Refreshing: A World Where Labor Rights Trump Property Rights

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

Check out this excerpt from Majorie Kelley’s “Divine Right of Capital” (was a recommended read in my last outsourcing talk):

When stockholders might try to improve their negotiating position by organizing into mutual funds, corporations would threaten to cut off payments altogether. The companies would threaten to replace stockholder money with funds from overseas, willing to accept lower returns.

Of course overseas stockholders would have less power. For while free trade agreements would provide intricate protections for labor and environmental rights, they would offer capital no protections. “What does capital have to do with trade?” pundits might ask. “Trade is about goods and services and the people who create them, it’s not about capital.”

If stockholders staged protests at the World Labor Organization to suggest changes in this economic order, they would be accused of “tampering with the free market.”

That’s what we’re told today. But we don’t have to buy it. For we can begin to see how the sleight-of-hand of the “free market” serves as an apology for institutional arrangements. The truth is, free market ideology contains two separate assertions, worth unpacking.

First is the assertion that natural processes are self-regulating. Which is valid. We see it in nature, where the renewal of life in spring comes on its own. Where we mate for our own pleasure-and thus help in the rebirth of the world. In like manner, we serve the economic polity best by serving ourselves. The drive to make money gets us out of bed in the morning, and brings us to do our part in holding the world together. Our economic drives are part of the natural order and are trustworthy. We can take comfort in this assertion.

But free market ideology carries a second assertion: that corporate and trade governance structures embody the natural order. And this does not follow logically from the first. For it glosses over institutions of power. To call the stockholder-centered corporate structure “natural” is reminiscent of the ancient claim that the monarchy was the only “natural” way to structure government.

A truly natural free market would free all groups to compete equally, to pursue their own self-interest. Real free markets are not about enshrining the self-interest of one group alone in law. Privilege like that has no place in a market economy. Even an imaginary one.

Gas prices and fuel efficient cars

Monday, November 14th, 2005

Why are cars in the United States still so damn fuel inefficient? On /. right now, an argument is going on over whether this might be because gas is so damn cheap in the USA. We see the gas prices fly up to over $2.50, and we get scared. But in Europe, gas prices have been over $6 US/gallon for awhile.

However, in Europe cars are much more fuel efficient (out of necessity). They are also more beautiful and more fun to drive, but that’s beside the point. The main thing is that they are much, much more fuel efficient.

So how can we get that here? Well, one way is to use the European model, because we know it works, and start taxing gasoline more. But I think that’s actually a bit unfair, because it punishes even those who make better purchasing decisions, such as Prius drivers.

I think that we should institute a graduated tax on cars based on their fuel efficiency ratings. Oh, you get below 15 mpg? That’s too bad–now you have to pay for a lot of gas, and your car will cost 20% more. Oh, but you really like your GMC Yukon 4WD? Well, be prepared to cough up an extra few thousand dollars for it, then. We’ll take the money and use it to research alternative fuel sources.

Meanwhile, those cars that are really fuel efficient should get some major price breaks. This already happens sometimes with the Prius. But I think the discounts should be much greater and that America should really open up the market for fuel efficient cars.

We’ve been living in this dream world where the environmental externalities and consequences of our guzzling of cheap oil has absolutely no impact on our lives. It does have an impact, and Americans just don’t see it. They need to be encouraged to buy fuel efficient cars by making the inefficient ones expensive and the efficient ones cheap. That’s really so obvious and easy, I don’t see why it hasn’t happened yet.

(Well, I do see why, but I just wish we weren’t so damn beholden to oil companies.)

My Outsourced Life

Saturday, November 12th, 2005

You must read this article. It’s really something else. Outsourcing has reached new heights.

Fog of War: A Truly Thoughtful Movie

Friday, November 11th, 2005

I only just tonight got to watch Fog of War, a documentary which interviews Robert S. McNamara and draws from his past experiences lessons about the nature of foreign policy and wars.

One of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking movies I’ve seen about a person who advised presidents who had the power to wipe out entire countries with a single military order, and who years later realized that nuclear warfare and human fallibility can only mean something horrible for this society of ours.

You must see this movie; after you do, you’ll also see why I’m not so quick to buy the line about the necessity of Hiroshima/Nagasaki.

Annotated and Hyperlinked Notes on Professor Dewar’s talk on Software Copyrights, Patents and Free Software

Thursday, November 10th, 2005

Below are a few notes I took at Professor Dewar’s talk the day before yesterday. I also annotated them a bit with relevant hyperlinks.

When I find a copy of Dewar’s slides posted online, I’ll link to those as well.

