Quotulatiousness

October 9, 2014

The lightbulb cartel of 1924 and the birth of “planned obsolescence”

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Markus Krajewski writes about the formation of a multinational industrial cartel shortly after the First World War that helped create the very concept of “planned obsolescence” for (no) fun and (their) profit:

On 23 December 1924, a group of leading international businessmen gathered in Geneva for a meeting that would alter the world for decades to come. Present were top representatives from all the major lightbulb manufacturers, including Germany’s Osram, the Netherlands’ Philips, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, and the United States’ General Electric. As revelers hung Christmas lights elsewhere in the city, the group founded the Phoebus cartel, a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas. It was the first cartel in history to enjoy a truly global reach.

The cartel’s grip on the lightbulb market lasted only into the 1930s. Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent lightbulb. By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common. Cartel members rationalized this approach as a trade-off: Their lightbulbs were of a higher quality, more efficient, and brighter burning than other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. Indeed, all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for the consumer. In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence.

[...]

How exactly did the cartel pull off this engineering feat? It wasn’t just a matter of making an inferior or sloppy product; anybody could have done that. But to create one that reliably failed after an agreed-upon 1,000 hours took some doing over a number of years. The household lightbulb in 1924 was already technologically sophisticated: The light yield was considerable; the burning time was easily 2,500 hours or more. By striving for something less, the cartel would systematically reverse decades of progress.

The details of this effort have been very slow to emerge. Some facts came to light in the 1940s, when the U.S. government investigated GE and a number of its business partners for anticompetitive practices. Others were uncovered more recently, when I and the German journalist Helmut Höge delved into the corporate archives of Osram in Berlin. Jointly founded in 1920 by three German companies, Osram remains one of the world’s leading makers of all kinds of lighting, including state-of-the-art LEDs. In the archives, we found meticulous correspondence between the cartel’s factories and laboratories, which were researching how to modify the filament and other measures to shorten the life span of their bulbs.

The cartel took its business of shortening the lifetime of bulbs every bit as seriously as earlier researchers had approached their job of lengthening it. Each factory bound by the cartel agreement—and there were hundreds, including GE’s numerous licensees throughout the world—had to regularly send samples of its bulbs to a central testing laboratory in Switzerland. There, the bulbs were thoroughly vetted against cartel standards. If any factory submitted bulbs lasting longer or shorter than the regulated life span for its type, the factory was obliged to pay a fine.

Companies were also fined for exceeding their sales quotas, which were constantly being adjusted. In 1927, for example, Tokyo Electric noted in a memo to the cartel that after shortening the lives of its vacuum and gas-filled lightbulbs, sales had jumped fivefold. “But if the increase in our business resulting from such endeavors directly mean[s] a heavy penalty, it must be a thing out of reason and shall quite discourage us,” the memo stated.

The great Adam Smith, of course, saw this coming in 1776: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Some things never change.

October 6, 2014

Winners and losers when Wal-Mart (and Amazon) came along

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 18:33

William Shughart refutes the “dark side of Amazon” meme by pointing out what it was like before Amazon and Wal-Mart:

Before the advent of Wal-Mart, rural America was a retail desert. Small shops, limited product availability and, yes, “hometown service”. But the prices of most items were high because the only alternative to shopping locally was to drive to the nearest city or order through the Sears or JC Penney catalog and depend on timely delivery by the US mail in, it was to be hoped, an undamaged package. The downside of local retail shops (limited options and high prices) fell most heavily on low-income households, which may not have had an automobile or could not afford to take time off work to shop at larger urban retailers or even at local merchants, which typically closed at 5 p.m. Wal-Mart solved both problems in one fell swoop.

Sure, local retailers suffered losses of business and some were forced into bankruptcy, but consumers (the only group whose welfare matters in a free market economy) won big-time. Amazon has generated benefits for consumers many times larger than Sam Walton ever dreamt of.

