Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sean Quinn

Sean Quinn (right), founder and chairman of the Quinn Group; pictured with Ian Pearson, Northern Ireland Minister for Enterprise; and Viola McBride, call centre agent, at a Group call centre in Enniskillen.
The Quinn Group was founded by its Chairman Sean Quinn in 1973, developing from a small quarrying operation in Derrylin, Co. Fermanagh, into the large global organization it is today employing over 6,500 People in various locations throughout Europe.

Quinn started his empire in 1973 when he borrowed £100, extracted gravel from his farm in Fermanagh, washed it and sold it to local builders.

In a country that depends on multinationals to provide 92% of its exports, most Irish-owned companies are small and serve the domestic market.

Sean Quinn got sick of paying high insurance premiums for his various businesses and in 1996, he entered the insurance business that was dominated by units of long-established British companies. Quinn-Direct is now the third largest insurer in Ireland.

What is striking about the Celtic Tiger boom years of the Irish economy is that the Quinn Group, CRH - now the largest building materials supplier in the United States, Ryanair - Europe's biggest low-fares airline and Denis O'Brien's Digicel, which employs more than 4,000 in the Caribbean region, are the only significant Irish linked companies, that have become significant multinational operations during the period.

Last December, the town of Fermoy, North Cork, was shocked by the announcement that health insurer BUPA Ireland planned to shut its Irish operations. More than 300 jobs were put in peril.
Then in January, French company FCI Ireland BV announced that it planned to close its Fermoy manufacturing plant by the end of next year with the loss of 240 jobs.

The company said the decision is part of a global restructuring plan to move manufacturing operations to low cost locations.

On January 31, 2007 the Quinn Group announced that it had agreed to acquire BUPA Ireland's Irish operations.

Then in the week that it was reported that an American company with 4 employees had booked $762 million in revenues through its Irish operation, the Government passed emergency legislation through the Oireachtas to prevent the Quinn Group from availing of a three-year holiday period in respect of payments to the State insurer VHI.

What is ironic is that if a foreign company offered to provide 300 jobs in Fermoy, it would be provided with support of at least €100,000 per job over a number of years and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Employment Micheál Martin would be taking direct responsibility for the announcement. In addition, it would have other benefits including being in a position to transfer profits into Ireland to reduce tax liabilities.

Ireland is lucky to have a businessmen like Sean Quinn, who like legendary American businessman Warren Buffett, is an understated person who does not flaunt his wealth.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bling Budget for Wall Street Investment Bankers to exceed more than $200,000 this year

In a report in the Wall Street Journal's Wealth blog, Robert Frank writes that late last year, Manhattan jeweler Ruedigar Albers sold a $31,000 Patek Philippe watch to an investment banker who'd just closed a big deal. The banker liked the watch so much he placed an order for another one on the spot -- saying he might give it to a colleague.

"Wall Street bankers have become big repeat customers," says Albers, president of Wempe USA, which sells watches and jewelry. "Morgan Stanley, Lehman, Goldman Sachs, Bear Sterns -- they're all coming in."

Frank reports on a survey of more than 200 Wall Street professionals who took home at least $2 million in cash from their 2006 bonuses, respondents are spending 11% of their payouts, on average, on watches and jewelry. For even the lowest-paid bankers in the survey, that's a bling budget of more than $200,000.

Although the poll by wealth-research firm Prince & Associates of Redding, Conn., is only a sampling of the Street, Frank says that it adds to growing signs of an entirely new level of consumption there. Last year, Wall Street bonuses jumped an average of 15% to 20%, meaning that the senior bankers with the title of managing director received average pay of between $2.2 million to $3.8 million, according to the Options Group, a New York consulting firm.

Overall, according to an estimate released by New York State, Wall Street will pay a record $23.9 billion this year in bonuses.

Frank says that bankers' spending -- what they call their "burn rate" -- is growing as fast as their bonuses. While the national real-estate market is suffering, multimillion-dollar homes continue to trade briskly in the Hamptons and Manhattan. Art prices keep soaring, and the Armory Show in New York this weekend is sure to bring crowds of bankers looking for the next Chuck Close or Richard Prince. Wine purveyors are drunk with delight as financial types fork over $345,000 for a case of 1945 Mouton Rothschild.

Prince & Associates worked through six large investment banks to set up interviews with top earners; about 8% of the respondents were women. Participants reported how much they had spent and how much they'd budgeted for purchases. The researchers added unearmarked funds to the savings-and-investing category.

The Street crowd is spending the biggest share of its bonuses on homes, especially second or third ones: Some 16% of last year's bonuses went toward purchasing residences, with another 10% going toward home improvements. Respondents say they're spending about 12% of their money on fine art and collectibles, while 14% went toward "other" -- a category that includes hobbies such as horses and flying lessons, as well as "mistresses and other lovers."

