Go Martha

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Published

June 7, 2006
OnTheCommons.org

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In the precincts of Rightward opinion, they dismiss concerns about the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else as the effluvium of envy and other base motives. But the problems are real, as a visit to most Third World countries would attest. One of the biggest, and least discussed, is the way vast wealth insulates people in high places from the impacts of their own decisions and behavior, and from the problems the rest of us confront every day.

People who fly in executive jets never experience the travail that air travel today has become. People with staffs to pay their bills miss the joy of dealing with credit card companies, with their multitude of tricky ways to extract more money from us. Dick Cheney and George W. Bush never will have to worry about medical insurance; and it shows in the ideological and cavalier way in which they purport to deal with the problem for everyone else. (I suspect neither has to wait in telephone help line queues either.)

Little wonder that problems such as this never get addressed. The people with the power to address them don’t have to experience them. When they do it’s news, and a hint of the change that might occur if it happened more often. An example came at a recent digital industry conference sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, and through a most unlikely person – namely, Martha Stewart.

I have not counted myself among Martha’s fans. I have heard the same stories you have. But the lady does have pluck; and on TV she has an earthy touch that can’t be entirely feigned. At the conference, Howard Stringer, CEO of the Sony Corp., had just finished a presentation, when, as a WSJ reporter put it, “an irritated customer stepped up to the microphone.”

The Journal report continued:

“It was none other than Martha Stewart, founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., holding up a tote bag filled with all the charging devices she said she needs to power up the electronic gear she packed for her trip. She held up one device for her camcorder, one for her Vaio laptop computer, another for her digital camera and still another for her cellphone – until she had a handful of electronic spaghetti.

“’Why can’t this thing be this thing?’ Ms. Stewart demanded of the Sony Chief, referring to two seemingly-identical objects.’” (“Then you need these things in all your houses,” she added, thus reaffirming the wealth gap even as she was, for the moment, bridging it.)

It’s a good question. Why can’t Sony, and other manufacturers, make electrical adaptors uniform, so we don’t need a different one for each device we buy? Why can’t they be like AA batteries, which are the same for any radio or flashlight?

Printer cartridges are even worse. Not only is there a bewildering – and totally unnecessary — array of them. The manufacturers design them to be hard to refill, even though the cartridges work fine for several reloads. Lexmark actually claimed in court that refilling was an infringement under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

Then there’s auto parts, and a host of other things. A little uniformity would bring enormous savings to us as individuals, and to the entire economy.

The reason for the complexity has little to do with engineering, which seeks the simple and efficient. It has much to do with intellectual property games. By making each cartridge different, the manufacturers try to get a lock on the replacement business. Patents enable them to keep that business for themselves, and to charge an arm and a leg. Ditto auto parts.

By the same token, if electrical adaptors were uniform, then the manufacturers couldn’t sell a new one with every device they sold. Stringer actually conceded this indirectly when he told Stewart that for the last three years, “the most profitable division [at Sony] was the components division.

The waste is enormous. We have to buy stuff we shouldn’t need. Retailers must devote oceans of space to things that shouldn’t take so much. Dumps fill up with stuff that ought to be reuseable. It’s all propped up by the intellectual property system that they tell us is a spur to innovation. They don’t mention that much of the innovation aims mainly to get more money from us with no corresponding benefit. (I’ll leave copycat prescription drugs et al for another day.)

It’s not often that someone gives voice to the resulting frustration that the big shots have to listen to. Thank you Martha Stewart. Even if you weren’t entirely serious, we’ll take it anyway. Now if you can just get a few of your important friends to speak up too, maybe we could get a little action.

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