Sunday, February 10, 2013

Button Industry in Muscatine

On Saturday, I visited the Muscatine History and Industry Center.  This museum not only housed history but intelligently produced a timeline of the development of button production along the shores of the Mississippi in Muscatine, Iowa.  I thought I would list a few of the economic concepts that I saw:

1.  Given the free entry into the business, Muscatine's population doubled.  Eventually, the profits in the industry were driven to zero just like the perfect competition model predicts.
2.  Clamming was a common resource.  Therefore, the marginal benefit of clamming would be driven to zero as fisherman preferred to deplete existing stocks of clams now instead of saving some for later.
3.  Free choice, in my opinion, did more for civil rights and women's equality than any legislation.  When families incomes were soaring race and gender didn't matter.  Money is a great equalizer.
4.  In my opinion, technology will always replace repetitive, manual labor, and require the use of skilled labor.  If the economy doesn't keep reinventing itself, there will be no labor market for those workers who prefer to be less educated.
5.  The cottage industry only lasted about 50 years, but in that time there was significant product differentiation to grab market share.  Eventually, many of the companies merged to moved into another product line.  Soon, synthetic buttons replaced pearl buttons.
6.  One thing that really bothered me was how few buttons could be extracted from a clam.  Usually five or six and then the shell was thrown away.

I loved my visit and want to return.  My visit to this museum was a lesson in economics, anthropology, marketing, and culture.


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