Fixing a Broken Window

The often overlooked benefits of our commercialized world


Some knucklehead threw a brick through my car window the other night while the vehicle was parked on the street outside my brother-in-law's house in Washington, D.C.

As crimes go, it wasn't much. My family and I were inside the house asleep, so no one was injured. The only valuable thing that appears to have been stolen out of the car was the visitor parking permit, a laminated piece of city-issued paper that, when I borrowed it from my brother-in-law and placed it on the dashboard, allowed me to leave the car on the street for more than two hours at a time without risking a parking ticket. One of the police officers who came to investigate said there must be a market for these placards, because ours wasn't the first to be stolen.

But this isn't a column about how criminals are knuckleheads or about how the D.C. government is foolish to require out-of-town visitors to leave valuable bait for criminals on display overnight behind glass windshields.

No, the more interesting part of this story is what happened after the cops left: a miracle of modern technology and free market competition that combined to get my car fixed, curbside, in less than three hours from when the police left the scene — and on a holiday weekend, no less.

The prospects for a quick fix appeared, at first, to be grim.

My car insurance company put me on hold while it checked three different auto glass repair shops, none of which had the replacement window available. The insurance company gave me the names and numbers of two other companies to call, but those companies either didn't have the part or did not answer the phone.

One large company, recommended by one of the smaller companies that didn't have the part, said I could drive the car, whose seats and floor were covered with broken glass, to its outpost in Virginia. There this company could wrap the window in plastic and duct tape, so I could go ahead with my plans to drive home to Massachusetts the next day. Then they could then get the replacement window to their Massachusetts outlet and offer me an appointment to fix it there a few days later.

Here's where the technology comes it. I had Googled the name of the large auto glass company, Safelite Auto Glass, to find its phone number. On the page of search results was an ad for a local Safelite competitor, Beltway Auto Glass.

The leftist critique of advertising is that it convinces people to buy things that they do not need. But here was a case where I really did need my car window fixed. It wasn't an ad that used sexist stereotypes or played on status anxiety. It just gave the name of the competing company and a clickable link. Its presence at the top of the search page signaled that the company had enough money to win the mini-auction that Google uses to allocate those ad spaces — and it also served as a clue that it might have enough inventory to have the window I needed available on a weekend morning.

So I called, and Beltway Auto Glass did indeed have the window in stock. Exactly two hours after I called, a technician was at the curb where my car had been parked, vacuuming out the broken glass. Forty minutes later, the window was totally fixed and the car was cleaner than it had been when I had parked it, pre-crime, the night before. The same technician then swiped my credit card through the mobile payment device attachment on his iPad, which also sent a receipt to the email address I had entered into the iPad.

Maybe 20 years ago these same functions could have been carried out by a printed Yellow Pages phone book, with the size of the Yellow Pages ad sending the same signal that the ad at the top of the Google search results does now. Instead of an email receipt I would have had one generated by an impression on carbon paper.

The new technology is incrementally better. The mobile card readers, unlike the old-fashioned manual carbon machines, can tell if your credit card is real and authorized for the amount of the expenditure. The Google search results page is updated more frequently than the Yellow Pages and is more portable.

The technology that really underlies the fix to my car window, though, isn't Google's search ads or Apple's iPad, nifty as they are, but capitalism. It solves problems by connecting customers with needs to other people who can meet the needs in voluntary, mutually beneficially transactions. There's a marketing piece of it, there's a supply-chain management piece of it, and there are profit and competition pieces of it. It all works pretty well.

So the next time your car's window is smashed or cracked, be consoled and maybe even inspired by knowing that there's a system that can fix that window so quickly and efficiently.