We Deserve "Cheap," Don’t We?

One thing that the Macmillan-Amazon debacle highlighted is, to me, a very disturbing aspect of American society — the idea that everyone has a right to everything cheaply, and that if a copy of something can be made inexpensively — or for almost nothing — then that’s everyone’s right. Thankfully, not everyone, and perhaps not even a majority of Americans believes that, but millions clearly do. The reaction of the ten-dollar-or-cheaper e-book demanders is merely the latest manifestation of the idea.

People who copy music, either recorded or sheet music, without paying for it, people who download illegal torrent copies of books, people who plagiarize others’ ideas — all of them are part of this movement, and they justify it with slogans such as, “Information should be free” or “The marginal costs of producing e-books are nothing” or “the music industry is gouging the listeners.” In the area of books, the e-book buyers tend to ignore the fact that authors get less than half as much from an e-book as from a hardcover, or the fact that the vast majority of authors hold down daytime jobs because writing doesn’t cover the bills. Everyone concentrates on the five percent or so of authors who actually make a living at writing. The same pattern holds true in music as well, and I have to ask if the lack of technical perfection and musical quality in so much of what is popular is the result of the “cheap at any cost” philosophy? Might that just have something to do with the fact that a smaller and smaller fraction of musicians and singers can support themselves by their music?

And then there are the banks, who are working diligently to reduce their costs, by making you print your statements out, or having you use your computer to monitor your account, and by trying to run banks with fewer and fewer employees while paying less and less interest on deposits. Or the various state legislatures who insist on not raising taxes while more and more children pour into the schools and colleges, and while teachers’ salaries are frozen and classroom sizes increase, while state universities have to hike tuition because the state legislators want to keep taxes “cheap.”

Of course, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. As a nation, we want everything as cheaply as possible, but we also believe that our incomes or wages or salaries should increase every year. Exactly why did so many manufacturers shut down U.S. facilities and outsource to Asia, Central America, or other third world countries? Or automate and reduce the number of employees? Because very few of them could compete on price while paying the wages, salaries, and working conditions demanded by U.S. workers and required under state and federal regulations. In addition, investors and lenders demand higher and higher profit levels. That combination translates into higher prices, unless costs can be reduced, and Americans generally won’t pay higher prices — except for certain luxury goods… and those often only in “good times.” The result? Fewer high paying manufacturing jobs and more lower-paying service McJobs… with even more pressure for “cheap” goods, because more people have lower incomes… or none at all.

So, “price-sensitive” manufacturing industries have automated or fled the USA, if not both, of necessity, while everyone complains — even while shopping for the lowest possible price for those goods. Along the way, we tend to turn a blind eye at the working conditions in those countries, yet rail against Chinese manufacturers of defective drywall, or toys with lead paint, or other unsafe products.

What almost everyone tends to ignore is that not only does price reflects the sum total of inputs, plus profit, but that not complying with safe working conditions and not enforcing good environmental practices also reduces costs, and much of the lower prices of many, many imported goods, including cheap CDS and other bottom-line electronics, is effectively subsidized by such practices as child labor, slave labor, terrible working conditions, and environmental degradation in third world countries. Of course, what makes it work is that, bad as those conditions may be, they’re often far better than what existed before.

But what happens when there are no more third world countries willing to accept such conditions? When we run out of places to which we can export costs, so to speak? Or will we end up destroying our own economic system in pursuit of the “cheap at any cost” and become someone else’s third world country?

7 thoughts on “We Deserve "Cheap," Don’t We?”

  1. jim says:

    Well, the US goverment already owes astronomicall amounts of money to China and other countries. I often joke I only own a half of my house, the bank owns the rest. By that token, how much of the US does China own? What happens when that narker is called in?

  2. Joshua Blonski says:

    Germany's economic response to the Treaty of Versailles happens, and our dollar loses any value it might have. That's my guess. And my apologies if you were being rhetorical.

