The Means of Consumption

 

One of the great intellectual tragedies of the Left — which, it should be noted, pale in comparison to its practical tragedies — is that it’s focused discussion on how goods are produced, rather than how they are consumed.

This is hardly surprising: not that Marx or Engels knew a damn thing about it, but working conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries were downright brutal. Mines, pollution, and back-breaking, mind-killing drudgery were hardly innovations but, even if we stipulate that portrayals of pre-industrial farming are highly romanticized, at least there was something about work in the open air that could be made attractive with enough polish. Coal mining and textile mills have never attracted the kind of poetical praise that farming and shepherding once did, and for good reason.

So, if the Industrial Revolution changed the nature of work without actually improving it (and arguably making it worse in some ways), do its critics have it right? Not if one considers what the drudgery actually produced and to whom its products were sold. The technical revolutions in water and steam power that launched the revolution allowed quality manufactured goods like clothing, metalwork, and pottery to be produced so inexpensively and on such a massive scale that — for the first time in human history — they were within the means of the common laborer who made them.

Consider, for example, the career of Josiah Wedgwood, whose innovations transformed the pottery industry. In an earlier age, Wedgwood’s clients would have been a handful of the rich and royal, from whom he would likely have made a comfortable income. But empowered — literally — by water and steam, he was able to become so fantastically wealthy by producing products for the average person, that his grandson, Charles Darwin, had the time and means to pursue his scientific career without ever worrying about where his next meal would come from.

In addition to serving the masses, Wedgwood also built a clientele among Europe’s rich and powerful. But amazingly, he did so by selling them the same products as he did to English textile workers and Welch coal miners. As Jacob Bronowski writes in The Ascent of Man:

[I]n 1774 he [Wedgwood] made a service of nearly a thousand highly decorated pieces for Catherine the Great of Russia, which cost over £2000 — a great deal of money in the coin of that day. But the base of that tableware was his own pottery, creamware; and in fact all the thousand pieces, undecorated, cost less than £50, yet looked and handled like Catherine the Great’s in every way except for the hand-painted idylls… That is what the man in the street could buy, at about a shilling a piece. And in time that is what transformed the kitchens of the working class in the Industrial Revolution.

And this was only one example. Countless other products became widely available as well, including metal goods, manufactured clothing… even fuel to heat one’s home became affordable in ways never available before.

And it didn’t stop in the 1700s. In the next century, Standard Oil made indoor lighting affordable (the price fell 80%), US Steel made metals widely available (prices falling 75%), and these two — combined with the steam engine technology that kicked-off the whole process — led Cornelius Vanderbilt and others to revolutionize travel and shipping.* In the century after that, Henry Ford transformed the automobile from a plaything for the rich to — arguably — the defining product of the 20th century. More recently yet, the personal computer and then the cellular telephone followed the same pattern.

In all these instances, the fortunes created were not made by making ever-finer products for the rich and powerful, but by finding increasingly efficient and economical means to manufacture fine products for the masses. The cost of that efficiency was grueling conditions — and still is in places like China — but the gain is that goods that were once hand-made luxuries for the few, are now everyday commodities for billions.

In the past, the best way to become rich was to convince ordinary people to work on your behalf; since the Industrial Revolution, however, the surest way has been to convince ordinary people to let you work on theirs. The world remains a messy, broken place, but — in some significant ways — it is getting better.

Image credit: William Bell Scott [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

* Statistics from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, p. 23.

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There are 38 comments.

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  1. The (apathetic) King Prawn Member

    Did the left at the time loathe common people obtaining access to commercial goods the way today’s left has kittens over Walmart?

    • #1
    • January 2, 2015, at 10:23 AM PDT
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  2. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    Nice essay, Tom. A person can certainly find character faults with some of those industrialists like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison but, Good Lord, how they made us all richer. They didn’t do it out of philanthropy, they did it because the free market system allowed them to become rich by selling us things to make our lives better.

    • #2
    • January 2, 2015, at 10:30 AM PDT
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  3. Aaron Miller Member

    Excellent.

