Monthly Archives: November 2008

Malolos sets a national example

I just learned from SRI-Pilipinas trainor Aga Milagroso of Malolos, Bulacan that Malolos mayor Danilo Domingo has adopted a city policy which, in my opinion, sets an example that every mayor in the country should follow.

Mayor Domingo has declared that Malolos residents are authorized to plant food crops on any idle piece of land in Malolos, public or private.

Aga Milagroso, who conducts trainings on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and organic planting methods in and out of his province of Bulacan, uses a piece of land that is not his own. His compadre, Ernesto de la Pena, an SRI-trainor like Aga, also works several hectares of land using SRI. The land is actually owned by Victory Liner, a Luzon-wide transportation company, which allowed Ernesto to work their land long before Mayor Domingo announced the measure.

Throughout the Philippines, thousands of hectares of land are idled and taken out of production by land speculators who buy agricultural land by the hectare, hoping to sell them several years later, when rapid urbanization eventually enables them to subdivide and sell these lands by the square meter. Often, these land speculators are also government officials, or cronies of government officials, who have advanced inside information where new highways, national roads or other government development projects would be built.

Mayor Domingo’s enlightened measure can help solve the apparent lack of land available to landless rural poor, and the declining rice output of Philippine farms. In 2008, the Philippines became, for the first time in its history, the world’s number one rice importer.

If we had more government officials like Mayor Domingo, this would never have happened.

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Cebu province is going organic!

I just learned some good news from SRI-Pilipinas trainor Salvio Makinano, who is based in Central Visayas. Governor Gwen Garcia of Cebu wants her province to go organic. She apparently made her decision after visiting an organic farm in Borbon, Cebu and seeing how organic farming can be economically viable for the farmer, healthy for the consumer and friendly to the environment. Salvio, who conducts regular trainings on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), Korean Nature Farming, biodynamic farming and other sustainable farming systems through the Visayas, heard it straight from the governor herself.

If Gov. Garcia formalizes her intention and it is adopted by the provincial government of Cebu, her island province will be following the pioneering lead of Negros Oriental and Negros Occidental, whose governors (former Governor now Congressman George Arnaiz and Governor Joseph Marañon) signed a few years back a memorandum of agreement to turn the whole island of Negros into an organic island.

With three of the Philippines’ 89 provinces committing to go organic, and the Department of Agriculture publicly committing to convert 10% of the country’s ricelands to organic methods, we can see the balance of policy-making now starting to make a move towards the organic side.

Organic practitioners and advocates need to push even harder, and convince more municipal mayors and provincial governors to commit to the organic way.

A public commitment, backed up by strong legislative measures, is the first step. This should be followed by a clear budgetary commitments, that should go to an organic program ran by groups with proven track records in organic implementation.

With release by Secretary Arthur Yap of P20 million pesos for a pilot organic program in seven Luzon towns, the Department of Agriculture has taken the second step.

These recent developments inspires us to work even harder.

We look forward to the day when we can declare the entire Philippines an organic country, where organic methods are the default methods.

It may be unrealistic to expect the government to ban chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But a government that is truly serious about supporting organic agriculture should impose mandatory testing and labelling requirements on farmers and food producers who use non-organic inputs and sell non-organic products to the public. It is the logical legislative expression of the “polluter pays” principle. Such a measure will tilt the balance further in favor of organics, by reversing the bias of the economic system in favor of organics.

With the small steps being taken today by pioneering officials in local governments and national government agencies, the leap to become an organic nation is becoming a real possibility.

Most popular: translated folk songs and the origami CD envelope

It is an interesting phenomenon and an eye-opener for me.

Out of the 6,000-plus who accessed this blog over the twelve months since I started it, the most popular posts have been Bahay Kubo (and other English translations of Filipino folk songs), in a near dead-heat with the origami CD envelope I designed myself. (For comparison, the video instructions for the origami CD envelope I posted on YouTube eleven months ago has logged more than 20,000 accesses.)

What is interesting is that folk song accesses seem to come in waves — a steady 3-5 accesses a day, then every two weeks or so, I’d see 15-20 folk song accesses on a single day. Often it is Bahay Kubo, but sometimes, Sitsiritsit alibangbang, Paru-parong bukid or Leron, Leron sinta.

I am imagining that an elementary class somewhere in the Philippines is given an assignment to translate a folk song into English, and the students go in groups to a nearby Internet cafe, to search the Web for a translation. They find my site, and their work is done.

Hopefully, they’d realize that it would be easy for their teacher to notice that the translations look alike, so they’d each try to make some major or minor changes here and there, exercising further their skills in English, rhyme, rhythm and thinking.

The golden touch and the miracle of the loaves

[This piece will appear as a chapter in the book From Intellectual Property Rights to Access to Knowledge by Gaelle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski (eds.) to be published by Zone Books in 2009.]

Dionysus … decided to reward Midas for his hospitality and granted him one wish. Midas wished that everything he touched be turned to gold. Dionysus warned him about the dangers of such a wish, but Midas was too distracted with the prospect of being surrounded by gold to listen. Dionysus gave him the gift. Initially, King Midas was thrilled with his new gift and turned everything he could to gold, including his beloved roses. His attitude changed, however, when he was unable to eat or drink since his food and wine were also changed to unappetizing gold. He even accidentally killed his daughter when he touched her, and this truly made him realize the depth of his mistake. (Anna Baldwin, Midas, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/midas.html)

The best and the worst scenarios in access to knowledge can be seen today in two opposite trends: 1) in the genetic field, islands of proprietary genetic material are growing amidst a sea of free/open access biodiversity; and 2) in the information field, islands of free/open access initiatives are growing amidst a sea of proprietary resources.

The privatization of genes

In agriculture and genomics, a race to patent and thereby privately own genes continues to rage unabated. According to a 2005 study, one-fifth of the human genome already been patented. (Stefan Lovgren, “One-Fifth of Human Genes Have Been Patented”, National Geographic News, October 13, 2005. See http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/pf/22064243.html) Patents are exclusionary devices and are therefore a form of private monopoly, in effect turning genes into private property. Genes are a natural monopoly. As the director of Duke University’s Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan says, “You can find dozens of ways to heat a room besides the Franklin stove, but there’s only one gene to make human growth hormone.”(Lovgren, see above)

The privatization of genes is, of course, a prelude to commodification. Commodified goods (or bads, for that matter, such as carbon credits representing a right to pollute) then become subject to market mechanisms and forces. If there is carbon trading, can DNA trading be far behind? If we can have commodity futures, why can’t we have derivatives like carbon futures or DNA futures?

Commodification is an all-consuming trend in economics. Commodification respects none and targets all: land, culture, knowledge, information, human beings, water, air, atmosphere, nature, life, genes, relationships – truly anything and everything. Driven by corporate profit-seeking and gain maximization, commodification knows no end, no limits.

Like King Midas, today’s corporations and other gain maximizers turn everything they touch into commodities and, subsequently, into money. Wherever they look, whatever they look at, they see a dollar sign. If we followed their lead or allowed them to continue, our entire world, and everything in it as well as outside it, would sooner or later be for sale or for rent. Then we would end up like the cynic who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

The free/open source trend

There is, fortunately, an opposite trend.

