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by Ken Ingham

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The Maintenance Economy

Periodically we hear a lot of talk about how to jump start the economy. Here's a few ideas. First, let's declare an indefinite moratorium on the manufacture and importation of new cars to be effective at some point in the not-to-distant future, for example eighteen months from today. It sounds a bit crazy but THINK about it! The global automotive industry could look forward to a banner year as their planners began to contemplate how best to reinvest the enormous amount of capital that would accumulate. The most clever would recommend re-tooling to meet the inevitable demand for busses and trains, while retaining an ability to satisfy the expanded need for spare parts. The best of the mechanically inclined would be called into distinguished service as teachers and trainers of a new generation of skilled artisans whose services are already in great demand. The new emphasis on maintenance and restoration would turn junk yards into valuable national resources. Automobiles would be treasured for the incredible luxuries that they are, and driven less frequently to preserve their miles. Public transportation would be the new boom industry. Urban sprawl would subside as inner cities thrived on cleaner air and the increased demand for renovated housing close to employment. Physical fitness would take on new dimensions as hiking and biking became popular forms of functional exercise. The concept of a moratorium on new cars may sound extreme but if nothing else, it can provide food for thought for those economists who are searching for an alternative to the worn out paradigm of growth at any cost. It can't last forever.

Greater emphasis on maintenance and restoration can facilitate the peaceful adjustment of our cherished free market economy to the dilemma created by the ever-expanding demand for diminishing resources. We must find a way to conserve resources and the first step in all conservation efforts is to reduce the amount of waste. The very way we measure the health of our economy provides an incentive to waste. For example, one leading sign of a robust economy is if the number of new housing starts this month is greater than last month. Even as the forests disappear before our eyes, we continue to define our economic health in terms of the rate at which we are wasting them. The number of old buildings that were renovated or restored last month is payed no attention. We must define new indices to monitor the health of our economy, indices that reflect our success in utilizing resources wisely. A maintenance economy strives to eliminate waste. Its success will be defined in terms of how good a life can be supported with minimum waste.

The building industry is another one where the concept of a moratorium can stimulate new thinking. Suppose we temporarily disallowed the construction of new buildings. What would happen? The most immediate effect would be to stimulate the business of renovation. The most abundant opportunities for such ventures are found in the large cities which are in desperate need of revitalization. Decaying row-houses would be transformed into condominiums, warehouses into office and shopping centers. The same people who previously built only new houses might try their hand at repairing roofs and gutters and interior remodeling. The largest building contractors would suffer because restoration doesn't lend itself to mass production. Smaller business would thrive on the abundance of smaller jobs. There would be a resurgence of neighborhood hardware stores. By the time the moratorium was lifted, those individuals involved with the construction of new buildings would develop fresh attitudes toward their work. Knowing that the fruits of their labor will be enjoyed and appreciated by future generations will make their jobs more satisfying and they will take more pride in their work. Their children and grandchildren will look forward to living in a seasoned home, one that is worn smooth in stead of worn out. Eventually if our population comes under control, we may complete the task of providing housing and then maintenance will become the dominant activity. This will result in more free time for everyone.

An economy based on maintenance would employ more people; its hard to automate the repair process. Big corporations are not usually well suited to maintenance since this activity must be decentralized. Manufacturers are out of touch with their products. Building contractors and architects disappear from the scene before maintenance becomes an issue. Because of the separation of the manufacturing process from the maintenance process, and because most of the economic power resides with the producers, most products are designed for ease of assembly rather than ease of repair. This makes them cheaper and increases the likelihood that when they break down, people will buy new ones rather than struggling to fix the old ones. Many products are assembled by machines and the components are designed to accommodate the machine rather than the humans who will use the product and attempt to maintain it in good working condition. The individual who might otherwise be inclined to repair something is often frustrated by lack of access to the unique tools used in its manufacture, not to mention a lack of education or experience in the whole concept of repair and maintenance.

Education is at the heart of any economic system. To have an economy based on maintenance, we must see to it that more children acquire manual dexterity and technical insight as part of their education. Every child should be taught how to fix something. Such skill should be a prerequisite for graduation. Starting in kindergarten there should be a significant fraction of time devoted to teaching maintenance concepts. Most children have a natural curiosity about how things work. Different ones may lean in different directions but its a rare child who can't have fun taking something apart and putting it back together. Familiarity with basic hand tools and the purposes for which they are designed can be instilled in early elementary school. Not all children will respond at the same rate and they will soon differentiate with respect to aptitude and inclination. By the time they graduate from highschool they will be quite diverse but each will have some knowledge of maintenance, some specializing in refrigerators, others in bicycles, yet others in sewing, electronics or computers. But all will have experienced the satisfaction that comes from fixing something and will have a certain amount of self-confidence in their ability to tackle practical problems. They will make better citizens and more knowledgeable consumers, demanding more quality in the products that they buy.

In conclusion, an economy based on maintenance, restoration and conservation has the potential to employ more people, each working fewer hours under less stress in meaningful jobs that will provide more personal satisfaction and a steadily improving life style. There will be less waste and less consumption of nonrenewable resources. It will be more sustainable.

Note: The opening paragraph of this essay was read on
National Public Radio's Marketplace, in response
to their request for listener ideas about
how to jumpstart the economy in 1992.