Capitalism as religion: a thesis

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Aug 162016

Those who know me are aware of a hobby horse I’ve ridden for at least the past decade. My contention is that someplace along the way between Adam Smith and now, Capitalism evolved from an explanation and theory to a cult and a broader philosophy to a full blown religion with its own dogmas, catechisms, and so on.

The idea is not meant to denigrate or debase the economic value and general force for (economic) progress that Capitalism provides. I am a supporter. I don’t think it needs to be torn down and replaced. (By what?) Like anything and everything else, all the good it affords comes with ugly costs that have to be bourne… by someone. Besides, to appropriate Churchill: it’s the worst economic system around, except all the others.

No. When I jump on my hobby horse and ride through the Western frontier of this notion, my point is only to expose what should be obvious. Unfortunately, those who dislike and have a grudge Capitalism and its effects use the argument and corrupt my intent by forming lynch mobs. Equally unfortunate, those who are acolytes refuse to accept any of these otherwise obvious conditions and deny the argument entirely, unthinkingly–like any religiously observant follower ought, I might add.

This post is not to get into the foundations or substance of this argument. That will come later. It’s to seek genuine insights for validation or refutation from the one or two people that read these posts. Why? I’m burnishing the idea into a thesis to propose for graduate work.

“Oh great,” you say, “Another useless bit of academic crapping on capitalism.”

Not so much. I would hope that like pointing out to the 280-lb, 165cm person that perhaps approach to food (Straight, direct, and unimpeded… as a psychological crutch for feelings of exclusion…) as observed from outside might be the something to internalize and act upon, the take-away from such a thesis and study would be a recognition that there is a way to make and use, or direct capitalisms tendencies toward greater things. Not toward the inevitabilities of religious fervor.

If you have any thoughts or directions toward published works: books, monographs, journal articles from any specialty study area, feel free to send them my way.


 Posted by on 16 Aug 2016


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Jul 132016

Like long forgotten songs on a K-Tel compilation, Intrapreneurship, the notion that employees of large organizations can hustle and scramble like entrepreneurs to create innovation and radical growth, is back! Of course, its day in the 1980s sun was a failure. But today’s promise is the success of Silicon Valley’s disrupting wunderkind.

Should intrapreneurship actually catch on, again… it will fail. Again. Smart executives of targeted enterprises and government departments ought to remember why it failed before and take a pass this time. The flawed assumption is that entrepreneurs thrive in any environment. Except, everything that makes entrepreneurship admirable is suffocated in the low oxygen atmosphere of the large organization.

The entrepreneurship allure is palpable: a dream of agility, disruption, and outsized growth leading to dominion over new and even undiscovered frontiers. With unicorns on every horizon, it’s hard to ignore. But for large organizations, it’s a mirage that will squander resources and frustrate everyone.

The larger the organization, the more its strength weighs upon it. It can no more be an entrepreneurial entity than the growth business is a colossus bestriding the world. The pitch to turn an eighteen wheeler into a Tesla is ridiculous and counter-productive.

Large organizations need not ogle enviously at the upstart entrepreneurial organizations rapid, often false growth that captures market and media attention. Appreciate your own qualities. Large organizations are mostly slow and steady. They have to be. Oscillating around opportunistic pivots would rend the behemoth from seam to seam. A material mistake by a small business constantly changing anyway is bad but recoverable. A material mistake for a large organization could prove mortal (without government intervention). Demands of governance and responsibility befitting its stature command the organization to be circumspect. One role of large organization is to stabilize tempestuous seas.

Sounds banal compared to the romantic entrepreneur. But, this gummy stateliness belies vast virtue. Large organizations have the power to change markets and industries. That they may choose not to because they’re comfortable has nothing to do with intrapreneuring. The taxi industry did not have to actively ignore its suzerain being upended while focusing on rigging regulation. Moreover, a start-up did not succeed in digitizing music nor create the consumer smart phone industry. Apple did. Ultimately, large organizations control innovation and disruptive change.