    • #3
    • January 2, 2015, at 10:34 AM PDT
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  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    I really have nothing to add…

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: Coal mining and textile mills have never attracted the kind of poetical praise that farming and shepherding once did, and for good reason.

    …except that my grandad once did write an ode to a blast-furnace. (Not that the humorous doggerel written by one engineer qualifies as mainstream poetic praise.)

    • #4
    • January 2, 2015, at 10:45 AM PDT
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  5. Pleated Pants Forever Inactive

    Would such rapid progress be possible in our day and age? With all the regulations, laws, taxes and interest groups, I tend to doubt it. Were Mr. Wedgwood to exist today I fear he would be shut down after the first puppy accidentally choked consuming a shard of his pottery.

    • #5
    • January 2, 2015, at 11:29 AM PDT
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  6. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Pleated Pants Forever: Were Mr. Wedgwood to exist today I fear he would be shut down after the first puppy accidentally choked consuming a shard of his pottery.

    Likely.

    Interesting side-note: Wedgwood was a major abolitionist.

    • #6
    • January 2, 2015, at 11:42 AM PDT
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  7. Boss Mongo Member

    Great piece. Thank you.

    • #7
    • January 2, 2015, at 11:44 AM PDT
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  8. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    Pleated Pants Forever:Would such rapid progress be possible in our day and age? With all the regulations, laws, taxes and interest groups, I tend to doubt it. Were Mr. Wedgwood to exist today I fear he would be shut down after the first puppy accidentally choked consuming a shard of his pottery.

    What about electronics? Many people at the lower end of the middle class own smartphones that have capabilities that were unavailable even to the richest people ten years ago.

    • #8
    • January 2, 2015, at 11:58 AM PDT
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  9. Misthiocracy secretly Member

    The King Prawn:Did the left at the time loathe common people obtaining access to commercial goods the way today’s left has kittens over Walmart?

    Absolutely. Just look at Thomas Malthus. One of his great “contributions” to economics was the idea that “gluts” (i.e. low prices) are a bad thing. He supported taxes on imported foodstuffs, and food is the most basic of necessary commercial goods. He argued that moral restraint (i.e. reduced consumption) was the best means for reducing poverty.

    • #9
    • January 2, 2015, at 1:28 PM PDT
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  10. Pleated Pants Forever Inactive

    Randy Weivoda:

    Pleated Pants Forever:Would such rapid progress be possible in our day and age? With all the regulations, laws, taxes and interest groups, I tend to doubt it. Were Mr. Wedgwood to exist today I fear he would be shut down after the first puppy accidentally choked consuming a shard of his pottery.

    What about electronics? Many people at the lower end of the middle class own smartphones that have capabilities that were unavailable even to the richest people ten years ago.

    RW – yes, electronic and software advancements have improved lives, as is evidenced by the fact that we are communicating on this fine site. I just argue that we seem to be getting diminishing returns with every decade. Indoor plumbing, running water, the electric grid, trains, the automobile were more transformative than what we have produced over the last several decades. Though, my smart phone has ended many an argument in a bar over who led the MLB in homeruns in 1989.

    • #10
    • January 2, 2015, at 1:30 PM PDT
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  11. Misthiocracy secretly Member

    Pleated Pants Forever:

    Randy Weivoda:

    Pleated Pants Forever:Would such rapid progress be possible in our day and age? With all the regulations, laws, taxes and interest groups, I tend to doubt it. Were Mr. Wedgwood to exist today I fear he would be shut down after the first puppy accidentally choked consuming a shard of his pottery.

    What about electronics? Many people at the lower end of the middle class own smartphones that have capabilities that were unavailable even to the richest people ten years ago.

    RW – yes, electronic and software advancements have improved lives, as is evidenced by the fact that we are communicating on this fine site. I just argue that we seem to be getting diminishing returns with every decade. Indoor plumbing, running water, the electric grid, trains, the automobile were more transformative than what we have produced over the last several decades. Though, my smart phone has ended many an argument in a bar over who led the MLB in homeruns in 1989.

    The global poverty rate has been cut in half over the past two decades.

