Jan 26, 2017

Innovative Maintenance, Maintaining Innovation

When it comes to creating innovative new products and allocating resources for maintainence, there’s no reason to think central planners will outperform markets.

Last year, Aeon Magazine ran an articulation of the importance of maintenance; it was later featured in the “editor’s pick” email for 2016. In short, argue science and technology professors Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, “Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more.” The authors explain that American infrastructure is failing due to a lack of attention towards maintenance, for instance. Meanwhile, the real heroes of the American economy, the maintainers, go undervalued (low-paid labor) or uncounted altogether (domestic labor).

Russell and Vinsel are basically correct to note that “contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.” Of course, when your employer asks you to “be innovative,” they are implicitly asking you to exercise judgment and to innovate well, not to innovate gratuitously. Still, modern innovation-worship is tedious at best, and could be downright pernicious. We would do well to discontinue it (indeed, the tide already seems to be turning against “innovation” per se).

At the same time, Russell and Vinsel are too quick to lay the blame on capitalism for this apparent skew towards innovation at the cost of maintenance. At the other end of the spectrum, planned economies certainly don’t have a great track record for fostering maintenance.

Is the failure of Amtrak infrastructure, for instance, properly attributable to capitalism? Upon examination, definitely not. For political reasons, Amtrak runs many of its lines at a huge loss—hardly the act of a profit-seeking entity. Even Amtrak’s expensive (to the rider) food concession hemorrhages money from the rail system. If there is any capitalist logic still imbued in our floundering Amtrak, I’d be hard-pressed to identify it.

Or, consider New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. Especially for a major, densely-inhabited hub, New York’s subway system hobbles along in an ominously tenuous state. According to the logic of the maintainers, one main cause should be New Yorkers’s love for “innovation” in transportation, at the expense of keeping up with the system we have.

Actually, that is the opposite of what has happened in New York. Several available rail technologies would clearly alleviate the subway system’s deficiencies. For instance, newer signals that allow trains to safely run more closely together. But these technologies (i.e. innovations) have not been adopted for a variety of reasons: regulatory hurdles, political red tape, high cost up-front cost. The New York subway’s problems are pretty much all related to the MTA’s attempt to maintain an existing system without taking it out of service.

Meanwhile, the MTA’s lowest ranks of maintainers earn salaries above the average for a New York resident employed in the private sector (and that’s before their publicly-funded pensions are even factored into the comparison). These maintainers enjoy better-than-competitive remuneration largely due to unionization, at the expense of taxpayers and subway riders. But many subway riders are themselves maintainers. The exorbitant cost of developing new subway lines in New York plus the costs of increasingly poorly-running old ones) fall on them heavily.

It is political forces (i.e. non-market forces) that have wrought havoc on America’s infrastructure (which, by most accounts, currently exists in a state of serious disrepair). In the past, politicians ought to have looked more to the long run, but (as predicted by public choice economics), they didn’t. There is no little to no evidence that voters are quite distracted by innovation, or that their preferences for innovation have caused or worsened maintenance-related problems. Instead, voters continue to give money to public transportation, because they value it. Politics isn’t the solution to our maintenance situation, it’s closer to the problem.

What does it even mean to say that “for most lives, is is maintenance that matters more?” Today’s taken-for-granteds are yesterday’s innovations. A more maintenance-oriented society may now leak fewer resources on what appear to be fruitless innovation for innovation’s sake-type activities. But it makes itself more fragile in the process. Even if you want to keep doing things the old way, the world that changes around you.

Thus, innovation and maintenance are not strong opposites. Rather, they stand in relation to each other more like yin and yang.

Innovators and maintainers can both deserve “dignity” and material reward, but those should not be doled out in accordance to the whims of the political machine. Price signals guide actors to innovate or maintain; one path is high risk/high reward, the other less so. When Sweden decided to subsidize the repairs of small consumer goods in an effort to fight throwaway culture, they attempted to offer maintainers a bit of security. In effect, though, maintainer-friendly legislation just suspends the now-misallocated maintainers as anachronistic, helpless beneficiaries of some pseudo-patronage system.

Minor interventions aside, it is not really possible to command innovation or to command maintenance from the top down in the first place. No one can really know how to balance innovation and maintenance on a large scale (like for a society), and no one should have the power to attempt to do it anyways. Small, individual miscalculations and failures (to maintain or to innovate, as appropriate) are much less painful to society than massive ones.

Innovation is necessarily a process of sorting wheat from chaff, and looking just at the chaff with the power of hindsight inaccurately makes innovation seem like a waste. Happily, the overvaluing of sham innovators mostly corrects itself (unless the government is in the business of choosing winners and losers, thereby cementing their positions). If it’s ain’t broke, then don’t fix it—but politics is more broken than innovation.