The average amount diverted to savings and investments, meanwhile, is 16.5%. "What surprised me is the low savings and investing rates for people who are making millions of dollars a year," says Russ Alan Prince, president of Prince & Associates. "This says to me that Wall Street expects the good times to continue."

Nearly three-quarters of the Wall Streeters surveyed said they expect business in 2007 to be "excellent." Most expect bigger bonuses for this year.

Robert Frank writes that since so many of today's top deal makers and proprietary traders are in their 30s or early 40s, they figure they have plenty of time to save and invest. And so, they say, they'd much rather spend.

One banker say today's free-spending Wall Streeters could be headed for a fall. "Some of this generation of bankers are in la-la land," says Peter Solomon, chairman of investment-banking firm Peter J. Solomon Co. of New York, as reported by the Journal. "This is a cyclical business. We're in a period of easy credit and people throwing money around, and no one in investment banking should assume that next year will be better than last year."

Irish Minister laments Global Economic slowdown; IMF lauds one of the Sustained Periods of Growth in the post-Bretton Woods era

US chip giant Intel is Ireland's largest industrial employer and Dell Computer is Ireland's largest exporter.

On Tuesday Feb 20th, the Central Statistics Office reported that Ireland's exports in 2006, 92% of which were made by foreign owned firms, had increased by 2% in value in 2006, compared with a 13.7% rise in German exports.

"This is a very good performance by Irish exporters in a difficult trading environment caused by the continuing global economic slowdown and rising oil prices," Junior Minister for Commerce said in response.

It is an interesting situation that an economic slowdown that is seen in the world economy, but is contrary to reality, while there is little chance a real one would be called, if it was closer to home.

When exports by "Irish exporters," are overwhelmingly made by American-owned firms, the economic challenges can easily be brushed under the carpet.

Last month, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Rodrigo de Rato said:

After four consecutive years of strong growth, what we expect is that global growth will remain solid in 2007, approaching 5 percent. This represents certainly a very significant expansion of the global economy and probably the longest — if not the longest, one of the longest — sustained periods of growth in the post-Bretton Woods era, that is, after the Second World War. In that respect, while the U.S. economy has slowed down in large part because of the continued weaker housing market, what I can say now is that a soft landing seems more sure as lower energy prices have supported employment growth and consumption. Also, we see the decrease in the housing market to be bottoming out. Report.

Bretton Woods refers to the monetary arrangements for the world economy that were agreed in the US State of New Hampshire in 1944.


Senior European economists warn that Irish economy is at risk of serious slowdown

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Giuliani - Balancing heroism with management and other personal skills

Jacob Weisberg, the editor of the US online magazine Slate, generally provides compelling reading in his weekly column every Thursday in the Financial Times.

Weisberg was living in New York through September 11 in New York City, and he says that he will always be grateful to Rudy Giuliani. The mayor’s quick instincts and judgment that day prevented panic. His calm authority got the city through the worst hours in its history and set it on the path to recovery. This was not a given. President George W. Bush’s initial public response to the attacks was shaky, late in coming and far from reassuring.

However, Weisberg writes that the presidential bid Giuliani announced last week is staked on more than that Churchillian moment. It is also based on the notion that he is an effective manager who tamed an out-of-control metropolis and ran it efficiently.

Weisberg says that Giuliani was a frustrated and not very popular mayor on September 10 2001. Today, most New Yorkers do regard him as a hero – but also as a self-sabotaging, thin-skinned bully.

Weisberg writes that the leadership/management dichotomy runs through Giuliani’s two terms. When he took office in 1994, New York had become ungovernable and was increasingly unliveable. A bloated public sector soaked up more and more resources to deliver less and less. Like former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Giuliani arrived bearing a message of “enough!”. With a rare relish for combat, he took on a long list of civic tormenters, including municipal labour leaders, racial demagogues and uncompromising civil libertarians.

While acknowledging, the change brought to New York's urban life, Weisberg says that Giuliani’s personal limitations became increasingly evident. Instead of taking on new challenges after his re-election in 1997, he dedicated his second term to vanquishing his remaining enemies. Fran Reiter, who served as a deputy mayor under Giuliani, describes him as depressed and directionless after being sworn in for the second time. “He can get mired in the petty stuff,” Reiter says. “He doesn’t suffer political opponents well and there are times when he doesn’t compromise well.”