But what about the jobs that disappeared in local retail outlets as Amazon and Wal-Mart drove costs (and prices) down by inventing markedly more efficient distribution networks and negotiating lower prices with manufacturers and other suppliers on behalf of millions of consumers with little bargaining power of their own? An economic system’s chief purpose is to create prosperity (wealth), not jobs. Creating jobs — at the point of a gun, as Josef Stalin proved, or as FDR did by drafting millions of men to shoulder arms against the Axis powers — is easy; creating wealth is not. Prosperity materializes only if existing resources (land, labor and capital) can be utilized more efficiently, squeezing out “waste” and redundancy so that resources can be released from current employments and redirected by alert entrepreneurs to the production of new products that consumers may not even know they want (an iPhone ten years ago, for example) until they become available.

Hightower bemoans the working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, a few of which literally become sweatshops during hot summer months. I am willing to bet, however, that if the people employed in one of Amazon’s “dehumanizing hives” (his phrase) were asked whether they wanted to quit their jobs, not one hand would be raised, especially so in an economy with an unemployment rate still hovering around six percent and a rate of underemployment twice that figure.

September 17, 2014

SpaceX and Boeing get NASA funding for 2017 deadline

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:11

In Ars Technica, John Timmer reports on the NASA decision to fund two of the three competitors for manned launches to the ISS:

Today, NASA administrator Charles Bolden announced that there were two winners in the campaign to become the first company to launch astronauts to low-Earth orbit: Boeing and SpaceX. The two will receive contracts that total $6.8 billion dollars to have hardware ready for a 2017 certification — a process that will include one crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

In announcing the plan, Bolden quoted President Obama in saying, “The greatest nation on earth should not be dependent on any other nation to get to space.” And he promoted the commercial crew program as a clear way of ending a reliance on Russian launch vehicles to get to the ISS. But Bolden and others at the press conference were also looking beyond that; several speakers, including Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana and astronaut Mike Fincke, mentioned that the ultimate goal is Mars.

To that end, Bolden emphasized that NASA is still doing its own vehicle and rocket development. The Orion crew capsule, intended to be suitable for missions deeper into the Solar System, recently underwent a splashdown test in the Pacific. Its first test flight aboard a Delta IV rocket is scheduled for this December. Work on the Space Launch System, a heavy lift vehicle that can transport the additional hardware needed for deep space missions, was also mentioned.

August 20, 2014

New report calls for Ontario to break up the LCBO

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Economics, Wine — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:33

In the Toronto Star, Richard Brennan reports on a new study by the C.D. Howe Institute calling for the province to join the modern era:

The “quasi-monopoly” LCBO and The Beer Store have hosed Ontario consumers long enough, a C.D. Howe Institute report says.

The right-wing think tank said the Ontario government should strip them both of their almost exclusive right to sell beer, wine and spirits, suggesting the report proves that opening up to alcohol sales to competition will mean lower prices.

“The lack of competition in Ontario’s system for alcoholic beverage retailing causes higher prices for consumers and foregone government revenue,” states the 30-page report, Uncorking a Strange Brew: The Need for More Competition in Ontario’s Alcoholic Beverage Retailing System, to be released publicly Wednesday.

The report includes tables comparing Ontario beer prices to other provinces with greater private sector involvement, particularly with Quebec, where a case of 24 domestic beers can be as much as $10 cheaper and even more for imported brands.

Since 1927, when the Liquor Control Act was passed, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and the privately owned Brewers Warehousing Company Limited have had a stranglehold on alcohol sale in the province.

“The Beer Store’s quasi-monopoly of beer retailing is … an anachronism,” the report says, referring to the foreign-owned private retailer that is protected by provincial legislation.

June 2, 2014

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Random Penguin and other publishing Monopoly players

Filed under: Business — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:32

A quite contrarian take on the upheavals in the publishing world by Hugh Howey:

A similar game is being played in the book industry today, as it has been played in many other industries. Here at BEA, I’m hearing a lot about monopolies. (And monopsonies, for those who prefer to quibble semantically rather than understand what is meant and forge ahead in productive conversation.) Practically everyone here at the book expo believes that Amazon has gotten too big, that they wield a disproportionate amount of power, and that they must be reigned in or defeated.

