This video is the polar opposite of “I, Pencil” — Leonard Read’s essay about the market economy told from the point of view of a pencil. Whereas “I, Pencil” celebrates the achievements that capitalism makes possible, the documentary, called “The Story of Stuff,” deplores what it sees as widespread waste and decadence.
The anti-consumer opinions expressed in “The Story of Stuff” are inconsistent with the goal of empowering people and protecting the planet. For instance, it criticizes people who buy new models of computer monitors. But the sleeker designs are not only more fashionable, they’re also better for the environment because they use energy more efficiently, and use less plastic and other resources. Imagine if no new computer models came out, and everyone had to work on the room-sized machines of several decades ago. That really would be disastrous for the planet.
Another point that doesn’t stand up to inspection is the claim that gadgets are cheap — the example given is a $5 radio — because the full cost is being foisted on someone else. It’s implied that $5 is an arbitrarily low price that the manufacturer stuck on the item to get it to sell. But, if that’s the case, why don’t manufacturers charge $5 for a television or a microwave? And why do we see comparable prices for similar items across different models and retail outlets? It’s also not clear who paid for the difference if the price is arbitrarily low. The narrator claims that employees paid it by covering the cost of their own health insurance — although health insurance isn’t one of the inputs that goes into making a radio.
The narrator can’t believe that $5 is the actual cost of a radio because she doesn’t understand economies of scale. To make just one radio for her and ship it by itself in one of those ocean liners would of course cost much more than $5. If she got her way and all goods had to be produced in small amounts locally, a radio would be much more expensive. Mass production and trade (not exploitation!) brings the cost down.
She would also do well to ponder the lesson of “I, Pencil.” Markets have brought together widely spread-apart resources to serve human needs. Without markets, we wouldn’t have pencils, let alone video cameras to record documentaries. It’s easy to say you don’t want markets to get you more stuff, once you already enjoy all the technology you use to spread your message. It’s great if you already have what you need, but markets should be allowed to continue to bring other people the things that they need and don’t have yet.