Thursday, December 24, 2020

Gifts and Consumer Durables: A Meditation with Adam Smith

The end-of-year holidays are a time for giving gifts, which raises an ongoing question. Do you prefer experiences, like a restaurant meal, a kayak tour, a night at a bed-and-breakfast? Or physical objects with a limited life expectancy, like a sweater or a cooking pot, that will be consumed over a longer time? Or do you sometimes desire an object that will last for decades, even to the next generation? My family uses a dining room table that belonged to my grandmother: my wife has over the years picked up some vintage flapper dresses from the 1920s and 1930s in which she looks especially fabulous, and which have been on occasion loaned out for high school proms to fortunate members of the next generation; and we have a hallway in our house of family pictures, including some inherited from earlier generations. 

In thinking about tradeoffs of any kind, it will surprise no one who knows me that I find myself turning to Adam Smith's 1776 magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. In Book II, Chapter III, Smith writes "Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labour." As you might expect, Smith argues that spending on durable commodities, rather than things that are consumed immediately, is better for the economy. I quote here from the text at the Library of Economics and Liberty website:  
The revenue of an individual may be spent either in things which are consumed immediately, and in which one day’s expence can neither alleviate nor support that of another, or it may be spent in things more durable, which can therefore be accumulated, and in which every day’s expence may, as he chooses, either alleviate or support and heighten the effect of that of the following day. A man of fortune, for example, may either spend his revenue in a profuse and sumptuous table, and in maintaining a great number of menial servants, and a multitude of dogs and horses; or contenting himself with a frugal table and few attendants, he may lay out the greater part of it in adorning his house or his country villa, in useful or ornamental buildings, in useful or ornamental furniture, in collecting books, statues, pictures; or in things more frivolous, jewels, baubles, ingenious trinkets of different kinds; or, what is most trifling of all, in amassing a great wardrobe of fine clothes, like the favourite and minister of a great prince who died a few years ago.

Were two men of equal fortune to spend their revenue, the one chiefly in the one way, the other in the other, the magnificence of the person whose expence had been chiefly in durable commodities, would be continually increasing, every day’s expence contributing something to support and heighten the effect of that of the following day: that of the other, on the contrary, would be no greater at the end of the period than at the beginning. The former, too, would, at the end of the period, be the richer man of the two. He would have a stock of goods of some kind or other, which, though it might not be worth all that it cost, would always be worth something. No trace or vestige of the expence of the latter would remain, and the effects of ten or twenty years profusion would be as completely annihilated as if they had never existed.

As the one mode of expence is more favourable than the other to the opulence of an individual, so is it likewise to that of a nation. The houses, the furniture, the clothing of the rich, in a little time, become useful to the inferior and middling ranks of people. They are able to purchase them when their superiors grow weary of them, and the general accommodation of the whole people is thus gradually improved, when this mode of expence becomes universal among men of fortune. In countries which have long been rich, you will frequently find the inferior ranks of people in possession both of houses and furniture perfectly good and entire, but of which neither the one could have been built, nor the other have been made for their use. What was formerly a seat of the family of Seymour is now an inn upon the Bath road. The marriage-bed of James the First of Great Britain, which his queen brought with her from Denmark as a present fit for a sovereign to make to a sovereign, was, a few years ago, the ornament of an ale-house at Dunfermline.

In some ancient cities, which either have been long stationary, or have gone somewhat to decay, you will sometimes scarce find a single house which could have been built for its present inhabitants. If you go into those houses too, you will frequently find many excellent, though antiquated pieces of furniture, which are still very fit for use, and which could as little have been made for them. Noble palaces, magnificent villas, great collections of books, statues, pictures and other curiosities, are frequently both an ornament and an honour, not only to the neighbourhood, but to the whole country to which they belong. Versailles is an ornament and an honour to France, Stowe and Wilton to England. Italy still continues to command some sort of veneration by the number of monuments of this kind which it possesses, though the wealth which produced them has decayed, and though the genius which planned them seems to be extinguished, perhaps from not having the same employment.

The expence too, which is laid out in durable commodities, is favourable, not only to accumulation, but to frugality. If a person should at any time exceed in it, he can easily reform without exposing himself to the censure of the public. To reduce very much the number of his servants, to reform his table from great profusion to great frugality, to lay down his equipage after he has once set it up, are changes which cannot escape the observation of his neighbours, and which are supposed to imply some acknowledgment of preceding bad conduct. Few, therefore, of those who have once been so unfortunate as to launch out too far into this sort of expence, have afterwards the courage to reform, till ruin and bankruptcy oblige them. But if a person has, at any time, been at too great an expence in building, in furniture, in books or pictures, no imprudence can be inferred from his changing his conduct. These are things in which further expence is frequently rendered unnecessary by former expence; and when a person stops short, he appears to do so, not because he has exceeded his fortune, but because he has satisfied his fancy.

The expence, besides, that is laid out in durable commodities gives maintenance, commonly, to a greater number of people than that which is employed in the most profuse hospitality. Of two or three hundredweight of provisions, which may sometimes be served up at a great festival, one half, perhaps, is thrown to the dunghill, and there is always a great deal wasted and abused. But if the expence of this entertainment had been employed in setting to work masons, carpenters, upholsterers, mechanics, &c., a quantity of provisions, of equal value, would have been distributed among a still greater number of people who would have bought them in pennyworths and pound weights, and not have lost or thrown away a single ounce of them. In the one way, besides, this expence maintains productive, in the other unproductive hands. In the one way, therefore, it increases, in the other, it does not increase, the exchangeable value of the annual produce of the land and labour of the country.

I would not, however, by all this be understood to mean that the one species of expence always betokens a more liberal or generous spirit than the other. When a man of fortune spends his revenue chiefly in hospitality, he shares the greater part of it with his friends and companions; but when he employs it in purchasing such durable commodities, he often spends the whole upon his own person, and gives nothing to anybody without an equivalent. The latter species of expence, therefore, especially when directed towards frivolous objects, the little ornaments of dress and furniture, jewels, trinkets, gewgaws, frequently indicates, not only a trifling, but a base and selfish disposition. All that I mean is, that the one sort of expence, as it always occasions some accumulation of valuable commodities, as it is more favourable to private frugality, and, consequently, to the increase of the public capital, and as it maintains productive, rather than unproductive hands, conduces more than the other to the growth of public opulence.
Of course, there's no need to be inflexible here: the holidays (and life in general) are broad enough to encompass many types of consumption, from immediate pleasures to the long-lasting. But even when it comes to holiday consumption, the tradeoffs over time interest me. The young adults in my family, aided and abetted by their mother, sometimes spend an afternoon looking through the clothes, furniture, and household goods available in second-hand stores.  Like most people, we live in a "used" house, in the sense that we bought it from someone else several decades after it was built.

A few years back, we gave my parents a starter set of high-end pots and pans. They had been using the same set of pots and pans for decades: they were worn and dented and some of the lids were missing. The price was similar to taking the entire family out to dinner at a high-end restaurant for one night. But they have now used the pots and pans multiple times each week for years. I find myself wondering about what other decisions might be less flashy in the present, but would offer future smiles for their continued place in my day-to-day life.

 I fully intend during the holidays to enjoy the short-term pleasures of decorations, our annual homemade fudge and cookies, a family get-together for binge-watching something yet-to-be-determined, and so on. But after a stay-at-home year, I find that my thoughts of gifts often turn to making commitments about future plans or trips: that is, short-term consumption, but deferred into a less constrained future.