The Destruction of Demand

by Charles Hugh Smith via Of Two Minds

Demand based on debt, unfulfilled promises and unaffordable habits is burning down.

The first-order effect of the lockdown was demand destruction as shelter-in-place orders and business closures restricted consumers’ ability to spend.

The second-order effect will be the permanent destruction of demand because people will realize they’re better off reducing their consumption of high-cost, questionable-value goods and services. Let’s start with the resurgence of savings, the most basic form of security you actually control and the most basic form of hedging against promises of a return to wonderfulness failing to arrive in the real world.

Comically, security you actually control, i.e. savings, are viewed by the status quo as a mortal threat to the economy: how dare you keep some of your own money rather than squander all of it! Notice how this bit of twisted CNN humor labels savings “hoarding,” as if retaining a bit of your hard-earned wages is evil “hoarding” rather than prudent self-sufficiency.

New threat to the economy: Americans are saving like it’s the 1980s

For those who weren’t alive to experience the 1980s, it was a boom era of widespread prosperity. In a functional economy, savings are understood as one of the foundations of prosperity. In today’s insanely dysfunctional neofeudal economy, savings are a despicable evil because they take the bread right out of the bankers’ and corporate elites’ mouths. How dare you rob poor Jamie Dimon and Jeff Bezos with your awful, horrible, cruel savings of money that you actually control, money that protects you and gives you some security!

In other words: how dare you serve your own needs and interests rather than our monomaniacal obsession with increasing our profits at your expense.

Another second-order source of demand destruction is people realizing they don’t actually need as much XYZ as they once thought. This covers quite a range of services, from tourism to dining out to attending absurdly costly sporting events and concerts to all the video subscription services people pay for but rarely use.

Demand destruction won’t be limited to the periphery. It will also shred big-ticket sectors such as healthcare and higher education. One of the key dynamics in demand for these crazy-expensive services is rarely addressed: the more higher education you “consume,” the greater the pressure to get even more higher education. This also holds true for healthcare: the more you “consume,” the greater the pressure to consume even more healthcare.

Correspondent AP (Anonymous Physician) delineates the sources of demand for healthcare:

An under appreciated challenge going forward is the destruction of healthcare demand.

The demand for healthcare was generated by three factors, in decreasing order of importance.

1. “Self-Generation” i.e. when healthcare was received, it led to more healthcare being demanded. Healthcare is pretty unusual as a good/service in that it generates its own demand.

2. Marketing. Except for a tiny sliver of high-margin procedures, healthcare is a loss-leader for health systems. The profitable revenues come from foot traffic, commercial real estate ‘appreciation,’ and the sales of personal information.

3. Actual, proven, demonstrably beneficial need. (By far the last).

The ‘Casino’ model of healthcare is driven by this dynamic: tight-margins/high cashflows lead to overbuilding, which leads to more of #s1 and 2 above, which leads to more cashflow, and so the cycle repeats.

People are discovering:

1. The delivery of healthcare entails real risk–even if they’ve mis-apportioned it to COVID-19.
2. They’re doing alright without getting it.
3. Since they aren’t getting it, they’re getting less of it. (See #1 above).

We’re already seeing healthcare corporations whining about a drop in income as “consumption” of “elective surgeries” is not bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels, and people are cancelling their “excuse to bill Medicare or Medicaid” “follow-up” appointments.

The people working in this broken, perverse-incentives system didn’t choose it, they’re trapped in it. The same can be said of every dysfunctional, sclerotic, ridiculously costly system in the U.S. Reform is impossible, given the incentives, regulations and vested interests whose sole purpose is to, in Clay Shirky’s insightful phrase, “preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

Here’s my summary of the sources of demand for higher education:

1. The higher your level of credentialed attainment, the greater the pressure to get another degree.
2. Marketing: the claim that a college diploma is the one essential passport to secure high-paying careers and therefore worth any price and any sacrifice.
3. Actual learning: near zero on the demand scale.

You know the multi-level marketing of higher education: gee, too bad your Bachelors Diploma turned out to be worthless. The solution is to spend another $100,000 on a Masters Degree.

Dang, too bad about the glut of other job seekers with Masters Degrees. The solution is to invest another 4 or 5 years and another $100,000 (in deferred income if nothing else) on a PhD or professional degree (MBA, etc.)

Shucks, there’s a global glut of folks with PhDs and professional degrees? Well then you’ll have to get a second professional degree…. and so on. There’s no end to the number of credentials one can acquire, and the hope is just one more will do the trick and the over-credentialed student will escape the black hole of a global glut of over-credentialed job seekers.

Then there’s the implosion of demand for commercial real estate and $1 million decaying bungalows. Why blow hundreds of thousands of dollars on design services and renovations if the asset is losing value no matter how much money you pour into it?

Once people were forced out of their manic rut of buy, buy, buy in search of deranging distraction, they’ve realized they’re better off without the expense, the mania and the derangement. The media is cheerleading the crowds jamming into bars, but I suspect a consequential number of those “consumers” will find the things they so longed to resume doing aren’t as fulfilling as they’d expected.

A consequential number of consumers may be questioning the viability and benefits of blowing hundreds of dollars to attend a sporting event. Maybe the $12 cup of beer and the $12 hot dog at the ballpark are no longer worth it.

A consequential number of consumers may be realizing they can no longer afford the splurges they indulged in so regularly, or if they can afford it, they no longer want to trade away savings for mindless indulgences.

There are competing models for healthcare and higher education that cost mere fractions of the systems now imploding due to demand destruction. I outlined a campus-free apprenticeship model of higher education in my 2012 book The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy, that lays out an alternative way to credential actual learning: accredit the student, not the institution. (This goes hand-in-hand with my other principle, accredit yourself.)

Demand based on debt, unfulfilled promises, over-regulation and unaffordable habits is burning down. Scapegoating savings is the last desperate propaganda ploy of an exploitive system that was never sustainable.