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S

hraga Birans life offers a uniquely


Israeli success story. Born in Poland
in 1932, he was the lone member of
his family to survive the Holocaust, part of
which he spent in the forests with the Soviet
partisans. In Israel after the war, initially a
committed socialist, he lived briefly on a
kibbutz before becoming one of the coun-
trys most successful lawyer-businessmen.
Though he in fact profited fantastically
from his own work as a pioneer of the
privatization of public lands, and is today
part owner of the company that controls the
Dor-Alon gas stations and the Blue Square
supermarket chain in Israel, along with ex-
tensive holdings in the United States, Biran
remains distressed by the inequitable dis-
tribution of wealth and the persistence of
poverty around the world.
This month sees the release of an English
version of the book he published in Hebrew
in 2008, in which he outlines the steps he
believes need to be taken to ensure that
the new and, he believes, limitless wealth
being generated by the digital revolution
is spread around more widely and fairly.
In Opportunism: How to Change the
World One Idea at a Time (Farrar, Straus
& Giroux, 224 pages, $25 ), which has been
rewritten for an American audience, Biran
explains the failures of both the collec-
tive economies of the former Communist
bloc and of Reagan-Thatcher style neolib-
eralism. He argues not for revolution, but
rather for the redistribution of
the wealth not yet distributed
to those whose imagination and
initiative (their opportunism )
are creating that wealth. As part
of this effort, he offers several
suggestions for rewriting the
laws of intellectual property
that would be more appropriate
for the information age.
Opportunism is a dense
and serious book that should
serve less as a blueprint for
action than as a catalyst for
those considering the sys-
temic changes required to retool
the worlds best of times, worst of times
changing economy. Haaretz spoke with
Shraga Biran by phone from France, where
he was on a year-end vacation.

Q

Your book includes many ideas and a
lot of intellectual and economic his-
tory. What are the primary messages you
want the reader to walk away with?
A

We are at the beginning a new era, in
that we are witnessing the growth of
a new kind of wealth, produced by a new
socio-economic stratum. According to
the World Bank, for example, today about
85 percent of the wealth of nations is in-
tangible: not houses, or factories, or raw
materials. Rather, it consists of ideas, of
intellectual property. Also, 70 percent of
the wealth that exists today didnt exist
30 years ago. This new wealth is not per-
ishable: The more you use it, the more it
grows. So, the basic principles of scarcity
no longer apply. Hence, the institutions of
classical capitalism are no longer appro-
priate. That is my main thesis.
Q

Does this thesis also apply to the de-
veloping world, where the new wealth
may be less central to the economy?
A

Yes. Structural reforms are chang-
ing the developing world. By creat-
ing political and economic institutions that
advance the new class, they supply a plat-
form for the creation of new wealth. When
globalization began, the lefts critique was
that the outsourcing of industrial produc-
tion would create modern sweatshops in
China and in India. Look what happened in-
stead. Twenty five years ago, the Chinese
made less than $2 per person a day. There
was famine. Today, after structural re-
forms, the GDP there is more than $6,000
per person, and theres no famine. And on
the countrys eastern coast, where there
are some 600 million people, the figure is
2.5 times that. China makes the worlds
best products, including in the agriculture
sector. There is a whole new creative class
there, with new wealth, and more students
and scientists than anywhere else in the
world.
Q

Where does the 2008 crash fit into
your thesis?
A

The crash was not a cyclical event. It
was not a recession. It was structurally
caused, and it proved that the tools of neo-
liberalism which has dominated economic
theory for the past 30 years no
longer solve the problems.
Neoliberalism destroyed a
great deal of wealth, deprived
many people of their homes
and jobs, and destroyed en-
tire financial systems. Ronald
Reagan may have declared that
the problem was the state,
but in the last crash, it became
the solution the insurer, lend-
er, investor and the last-resort
guarantor to the entire financial
world. The free market god has
died. Neither neoliberalism nor
the central planning systems
solved the problem of poverty or of social
gaps. Today, 20 percent of Americans con-
trol 80 percent of the countrys wealth, and
1 percent controls 50 percent of the prop-
erty. Globally, more than one billion people
live on less than a dollar a day. The widening
of the gaps is a sign of failure, especially as
wealth continues to grow dramatically.
How can you make it so that more and
more wealth that is connected to the state,
or that the state creates as a regulator, is
distributed in a fair manner? Through so-
cial privatization. I say that, because the
new wealth is facilitated by the state the
intellectual property, the building rights,
the ability to create new institutions all
this creates the possibility of the state dis-
tributing the wealth, and, by way of af-
firmative action, of minimizing the social
gaps and minimizing poverty in these
states.
Q

