The menace of getting too much for free

Most of us are willing to do things we like to do for little or no money. The payoff may be simple recognition. Passionate amateurs have made many great discoveries. Crowdsourcing is allowing us to tap into even wider expertise. Isn’t great if people are willing to contribute their time to great endeavors such as Wikipedia or the search for intelligent life or any of the many other collective projects? Maybe not.

I take lots of pictures and post articles on my blog sites. All my stuff is "creative commons." Sometimes people ask my permission to use my words or pictures; sometimes they just use them. I am happy just to be useful. Many of us are like this and it has been good. But the Internet's capacity to aggregate information and make it available on massive scales may be making this generation virtue into a vice.

Think about those pictures. There used to be people who made a living as photographers. Most of them really liked to take pictures, which is why they were in the business, but they WERE in business. They got paid for what they did and some of them could make a living doing it. The very top of the photography word still makes lots of money. But most of the rank and file photographers are being pushed out of the business by people like you and me providing similar quality at the unbeatable price of free.

The same goes for lots of other creative people, such as writers, musicians or speakers and even teachers. The Internet dynamic here is similar. People don't need to pay for the middle quality writing or music because it is all free on Internet. On the other hand, the Internet enhanced the power of the superstars. With the cost of each additional iteration of the product approaching zero, everybody will buy only from those they consider the very best.
There used to be a market for artists who were imitative of the star musicians or writers. This niche is gone with the electrons. These semi-talented artists were subject to ridicule; they supplied the characters for comedy shows or Twilight Zone episodes, but they were able to earn a living. Today they give it away on Internet in the usually futile hope that their talent will be recompensed.

Sometimes they get significant numbers of fans or followers, but the currency of Internet fame doesn't usually translate to real bucks in the pocket. There are enough winners in this game to keep the legions of suckers running the rat race, but it is a lot like basing your retirement planning on lottery tickets.

The danger is coming to teaching and universities with effective distance learning. We love the concept of being able to learn at our own rates, maybe to do so for free. This is great. But consider how it works. Take the Khan Academy. This is a great step forward in many ways. Millions of people will learn things they would not otherwise have known. A talented teacher like Sal Khan can reach millions of people. Never in a lifetime could he reach as many people as he can in a half-hour of recording. And this recording will never get tired. It can go on almost into infinity. It replaces millions of math and science teachers. It replaces millions of math and science teachers. Few of them were as innovative as Sal Khan, but they were part of a math and science community. The community which was once networked and diverse is now gone. Advocates will say that the Khan students are networked to each other and that is certainly one of the great strengths, but they are tied to the top.

Perhaps resistance is indeed futile and we should all assimilate into the greater good. More people will learn math or science. More people will hear great music or see great writing. But fewer people will be creating it. More correctly, lots of people will dronishly be creating things that nobody appreciates enough to pay for. A few, happy few, will be reaping the rewards of all this Zuckerburg style. Millions of Facebook users work for him and don't expect to get paid. In fact, most don't even know they are working for big Mark. I am not sure that Zukerberg knows they are working for him. He thinks he is giving them a free service. It is a perfect deception when even the deceivers are deceived.

I don't have a solution to propose. I am guilty myself; I am an enabler. A few hundred people will read this blog. I have never met most of you; none of you would be willing to pay me for what I write and I don't expect it. But I am aware of the dilemma. I am writing essays that in an earlier age would never be read by anybody at all. If I wanted to be "published" I would start with short essays or stories that few people would read, but my goal would be to find a big enough audience to make some money from writing. There would be a vetting process, but some people would make money for the type of thing I give away for free. I have a good job that makes me a "gentleman of leisure" who can engage in the luxury of writing w/o expectation of profit. But is it perhaps immoral NOT to make a profit? We dilettantes put would-be professionals out of business. Wouldn't it be better if some poor suckers with talent but w/o a day job could aspire?

