The change is accelerating

By May 14, 2012Comms

When I was in college, I took an ECON 101 course. The bedrock of the course was a paper, which, despite my considerable google-fu, I can’t find for the life of me. So, here’s my inadequate attempt to reconstruct the central point from memory:

Some economies are generally meritocratic. Other economies are generally clientelist. In a meritocratic economy, you usually make purchases because someone is providing a good or service that a.) you need and b.) is better than (or provided in a way or for a price that’s better than) all competing services and products that meet your need. In a clientelist economy, you usually make purchases because someone is providing a good or service that a.) you need and b.) you have a kin/clan/patronage relationship with the provider. Whether an economy is meritocratic or clientelist is driven by culture.

The paper was a gross over simplification (hey, it was a 101 course) and touted the benefits of meritocratic economies of clientelist ones. If I remember correctly, it basically used the comparison to explain the so-called “triumph of the west.” Ugh.

Anyway, it’s a staggering oversimplification, but I do remember being struck by the experience when I was visiting Taiwan. I wanted to eat a particular kind of noodle, and my friends wouldn’t let me just go get the noodles I wanted. We had to go across town to where my friend’s cousins ran a noodle place. The kin relationship, not the quality of the good, was paramount. This same kind of thinking kicked in when I needed to replace my suitcase. I wanted to go comparison shopping and get the best suitcase I could find at the best price. The pressure to instead buy it from a friend of a friend was intense. It was a cultural shift that took some getting used to.

Obviously, I’m talking about general trends here. There are plenty of people in overall meritocratic economies who buy things based on kin/friend relationships. There are plenty of people in clientelist economies who buy things based on merit.

But that paper was my first real thinking about economics, and oversimplified and ethnocentric as it was, it stuck with me. I always assumed that I lived in a meritocratic economy, and that was that.

So, I’m visiting my mom for mother’s day this past weekend, and we walk past an independent bookstore in her small-town community of intellectuals and artists. There’s a sign in the window (this is not an exact quote – I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Our store is run and staffed by local artists and writers. We are the people who live and work alongside you. We buy your kids’ girl scout cookies and sit beside you in church. We are the people you see every day. Please remember this when you consider shopping at amazon.”

The argument isn’t, “We provide a better good or service at a competitive price.” The argument is, “You know us. You like us. Support us.”

It’s an argument I see more and more. And I see it the most in the arts, particularly in those sectors of the arts where the Internet has made end-products “non-excludable” (to quote Cory Doctorow). The meritocratic argument falls to pieces in the face of an Internet where any book, painting, movie, song or TV show you want can be had for free, or at an insanely-low “loss-leader” price from an outfit like amazon.

These are the things I think about when I consider Tor’s most recent decision to abandon DRM (of which I strongly approve). In the end, .pdf and .epub files of every book Tor publishes will be available all over the Internet for downloading at a single click. Sure, some will be on sketchy, virus-laden sites, but plenty will just be made available, clean and easy.

For free. If folks are going to pay for them, that’s going to be a conscious choice.

I spend a lot of time obsessing over the fate of publishing and the impact of the Internet on *my* little corner of the economy. Seeing that sign got me to pull the camera back a bit. It’s not just publishing. It’s not just the arts. It’s everything. It’s the whole foundation of how we value things, of how and when and where we chose to spend our money.

And the speed of that foundational change is increasing.

Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Shecky X says:

    Ideally (and more commonly for me as I go), purchases are simultaneously meritocratic and clientelist – for example, once I find a product that is the best intersection of price/value/customer-service/intangibles that I can find, I stick with it like grim death. Case in point: there’s a local mechanic who WILL get all of my business as long as I live in the area. They’re not the cheapest (not by a long shot, though they’re also not insanely expensive, relatively speaking) and they’re not overall the best (they’ve missed the mark now and then), but what they do have is the absolute desire to stand behind their work and BE THERE for the customer. They’re friendly people who are 100% honest about their work; they’ll tell you, in plain language, exactly what they’ve found wrong, the different options in fixing/replacing/ignoring/stopgapping the problem and how each option will cost AND benefit you. And they don’t pull the standard trick of finding something that’s a little off (i.e., something that is not at all dangerous, that may not even present a problem any time soon) and then saying you “must” entirely replace the whole damn thing at a massive cost of materials and labor; they’ll tell you what they’ve found but they’ll also tell you exactly what risks it may or may not pose.

    So, the initial outlay of money is a bit higher than I could almost certainly find with a little bit of shopping around, but with such a high level of personally-satisfying dedication to the customer, they will ALWAYS get my business. Because, to me, it’s worth every extra penny to 1) ensure that the problem WILL be dealt with (usually sooner than later, but never “never”) and 2) help do what I can to encourage that kind of behavior by a business. They may not be technically the best or the cheapest, but because they stand behind their work, they deliver the best overall package.

