Once again those giant brains at the new economics foundation wish to tell us how we can all be poorer:
Far from eschewing materialism, a deeper understanding of humankind’s place in a living world of materials suggests the need and opportunity for a different kind of love affair with “stuff” – a long-term relationship of appreciation, slow pleasures, care and respect. Instead of abstinence and austerity, embracing the New Materialism could have profoundly positive effects. Inverting classic expectations of productivity in which fewer people produce more stuff for consumption, the New Materialism points to an economy in which, in effect, more people produce less stuff for consumption.
More people labouring to produce less stuff which can be consumed is a synonym for making us all poorer. For it means, obviously, that we all work harder in order to be able to consume less.
This is in one part just a repeat of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement:
“The laborer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in the work in and for itself; the satisfactions of working are their own reward; the details of daily labor are connected in the worker’s mind to the end product; the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops within the work process; work is connected to the freedom to experiment; finally, family, community and politics are measured by the standards of inner satisfaction, coherence and experiment in craft labor.”
And there's absolutely no doubt whatsoever that there's a joy in creation. This is why petrolheads spend months repairing something that then drives worse than any other car made in the last two decades. It explains those model cathedrals constructed entirely of matchsticks.
So, sure, why not? Connect with your inner creator by doing so. But that's a very different idea than the one being promoted, which is that we should all do this in all areas of life. That we should deliberately make ourselves poorer by hand cutting our own wheat, spinning our own wool and polishing our own turnips.
Work with a sense of craft delivers the benefits at the heart of the false promise of consumerism. In classic economic theory, we maximise our “utility” through what we buy. But in reality, what we do brings the greatest satisfaction. Lifelong learning – a natural part of a society in which we make and repair more – has multiple benefits: enhancing self-esteem, encouraging real social networks and supporting a more active and engaged life.
And that's where the gross error is. We do not maximise utility through what we buy. We maximise utility through what we do, this is already incorporated into the standard economic analysis. An increase in voluntary leisure is, in the standard analysis, an increase in utility. As is that Ferrari, that hand woven rug and the polished root vegetable. An increase in utility is defined as an increase in what we desire.
And as it turns out what human beings tend to desire is that they get more for less labour. With those little instances of constructing St Paul's out of Swan Vestas to leaven the pain of that increased utility.
It's not for nothing that Giles Wilkes called the nef "not economics frankly".