Won’t Somebody Think Of The Family Farmer?

My father’s side of the family were peanut farmers and Angus ranchers in west Texas and east New Mexico. I grew up riding horses, and was active in both 4-H and Future Farmers of America. I even took part in junior bull riding. I thought that Willie Nelson was just about the greatest guy ever. Ok, let’s admit it, Willie Nelson is an amazing person, both as a musician and in his desire to help people and animals alike. The kinds of people Willie really intends to help with his farmer benefit concerts are the type of people I would like to see helped.

Billions of taxpayer dollars go toward subsidizing crop production each year. So often, the supposedly vulnerable members of the agriculture community are held up as an example of why this is a necessary and compassionate policy. Not only is this perception false, but the very image of the struggling, cash-strapped family farmer is one that doesn’t really hold true in the 21st century. In the 1930s, about 20 percent of the U.S. population were actively working in agriculture. Today, it’s only one percent and the rate of new farmers entering the workforce is dropping dramatically.

When we imagine a family farm, we think of the painting American Gothic, Charlotte’s Webb, Babe, and the Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing label. It’s a reminder of how things supposedly ought to be, an idyllic country fantasy of modest people working and often struggling to provide the rest of us with food.

Photo: David Reece Gathering the Hay via photopin (license)

Everyone seems very concerned about the plight of family farmers these days. But, what does the term “family farmer” really mean? Pretty much everyone has a family. What I really want to know is: who are these farmers who don’t have families? They are the ones who really need help!

The USDA claims that 97 percent of farms are family farms. However, this classification relates to the ownership structure and the top-level management rather than who actually works the land. Just 59 percent of farm laborers and supervisors are U.S. citizens. Half of the hired labor on crop farms, according to the USDA, is people not even legally allowed to work in the United States. They are mostly Mexican migrants making abysmally low wages. Farming subsidies surely don’t go to these ‘family farmers’. Many probably miss their families desperately.

‘Small family farms’ as the USDA defines them, operate 48 percent of all farmland and own 47 percent of the value of farm real estate including land and buildings. In 2012, they held 40 percent of U.S. cattle, 89 percent of the horse inventory, and “grew 64 percent of all acres in forage production”. Yet, despite owning so much, they only produce 20 percent of agriculture sales and five percent of the country’s net farm income. Almost half of small farms are “off-farm occupation farms” which means that the operator’s primary occupation is not farming.

Farmers soak up about $20 billion in subsidies each year. Despite the rhetoric of “preserving the family farm,” the vast majority of farmers do not benefit from federal farm subsidy programs. According to Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook, most subsidies go to the largest and most financially secure farm operations.

The first thing to keep in mind is that two-thirds of the farmers counted by the census of agriculture do not get farm bill subsidies. So most farmers don’t get anything… And even within the third that does get money from farm bill subsidy programs, the very large ones dominate. And it’s getting more and more concentrated all the time.

Farming subsidies largely prop up wealthy landowners who are not what we would we would intuitively agree to be real family farmers at all. In general, the concept of the nice old landowning family farmers struggling to make ends meet simply doesn’t exist on a large scale anymore. The average farm household enjoys an income about 15 percent higher than that of the average U.S. family.

Cook goes on to describe to Mother Jones how historical subsidies can be enjoyed by subsequent generations who have no involvement in production:

Absentee owners exist everywhere. Let’s say you and I are brothers. You came to town to be a journalist, I came to work at an environmental group, but we both came from a farm family in Arkansas. If mom and dad give us 5,000 acres in their will, we don’t have to go back down to Arkansas and farm. We’ll get the direct payments automatically for that rice and cotton mom and dad kept growing, and on top of that we’ll get other payments.

What we should do is not only cut off these subsidies to landowners but tax the farmland in proportion to its value. This would enable us to fund government without taxing farm equipment and labor.

Photo: David Cornwell Favored by the Sun via photopin (license)

This would actually help small farmers, whose major startup cost is purchasing land. But wait, if you tax land, wouldn’t their costs go up? No. Unlike taxing consumer goods, which drives up prices, taxing land has the benefit of not reducing its supply. Somebody always owns it. Taxing it makes hobby ownership less attractive, thus actually lowering the purchasing price.

If you’re an economics wonk, here’s an explanation of taxes on inelastic supply:

If the taxes on labor and equipment were reduced while the cost to purchase land went down too, this would be a boon for families purchasing small plots of land to grow food. Their holding costs for land would be higher, but that would just incentivize them to use land more efficiently, like real family farmers used to do.

