Monthly Archives: May 2007

Insanity Over Mad Cow Testing

Instapundit had a link to an infuriating AP story:

WASHINGTON: The Bush administration said Tuesday it will fight to keep meatpackers from testing all their animals for mad cow disease.

Oh. Well, I’m not sure that’s such a big deal. There’s no need for the government to force meatpackers to test every animal if the current random spot testing protocol is good enough. That’s a scientific question about statistics and the nature of the disease. There may not be any advantage to additional government inspection.

Then I read the rest of the article.

The Agriculture Department tests fewer than 1 percent of slaughtered cows for the disease, which can be fatal to humans who eat tainted beef. A beef producer in the western state of Kansas, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, wants to test all of its cows.

So the meatpacker wants to do additional voluntary testing and the government is trying to stop them? This makes no sense: Creekstone owns the cows. Of course they can test them! Why would anybody want to stop them? Why prevent additional voluntary testing?

Larger meat companies feared that move because, if Creekstone should test its meat and advertised it as safe, they might have to perform the expensive tests on their larger herds as well.

I take it back. Suddenly it all makes a lot of sense. The other meatpackers are thieves, and the government is helping them.

The extra testing is going to increase Creekstone’s cost of delivering beef to the market. But if customers like the idea of 100% testing, Creekstone will have increased the value of its product. Creekstone then has the option of raising the price to increase their revenue.

Alternatively, Creekstone could keep their prices low and try to increase their market share. This would squeeze the other meatpackers. They’d either have to lower their prices below Creekstone’s or start 100% testing on their beef as well. Either way, there’s a good chance it would eat into their profits. They hate when that happens.

That’s a problem that those of us outside the agriculture industry have been wrestling with for some time now. We call it the free market. That’s probably a strange and frightening concept to meatpackers, because the U.S. agricultural sector has been run as a communist-style command economy for as long as I can remember.

In a free market, the other meatpackers would either be earning a steady profit while Creekstone loses money on their idiotic testing idea or else they’d be racing to meet the consumer demand for more testing.

The Agriculture Department regulates the test and argued that widespread testing could lead to a false positive that would harm the meat industry.

Huh? Look, lots of things can harm the meat industry. Disney could release a new animated movie with singing cattle and suddenly millions of children could stop eating hamburger. Heck, not too long ago Oprah Winfrey said something bad about eating meat and sales took a dive.

These are all problems for the meat industry, but they should only be problems for the meat industry. The Department of Agriculture should stay out of it. Preventing voluntary testing is insane.

No, I take that back. Calling the Department of Agriculture insane is an insult to insane people, because at least when insane people behave badly they have the excuse that they’re insane. The Department of Agriculture has people who know better, yet they do stuff like this anyway. That’s just wrong.

This is nothing more than protection of the beef industry at the expense of consumers.

Safer Driving Rules For the Children

Here’s a slightly annoying Chicago Tribune editorial about changes in the rules for teenage drivers here in Illinois. Basically, they’ve increased the restrictions teenagers face. The new rules include:

– Night restrictions for drivers younger than 18 are moved back an hour.

– Passenger limits on 16- and 17-year-old drivers are extended from six months to one year.

These rules would have driven me nuts as a teenager. I used to love to drive around with my friends at night. These rules would have ruined some of the most enjoyable evenings of my teenage years.

I don’t know, these changes may be a good idea, but I get suspicious when people start changing the rules once they no longer apply to themselves. Every lawmaker involved with this is probably old enough to have survived a time when driving rules for beginners were much more lenient. Now that their driving privileges are secure, they’re changing the rules.

Some teens may not like these new limits. Some of their parents may also find them a nuisance at times. But White has an answer for that. “They may not like me now,” he said. “They may not like the legislation, but when they reach the age of 21 and are alive and well, I think they’ll love Jesse White and the members of the General Assembly for our initiative.”

That’s just insane. Even if the new rules are terrific, nobody will say anything like that. When was the last time you heard a 21-year-old who was thankful that he handn’t been allowed to drink when he was 18? People are rarely happy to have their freedom restricted, even when it really is a good idea.

When it comes to teens behind the wheel, there’s no such thing as too safe.

This sort of sentiment is quite popular, but obviously wrong. Even the people behind these rule changes don’t really believe it. If they did, they would have made the rules even stricter. After all, how many teenage lives would be saved if we moved up the night restrictions yet another hour? How many lives would be saved if we made teenagers wait yet another year to get learner’s permits? How about if we require them to be 18 years old to get a permit and 21 to get a solo driver’s license? How many lives would we save then?

Clearly we draw the line somewhere, just as we do for every other dangerous human endeavor.

Operation Support Our Troops – Illinois

A friend of mine just reminded me of a great organization called Operation Support Our Troops-Illinois.

