The Era Of Unlimited Everything: Unlimited Materials & Unlimited Money

This es­say was origi­nally pub­lished on my web­site.


Ask your­self these ques­tions:

  1. Sit­ting in your home, look­ing around, what do you see??

  2. How did you buy those things?

Many of the things you’re sur­rounded by are prob­a­bly made of plas­tic.

Many of those things were prob­a­bly bought with credit.

Could you have bought them with­out credit? What if those things were not made out of plas­tic? Would have you been able to buy them?

Overview:

  • Be­fore & After Plastic

    • Invention

  • Be­fore & After Credit

    • Invention

  • A World with­out Credit & Plastic

  • Credit & Plas­tic: Eco­nomic Growth

  • A Product of Imagination

  • Un­limited Everything

Imag­ine a world with­out credit and a world with­out plas­tic.

Be­fore & After Plastic

To illus­trate this ex­am­ple, let’s use three ex­am­ples of com­mon things made out of plas­tic.

  • Plas­tic con­tain­ers for food storage

  • Clothes

  • Elec­tronic De­vices (i.e. com­put­ers, phones)

Would you have stored your food as effi­ciently? Would you be able to af­ford clothes or elec­tronic de­vices, con­sid­er­ing many cloth­ing and elec­tronic de­vices are made of plas­tic?

A world with­out plas­tic is a world con­strained by ma­te­ri­als and their limi­ta­tions. A world with plas­tic is a world con­strained by...al­most noth­ing.

Invention

Be­fore plas­tic was cre­ated, we needed to use ma­te­ri­als such as wood, an­i­mal fur, plants, or met­als to make clothes and tools. Plas­tic was in­vented be­cause we were run­ning out of ivory as elephants were go­ing ex­tinct be­cause of our in­sa­tiable hu­man de­mand. Ivory was used for boxes, pi­ano keys, combs, billiard balls, and many other things.

The leg­end says that a New York billiard sup­plier ran a news­pa­per ad offer­ing “a hand­some for­tune,” ten thou­sand dol­lars in gold, to any­one who could in­vent an al­ter­na­tive to ivory.

An au­da­cious en­trepreneur, John Wesley Hy­att, a young printer read the ad and de­cided he could do it. There was a catch for him, though. He had no for­mal train­ing in chem­istry, but he was an in­ven­tor at heart, hav­ing patented a knife sharp­ener in his early 20s.

The en­trepreneurial spirit ran through Hy­att and he started ex­per­i­ment­ing. He be­gan with com­bi­na­tions of solvents and even mix­tures of cot­ton. Lit­tle did he know that at his home­made lab, he was build­ing one of the most im­por­tant in­no­va­tions in the his­tory of hu­mankind, cre­at­ing a new era of un­limited ma­te­ri­als, no longer would peo­ple have to use nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als that were limited by their quan­tities and phys­i­cal limi­ta­tions.

After over five years of trial and er­ror, his break­through fi­nally came in 1869. He ran an ex­per­i­ment that re­sulted in a ma­te­rial that had “the con­sis­tency of a shoe leather” that could be molded into any shape and was very strong. His mar­ket­ing-savvy brother named the new ma­te­rial “Cel­lu­loid.”

In Su­san Freinkel’s Plas­tic: A Toxic Love Story, she says “Cel­lu­loid ap­peared at a time when the coun­try was chang­ing from an agrar­ian econ­omy to an in­dus­trial one.” She also says that “cel­lu­loid was the first of the new ma­te­ri­als that would level the play­ing field for con­sump­tion.” Like plas­tics that were in­vented later, cel­lu­loid al­lowed man­u­fac­tur­ers to keep costs down while keep­ing up the ris­ing de­mand for new prod­ucts from lower and mid­dle classes.

The plas­tics in­dus­try al­lowed us to syn­the­size (cre­ate) what­ever we wanted or needed. If it seems like we can mag­i­cally cre­ate any­thing, it’s be­cause we do.

Mak­ing and cre­at­ing new prod­ucts is fun, but it’s more fun to sell to them. To do that, con­sumers might need to spend money that they didn’t have, and this is what’s called credit.