I am told, without exaggeration and in all seriousness, that Amazon wants to “crush their competition.” I hear that they want to “put everyone else out of business.” Two things are true, both of which make these statements ridiculous: The first is that Amazon most certainly doesn’t want all of their competitors to go out of business, because then they’d be the only game in town and the government would have no choice but to break them up. The second is that of course they are acting as if they want to put their competitors out of business. That’s how you improve your business practices. You try to out-do your competition.

Unless … you don’t understand at all what it means to compete. Which I think explains the righteous indignation. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

[...]

Ironically, the biggest losers in this shift have been yesterday’s villains. The massive brick and mortar discounters — who once were blamed for literature’s downfall, who sold “loss leaders,” who roughed up publishers in negotiations — have become the bulwark behind which all legacy hopes now hunker. Little explored is the possibility that Amazon is helping independent bookstores by clearing out these former predators.

When it comes to discounting and selection, B&N can’t compete with Amazon. When it comes to book browsing, Amazon can’t compete with curated independent bookstores. If you line the three sales models up from small indie stores to big discounters to Amazon, you’ll see that neighbors compete with and harm one another. Concurrent with the shuttering of Borders and the shrinking of B&N, we are also seeing a rise of indie shops. Coincidence? Or are we heading toward a future where Amazon and indie bookstores coexist because they provide two very different shopping experiences and fulfill quite separate needs?

Best estimates give Amazon roughly half of the book market. With the shutter of Borders, B&N now has a more disproportionate control of brick and mortar shelfspace than Amazon does of online book sales. This is especially powerful as the rest of the smaller bookstores have less leverage for bargaining with publishers. Who is the monopoly?

June 1, 2014

In the Progressive Era, “big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy”

Timothy Carney says we should know much more about socialist historian Gabriel Kolko and his careful debunking of the “Teddy Roosevelt as trust-buster” myth:

Every American knows the fable of the Progressive Era and that “trust buster” Teddy Roosevelt wielding the big stick of federal power to battle the greedy corporations. We would be better off if more people knew the work of the man who dismantled this myth: historian Gabriel Kolko, who died this month at age 81.

Kolko was a self-described socialist and a Harvard-educated historian, but he had little use for the liberal political establishment’s pious regard for the Progressive Era of 1900 to 1916. And he was never credulous enough to believe that government intervention in the economy was generally in the public interest.

For today’s politics, Kolko’s most important book was The Triumph of Conservatism, published in 1967. His thesis: “The dominant fact of American political life” in the Progressive Period “was that big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy.”

The standard history of the Progressive Period — which painted Teddy and the Feds as the scourge of Big Business — relied too much on the public rhetoric of TR and his cohorts. Kolko dug deeper to show how Big Business truly felt about Big Government, and how the Progressives truly felt about Big Business.

Many corporate titans in the early 20th Century, buying into the pervasive hubris of the day, believed that a state-managed economy was the inevitable end of a rational society — the conclusion of what Standard Oil’s top lobbyist Samuel Dodd called the “march of civilization.” Competition, in their eyes, was destructive redundancy.

[...]

Liberal scholar William Galston at the Brookings Institution explains the economics at play. “Corporations have sizeable cash flows and access to credit markets, which gives them a cushion against adversity and added costs,” he wrote in 2013, explaining why the big guys often welcome regulation. “[S]mall businesses often operate much closer to the margin and are acutely sensitive to policies that threaten to drive up costs.” Also, “CEOs can hire experts to help them cope with added regulatory burdens and can spread the costs over a large workforce.”

Kolko’s research smashed the favorite tales of the Progressive myth. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which included descriptions of rancid meat-packing plants, Roosevelt saw Sinclair as personally despicable, but a useful asset in his quest to impose federal meat inspection. Sinclair opposed Roosevelt’s regulation, and Kolko relates that “the big packers were warm friends of regulation, especially when it primarily affected their innumerable small competitors.”

By “conservatism,” Kolko meant “stability,” and preservation of the status quo. This is often the aim of corporate giants. It is consistently the consequence of federal action. And it is reliably the enemy of entrepreneurship, economic growth and free choice.

May 27, 2014

QotD: What capitalism should do now

Filed under: Business, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:13

Just as democracy can be corrupted by repressive populism, so can capitalism be perverted by “rent-seeking” — when people seek to gain more than the goods and services they produce are worth to others.

