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How availability drives necessity

July 17, 2008

As paradoxical as it seems, many of the things we need, we need because their availability has made them necessary.

Health care is a prime example of this. Now that we have MRIs, MRIs are essential for diagnosing things that used to be diagnosed with simple X-rays–or complex exploratory surgery. It could be considered malpractice not to order an MRI for a simple sprain injury that might possibly be something worse. Similarly, now that we have digital mammography, it is the industry standard.  It is also much more expensive than what we had before.

Technology abounds with examples. Once cell phones were available, they became ubiquitous.  No one but a few hold-outs could live without one. Then we needed digital cell phones. Then the symbol of being indispensable became the Blackberry. The iPhone trumped everything that came before and became necessary for millions.

Remember these?  

They were called coffee makers. People used to make their own coffee. Now a café is an essential fixture in American life. We need people to make coffee for us.

Whenever something new makes anything new possible, it becomes necessary. In many cases, this is a wonderful blessing. Certainly medical advances, such as the gamma knife for less traumatic brain surgery; arthroscopy and its sequelae; and procedures that could replace open heart surgery should be considered necessary because they are available and are superior to the options they have obsolesced. On one hand, the new techniques are more expensive, at least initially, and they drive up the cost of health care. On the other hand, it could be malpractice not to deploy the best procedures and technologies available.  The Liberal worldview  holds that availability implies a right.  If the best is available, everyone should have a right to the best.

Is a plasma screen necessary? I grew up with black-and-white, and contrast ratios were not a topic of discussion. Is digital TV so necessary that people were required to “upgrade” to it?  But I’m out of my league here; I have lived without a TV since 1991.  Tough question: Is Internet access a necessity? It has become a veritable public utility. In my city, you can access wireless broadband in a park.

There is no question that the availability of new stuff carries the implication that we need the new stuff. The stuff costs money, whether we need it or not. Americans buy a lot of stuff. They buy stuff they think they need. Much of what becomes available is soon manufactured abroad. So we spend a lot of money abroad for stuff we think we need, because it’s available. So we wind up with a trade deficit. We wind up with a job deficit because we can’t afford to make stuff here. We wind up with an economy in which the only advantage to having money is to buy stuff. Stuff gets more expensive, but stuff-makers need credit, so interest rates stay low. With such low interest rates, there is no incentive to save. So what else do we do with money but buy available goods we believe are necessary?

So we get into a recession, and we have less money, and we can’t buy as much stuff. The savior-government pumps money (though it has none of its own that it does not get from us) into providing more credit to buy more stuff. Americans catch on. They start making their own coffee. Starbucks closes 600 stores and there go more jobs–but at least those people know how to make their own coffee.

Where do Americans make their own coffee? In their own homes, of course. Having one’s own home has become a necessity in America. A nice, large home, with a digital plasma TV and all the granite trappings. Nothing less will do, because all this stuff is available. It’s what homebuilders build, so it’s the standard of necessity. Too bad it’s created a credit crisis that the government remains helpless to explain, much less to remedy.

When all else failed, we used to be able to go to war and make money. But wars now rely on all that available new stuff that has become necessary, and it is expensive. Even wars operate on a deficit. But of course, they always have. Long-term payment plans are nothing new; only the number of zeros at the end of the debt is new. At least the entire public will soon be conversant with scientific notation.

Does anyone else find any of this depressing?

  1. July 17, 2008 10:41 am

    Not depressed so much as bemused. In fact I resorted to scientific notation recently to figure out each person’s share of the national debt. It’s too hard to do in your head without using numbers like 10 to the 12th, etc. I don’t want to reveal the figure because then I might become depressed.

    I saw an article the other day about a home builder who is now building “small” homes for people who want to downsize. The average size of these homes was 1800 square feet.

    Huh??? I grew up in numerous different houses, but most of them were in the 1500-1800 square feet range and were considered sort of on the average to large size. I guess necessity is another one of those concepts that “evolves.”

  2. July 17, 2008 10:47 am

    Shhh! You’ll reveal how OLD we are!

  3. July 17, 2008 11:41 am

    interesting to see, thanks

  4. July 18, 2008 3:27 am

    “We wind up with a job deficit because we can’t afford to make stuff here.”

    Lauren, this is a myth that has been spread by economists who don’t understand the root cause of our trade deficit. If this were true, why are our largest trade deficits in manufactured goods (in per capita terms) with wealthy nations – nations like Japan, Germany, Korea, Taiwan and others? Of our top 20 per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods, only 7 are with nations with purchasing power parity less than $20,000 per year.

    However, 18 of those top 2o deficits are with nations much more densely populated than the U.S. The root cause of our trade deficit is granting free access to our market to grossly overpopulated nations who are unable to offer access to equivalent markets in return. Their markets are stunted by over-crowding and low per capita consumption.

    If interested in learning more about the important new economic theory that explains all of this, I invite you to visit either of my web sites at or There you can read the preface of my book, join in the discussion forum and, of course, purchase the book if you like.

    Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of this reply, but I don’t know how else to inject this new perspective into the debate about our trade deficit without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

  5. July 18, 2008 6:23 am


    I was condensing a series, of course.

    A driving force behind oil prices is the fact that we choose to be non-producers relative to our needs. I suspect we have enough oil for the drilling to provide every creature comfort and widget. As long as we buy oil from other people, we will pay what other people charge. That really isn’t very complicated.

    There are other posts here that you can find with the Search box that document job losses to foreign manufacturing. Another issue is colonization of American factories by foreign investors. You might also peruse the WordPress Made in USA tag.

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