In theory, this is how it works.
You get married, once, to someone you love. You’re still together for your golden anniversary and looking forward to platinum.
You buy your dream house, and keep it forever. The kids will always have their rooms, and won’t have to Google you when they get back from Spain and discover that you moved to Connecticut.
You furnish your home with things you actually like. For a year all you had in your house was an antique bed and a side table, but then you splashed out and filled the rest of the house with items that don’t need to be upgraded. You couldn’t afford it at the time, but you did it anyway, on the theory that it’s cheaper to buy what you want once than it is to keep upgrading every few years. Now you have your partners’ desk from 1889, a Tiffany lamp you found at an estate sale, and paintings from local artists who you’ve met and whose work you admire.
You buy a car and own it until it becomes a classic. You’re the suave guy in his 60s who’s been driving a Jaguar E-type for 40 years.
You buy enough classic suits to wear until you die (so don’t get fat). While you don’t have to leave 300 Caraceni suits to your grandson like Gianni Agnelli did, take a leaf out of Bobby Fisher’s playbook and buy 23 bespoke suits at a time.
You buy shoes that don’t die. Think Church. Think Alden. Yes, they cost a fortune, but they wear like iron. My father owned a pair of Alden cordovans for over 50 years, and only had to resole them three times.
You buy things that don’t break. Fiskars shovels with lifetime warranties (Fiskars guarantee: “This product is warranted to the consumer purchaser to be free of defects in material and workmanship for as long as the consumer owns the product. At Fiskars Brands, Inc.’s option, defective product will be repaired, replaced or substituted with a product of equal value.”).
Umbrellas by the same company that’s been making them for the British royals for 200 years (each royal gets one umbrella issued at birth).
Straight edge razors.
I could go on, of course, but you get the idea. Why isn’t life designed so that we can just buy one good thing and never have to replace it? Why is it that we are destined to a life in which cars are designed to get door dings at the slightest touch (which cost $700 to fix), iPads lack cameras until Gen 2, golf club manufacturers introduce new-and-improved lines every six months, memory upgrades force us to go out and buy new computers, and umbrellas fall apart in a stiff breeze? Why are we sentenced to a life in which things break within minutes of their unveiling?
I’ll tell you why.
It’s a dirty little secret called “planned obsolescence.” Some functionary figured out that companies could make more money if they designed and sold products that had to be replaced. Why build an unbreakable umbrella when you can create a product that has to be replaced twice during every business trip to the Windy City? Why market a straight edge razor when disposables have to be, as their very name informs us, “disposed of” every week? Why build to last when a tear-down or temporary is good enough for the moment and guarantees repeat business? Everybody accepts that this is the way life is, but it’s really a mockery of life when people scrabble to make a living to go on buying the same things over and over again. We think paper plates are convenient (“Great for parties!”), and never think we just cut down a forest so that we didn’t have to do the dishes, never think we just gave $5 to some corporate huckster for the privilege of having to buy paper plates over and over and over ad infinitum until the end of time.
I know the counterarguments, of course. We’ve all heard them. The critics who argue that life itself is impermanent, that convenience is as important as tradition, and that cheap means affordable to people who can’t afford better. Even Chuck Palahniuk got a dig in with his lamentation about the insane power of material things in Fight Club (“You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you”).
And for the most part, I don’t disagree. I’m not about to go off on some privileged rant like the mom in Midnight in Paris, who snidely remarks “Cheap is cheap” when the hero doesn’t feel like buying a $26,000 chair. But don’t tell me things can’t be made to last. They can. We know, empirically, that they can. But nobody wants to make them, because the world is fashioned so that fashion and fads are where the money is, and the hive mind follows along without ever wondering what the world would be like if we just built houses that were designed to last 500 years, so that eventually everyone would have a house; or made cars that didn’t explode at the slightest impact, so that everyone could have a car without making monthly car payments for their entire lives; or made shoes that lasted long enough so that everyone in the world could raise their hands and say they had a good pair and could now focus on discovering the cure for cancer or the Universal Theory of Everything.
When we build things that last, we buy ourselves time. Yes, it costs more upfront, but it is like investing in the infrastructure of the country. You have to pay to build the bridges now, so that people can get where they need to be in the future. Otherwise you’re stuck throwing up pontoon bridges and calling it a national emergency when it was just poor planning all along.
This is my homespun buy now-pay now-live now philosophy of life. For those of you who disagree or consider my attitude elitist in any way, please feel free to keep on drinking cava out of plastic cups.
I am a commercial litigator and intellectual property lawyer in Orange County. Although my practice encompasses a wide variety of business disputes, I have a particular fondness for, and am prone to wax philosophical on, the subjects of copyright and trademark infringement in music, literature, art, and film.