Damn the Man, Save the Stuff We Like
I just re-watched Empire Records for the first time since…1998? It used to be my favorite movie. It didn’t really hold up as well as I had hoped, but something did stick with me after watching it again. Remember when we used to pay for stuff in order to stick it to the man? Like at the end of the movie, where everyone comes along and buys loads of CDs and records and beer in order to keep the store alive in the face of a corporate take-over?
That movie came out in 1995, before anyone really knew what the internet was for and before everything became free. To my generation, music, movies, news, software all came free from the not-yet-illegal-but-will-be-as-soon-as-the-corporations-figure-it-out services. For us, getting stuff for free was a right that corporations were trying to deny us. Couldn’t they see that their models were out of date? Couldn’t they see that content should be freely available to everyone? Take that, Corporate America – we’re getting our stuff for free!
It didn’t help that the corporate bad guys were about as square and whiny as David Spade in PCU. They whined about how being able to get things for free was
cutting into their profits. As though teenagers care about corporate profitability. They called what we were doing piracy of all things. Like piracy’s a bad thing. And the ‘You wouldn’t steal a car’ ad campaign presumed too much. They made it so easy to hate them and all the things they stood for, just like Music Town in Empire Records (banning visible tattoos, revealing clothing, loud music, etc). Newspapers seemed trickier, but Rupert Murdoch was buying them all anyway, right?
So what changed for me? Why am I sitting here, about to click ‘confirm’ on my New York Times app subscription? I think it’s for the same reason I just donated to NPR/APM. And the same reason that I subscribe to the FT and The Economist. And the same reason that I buy music and (American) TV series on iTunes or Spotify. Because it has finally become apparent to me that what happens when you don’t pay for the stuff you like is that it either gets replaced with junk that makes money, or it gets taken away. So NPR will lose it’s funding from the federal government and good solid liberal papers will lose out to corporate Fox News.
But I think also because the recent funding debate in UK Universities has made me rethink the value we place on stuff we like. Like tertiary education. Okay, the way the coalition government has gone about introducing the changes has been, to use a British phrase, shambolic. But the reaction against paying for university has been surprisingly virulent and, coming from America, fairly strange. The plan to introduce higher fees has led, understandably, to demonstrations from students who don’t want to pay the new, higher fees. Currently students pay, up-front, £3290/year in tuition fees – the new plan would cap the highest fees at £9000/year but those wouldn’t be charged until after the student has graduated and is earning more than £21,000. It does seem unfair, I suppose, that being born in 1994 as opposed to 1993 will cost you significantly more.
But what made me think twice about my initial reaction was what the demonstrators themselves were calling for: free university education. And this made it hard to get behind them. Because universities (and especially English universities) aren’t the corporate bad guys. Now obviously I’m biased here, since I’ve invested my career in the university industry. But this strikes me as similar to the problem with free online content, in that initially it seems like a great idea for things to be free. But after a while, someone has to start paying – for the journalists who travel to report on world news; for the musicians who play the albums we want to hear; for the academics who teach, research, and publish. In all of these cases I don’t object to government subsidies and incentives. These things represent a broader national good that government should support. NPR should be public, orchestras should be supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, and universities should be affordable to those who choose to attend.
But when I think about what I spend my disposable income on, what other people spend their disposable incomes on, it does seem strange what we think should be free and what we think should be paid for. For instance, in Britain the average cost of a wedding is £11,000-£18,000. For one day.
In fact, according to the Living Costs and Food Survey, conducted by the Office for National Statistics, education is the second lowest household expenditure in the UK. I like cheap education. And I think free education should be mandatory through secondary school because there is a certain level of literacy, numeracy, and historical, cultural and scientific understanding of the world that we have decided, as a society, is an acceptable minimum.
I understand that people are angry about the economy and angry about the coalition government. But maybe the best way to damn the man isn’t always to take his stuff for free. In the case of universities, an independent stream of income could help reduce the kind of government interference that plagues UK universities. And (operating only on the basis of anecdotal evidence) it seems possible that people will make a trade-off, and with the rise in fees, fewer middle class people will flee state schools to pay nearly £30,000/year at places like David Cameron’s alma mater, Eton. The lower middle class could stop being forced to subsidise those well-off enough to pay for those kinds of schools, and who are not means-tested in the current system.
In other words, maybe sometimes the best way to damn the man is to pay for stuff we like.