What Good Are Patents?

Over the last 60 years, dozens of studies on patenting, innovation and economic growth have found that patents foster ex ante innovation — meaning, they induce people to invent because of the prospect of reward. This causal relationship is widely accepted, and some studies have also shown upticks in metrics like foreign direct investment following implementation of strong patent laws.

The patent system is also one of the most effective tools for knowledge-sharing and technology transfer ever devised. A 2006 study by French economists Francois Leveque and Yann Meniere found that 88 percent of U.S., European, and Japanese businesses were reliant on the information disclosed in patents to keep up with technological advances and direct their own R&D efforts.

But neither profit nor innovation is enough to justify the full extent of the patent race; that is, a “first come, first served” approach to patent law that does not allow for the same discoveries to be made independently. It is also hard to argue for the way in which the current system encourages breaking patents down into smaller segments that can be exploited for gain on the basis of blocking further innovation.

Patent law requires careful reform that balances the need to keep U.S. innovation from disappearing overseas and the opportunities for boutique innovators to create without fear of excessive litigation.

The relationship between patents and innovation remains uncertain in some ways. One problem is that very often the measure for innovation is the patent itself, and there exists an assumption that a higher number of patents will lead to more innovation.

Photo: Canadian Light Source Feizhou He via photopin (license)

A 2009 study utilized an online game called PatentSim, developed to see how innovation was affected by different patent systems. It featured an abstract model of the innovation process, a database of potential innovations and a network through which users could trade and enforce patents. The software compared a traditional patent system, a “commons” system with no patent protection, and a system with a combination of patents and open-source protection.

The initial results of this study were “inconsistent with the orthodox justification for patent systems”, showing that full or partial patent systems generated significantly lower rates of innovation, productivity, and societal utility than a commons system. Even in repeat studies in which participants knew enough about patents to generate more innovation, the “pure commons” system still returned higher productivity and social utility. Interestingly, the creators of PatentSim decided to patent it.

In a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter said the patent system was “the innovator’s friend”, but not the friend to a general public that wanted innovations to be used for everyone’s benefit. In other words, innovation is a force for personal gain as well as social good, and often the balance is tipped in favor of one at the expense of the other.

“Industry giants can lock up ideas and sit on patents in order to discourage competition. We should favor “use it or lose it” rules that ensure that true innovators can’t be driven out of an industry because incumbents protect their turf,” Kanter said.

Under current regulations, patent holders are not penalized if they do not use their patents. This allows for the existence of entities like patent holding companies (PHC), patent assertion entities (PAE), and non-practicing entities (NPE).  There are legitimate reasons for these kinds of organizations to exist, but many are what are known as “patent trolls”.

Patent trolls amass patents with the sole intention of filing infringement suits. The Patent Office has a habit of issuing vague patents, allowing the troll to threaten legal action against as many entities as possible and demand licensing fees running into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

2015 was the biggest year to date for patent lawsuits, and two-thirds of these were filed by non-practicing entities. The prevalence of lawsuits of this nature drew attention from President Obama’s administration. A 2011 law, the America Invents Act, made it illegal to file a patent lawsuit against multiple defendants. President Obama also ordered the Patent and Trademark Office to require more specific information about patents and infringements to protect businesses that were “simply using off­ the ­shelf technology”, according to the New York Times.

Photo: Waag Society Teacher Maker Camp via photopin (license)

Forbes writer Matthew Herper asks whether there is really a “need to ‘fix’ the legal system that has enabled America to become number one in the global biotech, software, hardware, medical devices, energy, genomics, and nanotechnology industries”. Herper claims that reforms to the patent system are “well meaning in their search to restrain patent trolls, but have created tremendous unintended consequences”, most notably in medical biotechnology research and development. “Let us be clear: investments in the biotech industry are based entirely on patents. Without strong patents, we cannot raise money to find cures for disease.”

Earlier this year, we published a discussion of how any attachment of property rights to elements of biology should be treated with extreme care. The patent system is not ideal, but it’s best elements are vital to our economy. This complexity is perhaps described best by two famous economists, Fritz Machlup and Edith Penrose, who stated:

“If we did not have a patent system, it would be irresponsible, on the basis of our present knowledge of its economic consequences, to recommend instituting one. But since we have had a patent system for a long time, it would be irresponsible, on the basis of our present knowledge, to recommend abolishing it.”

No new technology can be manifest in a vacuum. That is to say, every so-called innovator is dependent on the accomplishments of countless others who have come before them. The societal need for innovation, and its fundamental dependence on past innovations, illustrates the need to capture some of the value of intellectual property for private gain and leave some for public good.

Patents offer an essential safety net to small businesses with new ideas and to high-cost, R&D-intensive research companies. After accounting for cost recovery and preventing blatant appropriation, however, our system of patents has a lot of unintended consequences for which to answer. If these are to be addressed, some kind of Patent Value Tax and public auction of unused patents should be implemented; in the same way that a Land Value Tax would see land changing hands until the right person could maximize its value, patents could be exchanged so that those most useful to society do not sit idle.

It is also worth considering that patents only report a final, positive result of a larger research process, thus hiding failures that others will likely encounter as well. If we are talking about innovation we should recognize the importance of failure,  and that understanding what doesn’t work is also a part of technological progress.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights has concluded that while patents encourage innovative research and development, they are also “dangerous” in their power to deny access and limit public participation in science and culture. The report concludes: “Where patent rights and human rights are in conflict, human rights must prevail.”

 

Featured photo: photo credit: Novartis AG Chemistry in action. Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR), Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA via photopin (license)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

How Political Polarization Is Predetermined

What if there was a set of questions that could predict with a high degree of accuracy your political views on a variety of issues? Social scientists suggest that we process information based on our pre-existing worldviews. In other words, our cultural outlooks shape our thinking. Cultural Cognition Theory suggests that this can be used to predict perspectives and help us understand how they form.

