I can’t help but get a sick stomach when I walk into a Wal-Mart or a Kmart since I realized that most of the things I see will end up in a dump within a few months, or a few years at most. As I watch my children’s birthday presents, our kitchen gadgets, appliances, electronics, plastic house wares and even automobiles virtually disintegrating before my eyes, and I begin to doubt that consumer spending is the ultimate ingredient in a strong economy. Rather, my mind conjures a sort of ominous epitaph on the tombstone of our short-lived, shortsighted society: “Death by Consumption.”
Thrift is a bygone virtue, replaced by its sexy and seductive antithesis – consumerism. Most kids these days have never heard of it. Worse, few of their parents and grandparents, and almost none of our political leaders believe in it. Daily, we are assaulted by advertisements bidding us, “Consume more! Consume more!” as if the media signature on thrift’s death certificate wasn’t enough, our chief executive judges the health of our nation’s economy by a consumption-based index.
The question is how long can we keep it up? How long can we base our economy on increasingly automated, increasingly outsourced production of increasingly cheaper products on increasingly shorter product cycles and life spans? For me, the answer came a few weeks ago at the Emerging Energy Technologies Summit hosted by the UCSB Technology Management Program. My answer: not long.
I believe there is an alternative to rabid consumption. We must re-enthrone thrift. We must once again learn to make do with what we have, before we are left without. But, consumers and manufacturers won’t change their myopic ways unless they have an incentive.
A government subsidy on products with a lifetime warranty could jumpstart a transition back to the economy of thrift. How about no sales tax – federally reimbursed – on any domestic product designed to last your lifetime, or perhaps being able to deduct a fraction of such purchases, up to a limit, from your federal income tax? Such a subsidy would recoup its investment simply by creating jobs. Manufacturers could pay engineers to create quality products that are designed to last and hire skilled laborers to provide warranty service. Service to an existing product requires skilled labor, but not the expenditure of substantial natural resources. Products such as Maglites, Kitchen Aids, LED lighting and pianos would qualify for such subsidies. Absent from the list: 99 percent of the products sold at discount department stores. A thrift-based economy is based on quality, trust and service, which adds value to local service-oriented retailers and repair providers.
Supposing the average Wal-Mart product lasts a few years, imagine the fix our country would be in if we were called into a serious strategic conflict with an ally of a major exporter of cheap manufactured goods, such as China. How would we cope three years into the conflict, when every curling iron, computer, electric hand mixer, cell phone and automobile in the country is broken and useless? How will we fare in fifteen or thirty years when worldwide oil production begins to decline and the energy costs for production begin to skyrocket? In such desperate circumstances, can we expect to enjoy security and peace?
For a sustainable future we need an economy based on thrift, not Consumption. It is time to encourage consumers to invest in a sustainable future.
Dan Allen is a senior physics major.