Be­fore & After Credit

To illus­trate this ex­am­ple, let’s use three ex­am­ples of com­mon things bought with credit.

  • House/​Vehicle

  • Education

  • Elec­tronic Devices

Would you have been able to af­ford your house and ve­hi­cle? What about that flashy de­vice or your diploma?

A world with­out credit is a world con­strained by money and its limi­ta­tions. A world with credit is a world con­strained by...al­most noth­ing.

Invention

When we talk about credit, we talk about trust. The word “credit” came from French, which trans­lates into “be­lief, trust.” Over the last few cen­turies our trust in­creased, so did credit.

Money does not have an in­trin­sic value and its worth isn’t in­her­ent in the pa­per. Money is a sys­tem of mu­tual trust. We are will­ing to use money as a medium of ex­change be­cause we trust that other peo­ple will trust it too.

Be­fore the mod­ern era, the world was a stag­nant place. Every­thing pretty much stayed the same and economies re­mained frozen.

In the past, the only way to start a busi­ness or en­ter­prise would be to find work­ers and con­trac­tors will­ing to work to­day and re­ceive pay­ment a few years later, if and when the busi­ness or en­ter­prise makes money.

Only in the mod­ern era did a new sys­tem based on trust in the fu­ture started work­ing. The way it worked was peo­ple agreed to rep­re­sent goods that do not ex­ist in the pre­sent with a spe­cial kind of money called ‘credit.’

Credit is the most es­sen­tial part to the mod­ern econ­omy.

It’s both the biggest and most volatile part. Credit can help both lenders and bor­row­ers get what they want. Len­ders usu­ally want to make more money, and bor­row­ers usu­ally want to buy some­thing they can’t af­ford, like a house or a car, or even a busi­ness.

When bor­row­ers promise to re­pay, and the lenders be­lieve them. Credit is cre­ated. How is it cre­ated? Any two peo­ple can cre­ate credit out of thin air. Yes! It’s that sim­ple, here’s where it gets tricky. Credit can have mul­ti­ple names. In How The Eco­nomic Ma­chine Works, Ray Dalio says that “As soon as credit is cre­ated, it im­me­di­ately turns into debt. Debt is both an as­set to the lender and a li­a­bil­ity to the bor­rower.”

Dalio also em­pha­sizes why credit is so im­por­tant in the econ­omy and how it causes more growth. He says, “When a bor­rower re­ceives credit, he is able to in­crease his spend­ing, and re­mem­ber, spend­ing drives the econ­omy. This is be­cause one per­son’s spend­ing is an­other per­son’s in­come. Think about it, ev­ery dol­lar you spend, some­one else earns and ev­ery dol­lar you earn, some­one else’s spend. So when you spend more, some­one else earns more.”

Credit al­lows us to build the pre­sent at the ex­pense of the fu­ture based on the as­sump­tion the fu­ture will be bet­ter and more abun­dant than our pre­sent re­sources. We can build and cre­ate any­thing we want. Op­por­tu­ni­ties are end­less if we can build things and cre­ate things in the pre­sent us­ing fu­ture in­come.

It’s un­clear when credit (as we know it to­day) was first used or in­vented. Through­out his­tory, there was always some type of bor­row­ing or credit ar­range­ment, but most peo­ple didn’t take ad­van­tage of credit be­cause they didn’t trust the fu­ture would be bet­ter than the pre­sent. They gen­er­ally be­lieved that the past had been bet­ter than their own times.

In a world with­out credit, peo­ple be­lieved that wealth was limited or even de­creas­ing. The pie was limited. If the pie was limited, for your fu­ture to be bet­ter you’d need to as­sume that your king­dom, the en­tire world, and your life would be bet­ter and that it would pro­duce more wealth at the ex­pense of other peo­ple.

In Sapi­ens, Yu­val Noah Harari ex­plains, “That’s why many cul­tures con­cluded that mak­ing bun­dles of money was sin­ful. As Je­sus said, “It is eas­ier for a camel to pass through the eye of a nee­dle than for a rich man to en­ter the king­dom of God” (Matthew 19:24). If the pie is static, and I have a big part of it, then I must have taken some­body else’s slice.”