Ideas about information freedom and sharing have percolated for sometime. They are called by different names, representing subtle differences in attitudes, perspectives and approaches towards access to information and knowledge. The earliest were ideas about public domain and the commons. But – as everything turned digital, accelerating the commodification of information – these early ideas were, apparently, insufficiently developed to deal with the rapidly changing nature of information. For instance, if software were simply released to the public domain, commercial interests were better positioned to take full advantage and incorporate it into their products. Also, object code (in contrast to source code) in the public domain remained largely inaccessible for modification. Thus, while many utilities and simple programs were distributed as public domain or “freeware”, no major software projects were. New approaches were also tried which relied on a license based on existing intellectual property concepts. These included the “shareware” license, the GNU Public License, the BSD License and their variations. Out of the latter two emerged truly huge software projects such as the Linux kernel, the GNU systems and utilities package, the BSD operating system, software application suites such as OpenOffice, and similar software.

The idea of free/open sharing caught on and extended to other fields. The Creative Commons license extended this idea to other literary and artistic works. The Wikipedia represented another huge effort to accumulate and share human knowledge in a completely non-proprietary way.

This new social movement might be called the free/open source information movement . It is now being embraced in other fields and promises to become the guiding principle for access to knowledge. In the academic community, free/open online journals are now emerging in the spirit of this movement, challenging the entrenched publishers of printed academic journals.

This movement may, in the future, merge with other “free” and “open” movements. In the educational field, a “free” schools movement – “free as in freedom” – has been simmering for some time, following the pioneering works of educators Maria Montessori in Italy, A.S. Neill of Summerhill fame in England, and John Holt in the U.S. Among the ideas that contributed to the intellectual ferment and the eventual peaceful uprising of the East Europeans was the “open” society concept given impetus by George Soros. The free exchange and sharing of seeds is a freedom that farmers will defend with their lives. If a convergence happens, a truly historic shift in mindset can occur, promising a freer and more open world.

We have to divide bread to share it, but sharing knowledge multiplies it. Because knowledge is literally food for the mind, the movement to ensure free/open access to information and knowledge will turn into reality the parable in this Biblical story:

In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, he summoned the disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a great distance.” His disciples answered him, “Where can anyone get enough bread to satisfy them here in this deserted place?” Still he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” “Seven,” they replied. He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then, taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to distribute, and they distributed them to the crowd. They also had a few fish. He said the blessing over them and ordered them distributed also. They ate and were satisfied. They picked up the fragments left over – seven baskets. There were about four thousand people. (New Testament, Mark 8:1-9; see also 6:34-44)

Join the commodification race and we will all acquire the golden touch. Adopt the free/open sharing perspective and the knowledge of some can miraculously feed all. The golden touch or the miracle of the loaves? Whichever road we take will determine whether we will enter a neo-feudal period ruled by information and genetic rentiers as they increasingly privatize human knowledge and genetic material, or a new flowering of human culture thanks to free exchange of ideas, information and knowledge.

Coping with climate change, peak oil: community resilience needs a change in mindset

Community resilience needs a change in mindset


[This piece appeared in the journal Community and Habitat 2008 No. 13 of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement.]

This issue of PRRM’s Community and Habitat journal is focused on the intertwined issues of climate change, energy and food.

Recent events have further highlighted the linkages between these concerns. As oil prices increase, driven up by the decelerating global production levels, a frantic search for alternative fuels is happening now. The search is constrained by the impact of fossil fuels on climate, which in recent years has finally entered the public radar screen. It is now generally accepted that we cannot continue the current levels of fossil fuel consumption without endangering our very survival on this planet. Among the carbon-neutral technologies which have received attention are agrofuels (which is a more accurate term than biofuels because the term pinpoint the true source of such fuels). Today more than a fourth of the U.S. corn production now goes to alcohol production. Given the expected attractive prices for agro-fuels, agricultural lands are being shifted to agro-fuel crops like corn, sugar, sorghum, and exotics such as jatropha. One doesn’t have to be an agriculture expert to predict the impact of these developments on food production. True enough, food prices are shooting up, food shortages rearing their ugly head, and countries with surplus food crops are beginning to scale down their exports.

Locally, the most telling effect of these developments is that the Philippines, which ironically hosts the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), is now the world’s biggest importer of rice.

We have collected a number of pieces that look at the different aspects of these intertwined issues. Although we have emphasized adaptation measures, we are not ignoring the analytical search for root causes and vicious cycles, which is ultimately the first step towards long-term solutions.

It is clear now that we must build new types of communities to cope with these serious threats. Among the various terms used to describe such communities, we have chosen the word “resilience” as one which most closely describes the most important feature a community must have to weather the coming shocks. Resilience is also a scientifically-grounded term often used in ecological studies to characterize ecosystems that can survive serious environmental shocks.

Resilience involves reviving forgotten practices that have served us well in times of crises as well as adopting radically new approaches in thinking and behavior. It will involve a major change in mindset for each of us.

The sooner this happens, the better.

Peak oil, climate change and community resilience

Book Review:

Preparing for peak oil and climate change: resilient communities

Two major challenges face the world of the 21st century and beyond, according to Rob Hopkins. Responding to both, he says, will require a major change in mindset if we are to survive the upheavals they will cause. Hopkins wrote The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience (2008, Green Books Ltd., Foxhole, Dartington, Totnes, Devon, U.K.).

First, the global production of oil has apparently reached its peak and has started to decline. The figure that will probably shake most readers of the book is Figure 3, which shows the world’s crude oil and leave condensate production in millions of barrels per day(MBD). The figure shows three peaks: 74.30 MBD in May 2005, 74.27 MBD in December 2005, and 74.14 MBD in July 2006. After these three peaks, the actual data on production per day until July 2007 and subsequent production forecasts show a steady decline of around -1% per year until July 2009 and a steeper decline after that. The end of the oil era has began.

Second, climatic changes brought about mainly by corporate activities are now making themselves felt throughout the world, mostly in terms of slight global warming that is gradually worsening, increasing unpredictability in the onset of the seasons, and greater frequency of extreme weather events. These climatic changes may also exacerbate natural climate variability

These two global shocks, Hopkins says, are closely intertwined and knowing only one or the other gives an incomplete and lopsided view of the future challenges humanity will be facing.

To prepare, Hopkins says, we should build resilient communities that will be able to respond to these shocks by developing local resources for coping with food, energy and other scarcities.

The Transition Handbook can practically serve as a manual for conducting seminars and workshops on building resilient communities. It contains not only the basic information for the public, policy-makers and the technically-oriented, but also actual case studies and even workshop exercises for participants. By mixing in some local examples and case studies, NGO workers in the Philippines can use the book as an invaluable tool for raising awareness, making specific action plans, and implementing community resilience projects.

A copy of the book is available for room reading at the PRRM Library, 2nd Floor PRRM Bldg., 56 Mother Ignacia Ave., Quezon City.

Guess who was the world’s top pirate of intellectual property in the 18th and 19th centuries

[This piece appears as Chapter 3 of my book Towards a Political Economy of Information, published in 2004. I am posting it here because of current efforts by the U.S. and other advanced countries to tighten even further what is already a very strict global intellectual property protectionist regime.]

U.S. piracy in the 19th century


Nineteenth century America was a major center of piracy. The principal target of U.S. pirates was the rich variety of British books and periodicals. The U.S. was a perennial headache among British authors and publishers, because foreign authors had no rights in America. American publishers and printers, led by Harpers of New York and Careys of Philadelphia, routinely violated British copyright and “reprinted a very wide range of British publications.”

