in darkness, I see a starkness
a starkness unlike the one I knew before
in gloom, I see a boom
a boom unlike the one I knew before
in pain, I see a gain
a gain unlike the one I knew before
in fierceness, I see a nearness
a nearness unlike the one I knew before
in animals, I see a spirit
a spirit unlike the one I knew before
a spirit not frail nor afraid of hail
the kind that does not fail and will set sail
on waters fierce or dumb
by Pennies and Pounds
Written on May 8, 2017, this poem is under copyright and is the intellectual property of the creator of the poem and this website. Express permission is required to reproduce or distribute it - please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for such approval.
Most people in history created their livelihood -- either by creating income or by actually producing the necessities of life with their own hand and toil -- within family or communal units. The idea of working at a job for a larger entity such as a corporation is extremely new in the grand swath of human history. In effect, almost all of the people who ever lived could in effect be classified as small business owners - this is even true today as most US employment comes still from sole proprietorships or small businesses.
Why is it useful to understand the history of work/labor?
This idea is very important to people living in modern societies because we have a view within our minds that is quite different from reality. Many people believe that:
Going beyond the present day and having at least a basic conception of the things our ancestors did to create substance and value in their ancient worlds will assist in opening up your mind to new opportunities, new ways of combining life with work, and new ways of creating value for others.
Hunting and Gathering - The First Sole Proprietorships
For most of our history, we hunted meat and gathered fruits and vegetables to feed our families and our very tight-knit communities. The lifestyle involved simply waking up with the sun, looking for food during the day, and resting in the evening. Bedtime was when it became dark and no hunter-gatherer had to plan very far ahead.
The first really interesting thing to think about when thinking about how hunter-gatherers provided for themselves is how there were almost never any intermediaries. Besides the possibility of occasional trade within tight-knit communities, hunter-gatherers had what can be considered a two-step method to getting what they wanted. In terms of purity of execution, this was the most basic/fundamental way of obtaining food and water - a hunter gather would literally expend energy in order to obtain the final product he/she sought.
The second interesting thing arises from the first - hunter-gatherers didn't create value for other human beings in order to achieve their goals. Of course, a hunter-gather might want to provide for his family and create value in that pursuit, but that's not what we mean here. What we mean is that hunter-gatherers either went to pick edible growings or killed animals in order to obtain sustenance. In that pursuit they did not serve any other human being in any way - they simply went out into the world and obtained what they needed from it. Contrast that with today's world where we almost exclusively have to earn our livings by creating value for other people, be they your employees or your customers (which are also your employers in a sense). We're not making a normative statement here - we're simply making a descriptive statement.
The third very interesting thing about thinking of the working hunter-gatherers performed is that they had a direct understanding of how their efforts and skills translated into the final product they obtained. Of course, hunter-gatherers likely had some sort of quasi-religious beliefs where they imbued objects, the weather, etc. with spiritualistic aspects and they might have relied on them to provide. However, that doesn't detract from the simple physics of hunting and gathering - every hunter-gatherer must have understood how it was their own physical efforts out in the world that were the proximate cause of their gain. They could have thought the ultimate cause came from the skies or from the tree spirits or elsewhere, but they surely understood that the proximate cause was their own effort - they surely understood that without themselves leaving their cave, picking growing, or killing an animal and dragging it home, their families would not have food to eat. Contrast that with today's modern corporate worker who works in a corporate office or campus and who has
These complex factors can include things such as
Yes, a person's well-being still depends on themselves and everyone must take responsibility for their lives - you must work hard and well so that you're able to do well in your job and in life. However, it is abundantly clear that the level of mental control that a person feels over his or her method of meeting wants/needs should have been far greater in the past than in today's complex and interconnected environment where so much of the economy is not visible or understandable by a single individual.