Hotbed issues such as climate change continue to draw political battle lines among the general public, despite scientific consensus. Even neutral information is processed through our own individual political filters.  But why? Addressing this question is vital for understanding public perceptions of risk and building support for crucial new policy. Is it a lack of credible information, a failure to communicate evidence effectively, or something else entirely?

Dan Kahan is a distinguished professor of law and psychology at Yale University whose research has been focused on risk perception, science communication, and applications of decision science to law and public policy. He is part of the Cultural Cognition Project, examining the impact of group values on perceptions of risk. Across a number of studies, his research has explored public divergence over climate change and scientific expertise in general.

Photo: 350.org Philadelphia, PA via photopin (license)

The cultural theory of risk was developed by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky in the 1970s, asserting that people form risk perceptions and beliefs that are influenced by and harmonious with their ways of life. A simple example is the “white male effect”, which is a propensity for Caucasian men to perceive social threats as less significant than do women and minorities.

Kahan’s research has concluded that people form perceptions of risks to society that emphasize their worldviews and cultural outlooks. Thus, political polarization occurs surrounding contentious issues despite the presence of empirical data and scientific consensus. In analyzing how and why these perceptions form, this kind of research can offer insights into the best ways to shape and inform public opinion on risks to society, and to develop and implement better policy.

Intuitively, support for public policies that address societal risks like green technology, vaccinations and gun control should increase as people become aware of and sympathetic to these issues. The problem is that facts are less important than values in the formation of perceptions, and Kahan argues that “identity-protective cognition” causes people to dismiss information that conflicts with their values as a kind of “identity self-defense mechanism”.

Cultural cognition is evaluated through attitudinal scales, which Kahan says “should be thought of as measures of latent or unobserved dispositions, for which the items that make up the scales are simply observable indicators.”

La naturaleza del Riesgo. Una aproximación sociocultural
Source: Cultural cognition as a conception of the cultural theory of risk, Dan Kahan, 2008.

Two continuous scales rank attitudes along two dimensions, referred to as “grid” and “group” ways of life. The first scale, “Hierarchy-egalitarianism”, runs from “high grid” individuals who support the maintenance of status-based systems through to “low grid” individuals who believe entitlements should be based on merit rather than position.

On the second scale, “Individualism-communitarianism”, individuals classed as “weak group”  expect to fend for themselves while those classed as “strong group” value solidarity over competitiveness. Responses in agreement or disagreement with value statements are aggregated to form continuous “Hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “Individualism-communitarianism” worldview scores.

Cultural cognition research has revealed a tendency for people to perceive knowledge, honesty, and shared interest in experts who they believe to share their values. A common idea in science communication is that evidence of environmental threats has been ineffectively conveyed to the public, or that scientific literacy is too low. However, it has been shown that polarization over environmental threats is actually greatest among the science-literate. Dramatic public division on these issues is not a result of incomprehension, but instead stems from a distinct cultural conflict of interest.

Photo: Simon Blackley Frank discussion via photopin (license)

A 2010 study on perceptions of HPV vaccine risk showed that people will selectively accept evidence to validate previously held beliefs, which suggests that even a balanced argument may increase polarization in people with opposing values. People also base their perceptions of expert credibility on values rather than the content of any argument. The study showed that if a person hears an argument they are predisposed to reject being made by an advocate whose values they share or vice versa, polarization shrinks to insignificance.

Kahan’s research demonstrates that bombarding the public with information or expert evidence on social risks can create a backlash and thus become counterproductive. This is likely to occur in people regardless of their political party or cultural belief system. To reduce combative polarization, it is more effective to present a culturally congenial solution that fits within prescribed worldviews.

As Kahan puts it, “don’t try to convince people to accept a solution by showing them there is a problem. Show them a solution they find culturally affirming, and then they are disposed to believe there really is a problem in need of solving.”

Cultural cognition theory has useful applications in the context of Earth Sharing and Henry George’s ideas about Land Value Taxation. While presenting any policy argument based on a demonstrable problem is liable to be rejected on the basis of predetermined values, presenting the same policy argument framed around the solution and decorated with sympathetic values is likely to succeed. Proponents of significant political change are too often focused on highlighting risks that they believe need to be addressed, failing to speak to people’s core values. In the absence of a framework of values, the substance of the message is lost to partisan interpretations of the supposed risk.

Featured photo: Feggy Art: Say No More via photopin (license)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Rent-Seeking Drives Inequality

In 2010, the world’s 62 richest billionaires collectively held $1.1 trillion in wealth. At the same time, the poorest half of the world’s population held wealth amounting to $2.6 trillion. Just six years later, in 2016, those 62 billionaires had amassed a further $660 billion, and the poorest half had been stripped of the equivalent of more than $800 billion.

This should be the dying breath of trickle-down economics. Ahead of the World Economic Forum earlier this year, Oxfam Great Britain chief executive Mark Goldring said that “it is no longer good enough for the richest to pretend that their wealth benefits the rest of us when the facts show that the recent explosion in the wealth of the super-rich has come at the expense of the poorest.”

Oxfam senior economist and former special adviser to President Obama Didier Jacobs published a discussion paper in November 2015, called Extreme Wealth is Not Merited, in which he detailed the “six rungs” of the rent-seeking ladder: crime, cronyism, inheritance, monopoly, globalization, and technology.

He argues that few, if any, of these rungs allow a person to become extremely wealthy based on merit, and that “meritocracy calls for talented people to be rich, but not extremely so”. In an analysis of the wealth portfolios of the Forbes list of billionaires, Jacobs offers insight into the relative importance of each rung:

“Fifty percent of the world’s billionaire wealth is found to be non-meritocratic owing to either inheritance or a high presumption of cronyism. Another 15 percent is not meritocratic owing to presumption of monopoly. All of it is non-meritocratic owing to globalization.”

