Carol and I have been married now for 33 years. Back in the summer of 1976 my mother threw us a bridal shower, and among the many gifts we received were two sets of Ecko Eterna Corsair stainless steel flatware, for a total of eight place settings. We still have them. In fact, we have been eating with them for all 33 of those years. (At left is a 33-year-old daily-driver fork. "Eterna" is fersure. ) They're all still in the drawer.
Well, almost all of them. Flatware eventually goes missing, like protons, though with a much shorter half-life. Over the years a couple of spoons and forks have probably followed us to potlucks and never come home. I have no better explanation. When I was a toddler I used to drop flatware down the cold air return, which I know because when I was 14 I helped my father tear out the old sheet-metal octopus that heated our house, and found most of a place setting at the bottom of the big pipe. As an adult I have no such excuse. I only know that we run out of clean forks before we run out of clean tablespoons.
I got irritated enough recently by our fork shortage to look on eBay, where I scored three Ecko Corsair forks for $10--and five spoons for $12. The forks were unused, and when I got them, washed them, and dropped them in the drawer, it struck me that there wasn't much difference in appearance between the brand-new Corsair forks and the forks that have been faithfully stabbing our steaks for 33 years now. We have a full drawer of flatware again, and all the forks that we need. Better still, if we ever need more, we know where to find them.
I had an insight when the forks arrived that Carol and I are not and will probably never again be in the market for new-build stainless steel flatware. Why should we be? Our set works perfectly, and still looks like new. Spare parts are available, cheap. This isn't good news...if you make flatware.
And I also wonder if our auto industry is in trouble at least in part because cars are lasting longer and people are trading them in far less often. I got my first car in 1970 when I started college. It was a bare-bones 1968 Chevelle 300, and even at two years old the door panels were growing significant rust spots. By 1974 the body was mostly rot and the engine disintegrating, and rather than pony up for a valve and ring job, I dumped it and bought a brand-new Honda Civic. The Civic lasted until 1982, when its brake cylinders started going out repeatedly. I had a Datsun pickup for a year and decided I didn't like pickups; I traded it for a 1984 Chrysler minivan, which I owned uneventfully until 1995. That year I traded the old minivan in on the newest version of the same minivan--and we still have it, a little tired but entirely functional. The Toyota 4Runner that we bought in 2001 will flip over 100,000 miles today or tomorrow, and has never given us a lick of trouble. No rust, no wiggles, no funny noises, no problemo nada. I expect to be driving it happily ten years from now.
Draw the curve here. Cars that used to implode after 5 years are now lasting for fifteen or more. Is it any wonder that we don't need as many cars as we used to? A great many of our economic problems today may stem from simple overcapacity: factories cranking out stuff like it's1968, simply because that's what they've always done and the spreadsheeters require it. (Publishing certainly has that problem, though for different reasons.) We are the victims of our own success, in that there is less work than there are workers, because we're making better forks...and much better cars. We may not need a Big Three for making cars. A Big Two may be sufficient. (I'll leave the eenie meenie mynie moe part to someone else, thanks.) And if that's the case, we have to be extremely careful about protectionist economics, because the export market is all that's left, once Americans have all the forks that they need.