Friday, 9 August 2013

What the Market Demands isn't always what's best for Society

Proponents of capitalism - like my Economics lecturers at university - are confident that the free market encourages more efficiency and innovation than any other system.  Their argument is that competition and profit motives commonplace in the free market drives firms to invest in research, while simultaneously eliminating inefficiencies (be it man or machine related) in the interests of constantly growing returns.

The question many pro-capitalist Economics textbooks don't answer though is the type of research that capitalists are inclined to invest in.  The most profitable avenue isn't always the avenue that serves society's best interests.

At the Royal Academy of Engineering's Global Grand Challenges Summit, Bill Gates remarked that more research funding goes into curing male baldness than fatal diseases like malaria.  Look at what proliferates on television: Producers prefer to make a reality show over an informative documentary because reality shows are cheaper to make and attract a greater viewership.  There's often a weak correlation between what's good for society and what firms produce.

Gates elaborated: "Our priorities are tilted by marketplace imperatives.  The malaria vaccine in humanist terms is the biggest need.  But it gets virtually no funding.  But if you are working on male baldness or other things you get an order of magnitude more research funding because of the voice in the marketplace than something like malaria."

It's also important to remember that innovation is not and never has been driven solely by the private sector.  History is littered with instances where government has either incubated entire industries or given businesses the support they needed to proliferate.  The Internet's roots are traceable to the U.S. government commissioning research in the 1960's to create a communication network with computers (admittedly for defense purposes initially).  With subsequent participation of the private sector, this technology and infrastructure was eventually rolled out to the civilian population.  Through internal efforts as well as incentives to privateers, DARPA, a government agency, is fuelling an acceleration in robotics research.  Robots that can enter dangerous environments (like a nuclear radiation zone) and humanoid variations that can serve in roles ranging from butlers to soldiers are now upon us.

Capitalism is a deeply entrenched system and it's not something that can or should be suddenly overhauled.  Of all the economic approaches we have tried to date, it does appear to be the best (or least bad).  But those who prosper from it need to note its inherent shortcomings.  Being good at making money takes a certain type of skill and possibly an element of luck, but it shouldn't (even though it currently does) give you more of a right to life than someone of meager means.  Capitalism doesn't afford everybody equal opportunity and access.  Even the right to higher learning costs money: tuition fees and exorbitant textbook prices ensure that quality education is not always accessible to all who desire it.

This imbalance we live with can only be fixed if those who are in a position to act take a greater interest in the extended community around them.  It doesn't have to be money a person gives; it can be expertise and time.  Toyota for instance donated some engineers to the Food Bank.  Waiting times at a soup kitchen in Harlem reduced by eighty percent. (from ninety minutes to eighteen minutes), and packing times at a food pantry on Staten Island reduced from eleven minutes to six minutes.  This means Food Bank workers have more time on their hands and can be allocated to different functions.  What Toyota gave is as good as money.

Governments cannot fix everything and each person who is keen and able should offer their skills or money to compensate for capitalism's inherent flaws.  Nothing will change if we shrug our shoulders at the unfairness of the world, but if everybody is on the same page and each person makes an effort to contribute something tangible, then a fair and meritocratic society is within reach.

The Happy Uprising is available on Kindle
Amazon Review: "Sometimes its easy to feel burnt out from life. I liked the book because it offers a solution to that problem. Its short, concise, and easy to read. I'd recommend this book to anyone who feels stressed out from a job, and wants something different."

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