James Barnes, who wrote an excellent book on this subject (Authors, Publishers and Politicians: The quest for an Anglo-American copyright agreement 1815-1854, Ohio State University Press, 1974), said that the Americans were “suspicious about international copyright,” and were afraid that recognizing international copyright meant “exploitation and domination of their book trade.” Barnes noted that “as a young nation, the United States wanted the freedom to borrow literature as well as technology from any quarter of the globe, and it was not until 1891 that Congress finally recognized America’s literary independence by authorizing reciprocal copyright agreements with foreign powers.”

Throughout the 19th century, a group of American authors and Anglophiles led a persistent but futile campaign to get a copyright treaty between the U.S. and Britain ratified. But their efforts were overcome by a much stronger lobby for free access to British publications. Authors like Noah Webster of the U.S. and Charles Dickens of Britain campaigned vigorously, but time and again, the U.S. Senate rejected proposed laws or treaties that would have granted copyright to foreign authors in the U.S.

Indeed, strong laws existed for the protection of local authors, but foreign authors had no rights in the U.S., and all foreign works were fair game for American publishers and printers.

As Barnes put it, “If Americans thought of the topic [i.e., copyrights] at all they were concerned with protecting domestic copyright and not the rights of foreigners. As a country, nineteenth-century America was akin to a present-day underdeveloped nation which recognizes its dependence on those more commercially and technologically advanced, and desires the fruits of civilization in the cheapest and most convenient ways. Reprinting English literature seemed easy and inexpensive, and so America borrowed voraciously.”

Barnes continued: “In 1831, ‘An Act to Amend the Several Acts Respecting Copyrights’ was signed. It extended the copyright term from fourteen to twenty-eight years, with the option of renewal for an additional fourteen. If an author died, his widow or children could apply for the extension. For the first time, the law allowed musical compositions to be copyrighted. But not a word on international copyright. In fact, foreign authors were explicitly barred from protection, which in essence safeguarded reprints.”

Even the U.S. president at that time, John Quincy Adams, was himself “strongly opposed to international copyright.”

On the global financial crisis: system reliability should take precedence over efficiency

[I am posting this old piece because of its direct relevance to the 2008 global financial crisis. It was first distributed in 2001 and subsequently included as Chapter 23 in my book Towards a Political Economy of Information.] The gist of this piece is the proposal to make reliability as important a criterion for decision-making as efficiency. The piece provides the theoretical basis of such policies as economic protectionism, import/export control, capital flow regulation and other State regulatory tools.]

In an earlier letter to the Human Ecology Review[2], I proposed reliability as an alternative criterion for socio-economic decision-making instead of efficiency. This paper pursues that idea further.

Definitions

Efficiency is a measure of how well transformation of matter or energy occurs. To be efficient means to get the most from the least. The higher the efficiency, the better the transformation is occurring. Efficiency is usually computed from the ratio of useful output to input. To be accurate, the computation must take into account all inputs to a process; otherwise, the computed efficiency may exceed 100%. This will imply that the transformation process itself is creating new matter or energy, which contradicts fundamental laws of physics.

Since energy transformation always produces waste heat, the energy efficiency of any process is always less than 100%. If some of the material outputs are not usable (e.g., wastes), then the sum of the useful material outputs will be less than the sum of the material inputs too, and the material efficiency of the process will likewise be less than 100%.

Economists often express the inputs and outputs of a process in monetary terms, because their interest is in processes where the monetary outputs exceed the monetary inputs. Furthermore, economists often compute the difference instead of ratio between outputs and inputs, because their interest is in absolute monetary amounts instead of ratios. In such cases where the focus is on absolute amounts, this paper uses the term “gain” instead of “efficiency.” An example of gain is the producer’s profit, which is revenues minus costs. Another example is the total utility to the consumer of a set of goods minus the total price of these goods.

Because both are measures of output relative to input, gain is closely related to efficiency and is used whenever absolute magnitudes are more important than relative magnitudes.

Among business firms, gain is really of more interest than efficiency, the best firms being those who manage to squeeze the last marginal bit of gain (i.e., profit) from their business operations.

Among natural persons, the output of interest is not necessarily matter, energy, or money but a vaguer concept like welfare, utility, or happiness, which makes measuring efficiency or maximizing it harder.

Like firms, economies today also tend to maximize gain (i.e., efficiency and inputs), not only efficiency. To maximize gain, one can increase the inputs to a process, or the efficiency by which the inputs are transformed into outputs, or both. Expanding one’s global reach is one way of increasing inputs. The economies-of-scale argument (higher efficiency through larger scale of operations) also supports a global strategy. Thus, gain-maximization strategies directly lead to globalization.

Because economies include all firms and natural persons, macro-efficiency is very difficult in practice to maximize or even simply to measure. To cope with this problem, economists have settled on a curious rule for improving the efficiency of economies step by step: improve somebody’s welfare without reducing anybody else’s, and keep doing this until nobody’s welfare can be further improved without reducing somebody else’s. This is the economist’s Pareto efficiency, which is obviously lower than full theoretical efficiency, but is itself a theoretical construct that is hardly ever seen – not even approximated – in reality.

Efficiency and economic theory

Despite these theoretical problems, efficiency is probably the most common criterion for economic decision-making in modern society. Nearly all modern economic policies cite efficiency as their ultimate goal, even if measuring it can be quite difficult.

Efficiency is the rationale for the idea of competition in a free market. It is also the reason cited for dismantling the welfare policies of the State and the welfare state itself. It is cited as the reason for privatization programs. Advocates for the international division of labor and economies of scale cite efficiency as their goal. Globalization, which extends the economies-of-scale idea to its utmost, also invokes efficiency as reason.

When policy-makers select between alternative options, efficiency is often at the top of the list of criteria for selection.

Critiques of efficiency

The efficiency criterion has been criticized from at least three vantage points: 1) from efficiency advocates themselves; 2) from the social justice viewpoint; and 3) from the ecological viewpoint.

The first critique comes from within the advocates of efficiency itself. This critique retains efficiency as its main criterion for policy formulation, but points out flaws in the way efficiency is computed and efficiency estimates distorted, usually due to the incomplete accounting of inputs and outputs. Incomplete accounting occurs by ignoring non-market transactions or by externalizing costs.

An example of non-market transactions is subsistence production, where a considerable portion of the output is for direct consumption. Unless such production is accounted for, a subsistence economy may appear an inefficient, low-output economy. In fact, production for consumption is quite efficient because it saves marketing, storage and distribution costs. An important subset of production for direct consumption is household work, the non-accounting of which is a major critique of women’s movements against current economic systems.

Still another example of incomplete accounting occurs in U.S. agriculture, which prides itself in its increasing “efficiency,” with less than 10% of its population producing food for twice its population size. Yet, the energetic efficiency of U.S. agriculture has actually gone down over the decades: at the start of this century, it required less than one calorie input to produce a calorie of food; today, it needs more than 10 calories to produce the same amount.

Costs are externalized by passing them on to politically-weak social sectors, to the environment, or to future generations. This can lead to false impressions of high efficiency and mask gross inefficiencies within the system.

All such incomplete accounting distort efficiency comparisons.

