This Holiday Season, Rethink Your Consumption Ethic
Today, I’m going to talk about televisions.
About two weeks ago, I came across a couple of well-worn toolboxes on the curb, left out for the trash. Most people probably wouldn’t look at them a second time. But I stopped, because one of them said “Zenith” on the side. That’s the Zenith that was once a pillar of the American electronics and radio manufacturing industry, along with companies like RCA and Magnavox.
I went over to look at the toolboxes. It turned out they were actually carrying cases once used by television repairmen, and were meant to carry replacement vacuum tubes, before televisions were “transistorized.” It was almost painful to think that these pieces of a mostly lost economic and cultural history were headed to the landfill alongside last night’s assorted detritus. I took the cases home to display them somewhere.
After the excitement wore off (not only had I found something interesting for free, but I had rescued it from the trash!), I thought about the America that these battered little boxes represented. They reflected an era when your television was made by fellow Americans, at a factory that you could (if so inclined) actually visit. The TV was expected to last years, and to be repaired over time. It might last decades—my grandmother’s old RCA was 30 when she retired it, and the tube was still working. And more than likely, the worker on a Zenith assembly line could actually afford the product he or she helped to produce.
Back then, there was an element of pride in ownership, in the feeling that products were well made in one’s own country. Not that there weren’t quality issues, but it was a far cry from the contemptuous “Chinese junk!” that we are so quick to exclaim when a gadget or gizmo breaks a week out of warranty.
It was probably inevitable that televisions would become sleek flat panels instead of, as they often were, ornate pieces of furniture with wooden box frames and heavy glass tubes. But it was not inevitable that the United States should lack a single modern television or display manufacturing plant*; nor was it inevitable that the notion of repairing and, as such, respecting our consumer goods should be replaced by a throwaway ethic that relegates every manner of consumer good to the trash along with last year’s calendar.
One cause of this shift is, of course, economic. Products are cheap now, and in any case are not designed to be repaired. And so, no matter that a 50-inch TV set dies after a year or two, if only because of a faulty 10-cent capacitor. It was certainly cheap foreign manufacturing that first eroded U.S. manufacturing and, by extension, the domestic consumption of American-made goods.
But the move toward disposability goes deeper: it is also motivated by the loss of a culture that respects and understands consumer goods. This loss of culture goes hand in hand with cheap foreign manufacturing and low prices, but it is a separate, and perhaps more powerful, phenomenon. It was once possible to replace a burned-out vacuum tube oneself, with the help of handy do-it-yourself testing machines that could be found in everyday drug stores. This sort of activity engendered what you might call “mechanical literacy,” a basic familiarity with consumer goods and how they worked. A do-it-yourself ethic combined with high-quality domestic manufacturing created a vastly different consumption culture than exists today.
In a country that imports its vegetables by jumbo jet and that buys its t-shirts from distant factories staffed by wage slaves, we not only lose sight of the plight of invisible workers or of environmental damage, but we lose any sense of connection to the things we consume. They are made by the millions of poor workers in China or Indonesia or Mexico, who in our minds are probably as indistinguishable and replaceable as the millions of indistinguishable steel containers in which our consumer goods arrive, or, for that matter, as replaceable as the items produced. Consumption has been depersonalized and mechanized. It has been divorced from any understanding of where a product comes from, how it is made, or who makes it.
Without this link, the ethic of disposability seems acceptable, even natural. It is difficult to have an emotional attachment to or respect for something so stripped of character, style, history, and provenance as the modern consumer good.
So this holiday season, if you buy at all, buy something about which you can, at the very least, state a single fact. I recommend anything made in America, preferably in your region or local community, as a small way of rebuilding a more responsible, more informed, and less profligate culture of consumption. It is difficult to reconstruct an approach to consumption that in the past was a natural result of the state of the American economy. But it is an approach that will yield great benefits in reducing mindless consumption, waste, worker exploitation, and environmental harm. It is an approach well worth relearning.
And if you happen to come across an old box with “Zenith” on the side, pick it up and take it home. It may remind you of a time when Americans had a little more respect for, and a little more pride about, the things that they own.
* From the 2010 book, The Betrayal of American Prosperity, by Clyde Prestowitz