In his second term, Giuliani showed himself to be a classic micro-manager, unable to delegate and unwilling to share the spotlight. He had already driven out William Bratton, his triumphant chief of police, in a battle over credit. Bratton’s fate was sealed when he appeared on the cover of Time. Nor could Giuliani abide ridicule. He went to court to try to stop New York Magazine from advertising itself on the sides of buses as “possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for”.

Weisberg says that Giuliani’s weaknesses as a manager have become more evident in the light of his successor. Michael Bloomberg has neither a whim of steel nor a populist bone in his body. Arriving in 2002 at a City Hall that had no e-mail system and no computerised payroll, he quietly cleaned up a mess of no-bid contracts without faulting his predecessor. He and Ray Kelly, his police commissioner, have made continued gains against crime without becoming obsessed with press clippings. Above all, Bloomberg has taken on the big problems Giuliani never faced.

Everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses, including politicians. Personal quirks are part of leadership in every area of life.

Margaret Thatcher took on some key vested interests in Britain and traditionalists in her own Conservative Party but she branded the Party as being insensitive to the parts of society that could not be foot soldiers of her slash and burn economics. The current leader David Cameron, is trying hard to bury that image.

Giuliani may be a classic micro-manager but wouldn't that have been a virtue in the White House in 2003 when pertinent questions about a post-invasion Iraq should have been asked? Then again, it wasn't a great virtue to have, during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

Even one of the great presidents of the 20th century Franklin D. Roosevelt, was also prone to overreach himself as in 1937, within months of a landslide election and with his own Democratic Party controlling Congress, his plan to "pack" the Supreme Court was rejected in a 70-20 vote.

Despite, his negatives, Giuliani was in a are situation for a leader. He was truly tested by fire and triumphed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Dispatches case against Tesco undermined

Tesco Chief Executive Sir Terry Leahy
Tesco is the UK's and Ireland's biggest supermarket group.

In the UK, with 2,000 stores and 15 million customers a week, it's almost twice as big as its nearest rival. The Channel 4 programme Dispatches on Monday, February 19, 2007, showed how Tesco could soon become even bigger, and asked if this retail giant is abusing its power.

In The Supermarket That's Eating Britain, Ben Laurance pieces together evidence that reveals the true potential of Tesco's expansion plans. In two thirds of Britain, Tesco is already the dominant supermarket.

Dispatches' information shows how that dominance could become even greater. The programme examined the ways in which Tesco avoids paying tens of millions of pounds in tax by exploiting legal loopholes and using complex networks of companies and partnerships here and overseas.

And Dispatches chronicled the links Tesco has forged with New Labour: the programme examines how Tesco has used its connections to exert influence both at Westminster and with local councillors.

The Supermarket That's Eating Britain hears how: councils feel bullied; MPs complain about being put under pressure; and Tesco uses its financial clout to keep its competitors at bay.

The programme also spelled "out the truth behind Tesco's declared commitment to providing schools with sports equipment and computers. And it exposes Tesco's controversial stance over food labelling."

In the tone and demeanour of a prosecutor, Ben Laurance is former editor of Financial Mail on Sunday and The Observer Business section presented his case.

There were some valid issues raised such as land banks and delivery truck disruption in local communities but it struck me that the prosecutorial style zeal undermined the case against Tesco.

The last time that I saw a Dispatches programme was last year when six months undercover work at Ryanair had produced a pretty flimsy indictment. At that time, what occurred to me was that if an undercover camera trailed life in Channel 4 for six months, who knows what it would find also.

When Laurance presented his indictment on Tesco about also gaining from the support of various good causes, I thought of Celebrity Big Brother, that great money spinner arrangement between Channel 4 and its partner Endemol and also the refusal of Channel 4 management to speak on the issue to Channel 4 News.

Maybe it is time for Dispatches to be dispatched?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Irish Planning Corruption Tribunal 1997-2007: Land Rezoning Reform since 1997 - ZERO

A system that creates an artificial scarcity of land coupled with shambolic planning is paid for very dearly by Irish house buyers

Site costs exceed 40% of the average Irish house price, an increase of almost 30 percentage points on the pre-boom position. In Dublin that increases to 50%. Overall the Irish figures are grossly out of line with the rest of the developed world.

In the US land accounts for 20% of the total cost of a house. In Denmark the figure is similar while in Portugal the land factor drops to 15%

The Irish planning corruption tribunal, currently known as the Mahon Tribunal, was established in 1997, a few months after the current FF/PD coalition came to power.

It was set-up in response to serious allegations against the then Minister for Foreign Affairs Ray Burke who for many years had been linked with questionable planning decisions.

Wonder why sprawling Dublin is forecast to develop a footprint as expansive as that of Los Angeles even though it has 25% of the population of LA?

Could it be a result of a tradition of gombeen politicians genuflecting to property interests with planners unwilling to challenge them?

