The economics of value(s)

It seems that something breaks in my house every day that I am in it, and when I travel, things break even more often. Just recently, we’ve replaced a dishwasher, our six month-old coffee machine has gone on the fritz (the old one was only 2 years old), we’ve had an electrician in to repair our dryer (while here he told us that our washing machine, which is nearly brand new, was a “ticking time-bomb, mate- them cylinders break every time”), fixed the air conditioning and  brakes on the car (and then the next day the rear-view mirror fell off), our broadband hasn’t worked properly since May, my computer makes a noise like a leaking high pressure tanker when I turn it on, our new carpet is falling apart and another unit just died on our stove.

When I was growing up, things never, ever broke, with the sole exception of our GM cars, which died almost weekly. In spite of this, it was not until 1992 that my parents bought their first Japanese car, and only then because one of their friends had one. My parents replaced only one appliance, our dishwasher, in all my childhood. The air-conditioner in their house worked perfectly for thirty-five years before needing repair. It was only the early 70s color scheme of their stove, fridge and microwave that caused them to be replaced.

Amazingly, though, every replacement appliance my parents bought throughout the 90s has now been replaced. None of them lasted 10 years. None. Their last GM car was given to a charity last year after swallowing something like a gazillion times its original price in spare parts. Have companies forgotten how to make things that work? No. They’vd DECIDED to build things that don’t work on purpose, because we, the consumers, have taught them that it is more profitable to do so.

Looking back, I can see that the brain trust at GM was truly visionary. In an age when companies built things to perform well and last as long as possible, GM realized there was more money to be made in failure. For a manufacturer, each part that they manufacture becomes more valuable the more certain they are to break, because when they sell the car, they’re, at that moment, selling all the spare parts, services and repairs that car will ever need, and they’re selling you a new car 5  years later instead of 10.

This strategy made GM the world’s largest company. Millions of people voted for this business model with their wallets, and now every other major manufacturer has adopted it. Trust me, you will never, ever own a TV for 20 years again- and it’s our fault, because we told companies that we want this state of affairs by spending our money in support of it.

Of course, last I checked, GM was no longer the world’s largest company, WalMart was (Exxon is up there, too). I don’t know many people who will openly admit to liking WalMart, but they’re doing well. In the small towns were their bread is really buttered, the WalMart is almost always the single largest business in town. What does the community get from WalMart in exchange for the money they spend there? Local wages go down. Local business close. Local charities (including orchestras and museums) that were supported by local businesses close (WalMart rarely gives to local non-profits). Downtowns atrophy, while traffic builds up on the outskirts of town. Towns, which have lost tax revenue because of lost jobs, lost wages and lost taxes, have to spend money to alleviate traffic problems around WalMarts. Still, mega stores get bigger as local economies get smaller, because this is what we voted for with out money. In many small towns, it is no longer possible to vote against WalMart with your wallet, because they might be the only local source for tires or garden gnomes or computers. We can’t avoid cars, because the trains either don’t exist (America) or don’t work (Britain). Once everyone starts building crappy refrigerators, you have to buy one, and therefore cast your vote in favour of more crappy refrigerators in the future.
Who makes more money- a cancer researcher trying to cure lung cancer, or a lawyer who defends tobacco companies from litigation?

If you look at the 10 largest companies on earth, how many people would agree that they make the biggest contribution to the good of humanity? How many people would indicate a high level of satisfaction with the goods or services those companies provide?

I would contend that the worst thing about buying a pack of cigarettes is not the impact on your health, but that you are voting in favour of the guy who’s responsible for who knows how many deaths each year (by allowing tobacco mega-companies to remain economically viable) getting a bigger boat, a third house and a plasma TV in the bathroom (at least you know it will break).

Our culture has largely forgotten that how we spend money is the single most specific manifestation of what we value. Advertising tells us that we spend money to make ourselves feel better, not to make our lives or our world better. Imagine what would happen if at the end of an ad for some car, instead of inferring that buying the car would lead to a life full of rampant sex with young vixens, they would have to explain to the viewer (like listing the side effects of drugs) what would happen if you gave that amount of money to Unicef or the local museum? Perhaps they should have to warn viewers of the environmental side effects of the car (“the new Ford may cause traffic jams, global warming, McMansions for executives of Ford and Exxon pricing you out of the property market and a permanent lack of train service your country. May cause sudden death from collision or cancer from air pollution”).

I think if people realized what they were really voting for when they spent their money, they would spend it more wisely, at least to the extent that our modern economy gives them some choice in the marketplace.

Arts organizations would be well advised to remember this, because we have among  the strongest cases to make. A dollar spent at WalMart shinks your local economy, while a dollar spent on a concert ticket grows it. When a sponsor supports the local youth orchestra, they’re building a more educated, healthier and more productive society. Where else can they do that with their money? When you spend money or invest money in the arts, your money grows and recycles itself, and keeps making the world a better place.

We can and must make that case- arts, health, education have real value, so they must have monetary value.

Now, I’m going to take a break and have a coffee… I mean…  Damn!


“in many, many ways the ill-health of the classical music business is a sign of the ill-health of society as a whole.” 

 c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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