Quotulatiousness

April 14, 2014

In defence of limited corporate liability

Filed under: Business, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:47

The RSS feed that used to track Megan McArdle’s posts at Bloomberg View has been on the fritz for a couple of weeks, so I missed this article when it was posted earlier this month:

The argument for unlimited liability isn’t just a libertarian evergreen; it’s also something you occasionally hear from the far left, because it would basically make the corporate form untenable. Imagine, if you would, that by buying and holding the share of a firm for 10 minutes, you thereby subjected yourself to seizure of all your goods to satisfy potential lawsuit judgments — even if those judgments involved behavior that involved no legal liability at the time of the acts.

Not possible? That’s basically what happened with asbestos liability. Firms that had had no legal liability under the doctrines of the times in which the asbestos was sold or used suddenly found themselves driven into bankruptcy by massive settlements. Moreover, after the first wave of lawsuits exhausted the funds available to pay asbestos claims, plaintiffs’ lawyers started pushing to expand the number of pockets that could be dipped into.

A company that had never manufactured asbestos could be sued and have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on lawsuits and settlements because it had once bought a company with an insulation division that had formerly manufactured asbestos — even though it had immediately sold off that division in the process of completing the merger. Insurers could be forced to pay out for the whole of a company’s liability if they had sold a company insurance for even a year between the time a company started making or using asbestos and the time that the plaintiff discovered the harm. And “harm” wasn’t limited to getting sick; you could sue for the emotional distress of worrying that you might get sick.

Kind of hard to imagine becoming a shareholder under those circumstances, isn’t it? Maybe you’d better put your money in the bank — a small, privately held bank, of course. Commerce would look something like it did in medieval Italy, where all economic activity was basically organized by the family or the partnership.

Growth would have to be financed by debt or by retained earnings. That’s how British firms financed expansion in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. It’s how small businesses tend to finance expansion now.

The traditional libertarian answer is “insurance”, but that’s a non-starter as well.

To which I answer: What insurance company?

Insurers are also corporations, and their owners get the same valuable shield from liability that everyone else gets from the corporate form. They may have shareholders, or they may be mutually held by their policy holders, but either way, someone is getting protection from lawsuit by the same laws that protect General Motors Co. This sort of liability shield is vital for any large aggregation of capital requiring lots of contributors — which is basically the definition of an insurance company.

November 15, 2013

Corporations and social responsibility

Filed under: Business, Government, Law — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:17

In this week’s Goldberg File email, Jonah Goldberg talks about the notion that corporations should operate with an eye to “social responsibility”:

Milton Friedman was famously opposed to the whole idea of “corporate social responsibility.” His argument was that corporations have a single obligation: to maximize profits for shareholders. When CEOs spend money on gitchy-goo feel-good projects, they are exceeding their authority and wandering outside the lines of their job description. I’ve always been very sympathetic to this view. If you asked me to invest $10,000 dollars in your startup company and then I found out you spent $5,000 of it to sponsor a program to teach prison-gang members to settle their disagreements by acting out scenes from Little Women, I’d be pretty pissed. That’s not why I gave you the money. And it’s pretty shabby of you to buy fame and praise for your generosity while spending someone else’s money. Indeed, it’s not much less selfish than blowing it on a three-day bender with the mayor of Toronto.

There are lots of different takes on this argument and, because this is my “news”letter, I choose not to deal with most of them. My problem with the profit-maximizing-über-alles creed for Big Business is that it offers no principled or moral reason for Big Business to stay out of Uncle Sam’s bed. If the federal government can make it rain Benjamins for any business willing to twerk for its amusement, why should GE or Big Pharma or the insurance companies demur?

Of course, some businessmen understand the risks of getting in bed with the government. But, since there’s lots of money to be made, there will always be other businessmen perfectly happy to put on the French-maid uniform and bark like a dog.

Even Adam Smith said, “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.” That’s true. What’s even more true is that when government officials and business leaders sit down to talk, the inevitable result is a new “public-private partnership” that uses government force to limit competition from non-whorish corporations. Railroad magnates lobbied for the Interstate Commerce Commission. AT&T asked the government to make them a monopoly in the name of “efficiency” so they could clear the field of competition. Andrew Carnegie wanted government control of the steel industry so he could rely on Uncle Sam to guarantee his profit margins. GE loves Obama’s green-energy stuff, because without the inherent subsidies and regulations, it couldn’t make money off of its green tech.