That’s one of the big differ­ences in our times. For me to thrive does not mean you could not thrive. The chances for you to thrive are higher if I thrive

A World Without Credit & Plastic

We don’t un­der­stand the difficul­ties and hard­ships peo­ple had be­fore the in­ven­tion of credit and plas­tic. We’ve never lived in that world.

Imag­ine liv­ing with­out credit and plas­tic.

What would that look like?

I’ll use the ex­am­ples I used be­fore for both plas­tic and credit.

Let’s start with plas­tic. I men­tioned plas­tic con­tain­ers for food stor­age, cloth­ing, and elec­tronic de­vices (i.e. com­put­ers, phones). Without plas­tic, your food would be hard to carry around and store, and it would go bad quicker.

You would also have very limited cloth­ing and the clothes that you’d be able to buy would not be of good qual­ity be­cause you wouldn’t be able to af­ford the good qual­ity cloth­ing be­cause it’s ridicu­lously ex­pen­sive and re­served for coun­try lead­ers and billion­aires.

And don’t for­get your phone/​com­puter be­cause with­out plas­tic they would be more ex­pen­sive, and you wouldn’t be able to ac­cess the op­por­tu­ni­ties and con­nec­tivity that they provide.

A cred­itless world is even more an­noy­ing. I men­tioned house/​ve­hi­cle, ed­u­ca­tion, elec­tronic de­vices. If you wanted to buy a house or a car, you would need to have the full amount or a very high down-pay­ment, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to af­ford it.

What about your col­lege de­gree? If you didn’t have money to pay, you couldn’t go to col­lege. Pe­riod. No stu­dent loans, no debt, and no ed­u­ca­tion. Stud­ies have found that col­lege grad­u­ates earn nearly as twice as much as their peers with­out col­lege de­grees. What about that fancy elec­tronic de­vice you’re pay­ing monthly? Without credit, you would’ve had to pay it out­right. If you didn’t have the full amount. It’s sim­ple, no phone or lap­top.

It’s not that peo­ple didn’t have credit in the past to buy higher pur­chases such as home. How­ever, they still had to pay most of it. For in­stance, the down-pay­ment for a home would be at least fifty per­cent, mak­ing it al­most im­pos­si­ble to buy a house for a mid­dle class worker.

Credit & Plas­tic: Eco­nomic Growth

Two of the most es­sen­tial hu­man in­ven­tions that led to our great mod­ern times of eco­nomic growth and stan­dard of liv­ing could be at­tributed to credit and plas­tic.

Be­fore the wide­spread use of credit and the in­ven­tion of plas­tic, economies in Europe did not re­ally grow. From 1300 to about 1550, most of their economies were stag­nant.

GDP per cap­ita in Euro­pean economies. [1]

Then, from 1600 un­til 1800 we saw an in­crease in their GDP per cap­ita. We can see that coun­tries like Hol­land ex­ploded eco­nom­i­cally as they cre­ated the stock ex­change (a way to use credit) to fund ex­pe­di­tions to the New World. This growth can also be at­tributed to the coloniza­tion of new lands through­out the world. How­ever, with­out bor­row­ing money (credit), there was no way peo­ple like Colum­bus could’ve made it to the Amer­i­cas and other places such as Africa and Asia.

From the 1800s, peo­ple re­al­ized that credit was a pretty cool thing you could use as long as you had new en­ter­prises and in­ven­tions that could make you more money. Credit works even bet­ter when you have en­trepreneurs, in­ven­tors, and sci­en­tists in need of fund­ing be­cause they are the ones who can bring more eco­nomic growth and over­all a bet­ter life to all of us.

