America's junk epidemic
No matter what President Trump says, the decline of American manufacturing won't be reversed by modest tariffs on aluminum and steel. There is more to this issue than industrial metals. Perhaps the largest structural economic crisis this country faces — one that encompasses everything else from outsourcing to stagnant wages to the environment — is the decades-long epidemic of cheap crap.
"This is why we can't have nice things" is a cliché that has lost its meaning. The reason we can't have nice things in America in 2018 is that we don't want them.
Think about the last pair of socks you purchased. Unless you spent upwards of $25 on them, they were probably made of Chinese acrylic. Getting them on your toes resembled an attempt to strangle a zebra with a sandwich bag. And afterward you couldn't shake the feeling that your feet were encased in a substance not unlike paint. They probably had a hole in them after a single wear. But, hey, who could pass up 12 pairs for $12 with Prime shipping?
It is almost impossible to buy a pair of jeans made in this country, and the ones that are made in the United States from American-milled denim cost $400 and look like they belong on androgynous French supermodels. Most $30 pairs will last six months — less if they are worn a few times a week, the way jeans should be. It is insane that we have let this happen in the Land of the Free. An America that doesn't make jeans is like an America where the bald eagle is extinct and Tom Selleck's mustache has been Photoshopped out of every extant picture.
In Michigan a small company engaged in making guitars by hand according to traditional methods was recently acquired by a gang of venture capitalist bros. The new management decided to fire much of the staff and insist that in the future their "handmade" guitars be manufactured with computer-guided machines. They dumped several million dollars into remodeling the workshop as an Instagrammable tourist "experience" and partnered with Rolling Stone LLC to "incorporate a wealth of music and pop culture into the renovation," whatever that means. Heritage Guitar used to be a place where skilled tradesmen made beautiful objects. Now it's going to be one more destination where suburban white people can gawk at screen exhibits and eat bad overpriced branded meals — imagine the $17 Jimi Hendrix Psychedelic Mushroom Burgers, the $12 side of Van Morrison "Sweet Thing" Potato Fries — and buy merchandise direct from sweatshops. Robot-guided tours, consultant-designed menus, officially licensed T-shirts: This is rock and roll, baby.
Examples like this can be multiplied infinitely. Appliances are cheaper than ever and do 500 different things — tell you what time it is, glow a luminous blue, allow you to write computer coded schedules into them — except what they are meant to. Trying to figure out how to make a pot of coffee after the LED screen went out on a friend's $40 Target machine recently reminded me how glad I am to own an old-fashioned one-button Bunn. Yes, it cost me $170. No, it does not double as an entertainment device, unless you get your jollies by listening to the sound of water percolating. But it will serve my family for longer than I have been alive.
Most Americans would rather have junk, though. Given a choice between purchasing a handful of moderately expensive items and buying replaceable crap whenever they want — and probably having it shipped rather than entering a store — people will choose the latter unless they are very rich. Luxury goods are now the only way around the cheap stuff quandary. It's fine that very nice things exist and that some people can afford them. What's crazy is expanding the definition of a luxury to include things like socks made of actual wool rather than plastic or a flip-phone whose battery lasts for more than five hours.
The rise of garbage is, roughly speaking, synonymous with the story conservatives like to tell about the supposed prosperity of the last several decades. It might be impossible to purchase a pair of trousers that last more than a year, but you can buy five of them for roughly the same portion of your income that one would have cost in 1950. Never mind that this is because they are made of cheap material by people in Southeast Asia who are treated little better than slaves. Out of sight, out of mind.
What is the solution to the cheap stuff crisis? The first step is to hasten the end of an arrangement in which it's possible for our companies to rely upon cheap foreign labor. This wouldn't necessarily have to take the form of tariffs; it would be better, in fact, if it involved forcing American corporations that do business abroad to adhere to the same labor standards they would abide by if they were making things here. In practice, at least at first, the result would be the same, though: Companies would decide that having a union workforce in Indiana is not really such a bad arrangement after all.
Increasing labor costs would in turn mean that prices would go up. People would have no choice but to buy fewer things. If you're only purchasing one tenth as many socks or buying a toaster that costs at least slightly more than an actual slice of toast at a fashionable D.C. brunch spot, you're going to insist on quality. Companies will have to deliver.
Finally, it's absolutely necessary to prosecute out of existence corporations like Apple whose business models depend upon a strategy of planned obsolescence. There is no reason that a telephone should not be made to last 15 or 20 years. The corded landline in the basement at my grandparents' house is older than I am. (Try talking on one of these sometime: You will be amazed that it is possible that a call could sound so clear.) Nerds will whine about the all-consuming importance of the new features they are missing out on, but their appetites are debased and unsustainable. Our great-grandchildren will thank us when they do not inhabit a world that looks like Pixar's Wall-E because we felt the need to throw our supposedly outmoded gadgets in the trash every other year.
This all might sound radical but really it isn't. The end of cheap stuff would simply be a return to the way that people lived and consumed things in the United States within living memory. It would be more ethical, more environmentally sound, and less ugly. It would also be better for our feet.