Jeep Grand Cherokee

The law of diminishing marginal utility

Imagine that you are very fond of pizza and also very hungry. If I offer you a pizza, you will be very grateful. If after you have finished eating your pizza I offer you a second pizza, you will not decline the offer but you will be a bit less grateful. If I offer you a third you might still eat it in order not to offend me. The fourth pizza you would decline. Perhaps you would come up with some lame excuse like nausea to explain your peculiar behaviour. Before the fifth pizza is offered, you may already have left my home in a hurry.

Welcome to the law of diminishing marginal utility. It is an important law in economics. It states that the more you have of something the less useful an extra unit is to you.

This law can be expressed in terms of money. If you are at a pizza restaurant, you might be willing to pay € 12 for the first pizza. After eating it you are not so hungry anymore and you might not be willing to pay € 12 for a second pizza. But if the restaurant owner offers you a discount of € 6 on the second pizza, you might accept the offer. A third pizza you may only eat if it is on the house. A fourth pizza you won’t eat unless the restaurant owner offers you € 6 to eat it. Eating a fifth pizza might cost the restaurant owner € 12.

What might strike you is that the fourth and fifth pizza have a negative value to you. You are not willing to eat them unless you are paid for it.

The law comes with another consequence. If you have enough now, you may think about the future and save money for unexpected expenses and retirement. As we get wealthier, getting more stuff becomes less important to most of us while certainty about the future becomes more important. At some point we do not want more stuff and the law of diminishing marginal utility becomes an obstacle to economic growth.

If you are happy with what you have and care about the future, you may save too much for the economy to grow and capitalists won’t make enough money because they must at least make the interest rate. The law of diminishing marginal utility is therefore a grave threat to capitalism. And so is interest. This is where the advertisement industry comes in. The trick of advertising is to make us unhappy with what we have and to make us desire more. Buying this or that will make us happier, advertisements promise us.

Fashionable items with a limited life-span are part of the solution too. It is not always possible to make us desire more stuff, but it is still possible to make us desire new stuff. The dress you bought last year is out of fashion now. In order not to look stupid you have to buy a new one. And then there is technological development. Next year there will be a newer model, and by the way, the software on the old model won’t be supported any more. And of course, luxury items do their bit. Why go for a Volkswagen Polo if you can afford if you can afford a car with a low marginal sports utility value like the Jeep Grand Cherokee?

Yes, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is an ugly monster, but it is bigger than the Volkswagen Polo and if you can afford to drive it, why not? There is a reason why not.

We humans use far more resources than our planet can offer. That’s why capitalism is a grave threat to humanity. Capitalism nowadays is like making us eat the fifth pizza and pay extra for it even though that creates a health hazard while many people are hungry. And there may be no food tomorrow because we have eaten too much today. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is like the fifth pizza. We work hard to buy stuff we do not need. This is how humanity is committing suicide. This can’t go on. There is one obstacle. Businesses must make at least the interest rate, and interest rates below zero are still unthinkable.

In other words, we must learn to care about the future and interest rates may need to go below zero. We must learn to be happy with what we have and settle for less when possible. This may be a grave threat to capitalism for what will happen if we stop spending on excesses? Economists fear that the economy will collapse and that we will be without jobs when business profits decline and interest on debts can’t be paid. That doesn’t have to happen when interest rates are negative. In that case debts don’t have to be repaid and businesses with little or no profits can survive.

That may seem strange but it is already happening. The law of diminishing marginal utility is kicking in, and it is kicking in big time.

This law affects capital too. If there is only one pizza factory that can supply every pizza addict with one pizza per day, it would almost certainly make a profit. A second factory might make a profit but it might not. And what is more, if the second factory comes into operation, the supply of pizza increases, and according to the law of supply and demand, the price of pizza would drop. That would also cut into the profits of the first factory.

A third factory is even more likely to be loss-making and it could make the other factories loss-making too. At some point there is little use for more capital. That causes the demand for capital to drop and interest rates to go negative. Traditional economics would consider this unhealthy or temporary.

That doesn’t need to be and it can be desirable. Three pizza factories fiercely competing and without profits might be better for consumers than one that is profitable if we assume that pizza is a necessity. Everyone must eat something. There could be an ample supply of investment capital at negative interest rates so profits may not be needed for pizza factories to stay in business.

A problem is that excess investment capital can go to businesses that suicide humanity by using scarce resources to produce stuff we do not need. Negative interest rates can help to make the economy sustainable but only if the excesses do not happen. This would require governments to ban or tax excesses or to regulate their production so that these products don’t have a harmful impact. That would make them a lot more expensive.

