We used to own stuff. Not only that, if the stuff broke, we’d either have it fixed or fix it ourselves.

Take shoes, for example. Nowadays you can get a very nice pair of shoes for $100. If you look at inflation charts, you will find that that translates to about $10 in 1965 money, which would also have gotten you a nice pair of shoes. Superficially it looks like shoes have more or less maintained their value over the years, but there are significant differences.

When those 1965 brogans wore out, you took them down the street to the shoemaker’s shop, and got new soles and/or heels, your choice, put on for a fraction of the replacement cost. Down the line, repeat the process, and your shoes could last for many years if you took care of them.

Now, that same money gets you a spiffy new pair of technicolor trainers, with memory foam insoles and guaranteed no-slip outsoles, massively engineered for foot comfort so complete you barely feel the pavement. When they wear out in about a year or two, you can — toss them.

Of course, they had something like that in 1965. We called them sneakers: minimalist soles and canvas tops. When the cotton laces broke (often) we tied them back together with a square knot, took care that the knot landed just past an eyelet and carried on. You could repeat this process until you only had four or five inches of lace left. They cost considerably less than $10 and were good for a summer or two. If you’re comparing sneakers to trainers, we get a much better deal now than we did then, except all the shoes available nowadays are just variations on trainers, with fancier models gussied up with leather and what-not, but all unrepairable. There are no more shoe shops, or very few, as a result.

Back in the 60s we used to complain about planned obsolescence, the notion that manufacturers designed things to wear out on a schedule, to ensure a future market. We’ve learned a lot since then. No need to plan obsolescence, just stop caring about whether the things you make last.

That’s just an example of things we own outright, but that’s getting to be rarer and rarer, with the computer industry leading the way. In the digital world, you own very little. True, the hardware is yours, but if you want to do anything with it, you buy a subscription. Ten bucks a month here, ten bucks there, and you wonder where the money goes. Some years ago, there was a story about a guy who wanted to leave his iTunes collection to his son. Apple sued, and the court ruled he did not own any of it. Case closed.

This model has not been lost on the rest of the economy. It’s the ultimate irony: the deeper we get into market fundamentalist ideology, the less we actually own. It’s the root of the vast income gaps we see now.

Turns out the ancient alchemists were on the wrong track. The best way to turn lead into gold is to convince someone they need the lead, and they will give you the gold in exchange. Better yet, take the gold and just let them use the lead for a while.