An interesting idea to change copyright

We wouldn’t like to give anyone the idea that we think that the Green Party are anything other than somewhere between wildly misguided and entirely deluded on all matters. However, they have made one suggestion which is most certainly worthy of greater consideration. That’s to restrict the terms of copyright:

The Green party may be forced to backtrack on its proposals to limit UK copyright terms to 14 years after a howl of protest from prominent writers and artists including Linda Grant, Al Murray and Philip Pullman.

The Greens’ manifesto said the party aims to “make copyright shorter in length, fair and flexible” with the party’s policy website saying it would “introduce generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years”. Representatives of the party said on Thursday that length could be revised after a consultation.

There have indeed been howls of protest from just about everyone who has ever made a penny or two from stringing words together. As most of us here have made a penny or two from stringing words together as well perhaps we might add a little bit of grown up talk to the discussion?

The entire point of copyright (and also of patents) is to acknowledge that free markets, pure free markets entirely unadorned, are not the optimal solution to every problem. We’ll argue with anyone about the idea that they are the optimal solution to more problems than anyone currently allows them to be but we’re still insistent that this does not mean that they are perfect. And the issue of creation, whether of new ideas, new works of art or simply entertaining schlock is one of these areas. It’s difficult and time consuming, expensive in other words, to produce new material in any of these fields. It’s extraordinarily easy to copy it once that has been done.

This means that in a purely free market system it will be very difficult to profit from creation thus we think there will be less creation than we might want. So, we add protections for the creators. We have, simply, entirely invented this concept of “intellectual property”. That provides the incentive to create.

However, there’s also the point that we like derivative creation as well: someone creating atop the bones of what has gone before. And too long a, or too restrictive terms of, protection will limit and hinder this. So, some protection of creation is desirable and too much is not.

But note where this leads us. It is that original creation that we wish to encourage. And, if we’re honest about it, writing a book now is not influenced in any manner at all by the thought that a literary estate might still be earning from it 70 years after the authors’ death. The Sherlock Holmes stories only recently went out of copyright: does anyone think Conan Doyle was in the slightest influenced to write by what the stories might earn in the 1980s? Or take the lengthening of sound recording copyrights from 50 to 70 years just recently. Does anyone really think that Cliff Richard was incentivised to record “Living Doll” by how much it might make him in 2010? Sure, in 2010 he was very interested in the subject as he campaigned on the issue but what we want to know is what pushed him in the first place, not what he thinks post facto. Given that he did the recording under a 50 year protection does rather show that the 70 year protection was not necessary to encourage that original creation.

So, therefore, we probably shouldn’t have the longer protection.

14 years might be too short a period of time. From memory that was actually the time period in the early 18th century, and it could be renewed at least once. Full marks to the Greens for actually recognising this as an interesting area for discussion. But we would have thought that reverting to that 18th century was a bit odd for them. For they normally want us to fast forward to the Middle Ages don’t they?

Scotland must Finnish that myth

Just after the independence referendum was a momentous time to be in that exhausted Chamber of the Scottish Parliament. It marked the first debate not focussed on the constitution for as long as we could remember. And education was finally the centre of attention.

The attainment gap in Scottish state schools is something that the main parties in Scotland care about a lot. Oft-quoted statistics portraying state schools practically next to each other as performing at opposite ends of the attainment spectrum provide the impetus. 

It is true – Scotland’s ‘educational apartheid’ has been described as a ‘national disgrace’. Now Scotland’s First Minister is behind a dangerously vague and impossible Education Bill (pdf) that proposes to outlaw inequality if it receives cross-party support in Holyrood this year.

So closing this ‘gulf’ in performance, to most Scottish politicians, is a worthy goal. And perhaps this remains part of the appeal of the Finnish education system. Its schools are among the most uniform in the world. 

Certainly in 2001, when Finland came to be regarded as an education superpower, its results in the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA) made it the most desirable model in the world. 

Of the 41 nations that took part that year, Finland was impressively topping the tables in science, mathematics and reading and competing with the notoriously well-performing Asian nations. Ever since then we have been making the most myopic movements in education reform in order to emulate their achievements.

Indeed, Scotland’s controversial Curriculum for Excellence was largely inspired by the Finnish model. Created in 2004 and implemented in 2010, CfE has been one of these unimaginative, inside-the-box changes in the Scottish schooling sphere. 

To counteract the case made that more school choice and competition between schools is the answer to spreading quality and innovation, the Finnish argument is still made. The correlation between the reforms in Finland and the time of its exemplary PISA results has led to the common conclusion that the reforms caused the success.