We could actually see a resurgence of what we would agree is real family farming. These families could hire a lot of workers and pay them more without the burden of paying wage and sales taxes. And if all of these families were using less land and employing more people at higher wages, family farms could thrive and new farmers could enter the market.

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Land Value Tax Now A Mainstream Policy In Scotland

Significant strides toward a fairer tax system have been made in Scotland, where the establishment of a dedicated commission on land reform has cemented the policy direction of the leading Scottish National Party.

SNP, Scotland’s governing party, held its annual conference in March, and attendees were jubilant at the commitment made to some form of land taxation. An amended motion stated that as the government works through its land reform program it “must include exploring all fiscal options including ways of taxing the value of undeveloped land”.

Back in 2015, grassroots SNP members rejected the party’s proposed land reform policy, on the basis that it didn’t go far enough and was thought to be a watered-down version of the ideal policy. This was considered significant then because it is rare for a party’s membership to overturn a policy on its own and send its representatives back to the drawing board.

Writing for Bella Caledonia, Jen Stout explains that growing pressure for land reform in Scotland was bolstered by debate during the nation’s independence referendum in 2014.

“The stark inequalities that damage Scottish society so much were a frequent topic, and few statistics hit you so hard as ‘432:50’ – around 432 interests own half the private land in Scotland. That private land, incidentally, makes up 89 percent of our 19 million acres. Community ownership accounts for two percent. Just one man, the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, owns one percent of Scotland.”

Adding to the chorus of Land Value Tax advocates is the Scottish Green Party, one member of which has prepared a manifesto on implementing Land Value Tax. Andy Wightman writes that the only major barrier to achieving this is the establishment of a land register, which currently does not exist for Scotland.

“Land Value Taxation is no longer the preserve of advocates and lobby groups on the margins of public debate. It is now a mainstream part of contemporary debates over the future of public finances, local revenues and public infrastructure.”

“There are signs that the public is becoming weary of the house price escalator. For one thing, young people (and by that I mean almost anyone under the age of 30) are being impoverished through the high cost of accessing property. For another, the credit crunch has exposed the weakness of an asset-based debt model. Combined with pressure for just rewards, fairness and greater equality, the arguments for LVT suggest its time may at last have come.”

Photo: Rob McDougall via Crofting Law Blog.

For all the progress being made in setting the priorities of major political parties, significant misunderstanding of the Land Value Tax policy remains. Public opinion regularly equates a land tax with explicit “community ownership”, which is a failure to grasp the concept of returning the value of public goods to communities.

Wightman writes that while some industries, like forestry and agriculture, and the owners of buildings on high-value land would be resistant to the new system, serious effort should be expended to educate low and middle-income families and the business, retail and industrial sectors on their potential cost savings.

Support for Land Value Taxation in Scotland is now a force to be reckoned with, and its proponents are numerous and well-respected. EarthSharing.org will be continuing to observe and encourage this debate as it develops.

Featured photo: J McSporran Drink and Drive via photopin (license)

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EVENT: Sacred Water, Profane Markets

We would like to invite you to an exciting event in New York City on how natural resource policy has gone so wrong. Don’t miss the chance to be a part of this vital ethical and economic debate that will shape policy dialogue for years to come.

Register on Eventbrite to attend in person or watch via live stream.

Sacred Water, Profane Markets

Friday, May 19th, 9:00 am – Noon
22 East 30th Street, New York, NY 10016

For further information and/or to attend email: alanna@centurylink.net

“To make the economy work on behalf of citizens and nature, the special privileges of the past will have to be terminated.” The words of Frederic S. Lee, editor of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, elucidate the powerful implications of a new piece of writing from Georgist economist Mason Gaffney.

Gaffney’s Nature, Economy, and Equity: Sacred Water, Profane Markets appears in the November 2016 edition of AJES and challenges the fundamental assumptions of even the most liberal economic dogmas of the past century. Lee says that by recognizing the tendencies toward capital accumulation inherent in laissez-faire capitalism and enshrining the sanctity of nature at the forefront of any policy discussion, Gaffney has produced “principles of universal relevance”.

To foster an ongoing public dialogue on Sacred Water, Profane Markets, the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation is co-sponsoring an event in New York on May 19, with the International Union for Land Value Taxation, a United Nations ECOSOC NGO, the Center for the Study of Economics and The American Journal of Economics and Sociology.

