Recipe for Prosperity: “Borrow. Buy. Waste. Want.”

By Kenneth Burke Source:Nation; 9/8/1956, Vol. 183 Issue 10, p191-193

Some years ago, in fact just before the stock-market crash of ‘29, I wrote an article entitled “Waste or the Future of Prosperity.” It was a burlesque, done along the lines of Veblen’s ingeniously ironic formula, “conspicuous consumption,” as used in his Theory of the Leisure Class. The article worked up several variants on this theme, finding much merriment in such paradoxes as the fact that our people, -who had been systematically led to believe that the maximum use of new manufactured objects is a sure sign of one’s moral and social election, were kept frantically busy turning out labor-saving devices, that the more our consumers wasted the more they could buy (hence the greater the waste the greater the prosperity), and that, insofar as people failed in their economic function as wasters, there could always be recourse to wars, since in wars and the preparation for wars the amount of production for waste is prodigious. In sum, our position was: “We realize now that culture resides in prosperity, that prosperity is the outgrowth of production, that production can only follow consumption that the maximum consumption is made possible by the maximum possible waste, and therefore that culture depends upon a maximum of waste. (At least until there is nothing more to waste.)”

In particular I centered on the automobile industry, taking Henry Ford as the symbol of that industry.

I think it’s the only article I ever made any real money out of. In fact, I have sold it several times, and once a part of it was reprinted without consulting me. One sale (psst!) actually was to Reader’s Digest. That was the most remunerative; but I should add: the sale was to a Reader’s Digest then in a mood much different from its moods now. But, alas! I, too, am in a mood much different now from my moods then; and I couldn’t now, for the life of me, stir up the spirit, not even out of a bottle, to cavort hilariously about such matters now as I did then.

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. And I nearly forgot to add that I am quoting from the opening sentences of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, by one K*rl M*rx. However, in accordance with my nature, I would use the words revisionistically: for I am dealing with the fact that, whereas over twenty-five years ago I considered the so-called Higher Standard of Living fit subject for a farce (insofar as this mode of life relied so heavily upon scientifically organized methods for goading the citizens of a great nation into a frantic scramble to buy unneeded things), now, in the years of my decline, I would look upon this same state of affairs as material for an almost awesome tragedy (albeit a tragedy that lends itself, in flashes, to such shrewdly morose and wincing appreciation as can at times go with high comedy) .

The terror derives from the fact that, to a great degree, unless we can somehow mend our economic ways and modify our naive and even crude response to the range of things made possible by applied science, there is no other solution for us but to persevere in the current frenzy, a frenzy largely maintained by the paid priesthood of advertising and by the corresponding paid or unpaid priesthoods of the arts.

My article like all burlesques was based on what I thought was a grossly exaggerated statement of my case. But recently (in their May 5 and June 16 [1956] issues) Business Week published two articles that startled me, and even nonplussed me, by offering as simple gospel a line that, if I could have thought of it when I was writing my burlesque a bit more than a jubilee ago, I’d certainly have used as the perfect frisky summing-up of my thesis “Just past the midmark of the 20th Century,” we read, “it looks as though all of our business forces are bent on getting every one . . .” (and here is the notable slogan) to “Borrow. Spend. Buy. Waste. Want.”

I would then have looked upon such a slogan as ideal material for a farce. Now presumably it is to be taken in full earnest.

In my original article, also, I thought I was making much sport of the trick psychological devices whereby a customer with a perfectly serviceable car was persuaded that he should get rid of it because there was a newer model available. In particular, I guyed the doctrine of “obsolescence” that was implied in such high-pressure selling tactics. But now I find Business Week referring quite respectfully to the way in which General Motors “adopted the annual model change, helping to establish the auto industry’s renowned principle of ‘planned obsolescence.’ “I had mistakenly thought that the principle was a joke; by now it has become “renowned.”