Ireland with a population of 4 million has a 4% urban density - one of Europe's lowest compared for example with France's 28%.

There are currently about 40,000 full time Irish farmers and Ireland is desperately short of land for building houses!!

Land close to Irish towns can make a €500,000 an acre or more for lucky farmers who are already getting more than two-thirds of their income in the form of direct subsidy payments from the European Union budget.

When land is rezoned by politicians for development, the value can jump by a multiple of 50 or more times, the agricultural value.

Should it surprise anyone that the system invites corruption and unreformed, it will continue to do so?

Farmers lucky to own land that is acquired for roadbuilding are also able to make a bonanza.

In 2001, the Irish Farmers' Association, then led by Tom Parlon, currently the President of the Progressive Democrats, forced the Government to agree to a compensation deal linked to the prevailing development value of land.

In December 2006, it was reported that up to €4.6bn of the €18.5bn of taxpayers' money that will be spent on new main roads over the next decade will go into the pockets of landowners.

Fred Barry, chief executive of the National Roads Authority is reported as saying that the increases in the cost of land for major roads projects as "disturbing".Land acquisition accounts for 23% of the cost of roads projects in Ireland, but just 12% in England, 10% in Denmark, 9.4% in Greece and 1% in Iceland. A further 2% of the €18.5bn provided in the Government's Transport 21 for road building over the next decade will go to archaeologists.

Six years ago, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern asked the Committee on the Constitution to examine the issue of the pricing of development land. In 2004, it concluded that Mr Justice Kenny's recommendation in 1973 that development land should be priced with a 25% mark-up on agricultural land prices, could be introduced by legislation, and without amending the Constitution.

So, after almost ten years of stories of endemic corruption and what changes have been made in the system that spawned it? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

The cost of the tribunal is an issue but as usual with politicians who lack the appetite to challenge vested interests, the most pertinent issue is conveniently ignored.

Are there journalists who can connect the dots rather than be led up the garden path?

Should it surprise that a country like Switzerland can prosper where real house prices have not increased since 1970? - see article linked to, directly below.


State of Chassis: Artificial restriction on land supply puts Ireland and UK at bottom of property league in Developed World; Irish urbanisation at 4% is among Europe's lowest

For more material on how the land development system logjam has given us the shambles at Dublin Airport and the back-of-an-envelope decentralisation plan see here:

Irish Economy 2006 and Future of the Celtic Tiger: Putting a brass knocker on a barn door!

Irish General Election 2007: Some questions that voters should ask the politicians

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Elusive Happiness

Michael Shermer is publisher of the website Skeptic and a regular columnist in the Scientific American. He is also the author of the recently published Why Darwin Matters.

In the March issue of Scientific American, he refers to American writer H. L. Mencken who is said to have quipped, “A wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”

Shermer says that this seemingly illogical preference is just one of the puzzles that science is trying to solve about why happiness can be so elusive in today’s world. Several recent books by researchers address the topic, he writes, "but my skeptic’s eye found a historian’s long-view analysis to be ultimately the most enlightening."

Shermer says : Consider a paradox outlined by London School of Economics economist Richard Layard in Happiness (Penguin, 2005), in which he shows that we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950 and “we have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nicer work and, above all, better health.”

Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness. Why? One, our genes account for roughly half of our predisposition to be happy or unhappy, and two, our wants are relative to what other people have, not to some absolute measure.

In Feb, 2005, I wrote about Layard's book and other material on happiness: Income and happiness in rich Ireland and the status competition where there can only be few winners

Shermer says that in The Happiness Myth (Harper, 2007), historian Jennifer Michael Hecht, in a deep and thoughtful historical perspective demonstrates just how time- and culture-dependent is all this happiness research. As she writes, “The basic modern assumptions about how to be happy are nonsense.” Take sex. “A century ago, an average man who had not had sex in three years might have felt proud of his health and forbearance, and a woman might have praised herself for the health and happiness benefits of ten years of abstinence.”

Most happiness research is based on self-reported data, and Hecht’s point is that people a century ago would most likely have answered questions on a happiness survey very differently than they do today.

To understand happiness, we need both history and science, Shermer concludes.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Irish General Election 2007: Low Tax Myth - Income Tax & Stealth Taxes

The figures on the map show the level of average new car prices in each market compared to the average for all euro currency markets in 2006. Index 100 represents the European average Source: ROADTODATA

Irish people can become adults after a third level education and twenty or more years of the Irish education system, and be clueless about the tax system.

So in stoking up interest in a general election, it is more idiot proof to concentrate on income tax rates rather than a cure for insomnia like focusing on indexation of bands.