 

Photo: Ravi_Shah 168/366 – Classic via photopin (license)

According to Jacobs, for the world’s richest, wealth begets wealth, and clearly the most prosperous avenues to enormous wealth are through currying favor with politicians or simply receiving a fortune as a hereditary right. All billionaires have benefited from globalization, population, and economic growth. Jacobs suggests that the world will inevitably see its first trillionaire in coming decades, and it will be the result not of some extraordinary talent but of continued growth in the global economy.

In a February 2016 interview with Inequality.org, Jacobs compared modern wealth with the merit of Johan Gutenberg. “He invented the printing press in 1439. Most of us would agree, I think, that the printing press amounts to an invention as least as important as Google. Yet Gutenberg did not become a billionaire…because the world economy in the fifteenth century was simply too small and too fragmented to support any billionaire fortunes.”

Jacobs says the idea of meritocracy makes sense for the middle class, and “an outstanding nurse is likely to make more money than an average one and would deserve that extra income”. But the kind of extreme inequality of wealth we see today cannot be justified by the same concepts of meritocracy, as these fortunes are so dependent on collective resources.

Henry George’s definition of land was actually very broad, encompassing “all natural forces and opportunities”. In this way, we can see applications of his principle of shared utility to not just land and natural resources, but to intellectual property, and the forces of globalization and ongoing economic growth. That we should begin to see the existence of trillionaires while so many still struggle to live on wages and are taxed on their labor is a great injustice.

George promoted the idea of the Land Value Tax as a way to fairly distribute economic rent, what would otherwise be unearned wealth, concentrated in the hands of the mega-rich. He also advocated a guaranteed basic income or citizens’ dividend, and a policy of this nature should be funded by taxing the economic rent from land. This way, when public initiatives and global systems create added value for businesses and the rich, that value will be returned to the public instead of being lost to further private stockpiling.

Jacobs says that today, every single billionaire’s wealth “depends on having access to a large population that’s linked through a globalized economy”. Those massive increases in wealth are crystallized in high land values, especially in ritzy locations in major global cities like New York and London. The rich can’t take their land with them to the Switzerland or the Cayman islands.

“The more this global economy grows, the richer our billionaires get. This growth happens independently from any one individual’s effort and talent, so we can’t say that billionaires deserve the profits that go hand in hand with economic growth.” Much of what appears on the balance sheets as profits for productive activities is really land holdings in global hubs. By simply taxing the value of land, we could capture that surplus, without taxing any earned wealth or reducing productive incentives. There would be enough to fund all healthcare, schools, transportation systems, etc without any taxes on normal people. We could have all of the wealth creation of a purely capitalist system while realizing the noble dreams of socialism.

 

Featured photo: FraVal Imaging Malaga muelle uno via photopin (license)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Mutations of Ownership: Should Genes Be Patentable?

“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.” -Thomas Jefferson

The Angelina Jolie Effect

In 2013, Angelina Jolie shocked Hollywood by announcing her decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy. She cited a hereditary risk of breast and ovarian cancer and what she had been told was a 65 percent chance of breast cancer due to a mutation in her BRCA1 gene.

The discovery that certain mutations of the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes increase risk of breast and ovarian cancer was made in the 1990s. The company that began the BRCA analysis test claimed that a mutation in either of these genes could increase risk to as high as 87 percent for developing breast cancer and 63 percent for developing ovarian cancer by age 70.

The ensuing publicity caused a surge in genetic testing in what has been named the Angelina Jolie effect’. But the cost of a BRCA test is extremely prohibitive, at more than $3,000 in the United States. Jolie wrote in an op-ed that this was a huge obstacle for many women seeking tests for breast cancer, a disease that kills almost half a million people around the world each year.

When Myriad Genetics discovered the ‘breast cancer genes’ in 1994 and 1995, it managed to acquire 20-year patents for the very genes themselves, as well as any current and future methodologies for examining them. This monopolization was a boon for shareholders, and in 2013 the BRCA analysis test brought in 75 percent of Myriad’s total revenue of $613 million.

Should Biological Phenomena be Ownable?

Conversations about property rights typically involve things that people have built, bought, or otherwise created throughout their lives. But as technology challenges our fundamental understanding of biology and ourselves, we are faced with a decision about whether to update our institutions to reflect new opportunities for ownership in nature.

In 2009, a group of organizations including the Association for Molecular Pathology and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the BRCA gene patents, arguing that they amounted to patenting human life, robbed every person of a piece of self-determination, and violated basic human dignity.

The case was supported by testimony from many women who had been disadvantaged or put at risk by patent restrictions, from being denied a second opinion on tests, to being unable to afford testing, and having insurance rejected by Myriad. After a four-year legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that human genes cannot be patented in the U.S. because DNA is a “product of nature”.

This ruling annulled the patents related to more than 4300 human genes, stripping monopoly status from Myriad Genetics and dozens of other companies and institutions that had profited from them. “Myriad did not create anything,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion. “To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.”

What the landmark ruling didn’t cover, however, were methods for testing BRCA genes, possible new patents of these methods, or the patentability of synthesized DNA. Myriad’s two-decade monopoly has left it with a massive database of genetic data, maintaining its dominant position in risk factor analysis for BRCA genes compared to any competitor.

The main importance of the Court’s decision was establishing this boundary between innovation and appropriation of biological phenomena. In the same way that natural resource extraction methods can be patented and monopolized, so too can techniques for analyzing and repurposing genetic material. But the mere existence of compounds in nature should not be ownable in a free and clear way, not without some sort of duty to use these natural opportunities, opportunities that hold the potential to free us of a great deal of suffering and unleash human potential.

‘Biopiracy’

It’s not just genes that have been captured for exclusive license and rent-seeking. Consider Joseph Merrick, a so-called ‘freak of nature’ known as the Elephant Man. He spent most of his short life in circuses, where many entrepreneurs made a great deal of money exploiting Merrick’s condition. Until recently his bones were on display at the Royal London Hospital museum, and there is no evidence to suggest he consented to this.

