Bill Harrison


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Are capitalism and education fundamentally incompatible in the digital age?

"Catch a man a fish and you can sell it to him. Teach a man to fish and you ruin a wonderful business opportunity." - Marx

Capitalism depends critically upon information asymmetries - if I know something you don't or can do something you can't, then I can exchange my services for your money. Specialize and trade - this isn't a big problem in an analog society, in which knowledge and expertise are passed down through rigidly defined structures.

But we live in a society in which the cost of information is being driven to zero, and the major limitation on what we choose to learn is us.

Think about knowledge as a form of capital - I have a "factory" with which I can produce widgets, which you need. But if I give you a factory, you no longer need me for my widgets. In fact, you are now my competition on the market for widget-selling.

So as an individually rational capitalist, I should never teach anyone anything, because that makes me less valuable, and, let's face it, my survival depends upon me being able to sell you widgets.

But society isn't better off by my keeping you ignorant/factory-less! And in a digital society, in which information can be recreated for everyone for free, this is made even more absurd.

It is a false gain to society, my keeping you ignorant/helpless.

Yet, if I teach you, then I lose my livelihood, and I am individually worse off in an absolute sense, even though society as a whole might be much better off.

It is a false gain to society to charge a kid for a book when it can be recreated for him/her for free.

We need to drastically improve social safety nets, so that it is safe for people to teach each other without risking poverty.

We need to recognize that it is possible to become absurdly wealthy without necessarily being socially productive, and it is possible to be poor while being incredibly socially productive.

Marx has been much maligned by the right-wing propaganda machine, but was he right in many ways?

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      Sep 27 2011: Hi Birdia,

      Thanks for your response. I'm not sure if it meets the main point though (please correct me if I'm wrong on that), which is that knowledge and expertise can be considered forms of capital, the value of which depends in large part upon (artificial) scarcity.

      At any point in time, a man can be producing widgets, or he can be producing "factories" (in the form of knowledge/expertise in other people.)

      My argument is that it is more socially productive in the vast majority of cases for a person to be producing "factories" than "widgets," thereby increasing the total knowledge/productive capacity/autonomy/wellbeing of a society.

      But it is not individually rational within a capitalist system for people to educate others (give them factories, teach them to make widgets/factories) , because there is a risk that the next guy will make an even better product than the original, on top of no longer being a customer.

      It would be nice if people could all find niche markets, but that scenario falls upon the same problem - it is not individually rational for people who have found a niche market to teach other people how to enter that market, or even a similar market - and so society produces less than the socially optimal amount of knowledge/competence/expertise in people.

      Everyone acting in individually rational ways leads to an ignorant. outcome. This is a huge market failure, but the information asymmetry is a necessary/essential feature of capitalism.

      I agree with you that we need to avoid monopolies, but the principle of monopoly - keeping others from entering a market and producing less than the socially optimal amount of some good in order to make a (higher) profit - is the critique I am making of capitalism with respect to knowledge.
    • Oct 1 2011: Hello birdia. I disappeared for a long time. I would type a response to the post, but birdia has got it covered!
  • Oct 22 2011: Marx' quote appears to wonderfully apt to what we are facing on the uk , in the arts education particularly, where state funding of grad and post grad course has been cut completely [ I know we had it good for a while]. This and a 300% increase in what each student has to pay to attend a course will, possibly dampen the spirits of many who wish to attend. Particualrly those from lower income households. what we are facing here is vocational courses replacing philosophy, and the key point here is that there should be an emphasis on both, for, without ENQUIRY, the university doesn't exist. except for the children of the rich, whose 'enquiry' might not necessarily be as politcally rigorous as those from less comfortably off homes. There has to be space for students to be more than economically useful, and over here it is shrinking before our eyes.
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    Sep 28 2011: The protesters on Wall Street - and around the world recently - have been given just enough knowledge to know that the institutions governing their lives - old school capitalism, bought governments, unjustifiably expensive educational systems - are not looking out for their best interests.

    If you think about judicial due process - people are more likely to accept a judicial outcome if they feel the process is fair, their arguments were heard, the arbiter was neutral, etc.

    I think what we lack now in many countries is legislative due process - it isn't the best ideas that win, it's the worst ideas backed by the most money. And of course the people who currently have power aren't foresighted enough to give it up without a fight, even though their authority is no longer through the consent of the governed, but just by virtue of their power/station/money/capital.

    This matters for each of the 6 issues in the US I care deeply about 1. Ending the idiotic drug wars 2. Getting rid of all intellectual property laws 3. Ending the bullshit wars in Iraq and Afghanistan 4. Publicly financed elections 5. Drastically raising taxes on the wealthy 6. Improving the social safety net for poor people.

    In each of those cases (in the US), it seems to me that the government enacts unjust laws to protect old, rich, white people at the expense of the young, poor, and black. This is the opposite of what a healthy, prosperous society does.

    “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” - Greek proverb

    Unfortunately, the old men in our society apparently lack the capacity for self-projection, and we're all suffering for it.