The tax burden has only changed a fraction of 1 per cent in the period 1995-2005 according to the OECD.

It has remained in the range of 36%-37% of GNP despite significant reductions in income tax because stealth taxes in Ireland ar among the highest of the 30 mainly developed countries if the 30 country member government sponsored think tank.

Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell heads into the General Election 2007 as a one club golfer with only one clear policy - reduction in personal tax rates and he has only achieved a 1/2% reduction in the top rate of tax since 2002. The health levy is a tax. Right?

Labour leader has left McDowell's barethread policy platform even more bare after Rabbitte committed the Labour Party to a reduction in the standard rate of tax by 2%.

McDowell can hardly say again that stamp duty revenue or its equivalent is not needed - permanent prosperity has been achieved hallejhuah!! - given the impact on buying decisions after his comments on abolition last September.

During the period that the PDs have been in coalition, direct revenue from property taxes have gone from 4% of tax revenues to 17% in 2006.

It has not all been a benign result of a property boom.

Anyone who is an aspiring first time house buyer who is waylaid by PD politicians bragging about reducing taxes - ask them the average price of a new Irish house/apartment and how much does the Exchequer collect from the cost --- a cool 28% in taxes starting with VAT @ 13.5%, plus levies, site stamp duty etc - according to Minister for Finance Brian Cowen TD.

There is another tax equivalent that PD Party President Tom Parlon forced the FF/PD government in 2001 to concede and is also a huge stealth tax.

Up to €4.6bn of the €18.5bn of taxpayers' money that will be spent on new main roads over the next decade will go into the pockets of landowners. Fred Barry, chief executive of the National Roads Authority is reported as saying that the increases in the cost of land for major roads projects as "disturbing".

Land acquisition accounts for 23% of the cost of roads projects in Ireland, but just 12% in England, 10% in Denmark, 9.4% in Greece and 1% in Iceland. A further 2% of the €18.5bn provided in the Government's Transport 21 for road building over the next decade will go to archaeologists.

Is this a tax? Is the corrupt land rezoning system a tax on property buyers via the artificial creation of land scarcity?

In a bizarre twist, PD leader Michael McDowell is leading the campaign for abolition or reform of stamp duty while PD President Tom Parlon can take credit for the road building bonanza for farmers on public welfare via the Common Agricultural Policy from Brussels - - welfare that is still primarily funded by German and Dutch taxpayers.

Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619–83), Minister for Finance to French King Louis XIV reputedly said: The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.

It generally works because politicians get away with blather on income tax without being challenged by voters or journalists on so many other taxes.

Just have a look at the car price image above and wonder why is there such a big add-on for Irish motorists?


Irish General Election 2007: Some questions that voters should ask the politicians

Ending sentences with prepositions

I was going to begin a story on taxation and the 2007 Irish general election with a joke from research that was published as part of the largest study of humour ever undertaken.

I decided that the full story on the research merited attention.

In the 12 months leading up to publication of the research in 2002, people around the world were invited to judge jokes on an internet site as well as contribute quips of their own.

The LaughLab experiment conducted by psychologist Dr Richard Wiseman, from the University of Hertfordshire, attracted more than 40,000 jokes and almost two million votes.

And the joke which received the highest global rating - submitted by 31-year-old psychiatrist Gurpal Gosall from Manchester - was:

"Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed.

"The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps: ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator says: ‘Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.’

"There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: ‘OK, now what?’"

Dr Wiseman said the joke was interesting because it worked across many different countries and appealed to men and women and young and old alike.

"Many of the jokes submitted received higher ratings from certain groups of people, but this one had real universal appeal.

"Also, we find jokes funny for lots of different reasons. They sometimes make us feel superior to others, reduce the emotional impact of anxiety-provoking situations or surprise us because of some kind of incongruity. The hunters joke contained all three elements."

The experiment also revealed wide humour differences between nations.

One intriguing result was Germans - not renowned for their sense of humour - found just about everything funny. They did not express a strong preference for any type of joke.

People from Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand most enjoyed jokes with word plays, such as this one. Patient: "Doctor, I’ve got a strawberry stuck up my bum." Doctor: "I’ve got some cream for that!"

Americans and Canadians preferred jokes where there was a strong sense of superiority - either because a character looks stupid or is made to look stupid.

This was an example of American humour.

Texan: "Where are you from?"

Harvard graduate: "I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions."

Texan: "OK, where are you from, jackass?"

Many European countries, such as France, Denmark and Belgium, liked surreal humour.

Here is an example: An Alsatian went to a telegram office, took out a blank form and wrote: "Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof."

The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: "There are only nine words here. You could send another Woof for the same price."

