Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Free Trade and Intellectual Property

Economics blogger Dean Baker writes about copyright and patent protections in free trade.

I'm all for contrarian viewpoints, especially when they take a commonly-held perspective and throw a different light onto it. The combination of "free trade" and "patent protections" seems like rich territory for a contrarian view.

Most of us don't usually think of intellectual property rights as trade protectionism. Certainly, we figure, people in China shouldn't be able to crank out thousands of illegal copies of Microsoft Office, or people in India shouldn't be able to sell illegal copies of Hollywood movies for $0.50 each, right?

Dean Baker periodically makes the case, however, that intellectual property protection is simply another form of trade protectionism.

As interesting as Dean's perspective is, though, I say it's wrong.

Microsoft's product is software that allows you to write documents, or do complex calculations, or handle large amounts of data. Sure, the physical manifestation of its products is a CD in a box, but the real product, the value, is the intangible, intellectual design work that goes into the software.

Glaxo Smith Kline's product is a pill that cures an illness. Sure, the physical manifestation of GSK's products is a little white tablet, just some grains of stuff pressed together really tight. But the real product, the value, is the intangible, intellectual design work that took place in the laboratory, long before the pill was ever made.

To argue that intellectual property rights are simply another form of trade protectionism is to argue that we are all nothing other than line workers at a factory, that none of us produce anything of value other than our labor. And that is as insulting to a factory worker in China as it is to a scientist in Boston.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It's not about our sons and daughters

In World War II, about 300,000-400,000 Americans died.

In Vietnam, about 50,000-60,000 Americans died.

In Iraq II, about 3,000 or so Americans have died, so far.

(the numbers of non-Americans who died in all three wars is a fascinating story, but one for another time)

More than ever before, this is not about our boys and girls in uniform. This time around, it is not about the blood. For a moment at least, please check that baggage at the door.

If you have a close friend or loved one who died in Iraq, then common decency would exclude you from this requirement. But for the rest of us...

We need to stop being distracted by the blood, and we need to think about the money.

What are we getting for the money we are spending? Are we getting a good price for it? Do we have that money to spend?

Whatever you think about the war, strip out the blood, and think of the money. Is your opinion still the same?

Do we want to do this again?

Yes, Iran is supplying weapons to insurgents and militias in Iraq. The White House's recent dog and pony show about Iranian arms discovered in Iraq showed us some pretty nasty explosives.

I have no problem believing Iranian arms are making their way into Iraq and are blowing holes into our boys' Humvees. That's not what we should be taking away from all this.

You don't have to go to the radical left press to hear about Iraqi police and army (trained and armed by us) making their way into Shiite militias, these same Shiite militias that are being supplied by Iran, too.

That is what we should be taking away from this: Iran is supplying the same people we are.

So when you decide how you feel about this whole building-the-case-against-Iran thing, don't think about it in terms of "they're killing our boys".

Think about it in terms of "we're both jackals fighting over the same carcass".

And then ask yourself if you still feel the same way about it.

In 2003, we did not go to war because we were lied to. We went to war because we chose to believe. There is an important difference. Let's not make the same mistake again.

Monday, February 12, 2007

God, mother, country

Don't ever insult, or tread upon, anyone's god, mother, or country.

It doesn't matter what country you go to, it doesn't matter what culture you are talking about. It is a universal around the world: people will fight you to the death if you interfere with any one of those three.

It doesn't matter how much someone hates their god, or their mother, or their country. If you come in from outside and insult or interfere with it, people will fight you to the death in its defense.

Opinions like this (Farhad Mansourian in the National Review) make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Mansourian writes,

"The Iranian people must be reminded and the White House and Congress must affirm that if it has to pursue dialogue, it does not mean abandoning the freedom-aspiring Iranian people."

Not for one second should we be thinking Iranian families sit around their dinner tables hoping that one day someone will save them from their government.

It doesn't even matter if they do sit around the dinner table and think like that. It is their fight, their issue.

If you do think Iran is a big risk to the world, that's great. But don't imagine for even one second that you will come riding into town on your big white horse and be greeted with smiles by anyone.