The most famous case of this sort of appropriation is that of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cancer cells were harvested in 1951 and used to create an immortal cell line for scientific experimentation. In the process of radium and x-ray therapy, tissue was removed from her tumor and secretly sent to a lab at Hopkins University to be grown in test tubes.

Lacks died at the age of 31, leaving behind a husband and five young children. The family never received any financial support, and found out by chance that their mother’s cells (called HeLa cells) have been used in ongoing research. HeLa cells were used in developing the polio vaccine, were sent into space, and have been used for cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.

The practice of patenting materials in nature and people or aspects of cultural tradition is given the derogatory term ‘biopiracy’, and agrochemical and biotech company Monsanto offers an illustration which once again distinguishes between innovation and merely appropriating what freely exists in nature.  In 2016, the European Patent Office revoked a Monsanto patent for a virus-resistant gene found in Indian melons. Monsanto introduced the resistance to other types of melons and managed to patent this as its own invention. But the gene responsible for this resistance was discovered in 1961 and plants containing it have been publicly available since 1966. Conversely, Monsanto has won many of its own lawsuits against farmers who infringe on patent rights Monsanto has on its seeds.

Monsanto and other institutions have appropriated these materials without obtaining consent. It then has turned around and charged monopoly prices to the same people for the right to use these materials. And while cultural remuneration is tricky, privatizing these cultural products anyway has sometimes resulted in important advances in medicine and other fields. However, in the context of patents, there has more often been a very real reduction in scientific and social advancement, as patent holders merely speculate on their patent claims. This forces real innovators to pay large sums of economic rent or go through contortions to avoid patents, all in order to add to the intellectual stock of humanity.

For example, there are hundreds of patents on Agrobacterium techniques alone, which has been the most common vector for companies like Monsanto splicing genetic code into plants. The reason there are so many is the risk of patent infringement. Researchers have come up with brilliant workarounds for these problems, but developing new ways to do the same things has huge opportunity costs. For scientists, it’s a purely bureaucratic hurdle, not a chance for real scientific advancement. Thankfully, tools are being developed to help reduce confusion over this, but they are not enough to encourage entrepreneurship without an army of lawyers.

Open Access

In the mid-’80s, molecular biologist Dr. Richard Jefferson pioneered a genetic research technique that helped illuminate where genes are expressed in plant tissue. He distributed this helpful technique immediately to more than 1000 labs around the world.

Jefferson said in an interview that the litigious way in which genetic patent issues tend to be resolved is not constructive, and that both parties “end up trying to promote their particular worldview based on a lack of evidence on either side”.

“So you’ll have businesses who will pound their wingtips on the table and say ‘we must have exclusive licenses, and… on the other side, you might have civil society or thoughtful social policy engagement that says ‘it’s all wrong, you shouldn’t do it that way, everything should be free’, but they may well not be aware of the very complex natures of risk mitigation businesses have to encounter,” he said.

“There’s no real evidence base that can guide real problem-solving for policymakers or for practitioners.”

One company might be better off if techniques for analyzing genes can be monopolized, but it is likely that the market for innovation and society as a whole would be better off if these medical techniques were somehow available to all. These returns to society could manifest as wealth creation, scientific innovation, and better health outcomes.

Open source success stories in the technology world –  including operating systems, programming languages and web browsers – have not offered direct profit to its community of creators, but they have provided social value and a means to create wealth. Jefferson wrote in 2006: “Many ask, ‘How do you make money in open source?’ The answer: you make money not by selling open source, but by using open source.”

There are valid reasons both for patents as well as open source. However, might there be a synthesis, a solution that would give us the best of both worlds?

Incentives are Holier than Property

Friends of Earthsharing.org, Guido Núñez-Mujica and Joseph Jackson, had a great idea for helping poor people in remote areas of Latin America. They wanted to create a light and portable machine for copying DNA (PCR) so it could be used for all sorts of things, in this case testing for tropical diseases. A standard PCR machine is fairly heavy, at least as far as jungle treks go, so a light mobile version could have really helped a lot of people get tested and then obtain treatment. However, because someone had patented the mere idea more than 25 years ago, and done nothing with it, they could not patent it themselves. This vastly reduced the pool of investors due to the increased threat of competition.

Even if others have independently thought of the same idea on their own, they are restricted from using it by an existing patent. Such ideas should not belong exclusively to the person who merely filed the patent first, at least not in an absolute way. We can, for instance, say that a patent affords the holder the opportunity to invest more into creating their idea, but that right should be coupled with an incentive to use their monopoly privilege for productive purposes.

An innovative solution to this problem parallels that of 19th-century economist Henry George, who wanted to incentivize landlords owning prime real estate to make their land available to others. He proposed a tax on the value of urban land to invigorate landlords to use prime locations productively.

Where landlords have monopoly privilege over a particular geographic location, Myriad genetics and Monsanto had, and to some degree still have, a monopoly privilege over specific ‘nucleo-graphic’ areas of DNA, untouched by the artifice of human innovation. Just like landlords who own vacant urban lots for years and leave them undeveloped, patent owners should pay increasingly more to exclude others from developing ideas that will benefit humanity.

Photo: Pixabay.

Patent Value Tax

Patents are important because the exclusive usage rights can often provide a predictable environment that can encourage production. Banks can feel confident that they can provide loans. Inventors can feel more confident that someone won’t just copy their work and get away with it. Patents are also important because it ensures that the discovery is publicly documented.

But as previously mentioned, patents also have drawbacks. Patent trolls use patents for idle speculation, holding valuable ideas for ransom. Patents contribute to a climate of high liability for new inventors, because with so many patents it is impossible to know when violations occur.

To ensure patents are only held by people who intend to use them, and only while they are intending to use them, a tax incentive system could be very helpful.