Those of you who were amused enough to read to the end perhaps can answer the question. You spent a few minutes with me. Thank you. We shared ideas. That is great. But maybe the hour I took to write this and the minutes dozens of you took to read it put some poor slob out of work. Not only that, it used to support an industry of others who were paid for what they did, critics, editors, printers etc. Now it's just you and me. You can tell there is no editor. You can be a critic if you want, but you will get paid the same as I do and if you want to print this for any reason just push the button.

One of the promises of technology was that everybody could be published. But technology cannot promise that everybody will be read much less appreciated or paid.

I think we are seeing a kind of "Show businessization (new word)" of our world. Some actors and singers make fantastic fortunes, but the average actor or singer makes little or nothing from the profession. Many waitresses are aspiring singers and cab drivers have dreams of acting fame. The vast majority never succeed. It is not lack of talent alone. Many talented people never make it and some talent-free individuals become famous. There is a big element of luck, being in the right place at the right time. This is why all these aspirants spend time trying to be seen or kissing the asses of people who might give them a break. It is not pleasant and it is not a good society.

When you get this kind of competition, you end up with a tournament society where a few winners get fabulously successful and most of the others get bupkis. It is great in sports, movies and American Idol, but it is no way to live for most people.

BTW - I have been reading a book called Who owns the Future. That is what stimulated lots of these ideas and I suggest you read the book too. Give the guy a little money for his work and don't depend on the free media.

Maybe we should be willing to pay a little for what we take and don't expect somebody else to give it to us for free.

Posted by Christine & John at June 8, 2013 12:59 PM
Comment #367149

Well C&J, it seems we agree on some things. What you are calling the tournament society was once called “the winner take all society” based upon a book of the same name.

With the emergence of China and it’s anti intellectual property and rampant stealing of industrial and military secrets it looks like we will not be seeing any improvement anytime soon. But with globalization (unelected governments), unfettered capitalism (including state capitalism) and “free market” economics(supply side economics) what else could we expect?

Posted by: j2t2 at June 8, 2013 2:59 PM
Comment #367150


The question is what to do about globalization. This is not the first globalization, although it is the most comprehensive. If you look at responses to earlier ones, you see that attempts at isolation don’t work. The Japanese & Chinese tried it 200 years ago with disastrous results for them. To some extent, the Brits tried it post-war. One of the saddest cases is Argentina. We Americans have actually done well, so far. But their are few choices. When they invented the shipping container everything changed.

But this particular problem is not primarily a globalization problem. It stems from technical connectedness. We are all part of it. You and I are doing it right this second. I have no idea who owns Watchblog or if he/she makes any money off it. But I am an “employee” of sorts.

I am a “gentleman of leisure” so I don’t expect ever to get paid for this. But imagine those who hope to parlay their participation into a job. It won’t happen.

I doubt Watchblog makes enough to afford to pay me or you. But somebody aggregates all this sort of stuff and can make money.

Posted by: CJ at June 8, 2013 4:23 PM
Comment #367151

Doesn’t have to be full blown globalisation or total isolation. There is a middle, called ‘centrist’. A centrist political system, aka 3rd party w/a/dif/pol/att, etc is what we need to return this country to some modicum of sanity.

Huckaby had a great show this evening. About whistleblowers throwing light into the dark corners of gov’t. Very poignant in documenting how the good get punished and the bad get promoted/moved up, F&F, IRS, NSA, gazisgate, et al. Same with the Bush admin as we well recall.

Otherwise - - 3rd party and all that

Posted by: Roy Ellis at June 8, 2013 9:20 PM
Comment #367152


The factor driving this problem is not globalism, however. It is not low cost Chinese labor that is the problem. It is the free labor that people like us provide.

It is a kind of a paradox. People volunteering and being generous is a good thing usually. But if the economy starts being based on giving things away for free, nobody gets paid and they cannot make a living.

Posted by: CJ at June 8, 2013 10:18 PM
Comment #367153

C&J globalism is corporate driven, unfettered capitalism seeking lower labor wages, minimum liability and no responsibility to clean up their mess. Low cost labor in a state capitalist system is a problem just as low cost labor in countries without labor and environmental laws is a problem. When corporations flock to these areas taking jobs with them people cannot make a living just as is the case of intellectuals giving away their writings for free. It is a problem for different people and our country as a whole.