A correction of another sort is in order, too. I had featured Henry Ford as the person most responsible for this type of economy. However, the articles in Business Week point out that, on the contrary, Henry Ford was an old-timer (“the archetype of the production man”) with an antiquated Puritanical notion that, if you gave people a serviceable car at a price made progressively lower by increased sales, a car that the buyer might use for several or even many years before it needed replacement, you would have done enough. According to Business Week, it was General Motors that freed us of such old-fashioned nonsense, and started the rat-race of the annual change-over, plus the inducements of ever-lengthen ing time for payment on the installment plan; and Ford was reluctantly driven to the same methods by the pressures of the situation, with its technologically and financially Darwinian competition for survival.

The articles help us see how, when other industries such as appliances and plastics developed by following the same marketing procedures as General Motors, we finally came to have, in all its perfection, “the Consumption Economy,” the “age of distribution, of the consumer and his foibles,” in brief the Grand Convergence or Fatal Confluence of the factors that make up what now usually goes by the honorific title (and perhaps partial misnomer) of “The Higher Standard of Living.”

This, then, according to Business Week, is the age in which “Consumer is King.” And I’d like to round out my statement by meditating briefly on that resonant formula.

First, I couldn’t help recalling the gnarled philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who went crazy at the thought that the modern world was undergoing a moral upheaval, a “transvaluation of all values.” But if these articles in Business Week are reliable evidence, then the Nietzschean supermen of our modern sales philosophy can take a revolution in moral standards simply as a matter of course. Many people, we are told, “are upset by what they see as an enormous emphasis on materialism and triviality” in the contemporary scene. Whereat the articles accurately pit their bright new asyndeton (“Borrow. Spend. Buy. Waste. Want.”) against “all the old admonitions” that “appear to have been outdated,” such Poor Richard proverbial saws in behalf of frugality and thrift as “Neither a borrower nor a lender be. … Waste not, want not. … A penny saved is a penny earned. … A fool and his money are soon parted.” Discussing the “danger in thrift,” the articles note that if the typical consumer should take it into his head to buy only the things he really needed, “he would scare the life out of business men and economists.”

But fortunately (and we seem to have here a modernized variant of the paradox in Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, whose individual greed brought prosperity to the hive), the typical consumer “seems to prefer living just barely within his means. This may be profligate and short sighted of him, in some people’s eyes, but it is a powerful stimulus to the economy,” and the statement looks to me as though it could be fairly translated: “This may not be morally good for the individual, but it is good for business.” Or, more bluntly, the obvious ethical question which should always guide a state, “What is business good for?” is almost imperceptibly translated into a quite different economic counterpart, “What is good for business?” For the Business Week version of a business ethics would seem to be somewhat like the ethics of a tavern-keeper who thought it his business to get us all stinko drunk and keep us so. But surely ethical business admonishes a buyer, and does not merely seek to make a fool of him. Meanwhile I begin to fear that what I thought was pardonable in my burlesque only because burlesque is by definition a playful exaggeration, is now presented to us as the Ideal Norm. But that can’t be business ethics. Here it looks to me as though the congregation is being wronged by its priesthood. Business helps supply us and that’s a good job. And surely we don’t have to become damnfool spenders for business to carry out its role.

As a matter of fact, one might even go a step further and ask whether, over the long run, promiscuous spending really is so good for business if, as tested by the rule of the Higher Standard of Living, the economic function of business is to see that the maximum amount of money is being spent on the output of our mines, mills, factories, farms and the like. For when a buyer is induced to buy on credit, then in proportion as his indebtedness increases, more and more of his income must eventually go to pay the interest charges on his loans. Thus eventually his creditors are taking a handsome cut out of his income; and thus, to the extent of that cut, in the long run a buyer cannot buy as much as he could have bought had he proceeded at a slower pace and bought always for cash.

However, the argument in behalf of systematic goading of the people into long-term installment buying may be that, had they bought purely on a cash basis, they would never have bought as much unnecessary goods in the first place. For when credit terms look easy, presumably there will be a greater temptation to adopt an easy-come-easy-go attitude that takes on obligations as lightly as the supermen of the Business Week articles seem to have taken on a reversal of moral values.

