2011 - %3, May

The Global Economy as Slow Motion Train Wreck

| Tue May 24, 2011 9:13 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reports that investors have turned distinctly bearish on the global economy:

The negative news began late Friday, after the outlook on Italy's $1.9 trillion of government debt was lowered to negative by credit-ratings firm Standard & Poor's, which cited weak growth prospects and a slipping economic reform agenda. Then on Sunday, Spain's ruling party suffered a crushing defeat in weekend elections. The heavier-than-expected losses for the Socialist Party of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero raise questions about his government's ability to pursue plans to overhaul the euro zone's fourth-largest economy and thereby ward off an international bailout.

This follows a growing political backlash elsewhere in Europe over the bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal that is seen as making any additional support for those countries even harder to galvanize than in the past.

....By late Sunday in New York, the focus had shifted to the other side of the globe as fresh economic data raised concerns about the pace of economic growth in China, with whom the fortunes of other Asian economies are closely linked.

Once the housing bubble collapsed, a recession was inevitable. But the severity and length of the ensuing slump wasn't inevitable, and a second slump certainly isn't either. And yet, either a second recession or its near equivalent now seems more likely than not thanks to our increasingly 18th century approach to economic management over the past year. It's as if we've deliberately gone back to leeches and bleeding as cures for what ails us, and now we're surprised that the patient is getting worse instead of better.

This didn't have to happen. It still doesn't have to happen. It's a manmade catastrophe born of reactionary stupidity and political cowardice. We might still get out of this with our skins barely intact, but if we do it will be thanks only to dumb luck. Buckle up.

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Biden's Dude Problem

| Tue May 24, 2011 9:07 AM EDT

Women's groups have a bone to pick with Vice President Joe Biden. Biden has convened a series of closed-door meetings with various advisers and members of Congress to tackle budget negotiations with Congress. Despite the fact that women will be disproportionately affected by many of the decisions thanks to their over-representation in big-ticket programs for the elderly such as Medicare and Social Security, Biden has not included a single woman in his meetings. The "gang of men," as the National Council of Women's Organizations have dubbed it, includes: Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), U.S. Senators John Kyl (R-Ariz.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). The gang is negotiating with Biden, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, budget director Jack Lew, and economic adviser Gene Sperling.

The oversight is pretty striking. Biden typically had a good record on women's issues while he was in the Senate, having drafted the landmark Violence Against Women Act in 1994, among other things. But he seems to have forgotten that there are girls in Congress and the administration who know something about the federal budget and economics. (See: Karen Kornbluh, for instance.) The women's groups are calling on Biden to include more female voices in the negotiations so that they are fairly represented.

And for good reason: Social Security, one of the main potential drivers of the budget deficit over the long haul, is a critical safety net for elderly women, who are also heavy users of the other budget-buster, Medicare. For women over 65, Social Security accounts for more than three-fifths of their income, according to a new study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. For older men, by comparison, Social Security accounts for only half of their income. Social Security keeps half of all women over 75 above the poverty line. Given those figures, any cuts to the program are likely to have a significant impact on women. Unfortunately, the only people in the room talking about it right now are a bunch of dudes.  

Even Texans Don't Support a Rick Perry Presidential Campaign

| Tue May 24, 2011 8:47 AM EDT

After Mitch Daniels and Mike Huckabee decided against entering the 2012 presidential race, some Republicans continue to hope that another big-name contender—Jeb Bush? New Jersey governor Chris Christie?—will enter the race and liven up a GOP field short on serious challengers. One name often tossed out is Texas governor Rick Perry, a red-meat social conservative beloved by the tea party with national star power.

But there's one problem: Republicans in Perry's home state wouldn't even vote for him if he ran for president. That's the big takeaway from a new poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, which found that only 4 percent of Texas GOPers would vote for Perry if he ran. "This is a major question for a guy who's getting national buzz," said pollster Daron Shaw. "He hasn't convinced Texans that he's a presidential frontrunner."

The favorite among Texas Republicans, the poll found, is Sarah Palin, who hasn't announced whether she's running or not in 2012. Newt Gingrich finishes a close second, with 11 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Mike Huckabee take third with 10 percent. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) each claimed 7 percent.

will.i.am's Advice for Graduates

| Tue May 24, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

"Some kids are born with a silver spoon. I didn't even have spoons, wooden or plastic," will.i.am, the front man of Black Eyed Peas and creator of the viral "Yes We Can" video, told 111 high school graduates of the after-school college prep program College Track at a ceremony on Friday. "You and I come from the same place. I am so proud of you. I can write a song about dancing, ... but what you are doing is way cooler. Going to college is way cooler." Ana Avalos, a Mission High School senior who's been with College Track for four years, sat in the front row and snapped pictures of the singer as he spoke.

