Making It Worse
Cost cutting and the decline of venerable brands.
Defector editor David Roth wonders, “How Will The Golden Age Of Making It Worse’ End?” After a long setup about American male hero fantasies, he gets to the titular question:
As someone who has been on four different Boeing-made airplanes in the last week, I can attest to the limits of this fantasy in the face of the prospect that a door on your airplane—the production of which was outsourced and subcontracted by a flub-prone duopoly to save some money; the installation and inspection of which was overseen by an overworked and multiply pressured person working in a conflicted and careless system, also to save some money—might blow off at altitude. There are some problems an individual is not equipped to fix, and “airplane now has moonroof” is one of the classics, there. More to the point, the bad people enabling or actively authoring those problems can seem not merely out of reach but safely within a parallel reality that is, if not any less brutish or ugly or stupid, notably better insulated. You think less of mounting a Jack Reacher-style offensive on Boeing’s executive suite, in that situation, and more about how strong an airplane seat belt is, really, and I guess also how reliable the subcontractor that produced that seatbelt was, and how carefully that was inspected.
There’s a bit in Maureen Tkacik’s comprehensively damning 2019 feature about Boeing in The New Republic that I keep coming back to, both here and in general. The central tension of that story is about how, as a former Boeing physicist told Tkacik, “a long and proud ‘safety culture’ was rapidly being replaced… with ‘a culture of financial bullshit.'” The supplanting of that purpose—of any purpose, really, at just about any business in just about any industry you can think of—with the blank nihilism of financial capitalism’s profit-driven imperatives is familiar by now; management’s quest to see how much more cheaply an increasingly poor product can be sold at the same price and under the same name as what came before is, at bottom, the story of basically every industry or institution currently in decline or collapse.
If it was always foolish to expect the free market to make things better, it feels more fanciful by the day to imagine a future in which the cynics and sociopaths in charge of that market do anything but continue to make it worse; they’ve evinced no capacity for that, but also no interest in it. Whether this deterioration is the result of buccaneering libertarian delusion or just a bloodless calculation that concepts like “safety” and “quality” are more nice-to-have’s than need-to-have’s, it appears to be the only idea that any of these people have. As this slips further into abstraction—if those mishaps-at-altitude don’t really ding the stock price enough to bother any of the parties capable of doing something about them—the problem compounds and compounds. In the case of my industry, there is the sense that the business dipshits smashing up various institutions and lives simply care more about their divine right to smash things up than they do about anything else; something new can be built around the ruins they make, but the needless, ugly, colossal waste of it all is offensive all the same. Also none of us know how to make airplanes.
The erosion of Boeing’s former, engineer-driven culture and the rise of its ravening and reckless financial-capitalism one can be traced, in Tkacik’s story, in part to Boeing’s 1997 purchase of the failing aerospace company McDonnell Douglass. The merger was more or less the corporate equivalent of inviting a vampire to cross your threshold. The heedless, shortsighted cost-cutting and contingency of the smaller and more dysfunctional company took hold at the larger and more effective one; little by little, and then all at once, Boeing got to work on making its products worse—as much worse as they could be without tanking the stock price, and occasionally, tragically, even worse than that.
My view of this is slightly less cynical but equally depressing. Yes, capitalism has a culture of greed that prioritizes profits over everything else. The potential cost of settling lawsuits and paying fines for the results of negligence is sometimes simply just another factor in the equation. But a large part of this is the commodification of everything.
I don’t fly as frequently as I used to for various reasons. But the entirety of my experience as an adult buying my own plane tickets, dating back almost exactly four decades now, is one in which I’ve treated flying as a commodity in the same way I do gasoline. While I factor in convenience, especially the avoidance of layovers, I have never once considered the manufacturer of the airplane on which I would fly. Indeed, I seldom have that information before I board and, even when I do, it’s subject to change.
Because regulators have allowed industry consolidation, there are essentially two manufacturers of commercial airliners: Boeing and Airbus. They’re both known to produce high-quality planes that, recent incidents notwithstanding, have remarkably fantastic safety records.
So far as I know, the only ones routinely deciding between them are the airlines, not their customers. And I strongly suspect that they choose in much the same way I do: price, convenience, compatibility with their existing servicing infrastructure, and the like.
To the extent Boeing executives are trying to cut costs, it’s about maximizing profits, to be sure. But it’s indirect: they’re trying to deliver a cheaper alternative to Airbus products because they figure, rightly in my estimation, that airlines consider the two major providers interchangeable and are therefore shopping on price.
Given the consequences of unsafe planes for the end users—who, again, aren’t the direct customers of the aircraft manufacturers—regulation is certainly warranted. But there are already considerable regulations from both the US and EU and, again, commercial aviation is remarkably safe and has been getting more so for generations now. The degree to which more regulation is needed is beyond my expertise.
Oddly, for a piece about a Golden Age of something, Roth provides only one example of the Making It Worse phenomenon.
It’s by no means a universal one. Consumer electronics are radically better and yet cheaper than they used to be almost across the board. Automobiles, including the much-derided American brands, last much longer than they did a generation or two ago while providing far more in the way of amenities. I’m sure readers can name many more examples of Making It Better.
At the same time, it’s clearly the case that, for many products, venerable brands have gradually diminished their value over time in order to cut costs. In some cases, it’s clearly greed and cynicism driving that process. Mostly, though, it’s about the commodification that I mentioned earlier.
The conclusion of the most recent of my posts on the enshittification phenomenon coined by Cory Doctorow, pointed to a furniture expert declaring that consumers could be better off spending a few thousand dollars to reupholster a thrift-store find or hand-me-down because “Most often the construction of vintage sofas will be superior to what’s made now.” To which I observed,
This, alas, is likely true for a whole array of products. Even relatively simple and inexpensive items like shoes and boots are mostly junk now, even if one buys from a longstanding brand with a great reputation. Partly, that’s a function of new ownership sacrificing craftsmanship for mass production, with little concern for the long-term damage to the company’s reputation. Mostly, though, it’s an understanding that quality goods are competing with “fast fashion” crap from China that can be purchased for pennies on the dollar.
One of the examples that I had in mind when I wrote that was cowboy boots. Almost all of the venerable American bands have experienced a pretty steady decline over the last four decades or so because few American consumers differentiate on quality. Few are going to shell out $1500 or more for a pair of handmade boots from an American craftsman when they can get a pair for $200 out of Mexico* or $100 out of China.
Three of the oldest American makers, Justin, Tony Lama, and Nocona, merged decades ago. All of them make considerably worse boots than they did thirty or forty years ago. And, indeed, there is a surprisingly large market for second-hand boots from the olden days. Even Lucchese, probably the most venerable brand with a large footprint, has supplemented its more-or-less handmade line with cheaper lines, most of which are outsourced overseas.
Naturally, most customers aren’t spending hours on research to differentiate the various lines. So, they think they’re getting the Tony Lama or Lucchese boots of their youth—or, perhaps, their father’s day—and are mostly getting a pale imitation.
But, again, while we can accurately describe this phenomenon as Making It Worse, I see it less as fraud than adjusting to the realities of the market. There’s just not enough consumer demand for the high-end product—at least not at a commensurate price—to keep the companies in business.
*Mexico actually has its own artisan bootmakers, notably in Leon, but they’re not radically cheaper than their American counterparts in El Paso.