The Gospel of Consumption

Posted on 05/22/2013 in misc

Reading this article about the history behind our consumer driven society reminded me of Gatto and The Underground History of American Education.

At the dawn of the American Industrial Revolution there was palatable fear among the ruling class that all the world's needs may be produced on only 3 days work. This was not seen as a good thing by the guys spending all their capital on labor saving machines. John E. Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers said “Nothing breeds radicalism more than unhappiness unless it is leisure.” Also concerned was Charles Kettering, head of research at General Motors, who in 1929 wrote an article titled "Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied," in which he proposed that it was imperative that American businesses not just meet consumer needs, but constantly invent new ones that the consumers would strive to fulfill. If Kettering's name sounds familiar it is because he is also the guy that put lead into gasoline, and he invented the CFC's that created the hole on ozone layer. That's quite a destructive legacy that Chuck left.

President Hoover was even in on it.

President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes observed in glowing terms the results: “By advertising and other promotional devices . . . a measurable pull on production has been created which releases capital otherwise tied up.” They celebrated the conceptual breakthrough: “Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”

The sugar and corn merchants at Kellogg's were not in on it. They instituted 6 hour work days in 1930, a practice that doggedly stuck in some departments all the way until 1985. Employees were almost universally happy with trading some income for more leisure time. Kellogg's also gave everybody a raise to partially offset the 10 hours lost each week. They also noted that by going to four 6-hour shifts they could hire an extra shift of people, not a small thing in 1930. However, after WWII new management started working hard to undermine the 30 hour work week, event though over 70% of employees wanted to return to it after the grueling 48 hour weeks supporting the war effort. The employees lost, as they always do.

After WWII government and big business teamed up, as they often do, and as usual, it was to the detriment of just about everybody else. Advertising began to tie hard work to the American ideal of freedom, and idle leisure as a danger to America. Americans with excess leisure time would have time to get involved in their communities and government. If you are exhausted by the work day it is less likely that you will be out agitating for equal rights and fairness on the weekends. So here we are today, where the average couple works 500 more hours a year than they did in 1979. We are just greyhounds on the track, endlessly chasing a mechanical rabbit that we will never catch.

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