Friday, January 30, 2009


Tchotchke (originally from a Slavic word for "toys" (Polish: cacka, Russian: цацки), adapted to Yiddish טשאַטשקע tshatshke, trinket), are small toys, knickknacks, baubles, trinkets or kitsch. The term has a connotation of worthlessness or disposability, as well as tackiness, and was long used in the Jewish-American community and in the regional speech of New York City. From Wikipedia

The classic tchotchke was a small bunch of shells, glued together, with "Atlantic City" painted on it. It was not only a knickknack that broke up the stark mantle of your imitation fireplace, but it was a status symbol showing that, at least once, you could afford to go from your slum flat in Brooklyn to the shoddy boarding house on the back streets of Atlantic City in New Jersey, rather than just take the "El" out to Coney Island with everyone else. Tchotchke are not only status symbols of a relatively cheap, shoddy kind, but are symbols of a low status, microscopically elevated from no status at all.

The reason that tchotchke represent an important concept in contemporary economics and environmentalism is that they are ubiquitous. A Rolls-Royce is clearly a transportation status-symbol, but anything from a "Chevvie" to a "Caddie" is a tchotchke. The Limo that President Obama is driven around in is an armoured car made to look like a Caddie Limo, but it is actually functional and takes its status from the role that Obama plays.

That means that much of what is created in the american economy is tchotchke. In the supermarket, the house brand may be functional, but the same product under any other name is clearly a tchotchke, shown by its higher price, but it may even be the same product, made in the same factory, sold for the higher price because of the label.

The best way to tell a tchotchke is to market it in an economy like that of 2009. Functional commodities will still be bought because they are necessary for some reason to someone, but tchotchke will not sell even at a sharply reduced price.

And that is what creates the difficulty for the government. Our impulse is to have the government do whatever is necessary to restore the economy to the condition it was in before the stock market crash, but that conflicts with other values. In particular, the production of tchotchkes, which is essentially producing waste for its own sake, is not only bad from an economic standpoint but an unnecessary strain on the environment. We should, in fact, strive to make the economy as tchotchke-free as possible.

So it is good from the environmental point of view to let the tchotchke-makers go out of business. (The makers of the high-end status symbols can simply be left alone: their market is among the tchotchke-makers and will vanish with them.)

Unfortunately we aren't used to recognizing pseudo-functional tchotchkes, so it will take some difficult times for the tchotchke-makers to go out of business and let the producers of functional goods have the market to themselves.

A program designed to help maintain the welfare of the working class while the economy repairs itself will be hard for any government to do, because all governments are run by establishment bureaucrats and welfare programs are designed to keep the working class at a lower status level. You would have to have bureaucrats at the policy-making level who have no concern for their own status, and they would be "outsiders" in our society and therefore not suitable candidates for senior bureaucratic positions.

But that may still happen by accident if the ordinary citizens are kept alive at subsistence levels long enough to get used to living without tchotchkes, or, at least, factory-made tchotchkes.

A tchotchke-free society would end up with an economic surplus that could be distributed from the bottom up. It could also be combined with a strongly progressive tax system that leveled off the incomes of those who accidentally ended up in functional industries.

In a generation or so this patchwork income policy could be replaced by a demand system, "take what you want but use what you take", and a value system that would equate waste with spitting on your grandmother's floor. That would completely disconnect status from income and finally eliminate even the symbolic use of tchotchkes as a significant economic phenomenon.

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