Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Of polar bears and patents

By Frank Moraes

The USA Today reported earlier this evening, Cute Kali: Orphaned Polar Bear Cub Prepares for Move. It told the story of the preparations to move young bear to the Buffalo Zoo. And yes, it is cute as a button. All mammals are cute before they get big enough to eat you. But there was something about the article that really caught my attention. It reported, "The bear's mother was killed March 12 by a subsistence hunter near Point Lay, an Inupiat Eskimo whaling community 300 miles southwest of Barrow and 700 miles northwest of Anchorage."

Where is the outrage? After all, polar bears are threatened. But there is no outrage because it would be really stupid to be outraged about a practice of the native people who have hunted the bears for generations. They aren't the reason that polar bears are threatened. There are lots of reasons to be concerned about the survival of the species and none of them are Eskimo hunting.

But this raises an important question: why can we be reasonable about the causes of polar bear population degradation but we can't be reasonable about economic matters? In particular: patents. It has long bothered me how patents reward innovation in a highly unjust and even random way. The Wright Brothers, for example, got a ridiculously high fraction of the rewards for work that they shared with many others who got less and in many cases nothing.

My point here is that we see that a subsistence hunter is but one small part of the forces that are causing polar bear populations to decrease, even though that hunter is the only cause of the death of that one polar bear. But we don't see (or regardless, don't care) that economic progress is also a large scale phenomenon that involves a whole society. Bill Gates probably does deserve to be well rewarded for his work. But there is no way that he is worth even 1% of the rewards that he's received.

Advances (scientific, artistic, business) are the results of a highly complicated social system. But we have settled on an economic system that doesn't come close to rewarding people in a just way. In fact, well over half of our politicians worship our broken system as though it were not only good but perfect. We need to start distinguishing the bears from the species. Or else we will all go extinct.


(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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