22 February 2013

Property Rights, Patents, and the Destruction of the Market for "Collectables", or , 3D Printing Series Part 4

Another possible economic implication of 3D printing technology that I have been pondering today:  It is quite likely that 3D printing machines will (and already are) be (ing) used to circumvent many copyrights and reproduce protected/patented commodities.

One area that could be particularly hard hit is the market for "collectables".  This includes things such as vintage children's toys, "limited edition" figurines, etc.  As any collector knows, secondary markets for these types of goods can vastly inflate the price above the original "sticker". 

I will not get into the whole "transformation problem" debate here, or suggest that the secondary market prices are in any way (except of course a vague and complex overdetermined way) representative of the value of these goods.  Rather I will back up my point with an example: A search of EBay for "Star Wars Action Figure" followed by a sort of highest price to lowest shows numerous "toys" with active bids priced in the thousands of US dollars. 

These markets rely upon collectibility and extreme scarcity, artificially perceived or real, to keep  prices at these high levels. In the world of 3D printing I would imagine it is pretty easy to write a program to "print" a "vintage Yoda figurine" still in what appears to be original packaging. 

Just as digital media has faced extreme problems in protecting copyrights of commodities that can be easily reproduced at low cost by a vast number of people, I would imagine that 3D printing technology will begin to present the same problem to suppliers in many other markets over the next few years (the case of collectable toys given here is just one example). 

20 February 2013

3D Printing and the Household: Implications for the Division of Labor

In what is becoming a series of posts about the possible implications of 3D printing;
Following the lead of the New York Times (as embarrassing as that is for a devotee of Zinn's, Manufacturing Consent such as myself) , I am turning my attention away from the implications of 3D printing on industrial class relations to comment on one of the possible implications of having these machines in our homes.

As this article from the Times website today points out these machines are becoming affordable, and are capable of producing many things that we need around the home.  The article cites fixing clocks, espresso machines, etc.

Is it possible that this technology may in a sense allow the modern household to return to frontier farm stead.  It is easy to imagine a not to distant future where we are again producing ourselves, in the household many of the "small" commodities that we purchase for daily life. This change would essentially be a move backwards in time in terms of the division of labor in society.  The definition of modern life is one of great specialization.

As I am fond of telling my students, "if I had to grow my own food, make my own clothing or generate my own electricity I would be dead in a week".  I specialize in reading, writing, teaching, and mixing cocktails.  The monetary gains from these few activities allow me to exchange for everything else that makes up the myriad of consumption that comprises my material existence.   

It is possible with an in home 3D printer that many "highly" specialized people such as myself will no longer need to exchange for much of the array small commodities that we use in our daily life, but rather "print" them in our own homes.  It is possible that the manufacture of relatively simple, inexpensive commodities may soon be relegated to the type of process that washing the dishes, making the bed, and sweeping the floor currently is for most of us in society; a processes completed in the home.  The production of commodities for use, that were never intended for exchange, may be making a comeback.  I am not meaning to suggest that rates of specialization in our paid labor will decrease, but rather specialization in certain areas of production will be rendered obsolete, forcing those currently engaged in production of many commodities based in plastics to evolve or face structural unemployment.   

What are the economic impacts of these machines?  I think it is clear that only time will tell, but it is not a big leap to suggest that the technology with the greatest impact on the organization of production since the personal computer may be here and structural unemployment of makers of household commodities is probably just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

So You Want to Work in the United States?

Just move to Luxembourg, Monaco, or Vatican City first...
I came across some information today* about a rather strange wrinkle in United States immigration law.  Leaving aside all the sub-programs for work specific visas it seems that the number of work visas available for people wishing to enter the United States is the same for every country of origin.

Every country of origin, regardless of size....that's right, the same number of visas to enter the US to work for people from the smallest countries as there are granted to people from the largest.  It would suggest then that the path for an Indian or Chinese citizen wishing to immigrate to the US would be to first immigrate to Tuvalu or a similarly tiny nation.   

I was aware that there were thousands of visas going unused each year, while hundreds of thousands of potential immigrants (mostly from Mexico and Asia) continue to wait in line.  This goes part of the way to explaining why.  Given that our current economic climate is one in which we desperately need economic growth, especially growth in employment markets, new blood, new ideas and new work ethic that can be brought by an influx of immigrants cannot help but be a good thing**.  I know that the current administration is targeting changes in immigration law, it would seem that getting rid of the caps based upon country of origin without considering population would be a logical move.  

*This information came from a  fairly reputable source, however I have been unable to verify it from a quick internet search.  If anyone happens to have navigated Home Land Security's site deep enough to verify this, or know where I can, I would appreciate it.

**  This sentence is written largely to fire up people who continue to argue that immigrants "steal" jobs from "hard working" Americans.  I intentionally did not argue the point well or back it up with data as I am hoping to start a fight with a certain college of mine whom I know reads my work.

17 February 2013

The Next Time Someone Asks Me for a Cigarette...

...I am going to denounce them as a communist and suggest they move to Russia with their like-minded brethren. 

I suppose this post would be more accurately titled:  "Some Thougths on the First 100 pages of David Graeber's "Debt the First 5000 Years", but the cigarette example, lifted from Graeber's book, has more literary flair.

I have been reading Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber
In "Debt" Graeber is bold enough to suggest that at the most basic level many human interactions are communistic in nature. He suggests that  "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need" is how we respond to many situations in life.  Graeber suggests that people act according to this tenant of communism in many daily situations including those in which a smoke is "bummed".   

I have the ability to give someone else a smoke, they have the need for it.  The person asking me doesn't think much of the asking (according to Graeber they think far less of asking for a smoke than they would think of asking me for an equivalent amount of money or food), and I am not meant to think much of the giving.  It is second nature to provide for each other in a community setting.  If nothing else being a communist costs me at least half a pack of smokes a week.  That aside, Graeber's book seems interesting so far:  The argument that "communism" is not a system of political organization (he brings up the point that most prominent regimes have tagged themselves as "socialist" and "communism" will come far in the future after Marx's "withering of the state"), but rather something that is one of the basic (Graeber describes 3) ways in which humans interact with each other daily in regards to our material world is something that I would like to explore further.

An idea that has been nagging me for awhile is that as we form groups and arguments, (and yes...institutions as well) to organize production, we are essentially just expanding upon interactions that we are already familiar with from the processes of our daily lives, childhoods, etc.   The past is of course the strongest predictor of the future.  Reading the beginning of Debt, (for the record, is itself critical of capitalism), has brought back to the front of my consciousness the idea that the way out of capitalism (as well as its contradictions and problems), and into another system (albeit with its own sets of contradictions and problems to be sure), with a stronger sense of justice from a class perspective, might be steps towards decentralization of power and slightly more anarchy in our organizational processes (both political and economic).  The idea, somewhat re-introduced by Graeber that many humans default to a variety of communistic practices in our daily interactions revives my hope that post 20th century capitalism our material lives can remain rich, while at the same time becoming less institutionally exploitative of each other, if we work at it that is. 

There is tone to Graeber's analysis that suggests an arrogant rationalism behind many of his arguments, This is perhaps not a bad thing as the implications I have drawn out of the first 100 pages of his book seem quite positive, and possibly even hopeful for our future as a society.  So far "Debt" is proving to be an enjoyable and thought provoking read.  Chances are I will have more to write about it here in the coming days (especially if I find something to be more critical about).