Sometimes they use political influence to sustain monopolies or to prevent new entrants and innovators from competing for custom. Sometimes they use governments to provide subsidies from taxpayers, or to prohibit cheaper imports.

Sometimes they do deals with governments that provide taxpayer funds to cushion losses derived from incompetence or recklessness. These forms of crony capitalism detract from capitalism’s real benefits and achievements.

What capitalism should now do is to free itself from these rent-seeking perversions and spread its benefits as widely as possible.

It should act against anti-competitive practices to give people instead the power of free choices between competing goods and services. It should spread ownership of capital and investment as widely as possible through such things as personal pensions and individual savings accounts.

It should lower the barriers to entry so that everyone can aspire to start up a business to bring goods and services to others. It should seek a tax system that rewards success rather than punishing it.

Capitalism should become inclusive, making it as easy and as attractive as possible for as many as possible to set aside some part of present consumption in order to invest some of their resources and their time in providing goods and services that others will want. It should become true capitalism.

Dr. Madsen Pirie, contributing to “Viewpoints: What should capitalism do?”, BBC News, 2014-05-26.

May 26, 2014

QotD: The “inevitability” of Austro-Hungarian collapse

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:48

These spectacular symptoms of dysfunctionality might appear to support the view that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a moribund polity whose disappearance from the political map was merely a matter of time: an argument deployed by hostile contemporaries to suggest that the empire’s efforts to defend its integrity during the last years before the outbreak of war were in some sense illegitimate. In reality, the roots of Austria-Hungary’s political turbulence went less deep than appearances suggested. [...]

The Habsburg lands passed during the last pre-war decade through a phase of strong economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity — an important point of contrast with the contemporary Ottoman Empire, but also with another classic collapsing polity, the Soviet Union of the 1980s. Free markets and competition across the empire’s vast customs union stimulated technical progress and the introduction of new products. The sheer size and diversity of the double monarchy meant that new industrial plants benefited from sophisticated networks of cooperating industries underpinned by an effective transport infrastructure and a high-quality service and support sector. The salutary economic effects were particularly evident in the Kingdom of Hungary. In the 1840s. Hungary really had been the larder of the Austrian Empire — 90 per cent of its exports to Austria consisted of agricultural products. But by the years 1909-13, Hungarian industrial exports had risen to 44 per cent, while the constantly growing demand for cheap foodstuffs of the Austro-Bohemian industrial region ensured the Hungarian agricultural sector survived in the best of health, protected by the Habsburg common market from Romanian, Russian and American competition. For the monarchy as a whole, most economic historians agree that the period 1887-1913 saw an ‘industrial revolution’, or a take-off into self-sustaining growth, with the usual indices of expansion: pig-iron consumption increased fourfold between 1881 and 1911, railroad coverage did the same between 1870 and 1900 and infant mortality decreased, while elementary schooling figures surpassed those in Germany, France, Italy and Russia. In the last years before the war, Austria-Hungary and Hungary in particular (with an average annual growth of 4.8 per cent) was one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

May 25, 2014

Russian rocket export ban means increasing opportunities for private enterprise in space

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:46

Strategy Page looks at the knock-on effects of the Russian government banning the export of rocket engines to the United States:

The U.S. government is being forced to use satellite launchers developed without government financing because the usual methods of obtaining these launchers is falling apart and currently is unable to supply enough rockets to get all American military satellites into orbit. The immediate cause of this problem is the recent (since earlier this year) Russian aggression against Ukraine. The U.S. responded to this aggression by placing sanctions on some Russian officials and firms. Russia responded to that by halting RD-180 shipments to the United States. That’s breach of contract and it will do enormous damage to Russian exports in the future because now many countries and firms realize that a contract with a Russian firm can be cancelled by the Russian government for any reason. This was always seen as a risk when doing business with Russia and many Western firms declined to do so or have pulled out of Russia in the last decade because of the growing unreliability of Russia as a business partner. The RD-180 affair got a lot of publicity, all of it bad with regard to future Russian exports of high-end industrial items. Europe, which gets about a third of its natural gas from Russia, is already looking for alternate sources and investors are fleeing Russia (and taking their money with them).