Your favourite innovation guru will have written that when industries heave with revolution, some venture-backed entrepreneur has used a technology or method to disrupt a cozy environment. But even where that is the case, it’s because the large incumbents were sleeping. As often as not, industries are turned inside out because competitive, large organizations acquire or introduce changes to the competitive environment and evolve the marketplace. In effect, they reinvent themselves and their worlds.

This has little to do with being entrepreneurial. It has everything to do with being observant, smart, and courageous. These mark the entrepreneurial character but are not exclusive to it. Most organizations require innovation of some sort, not all need the peculiar and destabilizing qualities of the entrepreneur.

This intrapreneurship fad is but a means to a desirable end: innovation, which in turn leads to growth (and maybe reinvention). A large organization does not have to weaken its chances pretending to be something it is not and cannot be. Of course, large organizations should do things to remain vital and purposeful. But they should play to strengths.

Large organizations should get and be strong at anticipating changes to their world as has Royal Dutch Shell. They should strive to innovate. That will necessarily keep them apprised of near and distant (technology) innovations around them. Large organizations have the resources to do something better than be entrepreneurs: they can buy entrepreneurs—at the right time.

Large organizations have been known to get fat and lazy, ferreting out challengers, buying them, and burying their technologies to maintain control of their worlds. The world no longer allows that. Enterprises need to tack: don’t buy the start-up or growth company to shelve it; buy it to grow it and, maybe later, internalize it. I say maybe because the choice could be to shape the smaller organization to benefit from and provide benefits to the large organization. This is a different skill, but one a large organization could more probably create.

Many enterprise organizations would be better off creating a farm system of minor investments and expertise at observing real entrepreneurial action. Supporting and keeping them alive, all the while creating the internal conditions to ingest entrepreneurial output and do what enterprise organizations do best: serve scale.

Large organizations have to be stable, not ossified. An aircraft carrier is no PT boat. It is built for stability in even the roughest waters. To be the indispensible centre of many critical operations, ths largest of naval vessels must be stable. Necessarily, it doesn’t move nimbly. It would be absurd to expect it to operate like a frigate. But even with the responsibility to provide a dependable platform, the aircraft carrier and its personnel are always prepared and vigilant for stormy seas or competitive attack from the sky or under the waves—from other navies or even pirate flotillas.

Think about that. Maybe the idea of a carrier group fleet would serve large organizations well in structuring themselves to do battle in their own corporate oceans.

Innovation Nation? More like Pontificate State

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Jul 132016

Innovation will not get better in Canada. Sorry Minister Bains, we will not become “Innovation Nation” because we are not a start-up nation. Not that being a start-up nation is necessary. But without start-ups, innovation has to come from the enterprise level. In Canada, it will not, except from a few egoless businesses still run by the originator that ignore and avoid “professional” managers/consultants in important leadership roles.

Sadly, the rest of enterprise size organizations will not be helpful though essential. It will not be for a want of desire and intensity. It will not be for want of noise. It’s because the biggest fraud and disservice the media and management gurus have perpetrated on gullible MBA-class and younger business executives weaned on two rounds of Internet unicorns, is to make it seem like innovation is easy and immediately accessible to those that want it.

Enterprises can put attention and resources to the challenge. And yet it doesn’t happen. So, what’s wrong? Obviously, it must be misguided tax (incentives) and industrial policy. No, there is a brain drain. No, it has to be inadequate support and early-stage financing. That’s not right. There’s a scaling capability shortfall. Or we need an entrepreneurial startup culture. Or maybe, everybody’s just not wishing hard enough.

Certainly, based on prevailing problem identification and solutions, it couldn’t be because real, noticeable innovation is hard, infrequent, and more demoralizing than cold call door-to-door sales. More than that, it’s not simple. In fact, innovation is typically complicated and complex (and if you don’t know the difference, perhaps that’s part of the issue…). None of which sits well with enterprise executives of the sort described.

We appear to have been convinced that everything at every stage should be simple. And some things are—at some well-trod, detail-defying level of description. Innovations, by definition, are not that. Even when, under the adoring glow of market success, the essence of the innovation is ridiculously over-simplified (think Über or iPod or Amazon) for broad consumption, the true measure of non-simplicity is easily scratched out of the polished surface.