Patent values could be self-assessed by the inventor and changed at any time. The rate of tax will gradually rise over time, based on the self-assessment. If particular patent holders decide the taxes are too onerous, they can simply lower their assessment, or relinquish it into the public domain.  Anyone is allowed to place bids that are higher than that self-assessed value, and this will initiate an auction. The proceeds go to the current holder.

Auctions would be open to anyone, including the government. This would provide a vehicle by which we can use the democratic process to incentivize scientific research. Since the government could buy the patent and release it into the public domain.

Some may argue that patents are nothing more than a right to sue for violation, and do not encourage innovation. This is particularly true today considering that many technologies require a combination of existing technologies, involving multiple patent holders who are often in it to speculate. However, this dynamic would vanish if patents had high holding costs and could be publicly auctioned at any time. Patent holders would have an incentive to work with others quickly because holding onto a patent would be like holding a very expensive hot potato.

Patents as a Privilege

Founding Father and third President of the United States Thomas Jefferson is the earliest authority on American patent law, but his view on the matter was characterized by skepticism unless patents were for the public good. He was generally opposed to any kind of monopoly, and believed that ideas were both unstoppably contagious and not fit to “be a subject of property”.

“Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody,” he said.

The attachment of property rights to biology, and all ideas for that matter should be treated with great care, both because the natural world was not created by any one of us, and because exclusive rights to innovate need to come with a duty to use the necessary natural resources well. It is not for us to plant our flag and claim ‘this is mine!’ but to consider ourselves stewards, with a duty to use natural resources in ways that will ultimately improve our lives and the lives of others.

 

Featured image: lisichik via Pixabay.

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Joshua Vincent: Land Value Taxation In Practice

Significant changes to any system of taxation require significant upheaval, and perseverance from citizens in and out of government. EarthSharing.org spoke with land value taxation proponent Joshua Vincent earlier this month, in a conversation covering attitudes towards land value tax, its applications, and the activism required to advance it. Watch the interview below, broken into three parts.

Vincent has been executive director of the Center for the Study of Economics since 1997. He has consulted for more than 75 municipalities, counties, NGOs and national governments. He works with tax departments and elected officials to promote land value taxation, and has testified as an expert witness on its impact. Vincent is the editor and publisher of Incentive Taxation.

Best Valuation Methods

Vincent lays out best practices for calculating land values, most of which “rely on values that have already been established by the assessor.” By looking at sales prices in an area, particularly of vacant lots but also of derelict buildings set for demolition, a fairly accurate picture of land value can be obtained.

Building values are more complex, but still absolutely necessary for revealing land values: by subtracting building value from a property’s total value, the ideal taxable land value can be calculated. Vincent says that “if we want to help capital and labour escape taxation we have to figure out what the building is worth, because that’s where the labour and the capital goes.”

The most effective valuation systems are in states that “update their assessments on a fairly regular basis, and they also change the percentage of land value to building value to reflect essentially what the market is,” Vincent says.

Using the example of an Atlantic City casino, Vincent says that while 20 years ago the property value would have skyrocketed due to market dominance and profit levels, today that profit has been reduced substantially. “Right now the land value is half of the total parcel value, because the building has lost its revenue-generating capacity,” he says.

Approaching City Officials

A land value tax is not just an end unto itself to reduce inequities in wealth. Vincent says the focus of any campaigners for land value taxation should be its application to almost any pre-existing problems in a city.

“You have to identify a problem that the community suffers from,” Vincent says, whether it be blight, population loss, or perceived high taxes. City officials will usually tend toward enlightened self-interest, and the revenue-neutral tax abatements that a land value tax allow are attractive to public representatives whose priorities are job creation and citizen well-being.

“We would then propose: well how about a universal permanent abatement on all buildings, and not just new buildings, not just condos, but all buildings past, present and future?”

Joel Bedford SoHo 1 via photopin (license)
Joel Bedford SoHo 1 via photopin (license)

One discussion is not enough to effect real policy change, and Vincent says any correspondence should be followed up with a second meeting, further information, and a push for the council to crunch the numbers of what is a very practical, “nuts-and-bolts” policy.

“The mistake a lot of reformers of all types make is they march into a city council chambers or a mayor’s office and say ‘here’s a reform, do it’, and then they turn around and leave. I think what we are putting forward is something that is practical, it is doable, and you can demonstrate immediately how it is doable.“

Who Is Likely To Oppose Land Value Taxation?

Entrenched interests exist that have made fortunes extracting rent from populations without investing back into them, and these interests comprise the most likely and vigorous opponents of land value taxation. Vincent points the finger at speculative, “absentee owners who have a business model that depends on blight and the decay of the neighborhood.”

“A lot of people that oppose land value tax are people that have adopted business models and used tactics to thrive in a declining city,” he says. “You extract rent, literally, from the tenants but you don’t put anything into the property; you let it run down. That’s the successful business model. And they will oppose a land value tax, because their buildings have fallen apart to such a degree that they wouldn’t benefit from such a land value tax.”

Automobile-intensive businesses are another example, and in the past, owners of flat-surface parking lots have voiced opposition to changes of the tax structure. Vincent says these businesses feed off the value of urban land, itself the product of the people and the government, but “they’re doing nothing to create that value, and they’re doing nothing for the community”.

Vincent points out that some among these interests have actively funded anti-land value taxation campaigns, like in Allentown in 1997.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Julia Bossmann: Challenges Of A Post-Work Society

BIL: Oakland 2016 Recession Generation was an Earthsharing.org conference in Oakland, California on July 9th. Foresight Institute president Julia Bossmann presented an argument for moving toward a post-work society, and the changes both economic and social that would be required to achieve this.

Bossmann recounts the incredible advances in artificial intelligence we are witnessing, whereby computers are writing original imitations of Shakespeare, dispensing effective legal advice and piloting cars through traffic. Bossmann believes that innovative scientific research will be next on the list of A.I. accomplishments.