[...]

This is good news for the new private firms that are developing rockets for launching stuff into orbit. One such firm is SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) and is has been trying to break the current cartel controlling U.S. government satellite launch services. Since 2006 all this business has gone to a government-approved monopoly called the ULA (United Launch Alliance) which is composed of Lockheed Martin (Atlas 5 rocket) and Boeing (Delta 4). These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century. Because of the RD-180 the Atlas 5 is more attractive (in terms of performance and price) than the Delta 4. Meanwhile SpaceX expects to have Atlas 5 competitor ready in a few years.

In 2012 SpaceX obtained its first contract to launch U.S. military cargo into space. SpaceX had earlier obtained a NASA contract which included 12 deliveries to the International Space Station (at $134 million each). What makes all this so noteworthy is that SpaceX developed its own launch rockets without any government help. SpaceX also developed the Dragon space vehicle, for delivering personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has since proved that its rockets work and is pointing out that the SpaceX rockets can do the job cheaper that ULA. Currently ULA gets a billion dollar a year subsidy from the government that SpaceX would not require. SpaceX still has to get all the paperwork and approvals done so that they can handle classified missions. SpaceX does not see this as a problem, it’s simply going to take another year to satisfy all the bureaucrats and regulations.

QotD: Free markets and quality

Filed under: Business, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

A tender medallion of steak, a foaming pint of bitter and a crusty roll still hot from the oven — no wonder that Adam Smith chose an alliterative trio of artisanal food providers to make his point about the benefits of capitalism. If he had chosen a junk bond salesman, a fund manager, and a quantitative analyst, wielding a Gaussian copula in an effort to price a synthetic credit derivative, his defence of the market mechanism might not have resonated down the centuries in quite the same way.

Smith’s point was a good one. We are unlikely to give our custom to butchers who poison us, brewers who serve foul beer or bakers who overcharge; food sellers find it profitable to serve decent food at reasonable prices. The system needs some oversight — hygiene inspectors, trading standards officers, the Competition Commission — but the main engine of quality is the market mechanism. People prefer cheap and delicious food to food that is pricey and tastes horrid — and that fact alone delivers more than regulators ever could.

Tim Harford, “Why can’t banking be more like baking?”, TimHarford.com, 2013-11-05

May 16, 2014

The built-in confusion about net neutrality

Filed under: Business, Government, History, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:33

While I’ve been following the net neutrality debate, I was still unconvinced that either side had the answers. In a post from 2008, ESR helps to explain why I was confused:

Let it be clear from the outset that the telcos are putting their case for being allowed to do these things with breathtaking hypocrisy. They honk about how awful it is that regulation keeps them from setting their own terms, blithely ignoring the fact that their last-mile monopoly is entirely a creature of regulation. In effect, Theodore Vail and the old Bell System bribed the Feds to steal the last mile out from under the public’s nose between 1878 and 1920; the wireline telcos have been squatting on that unnatural monopoly ever since as if they actually had some legitimate property right to it.

But the telcos’ crimes aren’t merely historical. They have repeatedly bargained for the right to exclude competitors from their networks on the grounds that if the regulators would let them do that, they’d be able to generate enough capital to deploy broadband everywhere. That promise has been repeatedly, egregiously broken. Instead, they’ve creamed off that monopoly rent as profit or used it to cross-subsidize competition in businesses with higher rates of return. (Oh, and of course, to bribe legislators and buy regulators.)

Mistake #1 for libertarians to avoid is falling for the telcos’ “we’re pro-free market” bullshit. They’re anything but; what they really want is a politically sheltered monopoly in which they have captured the regulators and created business conditions that fetter everyone but them.

OK, so if the telcos are such villainous scum, the pro-network-neutrality activists must be the heroes of this story, right?

Unfortunately, no.

Your typical network-neutrality activist is a good-government left-liberal who is instinctively hostile to market-based approaches. These people think, rather, that if they can somehow come up with the right regulatory formula, they can jawbone the government into making the telcos play nice. They’re ideologically incapable of questioning the assumption that bandwidth is a scarce “public good” that has to be regulated. They don’t get it that complicated regulations favor the incumbent who can afford to darken the sky with lawyers, and they really don’t get it about outright regulatory capture, a game at which the telcos are past masters.

