Beyond Repair

Bored Maytag Repairman

An anonymous commenter at Bobvis has this to say:

Ideally, a product so shoddy that it shouldn't be bought, would be removed by the market when people figured out not to buy it.

The problem: people are so jaded towards crappy-quality products (and throwing things away rather than repairing) that the market is indeed failed in this regard. It's no longer a choice of not buying the badly-made product, they're all so badly made you might as well pick the least expensive.

I encounter this sentiment a lot, and honestly, I don't know what these people are talking about--as far as I can tell, durable goods nowadays are more reliable than they've ever been. My grandfather was a refrigerator repairman, but I've never in my life known a refrigerator to break down. In fact, my experience with durable goods in general has been almost totally positive. The only durable goods I've ever had break down on me were a few computer parts (arguably my fault in most cases), a monitor, a water heater, and a toaster oven.

It's true that we don't repair broken durable goods as often as we used to, but there are several good reasons for this that have nothing to do with being jaded.

First, the Baumol effect. While productivity in capital-intensive fields like manufacturing tends to increase rapidly, productivity in labor-intensive fields like repair tends to increase slowly if at all. As a result, the cost of replacement relative to repair tends to fall over time.

Technological improvements can make repair more expensive in absolute terms as well. Many durable goods are much more sophisticated than they used to be, often replacing or supplementing mechanical parts with electronic circuitry and embedded computers. These may enhance funcitonality or reliability (moving parts are far more likely to break down), but reduce serviceability.

Furthermore, rapid technological improvement can shift the cost-benefit analysis in favor of replacement. If repairing something costs $200 and replacing it with an identical model costs $400, it probably makes sense to repair. But if $400 buys a newer and much better model, then it may make sense to buy the newer model rather than repairing the old one.

Ironically, increased reliability may actually contribute to a tendency to replace rather than repair. Designing products to be easily serviceable is not without its costs--to make a product serviceable, it may be necessary to make it larger or more expensive, or to compromise in other ways. When an expensive product has a 50% chance of failure in the first few years, it probably makes sense to design it for serviceability. But if there's only a 5% chance of failure, it may not.

There are probably some other factors that I haven't thought of, but those are the big ones.

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Minor edit

As a result, the cost of repair relative to replacement tends to fall over time.

Unless I am too tired to think straight, you must mean:

As a result, the cost of replacement relative to repair tends to fall over time.

Fixed. Thanks.