Take-Home Essay Exam
“Hey, let's go to Wal-Mart!”
I cringed. But, I had to admit, the irony was exquisite. My brother had asked me, “Hey, college boy, what has happened to this country? It wasn't all that long ago that all you had to do was finish high school, get a job in some factory or something, and you could make enough money to support a family. That's what Dad did, isn't it? That's what most people did back in the old days. Back in the '60s, our Dad quit high school, and he found a job driving a forklift in a ware house. He was able to buy a house, and we always had a new car every three or four years. I mean, look at you: you're 47 years old, and you’re going to college so you can get a scrap of paper that says “Diploma” on it, just so you can get someone to even take a look at your resume. The banks are advertising 2.75% interest on a mortgage, but hardly anybody can qualify for the loan. Unemployment is higher than it's been in generations, and the jobs that are available are low-paying. The politicians in Washington are even more stupid and corrupt than usual, the stock market is soaring while the economy is tanking, and I can't seem to get my son to pull his damn pants up! I tell you, it's enough to make you want to blow your brains out! It's like, we had a really good thing going, and then the whole thing just collapsed, like a house of cards. What happened, man?”
I thought about it for a minute, collecting my thoughts. Dr. Hartwick had been telling us about Fordism and Post -Fordism in my World Regional Geography class at school, and I wanted to share some of this new found knowledge with my brother. I started out like this:
“Jeff, you've heard of Henry Ford, right?”
“Yeah, he invented the assembly line, didn't he?”
“Well, no, he didn't invent the assembly line, he just perfected it. What he invented was a whole new way of looking at the World. A way of doing business that changed the World. A little thing that, nowadays, we call...Fordism.”
I could see that I had piqued his interest. The buildup and the dramatic pause had seen to that. Now, I had to deliver the goods. I decided to build a little anticipation, so I walked over to his refrigerator, got a couple of cold beers, opened them, set one down in front of my brother, and took a long pull off of mine. Ahhh, there's nothing like that very first drink of beer......
He drank from his beer, looked at me, and simply said “Well?”
I sat down, and I began to speak. “Well, you see, it's like this: in the very early twentieth century, Henry Ford came up with a very clever idea; one that, in hindsight, seems pretty obvious, but which, at the time, was revolutionary. And that idea went something like this: Ford realized that if he could build automobiles on an assembly line, using the principle of standardization of parts, he could make lots of automobiles, at a very low unit cost, due to volume and economy of scale. Nothing revolutionary about that, right? Well, here comes the revolutionary part. Ford also realized that if he paid his workers enough that they would be able to afford to buy those automobiles, he would sell a gazillion of them, and become a very, very.....very wealthy man. It was so successful, that pretty soon, everybody was doing it. The trick to the whole thing could be summed up in one word: consumption.”
I paused, to let this sink in. But I was just getting started!
“See, the whole thing revolves around consumption. If you can build a gazillion automobiles, but hardly anybody can afford to buy them, you will very quickly go broke. Ford realized this, and so, he paid his workers what, in those days, was considered a pretty high wage. Sure, it raised the unit cost by a small amount, but it enabled him to sell as many automobiles as he could crank out of his factory, because now there were plenty of people who could afford to buy his product. In effect, they were...