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Waste – The Future of Prosperity

by Kenneth Burke from The New Republic, July 16, 1930

(This essay is dedicated to Mr. Henry Ford, who is planning to spend a hundred million dollars on our education. Would that we had as much to spend on his – K.B.)

On the subject of health, C. -E. A. Winslow says in “Whither Mankind”: “Perhaps the once-born is a man with a constant excess of some vital hormone, the twice-born a man with an intermittent supply, the confirmed doubter a man with a permanent deficiency. Perhaps hope and courage will some day be controllable by chemical or psychiatric means.” Do not these pregnant sentences justify us in looking forward to the day when the constructive attitude can be maintained by a simple medical injection? It even seems possible that if our troublesome doubter Voltaire had been got hold of in time and given hormone-insufficiency pills in childhood, he might have become a regular Bishop Cannon. We dare look forward to an unending upward market, unimpeded by any intermittent deficiency of the appropriate hormone such as took place in Wall Street last October. The day may come when a loss of financial confidence will be looked upon, not as a problem in economics but as a lapse in hygiene.

It is in the light of the encouragement offered by such considerations as the above that the present essay is written. They are but secondary, however to a more positive cause for hope – indeed, the one overwhelming, undeniable and irrefutable cause for hope – which lies in the doctrines of Henry Ford. We refer to his doctrine that the well-being of the world rests upon the prosperity of increased production and increased consumption. More and more every year, under the guidance of Mr. Ford, our people are being taught to buy what they don’t need and to replace it before it is worn out. When this process of education is complete, we may hope to see erected the most prosperous civilization in the history of man. To Mr. Henry Ford we owe the discovery that our national welfare depends upon attaining the maximum rate of destruction of our national resources. 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.

This discovery of Mr. Henry Ford should be called the Theory of Economic Value of Waste. If people can be educated to the full realization of their function as wasters, if they can be taught to throw things away before they are worn out, the demand for these discarded commodities will be enormously increased, and our rate of production can be doubled, tripled, quadrupled what you will. If people can be taught to waste enough, they can be kept busy for at least eighteen hours a day replacing the wasted commodities. By this system 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. The amount of production possible in a properly wasteful society is thus seen to be enormous.

Due to Mr. Ford’s discovery, we have come to see that culture resides, not in leisure, but in work. The antiquated belief that there is any pleasure in a spare moment, a belief which was ruinous to the best interests of our full industrial flowering, has been exploded. It is now an exploded belief. We realize now that culture resides in prosperity, that production can only follow consumption, that the maximum consumption is made possible by the maximum possible waste; and there fore that culture depends upon a maximum of waste. (At least until there is nothing more to waste.)

“The old Periclean law,” says Mr. Julius Klein, “gave each Athenian the right to own five slaves. It has been calculated that every inhabitant of the United States has today at his disposal the power equivalent of 150 slaves.” All he has to do is to see to it that these slaves don’t do him out of a job. We have simply to make sure that the increase in the number of labor-saving devices does not shorten the hours of labor. Thus, when a man is thrown out of work by the introduction of a new machine for the manufacture of a necessary article, we must set him to work manufacturing some article hitherto unnecessary. If all our people are to be kept straining at their jobs, the duty of the public as wasters becomes obvious. The system is simple: one man’s extra radio is another man’s bread. It is as clear as the nose on Mr. Ford’s face.

But by expanding this principle, we find even greater encouragement. For long we have worried about war, driven by a pre-industrial feeling that war is the enemy of mankind. But by the theory of the economic value of waste we find that war is the basis of culture. War is our great economic safety-valve. For if waste lets up, if people simply won’t throw out things fast enough to create new needs in keeping with the increased output under improved methods of manufacture, we always have recourse to the still more thoroughgoing wastage of war. An intelligently managed war can leave whole nations to be rebuilt, thus providing work at peak productivity for millions of the surviving population.

Production can be further increased, however, by developing better methods of deterioration. This aspect of industry is still in its infancy, but its first baby steps have undeniably been taken. Before the modern era, the attempt was made to invent a razor blade that would be permanently efficient, outlasting year after year of stubborn stubble. Now, experts with the good of the country at heart are seriously at work upon the problem of producing a blade which will afford one perfect shave and then completely refrain, being henceforth not even good for corns. As the consumption and production of blades is mounting into staggering figures, it is to these rapidly deteriorating blades that we owe the creation of hundreds of thousands of hours of unnecessary labour. Whole countrysides have been fed on razor blades. To make the matter graphic: in the Dark Ages a man bought one razor in a lifetime; under the new system, he practically buys a brand-new razor once a week.

Similarly, we may look forward to the day when the automobile is properly adapted to modern needs. And when this Automobile of the Future becomes a reality, what will we have? Not our present economically cumbersome mechanism, which lies about the market sometimes for a whole decade, and often still gives service at the end of that time? No, the Car of the Future will give super-performance for 12 months, attaining speeds three times the maximum limit permitted by any state in the Union; it will be as sensitive to the touch, as responsive, as a thoroughbred or a sweetheart — and yet this perfection will not be a menace to our prosperity, for of a sudden, at the end of twelve months, preferably at the time of the annual automobile show, this car will fall into a thousand pieces, a kind of Eighty-one-horse Shay. It will thus be removed from the market forever.

Likewise in the building trade a higher moral tone is being manifested. The large contractor is coming to consider not only his own interests, but the interests of industry in general. As one big man in this business, when discussing this improved commercial ethic, expressed the situation to me: “We contractors, we architects and engineers, are coming to be moved by one firm, undeviating principle: that the man who builds a skyscraper to last for more than 40 years is a traitor to the building trade.” At present, he said, the full effects of this morality were still obscured, as most of the buildings had not been standing long enough, and some of the earlier ones were built before business had developed its present conscience. But in time these effects will come to make themselves felt – beginning probably with detached pieces of the cornice.

