Crawl Across the Ocean

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Reading Material

Some scattered stuff today.

First, Edward Leamer writes a fascinating essay on recent and future economic history and the role geography plays in economic development. The essay is disguised as a review of Tom Friedman's book 'The World is Flat', and gets in lots of amusing shots at Friedman while covering a ton of ground (so to speak).

He descends into economese at a few points, but for the most part it is quite readable and very interesting, with lots of good analogies, such as the following:

"I like to raise some doubts by posing the rhetorical question; "Is a computer more like a forklift or more like a microphone?" It doesn't matter much who drives the forklift, but it matters a lot who sings into the microphone. Think about the forklift first. You might be a lot stronger than I, but with a little bit of training, I can operate a forklift and lift just as much as you or any other forklift operator. Thus the forklift is a force for income equality, eliminating your
strength advantage over me. That is decidedly not the case for a microphone. We cannot all operate a microphone with anywhere near the same level of proficiency.
Indeed, I venture the guess that I would have to pay you to listen to me sing, not the other way round. And I seriously doubt that a lifetime of training would allow me to compete with Springsteen, or Pavarotti."

In the end Leamer concludes that, "Physically, culturally, and economically the world is not flat. Never has been, never will be. There may be vast flat plains inhabited by indistinguishable hoi polloi doing mundane tasks, but there will also be hills and mountains from which the favored will look down on the masses. Our most important gifts to our offspring are firm footholds on those hills and mountains, far from the flat part of the competitive landscape."

In essence the idea is that, to succeed, our economy will need to cultivate enough Springsteen's and Pavarotti's in enough different fields that their massive earnings bring up the average and enough wealth trickles down for everyone else to make a decent living as well. Reading it certainly gives some urgency to ensuring that Canada has things like widespread and affordable broadband and wireless internet infrastructure as well as a high quality child care and education system. Even if you disagree with the conclusions, this 'review' is the kind of piece where the journey matters as much or more than the destination.

Hat-tip to Marginal Revolution for the link.

Second, a while back I googled across this paper on the ethics of copyright by Mark Alfino. The first section of the paper provide some really interesting background on the legal history of copyright and the section section has an interesting discussion of some philosophical approaches to the question.

From the first section,
"Copyright began as a royal prerogative granted to the main publishing guild, the Stationers Company. The granting of a license to control copy was originally motivated by the crown's desire to control the spread of potentially threatening religious or political ideas.(3)

Until the first modern copyright statute, the 1709 Statute of Anne, the Stationers Company enjoyed an unlimited monopoly over copy, including at times, the right to search buildings and seize copy.(4)

Modern copyright laws, which recognize, as a matter of moral principle, a limit to the monopoly which control of copy entails, begin with the Statute of Anne in 1709, subtitled, "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times herein mentioned." The act first gave legal expression to the idea that the social value of disseminating information and culture was great enough to justify limiting the property interests of publishers. The act also prepared the way for an author's copyright.

The Stationers argued for and received extensions to the statutory limits of copyright in the act. They continued to charge exorbitant prices for classics of English literature and editions of the Bible, to which they owned the copyright. The "Battle of the Books" took place during the first three quarters of the 18th century(5) as independent publishers, in sympathy with the "Society for the Encouragement of Learning," challenged copyright holders by producing unauthorized editions of popular English literature. In the celebrated case of Donaldson v. Beckett (1774), a lasting precedent against perpetual copyright was established."

The key point in the Donaldson case was that the court ruled that copyright was a creation of the law rather than an absolute right (like the right to possess physical property).

As Alfino notes,
"If copyright is a form of limited monopoly granted through statute, based on policy considerations, and not an absolute common law right, the ethical burden of proof shifts to copyright holders to show that their property interests are more important than the public good of having access to information."

Something to remember next time you run across industry propaganda which equates intellectual property, with physical property. And also something to keep in mind when the Conservative government introduces its new copyright legislation.