As Roy says their can be a middle way, we don’t have to completely isolate ourselves from the world. When products come from a nation that has state capitalism and a dictatorship running state owned companies we can add a VAT to the cost of the product to even the playing field, Lets compete on a decent living standard not the lowest slave wages we can find.

Posted by: j2t2 at June 8, 2013 10:33 PM
Comment #367154


Here I am not talking about cheap labor; I am talking about FREE labor, provided right here in America. It is not just “intellectuals”. Think of all the things you get for free. The software for most things is often free. You can get free translations, free books, free news etc. Somebody produces that and many of them work for nothing.

re shipping jobs overseas - this is perhaps a related problem, but not the big one. U.S. manufacturing is as big as it has ever been, but technology does it with fewer workers. This is probably not something we want to change. Manufacturing is going the way of agriculture.

The whole world of work is changing. It is changing more than any time since at least the industrial revolution and maybe longer.

In the past 200 years, as jobs were automated out of existence, others were created, usually better in the sense of being higher paid, safer etc. Almost everybody was a farmer back then. Now only less than 3% earn money that way. No worries, we absorbed them. The same happened as manufacturing employment shrunk after 1972. This 200 year old trend was interrupted in the last recession. Jobs don’t seem to be coming back. People are speculating re the reasons. One certainly is this change in relationships with technology.

There was an interesting tangent on “On Point”. You may want to listen to it

Posted by: CJ at June 8, 2013 10:58 PM
Comment #367155

A Chinese company, Lenovo, is mfctring computers in NC. And, Smithfield Ham has been bought by a Chinese company. The profit conveys outside the US and it’s just plain sad re Smithfield.

Posted by: Roy Ellis at June 8, 2013 11:21 PM
Comment #367156


There are lots of things bad about globalism, but also lots of benefits. Our products are much better and cheaper, for example. I know we have that myth that things are getting worse, but they are not, or at least did not until the recent recession, which we hope we can recover.

There was an interesting piece in the paper a few days ago comparing products. I remember the air conditioner, which cost something like $250 back in 1972 and costs about the same today, despite inflation. But the $250 air conditioner today is much better than the one back then. It is quieter, uses less energy and does a better job at cooling. I don’t recall the exact numbers and cannot find the article, but I remember them talking about hours worked. Back in 1972, it took almost a week of work for an average worker to buy this air conditioner. Today it takes less than two days. This is the measure that really counts.

But I say again, the problem I am addressing is NOT caused by globalization. It is people working for free here in America and has to do with the structure of our technology. If there was no globalization we would still have the problem.

Re the 3rd way - there is no 3rd way. There are merely different adaptions to markets. I lived in Brazil in the late 1980s when they practiced “import substitution”, i.e. they made it difficult and expensive to import products. As a result, there were lots of local products, mostly crap. It cost more and quality was poor. Firms did not try to increase quality or lower price; they merely called for more protection. I live in Brazil again now. The laws are relaxed but not gone. Things still cost two or three times more than they do in America. The local industries that are most protected are poor performers. The ones that compete internationally are leans and efficient. You really cannot close yourself off unless you are willing to pay a high prices in cost and quality.


We feared the Japanese juggernaut. It weakened. We actually feared European investment back in the 1960s (hard to believe today). We should make sure the Chinese owners follow our laws and it will be okay. It is good to be a country that attracts investment. Maybe we Americans should save more and spend less if we want to be investors ourselves to a greater extent.

Posted by: CJ at June 9, 2013 7:54 AM
Comment #367157

C&J, jobless recoveries have been with us since Reagan/GHWB. Recessions in ‘91, ‘01 were both jobless recoveries. GWB grew the size of the government workforce to compensate for the lack of private sector jobs.

Posted by: j2t2 at June 9, 2013 11:05 AM
Comment #367158


But in those recoveries, the jobs came back. We had more people working within five years of the end of the recessions.

