On the top of my desk there is a green button. No, not the kind of button you push. The kind of button you normally put through a hole. The hole is still in my sweater. The button, having been used three times, has been cast out of work by the unraveled thread.

It is an American sweater.

On the wall of my kitchen there is a new clock. Another new clock. The first clock would, from time to time, start going backward. The next one had a second hand that struggled upward from the number 6 to the number 7 and then collapsed in an exhausted heap back at 6. After 24 hours of this, I replaced it with the third.

All three are American clocks.

You are now, I am sure, expecting another diatribe on "The Decline of Quality in America," and let me assure you that I can launch one with the best. Give me a minute and I'll gather together my personal exhibits in the case against quality.

Step right up! Touch the abominable toaster tray! See the disintegrating book! Taste the inedible tomato!

I can then also point with pride to the products of a simpler and sturdier time. The indomitable oak table of 1900, the unfailing railroad clock of 1860, the unbreakable sewing machine of the 1930s, the unfrayable silk blouse of the 1940s.

This is, after all, how we all play the most popular game of the year, "The Rise and Fall of American quality."

But after weeks of listening to the rising ardor of the fans, forgive me if I use halftime to question the rules.

I am not a great believer in The Good Old Days. I think we all tend to idealize the past. A hundred years ago, people were no doubt ruing the decline of quality. I guess I lost my rose-colored retrospectacles in history class.

I also think we tend to compare the worst of now with the best of then. The products of the past that have survived into the present are almost by definition high quality. The rotten buildings have fallen down, the shabby furniture has been used for firewood, the crummy blouses have long ago disintegrated, the appliances are being used for landfill, the bad movies have been long forgotten.

But it's also worth remembering that some high-quality products often depended on low-quality lives. It's one thing to miss the delicate handmade lace of another time. It's quite another to miss the long hours at low wages in a desperate cottage industry.

It is equally easy to admire the intricate molding on the walls and stairways of another decade. But it's hard to admire the enormous gap between what the rich could afford and the working poor were paid. The high cost of labor is, after all, good for the laborer.

We talk about lost quality as if we were the potential buyers rather than the producers. The Chinese always remind foreign visitors that while The Great Wall was a wonderful achievement, the lives of the people who built it were rotten.

Most of us did not live in the mansions of the 19th century, unless we were in the scullery. Most of us didn't eat luxurious meals off elegant silver. At best, we made the meals and polished the silver.

In fact, we could make a pretty decent, if unpopular, case that the quality of life has improved in the past century along with the quality of things like food and housing. It seems that the distribution of goods has raised the standards for many and lowered them for some.

Consciously or not, even those who protest most loudly often choose "low-quality" over "high-quality" items, heading for McDonal's instead of the kitchen, for permanent press instead of the iron. We often knowingly choose "low quality" over high cost.

I'm not trying to defend things that go BONK in the night. I'm as infuriated by sloppy work and saddened by the loss of pride in crafts as the next person. I think we have to blame and cure "bigness," its careless management and alienated anonymous workers . . . all the rest.

But while we are playing the elite, decrying the decline of quality, the erosion of the high standards by mass production and mass standards, it's not bad to remember that we (blush) are the masses.