Monday, May 28, 2012

The Only Game In Town

I don't shop at the drug mart down the street from our house anymore. I used to frequent it, as I'm big on supporting local merchants.  That all changed a year ago, however, when I showed up at five to ten one evening to find the door locked. I took a step back, noticed the sign on the door that indicated they were open until 10pm, glanced at my watch that showed it was still five minutes before closing, and tapped on the glass. A young clerk appeared on the other side of the glass with a smug look on her face.  I pointed to my watch. She pointed to hers and shrugged. I haven't returned, nor will I, preferring to spend my money elsewhere.

This is what I like to call, "Voting with your feet". We can do it in a competitive, free-market society because there is always some place else to take our business and those who will work hard to earn it. When we vote with our feet, we force those who serve us and sell to us to stay sharp and competitive. Indeed, over the last ten years everything from computers to long distance phone calls have become better and cheaper due to market competition.

This applies to nearly everything. Those who cannot stay competitive, overcharge for services, or close when they shouldn't be (like my drug mart friends above) don't stay in business very long these days because they're not the only game in town.

But do you know who can consistently provide poor service, shrug, and get away with it? Governments. At all levels. In all shapes and sizes.  Of course, these days that size is usually large. Too large. Moreover, not only has service worsened over the years, but we've also paid more for it through higher taxes.

Remember when public servants served the public? There was a time when working in the public sector meant that you might not be highly paid, but your job was fairly secure with decent benefits, or the pay was good, but the job would was not guaranteed or contractual. These days, however, public sector employees are among the highest paid with jobs for life and benefits second-to-none. The stereotype of a government worker as inert and shiftless with a disinclination towards action having 6 weeks vacation and 20 "sick" days and a guaranteed pension is generally regarded as the status quo nowadays.

Why do we stand for it?  While other sectors of the economy have contracted,  being forced through market pressure to provide more for less, government has swelled, heading in the opposite direction. Only with the government do we continuously get poorer service for a higher price. Until the day that changes, we will continue on the path to the abyss buried under a multi-trillion-dollar debt avalanche.

May you teach your children well.

Monday, May 21, 2012

All The King's Horses And All The King's Men...

A sad neurosis has gripped Europe. The masses are consumed by ideologies against austerity, in favour of preserving cradle-to-grave entitlements, even if it means installing left-of-center inexperienced leaders.

Last week, Nicolas Sarkozy became the eleventh in a succession of officeholders to go down in defeat in recent elections, deposed by the fleshy, almost anonymous Francois Hollande. The fact that their new president was a socialist didn't seem to matter to the French electorate; his promise to reverse Sarkozy's policy to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, however, did.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...

So the French deemed it okay to live under a regime that will continue to mortgage its future, just don't touch those generous entitlements. If it bankrupts the next generation, who cares? Someone else's problem.

It's much the same in Greece where the a 3-year austerity stint will come to an end as the sitting government gets swept aside by the Communist party and others on the far left. The citizenry has decided that the good times don't need to end, just elect someone who can "make jobs" and if that can't be done, make sure those with jobs will be forced to look after those without.

The greatest experiments in multiplying wealth by dividing it have all failed miserably.  Some have taken decades to do so, but fail they did. There is no reason to expect different results in Europe this time around.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Portugal Waives The Rules

What happened to Portugal? Once a great economic, political, and military power, Portugal is now nothing more than a lowly "also ran" in the EU.

With colonies in Africa, Asia, South America, and Oceania, in the 15th and 16th century, Portugal once ruled the waves. More recently, however, the once great nation has struggled with the single market system of the EU and Portugal is now perhaps the second worst economy in the continent.

Even after multiple bailouts, the Portuguese economy is still on shaky ground. Years of attempting to craft a First World lifestyle through excessive deficit spending have crushed any hopes of Portugal ever seeing the light without  embracing harsh austerity measures.

With the economy expected to contract by 3% or more this year, many Portuguese have left for greener shores. Five hundred years after Vasco da Gama first landed in Mozambique, impoverished Portuguese are turning up there in droves, begging for work permits.

So the once shining beacon of Western prosperity has been relegated to supplier of cheap labour to the Third World. It's sadly ironic for a country whose national anthem decries, "Salute the sun that rises over a gleeful future..."

Monday, May 07, 2012

Listen Up!

What's the adage?  "Everything old is new again!"? So goes the history of the headphone.

Back in the early 80's, the old clunker type headphones were rapidly replaced by sleeker, lightweight models.  As the technological push towards lighter, cheaper, and smaller grew, headphones turned into earphones, which turned into earbuds.

In the span of 30 years, we went from this:                      

$197 adjusted for inflation, wood panelling not included

to this:

Better, smarter, sleeker at $9.99

with no perceptible decrease in performance.  Chalk one up for the technology that made something better, smaller, and 95% cheaper.

It wasn't uncommon in the 70's to see some hipster grooving down the street tuned in to the awkward contraption in the photo on top, long hair flowing in the breeze.  But by the time the mid 80's rolled around, you would have been hard pressed to find a pair and certainly anyone donning them then would have been considered an out-of-date loser and invited bullying.

In the last 5 years, however, the oversized headphones have made a comeback.  Was it that kids today waxed nostagically after flipping through their parents' old photo albums? No, the throwbacks to a bygone era were simply rebranded and remarketed as "noise cancelling headphones" and became "must haves" for a new generation of audiophiles.

Of course, to ensure that the consumer made no mistake in concluding that the noise cancelling technology was the best of the best, manufacturers and distributors were wise enough to slap a hefty price tag on them, typically in the $200 - $300 range.

What's the point of all of this, you ask?  Not to throw out your old flip phones and mp3 players, as they are sure to come back some day?  Nope.  The lesson here is that clever marketing will create a trend and trend will trump technology any day, regardless of the price.

Caveat emptor!