This event will explore how a just system of charging for nature’s services can not only protect nature from excessive use but also make the market for produced goods and services healthier by preventing the development of monopolies that impede economic efficiency and destroy social harmony.

FROM THE ORGANIZERS

Sacred Water, Profane Markets should be of particular interest and provide ground-breaking insights to any professional, NGO, or others with an interest in or responsibility for managing, funding, using or caring for substantial bodies of water for municipal, domestic, commercial, agricultural, industrial, amenity, leisure or hydropower purposes.

Two of our speakers, David Triggs and Mary Cleveland, will address the economics and management of water. They will describe how a just system of charging for nature’s services can not only protect nature from excessive use but also make the market for produced goods and services healthier by preventing the development of monopolies that impede economic efficiency and destroy social harmony.

Drawing upon many years of practical experience in both developed and developing countries and extensive academic research they will show how a healthy balance of demand management and market forces may be used to ensure both safe drinking water for all in water scarce cities and the optimum sharing of water between agricultural, industrial and commercial users of water. They will provide fresh thinking with regard to how the cost benefit analyses that underpin major water related capital projects throughout the world may be improved to avoid unnecessary waste of natural, human and financial resources. The principles underpinning this approach apply to wider economic and public revenue issues.

Our third speaker, David Michel, has researched and written about transboundary water governance, maritime resources management, and water conflict and cooperation. He is co-author of Toward Global Water Security: US Strategy for a Twenty-First-Century Challenge. He will share his views about the water ethics and policy presented by the first two speakers and how these might make a valuable contribution to a global water grand strategy formulation. The intention of Dr. Michel’s current work on global water security is to maximize the potential for civil society and the private sector to speak with a cohesive voice on water ethics and policy.

Following the three main speakers several designated respondents will draw on their own insights and experiences in water ethics and management in giving their input to the proposed reconciliation of Sacred Water and Profane Markets. The main speakers and the respondents will then participate in a plenary round table discussion on a number of key points and questions raised by forum attendees.

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The Cause of Global Inequality: Comparing Jared Diamond and Henry George

Can inequality within and between societies be explained in terms of merit and intelligence, or are the most important determinants of inequality beyond individual control? Both economist Henry George and geographer Jared Diamond essentially asked this same question, examining the fundamental forces that have shaped human history. They come to startlingly similar conclusions. These similarities have not, until now, been connected and compared so directly.

Henry George, as an economist, had a view of history which emphasized the importance of the privatization of the economic value of land. Jared Diamond emphasizes the importance of the orientation of large land masses along an east-west axis in shaping history. What is common to both theses is the importance of land – the petri dish which supports human cultures.

Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel is probably the most popular book ever written about the role of agriculture in the evolution of human societies. George’s magnum opus Progress and Poverty was likely the best-selling book in the world, after the Bible, when it was published in 1879. Princeton historian Eric F. Goldman described a society in which enormous numbers of people found that their “whole thinking had been redirected by reading Progress and Poverty in their formative years. In this respect, no other book came anywhere near comparable influence.”

Both books tackle such large questions that they are frequently attacked for being deterministic and for broad-stroking details. While the details are contentious, the core theses are straightforward and robust. Postmodernism has made many scholars afraid to distil general forces and has turned ‘generalization’ into a pejorative term.  But among those seeking useful answers for the current state of the world, Diamond and George are responsible for paradigm shifts within many fields of inquiry. It is not my goal with this piece to defend all of these thinkers’ ideas with an exhaustive list of historical examples, but merely to compare their most defining ideas.

Land Determines Human Progress

Diamond’s thesis is that Eurasia had ideal conditions for agriculture and the success of its people was not due to intelligence or merit. Essentially, crops that flourished in the fertile crescent (self-pollinating hermaphrodites) could move east and west much easier than they could move north and south. Globally, those who controlled land on this east-west axis were able to grow huge food surpluses and advance rapidly, inheriting selectively bred food crops, technology, and ideas at a much faster rate than areas not on this physical and intellectual jet stream.

Diamond writes that effective agriculture and food storage were “prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies. Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents.”

Photo: Stuck in Customs The Infinity of China via photopin (license)

Food surpluses freed people’s time and energy for innovative pursuits, supported dense hubs where people could exchange ideas, and supported large militaries to exact tribute and rent from traders and inhabitants. In other words, it was principally differences in access to well-located land that made it possible for some societies to advance to the point of being effective at conquest and colonization.