    "When rich speculators prosper
    While farmers lose their land;
    when government officials spend money
    on weapons instead of cures;
    when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible
    while the poor have nowhere to turn-
    all this is robbery and chaos."

    -Tao te ching

    Marx predicted proletarian uprisings, too.
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      Sep 28 2011: actually people all over the world start to lose vision. their vision is blurred to the level that they attack the stick and not the person who holds it. wall street is just where party goes on. but the abscess is in washington and in other capital cities. more precisely, in all over the heads of people. centralized power, shifted and denied personal responsibilities, chosen blindness, simplified world views, flock mentality, desire for strong leadership. these are the diseases we face today.

      uprising of the proletariat have never happened. and we don't need it either. awakening of the people is what we need. we need to remove the SEP field that covers the entire globe.
      • Oct 1 2011: Hey! Well said! I totally agree with you. I would even say that the main reason why things are going wrong is the denial of personal responsibilities. As citizens, we are lazing comfortably in our little cozy bubble, we sure complain a lot, but we are too lazy to stand up to fight for what we believe in.

        But sadly those are just words. If I look into myself, I don't feel like I have the strength nor the will to take up the fight. I feel like being under anesthesia. It's probably because of people like me that the world is going wrong. Too many words, not any actions.
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    Sep 28 2011: No more than it was for the music industry.

    It just means change - at both ends.

    We currently have a govt in NZ that is desperately trying to lock down ownership and slap further copyright restrictions on consumers, all without any form of public consultation. Idiots. Visionless.

    If things continue this way, then it'll be a Road to Tycho situation. You'll end up doing time for sharing information.

    Free file sharing for the purpose of education!
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      Sep 28 2011: Well, the copyright holders have a strong financial incentive to lobby politicians to expand copyright, even if that causes massive social harm - they're willing to expand copyrights.50 years after the original author has died, just so the current copyright holder can be further enriched by a government-created monopoly - and despite not contributing a damn thing to society. They can then use the money they "earn" to lobby more politicians, and the rich get richer. It's absurd, idiotic, and unjust, but that's what we get for not demanding publicly financed elections.
  • Oct 6 2011: You aren't currently paying for an education so I can see why you would be/are of the opinion that the price of knowledge is being driven to zero! But as someone currently paying for an education in Interdisciplinary Studies, I see what you are on about. I am not anti Marx but I am anti communist. It's a shame in my opinion that many politically minded people see it the other way around.
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    Oct 2 2011: To further drive home the point – colleges admit to raising tuition as a method of exclusion, not necessity:

    But do we want to live in an ignorant society in which “value” is hoarded through exclusion/artificial scarcity of knowledge/capability/genius? NO!

    Then why do we allow it?

    Modern conservative economists should be fired and/or shot:
  • Oct 1 2011: Profits. That's the only thing capitalism is about. Of course there's nothing wrong about striving for profits, profits is the best incentive argument for progress and technology. But there's usually a conflict between short term profits and long term profits. Sadly, it seems that the capitalism that we created in our modern society is much more focused on instantaneous profits, even if it's at the expense of the more unfortunate and/or the next generations.

    Actually, capitalism is just as good as any other systems. On the paper it's all pink and shinny, but in reality a minority will try to seize the power and milk the others to death. That's just how dark human hearts can get.

    I would say that capitalism as a concept is not against education. But the way it has been implemented into our society, the way it has been let loose without any kind of control, that was really hurtful for education.

    And not only for education.
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    Sep 27 2011: By the way, there are different incarnations of capitalism. Some are better than others, some are like a cancer to a society.

    I tend to like Birdia's take on capitalism whenever I hear her thoughts... which leads me to believe that there is a gender relation to capitalism (and politics too). I want women involved all along the way. No, not just any woman, but women who have the knowledge, who aggressively express their views and who challenge the status quo (aka men).

    Take Russia, for instance....
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    Sep 27 2011: "Catch a man a fish and you can sell it to him. Teach a man to fish and you ruin a wonderful business opportunity." - Marx

    Dis Marx really say that????

    To that I add this: "Teach a person to BE a fish and now you've taught them something special". In other words, by being highly imaginative you can out-think, out-smart, and overcome almost anything.

    I was in St. Petersburg recently and had the good fortune of having a tour guide with me for most of the time. We spoke often of what capitalism has done to the Russian people and how corruption is rampant. She told me that their society is now largely a "wild capitalist" society with very little democratic oversight (or any oversight but corruption for that matter).

    Sad. I made a note to start a TED conversation about how Russia needs a strong, charismatic leader to emerge to confront the corruption and runaway capitalism. Or perhaps they need another people's revolution.
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    Sep 27 2011: this is the second (in some sense, the first) sentence:

    "Capitalism depends critically upon information asymmetries"

    and already a horrendous error and a complete misunderstanding of capitalism. "asymmetric" (that is, not homogeneous) knowledge is simply a fundamental feature of the human mind. capitalism provides us the best *use* of this heterogeneous knowledge by division of labor. but even if our knowledge was homogeneous, capitalism still would be the best economic system, simply because of the principle of economies of scale.

    and referring to marx in the 21st century is a shame. i can't wrap my head around that he is still alive.