Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Loosening the grip of conditionality

To the pages of today's Financial Times, a.k.a. the somewhat less reactionary man's Wall Street Journal, where we read of the latest ruthlessly imperialist global machinations of The Yellow Peril. Bankers from the People's Republic of China, it seems, are undercutting the European Investment Bank (EIB) by loaning money to developing African states with fewer strings attached for the privilege. The emergent Asian superpower's clear aim is to increase its ever-rising influence in the region, and the European bankers, it would seem, are somewhat dismayed at this tactic towards achieving that goal. So what to make of it all?

Certainly, the Chinese are acting out of self-interest, as opposed to granting such loans merely as magnanimous and benevolent gestures of support for Africa's socio-economic development. Africa, after all, is a resource rich continent, with access to such resources the subject of ever-increasing competition between the industrialized and industrializing nations alike here in the big, bad 21st century. And anyone who remembers Tiananmen Square on June 4th 1989 knows just about as much as is really necessary to adjudge whether or not China can seriously be considered a conscientious, positive and proactive force for human advancement.

Instead, the Chinese are merely doing what is necessary to be the most competitive players in the big global economic chess game. But what's most remarkable about this whole episode is the laughably disingenuous argument put forth by the EIB and its supporters as to why these Chinese loans are such a bad, bad thing.

The EIB decry the potential death blow that the loans in question deal to the concept of conditionality - i.e., the strings that international lenders attach to loans before they are granted, in order that the countries taking the money behave in a certain way in exchange for the cash. These strings, they say, are used as a force for good.

Threatened, according to the EIB's president Philippe Maystadt, is the possibility of using international loans as a form of leverage in order to pressure the most backward and underdeveloped countries to increase and/or safeguard human rights, social justice and the promotion of sound governance. Now, thanks to the "unscrupulous" Chinese banks, most if not all of that leverage has evaporated.

The Chinese banks, like the Chinese government, are unlikely to give a damn for the promotion of human rights or social justice. Looking at the People's Republic's track record at home and in places like Tibet, that's to be expected, really. But if western banks and governments ever had such concerns for the people of the developing world, they've had an odd way of expressing it if their own actions and results are anything to go by.

In point of fact, as anyone who's read the works of Nobel prize-winning economist and ex-World Bank honcho Joseph Stiglitz knows, loans from western governments and financial institutions nearly always come with conditions that, taken as a whole, end up impoverishing rather than enriching the developing countries receiving them.

Conditions such as deregulating capital markets so that hot money can not just enter emerging countries but leave just as quickly as soon as times get tough.

Or that dictate huge cuts in public spending combined with mass privatizations that end up destroying the fragile middle classes whose emergence, history suggests, are a prerequisite for development.

Or that result in policies which leave the poor further in debt, more likely to be unemployed and with more to pay for basic necessities such as water, food and fuel.

And that, ultimately, result in further destabilization in places that were already pretty damn unstable to begin with.

Conditionality would be a great and laudable tool for progress and development if it really was consistently and overwhelmingly used to promote responsible government, human rights and social advancement. The reality, however, is that conditionality has instead mostly been used as a tool for promoting the kinds of neoliberal economic policies which promote the interests of Wall Street and City elites over those of everyone else in all countries in almost all circumstances.

The Chinese may be ruthless despots, but if they can help loosen the grip of western financial interests on developing countries, they may end up doing the world a good turn if only as an accidental byproduct of their quest for global expansion in the 21st century.

“Give us your money or Salman Rushdie gets it!”

No, not the government’s latest way of convincing us that we need to spend £4 billion on ID cards, but the other strategy for arguing for copyright expansion. A big part of sound recording term extension consisted of unplugging Cliff Richard from his various catheters and parading him round to whinge about how he’d soon stop getting paid for recordings he laid down in 1958 (just the recordings mind – if anyone were depraved enough to record a cover of “Living Doll”, Cliff would still get his cut as song-writer). Whilst the prospect of Sir Cliff no longer being able to pay his plastic surgeon doesn’t seem to have worried the general public as much as the British Phonographic Industry might have hoped, it taps into an honourable tradition of framing the copyright debate around the starving artist that’s been going on for some time now. There’s a very weak argument here about how copyright should work as a pension fund for authors, but I think we can all see the problem with the argument that you should be getting paid for something you did in 1956, no matter how good it was (if it’s not obvious, imagine your plumber coming round every year and demanding money because the toilet he fixed was still working…).

There, is, however, a slightly more serious argument going on here, which is that copyright is not about anything as crass as economic incentives, but about ensuring that artists should be rewarded for their work, and, just as importantly, be allowed to exercise a degree of control over it. This idea has a certain amount of immediate appeal – we all, from time to time, say things that we’re particularly proud of and feel upset when people misrepresent them, either through claiming that they actually thought of them, or getting them wrong and butchering them beyond belief. We also tend to feel pretty depressed when we see things stray to far from their original meaning, or jump the shark, and we tend to think of authors as the best custodians of that meaning: this, for example, is the principle organizing my recurring dreams of J.R.R Tolkien returning from the grave to wreak bloody vengeance on Orlando Bloom for his role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Whilst such sentiments are admirable in their place, my feeling is that they are basically wrong-headed in many circumstances. I also have a fantasy where anyone who uses the Theory of Relativity to mean “everything’s relative” gets sent back in time to observe their mistake again and again, until they learn better; no-one, however, has started suggesting we hand out property rights for scientific theories. This is a very good thing, because, however annoying such theories may become when misunderstood by stoned teenagers, they’re more useful if anyone (teenagers included) can have access to them without having to ask permission first: sure, there’ll be a lot of shit, but the ideas are much more likely to be developed in interesting ways if anyone can pick them up and play with them.

