February 14, 2013

Crony capitalists make pitch for industrial policy in defence purchases

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Government, Military — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:02

Canada doesn’t really have a defence industry — certainly not in the sense of Britain, France, or the United States. We have some companies which happen to make products of use to the military (armoured vehicles, for example), but our government is not tightly tied to the fortunes of these companies in some sort of maple-flavoured Military-Industrial Complex. Some movers-and-shakers want to change that:

It goes without saying that the proposal to siphon funds to defence contractors is gussied up in industrial-policy jargon. For instance, we’re told how defence industries are “important sources of technological dynamism and innovation [and] leading-edge participants in global value chains.” (Who today isn’t part of a global value chain?) Also in keeping with current industrial-policy trendiness, the government is instructed to be strategically selective in KIC-starting the sector. “KIC,” you see, stands for “Key Industrial Capabilities,” which is what we’re told we should focus on.

But despite the alluring bells and whistles, the message to firms selling to the government is clear: Either pay up or forget about getting the contract. From now on, if the committee gets its way, how you plan to spread the industrial booty around the Canadian economy will weigh directly in the balance with how your product performs. The new fighter jet doesn’t accelerate quickly enough to elude missiles? Well, never mind that, it comes with a new plant in Mississauga. Shells pierce the new tank’s armour? Too bad. But the innovation spinoffs for Thunder Bay are just too good to pass up.

You might think that interpretation extreme. Surely safety for our soldiers and value-for-money for our taxpayers come first. But what else could be meant by the recommendation that bidders specify the industrial benefits they’re offering as part of their bid itself, rather than as an add-on after the performance characteristics of their product or service have won them the contract?

Suppose that instead of causing defence contracts to be inflated with offsets for Canadian industry, this committee consisting of a high-tech CEO, a former chief of staff at national defence, an IP specialist in a defence company, a retired general and Paul Martin’s one-time policy guru recommended levying a 5% tax on all government defence purchases and using the revenues thus generated to subsidize Canadian defence contractors?

I sent the original Globe and Mail URL to Jon saying, “The very last thing Canada should be attempting is to use government money to build a ‘defence industry’. Let the military buy what they need on the open market — regardless of country of origin — at market prices. The fetish to have a domestic defence industry is pure crony capitalism clothed in a “patriotic” fig leaf.”

The LCBO crowds out another private business

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Media, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:50

In the latest Ontario Wine Review, Michael Pinkus writes an obituary for Wine Access magazine and hurls “J’accuse!” at the Ontario government’s liquor monopoly for the murder:

Now there are some of you out there who will be asking how can the Ontario Liquor Monopoly put an Alberta-based magazine out of business — well it’s actually quite simple, if you’re willing to connect the dots: if you only have a certain amount of advertising dollars to spend in Canada how much are you going to allocate to the largest population in the country (Ontario); even more to the point, how much do you put into the Liquor Board willing to buy more product if you’ll spend more of your ad budget with them versus a magazine that might (or might not) increase your sales.

I have long advocated for the LCBO to cease publication of this magazine. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beauty of a publication — my wife fawns over the pictures every issue — but it’s a publication that competes against private enterprise, and the LCBO is after all an extension of the government — so what I, and many others have said is unfortunately true: the government in essence, taking thousands of dollars out of the hands of the companies that pay taxes, their own populace, and competing against them. Sure I hear many of you saying “finally my tax dollars hard at work”: but ask yourself this question: how would you like the government competing against your business?

People don’t see the problem with Food & Drink magazine because they aren’t in the publishing business and are not affected by its publication, but consider these numbers: in the Holiday 2011 issue of said magazine, an almost Sears catalogue sized edition, there were 308 pages total, 140 of those were advertising (not including product placement and promotions within editorial / advertorial which is no doubt paid for as well — and don’t forget the 6 hefty inserts included inside the plastic wrapper) … that’s money that was not spent with privately run magazines that could have, and most likely, would have. Here are some more numbers to boggle the mind. According to the Luxury Media Sales website a full page in F&D magazine is $20,588 (2012 rate) — that’s a lot of money the government of Ontario is taking from their tax paying private enterprise magazines (in a democratic, free market system — who would believe the government is competing against their own populace). Think about that kind of money funneling out of your business sector, your chosen profession or what you do for a living (it’s close to 3 million dollars – 140 x $20,588) … do you think you’d be making the kind of money you are now? Would you welcome that kind of competition? And before you crassly answer “sure, the government can’t do anything right” also put in the fact that they’re the biggest game in town and control what you sell. The nightmare scenario is the closing of your business due to unfair competition and lack of revenue (but it’s the government, so what can you do) — in the publishing game you just shuttered a magazine because of lack of revenue and unfair competition. If you’re RedPoint Media you close down Wine Access magazine.

So, in Clue fashion, who killed Wine Access? It was Colonel LCBO, in the wine cellar, with the government monopoly privilege.

Why raising the minimum wage won’t help the poor

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:22

Microsoft Excel: the most dangerous software on Earth?

