Tuesday, July 24, 2012


More on the insanity of trademarks and copyright, from a New York Times article about the London 2012 Games:

A butcher in Weymouth, near a yachting competition site, was told to take down the five-ring Olympic logo he had made with images of sausage links. A lingerie seller in central England was asked to remove a display that showcased the rings using bras and mannequins as the Olympic torch passed by....
Marketers could be in jeopardy if they use two of the next four words: “Games,” “two thousand and twelve,” “2012” and “twenty-twelve.” And using any one of those words in tandem with “London,” “medals,” “sponsors,” “summer,” “gold,” “silver” and “bronze” is a no-no.

Of course, the authorities are ready to prosecute "unauthorized trading" near any of the event sites.

Sheesh: when the Pope came to the UK, the police allowed street vendors to sell 'pope on a rope soap.' I hope no local costermongers are planning to sell Chinese-made 'Usain Bolt Cutters' -- because the organizers of these games clearly have no sense of fun.


Forgive me for amplifying the reach of something that Yahoo! says has gone viral. But I think it makes a larger point.

Patrick Wensink writes a book called Broken Piano for President. The cover looks -- deliberately, I am sure -- somewhat like the lettering on a Jack Daniel's bottle. A lawyer for the sour mash company sends the predictable cease and desist letter. The letter's kind of cute. The author blogs about it and the lawyer gets kudos. And the author and his publisher, Lazy Fascist Press, give in and agree to change the cover.

While everyone's smiling and Wensink's basking in free publicity, I'm wondering this: where's the purported trademark infringement? The lawyer suggests that, if Jack Daniel's allows this cover, "we run the very real risk that our trademark will be weakened."

How, exactly? How many people will buy the book simply because they think it's a bottle of whiskey? (message to Amazon: maybe you should start selling booze!) And if they buy the book because they get the message (Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 is not a small-batch concoction--rather, it's a mass market drink and 'a shot of Jack' is known the world over), doesn't that just prove enduring popularity of the brand? Mightn't the book cover actually benefit Jack Daniel's, demonstrating that the brand is a cultural icon (hey: it's the first whiskey I ever got sick on!). Isn't this an example of copyright and trademarking overreach--where things that are clearly 'fair use' become problems because corporations have deep pockets and the rest of us don't?

I'm not against Jack Daniel's going after another whiskey distiller who names a new product 'Whack Daniel's' or 'Jack Spaniel's' or even 'Hack Sandles.' But a book?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

the bold and the beautiful and the crminal

Here's a message for all the cities that are thuggishly attempting to criminalize System D street vending and hawking (yes, I mean you, Sao Paulo and Lagos, among many others): why not go after the real bad guys?

A new study has revealed that the global super-rich elite has exploited gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide somewhere between $20 trillion and $30 trillion of wealth offshore.

As The Observer reports, even at the lower figure, that's "as much as the American and Japanese GDPs put together." Developing countries in particular should note that the amounts their one percenters have squirreled away overseas since the 1970s would be more than enough to pay off their debts to the rest of the world. An accompanying chart shows that, in Nigeria, for instance, $300 billion in wealth has been secreted out of the country--an amount 40 times the nation's entire foreign debt load.

Where do you find the real cheats and criminals? In the highest echelons of high society.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

out-hawking the hawkers

In Accra, Ghana, thousands of street traders who obeyed the government and moved indoors to the newly created Pedestrian Shopping Mall are crying foul about a new burst of competition -- you guessed it! -- from rival street hawkers who have set up outside their building.

GhanaWeb reports that the indoor shopping mall on Kwame Nkrumah Circle is empty because shoppers flock to the hawkers who have set up shop just outside its doors.

"Some shoppers," one indoor trader told the news service, "even say they do not know of the existence of the pedestrian shopping mall." One of the outdoor hawkers offered this riposte: "Customers will not buy even if we are all taken off the street and put in the mall. Ghanaians are impulsive buyers. When they see the goods on their way home, they are tempted to purchase them."

The merchants in the Shopping Mall have threatened to retake the streets if the government does not take action. It's a good idea. Why do the authorities always think it is better to force hawkers off the streets?

Friday, July 6, 2012

distorted competition?

In a recent article, The Wall Street Journal cites a study of System D by Brazil's Getulio Vargas Foundation to suggest that the shadow economy "distorts competition":
Informal businesses disrupt the normal competitive process that leads to greater productivity over time. Companies that operate outside the law save money by avoiding tax and welfare payments, allowing them to compete despite being inefficient, but informality also denies them the possibility of accessing markets for capital and technology that would improve their productivity. Legitimate, productive businesses lose market share to tax-evading competitors, decreasing their incentives to invest.
The Journal offers this further black market factoid: "39% of Brazil's productivity gap with the U.S. can be explained by the effects of the shadow economy." (The newspaper cites an unnamed McKinsey study as the source for this stat--but I haven't been able to find it, so I can't say what the number means or how McKinsey's researchers arrived at it.)

So if a company gets a tax abatement from the government, or hides its income by incorporating in the Cayman Islands, doesn't that also distort competition? And, while tapping bank loans to invest in technology might improve efficiency, doesn't it also reduce employment. Are efficiency and productivity really the only economic benchmarks we have? Or can there be a different economic analysis that sees job growth through System D as a good thing because it grows bottom-up businesses and thus reduces inequality?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Jonah and the whale of informality

Three quarters of the workers in Guatemala work in System D, according to this thoughtful article from GlobalPost (via the Alaska Dispatch). But the image the article promulgates -- that informality swallows up these workers and denies them "protections and benefits available to salaried, punch-the-clock employees — such as minimum wage, regulated hours, insurance, pensions, and the right to join unions and collectively bargain with employers" --  is overcooked.

Indeed, big businesses all around the globe are attempting to bust unions and trying to shed costly health insurance responsibilities.

Instead of demonizing informal workers, what's needed is a renewed sense of social contract. If street vendors and other informal workers see government working for them, they will work with the government. And if rich people who hire household help would pay a living wage and offer other social protections, like guaranteeing overtime pay for overtime work and providing for the health care needs of the people who care for their kids, the situation would be less dire.

And what if, instead of demanding private property titles as collateral for loans, banks could be trained to give loans based on the social capital informal entrepreneurs represent--essentially providing a pot of money that could be used more in the fashion of venture capital than a traditional loan?

Am I being over-optimistic and all-too enthusiastic? Maybe. But, when 75 percent of the labor force is working off the books, that says that the formal system isn't working for the majority of people. And rather than trying to shoehorn System D into the formal world, doesn't it make more sense to change the structures of the formal world to make room for System D?