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How Capitalism Destroyed American Democracy: Part 1Daniel Johnson Salem-News.com
Book review: The Waste Makers by Vance Packard.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - Culturally, it’s enervating enough here in Canada, an economic child of the United States, but if I were an American and read Packard’s book today, I would weep, wail and gnash my teeth out of frustration at the opportunities wasted, the enforced cultural detours and the roads-to-progress blocked—all in the interest of promoting and deifying capitalism. Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story is at least a half-century too late.
American journalist and social critic Vance Packard (1914-1996) was the originator of the pop sociology book, with The Hidden Persuaders, his million-selling 1957 exposé of the use of consumer motivational research and other psychological techniques, including depth psychology and subliminal tactics by advertisers to manipulate expectations and induce desire for products.
It was followed two years later by The Status Seekers where he described American social stratification and behavior. The next year, 1960, saw publication of The Waste Makers, and here we are today, almost exactly a half-century later, exploring the outcome of his ground breaking book.
In the 1950s, wrote Packard, “an investigator for the Reader’s Digest concluded that the new 41,000-mile federal highway system would become a ‘billboard slum’ unless state regulators acted to prevent it.” They didn’t. Commercial interests prevailed.
Now, writes Canadian philosopher Edward Heath, “despite being the most outrageously wealthy society in the history of the world, the more populated regions of the United States are also relentlessly, preposterously, brutally, ugly. American cities often seem to consist of nothing more than mile after mile after mile of aesthetically punishing tract housing, strip malls, and freeway overpasses. It’s hard to think of any great civilization in the history of the world that has so systematically failed to invest its wealth in beauty. This is not just an outsider’s prejudice either. Americans complain about it just as much.”
And they do. After a recent cross country trip by rail, Andy Isaacson wrote in the New York Times that “as early as New Jersey, I realized something that would only feel remarkable a few days later, in the Nevada desert: it’s still possible to travel 3,585 miles across the United States without being the target of billboards, golden arches or absurdly large twine balls. The rails offer a view onto Unbranded America — the land as it was.”
Americans the duped
In the 1950s it was known, but not widely disseminated, that American cultural progress had been halted. In a letter to the editor of Product Engineering a reader complained about planned obsolescence: “Let’s stop all this researching and developing for awhile! We’re up to our glasses in ‘progress’ now….We are inundating ourselves with junk. Science devises junk; industry mass produces it; business peddles it; advertising conditions our reflexes to reach for the big red box of it. To be sure, we are skilled junkmen—but what of us? How far have we advanced? We are junk-oriented cavemen!”
BBDO, with headquarters in New York, is the world’s 2nd largest advertising agency with 287 offices in 79 countries and more than 15,000 employees. Its current incarnation dates from 1957, at which time BBDO president Charles H. Brower said: “The house of advertising is a mighty fortress in our economy….Pull down advertising, and a frightening number of things will fall with it.” The result, said Packard, “is a force-fed society with a vested interest in prodigality and with no end in sight to the need for ever-greater and more wasteful consumption,” concluding that “the nation faces the hazard of developing a healthy economy within the confines of a psychologically impoverished society.” (my italics)
In a 1955 edition of The Journal of Retailing Victor Lebow made an argument for “forced consumption”. “Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption….We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”
By the mid-1950s,the modest product-testing and consumer oriented activities of the Bureau of Home Economics (Department of Agriculture) were cut back. At the same time, the Bureau of Standards was ordered to stop publishing their booklet, Care and Repair of the Home, which had sold more than 175,000 copies at sixty cents each. The director said: “We have no authority to run a consumer advisory service.” The American consumer was left essentially naked and defenceless against what economist E. H. Chamberlin described in the 1930s as “selling methods which play upon the buyer’s susceptibilities, which use against him laws of psychology with which he is unfamiliar and therefore against which he cannot defend himself, which frighten or flatter or disarm him—all of these have nothing to do with his knowledge. They are not informative; they are manipulative. They create a new scheme of wants by rearranging his motives.”
In 1959, Colston Warne, president of Consumers Union said: “The consumer is asked to choose wisely under circumstances which often baffle the trained technician. He is faced with product differentiation, brand differentiation, price differentiation. He is offered bonuses of extraneous products for purchasing. He is faced with trading stamps, special discounts, and trade-ins. Products are sold in varying quantities and in containers often deceptive to the eye.”
When I go to the supermarket I sometimes remark to those standing nearby, that I am sort of nostalgic for what it must have been like in the old Soviet Union where you looked at the shelf and there was only one kind of soap, one kind of toothpaste, etc. Now there is not only an abundance of brands, but even with some brands there is so much specialization that it is broken up into mini-brands. For laundry detergents there are products for hot water, cold water, warm water, with bleach, without bleach. (Just as there is “waterless” cooking, I know that “waterless” washing can’t be far away) The consumer is overwhelmed and under visual assault. I know I am.