This understandability of relationship between soil and result could be psychologically beneficial to human beings on many levels. This isn't a psychology website and we're not purporting to have any theoretical or empirical underpinning for these statements, but it does seem to make sense that an individual who has a clear "a leads to b" understanding of the relationship between toil and result -- as opposed of "a to b to c to d to a BLACK BOX to e to f to g" understanding -- would have greater psychological comfort and less psychological stress.
In no way is above supposed to make you envy a hunter-gatherer - we live in a far richer world (both physically and mentally) than our ancestors and anyone who would want to give up today's peace, today's luxury, and today's comfort for a hungry dangerous life of basic subsistence and survival is a quite unusual person.
Agricultural Revolution and Farming
After many centuries of foraging, humans ended up farming. This happened gradually over the course of centuries as well, but the end result was the literal transformation of human life from a nomadic existence to a settled life that would be far more familiar to the modern person.
Although life transformed as well as the approach fro providing for it, humans still operated at a family or communal level - humans still remained in effect small business owners. The business changed, of course humans went from hunting and gathering to
Humans mainly operated as family units after the agricultural revolution according to current historical data with larger family-based communities existing for things that went beyond the family. In effect, each household ran a small farming business that employed the entire household from a relatively young age by today's standards.
Here people had a bit more complexity - their toil no longer immediately translated into value creation (eg. food to eat) but had to go through the intermediate step of waiting for the seeds to grow into plants. The same is true for livestock - farmers and heard had to wait for livestock to grow and spend time and energy on breeding instead of just going out into the wild to kill game.
We can see that from hunting and gathering to farming -- things which make up by far the vast majority of human existence -- we operated in very small-scale communities and were in effect creating our livelihoods within our family units. In effect, all hunter-gatherers and farmers until the Industrial Revolution turned farming into big business can be classified as small business owners in the very broad sense of the world. These individuals worked primarily for themselves and their families. Farmers in certain eras might have had to pay taxes to lords or barons or other elites, but these can be thought of as quasi-taxes. Almost all of humanity did not know the meaning of providing your labor (either in the form of physical or mental exertion) to another individual in return for some sort of payment - this was the case for many reasons, one of which was an economy that was so poor that it could not sustain such interactions in a meaningful way.
Artisans and Craftsmen - Sole Proprietors Throughout History
Beyond farming, there have been at times in history a class or artisans or craftsman. This class developed after the Agricultural Revolution as settled communities were needed in order for this class of people to arise. They mainly operated in larger cities and they ran what can be considered small businesses. The words "artisan" and "craftsman" is too narrow, however, as these individuals operated a large variety of business. These businesses including:
All of the above can also be classified as small businesses. They are more like the small businesses we think of today - instead of directly producing their own livelihoods, these artisans and craftsmen would set up shop and serve their communities. They would very likely have most of their family involved in the business and live either close by or directly above their shops.
The Modern Working World
Although the majority of US jobs still come from small businesses, most people think of work as something you do in a large-scale setting such as a corporation. Most people even aspire to such work.
This work is quite different than operating a small business because it involves providing your labor to a larger entity that you do not control and likely can never fully understand (not even the CEO of a large firm fully understand what's really going on). This creates a sort of "black box" effect where you provide your labor into a "black box" and then some income is given to you. You aren't totally sure about the actual value you're creating for the firm and you don't fully understand how your labor fits into the bigger puzzle.
There are of course many benefits working in jobs - most of these benefits come from a certain stability that is not always present in running a small business. However, there might be some psychological costs that affect a person in the following ways:
Working in a job might make a person blind to other small but very profitable opportunities where their skills might be used. They might not ever consider opening their own business, running their own website, consulting on their own, or providing value on a small scale. This is unfortunate because it is in such small setting where you are able to capture the full value of your efforts (instead of the employer capturing most of the value). This is really how people get rich today - most people will never get rich working for a job and saving a large portion of their income; the vast majority of people in our world get rich in entrepreneurial activities.
Some Examples of Employment Throughout History
Although most people worked for themselves throughout history, there were some interesting examples of employment throughout history. Here are a few:
We live in a world of massive amounts of data. You've likely heard the term "Big Data" many times before, but it's far beyond this and you probably don't have a full grasp of how amazing our modern and connected world (mainly the developed 1st world) is today.