[...]

In short, the “network neutrality” crowd is mainly composed of well-meaning fools blinded by their own statism, and consequently serving mainly as useful idiots for the telcos’ program of ever-more labyrinthine and manipulable regulation. If I were a telco executive, I’d be on my knees every night thanking my god(s) for this “opposition”. Mistake #2 for any libertarian to avoid is backing these clowns.

In the comments, he summarizes “the history of the Bell System’s theft of the last mile”.

May 11, 2014

Market disruption and innovation

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:19

Innovation often leads to challenges to established markets. Existing players in those established markets have three choices when faced with a disruptive new competitor or technological change: they can innovate themselves, they can retrench and avoid direct competition, or they can do what most incumbents do — get the government regulators to fight their battles for them.

Market incumbents do not like disruption. Uber, the ride-sharing service that has loosened the stranglehold of the taxi cartels, has been the object of government attacks and vigilante attacks both. Various regulatory agencies have tried with varying degrees of success to shut it down, London’s taxi drivers are even as we speak promising “chaos” in response to the firm’s success, French vigilantes have attacked its drivers, and in Seattle — blessed Seattle! — self-styled anarchists are targeting its cars and drivers. “Anarchists” for state-enforced cartel economics to increase private profit — somebody is unclear on the concept, it seems.

A great deal of the program of the old Left — from its full-on Marxist wing to its Proudhonian anarchist wing — is in the process of being accomplished by 21st-century capitalism. The means of production have been radically democratized, with multi-billion-dollar firms springing up out of garages and dorm rooms. The privileged position of dominant old-line financiers is being undermined rapidly by innovations such as Kickstarter, which blurs the line between the altruistic and the consumerist. The life expectancy of large corporations has collapsed, from about 75 years in the 1960s to 15 years and declining today. When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon called for “a war of labor against capital; a war of liberty against authority; a war of the producer against the non-producer; a war of equality against privilege,” he certainly did not have in mind Uber or Outbox; his most famous motto was, after all, “Property is theft.” (I think there is rather more to his idea of property than that simplistic formulation communicates, but this is not the place for that particular essay.) But the characteristics of those firms — relatively modest capital requirements, subverting various kinds of political authority in the form of licensure and regulation enacted in the interests of market incumbents, empowering efficient producers to compete with rent-seeking non-producers, and, above all, undermining the privileged place of state-sanctioned monopolies and cartels — looks a lot more like what the 19th-century revolutionaries had in mind than the USPS does. If what you mean by “capitalism” is the East India Company, then capitalism is not very attractive; if what you mean by “capitalism” is Kickstarter, then it is.

Not that a man transported from the 19th century to our own time would recognize that. If we could transport M. Proudhon or any of his contemporaries to the here and now, their eyes would not register any economic system with which they were familiar at the sight of the daily wonders we take for granted. They wouldn’t see capitalism; they’d see magic. But the DMV, the USPS, the housing project, and the prison would all be familiar to their 19th-century eyes. Our choice is not really between neat ideological verities with their roots in Adam Smith or Karl Marx, but between the DMV and the Apple store. Each model has its downsides, to be sure, but it does not seem like a terribly difficult choice to me.

May 4, 2014

How to start a wine cellar (not applicable in Ontario)

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:21

In rational jurisdictions — where you don’t have a government-mandated monopoly supplier — following the advice of Will Lyons makes a lot of sense. For obvious reasons, wine fans in Ontario can only stare in envy at the concept of competitive pricing for wine and not being limited to what the government chooses to bring in for sale:

IF YOU ENJOY WINE, are starting to take more than a passing interest and have perhaps bought the odd reference book about vino varieties, it might be time to think about beginning your very own wine cellar.

The worst habit you can get into is to stop off at your local wine shop once a week and pick up the odd few bottles. A much better approach is to buy by the dozen or a six pack, as most wine merchants will offer a discount on a mixed case. Better still is to select two or three wine merchants, order their catalogs or look online and, when you’re in the mood, spend some time selecting your favorite wines and comparing prices. I like to do this on the weekend, with a cup of tea and all the catalogs spread out over the kitchen table.