Photo: FritzchensFritz AMD@14nm@GCN_4th_gen@Polaris_10@Radeon_RX_470@1622_M60J5.0A_215-0876204___Stack-DSC07208-DSC07236_-_ZS-PMax via photopin (license)
Photo: FritzchensFritz AMD@14nm Radeon_RX_470 via photopin (license)

“They have theoretically unlimited memory, they have a way faster speed of reading, they can find insights and facts from all across and then draw connections and find patterns. So now that we may have reached the limit in medical research – that one human mind may not be enough to figure it all out – having a machine mind may open the floodgates to finding out much more.”

Bossmann’s scenario of a post-work society presents significant economic challenges, with a disruption of millions of jobs across the professional spectrum. Truck drivers could be an early casualty, but many others earning an income by selling their time and labor stand to lose their current employment due to automation.

“How would a human even compete with someone who can drive for thousands of hours at no end and not ask for a salary?”, Bossmann says.

Photo: jurvetson Your Uber Otto has arrived via photopin (license)
Photo: jurvetson Your Uber Otto has arrived via photopin (license)

In general, a person’s income is derived either from time, or from ownership of assets like land and other property. Bossmann states that “once the time goes away, the only thing left is ownership. And we all know that ownership is not distributed in a way that all of us could just live on that alone; in fact, most of us need to sell our time to live”. A radical shift in how we think about ownership is required if society is to remain prosperous, Bossmann says.

As artificial intelligence progresses, those who own the valuable sites where A.I. research takes place, especially in Silicon Valley, will continue to become more disproportionately wealthy vis a vis the appreciating value of their land: rents they can charge, prices for which they can sell, etc. They will become wealthier not by doing the research and development themselves, but simply by owning valuable space in areas doing R&D. Regardless of Bossman’s predictions about the rate of A.I. progress and its replacement of human labor, a greater proportion of the wealth created will continue to go to owners of prime land.

Those who own prime locations already have a large advantage over wage earners, simply by their ever-appreciating real estate values. We have seen a huge explosion in labor-saving devices, wealth production, and wealth inequality in the last two centuries. These gains disproportionately go to the owners of property. So, there is already a need to share the returns from owning natural resources like land.

This need to redistribute the benefits of land ownership become even more obvious in Bossmann’s prediction of the future – where she assumes a lack of A.I. winters/ceilings, no comparable human intelligence augmentation, and where the Law of Comparative Advantage (between humans and robots) no longer holds. In such a scenario, obedient robots would simply produce enormous amounts of wealth, and this wealth would all go to those humans who own the natural resource inputs needed for A.I. The people who did not own land, or receive a dividend/basic income of some kind, would simply have no income.

Henry George, a prominent political economist and author from the late 19th century, argued that gains derived merely from the ownership of land and other natural resources should be considered the property of everyone, not just the title-holders. A system of land value taxation would be a pragmatic way of shifting the burden of raising public revenue from workers to landowners. It would be the obvious choice for funding a basic income that would protect people from unemployment now, and facilitate any kind of post-work society.

“Once we have figured out this dilemma, and we have machines that will do most of the work on the planet… we will look back and think that it was barbaric that people had to sell most of their living time on this planet, doing things they didn’t want to do,” Bossmann says. But reaching an economic consensus is not all that is required to reach a prosperous post-work society.

“Many of us define ourselves by our jobs, what we do for a living, how much money we make, all these things are important to so many of us. Are we willing to give up this kind of thinking for something better?”

Julia Bossmann is president of Foresight Institute, a think tank promoting transformative future technologies, and founder of Synthetic, a startup building A.I. of its own. Bossmann is a McKinsey Fellow, Singularity University GSP graduate and master of science in neuroscience and psychology. She lectures on Artificial Intelligence, hard technology, innovation, the future, and technology transforming society.

 

Photo: Tej3478 <a>Artificial Intelligence</a>. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Who Owns Geosynchronous Orbital Pathways?

Who owns outer space? Our most idealistic visions of the future require us to transcend our narrow personal or nationalistic interests, but increasingly, space seems likely to be divvied up among the powerful, as has so often happened with the Earth. Can space be managed to serve the common interest?

Managing a Commons

Space is generally thought of as a commons. A commons is a resource which is not under the exclusive control of anyone. This makes it an interesting and challenging economic coordination problem. The US Department of Defense classifies outer space as one of the “global commons” alongside the oceans, atmosphere, and cyberspace.

Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, and Shawn Brimley of the Center for a New American Security write:

“…as rising nations and non-state actors become more powerful, the United States will need to pay more attention to emerging risks associated with the global commons, those areas of the world beyond the control of any one state—sea, space, air, and cyberspace—that constitute the fabric or connective tissue of the international system.”

Even during the heated Space Race between the United States and the USSR, there were lofty ideals about how to treat the cosmos. The Outer Space Treaty, ratified by all major world powers at the time, limits the use of orbital pathways and celestial bodies to peaceful purposes. Weapons of mass destruction are specifically banned. More interestingly, it also prohibits any signatory nation from claiming ownership of celestial resources.

The resources of space were not to be seen as just a bunch of loot waiting to be plundered. According to the Treaty, managing outer space was viewed as an international responsibility of utmost importance, for the benefit of all.

Photo: NASA on The Commons Van Allen Probes via photopin (license)
Photo: NASA on The Commons Van Allen Probes via photopin (license)

New Space Race

But a new space race is on. This time, a private space race. Billionaires are funding serious commercial spaceflight companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, Virgin Galactic, Stratolaunch Systems, and Bigelow Aerospace, and other lesser-known private companies and defense contractors are also competing. Additionally, competitions like the Google Lunar X Prize are under way. All of these enterprises share the goal of making space more accessible.

Elon Musk once raised the possibility of launching as many as four thousand micro-satellites into low Earth orbit for the purpose of providing worldwide high-speed internet access. Mark Zuckerberg had planned a similar service  via Internet.org. Both men have quietly put these plans on the back-burner; however, the inexorable trend of cheaper spaceflight is continuing to increase satellite congestion surrounding Earth.

