Sunday, December 23, 2007

Just Good Enough

After traveling to Europe earlier this year, I figured out what it was about my country that kind of bugged me. Everything was just good enough. The roads are a mess, but they're just good enough. Roads fall down during earthquakes, melt in fires, have potholes, and are often too many decades old, but they're just good enough. The food is just good enough. It's cheap and affordable and generally doesn't kill you when you eat it. The obesity problem in this country is not from eating tasty, high quality hand-made food, it's from eating too much crappy, manufactured food, usually comprised of cheap, subsidized corn products. The schools are the same way; not great, often not very good, but adequate and just good enough. Our national program for schools, for good or bad, is a plan to make sure they're all just good enough, not good or great. This brings me to shopping.

What Americans have been trained to do over the past decade is to shop for price, based on what's good enough. It has resulted in a boom of material prosperity for Americans, with even the most impoverished sporting large screen televisions and fancy cars (often leased, terms which are just good enough). Quality is something you demand but don't want to pay for. Quality is part of the just good enough equation, as all goods are expected to have a minimum level of quality as part of their value. However, somewhere down the line, the demands for cheap, just good enough products hit a wall. It's what happens when companies squeeze their suppliers too hard. One too many corners gets cut. Lead paint, for example, is two-thirds cheaper than regular paint, so when Wal-Mart or RC2 demands cheaper manufacturing, it's not a difficult decision, especially when your government looks the other way.

So when we begin to hand out poisonous toys to our children, we've crossed a very, very thin line between just good enough and dangerously bad. It's very thin. We've already seen movements in food and other products for higher quality. We have organic products in food, although that standard is being slowly eroded. People often shop for cars nowadays not only on quality, but based on crash test results, I know that's a major part of my decision making, along with passive safety, like airbags and traction control. However, I think these personal standards are for the wealthier among us, and definitely the more educated (i.e., better able to inform themselves).

My big question, will we get to a point where Americans will accept less quantity for higher quality? It's the way it works in Europe. I would personally give up half my possessions if everything I had was high quality, there were social safety nets, and I had the choice to increase my prosperity through my own effort. That last one is where the socialist world falls flat. At what point will the quality of goods overshadow the sheer desire to possess them?

There is interesting reading that says that might be a trend of the future. The book Futureshop suggests that we can increase our prosperity by essentially becoming a leasing culture instead of a buying culture. For example, if you buy high quality goods, and then tire of them, you can sell them on the secondary markets, such as eBay and get good value back which you can then use on your next purchase of whatever catches you fancy. It's the same principle that keeps luxury car lease rates low and the trend of "pre-owned" vehicles so popular.

I would be more than happy to sell beautiful, imported from Europe, hand crafted toys that sell for three to four times as much as my Chinese made stock, but only the richest of consumers are willing to pay for them. Most consumers right now are still reeling from recalls, shopping around and looking for "Made in..." labels on their products. Some insist that certain manufacturers, known for quality, couldn't possibly have product made in China, as if overnight, Made in China was a sign of shoddy goods. Others wander the aisles in vain, looking for toys made elsewhere, complaining to me, as if this is a problem I created, rather than a monster summoned by their own consumerism. Meanwhile, the quality toy stores went out of business years ago, killed by the mass market and their just good enough, Made in China, toys.

For now, the middle ground is common sense. Well informed customers know that recalled items are generally off the shelf (some larger stores have left them up there with signs). My hope is that there's enough of a backlash to bring about quality once again, a demand for something better, rather than just good enough.


  1. "I would personally give up half my possessions if everything I had was high quality, there were social safety nets, and I had the choice to increase my prosperity through my own effort."

    Hear hear!

    best - chris

  2. I would personally give up half of my possessions if I could safely store the remaining half in a way that allowed me to access and use them - instead of in boxes in the garage.

    Oh, crap - that's what I've been working on since the last move (two years ago).