Globally better means locally worse

by Tyrrell_McAllister1 min read22nd Mar 201720 comments


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Home appliances, such as washing machines, are apparently much less durable now than they were decades ago. [ETA: Thanks to commenters for providing lots of reasons to doubt this claim (especially from here and here).]

Perhaps this is a kind of mirror image of "cost disease". In many sectors (education, medicine), we pay much more now for a product that is no better than what we got decades ago at a far lower cost, even accounting for inflation. It takes more money to buy the same level of quality. Scott Alexander (Yvain) argues that the cause of cost disease is a mystery. There are several plausible accounts, but they don't cover all the cases in a satisfying way. (See the link for more on the mystery of cost disease.)

Now, what if the mysterious cause of cost disease were to set to work in a sector where price can't go up, for whatever reason? Then you would expect quality to take a nosedive. If price per unit quality goes up, but total price can't go up, then quality must go down. So maybe the mystery of crappy appliances is just cost disease in another guise.

In the spirit of inadequate accounts of cost disease, I offer this inadequate account of crappy appliances:

As things get better globally, they get worse locally.

Global goodness provides a buffer against local badness. This makes greater local badness tolerable. That is, the cheapest tolerable thing gets worse. Thus, worse and worse things dominate locally as things get better globally.

This principle applies in at least two ways to washing machines:

Greater global wealth: Consumers have more money, so they can afford to replace washing machines more frequently. Thus, manufacturers can sell machines that require frequent replacement.

Manufacturers couldn't get away with this if people were poorer and could buy only one machine every few decades. If you're poor, you prioritize durability more. In the aggregate, the market will reward durability more. But a rich market accepts less durability.

Better materials science: Globally, materials science has improved. Hence, at the local level, manufacturers can get away with making worse materials.

Rich people might tolerate a washer that lasts 3 years, give or take. But even they don't want a washer that breaks in one month. If you build washers, you need to be sure that nearly every single one lasts a full month, at least. But, with poor materials science, you have to overshoot by a lot to ensure of that. Maybe you have to aim for a mean duration of decades to guarantee that the minimum duration doesn't fall below one month. On the other hand, with better materials science, you can get the distribution of duration to cluster tightly around 3 years. You still have very few washers lasting only one month, but the vast majority of your washers are far less durable than they used to be.


Maybe this is just Nassim Taleb's notion of antifragility. I haven't read the book, but I gather that the idea is that individuals grow stronger in environments that contain more stressors (within limits). Conversely, if you take away the stressors (i.e., make the environment globally better), then you get more fragile individuals (i.e., things are locally worse).

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20 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:10 AM
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There are two kinds of fool. One says, “This is old, therefore it is good.” The other says, “This is new, therefore it is better.”

I want to raise this:

Survivorship bias - Of a production line - the older things of a run that died in 6 months, don't exist 10-20 years later. The fridge that is still working 20 years later survived therefore we know about it, it's still around "going strong". And "they don't make them like this any more". Most of those early broken products don't get recorded or remembered.

Specifically on washing machines: They would usually have at least 5 years warranty. Warranties keep the standards up, because if they break in that time the manufacturer needs to repair or replace them.

It does seem like a past tendency to overbuild things is the main cause. Why are the pyramids still standing five thousand years later? Because the only way they knew to build a giant building back then was to make it essentially a squat mound of solid stone. If you wanted to build a pyramid the same size today you could probably do it for 1/1000 of the cost but it would be hollow and it wouldn't last even 500 years.

Even when cars were new they couldn't be overbuilt the way buildings were in prehistory because they still had to be able to move themselves around. Washing machines are somewhere in between, I guess. But I don't think rich people demand less durability. If anything, rich people have more capital to spend up front on a quality product and more luxury to research which one is a good long-term investment.

Even when cars were new they couldn't be overbuilt the way buildings were in prehistory because they still had to be able to move themselves around.

Which is interesting corroboration in light of CronoDAS's comment that cars have been getting more durable, not less.

Home appliances have improved on measures other than durability, though, such as energy efficiency. And cars are significantly more durable, lasting for roughly twice the mileage before requiring repairs that amount to rebuilding the car...

