Oh, what do we do with Thomas Friedman? The naif let loose in the big scary world? Last Sunday, he wrote about an amazing new factor in the global economy: people selling used clothing!
How he missed eBay, I’ll never know, let alone the world of consignment stores and high-end charity thrift stores. This isn’t new. These stores have long been a way to bring together cheapskates and spendthifts.
Certainly, there are big advantages to being able to run these sales online, as there’s a better selection of used designer goods in New York City than in, say, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But that’s what made eBay so popular – a good 15 or so years ago.
And so, once again, a Thomas Friedman column has left me scratching my head.
Yes, we are going through profound changes in our economy. Many people are finding employment and independence through self-employment: the blogger/Etsy/food truck economy. That’s good for many individuals, but it is bad for us as a whole. It adds layers of inefficiency and risk, with very little research or scale.
It’s like this: in an emerging market, low-level entrepreneurship is a great sign. It means that there is room for people to create new businesses and take risks. But for a nation to get to the next level, it has to create big businesses. Hitler make wisecracks about England being a nation of shopkeepers, but it is also a nation of steelworkers, carmakers, and miners. That’s why it won World War II and why it remains one of the world’s wealthier countries.
Small business represents something good about a nation’s culture, but it is not a path to long-term economic success unless some of those businesses are able to scale up. In the United States, it almost feels like regression, like the people who used to understand scale economies and big ideas have given up and left the economy to clever people with limited resources who come up with clever letter-press cards.
Friedman needs to get out of his bubble. Maybe next week, he will discover Wal-Mart.