My friend John Gardner, a writer in Alexandria, Virginia, sends this thought-provoking meditation:
Sunday was Epiphany, which meant the taking down of my parents’ Christmas tree and, as a bonus, a brief reflection on just what has gone wrong in this country’s economy over the past few decades.
The picture shows a lighted GE Snowball Christmas tree light. “Snowballs” date to 1959, or, at the latest, the early 1960s. (The box does not contain a ZIP code, so it dates prior to 1963.) Snowballs were, in their time, mildly famous for the slogan “They’re white – till they light!” They came in six colors (yellow, red, green, blue, violet, and white) and featured very small Styrofoam balls coating a round bulb underneath. (A better picture is available here.)
Think about it: Christmas lights that are over half a century old and still working. A couple of Snowballs and their successors, the GE Lighted Ice (small pieces of plastic on top of a colored bulb giving an overall impression of ice) give out every year, but the vast majority go on. Cool to the touch and providing a soft light, they are close to the ideal light for a natural tree. Of course, they were made in the United States.
A Christmas story by Dickens could recite this far better, but I will try: What changes these lights have seen -- Eisenhower, Camelot, and the assassination of Kennedy! The Civil Rights Act, Vietnam, the moon landings, Watergate, the bicentennial, the hostages in Iran, Reagan, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, personal computers, Clinton, the millennium, the Twin Towers, Iraq, a second Bush, smartphones, Obama! And still the lights silently burn on each Christmas, then rest in a box in the attic until called upon to resume their annual sentinel duty, illuminating and cheering the home with news of the birth of the Savior. (Ironically enough, the box in which they rest is from a 1960s GE electric blanket that stopped working only in 2008.)
Thomas Edison founded a company which later merged with another to become General Electric. I suspect he would be pleased but not in the least surprised by the Snowballs’ performance. I suspect he would not be pleased to walk into a drugstore before a modern Christmas and see the array of cheap, imported lights offered for sale, some of which do not survive a first Christmas season, let alone the passing of childhood to middle age.
Yes, the issues are complex; yes, our country benefits profoundly in many ways from a globally-interconnected modern economy. But we cannot let that complexity become a too-easy refuge from which to ignore some facts about economics and psychology.
An economy based on planned obsolescence or rapid turnover of items of poor quality may generate more sales, at least in the short run; an economy based on quality will endure. Some companies in a variety of industries are (re)discovering this, but their range is too often limited, either by region or by cost. The true genius of postwar General Electric and so many other icons of American industry was that real quality at a reasonable cost was available for the masses – and made here at home.
It is one thing to upgrade to a newer or better product; it is quite another to have to replace a product that should not have to be replaced quickly, only to discover that the expected quality has fallen. Too often we are offered cheap imitations of products once famous for their quality. It may work once or twice, but then do not wonder why people become less motivated to rush out and buy, particularly in a time of stagnant wages and pressures on prices for the necessities of life.
Instead, consider the virtues of having a product that endures, a name that is to be trusted, a brand that is truly a watchword for quality. Consider, even, the pleasure that a Christmas light purchased for 10 cents so many years ago could still give light and bring joy and happy memories. That counts for something, too.
The current chairman of GE is also chairman of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. For an inspiration for that work, look no further than his company’s archives. Recall a time when GE was the world’s leader in consumer products and the electrification of just about everything. Then multiply that across the economy.
If we really want to get the economy back on track, follow the light and take the Snowball chance of economic recovery.