The “stuff” economy

We may be moving to an intangible economy, but we are still a “stuff” economy – as David Wessel points out in his “Capital” column in today’s Wall Street Journal, “In Modern Era, Self-Storage Has Right Stuff”

How much? So much that there is enough space in rentable self-storage lockers in the U.S. for each man, woman and child to stand on a spot 2 1/2 feet by 2 1/2 feet, with room left over.
The U.S. has 1.875 billion square feet of self-storage space, according to the Self Storage Association. That is three times the area of the island of Manhattan or the square footage of 426 copies of the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago.
. . .
“Forget about two- or three-car garages and finished basements — today that’s just not enough space for U.S. households overflowing with excess furniture, camping gear, sporting equipment,” Joseph Quinlan, chief stock-market strategist for Bank of America Corp., said in a note to clients the other day. He even suggested that the ability to put all that stuff in storage units is a “critical prop to global growth” because consumers will keep spending only as long as they have a place to put their purchases. “If U.S. consumers run out of storage space,” he quipped, “the global economy is doomed.”

I doubt that the global economy is doomed if the US runs out of storage space. There are lots of people in the world who don’t have all that stuff (of course, they may also not have the multi-bedroom, three-car garages and basements to store it all in either – hence they may need extra storage space as well). I wonder, however, how well the stock value of the self-storage companies will do as we more to a more weightless society.
On a more serious note, Quinlan’s quip does highlight an interesting point. Yesterday, at the New America Foundation’s National Policy Forum on America’s Economic Future, the issue of the need to reduce US consumption kept coming up. With it came the concomitant concern that this would result in a lower standard of living for Americans. Well, if all we are doing is storing that stuff, I’ve not sure that a cut back in consumption (both in the purchase and in the storage fees) will have much of an impact on our standard of living (unless, of course, you count the entertainment value of buying – not just shopping – as part of standard of living).

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