I have no problem with contractors doing work for the government. It’s better that the guys building roads and bridges work for the private sector. But when big businesses agree to make the country less free, the market less competitive, Americans less prosperous, and the state more powerful just to make a few more bucks for their shareholders, it makes me think that Milton Friedman was wrong. We need a free-market version of corporate social responsibility. We need to equip businessmen with an ethical code that tells them there’s a principled reason not to get in bed with the government. They’d still be free to violate that principle, of course, but if they did, I hope they’d have the good sense not to come running to us to complain that the government has asked them to eat a bowl of dogsh**t.

September 25, 2013

“SaaS: STRIPPERS as a SERVICE”

Filed under: Business, Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:58

The Register‘s headline perfectly encapsulates the dispute between Oracle/American Express and a high-end strip club:

A San Francisco strip club is suing Oracle after the tech goliath refused to pay a $33,540 bill allegedly racked up on the company credit card.

Larkin Street’s New Century Theater has filed a lawsuit claiming a man — named in the legal paperwork as Jose Manuel Gomez Sanchez — slid into the sexy flesh-pit last year and partied through the night.

It’s alleged he used an Oracle-issued American Express card between 1am and 5am to pay for $16,490 of undisclosed services on 2 October — right in the middle of Oracle’s OpenWorld 2012 conference in the city — and then returned two days later to splurge $17,050.

According to the San Fran Chronicle, Oracle was not willing to settle the subsequent bill. The database giant, easing itself into the software-as-a-service market, declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was submitted earlier this month to the Superior Court of California in San Francisco. The next hearing will take place in February. Sanchez is named as a defendant along with Oracle.

I’m not a lawyer, but it strikes me as a bad idea for Oracle to dispute the charges on the Amex card unless there are strong indications of “creative” billing on the part of the strip club. Just because they disapprove of how their employee racked up the charges doesn’t mean they can stiff the vendor.

Corporate culture, entitlement and unearned benefits

Filed under: Business — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:09

I’ve never worked in the investment banking world, but even at the tech companies I’ve worked for over the years, I saw smaller versions of the kind of behaviour that Chris Tell says are sure-fire signs of a toxic corporate culture:

It was the late 90′s, markets were booming and the only thing that seemed to be flowing faster than the pints on a typical Thursday night in the city of London’s watering holes, was of course the money.

Living it up … great food, expensive cocktails — in fact the more expensive the better — that was the prevailing attitude. Never on your own dime of course.

This wasn’t unique to Lehman, who I was with at the time, or to any other bank for that matter. I contracted to a handful of the big names, and they were all abusers.

It was, and still is deeply ingrained in much of the investment banking corporate culture. It’s also been a cancer in many of the businesses I’ve researched over the years.

I now have zero tolerance for it as an investor and business owner, despite the fact that I was more impressionable when younger.

Back then, being young and naive, working for a fancy-pants IB, I was awestruck by my bosses spending hundreds of pounds in a drinking session. As I look back I’m embarrassed for thinking that these wealthy parasites where gods of some kind. The more they spent … the bigger an asshole they were … the more they were idolized and revered!

As far as I could tell most of my fellow inmates had applied to an ad that read something like: Arrogant, obnoxious, self-aggrandizing types being accepted now.

[...]

Humans have a desire for fairness but also love a free lunch. These two aspects work against each other.

Soon one manager sees another manager ordering lobster at lunch and thinks to himself, “Screw it, if he’s getting it so should I.” Rapidly a culture of entitlement develops where mysteriously, corporate travel, apartments, dinners, drinks and other things that have little to no ROI start burning up the expense accounts. These folks rarely stop to consider the impact of their actions, while somehow believing that they have “earned it” and indeed “deserve it.”

I was never able to put my finger on it at the time, but having subsequently spent the majority of my adult life researching and investing in early-stage businesses, I now have a keen eye for spotting this, and will never invest in businesses which allow this type of culture to gain footing.

Once let in the door it grows like a cancer and completely destroys shareholder value.

Incidentally, it’s not distinctly different to how career politicians view themselves. They actually believe that what the do, day in and day out is worth something more than it is. That it’s somehow more than just community service, and they should be compensated in the fashion that they (currently — hopefully temporarily) are.

