Skip to comments.(Vanity) The Era of Cheap Crap, or, You Don't Get What You (Don't) Pay For
Posted on 05/30/2007 6:36:08 AM PDT by grey_whiskers
By now, everyone has heard of the scandals involving the adulterated wheat gluten from China, and how it made its way first into pet foods, then into the lower reaches of the human food supply (as livestock feed). Understandably, there has been outrage, as Americans are devoted to Fido and Fluffy. Do what you want to me, but dont you DARE touch my pet! is the war-cry. And at least on the surface, there has been action. China has executed the erstwhile head of its FDA for bribery. Other countries are looking askance at imported Chinese goods, such as the toothpaste flavored with diethylene glycol. And these are encouraging signs. But has anything really changed?
In order to understand this phenomenon completely, it might be a good idea to take a step back and to frame this behaviour in a larger context. While there are those who see in this rush to send manufacturing overseas a plot to level the playing field and to hollow out Americas self sufficiency, and others see it as the result of third world mercantilism, let us to look at it (as was once said during the 1986 Space Shuttle explosion) wearing our mnagement hat
Long ago, but still within the lifetime (and even during the career) of many still alive, the phrase Made in the USA was not a marketing gimmick, nor was it a point of pride. It was simply a fact of life. Particularly after World War II, when much of Europe and Japan was devastated (think of thatthe remainder of the West in shambles, and the United States pre-eminent). The United States had fulfilled its role as the Arsenal of Democracy. The troops were coming home, Rosie the Riveter hung up her coveralls, and the United States settled down to well, lets just say that the Stork was awfully busy. As a result, we had two social and demographic factors in happy alignment: a booming population, and lots of factory capacity. (And, dont forget, the War was over, no more need for ration books.) And the United States was the main country able to produce consumer goods.
The United States manufacturers had grown fat and happy. Witness GM, which held a commanding lead in market share for the manufacture of automobiles worldwide. The Unions, too, had their day at the trough. Assembly line jobs were passed down as employment for life heirlooms from father to son. But there were problems soon to arise. With the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the gas-guzzling pieces of Detroit iron were not selling and there was competition from overseas, especially Japan. There were two results of this. First, Detroit tried its hand at building fuel efficient cars, although badly. And the American consumer had their first taste of foreign manufacturing. And the seeds for the future were plantedmarket segmentation and overseas production. (For a humorous explanation of this, try reading Dave Barry Does Japan by the humor columnist Dave Barry of the Miami Herald.)
Fast forward to the 1980s. Computers were *just* beginning to be mass produced for something other than scientists and large businesses, with the original Apple. the IBM PC, the Commodore 64, and others all appearing. The computers were slow, maddeningly difficult, but fascinating. The problem was that each computer had its own proprietary set of commands. And with brands and companies appearing and disappearing one after the next, it was difficult to get any of them to talk to one another, or to transfer work between different machines. Enter Bill Gates and the Intel architecture. A standard user interface and set of commands, and a standardized CPU. How Convenient! (For Gates and for Intel, that is never mind that the commands were intractable as they were, that the user interface was pathetic, and that the code was buggy and led to unpredictable machine crashes.) Quality? Whats that? What a quaint notion. At least you have a machine which kind of works, most of the time. What would you do without it? Another step down the road.
And while this was going on, there was a retail store, once beloved for its insistence on buying American Made, which was spreading throughout the country, and using its buying power to drive down costs. Low Prices, Always! But there is only so far a manufacturer can go down that road, before costs must be slashed, and slashed drastically. And companies quietly began to send manufacturing of cheaper components, then of entire products, overseas to save on costs, and to preserve market share.
So what began to be the norm, was not inevitable. It was the dismal convergence of three factors. First, the loss of pride in American manufacturing, and the introduction of the idea that other countries can do it just as well as we can. (True in some cases, but not all; and the ability to do something is useless without the will, as we shall see.) Second, the acceptance of the idea of convenience and low cost, even if the product was sub-par. As the old joke goes, if car manufacturers had followed the progress in computers, the average car could go 15,000 mph, get thousands of miles per gallon, and it would break down once every five miles, with a single warning light in the middle of the dashboard Generalized Car Fault. The joke should be updated to include spam, phishing, and viruses. And finally, the mantra of market share over both service and quality. And due to market share, the number of manufacturers able to produce and sell quality goods is shrinking. The era of cheap crap is here!
But there is one more element which makes all of the other developments so unendurable. And that is the peculiarly diabolical twist of market segmentation gone mad, or the concept of value added. What does this mean? Let us take an example from another area of life with which Americans are fed uphealth care. It has long been known, that in an attempt to cut costs, insurance companies cut back drastically on how much they pay for procedures; and the exact circumstances under which they pay. And this affects doctors just as much as patients. Remember, patients dont have to pay malpractice insurance in order to be patients: but doctors have to pay into the lawyers protection racket. So even for the physician, every dollar counts. So in an attempt to get more money out of the insurance companies, doctors had begun the practice of unbundling their services. For example, if you went in to get your appendix removed, your bill would not have just the one line item appendectomy, but the additional line, laparoscopy. Whats that? Oh, thats just cutting your abdomen open in order to *reach* your appendix. Now billed separately.
