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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Makeover Economy

Maury Sutton, the publisher of the magazine, Limousine & Chauffeur, writes that the limousine business is booming because urban traffic congestion is worsening. He says “there is a definite correlation between traffic congestion and the use of limousines by corporate and private parties.”
For any citizen who is tired of waiting in line for hours at the Motor Vehicle Administration offices in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, a private company, by the bold name of United States Vehicle Registration Service, will do it for you. Its services include “waiting in line” to register your vehicle, go through vehicle inspection, pay outstanding parking tickets and “other vehicle related headaches.”

Households worried about lead, cadmium and other chemical contamination of the drinking water from their fawcet can turn to the fast growing bottled water industry which claims purity. It will exceed a billion dollars in sales this year.

Twenty years ago these economic activities either did not exist or were at minuscule levels by today’s standards. They are prospering now for one common reason — all are feeding off failures and inefficiencies in the economy. Income, profits and jobs are created to avoid or react to these breakdowns and the gross nation! product (GNP) registers another advance.

Much of what goes for economic growth in our country represents these kinds of activities. Fear of street crime lead to elaborate surveillance equipment and guards at apartment houses and condos. The corrosion of pollution leads to property damage requiring replacement, treatment or paint. More sales, profits and jobs.

I first noticed this phenomenon in the early sixties, when one day at a parking lot I saw a row of cars all with bumper guards. The bumpers were so cosmetic and flimsy that they stimulated a market for millions of dollars of bumper guards annually. Bumpers did not have to be worthless chrome eyebrows if the cars were built right in the first place.

Obviously, paying for such products and services, while increasing the GNP, at best only restores the consumer or citizen to the status quo ante had the original sales or performance been worthy.

This ”makeover” subeconomy is gaining on the basic economy that meets needs and wants. A simple economy is heavily weighted toward meeting needs — food, clothing, shelter. As an economy develops, more of its activity is directed toward meeting wants — entertainment, conveniences, sports, vacations. The U.S. economy, the most complex in the world, is leading in the elaboration of the “makeover” economy which markets needs and wants arising out of former needs and wants being damaged, defrauded or contaminated.

The more we realize the proliferating nature of this “makeover” economy, the less we will be impressed by the growth of our GNP and the conventional notion that our living standard is in some way proportional to the rise of gross economic output.

The usual measurements of economic activity are quantitative. They give us percentages of growth in various product and service areas, presumably adjusted for inflation. What they do not provide is any measures, however tentative at first, of the quality of the economy and the reasons why businesses are emerging which give us the opportunity to pay twice — first for the fawcet water, then for the bottled water; first for the bumpers, then for the bumper guards.

Where are the economists, who in the thousands ply the trade of quantitive economics, to work the area of qualitative economics? They have nothing to lose but their increasingly inadequate yardsticks.