    That is a transformative phenomenon if ever there was one.

    • #11
    • January 2, 2015, at 1:35 PM PDT
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  12. David Foster Member

    “If the Industrial Revolution changed the nature of work without actually improving it”….interestingly, the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb took the opposite view:

    The manual-working population of the cities was, in fact, mainly composed of laborers who were lifelong hewers of wood and drawers of water whilst that of the vast stretches of farmland and forest outside the cities was as devoid of art as of letters. And the proportion of merely mechanical work in the world s production has, taken as a whole, lessened, not increased. What a multitude of laborers quarried the stones, dragged and carried the stones and lifted the stones of the cathedral walls on which half a dozen skilled and artistic masons carved gargoyles? From the building of the Pyramids down to the present day, the proportion of the world’s work of the nature of mere physical digging, pushing, carrying, lifting* and hammering, by the exertion of muscular force, has almost continuously diminished…. And it must not be forgotten that, in “Western civilization to-day, the actual numbers of men and women engaged in daily work of distinctly intellectual character, which is thus not necessarily devoid of art, are positively greater than at any previous time. There are, of course, many more such workers of superior education, artistic capacity, and interesting daily tasks in Henry Ford’s factories at Detroit than there were in the whole city of Detroit fifty years ago! Along side of these successors of the equally exceptional skilled handicraftsmen of the Middle Ages there has come to be a vast multitude of other workers with less interesting tasks, who could not other wise have come into existence, and who represent the laborers of the cities and the semi-servile rural population of past times, and who certainly would not themselves dream of wishing to revert to the conditions of those times. It may be granted, that, in much of their daily tasks (as has always been the case) the workers of to-day can find no joy, and take the very minimum of interest. But there is one all important difference in their lot. Unlike their predecessors, these men spend only half their waking hours at the task by which they gain their bread. In the other half of their day they are, for the first time in history, free (and, in great measure, able) to give themselves to other interests, which in an ever- increasing proportion of cases lead to an intellectual development heretofore unknown among the typical manual workers. It is, in fact, arguable that it is among the lower half of the manual workers of Western civilization rather than among the upper half, that there has been the greatest relative advance during the past couple of centuries. It is, indeed, to the so-called unskilled workers of London and Berlin and Paris, badly off in many respects as they still are and notably to their wives and children that the Machine Age has incidentally brought the greatest advance in freedom and in civilization.

    http://chicagoboyz.net/archives/10812.html

    • #12
    • January 2, 2015, at 1:37 PM PDT
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  13. Pleated Pants Forever Inactive

    Misthiocracy:

    Pleated Pants Forever:

    Randy Weivoda:

    RW – yes, electronic and software advancements have improved lives, as is evidenced by the fact that we are communicating on this fine site. I just argue that we seem to be getting diminishing returns with every decade. Indoor plumbing, running water, the electric grid, trains, the automobile were more transformative than what we have produced over the last several decades. Though, my smart phone has ended many an argument in a bar over who led the MLB in homeruns in 1989.

    The global poverty rate has been cut in half over the past two decades.

    That is a transformative phenomenon if ever there was one.

    M – But does that primarily have to do with the inventions of the last 20 years? I love my Roomba as much as anyone but I don’t think that explains why people are exiting poverty. The fact that they have running water, indoor bathrooms, and electricity (all inventions of 100 years ago) and are no long dying of common bacterial infections has more to do with it

    Untitled2

    • #13
    • January 2, 2015, at 1:48 PM PDT
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  14. Richard Fulmer Member

    Years ago, the American History Museum at the Smithsonian was running a 20 minute, looped video about the Industrial Revolution. Fully 19 minutes of the video was taken up in describing the terrible working conditions in early factories and the pollution that they produced.

    At the end of the video, almost as an aside, the narrator mentioned that the factories increased production so much that poor people were able to afford to own basic goods for the first time in history. The grudging admission came almost as a surprise. What!? You mean factories weren’t created just to make people’s lives miserable? They actually produced useful things? Who knew?