Why, then, is the same thing not true for art? Yeah, people take good works of art and butcher them, but they also take old material and do great things with it, things that strong copyright holders could potentially stop them from doing (another interesting case is literary criticism). People who think of copyright in terms of economic incentives have an answer for this (“Because without incentives the stuff wouldn’t get made at all”) but it’s precisely that argument that people arguing for copyright on the grounds of the moral right of the author want to get away from.

A final point is that some countries do go much further than Britain or the US in allowing for the protection of an author’s vision through copyright. In France, for example, authors are allowed to withdraw their work from the public sphere, or prevent further modifications of it, even after publication. According to Peter Drahos, the US copyright lobby was very keen that this sort of stuff should be left out of any international copyright agreements like TRIPS, because it was felt that if authors had the right to disagree with financial backers (or, in the case of films, test audiences) about changes then that would introduce to great a level of economic uncertainty into the industry. Moral: authors’ rights might be great to talk about when you’re going to the government asking for an extension on your monopoly, but you’d be a fool to take them seriously in real life.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

This just in: new benchmarks set for cynicism and exploitation

So then, to the pages of Time magazine, where war criminal and World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz takes a few moments out of his busy schedule of turning the screws on the developing world to praise two ludicrously-coiffeured 1980s rock stars who've made a killing for themselves more by virtue of berating everyone else about the plight of impoverished Africans than because of anything they've actually recorded and released musically during the last 20 years. While, it must be noted, simultaneously cozying up to many of the politicians and corporate multinationals whose policies helped to create and perpetuate the grinding poverty that these self-serving publicity hounds claim to be opposing.

If they weren't so transparently cynical, it might be quite hilarious. But as I'm sure Bono and Sir Bob themselves would remind us, there is little that's hilarious about underdevelopment and starving Africans. And less that's hilarious about the likes of Wolfowitz, Bono and Geldof using the plight of this world's downtrodden to gain credibility, line their own pockets and those of their friends or both.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Andrew Gowers will apparently be recommending against copyright extension for sound recordings. You can read the happy version at Techdirt, or the boo-hoo version at the BBC, who still seem to be deployed as the front line in the government's war to "educate" the population about the importance of all intellectual property rights, no matter how ridiculous. Of course the government could just turn round, reject everything Gowers has to say and extend it anyway, but at the very least this shows that some of the right people are starting to take these issues seriously.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

There's no stuff like free stuff...

Someone's posted up that Friedman played am important role in abolishing the draft, and then talks about the fact that Democrat Representative Charlie Rangel wants to re-intorduce the draft now, saying that "There's no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm's way." I have no idea what Steve thinks of this, but it seems to me to get to the heart of the problem with liberalism, both in the political sense of the liberal democracy, and the economic sense of free markets. The central idea behind this is that people are smart, know what they want and will do what's in their best interests: democracy and markets are thus the best ways to organise people, because those methods of organisation give people the freest range in exercising that spectacular rationality and the economic case, this adds up to something. Friedman's a particularly shining example of a guy who believed strongly in this; wherever possible, he wanted to let people make their own decisions and keep the government the hell out of it, both because governments are clumsy and slow, and because they can be corrupted.

The first problem with this is what you might broadly term the information problem: even if people ARE smart, rational actors who will always try to do what's in their best interests, they may not have all the relevant facts available. This worries everyone from Noam Chomsky (the mass media skew people's idea of their political interests) to Joseph Stiglitz (information in the market doesn't come for free - someone has to find out stuff like pricing information and that has a cost, even if it's sometimes not that big) to a whole generation of Marxists who talked about ideology. This is more of a technical problem, in that, if we could find some way of getting all the information to people at no cost (or practically no cost) we'd have solved the problem. This, incidentally is why so many liberal types (Lessig, Benkler etc.) are so interested in the internet - it has the potential to solve a lot of those information problems - at least for anyone who can get themselves online.

The second problem, however, is a little bit bigger: quite often, people aren't that smart, don't behave rationally and seem to act against their best interests (or at least their best interests as liberalism generally thinks of them) in the full knowledge of what they're doing. This can be anything from staying up playing video games when you know you should be studying, to dying for something you believe in - from the point of view of maximising the goodness available to you, both of those things are irrational, but people do them surprisingly frequently (obviously no-one dies for something they believe in more than once - what I'm saying is that there doesn't seem to be any shortage of people willing to do it). There are a lot of attempts to rescue the idea of the rational individual, mainly by declaring anyone who deviates too strongly from its tenets to be either mad, depressed, brainwashed or otherwise not fit to make decisions for themselves (behavioural economics, which posits a sort of "patterned irrationality" for everyone, is another interesting take on this), but the problem remains: a lot of people who you'd allow to vote and own a company are still quite likely to over-invest in insurance, eat too many cakes, and pay for gym membership that they don't use.

