Subject: Re: The term "intellectual property" considered useful
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <>
Date: Sat, 13 May 2006 14:35:53 +0900

>>>>> "Ben" == Ben Tilly <> writes:

    Ben> According to historical estimates by Dr Robert Fogel, the
    Ben> economies of slave-owning states were 9% more efficient than
    Ben> the economies of non-slave states.

For the purpose at hand, such cross-section comparisons are
meaningless in themselves.  The question is whether the slave-owning
states could have done even better had they converted to a free
economy.  Fogel's data (as presented in Time on the Cross) seems to
support an overall relatively high productivity in the South, with the
free sector being competitive with the slave sector.

    Ben> I'm a hostile audience if you're talking about the actual
    Ben> effects of our currently broken intellectual property system.

I'm somewhat with you.  Patents are broken for software.  However,
copyright, even infinitely-lived, is arguably better than no
copyright.  (That said, I believe that the optimal term of copyright
is probably on the order of 25 years even for works of entertainment,
and substantially less for software.)

    Ben> My point was that they knew their business better than you
    Ben> do, and it is highly unlikely that they really were that
    Ben> stupid.

True.  However, business is generally an evolutionary process, as we
see with the "herd mentality of VCs" that we love to lament.  That is,
like the dinosaurs, the slave owners knew *their* business; what they
didn't recognize is that reality had changed the nature of business
while they weren't looking.

    Ben> Not according to Dr Fogel.  But if it made economic sense to
    Ben> not have slaves, don't you think that some smart person
    Ben> somewhere couldn't have outcompeted his neighbours by using
    Ben> free workers, and then build on that success to force them to
    Ben> change business models?

No.  As the rising price of slaves showed, increasing demand would
support profit in this industry for some time to come.  That doesn't
mean that the writing wasn't on the wall.

    Ben> Incidentally to your destruction of capital comment, Dr
    Ben> Fogel's estimates *also* showed that materially slaves were
    Ben> better off than Northern factory workers.

Again beside the point.  OTOH, the rising price of slaves does suggest
that capital destruction was not occuring at that point, but it's not
conclusive (if capital destruction was occurring, that might also
drive up price through relative scarcity).

    Ben> If the South is considered to include all inhabitants
    Ben> thereof, then ....  If the South is considered to include all
    Ben> members who were free before Abolition, then ....

Why bother with that?  Simply look at gross regional product.  The
productivity question is whether GRP be increased by changing business
model, given the same set of resources.

    Ben> You assume correctly.  What I was trying to say is that the
    Ben> presence of starving Irish in New York did little to affect
    Ben> the economics of growing cotton in the South, and did little
    Ben> to change what other industries made sense in the South.

    Ben> Of course once I've said that, I realize that I was wrong.

    Ben> Starving Irish in New York who were willing to work for low
    Ben> wages in textile factories increased the profitability of the
    Ben> textile industry, and therefore increased the demand for
    Ben> cotton.  Which *increased* the value of slavery in the South.
    Ben> So there was a connection - it just happens to be opposite
    Ben> what Robin thought.

Once again you are looking at the wrong thing.

    Ben> The fact that Southern states were more economically
    Ben> efficient than Northern suggests that wage labour was not
    Ben> more productive.  The lack of successful plantations that did
    Ben> not use slave labour points in the same direction.

Point taken.  I'll have to look more closely at that.  (Because I
might learn something, not because I expect to find a hole in the

However, note that (as Russ pointed out) there were various subsidies
and regulations that strongly favored slavery.  This could support
both your "individual slaveholders were not stupid" and my
"slaveholding society as a whole blew it" positions at the same time.

    Ben> Thomas Lord pointed us at
    Ben>, which
    Ben> includes the price of slaves over time.

Note that the shirtsleeves round trip takes three generations.

    Ben> (Until, that is, Union soldiers showed up.  But then the
    Ben> slaves became sharecroppers, and the overall improvement was
    Ben> minimal.)

    >> Sez Ben.  One would think you measured everything in dollars,
    >> and cared nothing for freedom.  ;-)

    Ben> The question at hand was whether slavery made economic sense.
    Ben> I measure what makes economic sense in dollars.

No, the immediate question at hand was whether the OVERALL improvement
for slaves was minimal.  At that point you must take their preference
for freedom vis-a-vis dollars into account.

    Ben> The question of whether it should have been abolished is not,
    Ben> however, an economic question.  In THAT question, freedom
    Ben> makes a great deal of sense.

Of course it's an economic question, and of course freedom qua freedom
makes a great deal of sense in economic terms, despite the fact that
my colleagues and I have yet to find a good way to measure it or
implement it in our models.

I agree it's not moral to let the answer to the economic question be
the only, or even the primary, driver of the social decision.  But
please, stop demonizing economics and economists.  There IS a strong
bias in the profession, but you're not doing any favors to anyone by
taking the easy route of condemnation.

Graduate School of Systems and Information Engineering   University of Tsukuba        Tennodai 1-1-1 Tsukuba 305-8573 JAPAN
        Economics of Information Communication and Computation Systems
          Experimental Economics, Microeconomic Theory, Game Theory