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.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Globalisation books...

I've been having a go at Martin Wolf's Why Globalisation Works (you have to try these things) and while I agree with parts of it (he thinks TRIPS is just one big exercise in protectionism), I'm constantly annoyed by other bits where he seems to want to prove his point by just asserting it and saying the other side's stupid rather than actually having a serious debate.

This is particularly clear in his outright dismissal of Naomi Klein's ideas about corporate censorship in No Logo. Now while it's fair to say that the woman's no economist, it seems to me that she had something important to say, which is that in a world of cheap manufacturing and high value-added, business will do two things: slash production costs to a minimum (often at the expense of the sort of quality of workmanship you get from people who work shifts of less than 12 hours a day), and expand in whatever area the value-added is.

This means that the business world manages to enclose all sorts of things that might have previously been thought of as public. Interestingly, Wolf seems to understand this:

"Intellectual Property protection requires striking a delicate balance. It is essential, but can easily go too far. There will be strong pressure from powerful and self-interested producer lobbies to make intellectual property protection too tight. Intellectual property protection must also not be granted too freely. In the United States, that now seems to be happening, with protection granted to genes with unknown use and trivial business methods - such as "one-click" purchasing on the internet. Over-liberal granting of intellectual property rights is a restraint on trade and should be viewed as such."

This seems wholly consistent with much of what Klein's saying - substitute in "trademarks" for "patents", "advertising investment" in the place of "business methods", and "free speech" for "trade" and we have the same argument:

"Many alleged violators... are not trying to sell a comparable good or pass themselves off as the real thing. As branding becomes more expansionist, however, a competitor is anyone doing anything remotely related..."

Klein's got bags of examples of this sort of thing. Parents getting sued for wearing a Barney the Dinosaur costume to their kids' birthday parties is my personal favourite, if only for the official comments: "They can have a dinosaur costume. It's when it's a purple dinosaur that it's illegal, and it doesn't matter which shade of purple either."

[Or take one I saw the other day: Coke have apparently threatened an Italian film company with a lawsuit if they don't remove a scene in which Jesus drinks a can of coke in the desert (don't ask me, I haven't seen it). Apparently they feel it isn't a favourable depiction. More worryingly, the studio's agreed to do this, in spite of the fact that there seems to be no legal basis for Coke's claim.]

The interesting thing is that, on this point at least, Wolf and Klein seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet. It's on this exact point, however, that he starts calling her a godless communist who subscribes to some sort of theory of total corporate mind control: "Corporations, goes the argument, do not compete, but control; they are not subservient to customers, but coerce them. This charge - that corporations own customers - is another example of the lie that freedom is slavery."

This seems odd. There are weaker points in No Logo he could be attacking, and his equal and opposite "everyone's completely free to choose exactly as they would wish" stance seems equally thin - I mean obviously corporations must think their brands have some sort of influence, otherwise they wouldn't be throwing so much money at advertisers and litigators. If these consumers were all simply choosing what suited them best, surely the smart thing to do would be to just make the best and cheapest possible products. So what's got Martin so upset?

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