Statutory Obsolescence

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I was recently reminded of a phrase that caught my ear nearly twenty years ago. The phrase came from a conversation I had with the father of a college classmate. If I recall correctly, he had worked in manufacturing around the time that the Big Three American automakers were getting creamed by the Japanese.

He placed a big chunk of the blame for this problem squarely on the American companies, claiming that they gypped the consumer by deliberately planning new models in such a way as to render older cars "obsolete", including through the use of shabby components they knew would have a short useful life. He called it "planned obsolescence".

While I think the story behind the trouble American car companies were having back then is a little more complicated than he made it sound, I would not put such practices past businessmen in certain industries, given the unfortunate pervasiveness of pragmatism within our culture.

Be that as it may, that phrase has caused me to come up with a succinct new phrase, "statutory obsolescence" to describe phenomena like this:

Yesterday, my old, but perfectly road-worthy car failed a state emissions test. I'll decide today whether it will be worth repairing it so it can pass or whether I should risk a ticket until I get a newer car.
This car is perfectly good and, since it permits us to avoid making car payments, it is saving us lots of money. Unfortunately, since most Americans think it is okay for the state to infringe upon property rights as long as it is for "the common good" -- and since current fashion stirs up the passions of a poorly educated public to panic about global warming -- the apparatus of the state is being used to micromanage personal decisions such as the one I face about when I should buy a newer car.

Recently, I learned that the state is not only violating the property rights of car owners like myself in the process, but those of others. The state of Texas -- "red" and therefore supposedly a bastion for economic freedom -- is now stealing money from some of its citizens in order to pander to the irrationality of some and to quiet down or placate others like myself:
Houston-area drivers willing to trade in their pollution-belching clunkers for newer, environmentally friendly vehicles will soon be eligible for a $3,000 incentive from the state of Texas.

A new state law, intended to encourage drivers to retire old vehicles that pump out more smoky exhaust than newer models, will kick in around the end of the year. It applies to vehicles at least 10 years old in Texas counties that have failed to meet national air quality standards -- including Harris County -- for buyers with incomes of less than $62,000 annually for a family of four.

"Those 10-year-old cars, compared to today's standards, they are filthy," said state Sen. Kip Averitt [a Republican -- ed], who sponsored the legislation. "You take 40,000 or 50,000 cars off the road like that, and we know it will make a significant difference."
Let's say Texas finances the statutory obsolescence of 45,000 vehicles at $3,000 each. That's $135 million dollars stolen from its rightful owners and diverted from more productive uses to unnecessary car purchases. If half of the state population of 20 million is in the labor force, each one of them has just been forced to cough up about 13 bucks apiece towards Al Gore's pet cause of forcing people to act on global warming whether or not they agree that they need to.

As Republican Kip Averitt might put it, "Those centuries-old concepts of freedom and individual rights are troublesome. You nickel and dime your constituents 40,000 or 50,000 times like this and we know it will make a significant difference." Hint: "Different" does not always equal "improved".

Once again, we are slowly being made used to less and less of one life necessity, freedom, in the name of allegedly securing another -- clean air, this time.

My car is not obsolete, and neither is the concept of individual rights. And yet today's leaders of both parties are attempting to deprive me of both my car -- and everyone's individual rights in the process.

-- CAV


Galileo Blogs said...

To concretize this concept for myself, I came up with some examples of statutory obsolescence:

A perfectly good power plant that must be shut down after pollution rules are changed.

A perfectly good home that must be bulldozed to make way for a real estate development because of eminent domain.

A perfectly good jug of milk in New York City that has a "sell by" date three days earlier than anywhere else in the country because of a city ordinance.

A perfectly good apartment building that must be abandoned by its owner in New York City because it has become insolvent due to rent control.

A building that rots due to under-use or abandonment because zoning laws do not permit a different, economical use (e.g.: manufacturing zones in Manhattan).

I will try to think of some more. I will also introduce another idea: "statutory still-birth." That is the still-birth of new products and businesses because of regulations that either ban the innovation or add unnecessary cost and delay.

Some examples of statutory still-birth:

The blockbuster anti-cancer drug that was never developed.

The superior, compact and low-cost nuclear power plant that was never developed.

The brilliant novel not written by the student whose mind was undernourished in public schools.

It is the unseen losses that stagger the imagination. Because they are unseen, these costs are more easily imposed on the ignorant citizenry.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for those excellent examples, GB. The Fallacy of the Broken Window does indeed go way beyond just the government outlays behind a few loony schemes and, in fact need not have a government outlay beyond enforcement of bad laws, as your examples bring up.

