Before we bid farewell to Halloween week 2018 for good, let’s take a chance to glean an economic lesson from the piles of candy, cardboard skeletons, and saucy seasonal outfits. Our friends at the Foundation for Economic Education have the perfect video for the occasion, which reflects the rising living standards around us and one the main reasons for their rise: specialization.
The dramatically improved quality of manufactured costumes in the past few decades is just a small example of the improved nature of clothing in general. Though maligned by some style snobs, the rise of so-called “fast fashion” brands have, for example, enabled more people than ever to build affordable wardrobes that display their sense of style while giving them more options for reflecting their mood and the seasons.
This gradual democratization of clothing—by which less-well-off people are able to dress better and feel better about themsevles in public—has been celebrated in lots of places over the years, including famously in the 1951 film “The Man in the White Suit,” starring Alec Guinness and Joan Greenwood. In that story a brilliant chemist invents a new fabric that repels dirt and never wears out, promising attractive, long-wearing clothing for an afforable price. In one emotional scene, Guinness’ character explains how important decent-looking clothes are to a poor person’s sense of self-worth, and how valuable his new invention could become for people who came from a humble background like himself.
The consumer goods around us are not just objects. How we use and interact with them can give them meaning, and that can go a long way toward making our lives more pleasant, dignified, and fun. Falling prices for consumer goods are an important measure of human well being, and government policies that cause prices to rise (like tariffs) are very real attacks on the living standards of all Americans.
If you’d like to dive deeper into these ideas, pick up Virginia Postrel’s excellent book “The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness.” Originally published in 2003, it’s just as relevant today.