Tuesday, August 31, 2010

But wait...

I heard a couple things lately that made me think, "But wait!" And it occurred to me a few days ago that they were related, and that I should blog them, and am finally getting around to that now. Ahem.

While I was back in Wyoming for a couple days Jess and I talked with Laura and she said that “lifestyle politics” were fruitless (paraphrased a lot), that only systemic change would ultimately work. Being the self-absorbed lifestyle politician that I am, my first thought was to vegetarianism. But wait! Surely us vegetarians make a difference (the conversation wasn't about vegetarianism but that was the first thing that came to my mind)! I didn't say anything at the time; I was thinking through my thoughts and by the time I had anything worth saying the conversation had moved on.

Then I was reading Penny Arcade and saw Gabe and Tycho talk about used-game sales. Day 1, Day 2, and comic. I think the really critical statement is Tycho's from day 2: “What I have said is that the end result of that purchase from a developer perspective must be indistinguishable. Isn't it? That is the question I couldn't answer. I still can't answer it. And because I couldn't, I had to change the way I invested my leisure dollar.” But wait! Surely Tycho's stand against used game purchases can't possibly be effective against the power of free exchange, can't possibly change the market dynamics.

Well, I know a little bit about the power of consumers to change markets. Literally, a little bit, not a lot. I used to work for a market research firm that, unrelated to my own work for them, studied restaurant menus. One thing I heard about the office is that most restaurants have at least two vegetarian entrees on their menus. In my experience, this sounds about right, and I'll add that many of them point out their vegetarian items specifically. That's mostly on the shoulder of us lifestyle politicians, but what does it mean? Not much. Honestly, most restaurant chefs seem to be trained in an anti-vegetarian culture. Their token vegetarian entrees, on the whole, aren't all that appetizing and certainly aren't very nourishing. And, more to the point, conditions for animals to be eaten still suck, and we aren't eating less meat than ever as a society.

A stance to eat vegetarian, or a stance to not buy used games (not considering the merits of the causes), can only matter to a very limited degree. It's an appeal to people to act against their self interests. So Laura is right on this, and Tycho is wrong. It's systemic change that matters. Specifically regarding conditions of production for foreign-made goods, ensuring baseline labor standards as a prerequisite for trade could make a difference; boycotts can't do much. Regarding meat (I've said this before), holding the agriculture industry accountable for environmental damage, banning inhumane practices, and removing grazers from Federal lands in the West (there's a very large book in the SPL book spiral about this, it's around the 300s, can't miss it) would cause a far greater reduction in meat consumption than vegetarianism and veganism among consumers. Regarding video games (and software generally) the industry's move away from physical distribution has a far bigger effect on the used market than any action of consumers against their self-interest could.

As for the merits of the causes, I happen to think there's a clear difference. I happen to think Tycho is mistaken in his thinking about the value of the used game market. Markets for used durable goods are great for people without much money to spend. And, as the value of the right to sell or lend is typically encoded in the value of a new good, producers ultimately are compensated somewhat for the existence of a used market. Think: most people wouldn't be willing to pay as much for a new car if they had to junk it instead of trading it in when they were done with it, and most people would buy new ones less often as well. If game producers want to sell something that can't be resold effectively that's their business. They're surely aware that consumers will value it less, but not by much. The existence of a used market in most commodities, including games, benefits consumers greatly (especially low-income consumers) and hurts producers a little bit. It's probably a net benefit overall. But ultimately there's no ethical dilemma here, just a balance of power between producers and consumers, each of whom have plenty of good options in the marketplace.

Tycho has sympathy for developers and creative people in the games industry, and sees the difficult conditions they face whether working for large or small companies. For those working at large companies, they have to work against the large supply of people willing to do their jobs and their own refusal (as a group) to unionize (unionization would likely improve conditions for programmers with jobs at the expense of those without and their employers); without these conditions changing they'll always face tough conditions. And market conditions are tough for small software companies, especially those that want to innovate, but tilting the balance of power generally toward industry by eliminating the used game market doesn't really help them much — the big studios will always find ways to leverage their advantages of scale. So for the one part of the whole ecosystem that Tycho chooses to focus on, used games can't really change the situation much. It seems that at best, a refusal to buy used games might have a neutral effect overall.

Meanwhile the plight of animals and the environment in the agriculture industry is a question of externalization. The major losers are never involved in the transaction, cannot be players in the market. I don't think there's much question of the total direction of the industry. A refusal to participate in it, and publicizing the cause of its boycott, thus clearly is a positive thing, though small compared to the potential of systemic change. It's also a small step that's practical for almost anyone (especially because using animal products isn't all that much in most people's self-interest these days, if at all).

But the merits of the causes are really peripheral to the point. I just felt like arguing on the Internet there. With myself (I respond to Gabe and Tycho's ideas because I respect them, but they're rather unlikely to read and respond to me).

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