  • Ah yes, the Mustache of Understanding...

    By Blogger Mike, at 11:45 AM  

  • Declan - thanks for the link to the Leamer essay; it is terrific.

    On Alfino's description of Intellectual Property rights, I think he makes a false distinction between "monopolies granted by statute" and "absolute common law rights." The absolute rights he refers to - say security of the person, freedom of speech and worship - are not absolute in any fundamental sense; they are axiomatic. While he sees them as 'absolute' or in some way inherent, he is speaking from a particular time and place (the last three to four centuries, in a western democracy). Through history those rights have been no more absolute or inherent than Bill Gates' right to his software or Duke Ellington's right to his recordings. Different societies accept different axioms - and Alfino's assertion that his axioms are "better" or "more natural" doesn't make it so - that's kind of the nature of axioms.

    The real test is which set of axioms will provide a preferable society. Alfino comes close to that issue in saying that the copyright holder should justify that the value of the copyright outweighs the general public good in dissemination of information, but he errs in placing the onus on either party; both of them have to justify the good they claim will result, as well as imputing a moral requirement on one, but not the other.

    By Blogger deaner, at 1:05 PM  

  • Echoing deaner, that essay was terrific. Thank you very much for pointing to it.

    "In essence the idea is that, to succeed, our economy will need to cultivate enough Springsteen's and Pavarotti's in enough different fields that their massive earnings bring up the average and enough wealth trickles down for everyone else to make a decent living as well."

    Seems pretty elitist - cultivating greatness in a talented minority in order to support the unwashed, untalented masses. Perhaps even a little fascist. Warning, warning; Danger, danger!

    But maybe that is our only option. If so, it is vital that our social and political structure does not echo the economic structure - that the Pavarottis* do not dominate socially as well as economically. We must be sure that they live in the same world as everyone else - living in the same cities, going to the same schools, subject to the same laws and punishments. Some parts of the US appear to be so economically segregated that people in different income levels live in very different worlds. This may not be desirable.

    Provided the poor are comfortable**, income inequality, no matter how great, is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem arises when they become socially seperated and the elite regards them as inferior - and treats them accordingly.

    So the challenge, in this proposed future, is not just how to produce Pavarottis but how to reconcile economic elitism with social egalitarianism.

    * for fun, replace Pavarotti with Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, or another superstar who has gotten away with something you couldn't.

    ** for some definition of comfortable that goes beyond material comfort. For instance, feeling hopeful and wishing to contribute to society.

    Thanks again for the reading material. It's given me a lot to think about.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:24 PM  

  • Dean - sorry for the slow reply.

    I hear what you're saying, and in fact I am inclined to agree, but what I have come to realize is that the legal community views these things differently.

    Within law a distinction is drawn between natural law and positive law. Natural law or moral law is considered to be handed down from God or some other 'natural' source, and in this area the idea is that the law accords with what is naturally right. Positive law, on the other hand, is law that is arbitrary. For example, a law saying you have to drive on the right side of the road. It isn't that it is more moral to drive on the right, just that we have to have some kind of rule and that is the rule we chose.

    So within that legal framework, property rights are considered part of natural law whereas intellectual property is part of positive law (and if there are any lawyers reading this, feel free to correct me - my graps is tenuous, but this is my understanding).

    Which means that we protect land, for example, from being stolen, because it is immoral to steal land. But we protect copyright from being breached, on the other hand, simply because the law (currently) says you shouldn't do that.

    Personally I am more utilitarian, and I think that all laws are valid (wise) to the extent they make society beter (as you seem to suggeset as well) but that doesn't seem to be how the legal profession sees things.

    Don - "So the challenge, in this proposed future, is not just how to produce Pavarottis but how to reconcile economic elitism with social egalitarianism."

    Yes, I would agree with this. Although I think the challenge is even bigger than you suggest. Income inequality leads to all sorts of problems, as any visit to Central or South America will quickly attest.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:33 PM  

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