Frugality’s Point of Diminishing Returns

Frugal people like me sometimes take bargain hunting too far. We need to be smarter about frugality’s point of diminishing returns.

Writing in the New York Times, Henry Petroski states the obvious—U.S. airports, harbors and highway systems are often poorly designed, built, maintained, and funded.

He adds:

. . . infrastructure can also refer to things on a much smaller scale, like private homes . . . . Thinking about the construction, aging and care of this domestic infrastructure can provide insight into how we as a nation might better respond to our mounting public works problems.

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.

When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.

I can see the same decline in quality when I try to do work on our house. When it was built, two-by-fours were actually only an eighth of an inch short of those nominal dimensions. Today, a two-by-four is a full half-inch shy. This sort of thing frustrates carpenters and do-it-yourselfers alike, making old construction more difficult to fix and encouraging tearing down and starting over with inferior newer materials and less skilled labor. What a waste of time, effort and money — and, more important, superior infrastructure.

Why the marked decline in the quality of home building? Petroski argues it’s because “expert craftsmen—carpenters, roofers, painters—who work with precision and pride, are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills.”

And then adds:

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

One commenter vehemently disagreed:

“‘This is not the fault of homeowners’. Wrong wrong wrong! I work for homeowners remodeling their homes in San Francisco and environs, and their relentless pursuit of the lowest cost is costing them dearly in the long run. Many do not want to hear that I am licensed, insured & bonded; that I have only full-time long-term employees on whom I pay all required taxes and insurances, and who are respected with medical & retirement benefits; that I pay to have my hazardous waste disposed of legally (rather than pouring it down the toilet); that their toddlers will be in college before they will need my services again; in fact that their toddlers will not be intellectually impaired by improper disturbance of lead-based paint. No, many prefer the fantasy that Yelp is wise, that the China price is obtainable, that my price is merely my opening bid. We here have just built a multi-billion dollar bridge that took a quarter-century, went to the lowest bidder who subbed out major components to China, which is already showing alarming signs of premature senility, and which may not even meet it most elementary function of surviving the next Big One. Some bargain! No, we homeowners, we taxpayers, you & I, us cheapskates, we are at fault.”

In this blame game debate I side with San Francisco. My relentless pursuit of the lowest costs helps create the razor thin profit margins that give rise to all kinds of corner cutting. Us cheapskates are at fault.

This is true with respect to home building and our national infrastructure. Petroski returns to our faltering infrastructure:

We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

. . . we do not have to be homeowners or highway engineers to know that good materials are better than poor and a job done well from the outset will outlast one done shabbily.

As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.

Again, Petroski places the blame on “suppliers and contractors” and is silent about my tendency to do everything possible to reduce my tax liability.

Meanwhile, some fellow citizens shout that they are “Taxed enough already!” and mindlessly argue that “the government is so wasteful and incompetent, it must be starved.” Any notion of public goods is lost on them. As is the quality of life of our children’s children.

My politics are different than theirs, but I’m susceptible to the same mindless, short-sighted frugality. Until I adopt a more nuanced, enlightened form of frugality, I’m partly to blame for our deteriorating homes, airports, highways, and harbors.

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