Trying Planned Obsolescence Again

It was so long ago that no one remembers now – the late fifties, when Ozzie and Harriet and Ed Sullivan were on television, when Elvis was young and thin, and new, when wholesome Pat Boone made a few earnest but stupid movies and there was actually someone named Tab Hunter, when the Dodgers and Giants moved to the west coast and so on. Those were the dead years between the Korean War and the next one in Vietnam, before the sixties changed everything. The country had nothing to do but be fat, dumb and happy – and prosper. It’s just that it was hard to get a handle on the nation’s growing prosperity, when most everyone was doing well, and doing better each year. There were no convenient markers to let you know you had arrived at the next level, if there was one – the kitchen might have the new appliances, avocado was the big new color at the time, and you might have a larger console television looming in the corner of the living room – but one year was pretty much like the last.

Detroit took care of that problem. Each September, with much fanfare, they revealed the new cars – the amazing new 1957 Chevy was nothing like the old 1956 Chevy, and in the following years the cars got wilder each September, with bigger and bigger fins and swoops and flourishes no one expected. Preteen boys at the time – like Mitt Romney as he tells it – would eagerly await the big reveal, on national television, and then follow all the details of the new and wonderful. And many of those boys hoped their father would go out and buy that new Plymouth or whatever, so they could ride around in the big-finned chromed-up beauty and sneer at their friends whose fathers had them stuck in the last year in America, which might have been ancient Rome as far as anyone cool was concerned. No one wanted last year’s model – those were for losers. And there was no way to hide it. Each new model looked nothing at all like last year’s. There would be no hiding just who had been left behind.

Detroit sold a whole lot of cars this way – it was called planned obsolescence. You make last year’s product seem dorky and sell the new model – everyone wants one – and you make a ton of money. It has to happen. Of course the new cars weren’t any better – just new sheet metal bolted to last year’s old heavy ladder frame, with the same weak drum brakes and the same soft wallowing suspension, and usually the same engine, year after year. It wasn’t like all the new generations of smart-phones now, where each new one does amazing things the last one didn’t do at all. This was entirely cosmetic – all surface. But it worked for a time.

Then it stopped working – people caught on, noticing the new car did just what the old car had been doing just fine, so maybe there was no reason to trade up. Or perhaps they somehow lost interest in one-upping the guy next door. Why bother? Or maybe it was more and more European cars popping up here and there – those cars looked the same year after year and were also damned good and pretty cool too. Or maybe it was economics – shutting down the factory and retooling the production lines each summer had to be expensive, and somehow there was always last year’s unsold inventory, cars that now no dealer could move. Those had to be sold at a loss. The whole marketing strategy started looking stupid – there’s no point in throwing away all that money. And there was the competition. The Europeans were having tremendous success marketing quality, not pointless surface changes, and then the Japanese started marketing efficiency, just when gasoline prices went through the roof. Suddenly no one wanted snazzy superficial change, for the sake of change. The age of planned obsolescence was over.

We’re used to that now. Those who buy a new car – if some people still do these days – may be all excited when they drive it home, but that doesn’t last. In a few days it becomes what it really is – a transportation appliance. It does what a car is supposed to do, get you from one place to another, with the level of comfort and amusement you decided to pay for. And no one is going to be impressed – the shape of all cars now is determined by requirements regarding crash safety and the laws of aerodynamics as related to fuel efficiency, so they tend to look all alike, more or less. You’re not going to stand out – not that you really want to. If you’re making a statement it might be about quality or competence or being earth-friendly, or maybe about dignity. Flashy and new is for shallow teenage boys, and for men in Los Angeles going through a mid-life crisis.

This may be a change in the American temperament. Flashy and new is now for fools, or the insecure. Pull up in a new Ferrari and people will snicker. The nation grew up. Whatever it is, in a few days it becomes what it really is – which is now exactly what happens in politics. Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan his running mate – the flashy and new guy – and in a few days what was flashy and new was suddenly just what it was:

Away from the cameras, and with all the usual assurances that people aren’t being quoted by name, there is an unmistakable consensus among Republican operatives in Washington: Romney has taken a risk with Ryan that has only a modest chance of going right – and a huge chance of going horribly wrong. …

It is not that the public professions of excitement about the Ryan selection are totally insincere. It is that many of the most optimistic Republican operatives will privately acknowledge that their views are being shaped more by fingers-crossed hope than by a hard-headed appraisal of what’s most likely to happen.

And the more pessimistic strategists don’t even feign good cheer: They think the Ryan pick is a disaster for the GOP… “Very not helpful down ballot – very,” said one top Republican consultant… Another strategist emailed midway through Romney and Ryan’s first joint event Saturday: “The good news is that this ticket now has a vision. The bad news is that vision is basically just a chart of numbers used to justify policies that are extremely unpopular.”

