Yglesias

Reducing Objective Scarcity

Another word on the Heritage Foundation’s ever-ending effort to persuade us that poor people aren’t really poor because electronics are cheap. It’s worth noting that though this fact hardly proves what Heritage is saying it proves, it obviously is true that the reduced price of electronics is a real benefit to people that improves their lives. And the reason that this works is that electronics aren’t scarce. Televisions aren’t made of diamonds, so even though state-of-the-art TVs are expensive, there are always plenty of old models around to be found for very little money.

But lots of things are scarce in America. Adam Serwer writes that “it doesn’t really matter if the neighborhood is safer and nicer than it used to be if you can’t even afford to stick around and enjoy it.” That’s a reminder that what we want out of the world isn’t just for some neighborhood or other to become safer, but for more people to enjoy life in a safe neighborhood. That can be achieved through two kinds of actions. One is by taking not-so-safe neighborhoods and making them safer. But the other is by increasing the quantity of houses that exist in any given safe neighborhood. In general, if you care about equality, you ought to be passionate about scarcity. As long as there’s not enough of some valuable commodity to go around, then whoever’s richest is going to end up getting it even if the income distribution is relatively flat. By contrast, when you make some category of goods plentiful, you necessarily end up curbing inequities. These days all kinds of Americans can afford a good television. Tragically, though, many Americans can’t afford a house in a safe neighborhood with a decent school that’s within a convenient commute of the central business district of a major city.