Nathanael Garrett Novosel, October 11 2023

Unlimited Desires and Scarce Resources

In my previous post, I wrote about how you will always want things no matter how much you try to suppress or squelch your desires. I’m now flipping the topic: are those desires unlimited, and how do they stack up against the ability to satisfy them?

The technical definition of Economics is the study of the production and consumption of goods and services, but the ones that many experts and teachers use includes a variant of “…how humans behave in a world of unlimited desires and limited resources.” That became such a popular interpretation that an entire branch, behavioral economics, branched off as an economics/psychology hybrid field focused on human behavior regarding economic decisions.

This field is a fascinating look at why people do what they do, and they go right to the critical question of how people will produce, consume, and exchange resources given the fact that they are limited. Time, money, electricity, food, water, and even people are limited in nature. People looking for a significant other will find that as time goes on, more people couple up and are taken off the market. The most attractive (whether physically or due to a skill or capability) of society are in high demand, which is why attractive people always seem to be taken. Similarly, if you make a dinner for your family and two people unexpectedly join, you might have to find out how to make more if you didn’t make enough. If you go to a theme park and only have 6 hours, you might have to pick which rides you want to go on the most versus how long the lines are (and, therefore, how much time it will take to ride them). All of these decisions are made under constraints even though you might wish that you had all the time, food, money, and people in the world at your disposal at that moment.

Now, we all have constraints. And constraints are very real, as anyone who is worried about their bank account or whether they can buy those concert tickets before they sell out. But two things are interesting and, of course, are not the focus of economics (because it’s more of a mindset than a science):

And that’s what I want to talk about today: the unlimited desires/limited resources situation as it pertains to your lifetime so you can spend it the best you can.

Everyone, of course, knows how limited their time is on this planet. Some don’t live long enough to even be born, while others last maybe 100 or so years. And given the nature of human aging, you only have a ~20-year time frame where you can be at your most athletic and physically capable. Your mental capability lasts longer, say 30 or 40 years operating at peak (with speed/energy and knowledge/experience trading off over that time). But what you do with that time is likely the most important decisions you will ever make.

And we also know that resources are limited in the short term: there’s only so much pantry space, so much room in your house, so much farmland to grow food, and so much of a good or service that can be provided on any given day given the supplies available. And we also know that we always want more money, more time, more space, more fun, more food, and more friends. So what am I talking about if this is a well-understood truth?

Well, the truth is that resources are scarce in the short term, but in the long term we live in a world of abundance. There are T-shirt manufacturers that could produce shirts for every human being on planet Earth right now. Given enough time, there is a practically infinite number of shirts that can be created—that factory can grow/purchase more cotton and keep making shirts forever. Yet they don’t…why? Because the want and need for that particular shirt is satiated at a certain point, and there’s no need to make any more over that period of time. In fact, thrift stores like the Good Will have so many shirts that they ship them to other locations to either distribute them or dispose of them. We truly have an over abundance of many goods and, therefore, stop producing (or reduce the production of) them.

There’s a running joke that people make when companies create a “limited edition” of a car or other product: “Yeah, limited to how many they can sell.” We live in a world where if people really wanted more of something, almost like magic (not to discount the hard work that goes into it) it would be created. And in a digital world, that abundance is growing exponentially: someone can create a movie and instantly distribute (or stream) billions of copies (or views) of it all around the world. It used to take weeks or months to get the movie everywhere, and now it’s instantly everywhere with the click of a button (barring legal and regulatory restrictions).

Additionally, people point out that a person may typically make $30,000-$50,000 USD per year and that’s not a lot. Over the life of an employee, however, that is $1.2m-$2m over 40 years, which means that the average person can be a millionaire if they worked and saved long enough. There will always be more food tomorrow as the farmers and ranchers grow the next batch of food for sale on an ongoing basis. Other than the occasional banned substance (e.g., asbestos, Freon, whale products, elephant products) or change in consumption patterns (e.g., seafood->chicken and beef, buffalo/bison becoming endangered), you can create more of just about anything that someone might want.

There’s a funny bit by John Mulaney about how Mick Jagger can shout, “Diet Coke!” and have one appear in his hand. I always thought that was a strange joke because, while it’s funny to be able to do that, most people literally do the exact same thing when they go to a store and ask for a cheeseburger and have one appear in their hands in as little as a minute (a la the scene in The Founder where Michael Keaton’s character orders food and has it handed to him immediately afterwards). That’s the world that many parts of the world live in today with technology and human ingenuity.

And that’s the positive attitude that would be very beneficial for you to have when looking at the world around you: you can do, have, or be just about anything you want given enough time and focus on it. Do you want to be good at a sport or skill? It only takes a few hours to get started, 20 to get decent, and about 10,000 hours to master. Do you want a home or car? Despite rising housing prices and inflation, you can still buy property and a car without a lifetime of salary, and there are home and car loans so that you can get the value of them now while you earn the money to afford the whole thing. Yes, maybe you’ll never be able to practically afford a Ferrari, but that’s your choice to have a family and pay for their lifestyles instead of living by yourself in someone’s basement eating Ramen noodles every day as you save up for 10 years to afford one. While that is a choice given unlimited desires versus limited resources, it’s amazing to think that, in that situation, there would be a dream car available for you if you wanted it.

You can apply this mentality to anything: Taylor Swift will tour for many years, and so there will be more tickets if you miss out on one concert. You can watch her content via hundreds of media options. But, going back to the premise of unlimited desires and limited wants, you actually don’t want all the food you’ll ever eat now; you want it when you want it. So your desires are not unlimited in any given moment per se, nor is supply limited per se in the long term. A simple definition of abundance is just having what you want or need when you want or need it, and as long as you have food when you need to eat, water when you need to drink, friends when you want to socialize, a roof over your head when you need shelter, and the basic resources you need to take the next step in your life journey, then that makes you abundant.

Some might claim that this is semantic smoke and mirrors, but I want to be clear that I’m not denying the basic principles of economics. What I am doing, though, is reminding you that your life is a lot more abundant than you usually give it credit for. Most people might have 9 needs met and it’s the 10th they don’t have at the exact moment that they want it that causes them to act like the world is ending. If you’re reading this, you have internet access at minimum. You, therefore, will be able to get what you need. Heck, the biggest problem we have in modern, advanced economies is too much of everything: too much food causing obesity, too much stuff causing a boom in storage facilities, and too many options causing people to choose experiences where others make decisions for them (because too many options are just so overwhelming!).

The only takeaway for you is that your life has plenty of wonderful opportunities available to you. If one is not available, another one is. You might have restrictions or limitations right now, but your life potential is practically unlimited given enough time. So enjoy the process of living life and doing what you have to do to make your life what you want it to be. And remember, all you have to do is type in “Diet Coke” on the internet and have it magically arrive at your door in almost no time at all. What a world we live in—much more abundant than anyone gives it credit for. It’s abundant enough for you to carve out an amazing life, whatever you want it to be. Don’t let short-term limitations or setbacks hold you back in the long term because you can accomplish so much over a lifetime of effort.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel

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