That was a Politico “inside” report, with this key point:

In more than three dozen interviews with Republican strategists and campaign operatives – old hands and rising next-generation conservatives alike – the most common reactions to Ryan ranged from gnawing apprehension to hair-on-fire anger that Romney has practically ceded the election.

That’s odd, and Kevin Drum noted the initial excitement:

Both conservatives and liberals are thrilled by Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate. Conservatives are thrilled because it suddenly makes the election into a real referendum on hard-nosed right-wing values, including tax cuts for the wealthy and entitlement cuts for the not-so-wealthy. Liberals are thrilled because… it suddenly makes the election into a real referendum on hard-nosed right-wing values, including tax cuts for the wealthy and entitlement cuts for the not-so-wealthy.

Publicly, both sides claim they can win this referendum.

It’s just that the private inside stuff is devastating:

I haven’t seen a similar story about private liberal reaction, but I’ll bet that’s because there’s no story to tell. Democrats are dancing in the corridors both privately and publicly. As well they should be: conservatives might like to talk a big game about cutting entitlements, but actions speak louder than words. In 2010, when they had a chance to win an election by running a scorched-earth campaign against President Obama’s cuts to Medicare, they tossed their conservative principles firmly under the bus because they knew perfectly well that entitlement cuts are a big political loser.

The fever swamp wing of the Republican Party might have worked itself into a frenzy this year, convinced that the American public is totally ready to wipe out its own retirement security, but cooler heads know better. I continue to think that the VP choice doesn’t matter a lot, but this election is going to be close and even a point or two matters. And in the bright light of morning, anyone who hasn’t drunk the tea party Kool-Aid knows that Paul Ryan will probably cost Republicans a point or two in November.

Ryan is all tail-fins and chrome, as Ed Kilgore notes:

We’re already hearing a lot from Republicans about Romney’s “courage” in choosing Ryan and the “tough choices” the ticket is willing to ask the American people to make. In Washington-speak, “courage” often means “folly,” and “tough choices” means advocating something voters don’t like. There is no inherent virtue in that; plenty of unpopular policy proposals are also stupid and evil, and in fact lots of them are contained in the Ryan Budget. But it’s worth remembering the code when you hear GOP insider talk about the ticket going forward.

The new car is no better than the old. Even the economist who worked for Reagan says Ryan’s ideas, and his grand economic plan, are nonsense, and that would be David Stockman:

The Ryan Plan boils down to a fetish for cutting the top marginal income-tax rate for “job creators” – i.e. the superwealthy – to 25 percent and paying for it with an as-yet-undisclosed plan to broaden the tax base. Of the $1 trillion in so-called tax expenditures that the plan would attack, the vast majority would come from slashing popular tax breaks for employer-provided health insurance, mortgage interest, 401(k) accounts, state and local taxes, charitable giving and the like, not to mention low rates on capital gains and dividends. The crony capitalists of K Street already own more than enough Republican votes to stop that train before it leaves the station.

In short, Mr. Ryan’s plan is devoid of credible math or hard policy choices. And it couldn’t pass even if Republicans were to take the presidency and both houses of Congress. Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan have no plan to take on Wall Street, the Fed, the military-industrial complex, social insurance or the nation’s fiscal calamity and no plan to revive capitalist prosperity – just empty sermons.

And there’s pm carpenter (who doesn’t like capital letters):

Stockman is gun-shy, and it’s hard to fault him. He experienced firsthand his party’s embryonic descent into fiscal madness and he emerged from that mortifying encounter incubating irrational fears of all deficits and essentially all modern economic management. He is the ideological equivalent of the old Trotskyites turned communist witch-hunters.

And there’s Michael Waldholz in Forbes:

Having covered U.S. economic policy as a reporter and editor for over three decades, where I had to rely on facts, documentation and experience based evidence – not wishful thinking – it is clear to me that the Ryan approach is hogwash. Hogwash topped with rhetorical whipped cream, but hogwash just the same. And any prolonged conversation about solving Medicare that includes the Ryan plan is a distraction designed to burnish Romney/Ryan as staunch conservative capitalists. It is not a legitimate way forward.

Of course there’s Paul Krugman:

So, let me clarify what I believe is really going on in the choice of Paul Ryan as VP nominee. It is not about satisfying the conservative base, which was motivated anyway by Obama-hatred; it is not about refocusing on the issues, because R&R [Romney and Ryan] are both determined to avoid providing any of the crucial specifics about their plans. It is… about exploiting the gullibility and vanity of the news media, in much the same way that George W. Bush did in 2000.

Like Bush in 2000, Ryan has a completely undeserved reputation in the media as a bluff, honest guy, in Ryan’s case supplemented by a reputation as a serious policy wonk. None of this has any basis in reality; Ryan’s much-touted plan, far from being a real solution, relies crucially on stuff that is just pulled out of thin air – huge revenue increases from closing unspecified loopholes, huge spending cuts achieved in ways not mentioned.