"But," the dog replied, "that would make no sense at all."

Europeans also enjoyed jokes that made light of serious topics such as death, illness and marriage.

Dr Wiseman said: "These results are really interesting. It suggests that people from different parts of the world have fundamentally different senses of humour."

Computer analysis of the data also showed that jokes containing 103 words were thought to be especially funny. The winning "hunters" joke was 102 words long.

Many jokes contained references to animals. Jokes mentioning ducks were seen as funnier than other jokes.

Top Jokes in different countries
Here are some of the top jokes in different countries:

Top joke in UK

A woman gets on a bus with her baby.

The bus driver says: “That's the ugliest baby that I've ever seen. Ugh!”

The woman goes to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming.

She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me!”

The man says: “You go right up there and tell him off – go ahead, I'll hold your monkey for you.”

Top joke in USA

The American data proved to be somewhat strange.

Dave Barry is a well known humourist whose columns are syndicated in many American newspapers.

In January 2002 he kindly devoted an entire column to LaughLab.

At the end of the column he urged readers to submit jokes that simply ended with the punch line:

‘There's a weasel chomping on my privates.’

Within just a few days we had received over 1500 ‘weasel chomping’ jokes.

One weasel joke scored very highly in the USA and almost became the funniest joke in America.

Here it is: At the parade, the Colonel noticed something unusual going on and asked the Major:

“Major Barry, what the devil's wrong with Sergeant Jones’ platoon? They seem to be all twitching and jumping about.”

“Well sir,” says Major Barry after a moment of observation.

“There seems to be a weasel chomping on his privates.”

However, ignoring the weasels, the top American joke was…A man and a friend are playing golf one day at their local golf course. One of the guys is about to chip onto the green when he sees a long funeral procession on the road next to the course.

He stops in mid-swing, takes off his golf cap, closes his eyes, and bows down in prayer. His friend says:

“Wow, that is the most thoughtful and touching thing I have ever seen. You truly are a kind man.”

The man then replies: “Yeah, well we were married 35 years.”

Top joke in Canada

When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they quickly discovered that ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity.

To combat the problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 billion to develop a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface including glass and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to 300 C.

The Russians used a pencil.

Top joke in Australia

This woman rushed to see her doctor, looking very much worried and all strung out. She rattles off:

“Doctor, take a look at me. When I woke up this morning, I looked at myself in the mirror and saw my hair all wiry and frazzled up, my skin was all wrinkled and pasty, my eyes were bloodshot and bugging out, and I had this corpse-like look on my face! What's WRONG with me, Doctor!?”

The doctor looks her over for a couple of minutes, then calmly says:

“Well, I can tell you that there ain't nothing wrong with your eyesight....”

Top joke in Belgium

Why do ducks have webbed feet?

To stamp out fires.

Why do elephants have flat feet?

To stamp out burning ducks.

Top joke in Germany

A general noticed one of his soldiers behaving oddly.

The soldier would pick up any piece of paper he found, frown and say: “That's not it” and put it down again.

This went on for some time, until the general arranged to have the soldier psychologically tested.

The psychologist concluded that the soldier was deranged, and wrote out his discharge from the army.

The soldier picked it up, smiled and said: “That's it.”

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

National Development Plan launch PR cost €340,000; Bertie Ahern's annual make-up bill is €30,000 - just two of the many tax-funded indulgences

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, renowned as "a man of the people" has an annual make-up budget of €30,000 - just short of the annual average industrial wage

Politicians in power find it easy to spend lots of money because it isn't their own.

The Irish Government has estimated that it spent a third of a million euro on producing and presenting the details of its recent National Development Plan last month.

Former Labour leader Ruairi Quinn termed the €340,000 splurge of taxpayers' money on the glossy NDP document and its launch as the "the most expensive election manifesto we have ever seen".

The Minister for Finance disclosed that the cost of the production, printing and translation of the NDP document was "some €265,000. The residual cost of some €75,000 includes costs associated with the production of a multimedia resource for use at the launch, development of the NDP 2007-2013 logo and catering for the event."

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern spends about €30,000 a year on make-up - just below the annual industrial wage.

The Irish Independent reported in June 2005 that Ahern's cosmetics bills are likely to include face and hand moisturisers, shine stopper and blushers, exfoliation products, eye care products, foundations, anti-blemish and anti-wrinkle creams. His bills may also include facemasks, massage oils and neck, facial and manicure treatments.

Ahern's increasing age may lie behind the increased costs for last year. Quality of the products is likely to be at the upper end, although most of the outlay is for make-up artists' wages. Corporate image consultant Frances Jones, from Colour Me Beautiful in Dublin, said that Ahern would get "an awful lot of treatments" for the amount he spends. "He needs to look authoritative and on top of his brief. He always dresses and is groomed very well. He probably has an image consultant because he wears cool colours like grey and navy suits, which suit him."