In the year 248 AD, Rome celebrated its 1000th anniversary - it had been 1000 years since the founding of Rome. More data is created in one year today than was created in those 1000 years of the Roman Republic and Empire. This is an astonishing fact that should bring a sense of awe to every intelligent and curious person - humanity is creating absolutely vast amounts of all kinds of data today.
What kind of data?
Here are just a few examples of the kinds of data creation that take place every day - that takes place very second every second:
The list above is meant to be broad in order to demonstrate the broad swath of things from which data is created today. Data can be created by governments or big corporations, but data can just as easily be created by small businesses and individuals during their everyday tasks and processes.
The above list is just a tiny example - almost anything remotely automated or electronic creates some sort of data today.
A Key Question
If we have an exponentially larger amount of data today than in the past, why aren't we exponentially smarter today as a society? Sure, the size of our economy as measured by GDP or GNP is much larger than at any point in history, but we can still see that we haven't moved that far way from past societies and civilizations in terms of the things that are most important to humanity.
Going further, why aren't businesses incredibly smart if we have so many data available? So many small and medium sized businesses today still operate under the same paradigms as businesses of the past. The problem is that even though there are tremendous amounts of data (and easy ways to collect more), the data isn't being productively used. The data is just sitting there. It's easy to collect data - it's hard to use it effectively.
What you really need isn't data - it's intelligence. You don't need a data dump on your hard drive or a stream of data flowing in at many GBs a second - you need to know how to turn whatever data you do have (hopefully it's quality data) into intelligence. This is what the human mind does - it turns raw data from sensory inputs into intelligence via the brain.
To better illustrate the importance of intelligence and the inadequacy fo data alone, let's imagine a fictional scenario. Imagine giving an ancient hunter-gatherer tribe all of the data available today on a giant supercomputer. Of course, they won't be able to access that data, but let's ignore that for a second and imagine that SOMEHOW that ancient tribe could in fact access all of this vast data. Do you think that things would really change for that tribe? It is likely that the tribe would be incapable of utilizing the data in any way and creating any actionable intelligence from it - they wouldn't have either the mathematical/statistical sophistication to extract much meaning from it and they wouldn't have the background landscape required to absorb and process the data in appropriate and meaningful contexts.
The Definition of Data
Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines data as follows:
1. factual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation <the data is plentiful and easily available — H. A. Gleason, Jr.> <comprehensive data on economic growth have been published — N. H. Jacoby>
2. information output by a sensing device or organ that includes both useful and irrelevant or redundant information and must be processed to be meaningful
3. information in numerical form that can be digitally transmitted or processed
We define data in simpler terms:
Data are discreet units of information that provide some evidence of something in the real world
Data isn't something complicated. Although we might take a technological slant in our mind when thinking about data today, data can come in many forms. Data can be written on a stone tablet, on a piece of papyrus, on a piece of paper, or by tying knots using a string to keep track of things. Data can come in magnetic form as on credit cards. Data can come from CDs and DVDs or data can be stored on a flash drive. Data isn't technological - data is just information but technology has helped us gather and store vast amounts of it.
One of the key features of data is that it gives us some sort of information about the real world. This is due to the fact that data arises from the real world. The only way data can be created is by somehow recording some aspect of the outside world in some sort of storage mechanism. That mechanism might be robust or it might be fragile, it might be high advanced or primitive, but it has to (at least for a time) store some sort of information that is somehow derived from the real world.
Data that has no basis in or relationship to the real world is utterly useless for the purposes of using it to create value and making more effective decisions. Imagine a set of data that is just made up randomly - a random list of customer data that includes totally made up random numbers for purchase amounts, transaction IDs, customer contact information, items or services purchased, customer acquisition methods, discounts applied, and satisfaction surveys. How could a business use this made up data in any meaningful and purposeful way? They couldn't. This data would be of use to no one because no amount of technical knowledge or manipulation would yield anything positive - you cannot derive anything from it. In effect, it's "garbage in, garbage out" with data.
