A lament about bad design

American workers and engineering aren’t the problem. I blame our crummy washing machines on our corporate culture.

My oft-abused, much-loved Toyota Prius.
Regular followers of my travels know that I usually do them in a 2005 Toyota Prius. It has 250,000 miles on it, many of which were on back roads it was never designed to handle. In fact, its only major repair has been replacing the rear springs.
At the time I bought it, it was untried technology—in the US. But it had been sold in Japan since 1997. As of last year, Toyota has sold 4 million units of this car. It’s been a great success as a business venture.
My Prius replaced a Ford Windstar. At 148,000 miles, it suffered a catastrophic engine fail on a wintry road south of Binghamton, NY. That doesn’t tell the whole story. For the prior two years, it had been increasingly frail, needing large influxes of cash to keep moving.
It can move a whole show of paintings, or a party of snacks.
Last week, President Trump slapped steep tariffs on imports of washing machines and solar panels. This was in response to American manufacturers’ complaints about foreign competition. In washing machines, the tariffs will affect Samsung and LG. Not coincidentally, these are brands with excellent consumer ratings and satisfaction.
“Over the past three to five years, LG and Samsung have been driving washer innovations, more than other brands,” saidCR market analyst Mark Allwood.
In 2015, we purchased a house that came with two-year-old Whirlpool Cabrio washer and dryer. The washer lasted another two years. We replaced it with a laundry system made by Korean firm LG. That’s rather spectacular obsolescence, seeing as our previous washer dated from the 1980s.
I’d like to say that’s an anomaly, but it seems sadly common. I hear frequent complaints about the built-in obsolescence of American appliances. “If you have an old refrigerator, dishwasher, stove, or washer, go to any lengths you can to keep it,” seems to be the common belief.
The conversation reminds me of the 1970s, when foreign imports were first taking a big piece of the American car market. Does anyone remember those Ford jokes, or how reliable those second-generation Toyota Corollas were in comparison? American automakers earned the loss of their major car market by building bad products based on false assumptions.
My other car, of course, is a bicycle. Here it is ready to paint in Camden.
I’ll assume the President’s impulse in setting these tariffs is to protect American jobs. Still, he’s hurting American consumers. Most of us are perfectly willing to buy American, but not when American corporations foist inferior products on us.
I’m not blaming American workers for this failure, or even American engineering. These products are designed and manufactured to financial realities that originate in our corporate culture. Is that so relentless about slashing costs that it doesn’t have time to build good consumer products?
What does this have to do with my life as a traveling artist? Well, I’m in New York again today, and once again I’m in an American-made car, my husband’s old Mercury minivan. It needs a major repair to get us home, and this is the third time this has happened in six months. I’m going back to Maine and trading it in for a Honda, quick, before the government slaps a tariff on those, too.