(More) Wants vs. Needs

At various points on this blog I have pointed out the gap between “wants” vs. “needs”. Since I live in River North there is a huge array of cooking and kitchen stores nearby, with an unimaginable line up of gadgets, tiles, and equipment.

At the complete other end of the spectrum, I was recently at my parent’s house when I noted this pot on the stove. This is the same pot that all of my meals were cooked from growing up, and it is going strong today! In fact, I wasn’t the oldest in my family, so it turns out that this pot is over FIFTY years old!

There was no reason to get rid of this pot, nor of any of the others in the set, so they just kept soldiering on, year after year. While not pretty nor trendy, the pots were FUNCTIONAL and frankly indestructible.

It is interesting to think of how much of our economy is spent on functionally unnecessary items. This photo, below… shows the “wants” side of the equation. I don’t even know how to explain it, seems to be some sort of furniture mosaic of likely high cost (if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it).

Our wants have become unhinged from our needs to an extreme extent. At least in my little neighborhood…

Cross posted at LITGM

14 thoughts on “(More) Wants vs. Needs”

  1. To Carl’s point, someone who writes by the name of Spengler wrote an article in the Asia Times titled “Blame Michael Jackson” that reinforces this point beautifully.

    Among other things, he wrote:

    “The eternal adolescence that Michael Jackson so ably represented in fantasy turned into the foundation for the great investing wave of the 1990s. The best minds America could train worked hundred-hour-weeks in pizza-box-strewn lofts to launch the next site for web-based greeting cards or virtual-reality sex. Stock analysts valued new issues in proportion to their “burn rate”, assuming that the more money they lost, the more they were worth. The sort of things the world really needed – hardier seeds, safer nuclear energy, more efficient electrical batteries – never turned up on the radar screen.”

    and …

    “The Peter Pan syndrome continued to afflict the American economy. Rather than save, as aging people should, they borrowed more to acquire bigger houses. The housing bubble prolonged America’s collective adolescence for a few more years, for it allowed Americans to spend money on toys rather than saving for the retirement that came rushing at the baby boomers like an oncoming express train.”

    and …

    “America’s perpetual adolescents failed to form families and raise children as their parents had, because they were too busy being children.”

    I highly recommend the entire article – its a great read. You can find it at:


  2. Carl, that looks like a magic carpet in the photo; or perhaps “magic pillow” is more like it.

    Just BTW, with respect to cooking and pots: I was surprised to learn, in my 40s, how well the old black iron skillets cook. Nothing to beat them that I’ve seen.

  3. Tyouth: it depends what you want to achieve with your cooking equipment. Black iron skillets are great for slow even heat, but not for a hundred other functions. That’s why there is difference between luxury item and a necessity; black-irin skillet is a necessity. A Lavazza espresso agregat is a luxury.

    Carl: was it Bisazza showroom by any chance? It’s only The Best in the World mosaic company, that’s all…On that level, everything they do, be it furniture or shower stall installation, is art. Not “art-like”, not “state-of-the-art” – simply art. Art. Like frescoes in Pompeii, like Knossos, Rome and Byzantia. Which were all, in their time, strictly utilitarian.

    Only Bisazza’s tiles are better. Their grouts are superb. Their installers are artisans.
    They implemented everything contemporary chemistry could offer for spectacular effects, from iridescence to layered precious-metals.

    Not everything should be bought and kept for its functionality; but when utility is combined with outstanding artistic effect – it is the best product, best THING that could possibly be presented to people; a piece of art suitable for use, not just admiration from a distance.

  4. Uh… I think it is a Bisazza tile store, actually

    I am not an expert on this stuff but I don’t think that a tile ottoman is very useful. I can’t comment on the work of art part, though

  5. In any case, Carl, useful or not – why the negativity towards wealth and luxury? Aren’t people free to spend their money on anything they like? Everything has its purpose – an old cooking pot, with soldered patches, and “useless” mosaic ottoman – it’s just their purpose is different. As is their cost and value.

    This is an old and tired idea (oh, I’m aware of it being an American tradition, from the time of the pilgrims), and it has a long and ugly history of envy and religious superstition (Savonarola and his laws against luxury, etc).

    The only reason civilization is moving on, is because people have their “wants” that are not just utilitarian “needs”. Dreams of the unattainable, be it a beauty of the ocean seen from a sparkling yacht, or the yacht itself.

    People need apples and they need exotic desserts made of 55 ingredients.
    Naturally, when someone can not afford the latter, he’ll stick with the former. But there is nothing inherently sinful in WANTING.

  6. I think that there is significant confusion between wants and needs. I think that much of our economy has moved away from making products that are functional, long lasting and useful towards goods that frankly aren’t.

    I live in the belly of these sorts of stores… they are everywhere. When I lived in a super upscale suburb (as the poorest renter) every day the streets were filled with semis delivering equipment and a consistent redesign of houses that weren’t only perfectly functional but in fact were state-of-the-art.