The progress that SpaceX has made with reusable launch vehicles does help reduce the quantity of space junk per-launch, but it also makes spaceflight cheaper thus encouraging more congestion. Junk continues to accumulate much faster than it is burned up.

Kessler Syndrome

Space junk is any small debris left in orbit by spacecraft. The problem is that it can impact orbiting spacecraft at speeds up to twenty times faster than a bullet. Worse yet, in the event of a collision, more debris is created.

In the worst-case scenario, this process of collisions creating more debris starts a chain reaction called Kessler Syndrome. If there are enough orbiting satellites, this chain reaction can eventually consume all of them, and leave behind a speeding cloud of bullets encircling the Earth and keeping humanity grounded for a century or more.

In political economy, we would call this an example of tragedy of the commons.

To reduce this threat, a number of mechanisms have been proposed. Decommissioning large obsolete satellites can significantly reduce the likelihood. However, doing so is expensive and of little direct benefit to the individual spacefaring organization. Nonetheless, the European Space Agency has already planned missions as part of its Clean Space initiative.

Another theoretical mitigation technique includes the development of lasers to shoot down space junk, or to redirect it whenever it threatens important orbital spacecraft.

Photo: John Flannery Space Junk(license)
Photo: John Flannery Space Junk(license)

Financing cleanup efforts

Who ought to be paying for these cleanup efforts? If billionaires intend to start launching thousands of satellites, is it simply up to the public to clean up the mess?

The ‘polluter pays principle’ is standard in environmental law. In addition to aligning with our moral intuitions for responsibility, taxes on pollution have the benefit of discouraging the damaging activities that create pollution in the first place.

In keeping with this thought, it would be sensible to propose a Pigouvian tax on anyone who creates space junk, in proportion to the amount of junk that they create. Since this junk can be accurately detected, it would be straightforward to measure and determine the tax.

Amending the Outer Space Treaty and establishing a body to implement the polluter pays principle would be a common sense method by which we could work to eliminate the threat of space junk.

There’s another possible source of revenue if we consider that the orbital paths themselves are a finite resource. Satellite collisions have happened in the past and will continue going forward. Indeed, every satellite launched brings with it a small risk of collision. And the more satellites we have, the greater the likelihood of collision and, eventually, of triggering Kessler Syndrome.

Certain orbital pathways are more desirable than others. Geo-stationary orbits might be more desirable than low Earth orbit; a sun-synchronous orbit may be more desirable than an alternative orbit. If billionaires start launching thousands of satellites, it is entirely possible that we could eventually be forced to allocate these orbital paths by auction, in order to fund general collision insurance.

Such a model would certainly be more fair and predictable than our current process, which is for companies to patent orbital pathways, and sue anyone who infringes on it (regardless of collision risk). Granted, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation also has a permitting process in the United States. But permitting practices vary by nation, and there’s little or no international coordination for revenue-sharing, insurance, or cleanup.

Motherboard interviewed Andrew Rush, a patent attorney and entrepreneur with expertise in space law, who said “As more and more companies start commercial activities using satellites, and using new and innovative ways to do so, we should see an uptick in patent activity.”

“We may also see the attendant uptick in patent litigation around some of those activities,” he added. “I personally hope that’s not the direction that we go. I hope there’s a lot more licensing and a lot more cooperative ownership and stewardship of patents, rather than just suing each other. “

An exemplary model of proper resource management can be found in the Norwegian Oil Fund. Upon discovery of its oil reserves, Norway instituted the collection of economic rent based on the revenue generated from oil extraction, plus oil exploration licensing fees. The resulting revenue was then kept in a trust fund and used to invest both within Norway and internationally. As of June 2015, the fund has accrued $873 billion. Given its size and stake in companies worldwide, the fund has become an significant player in international affairs. As such, it pursues economic and social justice through its decisions concerning its holdings, divesting from companies that violate its ethical standards.

If our civilization is able to use market pricing to collect economic rent from the Earth’s geosynchronous orbits, we would enjoy similar success as Norway while preserving a critical resource. Such concepts are already proving successful here on Earth. London uses congestion pricing to reduce traffic in its city center, and uses that revenue to fund public transportation. Congestion in space is ultimately no different.

Let’s preserve our common inheritance of space for future generations, not at the expense of our current generation, but by achieving justice. We all deserve to share the benefits and the value of outer space.

 

Feature image: NASA on The Commons Satellites for Sale (license)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

How Optimal Taxation Can Create a Better World

optimal taxation panel 2016

Earthsharing.org organized BIL: Oakland 2016 Recession Generation on July 9th in Oakland, California. The Optimal Taxation Panel participants were Yoram Bauman, Joshua Vincent, Fred Foldvary, Robin Hanson, and Kris Nelson. The panel moderator was Edward Miller (bios below).

The discussion revolved around the essential role that natural phenomena play in all economic activity and how to fairly treat these resources vis a vis taxation. Resources like land, minerals, access rights, the electromagnetic spectrum, domain names, and atmospheric carbon were discussed.

Optimal Taxation Panelists:

Yoram Bauman: PhD environmental economist and “stand-up economist.” Bauman is the founder of the revenue-neutral carbon tax proposal (I-732) that will be on the ballot in Washington State in November 2016. He has been working on environmental tax reform since his 1998 co-authorship of Tax Shift, which helped inspire the revenue-neutral carbon tax in British Columbia. Bauman also co-authored the Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change and the two-volume Cartoon Introduction to Economics. He lives in Seattle with his wife Laura and their two-year-old daughter.

Joshua Vincent: Executive Director at the Center for the Study of Economics since 1997. Vincent has consulted for more than 75 municipalities, counties, NGOs and national governments. He works with tax departments and elected officials to restructure taxation to a land-based system, and has testified as an expert witness on the impact of land value taxation. Vincent is the editor and publisher of Incentive Taxation, a journal on land value taxation.