    • #14
    • January 2, 2015, at 2:56 PM PDT
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  15. Karon Adams Inactive

    I think it was Walter Williams who said, “Capitalism is the only system by which someone becomes wealthy by SERVING others.”

    Another way I have seen Comunism vs Capitalism, “In Communism, people wait for bread. In Capitalism, bread waits for people.”

    • #15
    • January 2, 2015, at 3:15 PM PDT
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  16. twvolck Member

    Charles Darwin the scientist married Emma Wedgewood, who indeed gave him financial security. They did have a child named Charles, who was Josiah Wedgewood’s grandson, but he’s not the Charles Darwin you’re thinking about.

    • #16
    • January 2, 2015, at 4:10 PM PDT
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  17. JimG Member

    The King Prawn:Did the left at the time loathe common people obtaining access to commercial goods the way today’s left has kittens over Walmart?

    It has always been an interesting aspect of liberalism that the definition of poverty changes. It even is defined differently in different parts of the world during the same time. Abject, miserable, even pitiful poverty here is upper middle class in India.

    By today’s definition, the richest people in the world 200 years ago would be considered to be in abject poverty today. After all, fresh vegetables were not available year long and they couldn’t get phone, internet or cable. No MRI machines, no cars, trains or trucks. How awful! Pity, shame and oh, the humanity!

    Today, you are a victim if you have to walk to the library to check your email, deprived of this most basic of human rights – broadband internet access at home.

    I call it moving the goalposts and I know it will never stop. I feel no pity for those who have full stomaches, warm beds, free medical services available and free education. 

    That we have an obesity problem in our most poverty stricken is an amazing comment on that movement of the goal posts. My liberal sister blames this obesity problem on the fact that the poor can’t afford a good diet. She was struck dumb, stumped by my return question asking “What good food is it that can’t they afford?”

    If 20 years from now everyone has everything they could possible want or need, the Liberals will claim some are deprived and discriminated against because they must fly coach to vacation in Florida and not first class to Tahiti.

    There will be marches, banners waved and some will resort to violence. It will be compared to slavery. It must be racism….

    • #17
    • January 2, 2015, at 4:14 PM PDT
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  18. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    Pleated Pants Forever: M – But does that primarily have to do with the inventions of the last 20 years? I love my Roomba as much as anyone but I don’t think that explains why people are exiting poverty. The fact that they have running water, indoor bathrooms, and electricity (all inventions of 100 years ago) and are no long dying of common bacterial infections has more to do with it

    Yes it does have to do with your Roomba.

    Check where it’s made. Those people who make it in those factories, are now far better off because of your Roomba, then before it.

    This is of course an interesting piece you have written Tom.

    In Karl Marx’s defense (and that’s the first and only time I will say these words together)…he was operating under the common assumption of the day that the value of something is determined by the amount of labor needed to produce it: the labor theory of value.

    This was, up until the late 19th century, the way most “economists” thought of value. So Karl Marx was just following a…reasonable…train of thought given what most people at the time believed.

    If indeed “work” is what created value, then the value of a good is a fixed pie which is divided between the worker and the “owner” which provides the means of production. But in Marx’s view, the “owner” did not “work”, hence it would be better if the worker also owned the means of production and captured the full value of their work.

    This is of course nonsense because we now know that the value of a good has nothing to do with the amount of work put into it.

    We now know that the value of anything is exogenously determined: i.e. it is determined by the consumer. And the consumer doesn’t care how much labor was put into it. They are concerned about their utility. So the real value isn’t created by the worker making a particular product, but by the people who create the product that meets a consumer demand in the first place: i.e. the owners of the intellectual property.

    But Karl Marx couldn’t have know this, even if in his day this idea was being bounced around. Even most “capitalist” economists still believed in the labour theory of value.

    Of course, very many (if not most) people today still believe in the labor theory of value, because intuitively it makes “sense” to the lay person. I don’t know why that is because very simple examples would be sufficient to demonstrate its folly…

    • #18
    • January 2, 2015, at 4:27 PM PDT
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  19. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    Of course, I think the “downside” of the industrial revolution reinforced by images of Charles Dickens is nonsense…and should be discarded.

