I wanted to ask the New York comptroller about the questions I raised in my
bootleg billions blog, so
I cast around for a respectable print publication I could do some reporting
for. The New York Sun bit, and said they’d
like to run the piece as an op-ed, so I got to work. I added some stuff I’d
forgotten to put in the original blog, fixed some dodgy trade-account figures,
and generally tightened things up. I also phoned the New York comptroller’s
office, but all I got out of them was a statement ducking any of my substantive
questions and saying that they stand by their numbers.
The piece ran in the New York
Sun this morning; it’s behind a subscriber firewall, however, so I’ve mirrored
it here. I first gave them
1100 words for one bit of the page; they then decided that they were going to
run it down the left-hand column instead, so I trimmed it to 950 words. All
went well: I even got an email titled "1st Edit for Read-back" to
make sure that I was happy with the final version. Here’s the final paragraph,
as they showed it to me before going to press:
That, of course, is pretty stupid. Estimates of the global trade in counterfeit
goods are only as good as their underlying data, which
necessarily must come from component states and municipalities. If the best
that New York can do is to work down from the global estimates, rather than
producing its own bottom-up analyses, then the main lesson that we can learn
from the whole exercise is that none of these numbers really means anything
When I picked up the paper this morning, however, the paragraph had been changed,
and now reads as follows:
That is hard to credit. Estimates of the global trade in counterfeit goods
are only as good as their underlying data, which necessarily must come from
component states and municipalities. We’re all for trying to block counterfeiting.
It’s a serious problem. But if the best that New York can do is to work down
from the global estimates, rather than producing its own bottom-up analyses,
then the main lesson that we can learn from the whole exercise is that none
of these numbers really means anything at all.
The New York Sun is trying to make a name for itself as a hard-hitting, feisty
newspaper, but it seems that even signed op-ed contributors aren’t allowed to
say that something is "stupid": now I know what "hard to credit"
really means when you see it in print.
I have a much bigger issue, however, with the two sentences that the Sun added
without running them by me at all – the ones which say "We’re all
for trying to block counterfeiting. It’s a serious problem." Firstly, there’s
no reason why the royal "we" should be used in a signed op-ed. I’m
not speaking for anybody else: I’m speaking for myself. I have no idea to whom
this "we" is supposed to refer: presumably it’s some inchoate group
of right-thinking individuals.
It speaks volumes, I think, that the Sun felt no compunction at all in adding
those sentences: it probably didn’t even occur to them that I might not be against
counterfeiting, or might not agree that it’s a serious problem. Actually, I
have very little opinion on the usefulness of trying to block counterfeiting:
in a world of competing priorities, I’m far from convinced that there aren’t
better things for law-enforcement agencies to be doing with their time. And
as for calling it a "serious problem", well, the entire thrust of
the article was that no one has a clue whether it’s a serious problem or not.
The big intellectual-property (IP) debate – call it EFF
vs Disney – is something that we bloggers are well aware of. In the real
world, however – and for these purposes we can assume that the New York
Sun op-ed page is part of that – I think there’s more of a kneejerk feeling
that strong IP laws are the bedrock of any advanced civilisation, and that fakes,
knockoffs and the like are a grave threat. My argument in the op-ed was not
that fakes are good, of course, it was simply that the anti-fake crew’s numbers
are bad. So I can see why the editors might have wanted to make that clear.
But, just for the record, I do not believe that counterfeiting is a serious
problem. A problem, maybe: a serious problem, no. Maybe if there were any reliable
statistics on it, I might change my mind.