Both of these first two are problems with the model, or more precisely, with the guy the model's built around - you might call him either "the liberal subject" or "homo economicus", depending on who you were trying to impress. He (and as any good feminist will tell you, he's historically very likely to be a he) is pretty much your typical rational actor doing his thing in your typical model of market-democracy. If he wasn't an abstract model of how an economically rational human being should behave, he'd be an accountant.

There's also a slightly different problem, which is market failure: even when populated with ever-so-liberal subjects, markets just aren't very good at doing some things. In particular they suck at providing public goods. A public good is something that, if you pay for, other people are going to be able to enjoy the benefits of (actually the definition's a little more technical, but you get the picture). The paradigmatic example is national defence, where, no matter who pays for the defence of the country, it's the country as a whole that benefits (I'm going to leave out the obvious cracks about the "benefits" of our current defence policy for now). This works both on the level of payment, and on the level of national service. You may pay a bigger tax bill than me, but you don't get any more protection because of it;I may not give a shit about whether the Nazis come and take your little bit of England, but I want to hang on to mine and so fly in the Battle of Britain while you stay home and reap the benefit (N.B. I know I'm too young to have flown in the Battle of Britain, and that this may make the example seem a little implausible. You try finding a more recent example of the average British person having anything to gain by fighting in a war). Paying we can manage through the tax system - the problem is deciding who does the fighting and who gets the free ride: left to their own devices, it's pretty easy to imagine that everyone would just sit round hoping someone else would do something.

Which brings us back to army recruitment: which seems to me a bit of thorny problem for anyone who takes their liberal subject seriously. You can have a draft, but that's state compulsion, so it's a no-no - no use being a liberal subject if you don't have liberty. Or you can go with "voluntary recruitment", the inverted commas around which I think are best explained with reference to this clip from the Simpsons. The solution that they're going for there is what you'd think of as a combination of problems 1 and 2. Recruits are subject to problem 1 in that they're given a certain amount of misinformation, and problem 2 in so far as they have a different set of priorities to our liberal subject - getting shot at for less than you'd make doing the accountancy doen't feature high on homo economicus's to-do list. This seems to me to pose some problems for the die-hard commitment to libertarian-type ideas of many Friedman fans (I think the man himself was actually a little more nuanced). If people were so smart and rational (in the liberal sense that makes markets and democracies work) that the government never needed to get involved in anything, then no-one would ever join the army, or at least not for the money that they're getting paid.

Two Caveats

1. It's not necessarily a problem for those of us whose subjects aren't so inflexibly liberal. The idea is that you minimise problem 1 by maximising a subset of problem 2: get your army entirely populated with people who are irrational in just the right sort of way (they value medals or esteem or excitement more than is economically rational). How much that actually happens in practice I'll let you decide for yourselves.

2. I know that I could be accused of attacking a straw-man here. For a lot of libertarian types the point isn't that their system works perfectly, but that systems based on other ideals are worse: individual freedom is a better organizing principle than, say, the rule of some supposed "collective will". I actually tend to agree with that statement as far as it goes. The problem is that as soon as they've made that (very sensible) point they often seem to return to the fantasy world where the market is a cure-all for everything and tampering with it is a special sort of blasphemy. My point is really just that that's stupid, and it stops you from seeing some very obvious things.

Friday, November 17, 2006

So why have we got to sign the petition?

It's a well-known fact around Wetherspoon's in Newcastle that, as soon as I've had a few drinks, there's a more than fair chance that I'll start whining on to whoever will listen abou the evils of the current intellectual property regime. This is a fairly odd habit, although people seem to be remarkably tolerant. I occasionally try to imagine what I'd do if I had a friend who, at the slightest alcoholic inducement, continually tried to explain why the evils of the world could be most clearly understood through the prism of, say, tax law: the results are not pretty. In an effort to curb my IP habit (or at least minimise the coincidence of my alcohol habit with my IP habit), I'm going to try and confine myself to these expalantions on the blog, so that family and friends can just take them or leave them, and when we're down the pub we can all just get back to talking about how much we hate R Kelly. This first installment's going to be specifically about term extension for music performance, but then I'm going to have a go at some more general themes.

Before I start, I'd just like to say that, whatever may follow, I'm a real fan of intellectual property in its place. In the same way that you can be in favour of national defense, but against the military industrial complex, I'm for IP. The problem, as with national defense, is that IP tends to beget concentrations of power that try to influence the state (and usually succeed) in ways that seem obviously socially harmful - what economists call regulatory capture. The massive extension of IP rights in every country for the last century or so (example) is less a deliberately thought-through policy on behalf of governments and much more an instance of a few special interest groups pushing really hard for legislation that benefits them. Certainly it's got nothing to do with democracy in the sense of being a policy that the majority favours.