  3. j says:

    Apparently environmentalists tend to focus their advertisements to the general public on what are called 'charismatic megafauna'–e.g. whales, pandas, and the like. The cute appearance of these animals elicits sympathy and money for the many other endangered flora and fauna that are less cute, but equally valuable for other reasons.

    It seems to me that music and literature have the opposite problem: the public only sees what you could call the 'uncharismatic' megafauna–the very richest and most extravagant musicians and authors. And the result is that the public becomes unsympathetic to policies that would benefit the vast majority of artists, who get very little income from their work.

    And there's a second type of positive-turned-negative publicity for the arts as well. The public widely subscribes to the idea that a true artist should be almost religiously inspired and dedicated to his art, and create without any concern for money. Few people seem to recognize that with no monetary income, it's difficult to be inspired and near impossible to create a work with high production values–especially in the case of music, where it takes many hours of daily practice to perform or compose at a professional level. In other words, it takes a professional time commitment that can't coexist with a day job.

    I don't see a way around this negative publicity, but the long-term consequences for art may be dire.

    As far as America's disappearing industrial base, I'm curious as to what the eventual consequences of this might be once the developing world becomes developed. I don't have enough economic know-how to predict the result, but an entirely service-based economy looks dangerous and almost nonsensical to my untrained eye–unless you can export those services to the countries producing material goods. But can we and are we? I don't even understand how this is functioning at the present.

  4. Andrew says:

    This is a bit of a short comment, perhaps, when compared with others. Is there a middle road for those who suggest that information should be free or at least "cheaper"? Is a serial model akin to that found in 19th and early 20th century periodicals / papers possible? With such a model, the professional author / musician could focus on individual short stories that weave into a larger whole (e.g., the various stories published by A. C. Doyle). iTunes and Amazon both seem to be moving society towards this in terms of music and video, with some independent musicians able to sell significantly more than ever possible before by means of large scale marketing of individual songs / videos. Is something along this line likely to reach out to those who reject "high" price tags on individual books (this could be partially vetted by looking at the sales of the various prelude chapters of newer books such as in the WoT series). Could writing club subscriptions also fill a niche in the new electronic, fast-food society?

  5. Brian says:

    Neither of those two models seem to do well, from what I've seen. There have been several attempts to do just that, but the money has been slim to poor (unless the authors gave up because they were embarrassed by getting too much money).

    Personally, I don't like short stories as much, and the market seems to agree. Longer books and series seem to do much better. Mr. Modesitt could say more accurately, but that is my impression from comments made by authors and publishers in interviews.

  6. L.E. Modesitt says:

    Brian's unfortunately right. While writers once could support themselves on short fiction, for the most part, that ended before WWII. Today,the only F&SF market that paid more than around 10 cents a word for stories was Universe, and its last issue will be the February one. The same problem exists in mainstream magazines/markets as well. There are a very few places that pay well, but certainly not enough to support a writer who works exclusively in short forms. In my case, the longer fantasy work sells much better than the stand-alone SF.

  7. Steve Ravine says:

    The irony of buying "cheaper" e-books is that their lifespan is much shorter than that of a physical book. In 20 years, I can pick up a hardback and read it without any problems (assuming my eyesight is still sufficient!). In fact I have many books in my home library that are over 20 years old that I enjoy re-reading.

    Contrast that to computer files which assume that the media the e-book is stored on is still good (most electronic media is rated for a lifespan of 10-15 years or less). Also assume that you still have access to the software or the device required to read the e-book. Then you have to hope that the DRM protection is still viable and allows you to actually read the e-book. To me, that's far too many assumptions than I'd be comfortable with.

    Until e-books come in a standard format that will still be readable 20 years from now (rich text, PDF, HTML) and don't have restrictive DRM protection, I'll happily buy the physical edition.

    On a final note, the physical editions can appreciate in value due to their scarcity, while the e-books never will. That thought alone makes me smile every time I glance at my 1st edition hardcover of The Magic of Recluce!

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