Intelligence, in the sense we're discussing here, is the use of data in effective ways to achieve valuable (whatever that means) goals and objectives in the real world.
What sort of goals are we talking about? They can be any goal that is worthwhile:
Most worthwhile goals are achieved through a combination of effort and intelligence - effort alone is not always enough because you need to put your effort int he right direction. Of course, intelligence alone is useless without the effort to use it also - but intelligence s the seed from which our goals can be productively and effectively achieved.
Intelligence is what sets humans apart in some ways from the other beings that inhabit the world we find ourselves in. Although lots of animals are intelligent in some ways, they're not as intelligent as us. We can use complex models of the world to make decisions - this is why we are the dominant species.
Intelligence is the stuff that builds bridges, building, and apps. Intelligence is what wins battles in war and battles in the boardroom. Intelligence is what allows you to outperform in life and in business - it's what can set you apart in the battlefield of business and make that customer come through your doors or visit your website or download your app instead of your opponents'.
Data vs. Intelligence
Data and intelligence are two different but interrelated things. Data is used in order to obtain intelligence. Or, stated another way, you need data if you're going to have some sort of intelligence.
Intelligence doesn't just arise out of nowhere. The kind of intelligence that is useful (the productive kind of intelligence that helps with making effective decisions int the real world) is based on data. Therefore, intelligence and data are not two different but similar things, they are two very different things with one being required fro the other. It's like water and oxygen - you need oxygen atoms to make water, but water and oxygen are far from the same thing. Just as with oxygen and water, you need data to have intelligence, but intelligence is far more than just data - it's using data to create an understanding of the world.
Intelligence can exist in many forms. It can mean knowing your:
Intelligence can also mean knowing things there aren't specific numbers, but are more comparative in nature - things such as:
Intelligence can also be binary - it can include things like:
It ain't what you don't know that kills you, it's what you know for sure that just ain't so (Mark Twain)
I love the above quote - it's so elegant and so true. What you don't know won't really be the thing that hurts you in life. We all don't know something; we're all foolish in our own ways. However, when we're aware of our own foolishness and ofebruary-20th-2017.htmlf our own weaknesses, we can prevent bad situations by not going too deep into things without taking precautions. When we're sure of something, however, we often act without taking many (or any) precautions - we go all in with confidence. Hopefully that works out, but sometimes it doesn't - and when it doesn't it can be bad because you've likely not put the proper risk management practices and controls in place. Had you not been so confident, however, you might have still been wrong, BUT you likely would be wrong in a much more subdued way.
The modern world is the epitome of security when taken from a historical perspective. We have taken a rough, difficult, dangerous, and unpredictable existence as human beings and, over many centuries, transformed it into a far more predictable, calm, and secure way of life.
Now, by security and insecurity I don't mean the modern definition of the term - I don't mean confidence or lack of confidence in yourself. I mean something much deeper and more universal when I use these terms in this context. I'm talking about being truly secure and being deeply insecure as a human being in relation to the world around you.
To better illustrate what I mean by these terms I'll provide an example:
Be the Mouse?
So, if a mouse is the epitome of an insecure creature and a lion is the epitome of a secure creature, why would I imply with my title that insecurity is somehow good - why would I imply that you should somehow be insecure? Because you're not a lion.
You're not a lion - you're a fragile human being that has to be concerned with far more than his or her place in the animal kingdom. You have to be concerned not only with your survival today in a physical sense, but with your survival in a financial, career, emotional, and mental sense. Life more difficult for us human beings - we're competing on more playing fields.
Security = Death
Although being too deeply insecure will cause you mental trauma, the only way to truly have security in any of the places where it is important is by being constantly insecure. The moment you are too secure you're dead meat. The moment you're content with your situation or position or the moment you let your guard down you give room to the cold and harsh world and those in it to destroy you. Don't give the world or any person that room - be constantly vigilant and never feel sorry for yourself for it.