Sound recording extension is a great example of this. Mainly, it's just bad economics. People on the right hear the "property" bit in intellectual property and immediately assume it's a good capitalist institution and that we probably need more of it. There's an argument to be had over some aspects of IP in these terms (although it's probably fewer than you'd think), but in the case of copyright extension that's just plain wrong. Milton Friedman and friends provided a brief explaining just how ludicrous an economic proposition copyright term extension was in Eldred vs. Ashcroft (the trial where the Supreme Court considered the question of whether term extension was unconsitutional in the USA). As with a lot of IP questions, the nice thing about this issue is that both statist pinkos and rabid free marketeers should be able to hold hands and agree about something.

The economic idea behind copyright is that certain sorts of information are socially valuable, but there isn't enough incentive to create them in the market. So we create a monoploy right on those goods in order to encourage their creation. Like all monopolies, this makes things more costly to society at large; 50 Cent cds would cost slightly less than that if any record company could burn his music to disk free of charge, because there'd be genuine price competition to see who could supply it cheaper. The point is that if 'Fiddy' and those good people who help him in the studio weren't getting their cut, they might feel less inclined to foist their musical creations upon us, and that, apparently, would be a social loss (I find this line of reasoning works better if you think of Kanye West, but his name doesn't lend itself so nicely to the price war pun). The monopoly price from copyright that allows the record company to charge so much more than the price of production is essentially meant to be the incentive that makes people write music in the first place.

The idea is that longer copyright increases incentives to create. That's true in theory, but, if you stop to think about it, almost wholly insignificant past a certain point. Imagine you're a talented young musician, deciding whether you should commit that tune you've got in your head to immortality in the studio, or just go and get a job at Kwik Save. It's at least plausible to assume that you might factor the amount of money you could make into this, but it seems unlikely that you'd make that decision based on whether you thought you'd still be getting royalties fifty years into the future: "Hey, if this is still a hit fifty years from now, I won't be getting paid. Sod it, guess I'd better go with Kwik Save." The proposal is to extend the term from fifty years to life plus seventy. I fail to believe that there is a song in history that wasn't recorded because someone honestly thought: "Well, in the event that this thing is a monster success over the course of the next century, it's very possible that my as-yet-unborn grand-kids won't get any royalties." So the social gain in terms of added incentive to create music is tiny, particularly when you consider the shelf-life of the vast majority of recorded music: very few artists could honestly expect their songs to be making money two years down the line, so the issue of three-quarters of a century is going to be almost completely irrelevant to them. Whereas the social loss in terms of music that remains over-priced is huge. What's particularly ludicrous is they want to extend the term retrospectively: to do it for songs that have already been written - if we've already got the stuff, it seems a little silly to try and provide incentives to create it.

The other economic half of this question is the amount of new creativity that public domain music might generate. As stuff starts to slip into the public domain, you can imagine a lot of internet-based business models that could make money off providing interesting ways to access public domain material - think Napster but legal. There's also the issue of new music and sampling. Having to clear rights on samples means that only those with record company backing can legitimately participate in the sampling game - that's a whole load of music that isn't being made because we've decided that we need to keep up incentives for the stuff we've already got. Again, poor economics.

There are also some free speech issues I'd like to attack, which sort of bleed into the idea that a recording is its creator's baby and should be his to do whatever he likes with for all eternity. This thing seems quite long enough already though, so I might leave that for another time.

Right-wing Apocalypse

Fresh on the heels of the Republican Party's resounding defeat in the US midterm elections comes the news that guru of the laissez faire brand of modern capitalism Milton Friedman has shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 94. The most influential economist of the past 50 years, Friedman's faith in and advocacy of free markets and small government as a socio-economic magic elixir at times bordered on the touching but nevertheless served as a crucial inspiration within the conservative movement during its rise to power in both the US and Britain.

Friedman's theories and philosophy would heavily influence, if not define, the economic policies which conservative firebrands such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher brought to bear once in office. The Iron Lady was a particularly noted disciple of monetarism, the theory with which Friedman is most closely associated, which, broadly speaking, asserts that control of the money supply is the key to maintaining economic stability in a modern, industrialized economy.

One's analysis of Friedman's legacy tends to be heavily influenced by whether the economic growth of the past 30 years is adjudged to have outweighed the social and environmental costs that have been paid in order to achieve it, including the ever-growing gap between the super-rich and everybody else and the rape of the planet's resources, all of which were accelerated as a result of the economic deregulation which Uncle Milty so staunchly advocated. Personally, I'm with these guys.

Be that as it may, being the compassionate lot that we are here at Information Landmine, we extend our condolences to all capitalists, right-wing conservatives, and leader writers at The Economist, Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, whose collective weekend is sure to be that little bit sadder as a result of this news. Cheer up, guys: Alan Greenspan is only 80.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

So, gentle readers, one week has now passed since the glorious Blue Revolution swept aside Republican control of the US Congress, restoring the Democratic Party to power within both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time since Newt Gingrich's Contract On America [sic].