Founded in 2003 by Debi Rickert, OSOTIL sends out care packages to our troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. They follow Department of Defense security standards and guidelines. Most of the items they send are not available through the military supply system and are difficult to find locally.

Just to give you an idea, the current list of most desired items includes Canned Fruit, Crackers, Beef Jerky/Slim Jims, Nuts, Shaving Cream, Deodorant, Hand lotion, Body wash, Foot Powder, Socks, Cold drink mix, Gatorade, Coffee, Unscented baby wipes, Pringles, Peanut Butter, Jelly, Bug Spray, Fly Strips, Fly swatters, and Sunscreen.

That’s just the top ten list. They accept a lot of other stuff as well.

OSOTIL has drop-off locations for goods all over Illinois, or you can just send them money using PayPal to help cover their $2400/month shipping bill. Details for all of this are available on their home page.

If you’re not from Illinois, then check out the national parent organization, Operation Support Our Troops

Eternal Copyright

In an op-ed entitled “A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?” in last Sunday’s New York Times author Mark Helprin tries to make the case for eternal copyright.

Once the state has dipped its enormous beak into the stream of your wealth and possessions they are allowed to flow from one generation to the next. Though they may be divided and diminished by inflation, imperfect investment, a proliferation of descendants and the government taking its share, they are not simply expropriated.

That is, unless you own a copyright. Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?), 70 years after my death the rights to it, though taxed at inheritance, would be stripped from my children and grandchildren.

Before we go any further, let me point out that the government of Cook County takes a little bit of my home every year. Rather than actually assigning a percentage of my home to the County, I just send them a check for the cash value of what they’re taking. They may not be taking all of it at once, but they’re taking it nonetheless. (And if I fall behind on payments, they certainly will take it all at once.)

Keep in mind, this is not a sales tax or an income tax. It’s not based on any kind of activity involving the property. They just take a piece of it every year simply because it exists. Nobody is charging authors money every year just for having a copyright.

…why, when such a stiff penalty is not applied to the owners of Rockefeller Center or Wal-Mart, it is brought to bear against legions of harmless drudges…

…the Constitution states unambiguously that Congress shall have the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” …

It is, then, for the public good. But it might also be for the public good were Congress to allow the enslavement of foreign captives and their descendants (this was tried); the seizure of Bill Gates’s bankbook; or the ruthless suppression of Alec Baldwin. You can always make a case for the public interest if you are willing to exclude from common equity those whose rights you seek to abridge. But we don’t operate that way, mostly.

Helprin is badly confused. You can’t enslave people without taking away their freedom, and you can’t seize Bill Gates’s money without taking money away from him. Likewise, taking Rockefeller Center or Wal-Mart stores deprives their owners of the use of them.

Making a copy of one of Helprin’s novels, however, doesn’t take anything away from Helprin. It doesn’t take anything away from his publisher, either. That probably sounds wrong to people like Helprin for whom copyright is a part of everyday life, but it’s not, as a simple example should demonstrate.

Let’s say Helprin writes a novel, and his publisher prints an initial production run of 20,000 copies. The publisher then sells 10,000 copies for $10 each, and pays Helprin a 10% royalty. At this point, Helprin has his original manuscript and $1000 cash, his publisher has 10,000 leftover books and $9000 cash, and his fans have 10,000 books.

If I received one of those books, I could spend a week typing it into my computer and then use an online printing service to run off another 10,000 copies which I could sell to the public. After the sale, Helprin would still have his original manuscript and $1000 cash, his publisher would still have 10,000 leftover books and $9000 cash, and his fans would still have the 10,000 books they bought. In other words, they’d have exactly what they had before I copied his book. They lost nothing.

Helprin would no doubt object that he is owed royalties on the copies I sold, but the reason for that is not as obvious as he thinks it is. I paid for the book, I purchased a computer, I bought an internet connection. Then I did all the work of typing in the manuscript, just like he did, and I paid to have it printed and sold, just like his publisher did. Neither he nor his publisher spent any time or money getting my 10,000 books printed, so why would either of them deserve to get any money?

Here’s another way to look at it: If I bought Rockefeller Center or a Wal-Mart store, I could do whatever I want with it. But if I buy a copy of his book, he wants the right to prevent me from making copies of it. He wants to control what I do with it after he’s sold it to me. And he’s implying other people of being greedy?

Nevertheless, copyright law says he should get money. Why is that? It turns out there are a couple different types of property.

My wife and I own our home, two cars, several computers, and a bunch of other stuff. Legally speaking, ownership of any property consists of a collection of rights to that property, two of which are important in this context. The first right my wife and I have is the right to use our property. We can occupy our homes, drive our cars, and surf the web on our computers.

