The aim of corporate craftsmanship is to assure that nothing works
well for very long.
In the early Reagan years my mother bought what she promised would be the last
new kitchen range she would ever have to buy. That proved true, for it outlasted
her and my father, too. I’ve used it since he died, although it took a couple
of days to scrub it clean enough for my taste. With two teenagers alternating
on kitchen cleanup I have to repeat that Herculean scouring every couple of months,
but my mother’s last stove still turns out a thousand meals a year despite
certain inaccuracies in oven temperature.
Not long ago one of the elements on that stove became a little finicky, sometimes
refusing to heat unless jiggled slightly, so I thought it might be time to replace
them all. Returning to the store where my parents bought the stove in the first
place, I was informed by a pleasant stranger with a touch of the lower Hudson
River Valley in her voice that it would probably be hopeless to seek replacement
parts for a stove that old. Manufacturers of appliances are only responsible
for keeping parts in stock ten years, she noted.
That left me wondering whether the life expectancy of all American products
has now been arbitrarily limited to a single decade; if so, it reduces the economic
category called "durable goods" to a bitter joke. An acquaintance
drives a 1972 Monte Carlo, for which he has no trouble finding parts, and it
is still possible to build an entire Model T Ford from spare parts that are
perennially available. I can still buy replacement parts for the wood-and-coal-fired
kitchen range in my cabin, more than a century after it was cast, but the otherwise
serviceable stove in my kitchen will eventually have to go to the dump unless
some leftover elements can be found.
Road salt and sensitive egos keep carmakers in business, but those who produce
goods that are not subject to inevitable decay have to actively plan the obsolescence
into whatever they sell. It may be wonderful to have a reputation for making
something solid and reliable, but the satisfied owner of an indestructible implement
is not nearly so profitable as the returning customer frantically trying to
replace a product that has failed. Most industries seem to create that consumer
desperation by refusing, after increasingly shorter periods of time, to reproduce
parts that can be expected to wear out.
The computer industry has improved on that tactic. Almost every new electronic
extension requires a software upgrade, and the new software usually demands
greater memory than the existing hardware can accommodate. Starting with the
prehistoric Zenith console that supplanted my manual typewriter in 1992, for
example, the demise of successive printers has always forced me to replace my
entire computer system.
As if to demonstrate how innovative they can be, printer manufacturers have
developed another way to screw their customers, above and beyond the can’t-get-the-parts
scam. I refer, of course, to the scurrilous ploy of assuring that only their
own cartridges will work in their printers, and then raising the price to the
equivalent of $3000 per gallon of ink. If auto makers engineered similar monopolies
on oil for their cars, the average oil change would cost about $3806.50, including
$56 for labor.
To aggravate this ill-disguised larceny, new print cartridges sometimes falsely
identify themselves to their printers as empty, alien, or damaged, so the frustrated
purchaser will simply throw them away and buy more. A few weeks ago I received
notification that I was an eligible party in a successful class action suit
against Epson on precisely that issue, and just after I had returned a pair
of Hewlett Packard cartridges for the same "malfunction." After numerous
expensive attempts to have the old Epson repaired, I smashed it on the concrete
floor of the transfer station, from which it was carried elsewhere and buried
at taxpayer expense. The Hewlett Packard has never worked to my satisfaction,
but I dare not replace it because I can’t afford the new computer that
another printer might force me to buy.
In the end I just brushed up the connections on the stove elements, and now
everything works again. It may hold no candle to the hundred-year-old reel lawn
mower that still works, but—compared to the latest conspiracies to defraud
the consumer—an appliance that lasts a quarter of a century might seem
almost a bargain. Historically speaking, it bridges the long gap between the
age of sound, reliable craftsmanship and the modern era of fundamentally dishonest
William Marvel is a free-lance writer and U.S. Army veteran
living in northern New Hampshire. He is the author of Andersonville: The Last
Depot and, most recently, Mr. Lincoln Goes to War.
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