Friday, March 09, 2007

Making Red Cents

In a response to "Not One Red Cent", I wrote, in part: "... if I'm in the market for an item [iPod nano] that's in the RED line-up, and the only differences between the RED version and the non-RED version are the color and the earmarking of some funds by the corporation to the charity, then why not choose the RED one?"

Dave Marsh responds:

The only argument against it that I can see is that you'd be encouraging Bono and those who think like him. I've never made arguments against the Red products. No need to. (A nano is not sufficient for my needs, so that's taken care of.)

A secondary argument would be: What is that $10?

Let's assume, which is not a correct assumption, almost an impossible one, that all $10 goes to some sort of African program designed to treat, prevent or (least likely) research new treatments for AIDS. There's no GFund overhead, the expenses of the Red board are covered some other way, the ads come out of the Apple not the Red/GF budgets.

You've made your purchase, a couple hundred dollars I think. Where is that $10 in the Apple scheme? Is it over and above profit? Does Apple make $10 less on a Red I-Pod Nano, than on any other model?

Not exactly. Even if they do make $10 less direct profit, they write that $10 off as a business and/or charitable expense; so $5 (or probably more) of it comes out of every U.S. (etc) taxpayer's pocket, one of the reasons that Bono et al dig the project so much, they're playing with other people's money in more ways than one. The consumer, of course, gets no such deduction. (Well, I would, because it's a business tool for me. Honest. But I recognize this as an exceptional case and so should you, or else I'll put on my dark glasses and recite AIDS statistics to make you feel guilty until you stop.)

But even if I'm wrong about that, which I'm not, that $10 symbolizes how much excess profit Apple finds in I-Pod Nanos, of all colors. Where does that profit come from? To know that in detail we'd have to know the wages of Apple workers, the wages of the people who make the parts, the wages of people who mine or otherwise develop and extract the raw materials from which the parts are made. They are making a non-tax-deductible donation too. I guess. Some of them are almost certainly African, given what raw materials are used in computers; some have AIDS, no doubt about that.

It doesn't sound to me like the Apple shareholders and corporate officers are making a contribution. I don't think the share value or the profit picture is adversely affected. Maybe it's conscience money.

On the other side of it, the $10 makes a statement. One of those statements is "I care." A worthy statement and when logically worked out as a conscious choice, laudable because heartfelt. I reserve my applause however because of the other statements made by buying Red, I-Pod or otherwise (since every corporation in the Red scheme has the same situation).

One of those is "Red is a worthy, functional program that leverages our purchasing dollars in a useful way." Perhaps.

Another is "Red has the right idea." Here I disagree very strongly with the premise--I think it's a very bad idea for reasons already cited ad nauseaum -- because it seems to me that there are very many better ways to provide AIDS relief. I think that the claim that Red is a means to create an Africa in which the overall standard of living is raised for everyone, which Bono consistently implies (and all other Red rhetoric sort of glides on by with a finger to its lips to encourage the hush), is too silly to be taken seriously by anybody with a speck of knowledge of how either international investment or international philanthropy works.

But you are voting "Yes" on that implicit question, too.

Which is more important, getting a lot of money to people with AIDS in Africa via vehicles like the Global Fund or opening people's eyes to what really causes there to be an epidemic of untreated AIDS anywhere in the world but particularly Africa? We can disagree about this. It can be a productive disagreement. But only if we have the dialogue.

Red says several things about this.
A) You don't need to have the dialogue, this is all being decided at a higher level. (One of the reasons what I wrote angers responders so much may be that I insist throughout that there is no higher level than the polis at large).
B) Demanding the dialogue expresses a callous indifference to the everyday plight of PWA in Africa. (Bono says this explicitly to the Times columnist.)
C) Such dialogue will not be effective; it's a fool's play, even damaging because the ONLY way we can achieve any relief for PWA in Africa is through this process. (Which is really a piece of circular logic leading us back to A)).
D) People will always be poor and diseases that are treated in rich places will not be treated in poor ones unless by the largesse of the rich. (This assumption underpins the logic of A leading to C.)
E) If we ask too many questions of our betters, the program will fail and then NOTHING will be done, because only our betters--those already rich and powerful--can do things. (This is the threat, the iron fist in Bono's velveteen glove.)

I think those are some very good reasons not to buy Red. But admittedly, if all you're looking to do is shift some of your excess cash to somebody who is "doing something about" whatever social problem has your attention at the moment, it'll get the job done. If you think that contributing excess cash (yours, mine, Bono's, Phil Knight's, Steve Job's, Bill Gates') is the right way to alleviate social ills, I'm dead wrong.

And yet, we have been doing things this way for 50 or 150 years and how much have things improved as a result? I do not think that the philanthropy of Jay Gould and the Rockefellers and Andrew Carnegie or even Alfred Nobel lead to the development of antibiotics.

OTOH, I've helped raise about $6 million to try to solve a medical problem within an institution created and still largely controlled by Rockefeller and DuPont/GM financial interests. I didn't and don't see anywhere else to go on that one. And I looked for the alternatives.

In Africa, and on broader social questions in general, I think there are other approaches. I think $10 to the World Social Forum organizations would bring more benefit. To Africans. Poor ones. (Not incidentally to the real bogey man hiding behind Red rhetoric: The poor everywhere else.)

But that's me. This is how I think. It's OK to react to it any way you need to, including despising it for its double standard, if that's what you think the previous two paragraphs reflect.

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4 Comments:

Blogger iridescent cuttlefish said...