In this very debate following the referendum, Kezia Dugdale, the deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, once more spoke of her visit to Finland and lessons we should still be learning from the country’s example.

Remarkably, until now, nobody has actually scratched beneath the surface of this spiel. The Centre for Policy Studies has just published Real Finnish Lessons (pdf) by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren of CMRE. It is the first paper of its kind to take a reasoned and thorough look at the Finnish schooling sensation. 

The first point of note is that performance began declining since those reforms were enacted. 

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What the new analysis tell us is that Finland’s rise accelerated primarily during the old system when the traditionalist, rote-learning pedagogy was at its core. 

While results increased by approximately the equivalent of 23 TIMSS points between 1965 and 1980, they rose a further 32 points in the 1980s. They also increased a further 34 points in the 1990s, but started to level off in the latter part of the decade, and ultimately started to decline in the mid-2000s.

Considering the age of the pupils when they were tested, the strongest gains took place when pupils mostly attended school before the old system was entirely abolished.

Other data, too, supports the general trajectory of rise and decline in international surveys. 

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Here we see that performance improved while male youngsters attended primary—and lower—secondary school before the old system was entirely abolished and began falling when they became exposed to the new one. 

Real Finnish Lessons convincingly shows how Finland’s outcomes are better explained by a detailed examination of its political, social and cultural underpinnings by looking beyond the fashionable explanations in the international media. It concludes that those popular policy-related reasons for its rise to prominence do not stand up to scrutiny and if anything coincide with its slippage.

The current Scottish Government continues to prioritise eliminating inequality while advocating the Finnish school-style characteristics. But it is clear, now, as we still send our education ministers to Finland each year, that we have been following a flawed interpretation of their system. 

In a competitive system schools adopt the methods that work—not fashionable educationalist fads—and the misinterpretation of Finnish data would be much less likely to happen. Choice would see the schools that work spread whatever the orthodoxy of the day says. Unlike in a government-controlled system where well-meaning Progressive ministers can effectively overturn everything without parental consent.

So with increasing evidence in our favour, it is time to consider that steps towards choice, competition and innovation are key.

An extra reason to dislike deficits and government debt

On Wednesday, in a piece trying to set out the reasonable case for austerity, I made one argument against government deficits—they crowd out the private investment that really raises our living standards over time. I think this is true outside of exceptional circumstances when the economy is in a slump and the central bank is unwilling (or perhaps unable) to rectify the situation.

But there is an important reason why raising taxes isn’t a simple solution to the problem. Except for lump-sum taxies levied on natural ability (impossible) or existence (unpopular and possibly unfair) the government doesn’t have access to any tools for raising money that don’t distort the economy. Higher taxes lead to lower economic activity; lower taxes lead to higher economic activity.

If you or I or a firm incurs a debt, we (usually) have to work hard to create wealth to pay it back. That is, increasing private debt does not reduce economic activity. If it’s used to fund consumption it’s likely to increase it a smidgeon—if it’s used to fund investment it’s likely to increase it somewhat.

This is different when the government incurs debt. It sells a bond, which on the margin must be slightly more attractive than all other existing investment products, thus creating a bit of extra value for investors/savers. It eventually must pay these back through raising taxes or monetisation. Monetisation is bad, creates inflation or even hyperinflation, and thankfully in developed countries governments do not do this.

A country can ‘grow its way out of debt’ but only in the sense that the taxes required to pay the debt off are smaller relative to the size of the economy. £10bn less debt is still £10bn less (plus interest) in taxes. Eventually all debts must be paid off with extra taxes, whether you do them now or later.

These taxes reduce economic activity through their deadweight losses (presuming we’re already levying efficiency-increasing optimal Pigovian taxes to fund normal expenditure). This means that extra government debt will lead to less activity than there otherwise would have been some time down the line, over and above its crowding-out effect on investment.

There’s an interesting side-point here comparing tax-funded or deficit-funded spending overall. Should we borrow now and tax later or run balanced budgets all the time? This is another question—but my point is that either way we fund spending it’s going to be costly.

Let the Mediterranean refugees come to work in Britain

There probably is no solution to the current Mediterranean refugee crisis, but letting more refugees come to Europe as economic migrants may be a viable way of at least making some people better off.

Last week at the European Students for Liberty Conference in Berlin I listened to Martin Xuereb, Director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, describe the situation. He emphasised that ‘push’ factors beyond our control, like civil wars in Syria, Libya and Somalia, and poverty in general were far more important in driving people to come across the sea than ‘pull’ factors like rescue boats.

These people are desperate, he said, and the possibility that they might be found by a search-and-rescue team if their boat sinks isn’t likely the main thing on their minds. Though no doubt that is a factor.