  • Libertarian thought: property rights are central. If you regard ideas as property, Ayn Rand’s position isn’t surprising.
  • Jefferson: private letter to Isaac McPherson 1813. “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
  • Jefferson faction won on this issue, Intellectual Property Clause.
  • Copyright extension case, now life + 90 years.
  • England: history of copyright, fundamental moral right?
  • Software: special case of copyright infringement and trade secret violation simultaneously!
  • Computer Associates vs. Altai (source vs. object code copyrights, interesting read here).
  • Borland copying a macro language (interesting, if old, article by an MIT student), Supreme Court.
  • Derived works: fair use provisions. But fair use goes to juries, and it’s very vague.
  • Software will never fall into public domain, due to perpetual derived works.
  • Patent an invention, but not an idea, but in practice you can patent either. Europe turned down this law.
  • “Obvious” patents. Juries can’t really judge how obvious they are.
  • You can copyright a non-obvious combination of obvious ideas. Intermittent wind shield wipers.
  • Does a program express inventions and ideas? Is software is distinct from physical stuff?
  • Big risk for free software–patents can ask for damages. And patent is secret until it’s granted (this may not be true, I can’t really tell for sure: “To protect your privacy, we suggest that you delete such information from any documentation you send the office. Alternatively, you may request that the submissions be kept out of the public file, if appropriate. (See MPEP Sections 724. 02 to 724.06.) Please remember that all patent application files are published and made available to the public 18 months from the filing date, unless a non-publication request is made in the application. Additionally, all patented application files will become available to the public upon the grant of the patent.”).
  • Open Source business model can work–selling support and services, while keeping code GPLed.

Outfoxed and trust networks, revisted

Monday, November 7th, 2005

I think everyone should revisit Outfoxed, if you’re interested in a truly interesting new approach to bookmarking and web browsing that actually takes advantage of all this “Web 2.0” hype and nonsense.

I just mentioned this to Free Coders on the mailing list yesterday.

The application of “trust-based networks” is very wide. I think it’s the “trust” factor that makes eBay successful (perhaps even viable!). New services like Pandora and Last.fm recommend music by trusting that users who rate music are being honest. eBay users buy from trusted sellers by assuming that those who rate the sellers are honest. These assumptions may be fallible, but they’re better than nothing. And it’s only natural that this trend would spread to web browsing.

I think trust networks should be applied to political organizing, both to reduce risk of people showing up just to start trouble, and also to enhance the perceived value of a meeting based on the combined trust of its attendees. I’m going to think about this a bit more in the next few days.

(Meanwhile, I got in touch with Runar from the Google talk with Alex Martelli, who is working on an awesome library for Python called sqlstring. Check it out. I’ve also been thinking about expanding on my earlier ideas on Python inferred types; we’ll see if I find the time.)

Corporate obligation to shareholders

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

Here are some interesting viewpoints on corporate obligation to shareholders. One comes from Jeff Darcy and the other two from Mark R. Kleiman.

Before reading this, you should introduce yourself to the nice debate going on in the blogosphere right now on corporate responsibility, sparked by this post.

Here is Jeff’s response.

His [Mark’s] approach is reductio ad absurdum, but I think there’s an even more important flaw in Friedman’s reasoning. This flaw is the all too common assumption that “money is everything” and therefore any value not represented in monetary form is irrelevant. In this case, this leads to believing that people invest only based on (direct, short-term) monetary return, but that’s simply not true. When people buy stock, they do so based on a certain assumptions. They assume that certain legal and moral restrictions are applicable to what the company does, and they invest based on that assumption. This is particularly true of “green” or socially-conscious investors, who might be making decisions based as much on a company’s image or reputation for ethical behavior as on their purely financial performance. In a sense one might say that such investors have monetized their morals by making such investments, but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up those morals forever in return for profit. Presenting such an image and then acting in a wholly different manner is a form of fraud, and unconscionable. The same principle applies to every company and investor, though usually to a lesser degree. If the moral justification for what companies do is fulfillment of shareholder expectations, then expectations other than profit must be considered.

There’s an even more fundamental problem that shareholders do not adequately represent the interests of all who are affected by a company’s actions, and that those others deserve consideration too, but that’s probably best left for a future article.

I think what Jeff has to realize, however, is that the issue here is the morality of proximity. People feel moral obligations to things that are close to them, either physically or sentimentally. I feel moral obligations to homeless people I see on the street in front of me, but don’t feel as much of an obligation toward, say, sweatshop workers in Malaysia who are abused by their managers. Despite any of my moral principles, despite what I think and know to be right, I still end up buying clothes and things made by those sweatshop laborers, or I continue to buy products whose production destroys the environment.

