Commentary

The Broken Printer Fallacy

If you hate planned obsolescence – you should discard Keynesianism and the broken window fallacy with it.

You probably know the feeling: Just when you need to print a single-page document quickly, your printer stops working.

Mine started to print faded pages so I ran out to the store and invested 80 dollars into a brand new set of ink cartridges. It is a small home printer, not terribly smart, so its vocabulary is very limited. It can only say two or three things, yet it still cheerfully thanked me for buying original ink cartridges. Well done, me, good boy! My inner slave was glowing in the printer’s praise and hungrily soaked in the glory, then I proceeded to print that page already.

And then the quick print job turned into hours of wasted life – as it usually does.

Because the brand new black ink did’t work. It wasn’t faded, it wasn’t smudged – it was simply not printing at all. So I started the eternal printing ritual of crawling behind furniture, unplugging and hard resets, checking for mistakes I must have made, then looking for a suitable pin to manipulate the cartridge as I was instructed by HP’s monumentally user-unfriendly and patronizing, 30000-word “troubleshooting” manual, which I have also read because good boy.

I have performed every ritual suggested by HP. I performed maintenance, I checked myself for misconduct in every possible way (yes, the electricity is on, yes, I am on the same planet as the printer), but nothing. Then I downloaded the firmware update (alongside six unsolicited software gems, such as a Bing bar (!!!) that loaded even though I have opted out as hard as I could), then I performed “troubleshooting” again, then I checked myself for mistakes again – but still nothing.

So I contacted HP’s customer helpdesk somewhere in Asia. My customer service representative, Mark, was super friendly, he heard it already, but politely waited until I finished, then gave out a big sigh and proceeded to go through the same ritual that I have already performed. (But he did so very professionally so I could hardly hate him.) Then we sang the HP corporate anthem together because there was nothing else he could do. Mark gave up on my printer just as I did, and started droning about replacement options.

At that point I have also googled the problem and realized what an idiot I was – and how cynical HP actually is. I thanked poor Mark for his time and realized that he also must have known this from the very beginning.

What I encountered was not my own mistake, but HP’s planned obsolescence in action. Pages upon pages, YouTube videos upon YouTube videos explained how this keeps happening to people, always the black ink, always the same way – some of those videos even suggested to stick a wet paper towel into the machine (which made me certain those DIY fix videos were sponsored by the manufacturer to make absolutely sure no printer is ever qualified for help).

Sometime during the last few weeks my printer’s warranty has expired, so it stopped working. Either HP reached out to it online and gave it a firmware update, or it was hard encoded in the product, it doesn’t change a thing: the printer stopped printing black. In other words, HP sold me something – then they broke it. HP broke a product that was already in my possession.

If I poison a cow and then sell it to you before it dies – I have stolen from you.

When HP sells me a printer and then reaches out to the device to make it stop working – HP steals from me. And no amount of small print (that I was forced to agree to after I bought the product) changes that. I didn’t buy a printer for only two years. It wasn’t what it said on the label.

If you find planned product obsolescence outrageous – you should discard your Keynes as well because he is suggesting the same thing. Planned product obsolescence perfectly fits the definition of what is commonly known as the broken window fallacy: it is loss for you – but a gain for the GDP. Which begs the questions what exactly the GDP is and why do we have to suffer in its interest?

According to the counter-intuitive revelation of Keynes, if someone breaks a window, he actually contributes to the wealth of the nation (the size of the economy anyway) because someone has to come and replace it and that adds to the GDP. Breaking the window doesn’t contribute to the wealth of the window’s owner though – and that is a crucial distinction to be made.

Keynes’ fantastically counter-intuitive argument may have intellectually disarmed the whole world – it certainly appealed to intellectually corrupt politicians – but it was still false. In order to understand why, you must first state the obvious fact (sorry about this):

You are not the GDP.

That also means that what is good for the GDP can be bad for you. When the size of the GDP is the priority – your wellbeing isn’t the priority.

Back to our example of the the broken window: that window belonged to someone. That someone will now be poorer for paying for the replacement. And the glass shard will be swept up and discarded on a landfill – for the next hundred thousand years.

And so will my printer. If you think that the broken printer fallacy still moves the economy ahead, buy a new printer and see if you’re better off. And then see where the old one went.

The same thing also happens when a doctor, or a hospital, or a pharmaceutical company decides that curing a disease once and for all is not as good as treating it – and keep treating it – because that brings in more business. Outrageous? Yes. Because in this case you can clearly see that your skin is in the game, your health is damaged, not just your wallet. You are you and if your continuous treatment benefits the GDP more than curing you would – you would still ask for the cure, thank you very much.

So why don’t people discard their GDP-optimized Keynesian collectivism with the same rage they would discard a never-ending treatment? Why can they perform the same kind of mental individualism in economic matters that they show in healthcare issues? But it gets worse.

By the same Keynesian logic, wars are even more fantastic. They destroy windows, printers, health, and property wholesale – and no one has to be compensated for it. So the people will swallow the loss and grudgingly rebuild their lives…

…while the GDP no doubt smiles healthily. 

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Before anyone explains the usual (wrong) excuses for planned obsolescence: I know it makes the printers cheaper on the face on it. But there was no option to buy a more expensive one that does not stop working in 2 years’ time. (Of course not, that would have required admission that these printers stop working – i.e. get stolen from you – in two years.) I didn’t have the option to spend more but have a printer that works longer – and one that gets repaired when it fails. I would have chosen the more expensive printer even if it wasn’t the environmentally friendly option – so I don’t buy a big chunk of plastic for the landfill.

But I never got that option, so I’m going with theft. Obsolescence is just a fancy word for scheduled theft. Also, for Keynesianism.

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