Saturday, December 31, 2011

Then and now - are we better off because of innovation?

In our household each person has gravitated to certain chores.  One of mine is making the coffee in the morning.  I'm usually the first one up, so it's natural that way. I'm also responsible for buying the coffee beans.  We're Peetniks, two pounds of French Roast every other week.  I used to buy the beans at Espresso Royale, but a few years ago I thought that started to taste not as good as it used to, so I explored alternatives.  Way back when, while I was still single and living in a condo in town, I had a Toshiba coffee maker with a timer. You put in the water and the beans the night before.  At the preset time the thing would grind the beans.  You could wake up to freshly brewed coffee, a bachelors delight. Some friends of mine who went to college at Berkeley were fans of Peets back then.  They'd order a lot of coffee and I'd sometimes get my beans through them.  I remember those beans as extremely oily.  That coffee maker broke down after not too long.  I think the grinder got over worked with the Peets beans.

At that time I thought plain French Roast was a bit metallic in taste so I bought both French Roast and Mocha Java beans  (from the Art Mart or the Walnut Street Tea Company) and mixed the two.  That was before pre-bagged coffee.  The stores had a large plastic bin of each coffee variety and would make a bag for you then and there on the spot.  The result was more pleasing.  When I originally subscribed directly to Peets, I ordered that same mix.  But it seemed to me the Mocha Java was just as oily as the French Roast, so I tried a pot with just French Roast beans and enjoyed that a lot.  We've stuck with the French Roast ever since, getting other coffee beans only when we run short because of hosting guests or over a long weekend where we might make a second pot in the late morning.

When I was growing up I didn't drink coffee at all.  My parents did, however.  They bought coffee in a can, pre-ground.  Remember the coffee commercials from back then?  Savarin featured El Exiente.  Yuban's tag line was - have a cup of Yuban for dessert.  Chock full o'Nuts was the heavenly coffee.  My parents mainly had Maxwell House, where their jingle emulated the sound of coffee being made.   This was in a percolator.  We didn't know about drip brewing coffee back then.  If somebody would have mentioned a glass carafe, that would have conjured up an image of a container for inexpensive wine.  For coffee, the percolator was it.  But it was a messy process and almost surely burnt the coffee. In cleaning up the kitchen, getting rid of the coffee grinds was the least pleasant activity.

My parents put milk in their coffee (or cream when that was available).  It cut the taste and made the coffee more palatable.  When I started to drink coffee, I did likewise. Nowadays though, I drink it black.  I want the coffee to taste (and smell) great by itself.  I don't want dairy products to adulterate the taste.  With freshly brewed Peets, I get just what I want.

I started to think of other examples in a similar vein, of how things have changed in ordinary consumption experiences since I was growing up, where then it was just something part of the landscape and now it is a more intensive experience.   One of those is cooking outside.  We had a built in outside fireplace in the southwest corner of the backyard when I was a kid.  We'd have wood fires in it.  Unlike how it is now, where we get a rick of wood delivered in the fall for our inside fireplace, at my parent's house we simply gathered fallen branches and twigs to use outside.  And the fireplace was for cooking, not for decoration.  We'd have a cookout on a Saturday afternoon when it wasn't too cold outside.  My dad would do the cooking, putting hamburgers and hotdogs into a hand grill, and potatoes directly into the fire.  There was no aluminum foil.   Since the fire would flame up now and then, some hotdogs might get burnt.  The potatoes definitely did.  That added to the charm. 

Contrast this to now, where we have a Weber with a gas starter for the coals and a built in thermometer to see how hot it is under the lid and we cook by a timer, turning the food over by the clock.  The procedure is much more controlled, the flavor more uniformly guaranteed, and we grill now mostly for dinner, doing that many evenings each week in the summer, with a much greater variety of foods cooked this way.  I especially like bell peppers and asparagus cooked on the grill.

Still another example is taking public transportation.  I worked one summer during college (and then the subsequent winter break) near the Battery and took a bus and then two different trains to get to work.  Really, it was the only way to get there.  When I was in grad school I lived about four miles from campus to get an affordable apartment.  I had a car so drove to school most of the time.  When the weather was real bad, however, I rode the 'L' from Howard to Dempster and walked the rest. The same was true when I first came down to Champaign.  I lived in an apartment complex that had outdoor parking only.  I had an old car, the same one from grad school, which we called the ruster-duster.  (It was a Plymouth Duster and the exterior was pretty rusted out.)  When it got too cold, it wouldn't start.  So I took the bus into school.  When I moved to the condo, it had an indoor and heated garage, and by then I was driving a Honda Accord.  I never took the bus after that.

Standard neoclassical economics makes welfare comparisons across regimes by assuming preferences are invariant and then compares the available consumption choices.  On this basis, we're better off now.  One needs to be a little careful making this judgment, because one should account for wealth accumulation in the calculation.  My parents, one an immigrant, the other the child of an immigrant and coming of age during The Great Depression, were prodigious savers.  Without a doubt my wife and I are much more willing to spend on ourselves than my parents did and hence our saving rate is lower.  Nevertheless, we have a comfortable amount of savings.  So, I believe, the neoclassical economics conclusion still holds.

