When we surveyed more than 2,400 people in the United States, Italy and Spain, we noted that “making things” is not a strong market in most cases. “The economy is weak,” one respondent from Los Angeles explained. “That’s not for me, it’s all about things that were made.” But the economy is not the only source of demand; many people also buy a lot of home made goods, from furniture to glassware to glassware, and also homemade or recycled materials. And if we are to believe the popular press, some Americans love making stuff, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year. In 2005, we measured Americans’ buying habits and reported that Americans spent about $200 million per year on the making, selling, and recycling of household items.
And people can be quite practical in their work. As a survey of two thousand households revealed, “people rarely buy things they didn’t make,” though many made things for their children. “People really don’t like making things for others,” noted one respondent from Milwaukee who did make something for her son, “but there’s a lot of sentimental thinking involved…I guess it’s still an artistic work, but it’s not what I feel like I want to do.”
It may be that people also like to be practical, since they’re usually the ones who work (and spend) the most in our system. But in any event, the vast majority of Americans don’t need or have any particular interest in being practical. So why do they spend almost as much making things as buying them? Why do they invest in new machinery, and on equipment that isn’t even as good as those they bought used? Is it because it’s fun or useful: the American dream and its social role is not just to buy a new toy, but to make it better?
And we know that the US does not just rely on what we’ve made, but also on a lot of what we’ve purchased. We buy almost all of the stuff we use. We sell almost all of the stuff we don’t use, and even buy the stuff we don’t need, and then we still have a lot of stuff we don’t use. Our economy is based on the things we make. Our economy is based on the things we buy. And our system depends on an economy in which people are able to make things. The system has many forms—from labor markets to credit markets to public goods and programs—but it’s
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