September 4, 2013

Corporations are (legally) people

Filed under: Business, History, Law, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 16:26

At Not Quite Noahpinion, Josiah Neeley explains why the legal notion of corporate personhood was actually intended as consumer protection:

Contrary to popular impression, corporate personhood did not start with Citizens United. In fact, corporate personhood dates back to the old English common law, where it was originally conceived as a consumer protection measure.

Suppose I buy meat from a butcher and it makes me sick. I might wish to sue the butcher for damages. But suppose that I bought the meat not from an individual butcher but from Acme Meat, Inc. It was a central doctrine of the common law that only persons could sue or be sued, own property, or make legally binding contracts. So if a corporation is not a person, I am out of luck. The response to this was to treat corporations as legal persons, who could sue or be sued, make and enforce contracts, buy, sell, and hold property, and so on.

Of course, courts could have granted corporations all the same rights, abilities and duties without calling them persons. But this would have been merely a semantic difference. Once a society decides to have corporations, it has to grant them something along the lines of legal personhood if for no other reason than to protect those who deal with it.

Likewise, once a society decides to grant corporations the right to own property, it is absurd to deny them constitutional protections. The New York Times, the AFL-CIO, and the Sierra Club are all corporations. But it would be ridiculous if the government tried to use those organizations’ corporate status as a justification for regulating the editorial position of the New York Times, or controlling the advocacy position of the Sierra Club or the AFL-CIO.

[...]

More than 150 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his Democracy in America that the genius of the American political tradition lay in what he called associations but what in today’s terminology we would call corporations. In Europe, to advance some political, social, or economic cause required some wealthy patron. In America, by contrary, groups of people who individually might not have had deep pockets could come together and pool their resources by founding an organization to advance the cause.

Far from being a tool of repression, corporations advanced the interests of democracy and equality by allowing the little guy to organize to accomplish what otherwise could only be achieved by the very rich. Ending corporate personhood would not stop billionaire individuals like the Koch brothers or George Soros from using their wealth to affect the political process, but it would hamper small grass roots organizations which choose to use the corporate form. Ultimately, the long tradition of corporate personhood represents not a threat to democracy, but a support of it.

August 1, 2013

QotD: Banksy and the lumpenintelligentsia

Filed under: Britain, Business, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:08

Better still is Banksy’s satirical picture, this one on a wall in London’s Essex Road, of two small children pledging allegiance, with hand on heart, to a Tesco plastic bag on a flagpole — actually an electric cable — being run up like a flag by a third child. Tesco is Britain’s largest supermarket chain, and its plastic bags, white with blue stripes and red lettering, litter the countryside, often flapping from trees or disfiguring hedgerows.

Of course, Banksy, as a spoiled child of a consumer society in which real shortage is unthinkable, has all the unexamined anticapitalist prejudices of the lumpenintelligentsia to whom he appeals. But it would be wrong to dismiss the satire of this image out of hand. Tesco, after all, issues a “loyalty card” called a Clubcard; every customer is asked at the checkout, now sometimes by machine, whether he has such a card. The card’s name implies that shopping repeatedly in the stores of one giant corporation rather than in those of another, in the hope of a small price rebate, constitutes membership in a club. You don’t have to be anticapitalist to think that such an idea debases the concept of human clubbability. (In the same way, the word “solidarity” is degraded in France by its association with the payment of high taxes extracted from citizens by force of law.) It is no new thought — but not therefore a false one — that at the heart of consumer society is often a spiritual vacuum, at least for many people. They fill the vacuum with meaningless gestures, such as loyalty to brands almost indistinguishable from one another. I have known murder committed over brands of footwear. Banksy’s image captures, both succinctly and wittily, the vacuum and what fills it.

You also don’t have to be anticapitalist to acknowledge that the power of corporations like Tesco is not altogether benign. The small and beautiful town in which I live when I am in England illustrates this. When my next-door neighbor decided to restore and redecorate his house, which dated from 1709, the local council’s conservation department demanded that the new lead flashing on his roof, invisible from the street, be stamped with a design of bees, presumably because it had been so stamped at some time in history. Certainly conservation is important and cannot be left entirely to individuals. But why was my neighbor bullied in this fashion when Tesco was permitted to open a store not 100 yards away with a frontage completely out of keeping with the town — an eyesore that affects the town’s aesthetic fabric infinitely more than the absence of bees on my neighbor’s invisible lead does? The great majority of British towns have been ruined aesthetically in a similar way, their main streets becoming dispiritingly uniform and ugly, no doubt through some combination of corporate power, bribery, and administrative incompetence. Bullying people like my neighbor is perhaps the officials’ overcompensation for their cowardice or dishonesty in the face of corporations. Banksy’s image therefore has some satirical depth to it.

