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Planned obsolescence, myth or reality ?

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Rodolphe Topffer Posted: Sat, May 12 2012 6:00 PM

This TV documentary ("Light Bulb Conspiracy") claims that the planned obsolescence is real, and that it has been practiced for a long time ago. The planned obsolescence is often considered as a market failure.

 
I'm already aware of the most famous arguments such as "people prefer cheaper items because the repair is expensive" or "great durability of items is unwanted because people prefer new and more innovative items". I'm still intrigued by the "epson chip". The fact that the durability of bulbs tends to decline is somewhat curious, too. George Reisman, in "Capitalism: A treatise on economics", explains why consumers should prefer durable products. He wrote, page 214 : "a light bulb lasting 10 times as long and which could be profitable only at a price of 11 times as much, might be successful simply because it would save time in changing bulbs, reduce the risk of falling from ladders, and so on".
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Kakugo replied on Sun, May 13 2012 2:39 AM

I can assure you planned obscolesce exist but is a much more recent phenomenon that we can imagine.

A few years ago Carlos Ghosn, CEO of the Renault-Nissan Group, dropped the bombshell: "Our aim is to push people to change their cars every three years". Is this achieved by offering more advanced products every three years? No. A car manufactured right now is no more advanced than one manufactured in 2009.

Take my field (motorcycles). Planned obsolescence is very real and it takes different forms. The most common is to style vehicles so they will look dated and you will grow tired of them in a couple of years. The Japanese spent ungodly amounts of money to devise this method and implemented it without pity during the industry boom between 2002 and 2007. Another method, closely linked with inflation, is to cheapen components out, so they will wear or break down after a given time/mileage and, since the bike has lost most of its value already, it will just be more economical to sell the thing and buy a new one. Example: right now you can buy a Honda Hornet 600 MY2012 for 5800€. An average rider will cover about 7000km a year. In 20000km the rear shock will be completely shot, I can guarantee you it will have almost no damping left. Warranty will have run out and in three years the bike will be worth, say, 2500€, if you can find a buyer. A new shock, be it aftermarket or genuine, will cost about 1000€. Most people have nor the tools nor the expertise to replace it so they need to go to a dealer who will ask not less than 200€ to do the job. It means to replace the rear shock you'll have to spend 1200€, or about half the bike's value at that point. It doesn't take a genius to do the math.

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This really isn't possible in a free market. If your product is inferior, people will likely buy another brand the next time. Plus it wont be long until my consumer advice agency figures this out. If you restrict the lifetime of your light bulbs to 1000 hours, someone will come along and make a killing with light bulbs that last 1100 hours. And he can do it cheaper too, because artificially inferior products are, if anything, more expensive to produce. The reason we're seeing this all over the place is that the state creates these artificial cartels with regulation. Government-sanctioned cartelization has after all been the predominate form of capitalism since ww2. And this is how the effects materialize; indirectly. When producers control the market because of barriers to entry, they can use resources inefficiently. Planned obsolescence is just one of many effects. But since these effects are indirect, the people who advocate regulation of course never connect them to their cause, and instead confuse them for a 'natural' market failure.

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z1235 replied on Sun, May 13 2012 7:42 AM

^ This.

 

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EmperorNero, you should watch the video.

Because of this epson chip inside your printer, your machine will break after a predefined number of printed pages. Also, I repeat what I said before. Reisman argues that consumers don't want low-lasting bulbs. But bulbs are more fragile today than before.
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Kakugo replied on Mon, May 14 2012 10:27 AM

Rodolphe Topffer:

EmperorNero, you should watch the video.

Because of this epson chip inside your printer, your machine will break after a predefined number of printed pages. Also, I repeat what I said before. Reisman argues that consumers don't want low-lasting bulbs. But bulbs are more fragile today than before.
 
That's exactly my point. While long term fatigue and wear tests are a very difficult field, manufacturers know exactly how long many components will last. I gave the Japanese motorcycle rear shock as an example: the manufacturer knows perfectly well it will be shot in 20000 km and cannot be rebuilt. Is this all technology has to offer? No. The shocks on my BMW started to lose damping at twice that mileage and I replaced them at 50000km. My other bike (a Japanese spec Honda) has over 30000km on it and it's starting to lose damping now. Why is that? Because both are higher level products and at that level it's just more economical to replace the shocks and the manufacturer knows it so is "incentivated" to fit better shocks.
 
Another classic case are refrigerators. I take you are all familiars with those old, stainless steel bodied General Electric fridges. Those things lasted forever and when something broke down, spare parts were widely available and easy to fit. The one my grandparents had lasted thirty years with just some new gaskets: my grandmother sold it when she moved out after my grandfather's death because she could not fit it inside her new apartment.  Modern refrigerators will last ten years, if you are lucky and know how to fix them, and by that point spare parts will have become unobtainable. Has technology gone backwards in these decades? No. The ability to manufacture long lasting refrigetaors is still in the industry. What changed is the mentality: people prefer (or have come to accept) cheaper, short lived products.
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Kakugo -> "What changed is the mentality: people prefer (or have come to accept) cheaper, short lived products."

 

 
I disagree. At least, for the case of lightbulbs. There is absolutely no reason that people should prefer short lived bulbs.
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I would like to know what you think about this

If you have any objections, let me know.

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Esuric replied on Sat, Oct 13 2012 10:52 PM

Low quality items with relatively shorter life spans are cheaper. People tend to prefer cheap things, all other things equal. They will weigh the savings from buying the cheaper, 'crap' item and consider the cost associated with its shorter life span. They will reach their own conclusions (form their own value judgment) and proceed form there (determine that they either prefer or do not prefer the cheaper, crappier item). But the market will produce both types of items for consumers with different preferences.

 

Sorry if this answer is boring.

"If we wish to preserve a free society, it is essential that we recognize that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion."

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Groucho replied on Sat, Oct 13 2012 11:28 PM

It's interesting to consider this issue in a slightly different economic context.

Consider the story (apocryphal) of Henry Ford and the Model T kingpins. According to the story, Ford noticed that old Model T's in the junkyard had kingpins that were still in tip-top condition. He then ordered lower quality design specifications for kingpins, or so the story goes.

The story may be apocryphal, but the concepts are clear. This is not planned obsolescence in the sense of causing a product to destruct, but planned in the sense of considering the actual lifetime-use of and not investing in excess durability for parts such that they far outlive their required usefulness in the product itself.

The epson chips seem to be more of an "overly conservative" measure to reduce the chance of running low on ink while printing (and 'coincidentally,' sell more ink cartridges). But of course it creates a mini-market for Epson chip "resetters" - the free market to the rescue!

An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup. -H.L. Mencken
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