But the fun of driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee, apart from giving environmentalists the middle finger, comes from the fact that you can afford to drive it, so the fun may be even greater when it is three times as expensive.

When people start saving more and businesses hardly make profits then where does the money go? It can be used to make the economy sustainable. It can go to people in need who still have use for money. The money can help to reduce poverty and it can be used to address pressing needs in society. And we could have far more leisure time. What’s the point of working so hard for things we do not need? We may only have to work for twenty hours per week and still have a good life. It seems possible that humanity will survive capitalism and that capitalism will be transformed into an economic model that can endure for the foreseeable future.

Featured image: Jeep Grand Cherokee. Jeep (2019). [copyright info]

7 thoughts on “The law of diminishing marginal utility

    • Perhaps you like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but you probably don’t need such a car, and if you think you do, it’s probably the advertisement industry that makes you believe that. Such beliefs might be a serious problem if they contribute to a dismal future for humanity.

      The resources of the planet are limited and wasting them is probably not such a good idea.

      Driving such a car might be like eating five pizza’s today and having nothing to eat for the rest of the week. It is such short time thinking that makes the economy unsustainable.


      • That’s right… and I apologize.
        I like the car but I won’t buy it. I don’t travel much and I work less than 10 miles from my home. Why do I need the 40-50 thousand dollar car? I don’t; uness I plan on living in the car – I wouldn’t get my money out of it.


  1. You’ve explained this post brilliantly.
    Traditional economics has devised it’s own ingenious ways to counter it’s limits.

    Capitalism thrives on the inherent human nature of greed and the need to “fit in”. That’s what makes us want more, and want the best for us at the expense of others.

    How do you suggest that individual mindset changes to think of the collective rather than the individual? That will probably solve all of our problems: poverty, wealth gap, gender discrimination, ecological degradation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will try to give you an idea of what this plan is about. Like you I believe that we need a new vision guiding humanity which is quite different from the current vision if there is one. This is written down in ‘Towards a spirit of connectedness’:

      But I also believe that we shouldn’t get carried away. Human nature is what it is. Plans to address these enormous challenges often fail on the idea that human nature must be changed somehow.

      It may be better to presume that human nature can’t be changed and first solve the question based on that assumption. Markets have their own logic. An important observation made in ‘A Model for the Economy’ is:

      “People may work hard to build some capital for themselves through savings and investments but they won’t work hard to pay taxes.”

      People may work harder for their own self-interest than for some collective purpose. We need an economic miracle to make the economy sustainable and to end poverty at the same time. And it was an economic miracle that Europe came to dominate the world after the Middle Ages. This miracle happened through the accumulation of capital through savings and investment.

      To make the economy sustainable and to end poverty while maintaining an acceptable standard of living requires an unprecedented amount of traditional capital. Imagine what it might cost to completely switch to solar and wind. It may not possible, but if it is possible then the cost might be staggering. Such an effort can more easily be financed from investments than taxes.

      Interest rates are important in this equation. Lower interest rates can make investments in making the economy sustainable and ending poverty more attractive. The reason that returns on these investments are low and the risk is significant.

      The solution could be to ban resource consuming frivolous consumption so more investment money will be available for investment in the remaining options. Interest rates may go even lower so investments in making the economy sustainable and ending poverty may become attractive. For instance, at an interest rate of -3% an investment in Africa that yields 2% might be attractive, despite the risk.

      And it may be better to tax fossil fuels to the point that the alternatives are cheaper so that there is an economic incentive to switch. That might be better than subsidising solar and wind because the market mechanism may be more efficient in solving this issue than government planning.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks so much for such a detailed comment.

        I understand what you are saying. Negative interest rates would probably work better than taxes, because people would “perceive” their investment not as “being taken” by the government, but a potential gain for themselves in the future.

        It would require a colossal shift in the we think about our money. Most people I know prefer to save and have the assurance of accessible, liquid finance rather than wealth locked in equity. But this could work.

        Re. your point on taxing fossil fuels: First, lets just remove the subsidy they have! That itself will make alternatives more attractive.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Negative interest rates are a complicated subject for they must work on a global scale so financial markets should allow for it. This involves economic research and imagining how everything may play out when interest rates are negative. It is even better that positive interest rates aren’t allowed but that is only possible when most interest rates are negative already. Otherwise markets will fall into disarray.

        It appears that negative interest rates are deflationary and that prices are likely to go down, hence holding money in a bank account may preserve value in the same way as it does now. You may lose some money due to negative interest rates rather than inflation but the difference seems not substantial. Hence, people that prefer access to liquid finance may still be served.


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