Sunday, September 02, 2007

Efficiency and Value

I hate shopping. So I was delighted by my first ever visit to Wal-Mart yesterday. Very efficient, very cheap, I hopefully won't need to go again anytime soon.

Basically, I think the aim of such shops should be to minimize the amount of time we have to waste in them (or working to pay for such material things). I'm skeptical that commerce can have any deep value, so efficiency is all that's left for it. Give me Wal-Mart, then get me away from the blighted cityscape.

The alternative view, I suppose, would be to try to rescue commerce from the dull glint of the bottom dollar. Close down the factories, imbue production with a human touch, buy custom-made goods direct from the craftsman, and all that. The local market is certainly far more attractive than the mall, so all else being equal I'd jump at the replacement. But what are the opportunity costs? Their inefficiency means more time and effort must be invested to produce these material goods -- time and effort that might be better spent on non-commercial pursuits.

So my question is this: should we "invest" in improving the commercial sphere of society, or simply try to minimize it?


  1. You should try to track down a Target. It was a bit of a revelation to me when I got over here.

  2. Costco is a bit better than Wall Mart in most respects too, and much better to its employees.

    Sometimes it seems to me that you doubt that any activity other than philosophizing is really worthy of human dignity. Most humans would disagree fairly strongly. It seems to me that people get a great deal of pleasure from shopping. Though I personally don't, I think that they should probably continue to, all else being equal. People even seem to enjoy playing video games about shopping, e.g. "The Sims".

    I wonder how a basic income would effect consumer culture? Drug legalization? Appropriate taxes on fossil fuel consumption, danger, and traffic congestion? Other obviously desirable policies?

  3. Richard,

    One implicit assumption in your post seems to be that the present centralization of retail and manufacturing results from superior efficiency in a free market. I would argue that capital intensiveness, scale of production, and distance of distribution are all much greater than efficiency would justify. For most areas of production, small-scale manufacturing for local markets is probably more efficient in terms of unit cost. The problem is that much of the cost of the present large-scale system of production is reflected, not in price, but in your tax bill.

  4. Besides the poor wages, my complaint about Walmart is that they offer low price instead of quality. I would like to have a store with a huge selection and quick checkout but which sold better made goods and paid a wage that was decent to live on. The prices would be higher, but the extra money would go into real value. What I hate is all these branded goods where the extra money you pay mostly goes into corporate profit and advertising and only a small bit goes into better quality.

    Have you followed any of the debate between “local food” and farmers’ markets vs. corporate/mass distribution? My instinct is to favor the local, but when you look closer, the issues are muddied in interesting ways.

  5. I find that generally mass produced goods in cheap malls are BETTER quality than hand made goods in specialty stores (better at their core purpose - although they may not look as pretty).

    generally (of course it depends on the type of good) there is much more testing and so forth that goes into the mass produced goods. It seems to be one of those cons of commercialism that the small scale manufactures with higher prices are better quality. (so much so that big producers will slap a logo on a small amount of their product and pretend they are specially made)

    Anyway to show you what i mean try a good toyota against a random expensive car. the toyota will be much better at 'not breaking down' and all the other things that are core to being a car - the expensive car will however look pretty (and internally would be sent to scrap metal if it went through toyota's quality checking).

  6. genius - perhaps your claim is true for cars. But what about eg. toys and food?

  7. richard -

    "...time and effort that might be better spent on non-commercial pursuits."

    I had the impression that the whole point of supporting the craftsman etc. was to make commerce less commercial ie. to introduce non-commercial values into commercial activities, "imbue production with a human tough." If that's true, your criticisms of the commercial world would not apply to local-market commerce.

    Sure, shopping for clothes and cutlery might seem frivolous, even when done at local boutiques. But that is a tendentious example. Local-market commerce also means discussing philosophy with the guy at the counter when you go to buy a book.

  8. Right, that's the point of it; my question is whether the resulting positive value outweighs the opportunity costs (i.e. the other positive values we could realize by investing our efforts elsewhere).

  9. Mike,
    Same thing generally (athough there are always exceptions).

    I know I've been given things like finger plasters in little burger take away stores (which probably have D health ratings compared with A almost every time in the major chains) and have never had anything extra in my burger/sandwich from fast food chains despite almost always going to the latter (which is cheaper).

    As for toys - if a toy has been sold to a million customers in 20 countries lets say - it should meet the minimum standard of the strictest country. if it is sold a few times in one country it may not meet any standard at all.

    Odds are if the man down the street who made your hand crafted toy doesn't even know what the standards are and doesnt know if little bits break off his toy.