The second right we have in our property is the right to exclude others from using it. We can keep other people from entering our home, driving our cars, and using our computers. This right follows naturally from the first, because the right to use our property is harmed if other people are also allowed to use it. What would be the point of owning a home if anyone else could enter it to prepare a meal in our kitchen or take a shower in our bathroom? We might as well live in the park.

Economists say that these types of property are rivalrous goods. The users of these goods are rivals: One user’s enjoyment of the the property comes at the expense of all other potential users. Most of the goods you buy in stores are rivalrous. The can of Diet Coke I’m drinking as I write this is a rivalrous good: Every sip I take is a sip that no one else will ever enjoy. I have depleted the world of a can of Diet Coke, and someone else will suffer by being unable to drink it.

(There are probably 100 million cans of Diet Coke in the world right now, and several billion cans of close substitutes, so my consumption of this can imposes very little hardship on the rest of the world, which is why the market cost of a can of Diet Coke is only 25 cents.)

I’m also eating a piece of steak, and that too is a rivalrous good (albeit a more expensive one). That raises the question: What kinds of goods are non-rivalrous?

You’re reading it. The contents of this blog are a non-rivalrous good.

I don’t know why you’re reading my blog. Perhaps you find it informative, perhaps you find it entertaining. Perhaps it reinforces your own values, or perhaps you are reading it to plan your rebuttal. Whatever the reason, whatever you’re getting out of it, its utility for you is not diminished if someone else in the world is also reading it.

That’s generally true of all intellectual property. Your enjoyment of a song on the radio is undiminished by the number of other people enjoying it, and it doesn’t matter how many other people see the same show on television. Intellectual property is a non-rivalrous good.

It gets a little complicated if we’re talking about intellectual property that’s more tangible than a web page. If you’re reading Helprin’s book, your enjoyment of it is undiminished if someone else is reading another copy. But your enjoyment would surely be diminished if someone else was reading your copy instead of you. That is, the books themselves are rivalrous goods, but the ideas within are not.

This is not an ideal situation, however, because of an asymmetry in the market for ideas. The problem arises because only Helprin does the work of creating the idea, but his fans are able to enjoy the idea once they read his books.

Helprin, like many writers, probably enjoys the feeling that comes from finishing a book. That is his reward for doing the hard work of creating the book. In the absense of copyright, that is his only reward, since his fans don’t have to buy their copies from him or from someone who pays him royalties.

Suppose instead of writing the book, Helprin does something he finds at least equally enjoyable. Perhaps he spends the same amount of time relaxing on the beach. More likely, he spends the time working at a paying job so he can earn the money he needs to bring himself enjoyment. Helprin doesn’t get the joy of having written a book, but only because he chose to do something else to bring enjoyment instead.

The same cannot be said of his fans. They no longer get to enjoy reading his book, but unlike Helprin, they cannot enjoy whatever it is he’s doing instead. They simply lose out.

What it all adds up to is that lots of people would benefit if Helprin wrote the book, but only Helprin benefits if he doesn’t write the book. Clearly the world as a whole would be better off if he wrote the book. However, the world doesn’t get to decide if the book gets written, only Helprin gets to do that. But because he only receives part of the benefits of writing the book, he may decide not to write it, and the world may not be as pleasant as it could be.

That sort of situation is called a market failure. The free market does not properly reward the creators of intellectual property, so in the absense of another reward mechanism, the creators tend to produce less intellectual property than would ideally be desired.

One good solution to this problem is to arrange a way for Helprin to share in the benefits that other people receive from his book. In a free market society, we do this by arranging a way for the people who benefit from the book to pay the author some money. Rather than specifying some sort of fixed fee—a buck a copy, say—we have created a legal mechanism by which Helprin is allowed to prevent other people from making copies of his book without his permission. This allows Helprin and any interested parties to negotiate a rate that they all agree on.

Of course, it costs Helprin nothing when someone else produces and sells a book, so his royalty income is pure profit. Even at a penny per book, he’d be making money. Of course, if he raises the price higher, he’d make even more money. At two pennies per book, he’d make twice as much per book, but the increase is price would reduce the number of books sold, so he wouldn’t quite make twice as much profit.

As he keeps raising the price of the book, he’d keep making more per book but selling fewer books. At some point, raising the price another penny wipes out enough sales to balance out the increase in income from a higher price. Beyond that point, raising the price reduces income. This is the point of maximum income, and it’s the price he’ll set for his books.

(Well, actually, he’ll just work out a deal with his publisher, and his publisher will guess at his price. The point is that his price will be significantly higher than zero, which is what it would be if he couldn’t enforce his copyright.)

At that price—whatever price he sets above zero—a significant number of people will not be able to afford his book and therefore will not be able to enjoy it. This is a problem. The content of his book is a non-rivalrous good, meaning it hurts no one if more people read it, so it costs nothing to re-use the content in another book, yet the copyright system still prevents some people from getting copies.

