Squander to Save

The hosts ponder economist Bernard London’s plan to get America out of the Great Depression: throw everything away — quickly.

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PETER: Welcome to the show. I’m Peter Onuf.


BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Ed Ayers is away this week.


Think back to the last time you bought something you didn’t really need. Something perhaps to replace an article of clothing, or maybe a piece of furniture or a phone that still worked just fine for the most part. Well, chances are that you wouldn’t have gone out and made that purchase if you were around in the 1930s.


BERNARD LONDON: People everywhere are today disobeying the law of obsolescence. They are using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected on the basis of earlier experience.


BRIAN: This is from a 1932 paper by an economist named Bernard London. London observed that Americans had gotten used to buying things that they didn’t actually need. The latest model car, for instance. Or maybe a kitchen appliance with some brand new bells and whistles.


PETER: But the Depression had put the brakes on buying, leading, said London, to a vicious cycle. Manufactured goods were piling up in warehouses, causing factories to cut production, jobs to disappear, and workers’ buying power to contract. All because people weren’t throwing enough away.


BERNARD LONDON: The cause of our present stagnation is that the supply line, or arteries furnishing the needs of the country, are clogged. There is a little demand for new goods when people make their old and worn out things do by keeping them longer than they should.


PETER: So what was to be done about this epidemic of frugality? London had a plan.


BERNARD LONDON: I would have the government assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture, mining, and agriculture when they are first created. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally dead, and would be controlled by the duly appointed government agency and destroyed. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces to take the place of the obsolete.


BRIAN: London referred to his solution as “planned obsolescence.” People who chose to hang on to their things past their designated lifespans, well those people would be taxed. While people who followed the rules and got rid of their “dead” items would receive a sales tax credit on the cost of replacements. All of that would encourage Americans to step up and do their patriotic duty to throw more stuff away.


BERNARD LONDON: In wartime, we conscript the flower of our country’s manhood and send them to the front to fight and often be destroyed. If such drastic procedure is deemed wise and necessary in the crisis of war, would it not be far more logical and profitable in our present emergency to conscript the dead things and send them to the front to be destroyed in the war against depression?


PETER: These days, it would be hard to find serious economic policy types getting behind government mandated expiration dates as a solution to what ails our economy. Instead, we’re more likely to hear the phrase “planned obsolescence” used to describe the business plans of tech companies like Apple, often accused of designing devices soon to be superseded.


BRIAN: But what struck us about the Bernard London story is that here we have someone making explicit a truth that most of us take for granted. Consumption is something that we’re always told is good for the American economy. Yet that consumption relies on an act that seems to be its very opposite– disposal. Making garbage, in other words, is what makes America go.


PETER: For the rest of the hour, we’re embracing this profound truth with a show about the ways Americans have dealt with all the garbage they produce. At last count, we were generating the equivalent of more than four and a half pounds of the stuff per person each day. More than the citizens of any other nation. Today as always, we’ll consider what light history can shed on this somewhat disturbing current day reality.