T-Shirts, Teen Sarcasm, and Free Culture

Aside

Speaking of Noah stealing my t-shirts and of Creative Commons, the following exchange recently took place:

Me: Ah, so I see that you stole my Creative Commons t-shirt.
Noah: Yeah, I love closed captioning!
Me: You know full well that means Creative Commons.
Noah: Right, I mean I love creative commas!

Life with sarcastic teenagers! Honestly, I have no idea where he gets it….

Not Even Attribution

Introduction

I was very interested in a recent conversation about Creative Commons licenses hosted by Robin DeRosa on her Twitter feed, and a follow up to that conversation by Maha Bali published on her blog. In this exchange they and others wrestled with one of the issues that I’ve seen educators consider since the dawn of the open education movement, that of which license to use to release their works openly.

Typically that means licenses from Creative Commons. I believe it’s not hyperbole to say that this organization is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for building a free society. Their primary activity has been the development of a suite of open licenses that allow individual and organizational creators of content to conveniently release that content in a way that disclaims some or all of the entitlements that typically come with copyright. Or, as they put it, rather than “all rights reserved”, they provide the option to creators of instead choosing “some rights reserved” or even “no rights reserved”.

Why did I refer to them as entitlements when Creative Commons itself refers to them as rights? I’ll freely admit that my position is ideological. It was a great PR gimmick to package patents and copyright under the rubric of “intellectual property”, but since copying is not theft, I don’t see copyright as a legitimate form of property at all, it’s merely a government-granted entitlement of monopoly on a piece of information. And as a free market kind of guy, I reject it as I would any other government entitlements.

So that’s where I’m coming from, it’s not difficult to understand my personal objections to all of the various options when it comes to Creative Commons licenses. It’s worth noting that I’m not trying to tell other educators or content creators what to do, but simply outlining why I think the way I do, as part of the ongoing conversation. It also should go without saying that this is my personal site only, and that nothing here should be considered a policy of New World University.

NoDerivatives (ND)

Most educators don’t really consider this open at all. The “NoDerivatives” option simply means that you’re allowing other people to copy your content, but not to modify it in any way. If there’s a complete work that you want to distribute that can be convenient, but such works aren’t part of the “commons” of materials that can be adapted and remixed to make new materials, so they don’t really contribute to the development of an alternative to what’s called permission culture. I’m not interested in that, and have never even considered releasing material under this license.

NonCommercial (NC)

I think it’s safe to say that educators tend to be ideologically left-leaning, and since I’m not when it comes to fiscal issues, this tends to be an area of fundamental disagreement. I’ve seen colleagues react quite strongly against the idea that some individual or company might make money by selling access to content that they authored. Now, I’m not unmindful that corporate publishers of textbooks and journals in wealthy countries often act in ways that many, including me, find exploitative and anti-social. Personally I believe that between the OER and OA movements, we in higher education no longer need them as intermediaries, and that the time will come when they wither and die, their passing unlamented by any but their shareholders.

But that doesn’t mean that a special option to stop all commercial use of one’s content is necessary or desirable. Any commercial publisher attempting to sell works with any Creative Commons license by definition is competing with repositories that release those same works for free. There’s a reason that they don’t attempt this: there are plenty such works out there they could use for this purpose, yet their strategy remains to develop their own materials and attempt to compete on their supposed advantages.

Moreover, in economically developing societies, small scale proprietary educational institutions often serve the poor more successfully than public institutions do. If the goal is truly to release materials in a way that ultimately benefits as many students as possible, then any clause that gets in the way of such institutions is an impediment to reaching that goal.

ShareAlike (SA)

ShareAlike, also known as “copyleft”, is an option in a Creative Commons license that allows derivative works but only if it is released under the same license under which the original is released. At first glance this seems like a good idea, after all, if someone is adapting a work that they received from the commons, shouldn’t they return that adaptation in kind? The problem is that there are several different licenses that include the ShareAlike clause, and by definition, materials released under those different licenses cannot be remixed together. The end result has been the development of silos of content, where materials released under BY-NC-SA cannot be combined with those under BY-SA. To some extent this can be overcome through the playlist model of course development, but not always, and it seems to me better to avoid the problem in the first place.

