Category: Technology and Regulation

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The ius gentium, or law of nations, has an important place in legal history. Variously conceived, the law of nations often referred to the code of conduct for dealing with foreign peoples according to their own local, national, or regional standards. As a form of natural law, the ius gentium has often been appealed to as a basis for determining what has been believed everywhere, always, by everyone. It’s an approach used, for instance, with some qualification by C.S. Lewis in the appendix to his book, The Abolition of Man, “Illustrations of the Tao.”

It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek (it includes input from Brad Pitt on the question “Can I Answer My Cell at a Movie if It Seems Urgent?”) and risqué (to be generous), but the editors at Wired magazine have developed a set of rules for digital behavior, in conjunction with a group of social scientists who determine descriptively what the proper etiquette for life in the 21st century. In “How to Behave: New Rules for Highly Evolved Humans,” the feature takes a “scientific approach” in determining the “new rules.”

As NPR’s All Things Considered reports, Wired editors faced the problem of determining normativity. “There was a lot of subjective opinion on how to behave,” Wired editor Nancy Miller says. “We sort of decided that the best way to go about this was the Wired way, which is try to find a scientific approach … to explain why and how we behave like we do, and what makes sense in this new era of technology.”

What we have in this Wired magazine article is something like an attempt to articulate the ius digitus, the law of the digital world as gleaned from its own sources. Potentially, at least, such a method might prove helpful, if not comprehensive. Awhile back I sketched out a framework for ethical digital discourse, and interacting with the established or not-so-established norms of digital behavior seems to be an important line of development.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Much of the blame for the current financial crisis has been aimed at Wall Street and the bankers who, the story goes, created toxic debt instruments and then lined their own pockets with the proceeds. In “Verdict on the Crash: Causes and Policy Implications,” a new analysis from economists and scholars — including Acton Institute Research Director Samuel Gregg — the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs comes to the opposite conclusion: It was governments and regulators who erred. Moreover, the IEA report says, the people most often berated for their part in the crisis – the hedge fund managers and those who run tax havens – are among the least guilty. The report also spells out the need for a “radical overhaul” of the financial system to guard against a repeat of the errors that led to the crisis.

The authors of “Verdict on the Crash” assert that “a revolution in financial regulation is needed. The proposals of the G20 governments and the EU are wholly misconceived. Specific and targeted laws and regulations could restore market discipline.”

Read a letter to London’s Daily Telegraph from the economists and scholars who wrote the “Verdict on the Crash” report for IEA. Read highlights and download the full report from the IEA blog. Acton’s Samuel Gregg authored the chapter titled, “Moral Failure: Borrowing, Lending and the Financial Crisis.”

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, March 19, 2009

Back in September I posted an announcement about a new book that contributed in interesting ways to our understanding of patent/intellectual property issues. Now Julio Cole’s full review of the book in the Independent Review is available online. An excerpt:

Should we really be surprised that the patent system’s internal dynamics have finally brought us to the point at which the potential profits of patenting have, for most industries, been entirely gobbled up by lawyers’ fees? Isn’t that outcome what we should expect after having studied the literature on rent seeking? If patents are really nothing more than special privileges granted by the state, then wouldn’t we expect the monopoly rents derived from such grants to become dissipated eventually through steady increases in rent-seeking costs?

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, November 10, 2008

I made a mental note of it awhile back when I heard that there was a “Christian” version of the immensely popular Guitar Hero video game franchise in the works. Wired recently reviewed Guitar Praise – Solid Rock here.

Reviewer Eliot Van Buskirk notes that Guitar Praise “inhabits a gentler world where a bad performance gets you mild clapping and gentle suggestions instead of the raucous boos and catcalls that accompany failure in Guitar Hero.”

There are two conditions that would have to be met before I would consider purchase of this game.

First, this song from Sonseed would have to be included:


Zap! (For some reason hearing that song always reminds me of this SNL skit [video here]…and since we’re closing in on Christmas, even better.)

And second, I’d have to receive a standing offer to play Guitar Praise on stage as part of my church’s praise and worship team.

On a more serious note, this is a great example of how “evangelical” culture is so often derivative of popular culture (in a bad way) and dated (also in a bad way). Somehow I don’t think “Christian” Guitar Hero is what Andy Crouch has in mind for fulfillment of the call for Christians to be “culture makers.”

Blog author: dwbosch
posted by on Thursday, October 30, 2008

Via Drudge, Australia is joining none other than China in censoring the internet. Here’s a surprising endorsement/justification the writer uses to bottom line the article:

photo credit: fathersonline.orgThe Australian Christian Lobby, however, has welcomed the proposals. Managing director Jim Wallace said the measures were needed. "The need to prevent access to illegal hard-core material and child pornography must be placed above the industry’s desire for unfettered access," Mr Wallace said.

I’m not endorsing porn. But earth to Mr. Wallace: Scan up a few ‘graphs and note how Chinese Keepers of Internet Purity shield their masses against illegal "spiritual movements." Makes me wonder how long the internet will be available to Christian "industries" like outreach and evangelism. Not too long, considering some Christians are readily turning those reigns over to government.