    I’m the same way with my entertainment. I’ve been outrageously fortunate to have found authors who 1) do highly enjoyable work and 2) are just plain good folks outside of their writing. So while I’m supporting the meritocratic aspect of their work by buying it, the clientelist aspect is so strong that I also go above and beyond that base to support that work as much as I can. Utterly worth it to me to 1) ensure continuing good reading and 2) help support people who are straight-up fine folks.

  • Joshua A.C. Newman says:

    I couldn’t agree more. If all you’re selling is that you’ll go out of your way to whisper something to someone and the promise that you’ll sue them if they whisper it to someone else, that’s not much of a product.

    Conversely, Mobile Frame Zero will be Creative Commons because a) there’s no way to keep it from being shared, and b) obscurity is by far the greater to my bottom line than piracy.

    It also means that I don’t have to treat my customers and fans like criminals, which sits with me juuuuust fine.

  • John Wiswell says:

    I don’t see why the appeals of these systems have to be exclusive from each other.  The appeal of a local store like the farm three streets over from me is that I know they don’t use hormones, they grass-feed, and everyone is entirely accountable and paid properly. The transparency of the small local business is easier to verify than Amazon, which it’s come out, takes advantage of a lot of people who don’t have many other choices. The stories of their packing facilities sound like something I’d rather not put money into where possible. The desire to pay as little as possible can be weighed against the desire to keep good businesses and artists afloat. That’s part of the appeal of Kickstarter, I guess – if you know the author, and they post all these updates are upfront about costs, then you get what you want out, for what you want to pay, while supporting a business you want to exist.

  • John Wiswell says:

    I don’t see why the appeals of these systems have to be exclusive from each other.  The appeal of a local store like the farm three streets over from me is that I know they don’t use hormones, they grass-feed, and everyone is entirely accountable and paid properly. The transparency of the small local business is easier to verify than Amazon, which it’s come out, takes advantage of a lot of people who don’t have many other choices. The stories of their packing facilities sound like something I’d rather not put money into where possible. The desire to pay as little as possible can be weighed against the desire to keep good businesses and artists afloat. That’s part of the appeal of Kickstarter, I guess – if you know the author, and they post all these updates are upfront about costs, then you get what you want out, for what you want to pay, while supporting a business you want to exist.

  • Mhairi Simpson says:

    Further to Shecky’s comment, my mechanic is my parents’ mechanic. Because he does brilliant work for them and is always really reasonably priced, they recommended him to me and now he gets all my work too. Quite apart from the fact that I am now his willing slave for life for saving my car-baby.

    Apart from that, I encountered the clientelist economy in South America in pretty much the same way you did in Taiwan. If you asked a local where to find something they would take you to their friend’s boyfriend’s mother’s cousin’s whatever and there was a lot of pressure to buy there. In the end I honed my skill in asking about something in such a vague way as to give the impression that I was just randomly thinking about it which forced them just to give me a recommendation without dragging me right over there this very minute. And that way I found places who treated me right and had good stock, etc, etc (one jeans shop got all my business throughout two years of buying jeans in the city).

    I think you do need both. If you’re not providing a good service, especially in the West where we’ve grown up in meritocratic economies, you won’t keep your clients beyond the first, maybe the second, purchase. But if the product is good, they’ll be yours for as long as the product is good, and the longer they stick with you, the more chances they’ll give you to produce good products. All very relevant for artists in general and writers in particular.

  • Mhairi Simpson says:

    Further to Shecky’s comment, my mechanic is my parents’ mechanic. Because he does brilliant work for them and is always really reasonably priced, they recommended him to me and now he gets all my work too. Quite apart from the fact that I am now his willing slave for life for saving my car-baby.

    Apart from that, I encountered the clientelist economy in South America in pretty much the same way you did in Taiwan. If you asked a local where to find something they would take you to their friend’s boyfriend’s mother’s cousin’s whatever and there was a lot of pressure to buy there. In the end I honed my skill in asking about something in such a vague way as to give the impression that I was just randomly thinking about it which forced them just to give me a recommendation without dragging me right over there this very minute. And that way I found places who treated me right and had good stock, etc, etc (one jeans shop got all my business throughout two years of buying jeans in the city).

    I think you do need both. If you’re not providing a good service, especially in the West where we’ve grown up in meritocratic economies, you won’t keep your clients beyond the first, maybe the second, purchase. But if the product is good, they’ll be yours for as long as the product is good, and the longer they stick with you, the more chances they’ll give you to produce good products. All very relevant for artists in general and writers in particular.

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