Strange Coincidences: Tainted Toothpaste and the Intellectual Property Cops

It seemed a little fishy earlier this year when news first broke of tainted toothpaste from China. Was it totally coincidental that those disclosures came just as Congress was about to take up a bill to make it easier for Americans to buy drugs from Canada and Europe, and so avoid the ridiculous prices the drug companies charge here?  The bill failed, amid a flurry of concern about the safety of health-care products from abroad  (a concern that was notably absent during the sales jobs for Nafta and Gatt.)  This was even though there have been no reports of tainted drugs from Canada to my knowledge, only lower prices.

Now there is a new round of disclosures, this time regarding children’s toys with lead paint and kindred health hazards.  I have little doubt that China’s eager entrepreneurs have been less than fastidious.  Why would we expect them to be any different than America’s were at a similar stage in its development.  (Cf. Upton Sinclair’s description of the U.S. meatpacking industry in The Jungle.)  But then I saw a story in the current Business Week(September 24, 2007)  that suggested something more might be afoot.


Property and Freedom: Those Who Saw What Was Coming

In my last post I reflected on how an excessive assertion of property rights can turn this supposed bulwark of freedom into a threat to it.  Intellectual property is an especially virulent example. Ideas by their very nature suffuse everything; so in the name of protecting intellectual property rights the state could inject itself into just about everything.  A recent example is the proposed Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2007, in which Alberto Gonzalez, the attorney general, is seeking new authority to tap our phones and otherwise trespass into our lives.

If Mr. Gonzalez had any historical awareness – let alone self-respect – he would know that the early writers on human freedom were worried about precisely the issues his proposal raises. Would love of lucre undermine the freedom that made prosperity possible?  Would the protection of property become the entering wedge for the very tyrant that property was supposed to check?  When freedom was still a live idea, rather than an encrusted doctrine and polemical cudgel, people were alert to the danger that the commercial version of it could spawn.


The Property Police State: Alberto Gonzalez Seeks More Power to Tap Our Phones

There was a time, long ago, when the concept of “property” was a bulwark against an oppressive and arbitrary state. But the supposed bulwark has turned into a means of infiltration; and the latest evidence is the proposed Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2007. Alberto Gonzalez, the Attorney General who used the election laws to try to keep Democrats from voting, now wants more authority to wiretap our phones in the name of protecting intellectual property.  He seems oblivious to the alarms that raises.

Everything is in some sense an idea.  We name things, hold images of them in our minds. All we know of anything, ultimately, is our idea of it.  So the concept of intellectual property has a boundary problem from the start.  Congress and the courts have fed this tendency through constant expansion of the copyright and patent laws.  Where property rights go the powers of the state follow, as the Administration’s enforcement proposal demonstrates.


The Technology of Obedience: Corporate Research and the Invisible Hand

Is technology an independent force that evolves inexorably along a particular path – the path of best answers?  Or do the corporations that drive innovation steer it towards their own convenience and not necessarily for the benefit of the society as a whole?  The question might seem naïve.  But it still has to be raised, given the ideological hackles that it raises.

About two decades ago, an MIT professor by the name of David Noble made a painstaking study of the introduction of computerized controls in the machine tool industry. In his book Forces of Production, Noble showed how, at practically every turn, managers at the General Electric company had chosen the path that would increase their own control of the shop floor and diminish the role of workers – even when this did not improve the quality of products or the efficiency of the production process.


The Vise Tightens

I was in Washington this week and Capitol Hill feels like a state of siege.   The place is saturated with police – not friendly cops walking the beat, but police cars, often two or three at an intersection, faceless and grim. Fences and concrete barricades are everywhere.  You used to be able to walk through the tunnels under the Capital to get from the House to the Senate office buildings.  Now a staffer has to escort you.

You feel like an intruder in your own government, and in the buildings you yourself pay for.  The lobbyists still are there.  They exit from cabs in their tailored gaggles, crowd the couches in reception areas.  What’s missing is a sense that anyone else belongs.



Presidential inaugurations are the kind of scripted rituals that only a numbed-out media would take seriously. I’ve always wondered why the Washington Post and New York Times don’t assign their drama critics rather than their political reporters to cover them. They are pure theater, contrived entirely for the effect they will make. Why pretend that they are “news”?

The Bush affair yesterday did however have an unwitting candor. Not only was it scripted; it also was fenced. The peoples’ event in the peoples’ capital was accessible only to those who bought tickets — who were able to buy tickets. That meant, basically, Bush campaign supporters. Others were relegated to small crevices between the grandstands. This wasn’t just about security. It was about privitized democracy; and it was an emblem of an administration that wants to make everything private: the oceans, airwaves and forests; the research in our universities, the water that starts as rain and ends up in our taps .