Even if I had all the information in the world, say I knew Gap abuses its workers, and so I knew if I bought a Gap shirt I would be supporting a business that abuses workers. But then things get complicated. The shirt is already made. The abuse was already done. My buying the shirt doesn’t actually abuse workers. I am just buying a shirt. I need a shirt, its price is right, I’m buying it.

We can’t expect ethical principles to just come to us by people boycotting industries that subvert them. Imagine if the abolitionists, rather than forming a political party and trying to get slavery outlawed, simply said, “We will convince everyone not to invest in these companies, and to not buy these goods.” Do you think this kind of boycott would have really succeeded? Do you think without the understanding of basic human moral principles that went along with the abolitionist movement, we would have advanced past that dark part of our history?

Slavery exists today. People are indentured servants in other countries, working for outposts of American companies. I agree with both posters that laws cannot be made for every moral principle. But no one has mentioned that we aren’t asking for laws for every moral principle. We’re asking for laws for all the most basic ones that relate to labor, the environment, etc., such as not being abused in the workplace, and not polluting our precious ecosystems.

As a shareholder, I continue to invest in companies who may be doing morally bad things far away from me. Shareholders didn’t cash in their morality, they just don’t know the bad things companies are doing, or, if they do know, they are being done so far away that they simply don’t care.

If it were a company that abused American sweatshop labor, and polluted rivers in small-town USA, then [most] people probably wouldn’t want to support that company with their wallet. But when the labor is in Malaysia and the polluted rivers are in China, we do it because we simply don’t care about those other places as much.

An interesting piece of philosophy was written on this topic by Peter Unger. It’s entitled, “Living High and Letting Die.” Try to find it at your local library.

Mark also posted a response to the debate.

What the Friedman argument is missing, it seems to me, is a realistic idea of what shareholders want with regard to how their companies do their own business, and all sorts of good behavioral evidence shows that to be a lot more complicated than maximal money returns. Friedman is right that corporate leadership is obligated to advance the interests of shareholders, but it is also obligated to discern these interests and discover–I expect–that shareholders want to trade some possible returns for a clear conscience about environmental responsibility, decent treatment of workers, honesty in trade, and the like.

Yes, they would probably trade some of their returns for a clear conscious. But how about we get to the heart of the matter: shouldn’t American companies be held responsible for immoral actions they do outside of the United States? Don’t we need to come to a global understanding of the rights of workers to healthful working conditions, to a work/life balance, to less abuse? Don’t we have to come to a global understanding that harm done to the ecosystem in China does affect all of us, and shouldn’t we try to do something to stop these companies from ruining our Earth?

Shareholders are just in to make a buck off their investment. They’d prefer it be done in a way that leaves their conscious clear, sure. But we can’t expect shareholders to save the day when it comes to enforcing our society’s (that is, this one, global society’s) minimal moral standards. We need to use our power as a democracy to control these authoritarian structures, even as they hop around the globe trying to avoid any confrontation by going to places with the least restrictive set of laws.

Tom the Dancing Bug Cartoon on Bush

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

Saw this cartoon in the Village Voice today. Sorry for the bad photo, but you should be able to read it. It’s worth it.

Software copyrights and patents talk

Monday, October 31st, 2005

I’m helping to organize a software copyrights, patents, and free software discussion led by ex-Professor Robert Dewar here at NYU. Check out the flyer I made, and please attend!

Talk on Outsourcing

Wednesday, October 26th, 2005

I recently gave a talk on outsourcing for Computer Advocacy @ NYU, entitled:

“Offshore Outsourcing: Roots in Corporate Power.”

It was meant to be an introduction to the subject, to precede the film screening we had of Greg Spotts’ “American Jobs.” I’ve posted the talk’s slides to my web server in SXI (27K) and PDF (212K) formats.

In the talk, I tried to show how outsourcing can be seen as stemming from the gradual ascendancy of corporate power in the world, beginning with the first laws enabling corporate personhood to today, when corporations pit governments against one another for who can provide the least humane economic regulatory system (which are then spun as “pro-business”–think, for example, of China’s inexistent environmental legislation, and how many high-pollution businesses have moved their shops there).

When corporations first gained rights as legal persons, they began to win cases in which they secured their right not to be regulated, and then began to win ideologues with a vision of the corporation which freely moves around the world, hiring all the labor it can find. Key to this vision, however, is that governments are helpless and defenseless–that they should not have the power to regulate corporations, since any such regulation creates an unfair situation in the global neoliberal “free market.” I try to make it clear that the end goal of this experiment is a global corporate state, in which labor laws and life/work balance simply doesn’t exist, as we all strive to be “more competetive” for corporations whose urge to lower cost will never disappear.

p.s. check out the book mentioned in my talk, Gangs of America by Ted Nace.