    I have first hand experience with this myself. Back in Old Country I have distant relatives which lived in some God-forsaken little village in the middle of nowhere where the only job opportunities were back-breaking subsistence level of farm work, which condemned you to complete poverty…or immigration to another country. Most people, chose immigration.

    But one day in the late 90s, Italian companies started setting up factories to make leather and textile products. One of these factories was set up in this little village, and provided work for about 100 or so, mainly women, from the surrounding area. It was a sweatshop. But it provided far more income than any other business in the area, far better working conditions than working in the field (where they lacked even most basic mechanical tools).

    My distant relatives worked there. Over the years that little village, thanks to Italian sweatshops, grew into a little town, with relatively “modern” amenities (such as paved roads, which were unseen there prior). People grew a lot richer, build new, large and “modern” homes. Now my distant relatives even can afford 2 cars.

    All this in the span of about 15 years.

    Of course, the same story can be told around the world: China, India, Vietnam, Mexico.

    This is what you are doing, when you buy “cheap stuff made in sweatshops”. So keep doing it!

    • #19
    • January 2, 2015, at 4:36 PM PDT
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  20. Z in MT Inactive

    “Means of Consumption”

    If liberals are so worried about the means of production why are “supply-side economists” mostly conservative?

    Liberals do not concern themselves with either production or consumption. Liberals concern themselves with “distribution”.

    • #20
    • January 2, 2015, at 5:34 PM PDT
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  21. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    twvolck:

    Charles Darwin the scientist married Emma Wedgewood, who indeed gave him financial security. They did have a child named Charles, who was Josiah Wedgewood’s grandson, but he’s not the Charles Darwin you’re thinking about.

    I just double-checked and — confusing as it is — I had it correct: Josiah Wedgwood was the grandfather of both Emma Wedgwood (through his son Josiah II) and Charles Darwin (through his daughter Susannah).

    • #21
    • January 2, 2015, at 7:12 PM PDT
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  22. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    Z in MT: If liberals are so worried about the means of production why are “supply-side economists” mostly conservative?

    There’s no contradiction here to what is being said by Tom:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: In all these instances, the fortunes created were not made by making ever-finer products for the rich and powerful, but by finding increasingly efficient and economical means to manufacture fine products for the masses.

    The Left concerns itself with the ownership of the means of production, regardless of the outcome for consumers. That’s the distinction. And that also goes to what you’re saying: they are concerned about distribution. In their mind, ownership of the means of production implies “fair” distribution of the value generated by that production.

    But that is devoid of any connection to the value created for consumers. They think “value” comes from “work”, not from meeting other people’s demands.

    • #22
    • January 2, 2015, at 7:26 PM PDT
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  23. TeamAmerica Member

    @Karon Adams-I see you have just joined this site so, Welcome to Ricochet!

    Stephen Hall is an Australian law professor and a Ricochet member, who’s been teaching law in Hong Kong since 2002. In a comment on the ‘And Now It Ends’ post, he commented ”
    Stephen Hall

    This is not a Tea Party site. It is not a RINO site. It is not a social conservative site. It is not a fiscal conservative site. It is not a religious site. It is not a libertarian site. It is not a constitutionalist site. It is not a hawkish site or an isolationist site. It is none of those things because it is all of them. It is a centre-right sight, and there is no other place in the world like it.”

    That sums it up.

    • #23
    • January 2, 2015, at 7:48 PM PDT
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  24. Cato Rand Reagan

    Pleated Pants Forever:Would such rapid progress be possible in our day and age? With all the regulations, laws, taxes and interest groups, I tend to doubt it. Were Mr. Wedgwood to exist today I fear he would be shut down after the first puppy accidentally choked consuming a shard of his pottery.

    Why would he feed pottery shards to puppies?

    • #24
    • January 2, 2015, at 9:54 PM PDT
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  25. Randy Webster Member

    I was a carpenter during a lot of my early life. There are lots of advantages to working outdoors: sunshine, fresh air, and, if it’s raining, you get to roll over and go back to sleep.