The social justice critique

The social justice critique of the efficiency criterion suggests as a higher criterion the concept of equity. According to this critique, efficiency does not ensure equitable sharing of the output and often results in a reduction in equity (i.e., increasing gap between rich and poor).

This critique often presents efficiency as a problem of production (how to allocate input resources to maximize output), and equity as a problem of distribution (how to allocate the output to minimize the gap between rich and poor). Thus, from the vantage point of many equity critics of efficiency, maximizing efficiency and ensuring equitability are parallel objectives which may or may not conflict.

The ecological sustainability critique

The third critique of efficiency comes from the vantage point of ecology. According to this critique, efficiency only looks at a linear process that transforms input A into output B. This critique points out the problem of a linear process: the continuous transformation of input A into output B will gradually use up A and accumulate B. How will A be replaced? Where will B go? The more efficient such a linear process becomes, the faster A is used up, the faster B accumulates in the ecosystem. In a real world, a linear process is eventually an unsustainable process.

Just as the social justice critique insists that the output B must be equitably distributed, the ecological sustainability critique insists that the linear process must be turned into a cyclical one, so that the final output of the process eventually goes back to become fresh input into another – or even the same – process. This is what Barry Commoner called “closing the circle.”

A new critique of the efficiency criterion

This paper proposes a fourth critique of the efficiency criterion, from the vantage point of engineering and systems design. Such vantage point is becoming increasingly useful, since economic systems today are as much a product of social engineering and conscious design as they are a product of unplanned evolutionary development. This new critique also complements the social justice and ecological sustainability critiques of efficiency.

In engineering and systems design, another criterion for design optimization is often deemed more important than efficiency. This is the criterion of reliability.

While efficiency and reliability are related, they are not the same. Efficiency is a measure of how well a system transforms its inputs into useful output. It is usually expressed in terms of the ratio of useful output to input. Reliability is a measure of how long a system performs without failing. It is usually expressed in terms of a mean time between failures (MTBF). It may also be expressed in terms of the probability of non-failure.

Greening the information sector

Social movements are beginning to respond to the specific issues involving the information economy. An illustrative set of responses can be seen in the programme of the Philippine Greens for a non-monopolistic information sector (Society, Ecology and Transformation by the Philippine Greens, 1997).

The Greens see the information sector as very important because of its special nature: information is a social good and it can be shared freely once it is created; and since information is a non-material good, the limits to material growth do not apply to information growth. The Greens consider their in harmony with this nature of information.

The following are the major elements of Philippine Greens’ programme for the information sector:

1. The right to know. It is the government’s duty to inform its citizens about matters that directly affect them, their families or their communities. Citizens have the right to access these information. The State may not use ‘national security’, ‘confidentiality of commercial transactions’, or ‘trade secret’ reasons to curtail this right.

2. The right to privacy. The government will refrain from probing the private life of its citizens. Citizens have the right to access information about themselves which have been collected by government agencies. The government may not centralize these separate databases by building a central database or by adopting a unified access key to the separate databases. Nobody will be forced against their will to reveal any information they do not want to make public.

3. No patenting of life forms. The following, whether or not modified by human intervention, may not be patented: life forms, biological and microbiological materials, biological and microbiological processes.

Life form patenting has become a major global issue, as biotechnology corporations move towards the direct manipulation and commercialization of human genetic material. Biotech firms are engaged in a frantic race to patent DNA sequences, microorganisms, plants, animal, human genetic matter and all other kinds of biological material, as well as in all kinds of genetic modification experiments to explore commercial possibilities. We much launch strong national and international movements to block these monopolistic moves and experiments, and to exclude life forms and other biological material from our patent systems.

4. The moral rights of intellectuals. Those who actually created an intellectual work or originated an idea have the right to be recognized that they did so. Nobody may claim authorship of works or ideas they did not originate. No one can be forced to release or modify a work or idea if he/she is not willing to do so. These and other moral rights of intellectuals will be respected and protected.

5. The freedom to share. The freedom to share and exchange information and knowledge will be recognized and protected. This freedom will take precedence over the information monopolies such as intellectual property rights (IPR) that the State grants to intellectuals.

A specific expression of the freedom to share is the “fair-use” policy. This policy reflects a historical struggle waged by librarians who see themselves as guardians of the world’s storehouse of knowledge, which they want to be freely accessible to the public. Librarians and educators have fought long battles and firmly held their ground on the issue of fair-use, which allows students and researchers access to copyrighted or patented materials without paying IPR rents. They have recently been losing ground due to the increasing political power of cyberlords.

6. Universal access. The government will facilitate universal access by its citizens to the world’s storehouse of knowledge. Every community will be enabled to have access to books, cassettes, videos, tapes, software, radio and TV programs, etc. The government will set up a wide range of training and educational facilities to enable community members to continually expand their know-how and knowledge.

7. Compulsory licensing. Universal access to information content is best implemented through compulsory licensing. Under this internationally-practiced mechanism, the government itself licenses others to copy patented or copyrighted material for sale to the public, but compels the licensees to pay the patent or copyright holder a government-set royalty fee. This mechanism is a transition step towards non-monopolistic payments for intellectual activity.

Many countries in the world have used and continue to use this mechanism for important products like pharmaceuticals and books. Compulsory licensing is an internationally-recognized mechanism specifically meant to benefit poorer countries who want to access technologies but cannot afford the price set by IPR holders, but even the U.S. and many European countries use it.

8. Public stations. Universal access to information infrastructure is best implemented through public access stations, charging at subsidized rates. These can include well-stocked public libraries; public telephone booths; community facilities for listening to or viewing training videos, documentaries, and the classics; public facilities for telegraph and electronic mail; educational radio and TV programs; and public access stations to computer networks.

Another approach in building public domain information tools is to support non-monopolistic mechanisms for rewarding intellectual creativity. Various concepts in software development and/or distribution have recently emerged, less monopolistic than IPRs. These include shareware, freeware, “copyleft” and the GNU General Public License (GPL). The latter is the most developed concept so far, and has managed to bridge the transition from monopoly to freedom in the information sector. In the personal computer arena, for example, the most significant challenger to the absolute monopoly of Microsoft Windows is the freely-available Linux/GNU operating system, which is covered by the GPL.

The first step in breaking up monopolies may be competition. But competition eventually leads to domination by the strong and those who can compete best, leading us back to monopolies. Isn’t it better to transcend competition and move further towards cooperation? This means a stronger public sector and sharing meager resources to be able to afford expensive but necessary facilities. In the information sector, this means building information infrastructures, tools and contents which are in the public domain.

9. The best lessons of our era. While all knowledge and culture should be preserved and stored for posterity, we need to distill the best lessons of our era, to be taught – not sold – to the next generations. This should be a conscious, socially-guided selection process, undertaken with the greatest sensitivity and wisdom. It is not something that can be left to a profit-oriented educational system, circulation-driven mass media, or consumption-pushing advertising.

[From Society, Ecology and Transformation by the Philippine Greens, 1997]

Roots of the financial crisis: overproduction?

At a large meeting of civil society / non-government organizations last November 11 in the University of the Philippines campus, I was particularly interested in the presentation of the main speaker, Dr. Walden Bello, who thought that the root of the crisis was due to the “capitalist crisis of overproduction”. This analysis has its origins of course in Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism. Walden’s analysis was generally echoed by speakers like Ric Reyes and Frank Pascual, who like Walden are key personalities of the legal Philippine Left. Walden cited data showing how most Western countries had their production facilities running way below capacity. A number of the meeting panelists and participants thought it was time to wave once more the banner of socialism.

