Saturday, October 26, 2013

Some Fnords - Government vs. Business

A fnord is, to quote Wikipedia, "typographic representation of disinformation or irrelevant information intending to misdirect, with the implication of a worldwide conspiracy."  There are a lot of fnords in the world, often bound up with double standards.  Let's start.

First, go look at this xkcd about women and math.   That is also the relationship of government and business to failure.  Everything else I say is elaboration.

When a business does something poorly, it is taken as simple poor choice by that particular company in that particular instance.  Even when a company makes a series of grievous mistakes, it is taken, generally, as being about that one company.  A few people like me aside, it is never taken as an indictment of the capitalist system of economics.  So, if Windows 8 sucks - and bearing in mind that Windows has a very hit and miss legacy with its software - that, at worst, indicts Microsoft.  No one ever goes, "Golly, it really sucks our business is almost entirely dependent on the whims of a capitalism.  Wouldn't it be nice if we could all just keep using Windows NT SP 2 without having new and dubious software constantly shoved down our throats."  Or how you've got to constantly rebuy your software because, hey, they keep changing the goddamn format to reflect "improvements", often unnecessary for the majority of users?  Seriously, how many people use all the functions in Office?  For most people, an ancient copy of Word Perfect would be identically efficient.

On the other hand, whenever the government does something wrong, a bunch of people come out of the woodwork to indict the entire system of government.  So, the launch problems with the US federal healthcare site aren't simply, y'know, that it's a big project and launch problems are common with any large, complex website, not to mention that immediately preceding the launch the government was laid off for a couple of weeks - so rather than putting the finishing touches on the site, those people were at home . . . no.  It is an indictment against the government doing anything.  Government is inherently inefficient.  It is repeated ad nauseum and, generally, by both big parties.

It goes the other way, too.  Any time a business succeeds at doing something, it is hailed as definitive proof of the capitalist way of life.  When a government succeeds, it's still a failure - so the popularity of Medicare (the most popular insurance company in the US whose administration is around 3% of its budget, as opposed to 15% for private insurance companies) is still seen as a failure.  Business, we are told, could do it better and is held back from doing it better because, I dunno, Medicare exists?  Even though Medicare is the most popular insurance company in the US with the lowest administration costs, the narrative is still that big business could do it better!  Which is what happens when you count only government's failures and only business success.

More viciously, the same is true of retirement insurance.  Even after the Great Recession when millions of elderly people saw their private equity and retirement portfolios evaporate - even then, there are a lot o people who attack federally funded retirement programs like Social Security.  Facts do not matter when discussing the efficiency of either business or government.  One is efficient, the other is not, regardless of performance.

To me, that's a fnord.  When the government succeeds, it fails.  When private business fails, it's the government's failure.  This is repeated over and over, again, and is the reason the US government nearly defaulted on its debts.

The next fnord is, once again, about the differences between government and business.  In this case, the idea that taxation limits economic development against the idea that intellectual property laws do not.

Anyone who reads the news hears, at great length, about how taxation is the bane of business.  If only we would eliminate taxation, business would take off and we would be even richer than before!  Yay!  Taxation crushes businesses, particularly small businesses, we are told, underfoot, never allowing the fresh shoots of innovation - an oft repeated word - to take root.

No one talks about how intellectual property laws do the same thing.

I realized this when reading a BBC article about the guy who invented the grill that doner kebabs - we mostly call them gyros or shawarma in the US - didn't patent it.  The article says that the grill's inventor isn't bitter . . .

Which made me pull up a bit.  Why would anyone assume that he's bitter?  It's ingrained.  Clearly, if you've built something that other people then use and don't make a bunch of money off of it, you should be bitter!  Right, Linux guys?  I bet you're all fuckin' bitter.  Anyway . . .

The article goes on to talk about the 16,000 doner kebab joints in Germany.  I couldn't help think that if the dude who had invented the vertical grill upon which those kebabs are cooked had patented it, there wouldn't be 16,000 doner kebab joints in Germany.  After all, at best, the inventor would have collected a cut from every place - creating an additional expense and limiting innovation.  And, quite possibly, the inventor could just refuse to sell the grills to anyone outside of his own business, keeping it as a special trade secret for his chain of kebab stands.

Such proprietary selfishness happens all the time.  Microsoft has worked quite hard to keep its code secret because it doesn't want people innovating off of its invention, for instance.  Just try to publish a story using Star Wars characters and see what happens.  And woe be to you if you've incorporated, even accidentally (through parallel invention), some element of a patented product belonging to a big corporation.  They will sue you right out of existence.

To me, that's a fnord . . . sorta related to the one above, actually, right?

While it is true that excessive taxation is bad, and limits the growth of business, no one wants to seem to talk about the extent to which patents and IP laws also limit business innovations - preventing entrepreneurs from experimenting with things that "belong" to another person, potentially improving them and "stealing" the market that the other person "created".  (There are so many quotes, there, because big businesses, themselves, often exploit people on their way up and continue to do so at the top.  By and large, the people who control all of those patents and IPs didn't really make very much, much less something as amorphous as a market.)

Paradoxically, limiting people's access to patents and IPs is supposed to somehow improve innovation.  That's the business and government's line, right?  This ignores the extent to which people can't innovate, either technologically or organizationally, when IPs because they can't afford to do so or are simply kept out of that market by the corporations who own the IPs.  But . . . that's real, right?

They're feeling the pinch, already, in some sciences - particularly biology.  Genetics is probably the first science to be dominated by corporations, which is why there are so many patented genes.  (Which is about as fucked up an idea as one can imagine.  It isn't like they invented them, they just found them.  It's like saying that because you found a particular species of plant in the Amazon that you therefore own all uses of that plant.  It's actually a really bizarre idea.  That the courts even partially validated patents on genes is creepy - and buys into the idea that just because someone spent money that they to have a return on their investment.  Which is equally creepy as patenting genes, to me, and also about as anti-capitalist an idea as exists.)  And as a result, biologists find themselves restricted in research opportunities because of patents.  The free exchange of ideas that once typified science is becoming dominated by corporate interests who don't care if the next guy's research is limited by existing IPs, slowing the rate of development of the field.  So long as they get their money.  It is starting to happen to other sciences, too, as research costs are externalized to universities - more and more barriers to research are being erected by a corporate need to control profit.

No one talks about that.  That's a fnord, too, and another example of how everything business does is good, by definition, and everything government does is bad, also by definition, without any reference whatsoever to external situations.

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