Like most College Track graduates Ana sat next to, she will be the first in her family to go to college. Ana's parents are farmers in southern Guatemala, and she moved here with her sisters four years ago. "When I first came here, I could barely say a sentence in English," she told me on our ride over to the ceremony with will.i.am. "College Track was like family to me, helping me with homework, making sure I remember important deadlines, and helping me get scholarships," she explained. Co-founded 13 years ago by Laurene Powell Jobs and Carlos Watson, College Track works with low-income high school students in East Palo Alto, San Francisco, Oakland, and New Orleans. Since nationwide, only about eight percent of low-income students of color earn a bachelor's degree, College Track counselors help students with academics, life and leadership skills from the ninth grade all the way through college graduation. Ana will be going to UC Santa Cruz this fall. 

Ana Avalos (center) and College Track graduatesAna Avalos (center) and College Track graduatesWill.i.am had some suggestions for Ana and her College Track classmates Friday. "As you get to college, don't get caught up in some love. Don't get distracted by some dude or some girl. 'Oh, she doesn't like me.' This is way bigger than that. You've worked too hard to get here, so don't get caught up in this love thing," was his first piece of advice.

"Don't go to college just to get a degree. I see too many people doing that," will.i.am added next. "I hope you are in this for something bigger. Contribute to the state of America, create jobs, change this country. Mark Zuckerberg is so young. Think about how many jobs Facebook created."

Will.i.am wants to bring College Track to East Los Angeles, where he was raised. "I grew up in the projects of east Los Angeles. I had a lot of help, and a lot of encouragement from my mother. If I didn't have that, I probably wouldn't be alive," he told Ana and other graduates. Will.i.am also partnered with College Track for the first time to award seven $40,000 college scholarships this year. His mother picked the winners, he said.

His last word to the graduates? "Go out there, and do this for your family and for your country, and if you don't, my mom will come and whup your ass," will.i.am said to roaring applause from students and families.

*Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Read more: "Gourmet Bribes for Test Score Improvements." Plus: Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get all of the latest education dispatches.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 24, 2011

Tue May 24, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army Soldiers consolidate rounds and watch for enemy activity following a machine-gun and small arms attack on their position near the Pakistan border in Afghanistan, May 18, 2011. DOD photo by Karen Parrish

Why Do Hotels Tolerate Sexual Predators?

| Mon May 23, 2011 11:36 PM EDT

Are hotel housekeepers sexually accosted by guests very often? Jacob Tomsky provides the answer:

Sadly, yes. And more often than you’d think. It’s not an everyday occurrence but it happens enough to make this question all too familiar: “Mr. Tomsky, can you give the new girl Room 3501 until next Tuesday? That man is back, the one who loves to let his robe fall open every time I try to clean.” So, yes, we assign the room to the new girl.

But not before hotel managers roll up to the room, flanked by security guards, to request that the guest vacate during cleaning, or at least promise to remain fully clothed or risk expulsion. Often it need not be discussed in detail: those guests who can’t seem to tie their robe properly usually know exactly what they’re guilty of. Typically, an unsolicited phone call from management inquiring if the service in their room is up-to-standard, and offering to send a manager to supervise the next cleaning, improves their behavior. I remember one exhibitionist guest, in New Orleans, cutting me off before I could get down to business:

“Sir, this is Jacob, the housekeeping manager — ”

“O.K., fine, O.K.!” And he hung up. That was that.

Unfortunately, this doesn't really surprise me. Honestly, though — and I suppose I'm just being naive here — I'm surprised hotels don't have a no-tolerance policy for this kind of stuff: do it once and you're thrown out and blacklisted forever. What's the justification for extending even the slightest forbearance toward this kind of behavior?

UPDATE: Money, of course. Eric Hines tweets the answer: "Because luxury hotels would go out of business if they blacklisted every rich guy unaccustomed to women saying no."

UPDATE 2: Then again, maybe not. Though in the context of a hotel, I suspect it's easier to distinguish real sexual harrassment from the accidental kind than Megan suggests.

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What Do Shoppers Look for in an Online Review?

| Mon May 23, 2011 6:52 PM EDT

A recent paper about which features are most important to travelers shopping for a hotel online concludes that the answer is "proximity to a beach." Unfortunately, says Felix Salmon, a hotel can't do much about that:

What they can do is address the second-most important variable: readability. Just having well-written reviews, it turns out, is much more important than having good reviews: the rating given in the review was much less significant, as were aspects of the review relating to cleanliness, check-in, service, and the like....So Zappo’s, instead of getting people to write good reviews, just got them to fix reviews which already existed — deal with spelling errors, correct grammar, that kind of thing. And anecdotally [], Zappo’s saw a “substantial” improvement as a result of its investment in cleaning up such things.

Zappo's is a shoe company, not a hotel, but they figured that if readability of online reviews made a hotel more desirable, then it might make shoes more desirable too. And apparently they were right.

