[Ed: continued from Part VIII which was published here yesterday.]

How the market fails to provide what the customer wants

There is no better modern example of the market failing to provide what the customer both needs and wants than the computer industry. If it was driven by the customer, the computer industry would produce hardware and software which was easy to install, had continuity of use, was simple to use and was supported by adequate helplines and manuals. The industry signally fails to do any of these things.

Hardware and software are of course purchased in ever greater volume and computer services, including maintenance, continue to swell. But that is not an indication of customer satisfaction. Rather, it is simply a reflection of how computers have become an inescapable part of our lives, not only as obvious computers but also in the guise of so many of the other machines we use – everything from phones to intelligent clothes. Business and public administration have become so dependent on their use that they cannot do without them. That being so, whatever is on offer, however unsatisfactory, is bought out of sheer necessity. The computer companies have the modern world over a barrel.

It might be objected that although most people cannot completely escape computers at their work, they do not have to bring them into their private lives. Yet increasing numbers buy computers for private use.

Why do they do that if the machines are so unreliable and demanding? Simple: once a significant minority have private computers and business uses them very widely, it becomes very difficult for the rest to resist,  not least because businesses and government increasingly require those dealing with them to do so by computer. But there are other pressures as well.

We have long passed the point where a handwritten document is likely to be read by most people in business unless it is an order or payment. Now, except between social contacts, everything must be word-processed to be acceptable. A word processor or access to one has become a sine qua non for anyone who wishes to be taken seriously. Even amongst private individuals, a letter is increasingly seen as unusual or even quaint.

With emails, we have not come to the stage that telephone ownership reached a quarter of a century ago when not to have a phone became considered eccentric, but we are rapidly moving towards it.

Employers increasingly wish to contact employees by email wherever they are and this means the choice is often between having a computer and email at home or not having a job.

Those with school age children, whatever they think of computers, find it next to impossible to deny their children not only a computer but access to the internet, both because the children want it to match their peers and because they have been brainwashed into believing that a computer is essential.

In short, people are increasingly being driven to become computer owners and users not because they actively want to, but because they feel isolated and excluded if they remain computerless. Again, as with the analogy between telephones and emails, within the foreseeable future, someone without a computer is in danger of becoming in the eyes of the majority as much as an oddity as someone without a TV is now considered.

Relative poverty, wealth and power

Even if most people or even all people were in absolute terms better off as a consequence “free trade”, that does not mean that their general situation has improved in power terms.

Wealth is not merely an advantage for what it can directly buy but also for the power it brings. The poor are doubly disadvantaged by their poverty by their restricted ability to purchase what they want and their subordination to those who can purchase anything they desire. Consequently, the ordinary man or woman may well be happier and freer in a society which is materially poorer overall but which is less oppressive through the absence of great differences in wealth. Charles Darwin in the Voyage of the Beagle describes a port in South America which suffered an earthquake while the Beagle was there in harbour. The town attached to the port was virtually destroyed and its inhabitants were reduced at least temporarily to the same material level. Darwin noted the happiness, almost gaiety, of the population after this happened.

The example of Britain is instructive when it comes to relative wealth. Until the 1970s, inequalities in wealth were narrowing. Despite all the puffing of the “trickle down” of wealth which supposedly results from Thatcherite “free market” practices, wealth distribution has not changed dramatically over the past quarter century of “free market” policies by successive British governments.

A Royal Commission (1976-79) on the distribution of income and wealth found that in 1976 the top 1 percent of the population owned 25% of all personal wealth, the top ten percent raked in 60% and the bottom eighty percent had a measly 23% (Penguin Dictionary of Sociology p72). The Inland Revenue figures for wealth distribution in 2002 show the top 1 percent own 23% of national wealth and the bottom fifty percent of the population have a staggeringly small 6% (Office of National Statistics (ONS) website – published 2004). Those figures, eye-opening as they are, conceal the fact that wealth inequality in 2002 would be much greater than 1976 were it not for the increase in home ownership and the rise in house prices.

Another ONS report (2005) entitled “The long shadow of childhood” (TLSOC) based on research by the London School of Economics concludes that there has been remarkably little change in social mobility in Britain over the past 30 years. The study was based on census records between 1971 and 2001.

TLSOC also demonstrated how the social and economic status of children is very much tied to that of the parents. For example, more than two-thirds of those with parents in professional or managerial jobs managed to take a degree: of those with semi-skilled/unskilled parents, 14 percent had a degree.

[To be continued tomorrow in UKIP Daily.]

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