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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Why Appliances Are Getting Steadily Worse

Energy Star

It is a commonly heard impression that most appliances just aren’t as good as they used to be. Even high-end washers don’t wash, showers don’t clean, driers don’t dry, refrigerators don’t cool, and toilets don’t flush as well as the average model did thirty years ago. That this is not just a case of the nostalgic fallacy can readily be confirmed by anyone with access to older, but still functional appliances.

Less well-known is the cause of this decline. The technology to make effective appliances has not be lost. No rare or no longer extant raw material is needed for their construction. Nor has the Great Appliance Maker Cartel finally gotten its act together and started to foist off ever shoddier products at ever higher prices.

Rather, Americans can thank the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act of 1978, its many state and federal successors, and regulations thereunder. Politicians of the 1970s realized that Americans are far too stupid and irresponsible to weigh the costs and benefits of consuming a certain quantity of electricity or water on a case-by-case basis.Americans apparently demonstrate wisdom exclusively in the voting booth when electing these politicians, but are otherwise helpless morons unfit to order their own affairs. So the politicians empowered bureaucrats at the Department of Energy to make these choices for Americans.

These bureaucrats promptly set out on their almost-forty-year quest to make a significant part of the world in small, but substantial, ways worse. One could start with a Sunstein/Thalerian nudge avant la lettre, like the Energy Star program. Then start legislating slight minimum standards with little bite, because the market has already surpassed them. Then ratchet up the standards so that most designs must be changed. This does necessarily require a drop in absolute quality for technology continues to advance; appliances will merely be less effective and more expensive than they would be without the regulation. Finally ramp up the standards so high that it becomes physically or economically impossible to comply with them without sacrificing performance. The end result is what we observe.

Of course there will always be some scofflaw manufacturers who try to exploit loopholes or ambiguities in the regulation in order to achieve their nefarious end of making appliances with a performance and price that Americans would want to buy. For example, a manufacturer of shower plumbing might notice that the regulations only limit the flow of water per shower head, not per shower, and start selling a very good shower plumbing set with several shower heads. Of course the brave bureaucrats soon got wise to this and not only changed the regulations prospectively, but retrospectively fined the manufacturer $876,080.The author has heard through the grapevine that some of the shower heads by this and other manufacturers can easily be fixed by removing an unneeded rubber gasket with a pair of pliers. Reportedly this is so easy that even the author could do it in a minute or two. The author can pass along instructions, if needed. Of course, the author could not possibly condone such horrendously lawless conduct, but merely passes this tidbit along so that vigilant readers will know when to report their neighbors’ unlicensed plumbing modifications to the proper authorities.

William F. Buckley once defined a liberal[sic] [a]s someone who is determined to reach into your shower and adjust the water temperature for you. Turns out that he was almost literally right.

So, gentle reader, the next time an appliance fails to perform adequately, spare a second for a moment of gratitude to the environmentalist politicians and the energy bureaucrats they empowered to decide that a few drops of water or a few cents of electricity are far more precious than your time, labor, and comfort.