As I casually watched through some YouTube channels I find mildly entertaining, I came across a recent episode of the YouTube vlog “Good Mythical Morning”. This episode featured “5 Bizarre Live Webcams”, and gave us a wonderful example of lay economic illiteracy in action (watch from 1:18, to 1:46):
The first webcam they discuss shows the live footage of a light bulb at the Livermore, California fire station that has been burning for over a hundred years. This prompted Link to invoke the common conspiracy theory of “Planned Obsolescence” at 1:40. Planned Obsolescence is the fear that greedy capitalists make things wear out on purpose just to sucker us into buying replacements. Apparently this light bulb is proof, because, according to Rhett, we had the technology for centennial light bulbs 100 years ago, but evidently don’t today. Why not? Why, those greedy capitalists must have suppressed it!
To set Link (and Rhett) straight: It is indeed possible, even today, to make a light bulb out of materials that will last 100+ years without burning out. These materials are expensive. Any light bulb made with them would cost a small fortune. It’s much cheaper to make light bulbs out of less durable materials that wear out faster. When light bulb producers decide what to make their bulbs out of, they have to choose the recipe that will most satisfy consumer preferences. Clearly, over the last 100 years, consumer preference has been for light bulbs with a lower unit price, even if each unit doesn’t last as long.
This is not some grand conspiracy by capitalists to snatch our money away, but an innovation of the market to help us afford light bulbs. You know what else is a great innovation of the market? CFL and LED Bulbs that now offer the best of both worlds. Maybe they don’t last 100 years, but they sure last a lot longer than the old tungsten incandescent bulbs. Thank you, capitalists!
So remember this whenever someone says, “They don’t make them like they used to.” Whether they’re talking about light bulbs, or cars, or computers, they’re right! They don’t make them like they used to. And that’s a good thing.