How to change the world

by Rob Tiller

At my early yoga class on Thursday, Sandy, the teacher, postulated that everything we do has ripple effects, first on our selves, and then on others. She suggested, as I understood it, that our yoga practice ia not purely personal. Our large, calming breaths lead to other good things for our bodies, which lead to other good things for others. Thus one person can change the world, at least a bit.

It’s hard to know if this is true, but it doesn’t seem completely crazy. There is no doubt that yoga has improved my levels of consciousness and happiness. And it’s possible that this has some small effect on others. And their attitudes affect others, and so on and on. I do not see this as a complete solution to anything, but it seems fairly clear that the human race, or even my little circle, has not come close to its carrying capacity for happiness, so the effort couldn’t do any harm.

In another effort to work for positive change, on Friday I flew to DC for the day and met with a group of folks at the Google offices to discuss possible approaches to future patent reform. The deep disconnect between the patent system as it was originally conceived and the way it sometimes works today to undermine innovation gets me worked up. Software innovation has very little to do with our patent system, which at times actually undermines such innovation.

It was good to brainstorm with some smart people with similar-but-not-identical perspectives. Anyhow, our ad hoc group made some progress in getting focused on possible areas for more work (e.g. damages apportionment, written description and enablement), and possible methodologies (e.g. a wiki), and agreed to keep working.

Changing the legal system, whether through better regulatory and court decisions or future legislation, even a little, is a daunting undertaking. I think the pro-reform forces have the better arguments, but better ideas do not always carry the day, as the recent legislative battles on patent reform demonstrated. Good policy reform arguments lose all the time, for all kinds of reasons, including self-interest, certainly, but also ignorance and inertia. It takes a lot of energy, commitment, and organization over the long term to achieve change. The first thing to do is not give up, and keep on thinking, and keep on communicating.

Speaking of change, I recommend the movie Amazing Grace (2006) about the ending of the British slave trade. Great Britain, a hugely powerful, successful country, the economy of which rested in significant part on slavery, decided in 1807 by act of Parliament to end slave trading. The change was in significant part due to the efforts of a relatively small group of abolutionists, including MP William Wilberforce. It took them some 25 years.

For more inspiration, on the trip to DC I reread some of Last Call by Daniel Okrent, a history of Prohibition. We all know that Prohibition (banning the sale of intoxicating beverages) was a disastrous policy, right? But we don’t all know, or at least I didn’t, how it came to be a cause, and then a Constitutional amendment. It’s a complicated story. There were many cross-currents and otherwise-unconnected groups that opposed alcoholic beverages in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including such disparate groups as religious revivalists, women’s rights advocates, advocates for the poor, anti-Semites (which disliked the successful Jewish distillers), and anti-Germans (which targeted the successful German beer brewers). These folks worked for decades to organize and change the United States from a hard-drinking country to an abstimonious one. And by gum, they changed the Constitution.

Unfortunately, they didn’t foresee that this would form the breeding ground for organized crime, violence, and massive corruption, among other problems. It made ordinary citizens who desired nothing more than a drink into law breakers, thereby undermining respect for the law more generally. As horribly wrong as the Prohibition forces were, I respect the idealism of some of them, and admire their pluck and persistence. The leaders who built popular support and those who organized legislative change could teach us a few things.

We, of course, wouldn’t do anything as silly as Prohibition, would we? Ha-ha! The NY Times yesterday had an interesting story entitled (somewhat confusingly) Police Officers Find That Dissent on Drug Laws May Come With a Price. In brief, a border patrol agent was dismissed for saying to another agent that if marijuana were legalized, the drug-related violence at the border would cease. It turns out that an outfit call Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) supports this perspective, and includes 145 judges, prosecutors, and police offices, as well as an email list of 48,000.

These are courageous people. As one police officer said, “We all know the drug war is a bad joke. . . . But we also know that you’ll never get promoted if you’re seen as soft on drugs.” The very existence of LEAP suggests that the possibility of a more sane approach to regulating now-illegal drugs may be getting closer.