A time of celebration and renewal? Unfortunately, the celebration may be short-lived and the renewal stillborn if post-election comments by Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, M.D. and incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) are in any way indicative of the shameful boondoggle to come. Dean, despite a growing public clamour, still refuses to countenance the idea of impeaching a criminal US President and his allies, despite their well-documented responsibility for electoral fraud and criminal negligence domestically and the deaths of over half a million human beings abroad in an illegal war of plunder. Meanwhile Pelosi, having once called George W. Bush "Oblivious, in denial, [and] dangerous," and, more recently, a "liar", now sits down for lunch and pledges bipartisan cooperation with the self-same dangerous, oblivious liar and his administration.

So what happened to the "revolution"? How about vowing to undo the damage of the past six years instead of serving up pledges of cooperation with fraudsters and international war criminals?

The problem faced by traditional Labour voters in the UK in the era of Blairism is the same one that many Democratic voters in the US have, at least in this author's lifetime, almost always had to confront. When all of the electorally-viable options on the ballot are separable mainly by their respective stances on fringe issues and not by more fundamental differences in either policy or world view, voters are left choosing between a scam on the one hand or a sham on the other. If anything, the Republican party is in many ways more honourable (if only by default) than the Democratic party because the Republicans don't even try to pretend to represent dissident opinions on the direction and manner in which the country is governed whereas the Democrats promise much and then immediately change their tune and bow down before the status quo as soon as the election is over.

In short, the US is a one-party state masquerading as a two-party state. It's a bit like that famous exchange in The Blues Brothers:

Elwood: "Tell me, ma'am: what kind of music do you usually have here?"

Hostess at Bob's Country Bunker: "Oh, we got both kinds. We got country and western."

Add to that pathetic charade a national media which varies its journalistic approach between amazingly compliant at one end of the spectrum and openly propagandizing at the other and one must ask: "Is the US merely the Soviet Union in disguise?" American capitalism seems to be more clever and resilient than Soviet communism proved to be but it is no less hollow an ideology for it.

One hoped against hope that the changing national mood might have driven the Democrats to show some genuine backbone for the first time since at least the Watergate affair. But from Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi's post-election pronouncements, it appears that ain't gonna happen. And unless there's some kind of spinal transplant in the immediate future, good luck building this great 50-state party for 2008 because a lot of people will be asking what exactly the point is of voting again.

He may be a fake Native American tribesman, but Ward Churchill's arguments about pacifism as a self-defeating pathology within the American left make a hell of a lot of sense sometimes. One must at least begin to contemplate revolt when the democratic choices on offer consistently fail to deliver for anyone or anything except the status quo, even in the face of endemic corruption within the government at home and mass murder on an industrial scale abroad.

Copyright Extension

Because of the Gowers Review and consequent shake-up of Intellectual Property system that's going to ensue in its wake, the music industry are pushing particularly hard for copyright term extension in sound recordings: keeping existing songs private for a much longer period (from the existing 50 years to life plus 70). I'll blog later on about why this would be a quite spectacularly bad idea, but for now, would anyone who gets on this page please just sign this petition. If you just can't wait to here me talk about the idiocy of copyright extension, here's Thomas Babington Macaulay saying the same thing with considerably more eloquence.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

How right-wing are the Republicans?

I was planning to do a post about why the Dems are always such cowards when it comes to impeachment (Iran Contra, anyone?), but I think Steve may have that covered, or at least be going to post up something similar. So instead, I think I’m going to bitch about the Republicans a little more.

Now there are things about traditional conservatism that rather appeal to me: small government, devolved power, personal responsibility, minimal intrusion of the state – what’s not to like? I actually have no personal beef with free trade or fiscal accountability either. Steve’s made the point that any serious progressive doesn’t have a lot of choice in the huge market for policy that we call democracy; I think you could make exactly the same case for principled conservatism. Rather than run the whole list of Republican deviations from any sort of principled right-wing position (I’m not sure Google has the server space), I think three quick examples should suffice to show what I mean.

1) The massive surveillance programme. Traditional right-wingers are meant to believe something like the following “Whatever the evils of markets, the evils of government are worse” - I think Arthur Seldon said more or less exactly that, though somewhat more eloquently. Freidrich Hayek, another hero of the right, thought pretty much the same thing. Now that’s a valid position. I don’t whole-heartedly agree with it (though I think it has more truth to it than a lot of leftists like to consider), but I can understand why some people might, and it’s certainly one of the few coherent justifications that I’ve heard for the sort of market fundamentalism that right-wingers claim as their own. What I’m damn sure about is that any government who does take that position has no business tapping its citizens’ phone calls. If having the state run a health system is an unacceptable communist risk, why isn't it too much of a risk to have it snoop into people’s private lives? In the UK, we have the cold comfort that our surveillance escalation is being pushed by New Labour, who don’t profess as much scepticism about the role of the government. What’s the Republicans’ excuse?

