David R. Henderson  

Boudreaux on Prosperity Pools

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With important exceptions, such as antibiotics, commercial air travel, air conditioning, and the Internet, most of the goods and services that define our modern prosperity are akin to Pool Noodles. Each one, individually, adds only a minuscule amount of well-being--or what economists call "utility"--to our total human experience. Each is akin to a drop of water in a large swimming pool: add a single drop of water to a swimming pool and, the laws of physics inform us, the water level of that pool will be higher than it would be without that drop of water. But good luck trying to detect the effect of that single drop of water on the pool's water level.
This is from Donald J. Boudreaux, "The Prosperity Pool," the Econlib Feature Article for April.

This brings me to my favorite example because I have similar memories:

The shampoo in your shower is in a plastic bottle. Fifty years ago that shampoo was likely in a glass bottle. I remember cutting my foot badly, sometime in the early 1970s, on a piece of glass from a bottle of shampoo that I had dropped and broken while I was showering. Fortunately, an inexpensive antibacterial ointment and Band-Aids ensured that the wound had no serious consequences.

One of the things that distinguishes Don from most other economists, including even some free-market economists, is his appreciation for those who created the things we value. Here's my favorite paragraph:
On the other hand, because our overall volume of prosperity dwarfs each instance of wealth production, each such instance seems as insignificant to our prosperity as does each drop of water to the water level in a swimming pool. Intellectuals and politicians then find it easy to treat business people with contempt. As a former university colleague of mine sneeringly said of a businessman some years ago: "He sells toilet parts!" This philosophy professor could not imagine a more contemptible occupation.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
JohnOgden writes:

"modern prosperity" Can we include electrification and automobiles in the modern, or are they pre-modern? They are of similar antiquity as air travel. It is true that as our wealth increases each marginal dollar is less important, but I wager each doubling of our income is consequential. As for the business man and the professor, without toilet parts, it is difficult to flush away professors.

ThaomasH writes:

I recall long ago from college a saying that applies as well to businessmen and politicians: "If we as a society do not demand excellence from plumbers because plumbing is a mean profession and do not demand excellence from philosophers because philosophy is an exalted profession, we may find that neither our pipes or our theories will hold water." Of course that works all the way around: neither businessmen/ plumbers nor politicians/ philosophers should be disdained.

JK Brown writes:

It might not appreciated in the current climate against global trade, but that trade depends on two shapes formed out of steel, the locks that make up the corners of CONEX boxes.

I just read this from lecture 6 of Mises' 'Marxism Unmasked'

The production process which we are organizing and operating today started in the early ages of history, in the remotest ages of history. If the children used up the nets and fish produced by their parents, capital accumulation would have had to start all over again. There is a continuous progress from simpler conditions to more refined conditions. It is important to realize this because we must know that, from the early beginnings on, the first step toward this system of producing with the aid of capital goods was saving, and has always been saving.

von Mises, Ludwig (2010-12-08). Marxism Unmasked (LvMI)

For some reason the just clicked. Everything we have is just micro-improvements upon what we had before.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:
As a former university colleague of mine sneeringly said of a businessman some years ago: "He sells toilet parts!" This philosophy professor could not imagine a more contemptible occupation.


The conditions of a social order are determined by how its members come to look upon and regard one another.

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