Simple is fine. So long as you, behind the wheel of your car understand start (with biometric voice command), engage (GPS-enabled destination command), and let the car do its thing, you’re good. We’ve described simply the innovation of the self-driving automobile. Of course, it’s absurd. Such a “simple” innovation is unattainable without somebody—the business people purveying it perhaps—knowing the much less than simple (creative) thinking just beneath this placid surface.

Yet too many executives—with an unrelenting commitment to the latest whack-a-doodle pronouncements on professional management technique—have no real clue about innovation. If they did, they would know that asking for product concepts, business plans, and so on for innovations to be simple during that period between fanciful conception and practical realization is neither helpful nor valuable.

Focus not on the first part, but the last three words of what’s called Einstein’s Razor: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

There is skill and art in communicating the essence of innovation to different audiences at the appropriate level of complexity. Overwhelmingly that is where the thinking and difficult work falls into the “simplest possible description” trap never again to get back to the necessary level of difficulty that innovation demands. Too many of these professional managers are educationally and temperamentally unprepared to root in the not-simple, not-easy, muck of innovation from which the eventual simple story will eventually emerge.

An innovative idea starts with a simple proposition. But, if achieving it were that simple and straight-forward, it would be done already. That simple proposition, whether a business model innovation or technology development, meets the challenge created by the very recombination or change that makes the simple idea so appealing. Through a lot of trial and error, failure and heartbreak, a Eureka moment may happen. It is viable! Only then can the whole endeavor be once again regressed to an easy-to-consume PowerPoint graphic or 20-second elevator pitch or advertisement or what-have-you.

Those who haven’t or don’t work on innovations regularly have no idea. Until more enterprise (senior) leadership owns and understands (or grudgingly tolerates if not gets mucky themselves) the messy complexity of the process, and accepts that nothing gets simple without being very complex first, innovation will not be a strong suit of Canadian business. Our go-to move will remain able administration.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And it doesn’t have to be the future. Leaders, especially those phalanxes senior professional managers need to learn to love wallowing in the guts of their businesses—especially if their business is innovation.

Innovation advice… really?

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Dec 042015

It’s incomprehensible why a serious broadsheet exposes a 1000-word space to the maundering of a senior bank executive except to recall that the business broadsheet is a forum for recitations of faith. When a high priest needs a pulpit, a serious broadsheet provides one. How else to understand Victor Dodig’s contribution to the “innovation” echo-chamber in the November 27th edition of The Globe and Mail (“Canada must fill three gaps to reach its high-growth future”)?

“Innovation” is today’s incantation that serious people in management (and reporters) recite to prove their faith. So certain is its good, it is above question. That the talk of innovation suffocates all other sensible considerations, and lets (Canadian) executives off easily is beside the point. Mere invocation of innovation gets attention and, apparently, 1000 words in a serious broadsheet

In any case, Mr. Dodig’s ostensible objective is to reveal to the new Liberal government causes that inhibit Canada from achieving economic growth. His writers pick up Jim Balsillie’s tune and rehash au courant cocktail party clatter about the absolute national essentialness of innovation… as cover for another specific message. I choose to assume of Mr. Balsillie a pure-hearted intent, and so expect the larding of his noble clarion call with self-serving appropriations like a Bill working its way through Congress, weighs on him.

I ascribe unctuous malfeasance to the article if only because in 1000 words addressing three gaps, only about 150 address gap three: an innovation ecosystem, and a whopping 34 words speak to the second—something a banker would be credible with: innovation financing. The remainder of the essay (about 80% for those with post-secondary education yet remain innumerate) speaks to changing the public education system to alter the talent shortfall, and to innovative “emerging firms” being acquired by foreigners who take innovative Canadians elsewhere.

After laying out the harms visited upon Canada’s economy by failing public education, Dodig poses the question, “So what do we do [about students ‘choosing an educational path geared toward acquiring credentials rather than skills acquisition and what the labour market needs’]?”

