When Mrs. Jones returned from her little tour of barter, her husband was busy with the vacuum cleaner and was putting the finishing touches on the living-room rug.
‘Why,’ she cried, ‘you’ve practically completed the cleaning! What will you do then? With a broom it would have taken you four times as long. Here you’ve used the vacuum cleaner only a few minutes, and you’re almost through. Then the machine will have to lie idle until to-morrow. Heavens, you could have cleaned a house twice as large! I suppose there is really nothing for us to do but buy a larger house. It is really a shame to waste all the time that is saved by this electric sweeper. Then there is the investment in the machine; you can’t afford to let it stand idle. That is not efficiency. Yes, I can see that the vacuum cleaner will have to give a better account of itself in future. It must be used more, and the only way to make sure of that is to get a larger house.’
‘Have you gone completely out of your senses?’ asked the astonished Mr. Jones.
‘Not at all,’ replied his wife. ‘I’m just beginning to understand your way of looking at things. We must go in for “plant expansion” — isn’t that what you business men call it? We must realize the productive potentialities of our vacuum cleaner. It cries out for new carpets to sweep, and of course the new house will need lots of new rugs. Just think, John! We shall immediately create a vast, untouched market for the services of our electric sweeper. How foolish I have been all these years! How inefficient! Why, that silly old vacuum cleaner has been in the closet, for years, idle practically all of the time except for a few minutes a day, and I never realized until now how wasteful it was.’
‘Please, Mary, don’t be ridiculous,’ Mr. Jones snapped.
‘Oh, was I being ridiculous? Why, I thought I was following your business logic. Have you forgotten the time, two years ago, when your foreman invented that labor-saving device which made it possible for a man to tend two machines instead of one? You expanded the plant, put in twice as many machines, and doubled production. You said then that it wouldn’t be long before I could have a new car and a new fur coat and all sorts of things, because profits would be more than doubled. Production was doubled, just as you planned, but at the end of the year you had half of the goods in the warehouse and you closed the factory while the machines and the new plant “ate their heads off,” as you so quaintly put it.‘
Mrs. Jones smiled sweetly, but Mr. Jones stammered and rushed away to his new sanctum — the kitchen.
Early that afternoon when Mrs. Jones came downstairs on her way to a meeting of her church club, she found her husband seated before the living room fireplace smoking a fragrant cigar and contentedly immersed in a book. He looked up guiltily as she entered.
‘Is something wrong, John?’ she asked. ‘It isn’t at all like you to be wasting time in this fashion. Surely you don’t sit in your office and read a book in the middle of the afternoon! Even when you have nothing to do, you at least try to appear busy.’
‘I won’t need to start dinner for another hour,’ Mr. Jones explained, ‘and everything else has been attended to.’
‘Have you finished the luncheon dishes? Yes, I suppose you have. It takes very little time with the new dishwasher. But, really, I don’t know how to suggest making efficient use of the time you save. I don’t know how to provide more raw material for a machine which transforms soiled dishes into clean ones. I hope you won’t be driven to the extremity of having to invent a dish-soiling machine so that the dishwasher may be kept operating at capacity.’
Mr. Jones’s cigar turned bitter in his mouth and he lost interest in his book, but his wife hurried out the door and went her way.
When Mrs. Jones returned from her club meeting she brought news cheer her husband. The women of the church were to give a large charity dinner, and Mr. Jones saw in this an opportunity to demonstrate his methods of efficiency, organization, mass production in a real test. He sprang to the telephone and immediately began placing orders for hams and chickens, jellies and pickles, and scores of other things that would be needed to feed the hundred people who were to be invited.
That evening Mrs. Smith came in to talk over arrangements for the dinner, but Mrs. Jones referred the embarrassed caller to the new director of cuisine and household economics. Mr. Jones was pleased to have this chance to spread his gospel of efficiency, and he launched at once upon a technical outline of his plans for preparing the whole affair according to the most improved factory methods.
‘I am sure,’ he concluded, ‘that by proper organization and mass production I can bring the unit cost per dinner down to a record minimum. I think I can guarantee that the cash contribution from each member of the club will be smaller than has ever before been possible.’
Mrs. Smith interrupted him. ‘But, Mr. Jones,’ she said, ‘your proposal would upset all our arrangements. You see, each of our members has her own specialty to supply. Every summer when I put up jelly, for example, I always set aside a few extra jars for the church dinner. Mrs. Doe does the same with chowchow and pickles. Mrs. Roe supplies chickens from her own barnyard, and Mrs. Franklin furnishes potatoes from her farm. Very little actual money goes into the dinner. Each of us donates what she is best equipped to give.’