    Much of these goods are simply for having one wealthy person show up another wealthy person (in a subtle way, of course) when they visit, upping the circle even more, as they in turn go out to get the latest unneeded upgrade.

    It trickles way down… to starter homes that must have high end appliances and features that aren’t needed, in turn loading up the buyers with debt.

    Like everything else out here, just my opinion.

  7. Well, if it was somebody else’s opinion, where’d be the fun in discussing it?

    Yes, many Americans could benefit from a notion of thriftiness; lots of so called “improvements” are not such at all, just a window dressing (and speaking of window dressing – I tried to help my sister with that recently…we were overwhelmed by thousands of virtually identical hideous distastefully ornery drapery on the market – and not one decent specialized and reasonably priced store with well-designed assortment!)

    I don’t think the problem is in having “wants”, though. The problem is in impatience. “I want this thing, as sparkling, as pink and furry, having as many levers and controls as the one Vanderbilts (or Paris Hilton, or Oprah) have! Now, now, now! I don’t have Vanderbilt’s money, though…” That leads to abundance of penny-worth Chinese plastic “goods”, to imitation Hermes, to laser-thin Teflon-powdered tin skillets that could be used 2 times: first and last. This leads, come to think of it, to normalcy, in the minds of its creators, of the idea of “cash for clunkers”: the New is unquestionably preferable to the Old, even if the Old could be made functionable with a little application of alterations/labor.

    It is a cliche already, how the immigrants from the rest of the world come to America and are shaking their collective heads in disbelief of how wasteful Americans are – throwing away slightly damaged appliances, perfectly functional furniture or clothes. Scarcity of repair outlets was a cause of wonder for my late FIL; he spent his entire working life fixing cash registers and various bank machinery and complicated locks. His Brooklyn apartment over the years became a warehouse of stuff he salvaged from the street garbage – electric fans, radios, locks, clocks. All damaged and not functioning – and he didn’t know where to get the parts, but didn’t have a heart to let them rot in the trash, it was against his entire life work principles!

    At the same time, there exist in America an amazingly huge misers industry: flee markets, stoop/garage/block sales, where one can find, preserved, cleaned up and in original wrappings, mind-blowing array of tchotchkes from the 60s and 30s. Stuff nobody knows how to use, or they do but don’t – because there is a progress, after all, and the TV/credenza combo from the 50’s is not quite practical as your great aunt might think. There is useful vintage and then there is ridiculous junk, like “collection” of plastic cereal figurines from the 70’s…

    All right, I better stop myself; it’s one of my favorite topics and I can go on for hours and miles of paper/screen space.

  8. In the decade-plus since I moved out on my own, I’ve gone through 2-3 non-stick-coated aluminum saucepans but have yet to replace the $ 3.00 or so I-forget-what-it’s-made-of-but-it’s-enameled sauce pan I got when I first moved.

    Something always goes wrong with the teflon, but enamel’s stronger.

  9. When my mother died eight years ago, the only heirloom I wanted was the black iron skillet that had been in our family as long as I can remember. I can recall making pancakes in it when I was ten years old (over 60 years ago). She would fix an entire meal in that skillet right up to the day she finally gave up her own apartment (at 7447 South Shore Drive) at the age of 100. I use non-stick skillets now but every month or so, I cook a meal in that old iron skillet for tradition’s sake.

    We also sit down to dinner at my grandparent’s dining room set. One thing that keeps me alive, I guess, is the prospect of the battle between my two sons over that dining room set as they each have forcefully expressed their desire to have it someday. I spent $5,000 refinishing it about 20 years ago and it will need it again one day but it does seem destined to survive a while longer.

    Thorsten Veblen seems to be as valid as ever although I doubt many of today’s children know who he was.

  10. Of course, people & societies have always invested resources in things that weren’t strictly necessary. The medieval cathedrals, for example, represent a tremendous investment of manpower and materials. Century-old buildings often incorporate significant decorative aspects which surely increased their cost significantly. Even industrial machine tools from the late 1800s, never to be seen by anyone outside a factory, often incorporated decorative elements.

  11. Interesting post. I side a bit with Tatyana in the fact that if people want to buy and sell things that I don’t understand, that is fine with me. I can’t identify the things in the second photo, but if you want them, more power to you.

    I never understood why people patronized a known child enticer like Michael Jackson either.

    I also side with Carl in the fact that people could do SO much more with their lives instead of what I consider wasting money on redecorating every year as you mention in the post. Geez, just give it to charity instead of one upping the Joneses for goodness sake.

  12. Dan, you’re such a Malcolm in the Middle!
    Besides, when rich folks get tired of their furnishings and redecorate every year, that gives lots of people lots of things to do – and lots of money.

    Better than getting 1/100th of that from a charity, don’t you think?

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