This is the kind of language that makes
Americans see red. As soon as one
mentions redistribution of wealth, they
panic that its the advent of socialism.
A

But this is coming from the center,
not the left or the right. The problem
of poverty, inequality and unfairness in
the distribution of the new wealth is not
only a moral one. Creating an economic
basis for more people to join the new so-
cial stratum is an economic imperative.
Otherwise, the have nots will be a poten-
tial source of terrorism and unrest. When
[Barack] Obama came to power, everyone
was convinced that we were entering a
new era. Americans had voted for change.
But change didnt occur, and the economy
continued to operate by the models of the
Bush era. The shared prosperity did not
occur. The linking of wages to productivity
did not occur. Productivity had gone up 90
percent over 15 years, but wages remained
static. The crash was not caused by a short-
age of services or materials, but because
the demand side of the economy crashed.
I offer an alternative. Not a revolution:
Thats what a redistribution of the exist-
ing property would be. That hurts private
property and is undemocratic. But to dis-
tribute the undistributed wealth is another
story. I want to convince people that op-
portunity has turned into the essence, into
a property. Its possible today to reach any
place, at any time, to get information and to
develop yourself and the economic and so-
cial possibilities that you live in. But to re-
alize this, people need a minimal economic
basis. One must have free time, to be used
in a manner that can liberate you from the
immediate economic needs: a roof, a basic
income, health, the ability to acquire educa-
tion. I think the Swedish shared-prosperity
model is a good example. In a world that
is so rich with a majority of the population
which is so poor, the failure of the current
systems is evident.
Q

In the book, you call for rewriting
the laws of intellectual property so
that the people writing the new computer
algorithms, and other programs, can re-
tain ownership of their creations. But how
would it be possible for someone working
for, say, Microsoft or Google, to hold the
rights to things they have invented while on
the job? And is it even fair to demand that?
A

Most patent laws says you cant pat-
ent ideas. But I say that when they are
wealth-bearing ideas theres no reason
not to recognize them as property. My con-
cept is to give ownership to someone who
has created ideas that can create wealth.
As a possibility, for example, I suggest giv-
ing people the opportunity to register their
ideas in an idea bank, so that they would
maintain the possibility of receiving some
of the income from what they produce. Its
the most moral creativity of all.
Classical capitalism produced wealth
on the basis of sweatshops. The guys at
Google or at Facebook or Microsoft, people
who made so much new wealth, did so using
their brains. They didnt exploit someone.
It is moral wealth. They were successful in
patenting their ideas, but today most peo-
ple who create new ideas dont have that
opportunity. The basic idea of the structur-
al reforms concerning intellectual prop-
erty is to grant property rights to wealth-
bearing ideas. In the first phase, if its
clear that an idea may be fruitful, it should
be registered. This would make it acces-
sible to the public, but by creating wealth
in the future, it would guarantee that the
creator gets his share. Neoliberalism talks
about private property. But when it comes
to wealth based on ideas, why is there no
private property?
Q

Is there a way for employee and em-
ployer to share revenues?
A

Yes, its possible. But it needs to be
done in a fair way. To negate the owner-
ship from the producers of the algorithms,
why is that fair? The method of patent reg-
istration has existed for several hundred
years, and almost hasnt changed, even as
intellectual property became such an im-
portant element in the global economy.
Or, look at the crisis faced by publishers
of books and newspapers, because of the
Internet. Google wants to transfer 130 mil-
lion books onto the Web, the number appar-
ently extant in the world, and make them
available to the public. Its a new market.
The history of economics is the history of
markets. We need to find a solution for the
problem of writers, translators and editors,
so that they can survive. I say you need to
establish what I call a public market for pri-
vate goods. Perhaps Googles idea can help
solve the problem. You would have an in-
ternational Internet book market, by which
the creator would get a minimum of the rev-
enue. As the audience for his work grows,
his revenues grow. The more hits you get on
the Internet, the more you make. Once, to
get to the market, you had to go to the shuk,
to Mahaneh Yehuda [Jerusalems outdoor
market]; today you just need access your
computer. Go to Google Books. Its amaz-
ing. You can get to books you could never
get to before. Its like an Alexandria library
of the 21st century.
Its a matter of regulation, social regula-
tion. Everyone who talks about deregula-
tion is preventing this. If it serves the wider
public, its seen as socialism, but if it serves
a small elite, its good for the public?
David B. Green
A conversation with
Shraga Biran
The lawyer and businessman who believes the
information age offers an opportunity to end poverty,
if only the proper reforms are made
Que s ti ons & Ans wers
18 BOOKS )""3&5; January 2011 January 2011 )""3&5;
I suggest letting people
register their ideas in
an idea bank, so that
they can maintain the
right to receive some
of the income from
what they produce.