Banksy’s attitude toward authority and property rights is the standard hostility of the lumpenintelligentsia. Here he is particularly hypocritical because, while maintaining that pose of hostility, he employs lawyers, owns private companies, and is reputed to be highly authoritarian in his dealings with his associates. Inside every rebel, goes the saying, there’s a dictator trying to get out.

Theodore Dalrymple, “The Discriminating Philistine: Banksy’s wit and talent don’t excuse his vandalism and juvenility”, City Journal, 2013-06

June 16, 2013

Latest installment of the corporate tax crusade

Filed under: Britain, Business — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:16

In Forbes, Tim Worstall explains why a company that has paid full corporate taxes on its income has no further legal or moral obligation to pay more:

Read that through again: they’re saying that the company has already paid full corporation tax on that money. And we don’t tax dividends going to people in foreign countries. Whatever the tax rate is there, we simply don’t tax them. Because of course that’s up to the country where the money goes to to tax: it’s not actually something that is taxable in the UK. For, obviously, they’ve already paid the full corporation tax due.

But it does actually get better. Those dividends, paid out of post tax (and do please note, post tax) profits wouldn’t be subject to further corporation tax in the UK either:

    The general rule is that dividends paid by a UK company to another UK company out of post-tax profits are exempt from further taxation.

That the recipient corporation is in the British Virgin Islands thus makes not one whit or iota of difference to the amount of corporation tax payable. So this is all really a rather strange complaint. Perhaps the newspaper has just got caught up in the frenzied atmosphere over the subject.

[. . .]

As to why this story is being blown up allow me to offer some speculation. There’s a group of people who are quite vociferous in their demands that the corporate tax system must be radically changed. Richard Murphy (who just for complete disclosure, used to write here at Forbes) is one of the leading lights of that group. Various members of the loose knit group have been behind all sorts of claims about Vodafone, Boots, Starbucks, Google, Apple and a number of other companies. The problem with the claims is that none of them have really stuck. There’s been absolutely no finding of illegality anywhere.

The claim has thus moved onto, well, OK, so it’s not illegal: all of these companies are indeed obeying the law. But we still don’t think they’re paying enough tax. Therefore the law must be changed simply because we think they should be paying more tax. Which is, when you think about it, a fairly extreme claim. Companies should pay more tax because a group of 20 or so people demand that they should be doing so?

May 25, 2013

Ireland’s corporate tax rate

Filed under: Business, Economics, Europe — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:01

At the Adam Smith Institute, Tim Worstall explains why Ireland has — and should continue to have — a low rate of corporate tax:

Companies don’t pay corporation tax: it’s some combination of the shareholders and the workers who do. This is not a point in argument: the only argument is about what the portions are, not the fact that the burden falls upon these two groups. We also know what it is that influences which group: it’s how large the economy is in relation to the world economy and how open it is to capital movement. The smaller and more mobile, the more the workers get it in the neck.

The mechanism is simple enough. It’s pretty much straight from Adam Smith in fact. There’s an average rate of return to capital: a jurisdiction that taxes that return to capital will have a return lower than that global average. So, some domestic capital will flow out seeking the higher foreign returns, some foreign capital will not flow in for the lower domestic ones. There’s thus less capital employed in the economy. Adding capital to labour is what drives up the productivity of labour: the average wages in a country are determined by the average productivity in that economy. So, tax companies, get less capital employed, wages are lower than they otherwise would be. The workers are bearing part of the burden.

As I say, the smaller the economy and the more open it is then the more of that burden is upon the workers. And in a wonderful result back in 1980 Joe Stiglitz showed that the burden upon the workers can actually be more than 100%. That is, the workers lose more in wages than the government gets in tax.

Ireland’s a small economy, 3.5 million people or so and as it’s in the EU has about as close to perfect capital mobility as it is possible to get. Thus it ought to have a lower corporation tax rate than larger economies. And it does, so that’s just fine then. Attempts to push it up (as various EU types are currently muttering) would simply lower wages in that country.