Hi there,

I know that some of the following commentary might seem somewhat extraneous to your current post, but there is relevance to all of it, if in a slightly roundabout fashion. Please forgive the meandering nature of my observations.

I thought you might enjoy this cross-reference of Chris Anderson's Long Tail with the foresight of everybody's favorite Uncle Frank: Frank Zappa on iTunes & The Long Tail. Now if only someone in the music biz could do a compare & contrast piece on Frank & Bono...you'd have egalitarianism and elitism on the half-shell.

(Btw, I think that having access to some music which some people might not like as readily available as the gruel that everyone's been programmed to like is a very small price to pay for diversity--some folks are actually complaining about too many choices!)

The basic fact of our existence is that the free flow of information (including music, political, economic, and scientific theory) is the greatest danger faced by those in whose interest it lies to control, control, control. Economies of scarcity are based on that type of control; economies of abundance are the antithesis of that regimentation.

We could implement Frank's vision right now, if we were allowed to. I could order that Ultimate Spinach album I haven't heard in 30 years and the surviving remnants of the band could actually get paid...or, going a little macro on you now, we could read Edwin Black to find out why we think we need oil (and hegemony and all the current controlling crap that defines our way of life)...or maybe Dave West to see why the science for life refined by George Washington Carver can't be used...or possibly even my own amateurish stuff on why regime and (cliche warning!) paradigm change begins, not "at home," but "in" the home.

The Long Tail is long overdue. Here's a little, well, maybe a lot more on what the world to which it will ultimately lead does & doesn't look like. Then there's the science & philosophy behind all of this stuff, but I won't burden you with even more imponderable links, at least for now.

Peace & Jah-love, mon (and don't stop riding Bono's whoring ass until his true colors are apparent to critics & fans alike),

IC

1:25 PM  
Anonymous Kobayashi Maru said...

What on Earth does this have to do with Bono?! I don't think you quite squared that circle in the end.

The basic fact of our existence is that the free flow of information (including music, political, economic, and scientific theory) is the greatest danger faced by those in whose interest it lies to control, control, control. Economies of scarcity are based on that type of control; economies of abundance are the antithesis of that regimentation.

I disagree with your underlying premise. Music isn't a "scarce" resource... quite the contrary, digital music files have made the marginal cost of buying a U2 (or, if you prefer, Zappa) song close to $0, with no threat of exhausting "supply" (unless a computer virus wipes out all the server-side master files, I suppose). Therein lay the problem: how would you as the artist quantify the value of something that costs essentially nothing to copy exactly? Software has faced the same challenge since... well, forever, but I'm sure I don't need to lecture you on all the complications music brings: "fair use", copyright, record labels, piracy, etc.

Forgive me, but that was an long-winded way of arguing that giving artists true control and freedom over their work is noble, but it does mean the possibility that they may not want to give it away for free, that they may wish to charge a price for it. Certainly, this is not without precedent in the art world: museums and theatres charge admission, many academic journal repositories charge for downloads, etc. That's the price we pay for true intellectual freedom.

But I think our disagreements end there for the most part. The RIAA's actions have been beyond ridiculous, and DRM has kept me a regular face at my CD store down the street. I won an iPod on the radio a while back, so I've succumbed to iTunes for hard-to-find music or cases where I really couldn't stand to buy the whole album. Steve Jobs' penchant for pissing off the RIAA, like with his anti-DRM comments and his egalitarian pricing scheme, give me a smidgen of comfort, but not much: after all, it should be the artists, not the RIAA, the record companies, or Apple, setting prices.

One question: how is Zappa's vision in the first article you linked to different from Rhapsody and other subscription-based music services?

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Dave Marsh said...

Dear Kobayashi Maru,
It doesn't have very much to do with Bono. You should have stopped reading when it said, right at the start, that it was about Apple's $10.

But you're too smart a cookie for that, you damn betcha.

6:19 AM  
Blogger Matt Orel said...

Dave wrote:

"Dear Kobayashi Maru,
It doesn't have very much to do with Bono. You should have stopped reading when it said, right at the start, that it was about Apple's $10."


Exactly. Or, I guess, the $10 of the nano proceeds that go to the fund.

The question I had asked was, "... if I'm in the market for an item [iPod nano] that's in the RED line-up, and the only differences between the RED version and the non-RED version are the color and the earmarking of some funds by the corporation to the charity, then why not choose the RED one?"

Your note had two major thrusts:
1. I'd be encouraging the thought pattern (as noted in the other blog thread);
2. "What is that $10?"

Among many points In the ensuing discussion, you asked, "Does Apple make $10 less on a Red I-Pod Nano, than on any other model?"

Good question. I looked in to that aspect of it.

When I posed my query as I did, I had only been to the Apple store online, where the RED and the non-RED iPods are listed at the same price: $249 for an 8gb model.

I thought further. nanos are sold at places besides the Apple store. Well, the non-RED ones, anyway. Turns out RED nanos are sold direct only.

So I thought a bit further, trying to keep the comparison, ahem, apples to apples.

I have a corporate discount with Apple. I still purchase through the Apple store, but by going through my portal first, I get a discount on most everything they sell.

I logged in. Sure enough, the 8gb non-RED nano was sitting there for $234. The RED nano? $249. No corporate discount on the RED model, it's full retail.

So it's not just the color that's different. The price is only the same if I'm dumb enough to pay full retail (non-RED nano discounts are easy enough to get from Costco, amazon, and other sellers). In my corporate discount example, I'd end up paying Apple $15 extra so that they could contribute $10. And Apple ends up with the good press and the write-off for making extra money off on the deal.

If I end up buying a nano, it won't be a RED.

12:51 AM  

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