If George were aware of Diamond’s thesis, he might remark that there is a global privilege, or economic rent, associated with controlling land on this east-west axis. George mostly goes about describing this within societies – as opposed to Diamond’s sole focus on comparing civilizations – arguing that those who control the best locations and can charge rent for them have a return far beyond that which is justified by their individual merit. On the collapse of societies, both thinkers boil it down to sprawling and wasteful land use.

In Progress and Poverty, Henry George discusses how sprawl and the inequality it produced was the cause of the decay and fall of the Roman Empire:

“Rome arose from the association of independent farmers and free citizens of Italy. It gained fresh strength from conquests, which brought hostile nations into common relations. Yet the tendency to inequality hindered progress from the start, and it only increased with conquest.”

“Great estates—“latifundia”—ruined Italy. The barbarism that overwhelmed Rome came not from without, but from within. It was the inevitable product of a system that carved the provinces into estates for senatorial families. Serfs and slaves replaced independent farmers.”

George, firstly, notices that private property is a natural thing related to human production and in ancient times when the population was sparse “ownership of land merely ensures that the due reward of labor goes to the one who uses and improves it.” But over time, with the density of the population, rent increased forcing civilizational sprawl.

Conquests led to appropriation of land and slavery. The Roman armies moved outwards from Latium demanding land; victory gave more land to the farmers; excessive demands again brought exhaustion of fertility; again the armies moved outwards. Early 20th-century professor of economic history Vladimir Simkhovitch wrote: “Province after province was turned by Rome into a desert, for Rome’s exactions naturally compelled greater exploitation of the conquered soil and its more rapid exhaustion. Province after province was conquered by Rome to feed the growing proletariat with its corn and to enrich the prosperous with its loot. The devastation of war abroad and at home helped the process along.”

Photo: Jerzy Durczak Sunny fields via photopin (license)

Diamond describes the way in which Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilizations grew crops and grazed cattle in an irresponsible and wasteful manner.  If land was plentiful for the dominant culture, who had subdued the inhabitants, they could afford to destroy the soil and move on. The only reason western Europe was able to survive similar irresponsible methods, according to Diamond, was its rainfall, unlike the drier Mediterranean and more inland areas of the Middle East, which were not always deserts.

In this way, George and Diamond agree on the importance of land and resource management in the rise and fall of civilizations, as opposed to the individual merit of those involved, but they describe very similar phenomena through unique and largely comparable lenses.

It is difficult to compare thinkers from such different times on issues like the environment. However, one possible difference between George and Diamond are their views on population. George viewed humans, unlike other species, as capable of multiplying their productivity, using fewer resources to produce more wealth. Diamond’s theory that Easter Island, for instance, was a Malthusian (population) trap might put George’s and Diamond’s philosophies at odds. George was likely more of an optimist in terms of population and technology,  if the land problem could be adequately addressed first.

Resource Distribution within Societies

To illustrate, Vikings, a popular historical drama on the History Channel (spoiler alert), features the fearless upstart Ragnar Lodbrok. Ragnar bases his legitimacy as a ruler on the idea that he can supply his people with not only new sources of loot but, most importantly, land.  He dramatically demonstrates this mid-battle in an impassioned speech to his warring countrymen. Instead of fighting each other for land, says Ragnar, they should join forces in killing other peoples. Despite historical inaccuracies common in such dramas, scholars believe the Vikings raided other parts of Europe principally out of a hunger for land.

According to George, when a society does not use its own resources well, it leapfrogs to others. He believed that the Western land tenure system creates extreme social stratification whereby the rewards of economic and technological progress go disproportionately to the owners of land. Fear of poverty and an emphasis on unearned wealth and status seeking surrounding this dynamic leads to militarization and a colonial leapfrogging mindset.

Contemporary Georgist economist Mason Gaffney referred to what causes this as ‘milking the core to feed the periphery’. The poor in the center of a society, like large cities, are paying a great deal of their earnings out as rent and those seeking to avoid this rent sprawl in a multitude of ways – from urban sprawl, to heading west during American expansion, to invading other countries for resources, as was the case with the Romans and Vikings as well.