Attribution (BY)

Now, I actually don’t have a problem with attribution. If I use work someone else wrote I’ll happily acknowledge them. But copyright and plagiarism are not the same thing. One, as I said, is a government entitlement. The other is a form of fraud. But since I’ve already rejected ND, NC, and SA, BY is the only clause left, and I would prefer not to claim copyright at all rather than claim it only to turn around and disclaim every part of it other than the bit that shouldn’t require it in the first place. What I prefer to attribution as part of a license is a cultural norm of attribution, and within higher education I believe that cultural norm already exists, making a license that only consists of BY unnecessary.

Zero Is My Hero (CC0)

So why am I so enthusiastic about Creative Commons if I don’t use licenses that contain any of their legal clauses? For starters, because I cheerfully acknowledge that while I’m over on the radical end of the free culture movement, that doesn’t mean the bulk of that movement isn’t also doing great work moving society away from the notion that “all rights reserved” is the only approach to consider.

But also, when they were designing licenses, they didn’t leave people like me out. In addition to their suite of various licenses, they also designed the CC0 waiver, a way of disclaiming copyright to the maximum extent possible in as many jurisdictions as possible, thereby effectively placing it into the public domain, where I want my content to go. I am very grateful for their work to make that an option for me, and for those who are on the fence, I can report from here that I have never suffered any deleterious outcome from having chosen this path over any of the “some rights reserved” alternatives.

Social Democracy Isn’t Socialism

There’s a certain video called “The Biggest Myths About Socialism” that’s been making the rounds on social media. It’s by Francesca Fiorentini, who posts on the Al-Jazeera’s comedy webshow Newsbroke. It says something about how post-truth our era has become that there’s even such as thing as a comedy show being sponsored by what is supposedly a news media organization, but in this case, the inaccuracies are no laughing matter.

Fiorentini may be a glib presenter, but the one glaring error that dominates her piece is that she’s deliberately confusing social democracy and socialism in order to make the latter not seem like the terrible idea that it manifestly is. I’m referring to the difference between Scandinavian countries and countries like Venezuela and North Korea. They don’t have the same sort of systems, and they shouldn’t be lumped together.

Basically, social democracy is when a society has a market economy with a layer of social programs on top of it. We’ve seen around the world that this is a sustainable approach, because the prosperity that comes from a market system is enough to fund the social programs. This is what we see in places like Scandinavia and so forth.

Socialism, meanwhile, is when there’s not much of a market economy, where the government nationalises industry, or otherwise controls it so tightly that the market process is disrupted too severely to produce prosperity. We’ve also seen around the world that this is an unsustainable approach, and that, as in extreme examples like Venezuela and North Korea, it leads to poverty, starvation, and death.

It gets confusing sometimes because politicians on various sides often use the wrong word. For example, many U.S. conservatives complained that Obama’s health care legislation was “socialism”, which it wasn’t. On the other hand, Bernie Sanders has referred to his positions as “socialism”, which they aren’t. In fact, when he referred to Denmark as a socialist country, he was called out for it by the Prime Minister of Denmark.

Of course, he’s not the only one. Inspired by Sanders, a new wave of leftist American politicians have arisen to challenge the status quo of the Democratic Party, most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who wears the badge of “socialism” with pride. But is she really? As commentator Matthew Gagnon writes:

The reality is, she is — like so many people crying out for socialism today — responding to a form of trendy political hipsterism. The need to signal her own virtue as a radical, counter-culture, ahead of her time, rebelliously egalitarian icon is powerful, and adopting a once scorned label and trying to make it cool is a great way to do that.

She doesn’t have to actually understand socialism at all, she can just make up whatever she wants and call it socialism. Indeed, she can position herself as mainstream and her opposition as extremist by suggesting that any and all government action, tax collection or spending is an example of socialism. “What, do you hate road, highways and schools, you troglodyte?”

To Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and their ilk, positioning themselves in this way allows them to ridicule actual opponents of socialism as little more than anti-government anarchists who believe the government should never do anything, anywhere, for any reason. This is, perhaps, the king of all strawmen.

Which means, ultimately, that Ocasio-Cortez is not even a socialist, no matter how much she might want to call herself that. She is a big government statist who believes in little more than confiscatory taxes, bloated spending, and a government program for every problem in America.