Had he stopped there and proposed specific actions to counter insufficient interest in STEM fields, and the terrible literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills in Canada, it would have been appropriate if not valuable. Mr. Dodig foreclosed that possibility by answering: “We need to promote education choices that match the needs of the job market.”

Like too many others, this commercial catechism appears sensible at first encounter and in certain narrow contexts. Its impotence as a broad response is usually dispatched quickly. An unnecessary act in this case because Dodig himself renders his recommendation pointless mere paragraphs later (without infringing at all on the space needed to argue for better financial support and an innovation ecosystem). As he transitions to raise—but not address—another innovation problem, Mr. Dodig seamlessly shifts our essential innovators from job market to entrepreneurial class. As such, the innovators he implicates won’t be employed by his or any other organization because they are those starting the “emerging firms” subsequently bought out for their developments and brain power then quickly whisked away to deprive the country of its economic future. Not that this isn’t a vexing problem, only that it is immaterial to job skills training (i.e., “meeting the needs of the job market”). Entrepreneurs not in the job market hardly need education to match the needs of the job market, you see.

A kernel of truth stabilizes Mr. Dodig’s recitation. But methinks the purpose is less about innovation than about redirecting public education toward a goal of finally, wholly eliminating the need for businesses to train for their own needs. The proposal is that Canadian society should fund employee education for (large) firms that employ—so they don’t have to.

Doubtlessly people should be employable, and a well-educated individual ought to be employable, which is to say literate, numerate, and able to solve problems by way of critical and creative thinking at one or both of theoretical and applied levels. But those qualities apply to software coders, managers, artists, entrepreneurs, electricians, and even hockey players. In other words: to everyone. Yet, rather than propose an overall higher national standard of such capacity, perhaps with incentives to pursue engineering instead of law, or cryptography rather than marketing, this counsel focuses on job-ready skills to benefit employers. What’s next: other factors of production underwritten by the public purse so they too are “ready” for business?

Mr. Dodig is right about the shortcomings he raises. Still, you can scratch deep and find no hint of the banks’ role in defunding manufacturing (i.e., finding Canadian manufacturing too risky to provide credit for operations or expansion or exporting…) or limiting cash for risky emerging firms. Mr. Dodig is silent on the notion of sharing risk with the innovators he’s so concerned about to help them create and then to keep them Canadian.

Finally, it would be cruel to ask the obvious question: If this bank(er) is so interested in numerate and literate and creative talent—of the STEM variety, particularly—rather than students who have merely “acquired credentials,” why continue demanding the MBA as an essential credential for its own innovative roles, such as they might be? To the extent these MBAs are scientists, technologists, engineers, or mathematicians with business finishing school certificates, fine. But we all know the majority have merely acquired the credential to make real money in consulting and banking, or to be marketers. (Oh, the irony.) And there is abundant evidence everywhere that they are not necessarily more numerate, literate, or able to genuinely solve problems critically let alone creatively. On these counts the bank fails. Before ostensibly providing counsel to the new government or even using that as cover to inject ideas into the public domain, Mr. Dodig’s bank ought to lead by example not faulty rhetoric… if he’s serious.

That grinding noise at Westminster Abbey? Charles Darwin rolling in his grave

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Feb 192015

A PowerPoint slide being “shared” and “liked” within LinkedIn says: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” This is a corrupted Darwinian notion I first saw first in a Globe and Mail op-ed piece entitled, Why leaders must take a different tack when managing change, contributed by Symantec Canadian General Manager, Sean Forkan. His first-person counsel is not especially enlightening. But there is that one sentence at the end: “As the saying goes, ‘it is not the strongest nor the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.'”

So people appropriate and massage powerful thoughts for their own purposes. Why quibble with variations on the theme? It’s just convenient and relevant cribbing of inspiring words.

How can I be so nasty—or petty? To start, the phrase has no greater provenance than some unnamed hack contributor to a Web quotations page or creator of a PowerPoint slide. Try to find anything remotely like this quotation in Darwin’s writings, especially in On the Origin of the Species. Even Herbert Spencer, who actually coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” never used this language. That smart people are willing to quote inspirational nonsense suggests a troubling lack of rigour. But I digress and, frankly, I don’t really care about that.