While we in the Philippine Greens are not socialists (see my post on the Green-Red dialogues), I have also been looking closely at the phenomenon which they call “overproduction” but which to me suggested “abundance” (see my posts on “abundance“). So I was interested in engaging Walden further in a discussion.

In a subsequent group discussion led by Walden himself, I presented my question framed in the following context:

I agreed that it was important to identify the roots of our current problems. (We’d be wasting much of our time and resources if we focused on symptoms rather than root causes. Worse, making a wrong diagnosis and directing efforts at wrong causes might even make the problem worse.) But I didn’t think the current crisis was due to overproduction, which typically refers to commodities and material goods. Rather, the crisis was due to “overproduction” of money and credit, particularly the latter. (I was stretching the meaning of “overproduction” here.) Governments — the U.S., in particular, because of its huge expenditures associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — were printing too much money and private firms like banks and credit companies were creating too much money. To me, all these money creation, without the corresponding blood, sweat and tears that we ordinary people have to go through to earn money, was pure theft. When someone can simply create money to exchange for things we worked hard to create or earn, they are stealing from us pure and simple. It is this “toxic” money, not associated with the production of real goods but simply created out of nothing, that leads to hyper-inflation and speculative bubbles.

Then I asked Walden what he thought of proposals which some of us in the Philippine Greens have raised to control the above, such as to return to a metallic (say, gold) standard for money, and to raise the fractional reserve requirements of banks (limiting their capacity to create credit out of nothing), and to restrict the operations of credit card and similar companies.

Walden focused his answer on the overproduction issue and reiterated his data about undercapacity in Western countries. He also said Central Banks are restricted in their capacity to print money. U.S. money was instead coming increasingly from Asian (principally Chinese) sources. He also said the gold standard was part of the Bretton Woods agreement, which U.S. President Nixon in turn abandoned in the 1970s. Since the Bretton Woods agreement carries a negative connotation among IMF/World Bank critics, I took this to mean Walden didn’t want going back to the gold standard. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for a deeper discussion.

It seemed to me many participants and maybe even some panelists did not understand the implications of fractional reserve banking and therefore were unable to appreciate the proposals I raised. If my guess is right, then they would be in no position to understand the real roots of the global financial crisis either.

In a banking system with a fractional reserve requirement of, say, 10% (i.e., 10% of all deposits must be kept in reserve, the rest can be loaned out), the banking system can theoretically lend not 90%, as most people think, but ninety over ten or nine times (yes, 900%!) the total deposits. Where did the additional 810% come from? Out of nothing. The banks can earn real money in interest out of this credit money they created out of nothing. So while ordinary people like us have to devote real time and effort to earn a monthly income or to produce real goods to sell to the market, the rich set up banks that create money out of nothing which they then lend out to earn real money from the interest income, which they can use to hire real employees and buy real goods.

As I said, this is theft pure and simple.

Anyone who wants to understand the whole process must read about fractional reserve banking from any textbook on banking and finance.

The lower the reserve requirements, the more credit money the banks can create out of nothing. This is the source of most financial bubbles. Whether it is the dot.com bubble, real estate bubble, housing bubble, or stock market bubble, they are all in the last analysis funded by credit money which banks create out of nothing. These bubbles can exist and persist as long as people trust the system and keep their deposits in banks. Once that trust is lost, the bubbles burst, and those who cannot get out their deposits in time are left holding an empty bag (or the burst balloon).

I realized that many participants and some panelists did not understand this whole process because the proposal to adopt the Islamic banking system was raised and seriously discussed. While the Islamic system of not charging any interest is not bad in itself, it reflects the idea that charging interest itself is bad. This is a debatable point. When you lend real money (i.e., money you worked hard to earn), I think it is reasonable to charge some interest for the usual reasons (risk, overhead, etc.). But to charge interest on money created out of nothing, that’s theft.

This is what creates financial bubbles, and this is what the proposal of some Greens is directed against (I say “some” because it has not been officially adopted by the Philippine Greens).

If you want to understand the credit bubble, you must understand fractional reserve banking.

Classifying, managing abundance

I have been doing a lot of thinking and research about abundance nowadays. This concept unifies within a single theoretical framework certain ideas about information technology, information economy, natural resources, agriculture and the environment. That’s quite a span.

So far, I’ve finished three pieces about it. The first, “Challenging media: poverty amidst abundance“, was published January 2008 on the WACC journal on development. The second, “Undermining Abundance“, which is strictly speaking, still a draft until the reviewers issue a final acceptance, will be hopefully published as a chapter in the forthcoming book From Intellectual Property Rights to Access to Knowledge. The third, “Studying Abundance“, is also a draft which I just submitted for review. This last piece extends the previous one by looking more deeply into the classification of abundance as well as mechanisms for managing abundance.

I’m excited about the new insights being generated by this direction of research. I think the results will have a lot of impact in practical work.

Consider the implications, for instance, if the poor managed to change their mindset and started to grasp the significance of the abundance around them, which they can tap if they wanted to. That is a very empowering notion! Instead of being paralyzed by the existing mindset of powerlessness, they can be energized by the realization that they can do something about it. Now.

What is it that they can do now?

Let’s start with the urban poor. Most of Metro Manila’s urban poor are immigrants from rural areas. Often, they are from peasant families who have abandoned their farm (usually leased from a landowner). More often, they left families behind who are still on the land. The jobless in the city are probably better off going back to the farm.

One key to abundance is land. Specifically, soil and water. With a few hundred square meters, you can grow enough vegetables to lead a healthy life. You need a few thousand more square meters, to fully support the food needs of a whole family. I am not ready to assert at this time that a hectare would suffice. Maybe more, but most probably less.

The mindset is the major obstacle that prevents people from going back to the land to live off the soil. They think they must eat meat every day, rice three times a day, white polished rice at that. They consider their life miserable if they can’t even buy such simple joys of life as a cool refreshing drink of cola and some biscuits or potato chips on the side. They consider a diet of unpolished rice or root crops an embarrassing mark of poverty and wouldn’t be caught by neighbors having a meal of sweet potatoes or cassava.

So, they sell to the market for giveaway prices their sweet potatoes, cassava, coconuts, and other extremely nutritious foods, so they can buy themselves and their children softdrinks, potato chips and a taste of life “out of poverty”.

The rural poor are actually in a better position to get out of poverty than the urban poor, because the former still has access to productive land, even if it has to be leased from the landowner. In truth, landowners need farmers to work for them, because they wouldn’t do the work themselves. And even if they wanted to, they couldn’t. The area they own is just too big for them to work on alone.

As long as a family has access to land, and has the mindset that gives it the vision to see the potential abundance the land can give and the knowhow to realize this potential abundance, they need not go hungry and they can live a life of sufficiency. A change in mindset is the key.

Obviously, I need to prove these assertions. I need to show, at the very least, that I myself can live off the land.

My wife and I had been looking for a piece of land to practice these ideas. We were ready to relocate to her remote upland village in Tagkauayan, Quezon. But the peace and order situation in the area has become untenable, make impossible living experiments such as what we intend to undertake. So, we are still searching.

In the meantime, I continue to explore the implications of the concept of abundance.