May 4, 2013

Ron Paul on the so-called “Marketplace Fairness Act”

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:28

As you probably guessed, he’s against it:

David French, Senior Vice President of the National Retail Federation, the major industry group lobbying for the so-called “Marketplace Fairness Act,” (more aptly named the “National Internet Tax Mandate”) recently commented that “…the law [governing Internet sales] today is a 20th-century interpretation of an 18th-century document…” Mr. French’s comments are typical of those wishing to expand government power beyond the limits established by the United States Constitution.

[. . .]

The National Internet Tax Mandate overturns the Supreme Court’s 1992 Quill v. North Dakota decision that states can only force businesses to collect sales tax if the business has a “physical presence” in the state. Quill represented a rare instance where the Supreme Court properly interpreted the Commerce Clause. Thanks to the Quill decision, the Internet has remained a tax-free zone, though some states require consumers to later pay taxes on products they purchased online. This freedom has helped turn the Internet into a thriving and dynamic sector of the economy, to the benefit of entrepreneurs and consumers.

Now that status is threatened by an alliance of big business and tax-hungry state governments seeking new powers to force out-of-state business to collect state sales taxes. Far from updating the Constitution to fit the needs of the 21st century, the National Internet Tax Mandate is a throwback to 18th century mercantilism.

The National Internet Tax Mandate will raise the costs of doing business over the Internet. Large, established Internet companies, such as Amazon, can absorb these costs, whereas their smaller competitors cannot. More importantly, the Mandate’s increased costs and regulations could prevent the creation and growth of the next Amazon.

April 25, 2013

Populist talk on taxes may please the voters (sometimes), but it won’t help the economy

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In Maclean’s, Stephen Gordon explains why the only kind of tax hikes that seem in any way “popular” are particularly bad if implemented:

Magical thinking might be smart politics, but it’s not very good economics. Here are the two most popular themes:

  1. Higher corporate income taxes. From a political marketing point of view, the appeal of increasing corporate income tax (CIT) rates is obvious: “Hey, I’m not a corporation, so it’s no skin off my nose.” But the economics of CIT rates are very dodgy indeed: higher CIT rates are the most costly way of generating revenue and are most harmful to economic growth. It also turns out that workers and consumers are the ones who ultimately bear the burden of higher CIT rates. (If you start taxing corporate profits, shareholders will eventually move their money to jurisdictions with more competitive rates, reducing the availability of investment capital. In the long-run, that results in lower output and weaker labour demand. More on that here.) But even if you were willing to pay these costs, higher CIT rates don’t generate much in the way of new revenues.
  2. Increased taxes on high earners. While there may be good reasons for wanting to use the personal income tax system to counter recent trends in the concentration of income, policymakers should be under no illusions about how much new revenue taxing the rich will bring in. There simply aren’t that many high earners to tax, and they have access to expert tax planning advice: there is overwhelming evidence showing that those with high incomes can and will respond to higher tax rates by reporting lower taxable income.

March 11, 2013

Science fiction’s blindspot on the looming corporate menace of the future

Filed under: Business, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:36

Kevin Williamson wonders why the dystopic corporate giant of so many science fiction books and movies doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to reality:

That the future will be dominated by amoral international (or interstellar) corporations is a constant theme of science fiction and, not unrelatedly, of progressive political thought. The rogues’ gallery includes Cyberdyne Systems (Terminator), Weyland-Yutani (Alien), Omni Consumer Products (Robocop), and Charlton Heston’s friends at Soylent Inc. The gold standard of the genre is the Tyrel Corporation, from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The film, which is indisputably a visual masterpiece, is much heavier on the theme of corporate dominance than the novel is, which is strange: The corporation of 1982 was a smaller and weaker thing than the corporation of 1968.

At its best, science fiction imagines a future that illuminates the present, but on the subject of the social role of the corporation, science fiction has long been backward-looking, out of touch with the reality it would analyze. The cultural imagination at large shares this error, though it is difficult to say how much this defect in science fiction is a result of the cultural error and how much it is the cause. But it would be difficult to overstate how deeply the specter of the villainous corporation shapes American political thought. The influence is more visible the farther to the left one moves along the political spectrum. Occupy Wall Street was probably at least as much influenced by science-fiction visions of corporate dystopias as it was by any kind of organized political thought. There were unmistakably Maoist elements to Occupy, but the sinister connotations of the very word “corporation” are by no means heard by only those ears attached to the addled heads of committed leftists.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was set in 1992, Blade Runner in 2019, yet here we are, well into the 21st century, and there is still no colossal Tyrel Corporation bestriding the globe, and nothing like the corporate sovereignties of Jennifer Government. As myth, the corporate dystopia remains undiminished in its power. But the function of myths is to illuminate reality, and the reality is that there is no Tyrel Corporation today, and none on the horizon. If you want to know what the corporation of tomorrow looks like, don’t think Cyberdyne — think Groupon.