Feelings of moral righteousness are a very thick cloud on good judgement.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A waste of time

Is there a problem with how reporters report on the federal budget, or is the problem how Washington debates it? I suspect the problem is both.

The Wall Street Journal should be able to talk numbers as well as anyone. But on February 9, the WSJ reports on Senate deliberations...

Here, we see discussions of how to spend amounts like $50 million, or $200 million, or even $500 million. In fact, the whole bill is for about $463 billion total.

That sounds like a lot of money. But consider that the federal government will spend about $2.5 trillion this year.

That means when the Senate argues over $463 billion, they are arguing about less than 20% of what Washington will spend this year.

Of the $2.5 trillion that will be spent over a year, about 80% of it will go to either 1) Social Security, 2) Medicare, 3) debt service, or 4) defense.

It is ridiculous that anyone in our government debates, pro or con, $50 million for oil and gas research. $50 million is 2 one-thousandths (2/1000) of the budget. It is not even large enough to be a rounding error.

That goes for most of the items in this $463 billion bill.

It's bad enough that anyone in our government would waste time talking about it, and it's even worse that reporters report on it, as if it were significant.

This is very dangerous for the long term health of our country. It is time spent fiddling while Rome burns.

My suggestion for us voters:

When your Senatorial, Congressional, or Presidential candidates talk about anything, anything at all, ask them whether it directly affects:

1) Social security spending
2) Medicare spending
3) Debt service spending
4) Defense spending

If the answer is "no", then tell them to shut up, and talk about something important.

Raise the cap on Social Security taxes

In the Social Security reform debates, we hear a lot of talk about raising the retirement age, raising the current tax rate, cutting benefits, etc, etc.

I think raising the retirement age is a perfectly good idea. People live longer than they did when the 65-year mark was set. Raising the retirement age seems like a perfectly logical thing to do.

But instead of raising the current tax rate, or cutting benefits, how about we raise the cap on income that is taxed? I think the limit is in the mid-$90K range.

This nation is built on capital from rich people, sure. But to hear some people talk about it, especially Republicans, that capital is the only golden goose keeping us all alive. Thank god for the rich people who magnanimously give their capital to the world, otherwise we would all shrivel up and die.

Who works in the companies the rich people create? Who are the cogs that keep the machine going? The worker bees who make less than $90,000 a year.

A very small percentage of the population makes more than $90,000 a year, but those people make a disproportionate amount of the nation's total income.

Tax more of their income by raising the cap, say, to $150,000, or $175,000. Tell them it's an investment in their own infrastructure (the workers who keep their businesses going).

Friday, February 09, 2007

Tension between religion and secularism in Turkey

In Turkey, nearly everyone has a “Nufus Cuzdani”, a government-issued identity card. It is the one piece of ID everyone assumes you have.

In America, the equivalent is the driver’s license. When a cashier, or a post office employee, or nearly anyone, wants to see some ID, they ask for your driver’s license. The Nufus Cuzdani serves the same kind of universal purpose.

When I saw a friend’s Nufus Cuzdani for the first time, one thing fascinated me: there was a box on it for “religion”.

In a country where the government is so overtly secular, where you are reminded of the secular nature of the state in a thousand ways on an almost daily basis, why does a government-issued identity card have a space for “religion”?

And why did this friend’s identity card say “Muslim”, when she is one of the most unreligious people I have ever met? At a recent party when my friend was deemed “most pious” in the group, it was a joke and everyone laughed.

Contrast that Muslim to a deeply pious one who prays five times a day, strictly observes all religious holidays, and even considers his religious marriage ceremony to be perfectly sufficient, and a state ceremony irrelevant.

Why take these very different people with very different outlooks on religion, and lump them together in one category? Especially in a secular state where religious belief isn’t a requirement for membership in the nation that state represents?

Remember that the Republic of Turkey is little more than 80 years old, and the early vision for the nation was a radical departure from what came before it.

Generally, the idea was that if you were inside the national boundaries, and your allegiance was to the Republic, that was enough to be a Turk. It didn’t matter what your religious or ethnic background was.

