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Better than ever, but worse than before

When I was a boy, one of my favorite fruits was the tangerine. In those days, there was only one tangerine. I think it was called the Dancy. The fruit was loose inside the skin, which made it easy to peel, and the sections came apart easily so it wasn’t messy like an orange. And it tasted better, less bitter, than an orange.

Today there are many kinds of tangerines, hybrids engineered by humans. The fruit is bonded to the skins, the sections stick together, and the flavor is kind of like an orange. I haven’t seen Dancys in years.

In 1979, Charles Osgood of CBS described this pattern in an essay from which I took the title above:

“A hundred and twenty-five years ago, when Otis invented the elevator, an improvement was really an improvement,” Osgood wrote. “The elevator was a good idea, although the doctors now tell us that walking up and down the stairs used to be good for people. But at some point they improved the elevator by replacing the elevator operation with buttons so that you can run the elevator yourself. A lot of improvements are that way. … A major airline is now promoting a terrific improvement in baggage handling, which is that you carry your bags on and off the plane yourself. Just when you think that they’ve about run out of improvements, along comes another one. As you know, Amtrak, which was created to improve railroad passenger service, has improved passenger railroad service so much that there hardly is any passenger railroad service anymore. Every time Amtrak comes along with what it calls an improvement, it means cutting out more service and reducing the number of passenger trains and cities served. … Food is greatly improved now, as you well know. Tomatoes, for example, have been improved so much that they now have no taste at all, and a texture like cardboard. Clothes have been so improved … that a whole new family of products has emerged to deal with static cling.” (I should mention that Otis didn’t really invent the elevator.)

Here’s a recent example: Reno has metered traffic signals that slow traffic down to a crawl at the end of freeway on-ramps so that cars cannot safely merge into 60 mph freeway traffic.

Sometimes these things happen in the name of bigger-is-better. In the mid-1980s I began sending out annual holiday cards featuring photos of three adored cherubs in my life. After about 20 years, the companies that produced them increased them in size. But they didn’t sell as well as the older, smaller cards. So private enterprise, which is of course about meeting public demand, pulled the smaller ones off the market to drive customers to the newer, bigger cards. At the counter at the store where I ordered them, it was three deep that year among customers who, for decades, had also been adding the new annual cards to albums, and the new cards didn’t fit the albums, and the customers were outraged that they could no longer order the smaller ones. It was a great improvement. In that case, the Internet came to the rescue. It was possible to go online and find companies that still sold the smaller cards.

Or there’s the notion of making a change not for the benefit of the public but for the benefit of the public or private providers of goods or services. For as long as I can remember — about half a century — Reno had a great parking system. There was a parking meter at each parking space and drivers could walk six or seven feet to get to it. Emptying the meters created jobs. Then a couple of years ago, Reno got a new system under which drivers had to walk down the block to find a central depository for their quarters. At last count, the city has lost about $800,000 on the new system and is going back to parking meters.

Then there is follow-the-trend. A post office box used to be, by definition, a fairly anonymous transaction. In the post-Sept. 11 world, the feds ask for unnecessary information before renting them, apparently out of fear that boxholders may fly their post office boxes into skyscrapers or to Cuba.

For years, Sunnyside Dairies made milk cartons a choice. Plastic cartons were available, but so were cardboard cartons so the environmentally concerned could avoid the plastic improvement. Now Sunnyside has added a different spout to the cardboard cartons. It’s made of plastic.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.