Saturday, November 19, 2011

What capitalism hath wrought

A problem well stated is a problem half solved.
- Charles F. Kettering, inventor and engineer (1876-1958)

Whenever someone dares to challenge the capitalist ideology that so many people hold dear, people often point out the good that has been done under capitalism’s watch. The underlying assumption is that people are essentially lazy bums who don’t want to do anything, and that the only reason we have made any advancements is because we’re bribing them with money. They point to all our modern technologies and say “This! This is what capitalism has given you - so be grateful, dammit!”

I bought into that for a while, too. But the more you learn about the world - about how things actually advance, about the real reasons behind certain policy decisions - the more you realise that it just isn’t true: not as a matter of ideology or values, but in simple point of fact.

For example, we have all these copyright laws that are purported to protect content creators. The justification is, while we might want to access culture for free, it’s not in our long-term interests. If we all take this culture for free, the reasoning goes, the content creators don’t get paid, and they have to get day jobs to survive - so they won’t be able to produce (as much of) their culturally-valuable art. This is why you get such opposition to music and movie piracy.

But then you look at the facts. When someone gets a contract with a major music label, that label will pay for the studio hire, they will pay for the advertising, they will pay for the CDs to be produced, etc. So when the CD actually gets released, the studio recoups this cost before the artist even sees a cent - and then they still only get a relatively small piece of the pie (though this varies artist-to-artist, label-to-label). With the result, most musicians - even relatively popular ones - don’t really make much money at all from selling copies of their music, they make almost all their money from touring and selling merch.

So where does the money go? Where does the pressure to pass these laws come from? The record companies. The ones who have no real talent of their own, but just live off the talent of those beneath them.

And yet, despite the lack of protection offered to the musicians themselves, we still have music. We still have music because most people who actually succeed in music are in it for the love - sure, everybody wants to be a rock star, but generally speaking, anyone who gets into it predominantly for the money will be at most a flash in the pan. Real musicians, just like real painters and authors and actors, don’t need money to motivate them - they’d do it for free if they had to.

The same goes for science - especially medical science. The reasoning goes that without patent laws protecting drug companies, without some means of ensuring they make money from their R&D investments, medical research would stall - which would have negative implications for all our health.

But talk to the people on the front lines of medical research. These are passionate people who care about their fellow human beings. They are driven to cure diseases because they share in the suffering of those afflicted by them - sometimes because a friend or family member has fallen victim to it. Money has nothing to do with it.

Money, in fact, is not a motivator but a mere enabling mechanism - in addition to giving them the requisite living money, they need money for expensive machines and other supplies with which to perform their experiments. But while under the current system it is a necessary part of the process, it’s a profoundly corrupt one.

Instead of funds being directed at the most worthy candidates, the ones that seem most likely to solve the most pressing problems, we have the current system. We have government bodies that attempt to do this, but that are very often strongly swayed by political concerns and tend to be very short-sighted and capital-driven anyway. Why re-test a drug to confirm someone else’s results - among the most basic tenets of science - when that money could be spent on developing a new one?

Much more medical science funding, though, is provided by corporations. And all corporations, it must be remembered, are ultimately in the same business - the business of money. They might make drugs or sell dolls or exploit musicians as their means, but their ultimate end is always money. This can play out in some very interesting ways.

For example, it has been known to happen that a pharma company will come up with a drug that isn’t very marketable. Instead of trying to produce another drug that solves an actual problem - one that cures a disease that needs curing - they will then proceed to convince you a non-problem needs fixing so that they can sell it to you. Hardly in the best interests of society.

(Incidentally, the “Invent a problem then charge you to solve it” business model is devastatingly effective, and has as its primary proponents such luminaries as the cosmetic industry, the mafia and the Catholic church)

Another big medical one - we don’t actually need antibacterial soap for everyday use. In fact, providing an overly-sterile environment actually hinders the development of children’s immune systems - they need exposure to germs so they develop antibodies. But since profits have been held above social good, most people have been convinced that we must have completely germ-free houses - and that this is best achieved by antibacterial soap.

This, combined with the extreme over-prescription of oral antibiotics (for example, they are given to people who have viral infections - which are not affected by antibiotics - just to shut them up) means that our current range of antibiotics are rapidly becoming useless as resistant strains evolve - and the lack of expected profitability means that no company has really bothered to make significant advances in antibiotics in decades.

Then we look at technology. We have this myth that we wouldn’t have all these fantastic technologies if we didn’t have patents to protect the earning ability of those who first created them - which in turn assumes that those people invented these things in hermetically sealed rooms by lightning-bolts of intuition. But the truth? Well, Henry Ford said it better than anyone:

“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.”

The PC - that cornerstone of the information age we now live in? Depending on where your allegiance lies, you probably assume that either Steve Jobs or Bill Gates first invented the modern system, with a keyboard, mouse and window-based interface. In reality, they both got the idea from Xerox, who had gotten 90% of the way there and basically given up on it; the people that really changed the world are the ones who took that idea and ran with it.

A little further down the line, many manufacturers were building mp3 players, but most of them were kind of crummy - Steve Jobs saw the potential, tweaked the basic concept and improved a few aspects, and gave us the iPod. Then other people took that model, combined it with existing phone technology and made mp3-playing phones - Sony were the first to really do this properly, which isn’t that surprising when you consider the cues the iPod took from Sony’s Walkman. And after seeing what they’d done, where they’d succeeded and where they’d failed, Jobs tweaked the idea and gave us the iPhone. And now Samsung and a few others have come along and improved upon that; the circle of life continues.

(As an aside, Jobs took a peppercorn salary, preferring to keep the money that otherwise would have paid him within the company for reinvestment - he did it for the love of design, as all the testimonials since his death have attested. He wanted to change the world, not make money - and Bill Gates’ dedication to philanthropy tells a similar tale)

You can pick out hundreds of examples like this just from fairly basic observations of how the world works, but the science is catching up too - and it tells the same story. Once you get past menial tasks you don’t give a shit about, money doesn’t really motivate you very much at all; or at least, it doesn’t motivate you to do anything useful. It may, however, motivate you to get more money at the expense of whatever you’re actually supposed to be doing, because it becomes just a means to an end and you will half-ass it accordingly.

It turns out that these systems don’t foster innovation at all. They are put in place to protect a select few individuals whose primary goal is not to change the world but to make more money. It’s not about raising the standard of living for us all, it’s specifically geared towards the hoarding of wealth; and that is a profoundly bad idea for most of us, especially since - for the most part - that wealth is hoarded by people who aren’t actually contributing the benefits we’re looking for. Protecting these individuals at the expense of crushing the rest is cutting off our nose to spite our face.

I’m not saying I have the answer. I don’t know if completely abandoning capitalism is the right idea, or if we just need to radically change how capitalism works. But if we’re to have any chance of improving things, we need to be honest about our system - note its strengths and acknowledge its weaknesses. Nothing can ever get any better unless we look at things critically - I hope that by now, that much is clear.

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