Lawrence Lessig, Tax-Payer "ReadyReturn" and Research Access

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sat, 29 Apr 2006 23:10:39 +0100

Lawrence Lessig, in Wired magazine, has written a brilliant allegory
on how a powerful status quo with profitable inefficiency can and will
lobby to try to block anything that favours a competing efficiency. --

Larry's example is California's withdrawal of a cheap, efficient
tax-filing system -- "ReadyReturn" -- much praised by tax-payers,
under pressure from lobbying on behalf of the tax-filing service
industry. Larry's point is that there is not an inefficiency under
the sun that cannot be defended, nor a potential benefit that cannot
be blocked, if the government hews to this sort of pressure from the
business status quo, protecting its current revenue streams at all costs
-- to the consumer, to society, or to the planet itself. Larry casts
this as government's being pro-business status-quo-preserving interests
instead of pro-competition, change and efficiency.

This may all sound familiar to the Open Access community from the
rocky fate of the RCUK self-archiving proposal, the still-birth of
the NIH "public access" policy, and even the inbuilt birth-defects of
the Wellcome Trust self-archiving policy (with its counterproductive
6-month embargo at science's all-important early-growth tip) --
although the Wellcome Trust, being a private charity rather than
a government agency, has had a freer hand, and the result has been
welcome and evident (and lately rightly rewarded with the SPARC Europe
Award for Outstanding Achievements in Scholarly Communications -- ).

All the more reason that the distributed network of universities and
research institutions should stop waiting for their cue from the
government or a big research funder in order to mandate what is as
surely in the best interests of research, researchers, and their
institutions as the (defeated) California tax ReadyReturn is in the
interests of the tax-payer. Indeed the tax-payer, being the
research-funder, is the beneficiary here too, if self-archiving is
mandated -- and the loser as long as it is not.

Distributed institutions have the advantage of not being fixed lobbying
targets, the way governments are. Indeed, the only conceivable basis for
hesitation by universities is fear of copyright infringement: This fear
is groundless, but mandating immediate deposit of the full-text without
mandating the setting of access privileges immediately to "Open Access"
-- --
effectively moots the copyright issue completely, deflecting any embargo
pressure from the deposit to the access-setting, and, most important of
all, allowing semi-automated eprint-emailing -- directly by individual
authors to individual eprint-requesters who discover the Closed Access
full-text from its Open Access bibliographic metadata (author, title,
journal, date, etc.) -- to tide over any delay period in setting full-text
access to Open Access.

So, unlike governments, the world-wide network of universities and
research institutions need not heed the lobby from interests vested in
preserving the restricted-access status quo at the cost of needless
research access-denial and impact-loss to research, researchers,
their institutions, and the public that funds them. They can mandate
immediate self-archiving immediately.

Stevan Harnad


Excerpted from Peter Suber's Open Access News

    Why government-provided OA isn't unfair competition for publishers

    Peter Suber: What's wrong with publishers lobbying Congress to
    stop the federal government from providing OA to publicly-funded
    research? What's wrong with AccuWeather lobbying Congress to stop the
    government from providing OA to publicly-funded weather data? Lawrence
    Lessig hits the nail on the head in his May column for Wired. --

    Excerpt (from Lawrence Lessig in Wired):

    "Imagine if tire manufacturers lobbied against filling potholes so
    they could sell more tires. Or if private emergency services got
    local agencies to cut funding for fire departments so people would
    end up calling private services first. And what if private schools
    pushed to reduce public school money so more families would flee
    the public system? Or what if taxicab companies managed to get a
    rail line placed just far enough from an airport to make public
    transportation prohibitively inconvenient?...

    "[T]his one, unfortunately, is true. In 2005, the state of California
    conducted an experiment. Hoping to make paying taxes easier, it
    launched a pilot program [called ReadyReturn] for people who were
    likely to file "simple returns."...Praise for the program [from
    taxpayers who used it] was generally over-the-top....Soon after
    ReadyReturn was launched, lobbyists from the tax-preparation industry
    began to pressure California lawmakers to abandon the innovation.
    Their opposition was not surprising: If figuring out your taxes were
    easy, why would anyone bother to hire H&R Block? If the government
    sends you a completed form, why buy TurboTax? But what is surprising
    is that their "arguments" are having an effect. In February, the
    California Republican caucus released a report highlighting its
    "concerns" about the program - for example, that an effort to make
    taxes more efficient "violates the proper role of government." Soon
    thereafter, a Republican state senator introduced a bill to stop
    the ReadyReturn program.

    "Inefficiency has become a virtue in government - and not
    just in California. Last year, the US Senate passed a funding
    bill with an amendment prohibiting the IRS from developing its
    own "income tax electronic filing or preparation products or
    services."...[I]ncreasingly, the [Republican] party - as conservative
    columnist Bruce Bartlett says of George Bush in his book, Impostor -
    is "incapable of telling the difference between being pro-business
    and being for the free market." It favors specific competitors rather
    than favoring competition....Such pro-business and anti-efficiency
    policies will continue to prevail until someone in our political
    system begins to articulate principles on the other side....Free
    markets aren't pro-business - they don't favor incumbent companies
    if upstarts do the job better. Competition is good wherever it
    comes from - even the government - so long as it lowers social
    costs and increases wealth. And efficiency is good regardless of
    who it might hurt; it is especially good if it hurts those who feed
    off inefficiency. Thus, lawyers are good, but a world that needed
    fewer of them would be much better. Doctors are great, but that's
    no argument against better health. And TurboTax is fantastic, but
    it shouldn't prevent the government from making paying taxes easier."
Received on Sun Apr 30 2006 - 06:57:17 BST

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