What’s wrong with capitalism: patio umbrella edition

The patio umbrella’s pulling cord snapped. Just replace it, how hard can that be?

Turns out it can be very hard, in fact impossible. Why? The umbrella is put together in a way that I cannot access the place inside the hollow pole where the cord is tied around the bolt connected to the crank handle. And I can’t pull out the bolt because the knot on the inside won’t fit through the bolt hole.

If I can’t access it, I can’t untie the knot, or cut it off, and I certainly cannot tie a new cord to the bolt. I tried, including drilling an extra access hole for my version of laparoscopic umbrella surgery, but I couldn’t make the hole large enough to make this successful; a too-large hole would snap the pole at the first gust of wind.

So I give up and throw the big, heavy, otherwise perfectly fine umbrella away, because less than 5% if its value, and far less of its mass, broke and it was intentionally designed to be unrepairable. In fact, the guys who designed this must have spent quite some time finding a clever way for them to assemble this umbrella themselves. I suspect it involves a thin pilot thread and some knotting acrobatics.

Why would anybody spend that extra time and effort to make it hard or impossible to repair their umbrella? Easy: so that I’m forced to buy a new umbrella instead of a cheap replacement cord. One is 100% new revenue (one umbrella), and the other one only 5% (one replacement cord).

But it is more insiduous than that: read on.

In order to have the money to pay for the umbrella, I have to work for some employer (or customer) for the amount of time it takes me to earn the necessary amount. Then I can hand over the earned money to the retailer, and indirectly, to the factory, to obtain a new, working umbrella.

Instead, I could have spent far less time in the drab office of an employer or satisfying the whims of a customer to just earn enough for a much cheaper replacement cord, and spend the rest of the time in my sunny back yard repairing the umbrella.

For me, the end result is the same: a working umbrella at an investment of the same amount of my time. But for the benefit of the revenue and profit of the retailer and the factory, I am forced to go through them and produce one umbrella worth of landfill in the process.

Notice: the net effort and benefit for me are the same in the replace and in the repair scenarios. But in the replace scenario my employer got to make some extra money (I did something useful during the time I worked there to pay for the umbrella), and the retailer and the factory got to make some extra money because I had to pay more for the new umbrella than for the replacement cord. That’s fine, and that’s what capitalism is supposed to do.

But in the process, we extracted one extra umbrella worth of aluminum from some mine, refined it at high energy cost, pumped some oil out of the ground to make the umbrella cloth water-resistant, transported it all the way from China or wherever, and many more things. And we discarded an entirely functional umbrella into a landfill where it will not decay for probably at least hundreds of years.

And we did it intentionally, because the logic of capitalism will cause the R&D expenses to be spent to design exactly those types of products that produce higher sales, for example because they can’t be repaired, the planet be damned.

So whoever says “capitalism is fine, all we need is to dig up less oil and put less CO2 into the air”, needs to explain to me how they are going to tweak capitalism so that those umbrella design guys will not design non-repairable umbrellas. Because it appears to me that would demand the use of the exact opposite of the local profit optimization function at the heart of capitalism.

Or, for the math-inclined: the umbrella clearly resides in a local optimum instead of a global one, and we don’t know how to get unstuck.

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