I have a family. We live in a frame house in the suburbs. What we do here on our acre is process Chinese appliances. I’m not sure how we got the job, or when, but it’s not that big of a deal because it isn’t that big of a job. In fact all we have to do is use the appliances until they break, and then throw them out. It takes very little time from when a new applicance is unpacked until it fails, so we are able to do quite a few per year. We use one, break it, then look at each other and say “What a cheap piece of crap!” Then we bin it and head down to Walmart for another assignment. Over the last ten years we have processed approximately 124 hair dryers, 76 curling irons, 40 coffee makers, 32 motorized dental appliances, 21 toaster ovens, 15 vacuum cleaners, 7 electrically powered devices of unknown purpose, and 3 dishwashers. So I think we’re doing our part.
There are also the things we buy that break at some point, but which actually cost more than the gas + time to go get another one at Home Depot, and so some of these we have had repaired, like the $450 clothes dryer that burned out a circuit board after three years, or the “Schwinn” elliptical exercise machine constructed of welded steel that just broke in two. Okay, I am pretty heavy, but it was steel, and it broke. Just a cheap piece of crap. At certain times I can’t help thinking back to my Mom and Dad and their household. Sure, it cost a month’s pay to buy a new washer or dryer back then, but once you had one it lasted twenty years instead of ending up rusting in some landfill within the decade. Like my percolators. All 12 of them. I happen to like percolated coffee. Keep your $20,000 six-cylinder Japanese steampunk brewer and give me a pot with a basket and a bubble on top.
Thankfully you can still find percolators amidst the barren waste of drip machines. They cost $59 and last about six months. A friend of mine received a 25 year-old percolator from one of his relatives, and it works like a champ. As it should, since there is very little in our technology-fueled world that is as dumbass-simple as a percolator. For that matter there isn’t anything all that complicated about toaster ovens, or vacuum cleaners, or dishwashers. I’m a programmer, and what I do is the most complicated thing there is in time and space, so I laugh loudly at the crude simplicity of these greasy electromechanical devices. The only excuse for not building a percolator that lasts longer than a political news cycle is that you can’t afford to, because nobody will pay you for it. And why should they when they can grab a cheap piece of crap at some big retail outlet, use it until it collapses from shame, then toss it to the curb where it will magically disappear?
I used to be a staunch free-trader. I sincerely believed that free-flowing trade would increase the prosperity of the entire world. All it seems to have done instead is fuel the growth of big-box retailers as the US-side logistics and fulfillment arm of China Inc. I’m rapidly becoming a protectionist, because I can’t see one positive thing that has come out of it. Yes, everyone can afford a new vacuum cleaner now, because it costs less than spit. But if they can afford to buy a new one every two years because the old one broke when the cat looked at it, then they can save up and buy a good one that will last ten years. Free trade hasn’t made vacuum cleaners affordable: modern production methods have. U.S. manufacturers can make good products that are much more affordable than their equivalents were 40 years ago, but nobody will buy them as long as companies like Walmart can flood the market with throw-away crap.
Companies don’t have to operate this way. Walmart doesn’t exist because cheap goods are available overseas and readily importable into our economy. That trade has made them larger, but they would be successful even a world where everything had to be made here. Scale matters, and so does efficiency. Walmart sells cheap Asian goods because they can, and because they can people have come to expect these things to be cheap, and because people have come to expect these things to be cheap all the old-line American names like Magnavox, and Raytheon, and Westinghouse, and Schwinn have been sold off to Asian manufacturers, and their U.S. businesses are nothing more than marketing front-ends. Can you really be a world-class power when you don’t remember how to make anything? We need trade, but we need trade to be put in its proper perspective. We need a level playing field, so that Americans have jobs building things that Americans use. We need to relearn how to complete on quality, rather than price. Economic security is still security, and it’s time U.S. politicians remembered that.