Punchinello’s Chronicles

April 17, 2011

The Past is Gone

Convenience and comfort: Those are the two basic drivers for invention, technology and business. Entertainment is another huge factor, but at the most basic level, we invent things to make our lives easier. First we had to walk everywhere we wanted to go. Then we figured out how to use animals so we could ride. Along came the wheel, and we invented carts pulled by animals. Then came the bicycle and automobile.

Throughout history, we’ve invented new technology to make things easier to accomplish. Or we’ve invented a better way of doing something that we previously invented. Something cheaper sold better than something expensive, eventually closing down the less efficient system. That’s competition. That’s the law of survival of the fittest.

But things are changing now. For the past 50 years or so, western civilization has invented and developed so many new gizmos, gadgets, tools and processes, we’ve lived a life of luxury. Never in recorded history has mankind been able to indulge in such widespread convenience and comfort. Never before has there been the type of entertainment and information sharing we have with something like computers.

Medicine is obviously one of the “miraculous” areas of development. But all the sciences and engineering fields have seen incredible changes. America is one of the first countries in all of history where poor people (real poverty) are in danger of dying by obesity related diseases and problems. Amazing!

We hear about the “recovery,” meaning that the financial problems of 2008-9 were bad, but we’re about to “recover” and return to “the way things used to be.” We all think we’re going to see a return of “the past.” Back then, people bought houses and cars, people bought all sorts of things. Stores had many, many choices of all kinds of different makes and models of gadgets.

A wealthy and prosperous nation can afford to produce niche products. That means products that have a limited number of buyers. With everyone buying whatever they want, there still are enough people in the market who can afford to buy something unusual. Consider many of the products that are disappearing.

For example: Let’s suppose you want a fishing pole. In the past, you could find all kinds of poles, anywhere from a 25-cent bamboo cane pole, up to super-duper high-tech poles costing more than a thousand dollars! Lots of companies were making poles, selling in lots of different stores. Wal-Mart might have five brands, but Gander Mountain would have very different brands.

Then came the mergers and acquisitions of the 1980. Companies bought other companies, never inventing something new, only taking control of what already was in the stores. Little by little, brands disappeared to be manufactured by the same companies. They might have different names, but the actual manufacturing was coming from fewer source companies.

Another example would be optical disk players/recorders. Although you can find many different brand names, the underlying product is really only made by perhaps two companies world-wide. So too with all sorts of things you may not have paid attention to before.

What about frozen foods, or many of the brands of food you see in the supermarket? They’re all being consolidated under only one or two global umbrella corporations. Those companies used to at least keep some separations between their manufacturing, but all that’s gone away or is rapidly going away.

How many times do you go out to buy something that was a no-brainer in the past? You needed to replace something, and just assumed you could go to the store and buy the replacement. How many times are you “suddenly discovering” that your item doesn’t exist anymore? Maybe it exists, but it has none of the original features, none of the original quality, and it’s probably made out of plastic now, if you can even find it.

For awhile, I’d thought this was about really bad marketing decisions. I’d thought that stupid people managing big companies were just trying to save money and getting rid of stuff that wasn’t selling all that well. Or they had a “better idea” that sucked. No, I don’t think that’s the situation.

The world is in the starting phase of The Greater Depression. Sadly, this affects the entire world financial system now, without any of the separation of the 1930’s. All countries are now interdependent upon each other, so when one nation has financial trouble, it affects every nation. The result is that excepting the super wealthy investors, most people have less and less money.

We might think we have the same amount of money, but with inflation eating away at our purchasing power, we can’t buy as much anymore. With credit cards maxed to their limits, we can’t borrow anymore, either. So we’re not buying as much. Even more tragically is that modern economies tend to run on consumer spending, rather than by inventing and manufacturing new stuff.

The result is that we don’t have the money anymore, to afford “niche markets.” Excepting for online microbusinesses, where individuals make something unusual and sell it via the Internet, large companies can’t afford all the various models and styles that used to be in stores.

It’s the same thing with sizes for products, particularly in food items. Polls and focus groups seem to tell manufacturers that people won’t pay higher prices for sugar, butter, milk, pasta, and so forth. Therefore, the only option is to make smaller boxes. A 5-lb. bag of sugar now is 4 pounds, so as to keep the same price as “back then in the past.”

A 16-oz. can of just about anything has now become a 15-oz. can. A box of something that was 16 ounces, more often than not ends up being 12 ounces. The classic 2″x4″ timbers used to build house frames has long since become 1-1/2″ by 3″ if you’re lucky. Wherever you look, prices are “about the same,” but the size of those products is shrinking.

Not only are the sizes of products shrinking, so too are their availability. It’s nearly impossible to find replacement parts for small items made only a few years ago. Most electronic items are “toss and replace,” because it’s too expensive to keep on hand replacement parts for “obsolete” technology.

The bottom line is that even if some kind of miraculous event takes place and we fix the budget deficits, national debt problems, and every other screwed-up aspect of today’s economy, there’s no going back. We’re never going to see housing prices go back to 1995 levels. There are too many houses sitting unsold. The markets are changing because fewer people have enough money left to buy much of anything.

I suppose the lesson here is that if you see something you like, buy a lifetime supply because it’s surely going to disappear, be discontinued, or be changed into something so cheap it breaks in ten minutes. If you’re older than around 45 years old, whatever you remember from the past, in terms of shopping; it’s gone!

There still are a number of thrift stores, secondhand shops, and there’s a growing market for “softly used” high-end goods and clothing. That won’t last much longer, because we’re not replacing anything. We’re not manufacturing new items, inventing new items, and coming up with new variations like we used to. Yes, there are some fantastic new inventions floating around, but the manufacturing is taking place in so-called emerging nations.

We’re witnessing a fundamental change in life as we’ve known it. All you have to do is visit your local shopping malls, or try to buy a replacement for anything that was really useful and handy to have around. Products that don’t sell to millions of “average people” are too expensive to keep in stock anymore. Goodbye to all of that! We can’t afford it!


1 Comment »

  1. Great article and so true. I too have seen the products getting smaller and the ILLUSION that you are getting the same as before. One thing with the food is that it is really affecting the recipes that you have had for years. You end up buying more and then have some left over which costs more in the long run. Use to be that if you wanted to make Chocolate Chip cookies you would buy one bag and make a batch. Now you have to settle for either less chips or buy 2 bags.

    I for one don’t think it will go back to the way that it was.

    Comment by Kathy — April 17, 2011 @ 11:06 am | Reply

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