Plas­tic had a some­what mod­est place in the ma­te­rial world in the early twen­tieth cen­tury, limited to dec­o­ra­tive and items such as the comb. Cel­lu­loid re­quired lots of la­bor and could be ig­nited quickly, caus­ing fires re­peat­edly in fac­to­ries. Cel­lu­loid needed to be trans­formed. In Su­san Freinkel’s Plas­tic: A Toxic Love Story, she men­tions that “It wasn’t un­til the de­vel­op­ment of more co­op­er­a­tive polymers that plas­tics truly be­gan to trans­form the look, feel, and qual­ity of our lives. By the 1940s, we had both the plas­tics and the ma­chines to mass-pro­duce plas­tic prod­ucts.”

Plas­tic along with credit started the rise of con­sumerism and a pe­riod of eco­nomic growth like never seen be­fore. An econ­omy is the sum of trans­ac­tions. When you buy or sell some­thing, you cre­ate a trans­ac­tion. In How The Eco­nomic Ma­chine Works, Ray Dalio ex­plains that “Each trans­ac­tion con­sists of a buyer ex­chang­ing money or credit with a sel­ler for goods, ser­vices, or fi­nan­cial as­sets. Credit spends just like money, so adding to­gether the money spent and the amount of credit spent, you could know the to­tal spend­ing.” And the to­tal amount of spend­ing drives the en­tire econ­omy.

With more plas­tic prod­ucts to buy and the abil­ity to buy them, the eco­nomic boom of our era be­gan.

From Our World in Data

We be­gan us­ing credit more and more from about the 1920s. And plas­tic ma­te­ri­als be­came more wide­spread from about the 1940s, giv­ing rise to the sud­den and al­most lin­ear in­crease in GDP per cap­ita in the most de­vel­oped coun­tries of the world.

If you stud­ied U.S. his­tory or like me, you took AP His­tory, you were told that the 1940s eco­nomic growth was caused be­cause of WWII. I just don’t buy into that nar­ra­tive that war built up Amer­ica’s in­dus­trial ca­pac­ity or that it did im­por­tant re­search in sci­ence. Most of the im­por­tant re­search (be­sides nu­clear) hap­pened later.

If the gov­ern­ment didn’t em­ploy sol­diers and ar­ma­ment fac­tory work­ers, their in­comes would dis­ap­pear and spend­ing would de­crease, caus­ing the econ­omy to go into a re­ces­sion or even a de­pres­sion. This nar­ra­tive isn’t ac­cu­rate, in fact, it wasn’t even close.

In a pub­li­ca­tion by Ce­cil Bo­hanon [2], he ex­am­ines the post-war effect on the econ­omy and eco­nomic growth:

In 1944, gov­ern­ment spend­ing at all lev­els ac­counted for 55 per­cent of gross do­mes­tic product (GDP). By 1947, gov­ern­ment spend­ing had dropped 75 per­cent in real terms, or from 55 per­cent of GDP to just over 16 per­cent of GDP. Over roughly the same pe­riod, fed­eral tax rev­enues fell by only around 11 per­cent.
Yet this “des­tim­u­la­tion” did not re­sult in a col­lapse of con­sump­tion spend­ing or pri­vate in­vest­ment. Real con­sump­tion rose by 22 per­cent be­tween 1944 and 1947, and spend­ing on durable goods more than dou­bled in real terms.
Gross pri­vate in­vest­ment rose by 223 per­cent in real terms, with a whop­ping six-fold real in­crease in res­i­den­tial hous­ing ex­pen­di­tures.

Dr. Bo­hanon shows a differ­ent nar­ra­tive and high­lights how the pri­vate econ­omy had a more im­pact­ful effect on the econ­omy. This does not mean the war did not con­tribute to the econ­omy in terms of GDP. It did, but its effect was only seen in the GDP. For in­stance, a fac­tory would make bombs and sell it to the gov­ern­ment for $10 mil­lion. After the war, this same fac­tory would make desks and sell it to cus­tomers for $8 mil­lion. Amer­i­cans had the ne­ces­sity of mak­ing bombs just as Amer­i­cans were bet­ter off with prod­ucts like desks.

Source: Eco­nomic Re­cov­ery: Les­sons from the Post-World War II Pe­riod by Ce­hil Bo­hanon.