Jones said it was clear Ahern wore make-up not just on TV, but also regularly when in public. She said his make-up artists would use products to take down high colours, remove dark circles near the eyes, and hide redness, blemishes and wrinkles. "It would make him cool under pressure. It would also make him look younger, healthier, fitter, less tired and more successful."

It's well we've a property boom and that we're still net beneficiaries of the EU budget.

When all the frivolous spending is added up, it sure would amount to more than small change.

Irish National Consumer Agency - a toothless pussycat?

Three years ago next month, Mary Harney, the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment established the Consumer Strategy Group in response to what became known as Rip-off Ireland - a perceived sense of price gouging on a significant scale.

In the summer of 2005, Harney's successor Micheál Martin established a National Consumer Agency on an interim basis pending legislation but with a director, staff and a budget. At the time, he said that the consumer would be king at last!!

In the glacial pace of our part-time system of governance, Martin announced thirteen months later, in August 2006 that he would soon present the biggest overhaul of Irish consumer legislation in 30 years.

In January 2007, Martin presented Consumer Protection Bill 2007 at last and debate began in the Oireachtas yesterday, one week after the start of the short spring term for our part-time legislators.

In the eighteen months since the establishment of the National Consumer Agency, it has made intermittent forays into the public arena and is likely to continue as another harmless quango that poses little danger for vested interest groups.

When Martin appointed the interim board of the National Consumer Agency, Derek Jewell, the Director of the Consumer Association was not selected but Taoiseach Bertie Ahern got his ex-girl friend Celia Larkin appointed.

Finfacts said in its submission to the Consumer Strategy Group in 2004 that: The one dramatic measure to both empower the consumer and promote competition would be to set up a national web service providing consumers with comparative prices of key products and services in principal urban centres.

Dramatic measure is right. Wouldn't that be the day!!

My mother used to say, expect nothing and you shall not be disappointed.

Submission to Consumer Strategy Group July 2004:

Public policy has failed consumers in two areas in recent years. Progress in deregulation has been glacial while thinking on consumer information is stuck in the mindset of the 1970’s when the display of price lists was first mandated.


Where market deregulation has been dependent on our own Government’s initiative, the preferred option has been to defer decisions, usually by using the Competition Authority to carry out a study. The deregulation of the taxi trade did not simply pose the same challenges as radical change in the legal or pharmacy sectors. Simply put, taxi drivers are not an economically powerful interest.

There has been some recent reform in the insurance sector, which has had an impact on prices and it is an illustration of what can be achieved. The Government is belatedly addressing the issue of tribunal lawyers’ fees and that may have an impact on charges generally. However, this is just a start. Reform of the system of designating development land is still awaited, three decades after the publication of the Kenny Report. There isn’t a political appetite to change the corrupt system where agricultural land can increase twenty-fold in value when zoned for development. The impact of land prices coupled with lack of effective competition in the service sector sustains high prices while global competition in manufacturing maintains a downward pressure on product prices. It’s a ridiculous situation that Dublin prime office rents are among the highest in the world (see: www.finfacts.ie/cbre.htm).

Where Brussels mandated deregulation has occurred e.g. air travel and telecoms, or new entrants have entered existing cartelised markets- Bank of Scotland entry to the mortgage market and German retail groups Lidl and Aldi entry to the food retailing sector, consumers have significantly benefited.

Consumer Information

Since the mid 1970’s publicans have been required to display prices in their premises. Even if such lists were positioned to be legible, which most of them are not, they are of limited value in large urban areas. Recently in Dáil Éireann, there was a discussion on requiring dentists to display prices of various procedures in their surgeries. Why not have these lists displayed so that they would be visible from the exterior of a premises or bring the issue into the modern age and use the web where practical?

The EU measure requiring pricing to be placed on products, which was introduced last year, is also of limited benefit as consumers have lost the price benchmarks for many products. This is particularly the situation in large urban areas where it is not uncommon for prices of standard items to vary in the range of 15%-30% in similar type business establishments, even on the same street. When the practice of printing recommended retail prices (RRP’s) on products ended, retailers in areas with large transient populations were giving the opportunity to profiteer.

The one dramatic measure to both empower the consumer and promote competition would be to set up a national web service providing consumers with comparative prices of key products and services in principal urban centres.

Through requiring business operators in designated areas to provide the prices of stipulated consumer products and services and having these prices updated bi-annually on an online searchable database, the consumer would be able to conveniently check for price ranking by street and area. It should also be possible to compare prices with the manufacturer/distributor’s recommended price level, which could differ for central Dublin than for example Kiltimagh.

