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Technological regress

I've long been baffled by graphs in principles texts that illustrate an inward shift of the production possibilities frontier due to "technological regress." Of course, a well-placed tidal wave could be disastrous to an economy - the decline of the Minoan civilization may be a real world example. Changes in government institutions can just as surely advance or wreck an economy. But technological regress itself? How could that come about in an economy unfettered by natural disaster, government disaster, or war? Beats me, but Eric Rasmussen offers two examples from the modern bathroom which might fit the bill: the replacement of the rubber bathtub plug by fancy stoppers that fail, and the medicine cabinet by drawers and mirrors.

Eric makes a convincing case that 21st century bathrooms employ inferior, but more expensive designs on matters that count. What then accounts for the change? Here are two possible explanations. First, these design features are just failed experiments, and we'll either revert to the prior technology or move on to something better. Second, we can afford the more expensive vanity mirrors, and have enough leisure time to tolerate being unable to easily read labels on our medicines. In the first case, "regress" is a mistake, part of the cost of trying new things. In the second, "regress" represents a wealth effect, where vanity takes precedence over functionality. The modern bathroom may be less functional, but more satisfying, for now. Like an E-type Jaguar, perhaps.

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