Imran's personal blog

August 22, 2011

Why we don’t invent.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ipeerbhai @ 8:01 pm

Steve Denning recently wrote a Forbes Article about Why Amazon can’t make a Kindle in the US, even if it wanted to.

He essentially wrote a general version of what I had perviously written about when I was lamenting howmass scale up of the RepRap project can only happen in China.

for the most part, Steve’s article is on target. But he’s missing the bigger picture. He thinks that the problem is a cultural one — the Culture of accountants, CEOs, Economists all following short-term interests. He doesn’t realize it’s not a cultural problem. I have training as an Economist. We Economists don’t believe in cultural reasons — we think that all people respond to immediate incentives. We believe that humans are naturally impatient, and naturally self-interested. We call this person Homo Economicus.

Homo Economicus is fully rational and self-interested. (S)he will always follow the immediate, self-gratifying response. And I see evidence this is correct — How many people do you know who, if they lived near a free wi-fi coffe shop, would drop their own broadband to abuse the coffee-shop under them? How many people pirate music, software, or movies online? If people can get something for free, they will do so — even defend it as just, even if it meant harming the artist. It doesn’t matter how much money you have — Thomas Edison was a pirate!

The problem Steve mentions is real. Already, in my RepRap, I’ve had to run into people who know where to order hard to find parts in China. Hard to find here in the US — but awash in China. Linear bearings, Shaft couplers. Hollow rods. Simple stuff. None of those are in hardware stores here, or can be ordered here. I have to Ebay those parts from China — no-one in the US can sell them to me. I use them in inventing things. My ability to invent is harmed in the US by lack of parts, due to outsourcing of all our manufacturing. It’s hurting innovation — far more than anything else ever will.

The answer is structural — we need new import duties, for a time. We likely need a cyclical duty cycle — sometimes having duties to encourage innovation, and sometimes removing them for the same reason. No import duties hurts innovation, as do import duties that never go away.


  1. My ability to invent is harmed in the US by lack of parts, due to outsourcing of all our manufacturing. It’s hurting innovation — far more than anything else ever will.

    Is it, though? You didn’t indicate that you had any trouble getting those parts from China. Longer shipping times are indeed a pain, but I’d argue that your ability to invent has been enhanced by the availability of inexpensive foreign-made parts that offers you a good alternative to expensive American-made ones, should you choose to take advantage of it. I actually had the same experiences myself, in fact. When I was acquiring parts for my Prusa, I asked myself, “Why would I buy an LM8UU bearing for $4 or more from an American shop when I can buy them for $1.66 each from China with free shipping!?” That’s what I did, and they perform wonderfully. I was helped, rather than harmed by having the opportunity to make this trade.

    Comment by Nate — September 24, 2011 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

  2. It’s not a matter of building a BOM, then getting the parts. You can certainly do that now. Whether outsourcing reduced the cost is questionable — economies of scale may, if the parts were made here, keep the cost reasonable. It may or may not be as cheap a part if made in the US — that’s hard to say. I can go to China and buy LM8UU bearings for 40 cents a bearing. I’ve imported and re-sold them here on eBay. The problem is not in eventually getting the part you want. It’s a problem of inspiration and expertise. In China. I can literally walk into bearing shops in the langham district of hong-kong, and examine different bearings of different types and sizes, and have an “Aha, this bearing could solve this problem I ran into 3 months ago!” moment. Due to outsourcing, there’s no bearing shop I can discover by accident and think, “Aha!”. Also, in China, I can ask my circle of friends and in a day or two find an expert who can answer my questions. “Hey, know anyone who could help my figure out the binding problem?” — and get good answers. Here, I get guesses and hearsay, because I can’t find people in my Circle who know a lot about machining. I could eventually figure it out — but those little delays all add up, and can kill a project that my interest was only marginal to begin with.

    Comment by ipeerbhai — September 25, 2011 @ 8:23 am | Reply

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