Photo: Israel Defense Forces Artillery, Infantry & Armored Corps Exercise in the Golan via photopin (license)

Gaffney and Fred Harrison describe how land hunger drove millions of people to make the dangerous passage across the oceans to the Americas. Over the course of three centuries, those who came from the Old World gradually displaced or decimated the tribal societies of “First Americans” who occupied the continent for thousands of years. Such a huge, and resource-rich continent provided the oppressive Old World regimes with a safety-valve, or what Harrison describes as “a continental-wide bolthole to freedom.” At least for a time.

“When the land ran out in the 1890s,” writes Harrison, “the land of plenty turned into a hell of poverty.” The poverty that plagued the Old World had arisen with an equal vengeance in the New World cities established by the descendants of the first Old World migrants. Of course, the land did not actually “run out” in a literal sense; the commons was given away to the railroads, to politicians and their close friends, to land speculators, and to settlers.

After the Revolution, huge sections of land were bought up by rich speculators, including George Washington and Patrick Henry. As the veterans returned home, speculators immediately showed up to buy the land warrants given by the government. Many of the soldiers, desperate for money, sold their 160 acres for less than $50.

This kind of hoarding of land creates an artificial scarcity, and this can, in turn, be used to stoke public sentiment toward war. As was the case with Rome and other empires, George argued that this process is unsustainable; at some point, people become more focused on raiding and stealing the wealth others have produced than on creating real wealth themselves. The returns are just too low by comparison. Rent-seekers parlay their power, even if originally earned through productive means, into more rent-seeking and even buy political power to cement their positions. The social pact is destroyed as the society continuously undermines its productive base. This dynamic, which George viewed as cyclical, had happened long before the Viking raids of the Middle Ages. In Progress and Poverty, he wrote the following:

“In the history of every nation we may read the same truth: our primary social organization is a denial of justice. Allowing one person to own the land makes slaves of others. The degree, or proportion, of slavery increases as material progress goes on.

The effect of invention and improvement on the production of wealth has been precisely the same as an increase in the fertility of nature. What has been the result? Simply that landowners took all the gain. The wonderful discoveries and inventions of our century have neither increased wages nor lightened toil. The effect has simply been to make the few richer — and the many more helpless!”

Conclusion

According to Diamond, people who were lucky enough to have come from land along the longest stretch of east-west land were able to parlay that ownership into more land, decimating those who got in their way. If these east-west cultures existed in environments with lots of water, they could withstand the assault of unsustainable agricultural practices and continue to conquer other parts of the world. If not, they collapsed. George thought that those lucky enough to own land within a society enjoy the same type of unearned luck and privilege. In this way, George describes the cause of poverty within societies, and Diamond describes reasons for inequality, poverty, and colonialism between societies. Both describe why this system of resource allocation and use are unsustainable and ultimately lead to social and environmental collapse, respectively. They also agree that land and location, both its geographic position and land policy, is the most important single factor in determining the fate of civilizations.

If George were alive today, he and Diamond might sit down together and decide that they liked the idea of a global system for sharing the value of land, perhaps as a citizen’s dividend (basic income), which would equalize the historically generated value of land with the descendants of conquerors and the descendants of victims of conquest alike. This would help correct at least the economic misfortunes of people disadvantaged by their geographic position. This would overwhelmingly help those in the global south, the people who not only did not benefit from being on the east-west axis but who were also colonized by those people who did benefit. If done correctly, it could eventually wipe out disadvantages due not to merit, but simply being born on the wrong side of the proverbial railroad tracks.

 

Additional references

Simkhovitch, V. G. (1916). Rome’s fall reconsidered. New York: Ginn.
Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-2001.

 

Andrea Moroni Salt Miners, Danakil depression via photopin (license)

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Financialization Of Housing Violates Human Rights

“Housing is at the centre of an historic structural transformation in global investment and the economies of the industrialized world with profound consequences for those in need of adequate housing.”

Adequate housing is a human right, and securing it for all people is not only a moral imperative, it is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that have been developed by the United Nations and targeted for achievement by 2030. All signatory member states are bound to pursue this goal in earnest.

Leilani Farha is the U.N. Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, and she has reached some unsettling conclusions about the worsening of what she terms the “financialization of housing” in a report presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council at the beginning of the month.  Prosper Australia’s (Earth Sharing Australia) Speculative Vacancies report is held up as a primary source of evidence regarding the scale of the issue, a study that EarthSharing.org is excited to replicate in the United States as well. 

