One of the secrets of parenting is that we’re always teaching our children, whether we mean to or not. Our own experience with scarcity can influence our children in ways we don’t intend.
Old Assumptions Die Hard
Economics is frequently defined as “a science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” Stated more simply, economics assumes that there are many things we’d like to do, but not enough resources to do them all. For all of human history this has been a safe assumption. But will it always be so?
Some futurists and science fiction authors imagine a world where resources have expanded to meet all needs and beyond. Star Trek is a familiar example of such a post-scarcity civilization. The recently departed Iain Banks’ “Culture” novels describe another society that almost never fails to meet every need or want of its population.
Star Trek and The Culture are nice fantasies, but what about cold, hard reality. In an age where words like “austerity” and “economic collapse” punctuate the evening news, are we approaching a time when none of us need worry about money for rent or food? It’s true that recent years have been lean and turbulent, yet looking back, the standard of living for first-world citizens we call “poor” is in many ways higher than the middle- or even upper-class of a hundred years in the past.
The foreshocks of the post-scarcity age are already here. Most of the services we use on the Internet are free in the sense that most of us don’t shell out money to Google or Yahoo or Microsoft to use email, read news, or get a restaurant review. It’s not that these Internet titans aren’t finding a way to make a buck off us through advertising or reselling what they learn from our browsing patterns, but the point remains: we didn’t pay.
Retail businesses have learned that giving away Wi-Fi is a way to bring in paying customers. Wi-Fi belongs to the class of goods and services cheap enough to give away in hopes of making a sale. Think about the paper napkins at your favorite fast food restaurant. How much did you pay for them? Surely they must figure into the cost of your meal somehow, but not in a way that you or the manager care deeply about. If one day you should rush in, grab a handful of napkins, and run out, nobody is going to arrest you for theft. Internet mail, Wi-Fi and napkins all belong to the class of things that are already post-scarce — not exactly free, but close enough to free that there’s no need to charge directly for them.
Scarcities Real and Imagined
Scarcity won’t ever disappear completely. If you want the original Mona Lisa in your gallery and I do too, then we’ve got contention for resources. Real estate professionals like to joke that land is a great investment because nobody’s making any more of it. Yet these edge cases need not be damning to the post-scarcity hypothesis, as anyone can own a faithful replica of the Mona Lisa. And while making land is absurdly difficult for the most part, using the same land to comfortably house more people is not.
Far more common than actual scarcity are artificial scarcity or perceived scarcity. Much of modern marketing aims to create the impression of high value through implying low supply or high demand. “Only three lots left!” “While supplies last!” “Call in the next thirty minutes and…” These are the incantations of the ad man (or woman) trying to conjure scarcity into existence. The only reason they continue to use these tactics is because sometimes they actually work.
Perceived scarcity can emerge from fads or fashion. If everyone is suddenly wearing a designer label, then demand must be high, supply might not suffice, and all too often we rush to the store so as not to be left behind.
Another dirty trick of false scarcity is the upgrade cycle. Every six months or so a new generation of smartphones comes out that does ever-so-slightly more than the last batch, and if we’re not careful, it’s easy to overpay for a very minor difference just in order to have the “latest and greatest” phone.
Seeing Through False Scarcity, Learning Radical Abundance
Because scarcity has so pervaded our thinking, adjusting to a world of greater abundance is no subtle feat. Certainly we can practice gratitude for the bounty that almost all of us enjoy, that did not exist for generations past. And surely we can develop skepticism for salespeople who try to fool us into overvaluing their wares based on false scarcity, as well as developing a clearer perspective on the boundary between our essential needs as opposed to our nice-to-have wants. But I think it’s going to take a shift in the way we raise our children.
Consider this anecdote related by educator and author Lori Pickert. Young children in a preschool suddenly all became enamored of the blocks area at the same time. There weren’t enough blocks and there wasn’t enough room in that section of the classroom to accommodate everyone. Children were fighting to get at the scarce resource: blocks. At first, educators took this as a cue to teach sharing and turn-taking by rationing the amount of time each student could be in the block area. Rather than fixing the problem, this just led to more intense squabbles about how the sharing was to be done.
The deadlock was broken when the staff made the unorthodox move of simply expanding the block area and adding more blocks. Not only did this end the arguing, but the students got busy building even more ambitious structures with all their new blocks. Meanwhile the teachers were pleased that they were off the hook for rationing blocks and that their students were even more engaged in play.
Sharing and turn-taking are the gold-standard skills we want our kids to know when scarcity is a factor. But I’m convinced this will be less and less true as time goes by. Unless we teach the skill “let’s make more until there’s enough for everybody” as fundamentally as we teach scarcity-management skills, our children may grow up to feel poor simply because they aren’t primed to recognize and deal with abundance when it appears.
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