Tickled by architect John Hill’s wonderful coverage of new storage facilities in New York City, I’d like to discuss the hypothesis that one of the core forces that drives American economics and society, and many others beyond but perhaps not in such a pure form, is the Pursuit of Storage.
What is the purpose of economic activity? In prosperous societies, the basics of food, shelter, and essential healthcare are pretty quickly covered and can only explain a small fraction of the frenzied economic activity that can be empirically observed.
The accumulation of artefacts seems central.
People buy stuff; and store it. Many an economist could then appeal to utility, and say that people buy objects because of the functions they provide to them. This is easy to disprove, because if people were interested in objects from a utilitarian perspective they would, most of the time, rent them. Many objects that people store in their dwellings, or even corporations and government agencies in their facilities, have a one-time or only occasional uses. If you don’t live in a ski resort you don’t go skiing every day, so owning skis makes no sense for most people. Still many part time skiers own skis. It is almost permanently idle capital, with the additional costs of storage and transport adding to the economic loss caused by the choice of ownership other rental. This can also be observed in wealthy people collecting multiple instances of easy-to-rent objects whose use is exclusive — due to petty quirks of the laws of physics, people cannot be in two cars at once — and where the benefits of ownership over rental are oft negative.
The primacy of accumulation of inert artefacts over their use can be seen in the organisation of labour: if people wanted objects for their use, a natural balance between the time spent producing objects and the time using them would be attained. But in work-centric societies like America, a cult of long hours and short holidays can be observed, both in a cultural sense — long hours give high status rather than leading the culprit to be ostracised as it does in more relaxed societies — and in a functional sense — the more hours spent on the production side, the fewer left for the use of artefacts. Storage is leverage for the workaholic: it enables the production of many more artefacts than justified by function, by maximising idle capital.
We could further argue that it extends to immaterial things: in insurance and finance, a lot of activity is dedicated to accumulation of titles, deeds and scorekeeping which has no effective purpose other than the self-referential accumulation of inert claims. At least they are more environmentally friendly than their material counterparts, as long as their “storage facilities” (banks, brokerages, etc) don’t blow up causing collateral damage to the truly functional parts of the system.
The endless pursuit of storage is also visible in the built environment and in the structure of American cities. People value vast houses with ample basements, where they can store a great number of discarded objects, never or rarely to be used, but proudly stored. A kitchen with vast cupboard space will add to the value of a home, as will ample storage space in all rooms above ground. Technology has largely enfranchised man from objects — a late twentieth century home may have been full of books and engravings of single sound recordings, all of whom now fit nicely on a single USB stick and can be comfortably viewed by a handful of compact devices. Preferences such as vast houses with good storage facilities in distant suburbs over compact places in town near to work express the sacrifices people are ready to make to live near their store of objects. The home is self storage first, and place for living, second. The destiny of man is to be a custodian of the objects they collect, catalogue and keep protected from the elements.
This is where I part company with John when he complains that new storage facilities in prominent urban locations are eyesores. When the point of modern life is to acquire objects and store them, with a little bit of quick display for status building — the Uovo display rooms nicely mirror the squeezing of some living space between the storage and display function of private homes. These boxes are not out of place: they are a reification of the American Dream. They can remind people why they get up in the morning: so that they, too, one day, can have inert capital stored in a shed to their own name.
Bonus ball for actuaries
John’s post contains another wonderful nugget. The Uovo art storage facility is spit into two sections separated by some sort of fire wall, because “insurance companies don’t want too much art in one place.” It’s a spectacular realisation of regulatory arbitrage, poured in actual concrete, and as is customary with such constructions likely to fail, as most risks beyond fire seem bound to be extremely correlated — there’s apparently even an internal door between the spaces, presumably to facilitate burglaries. It’s reassuring for the financial industry — in so far as the high end art trade is not a branch of finance — to see that the dishonest practices it pioneered are spreading across society.