    Of course I say this in the contect of a food, clothing and toy scare for Chinese production - but that sort of reaction is part of what gives one confidence the system is working.

  10. Why don't you do what you prefer, I do what I prefer, and others do what they prefer, and let the market respond to our preferences?

    Why have this authoritarian impulse to decide for everybody?

  11. What "authoritarian impulse"? I'm not commanding anyone at gunpoint. I'm inviting others' advice because I'm not sure what I (should) prefer. (Or, rather, I don't know which of the available choices is the best means to advancing my ultimate values.)

  12. I guess I assumed that the mechanism you were contemplating using to improve or minimize the commercial sphere were coercive regulations.

  13. In my defense, "Close down the factories" doesn't sound like something that's likely to happen just because you find local markets more attractive than malls.

    But, if you really just want advice about what you should prefer, I suggest that you should prefer that enough people share your preferences to provide adequate small markets to satisfy your sensibilities.

    I also advise you to purge your ultimate values of the need to deny others the opportunity to satisfy their sensibilities in terms of the convenience-quality-aesthetic-economic tradeoffs.

  14. Factories would close if demand for them dwindled. (Obviously that's not going to happen "just because" of me, but nor are coercive regulations, so I don't know why you bring that up.)

    N.B. There's a difference between hoping to (peacefully) convince people to change what they want, vs. having a "need to deny" them anything. Next you'll advise me to stop beating my wife, I guess.

  15. I apologize if my comments appeared rude.

    Perhaps I misinterpreted your post, but it seemed to indicate more than a desire to have your shopping tastes met. It seemed to yearn for the absence of the institutions that others prefer.

    Now, it's possible that you hope that every single person who disagrees with you will change his mind on this subject. But, it seemed much more likely that you wanted an outcome that would frustrate those people who maintain different preferences. Perhaps you thought that the good that comes from being free of the blight of such institutions outweighs the costs to those (hopefully few) misguided people who would be frustrated.

    I was suggesting that it would be better for all of us if we left such desires out of our visions.

    If that's already not part of your vision, then that's great.

    My vision includes large institutions that efficiently satisfy the desires of large numbers of people. I think there's a lot to admire about such things.

    I also have no desire to prevent those who prefer smaller, more personal, but more expensive, trading options from having them. I think there's plenty of room for all sorts of voluntary commercial institutions.

    Do you respect the choices of people like me as much as I respect the choices of people like you?

    If so, then I don't understand why you thought "Close down the factories" belonged in your post.

  16. Richard-

    Stop beating your wife.

    If you have one.

    If you don't, then carry on.


  17. Gil, of course, nothing is gained by frustrating people - that would be a bizarre thing to want. To clarify: I do have a wistful yearning for a culture where my values are more widespread. I think it would be a better one (that's just what it is to have values!). I don't think at all highly of consumer culture, if that's what you mean by "respect" - I deplore it - though I'll certainly tolerate it. (Same as religion.)

    My vision is of a world where "the desires of large numbers of people" are directed towards less superficial ends. It seems to me there are two ways this ideal world might go. (1) Super efficient satisfaction of material needs, freeing up time and resources to pursue the really worthwhile things in life. OR (2) Inefficient but more creative/fulfilling modes of production, i.e. where we all agree to "close down the factories" and become (and buy from) individual craftsmen instead.

    I actually lean towards the former, as explained in the main post. But I gather many of my cultural companions favour the "alternative view" of #2. So this post was an invitation for them to explain why.

  18. Hi Richard,
    I really like the post as it's something I think about pretty often. Less in the last few months, since I stopped working at an Organic Grocer.
    I'd like to think that there would be something real gained from people investing more time in the goods they craft. I like the idea of talking Philosophy with the book-vendor, or heck, the carpenter making my bookshelf - either seems great.
    I frankly don't see anything normative in that, nor in your post.
    As far as whether this option is better than the highly efficient one, which also, but in a different way, allows me more time to devote to philosophizing online; my values and interests say yes, but probably just because I'd like to take up smithing.

  19. Hi Richard.

    Thanks for clarifying.

    Again, I'm sorry if I came across as hostile. It's just that many people do want their visions coercively imposed upon others.

    I'm new to this site (but I've been enjoying it), and didn't really know where you're coming from.

    I disagree with your distaste for consumer culture, but I can understand it. I think you're right to lean towards wanting the efficient satisfaction of material needs being available to free up time.

    By the way, I don't think that a society of individual craftsmen scales up enough to support the current population; so wishing for it is also wishing that many people not be able to live who otherwise might.


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