2) On a related point, the massive expansion of the military and the way the Republicans use this to subsidise their pet industries. Even if the Republicans keep from being the party of intrusive government, surely they could manage to keep to their supposed plan of being the party of small government? Surely Eisenhower’s warning about the expansion of the military-industrial complex should have had some resonance on his party? In short, no. Whether it’s Halliburton getting paid to ferry empty trucks around Iraq, Accenture (formerly Arthur Andersen) being paid to consult on how to conduct the bidding for the immigration contracts it's given, subsidies of defence contractors like Boeing and Lockheed, or plain old procurement policies, the idea that the Republicans want to keep the state out of the market is a fiction. They just back different government spending programmes and thus have different corporate backers to the Democrats. This leads me nicely onto…

3) …the deficit. What happened to fiscal conservatism? Right-wing politicians have a long and glorious history of flirting with financial crisis, but, at least on the spending issue, they’re meant to be the ones who can keep a half-decent account book. As with so much current Republican policy, you can see this starting with Reagan and accelerating with the second Bush government. It’s particularly ludicrous from a party that always chastises its opponents for a policy of “tax and spend”. If the alternative is spending and not taxing, the Democrat option seems to me to be the more conservative of the two.

Friday, November 03, 2006

What is it with these guys?

Now, most sensible people agree that your sexuality doesn't have to determine the rest of your life. What you do with other adults in the privacy of your own home, specially dedicated night spots, or even (discretely) in public areas shouldn't affect your professional life. Unless you're getting paid to do it, in which case it presumably is your professional life. You can be an astronaut with a foot fetish, a business executive with a predilection for fisting, a ladyboy Thai boxer, a cage fighter with a huge collection of sex toys (you know who you are!), or a metal star with a passion for S&M. Hell, that last one's pretty much expected.

There is, however, one notable exception to this rule. I'm no careers officer, but if your hobbies include engaging other men in the sort of kinky sex one more usually associates with the dying days of the Roman Empire, surely the last two jobs you should be looking at are Evangelical Preacher or Republican Congressman. I mean people, come on. So long as you're not into anything illegal, the only job that you can be excluded from on the grounds of sexual preference is anything that involves standing on a platform of religious bigotry (and possibly certain sorts of house music). Apart from that, the world's your oyster. Or frankfurter. Whatever dingles your dangle.

So why, when their career relies on them being missionary-types in every sense of the word, are there so many men of the cloth and GOP party members that have such wacky sexual preferences? Well, people take several different lines on this. One mode of thought says that all these guys are ashamed and want to join right-wing movements as a method of denying their true natures. Those of a psychoanalytic bent see the passion for fear, power and subjugation that seems to make a really good social conservative as being part of some sort of "desire for the phallus" that doesn't always play out only as a metaphor (without the snazzy Lacanian gloss - if your politics are all about fucking the electorate in the arse, it may well spill over into your personal life). Then there's always the forbidden fruit argument: "God wouldn't forbid something if it wasn't all kinds of fun." None of these are mutually exclusive, and they all seem to have a grain of truth to them. What's lacking is a theory to unify all these strands. So, without further ado, I give you my own contribution to the field: a sort of structural theory of conservative degeneracy.

The first thing to understand is that gay republicans (or at least the ones who confine their activities to people within shooting distance of the age of consent) aren't the issue. They're just the decoys that get thrown out to let the others escape. As with so much of modern politics (and crime, if you want to make that distinction), anyone who actually carries the can is essentially small-time; the real criminals are making their getaway even as the press feeds on the political corpses of their cronies.

The simple fact is that the church and right-wing politics are the two best places to be if you're into some seriously messed-up sexual shit. Think about this: you're an ambitious young turk with a few connections and a passion for mutilating young waifs and strays before satisfying your primitive lusts on their now almost unrecognizable corpses: certainly something that society would disapprove of, and possibly something that needs a few bodies to be disposed of quietly and efficiently. What sort of job is going to offer you access to wealth, power, and a network of people who can cover up whatever little indiscretions you may happen to make whenever there's a full moon? Private businesses, generally speaking, aren't too concerned about the reputations of their employees. Sure, if you get stinking rich enough you can pay people to cover up any manner of shit, but in the mean time you need friends and colleagues who can be counted on to clean up your mess and guard the secret as though it were their own...

I don’t think we necessarily HAVE to make reference to the Mark Foley responsibility shuffle, or even the Catholic Church and its policies on public sex scandals at this point, but you get the idea: public bodies like churches and political parties often stand or fall on the moral worthiness of their members, particularly if, like fundamentalist Christians and Republicans, they choose to define the category of "moral worthiness" very narrowly indeed. Once you're in, the system has a lot at stake in defending your reputation. Of course, that's just the start of the fun. Once an institution starts protecting a social disease like you, you then know something very damaging about it. The Republican party can't, after all, be seen to be a safe house for the worst sort of sexual predators to be found anywhere in society, if not the whole of recorded history. Quite quickly, your fates become intertwined - you both have a lot invested in each other, and, as a consequence, you quickly rise within the ranks of the organisation that has protected and sheltered you.

So, to summarise, Tiarks's 1st Law of the Institutional Economics of Sexual Depravity states that the more an organisation professes to be morally upstanding, where that morality is concerned with sexuality, the more likely it is that said organisation will attract members whose sexual preferences are not just unusual, but almost certainly criminal. Tiarks's 2nd Law states that, all other things being equal, the more inhuman and socially unacceptable the act concealed by an institution, the more likely it is that the perpetrator of said act will end up as a senior member of that institution.