Home appliances have improved on measures other than durability

Older home appliances were also a lot more expensive in real terms (that is, controlling for inflation). Today, that same expense will generally buy you a "heavy-duty/professional use" version of the appliance that will be just as durable as the decades-old version was, and provide all of these other benefits for free. If anything, the real mystery is why these cheap, throwaway home appliances have gotten so popular all of a sudden. The general technological improvement you point to is actually a plausible candidate here - why buy an appliance that's optimized for durability, when in five or ten years you'll probably be shopping for a new model in order to get those other benefits?

Older home appliances were also a lot more expensive in real terms (that is, controlling for inflation).

A point brought home to me by the MetaFilter discussion of the article linked in our OP:

Part of it is that the appliances are also literally cheaper. It looks like a full size fridge cost about $500 in the 60s, which works out to $3500 adjusted for inflation.

The example I was going to use was washers and dryers, which cost about $385 for the set in 1959, or about $3200 in current money.

I found a stash of business records from 1913, for a company that sold quality socks.

Adjusting to today's money, a pair of these socks cost $70. But they were really nice socks, apparently. The kind you would mend with your darning kit.

My grandmother paid roughly $7 for it [a Westinghouse oscillating fan] in 1938, which was a lot for a blue-collar family to spend in the Depression, and which amounts to $117 in 2017 dollars.

Makes sense when I think about it. As Yvain documents, enough big-ticket items have become so much more expensive in the US that a bunch of other goods or services must've become much cheaper — otherwise the US inflation rate would always be massive.

I wonder how much of that is improvements in their manufacture (I suspect at least some) versus improvements in things like oils and other lubricants which then reduce the wear.

And cars are significantly more durable

That is an important counter-weight to the claims in the article I linked to.

ETA: Though maybe it's actually consistent in light of dogiv's observation that there were always limits on how much you could overbuild cars.

Quite - I have a 10 year old car and haven't had to do anything more drastic than change the battery - regular maintenance kinds of stuff.

Rich people might tolerate a washer that lasts 3 years, give or take.

Really? My impression is that the only people who tolerate appliances that fail so quickly are poor people who can't afford anything better. (And who therefore stay poorer, because buying cheaper things that fail sooner is more expensive in the long run.)

I agree that a rich person won't tolerate disposable products where more durable versions are available. Durability is a desirable thing, and people who can afford it will pay for it when it's an option.

But imagine a world where washing machines cost as much as they do in our world, but all washing machines inevitably break down after a couple years. Durable machines just aren't available.

Then, in that world, you have to be wealthier to maintain your washing-machine-owning status. People who couldn't afford to repurchase a machine every couple of years would learn to do without. But people who could afford it would consider it an acceptable cost of living in the style to which they have become accustomed.

If durability is hard for a consumer to evaluate, then the manufacturer will push costs there in order to devote more optimization power to the dimensions that consumers actually evaluate. Manufacturers that don't do this will be left behind for two reasons. 1. They will appear worse in terms of the features that are visible and 2. Their competitors will have larger advertising budgets.

The general principle is similar to the idea of an Aether variable. Costs get pushed into harder to evaluate dimensions. The products available in the market are only 'designed' by humans in a loose sense. After a market has existed for awhile it is more accurate to say the product is the output of a selection process. This is part of the reason new areas appear to make ultra fast progress initially, proxy measures haven't diverged from utility yet keeping the feedback loops tight.

You should look up the phrase "planned obsolescence". It's a concept taught in many engineering schools. Apple employs it in it's products. The basic idea is similar to your thoughts under "Greater Global Wealth": the machine is designed to have a lifetime that is significantly shorter than what is possible, specifically to get users to keep buying a machine. This is essentially subscription-izing products; subscriptions are, especially today in the start up world, generally a better business model than selling one product one time (or even a couple times).

With phones, this makes perfect sense, given the pace of advancements in the phones, generation after generation.

While you would think that a poor person would optimize for durability, often durability is more expensive, meaning that the poor person's only real choice is a lower-quality product that does not last as long.

"Better materials science: Globally, materials science has improved. Hence, at the local level, manufacturers can get away with making worse materials." This doesn't really follow to me. There are many reasons a manufacturer would use worse materials than the global "best materials", including lower costs. It seems to me that your idea of 'greater global implies worse local' can be equally explained as a phenomenon of capitalism, where the need to make an acceptable product as cheaply as possible does not often align with making the best product at whatever the cost.

the machine is designed to have a lifetime that is significantly shorter than what is possible, specifically to get users to keep buying a machine.

