Saturday, July 29, 2017

Services Rendered

     [You get an oldie today, so the C.S.O. and I can do our respective chores, go to the movies, and have a leisurely dinner out. The subject is one we don’t hear too much about these days. The essay first appeared at the old Palace of Reason, on June 28, 2004 -- FWP]

     Time was, Americans were fascinated by the concept of "planned obsolescence." A great many commentators of the Fifties and Sixties made the notion – i.e, that products were being manufactured with built-in failure dates – the center of their attacks on our "consumer culture." The underlying thesis was that manufacturers were in a position to dictate to consumers, and that planned obsolescence was a more profitable approach to their businesses than making products that last.

     It was a canard, of course. No manufacturer in a market economy can ever be free to dictate to his customer base. His competitors watch him too closely for that. They'll pounce the moment he gives them an opening. But as the foundation for conspiratorial allegations about free-market capitalism, planned obsolescence was next to ideal. It had all the required elements: an evil cabal (businessmen), a seductive lure (falling prices), and a helpless victim class (consumers) to whose rescue the guardians of justice and fair play (government) had to ride, lest American society collapse under the weight of its rusted tailfins and worn-out vacuum cleaners.

     In truth, we got then what we get now: value for value. If the deterioration of the value of the dollar is properly taken into account, Americans today enjoy a standard of living that's three to four times that of their Fifties predecessors. This would not be possible had we been hobbled by the need to keep replacing necessities as they wore out.

     Yet it is nonetheless true that certain products are made with a built-in lifetime, with the approval of those who buy and use them. In some cases, that lifetime is a single use. You might have employed one such with your morning coffee and doughnut: a paper napkin. No one complains about having to throw those away. Why?

     It takes a little thought to discern the pattern beneath our acceptance of disposable products. What we really pay for when we buy a physical good is not the good itself, but rather, what it can do for us. The paper napkin's disposability is virtually the entire point of the thing. It allows us to cleanse our faces and fingers without requiring that we launder it afterward, as we would a cloth napkin. The same could be said of many goods with comparable purposes.

     It's a funny lens to view the world of physical goods through, isn't it? Yet it applies without exception. Whatever we think we're purchasing, what we're really buying is labor: either the services the good will provide us, or the lessening of our own toil. The only thing we seek as an end in itself and for no other reason is happiness -- and if that's available in any store on Long Island, your Curmudgeon hasn't found it yet.

     Disposables to the side, we can obviously get more service out of goods that can be reused. The more uses a thing is good for, the more valuable it is to us. That tends to raise its price, but as long as its utility rises as fast or faster, it will remain marketable.

     (Your Curmudgeon will pause here to consider what appears to be a glitch in the curve: the luxury wristwatch. Having recently seen a $250,000 watch, and having noted that it tells time no better and no worse than a $50 watch, your Curmudgeon had to ponder his premises for a bit. Ultimately, he realized that no one purchases a quarter-million-dollar watch because it tells time. It has the same function as a diamond bracelet: to impress the onlooker with one's wealth. Therefore, it fits the model.)

     Following this line of reasoning leads us to conclude that those things that provide a desired service but never fail or wear out should be infinitely valuable. This is indeed the case, yet paradoxically, these infinitely valuable items are without material cost. All it takes to acquire them is some skull sweat. They're ideas.

     He who teaches may charge tuition, but, once you've absorbed them, the ideas he vends are cost-free. Even bad ideas have some value, as object lessons in how the reasoning process can go wrong, and the consequences a bad idea can have when put into practice. But good ideas of wide applicability can be the foundation of a life, a political system, or a religion capable of transforming the world.

     In the midst of a campaign season, quite a lot of ideas are "in play," bandied about by candidates, their backers, the talking heads on television, and The Celebrated Man In The Street. That's where we are today...or it would be, if numerous calumnies and innuendoes weren't clogging the channels of our discourse. As matters stand, we appear to be far more concerned with incidentals: who lied or shaded the truth about what, who boinked whom, and who stands to profit from this or that political decision, regardless of whether the decision itself was right and proper.

     Your Curmudgeon ardently wishes it would all go away. In the words of Arthur Herzog, it's turned the American political dialogue into something approaching torture.

     If now is not the time to be concerned with ideas and their consequences, what time would be more appropriate? Granted that one of Mankind's critical ideas throughout history has been the importance of character. Indeed, it's a point your Curmudgeon is fond of making. But attacks on others' character that lack substantiation, or whose basis has been proved false-to-fact, contribute negatively. If they speak to anyone's character, it would be that of the men who forge and deploy them.

     To get service from our political ideas, we must think about them, discuss them, study the cases to which they've been applied, ponder their consequences, and compare them to the relevant alternatives as honestly and egolessly as we can. A moment spent on pointless derision of one's political opponents, rather than on dispassionate analysis of what works, and when and where, is a moment wasted -- and you know how your Curmudgeon feels about the waste of time.

     So shall we tune out the character assassins and venom vendors for now? Can we concentrate instead on the differences between Democrat and Republican, and how the policies of each has fared these past few decades? Of course; your Curmudgeon was sure you would agree. Putting political ideas under the microscope is the only way to profit from them. But what's that you say? What's that lump of discolored paper protruding from your Curmudgeon's pocket? Well, if you must know, it's a paper napkin. Yes, yes, it's a used one. We go through them very fast here at the Fortress of Crankitude, and your Curmudgeon dislikes descending to the basement to fetch more, especially in the middle of dinner. Besides, throwing them away after just one use seems

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