The end of the Recession under Reagan was by no means “Jobless” however. In the Recessions of 1991 and 2001 jobs did return within four years. We are still waiting on this one and it doesn’t look like it is going to be robust any time soon.

We are still feeling our way to getting back to the extraordinary prosperity we enjoyed 1982-2007. But I recall that after the post-WWII prosperity collapsed in the early 1970s, it took ten years to get back on track. If the pattern is that we get around 25 years of prosperity punctuated by ten years of readjustment we cannot blame Obama yet for the doldrums.

But - again - I am writing about a particular problem having to do with people working for free and having their work aggregated by technology for profit by some. I fear that this might be a difference with more robust recoveries in 1982, 1991 and even 2002.

Posted by: CJ at June 9, 2013 11:30 AM
Comment #367161

C&J, I can understand the particular issuem you speak of is people working for free being a new trend and some technology companies opportunistically making money from the labor of these individuals.

However I see it as not a new trend but a slight adjustment to the longer trend I mentioned previously in this thread. Whether it is good or bad remains to be seen. With talks of seceding and revolution in the air perhaps the venting of anger at the changes wrought by technology, globalization and such will keep us at a relative peace a bit longer.

Yes C&J jobs did come back in previous jobless recessions but they were lower paying and in the GWB era private sector jobs didn’t grow as much as the public sector. It took a housing bubble that led to an economic crash to get private sector jobs back. Here is an interesting bit on the issue.

Posted by: j2t2 at June 9, 2013 1:27 PM
Comment #367162


Yes, the last two recessions have been followed by relative weak recoveries, the most recent really have not yet achieved a recovery at all.

I also agree that Bush grew government too much. I have written about these things.

We can bring out the usual arguments and factoids in that sterile debate about blaming Bush or Obama for macroeconomic trends and micro changes in how society is organized, as we have so many times before, or maybe talk about something different and new.

I am just saying that this working for free and seeming to want to do it may be a new and perhaps disturbing trend. I invite you to read the book I linked and let me know what you think. Or you can listen to the radio show that inspired me to buy the book in the first place at

Either way, it is an interesting formulation.

Posted by: CJ at June 9, 2013 2:47 PM
Comment #367165

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs, artists, authors and inventors, such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Ty Warner, Wally “Famous” Amos, Ted Turner, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ansel Adams, Walter Anderson, Woody Allen and Tom Hanks are college dropouts, or even high school dropouts. While they did not earn the requisite “BS in BS” that so many of us are promised is the key to wealth and happiness, or at least a job that pays slightly more than minimum wage, these “dropouts” are nevertheless intelligent, industrious, successful and recognized in their field. With so many of the most successful people able to achieve success and recognition without a college degree, employers are wasting opportunities to hire the same type of intelligent and industrious people by placing too much emphasis, or perhaps trust, in that very expensive piece of paper from very expensive universities. In the “information age” where anyone can learn anything, anywhere and anytime he or she is connected to the Internet, is the requisite “BS in BS” college degree obsolete?

Professional certifications are helpful for employers to judge how knowledgeable we are in our field, but why are we required to pay tens of thousands of dollars to buy that very expensive piece of paper before taking the certification exams? If you have to prove you’re knowledgeable in your field by taking certification exams, then what is the point in requiring that very expensive piece of paper before taking the exam? Because you have to prove your knowledge anyway, why require that very expensive piece of paper? With Khan Academy, you can learn precalculus, calculus, physics and many other courses for the low cost of an Internet connection, which just about everyone has in the days of “always-on” Internet connectivity. Rather than sit in an overcrowded classroom with broke college students to learn trigonometry, you can watch Sal Khan teach the six trigonometric ratios for free on your iPhone while riding on the bus on your way home from working overtime at your minimum wage part time job that barely pays your bills. If only you could afford to go to a very expensive university to earn the requisite “BS in BS,” then you might make it to a job interview, and maybe, if you’re really lucky, get a job that pays a livable wage!

