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June 05, 2010

We Live In A World Where A Coffee Maker Costs Twenty Dollars

A few days ago, my old coffee-maker joined the Choir Invisible. It had done yeoman service and so I was not unduly put out, but I was still left with no way to make fresh coffee. I found this intolerable, and immediately went out and bought this coffeepot (a plain-jane Mister Coffee) model on sale for $19.99.

So I sit here, a steaming-hot cup of strong brew on the table next to me, and ponder: I live in a world where a complex piece of technology like this costs twenty dollars.

Forget computers and video games and flat-panel televisions and all the rest. Just think of the humble coffee-maker. When I was very young, my family still relied on the old cowboy-style coffee-making apparatus: a pot, some grounds, and a cooking fire. You boil the coffee, wait for the grounds to settle, and drink up. If you're late, your coffee will contain about 30% grounds. You sip carefully, drink maybe half of it, and then dump the dregs. That's how coffee was done in my youth. Then, in the early 1970's, the drip-style coffee makers hit the market and my mother (mére as well as fils a coffee-hound) spent a good part of our weekly income on one. I don't remember how much it cost, but it had to have been seventy or eighty dollars -- and this was in the 1970's, remember. Eighty dollars was a good chunk of my mom's weekly income.

Fast-forward forty years and I can pick up the same basic thing for twenty dollars. The money I spent is far less in relative terms than the money my mother spent: my twenty dollars today was worth about five dollars or so back in 1970. My mom's coffee pot represented a major investment. Mine is a minor concern, the merest kind of disposable income.

This is what the modern world of international competition and trade has brought us. Somehow we have convinced the Chinese to make this coffee pot, package it, ship it to a wholesaler in the US, who then sells it at retail for twenty dollars...and everyone makes enough profit on the deal to keep doing it, year after year. Technology makes it possible -- containerized shipping, international trade agreements, credit and securities markets, modern supply-chain management, CNC machines, CAD/CAM, "no hands" fabrication techniques, all the rest. A coffeepot costs, in real terms, less than a fifth of what it did forty years ago.

There is a price to be paid for this, of course. My mom's coffeepot was manufactured somewhere back east: Ohio or Pennsylvania. Mine was probably cranked out of some massive factory in Shenzen, China. The American coffeepot factory, and the company that made it, is long gone. Only the company name remains, a trademark owned by some multinational conglomerate. The price people are willing to pay for a coffeepot is not sufficient to make it profitable for Americans to build them, and so the production moved elsewhere. The old comfortable name is kept to soothe us into thinking that it's still an American coffeepot -- "Mister Coffee" sounds so much more comfortable than "Xi Lu Shin Heavy Industries Coffee-Maker Model #243".

I am a strong advocate of the free market, and not just in our own borders. Much of the world's prosperity and wealth depends on robust trade between nations, and competition in the marketplace to drive efficiency and fair prices. What we have now is not perfect by any means, but it sure beats a world where it takes a week's pay to buy a coffee-maker.

Still...I do feel a pang. Americans still make things (more things than most of her citizens realize), but fewer things that people come into contact with on a day-to-day basis.

I'll think about this as I drink my coffee.

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posted by Monty at 08:25 AM

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