At the Mahablog you’ll find this explaining how Ryan came off so cool and new and impressive:

It’s because many commentators want to tell a story about US politics that makes them feel and look good – a story in which both parties are equally at fault in our national stalemate, and in which said commentators stand above the fray. This story requires that there be good, honest, technically savvy conservative politicians, so that you can point to these politicians and say how much you admire them, even if you disagree with some of their ideas; after all, unless you lavish praise on some conservatives, you don’t come across as nobly even-handed.

So mainstream media is, for the most part, describing Ryan as an “intellectual” and a “wonk” who can crunch numbers to within an inch of their life, when in fact his famous budget could have been crafted by Mrs. Holbrook’s sixth grade remedial math class at PS 102. Oh, and the business about Ryan being a regular middle-class guy from a small town in Wisconsin is a crock, too.

On that Maha recommends Charles Pierce – The Ryan Family’s History of Fakery and The Paul Ryan Origin Story Is a Heaping Pile – the man is no more than the rich son of a rich family, who has spent his life as a nerd staffer and Ayn Ran enthusiast.

Why are we taking him seriously? Here’s an interesting idea from the New York Times’ Paul Nocera who says Ryan’s nomination “creates the potential for the country to have the debate in a national election that it needs to have about the size and role of the federal government.” But then Nocera adds this:

Ryan’s budget plan would reduce the size of government from the current 24 percent of gross domestic product to around 20 percent of GDP. The ax would fall most heavily on programs for the poor. As the opinion writer Matt Miller put it recently in The Washington Post, “Over time, Ryan’s ‘vision’ would decimate most federal activities beyond Social Security, Medicare and defense.”

Simply dismissing these ideas as crazy is a mistake. There are many people in the country who agree with Ryan – as they showed two years ago, when they elected 87 Republican freshmen, many of them Tea Party-backed political novices, to the House of Representatives, who went to Washington vowing to shrink the federal government.

Richard Einhorn is appalled:

This is cowardly writing, and Nocera knows it. What he actually seems to be saying is, “Ryan’s ideas are screaming yellow bonkers, but a lot of people voted for them.” In other words, Nocera is saying that it’s not crazy to dismiss these crazy ideas – they are, after all, you know, nuts, as David Stockman trenchantly describes on the same page – but we should be aware that lots of people have voted for them and therefore we should pay attention to the ideas and discuss them.

Maha comes down in-between:

I agree… it’s a huge mistake to discuss Paul Ryan’s budget as if it were a serious policy proposal, because it isn’t. But if you read Nocera’s entire column, and put the quote above in context, I don’t think that is what he is proposing.

How I read it is that for year after year movement conservatives have won elections by running against the allegedly wasteful and bloated and too big federal government, and the too many pigs allegedly feeding at the entitlement trough. Then they get elected to Congress, where they spend like drunken sailors in ways that benefit their corporate sponsors.

But Ryan, he says, is a true believer who really would shrink government and drown it in the bathtub. And the debate we need to have with the American people is clear. Is this really what you want? Do you really want to live with the result, if this were actually done? Have it out, once and for all. People, do you really want to break up the Medicare and Social Security programs, take food out of the mouths of poor babies and let our infrastructure rot and forest fires rage and meat go uninspected so that billionaires can get a bigger tax cut? Is that really what you want? Because, whether you realize it or not, that’s what you keep voting for. And then you wonder why government is so bleeped up.

So, I don’t think we should merely dismiss Ryan’s plan as crazy. We need to clearly explain why it is crazy.

Of course you’d expect that from someone on the left, but the fear on the right, among the Republican “operatives” who didn’t want to be identified by name, is that explaining the crazy will be all too easy. You can imagine the scene from the late fifties. Daddy, why does that new car have those big fins – does it fly or something, or is it rocket ship? No, son, the people in Detroit just think we’re stupid – they’ll get over it.

And they did, in Detroit. Things take a little longer in Washington.

Andrew O’Hehir puts it nicely:

Voters will probably like Ryan, at least at first – and understandably so. His nerdy, scholarly sincerity and modestly appealing small-town history seem like a welcome relief from the hyper-patriotic bogus authenticity of recent Republican political campaigns. His zeal for slashing taxes and entitlements (the thinking goes) will attract the loyal Republican base, and his cordial manner may work on swing voters. He isn’t likely to call Obama names or indulge clandestine birtherism or dog-whistle racism. To many people in the American heartland, he may appear just as intelligent and well-spoken as the president, and a whole lot more “relatable,” as they say on TV. Those are the evident risks for the Democrats in the Romney-Ryan sincerity offensive.

The big risk for the Republicans, on the other hand, is that – absent the grandiose theater of authenticity politics – people may actually pay attention to their ideas.

That’s the problem. The new model is just the same old car underneath – just one more guy who is still angry at what FDR did with the New Deal back in the thirties. There is no new car. And really, planned obsolescence doesn’t work anymore.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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