But what if the notion of allegiance to a democratic nation-state owned by the people themselves didn’t exist yet? The nation would break apart before it ever got a chance to form.

It would need something else, an allegiance more familiar, to tie its people together, at least for the time being.

It couldn’t use ethnicity, because people had spent thousands of years rampaging through its lands. The bloodlines were pretty thoroughly mixed, the population too ethnically diverse.

However, enough people did identify with “Muslim” in at least one of its many manifestations, and allegiance to Islam in general was a familiar concept to most of its people. If religious affiliation was an official part of a citizen’s identity, a nation could build itself, or hold itself together, on an allegiance already felt by most of its citizens. And over time, those feelings, that allegiance, would gradually transfer to the secular state itself.

So the state uses a Muslim umbrella to bring together most of the people inside its national boundaries.

The building of a secular state, and the unification of a diverse population on religious grounds, go together like oil and water. However, while the revolutionary concepts of allegiance to a secular state take hold, religious affiliation serves as an already-existing umbrella to hold everyone together in the meantime. The secular state’s dependence on religion for survival was built right into the revolution.

In Turkey, the ongoing struggle between religious and secular isn’t something that threatens the state or nation. It is something that has built it from the beginning.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Rats from the ship

The International Herald Tribune reports on Bush allies in Congress trying to rally Republican troops, to block the coming attempts to wrestle war control away from the White House.

In a couple years, Republicans, the current head of your party will be retiring to his ranch in Crawford. He won't have to worry about picking up the pieces. You, however, will still be around, you hope.

Your party will be broken, having thrown to the wind its previous core message of "small government, fiscal responsibility". The guy you followed when you left that safe shore and swam headlong into unknown currents, he'll be gone, and you will be left alone in a rudderless boat that's taking on water really, really fast.

It's not the Democrats you need to worry about. Your Republican cohorts you worry are going to jump ship and side with the Democrats on this, they are not doing it because they are siding with the other party. They are doing it because they are waking up with a horrific hangover after this big, drunken bash, and they figure they may as well get the "walk of shame" over with now.

They aren't siding with the Democrats on this. They are siding with the Republicans. You should consider leaving your President and joining them.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Turkey is simply Turkey

Before I came to Turkey three years ago, what impressed me most about its history was that for thousands of years, various peoples had been rampaging back and forth across the same piece of land. Sometimes it was the West going east. Sometimes it was the East going west. Whichever way they were going, and whatever they were doing, pretty much everyone had been through here at one time or another.

I found this absolutely fascinating, and at the end of my first day here, the concept finally came to life right in front of my own eyes. It was at that moment that I fell in love with this country.

At the end of that first day, my wife and I were sitting at a café above Istiklal having dinner. Our table was next to the window, and I was staring outside at all the people passing below. I was completely fascinated. Everyone looked so different.

I don’t mean some people had blond hair, or some people had light skin while others had dark skin. I mean there was so much variety in the facial structures and body types. It seemed like every single person had a completely different body structure, and I thought, these aren’t people who grew from the genetic stock of just a few people. These are people who grew from the infinitely mixed genetic stock of all those different peoples who had spent thousands of years rampaging across this piece of land.

The people I saw on the streets of Istanbul that night were not the children of Germans, they were not the children of Persians, they were not the children of any other single place or nation. They were the children of the world.

I had ready many books about Turkey, and every single book, it seemed, asked the question, “Is Turkey European or is Turkey Asian?”. I imagined that when I got there, I would find a place that needed to ask that question, and needed to answer it.

But sitting there in that café above Istiklal that night, I realized that was an entirely irrelevant question to be asking. Turkey didn’t need to be European, and it didn’t need to be Asian. Its strength was its own, and I saw the source of that strength walking right past the window in front of my eyes. Turkey was Turkey, and it didn’t need anyone else’s strength, because it already had it.

Turkey didn’t need to answer the question. It needed to stop asking it.