    • #25
    • January 3, 2015, at 2:42 AM PDT
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  26. Tim H. Member

    Maybe five to eight years ago, I heard on the radio about a company that was making very, very expensive luxury cell phones. I don’t remember many of the details, but they were going to have a few jewels on them, maybe a gold finish. But the only functional attraction was some kind of concierge service at the push of a button (I think I remember that). Of course, I rolled my eyes at the idea anyone would pay so much for a flashy status symbol, but it got me thinking:

    Consumer electronics, one of the everyday marvels of our age, are appliances that are the same for the rich and the moderately poor. I know a few moderately wealthy people, and I’ve noticed that they often have impressive cars and watches, but their phones are the same as mine. Maybe they buy it before I do, while the price is still a bit higher, but over time, they’re buying the same equipment as me.

    There is essentially no market for a flashy, custom-made smart phone, because it takes a pretty big company with the best designers and programmers to make the ones with the best function, reliability, and design—Apple, Google, Windows. Those companies don’t put out small batches of high-priced luxury phones (relatively speaking) because they’ve got the ability to mass-produce the same thing and make more by expanding their market. These phones work so well that any “luxury” phone would have to go ‘way beyond them in functionality. But Moore’s Law and the tight competition in computer development means that the best five-year-old phone looks pitiful next to a low-end phone of today.

    * I said that these products are the same for the rich and the moderately poor. I mean in America, of course. Some of my college students have at times had no phone service because they couldn’t pay the bills, but they own iPhones. One was even on food stamps for a while, so she struggled to pay her monthly phone bill, but she had that smart phone anyway. I’ll argue that this is a matter of misplaced priorities, but there it is.

    • #26
    • January 3, 2015, at 6:21 AM PDT
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  27. Tim H. Member

    Another thought: Over Christmas, I was ruminating on the same question of production vs. consumption in communism. With the mess over “The Interview,” I’d seen all those pictures of Kim Jong Un inspecting pork fat rendering plants and industrial wire-wrapping factories and such. It reminded me of the Soviet propaganda pamphlets during the Cold War, touting the industrial wonders of the USSR. My wife is Romanian, and when we visited her family last year, they still had some old Romanian pamplets of the same sort from the ’70s and ’80s. It’s all the same: industrial and agricultural output by year, with pictures of the dictator meeting the happy workers in the factory.

    I noticed that you don’t see as much about the wonders of what you can *buy*. They had some stuff about how many more people had indoor plumbing today vs. ten years ago (I might be kidding, but I’m not sure), or on the spread of color televisions. But I think looking at the Sears Christmas catalog was so much more powerful propaganda for our side.

    Who the heck cares about the potato production statistics for 1978?! What does it cost to *buy* one, and are there enough on the store shelves?

    • #27
    • January 3, 2015, at 6:32 AM PDT
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  28. Jeff Smith Inactive

    Randy Weivoda
    Nice essay, Tom. A person can certainly find character faults with some of those industrialists like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison but, Good Lord, how they made us all richer. They didn’t do it out of philanthropy, they did it because the free market system allowed them to become rich by selling us things to make our lives better.

    Jeff Smith
    Whatever character flaws those industrialists had were minor compared to those of Karl Marx who abandoned his family to penury as he wrote the books which would lead much of the world to that same penury.

    • #28
    • January 3, 2015, at 9:50 AM PDT
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  29. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    Jeff Smith: Whatever character flaws those industrialists had were minor compared to those of Karl Marx who abandoned his family to penury as he wrote the books which would lead much of the world to that same penury.

    True. Karl Marx was a true dirtbag. Most of his followers today, of course, have never bothered to read up on the man. And those who have probably find no problem with him, because that’s probably how they are themselves too.

    It’s usually a good idea to get some info on the actual person. It reflects a lot on their “ideology”. Of course, most Marxists today have not even mustered up the will to read 28 pages worth of the Communist Manifesto, let alone the rest.

    An inch deep, and an inch wide.

    • #29
    • January 3, 2015, at 9:59 AM PDT
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  30. Profile Photo Member

    Like!

    • #30
    • January 3, 2015, at 11:23 AM PDT
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