Friday, June 1, 2012


Over to the Crooked Timber they are having a book event on Red Plenty. I am going to have more to say about the obvious problems with this text in a bit. Today, I wanted to focus on one aspect of the discussion arising from this essay on the difficulties of creating a computer-based centrally-planned economy.

For many of the critics of central planning such an economy's inability to innovate is a key marker against it.  For these critics the sainted Steve Jobs' creation of the the Ipad could never ever happen in a planned economy. Leaving aside the dubiousness of this claim[1] and leaving equally dubious notion of the Ipad as a game changer, let's consider a slightly different innovation.

When I was a kid all medicine cabinets, or so it seemed, had a slot in the back.  The purpose of this  slot was to accept safety razor blades when there keenness went the way of the dodo.  The safety razor is innovative. I used to use a cut-throat razor and they are a pain. Safetyu razors aren't. I have used some form of safety razor, Shick injector, Mercur, or Gillette for over 20 years now. Shaves great costs little and lasts nearly forever. Indeed the only razor I ever had to replace because it broke was the plastic Gillette I bought in Germany. [2]

In the same period, more or less, the "personal grooming" industry have spent, I'll be conservative, billions creating new razoring technology.[3]  Blades went from two to three to five to goodness knows what is next.  The razors excrete unguents, oils, balm, and, for all I know, Frankincense and Myrrh. The thing is, my Mercur or any safety razor does just as good a job at a fraction of the price and with none of the waste. Not just the waste of the unneeded blades oils and unguents but also the waste of the zillion plus dollars in advertising designed to get you to think that you need a razor of 15 blades with attached palm oil applicator.

Think if that wasted time, effort, and money had rather gone into teaching and funding primary and secondary education. Surely that kind of investment would have paid much greater and longer lasting dividends.

And consider this.  One of the new trends among the rising generation, who have a way of becoming both old fogies and models for their immediately younger cohorts, is the bearded or complicated mustachioed youth. Should the image of male beauty, much like our economic and political systems, revert to a 19th century celebration of the unshaven and, perhaps, unshorn all that time, energy and money will have gone up in smoke in the service of a temporary advertisement-induced fad.

My point, while long-winded, is simple, most capitalist innovation is finding some way to package things already readily available in new and unnecessary ways as the real problems that plague the world go unaddressed and often unacknowledged.

[1] There is little new technology in the Ipad mostly it was a clever packaging of already existing technology and, what is more, if all the Ipads in all the worlds disappeared it would have nearly no effect on the world and its wife.

[2] I was living in the good ol' USA at the time and when I went to the store where I bought the blades I asked if I could buy a new safety razor only to have the  clerk explain that they would have that.

[3] You can remove razors and put in the automotive industry and cupholders to get a sense of the widespread silliness of capitalist innovation.

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