This plagiarism does, however, raise an idea that could rock what we, the chattering classes, hold dear about change (management) and innovation. If you read to the end, you might even re-evaluate what you’ve been told about innovation and innovators, such as Steve Jobs. Maybe you’ll just ignore it or malign me, which might be easier. Your call.

Start by really understanding the idea commandeered for this motivational meme. Darwin referred to evolutionary adaptation. In Darwin’s observation, species did not initiate change. “Fitness” was what best suited prevailing conditions through a process of selective adaption, admittedly over generations. And Darwin was silent on any propensity to or ability for managing the change required to adapt, as was Spencer.

This is critical because as we know them, the words “change management” or “fitness to change” or any other variation lend themselves to the opposite interpretation. The implication being that a good executive, or one following our published guidance and pursuing the motivational direction of the imitation Darwin, could positively conceive and purposefully direct change IF (s)he and the organization were fit to make such change.

That’s quite materially different.

To use this counterfeit quotation to give weight to change management “fitness” and still be true to Darwin’s brilliant idea, one is obliged to accept that change management is about adaptation. But adaptation is responsive not directive. In nature, those fit to survive are those that best adapt not those that are most fit to create change.

To recap, modelling on natural evolution via pseudo-Darwin is an excellent idea: evolution has about a billion years of successful experience. But it demands one appreciate that change management must be about adaptation, which is to say accommodation toward prevailing conditions. Prevailing conditions because nature does not evolve toward what doesn’t exist. It can only adapt to what does exist.

So, therefore, fitness or willingness or ability to change is nonsense at least as far as invoking quasi-Darwinian thought as support. These are a separate matter entirely and warrant a separate non-Darwin shrouded discussion. Of course, the premise for those discussions has to start with responsive adaptation instead of directive change.

That’s change management; but innovation compels change to a product, process, or people so it must be implicitly about change. We have to accept that. So the Darwinian notion of adaptation to prevailing conditions, as indicated above, has to hold for innovation as well. Buckle up. It means the innovation myth of your favourite business leader or guru may be in for some rough treatment.

Consider the evidence. IBM nearly went extinct until Gerstner’s adaptations made it fit to survive. Branson cannily adapts Virgin’s ethos to the conditions of various prevailing environments, experimenting to see where its adaptations best fit. For a long time, Nokia adapted successfully, transforming through industries and technologies. It stopped adapting and has all but gone extinct. Microsoft, which has prolonged some of Nokia’s “genes,” has a well-documented record of obstinately refused then aggressively conceding to adapt. Blockbuster is the archetypal non-adapter. The quality of the management of change or the willingness or ability to change in all of these instances was necessary—maybe—but not sufficient. The adaptations were the thing.

IF you’re still with me about fitness to survive being based on the success of adaptations to prevailing conditions, then we have to concede that an innovator does NOT create or step into some imagined future. The successful innovator actually adapts best to the prevailing market conditions. In other words, any start-up and Steve Jobs do nothing more(!) than adapt to conditions that already existing. Steve didn’t see the future; he saw the present whether that was Apple II, Mac, iPod, iPhone, or iPad. It is a present that everyone else simply can’t see the way that some people can’t see the symbolism or the theme in a book or movie, or the way that extinct species couldn’t “see” that they weren’t optimal for prevailing conditions.

For those that got this far, I apologize. Every metaphor fails at some point. Lesser people, and gurus, continue ramming home their notion as though it’s not happening. I won’t. Evolution and organizations changing or innovating are very different things that don’t track together at a certain point. But, my point is that the idea at the outset ought to be understood and followed. It can lead to fascinating revelations. Here are merely two:

  1. Adaptation is going on all the time. All people always adapt naturally. Those who don’t adapt are artificially denying nature. Adaptation is not a theory or a strategy or a plan. It is action. If it works, you succeed. If you don’t, you adapt again. If it still doesn’t work. You become petroleum eventually. Therefore, in the big picture, change management is about allowing prevailing conditions to cause pain, letting natural adaptation happen, then doubling-down on those that show the most fitness.
  2. If you want to innovate, and evolution is your model for survival, you must be rapidly responsive not creative. You must provide, for a price, a means for your customers to best adaptations to prevailing conditions—because they may not.