You would not know it from reading fiction, speaking with Occupy types, or listening to the speeches at the Democratic National Convention, but the corporation as we know it is in decline: The average size of a corporation as measured by personnel has been diminishing since 1975. In 1955 the largest U.S. company, General Motors, employed 576,000 people out of a U.S. population of 166 million; today Exxon Mobil, the largest U.S. company, employs only 82,000 people. Microsoft employs fewer than 100,000 people worldwide; Google employs about 54,000, and Facebook fewer than 6,000.

January 11, 2013

In praise of mergers and takeovers

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:15

In The Register, Tim Worstall points out that most mergers lose money, but that they’re good for the economy anyway:

The final one of the four is the vital part that takeovers play in the clean up of the economy’s failures. Take a company that goes bust. The whole point of bankruptcy proceedings is to make sure that its assets aren’t then left, orphaned, or chained to an unpayable debt. The idea is to get them off into someone else’s hands where they might be put to good use. This is true of contracts, or the workforce, of the land and any other asset. It might be that the machinery is worth most as scrap. Or the factory is worth most as a supermarket. Or it could be that the OS coders and their desks would be best put to writing games: but under different management.

And it’s this last part of the whole system that our economists think is the most important. When failure happens, the vital thing is to clean up the mess and quickly. Don’t leave potentially useful assets orphaned but auction them off and get them working again. The price that is realised doesn’t matter very much at all: from the view of the entire economy, getting people and assets back to work pronto is the vital part. So important is this that we’re urged to overlook all of the above problems with takeovers and mergers to allow this part of it to function as efficiently as possible.

Yes, most takeovers lose money for the shareholders of the company doing the buying. This is often because the interests of the management diverge from those of those owners. Similarly, many companies are kept running longer than they should be for those selfish management reasons. But we put up with all of that (although try to constrain it) so that the scavenging upon the assets of the bankrupt can be as efficient as possible. For this is the very heart of the success of capitalism: Not how the successful make profits, but how the system deals quickly and cleanly with failure.

December 12, 2012

“Big Food” is killing us!

Filed under: Cancon, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:59

At sp!ked, Rob Lyons debunks a recent video by Canadian anti-corporate activist Dr. Yoni Freedhoff:

This is a handy menu of food-related government intervention that is trotted out all the time by food crusaders everywhere. But before we get to those interventions, maybe we should ask how we got here in the first place.

First, food got cheaper while, on average, we’ve been generally getting richer. In particular, if America is anything to go by, we spent less as a proportion of income on meat and dairy products — surprisingly, spending on fruit and veg has been pretty constant — and more on processed foods and sweets. In other words, we bought convenience with the money we were saving.

Second, suppliers and retailers realised that as food got cheaper, the way to make money was to ‘add value’ — in other words, take basic ingredients and make them more convenient, more ‘fun’, more ‘premium’ or to appeal to some other psychological need. Yes, food manufacturers are as capable of bullshitting as anybody else with something to sell.

One of the other ways that suppliers add value is to make ‘healthy’ products. But who set up those health claims in the first place? It was the media, the medical profession and, most of all, governments. Who said we should be stuffing our faces with fruit to get our ‘five a day’? Who suggested that we get more omega-3s? Who said we should aim to eat low-fat diets? All of these ideas got the big official stamp of approval. And in the spirit of convenience, the food industry has made it easy, for better or for worse, to meet these official goals.

[. . .]

Moreover, what about the wild claims made for organic food? It has a completely spurious image as natural and wholesome, but study after study finds no consistent difference between organic foods and conventional foods — apart from the price. Yet it is often the most vociferously anti-Big Food campaigners, bloggers and ‘experts’ who push organic as the healthy alternative.

[. . .]

Rather than endless calls for regulations, bans and taxes — whose efficacy is doubtful but whose effect on personal autonomy would be substantial — it would be far better to recognise that any diet with some modicum of balance will be fine for most people, who will live to a greater age than their parents or grandparents, on average, no matter how much disapproved food they consume. Claims that any particular food is some dietary panacea should be treated with a large, metaphorical pinch of salt, whoever makes them, whether they are an evil mega corporation or the bloke behind the counter at the health-food shop.