Photo: Leilani Farha

After the enormous losses incurred from the 2008 global financial crisis – by homeowners, banks, and taxpayers – it seemed reasonable to expect that any legislative response would crack down on the deficiencies in the system that had made such a crisis possible. In a nutshell, the opportunities for corporate finance to turn housing debt into a commodity were left unchecked, and the practice of packaging mortgage-backed securities into enormous bundles and selling them as an investment became widespread.

According to Farha, the resulting catastrophe of mortgage defaults and foreclosures actually ended up being a huge win for corporate finance, as companies were able to sweep up billions of dollars worth of property at fire sale prices from state governments who had been forced to assume responsibility for high-risk mortgages.

“Individuals and families who were affected by the crisis were often blamed for taking on too much debt and new rules and regulations were put in place to restrict their access to mortgages. Austerity measures cut programs on which they had relied for access to housing options, and the march towards the financialization of housing continued.”

There is a need now more than ever to reclaim housing as a social commodity and to disincentivize its treatment as a cash cow, an asset for the accumulation of wealth and an easy tax haven for the world’s super-wealthy.

Farha outlines the way in which a vast amount of investment properties are being left empty and suggests that even without occupants, a property can generate significant value for the owner. In Melbourne, a full 20 percent of investor-owned properties are vacant, equating to about 82,000 homes. In London, the wealthy suburbs of Chelsea and Kensington saw a 40 percent increase in vacant properties between 2013 and 2014.

Photo: woodleywonderworks via photopin (license)

“In such markets, the value of housing is no longer based on its social use. The housing is as valuable whether it is vacant or occupied, lived in or devoid of life. Homes sit empty while homeless populations burgeon.”

Farha says there is a “gross imbalance” between the resources that governments devote to assuaging the needs of the ownership class and what is a “complete deficit” of attention paid to those who cannot meet their needs for a safe, affordable place to live. The situation is likely to worsen with the proliferation of international trade agreements, which tend to have the effect of intimidating governments out of regulating investment in property and the development of luxury rentals. A precedent has already been set by cases of treaty arbitration wherein millions of dollars in damages have been awarded to foreign investors.

The human right to adequate housing is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and half a dozen other international conventions and covenants. This right, under our present system, is in constant conflict with the use of land as a store of wealth and a means of capital appreciation, and governments have made the problem worse by providing tax subsidies for homeownership, tax breaks for investors, and bailouts for corporate finance.

A system of Land Value Taxation would discourage such ubiquitous property speculation and exert downward pressure on prices. Confronted with tax bills that more accurately reflect the public value of centrally-located land, speculators and other stakeholders will find it much less attractive to hold onto housing as a deposit box for wealth. The revenue generated from this tax could be used to revitalize the stock of public housing, though this would simply be a cherry on top of the more significant shifts in incentives created by the Land Value Tax.

Featured photo: byronv2 via photopin (license)

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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)

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Solving The Obesity Epidemic

We now know that sugar, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, is the leading cause of the U.S. obesity epidemic. Two-thirds of adults and a third of children are considered overweight or obese, and the dietary choices that have created this crisis are often the result of understandable thrift. Our tax environment offers market-shifting subsidies to conglomerate producers of some of the worst things we put into our bodies.

Co-opting Noble Wartime Policy

Agricultural subsidies were used to great effect during World War II, as a way to shore up supplies of corn and wheat to prevent a shortage of troop supplies. These policies served their intended purpose, but without a timeframe, they were allowed to become entrenched by farming businesses which stood to benefit. The foods we are encouraged to eat today, and what we are told about nutrition and cardiometabolism, are in no small part influenced by lobbying from within the system created by wartime pragmatism.

The justification for subsidies today is that the U.S. government wants agriculture to be competitive globally. However, the choices American consumers are making have turbocharged healthcare costs related to obesity. So, two opposing goals are being pursued simultaneously, all while the agriculture industry preys on vulnerable people with cheap, unhealthy foods. A common response is the suggestion to tax sugary foods, but this may not be the best way to optimize incentives.

A study of subsidized foods and their relationship to cardiometabolic risk measured that overall, 56 percent of calories consumed were among the major subsidized food commodities – corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock. The study concluded that higher consumption of calories from subsidized food commodities was associated with a greater probability of some cardiometabolic risks. Therefore, better alignment of agricultural and nutritional policies has the potential to significantly improve population health.

The majority of subsidies go to commercial farms with an average income of $200,000 and average net worth close to $2 million, according to a report by Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Brian Riedl. The reality of agricultural subsidies is incongruous with their intent; instead of raising farmer incomes with higher crop prices, they promote overproduction and lower prices further.

