Thursday, January 1, 2015

Capitalism, Science and Technics, and the Economy of Human Progress

No to unfettered capitalism.

One can argue that landing a man on the moon was the greatest accomplishment – certainly from a scientific/technical standpoint – in human history.  And of course there are other great accomplishments in space exploration history, the Voyager missions being one example.  There have been important practical spinoffs of immense utility that have come from the space program.

If in the future, if humanity reaches the stars and colonizes other worlds, if we are able to avert an asteroid/comet collision, or do any of the things we could be capable of doing (if Whites survive), then we will have the space program to thank – and also the military program, which has also resulted in important spin-off technologies (and of course, there has been important cross-fertilization between the space and military programs, in rocketry for example).

So, was the space (and military) program an example of “free market” capitalism?  Free enterprise?  Big business?  Wall Street?  No, it was not.  It was a big government project, funded by the taxpayer, primarily done for reasons of national prestige, national competition, and for scientific discovery.  Not the profit motive. Indeed, Neil Armstrong on the moon was the sort of “public spending” that libertarian conservatives (including some in the “movement”) decry.

We are told as well that there should be no government funding of basic science research (I won’t even mention the idea of some libertarians that national defense should also be privatized.  Why not?  We can have a Chinese-owned corporation [outsourcing is cheaper, more profits!] handling the US nuclear arsenal. Makes perfect sense).  This is due to serious misunderstandings about the nature of capitalism and of science/technics. 

Looking at biomedicine, are the cutting edge treatments that Big Pharma makes so much money off of – are most of these originally developed by Big Pharma?  Was the original research that investigated the fundamental processes targeted by these treatments conducted by Big Pharma? For the most part, that is not how such discoveries are made. The sort of basic science research that eventually leads to new treatments is usually conducted in academic (usually government funded) research laboratories. This is the “high risk/high reward” phase (from a capitalist viewpoint) – some avenues of research yield no positive outcome, many discoveries have no immediate use but eventually over time prove to be of immense value, and some seem to have more immediate utility. These latter move to small biotech for development and, if things look promising, finally move to Big Pharma for the latter stages of development and clinical trials. The large corporations – obsessed with profits, red tape, and diversity training – are not the ones doing the bulk of the basic discovery work.  And as those discoveries with no immediate use eventually are found to have utility, then those discoveries go through the same pipeline up the corporate ladder.  The same process holds for discoveries in chemistry, physics, astronomy, what have you. With respect to technics, the same applies as well.

If one considers important discoveries and inventions, the source of these is typically one of the following:

1. Private individual inventors and hobbyists, thinking up discoveries on their own, or inventing by tinkering in their garage, based as much on scientific curiosity, hobby interests, thirst for fame and acclaim, etc. as on the idea that their idea/invention will be immediately marketable, and

2. On the other end of the scale, you have big government projects run for national interests (e.g., NASA, Pentagon) or government (or non-for-profit NGO)-funded academic laboratories.

You are not seeing corporations, small business owners, Wall Street, etc. driving basic science research, space exploration (private businesses building rockets or launching satellites is not basic science or exploration, it’s utilizing existing technologies to make a buck), etc. You don’t see the investors on “Shark Tank” putting their money into fundamental basic science research.

The reason should be obvious. Capitalism is about making money.  It is about profit.  The profit motive yields tunnel vision and short-term thinking.  Investors want a return on their investment within a reasonable time frame and they want some sort of assurance of a high probability of success. They will fund incremental improvements in existing technologies. They will fund new technologies only if these are patentable and will be able to enter the marketplace in the near future. Investors will not, repeat NOT, invest in basic science research resulting in non-patentable discoveries that serve the common good. They are not interested in knowledge for the sake of knowledge. There’s no profit in national prestige. They are not interested in a fundamental discovery that may take a generation or two to make its impact and become potentially marketable. They are not comfortable in investing in basic science research in which there is no guarantee of even the hypothesis to be tested being correct. A capitalist at the turn of the 20th century would have invested in a more efficient train steam engine while laughing at the Wright brothers.  A capitalist today will invest in an incremental improvement in an existing drug than in some radical new research direction that may be able to effect a complete cure of the disease in the future. What interest does a capitalist have in sending a spacecraft to look at Pluto?  How will Pluto boost their profit margins?  Who knows?  Who cares?

I believe that if ALL was left up to big business and profits, we probably would be at the level of technology of the 1920s today, if even that.  Incremental advancement is too slow. Leaving discoveries of immense importance undiscovered because a selfish fatcat can’t see a way of turning a profit off of it is a recipe for complete societal stagnation. We can’t depend on a system that makes ballplayers and rap singers fabulously wealthy to have the long-term vision to invest in the common good of humanity. All you need to do is look how business interests have betrayed the race through the promotion of cheap labor immigration (hypocritically socializing the costs while privatizing the profits – if they really believe in free market libertarianism, then they can pay for the schooling, medical care, policing, etc. of their imported employees – or pay them enough so that they can afford it themselves. But, no. As part of unending corporate welfare, we have to pay the benefits for their employees).

Capitalism: crush the infamy!