And this technique has now spread throughout all segments of business. Yes, you can buy our cheap electronic devices. No, we wont guarantee theyll work for more than a year (it used to be taken for granted that TVs and other appliances would work for 10 years or more). But, look hereyou can buy this nifty extended service plan for the convenient low charge of just $99.95 for two years (for a product which only costs three hundred) and if it breaks, you can pay the shipping both ways, for the *chance* that we will fix it or maybe well just send you another model, at our discretion. Or, back to computers. You cant make sense of all the viruses and your printer wont work? No problem. Call our tech support hotline, where we will be happy to connect you to some third-worlder reading from a script in broken English, but who is so arrogant that they will tell you that you dont deserve their help. If you want to speak to someone who knows English, and can help, there will be a slight additional service fee. We appreciate your business, sucker.
Whatever happened to the days when quality and reliability were the mere ante for the manufacturer to be considered?
(*)Alas, even though such a thought brings hope for the end of all massive bureaucracies, I am afraid that even this draconian action is mere window dressing: he had been arrested in June 2005, long before the current scandal broke.)
The author talks about cheap crap, but does not talk about cheap good stuff. Here is an example of cheap good stuff:
I needed an electric razor, go to Wally World. American made razor $120 (at least I think it is American made, it says so on the box), Chinese one $30. I decide on the Chinese made one.
It has lasted 4 years now with no sign of faltering. I had to buy new blades and a new screen for the cutters, but I bought the same brand as the American made one.
Here is my point.... would the American made one have lasted as long? Probably, but since it cost 4 times as much as the Chinese one, It needs to last 4 times longer. In other words, if my Chinese razor breaks today, the American one would have to go until 2019.
My sister-in-law used to insist that they not receive anything made in China. Both because of human rights reasons and toxicity issues. It’s a good idea, but it was a pain in the butt to buy them anything for gifts. Made gift buying a whole lot less fun.
I am all for quality and American made, but having four active boys there aren't many things that can take their aggression. Whenever someone says, "They can't possibly break that" we know not to say never.
Threaten to trade them in for cheap Chinese kids that know how to fix things instead of breaking them.
Hell, cheap Chinese kids probably are cheaper to feed, at least in the local Chinese food place. LOL
Well, as fun as it is to generalize and while yes of course there is plenty of cheap crap on the market, I actually think that the overall quality of the stuff I’ve been buying in recent years is far higher than I was buying a couple of decades ago.
Tools: Better materials and better quality control. Advanced batteries and cordless tools, with more powerful motors that can actually do work. Compare a DeWalt 18v drill today with any drill on the market thirty years ago.
Cars: Remember when car paint was only expected to last a couple of years and had to be regularly re-done? I do. Engines may be more complex but they are also far more reliable, more powerful and more efficient. I’ve got a Ford Mustang that is now seven years old and haven’t had to turn a wrench on it beyond oil changes. It’s still solid and tight, everything still works and it still looks great. Today the average Ford, Chevy, Honda, Toyota has quality, fit and finish that thirty years ago might only have been available in a Mercedes or Cadillac.
Clothes: Materials, colorfastness, quality of manufacture are all better and they don’t just fall apart after a few washes. Used to be that you wash a new shirt once and half the color was gone along with a couple of buttons.
Appliances: Dishwashers really do wash things well, and they’re quieter too. Fridges are quiet and don’t keep you up all night running with loud noises.
Computers: *far* less aggravating than even ten years ago. Orders of magnitude more power and capability. Like it or not, a Windows pc or Mac today is *far* more reliable than it used to be, does more stuff and is smaller and lighter. Hard drives last longer, servers stay up for years without rebooting. System crashes are a tiny fraction of what they used to be. Staying up all night with crashed servers used to be a way of life in IT. Now its far, far more rare.
On and on... I think across the board things are *improving* not getting worse. Sure, there’s crap available if that’s what you want. But there’s far better and higher quality available too, and at a price that’s more affordable than it would have been back in “the old days”.
Um...it’s a twinkie, not a DVD player.
Valid question but...whatever happened to the days when American ingenuity would drive folks to learn about the devices they use everyday and fix what's broken?
I have a wide range of devices at work in my household, none of which I am leary of opening up and repairing should the need arise. Many have already been repaired thusly...including Ham radios, a washing machine, VCR, microwave oven, stereo amplifier and tuner, toaster oven, televisions and three 7 year old PCs which are running just fine, thank you very much.