Cicero, anticipating 2015…

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Feb 052015

Marcus Tullius Cicero lived and wrote between 106 and 43BC. He was a lawyer and “first man” who documented Rome under Caesar. I was doing a little research and came across the following quotation from his works. I guess, some things never change.

“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”


Optimism and technology

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Feb 042015

[Some old thoughts, which may be “published” on other blogs, etc., notably Politik-Substance]

It turns out that at least among technologists there is a clear, nearly religious moral divide on the subject of Edward Snowden and his revelations of government electronic snooping. This I found out by provoking the issue while discussing privacy at a technology conference in Banff. There are fundamental ethical and legal questions about whether governments should be allowed to acquire data that seems private, and under what conditions. But I suggest that some of the “Snowden is saint/satan” and “government is villain” reaction comes from the same sense of betrayal felt by a spurned lover or an NRA regional president the day after a mass shooting in a day care centre. Let me explain.
It shouldn’t be a wonder that technology advancement, particularly if it affects consumers’ lives, happens most actively in the United States. Americans are, by-and-large, an optimistic bunch: always looking for another sunny “Morning in America.” That perfectly harmonizes with technology and innovation’s very nature of optimism. It is, in fact, impossible to be pessimistic and work effectively in a field of technological advancement. The whole point of technology and innovation is to make a better tomorrow—to the extent of whatever the technology promises.
Although I tend toward what I believe is being realistic, which some of my colleagues refer to as cynical, I think optimism is wonderful. It is sustaining through the inevitable troughs of bad luck and setbacks in this life. Optimism wilfully ignores the probabilities stacked up against you. And by this conscious refusal to accept the possibility of defeat—even when it is overwhelmingly self-evident, optimists sometimes achieve the seemingly impossible.
Be it gunpowder and nuclear energy, synthetic painkillers, or mobile “social” applications, neither their creators nor their enthusiasts expects anything but good from such technological advances. Within tolerable, typically commercial limits and subject to consumer happiness, it’s all good, good, good.
The dark side of being optimistic about technology, however, is blindness to the risks of undesirable, yet highly plausible uses and outcomes of those good technologies. It is all too easy to see the bright side because that is the intent. Clean, infinitely available nuclear energy begat the atomic bomb and protective firearms kill school children and other innocents. Likewise, technology that implicitly knows where you go and that you are communicating generates vast deposits of privacy-threatening metadata and other information for marketers and governments to assay.
The recent revelations of Edward Snowden expose states, overzealously perhaps, doing what they do to fulfill a higher level societal need: safety and protection. These unveilings also reveal another instance of hopeful inventors coming face-to-face with the dark side of their creations. From my seat, it’s a bit hard to know which is more troubling to them.
Like everyone else, technologists feel violated by governments inferring private information from digital exhaust. And while there may be a heavier weighting of civil libertarians in the group, never mind a clash of democratic ideals—specifically, privacy within and security of the nation—I surmise that part of the reaction is creator’s guilt. How could our wonderful child do such a thing? Or, more to the point, our creation is being used against us: and we don’t like it.
So Edward Snowden is canonized despite being a thief and traitor now suckling from an “enemy” state’s graces. Western governments are (justifiably in some senses) vilified. The consumer/citizen is maltreated at least as far as privacy goes; and that’s as far as the citizen wants to go because venturing farther into these grey places would affect the pleasant state of consumerist narcosis. But nobody talks about the inherent corruptibility and affliction of the technology.
Alas, the genie is out of the bottle… again. Society will eventually metabolize these new conditions, catch up, and adjust both ideals and practices to account for these technologically driven realities. Innovators will create solutions to the problem they themselves created. And balance will be restored… before the cycle repeats. Because that’s the great thing about optimism: it’s sure to be better tomorrow.

