivity, and the light stuff, well, that might have started as a way of getting in on the fitness enthusiasm that accompanied a shift to desk work rather than tasks involving heavy lifting, and then it became a way of selling colored water in blue cans to dumb guys.  And, no doubt, the behavioral economists and the sort of conscience-cowboys who get upset about too many choices of deodorant will likely object to all those varieties of beer, particularly when so many taverns curate the offerings as Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, and the local headache in a glass.

As far as the coffee is concerned, I'll still use an old-school stovetop percolator.

But when it comes to consumer electronics, shall we sing the praises of digital command control on model railroads?  No more selecting cabs, no more running into a different train's block.  On the other hand, the possibility of collision is enhanced, and sometimes the time-sharing of command requests produces interesting outcomes.  And the new-style batteries for all those portable devices make the possibility of radio-controlled battery-powered trains real.

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