Esquire has a great piece on Dean Kamen (Segway millionaire inventor) and his current projects. His latest potentially world changing invention is a machine that purifies water for drinking — even outright sewage — powered on cow patties. The problem is that he can’t get anyone to put it into mass production. This is the section that stood out for me:
Back in his office, Kamen fires out explanations for why the Slingshot hasn’t taken off yet. It starts with the day Deka finished the first prototype and realized — shades of the Segway — there was no real market for it. The poor people who needed it couldn’t even begin to afford it, so no big corporation wanted to invest $50 million or $100 million or more to tool up a factory and take it to market. “So now you’ve got these things, and you go, ‘Wow, the kinds of companies that we do business with have to make their return. They’re not going to do this.’ A few of them said, ‘Dean you’re –‘ ”
He stops himself before he says the word. But he knows these big corporate guys, and they’re good guys, this is just an example where the great power of capitalism fails. So where do you take an idea that’s not right for big companies? How about the United Nations? The World Bank? This was something he had never thought about before. What does the World Bank do? Does the World Bank loan money to poor people? Does the World Health Organization flood the Third World with doctors? Does the United Nations unite nations?
“I absolutely thought you could go to the United Nations or the World Bank or the World Health Organization or USAID or any of these organizations that have moral imperative and even a legal obligation to find the best solution to a given problem. You’d think they would be obligated to look at this. But they’d say, ‘Great, Dean, as soon as you have these in production, call me, I’m here to buy them.’ “
There’s a very interesting problem that peaks out from there: a fundamental failure of the world’s particular implementation of capitalism. Capitalism is a system in which supply and demand set distribution of goods and services. That’s the simplistic, perfect version, at least. Here’s a case, though, where it’s broken down completely. Hundreds of millions of people do not have access to clean water. Here’s a product that makes clean water. It’s not being made and distributed to them. It’s not a lack of supply (we can make them easily) or a lack of demand. It’s a lack of what — purchasing power? Yes, but why is THAT? A break down of capitalism — human capital that isn’t being utilized in a productive manner that rewards the workers and allows them to meet their own requirements.
This is turning into a stream of consciousness piece, but seriously, this is a looking glass view into a fundamental issue with the world economic system. What’s the solution? I tend to believe that more state control would only harm matters, and that the root of the issue is too much hampering of natural capitalistic forces.