Filed under: Business, Economics, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

I’ve made this case in conversation several times — usually after having to forensically determine just why someone’s spreadsheet produced an unlikely answer — the greatest strength of spreadsheets is also their greatest weakness. Anyone who’s built a spreadsheet knows how easy it is to make a mistake, and how hard that mistake can be to detect after the fact. Spreadsheets are free-form: you can set up relationships on the fly, pull data from one place to plug into a different formula somewhere else. It’s literally empowering to gain that much control over your data without having to learn a full programming language.

But that flexibility and power comes at a cost: there’s no built-in error checking of your assumptions. Oh, it’ll alert you to practical problems like mis-matched data types or mechanical errors in your formula, but can’t tell you whether the operation you’re attempting makes sense. The program can’t read your mind and can’t sanity check your work.

Do a spreadsheet for your family budget and you’ll almost certainly make a minor error or two.

Make a set of inter-linked spreadsheets and you probably double the chances of error for each new spreadsheet in the set.

Make a set of inter-linked spreadsheets that require manual copy-and-paste updates and you exponentially increase the chances of error.

Then, make that manually updated set of spreadsheets have a real-world impact on vast amounts of money:

To give you and idea of how important this is here’s a great tale from James Kwak:

    The issue is described in the appendix to JPMorgan’s internal investigative task force’s report. To summarize: JPMorgan’s Chief Investment Office needed a new value-at-risk (VaR) model for the synthetic credit portfolio (the one that blew up) and assigned a quantitative whiz (“a London-based quantitative expert, mathematician and model developer” who previously worked at a company that built analytical models) to create it. The new model “operated through a series of Excel spreadsheets, which had to be completed manually, by a process of copying and pasting data from one spreadsheet to another.” The internal Model Review Group identified this problem as well as a few others, but approved the model, while saying that it should be automated and another significant flaw should be fixed.** After the London Whale trade blew up, the Model Review Group discovered that the model had not been automated and found several other errors. Most spectacularly,

    “After subtracting the old rate from the new rate, the spreadsheet divided by their sum instead of their average, as the modeler had intended. This error likely had the effect of muting volatility by a factor of two and of lowering the VaR . . .”

To translate that into the vernacular, the bank, JP Morgan, was running huge bets (tens of billions of dollars, what we might think of a golly gee gosh that’s a lot of money) in London. The way they were checking what they were doing was playing around in Excel. And not even in the Masters of the Universe style that we might hope, all integrated, automated and self-checking, but by cutting and pasting from one spreadsheet to another. And yes, they got one of the equations wrong as a result of which the bank lost several billion dollars (perhaps we might drop the gee here but it’s still golly gosh that’s a lot of money).

And it’s not just JP Morgan: every financial firm, every bank, every brokerage uses Excel (or another spreadsheet program). Multiply JP Morgan’s experiences by the number of companies to get a rough idea of how much is at risk from un-audited (possibly even un-audit-able) financial models running on spreadsheets.

“A triumph for our culture of self-pity, narcissism and whining entitlement”

Filed under: Britain, Government, Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In sp!ked, Neil Davenport explains why the legal victory against workfare in England isn’t actually a good thing even for people in that situation:

… the case is still seen as a major coup. Joanna Long, a member of campaigning group Boycott Workfare, captured the mood of Reilly’s supporters: ‘Today’s ruling is a victory for the people against a government which thought it could compel unemployed and sick people to work without pay, backed by a vicious regime of sanctions which made the poorest far poorer.’ Really? Only in this victim-centred age could doing a few shifts at Poundland be seriously compared to forced slavery.

What the ruling in favour of Reilly is not, however, is a victory for ‘the people’. Rather, it is a triumph for our culture of self-pity, narcissism and whining entitlement. The new ruling will further cushion and cosset young people, relieving them of any impositions or pressures. And it will bolster the infantile notion that young people must be protected from the demands of becoming economically independent or hard working. In the long run, this will do the development of young people far more damage than a few weeks working for benefits.

[. . .]

In this sense, today’s ruling will bolster the idea held by some young people that the world really does owe them a living. The Reilly ruling seems to acknowledge officially that young people should not be expected to meet society’s requirement to work in case it damages their vulnerable self-esteem. It suggests that self-pity and a sense of entitlement is now far more laudable than simply overcoming life’s challenges or learning how to grow up.

Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the court came to such a decision. For the past two decades, the state has been keen to show that adult autonomy is not something people should exercise too much. So while the ruling looks like a victory for people power-style leftism against a (mainly) Tory government, in truth it is a demand for the state to look after us. It is an acknowledgement that we should forgo individual sovereignty for a close relationship with the all-watching, all-checking and autonomy sapping state. Whereas genuine radicalism was always a demand for autonomy from state regulators, today’s radicals aspire to be more tightly bound to state institutions. Any excuse to bolster state legitimacy and authority over us, even at the expense of a Tory government, will always appeal to elite-minded, undemocratic judges. Reilly and her supporters demand to be treated like children. Is it any wonder that a paternalistic state will oblige?

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