We shall cite but two other important causes of hope for our culture of mounting production; restriction of immigration and the increase of divorce. By limiting immigration we prevent great hordes from sharing in the prosperity of production, while still permitting them to share in our consumption. This avoids somewhat the present difficulty of a nation getting prosperous by selling to itself. The increase of divorce is to be heralded because it generally involves buying two sets of furniture where one had served before. We might say with authority that the hopes of futher expansion in the lumbering industry depend directly upon our prospects of a steadily rising divorce rate.

It must, by this time, have become obvious to all right-thinking persons that no system of maximum prosperity is possible without prohibiting the use of water for drinking purposes. The amount of labor that goes into the production and supplying of water is lower than that required for any other beverage. A man who drinks five glasses of water a day is in practice conducting a war of extermination upon all dairymen, soda-jerkers and bootleggers. If the population can be educated to consume this same amount of liquid per day under some manufactured form, the consumption of manufactured beverages will immediately be increased over 1,000 percent.

The public may, of course, resist – and this brings us to the matter of prohibition. Water drinking may have to be prohibited by law. This will mean new crimes and new crimes will mean new criminals. For a time it seemed as though our legislators were making new crimes faster than the states could build prisons to house the new criminals. But many recent prison riots have brought the problem squarely before the public eye, and we dare hope that the situation will shortly be remedied. The state can well afford much larger appropriation for the building of prisons than it now devotes to this purpose. And as enlightened public opinion impresses its wishes more and more firmly upon our administrators it is to be hoped that prison building will be speeded up proportionately.

Indeed much progress has already been made within the last few months; and we may assert with confidence that the prison accommodations will soon be ahead of our legislatures. These legislatures may then proceed unimpeded to the formulation of still other crimes putting many acts upon the statute books which are not even suspected by the general public as criminal at present. And many seemingly small offenses, now listed as misdemeanors, can be promoted to the rank of felonies with consequent long terms of imprisonment for offenders. Thus, the prisons will soon be amply ready for any legislative advance, and the prohibition of water can then become a reality. Some may deny that it would be immediately successful, but none who has looked into the facts can deny that it would be a noble experiment. Furthermore, we must not become too smug: we must not be complacent with our present state of progress. We must remember that the prohibition of water is but a rudimentary advance – there are still many, many more appetites and bodily pleasures to be legislated against.

Nor must we think that industrial progress has interfered with religion. For we may behold the rise of a new priesthood, in the purveyors of propaganda. To every man engaged in producing a commodity, there are at least a hundred engaged in selling it. We can make anything, but getting it into the home is another matter. There is publicity, there is ‘educational advertising,” there is lobbying. For there is more money in the swaying of opinion than ever before. A company used to spend, say, five thousand dollars to change the mind of a Senator. Now it thinks nothing of spending fifty thousand to change the minds of his constituents. This all means jobs for the priesthood.

We recognize that there are many who still have a sentimental attachment to the quiet little village of the past. Such villages were undeniably pretty, with the dirt road winding by the old mill and all that. We even grant that Mr. Ford and other thinkers of the same caliber have been greatly responsible for their passing. But here, too, we can silence the adverse critic. The sleepy little village is not gone. It may be lost to Ford buyers, but the great Ford Maker has been able to purchase one all for himself. So nothing has been lost after all.

Are there still doubters? Are there readers, for instance, who doubt whether things of the mind can flourish in such a society as we have been picturing? Let us consider the position of the sage in this social scheme, the man who has wisdom but little money. We believe that this sage faces a greater opportunity for the good life than ever before. Let us see his method of survival in operation. Looking about him, he notes that all his stupider fellows are victimized by the doctrine of obsolescence, and are kept busy buying new models of every imaginable commodity while their old models are still in thoroughly serviceable condition. To these savages, victimized by the most inexorable of psychological laws, the Law of Keeping Up with the Joneses, there is no choice but to go on buying and buying. But what are these savages to do with their old models which, though in perfect condition, are practically worthless from the social point of view? Here is where the opportunity for the sage comes in — and by a mere gaudy trinket, a string of beads, a rabbit’s foot, he purchases from the savages their discarded wealth. Being alone of all men protected from the full force of the Law of Keeping Up with the Joneses, he can proceed to equip himself for a song. And so we dare envisage our sage surrounded by a kingdom of last year’s grandeur: mission-style electric toasters, Alpine sun lamps lacking yodel attachments, evening clothes without “moderne” buttonholes, radio-phonographico-pianos without Neo-Novo Nevaware buffet-lunch inserts. When heretofore could the philosopher without means — and was there ever a philosopher with means? — entertain such hopes of surrounding himself with all these manifold resources of man’s industry? When heretofore could he entertain such hopes of paralleling, as it were, in external possessions that great wealth and accumulation which in the past he has possessed but within?

One thing alone will he have to buy as it issues from the factory. Not pencils, for he can get them out of old cross-word-puzzle books; not postage stamps, for he can soak off the cancellations from used varieties; not inkwells, for the vast number of non-musical fountain pens made available by the combination fountain pen and music box, the Fountobox, will make inkwells unnecessary – but razor blades. A razor blade can never regain its usefulness, partly because of scientific deterioration and partly because it had so little to regain. So our indigent sage, rather than surrender, will probably not shave at all. What then will the well dressed philosopher wear? Quite simply – a beard soaked with Flit.

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