Photo: myoldpostcards Late Autumn Fields Along The County Line via photopin (license)

Smallholder family farms are largely excluded from subsidies, and instead they finance consolidation and raise land values to prohibitive levels. In the decade preceding 2007, many agricultural subsidies were distributed to Fortune 500 companies, celebrity “hobby farmers”, and sympathetic Members of Congress, including:

  • $2,849,799 – John Hancock Life Insurance
  • $1,183,893 – International Paper
  • $534,210 – Westvaco
  • $446,914 – ChevronTexaco
  • $553,782 – David Rockefeller
  • $206,948 – Ted Turner
  • $225,041 – Senator Charles Grassley (R- IA)
  • $45,400 – Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR)
  • $161,084 – Representative John Salazar (D-CO)

A 2006 Washington Post investigation discovered 75 acres of Texas housing for which the owners could claim agricultural subsidies based on “historical rice production.” Over the past 25 years, rice plantings in Texas have plummeted from 600,000 acres to 200,000, in part because people can now collect generous rice subsidies without planting rice. This illustrates that once implemented, even a seemingly sensible subsidy can become a useless bureaucratic burden that must be repealed or risk becoming ridiculous.

The Sugar Conspiracy

Robert Lustig, a pediatric neuroendocrinologist at UCSF, says a person increasing their sugar consumption is a big problem because “sugar both drives fat storage and makes the brain think it is hungry, setting up a vicious cycle.”

More specifically, Lustig confirms that it is fructose that is harmful. Fructose is a component of the two most popular sugars: table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup has become ubiquitous in soft drinks and many other processed foods.

According to the World Health Organization, food marketing has been shown to influence children’s dietary preferences and behavior, increase the risk of becoming overweight and obese and form habits which persist into adulthood.

Amanda Long, Director-General of Consumers International, says that “the majority of adverts seen by children around the globe are for heavily processed foods high in fat, sugar, salt and calories.”

Research in the science journal Nature concluded that young children are not responsible for their food choices, and are incapable of accepting personal responsibility in amongst so many influences including parenting, social factors, and advertising. Obese children are ostracized by their peers, and their quality of life, as measured by self-reported distress, is comparable to those receiving cancer chemotherapy.

In September 2016, NPR reported that for the past five decades, the sugar industry has been attempting to influence the scientific debate over the relative risks of sugar and fat.

Photo: The Open University (OU) Rahul Pandey via photopin (license)

That these documents are so old only serves to magnify the implications of this ongoing corporate behavior. A report published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal highlighted ways in which these practices continue.

“In 2015, the New York Times obtained emails revealing Coca-Cola’s cozy relationships with sponsored researchers who were conducting studies aimed at minimizing the effects of sugary drinks on obesity. Even more recently, the Associated Press obtained emails showing how a candy trade association funded and influenced studies to show that children who eat sweets have healthier body weights than those who do not.”

Report co-author Stanton Glantz told The New York Times this sugar industry strategy of sponsoring research was a smart one, “because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion.”

The response from the Sugar Association was to say that at the time of publication, “funding disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm they are today.” In one recorded study, a finding of health benefits from a diet of less sugar and more vegetables was dismissed, because such a dietary change was not considered feasible.

In the aftermath of these revelations, the sugar tax debate ignores the more fundamental forces that have given agricultural mega-producers so much influence.

Sweetening The Deal

Subsidies are either going to artificially inflate farmland values and rents, or wind up in the back pockets of supermarkets. If the farming of certain crops is supported by a failsafe government subsidy, supermarkets will see no need to reimburse farmers for the full cost of production, resulting in lower prices and stagnating incomes.

Under a system of Land Value Taxation, all production would be tax-free and, in a sense subsidized. Other foods could compete with corn, and we might experience a decrease in the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup in cheap, readily available processed foods.

Farmland is not particularly valuable in comparison to its urban counterpart, so many farmers could expect to be better off under such a policy. Nevertheless, a Land Value Tax would also encourage small-surface-area, horticulture as opposed to extensive, land-wasting monoculture that is subsidized by the public purse. Not only that, it would create a lot of jobs in sustainable farming, since taxes on labor would be removed in a pure Land Value Tax system.

 

Feature photo: stevendepolo Plain and Cinnamon Sugar Donuts Robinettes via photopin (license)

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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)

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Is The American Dream Dead in Northern California?

In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams said the American dream mandates that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. But what does that actually mean?

