IP law and bird flu

by Henry on February 7, 2007

When I saw this “story”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/bd900a94-b55d-11db-a5a5-0000779e2340.html yesterday in the _FT_, my first reaction was to wonder what Tyler Cowen would think of it (not only does my mental model of Tyler often sit on my shoulder while I blog, making polite and well reasoned libertarian criticisms of my arguments, but the man has a direct interest in the topic at hand).

Indonesia, the country worst hit by the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, has stopped sharing human genetic samples of the highly pathogenic illness with foreign laboratories, raising fears it could slow international efforts to prepare for a pandemic. … Officials say Indonesia stopped providing samples internationally last month, hindering efforts to confirm whether the virus killing its citizens is H5N1 and limiting production of vaccines to help prevent its spread. … “all will be revealed” on Wednesday, when Indonesian officials are due to announce they are collaborating with Baxter International, the world’s biggest maker of blood-disease products, on a vaccine.

The answer is that Tyler “doesn’t like it much”:http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2007/02/markets_in_ever_1.html. More generally, I think this is a pretty tough case for people (among whom I don’t count Tyler) who make overly strong claims about the benefits of intellectual property law for the spread of information, the production of drugs and the protection of human well being. At the least, it suggests that there are important instances where these arguments don’t work very well. It also presents some difficulties for those on the left who argue on behalf of giving intellectual property over drugs produced, say, from indigenous plants, to governments in the developing world; while there are still good equity arguments for doing this, there’s no necessary reason to think that these governments will use these rights more wisely or selflessly than big pharma (they’re more likely to be subject to popular pressure, but will often have material incentives that point the wrong way).

Fathers not allowed

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 7, 2007

In the Netherlands, children between the ages of 2 and 4 (which is the age at which compulsory schooling starts) and who are not attending nurseries, can spend two mornings a week together in so-called ‘playgroups’. These playgroups are run by the municipalities. There is also a ‘pre-playgroup’ for kids between 18 months and two years, which only lasts one hour and where they are accompanied by one of the parents (or another adult). This morning a neighbour asked me whether I wouldn’t be interested in enrolling my son for such a pre-playgroup. But, she added, it’s only for mothers, fathers are not allowed. Apparently the justification is that otherwise mothers from certain ethnic minorities, where gender segregation is an important issue, would not attend with their children.

What should we think about such policies? In principle, I would strongly condemn such policies, since they are plainly discriminating fathers, grandfathers, and male babysitters. In practice, I can appreciate the underlying goal of offering mothers from social groups where opposite-sex parental activities are entirely out of the question more options to socialise, and also the social and developmental benefits for their children; but it does restrict the options of more progressive heterosexual couples to equally shared parenthood, let alone the options of gay fathers and single fathers. Since the kids of these ethnic minorities tend to be among the worst-off in society and we can safely assume that they are benefiting from joining a playgroup, I’m trying to look at this from its positive side – but I really have difficulties convincing myself that this is, all things considered, a wise policy.

Sarko Agonistes

by Henry on February 7, 2007

I’ve been following the French presidential elections at second hand; as “Philip Stevens”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/dc241e40-b261-11db-a79f-0000779e2340.html says in the _FT_, they seem to herald some interesting political changes, no matter who wins.

As one shrewd observer puts it, Mr Sarkozy is a social outsider but a political insider. Ms Royal is a social insider who has reinvented herself as a political outsider. No matter. Neither pays homage to the ancien régime. Talk to those who grace Paris’s political salons and the first thing they will say is that Mr Sarkozy is not an énarque – a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration. The second, that he is not an intellectual. The third – by now the scorn crackles in the air – that, until recently, he has not even sought the counsel of intellectuals. … Ms Royal similarly seems an unlikely king. … The daughter of an army officer, she is an énarque. It was as a student at ENA that she met her partner, François Hollande, the Socialist party leader. Something, though, went awry. To snatch the candidacy, she scorned the party chiefs. She made herself the choice instead of public opinion – a brutal affront to the authority of the old guard as well as to the presidential ambitions of her partner.

Sarkozy in particular is fascinating. While journalists usually compare him with Margaret Thatcher, he seems to me to to have a lot more in common with Richard Nixon (I’ve recently read a draft of Rick Perlstein’s _Nixonland_, so this analogy is on my mind). Sarkozy isn’t a true believer; what marks him is less his commitment to a cause than his extraordinary ideological suppleness. He’s been quite happy to abandon his pro-US stance, and to moderate his opinions on free markets to boost his chances of winning (Nixon went through similar ideological contortions on his way to power). But where the Nixon comparison really seems apt is in the source of his appeal and the psychological factors driving him. The first is a combination of law-and-order, barely concealed appeals to racism, and capitalization on widespread and not unjustified resentment of the dominance of political elites. His anti-intellectualism isn’t a bug; it’s part of what makes him attractive to many voters. The second is that like Nixon, he wasn’t a member of aforementioned elite, nor did he have a happy upbringing, and both continue to rankle. According to an interview quoted in a 2002 _Le Monde_ article (“behind a paywall”:http://www.lemonde.fr/cgi-bin/ACHATS/acheter.cgi?offre=ARCHIVES&type_item=ART_ARCH_30J&objet_id=775337) Sarkozy claims that “what made me is the sum of my childhood humiliations.” As best as I’m aware, Sarkozy, despite his fine gift for political opportunism, hasn’t done anything that begins to resemble Nixon’s assemblage of dirty tricks – insofar as I understand the Clearstream affair (which isn’t very far), he’s more sinned against than sinning. So the analogy isn’t perfect. Nonetheless, he surely deserves to someday have his very own Garry Wills.