My first two years at my university, for the very expensive mechanical engineering degree that I’m working diligently to someday hang on my wall to admire, while barely scraping by a meager existence after paying my bills, could have been spent on Khan Academy instead. I would have learned the same material and been equally as prepared for engineering courses. If I wasn’t bamboozled in taking two years of general education courses at my university, that would have saved me thousands of dollars in tuition, fees and expenses that I could have used to pay for a slightly more than meager existence after paying my bills.

In fact, I use Khan Academy extensively while attending courses at my very expensive university to freshen up my skills and knock the cobwebs off material I “misplaced” somewhere along the way between my freshmen year of high school and sophomore year of college. It’s especially frustrating when I pay thousands of dollars for a semester and hundreds of dollars more for text books only to find myself turning to the Khan Academy to have Sal Khan make it all better because the best my overpriced and clear-as-mud text books can do is make it, let’s say, slightly less than incomprehensible. After spending all that money for the privilege of earning that very expensive piece of paper, I will have ended up learning more from the Khan Academy in my first two years at my university than I did from my very expensive college professors and overpriced and clear-as-mud text books.

Here are some additional “fun facts” on the miscellaneous fees I’m required to pay for that very expensive piece of paper: $180 per semester for a gym membership that I never use, $60 per semester for “student activities” that I have no interest in, $60 per semester to subsidize a transportation service that I never use because I drive my own car to and from campus, $100 per semester to park on campus in addition to subsidizing a transportation service I don’t use, $20 per semester to subsidize foreign exchange students, $50 per semester to subsidize healthcare for students who don’t have health insurance and last, but certainly not least, $200 per semester to subsidize college football. That $8,000 added to the cost of that very expensive piece of paper, unfortunately, doesn’t include all of the fees I pay to my university in addition to tuition and text books. I only included those fees I consider asinine.

While you can “test out” of most courses with CLEP exams, many universities, including mine, require you to attend a certain number of semester hours at their campus before rewarding you with that very expensive piece of paper. Even if you have an IQ of 160 and write books and papers on theoretical physics and string theory in your spare time, sorry, if you want that very expensive piece of paper, you better take Introductory Physics I on campus. If you take CLEP exams or online classes at one university, it’s unlikely that credit will transfer to other universities. The university system is rigged to put your butt in an overpriced and overcrowded classroom and for you to buy a whole bookshelf of overpriced and clear-as-mud n’th edition text books, that will all be replaced with the n’th + 1 edition after the next semester, at their overpriced and out-of-stock campus bookstore.

While certain courses, like chemistry, require a lab to fully understand the course material and many professional certifications require internships or a certain number of hours of “hands on” experience, I see no reason why professional certification institutions cannot ease their admission requirements so that very expensive piece of paper is not required to take their certification exams. While a certain number of individual “hands on” courses and experience are necessary for a professional certification, requiring that very expensive piece of paper to take certification exams, with all of the asinine fees that go along with it (gym membership you don’t need, subsidized college football, …), is not a sustainable system for a large workforce knowledgeable in STEM fields of study, which appears to be a 21st century prerequisite for any young person to gain admission into the middle class, or at least earn slightly more than minimum wage.

Will that very expensive piece of paper be worth it for me in the end? Hell yeah it will! I’m looking forward to the wealth and happiness I was promised with my “BS in BS,” but I’ll settle for a livable wage. However, if I was allowed to learn the first two years of course material from the Khan Academy, half the money I spent on that very expensive piece of paper could have been put into a down payment on a house, invested in my own small business, invested in my retirement or numerous other ways where I could benefit more than paying for those first two years at my university.

Posted by: Joseph at June 9, 2013 6:14 PM
Comment #367168


I believe that you can indeed get a good education through distance learning, although I think there is value being at campus.

But the whole un-bundling changes our society. In your case, you are paying for things you don’t use, but in the process keeping the system a float.

Most of us pay for useless things sometimes and most of us are ourselves useless at some times. It might not be a good thing to have a society where we all get what we deserve all the time.