Wear it out, buy it again
No one can be unaware of the strategy of the American automobile industry of the 1950s-1970s where cars were intentionally built shoddily so they would wear out sooner, thus compelling the owner to buy a new vehicle more often. Finally, after the oil shocks of the 1970s, the Japanese invaded the North American economy with higher quality, longer lasting cars, and broke the monopoly. (The Japanese weren’t the first. Several European car makers produced quality but, in going against the American grain, they usually cost more, sometimes much more.)
The term “progressive obsolescence” was coined by J. George Frederick in the late 1920s. Packard noted that “obsolescence planning was spelled out much more bluntly—and specifically in terms of quality—a few years later in a speculative article entitled ‘Outmoded Durability’ in Printers’ Ink (Jan 9, 1936). Its author was Leon Kelley, identified as an executive of Fisher, Zealand and Co. The article’s subtitle was: “If merchandise doesn’t wear out faster, factories will be idle, people unemployed”.
“The people of the United States are in a sense becoming a nation on a tiger,” Packard said. “They must learn to consume more and more or, they are warned, their magnificent economic machine may turn and devour them. They must be induced to step up their individual consumption higher and higher, whether they have any pressing need for the goods or not. Their ever-expanding economy demands it.”
One voice in the wilderness was Senator Joseph S. Clark of Pennsylvania: “The goal of our economy is not the production of more consumer goods at all. The goal of our economy is to provide an environment in which every American family can have a good house for living and shelter, a good school to which to send the children, good transportation facilities and good opportunities for cultural and spiritual advancement.” The capitalist media which depended then, as now, on advertisers for revenue could never have let such a message become widely known.
I’m reminded of Michael Keaton in the 1994 movie The Paper. He gets out of bed, goes into the kitchen and immediately starts drinking a Coke from the fridge. His wife (Marisa Tomei) asks, trying to be sarcastic: “Why don’t you just pour battery acid down your throat?” He says, “no caffeine.” Similarly then, as today, you could ask the MSM (main stream media) why they don’t promote more socially positive agendas and the answer would be similar: “no advertising revenue.
Fifty years ago Packard asked the question that Americans as a society have yet to hear:
“What will happen to the dignity of man if he finds that his contribution is to be a consumer rather than as a creator.”
Ground down, again
The economy continues to whipsaw the ordinary citizen.
In 1960 Packard reported that “A survey by insurance companies revealed that the average American family was about three months from bankruptcy. That was its cushion against disaster after two decades of unparalleled prosperity. For millions of families—especially for many living in suburban subdivisions—the brink of disaster was much closer. They were so pressed in meeting their host of monthly instalment charges that they were stopping smoking temporarily or putting their wives to work or seeking debt-consolidation loans, or all three.”
Eight years later, in 1968, Ferdinand Lundberg began his book The Rich and the Super-Rich with:
“Most Americans—citizens of the wealthiest, most powerful and most ideal-swathed country in the world—by a wide margin own nothing more than their household goods, a few glittering gadgets such as automobiles and television sets (usually purchased on the instalment plan, many at second hand) and the clothes on their backs….At the same time, a relative handful of Americans are extravagantly endowed, like princes in the Arabian Nights tales. Their agents deafen a baffled world with a never-ceasing chant about the occult merits of private property ownership…It would be difficult in the 1960s for a large majority of Americans to show fewer significant possessions if the country had long labored under a grasping dictatorship.”
Twenty years after that Thomas Byrne Edsall wrote in an Atlantic article titled "The Return of Inequality":
"The great bulk of Americans are losing economic and political power, while the affluent are gaining both. This is not a recipe for social comity."
Twenty years after that, today, the economic slide continues for the ordinary American.
Unhealthy health care
President Obama continues to try to reform American health care—resisted by many who would benefit, but who, brainwashed by the MSM have come to believe that any government action is virtually one step away from communism. The American health care disaster was foreseen by Packard. On drugs, he said “it is a travesty of free enterprise when twenty-five companies are issuing essentially the identical drug under twenty five different names at greatly varying prices. Word artists invent the brand names and often try to make them sound like some other highly successful drug….In a rational society, I would think, the medical profession would arrange for a simple way to get pure, high-quality drugs to the public at a cost not inflated by rival-brand promotional activities.”
When did the decline of America begin? Depending on how you look at it, the above scenario suggests that it probably began in the 1930s. I will consider that briefly in Part 2, but I will argue in the next Part that the seeds of American decline were sown even before July 4, 1776.
(To be concluded in Part 2)
Although he had published a few pieces (unpaid) in the local daily, the Calgary Herald, it was not until 1975 that he could actually make a living from journalism when, from 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman (1979-1993), Canada’s top business writer (notably a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting with the CBC. You can write to Daniel at: Salem-News@gravityshadow.com
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