I would like to introduce you to my watch.
It is a perfectly functional quartz watch. It tells the time as well as I could possibly want it to. It doesn’t need winding. I change the battery once in a blue moon, but apart from that it does exactly what I want, day in, day out.
It wasn’t particularly expensive, relatively speaking. I can’t remember the exact price, but it was somewhere north of £50 but not three figures. Say £60 or thereabouts.
It has been a faithful companion. I have worn it hiking in a thunderstorm and also in full James Bond mode with a DJ and black bow tie. It does everything a man could possibly want from a watch.
But, forgive me, I’m feeling the itch. The itch to buy another watch.
It started with a picture in a men’s magazine. No, not one of those magazines. A car magazine. I caught a glimpse of …
… and then there was …
….not to mention …
… and how about? …
Let’s be entirely honest here. I don’t need another watch. I have no doubt that mine will soldier on for years and years. And with prices ranging from £50 to tens of thousands I probably can’t afford another watch. But I want one. I have that credit card itch.
Then you find yourself on the internet googling watches, and you come across a fascinating sub culture of watch collectors. People who don’t just have one or two watches, they have dozens, sometimes hundreds.
You find people who get very sniffy about “proper” Rolexes and the scourge of the fakes and lookalikes. Apparently you absolutely have to have a genuine Rolex. Nothing else will do.
The Swiss watch industry has managed to do a miraculous thing. Strictly speaking, the expensive watch industry should have died when quartz watches were invented. Why spend hundreds of hours hand crafting a clockwork watch costing the earth, when a robot can stamp out a digital watch in seconds and for pennies and which will tell time more accurately?
The trick has been to make expensive watches desirable for no other reason than the fact that they are expensive. The watch has become a trophy symbol to tell the world how successful we have been in our lives.
To put this into perspective, we live in a world of massive wealth inequality. We are almost at the point where 1% of the world’s population owns 50% of the world’s wealth. The bottom 80% owns just 5.5% of the wealth.
And to flaunt this we walk around wearing watches that cost tens of thousands times more than they need to?
The next watch costs … wait for it … $1 million.
And this one is a snip at 1.92 million euros, nearly $2.5 million.
By contrast, the next two are advertised on the internet for around £3 each.
So the conclusion is that expensive watches are a silly luxury and insulting to the world’s poor? Ah no, sorry, it’s not quite so simple.
The economists would argue that the act of producing and marketing these products keeps people in work. We need consumers to consume because that keeps the world’s economy ticking over, whether this is extreme luxury or simply persuading me to buy another watch.
The good news about consumerism is that it gives people jobs. Maybe these hyper expensive products are not such a bad thing after all.
But there’s a problem. We are spending money and resources on the wrong things.
Capitalism works by produces giving people what they want. That in turn gives work to other people and in theory everyone wins. Some people wear Rolexes. Other people earn a living making Rolexes and every other brand of watch in between.
The theory is that the market balances everything out. Consumers and producers benefit each other.
The first problem with this is that technology skews the market. A robotic assembly line can produce something very quickly and cheaply without the need for much human intervention. A modern product will last much longer than before – it is quite possible that a simple quartz watch might last a lifetime.
And that’s a problem for the watch companies. They are not going to make much of a profit if I hang on to my watch forever.
It’s also a problem for the workers. What jobs can they do if manufacturing can now be largely done by machine?
The market has responded by creating a false demand. The watch companies need me to buy another watch, even though the one I have got is perfectly fine. And it is the same with cars, televisions, clothes, computers.
The market has also diversified into non-production activities. More and more people are working in non-productive industries – online gambling, insurance, marketing. We aren’t making stuff that we need, we are finding increasingly clever ways to extract money from each other.
So what should we be spending money on instead?
In just one word – care.
We are lucky enough to be enjoying longer life. Improvements in medicine and healthcare means that the average life expectancy in the UK is in the mid eighties, compared with the sixties a century ago. But this means that we need to be spending more time and money on looking after the older generations.
The state can’t necessarily afford to give us all the same level of care if we live for twenty or thirty years after retirement. When the welfare state was invented, most men died in their sixties. Now we are living another twenty years. Of course, that means that the welfare state is getting much more expensive than before.
We also need to care for our environment, whether that is the fluffy green stuff or simply repairing the bloody pot-holes in the roads. Our homes are filled with fabulous gadgets and possessions while the world outside our homes is falling to pieces.
Technology has given us a wonderful gift. We no longer need to work so hard or for so long to make the stuff that we need or want – clothes, cars, computers, watches. But we are squandering this gift because capitalism forces us to want to consume more stuff. Capitalism can’t help it. It’s all it can do.
We need to put a value on the things that matter, because if we don’t the market will automatically try to sell us more of the stuff they can put a value on. More watches.
There is an answer, but it is really really tough. The only people who can change this are the consumers – you and me. If we stopped buying stuff that we didn’t need, the market would have to adjust. It would produce less stuff.
We ideally need to move to a four day week or even a three day week. Spread the work around. Don’t look so shocked. It’s barely 100 years since we changed from a standard six day week to the current five day week. It’s time for the next step.
And we need to spend more of that free time looking after each other. Volunteering to help those less well off than us. Spending time repairing our world.
Do I still want that new watch?