But take another look at the table of important variables, which I clipped from the paper. The highest positive correlation indeed goes to beaches and the second highest goes to review readability. But there's more to life than positive correlations: the highest correlation of all — by a mile — is review "subjectivity." In other words, people hated it when reviews were just personal stories or vague declarations that a hotel was great. And if there's a negative correlation for subjectivity, that means there should be a positive correlation for the opposite of subjectivity. And indeed there is. From the paper: "The negative sign on subjectivity means that customers are positive influenced by reviews that describe factual characteristics of hotels, and do not want to read personal stories of reviewers."

So if you want to game online reviews, don't worry too much about paying Indian sweatshop workers a few rupees each to write phony positive reviews for your product. Instead, pay them a few rupees each to write lots of simple, factual reviews. If you can hire workers with good English skills, that's a bonus, but the main thing is to remember Joe Friday's advice: "Just the facts, ma'am."

And for the record: Unlike Felix, who isn't sure what he thinks about what Zappo's is doing, I don't think that paying workers to "clean up" other people's reviews even comes within light years of being ethical. You just don't change other people's words without getting their permission, especially when it's for the sole purpose of duping shoppers into thinking that Zappo's customers are a bit tonier than they really are. In fact, I'd say that creating phony but purely factual reviews is probably a step higher on the ethics scale. If Zappo's is under the impression that this is perhaps clever but still entirely kosher, they have a very strange moral compass in their executive suite. If their review "cleanup" ever becomes common knowledge, I'm pretty sure they'll be forced to back down and apologize mighty quickly.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [16]

| Mon May 23, 2011 3:14 PM EDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

3 Weirdest Things I've Been Told About Pregnancy (So Far)

| Mon May 23, 2011 3:08 PM EDT

When I first started reading pregnancy books and web sites, I felt like everyone was yelling at me. "You must eat 3-5 servings of vegetables, and 70g of protein, EVERY DAY!" "You must work out for 30 minutes daily, but not too hard!" "If you look at a black cat's reflection in a mirror, your baby will grow horns!" The last one I made up but seriously, there is a lot of information out there for the prego set, a LOT of it alarmist or condescending. My most recent pregnancy book told me that I should wear a seatbelt while driving: besides being obvious, this is the law in most states. Some things I've heard/read have just been too weird to be believed. My top three, below.

1. If you exercise on an elliptical machine at the gym, you should stop every 20 minutes and take your temperature. Rectally.

2. "You have to see our alcohol and drug interventionist." Kaiser told me this, because I wrote on a prenatal screening form that I had around 1 drink a month before pregnancy, and half a cocktail around the time of conception. That's right, I had a drink BEFORE I knew I was pregnant, and for this, Kaiser thinks I'm at risk for abusing alcohol during pregnancy. This is because Kaiser's "Early Start" screening program mandates that ALL women who admit to consuming ANY amount of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, meth, and other drugs be referred to their drug/alcohol interventionist for a sit-down. Even if the patient (read: me) informs the doctor that she hasn't had a drink since she knew she was pregnant, and doesn't intend to drink at all during pregnancy. "No amount of alcohol is known to be safe," I was told by a very serious, very sober counselor. "Yeah, I know," I said, despite having read studies to the contrary. "And that's why I'm NOT DRINKING during pregnancy. Which I already told you." Jesus. Next time I'll just lie on the form.

3. "Walking doesn't count as exercise." Another gem from Kaiser, which I dispute. I live in San Francisco and the hills around my home are very steep. If you walked to the top of the nearest hill, you'd climb 300 feet in elevation in about half a mile. When you get to the top, it's about the same elevation as the top of a 40-story office building. In my opinion, if you walk so far uphill that you can see entire bodies of water, two bridges, and neighboring cities, it's freakin' exercise.

It's hard for me to take a lot of these recommendations seriously, especially considering there are 6 billion of us on this planet, and it didn't happen because the world's mothers were obsessively complying with USDA nutritional guidelines or taking their temperature every 20 minutes. If you've gotten extreme or just plain faulty advice while pregnant, please post in comments.

 

Quotes of the Day: Sarah Palin Edition

| Mon May 23, 2011 2:06 PM EDT

From a review of Blind Allegiance, a confessional memoir by former Sarah Palin aide Frank Bailey:

Bailey also helped smear a neighbor who complained about excessive tourist traffic around the governor’s mansion. After hearing of the gripe, Palin sent her daughter Piper out to sell lemonade and then derided her neighbor for protesting children at play. Soon, the neighbor was portrayed on conservative blogs as “sick,” “unhinged” and “drug-addicted.” “By the time we finished with our politics of destruction, he surely regretted ever mentioning the governor’s name,” Bailey writes. “He learned firsthand why so few people were willing to speak out against Sarah Palin.”

And this from Gabe Sherman's New York piece on Fox News chief Roger Ailes:

“He thinks things are going in a bad direction,” another Republican close to Ailes told me. “Roger is worried about the future of the country. He thinks the election of Obama is a disaster. He thinks Palin is an idiot. He thinks she’s stupid. He helped boost her up. People like Sarah Palin haven’t elevated the conservative movement.”

Well, Sarah Palin is an idiot. I guess this just goes to show that even Roger Ailes has to be right occasionally.