Don't feel bad for being insecure - the modern world we live in makes us think that a sense of security is one of the ultimate goals in life. In today's world too many people feel that we should have a constant sense of peace and calm and security - we want to feel like everything is ok and that there's nothing to worry about. Stop wanting that and realize that the game will never end and the struggle will never cease - the moment you overcome something, there is something else waiting for you. The moment you achieve some sense of security, there is something else to be on guard against. You must stop putting so much value on being in a calm state - a calm state means nothing and is nothing. A state of vigilance and security in everything you do is another state and it's not less good - it's the natural state of a creature as fragile as us.
The title is made partly in jest, of course, as we all know that money does in fact exist. What I'm trying to convey, however, is that money as we know it doesn't by itself represent anything useful, valuable, or meaningful to humankind - money is only a means at moving towards useful, valuable, or meaningful things. Money is just a storage system (similar to a battery) where the value we created is "stored" instead of spent.
Imagine a factory that produces electricity. That factory can either:
Now, there really isn't a third way is there? If we don't use it and we don't store it, the electricity will no longer be accessible to us.
In a similar manner, when we earn income by working or creating value in the world, we can either spend the income or we can store it in the form of US Dollars (or another type of currency). We can put these dollars into a checking account, a savings account, under our mattress, or invest in various ways, but either way, what we are doing is storing the purchasing power we created through our productive actions for use at a later time.
Of course, this is a big simplification and there are many gray areas and nuances that are ignored in our very simplified analysis, but it's suffice to say that thinking of money in this manner could prove both interesting and useful.
Now, if we do think of money as a battery, the next question is "What happens when we don't use it?" In general, like electricity stored within a battery, if we don't use the purchasing power stored in our money, the purchasing power will slowly wither away due to inflation. The purchasing power could also very abruptly be eliminated in the case of a some sort of national disaster that leaves the currency worthless (there are countless examples of this throughout history). So, if we are to be wise, we might want to diversify - we might want to store our accumulated wealth in different batteries in different places in an attempt to prevent an unreasonable amount of exposure due to a single point of failure. Additionally, knowing that all batteries degrade over time, we will want to pump the money out once in a while and put it back into productive endeavors (eg. investing in new businesses, purchasing real estate, purchasing education, donating it etc.).
a. an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion
b. a strong and unusual need or desire for something
In today's modern society (modern western society at least) we seem to fetishize consistency. We call politicians who change their minds on issues or change their views "flip-floppers." Who among us hasn't defended an opinion we no longer held simply because we held it before and discussed it with others? Both externally and internally in our own minds, we seem to have this unusual and intense desire to remain consistent with our past thoughts, beliefs, actions, words, and desires - we seem to have an irrational and unfounded fear of admitting that we've changed our minds on something or that we've grown up a bit and now see the parts of the picture that we didn't see before.
It's not clear where this fetishism of consistency comes from. It could arise from without (an external influence on us by the media or the education system) or it could arise organically from within (many individuals valuing consistency and see it as a vital trait). Regardless of where it comes from, today's intense devotion to consistency has likely gone too far - some consistency is important, BUT putting consistency above all else (including growth, education, and flexibility) is a foolish thing for a person to do and a foolish thing for a society to exalt.
If you believed X in the past but now believe Y, you must not be afraid to admit either to yourself or to others that your position has moved. Of course, if you consistently change positions or can never make up your mind on issues, that's a problem of its own, but when you move from X to Y because of personal growth, because of education on the topic, or because of an increased internal flexibility, you are acting in a very human and correct way.
In short, it's ok to change your mind when
But, your mind really hasn't changed if
We all know (or should know) that buying a lottery ticket is truly a waste of money in the formal sense of the concept. Your chances of winning are likely less than your chances of getting struck by lighting. Even with an enormous jackpot, the expected value of the bet is almost always, if not always, less than what you pay to play. Therefore, it's not an investment or even a good gamble. You're better off playing something with far better odds. Even still, you're better off keeping your money in your pocket. If that's the case, why do so many people still play?