Jeffrey Simpson: bespectacled Cassandra

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Feb 022015

I met Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe and Mail National Affairs columnist, once over top of seat 14D on a flight between Ottawa and Toronto. He has no cause to remember me. I am, after all, not a name brand except probably in my own house. Besides the encounter lasted only long enough for a rapid introduction and gratuitous (though completely genuine) fawning praise for his work. He seemed to be an affable man, with the look of a trustworthy and studious lawyer, accountant, or economist. But how much can you really get from one and a half minutes?

In any event, I mention this only as a lead in to the real point, which is that I am certain that there is not in Canada another more sensible, (usually) politically unaligned assessor of the flows of Canadian politics and society. Andrew Coyne might be a solid rival, but there always seems to be an ideological undercurrent flowing through his writing. Besides, I’ve never encountered Mr. Coyne and he’s rebuked my efforts to contact him. But, back to the point: I feel for Mr. Simpson; he is often so stone-cold right and timely. But his words float off with the winds and are lost until sometime later on those who should have paid heed will come to terms with whatever advice he had provided, will deny ever having been warned. (I suspect.)

What triggered this is a column on Jan 31, which may or may not have been intended to reach farther than its grasp. The column was dedicated to the impact and foolhardy commercial choices made by Canadian businesses (and individuals) in response to the ups and downs of the Loonie. I’m not going to rehash the piece. Suffice it to say, though, that to my read, it is much more than a simple analysis of the obvious: when the dollar’s low, Canadian businesses benefit in international markets but claim too costly to invest in productivity enhancement; when the dollar’s high, Canadian business complains that they are suffering from narrowed profits due to low productivity and don’t have the resources to invest… in productivity enhancement. All the while, it all looks like the death spiral of an airplane that makes the wrong corrections at the wrong time, all the while with the pilot focused on responding to the immediacy and warnings of the instrument panel.

Maybe I’m looking too deep. Maybe the piece is only 700 words to fill 1/3 of a weekly quota, and means only that these responses to the Loonie’s oscillations is typical and cyclical. In any case, I stand by my assessment: Jeffrey Simpson is, in the course of 90 seconds on an Air Canada Airbus 319, a nice person.

Asymmetric policy action: cars and drivers

 Business, Canada, Management, politics, society  Comments Off on Asymmetric policy action: cars and drivers
Jan 072015

I would offer to write a brief piece for Policy Options, The Walrus, or some other such magazine but have no desire to spend the time documenting the self-evident, which will be obvious later, just to appear “well researched.” Instead, I’ll write here and content myself with distributing the link.

Here’s the premise. Governments of all sorts are incapable of rapidly deploying intelligent policy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is politics and the pressure to do big and meaningful things. It appears better to do nothing than to do something not publicity grabbing. So, trivial things get done for trivial political reasons, or overinflated mega-projects are launched only to crash into a mess of overspending and under-performing.

But, in the spirit of the unfortunately discredited Broken Windows theory (the idea that broken windows are an example of indicators that residents don’t care so further vandalism is more likely…), I have a couple of ideas for the provincial governments. These ideas have three key features. First, they are simple to implement, administer, and enforce if necessary. Second, they are or can be revenue neutral at worst. Third, their most significant benefit is indirect financial and social impact. The biggest drawback is that they will be resisted because both target the sacrosanct car and driver.

First idea: Outlaw blackened windows on all vehicles not in livery service.

I don’t know when manufacturer-installed and after-market window tinting became vogue. When I was young it was not done and may have been unlawful—at least in Manitoba. Only limousines had tinted windows, and only for the passenger compartment at that. Today, every other car on the road has completely opaque glass all the way around.

The problem here is pure social psychology. The window tinting enables an anonymity effect, which subtly encourages people to do things that they would not do if they knew people could see who they were. It’s common and goes a long way to explain increasing driver aggression, particularly from within cars with tinted windows. There is also the entitlement effect in play on the roads and in parking lots, but that typically affects only drivers of luxury vehicles.

