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.