Ironically, this makes her that which she least wants to be: a boring, fairly typical liberal, the likes of which we have seen in this country for a hundred years. Not new. Not trendy. Not fresh. She is essentially a 28 year old Walter Mondale.

As Socrates said, the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms. And by that standard, as by so many others, there is very little wisdom to be found when the term in question is “socialism”.

Free T-Shirts Revisited

I’m a bit too busy to update this very much these days, but I thought it would be amusing to update any wayward reader about the free t-shirts. My youngest, now 13, has aged into wearing my t-shirt size, and sure enough, he stole them all. I suppose most kids’ first branding instinct wouldn’t be to promote a credit union, but… there it is.

Raise Your Voice Against Censorship And Oppression

“When you have strict censorship of the internet, young students cannot receive a full education. Their view of the world is imbalanced. There can be no true discussion of the issues.” — Ai Weiwei

Raise Your Voice!
Today, 16th October 2015, is Blog Action Day, and this year’s theme is “Raise Your Voice”. That means this year we’re remembering bloggers whose mission is to bring critical information to the world, but have imprisoned and silenced by oppressive regimes.

To that end, I’d like to send a shout out to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and their new project, called Offline. As they explain:

Around the world, repressive governments have arrested, imprisoned, and tortured coders, technologists, and bloggers. EFF’s new project, Offline, raises awareness of these digital heroes to ensure that—even as they are locked away—their voices can be heard. The first five highlighted cases include free software developer Alla Abd El Fattah (Egypt), web developer Saeed Malekpoor (Iran), online columnist Eskinder Nega (Ethiopia), and the Zone 9 Bloggers (Ethiopia). Right now, we’re trying to raise as much awareness as possible about free culture advocate Bassel Khartabil, who has been transferred from a civil prison in Syria to an unknown location.

Many parts of our world are improving year by year. Progress is out there. But there is still oppression and censorship in many places. These people are trying to make it better. Don’t forget them.

No, Joseph Stiglitz, Corporatism Is Not Laissez Faire


Corporatism

This is a reaction to Inequality Is Not Inevitable by Joseph Stiglitz, who among other things has won the Nobel prize for economics.

The problem is that the power system we have today is a mixture of big business and big government. This leads to errors from critiques from conservatives and libertarians in that they see the problems caused by government, but are often ideologically blinded to those caused by business. But similarly, it leads to errors in leftist critiques like this one, in that they see the problems caused by business, but not government. Two things in particular highlight Stiglitz’s lack of understanding here. (And yes, I’m aware of his lofty credentials.)

The first is when he says, “Corporate interests argued for getting rid of regulations, even when those regulations had done so much to protect and improve our environment, our safety, our health and the economy itself.” All too often, larger businesses want regulation, because they know they can afford to absorb its costs, whereas smaller companies (especially entrepreneurs and their startups) cannot. By cooperating with government policymakers, executives of large businesses end up with a regulatory regime that shields them from competition at the expense of everyone else.

The second is the references to bankers as “among the strongest advocates of laissez-faire economics”. This is completely ridiculous, and while I realise that Stiglitz is an hardcore ideologue, he really ought to know better than to say something like this. Our system is nowhere close to being laissez faire. It’s solidly corporatist, with a powerful central government whose policymakers work to advance the interests of corporations large enough to participate in the system of collaboration. The financial system is at the very centre of this web of patronage, and its pulsing heart, the Federal Reserve, is the world’s most powerful public-private partnership. So the last thing bankers want is laissez faire.

The thing that frustrates me about critiques like this is that both sides actually perceive part of the problem, but neither sees all of it. And since conversations between left and right about the power system in our society are shouting matches rather than dialogues, people who should be working together against a common problem of corporatism instead are squabbling like children. Stiglitz refers to TARP, which is a prime example. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party movement both initially started as a reaction to bank bailouts. Obviously left and right do not agree on most things, but that sort of corporatism is one of them and it’s arguably the biggest problem of them all.

A final thought, this word “inequality” has become increasingly popular in this era of Bernie Sanders populism. The problem there is that most people talking about it are upset about inequality of outcome, when it’s much more important to care that everyone has a baseline equality of opportunity. Let the wealthy have their yachts — in a system without corporatism they’ll have earned them and saying otherwise is simply class envy. Let the ceiling be sky high, the higher the better! What matters is where the floor is.

