Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Via Meadia leading in wrong direction

Walter Russel Mead's blog is one of the most consistently thought-provoking and valuable on the internet, and I find myself referring to it frequently, most recently the other day. I envy his remarkable productivity at producing beautifully crafted commentary. But I persistently disagree with him on some things. So I decided to post a comment on this post here.

He argues that pessimism about manufacturing is overdone. Technology like 3D printing will return much manufacturing activity to the US.

I say:

I have to admire your optimism, which is also admittedly supported by two hundred years of history. But 3D-printers are just as likely to move a lot of production out of the market and back into households. Who needs to buy from the factory if you can use a domestic 3D printer to produce something much more tailored to your own tastes at home? As costs of 3D printing fall, much manufacturing will go the way of travel agencies. You do it yourself, instead of paying others to do it for you.

And importantly, as the historian Joel Mokyr argues, much of the reason factories developed in the first place was because the skills and knowledge needed to produce goods were beyond the ability of households to cope with in the 19th century. Factories facilitated sharing of information. Now with Google and cheap intermediate technologies, that doesn't apply so much. As an example, my little iPad is more useful than vast hot metal newspaper printing presses of the last century, because I can distribute with a mouse click. I don't need a sophisticated knowledge of picas and linotype and newsprint prices. Household production is easier and barriers to entry plunge.

Most of all, though, as society gets richer the nature of needs is likely to change, away from the rivalrous, excludable goods which are easily sold in markets. The upper end of Maslow's hierarchy of needs - connectedness, self-actualization, purpose - are harder to handle in markets because they are not easily attached to property rights. As we satisfy basic needs through the remarkable efficiency of capitalist production, those higher levels of needs and demand become more salient. And problematic from a marketing point of view.

So even if new needs will arise, they may not work that well with our current consmer demand or labor market institutions.

I love your blog, but the big point I think you miss is the nature of needs can change over time.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your views on 3d printing, now I have better understanding of this tool.