Article — From the November 1930 issue

The Enemy of Prosperity

Overproduction: What shall we do about it?

A generation ago the automobile industry was unknown. It has been created out of whole steel in the past thirty years, particularly and especially in the past ten. It is probably the most mechanized and most modern of all the world’s industries. Ten thousand years ago farming was well known. Save hunting, it is the most ancient of all economic crafts. Motor car making and agriculture thus stand at the extreme left and the extreme right, respectively, of the economic field. Yet each suffers from the same handicap. Both are readily capable of producing far more units than the market can absorb, with resulting disastrous competition, wasteful selling effort, and chronic unemployment. In the massed ranks of other industries, reading from left to right, I can call to mind but very few in which the blight of overproduction is not endemic. Throughout Western civilization—with reservations in respect to France—the malady takes a frightful toll, which is clearly mounting with the years.

In April, 1929, the automobile plants of the United States were capable of producing 8,000,000 units a year. Plant-expansion programs have gone forward since that date. Yet in 1929 the entire world bought only 6,295,000 new cars, including the output of all foreign plants as well as American. To make matters worse, in 1923 3,000,000 people in the United States became, for the first time in their lives, the proud owners of new cars, whereas in 1929, the potential market had been so far exploited that there were only 500,000 such persons. A lush virgin territory has been reduced to cut-over lands; a new market has largely given way to a replacement market.

Jumping now across the economic front to agriculture, we find that the basic problem of the American farmer lies in his “surplus.” The government at the present writing has bought and holds in storage millions of bushels of wheat in a heroic and possibly calamitous attempt to keep the surplus from crushing wheat farmers altogether. Four factors, according to Dr. O. E. Baker, have speeded up the agricultural surplus in recent years, and promise, moreover, to speed it even faster in the future:*

* As I write, a serious drought threatens the current harvests. Thousands of farmers face physical hardships and ruin. Yet because overproduction is even more ruinous to agriculture as a whole, the drought has been hailed on many editorial pages as a blessing in disguise. You will remember that in a Southern town there stands a statue to the boll weevil.

1. Mechanized farming.
2. Better seeds, stock, soil treatment and land use.
3. Drastic shifts from less productive to more productive crops per acre—from corn to cotton in the South; from hay to fruits and vegetables all over the country, particularly in California.
4. The extensive shift from beef cattle to dairy cattle, hogs, and poultry—the latter producing far more human food per unit of animal food consumed.

A man can be fed for a year in theoretical calories on two and one-half acres of hay stoked into milk cows, but to keep alive on beef steaks, he calls for eleven acres of grain, plus several acres of pasturage thrown in. Agricultural engineers are outdoing themselves computing these chemical and mathematical comparisons; farmers are following their logical and scientific deductions—and the surplus promises to rise to heights hitherto undreamed of.

In brief, the better we do things, the worse off we are. Or again the more potential goods with which we are capable of blessing mankind, the worse for us and for mankind. (That echo of a sardonic laugh is from the shade of William Morris.)

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October 2019