There are various theories as to why the lottery is so popular even though it's such a bad bet (e.g. tax on those not good at math, tax on the poor, tax on the uneducated, irrational individuals, overly optimistic individuals, etc.). I have my own theory on the matter. I don't have proof that it's right, but it seems interesting and probable to me.
The lottery is a cheap form of entertainment and that is why lower-income individuals seem to represent the largest portion of lottery players.
Numerous studies have shown that the vast majority of lottery players are low-income individuals. I believe that this is fairly important in trying to understand why so many people play a game with such horrible odds and low expected value relative to the cost to play. I don't think that these low-income individuals are deluded or all bad at math. I believe you will find a broad spectrum of people in this low-income group, some of which might be math geniuses. However, all low-income people have at least one thing in common: they don't have a lot of money. I believe low-income people are the largest represented group when it comes to lottery players by far because the lottery is a form of entertainment and one of the cheapest forms of entertainment around.
To believe my theory you have to believe that gambling is entertainment. I enjoy blackjack and I definitely believe there is a lot of entertainment value in blackjack and various forms of gambling. Among various other things, you get an adrenaline rush in anticipating the potential reward and fearing the potential loss. Low-income people might not be able to spring for a $5-a-hand (if you can find a table that cheap) blackjack table or make a trip to Las Vegas to play the penny slots. Even the poorest people, however, can likely afford to spend a dollar or two on a lottery ticket. Lottery tickets might just be a form of entertainment.
If lottery tickets are a form of entrainment, then people buying lottery tickets aren't as irrational as some would have you believe. They are paying a dollar or a few dollars for a similar type thrill to the one I get at a blackjack table. I am great at math and I understand statistics so I understand that blackjack is a losing proposition. I don't care, however, and I believe many lottery players don't care either. Because I know, and I believe many lottery players know, that we're not in it to win, just to have a good time. We don't come with more than we are comfortable losing and we're fine when we lose because we received entertainment value for the money we spent. If I lose $100 at a table and I got four hours of adrenaline-filled fun and a bunch of free drinks out of it, I am happy.
For a few dollars you get to buy the lottery ticket, fill it out and think about the numbers you want to choose, and then wait and anticipate, hoping that you win and getting a bit of an adrenaline rush in the process. I wouldn't play, but it just might be a good value proposition to some people. Maybe it's not a waste of money after all.
Note: When I discussed gambling and entertainment I was only talking about individuals who are healthy gamblers and see gambling for what it really is. If we are discussing individuals who are addicted to gambling for the various reasons one can get addicted to such an activity, that is a different matter entirely and that is beyond the scope of this article.
The United States Men's National Soccer Team allows modern Americans to feel something very unusual yet something I find very profound and useful: We get to feel like the scrappy underdog clawing our way to the top.
For most of the twentieth century and the short part of the twenty-first century through which we have so far lived, the United States of America has been a dominant player in the geopolitical sphere and an economic powerhouse. During the most recent part of this era of American dominance the United States of America has been the only superpower and the world's economic powerhouse by far. It is a safe assumption to say that everyone alive today has lived through an era of American dominance. During our lives we have lived in the Rome of our era. We have lived in the most powerful and prosperous nation on Earth.
That power and prosperity is demonstrated in almost every aspect of human endeavor. The culture of the United States is constantly exported to the entire world. The greatest technological innovations occur in the United States. For example, how many computer operating systems can you think of? All of them were probably created in the United States. The internet was created in the United States. The military capabilities of the United States dwarf all other nations and the United States spends more on military expenditures than the next ten countries combined. In the Olympic games the United States dominates in both medals and the number of athletes. I can go on and on with examples of American dominance and power, but I hope my point is made clear by the examples I have already given.