The Perils Of Seeking Free T-Shirts

“You don’t ask, you don’t get.” — Bernard von NotHaus

Commonwealth One Federal Credit Union logo
I was at the credit union this morning and saw that they were having a promotion there where all the tellers and other people at the branch were all wearing really cool t-shirts. One of the lessons I’ve learned along the way is that if you want something you may as well ask for it, because generally the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll be told no. And maybe laughed at a little. So I asked whether there were any extras, just in case there were a few still in the back or something. I knew the likely answer was, “Nice try, but no.” Still, I’m always happy to shoot for a free t-shirt.

Well, things spiralled out of control. Despite my protestations that it was merely an idle question, the lady took my information to pass on to Ashley B., their marketing manager, who later called me to say that she would be happy to get me one of the cool COFCU sporty t-shirts — but in return she’d like to photograph me in it and use the pictures in social media.

It would have seemed awfully rude to have asked that and then been unwilling to do anything in return, and besides, I’m actually happy to help them out. Most of the banks I’ve ever dealt with have screwed me sooner or later, but the people at the credit union have always done their best to bend rules or make exceptions if they were unnecessary and were between me and my money. And Ashley seemed really nice. So I told her that I couldn’t imagine how using a picture of me could possibly not chase prospective members away, but that sure, she was welcome to take some if for some reason they thought it would help.

So I suppose now I’ll prepare for my fifteen minutes of fame as a D-list local credit union celebrity. And I’ll have to amend that life lesson: If you want something you may as well ask for it… but be careful what you ask for, because you may get it.

And as a message from our sponsor, if you live, work, or shop in or near Alexandria, Virginia, and you’d rather own a small piece of a credit union than be owned piecemeal by a bank, check out Commonwealth One Federal Credit Union, and tell them the t-shirt guy sent you.

Marco Rubio Is A Fool And A Hypocrite

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” — George Bernard Shaw

Marco Rubio with mouth wide open
I’m not planning to comment much on the U.S. presidential election process that unfortunately has already started to be foisted upon us all. In fact, I really do plan to ignore it as much as humanly possible. But sometimes a politician says something that’s so asinine and hypocritical that it simply cannot pass unchallenged.

Given who has the longest and most inglorious track record of making such statements you may think I’m talking about The Donald, but surprisingly it’s one of the other ones who’s stumbled across the tripwire of absurdity, one about whom I really didn’t know very much before today. This fool is named Marco Rubio.

I refer specifically to Rubio’s recent comments about higher education. As Bloomberg reports:

Rubio, 44, said he’d “bust this cartel” by establishing a new accreditation process more welcoming to low-cost, innovative providers. “This would expose higher education to the market forces of choice and competition, which would prompt a revolution driven by the needs of students — just as the needs of consumers drive the progress of every other industry in our economy,” he said.

This is asinine because it shows that Mr. Rubio is not afraid to get up in front of large groups of people and show that he knows nothing about how innovation in higher education works. It’s true that the regional accreditors are a somewhat exclusive club, but considering that they let in any school that meets their stated criteria, including such controversial institutions as the University of Phoenix, one can hardly rightfully call them a cartel.

Moreover, there are alternative paths where organizations that don’t fit the normal pattern can be part of the higher education system. Alternative accreditors like the Distance Education Accrediting Commission exist for this very purpose, and while better known schools vary in their acceptance of schools accredited by DEAC and the like, that’s an individual decision on the part of each school, it’s not systematic exclusion. Moreover, there are not one but two organizations where even non-academic providers of education and training can have their non-academic credentials be evaluated as the equivalent to college credit and accepted in transfer: the American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service. In other words, what Mr. Rubio is calling for so loudly has already existed for decades.

But his merely being poorly informed is hardly unique. Perhaps as a back bencher he simply cannot afford competent advisors. What is truly inexcusable is the hypocrisy and how it drives home how ill suited for leadership this man truly is. How so? He refers to market forces as part of his call for public interference in an accreditation system that is conducted voluntarily by private agencies! It may be unclear whether he has no idea what market forces are, or whether he’s just using the term as a buzzword to try to sound good to those who advocate for free markets, but either way all he succeeds in doing is demonstrating that he shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the reins of true power.

