Recently in this space I indulged my proclivity to wax facetious. I attempted to lampoon the tendency for manufactured goods to decline in quality over time. One engineer protested, pointing out that modern cars are more reliable and last longer than those of earlier decades. He was absolutely right. My 1986 Buick is, in many ways, a much better car than my dad's 1941 Plymouth, or even my 1939 Packard. A great many manufactured products have improved over time, and I assume engineers deserve most of the credit for advances in design and manufacture.

At the same time, however, other forces are at work in the other direction. If it were up to just the engineers, perhaps all products would improve steadily over the decades. But once the engineers come up with the best design, along come the suits from marketing, advertising, accounting, or wherever, with their important reasons why the best design is not best.

And that's how you get built-in shower or bathtub soap dishes that collect water and turn a bar of soap to slime. That's how you get mattresses without handles, an arrangement that turns moving into a hellish nightmare. That's how you get taps, dies, and drill bits with the numbers painted on so they will soon wear off. That's how you get Suburbans without drip rails, so a waterfall of rainwater comes cascading down on you when you open the door. That's how you get simple hardware like hinges, which you could once buy inexpensively in bulk, now individually and expensively entombed in plastic sarcophagi with crappy soft-metal screws that you throw away and replace with screws that will work.

So who's to blame? Not the engineers. Really, not even the suits. I refer you to Ed Murrow, quoting Marc Antony: "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves." It is us customers, in our thousands and millions, who vote with our dollars for the manufacture of crap. Recently I was shopping for drill bits. I tried two hardware stores and three auto parts stores before I finally went to the local farm supply and found bits with the numbers stamped into the metal, as most of them used to be, instead of painted on, as most of them are now. How many people are willing to refuse shoddy stuff and go to half a dozen stores in search of something acceptable? I should have written to all the manufacturers whose bits I didn't buy, and told them why. Frankly, I don't always have the time or the energy, nor do most people. But if we reward the makers of shoddy goods by buying their stuff, it should be no surprise that shoddy goods proliferate.