I don't think American dominance is either a good thing or a bad thing on its face. It is just a fact of the world we live in and it affects how Americans view their country, how they view themselves, and how they view themselves in relation to the world. It's not that America is better than other countries because of this dominance or that Americans are better, it is just that Americans are used to living in the greatest country on Earth. That fact has to play some role in the self-perception of Americans.
This dominance and power wasn't always so, however. In fact, for most of American history, the United States was not the most powerful country on Earth. In the beginning the United States wasn't even a country at all. It was just a set of colonies in the New World with an economy, infrastructure, and culture severely lacking when compared to the Old World superpowers. After the American Revolution and through the Civil War America grew in power and economic prosperity, but European powers still dominated the geopolitical sphere and Europe was where most of the wealth was created and where that wealth resided. It was only in the late nineteenth century that the tide started to turn in America's favor and only after World War II did America emerge as a global superpower. The above is obviously a very simple description of history and we won't discuss the reasons for why the United States became so powerful, but it is safe to say that the America we live in today (in terms of power and prosperity) is not the America of the past.
The United States Men's National Soccer Team represents the America of the past to me. The United States team is not close to being a contender for the gold metal. No one in his or her right mind reasonably expects the United States to win. If the United States is able to get to the Round of 16, we're pretty happy. The quarterfinals? We're ecstatic. The Old World powers of Italy, England, Spain, and Portugal along with some New World teams like Brazil and Argentina dominate the sport. The United States isn't a bad team, but it isn't a great team either. However, the United States team plays their heart out and has an incredible desire to progress and get better. One day, many people say, the United States might have a national soccer team to rival the world's top teams. Until then we will continue watching our underdog team claw their way forward with grit and courage.
This is reminiscent of the American Revolution, where the United States became a brand new country and was far from being a dominant world player. Even during the American Revolution, the army of the colonies was thought to be inferior compared to the professional army of Great Britain. However, America was able to surprise the world and itself time and time again as it has, figuratively speaking, clawed it's way through history to the top of the pack among nations. Americans of past generations lived in a country that was either in the backwash, a nonissue, or a middling power. Modern Americans live in today's version of Rome, by far the most powerful nation on Earth in almost every respect. Watching the American soccer team allowed me to root for the underdog and to not expect to win. Watching the American soccer team gave me the opportunity to wonder if we would advance and be thankful for a tie against Portugal. Watching the American soccer team will make me very pleased if America advances in a way that I just can't feel when America does well in the Olympics. When America performs spectacularly at the Olympics, it's somewhat expected. When America performs well at the World Cup, it's not expected and, therefore, all the more amazing and pleasant to watch and experience. If and when America finally wins the World Cup, I believe I will be absolutely floored and astounded for it will have been a long journey and one in which we were often not taken seriously.
As an aside I would like to point out the difference between a powerful nation and a great nation because I think it's important to understand the difference and because I don’t want readers to be confused as to my opinions about the difference. A powerful nation is easy to see, but a great nation is much more subjective. Also, a powerful nation does not equal a great nation. I talked about America being a powerful nation above, but I also believe America is a great nation because I believe that America (even though it has many faults and unhealed wounds) has the characteristics I believe a great nation would have. I won't go into details here, but whether or not America remains the most powerful or economically prosperous nation has little impact in my mind on whether America is a great nation or not.
Note to Foreign Readers: I use America, US, the United States, and the United States of America above interchangeable to mean the United States of America. I know that America is a continent (or two continents), but in the United States, America is almost always used to mean the United States of America and American is almost always used to mean a citizen of the United States of America.
This is a poem I wrote a few years ago:
Confusion on capitol hill,
Years of spending and now we see the bill.
Some politicians with great intentions,
Some inventors with great inventions.
Some thinkers with great plans,
But many with greedy hands. Health care, medicare.
Rising debts, unwise bets.
Little regulation, a consumerist nation.
In a hole and trying to climb out,
Except unsure about how to win this bout.
Efficiency and growth must be our focus,
Can't fix it with rhetoric, wishing, and hocus pocus.