Next time you hear some­one talk­ing about how war fuels eco­nomic growth. Think again and look at the data com­posed by num­bers, not sto­ries or nar­ra­tives.

I’m fas­ci­nated by plas­tic and credit be­cause of what they rep­re­sent: hu­man cre­ativity, hu­man po­ten­tial, and hu­man imag­i­na­tion.

A Product of Imagination

Ge­orge Bernard Shaw once said that “Imag­i­na­tion is the be­gin­ning of cre­ation. You imag­ine what you de­sire, you will what you imag­ine, and at last, you cre­ate what you will.”

Both credit and plas­tic are ex­am­ples of the ex­traor­di­nary hu­man imag­i­na­tion. When plas­tic was in­vented, no one had seen a similar ma­te­rial, but some­one dared to imag­ine, and the will­ing­ness to cre­ate it.

Similarly, credit is the ul­ti­mate form of imag­i­na­tion build­ing off of some­thing already imag­i­nary like money. Dol­lar bills have value only in our heads. They have no in­trin­sic value in the pa­per, and peo­ple are will­ing to use it be­cause they trust that other peo­ple be­lieve money is real but ex­ists only in their imag­i­na­tion.

For in­stance, it has got­ten to a point where en­tire economies rely on credit to sur­vive and flour­ish. This trust is the only back­ing for most of the money in the world.

Un­limited Everything

I like to call this pe­riod, “The Era of Un­limited Every­thing.”

We truly live in the era of abun­dance, an era of un­limited money, and an era of un­limited ma­te­rial. If you have un­limited money and if you have un­limited ma­te­rial, the sky isn’t even the limit, the galax­ies are.

It’s hard to imag­ine a world with­out credit and plas­tic. Our lives are so much bet­ter be­cause of them. How­ever, some peo­ple have raised ob­jec­tions of whether we should keep go­ing on this route. My­self in­cluded, I’ve raised con­cerns about how gov­ern­ments and in­sti­tu­tions have been reck­lessly us­ing credit to cre­ate a “fake eco­nomic growth.”

Others have also been con­cerned about plas­tic pol­lu­tion dam­age. Ac­cord­ing to Our World in Data [3], “The world now pro­duces more than 380 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic ev­ery year, which could end up as pol­lu­tants, en­ter­ing our nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment and oceans.”

Is this truly the world we want to live in? Should we change lanes to other di­rec­tions?

This is some­thing we can and should de­cide.

Per­son­ally, I don’t want to live in a world with­out credit nor a world with­out plas­tic. I want to live in a world with un­limited money and a world with un­limited ma­te­ri­als.

Solu­tion? Let’s use credit re­spon­si­bly and let’s find a way to re­cy­cle plas­tic.

We could use credit to fund sci­en­tists and in­ven­tors to cre­ate re­cy­clable plas­tic.

We achieved the im­pos­si­ble, “The Era of Un­limited Every­thing.” Now, let’s come to­gether proac­tively to cre­ate a bright and promis­ing fu­ture that I would like my kids and grand­kids to live in.

Refer­ences/​Notes

[1] I took this graph from Roger Fou­quet and Stephen Broad­berry – Seven Cen­turies of Euro­pean Eco­nomic Growth and De­cline. You can ac­cess it on­line here https://​​www.aeaweb.org/​​ar­ti­cles?id=10.1257/​​jep.29.4.227

[2] This pa­per is amaz­ing and highly in­sight­ful. I’d highly en­courage you read it.

https://​​www.mer­ca­tus.org/​​pub­li­ca­tions/​​eco­nomic-his­tory/​​eco­nomic-re­cov­ery-les­sons-post-world-war-ii-period

[3] Plas­tic Pol­lu­tion is a big­ger prob­lem than I thought. Check out this en­try to learn more about this is­sue https://​​our­wor­ld­in­data.org/​​plas­tic-pollution

Thanks so much to Adam, Praveen, Scott, Hal, Nick, Ge­orge, Di­pan, Char­lie, Lev, Sher, Reddy2Go, and Ja­son for read­ing drafts of this es­say and pro­vid­ing your in­sight­ful thoughts.


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