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The Economics of Happy Feet

Mises Daily: Wednesday, September 15, 2004 by

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Gary North recently suggested that we count our capitalist blessings and name them one by one, while inviting people to add to a list that would be inexhaustible. My addition: shoes.

For years I've read to my kids a story about a cobbler and his wife who can't seem to make enough shoes to bring in enough revenue to put food on the table. One day they wake to find a pair of fabulous, fully finished shoes on the worktable. They put them in the display case. The shoes sell immediately, and for a high price. The same happens the next night.

They stay up the next night to discover tiny elves have taken pity on this hard-working couple and made shoes for them to sell. Once prosperous, they pay back the elves by making tiny shoes for them. And thus is the old saying that "him that makes shoes goes barefoot himself" made false by the intervention of benevolent visitors from the world of fantasy.

These days, the fantasy of such a story stretches in every direction. There are no more cobblers who make shoes (well, there are some who cater to highly specialized foot issues). There are people who repair shoes, and we call them cobblers for nostalgic reasons.

If we go back far enough in time, we can see that in the greatest portion of known history, shoes consisted of nothing but wrapped animal skin, bark, or leaves. The stage of economic development that permitted people to specialize in making shoes was itself a great step forward. And yet today, the specialization of shoe making itself has been displaced but for eccentrics who choose to "reenact" their making and even pay for them (just as some people like vinyl records).

We've all had the experience of reading old works of literature and finding that various shoe miseries and dramas play a huge factor in daily life. We read long details of the way in which shoes are falling apart and bringing about terrible pains, and how difficult it was to find a new pair. They were expensive and the wait was long. Shoes are the subject of great longing (Cinderella), sin (Anderson's Red Shoes), magic (Dorothy), and suffering (Valley Forge). They are made and presented at major turning points in life: communion, confirmation, weddings. Great ceremony was attached to their acquisition. They were the defining mark of class ("nor no more shoes than feet"—Shakespeare on poverty). They were the subject of comment, regulation (Sumptuary laws), envy, and crime.

Today, because we take the availability of shoes for granted, we can only wonder what all the fuss was about. Some data FYI. American's bought 2 billion pairs of shoes last year, mostly women's shoes and sports shoes made in China. On this we spend about 0.65 percent of our budgets, a figure that has been falling precipitously for decades This is in a period when domestic production of shoes has fallen by 75 percent in ten years.

Concerning China, accounting for 80 percent of imports, how interesting a turn of events this is! When capitalists of old used to speak of China, they imagined all the shoes that could be sold to a country so populous. Who would have imagined that it would be China that would turn out to be the maker and seller of shoes to the world? This represents a reversal of the "open door" policy that led to the Boxer Rebellion, among other infamous events of Chinese history. But today, it is our door that is open. Meanwhile, US shoe exports go mainly to Mexico.

The history of shoes online assumes that in the middle ages there were women's shoes and men's shoes, both dreadfully uncomfortable, and that there were either low-quality or high-quality shoes available for peasants and elites respectively. Shoes were a coveted mark of social advancement. That was true for most of history until very recently. If you enter a shoe store today—and actually even my local grocery store sells shoes—you find a seemingly infinite variety, produced not by elves but a coordinated international marketplace of corporations and suppliers and  factories that make shoes for all the feet of the world.

For men, there are what are called "work shoes" (which today, strangely, means shoes for manual labor) which are made of hard rubber soles, "dress shoes" meaning leather soles or the faux version with leather uppers with rubber soles, office shoes of hundreds of varieties of styles that most men wear, and sports shoes designed specifically for leaping or running to playing tennis or basketball or baseball or anything else. Whole chain stores are devoted to selling the hundreds and thousands of styles of sports shoes alone. And lest we are tempted to think that this is an example of capitalist redundancy and repackaging, trying running a few miles in a racquetball shoe (as compared with the brilliance of a running shoe proper) and you discover that there really is a point.

And prices. You can go to the military surplus store and get excellent dress black for a dollar or two. You can pay between $6 and $600 for a pair of sports shoes. You can do the same for men's dress shoes. It seems, too, that the prices are always falling for shoes, but it is more likely that, as always in a market economy, yesterday's luxury good becomes tomorrow's sale item at Big Lots. If wearing status shoes is what you seek, you have to act fast since the poor will be wearing next week what only the rich wore last week. As for women's shoes, I would guess that the average consumer has more in her closet than Marie Antoinette ever dreamed of owning.

And this is true all over the world. Even in the poorest countries, shoes are available everywhere and at rock bottom prices. One of the great miseries of living in the third world used to be the aches and pains associated with poor quality footwear (if you could find it at all). But no more. American capitalist "excess" that led entrepreneurs to pay workers in China and Indonesia to make shoes for American consumers has yielded surpluses that spread affordable shoes to all corners of the globe.

Today a peasant in the fields of a Guatemalan village wears shoes that medieval lords would have traded for their own models made of wood and leather. Even bums who beg for a living in big cities, and want to do their best to look the part, have a hard time finding shoes that look appropriately worn and ragged. The trash bins are filled not with leather shoes taped and tied together but only mildly worn sneakers that a quick application of bleach can make look nearly new.

Shoes all over the world are all of extremely high quality as compared with previous times. Even in my youth, I can recall that "track shoes" were black with white stripes and had a thin little layer of rubber on the bottom that would allow you to feel every pebble beneath your feet. Today, a running shoe is a spectacular thing. With the proper fit, it goes on with a suction sound, hugs and holds your foot, seems to put jet propulsion at your back, and creates the illusion that you could run up a wall and across the ceiling—all this without creating a blister even on the first wearing. And for less than $40.

Now "quality" might not be the same as "long lasting," of course, which is a feature that is dictated by consumer preference. A hand-made shoe of the 19th century might have lasted two generations but we no longer need or want our shoes to last that long—any more than we want our houses to have the enduring power of medieval churches. Mostly, people would rather buy new rather than apply new soles. Of course for those who do prefer shoes that live generations, those are available too.

And yet this is all rather new to our time, and crucially important for health and well being.  Podiatrists tell us that the bones and tendons in the feet begin to weaken severely with age, especially past forty. Now consider that the average life expectancy didn't pass the age of forty until 1850 (in the US). Throughout the whole of world history when shoes were so shabby and miserable, most people didn't have to worry about weakened foot bones and tendons because they were dead long before this became a problem. But now that we are living twice as long as our great great grandparents, it becomes crucially important that we have shoes that treat our feet with loving attention.

How interesting, how marvelous, that the coordinating powers of the free market grant us comfortable, healthy, pain-reducing shoes in the very time when we are living long and longer and thereby require even more sophisticated ways of forestalling or otherwise dealing with bodily decay. It is conventional to credit medicines and hospitals for long lives but we should also give due regard to such conventional consumer products as shoes that make life past the age of 40 worth living at all. When we go the way of all flesh, we should request not to be buried with boots but with Rockports.

The great irony of living in the age of entrepreneurship is that we no longer have to put thought into life's necessities such as the production and acquisition of shoes. It has made a problem that has vexed all people in all times obsolete, and so much so that to even write about the topic is considered frivolous and obsessive. There are even whole interest groups calling for shoes to be less plentiful and more expensive. In a world without markets, such as these people seek, many things would be missed, but I'm guessing that footwear would be at the top of the list.

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Jeffrey Tucker is editorial vp of the Mises Institute. tucker@mises.org . Comment on the blog.