‘You see, John,’ spoke up Mrs. Jones with an indulgent smile, ‘none of us tries to capture the whole dinner market. We plan and cooperate. We don’t go about it as you manufacturers do when a new field is opened up, and every manufacturer sets out to capture the market in toto. If we did that, we should find ourselves spreading a dinner for a thousand people instead of a hundred. Mrs. Roe might make a full supply of potato salad, while Mrs. Doe, convinced that her own potato salad was far better, might make another full supply and place it in competition with Mrs. Roe’s product. Then we should have overproduction, and all of us would lose by it. We avoid this by estimating our market as closely as possible, and we plan and cooperate to supply the demand. I suppose, John, that this will strike you as very primitive indeed, but somehow it seems to accomplish our purpose with a minimum of waste.’
In the end Mr. Jones had nothing for it but to sneak away to the telephone and cancel the orders he had placed.
Thereafter he seemed a much chastened man. He did not again make himself the butt of his wife’s irony by producing more things than his family could use, just to demonstrate the efficiency of his household machinery. In a few days he took to spending an occasional afternoon at his club. He began playing golf, and devoted many of his leisure hours to exploring his rather large library, which had hitherto been merely an unused collection of books. He found himself becoming interested in all sorts of fascinating subjects. He was really enjoying himself immensely, although he had a guilty look on his face whenever Mrs. Jones caught him at any of these diversions during working hours.
One day she said to him, ‘Perhaps you can see now, John, that the purpose of labor-saving devices is really to save labor, so that more time can be devoted to pleasant and stimulating living.’
Not long after this, Mr. Jones decided that his business again required his attention. His wife is convinced that he returned to his office with a few elementary but enlightening lessons in economics well mastered.
No one, of course, would act as foolishly in the realm of household economics as did this mythical Mr. Jones, but there are many Mr. Joneses who have acted no less foolishly in their own sphere of large-scale industry, expanding plants and piling up goods with complete disregard of market demand. It may be argued that the parallel I have drawn is not a fair one because the family unit is so small and static that its requirements can be easily gauged, while there is no element of competition in supplying these requirements. But the nation, after all, is only the sum of these small units, and with proper cooperation it should not be impossible to estimate, within certain limits, the amount of goods the nation needs.
Here, of course, arises the question of whether we are at present suffering from overproduction or underconsumption — the question, in short, of purchasing power. This is a large subject which I do not have space to deal with in this article, but I hope to write about it some other time. The only point I want to make here is this: that it is about time for us to begin using our labor-saving machinery actually to save labor instead of using it to flood the nation haphazardly with surplus goods which clog the channels of trade. That will presuppose, to be sure, some cooperative effort to determine the needs of the people and to produce accordingly.
In the allegory of Mr. Jones, perhaps Mrs. Jones came off better than she should. She has obtained leisure, certainly, but it is doubtful whether the hundreds of thousands of Mrs. Joneses throughout the land are making the best use of the new wealth of hours which the labor-saving devices in their homes have made possible But at least the opportunity is there. Women have won the first skirmish, whereas in the industrial world — the world of men — the machine is battering at the very livelihood of our beleaguered people. If we are to win this larger battle, we must adopt a new collective view of the machine and the complex economic structure which has been erected upon it.
I am convinced that the machine has taken something out of life. We have paid, and are still paying, a great price for the benefits it has given us. But the fault lies with us. We have not used it properly. If the progress of the mechanical age should suddenly cease now, I should say that its disadvantages had outweighed its benefits. But further developments are certain to come. We cannot now throw the machine overboard. It is with us to stay, and our task is to turn it to our proper need. In the machine, rightly controlled, lies the hope of reducing human drudgery to the minimum — not merely that we may be free of drudgery, but that every individual may have the opportunity for a happy life, for a leisure which, under wise guidance, may lead to mental and spiritual growth.
I do not set myself up as an economist, but from my detached position I have tried to examine the whole problem from a humanitarian and common-sense point of view. It evident to me, as it must be to thinking people, that the manufacture and exchange of goods constitute the preponderant influences in modern life. That is a false emphasis. Now, at I we have an opportunity gradually to shift that emphasis by using laborsaving machinery for its ostensible purpose of saving labor. This will mean a reduction in the hours of toil for the great masses of the people. The trend is already in that direction, as an emergency measure, and I am convinced that the pressure toward this end will outlast the emergency, for it is a logical result of the flowering of the mechanical age. This new orientation is by no means impossible. If I thought it were, I should lose my faith in humanity.
After all, is it too much to expect that our ingenuity can reorganize our economic system to take advantage of the machines which we have created? It is largely up to the men — the statesmen and the captains of industry; and, if they are unable to accomplish the task, we women shall have to send them into the kitchen for a few lessons in common-sense economics.