That's not what "planned obsolescence" means. Planned obsolescence means "if this machine is going to fail in X years anyway (because of one or more critical parts, or because technical progress means that replacing it in that timeframe makes more sense anyway), it makes no sense to design it to be longer-lived than that. So let's improve efficiency and cut costs by redesigning everything in it under the assumption that we're allowed to fail in X years, and any resources spent in extra lifetime are just wasted". What maximum lifetime is theoretically possible for any given component has very little to do with what's most efficient.

One can certainly criticize this sort of 'planned obsolescence' too, for instance by countering that modularity, repairability and lack of any single point of failure should be stressed instead. But let's at least get our facts straight here.

That's not what "planned obsolescence" means.

Arguing about definitions is, as we all know, always fruitful, so let's consult some sources. We could try a dictionary. Here's the Oxford English Dictionary:

planned obsolescence n. the practice or policy of curtailing the life of manufactured products (as by using non-durable materials, frequently changing design, terminating the supply of spare parts, etc.), so as to induce consumers to replace them regularly.

which is exactly what denimalpaca said. Or, veering from the elite ivory towers of academe to The People as our source of authority, here's the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page on planned obsolescence:

Planned obsolescence [...] is a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so it will become obsolete (that is, unfashionable or no longer functional) after a certain period of time. The rationale behind the strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases (referred to as "shortening the replacement cycle").

(You are welcome to check that the ellipsis doesn't hide anything that changes the meaning.) This, again, is exactly what denimalpaca said.

Or we could look at the first known use of the phrase, in a pamphlet from 1932 called "Ending the Depression through planned obsolescence". This is a bit different from either denimalpaca's usage or yours but seems distinctly nearer to his:

I would have the Government assign a lease of life [...] to all products of manufacture, mining and agriculture, when they are first created, and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence definitely known by the consumer. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally “dead” and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment.

If that Wikipedia article is to be believed, the phrase first became popular after a talk by Brooks Stevens, who defined it to mean

Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.

which is clearly much more denimalpaca's sense than yours.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not denying that what you describe also happens and is important. But it looks to me as if denimalpaca's account of what "planned obsolescence" denotes is more accurate than yours.

Planned obsolescence alone doesn't explain the change over time of this phenomenon. It's a static explanation, one which applies equally well to every era, unless something more is said. So the question becomes, Why are manufacturers planning for sooner obsolescence now than they did in the past?

Likewise, "worse materials cost less" is always true. It's a static fact, so it can't explain the observed dynamic phenomenon by itself. Or, at least, you need to add some additional data, like, "materials are available now that are worse than what used to be available". That might explain something. It would be another example of things being globally better in a perverse sense (more options = better).

Planned obsolescence is technically difficult: it's relatively easy to design and use a material which lasts indefinitely, but harder to design a machine around materials that last a specified period and then fail. You need to tread the tight-rope between "too shitty to buy" and "too high quality to require frequent replacement."

Some say that it failure comes with miniaturization too. Those SMD capacitors fail a lot easier in electronics, so while the microwave might still work, the display will fail pretty quickly.

Highlites from the answer:

laundry machine from the 1980 did maybe 400 or 600 U/min for spinning while nowadays 1600 U/min is usual. Duration of a washing cycle has probably tripled (1 h vs. 3 h), and there are spinning cycles in between now, whereas there used to be only a final one.

They cite Miele engineering their machines for 5000 washing cycles or 20 years, while e.g. Whilpool, BSH and Electrolux use 2009 washing cycles and 10 years.

machines from the 70s and 80s needed about 4+ times as much energy (and also much more detergent powder and water) to achieve the same cleaning results as a machine from 2004

They find that 75% of laundry machines break at their first owner, and for those machines the average age went down from 12.5 to 11.6 years from 2004 to 2012/13. The fraction of laundry machines that breaks within the first 5 years has increased a lot (6 -> 15% of those that break, i.e. 4.5 -> 11.25% of all laundry machines).

there are huge differences between the cheaper and the expensive categories: e.g. after 5 1/2 years' equivalent, 25 % of the 350 - 550 EUR machines are broken, in contrast to 8 % of the > 700 EUR machines.

It seems that it's still possible to buy quality washing machine's if you don't choose a budget model.