Promoting SRI among rice farmers

I had written earlier about the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a new method of growing rice that reduces costs, raises yields and minimizes the use of poisons in the farm. The method is being promoted in the Philippines by an NGO consortium which I coordinate, SRI-Pilipinas, as well as by other groups advocating sustainable agriculture.

Last November 7, I was invited by Aga Milagroso to his farm in Malolos, Bulacan, about 1 hour by bus north of Manila, to meet his 50 visitors from Alaminos, Pangasinan, which is in turn about 6 hours by bus north of Manila. Aga’s visitors from Alaminos were farmers, including 37 who were attending the weekly trainings on SRI and organic farming that Aga was conducting in Alaminos on the request of its mayor, Hernani Braganza.

It was heart-warming to hear Aga’s guests from Alaminos as well as some local farmers who had joined the visit, express their curiosity and their intention to try SRI. The seeds SRI-Pilipinas had been patiently planting throughout the country were now starting to bear fruit.

We have been promoting SRI in the Philippines since 2002. Before that I had been promoting it publicly since 2000, after my wife Flor, who comes from a farming family, successfully tried the method for two seasons in her upland village of Bgy. Casispalan in Tagkauayan, Quezon.

When SRI-Pilipinas received some eight hundred thousand pesos from the Department of Agriculture to promote SRI, we finally got some resources to do a nationwide training program. With this modest amount we have been able to do a one-day SRI training in around 48 provinces so far. We hope to reach 50 provinces before the fund is used up.

Aga’s example shows our approach in promoting SRI. In November 2006, I had been interviewed SRI in a DZMM radio program for farmers, which airs Saturdays and Sundays, 4:30-6:00 am. I always give out my cellphone number during these interviews, so that interested farmers can contact me if they want an SRI workshop.

One of the hosts, Ka Ben Laurente, asked me on the air if I could conduct a workshop in his town in San Miguel, Bulacan. We quickly agreed on the date (Nov. 22) and Ka Ben invited interested listeners to join the workshop.

It was my wife, Flora, who went. I avoid conducting farmers’ trainings myself as much as possible, because I don’t have enough farming experience. I rely for farming expertise on Flora, who spent her childhood and growing up years in her father’s homestead in Tagkauayan, Quezon. Around 50 people came, including some local officials and agriculture technicians.

As usual, many were skeptical. In my own experience, out of every ten in the audience, 8 or 9 would raise all kinds of problems why the method won’t work. They can’t control the water, they can’t control the snails, the can’t control the weeds, etc. But usually, one or two would be enthusiastic about trying it. They would pester you with detailed questions, buy the primer or the training CD and want to start the trial immediately. These are the farmers we are looking for, the innovators, who will go out of their way to try a new method and see if it works. We have gone at great lengths to put into our primer every detail that farmers may need to improve their chances of succeeding in their first trial.

Aga Milagroso was one of those who had attended Flora’s workshop, and one of those who were truly curious and interested. He brought home a copy of the primer, tried SRI on his farm, and got encouraging results. He tried again the next season, drawing into the trial other members of the crop growers’ association of which he was president. Aga wanted to learn more and contacted SRI-Pilipinas. So we sent another trainor, Jun Garde, to teach his group other organic methods, like the use of indigenous microorganisms (IMO), bokasi (fermented rice bran), carbonized rice hull, and so on.

Today, barely two years after he first heard about SRI in a radio program, Aga is himself an increasingly active SRI trainor.

Passed on from one farmer to another, heard on an early morning radio program, read on a photocopied primer, seen from a training video that has itself passed from hand to hand. This is how SRI is spreading itself among Filipino farmers, throughout the Philippines.

We already have at least one SRI farmer in most rice-producing provinces, at the modest cost of some eight hundred thousand pesos. Our next goal is an SRI farmer-trainor in every rice-producing town. I am hopeful the Department of Agriculture will also support this phase of our efforts.

“All of the animals in the forest are your family”

One mark of a great story is the way it is passed on from one story-teller to another. This is how good stories become even better.

I’d like to share a story told in the book Created Equal by author Ernie Bringas, who in turn read it from The Way of the Wolf by Martin Bell. If you like the story, pass it on.

The story is about “a brown, furry, lop-eared bunny named Barrington, who found himself sadly alone on Christmas Eve.” All the indented paragraphs that follow are Bringas’ words:

All of the other forest animals had gotten together in ther respective homes to celebrate Christmas. But as far as Barrington knew, he was the only bunny in the forest, and he had no family with which to party. He attempted to join a family of squirrels, but was turned away from their festivities because he bore no physical resemblance to them. He was again rejected by a family of beavers for the same reason. His eyes filling with tears, he sadly turned for home, resigned to spending Christmas Eve alone. Almost home, he heard the excited squeaking of field mice beneath the ground.

“It’s a party,” thought Barrington. And suddenly he blurted out through his tears, “Hello, field mice. This is Barrington Bunny. May I come to your party?”

But the wind was howling so loudly and Barrington was sobbing so much that no one heard him.

Suddenly, Barrington was aware that he was not alone. He looked up and strained his shiny eyes to see who was there.

To his surprise, he saw a great silver wolf. The wolf was large and strong and his eyes flashed fire. He was the most beautiful animal Barrington had every seen . . .

The wolf spoke. “Barrington,” he asked in a gentle voice, “why are you sitting in the snow?”

“Because it’s Christmas Eve,” said Barrington, “and I don’t have any family, and bunnies aren’t any good to anyone.”

The wolf assured Barrington that bunnies are very good indeed because they can hop, and they are very warm; these are unique gifts, and every gift given to anyone is given for a reason. The silver wolf told him that someday he would understand why being warm and furry is no small matter.

“But it’s Christmas,” moaned Barrington, “and I’m all alone. I don’t have any family at all.”

“Of course you do,” replied the great silver wolf. “All of the animals in the forest are your family.”

And then the wolf disappeared. He simply wasn’t there. Barrington had only blinked his eyes, and when he looked — the wolf was gone.

“All of the animals in the forest are my family,” thought Barrington.

The outcome of this story is that during the ice-cold winter night, Barrington Bunny rescued a lost, young field mouse by sheltering him with his furry body. This dangerous and selfless act carried a terrible price for Barrington.

Next morning, the field mice found their litle boy, asleep in the snow, warm and snug under the furry carcass of a dead bunny. Their relief and excitement was so great that they didn’t even think to question where the bunny had come from.

After the field mice had left, Barrington’s frozen body simply lay in the snow. There was no sound except that of the howling wind. And no one anywhere in the forest noticed the great silver wolf who came to stand beside that brown, lop-eared carcass.

But the wolf did come.

And he stood there.

Without moving or saying a word.

Until it was night.

And then he disappeared into the forest.

It is not difficult to recognize certain biblical themes in this moving story: caring for the neighbor, the giving of one’s life as the greatest expression of live, and the ever present spirit of God in the shadow of death. We all will interpret the story of Barrington Bunny according to our own sensitivities.

As for me, I was also moved by the great silver wolf when he said to Barrington, “All of the animals in the forest are your family.” Shortly thereafter, Barrington rethinks these words while shielding the tiny mouse from the deadly cold: “All of the animals in the forest are your family.”

The inclusiveness of the animal kingdom is what touches my spirit here. Unfortunately, we often tend to be separatists in that we speak of the human family and the “animal family” as if they were unrelated.

