[EconTalk] Adam Minter on Secondhand

Adam Minter on Secondhand

13/01/2020 by EconTalk: Russ Roberts

Web player: https://podplayer.net/?id=92679190
Episode: http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2020/Mintersecondhand.mp3

Journalist and author Adam Minter talks about his book Secondhand with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Minter explores the strange and fascinating world of secondhand stuff–the downsizing that the elderly do when they move to smaller quarters, the unseen side of Goodwill Industries, and the global market for rags.

Listen date: mid February 2020


  • This is the type of EconTalk episode which I love. An indepth dive into a specific industry or a topic, rather than fresh evidence or discussion of introductory topics.
  • The blurb doesn’t do justice to how interesting the actual discussion becomes. I doubt my notes can either.
  • I think I had first come across the concept of aging Americans moving out of their homes and into retirement communities and having to give away or sell all their stuff in a New York Times article. I can’t remember exactly which one, and there are two: this from 2017, and this from 2014. Both paywalled. I think it’s the 2017 one, though, the 2014 one seems to be from a series of short columns about retirement.
  • On attachments: “And this is really important to Boomers, in particular, who, at least, the clean-out professionals tell me and from what I witnessed, they want to know where things go. There is a real question of reverse provenance, if you will.”
  • I was very amused by the bit on how heavy oak tables are out of style and are finding no takers.
  • Holy shit: “But people don’t want to get rid of the stuff. They’re very attached to their stuff, so what do they do? They go and get a mini storage unit. And in some municipalities in the United States, the cost of those mini storage units, the rent, is higher per square foot than many residential areas. We’re actually spending more storing our stuff than we are storing ourselves.”
  • Relevant Terry Pratchett quote in response to Russ Roberts saying “But I like my stuff” – “It was said of the dwarfs that they cared more about things like iron and gold than they did about people, because there was only a limited supply of iron and gold in the world whereas there seemed to be more and more people everywhere you looked. It was said mostly by people like Mr. Windling.But they did care fiercely about things. Without things, people were just bright animals.”
  • The section on Goodwill was astonishing – I learned that the Goodwill retail stores are a business which operates on pure business principles, in order to serve the Goodwill charity, which does youth retraining. Amazing.
  • Interesting: “The Goodwill sorters will tell you, over the last three years they’ve really seen a decline in the quality of the clothes and that’s within specific brands.”
  • Also learned that Marie Kondo is not that unique in Japan – but she was the one Japanese practitioner who took off in the United States. Well, good for her.
  • An interesting point about how the things which are collected can go out of fashion over time or generations, leading to huge collections that nobody wants. “Yeah, like the Hummel figurines. I mean, if you go into an antique store anywhere in the United States and you ask about their Hummel figures which are these–they started making them I think in the 1950s in Germany, and they became a really hot collectors’ item, really back in the 1970s. Now the price has completely collapsed because the generation that loved them isn’t there any more.”
  • Another interesting point, not really economic, but psychological / psychiatric: ‘Hoarding is a spectrum disorder, and it’s just a question of where we all land on it.’
  • I learned about the industrialisation of rag making – and how ready-to-sell rags utilise waste cloth more efficiently than you will cutting up your own shirt. And the sort of pride which the rag makers take in doing the cut just right.
  • And the fascinating bit about how oil pipeline rags are made new rather than out of waste material because you can’t take a chance that someone has lied about the original garment being 100% cotton. (Even a little bit of polyester makes it an antistatic / fire hazard.)
  • knew about the quilts business at Panipat, which is just a two hour drive away, but had never seen it gone into such depth until now. Plus this episode again reminded me that India bans the import of secondhand clothing to protect domestic manufacturing. My gut feeling is that it’s a terrible waste, considering we have far more people who need the cheapest clothing possible than people whose jobs need to be protected – and who will ride the wave of customers who will only buy new anyhow.
  • Learning: China can now make a polyester fleece blanket new cheaper than Panipat can make a recycled wool blanket. Oof.
  • Learned that most used books are not sold but simply recycled into new paper.
  • “My wife did something funny. She became a bit of a boutique used-book dealer, and I describe that a little bit in the book. She realized she didn’t need so many books. She tried giving them away, and she found she actually got rid of more of them if she sold them than if she gave them away.”
  • Overall, this was equally fascinating for the industrial insights and the ones into the psyche of materialism and attachment to posessions.



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