On one, I will comment further: "A building that rots due to under-use or abandonment because zoning laws do not permit a different, economical use (e.g.: manufacturing zones in Manhattan)."

One of Houston's biggest, unappreciated advantages is that it has no zoning laws and thus buildings and land "turn over" very easily here.

Unfortunately, statists are busy chipping away at that advantage all the time, the latest outrage being a proposal to force developers to donate land for parks if they (re)build in certain areas.

Mike said...

I don't disagree with you on the central point, but I wonder what you would say to this: One of the core competencies of the government is to safeguard the public health through effective regulation and oversight. This does not necessarily mean a government Leviathan (even if that's what often happens) -- all it means is that someone has to regulate public drinking water, swimming pools, license hospital facilities, care homes, put regulations on food handling, and so forth. One public hazard that is probably NOT critical yet, but which will become a huge problem once it reaches that threshold, is breathable air... and the smog cloud above cities like Houston, LA, and my own Phoenix is getting browner every year. Would it not be within the acceptable scope of government function to use tax dollars as incentives to spur citizens to choose on their own to upgrade to cleaner-burning cars? (On the concept that the opposite, punishing older cars as in your example, would be unacceptable; those would just fail to qualify for the incentive.)

Gus Van Horn said...

"Would it not be within the acceptable scope of government function to use tax dollars as incentives to spur citizens to choose on their own to upgrade to cleaner-burning cars?"

You are contradicting yourself here. (And forgetting about who will pay for this "help".) Anything the government does, it does by use or threat of force. For the government to "help" some buy cars, it must rob others. This is wrong and not the proper role of government.

The only time it is proper for the government to act is when what a person does demonstrably threatens the life or rights of another. The only way I could conceive of the government acting to curb carbon emissions would be under some kind of tort scenario as, I think was discussed here. (I have not had a chance to review this or any of the lengthy give-and-take in any detail.)

On a more clear-cut example, the government was right to quarantine Typhoid Mary, who carried a potentially deadly disease, and yet refused to stop working in food service, where her chances of infecting others was greatest.

But should the government outlaw smoking, which is known merely to raise a risk of cancer among those who smoke and is only speculated to do so to an even lesser degree among those who don't? Clearly not.

Even assuming thatglobal warming is caused by humans, global warming is closer to "second hand smoke" than typhoid fever on this spectrum, and the remedies most suggest are the wrong ones.

Galileo Blogs said...


Apart from the example of air pollution, all of the examples you cite involve contractual relationships between private individuals. If one party violates a contract to provide clean water or a sanitary hospital bed, etc., then the other party has the normal remedies under the law to recover damages and/or require enforcement of the contract.

Regulation means punishing everyone, guilty and innocent, *before* any crime has been committed. By its nature, regulation violates the property and contract rights of innocent people, who are forced to alter their terms of business to adhere to the arbitrary regulation.

Not only does regulation violate rights, but it is completely unnecessary to "protect" people when enforcement of private contracts by the courts is all that is required.

For now I will leave aside discussion of the air pollution example. It brings up many other issues because it does not strictly involve a private contract between two parties.

Anonymous said...

"For the government to "help" some buy cars, it must rob others. This is wrong and not the proper role of government."

Just playing the devil's advocate here but, what would you say to someone who said this begs the question: though it may be wrong to use force, what if it was what saved us? What if the result was to do something that was right?

It occurs to me that the way to answer this is by referring to the broken window fallacy again. But I think this typifies many people's view of gov't.

But now we are beginning to se the terrible mismanagement wrought by the gov't will end up having us looking like Eddie Willers's hollow tree.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for weighing in again, GB.

As for z's comment, the mistake you are making, as devil's advocate, is the same one Ayn Rand discussed at length in her essay, "The Ethics of Emergencies". Her main point, as I once quoted, was, "The principle that one should help men in an emergency cannot be extended to regard all human suffering as an emergency and to turn the misfortune of some into a first mortgage on the lives of others."

If it's not an emergency, it's not an emergency, although the government will, I am sure, be happy to create one by massively trampling rights.

Anonymous said...


You have my sincerest sympathies that the environmentalists and their useful idiot bullies in government are depriving you of your right to choose what to drive.

GB's comments pretty much nail it on the head, as regards Mike's question.

I'd only add this elaboration:

The question's wording does make some false assumptions, such as "public drinking water." There would be no such thing. Only contracts between individuals and water companies which would stipulate that the water is potable. A violation of this contract would be entirely illegal, without any regulatory powers on the government's part. And thus there would be no need whatsoever to start down the slippery slope to the Leviathan that you reference.

The same, of course, applies to all of your other examples.

Hope that helps.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Inspector.