Given that these push factors are so strong, I suspect there isn’t anything humane we could do to stop the boats. It’s unclear how strong a pull factor the search-and-rescue boats are, but I’d weigh the certainty of stopping at least some people from drowning very highly against the indeterminate number of people incentivised to come because of them.

As Left Outside says, many of these people partially economic migrants as well as being straightforward refugees. Most of the evidence says that economic migration is positive overall and does little or no harm to the wellbeing of even low-skilled native workers. But refugees may be different – since they are mostly being ‘pushed’, they may go to countries where there are no jobs. (Economists would call this an ‘exogenous’ shock, because it’s being driven by factors beyond labour market supply and demand.)

I’ve looked at two papers that study the impact of refugees, rather than normal economic migrants, on native wages and employment.

The first, by David Card, looks at the impact of a very large number of Cuban refugees to Miami after the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 – around 125,000, which led to a 20% increase in the number of Cuban workers in Miami and boosted the city’s workforce by 7%. Card notes that the data available here is extremely comprehensive and detailed, making this a very good case study to look at.

Most refugees stayed in Miami, and comparing Miami to other Floridian cities over the same period after the boatlift Card finds no effect on the wages or employment prospects of native low-skilled workers, including black or other Cuban workers.

To be fair, Miami may be an exceptional case, because it was used to a steady stream of Cuban immigration, though at a much smaller rate, and so had a significant amount of industry that could absorb new low-skilled labour, and language problems may have been less of an issue (though language difficulties might not be such a problem, at least for men).

The second study might get around some of those problems. Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri looked at refugee influxes from Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan to Denmark between 1985 and 1998.

These refugees were distributed evenly across the country’s municipalities without any regard to labour market conditions. This counts as an ‘exogenous shock’, like the Miami case and like an new influx of refugees to the UK would.

Forty to fifty percent of these immigrants had only secondary school education or lower and “were in large part concentrated in manual-intensive occupations”. By allowing for a deeper division of labour, the “refugee-country immigrants spurred significant occupational mobility and increased specialisation into complex jobs, using more intensively analytical and communication skills and less intensively manual skills.” That meant that native workers who might otherwise have done low-skilled jobs were able to move into more specialised, productive, highly-paid work.

As with the Miami study, Denmark may have some factors that make it special. Its labour market is very flexible and competitive, so it is easier for workers to move between industries and easier in general for people to find jobs. But that’s generally true of the UK too.

In both of these studies, the result is clear that quite large influxes of refugees driven by ‘push’ factors still did not have negative effects on natives, and in Denmark’s case had significantly positive effects.

Clearly this is not comprehensive and clearly there are other factors to consider (such as crime and, at least in the Syrian case, terrorism). But it does suggest that allowing more refugees into Britain should not be harmful to native Britons’ job prospects or wages, and may be beneficial to them.

Creating something like a guest worker programme for Syrian or Somali refugees would not stop the boats, but letting more come legally and safely would free at least some people from the nightmarish civil wars that they are now risking their lives to escape.

The terrible pollution from Chinese rare earth manufacturing

It’s entirely true that socialist and communist mineral extraction methods are not quite as interestingly clean as we might like. It’s also true that the technologies used in China for the disposal of the wastes from such processes are less clean or safe than we would accept in our own back yards. It is, however, possible to lose any sense of proportion about this. The BBC has a long piece about just that pollution:

You can see the lake on Google Maps, and that hints at the scale. Zoom in far enough and you can make out the dozens of pipes that line the shore. Unknown Fields’ Liam Young collected some samples of the waste and took it back to the UK to be tested. “The clay we collected from the toxic lake tested at around three times background radiation,” he later tells me.

Unknown Fields has an unusual plan for the stuff. “We are using this radioactive clay to make a series of ceramic vessels modelled on traditional Ming vases,” Young explains, “each proportioned based on the amount of toxic waste produced by the rare earth minerals used in a particular tech gadget.” The idea is to illustrate the impact our consumer goods have on the environment, even when that environment might be unseen and thousands of miles away.

We admit, we’ve never really understood why every hippie is so fascinated by home made pottery. But they are correct in that rare earth mining does mean radioactive substances. Almost all such pores have thorium in them. As no one uses thorium to do very much that thorium is left in the wastes rather than extracted. And do note that none is created: what is being done is that extant radioactive metals are being pulled out of the earth in one place then dumped back onto the earth a few kilometres away. However, there’s something rather more important here. What they’re saying is true, there’s radioactivity in that thar’ lake. But is it an important amount?

Three times background? The difference between London and Cornwall. No, it’s not an important amount.