I was preparing for work one morning when disaster struck; my trusty beard trimmer wasn’t trimming. There was plenty of strange whirring but absolutely no movement of the blades. I spent a few minutes tinkering with it but to no avail. At this point, what are my options? It seemed to me that the problem was fixable. I have a two-year-old son who is fascinated with shaving; maybe he got a hold of it and dropped it, knocking something loose. If I couldn’t fix it myself, could a repair shop handle it? What would they charge me? How would that compare with the cost of a brand new beard trimmer? But maybe the biggest question was this: do repair shops for small electronics even exist any more?
Per classical economic theory, one of the great achievements of our economy is its ability to produce goods that are inexpensive and therefore accessible to people of even modest income levels. As the theory goes, efficiency in production allows for lower production costs which, in a competitive market, should translate into lower prices, a win-win for both the producer and the consumer. The problem is (as I found looking at my broken beard trimmer) if the price goes too low, it kills the repair market. As an example, we have a repair market for cars because the price of a new car is high enough – and the cost to repairs low enough – that it makes economic sense to fix them.
But low prices don’t necessarily mean low costs. In fact, I’d argue the costs of low prices are quite high, they’re just simply not valued or accounted for them in how we price goods or services. Two examples of these unaccounted costs are the environmental costs and the human craftsmanship costs.
The Environmental Costs
To be honest, I don’t think I would have thought twice about throwing out this beard trimmer (let alone writing a whole blog post about it) if not for Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Laudato Si. In particular, this passage about the lifecycle of our industrial economy really struck me.
“It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to a new generation of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of the issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.”
To Pope Francis’ point, one of the main reasons we have such a throwaway culture is we’re undervaluing and not accounting for both the extraction of unrenewable resources in our products’ creation and the disposal of this wealth at the end of the products lifecycle. If either or both of these were valued and incorporated into the prices of our products, we’d have a very different economy than we do now.
A little aside: For those who haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend this encyclical! This brief document is fascinating in the way it challenges all the dominant powers of today, from finance to technology to the industrial process to free-trade global capitalism – quite the feel of a contraband manifesto for our modern times!
The Human Capacity Costs
Call me sentimental, but I think there’s something beautifully human about the repair economy. This was really made clear to me in the book Shop Craft is Soul Craft. In this book author Matthew B. Crawford tells the story of how he gave up his role as the executive director of a political think tank to follow a love of repairing motorcycles. Compared to the white collar work that he found depersonalizing, here he finds a love of this work that engages all of him. He found repair work mentally challenging as the problems he faced required skill and ingenuity to identify and troubleshoot. Then he was able to also integrate this head work with his hands and a rewarding type of physical demand. Along the way he found a community of people working together, loving what they do, and making it more that a job, but a craft. Combine this with the fact that this work helps us preserve our resources and wealth and I say this is the type of work our economics needs to fight to preserve its market.
How It Ends…
Now of course I myself don’t know how one goes about changing the economics of the world – it’s much too big. But my home, that is a little more manageable. And so this brings us back to my broken beard trimmer. On one hand I’m faced with the logic of the cold hard economics of a cost-benefit analysis: if it’s cheaper to buy new than to repair, then ye shall buy new. On the other hand is the Pope’s challenge to reject a throw-away culture and Matthew B. Crawford’s argument to take pride in the problem solving work of maintenance and repair.
And so to make a long story short, I became inspired to take the time to figure out what exactly was causing the problem with my trimmer. While to any ordinary Mr. Fix-It, I must have looked incompetent – to be perfectly honest, I thoroughly enjoyed the process of not knowing what I was doing but using trial and error to try to figure it out. And ya know what – boo ya! – I eventually got beard trimmer started working again! Not quite solving the world’s environmental problems, but a small local victory that saved our family some money and at least one beard trimmer from a one-way trip to the landfill.