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by William Marvel    Intervention Magazine
Entered into the database on Monday, June 19th, 2006 @ 15:15:22 MST


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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 corporate capitalism.

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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