The goal would be to establish a nationally recognised service that with the support of a significant budget (including marketing) would become a key part of the process of setting prices. The practice of increased prices for late drinking should also be highlighted as should the application of cover charges. Business operators would be reluctant to head the price league and be significantly out-of-line with comparable competitors. A separate category of the website could provide comparison of prices of a basket of products at the main multiple retail outlets.

The online system does not have to be a big bureaucratic operation as price lists could be updated online.

The online service would also be of benefit to tourists. We are deluding ourselves if we believe that our expensive brand tag will not have an impact on our travel business.

There should also be a requirement that the prices of certain products and services be visible from the exterior of premises similar to restaurants e.g. the services at a hairdressing salon.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

EU Commissioners on Car Carbon Emissions and Europeans: Let them eat Cake!

A European Commissioner considers showing example on greenhouse gases to the great unwashed!!

The EU has long been saying that cars should emit on average no more than 120g of CO2 per kilometre and on Wednesday, the target is to be reconfirmed.

In 1999, car makers agreed to aim for 140g/km by 2008 - a 25% reduction from the 1995 level of 185g/km - but had reached only 162g/km by 2005.

  • Fiat, Citroen and Renault have reduced CO2 emissions far more than VW, BMW and Volvo
  • Their success is partly due to selling more efficient diesel cars
  • Manufacturers say there has been "no clear demand" from consumers for fuel-efficiency
  • Some SUVs emit more than 360g of CO2 per kilometre
The European Automobile Manufacturers Association says that the automotive sector is a key industry for the European economy, with at least 12 million employees and their families depending on manufacturing, research and development of vehicles in Europe. Technologies developed by the automotive industry are often adopted by other sectors, including ICT and health care. The highly competitive car industry is fundamental to the economic strength of the European Union and safeguarding the future prosperity of its 500 million inhabitants.

The 27 European Commissioners are hardly the first politicians or a professional group that says do what I say but not what I do and this is really the serious point about sacrifice now for future generations.

Ireland's Charlie McMcCreevy has not signalled that he is will to trade-in his Mercedes S series car but the EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas is in the hot seat as the lead policymaker on climate change issues.

Dimas is said to be looking at Toyota's Prius hybrid, as well as a higher-end Lexus hybrid made by the same company.

The betting is that he'll choose the Lexus - after all he's a VIP!

European Commission to announce C02 emission targets for European car industry this week

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The UK's Kenneth Starr - John Yates of the Yard

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in Davos, Switzerland on Sunday Jan 28, 2007
In 1994 in the US, a member of the Republican Party Kenneth Starr was appointed special prosecutor to investigate Bill Clinton's role in a failed property investment in Arkansas, that was known as Whitewater.

The zealous prosecutor could find no incriminating evidence against Clinton during his four-year multi-million dollar trawl, but he thought that he had finished off his big fish quarry by stumbling on the Lewinsky affair.

In the UK, John Yates, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner has been leading an investigation to determine if a 1925 law was broken by members of the governing Labour Party by offering the prospect of honours such as knighthoods or membership of the House of Lords to donors of significant sums to the Party.

Al the main parties at Westminster, appoint business donors to the Lords.

What is intriguing is that the inquiry headed by Yates, with a troupe of investigators, will mark its first anniversary in March.

It does not seem that the length of an inquiry that involves a small number of people, results from police incompetence but Yates' apparent determination to show some element of success, has prompted him to focus on whether some e-mail transcripts were not provided to his team.

Two weeks ago, one of Prime Minister Tony Blair's aides Ruth Turner, was arrested for questioning by four police officers at her flat at 6:30 am in the morning.

This act is part of a parallel media game because Yates hardly expected that Turner would not turn up for a requested appointment at a police station.

Last November, a BBC news editor, had offered a cash bonus to journalists who would provide scoops on the ongoing investigation and the police are suspected to regularly leak information to the media.

Last month, The Sunday Telegraph reported that police used computer experts to obtain confidential material, and are also believed to have approached Number 10's internet suppliers to gain access to government email records.

Scotland Yard became suspicious that potentially vital information was being withheld after it twice asked Downing Street for all emails, letters and other material relating to the system of awarding peerages.

The newspaper reported that they were deeply frustrated by the "very slim" file of documents that was handed over — and decided to obtain further evidence by their own devices, senior sources close to the inquiry revealed - i.e the police.

Labour Party MPs are reported to believe that John Yates, should put up or shut up rather than head into a second year in pursuit of a smoking gun and maybe what he might hope for, a well deserved promotion some day.