Fred Foldvary: Board member at Robert Schalkenbach Foundation (RSF), a non-profit organization established in 1925 to spread the ideas of the social and economic philosopher Henry George (1839-1897). Foldvary received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at the Latvian University of Agriculture, Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, California State University East Bay, the University of California at Berkeley Extension, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University. Foldvary is the author of The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary’s areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Robin Hanson: Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University. Hanson is known as an expert on idea futures and markets, and he was involved in the creation of the Foresight Institute Foresight Exchange and DARPA FutureMAP project. He invented market scoring rules like LMSR (Logarithmic Market Scoring Rule) used by prediction markets such as Consensus Point (where Hanson is Chief Scientist), and has conducted research on signalling.

Kris Nelson: Principal at Phoenix Finance, which provides access to capital without collateral to small businesses and startups. Nelson also serves as Legislative Director of Common Ground OR-WA, a non-profit organization that promotes a more democratic treatment of land and natural resources. Previously, Nelson worked as a Principal at Genomics Consulting, where he helped launch a clean technology venture capital firm. He holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Willamette University and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Evergreen State College.

Edward Miller: Co-organizer of the Recession Generation event. Miller is the Administrative Director of the Henry George School of Chicago, a non-profit educational organization which provides educational opportunities to the public on the topic of classical political economy. He serves as a board member for the Center for the Study of Economics. Previously, he has worked with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Uranium Mining Continues to Threaten Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is remarkable for its awe-inspiring scenery, precious geological value, and diverse flora and fauna. It is a natural wonder recognized by UNESCO, and also happens to be the site of significant underground uranium deposits.

These deposits have made it a prime target for energy companies seeking to privatize the public commons that the uranium represents. Unfortunately, natural resource extraction can have devastating consequences for public health and the natural environment. President Barack Obama is now considering designating the area a national monument, to add new protections to the lands and waters of the Grand Canyon, and prevent potential environmental disaster.

Arizona has a long history of traditional mining. In 2014, the state reported 303 active mining operations employing a total of 25,660 people. The entire industry generates a staggering $12 billion of the state’s GDP. Due to market fluctuations and government restrictions, there are no active uranium mining operations in the state at this time, but between 1918 and the early 21st century, traditional uranium mining in Arizona yielded tens of millions of pounds of uranium, valued at approximately $65 per pound.

While the mining industry benefits Arizona by contributing substantially to the state’s GDP, it is often accused of hoarding publicly-owned natural resources. Such speculative hoarding is common in unregulated or under-regulated industries. The vast majority of mining operations occur on public land, which accounts for 82% of Arizona’s total landmass. Federal law, through the General Mining Act of 1872, permits US citizens to stake a natural resource claim on public land and subsequently extract that resource. While mining operations are subject to state and federal taxes, they are not required to share revenue from their operations. Natural resources, as a public commons, comprise a large share of a nation’s wealth and, as such, ought to generate substantial economic rents. An excellent example of this in action comes from Norway and the management of its oil.

photo credit: wolfgang.mller54 View via photopin (license)
photo credit: wolfgang.mller54 View via photopin (license)

The consequence of ignoring this potentially substantial source of tax revenue is that the government must turn to taxing human productive work via income and sales taxes. Consequently, economists have long argued that governments and their constituents would be best-served if public revenue was instead derived from natural resource extraction, regulated, and utilized for the common good.

Uranium mining in Arizona has a history of disastrous environmental and public health consequences. Following World War II, the United States increased uranium production in order to produce more nuclear weapons, and mining companies hired large numbers of Navajo people to work the mines. Incidence of diseases caused by excessive radiation exposure increased sharply because companies failed to adequately protect those workers. Uranium mining has polluted 15 springs and five wells in the Grand Canyon watershed with toxic levels of uranium, requiring multi-million dollar government-funded cleanup measures.

It is clear from this history that uranium mining companies have proven themselves incapable, under current regulations, of operating without jeopardising people or damaging the critical lands and waters of the Grand Canyon watershed. Introducing royalties for uranium mining would fund implementation and enforcement of regulations that would lead to greener mining.

As uranium prices increased in the early 21st century, mining companies increasingly pursued access to the vast uranium deposits surrounding the Grand Canyon. In 2012, the federal government, recognizing the need to protect “natural, cultural and social resources in the Grand Canyon watershed,” issued a 20-year moratorium on new mining operations in lands surrounding the Grand Canyon. The order applies to all mining but is primarily aimed at uranium mining. The reaction from Arizona and the mining industry was swift, citing the order as an example of federal overreach and petitioning for it to be overturned. This case has now been challenged in federal court.

Photo: CEBImagery.com A New Day via photopin (license)
Photo: CEBImagery.com A New Day via photopin (license)

Many Arizona citizens have applauded the federal government, citing the enormous importance of the Grand Canyon for Arizona’s cultural heritage and economy. To many, permitting uranium mining on this stunning landscape would not only jeopardize the massive tourist activity driven by the Canyon, but would irreparably degrade a monument that is held close to the heart of Arizonans.

The federal government is now trying to make its moratorium permanent by declaring the lands surrounding the Grand Canyon as the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument. The monument was first proposed in 2015 and has support from 80% of Arizona voters, the Navajo Nation, and other key Native American tribes. The plan has stalled in Congress due to Republican opposition, but President Obama has the singular authority to bypass Congress and designate the area a monument by invoking the Antiquities Act.

An alternative approach would be to regulate the uranium mining more stringently, with the additional regulation and mining oversight financed by uranium royalties. While that may well require congressional approval, it would permit the mining to take place and that it be done under careful stewardship.

It is not yet clear which action President Obama will take, but support for the monument is a profound example of citizens recognizing the importance of their natural inheritance and taking steps to protect it.  Concerned citizens can write to President Barack Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500  or call the White House at (202) 456-1111.

Featured Image: Photo: TheMorganBurke via photopin (license)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail