DUCK SOUP: Durable Bull
Do you ever wonder why official economic indicators include sales of durable goods as a positive sign? Doesn't that seem just a little bit perverse? Durables are those big ticket items that are supposed to last a long time -- cars and refrigerators on the consumer level or punch presses and die casting machines in industry. When the sale of durables are up, it means that a whole slew of previous durables weren't very durable. If the reports were worded differently would we all cheer?"In the third quarter a bunch of big, expensive machines wore out and had to be replaced." This is good news?When a pair of jeans gets worn through at the knees I patch them or cut them off and wear shorts until they wear through at the pockets. Then I need a new pair for forty bucks or, realistically, a second-hand pair from the thrift shop for ten. Does that replacement improve my life?Granted, blue jeans aren't classified as durable, except in advertising, but the logic ought to be the same. When something I need to use wears out, it is a loss, not a gain.My van died recently. When I can afford a rebuilt engine I will shell out $1500 and spend the better part of a week dealing with ordering, receiving, removing, installing, reconnecting, testing and troubleshooting to get it back on the road. Somewhere in the catacombs of Washington my fifteen hundred bucks will be crunched by a number crunching gnome along with the rest of the durable digits and become a plus for the economy. This is one grease monkey who will not be amused.The bull about durables is only one piece of a much larger picture that should puzzle us. Why do we swallow the notion that more, newer, bigger and fancier gizmos are inevitably a plus? Isn't there at least an equal value to be found in less, older, smaller and simpler?I know a New Hampshire artist who has lived for thirty years in a modest house he built from stone and timber on his property. He is rich in his poverty. He is lavishly sparing in his habits. No electric lights or running water, just a hand pump in the kitchen sink. His possessions are few, giving his home the feel of a museum: A piano, an antique wood stove, a large table with numerous mismatched but comfortable and handsome chairs, a few books and one pair of jeans and a shirt on a hook. I surmise he owns two sets of clothing and only wears one at a time.This dwelling is perched in the most glorious organic garden I have ever experienced. The hand-made house combined with the lush vegetation has the aspect of an elf or hobbit home, and the art work that issues from his clay studio is found in corporate board rooms and New York galleries. I marvel at the simplicity of his life, and wonder if any of the CEOs who do their big deals beneath his sculptures can come close to his real wealth. He has found an Eden without recourse to Learjets and limousines. His life is virtually durable-purchase-free.If we truly progress, shouldn't we be able to do more with less? If our output per worker is constantly increasing why aren't we working fewer hours by now? If auto manufacturers have improved their products can't we expect them to last forty years instead of ten? Durables should become more so, and replacement happen less often.Worldwide seventy percent of consumer appliances are produced by just five corporations. In the automotive, airline, aerospace, electronic components, electrical, electronics, and steel industries the top five companies control more than fifty percent of their market. Think about that when you hear that sales of durable goods are up. It means three dozen corporate vacuums are sucking up wealth, while the planet's resources are in an accelerating decline.It's enough to make you wonder where the so-called Leading Economic Indicators are actually leading us. Excuse my scrambled metaphor but I'd say they're leading us down the garden path. A path that will inevitably take us all out of the garden -- for good.