Jesus didn’t condemn prostitutes or demand that His disciples lobby for nanny states. He offered them grace and holiness and a new life, and people took Him up on it.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, October 23, 2008

Although many scientists cultivate the popular image of the benevolent, detached savant toiling away for the betterment of mankind, the fact remains that Ph.D.s in physics or genetics are subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us. The image has some currency because there is an element of truth in it: scientists in many fields have contributed in remarkable ways to the material progress of humanity. That contribution should not be underappreciated.

Yet scientists are not immune to temptations to exaggerate, distort, and deceive. And the field of politics, containing as it does the promise of access to power and funding, is the near occasion of sin par excellence.

Various PowerBloggers have detailed the problematic fusing of politics and science in the area of climate change. In the latest issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson do the same for the subject of stem cell research (currently accessible online by subscription only). It’s an outstanding summary of the relatively brief history of the debate, with special attention to the not-usually-praiseworthy role that researchers played in the political arena. “We need to remember the events from 2001 to 2007,” the authors assert, “for the history of the stem-cell debate forms a classic study of what happens when politics and science find each other useful.”

Two morsels from the essay:

Still, before we commiserate too much with America’s stem-cell researchers, so badly taken advantage of, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t just let themselves be used. They rushed to be used. Offered a public platform, they begged to be exploited, and the politicians, newspapers, and television talk shows merely obliged them.

In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election? We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, September 18, 2008

As the US-incited global financial situation continues to worsen, ever shriller assertions of blame will be cast on one culprit or another. It’s my belief that any development of this magnitude always stems from multiple and interacting causes, but that doesn’t make very good copy.

Thomas Frank in the Wall Street Journal yesterday fingers deregulation (and by explicit implication the Republicans who champion it) as the criminal instigator of the financial crisis. Six weeks from election day, Frank has a transparently political goal, but let’s leave that aside. He writes:

There is simply no way to blame this disaster, as Republicans used to do, on labor unions or over-regulation. No, this is the conservatives’ beloved financial system doing what comes naturally. Freed from the intrusive meddling of government, just as generations of supply-siders and entrepreneurial exuberants demanded it be, the American financial establishment has proceeded to cheat and deceive and beggar itself — and us — to the edge of Armageddon. It is as though Wall Street was run by a troupe of historical re-enactors determined to stage all the classic panics of the 19th century.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in financial sector regulation, and it may well be that some more (or different? or fewer?) regulations could have played some role in averting this catastrophe. But I suspect there are a couple other causes that are equally or more important, and that call into question the contention that more government involvement will prevent such problems in the future.

1. If the crisis is in large part due to overly risky loan practices and the investment vehicles connected to them, then might the existence of federal backing (e.g., its de facto guarantee of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) and the promise of such backing (based on the fact of past bailouts and the belief that more bailouts might be forthcoming) have caused or at least aggravated the problem? In other words, government involvement helped to create the bad incentives that got us here. If financial dealers had known that the market would operate in a truly free fashion, they would never have made the decisions they did.

2. If greed played a role in the creation of the crisis, which most people of every political persuasion seem willing to grant, then what is regulation to do about it? Financial whizzes are notoriously good at circumventing government regulation. If this kind of “capitalism” needs to be curbed, moral sensibility is going to make more progress than regulatory manipulation. I’m not saying that greed can ever be eliminated, just that we need to be realistic about the prospects of success for regulation, which is fraught with unintended consequences, makes life more difficult for conscientious law-abiders, and creates a drag on the economy (the last thing we need at the moment). As Sam Gregg aptly put it at the conclusion of his Acton Commentary this week: “Could there be a better demonstration that there can be no markets without morality?”

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Tuesday, September 9, 2008

As I’ve said before, some of the most interesting debates are those that break down along atypical lines: for example, by splitting dedicated limited government advocates rather than pitting them against statists. Back in 2001, the Journal of Markets & Morality conducted a controversy between two libertarian-leaning economists, Julio Cole and Paul Cleveland, concerning copyright and patent law.

Last year, we published a Christian Social Thought Series volume on intellectual property rights by David Carey that didn’t come down squarely on one side or the other, recognizing both the important role of incentives to innovation but also the obligation to limit property rights when the common good demands.

The issue hasn’t been settled yet, but now comes an important new data point from Princeton University Press: Patent Failure: How Judges, Bureaucrats, and Lawyers Put Innovators at Risk, by James Bessen and Michael J. Meurer. (HT: The aforementioned Julio Cole of Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala.)

This study shifts the terms of the debate by marshalling empirical evidence to show that one of the chief arguments in defense of patent restrictions—the innovation incentive—does not hold water. In an era of big business and big litigation, the ideal of the eccentric inventor making his living by patenting his creations appears to be antiquated. Specifically, what Bessen and Meurer demonstrate is that the costs for businesses to defend themselves againt patent infringement suits now far outweigh the benefits reaped by owning patents ($12 billion to $3 billion in 1999). In other words, patents are no longer an incentive to invention so much as a legal tool with which to damage one’s competitors.

[A caveat: This finding excludes chemical and pharmaceutical companies.]