Others outside of Turkey will continue trying to resolve that question for themselves for years. They might be debating that question forever. But you can’t control what other people do, you can only control what you do. When Turkey stops trying to answer that question, when Turkey starts to laugh at that question, it will find a unique strength and confidence it forgot it had.

Sometimes people give up on that question, and instead they describe Turkey as a bridge between East and West. I think this is the wrong way to look at it, too. A bridge is a relatively weak and temporary structure connecting two very strong, very permanent pieces of land. The bridge does not produce its own strength, it merely draws on the strength of the land around it and below it.

Even Istanbul’s own Bosphorus bridge, which looks so big compared to the tiny cars that cross it, is nothing but a temporary structure. The bridge has only been with us for about 35 years, but the land was here millions of years before that. And when, for whatever reason, the Bosphorus bridge leaves us, the land will still be here. Bridges don’t have their own strength, but Turkey does. Turkey is not a bridge between anything.

When Turkey stops asking itself this question, when it stops trying to be European, or Asian, or, failing that, a bridge, it will find an inner strength and unity that sometimes it seems to have forgotten.

Turkey is not European. It is not Asian. It is not a bridge. Turkey is simply Turkey, and it can stand alone perfectly well.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

How the "genocide" debate will die in Washington

Periodically, the US Congress discusses a bill that would recognize an "Armenian genocide". And every time, the President gets to shoot it down (if it makes it that far). The President has to -- Turkey is an important ally for so many reasons, and the US recognizing a genocide would really, really piss off Turkey.

This reminds me of the China MFN (Most Favored Nation) debates in the US in the 90s. Every year, the Congress would debate China's trade status. And every year, the President would shoot any anti-China bills down, if they made it all the way to his desk.

Everyone went home happy. Senators and Congressmen could look good back home, tough on China and all. But normal relations with China would continue anyway.

Now with Nancy Pelosi heading the US House, there's fear here in Turkey that the "genocide" debate in the US will swing against Turkey.

I don't think so. In fact, I suspect it will go the other way, and the President will end the debate permanently. I bet it'll happen much like the China MFN debate happened in the 90s.

Congress will debate the "genocide" issue, Pelosi will use her newfound powers to usher a "genocide" bill to the President's desk, and then, like the President did with China MFN in the 90s, the President now will veto it and find a way to put a permanent stop to the annual debate. Relations with Turkey are just too important to keep taking such a big risk.

Interestingly, the Hrat Dink murder in Istanbul last week gives some really good breathing room for this to happen,

Spurred at least in part by the murder, there is now some talk in Turkey about Turkey and Armenia establishing more normal relations with each other.

I don't put a lot of stock in conspiracy theories, because I think the world is usually more random and unplanned than we like to think it is.

However, because of the murder's timing, Ankara's potential overtures towards Yerevan can be painted with the Hrat Dink brush -- "We are doing this because we are all brothers", Ankara can tell the Turkish people. Having the move painted with the "outsiders made us do it" brush would go down really bad in Turkey, especially in an election year.

So the Dink murder gives Ankara cover to establish ties with Yerevan, and those new ties give the US President cover to kill the "genocide" bill (because look at this other healing that's going on). And when Congress mysteriously can't muster the strength to override the veto, Senators and Congressmen (and definitely Pelosi) can still look good back home. They at least tried to get the "genocide" recognized, and hey, look what happened because of it, we scared Turkey into recognizing Yerevan (or so Pelosi can tell the Armenians in her state).

And so it ends.

Coming change to primary schedules

The New York Times discusses a change that would work in Giuliani's favor.


The Republicans will remake themselves

The other day I wrote about the Democrats' need to do the scut work of aligning their party around a central message -- to "brand" themselves.

They better get moving, because the Republicans are looking to do the same. The Republicans certainly need to, after the Bush II years. Eight years of Bush II destroyed the branding work they had spent decades on before (centered around "small government, lower taxes").

What signals the coming change?

Discussing Tuesday's State of the Union speech, the National Review notes:

"And where were the social issues? It is widely accepted that opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage are two of the few issues that have been helping the Republican party lately; why abandon them now?"

