👀 Don’t turn off the lights
#55 | I don't wanna be in the dark tonight
Did you know one man’s prison is anyone else’s palace? And lies are necessary when the truth is too difficult to believe. But when you get too close to the sun, your dreams may melt away. It’s okay, though, because geniuses are always branded crazy.
If you watch Narcos, you know where this is going. Yes, today’s Just One Thing is about cartels.
Thanks for reading Just One Thing! Subscribe to receive every post.
Instead, today, I want to introduce you to the lost-in-time Phoebus cartel.
Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? And the founding members were a trans-Atlantic consortium of the biggest companies of their day: Osram from Germany, Philips from The Netherlands, and the US-HQed General Electric, among others.
And what did this cartel do? Well, first, they weaponised planned obsolescence. To be fair, by the time these companies created the Phoebus cartel in 1924, planned obsolescence was already in use in business. Most notably by automobile maker GM (yes, that GM), who mooted this theory to boost car sales the same year, leading to the company overtaking Ford in sales by 1931.
Anyway, back to the phabulous Phoebus phirms. What they did with planned obsolescence (maybe I just like saying that term) is they met in Geneva and agreed they would all make the life of their lightbulbs shorter. And they agreed to reduce the lifespan of lightbulbs from 2500 hours to 1000 hours. Then they went ahead and created an oligopoly, dividing the whole world into monopolistic markets for cartel members. This ensured they could increase prices without any competition. The shitheads, I mean, respected business enterprises, went ahead and even instituted a table of fines for companies whose lightbulbs lasted more than 1000 hours.
Armed with the confidence of colonisers, they even incorporated a company called Phoebus SA (surprise) in Switzerland in 1925 with plans to keep the cartel going till 1955.
What put paid to this cartel – the first with truly global reach – was not an outbreak of conscience. Nor was it regulatory intervention. Instead, it was World War 2 which caused the cartel to cease operations in 1939.
Unlike Pablo Escobar, though, most of the original founding members of this cartel are still alive and kicking and flourishing. And they’ve never had to make any restitution for converting lightbulbs into an instrument of economic disparity.
If you want to read more about the Phoebus cartel, IEEE has a brilliant long-read on what they call The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy in their Spectrum magazine.
I hope you enjoyed today’s newsletter. If you did, please share it with someone you love. Or someone who works at GE. Or Osram. Or Philips. Ask for a free lifetime supply of lightbulbs.