Wednesday, 29 July 2015
Philately and Creative Destruction
Economists talk about “creative destruction”. By this they mean that over time whole industries disappear and get replaced by new ones, generally more productive and generally improving the quality of life. Candle-making factories disappear and are replaced with electricity generating stations. And so on.
And most industries thrive on the fact that their products get used up or wear out: agriculture only exists because food gets eaten; shoe factories because shoes wear out.
Philately is very unusual. Every year, the available world supply of stamps and stamp products (“produits philatéliques” they call them in France) increases. It increases very many times faster than the world’s population and has done so for most of the time since stamps were invented. As a result, since demand cannot keep up with supply, there is a long-term tendency for stamp prices to fall. (Marx, however, didn’t notice it – he was writing too close to the invention of the postage stamp).
Some destruction goes on: most stamps don’t survive for more than a few hours or days after the envelope to which they are stuck arrives. The same is true of the envelope. Those which do get preserved are then sometimes destroyed by fire, floods, insects, dealers and collectors. But not enough of them!
There are just too many stamps. Some are thankfully locked away in attics and bank vaults where they deteriorate and do no harm. Others are constantly churned through small collections and small auctions, their quality deteriorating with each churn. A very, very few are in large, serious collections and change hands – with remarkable frequency – in large, serious auctions.
I sometimes think that philately would benefit from creative destruction. A world-wide bacterial plague which eats up stamps, a Pandemic plague which spares very little but very definitely eats up all those terrible “schoolboy” collections and shoebox “hoards” and definitely all the Produits Philatéliques of all those countries which produce horrible looking stamps (you choose the ones).
Then the Plague would come to an end and we could start again with a worldwide stock of stamps more proportionate to the number of collectors, their capacities and their budgets.
But like most collectors, I find it very difficult to destroy stamps or covers. This week, my new stock included a few thousand cheap covers bought in a few big Lots, cheap at auction. Cheap and in some cases, nasty.
I threw away the ones with fungus or lots of water damage but not the ones with creases or tears or sellotape stains from tears which had been “repaired” or notes written in biro … in other words, the ones which had passed through too many careless hands.
But I hope a day will come when I do throw them in the bin because they are things of no interest to a sensible collector and their destruction would be a creative act. If everyone did it, then it would reduce the amount of time we waste having to look at rubbish to find something which isn't rubbish.