The happy union of capitalism and technology

It's right there on the receipt. I just bought an 8 gig memory stick for 29 bucks. Makes you nostalgic for the good new days of unbridled capitalism, doesn't it? It even makes me feel a bit sorry for kids today. What sort of hard-luck stories will they be able to tell when they're old? "When I was a boy a terabyte of memory cost a whole dollar!" "Ah shaddap gramps, I gotta exabyte implanted right in my brain for a nickel last week." Whereas I remember the first time a colleague, whose research involved a significant database, got a one gigabyte hard drive. We literally trooped into her office to gawp at it. This Tuesday on a whim I threw two one-gigabyte USB sticks into the cart for $6.99. OK, $6.99 each, plus tax. Still not 20 bucks total.

Ten years ago I wrote about the technological miracle that every computer I ever bought cost roughly $2,000 despite huge increases in computing power. It turns out those were, in that sense, the bad old days. This week I went on what would once have been an electronics spending spree, helping someone choose both a laptop and a desktop far more powerful than they could ever use, for just $1400. Combined.

As I doddered through the store, boring everyone within hearing --a small group, thanks to earbuds and the pounding music in stores today, which isn't even music but noise -- I realized my parents' first computer, a 1981 Apple IIe with a daisy wheel printer, set them back ten grand, considerably more than a cheap car, whereas the $450 I just paid for a 360-gig-hard-drive desktop is less than a decent bicycle. As for the $29.99 webcam we also threw in, you could spend that on fast food. And while the ability to see my face in all its horrible detail from another continent might not seem the pinnacle of human social evolution, it is technically impressive.

All of which prompts the question: If government is so great, why does it keep getting more expensive? Years ago David Frum made the point that the excuse we often hear for rising health care costs is advancing technology, and yet in every other field but the public sector that same factor keeps lowering costs -- as you'd expect, since technology in the modern sense means an ongoing, even relentless series of improvements in the technique, materials and organization of production.

A modern car, Frum pointed out, costs about as much adjusted for inflation as a Model T. But it offers rather more comfort and performance. Uh, except under communism, where the infamous East German Trabant generated just 18 hp to the Model T's mighty 20.2. Wikipedia says the Model T, produced from 1908 to 1927, boasted a giant 2.9L engine offering a dazzling top speed of 72 km/h, regrettably at some 18.7 litres per 100k (though on the plus side it could burn gasoline or ethanol). All of which I discovered in three minutes online, speaking of technological advances that leave you shaking your head at the government's ongoing incapacity to generate electronic medical records.

In case you want to try the financial comparison at home, the Bank of Canada's online inflation calculator ( says the 1909 Model T price of $850 would be about $17,000 today and the 1915 price tag of $440 about $8,300. The cheapest new cars I could find in Canada today both list for just under $10,000. Mind you both have 110 hp engines and warm interiors and stuff.

Technology won't get us into heaven, of course. But on its own terms it works. Under capitalism it continually improves everything but morality and taste. Even the lowly sewer.

Earlier this year I got a fascinating explanation, from the good people who manage Ottawa's sewers, about modern techniques including the "trenchless" system that permits relining of sewers through a process not unlike arthroscopic surgery, that sprays a coating so technically fierce that if the old sewer rots away totally the lining will carry on for years. The engineers and tech guys who work for the city know and love their sewers.

But your municipal tax bill just keeps on rising. Wonder why?

While shopping for Canada Day goodies, try comparing the selection in the supermarket with, say, that on display in the latest federal or provincial cabinet shuffle. Because now that I come to think of it, today's gormless youth, in gormless old age, will at least be able to describe life back when George Smitherman's performance as health minister was thought to qualify him to run a super-ministry combining energy and infrastructure.

I'm pretty sure it has something to do with not getting a money-back receipt for Premier McGuinty.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]