The case of human equality is offered in the spirit of Barrington Bunny, who with the help of the silver wolf, came to understand the underlying oneness with all creatures.

All of the animals in the forest are your family.

End of quote from Created Equal by Ernie Bringas.

This is how we in the Philippine Greens put it: we are part of the great community of species, with whom we share a common ecological home. This is the basis of an ecological worldview that is becoming even more important in an era of increasingly powerful technologies, unbridled corporations, and mostly apathetic citizenry.

Philippine commitment to organic production strikes fear among chemical/GMO pushers

Secretary Arthur Yap of the Department of Agriculture announced on Nov. 5 his commitment to expand organic production in the Philippines, starting with 400,000 hectares of rice lands.

Five years ago, I led a 30-day hunger strike of the Philippine Greens and other organizations against Secretary Yap’s predecessor, DA Secretary Cito Lorenzo, to ask him to halt the approval of the commercialization of Bt corn in the Philippines. Lorenzo ignored us.

Today, I salute Secretary Yap for making this bold commitment, despite the fact that such decision is bound to incur the ire of the chemical fertilizer industry and GMO proponents in the Philippines.

If there is one word that strikes fear in the hearts of the chemical-GMO industry, it is the word “organic”. The “O” word to the chemical/GMO industry is like daylight to the vampire, or holy water to the devil.

Organic production and organic processing have an unequivocal meaning based on a set of standards carefully defined and regularly reviewed by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). These standards reflect a balance between the interests of producers and of consumers. No corporate lobby, not even governments, can bend these standards any which way they like.

Organic standards are very clear and uncompromising about their prohibition against synthetic fertilizers and genetically-modified products, such as the Bt corn whose commercialization in the Philippines Lorenzo approved in 2003. There can be no ifs or buts about it: anyone who wants to be organic has stop using chemicals and GMO.

Organic products are not only good for our health, they also reduce farmers’ costs and therefore improve their income. They are likewise good for the health of the farmers and their families, because they don’t have to be exposed to toxic chemicals anymore. Organic production is good for the environment, not only because we are reducing the volume of poisons we introduce into the soil and our surroundings, but also because we are reducing our consumption of fossil fuels (yes, fertilizers come from oil) and therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change and sea level rise.

There is no real reason why organic products should be expensive.

A major reason they are expensive today is the limited supply. As we start to realize the 400,000-hectare target set by Secretary Yap for organic rice production, we can expect the price of organic rice to go down to nearly the same level as chemically-grown rice.

Another reason organic rice is expensive today is that that the government subsidizes rice farming with toxic chemicals, but not organic rice farming. This is about to change, as Secretary Yap’s organic rice program takes off.

The third reason organic products are expensive is that they unfairly shoulder the burden of product monitoring, testing and labelling. This creates an economic system with a built-in bias against organic production. If the government followed the fairer “polluter pays” principle, then the burden of product monitoring, testing and labelling should be borne by chemically-grown products, not organically-grown products. This will create an economic system which will make chemically-grown, poison-laden products more expensive and organic products cheaper. And this is what we all want.

I encourage Secretary Yap and the Department of Agriculture to learn more about organic production and processing standards. They will have to master the nuances of this industry, if they want to break into the vast international market for organic products. Too many bureaucrats and technicians within the DA still think that the use of “organic” fertilizers or, worse, “balanced” (50-50) fertilization will already make a farmer “organic”.

We will all have to do better than this, if we want to become “organic” in the same sense that the rest of the world understands it.

DA Secretary Yap commits to convert 400,000 hectares of ricelands to organic production

In a public press conference on November 5, Department of Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap committed to convert 400,000 hectares of ricelands in the Philippines — 10% of the total — to organic production. He also signed a memorandum of agreement with the Go Organic Movement to pilot the program in six cities/towns for P20 million.

This was a historic moment. No DA secretary in the past has ever dared to defy the chemical industry lobby. Secretary Yap deserves the public’s full support for this organic conversion program. Once realized, this will make the Philippines the leading producer of organic rice in Asia, and perhaps the world.

One of the Secretary’s commitment was to promote the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) among farmers. With this decision, the Philippines joins many other rice-producing countries who have already gone into SRI in a big way, including India, Indonesia, China, Cambodia, Nepal and so on.

I have explained in an earlier post how SRI can bring a whole range of benefits to farmers, their families, to consumers and to the environment.

Despite Obama’s victory, problems with electronic voting machines should not be ignored

With Obama’s landslide victory over McCain in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, I hope the problems of electronic voting will not be buried under the euphoria. U.S. media had been filled with all kinds of problems involving voting machines. These problems clearly indicated a trend of errors favoring McCain. There were so many reports in so many states that there seemed to be a machinery of cheating in place to make sure McCain would win.

Search the Web for “electronic voting machines in 2008 U.S. elections” and you will get these reports. Note that the search term given is completely neutral and does not include leading words like problem, error, failure and so forth. Yet, the bulk of the reports on the Internet are about problems associated with voting machines.

If we summarize the 2008 U.S. election experience from the perspective of clean and honest elections, this is how I’d put it: the threat of cheating came from those who controlled the electronic voting machines, and it was the massive turnout, the landslide for Obama, and the vigilance of U.S. election integrity activists which stopped the cheats from succeeding.

We were in a similar situation exactly ten years ago, in 1998, when the landslide victory of Joseph Estrada prevented any cheating effort by the administration party Lakas-NUCD although there were clear indications that the machinery to do so was in place.

We were not so lucky in 2004, when cheating was so rampant and brazen that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself was caught on tape micro-managing it. Yet, the whole system, including the business community, sections of the Church and even citizens’ watchdogs, colluded to cover up the cheating, probably because they thought “anyone but FPJ” would have been better.

I sure hope Philippine election authorities will get the correct lesson out of the U.S. 2008 experience.

Political economy of abundance

I have been studying in the past few months the subject of abundance.

My interest in this subject grew out of my interest in information, information technology and information economics. I think most of us who have not yet realized it ourselves can easily believe the claim that information goods have become easily accessible and abundant, especially to those who have Internet access. Abundance in the information economy comes from the diminishing cost of reproducing information, making it easy for anyone to share information with others. If you consider the vast and incredible collections of materials on the Internet, from Google to Wikipedia, from the websites to the blogs, from the various file, audio and video exchange sites to YouTube, I think you’d agree that one term which describes all these accurately is abundance.

After my semi-retirement from software, hardware and Internet work, I did volunteer work on environmental and agriculture issues. I worked with farmers groups. After nearly ten years of doing so, I realized that a unifying thread connects my experiences in the information sector, in nature and in agriculture. What is it? You guessed it, abundance.

Like the information sector, nature also teems with abundance. The reason is simple, every species is genetically programmed to reproduce its own kind. The reproductive urge built into every living organism is the source of abundance in nature and, by extension, in agriculture.

I have also been studying economics these past few months. One fundamental assumption in economics is scarcity. Economists define their jobs as the study of efficient options in the context of scarcity. This focus on scarcity has created a blind spot among economists. Many have missed, taken for granted, ignored or rejected abundance as an interesting field for study.

That’s the study I’m currently doing.

If you are interested in this subject, please download my paper Undermining Abundance, which will appear as a chapter in a book that will be released in the next few months by Zone Books, entitled Intellectual Property Rights and Access to Knowledge.

I’m working on another paper now, entitled “Studying Abundance”, which I will also release soon.