Lower our nation's debt,
That would be a safe bet.
Increase confidence in where we're going,
And the employed crowd will start growing.
Economic thinking and analysis isn't easy,
And it may not be the most appeasing,
And debtor nations.
It must be done, however,
If we don't want to sink, whenever,
Difficult winds blow our way.
Have you heard the common refrain that Apple products, specifically Apple computers (Macs) are overpriced? We won't take a stance as to whether or not Macs are good computers or whether or not they are overpriced. We'll just look at the question from the perspective of an economist and try to see that the question itself isn't properly formed.
Overpriced compared to what?
Usually, when people say that Macs are overpriced they mean that they are overpriced to comparable PCs running Microsoft's Windows operating system. Usually, people who make this comment point out that the same specs can be obtained on a Windows PC for less money. They also point out the fact that an entry-level Windows PC costs just a few hundred dollars (usually a laptop), but the cheapest Mac currently is the $500 Mac Mini, which doesn't come with a display, mouse, or keyboard. To get a Mac laptop (a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro) at least $900 has to be spent, the cost of a higher-end Windows laptop.
From an economist's perspective, the statement is correct in that more power can be had for less money in the Windows world. However, a wise economist would also point out that Macs are very different things than Windows PCs. They have a different operating system, build quality, customer support, and brand recognition. When someone purchases a Mac, they might be spending more money because they want one or all of these differentiators.
Potential Differentiator 1: Operating System (Mac OS X)
Although specs on a Mac cost more, many would argue that Mac OS X is a more efficient operating system that takes better advantage of Mac hardware because both the hardware and software are built by the same company.
Potential Differentiator 2: Build Quality
Macs are well-known to have a high build quality. It might just be that Apple customers like the look and feel of Macs and are willing to pay for it in the same way that the owner of a luxury vehicle is willing to pay extra for the look and feel of his or her car. The look and feel may not account for one hundred percent of the price difference, but it might account for some.
Potential Differentiator 3: Customer Support
Apple's customer support, specifically their Genius Bar, is well-known to provide excellent customer service and support that doesn't seem to have a rival on the Windows side. Attempts on the Windows side to provide something similar generally don't turn out very well (eg. Best Buy's Geek Squad). You can just bring in your Apple product to one of their many stores and you will be quickly helped by a knowledgeable associate. This may seem pointless to someone who is a computer expert. Why would someone pay more for a product so that if it breaks later you can have someone take a look at it in a convenient way? However, it isn't pointless to a less tech-savvy or a very busy person who commands higher wages and is willing to pay more to save time and mental stress. A person making $500 per hour (obviously an exaggerated example) should be more than willing to pay extra for things that will save him or her time and preserve his or her energy. It's just worth it for them.
Potential Differentiator 4: Brand Recognition
Finally, many people might purchase Apple products because of the Apple brand. In the same way that some people purchase a Mercedes Benz in part because of the brand and the prestige that is associated with it, a person might purchase a Mac because they want to be associated with the Apple brand. It might seem pointless to some, but in a wealthy society brand recognition, branding in general, and how you feel about what you purchase is very important. Everyone wants to feel good about what they buy and people are willing to pay for that feeling.
There might be more reasons as to why Apple products generally seem to cost more, but the above four generally explain why so many people are willing to pay more for products that are similar in many ways. The reason they are willing to pay more is because although they may be similar in terms of specs, they are different in other important and often intangible ways.
This same methodology can be applied to other products and even to other things in life. Things aren't always black and white and things that seem similar can be different in important ways. Even if those differences are small, they might mean a lot to some people and those people might be ready and willing to pay a premium for things that are important to them.
Finally, it's important to point out that any society in which people will pay more of their hard-earned money to buy a product because "they feel better about it" or because "it makes them feel better" or because "they like the brand" is a rich society compared with the rest of the world and humanity's history. Only in a very rich society can these types of products exist, can this type of intangible product differentiation exist, and can many people afford to pay premiums for very intangible things.
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