Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Fifteen Dollar Future

Two Christmases ago, I bought my daughter her own DVD player for what was then a remarkably low price of sixty five dollars.  I wasn’t shocked when it stopped reading disks.  After all, what should I have expected for sixty bucks and my daughter got a lot of use out of the player, to put it mildly.  In the meantime, players had gotten even cheaper than that, so cheap that it wasn’t worth even considering taking the thing into a repair shop.  A couple days ago, a friend suggested that I try a lens cleaning disk.  The disk was twenty bucks and unfortunately it didn’t work.  I went to the store to return it, then looked for an inexpensive new DVD player and found one for after rebate a little under fifteen dollars.  That’s right, it was not only less than the cleaning disk it was also less than the price of new DVD disks.  Six years ago, I paid two hundred and forty nine dollars for my first DVD player (that one still works btw).

The fifteen dollar player is made by Polaroid.  I assume it’s whatever company bought the Polaroid name after the US maker of self developing film cameras went under.  Second, I shudder to think what conditions might be in place at any place that can make a DVD player for less than fifteen dollars.  I would guess for starters that the workers make a whole lot less than fifteen dollars an hour, which would be a borderline living wage in Northern California.  This soon to be my daughter’s fifteen dollar DVD player is both miraculous and ominous.  

It is a genuinely crazy system that can produce fifteen dollar DVD players yet can’t provide health care for millions of its people.  It suggests to me that our society has gotten very efficient at serving consumers, but somehow far less efficient at serving citizens.  When I was young, adults used to commonly say “If America can put a man on the moon, then surely it can…..”   the blank was usually something like end poverty, cure cancer, bring peace to the world, or to put an end to songs by Morris Albert and Bobby Goldsboro.  I’m tempted to say, if we can ,(actually it’s not we anymore as much as it’s some factory in China with die makers in Southeast Asia, American distributor, etc. ) make a fifteen dollar DVD player, we should be able to build adequate shelter for a family for three hundred dollars,  give every child a computer with high speed internet access for a hundred dollars, build a car that gets 60 miles to the gallon, a device that will purify thousands of gallons of water for a dollar.  

Before I say it though, I ‘m tempted to look back at the “If we can put a man on the moon….”  nostrum and ask what happened since then.  For one, we gave up sending men to the moon or anywhere else in outer space.  In 1969, there was talk that there’d be a manned mission to Mars by 2005.  It seems also that America was good at solving certain types of problems.  We appear to be good physical engineers but not as adept at engineering matters like equity, social justice, the care and education of all children.   In fact, we knew so little about it, that a good portion of America gave up on identifying these as worthy social goals.  “You can’t throw money at it and government is not the solution, “ they would say.

That begged a question:  What is the solution? And What do you throw at it with your freakin invisible hand?

First, do you realize that for twp years of the War on Iraq, I can actually buy every human being on this planet a DVD player.  We could even throw in a free DVD written and produced by the Lincoln Group to tell them about the beneficence and greatness of America, especially when it contracts for Asian labor.  

Will we ever have a comparable breakthrough when it comes to social technology?  
I actually believe we can and that it can happen in my lifetime.  I would agree that you can’t just throw money or government at a problem and have it magically solve itself.  I do believe that it takes money though and the commitment of governments to seriously address say the fact that we can now give a child a DVD player, which in 1969 would have been a wonder that even Howard Hughes couldn’t have afforded, yet we don’t have a social system that can produce effective educational programs for all children or even appropriate health care and nutrition. In other words, you can respect the economic power of the invisible hand to sort out supply and demand, but every country still needs to have a brain and a heart  

In 1961, we told ourselves that it was possible to get to the moon.  In turn, the effort to track orbits and three body gravitational effects resulted in both the modern computer and miniaturization.  One result was the DVD player.  Now that it’s 2005, we must as a people convince ourselves that it’s okay to dream again.  Let the American dream be about something more than low cost electronics which today look like the result of a free market system, but really are also the product of taxpayer investment in a national goal.  

These are my goals:

  1. Americans should be better informed about science, the arts, literature, and their rights than they were in the last generation.

  2. All chidren should have a chance to succeed as adults.  They should not be abused physically or emotionally.  They should be healthy and well fed.  They should have a chance to get a quality education that is not dependent on their parent’s incomes. At least if DVD players can be one twentieth the price they were a few years ago, college educations shouldn't be forty thousand dollars a year.

  3. We should be better at waging peace than starting wars.  

When I was a chlld the American spirit had less to do with being a member of a particular religion or economic philosophy than it had to do with a belief that we lived in a country that could solve problems and get things done.  There were two great missions in the sixties, one was the moon landing and the second was the Civil Rights movement. Both seemed equally possible at the time.  What happened to that America and who are these impostors standing in the way of those kinds of dreams?  They aren’t anyone I think of as real believers in Americans as the most inventive and resourceful people in the world and America as the land of possibility.  



At 12/08/2005 07:01:00 AM, Blogger benny06 said...

I would also call it the "throw away" future. My spouse bought a dvd player at Wal-Mart last year for 40 bucks. It played for about a month, then it quit working. He learned that it's better to buy something of quality--either Japanese or Dutch--than a cheap thing from China. He seldom shops at Wal-Mart anymore, except for our kitty litter stuff (they also stock the best kitter litter bags) and occasionally a dvd on sale.

At 12/08/2005 08:47:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

That's a good point. I have no idea that this will last the year. The sixty dollar one went for two years of very heavy use.

I'm still amazed that it works at all at that price, but what becomes of all the old ones. Also, there is this small matter of price dumping to force other countries out of the marketplace. We have no US television makers anymore because of other countries selling below their own cost to take up market share.
The result is a loss of skilled jobs in the US.

At 12/09/2005 11:08:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Morning Star,
throwaway culture has some frightening implications though one reason they don't build things to last is the improvements or refinements now come so fast that consumer electronics will become obsolete before they wear out.
Still, spiritually, there was always something very powerful about learning to repair broken items.

I believe Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Christ (which likely took place in the spring a couple years BC , truly weird notion).
In America it's a holiday where we make ritual sacrifice of our discretionary income and more toa retail idol that sometimes takes the form of Santa Claus.

At 12/12/2005 09:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system. Health insurance is a major aspect to many.

At 12/13/2005 02:01:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for the kind comment. It just seems to me that a civilized society does not make basic medical care a function of means especially for children, the elderly, and the disabled.


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