A Very, Very Abbreviated Glance at the Economics of Agency

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the value of pushing back against our growing inability to handle the maintenance and production of our own stuff. The increasingly complex nature of the technology we rely upon is an obvious factor – we can’t all debug lines of code, right? But there have been numerous surveys done recently that show a dwindling ability to tackle very basic tasks, such as cooking a meal or even changing a light bulb. The question of why these trends exist is a matter of debate (and future blog posts), but today I want to look at, with exceptional brevity, the economics of doing stuff for yourself. In short, what’s it worth?

 Mechanics-in-training. No clue why they are wearing matching orange hoodies. Safety?

The two angles I mentioned are maintenance and production, so I’ll start with maintenance. I’ve been quoted $500 for a brake job on my vehicle that I was able to do myself in less than an hour’s time with a socket set and $40 in parts. Replacing a timing belt and water pump might be close to $2k (or more) for the shop to do; the cost for a shadetree mechanic is about $150 in parts, a few skinned knuckles, and one day’s labor under the hood. These examples are, of course, low-hanging fruit – easy examples of big-return tasks when there are no mechanical issues to diagnose. They require little more than a basic toolkit and the ability to follow written instructions. That little ticking noise you’ve been hearing that’s getting louder requires a different degree of insight, and a better understanding of the inner workings of an engine. For most people, that is the purview of the professional, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But just about anyone can learn the basics and save a ton of money, and in so doing can gain greater knowledge about what’s going on within the mystical realm of the engine block. A little investment in some basic tools pays off immediately.

Back in Issue Six, author Jögge Sundqvist talked about the freedom we can have in maintaining active, creative engagement with our belongings. As consumers who are “passive and dependent on manufactured items, you feel uneasy about your ability to sustain your standard of living,” he says. Not knowing how things are made, we don’t know how to fix them. But as woodworkers, we can conceptualize why a damaged piece of furniture broke as it did, and how a repair can be made that will allow the piece to go back into regular use. Knowledge of wood and a few basic tools are necessary – these require some investment, to be sure, but this pays off immediately. As Sundqvist puts it, “The craftsman who makes a table knows that if a wedge is a little loose, he can take it out and, with his knife, fix it.” The average DIY wannabe might utilize Gorilla Glue and some sheetrock screws to “fix” a broken table, necessitating an even more difficult repair when that one inevitably fails. Then, the options boil down to bringing the thing to a furniture repair shop (with some shop rates of over $100/hour) or dragging it to the curb and buying a new one. Neither is an economical choice.

Next time, we’ll take a look at production: Can it actually be cheaper to make your own furniture than to buy it? This question is more nuanced than it appears at first glance.



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