I think it is a very complex problem and in many ways counter intuitive.

Take the example of your education. You pay for things you don’t use, but are you sure those things are useless?

If you just take what you need, perhaps you are taking advantage of the community benefits created by others.

Let me give an example from a different area. There is a new phenomenon of lunch trucks. They offer lower prices than restaurants. But they can do so because their lower costs come from being parasites. They don’t maintain buildings; people eat in public parks, which the lunch trucks don’t pay to maintain. It just is not easy to know the value of everything.

Posted by: CJ at June 9, 2013 6:37 PM
Comment #367171


There is value in interacting with people that is more valuable than the “asinine” fees you are paying.
It’s great that you are supplementing your education online, however, at the end of the day you still will have to be able to deal with real humans, and you can’t get that experience on-line.


All lunch trucks are not created equal.

Believe me, working at a construction site this is something I have experience with.


Posted by: Rocky Marks at June 9, 2013 8:20 PM
Comment #367174


Lunch trucks coming to a construction site is one thing. I have been seeing them parked in front of restaurants on city streets. I sometimes eat there. But as I think about it, I am not sure they are a good thing. They live as parasites on the city services. They have low costs because they park on free space; somebody else provides a place to eat and picks up the garbage. I have seen people get lunch at the truck and then go into a restaurant and join friends, somethings buying a token drink or something. It is bad manners.

A related thing is “Show rooming” where people go into stores to look at products, maybe even try on clothes, and then buy cheaper on Internet.

All these things save money, but if lots of people do them we will lose lots of things we think are good.

In the natural world, it is like vines. They climb trees w/o the need for making their own wood. Often they end up killing the host.

Posted by: CJ at June 9, 2013 11:03 PM
Comment #367179

Magnify that scenario up x1M and recognize the affect of globalism where corporations seek out the worlds cheapest labor. Example: hat made in China cost $.13 and sold in the US for what, $25 in some stores.

Some people, like Archer & Daniel & Midland receive gov’t guarantees for the crops they produce. Some people, like construction workers, don’t.

Most do not ask for, or expect all things to be fair. But, we should at least point out the massive, gaping inequities, where they exist.

Otherwise - - -

Posted by: Roy Ellis at June 10, 2013 2:04 PM
Comment #367180


Chinese workers are becoming relatively more expensive and some firms are moving work back to the U.S., where infrastructure is better.

But, as I wrote above, the competition is not from cheap Chinese labor in this case, but from free labor right here in the U.S.

Posted by: CJ at June 10, 2013 2:36 PM
Comment #367182

C&J, seems what you are expressing is the ebb and flow of competition in a somewhat democratic society. I’m sure that in every major city there is a continuous political/economic war going on tween the ‘roach coaches’ and the restauranteurs. Today’s meal on wheels owner may become tomorrows McDonalds.

We have had a good ride with no Internet sales tax but that is changing even as we flog the keyboard. Some businesses will go asunder while others become capitalist incarnates.

I am just perplexed as to why you want to debate micro issues with such huge problems swirling around the current.

I tend to want to bang against the big issues but do feel that whether micro or macro its a useless use of words. To be effective one has to have a lot of free speech at hand, in the bank, etc.

Some more ‘free stuff’: Lowes’s and Home Depot’s six month no pay. 0% auto financing. A company building 3 or 4 stores around his competition until the competition gives up. Two suits for the price of one. Free over head baggage storage. The list of micro freebies is long - - -

But, all these things of which we speak are - - regulated. Now, there is where the rubber meets the road. If xyz roach coach tries to move into a city where abc roach coach is established there can be a battle royal, unless well regulated.

This regulation thing is broad in nature. Covers F&F, IRS, FISA, Patriot Act, HHS employees using insider info to bias their stock portfolios as it relates to Medicare policy, and so on - - -.

Of course, regulation works its way back to Corpocracy and thus, we come full circle.

Otherwise - - -

Posted by: Roy Ellis at June 10, 2013 5:15 PM
Comment #368284

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Comment #369292

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