They're getting ready to run Giuliani. Winning in 2008 is going to require some serious branding renovation for the party, but they know they need that anyway. And when the Republicans finish their brand restoration work, Giuliani will be a more appropriate candidate for the Republicans than he is now.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On government and personal responsibility

Commenting on this post,

Fati asks us...

"[D]o citizens of the US have the power to make things change? When things don't change, is it really because people don't do enough or because the political agendas weigh heavier than the wants and the needs of people?"

My take on the issue:

When things don't change, it is both. It is because people don't do enough, and it is because political agendas weigh heavier than the wants and needs of people.

The two forces exist together, in every political system. Having a democracy doesn't mean the peoples' word automatically becomes god, and special interests and political agendas take a back seat.

Having a democracy, however, does mean the nation and its people have signed a contract, the agreement being that the people accept more direct responsibility for the things their government does in their name.

It makes me extremely angry, frothing-at-the-mouth-like-a-rabid-dog angry, when I hear one of my countrymen saying our votes don't matter, or saying that we voters have no power to affect the outcome of the world around us.

Those big, nasty corporations don't have one vote, not even a single vote. The shady special interests that lurk behind every door, they don't have a single vote either, not even one.

Only you have a vote, and if you aren't willing to take full responsibility for what you do with it, the problem lies at your feet, and your feet only.

It is not up to the government, the special interests, the political parties, or any other part of "the system" to serve you up a nice plate of candidates who truly represent you and your best interests. You are a member of a democracy, and you have to do it yourself. You are not a helpless baby lamb kept in a nice, safely tiny cage, getting fattened up for someone's dinner plate.

Freedom does not mean freedom from responsibility, and it does not mean freedom to do whatever you want. Only when you take full responsibility for everything you do or don't do, and everything others do or don't do in your name, are you free. Freedom is extremely heavy.

Noam Chomsky had a good comment on a similar issue. He said that it is fairly easy to attend a protest and then go home afterwards to your life as normal, enjoying what you had before, but now enjoying good feelings about yourself for having "stood up" to something.

But he reminds us that that kind of action does nothing to change anything, and real change comes from years and years of being dedicated to a cause, working for it consistently over time.

It is much less glamorous than one-off protest marches, but it is the way change gets done, and if change is what you want, there is absolutely no way around it.

Jesse Jackson on costs of the Iraq war

Jesse Jackson writes a good article putting the costs of the Iraq war in perspective...,CST-EDT-jesse23.article

He leaves out one thing, though, that I think is more important than all those alternative expenditures he mentions:

Don't increase the national debt.

Don't take that war money and spend it on other things.  While you've got the big knife out, butcher those other things Jackson mentions, too.

Doing it now will be very painful.  It will be much, much more painful later, if we don't.

Our country's standard of living and position in the world 50 years from now depends on what we do today.

Monday, January 22, 2007

On American troops in Somalia

Reuters reports that a Somali journalist says he saw American troops on the ground in Somalia.

First of all, there's the obviously loose hearsay connection (one person says that another person says blah blah blah...).

On the other hand, I would have no trouble believing that the US could send a couple dozen or a hundred Marines anywhere they damn well pleased, including Cleveland if need be.  Surely the US military isn't THAT tapped out in Iraq.

But shouldn't the unnamed Somali journalist, or Reuters, have pointed out that it's entirely possible, and probably more likely, that those troops were mercenaries?  Any mercenary with some funding can buy a helicopter.  Any dude with $20 can buy a US military uniform at any military surplus store.  And if you need a white guy, those are pretty easy to come by, America isn't your only source for those.

So what if the Somali journalist says some of the "white men in military dress" had US Marine insignias on their uniforms?  Did the journalist go up and ask for proof of the guy's authenticity?  Could the journalist have been mistaken in his eyewitness account, or perhaps his memory a little shaken by the scary experience of being followed by a (presumably) armed helicopter?

Sure, everyone's screwing around with Somalia in one way or another, it's one of the world's most popular ongoing proxy wars.  But the American military isn't the world's only supplier of white dudes in fatigues flying around in helicopters.