Monday, June 8, 2009

Borrow. Spend. Buy. Waste. Want... File. Part I

by the Sandwichman

In May 1927, Henry Ford gave the order to shut down production of the Model T to retool for production of the Model A. According to a special report that appeared in the May 5, 1956 issue of Business Week, "Selling to an Age of Plenty," that action by Ford marked "a great divide in modern times... the transition from the Age of Production to the Age of Distribution."

Ford had been reluctant to implement a model change and had earlier declared he would not do so. But competitive pressure from the successful sales strategy of General Motors eventually forced his hand. Beginning in 1923, General Motors had introduced the annual model change for Chevrolet, a move that vaulted the Chevy from a mediocre second-string vehicle to a Brand. The Chevy was murdering the Flivver.

Three years after the Ford Motors shut down, a satirical essay by Kenneth Burke appeared in the New Republic magazine. Titling his essay "Waste -- The Future of Prosperity," Burke dedicated it to Henry Ford who Burke mistakenly credited with the model change and the "planned obsolescence" concept.

Burke's Veblen-inspired satire revolved around what he called the "Theory of the Economic Value of Waste," which may be stated as: "The more we learn to use what we do not need, the greater our consumption, the greater our consumption, the greater our production; and the greater our production, the greater our prosperity." "By this system," Burke explained, "business need never face a saturation point. For though there is a limit to what a man can use, there is no limit whatever to what he can waste." With the sole proviso that, "We have simply to make sure that the increase in the number of labor-saving devices does not shorten the hours of labor."

Besides annual model changes for automobiles, Burke ruminated on such advances as disposable razor blades, skyscrapers, beverages, advertising, prisons and war as vehicles for stimulating the economy and keeping people busy "for at least eighteen hours a day replacing the wasted commodities."

Twenty-six years later, writing in The Nation, Burke got the opportunity to retract his unjust indictment of Henry Ford when Business Week published the article mentioned in the first paragraph.

My article like all burlesques was based on what I thought was a grossly exaggerated statement of my case. But recently (in their May 5 and June 16 [1956] issues) Business Week published two articles that startled me, and even nonplussed me, by offering as simple gospel a line that, if I could have thought of it when I was writing my burlesque a bit more than a jubilee ago, I'd certainly have used as the perfect frisky summing-up of my thesis "Just past the midmark of the 20th Century," we read, "it looks as though all of our business forces are bent on getting every one . . ." (and here is the notable slogan) to "Borrow. Spend. Buy. Waste. Want."

I would then have looked upon such a slogan as ideal material for a
farce. Now presumably it is to be taken in full earnest.

In my original article, also, I thought I was making much sport of the trick psychological devices whereby a customer with a perfectly serviceable car was persuaded that he should get rid of it because there was a newer model available. In particular, I guyed the doctrine of "obsolescence" that was implied in such high-pressure selling tactics. But now I find Business Week referring quite respectfully to the way in which General Motors "adopted the annual model change, helping to establish the auto industry's renowned principle of 'planned obsolescence.' " I had mistakenly thought that the principle was a joke; by now it has become "renowned."

A correction of another sort is in order, too. I had featured Henry Ford as the person most responsible for this type of economy. However, the articles in Business Week point out that, on the contrary, Henry Ford was an old-timer ("the archetype of the production man") with an antiquated Puritanical notion that, if you gave people a serviceable car at a price made progressively lower by increased sales, a car that the buyer might use for several or even many years before it needed replacement, you would have done enough. According to Business Week, it was General Motors that freed us of such old-fashioned nonsense, and started the rat-race of the annual change-over, plus the inducements of ever-lengthening time for payment on the instalment plan; and Ford was reluctantly driven to the same methods by the pressures of the situation, with its technologically and financially Darwinian competition for survival.

The articles help us see how, when other industries such as appliances and plastics developed by following the same marketing procedures as General Motors, we finally came to have, in all its perfection, "the Consumption Economy," the "age of distribution, of the consumer and his foibles," in brief the Grand Convergence or Fatal Confluence of the factors that make up what now usually goes by the honorific title (and perhaps partial misnomer) of "The Higher Standard of Living."
Part II


Shag from Brookline said...

Consider the medical meaning of consumption when considering the "Consumption Economy."

Shag from Brookline said...

A "want" is a terrible thing to "waste" even if you don't need it.