Who Owns What?

Posted to Subscribers on 3 July 2008


This might be one of those nearly stream of consciousness type reflections on life on Planet Earth, but here goes.

One of the ideas that has dominated recent history in the allegedly developed world is that business exists for the purpose of making profits.  Motivational speakers, CEOs, Wall Street, and government seem to be on the same page that a company that takes an interest in the well being of its suppliers, employees, and customers is probably a risky investment because they will make decisions that are idiotic from a business perspective.  On the other hand, there are economic hit men, not just doing the bidding of the World Bank but working right in our neighborhoods. 

A good example of this might be in the health care industry — should it really be an industry — where a management team overhauls a hospital and runs it so deeply into the red that it is sold for pennies on the dollar which was the purpose in the first place.  Let's a say a corporate conglomerate wants to eliminate competition or grab up some more hospitals but they want to do this on the cheap.  The best way is to sneak a mole into the upper echelons of management and let him do his dirty work.  You can then rescue the company when it goes belly up.  You save jobs for the staff but you get great return on your investment in the mole as well as whatever you finally paid for your acquisition at rock bottom prices.  In theory, the stockholders (for the mole's real employer) should be happy and the employees should be relieved that they still have jobs and patients should be happy that the local hospital is not shutting down.  It almost appears like a win-win for everyone but the previous owners, the fools who thought that moles don't wear three-piece business suits (or high heels).

I have been flirting with an idea that when a company goes belly up, the employees ought to be given the stock in exchange for what they lost in job security and pension plans. They get to rebuild Humpty Dumpty instead of the multinational corporation that trains guerillas to sabotage otherwise viable entities.  It's not an original idea, but it is not common practice whereas mismanagement is now common practice.


Now, if you look at this without the veneer and ennui of the modern world of business, what you really see are pirates with hooks for arms and patches over their eyes.  This is probably obvious to simple people but less so to those who are very much part of the system and blinded by it.  What I mean is that if an oil company goes into Afghanistan or Iraq and tells them how to reorganize their governments and economy, this is depicted as a war between civilizations and beliefs rather than plain old ordinary piracy with multinational support.  This is really piracy and it's worse than colonialism because of the magnitude of dislocation and suffering of the local populations.  It's horrible, but it is also inseparable from climate warfare, suppression of alternative energy, and profiteering on a commodity that is alleged to be more and more expensive to source because of dwindling reserves.

The general public has no idea at all as to whether the Planet is getting warmer or colder, whether penguins and polar bears are on the verge of sharing the fate of the spotted owl, or whether there is ample oil but little resolve to disclose this fact.  However, increasingly, J.Q. is becoming aware of alternatives to fossil fuels and this is causing some unrest among those who have felt their power rendered them invincible.

The curious thing about power is that it is rarely bartered.  You seize it or forfeit it, but however you obtain it or lose it, there is always someone else who wants it so restful sleep may be illusive for those whose mask of confidence is just that, a costume for photo ops.

The even more interesting quality of power is that it is almost never original.  There are profound reasons for why this absolutely has to be true, but nearly everyone with power is simply someone who never learned to cut the pie and share.  He usually can't even bake pies.  He gets what he gets by reverse engineering of preexisting pies so he is a predator of intellectual property.  I can't prove this.  I simply know it from my analyses of the psychiatric make up of such individuals.  Playwrights throughout history have instinctively known this, but how they know it is mysterious.  This truth is also usually hidden because we think that great progress comes from innovation and innovation comes from great ideas whose time was right.  This belief presupposes that the one to profit is actually the inventor, not the investor.  The fact is that most inventors do not reap the benefits of their creativity because the pirates make sure of that.

Until we understand this, we don't quite see what is wrong with the patent mania, especially in the health care arena.  Thanks to the genome project, DNA strands were divvied up among a relatively small number of researchers who rushed to patent and profit on their segments of the strand, often using as the basis of their patent claim that their strand might be useful in figuring out the value of someone else's strand.  The patent office was up to the gills in nonsense applications that were, of course, approved because "promising new technologies" are built on such scraps of paper.  Now we have a nightmarish attempt to capitalize on dangerous nonsense because people "own" something on which they wish to make a bundle.  If they have their way, the world as we know it will vanish forever.

The Congo Project

Now, as some of you know, I am working on a project for the Congo and one of the things I did last weekend was to look for books on African plants to see what the native vegetation and diet was like before imported foods infiltrated the life style.  I found one very expensive book, out of print, but really prohibitively expensive . . . until suddenly, I found it in digital form on Google. I set up an account and realized that Google is scanning the entire libraries of universities, meaning that everything in those libraries will be available online.  Good or bad? 

As a writer, I have no doubt that nearly all wonderful writing is a labor of love, but what does it mean that an author does not benefit in the slightest by free distribution of his publications online.  Google has permission from the libraries but what about the authors?  Maybe they have given permission but I doubt it because contracts with publishers are so tricky that authors usually have very few rights. From a business perspective, marriage is actually much safer than publishing.

So, there was amazon.com and then google.com and the world has been irrevocably changed by both.  Conventional publishers and authors cannot expect to make ends meet in this new world of intellectual property, one that extends deep into the real Amazon, the jungles where our medicine chests are stored in anticipation of the day when we are forced to return to Nature.

In the context of this great drama, the government of Kerala (South India) has taken a position worthy of note.  It has created a board for defining traditional knowledge and banned exploitation of such knowledge by corporations.  Individuals and families may profit through application of traditional knowledge but not larger entities whose goal is profit.  It has even created a State Biodiversity Board through which all foreign applications must be processed.

It's very tempting to write a lengthy history of Kerala politics and Indian philosophy, but what we are really seeing in India at this time is an approach to government that is in many respects radically different from that of the British Raj (which, of course, we also had to overcome to get our independence and grip on the future.)  The British Raj was the most blatant system of exploitation we have seen on the Planet.  It had both a national military and corporate military to protect its trading interests, but it created poverty that was rare or unknown before its predatory practices were implemented.  Many countries are still recovering from the siege of the Raj and I would submit the U.S. has yet to extricate itself from the flaws in the mindset of a system developed for exploitation rather than sustainability.

In our world of guns or butter, we have tended to think that guns prevail, but I wonder if ghee will win in the end?   Those with guns are actually small in number and short on flexibility, adaptability, and innovation.  Those with butter constitute the majority of the world's population; and those with ghee make up a fifth of the world's population, and they embrace a philosophy that is fundamentally ethical as opposed to our schism between what we practice on Sundays and what we do Monday through Friday.

I think the issues before us are both enormous and solvable.  So, as we approach the day on which we celebrate the independence we eventually won from the same British Raj, perhaps we could take a moment to ask whether we extricated ourselves from the mindset or only the bayonets?

Copyyright by Ingrid Naiman 2008







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