N.B. The laws just described are not actually social science laws. Students of the sort who thought it was a good idea to cite Wikipedia should not make the same mistake here. And sorry to anyone who was actually expecting anything sensible from me. Just my way of working out my mid-term election anxiety - discussion of issues that might conceivably matter will continue in the next post.

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Some good news

Ars Technica has a story about the WIPO broadcast treaty, how its "netcasting" (not my word) provisions have been side-lined and how it looks as though it will now use a signal-based rather than a rights-based approach. For those of you to whom all this is gibberish, the big point is that this is a good thing. The article gives a much more in-depth analysis, but the broad point is that this was an international treaty that, for a while, seemed destined to grant a fifty year intellectual property right in broadcasts, with no fair use guaranteed. The Americans wanted to extend boradcasting to include "netcasting", though no-one seems quite sure what sort of internet broadcasts would have been effected.

I first heard about this in an FT article by my favourite writer on all things IP-based, James Boyle (I have a favourite intellectual property writer. How sad am I?). Here's a later article of his explaining the problem. Since then, the looks like it's been stripped down to more or less the narrower "rules about conduct" that he was reccomending. I seriously doubt whether this had anything to do with the US constitution (they've never let that bother them before when legislating about intellectual property), but I s'pose you never know. Anyway, sit back, and enjoy the fact that this particular bit of evil seems to have been side-stepped for the moment:


Constitutional circumvention

By James Boyle

Published: June 13 2006 16:18 | Last updated: June 13 2006 16:18

In September last year, I wrote about a very bad proposal being debated in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The proposal was to extend the length of an existing set of intellectual property rights for broadcasters, and even apply them to webcasting. As I pointed out, there is no empirical evidence that these rights produce any social benefit. Indeed, the US has never had such a right and yet has a flourishing broadcast industry.

Extending the rights to webcasting, despite the manifest differences between the economic structure and global reach of the two media, was a jaw-dropping move with obviously bad consequences. We should be focusing on rules about conduct, not rights over content. If signal piracy and rebroadcasting is a problem, we should have a rule that narrowly focuses on that conduct, prohibiting unfair business practices by commercial competitors. The last thing we should do is create yet another set of long lasting property rights over the content.

Copyright offices around the world admit that there is a huge problem with ‘orphan works’ - copyrighted material for which the copyright holder cannot be found. Given the absurdly long copyright term, it is quite possible that the majority of the cultural production of the twentieth century consists of orphan works. Because of the difficulty of clearing copyright, those works remain locked up in the library. Even though the copyright holder has long disappeared, or would not mind, it is impossible to show the old movie, adapt the old book, play the old song, put the old poem in an anthology. Many libraries simply refuse to allow screening of movies until the copyright term has expired; probably no one would object, but the legal risk is too great.

Now imagine creating an entirely new layer of rights over everything that is broadcast or webcast, on top of whatever copyrights already cover the work. You find a copy of a movie in the library and manage, at great expense, to work out that it is in the public domain, or to get the copyright holder’s permission. Perhaps the work is covered by a Creative Commons license, granting you permission to reproduce. Not so fast! Even after trudging through all the orphan works problems in copyright, you would have to prove that this copy had not been made from a broadcast or webcast. More clearance problems! More middle-men! More empirically ungrounded state-granted monopolies! Just what we wanted. There are even some serious free speech problems.

What if only Fox or CBS has the footage of a particular public event? Do we let the broadcaster eviscerate the ideas of fair use, prohibiting other networks from showing fragments so as to comment on the events, or criticise the original coverage? The proposed treaty text allows for fair use-like exceptions but does not require them. Once again, we harmonise upward property rights for powerful commercial entities, but leave to individual states the discretion whether and how to frame of the equally crucial public interest exceptions to those rights. Increased property rights for broadcasters are required. The public interest in education, access, and free speech is optional. (Among other things, most of the recent drafts would outlaw home recording of TV and radio unless a special exception was put into the law, state by state.)

This proposal was so bad, so empirically threadbare, so unbalanced, that I had cherished a faint hope that the members of WIPO would abandon it. At least, I hoped there might be a comparative study of the nations that had previously adopted the protection and those that had not, to see if there was any need for such a change? What was I thinking!!? Why do we need evidence? With remarkably little public attention, the Broadcasting Treaty train is chugging ahead strongly, with states providing new draft proposals over the next two months for a possible decision in September. The status of the webcasting provision is still unclear. But the webcasters are pressing hard. Expect another poorly reasoned proposal to rise from the ashes, with the US playing a key role. The press seems to have missed the story. Bizarrely, the proposal is getting more robust criticism from industry sources, who can see how it will affect competitiveness on the web, than from librarians and civil libertarians who ought to appreciate better than anyone its effect on speech and cultural heritage.