But a cellar isn’t just a few cases of your favorite wine. It may sound like a cliché but a good cellar requires a bit of forethought and planning to provide pleasurable drinking over the long term. I like to break wine collecting into three categories: wines for immediate drinking, wines to lay down that will improve with age, and investment wines — those special bottles whose value will steadily increase year on year.

I started my own cellar soon after I left university and began working in the wine trade. I well remember buying a case of northern Rhône Syrah to lay down — I still have four bottles — and six bottles of a well-known New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc producer. I now buy most of my wine twice a year: during the bin end sales at the beginning of the year, when merchants are unloading old stock at discounted prices, and when a wine is offered En Primeur (wine futures). This is where the wine is put up for sale from the barrel, months before it is bottled and shipped. The advantages are that you can guarantee an allocation of your chosen wine, you can choose the size of the bottle it is shipped in and also secure it at a discounted price. However, the latter isn’t always guaranteed — Bordeaux 2010 being a case in point. Many of the wines are cheaper now than when they were when released En Primeur.

January 18, 2014

Austrian economics

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:35

Published on 26 Sep 2012

Steve Horwitz, Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University, explains what Austrian Economics is and what Austrian Economics is not, clearing up some common misconceptions.

This video is based on Steve’s essay by the same name:
http://www.coordinationproblem.org/2010/11/what-austrian-economics-is-and-what-austrian-economics-is-not.html

To learn more about Austrian Economics, visit http://www.fee.org

January 3, 2014

Virginia Postrel on “first world problems”

Filed under: Business, Economics, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 15:53

I’ve heard the term many, many times (and used it more than a few times as well), but as Virginia Postrel points out, it didn’t just happen by chance that there are “first world problems” we can mock-sympathize over:

Third world conditions are defined not merely by economic misery but by unreliable services. “At the age of fourteen I had experienced a miracle,” writes Suketu Mehta in Maximum City, his critically acclaimed 2009 book on Mumbai. “I turned on a tap, and clean water came gushing out. This was in the kitchen of my father’s studio apartment in Jackson Heights [New York]. It had never happened to me before. In Bombay, the tap, when it worked, was always the first step of a process” taking at least 24 hours to produce drinkable water. Mehta’s family lived an affluent life but with third world problems.

By contrast, in a developed country, barring a major natural disaster, you can count on uninterrupted electricity, hot and cold running water, sewage disposal, garbage pickup, heat (and in hot climates, air conditioning), telephone service, Internet access and television. The roads and bridges will be in decent repair; the elevators will work; the ATMs will have cash; and you’ll be able to find a decent public toilet when you need one.

These things aren’t necessarily free, but they’re cheap enough for pretty much everyone to enjoy them. Most significantly, they’re ubiquitous and reliable. Even when natural disasters strike, we can expect heroic efforts to get things back to normal. Under normal circumstances, we can depend on these services to be there consistently and to work as promised. We can make plans accordingly. That’s a first world privilege.

[...]

It took years of sustained efforts by online retailers and delivery services to make overnight orders realistic. It also took dissatisfaction: insanely demanding companies working to please insanely demanding customers — or, in some cases, to offer customers services they hadn’t even thought to ask for — as each improvement revealed new sources of discontent.

“Form follows failure,” is what Henry Petroski, the civil engineering professor and prolific popular writer, calls the process. Every step forward begins with a complaint about what already exists. “This principle governs all invention, innovation, and ingenuity; it is what drives all inventors, innovators, and engineers,” he writes. “And there follows a corollary: Since nothing is perfect, and, indeed, since even our ideas of perfection are not static, everything is subject to change over time.”

Rising expectations aren’t a sign of immature “entitlement.” They’re a sign of progress — and the wellspring of future advances. The same ridiculous discontent that says Starbucks ought to offer vegan pumpkin lattes created Starbucks in the first place. Two centuries of refusing to be satisfied produced the long series of innovations that turned hunger from a near-universal human condition into a “third world problem.”

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