Above all, a similarly healthy scepticism should be applied to crusading medics who want to scare us with the idea that Big Food is out to kill us and who encourage politicians to regulate what we eat.

November 23, 2012

Google the latest whipping boy in Australia over taxation

Filed under: Business, Europe, Government, Law — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:53

Even if you scrupulously obey the multiple jurisdictional laws to legally minimize the amount of tax you pay, politicians can’t resist the opportunity to pillory you for not paying your “fair share”:

The Minister’s explanation of Google’s tax affairs is as follows:

    “While the day-to-day dealings of Australian firms advertising on Google might be with Google Australia, under the fine print of contracts Australian firms sign with Google, they are actually buying their advertising from an Irish subsidiary of Google.

    It is then argued that the source of this income — and therefore the taxing rights under our tax treaty — would be with Ireland rather than Australia. Despite Ireland’s relatively low company tax rate of 12.5 per cent, we have just started to build the sandwich.

    The next step is to route a royalty payment from the Irish operating subsidiary of Google to a Dutch subsidiary of Google, which is then paid back to a second Irish holding company subsidiary of Google that is controlled in Bermuda, which has no corporate tax.

    The first Irish subsidiary receives a tax deduction for the royalty payment to the Dutch subsidiary, substantially reducing the income subject to the 12.5 per cent Irish company tax rate.

    Under Dutch law, and because EU member countries do not charge withholding taxes on transfers within the EU, the transfers to and from the Netherlands are essentially tax free.

    And under Irish tax law, the second Irish resident subsidiary is not taxed on the royalty payment because it is controlled by managers elsewhere.

    The profits from the sale of advertising to an Australian firm then sit in a tax-free jurisdiction — possibly indefinitely.”

Tax lawyers — especially those who work on multinational levels — don’t create these situations out of whole cloth: it’s the politicians and revenue ministries that set up and maintain the tax rules. Corporations are legally required to pay taxes (as are individuals), but corporations are also legally required to conduct themselves in ways that maximize the profits for their shareholders. Finding ways to legally pay tax at a lower rate is a requirement. That companies like Apple and Google are big enough to take advantage of the “loopholes” deliberately created by the tax authorities is not a reason to bash Apple or Google. They can only take advantage of “loopholes” because this or that government tried to rig the system in a particular way. Changing or threatening to change the rules retrospectively is a really good way to indicate to foreign business that you really don’t want them operating in your territory.

Update: Snigger.

October 10, 2012

Is “national security” just another term for “protectionism”

Filed under: Business, Cancon, China, Government, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:16

Daniel Ikenson at the Cato@Liberty blog:

Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE long have been in the crosshairs of U.S. policymakers. Rumors that the telecoms are or could become conduits for Chinese government-sponsored cyber espionage or cyber attacks on so-called critical infrastructure in the United States have been swirling around Washington for a few years. Concerns about Huawei’s alleged ties to the People’s Liberation Army were plausible enough to cause the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to recommend that President Bush block a proposed acquisition by Huawei of 3Com in 2008. Subsequent attempts by Huawei to expand in the United States have also failed for similar reasons, and because of Huawei’s ham-fisted, amateurish public relations efforts.

So it’s not at all surprising that yesterday the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, yesterday, following a nearly year-long investigation, issued its “Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE,” along with recommendations that U.S. companies avoid doing business with these firms.

But there is no smoking gun in the report, only innuendo sold as something more definitive. The most damning evidence against Huawei and ZTE is that the companies were evasive or incomplete when it came to providing answers to questions that would have revealed strategic information that the companies understandably might not want to share with U.S. policymakers, who may have the interests of their own favored U.S. telecoms in mind.

It’s not just the United States, either: Canada is also getting wary of Huawei.

The Canadian government has said that it will be invoking a “national security exemption” as it hires firms to build a secure network, hinting that Chinese telco Huawei could be excluded.

The exemption allows the government to kick out of the running any companies or nations considered a security risk, which coming in the wake of the US report earlier this week labelling Huawei and ZTE as security threats, strongly indicates they’re out of the bidding.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s top media spokesman refused to say for sure whether the government had Huawei in mind when invoking the exemption.

“The government is going to be choosing carefully in the construction of this network and it has invoked the national security exception for the building of this network,” he said, according to the Calgary Herald.

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