For some, the vagueness of the American dream concept makes it difficult to quantify. Identifying a more specific metric of focus would offer a clearer picture of American opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for all people.

TechCrunch.com journalist Kim-Mai Cutler delivered a presentation at Earthsharing.org’s BIL Oakland 2016: Recession Generation event on July 9, in which she focused on the intersection between opportunity, technology, and land. To address this intersection, she referenced the research of Stanford University economist Raj Chetty.

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Figure 1

Chetty analyzed the family income records of 40 million children over the past 20 years and calculated the likelihood of a child born into the poorest 20 percent (lowest quintile) of society reaching a higher quintile in income. Isolating geography as a determining factor, Chetty found that, for example, the city of San Jose provides the best opportunities for a poor child to reach the 80th percentile in income distribution, compared to all other cities across the country. This is shown in Figure 1.

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Figure 2

Despite this, Figure 2 shows a trend reflected statewide and across the United States wherein median wages are increasing, but poverty is also on the rise, and homeownership is falling.

This trend in Santa Clara County flies in the face of conventional thinking, whereby poverty should decrease as incomes and opportunities multiply. If people are making more money, yet are less able purchase a home, the home price must be rising faster than the wage.

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-6-21-02-pm-1
Figure 3

Similarly, apartment rent is skyrocketing. There is a lot of job growth, which would tend to indicate that labor is more in demand and that incomes will be higher, but most of the new jobs do not pay well – most make less than 50 percent of the average median income (AMI), as seen in Figure 3.

To add insult to injury, Figure 4 shows that many lower-wage workers fall well short of average asking rents, and are therefore unable to work and live in the same area. These people must either cohabitate or commute long distances in order to secure housing that they can afford.

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Figure 4

These are direct consequences of Proposition 13, which greatly limits property taxation in the state of California. Proposition 13 defines what a parcel of real estate can be taxed, how much that tax can grow annually, and when the parcel’s value can be reassessed. Over time, this has created severe market distortions, as developers have no incentive to build additional housing that is affordable. This ultimately limits housing supply, forces workers to commute further from the urban centers, and leads to additional sprawl.

How does this all affect upward mobility? For starters, family commute times correlate with a child’s future success and earnings. Figure 5, from Chetty’s study, shows that a transit time of 15 minutes or less significantly correlates with a child’s upward mobility.

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-6-21-15-pm
Figure 5

If the American dream is precipitated by upward mobility from one income quintile to the next, it is becoming an unattainable dream for an increasing percentage of the population. Without significant policy change, it will become impossible for many families to escape wage slavery.

Remedies do exist – some to resolve the problem altogether, and others to mitigate it. Metro San Francisco has seen a significant growth of working professionals choosing cohabitation, as well as the tiny house movement of 100-400 square-foot spaces. Unfortunately, these behaviors do not address the structural inequities and land misuse created by the current policy environment and Proposition 13.

With this in mind, it would be sensible for new housing construction in the Bay area to occur where economic activity is most concentrated, namely downtown San Francisco. Downtown areas tend to have the greatest land values, but traditional strategies for construction in the city center tend to be very expensive, politically treacherous, or otherwise ineffective. While cohabitation and tiny houses might make the area more affordable for a few, government must incentivize urban development in high-demand areas to effectively turn the tide of this crisis. To this end, the city and state must consider a Land Value Tax.

The economist Henry George documented this phenomenon of market exclusion 137 years ago in his seminal work Progress and Poverty. George demonstrated how rent increases faster than wages, and to expedite new construction, he recommended eliminating taxes on work and consumption and shifting the source of revenue to Land Value Taxation. His idea was to encourage landowners and developers to increase residential and commercial space in order to pay the Land Value Tax, while generating a respectable return and providing value to others. Land Value Taxation naturally becomes even more effective wherever land values are higher, like the urban core of cities. Implemented in cities, Land Value Taxation leads to a substantial increase in both living and working space.

California faces a unique challenge due to the limits imposed by Proposition 13, and overcoming this would require a difficult voter-approved constitutional amendment to completely overhaul the property tax system. State legislators and regional and city planners would be remiss not to consider a Land Value Tax, which has had demonstrated success in increasing residential space in the United States and abroad.

 

Watch Kim-Mai Cutler’s presentation below:

 

Images: Keynote presentation by Kim-Mai Cutler at BIL Oakland: Recession Generation 2016

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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.

 

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