The solution is to immediately ban the production and sale of vehicles with tinted windows. Vehicles with existing tinting and livery vehicles would have to be grandfathered. Admittedly, there are gaping holes for anybody with a pre-2015 vehicle to apply aftermarket films, which couldn’t be banned without affecting the ability to apply such films to house and commercial windows. But, inspection and registering of the vehicle for tinting could be made part of the emissions testing process.

The value is in the opportunity to negate the anonymity effect to shape more civilized behaviour on the roads. More civilized behaviour, less rage; less rage, fewer altercations; fewer altercations, lower insurance and other costs.

Second idea: Compel mandatory driver retesting every five years (at least).

Needless to say, acceptance with open arms is improbable. Despite my high school driver’s ed. teacher’s mantra that “driving is a privilege not a right,” common belief is exactly the opposite. That’s why people will drive, legally, well beyond their capacity to do so. It’s also why drivers get into intractable ruts of poor, potentially fatal driving habits like never signalling, weaving between lanes, tailing too close, running lights and stop signs, passing on double solid lines, and so on.

But the program is relatively small with asymmetric downstream impact. Retesting could be easily implemented: most of the processes exist. Licenses have to be renewed—that is, a new picture and so on, not just the fees paid—every five years typically. Only a testing component would need to be added. And even that process exists for new drivers. By increasing the renewal fee to cover the testing, the program could run cost neutrally if that were important.

The immediate benefits would be obvious. All those drivers that we see who should be participants on Canada’s Worst Driver would get cleared off the road. All those drivers who no longer have the physical or mental agility to be behind the wheel would be cleared off the road. For seniors and others who, allegedly, depend on driving their cars, there could be a grant of lifetime access to public transit. Once again, the level of highway civility ought to go up owing to a clear, shared understanding of the rules and what to expect of other drivers. Right now, it’s a crapshoot anticipating what other cars will do in any given situation.

The longer-term benefits are where fixing this particular broken window starts to change the neighbourhood. With more recently refreshed drivers behind the wheels (especially if you can see them through untinted windows), we could expect increased safety and thus the incidents of traffic accidents ought to go down. The effect of that one impact ripples outward. The most obvious and probably valuable effects are: policing could be directed toward other areas instead of highway traffic; use of ambulance and other emergency service for traffic accidents, including hospital-generated health care costs, would decline; and property damage and insurance costs would be reduced. (This last one adds up particularly in provinces where public insurance prevails.)


This is just fixing broken windows and shouldn’t demand extensive study, debate, and investment in (mega-)projects. But the asymmetric effects will well outweigh any insignificant political costs. It should not require loads of courage to command them into practice.

And if you like these, you should hear some of my other ideas for health care, information technologies, productivity, and innovation

Is that really what the technology is for?

 society, stupidity  Comments Off on Is that really what the technology is for?
Jan 062015

New Year’s eve… Like many, many people apparently, the lovely and talented Mrs. G and I skip the parties and go straight to the movie theatre. Often following Chinese buffet dinner, but that’s another matter entirely. There is 30-40 minute opportunity to observe people in action. And what I saw made me sad.

There, four rows ahead of me was a couple that sat down to do the same thing as we were doing. They were (even) older than us. There was 10-minutes before the movie would begin. They sat. Then they each whipped out a smartphone and completely ignored each other.

But this is not the saddening part.

I often sit in in airport lounges and other places where waiting is the order of the day–or at least the hour. I, too, will check email, text messages, look up stuff that’s pressing, and respond to the demanding beeping of the reminder apps. Usually I’m alone not sitting with someone (like my spouse) with whom I could and probably should be communicating.

Even that’s not the saddening part.

I get it. You’ve got things to do. This is as good a time as any to be productive. Go ahead. However… the fellow sitting four rows in front of me, in a movie theatre, on New Year’s even, at 8:55PM, 10-minutes before the movie would start, WITH HIS WIFE was… playing solitaire.

That’s what’s so important? That’s how small life has become? That’s how meaningless direct human interaction has become? Was this the vision of the RIMs and Apples when they developed this technology?

Or then again, maybe they’d just had a fight in the lobby over whether to pay extra for the butter topping…