I have a confession to make. I confess I am mystified. No, wait, that’s a Pukka Orchestra song. I confess that when I wrote in another blog entry that people were dumb if they did not own Joseph A. Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies and that they should go out right away and buy it, I myself did not actually own a copy of the book. I had read it, used it in a course, had a photocopy of the most important chapters, and had a library copy of it sitting on my desk at the time. But, I did not actually own the book then. Now, thanks to a gift certificate from the library for doing a sword fighting demo, I am the proud owner of my very own copy of the book. Yay! How appropriate is that?
Anyway, there is one small thing about this happy tale that prompts me to make my confession now in the interests of the Greater Good™. And that is the shock I received when I went to the small independent bookstore in Kingston to pick up my book and was told that the book cost $65.95. The clerk even apologised and said they would be willing to send it back if I did not want it. Well I wanted it didn’t I? Especially after admonishing everyone to go out and buy it. Well now I need to retract that admonishment in the interest of my not single-handedly saving the economy as millions of Canadians all shell out $65 for a 250 page paperback from 1988. Hey, this is cool. I just noticed as I checked the publication info on the colophon that the book went into its 25th printing in 2014. How cool is that? It seems like the word may actually be getting out after all, even at $65 a pop.
In any case, what prompts me to write this blog and confess my blog crime is the ridiculousness of paying $65 for a 250 page paperback from 1988. The book is published by Cambridge University Press and if an institution as old and great as Cambridge can not manage to squirt some ink on some paper and glue on some card stock for a cover for a reasonable price then it really must be the end of the line for capitalism. Even at 10¢ a page, assuming I could photocopy two pages at a time, it would cost less than $13 to photocopy the entire book. Hmmm, no wonder with economics like this they need to constantly, and I do mean constantly, increase the coercive, anti-competitive nature of copyright legislation. Oh right, I probably need to tell you all about the original intention of the copyright here.
Darn, every time I try to write a short little blog post this is what happens. It gets complicated, and then it starts to matter that everything is connected to everything else and the blog mushrooms in length. No wonder sound bites are so nice for the ruling class. Ok, here is the sound bite for this blog in case you need to get back to your cell phone or video game. The high cost of Tainter’s book is proof positive that terminal capitalism has indeed arrived. Now, back to the boring history of copyright. It turns out that when copyright was invented it was at a time when there were literally itinerant nomadic printers going about the countryside with a press on a cart, setting up anywhere they could and printing books. My favourite example is the inscription in the colophon for the original printing in 1798 of Thomas Malthus’ pamphlet An Essay on the Principle of Population – you know, the original “Malthusian Dilemma” paper. Anyway, it says “LONDON, PRINTED FOR J. JOHNSON, IN ST. PAUL'S CHURCH-YARD, 1798.” How cool is that?
But, unfortunately for us, it turns out that in 1798 it was actually pretty difficult to make a living as a nomadic itinerant printer. And, that led to the original copyright. But, at the time all it was meant to do was stop other itinerant printers from also printing a given book for a long enough time for the original printer to recover his fixed costs (typesetting) and turn a small profit. After that short delay, even with competition from other printers, the margin on merely printing another copy of a given book “on demand” was enough that a profit could still be made. Thus, without the copyright the nascent printing industry would have died out entirely when no one could make any profit at all, while with it, the industry remained healthy, competitive, and growing. This is a far cry from the ironic world where Ted Turner was able to be granted a new restrictive copyright for the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life after it had entered the public domain. And that happened in 1993. Since then Canada has updated its copyright laws in 1997, 2012, 2015, and the TPP which is now signed will extend copyright protection (Read corporate monopoly rights) yet again. Sheesh. Why the heck do corporate interests need ever more draconian copyright legislation and for it to be extended to eternity and globally to every corner of the world? Well, it’s the economics of digital stupid. And, as usual I have a relevant example in my story to share. Because, when I ordered my copy of Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies from my small independent bookstore I also ordered another book.
That second book was Michael Edelson’s HEMA based novel The Talhoffer Society (2015). Why is this relevant? Because it turns out that Edelson’s book is a print-on-demand book. It turns out that due to the miracle of digital technology we have gone full circle back to when an individual could own their own printing press and turn out books on demand in the churchyard of St. Paul’s – or in their basement for that matter. But, what is important is that the economics of digital duplication mean that it is possible to squirt some ink on some paper and glue on some card stock for a cover and deliver the resulting 268 page book to Kingston for a paltry $17. Yes, that is correct, seventeen dollars, printed and delivered to my waiting hands. Incredible? Yes. Astounding? Yes. Ironic, shocking, ridiculous, etc., when the book is literally sitting on the counter next to the $65.95 Tainter book? Yes, absolutely. Yes, only anti-competitive protectionism of the most draconian sort can save this situation for the poor capitalists. Or can it? Well, let’s look at the capitalist competition to see if there is hope that we can avoid the ravages to the economy due to it entering its terminal stage.
When I look on line, even Amazon Canada lists Tainter’s book at $49.60 while Edelson’s print on demand book is listed as “in stock” and actually costs one cent more than I paid at my local independent bookstore – $17.01. Hmmm. Well, here is a little known fact about Amazon that perfectly captures how terminal capitalism works. Amazon, like Wal-to-Wall-Mart does make a profit. But, due to its extremely low margins, in order to make the same amount of profit as a competing bricks-and-mortar store it has to sell fourteen times as much merchandise. Fourteen times! Meanwhile, while it sells fourteen times as much merchandise as its competitors, they all go out of business since they can not make any profit competing with margins that low. This is called the “race to the bottom.” And it ends where we are now located and it is not a happy place. Food riots in Venezuela aside, regular people end up with no job, no money, and stop spending even though they would like to continue. The economy then tanks and capitalists are forced to offer incentives to people to take on even more unsustainable debt than they already have, since borrowing on credit is the only way to keep spending money when you have no job. Finally, the situation gets so ridiculous that the insane becomes “normal” and presto, we end up with negative interest rates where they pay people to take on more debt. If you have any kind of dim intuition at all that this is a bad thing rather than a good thing then congratulations. There may still be hope for you.
And, you can see now why I just had to publicly cop a plea and make my true confession about the Tainter book. When a book that should cost $17, instead costs $65, we may conclude that the experiment called capitalism has run its course and was a dismal failure. Now it’s time to grab that $65 book and head for the hills where hopefully there is a nice cloistered courtyard with a vegetable garden waiting for you to hide in as you sit hoping the terminal death throes of corporate capitalism do not also kill the entire planet and everybody on it. Oh wait, they're telling us Russia is evil now – better build a fallout shelter under the garden as well.