But maybe we have been proceeding too fast. For maybe, in trying to get an accurate insight into the possible cultural issues involved here, we should take a closer look at the assumption that this really is the Age of the Consumer. True: this “age of plenty” does contain a whole new wilderness of machine-made innovations available for a customer to buy if and when the fancy strikes him. But we should also remember that, at the same time, even greater mountains of productivity have gone into goods such as munitions, about which the individual member of the mass- market has no say-so whatever. And in the search for the exact proportion among the motivational ingredients in our culture, we should not allow ourselves to be too distracted by the gaudy stuff in the store windows on Main Street.

Indeed, it’s fortunate for our economy that a vast proportion of our productivity does go into goods not accessible to the fluctuations of the mass-market. (I refer to such resources as investment by private corporations in plant expansion, but above all to the vast sums spent by the government for defense, rivers, harbors, dams, reclamation, highways, housing, crop subsidies, direct or indirect subsidizing of exports and the like.) For insofar as the Higher Standard of Living involves the mass-production of goods for sale to individual customers in mass-markets, it is necessarily synonymous with maximum instability.

What we might call the “Inevitability of Instability” in the Higher Standard is inherent in the fact that, by definition, the Higher Standard is preponderantly a realm of “conveniences” or “improvements” rather than basic “necessities.” And even where they are “necessities” (as with automobiles in many cases) they may be “postponable” purchases (as our old car may do well enough for a while yet, if we decide that at present we can’t afford a new one). As a result, “business men and economists are much concerned with what is now frequently called ‘discretionary’ spending, or the outlay on things which there is no pressing need to buy.” And though one expert is quoted as thinking that “the whimsical nature of consumer spending” is likely to be exaggerated, we also note: “Since each shift of a percentage point between spending and saving can mean a difference of $2.5 billion in the nation’s expenditures on goods and services, it is no wonder that business men and economists have been nervous about the personal-savings rate.”

The articles say nothing about the kinds of production and consumption that, in falling outside the power of the individual consumer to cast an economic vote by buying or not buying, can counteract the in stability natural to such a situation. The omission in itself is no scandal, since the articles were not on the subject of production as a whole. They were dealing only with production for mass-consumption. But in their engrossment with their subject, they make the individual consumer loom too large, even in his role as member of a great homogeneous band of similar consumers who tend to buy like him if they have the same income. And above all, the articles can make us overlook the cultural possibilities of stabilization in this other kind of production and consumption that lies beyond the consumer’s direct jurisdiction.

True, such stabilizing kinds of production have various problems of their own. The most obvious instance would be the case where in times of peace a threatened sag in the civilian economy is prevented by an increase in spending for war goods. The surest way to make the citizens concur in such expenditures would be by working up a large measure of international ill-will. And while such a procedure might seem to some the patriotic thing to do purely from the standpoint of an armaments race, it can have an unsettling effect upon the national psychology, since a permanent state of systematically coached ill-will is not a sound basis for moral discipline or peace of mind. And the maintenance of peace productivity by war productivity obviously has a bad effect upon a nation’s reputation abroad, where the citizens are not given the same slant by press and radio as in their own country.

My own particular fond dream along these lines is of a dispensation whereby the federal government would undertake to reclaim our streams by equipping all towns and cities, and even private industries, with sewage disposal plants. If such a mighty cleansing operation were set up, to purify the very symbol of purification itself, and thus to give us back our miraculous rivers, to reconstitute as trout streams and pleasure spots what are now but excremental drains and chemically-laden sewers, then indeed technology could by its own technological devices transcend itself — and we could begin to correct the most drastic ill besetting our culture, those grim conditions whereby “progress” equals pollution. Far from being expended in a cult of waste, with the almost diabolical ingenuity that must sometimes be exerted to goad our citizenry into frantic efforts at exhausting our national resources as rapidly as possible, a vast project in national reclamation could be undertaken to the profit of us all.

Then, as patriots, we could have the maximum grounds for congratulating ourselves on our citizenship. And far from cramping the consumer, such improvements would but extend the range of opportunities for the consumer to disport himself, just as government-built dams but increase the opportunities for private enterprise.