How a busted washing machine revealed to me the problem with the consumer economy

Our washing machine now makes a noise like an angle grinder. It started doing it two weeks ago and the spin cycle requires us to vacate the house or risk our eardrums.

This cannot last, so after ruling out repairs (it’s quite ancient) we are thrust into the market for a replacement.

I have some experience in the washing machine market. I bought a second-hand unit for under $200 a few years ago. It caused regular flooding and I came to know its innards closely as I pulled it apart and refitted the drainage mechanisms every other weeks.

I want a brand new machine, with warranty. How to choose?

My partner had a simple decision rule. Buy The Best. She fixated on a German brand, Miele. I was all for it until I heard about the $1500+ price tag.

I had a more complex decision rule. Satisfice by balancing off energy and water efficiency, online reviews, price, etc. 

We had some stern discussions about whether “value” might mean replacing a washing machine again in seven years time.

In some ways my decision rule was worse than hers. It doesn’t simplify the question very easily. It doesn’t rule out enough to get me toward an answer.

In the end, we settled this the old fashioned way: We had someone who subscribes to CHOICE email us the guide to Washing Machines, picked the top recommendation, then Googled until we found a retailer offering a good price.

CHOICE is a body that compares products for consumers. The fact it exists points to a real problem in our economy. As the range of things on offer explodes, we increasingly cannot tell them apart. 

Don’t blame the companies that sell and market these things…

The problem with our economy is us. We buy products when we don’t understand the benefits. We are easily convinced that the benefits the product spruiks are actually the benefits we seek. We substitute decision rules (aka heuristics) for actual analysis.

Do I want to Lie Flat on the way to Perth? Do I want to Control my Income using Annuities (to take just two examples from ads in a magazine I have here)? How can I know if some other aspect of my trip to Perth or my income is more important?

Smart people recognise that they can’t be sure of what they want, so they outsource the making of decision rules. That’s where CHOICE comes in.

But really, it’s just more mauvaise foi. We tell ourselves that the criteria Choice uses are the important ones. That the way they balance those criteria are the right ways to balance them. 

We can never know in advance if a product will be right for us. Whether it’s a chicken sandwich or a four-storey house in Mayfair, we buy with our eyes closed. 

This would be fine, if we recognised the issue. But consumers are sure they know. When we make a heuristic that says – I buy this brand of muesli because I got it last time, we don’t admit “the benefit of finding a better muesli is worth less to me than the cost of searching.” We say: “This is my favourite.”

The new ABC TV show the Checkout (which is very fun for something so serious and packed with info) illustrated this beautifully with a recent segment on Superfoods.

We refuse to admit or acknowledge the doubt around goji or chia seeds or whatever, because the certainty of buying and eating them is so much more appealing. The problem with the economy is us. And there’s no real chance we are going to change any time soon.

As for the Washing Machine, in the end we chose the Bosch WAP24160AU. Fabian from the Good Guys in Preston is going to fix me up with a great price.

“Good decision. It’s the best machine there is,” he said.