Friday, October 26, 2012

New Business Model

Much of my professional life over the past 5 years has been in studying the changes to the way that scholarly publishers do business and collect revenue. I don't have time to go into detail now, but will only say that it is inevitable that the service which academic journals provide will soon be paid for by a different group than has done so in the past. We call it a "new business model," and it basically means that author-scientists benefit more from these journals than reader-scientists and that therefore the costs will shift from library subscribers to manuscript submission or publication fees.

I can't help but think about a new business model that the American political establishment chooses to ignore. It goes like this: every American president, member of Congress and most other elected officials see one of their primary duties as the creation of jobs or at least of economic conditions that favor increased production and growth which would favor a greater number of employment opportunities. But what this ignores is that increased economic production and growth necessarily means greater consumption but nobody will say this out loud.

The reason is that consumption, although used as an economic term, has negative connotations. Consumerism is bad, we've learned in the past few decades both because it generally means an increase in consumption of natural resources or in a psycho-social degradation of the society we became so proud of in the mid-20th century. Producing more goods and services means that more of the earth will be plowed, mined, resurfaced or paved and that more automobiles, airplanes and ships will burn more fossil fuels and deposit more residue in our air and oceans ultimately affecting the ability of our earth to sustain us 7 billion.

But nobody wants to say that.

The old business model has our elected officials falling all over themselves to get a certain industry or corporation to move operations to the home jurisdiction. Some years ago the state of Maryland extended all sorts of perks and incentives to  the Marriott Corporation to convince them to keep their headquarters in Montgomery County rather than moving across the Potomac river to Fairfax, Virginia.

This kind of thing happens everywhere and although most of us citizens generally object to the notion of giving tax breaks or building roads and infrastructure purely for these mammoth corporations, we as workers generally like it when it happens specifically to us. We rail against corrupt politicians who will only vote on a sensible piece of legislation if it contains a provision for some government spending or economic development in his or her legislative district. But if we happen to live in that district--and we need a job--we tend to soften our opposition.

In order to reverse the degradation of our natural resources, we have not to prohibit certain consumer behaviors or undertake a concerted and long-term campaign of public service announcements trying to change behavior. Rather we need to price a livable earth with all its components (clean air and water or undisturbed forests, for example) so that any economic products that detract from those components have to bear the cost. Therefore the price of most everything would go up and we would consume less. Our earth would be more livable, but our personal "standards of living" (as defined narrowly in popular culture) would decline.

Such a new business model is inevitable if we want to avoid a biological catastrophe.

But nobody wants to say that.

Except maybe Al Gore.

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