Evan Osnos talks to Li Liao, a young performance artist, who
got an assembly-line job making iPads, and forty-five days later he used his wages to buy one. As an exhibit, he put the iPad on a pedestal, tacked up his uniform and badges, and framed his contract. The effect, on a white gallery wall, is a strangely addictive ready-made tableau about the intersection of money, aspiration, and technology.
n other words, while crazy volatility may be great for traders (who live for the chance to make two per cent a day), it’s lousy for the rest of us, and for the economy as a whole. It isn’t just that volatility costs ordinary investors money. It also makes them more likely to give up on the stock market entirely: over the past three years, investors have pulled almost two hundred and fifty billion dollars out of equity funds, even though stock prices have almost doubled since the lowest point of the crash. And, while some of that money has gone into exchange-traded funds, most of it has just left the market. This flight from stocks is probably not a good thing for people’s retirement accounts—after all, in a capitalist country owning some capital is usually a smart way to make money. But it may well be a good thing for investors’ psychological well-being. In effect, they’ve decided that, in a market as volatile as this one, the only way to win the game is simply not to play
Americans have been big spenders for decades now, but as Sheldon Garon observes in his new history of consumption, “Beyond Our Means,” that’s in large part because our economic system is set up to encourage overspending. And what the revival of layaway makes clear is that, while many shoppers are prone to spend what they don’t have on what they shouldn’t buy, they can also be sophisticated about their weakness, and savvy about finding ways to control it. They know that sometimes you have to have your hands tied in order to grab what you want.