I have a bad habit of holding on to things for too long, be they objects or grudges. The reason lies in my upbringing. I grew up in a contradictory economic situation where intellectual capital was in abundance and financial capital in short supply. Consequently, I learned from an early age to fix broken machinery, even when said machinery was long past worth fixing.
That tendency to fix broken things spilled over into my interpersonal relationships in later life and often led to personal heartache. Fortunately, I’m now past that nonsense and both my mental health and personal relationships have never been more balanced than they are now.
However, when it comes to machinery I sometimes fall back into the old habit of trying to fix the unfixable. A few days ago my dishwasher broke and with its injury came a whole pile of first world problems.
And I like solving problems. My day-job requires it. Sometimes the problems are people and people management. More often than not the problem is related to work-place equipment. Ninety nine point nine percent of the time I can get that equipment to work again and normal function resumes.
But not so with my dishwasher. The appliance won’t drain waste water. As with an automobile or many others forms of machinery the mechanical problem is straightforward and so too are the solutions. Check the hoses for blockages. Clear debris from the drain-filter. Test the motor and pump to ensure neither is burnt out. Pretty simple right?
Well in the case of my dishwasher (and I suspect hundreds of thousands just like it) the design limits solutions. For example in order to gain access to the drain-filter and thus clear any blockage there or at the pump, it’s necessary to remove a centrifugal bolt. That alone wouldn’t be too difficult if the housing bracket through which the bolt rests wasn’t made of cheap plastic. Upon employing an adjustable wrench, then a channel-lock to hold the bracket in place, the housing cracked at the first turn of the socket-wrench. Score one for bad design!
As I struggled to remove the bolt, I began cursing at the fictional technical consultant “Dave.” I must confess that Dave the Consultant isn’t based on any real person nor is the product of my often twisted imagination. Dave is my brother’s invention – a result of his as an auto mechanic. During that time Dave the Consultant was the recipient of many a back-handed compliment. For example, if a sensitive part of a vehicle’s engine or electrical system was positioned in a place where it would be vulnerable to unnecessary wear and tear, the elements and water saturation, my brother would blame Dave the Consultant for the design.
“So the car battery is positioned in the wheel-well where snow and ice will corrode the wiring and burn out the battery? Good job Dave! Your design flaw really screwed the consumer there! You’re definitely getting a fat bonus this year!”
In order to replace Part A, we need to also remove Parts B, C, D and G. Yet in order to do that we first have to unclip all the loose wires slung across the Parts A, B and F…the same wires that sit on top of the engine and that are now melted to the surface steel… good job Dave! You sure made that repair real difficult! That’s another few hours lost! You’re really on a roll with these half-assed ideas of yours, so keep ‘em coming!”
What my brother was alluding to was the idea of planned obsolescence. Basically, companies will build products that they know will fail within a designated period of time, thus ensuring that the consumer will have to buy a new product sooner, or seek parts and repairs from the company in future. Either way, the company extracts more money from the consumer over a longer period.
Planned obsolescence is the logical outcome of a sales-driven economy. If the point of mass production is to sell lots of a particular good, then it makes little sense to build a product that the consumer can use for many years after purchase. Market capitalists will argue that the market-place creates a wide variety of goods and services and they are correct. However, that same market-place will generate inferior quality products as long as mass production, rather than high quality production techniques are the norm.
The poor longevity of modern automobiles is the most obvious sign of this economic bent. Though cars produced since 2008 possess the most sophisticated electronic systems and contain the most state of the art materials since the dawn of the internal combustion engine, vehicle longevity has declined. Part of the reason for that decline lies with the financial services sector. Vehicles are being designed to accommodate five and seven year term loans. The idea being that once the loan is paid off, the consumer will want and should want to purchase another vehicle and car loan. The high-turnover in personal and commercial vehicles is reflective of a build-to fail model of design employed by auto manufacturers, driven less by the consumer and more by the needs of financial institutions and shareholders.
All manufacturers are equally guilty of this trend. Between 2008 and 2016, engines in vehicles manufactured by Toyota burned on average of a quart and a half of oil between oil changes, thus leading to engine breakdown. Subaru, a firm that works in partnership with Toyota has in recent years ramped up production and the engines in their vehicles display the same oil-guzzling tendency as earlier Toyotas.
North American manufacturers are little better when it comes to building an unreliable product. Ford’s Fiesta sedan is consistently ranked most years by Forbes Magazine as the least reliable vehicle in its class. General Motors vehicles including the popular Sierra and Silverado often present with failed shocks and struts while GM’s 5.4 litre engines have for nearly two decades set a standard for unreliability. Sister brands such as Jeep lead the pack year on year in terms of poor reliability and low resale value according to research carried out by Forbes.
There are of course other factors at work that contribute to the rapid deterioration of modern vehicles. The state of roads and other infrastructure in North America and elsewhere has declined since the advent of neo-liberal economics. In the province of Ontario in Canada, the transport deficit runs $11 billion per year, factoring in vehicle breakdowns, delays in transporting goods between provinces and the US border, accidents, insurance claims and repair costs. That’s $11 billion dollars per year that Ontario consumers and businesses could be spending elsewhere in the wider economy. But in an age of planned obsolescence, there is little political will to address these issues.
But I digress. Where does my dishwasher trouble fit into all of this?
Well it goes back to Dave the Consultant. The same Dave-style thinking responsible for planned obsolescence in modern vehicles also accounts for the difficulty I had when trying to repair my dishwasher. Dave and others like him don’t want me or anyone else to fix what we own, let alone value the effort and materials that went into the making of the product in the first place. Dave’s vision isn’t concerned with the environmental or financial impact of his products on the consumer or the planet. Dave’s concern is short term profit therefore what he makes is of short term value.
Therefore I find myself faced with the same dilemma faced by most consumers. Do I accept the reality of Dave’s market-place and buy a new dishwasher or do I expend time and energy on trying to repair what was doomed to fail all along?
My own concerns aside, for that to happen in any meaningful way for the society as a whole, we need to turn away from the absurd idea of infinite economic growth and consider a sophisticated form of economic stability. Instead of mass production, we need to consider better standards of production with the emphasis on high quality manufacturing. In short, better, durable products made for consumer demand instead of gimmicky goods of limited life-span intended to be thrown away after use.
In the meantime, I’m still left with a practical, personal dilemma regarding a banal appliance. Do I fix what might simply be unfixable?