That is a market failure of a different sort: We have a good that is innately free to produce, yet some people still can’t get enough of it. The solution we have chosen was a compromise between these two types of market failure: We have copyrights to give people an incentive to create intellectual property, but those copyrights expire so that everyone can eventually benefit.

Helprin claims copyrights expire for the public good, and I suppose that’s true. But the public good—encouraging artists to create art—is also the reason that copyrights exist at all. Ideally, we’d like to give artists the right incentive to create valuable art while also seeing to it that everyone who could benefit from a piece of art does so. The structure of copyright law is a compromise intended to balance the tradeoff between rewarding the artist and inpoverishing his patrons.

…Barnes & Noble is able to publish price-reduced non-copyrighted works not so much because it saves the 10 percent to 15 percent of revenue that would go to the gruel-eating authors, but because it saves the 50 percent that would go to the publishers. Booksellers that publish their own titles benefit not from escaping the author’s copyright, but the previous publisher’s exercise of a grant of rights… “Freeing” a literary work into the public domain is less a public benefit than a transfer of wealth from the families of American writers to the executives and stockholders of various businesses who will continue to profit from, for example, “The Garden Party,” while the descendants of Katherine Mansfield will not.

Helprin’s claim is pure nonsense, bordering on outright lies. If you wan’t to read “The Garden Party” and you don’t want to spend money at a book store, you can go here. That’s Project Gutenberg, an online repository of public domain works. Along with its partners and affiliates you can find about 100,000 titles with just a few searches.

Barnes & Noble makes money selling copies of “The Garden Party” because Barnes & Noble went to the trouble to print copies of it and ship those copies to stores that are near to people who want to read it. If the descendants of Katherine Mansfield took the trouble to print and distribute their own copies of “The Garden Party,” they could make money too.

This last point sheds some important light on the whole situation. When the copyright on Helprin’s book expires, he and everyone else can make equal use of his story. He is in no sense a second class citizen here. All that has happened is that he has lost his special privileges that no one else had.

Divine Sarah Meets the Wizard of Menlo Park

I’m pretty comfortable with technology, complacent even, but every once in a while some commonplace thing about our modern world just amazes me.

One day about 120 years ago, French actress Sarah Bernhardt left the Broadway theater where she was performing and set out on a journey that took her over the Hudson River into New Jersey. She was the most famous actress in the world, known as “Divine Sarah,” and she was going to Menlo Park to visit the most famous inventor in the world. She didn’t reach his home until after midnight, but that was okay, because she was there to see Thomas Edison, and he had the lights on.

Electric light wasn’t the only new invention in use. Edison had also invented the first audio recording device. Never before had anyone heard a human voice that didn’t come directly out of a human mouth. For the first time, people could hear voices from the past. Or record them for the future.

That night, Edison used one of his machines to make a wax cylinder recording of Sarah Bernhardt as she did a dramatic reading from Jean Racine’s opera Phèdre.

Reading about that moment, I found myself thinking about how far we’ve come. Two amazing things struck me:

The first one is that I have a Sony Digital Voice recorder that I use for taking notes and (if I ever attempt actual journalism) recording interviews. Its tiny little condenser microphone captures sounds far better than Edison’s wax cylinder phonograph, it stores almost 24 hours of audio, and it operates on a pair of AAA batteries. When Thomas Edison recorded Bernhardt’s performance, he was the world’s expert on audio recording. Skip forward 120 years, and I can make a better recording using a device I keep in my pocket.

The second amazing thing is that when Edison recorded Sarah Bernhardt’s reading from Phèdre there was no way to copy phonograph recordings. To hear her performance, you would have had to have that exact cylinder, recorded in her presence. 120 years later, sitting in the comfort of my own home, I was able to find a copy of it just minutes after finding out that it had been made. All you have to do is click here and dozens of computers spread all over the landscape will briefly cooperate to pull a digital copy from magnetic storage, transmit it to your location, and play it over your speakers. (Be warned, however, that because of the recording medium it’s very quiet, and of course it’s also not in English.)

(I found the Bernhardt-meets-Edison story while reading The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World by Phillip F. Schewe who cites Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace as his source. You can find Sarah Bernhardt’s wax cylinder recordings at the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization project at the University of California in Santa Barbara.)

Friday Catblogging: Minky!

Fans of this blog, or at least of this blog’s catblogging, may have noticed that most of the pictures are of sleeping cats. What can I say? I am surrounded by lazy kitties.

However, I recently paid a visit to my friend Cindy to take pictures of her new kitten.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you…Minky!

Larger ImageMinky!!!
Larger ImageMinky!!!

Update: The Friday Ark is up.