The Collectively Imagined Economy, Part II

May 2008

“The way I see it is that my money represents an enormous number of claim checks on society. It’s like I have these little pieces of paper that I can turn into consumption. If I wanted to I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life, and the GNP would go up. But the utility of the product would be zilch, and I would be keeping those 10,000 people from doing AIDS research, or teaching, or nursing. I don’t do that, though.”

-Warren Buffett

I recently stumbled upon this quote on a friend’s facebook profile. It’s yet another way of looking at the economy, and, in my mind anyway, it supports my idea that an economy can be thought of as the collective sentiments of the people that it encompasses.

But where do those sentiments come from? How has it happened that “green” has entered the mainstream consciousness over the last three-five years? It seems like many of these “collective” decisions are actually triggered by a relatively small number of people that have accumulated a tremendous amount of influence, wealth, power, etc.

So are we to assume that, just because some collective thought has reached a tipping point and won over a critical mass of people, it’s automatically right and should be accepted as what a society and an economy “should” be putting its resources towards? There’s at least one example of a pretty smart person who disagrees: John Tierney, whose NY Times blog is “guided by two founding principles”:

  1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

  2. But that’s a good working theory.

We could also get into the difference between a thought or a sentiment winning over a critical mass of a society as a whole (after all, the larger the group, the less likely it is that a really bonehead idea could take root… right?) versus winning over a critical mass of the small subset of people that can exert their own whims and ideas on the rest of society. A troubling thought, perhaps.

What are the implications of this? If you had the means to pay 10,000 people to do whatever you wanted them to do for the rest of your life, what would you have them do?