I realize that he’s far from the only Republican who praises free markets with one face while calling for big government with the other. But with this example coming so early and so brazenly, if no one calls him on it then it’s not a very good sign for things to come in the next fifteen interminable months.

The Drawbacks Of Regulation

“The regulatory systems in place disincentive innovation. It’s intense to fight the red tape.” — Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber

Govt. Regulations
Recently, Dominica’s Director of Trade, Matthan Walter, announced that the Government of Dominica will soon implement consumer protection legislation. To most people this initially sounds like a good idea. After all, no one wants consumers to be defrauded. And Mr Walter referred to the downside of the lack of such legislation. That’s fair enough; it’s his job to explain the rationale for implementing new measures. Still, it’s also important to remember that implementing such legislation carries downsides of its own.

For example, yet another arm of government is being created here, and that doesn’t happen without tax money. Nothing in life is free: either taxes will go up, or else less tax money will be available to do other things. Will roads be repaired more slowly? Will schools have fewer resources than they would have otherwise? Also, regulations mean additional costs for businesses, which is why one of the lessons of economics is that the more regulations you have, the more prices go up.

There’s also an assumption that every aspect of this legislation is really meant to protect consumers. That’s probably true in this case, but Dominicans should beware, as in other countries this has turned out to be less and less so as this sort of legislation gets expanded more and more over time. It’s also a very short step from using regulation to protect consumers from what is clearly harmful, to using regulation to push consumers into buying what you think they should want and away from buying what you think they shouldn’t want. When government is given enough power to help you, it also has enough power to control you.

A final concern is that this legislation is basically being imported wholesale from CARICOM. This is supposedly being implemented as a trade measure when the only ones affected are Dominicans. There’s no need for an international organisation to come up with this sort of legislation for small countries to implement obediently as a treaty obligation. CARICOM should stick to discussing unambiguously international matters like implementing free trade and free movement. They are not an unelected parliament for the Caribbean, and they should be resisted when they presume to act like one. The Europeans tried handing significant political power over to a centralised bureaucracy, the EU, and as one can read in the news these days this has led to Greece teetering on bankruptcy and the UK considering withdrawal altogether. Europeans may be wealthy enough as a whole to afford that sort of commotion, but Caribbean countries are not.

Ultimately, whether it concerns this legislation in particular or CARICOM as a whole, we’d all do well to remember that regardless of who is in power, and regardless of good intentions, there’s no way to make government bigger without consequences. In some cases most people will find those consequences acceptable, and that’s fair enough, but without considering them it’s not possible to make a truly informed policy decision.

Asking The Right Questions About For Profit Higher Education

“A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” — John C. Maxwell

Over at Quartz, commentator Matt Phillips has written a piece called Face it: America’s experiment with for-profit colleges has failed. As someone who has worked in American higher education for a number of years, including for-profit and non-profit institutions, I generally agree with Mr. Phillips that many of the marketing-driven for profit schools that participate in the federal system of guaranteed financial aid are overpriced and unremarkable.

However, as with most articles about higher education written by those who don’t come from our industry, it’s an article painted with too broad a brush. Sure, there are schools like Corinthian’s, but there are also schools like Sullivan University and American Military University that are for profit and participate in the federal financial aid system, yet have earned a good reputation for delivering a decent education at a price that compares with non-profit competitors.

Ultimately I believe that universities should be evaluated the same as people — as individuals rather than as members of a group. That said, if we are going to compare universities by category, I’ve come to wonder whether it might be worthwhile for journalists and commentators to take a look at the relative behavior of schools not based on whether they are for profit or not, but to compare those that are publicly traded with those that are privately held. My guess is that we would see the lion’s share of anti-social behavior at the schools that answer to Wall Street rather than those that answer to an owning family or partnership.

Also worthy of more reporting are those for profit universities accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission that do not particulate in the federal financial aid system, and who have much lower tuition rates as a result. In fact, some of these institutions are among the best values in all of American higher education. Their very existence suggests that guaranteed federal financial aid is a contributing factor in the high cost of going to college, that when that system makes tens of thousands of dollars available to anyone with a signature and a pulse, it introduces an ocean of money that tuition rates then rise to soak up.

But will journalists and commentators who write about American higher education ever go after these higher hanging fruit? One can only hope.