Yet I want to challenge that result, because it doesn't feel right, the economics logic notwithstanding.  I will do so by taking to task the assumption on invariant preferences.  Through habituation and also by subtle social pressures, consumption impacts preference.  And since preference also clearly impacts consumption there is the possibility of a loop in causality.  The cycle can be virtuous, or it can be neutral, or it can be vicious. If we are not better off then the reason, presumably, would be because of some vicious cycle.

Focusing on information and communications technology as the innovation and the social adaptations to those, there's been a bit of a cottage industry in identifying the vicious cycles.  Perhaps the most well known of these is the Nicholas Carr piece, Is Google Making Us Stupid?  More recently is this Timothy Egan essay about the socializing of the mundane details of our lives, Please Stop Sharing. And here is a piece I read just yesterday, The Joy of Quiet, which argues that we should carve out certain times for ourselves, the weekends perhaps, where we should return to a Thoreau-like existence to escape the vicious cycle from being always connected by technology.

In my examples, however, I deliberately avoided considering information technology, because I wanted to point out that the possibility for vicious cycles is much larger and also that the pernicious consequences may be of multiple sorts. So on the one hand there is a tendency toward fetishism or addiction, which seems fairly obvious.  Less obvious, however, is that the more of these sort of behaviors we have, the less resilient we are when the environment doesn't provide the exact fix we're looking for.   One reason I'm not a good traveler is that the coffee in the hotel room doesn't quite do it for me, but I need a cup or two before my shower. Even at the start of the day, I'm a little off kilter.  If you asked my contemporaries whether we are more or less resilient than our parents (this would be an interesting thing to survey on and I'm not aware of anyone having done this particular inquiry) I'd hazard a guess that most would say their parents were more resilient.  In that sense we're a bit spoiled.  We've had too many opportunities. attained too easily.

Then, on the other hand, there is a tendency for our choices to move from democratic to cliquish or even elitist, especially if the latter comes with trying the new.  Taking the bus is democratic.  It is a shared experience by all the riders.   Driving to work, in contrast, one doesn't have to deal with the riffraff, one gets to listen to one's preferred sounds.

Innovation can afford a choice to accept the shared experience or stray away from it.  One of my unanswered questions of childhood is why my parents chose to stay in our house in Bayside instead of move to the suburbs on Long Island.  We had a corner house.  The neighbors who lived diagonally across the street from us did move, to Manhasset, a ritzier neighborhood and a larger house.  They clearly treated the Bayside place as a starter house.  Since the father was a young doctor when they first moved there, it makes sense that as he climbed his career ladder they'd find a different place.  I think a few of my classmates in Junior High had their families move, either for that reason or because they no longer wanted the kids to attend NYC schools.  But my parents didn't make a like choice.  Having managed my mom's finances since my father died, it's less obvious to me that we didn't move because we couldn't afford it, though I really have no idea of what real estate prices were like in the late 1960s - early 1970s, during the time period I'm thinking of, nor do I have any sense of of what their financial portfolio was like then.  Maybe we couldn't have afforded it then.  But maybe it was more that my parents thought of themselves as middle class, not rich or even upper middle class, so they were more comfortable living in a middle class neighborhood, irrespective of how large their savings were at the time. 

I've written a fair amount about the ethical failings of those in the mortgage loan business, making those subprime loans with teaser interest rates at the start but that would balloon upwards thereafter.  But I've not written nearly as much about the people who got those mortgages and purchased the homes that should have been unaffordable to them.  Have such people always existed, but never had opportunities like that before that could give expression in this manner?  Or have we innovated our way into this ludicrousness, too much Lake Wobegon thinking the cause, coupled with a keeping up with the Joneses mentality? 

Based more on feelings rather than on reasoning it through, I believe we live more comfortably than my parents did then, but that they were better off because they had a decent existence and their future and the future of their family was more secure.  In considering the security of existence for my offspring, innovation seems more a wrecking ball than paving a pathway to a new land of plenty.

Now it's time to make the coffee.


andy vt said...

I'm not convinced that innovation has stripped us of a "better" existence. Change is sometimes uncomfortable, so perhaps the underlying issue is that we just have to deal with more change now; but that (like any other skill) can be learned.

While I don't have the same length of perspective, I think that technological innovation has made my life better both over my life and in contrast to my parents. Comparing my children's experience with my own, I think the same is true there.

Lanny Arvan said...

Andy - thanks for your comment. I wasn't trying to make a definitive conclusion in that post.

Specifically for me, I can see technology innovation as a big plus and a big minus. I find I get a lot of joy and satisfaction from writing these posts, where I know I wouldn't if the writing and the publishing were more traditional. Yet I also feel addicted to sitting in front of my computer.