Thursday, December 9, 2010

Quotation for the day: Steven Watts

On Henry Ford's thinking in the mid-1920s*:

Ford had second thoughts about the excesses of modern consumer society.  Older, cherished values of hard work and self-restraint were endangered by frivolous self-indulgence in materialism.  Ford believed that the purchase of consumer items, if pursued imprudently, could be socially inebriating in the same way that the undue imbibing of alcohol produced drunkenness.  Ford began to promote a version of the consumer ethic that appeared archaic compared with the one galloping forward in America.

He criticized buying on credit, an increasingly popular technique in the modern consumer economy.  In an earlier day, Americans had known the value of a dollar and maintained a strong sense of utility.  They spent money when they could afford it and made sound decisions about buying useful, long-lasting products.  But now people had fallen under "the spell of salesmanship" as "the American people seem to listen and be sold; that is, they do not buy...Things are pushed on them."  Ford believed that the easy extension of credit facilitated this impulse and did harm by "taking up income before it is earned."  Such a practice, by saddling the consumer with debt, enriched lenders "at the expense of public benefit."
Steven Watts, The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) 351.

*)  Consider Rothbard's description of this period in America:  "[L]et us take the American economy during the 1920s. This economy was, in fact, a mixture of two very different, and basically conflicting, forces. On the one hand, America experienced a genuine prosperity, based on heavy savings and investment in highly productive capital. This great advance raised American living standards. On the other hand, we also suffered a credit-expansion, with resulting accumulation of malinvested capital, leading finally and inevitably to economic crisis."  Murray Rothbard, America's Great Depression (1963; reprinted Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2005) "Introduction to the First Edition"; digital edition here.

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