Of course, the casting treaty is a paradigmatic example of the dysfunctions in our international deliberations on these issues; we have the absence of evidence, the mandatory rights and optional exceptions, the industry-capture, the indifference to harm caused by rights-thickets. But the representatives of the United States, who have played an ignominious role as cheerleaders for this silly treaty, have a particular, indeed a constitutional, reason to be ashamed.

Unlike their descendants who now work the floor at WIPO, the framers of the US constitution had a principled, pro-competitive attitude to intellectual property. They knew rights might be necessary, but they worried about industry-capture and unnecessary monopoly and so they tied congress’s hands, restricting its power in multiple ways.

Rights have to be of limited duration. (Congress has managed to get around that one by repeatedly extending the limit: Jefferson must be spinning in his grave.) They can only cover original material, which must be fixed in some material form. No rights over inventions that are already known, or over unoriginal compilations of fact. Of course, if the material is not within the core domain of copyright and patent, congress may go further, as it has with trademarks.

But over the material covered by copyright, where we are dealing with fundamental constitutional limitations, these rules reign supreme and congress may not circumvent them by turning to another constitutional source of power. What does this mean in practice? That is a complicated question. There are pending legal disputes about ‘bootlegging statutes’ and about foreign works that have been pulled out of the public domain as a consequence of the Uruguay Round of trade agreements.

In my view, the current drafts of the Broadcast Treaty would be unconstitutional if implemented in American law. They create new copyright-like rights over unoriginal material, indeed material that is frequently copyrighted by someone else. That violates a core restriction of the copyright clause of the constitution. They also ignore the fixation requirement.

But forget the attempt to predict what the Supreme Court would do if it heard the case. Are the US’s negotiators ignoring their constitutional responsibilities, and seeking to get a bad treaty passed with inadequate public debate of its desirability, constitutionality or consequences? About that there is no doubt at all. Shame on them. Jefferson and Madison would not approve. Should we?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"Guarded openness..."

... is John Reid's new buzzword, according to a story in The Register about his recent speech to the surveillance industry. As far as I can gather from ten minutes on google, it was a term first used in this context by a couple of US military strategists (insert your Iraq-related joke here) in 1996, the idea being that you try to keep your society open with regards to some ideas whilst remaining guarded about anything that might effect security. Like all useful national security phrases of late ("...till the job's done", anyone?), this one's semantically vague enough that it can be expanded to mean virtually anything. Indeed, many commentators use it to describe China's internet policy, which is obviously a model of where we'd want society to be going.

That might seem a rather harsh analogy - Reid hasn't yet tried to stop anyone reading about Tiannamen Square - but read the whole story and it's not that far off what he's got in mind. In spite of the fact that the UK is already the world's most surveyed nation, with a security camera for every fifteen people, Reid is begging for more of the same, calling on the private sector to redouble its efforts to keep us at the front of a spying-on-your-own-citizens arms race, and for the pubic to get behind it in a "renew[al] of the social contract" (I'm not making this up). This redoubling, of course, takes place with the help of massive public subsidies.

Now, a lot of people are inclined to say, "Fair enough. I don't actually fancy being blown to small pieces on my way into work, and if some of my taxes go towards helping some private business come up with the gizmo that's going to stop it, I guess that's just the way it's got to be." These people are idiots. The whole point of terrorist operations like the 7/7 bombings is that the planning and execution of them takes place on a tiny, private scale (private conversations, with friends, about sensitive matters), and that they're done by people the government has no reason to suspect. So guarding against that involves surveying everyone on the most intimate, private scale possible. Obviously this is an ever-expanding process, because as the surveillance gets more invasive, aspiring terrorists have to keep their dealings ever more private in order to avoid capture. John Reid says it's a "struggle that will be long, wide and deep." No shit! As far as I can see it only ends when the government knows what everyone in the country is doing for every second of every day.

Now, I don't actually believe the government wants to go that far and, the odd paranoia attack aside, I'm not sure it could manage it even if it wanted to. But the logical conclusion of that is that it ain't gonna stop terrorist attacks through more surveillance. So if they know they're fighting a losing battle, why the massive expansion of state surveillance in the first place? Well a couple of reasons spring to mind. The first is that the Home Office has a lot of other head-aches that it might see surveillance as a cure for: immigration and crime spring to mind (because privatisation worked so well on the prisons). More charitably, there's also just the fact that, evem if they don't think they can stop attacks through surveillance, they must be seen to doing something and so this is all just a big exercise in re-arragning the shop window. The last explanation, and the one that The Register seems to like, is good old fashioned capture of government by private interests.

Since the end of the Cold War, the arms industry has been looking for a new way to suckle at the teat of the state, and the "War on Terror" seems to have provided it with a way. This is most obviously seen with Halliburton in Iraq, but there's a lot of ways short of all-out pandamonium in the Middle East that a business can benefit from a perceived security crisis. One of these has been the fear of domestic terrorism, and arms companies have been running a side-line in surveillance of civillian populations for some time now. They even have their own official representation in the EU, the European Security Research Advisory Board, which seems to be mainly about advising that more money should be given to private business for security research. If Dr. Reid's pronouncements are anything to go by, they seem to be very good at doing it...

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