Translating Philippine folk songs

I’ve gotten some encouraging comments about my English translations of Filipino folk songs. This is probably because my translations can be sung with the original tunes. So far, I’ve done four: Bahay kubo, Paru-parong bukid, Leron Leron sinta, and Sitsiritsit alibangbang. I think my most appreciative audience is elementary school students, who have to do their homework.

If you want your favorite folk song translated, please email me the lyrics (rverzola@gn.apc.org). If it’s a song I like, perhaps I’ll translate it sometime.

No promises, though. Translation is tough work.

The piracy of intellectuals

Computers need computer programs to run them. In recent years, computers have become more affordable. As a result, a local market for copies of computer programs is thriving.

Many Filipino computer users copy the programs they need from computer shops, or from a number of computer bulletin board systems which have proliferated around the metropolis. They then give copies of these programs to friends and colleagues, who, in turn, give copies to other friends and colleagues.

In the words of Western software companies, they are pirates. To copy commercial software and give it away to friends and colleagues is called piracy.

We’ve seen pirates in movies and they’re a mean bunch. They are villains who steal, kill, and plunder. At the movie’s ending, when these scoundrels get their just due, the audience invariably applauds. It is no fun to be called a pirate. Or to be treated like one.

Filipinos who exchange software freely and share them with others freely hardly resemble the pirates in the movies. Yet, according to Western software firms, copying without paying is piracy. So, we are pirates just the same. And we’re no better than those one-eyed villains who kill and plunder for a living.

We’ve seen people who come from or work for Western software firms. Well groomed, in business coat and tie, they look the antithesis of the pirate they hate so much. They come and visit this country of pirates, and perhaps make a little study how much they are losing from piracy in the Philippines.

Quite a number of them, however, come to the country to do some pirating themselves.

But they don’t pirate software, which is apparently beyond their dignity. They pirate people. They pirate those who write the software. They pirate our best systems analysts, our best engineers, our best programmers, and our best computer operators.

The advanced countries of the West routinely pirate from the Third World our best professionals and skilled workers, but begrudge us peoples of the Third World if we engaged in some piracy ourselves. They accuse the Third World of “piracy of intellectual property”, yet they themselves engage in the “piracy of intellectuals”.

In truth, there is quite a difference between pirating intellectual property and pirating intellectuals.

For example, it costs our country perhaps ten thousand dollars to train one doctor. Training a second doctor would cost another ten thousand dollars. Training ten doctors would cost a hundred thousand dollars. In short, given an ‘original’ doctor, it would cost us as much to make each ‘copy’ of the original. When the Americans pirate our doctors, they take away an irreplaceable resource, for it takes more than ten years to train a new doctor. The Philippines has approximately one doctor for every 6,700 citizens. When the U.S. pirates this doctor, it denies 6,700 Filipinos of the services of a doctor. And every year, the U.S. takes away hundreds of our doctors. How many Filipinos died because they could not get the services of a doctor on time?

What about a computer program? Whatever amount Lotus Corporation spent in developing their spreadsheet program, it costs practically nothing to make a second or third copy of the program. It would take a few seconds for them to make each copy. When we Filipinos pirate their program, we have not stolen any irreplaceable resource, nor will it take Lotus 10 years to replace the program, nor have we denied any American citizen the use of the spreadsheet program. It is still there, for Americans to use. We make a copy of their program, we don’t steal it, because we have not taken anything away. We have made our own copy, but they still have the original.

Pirating a computer program is quite different from pirating a doctor. When the U.S. pirates our doctors, it doesn’t take a copy and leave the original behind. Instead, it takes the original and leaves nothing behind.

But you can’t compare the two, some would say. The U.S. pays for our doctors with much higher salaries, so you can’t call it piracy. Third World countries copy software without paying the commercial price, therefore they are pirates. If you have the money to pirate people, it stops being called piracy and becomes a respectable activity. But if you can’t afford it, sorry.

On the other hand, we can also say that when the West draws away our professionals with attractive salary offers, they take away not a ‘copy’ but the ‘original’, and we are left with none. We’ve lost the services of these professionals for good. If we make a copy of their software, we never take away the original, and we leave them with as much as they originally had. We can even gift them an extra copy, gratis. To call this stealing is to speak in metaphors; as in a stolen glance, or a stolen kiss. They might say they lost a sale, but it is only an opportunity to sell and make a profit that they are referring to. In many instances, the opportunity isn’t even there at all.

It is as if a company who insists on a monopoly of fish, accused us of causing them lost sales because we let loose fingerlings all over the lakes and rivers, so that people may catch them and eat. Fish, like software, love to go forth and multiply, whatever else their original creators might have intended. And it is all for the better, because this means more people can enjoy them.

In fact, this distinction sets the new information technologies apart from the traditional services sector. Information, if it already exists in the modern high- technology form such as computer files on a diskette, can be duplicated at practically no cost. It is therefore in perfect form to be given away freely to those who need it. Given a computer, software would in effect reproduce itself on the machine at the slightest provocation, copying itself for next to nothing. However, there is, so far, no easy way to freely duplicate the accumulated information in a doctor’s head. So we must spend ten thousand dollars and more than ten years, just to make a second copy.

This is why we actually do very little damage when we ‘pirate’ a copy of a computer program, and why the U.S. does a lot of harm when it pirates one of our doctors.

This piracy debate will become even more important in the future because advanced countries are now developing computer programs that can mimic what goes on in a doctor’s mind. The United States, which has been routinely pirating our best doctors and nurses for decades, will probably raise a big howl if we pirated this one program, even if we had no intention of denying them the original.

Copying software is a benign case of piracy. Pirating doctors is a malignant case.

We have been victims of Western countries of this malignant case of piracy for a long time. They should be the last to complain when they are affected with a benign one.

(Chapter 4, Towards a Political Economy of Information by Roberto Verzola)

Linux/OpenOffice will never be fully compatible with Windows/Office

In my experience, the biggest obstacle to user conversion from Windows to Linux are the little incompatibilities that trip up users. Some of the incompatibilities may be minor. However, users can get frustrated even with minor issues when they occur often enough or during situations when they are important.

In order not to create unrealistic expectations, I often tell offices and people I advise on this matter that they should expect some incompatibilities and they should learn to work around them or to live with them. This is the price of freeing themselves from giant monopoly and the fear of raids from the software police.

How can I be so sure that Linux/OpenOffice will never be fully compatible with Windows/Office? Because incompatibilities work in Microsoft’s favor. In the past, Microsoft has taken advantage of these incompatibilities to eliminate competitors. IBM’s OS/2 was touted as a “better Windows than Windows, and a better DOS than DOS”, and many independent reviewers and users agreed. Incompatibilities, however, kept cropping up between OS/2 and newer versions of Windows, keeping users from switching to OS/2.

Even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that Linux/OpenOffice manage to become 100%-compatible today, you can be sure that Microsoft will soon release a newer version of their programs containing enough new incompatibilities to cause more problems among free software users.

Microsoft doesn’t take enough care to ensure that their own older versions are fully compatible with their newer versions, why would they do so with competition?

Expect Microsoft to make sure that Windows/Office will stay incompatible with Linux/OpenOffice.

If you want people to stick to free software, do not create unrealistic expectations about compatibility. Tell people upfront to expect incompatibilities, and to learn to work around them or to live with them.