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Infinite Desires and Finite Means

Robert Samuelson writes on the ideas of John Kenneth Galbraith:

To Galbraith, materialism had gone mad and would breed discontent.
Through advertising, companies conditioned consumers to buy things they
didn’t really want or need. Because so much spending was artificial, it
would be unfulfilling. Meanwhile, government spending that would make
everyone better off was being shortchanged because people instinctively
— and wrongly — stigmatized government only as "a necessary evil."

Samuelson goes on to say that "these ideas have not aged well." Among other interesting observations, he points out:

It’s often said that only the rich are getting ahead; everyone else is
standing still or falling behind. Well, there are many undeserving rich
— overpaid chief executives, for instance. But over any meaningful
period, most people’s incomes are increasing. From 1995 to 2004,
inflation-adjusted median family income — for families precisely in
the middle — rose 14.3 percent, to $43,200, the Federal Reserve says.
People feel "squeezed" because their rising incomes often don’t satisfy
their rising wants — for bigger homes, more health care, more
education, faster Internet connections.

Putting aside the fascinating, undefinable, politically ingratiating reference to the "undeserving" rich, I like that Samuelson has the gall to point out that the last ten years have been pretty good, income-wise.

But the real insight is the same one as Thomas Sowell’s and the bread-and-butter of economics: we are and will always be "squeezed." We will always enjoy what we have and want more.

Samuelson concludes:

Should we be surprised? Not really. We’ve simply reaffirmed an old
truth: The pursuit of affluence does not always end with bliss.

Undeniably true. Living in the reality, as most of us must, of infinite wants and finite means, is not blissful. But we prefer this stressful reality to the stressful reality of 1900 when more children died in infancy and mothers died in childbirth. When asked on a scale of 1-10 how happy we are, we may give no higher a number than people did 50 or 100 years ago. But most of us prefer now to then. And if people then could see now, I think they’d have the same preference.


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