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 8, 2008

It took awhile, but after its release in 2005, the latest installment of the popular computer game Civilization IV was received warmly by many cultural commentators. Civilization IV, or CivIV for short, was hailed alternatively as “a video game for the ages,” and “a kind of social-sciences chessboard that blends history and logic into a game that demands a long, long attention span.” The basis for much of this regard among even conservatives as “crunchy” as Rod Dreher was a piece in the Weekly Standard, highlighting the background of the game’s founder, Sid Meier.

For the first time, religion plays an important part in the strategic gameplay. Victorino Matus sums it up this way,

Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay.

Indeed, while CivIV deserves praise for integrating non-material elements like religion and culture into the gameplay, in the end these pieces suffer the same fate as the rest of the game’s components. CivIV, ultimately, is less about the development of civilization than it is about the expansion of imperial tyranny.

“Genghis Khan, your people have vested absolute power in you…”


The game begins by the player being vested with “absolute power” over all aspects of the lives of the citizenry. Religion quickly becomes a means of social control. When your civilization founds a religion, you are able to build structures that have other important benefits attached to them. You can spread your religion to neighboring civilizations, expanding your influence. But it doesn’t matter which religion you prefer, as long as it keeps your people happy.

And happiness, by the way, is something that can be bought in this game. If your citizenry is a little restless, simply up the percentage of money spent each turn on “culture,” and watch the happy faces multiply. That’s the CivIV equivalent of Caesar holding gladiatorial games at the Colosseum to appease the populace.

There are consequences to which sort of economy, government, technology, and religion you choose. But in the end all these choices are yours, and you are free to use whichever combination you find to be most expedient. The variety of game-ending scenarios, including world domination, UN diplomacy, and space-race technology races (which may indeed teach us something we need to know), mean that you don’t have to simply hack and slash your way to victory. But make no mistake about it, you are out to conquer your opponents, by any means necessary.

You can choose to embrace different branches of technological innovation, including the compelling “Animal Husbandry.”


The popularity of the game, which has won numerous awards and spawned successful expansions, is well-deserved. It taps in to a fundamental human drive for dominance in a way that promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

The revisionist history that is possible to reenact with the game is one of its greatest attractions. While it may cause some cognitive dissonance to see Mohandas Ghandi order an nuclear ICBM attack on an opponent’s city, it is also reassuring to know that Genghis Khan can expand his empire by means of free trade and cultural suasion rather than force of arms (although in some cases “revisionist” history ends up corresponding better to reality than accepted theories).

“Soon my numberless minions shall destroy you all!”


The game’s interface is straightforward and intuitive. One drawback of the game’s emphasis on strategy over action is that the conflict sequences are repetitive and buggy. The graphics when units are in battle leave much to be desired.

These tactical criticisms aside, however, CivIV is a superb game. But the adeptness with which it meets the deepest human desires for power and control teaches us as much about ourselves as it does about the progressive unfolding of history.

This review has been cross-posted to Blogcritics.org.

On Wednesday the European Commission again delayed a decision on whether European farmers may grow more genetically modified (GM) crops. The commission claimed that more scientific analysis is needed before three new crops can be approved. But curiously, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has already twice analyzed the crops and found that they pose no danger to public health.

Divisions seem to have broken out within the commission on how to proceed with GM food. This comes at a time when biotech investors are increasingly exasperated with European procrastination on the issue.

The intra-Commission conflict on GM food is most bizarrely expressed in the open attempts by Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas to discredit the EFSA, an agency set up by the Commission in 2002 in order to specifically investigate food safety concerns. By undermining the authority of the EFSA, Dimas is colliding with Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, who has defended the agency. The result is a complete stalemate which may leave the Europe years behind in biotech investment compared to the US and other countries.

Dimas’s hostility to GM food is cheered on by some environmental NGOs, in particular Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Greenpeace boasts that it orchestrated a campaign of 130,000 emails in order to obstruct the approval of the crops.

These NGOs have virtually no expertise in the area of consumer health research but join Dimas’s ritual attacks on the risk assessments done by the EFSA. It is particularly striking that they try to bring the EFSA into disrepute by implying that the World Health Organization (WHO) is speaking out against GM crops. But here’s what the WHO actually says:

“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

European worries about food safety are to a large extent based on the experience of the 1990s when a number of food scandals, in particular BSE or mad cow disease, caused understandable anxiety among consumers. All of these scandals, however, were entirely unrelated to GM food; it is irresponsible to exploit these fears in the current debate on biotechnology.

It is not difficult to see that at bottom the controversy is not so much about health and science but about politics and whose ox is being gored. In the European Council of Ministers, more agrarian-based countries like Greece (Dimas’s home country), Italy, Austria and Poland tend to vote against GM foods while states where traditional farming is not as dominant like the UK and the Netherlands are more open to biotech.

The politicization of the GMO debate is especially damaging at a time of global food price inflation. Future improvements in agricultural productivity will become increasingly necessary and biotech can play an important role in this area. The Commission must not allow pseudo-scientific excuses to stand in the way of serving the interests of the European, and indeed the global, consumer.