Something Stinks in the Deodorant Debate

In a piece at Reason (“Bernie Sanders: Don’t Need 23 Choices of Deodorant, 18 Choices of Sneakers When Kids Are Going Hungry,” May 26), Ed Krayewski took Sen. Bernie Sanders to task for saying in a recent MSNBC interview: “You can’t just continue growth for the sake of growth in a world in which we are struggling with climate change and all kinds of environmental problems…. You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.”

Sanders, Krayewski says, is “mistaken on the fundamentals.” He “represents everything that’s wrong with the populist redistributist left.” Contrary to the “economically illiterate, anti-capitalist rhetoric” of Sanders, by which “the wealthy are openly villainized,” Krayewski argues that economic growth “is not a goal for the sake of itself — economic growth ignited by the freeing of markets has lifted more people out of poverty in the last century than any other force in history.”

I would guess that Sanders is probably under the misimpression that the 23 choices of deodorant and the enormous disparity of wealth in our economy are to a large extent results of “the free market system,” something that “unregulated capitalism” automatically produces if government doesn’t step in to prevent it. But I could be wrong; in the same interview, Sanders says he’s “worried how free the market is.” If by that he’s suggesting the market isn’t really free at all, and the game is rigged in favor of big business, he’s probably better informed on “the fundamentals” than Krayewski is.

I do know that someone who defends the 23 brands of deodorant and the fortunes of “the wealthy,” or any other major aspects of American capitalism as it’s developed over the past century, as the result of “the freeing of markets,” has very little room to accuse anyone else of economic illiteracy.

Mass-production corporate capitalism is statist to the core — a creature of the state. And the kind of mass consumerism and market segmentation that results in 23 brands of deodorant is absolutely vital to the survival of that system.

The most efficient institutional form for the second industrial revolution to take would have been the decentralist model envisioned by Pyotr Kropotkin and William Morris: integrating electrically powered, general purpose machinery into small-scale craft production for local markets — something like today’s networked economy in Emilia-Romagna. Instead the American state, through a host of measures including railroad subsidies and patent cartels, promoted the mass-production model:  extremely capital-intensive production with highly-specialized machinery. And the only way to keep unit costs down and pay for that machinery is to keep it running at full speed.

The result is the distribution model described by Ralph Borsodi over eighty years ago in The Distribution Age. Production has to be undertaken on a supply-push basis, without regard to preexisting demand — rather than a demand-pull model which produces only as orders come in. And that requires, in turn, that there must be some way of making sure the output will be bought up — in fact, it presumes an entire society built around guaranteeing consumption of the output.

Corporate capitalism is very much about growth for its own sake, with waste production and planned obsolescence — as well as brand differentiation based on packaging, image and mostly cosmetic differences in features to create stable demand — to prevent backlogs and keep the wheels of industry turning. (Just in passing, a genuinely free market would if anything probably have a lot more variety, with choices between many craft products from local artisans; mass production actually depends on limiting genuine variety in order to lengthen production runs and minimize retooling.)

So while Bernie Sanders may mistakenly believe that more government is needed rather than less, and talk a lot about all the “progressive” things government can do, the truth is that a society with a genuinely freed market will probably look a lot more like Sanders’s ideal than Krayewski’s.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory