Blogs

November Sales

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 4:16 PM EST

NOVEMBER SALES....Actual retail sales figures for November are in:

Major retailers such as Macy's, Abercrombie & Fitch and GAP reported sales declines of more than 10% in November....Shops hoped that Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year, would jump-start consumer outlay but industry experts were downbeat.

....ShopperTrak, a retail monitoring firm, said total sales at US retailers rose 1% during the Black Friday weekend but analysts believe much of that gain will have been stoked by deep discounts and will hit profits....The International Council of Shopping Centers, which represents stores including GAP and JCPenney, said sales at 37 major retailers fell 2.7% over November — the worst start to the holiday season in 35 years.

Given this, does anyone even remotely believe the National Retail Federation's annual Black Friday estimate, which suggests that retail sales over the Thanksgiving weekend were up 20% this year? Media outlets, as usual, reported the NRF's numbers as gospel, but I'd suggest that in the future they should simply toss them in the waste bin. As near as I can tell, they have no basis in reality at all.

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Grammy Nominees Not Terrible?

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 3:56 PM EST

mojo-photo-grammys.jpgAs everyone knows, the Grammys are dumb. I've mocked the ceremony (and also an imagined ceremony in my brain) as well as the tendency of the lists of nominees to look like a stoned 80-year-old decided them. So, granted, my expectations are very low, but a quick glance at this year's nods has left me with a distinct lack of disgust, and my eyebrows might have even gone up a bit in appreciation. Just a little!

Why Obama Should Replace Larry Summers With Eliot Spitzer

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 3:42 PM EST

eliot-spitzer-250x200.jpg

It's easy to snicker at Slate magazine for signing up Eliot Spitzer, former New York governor and onetime john, as a regular columnist. But judging from Spitzer's first outing, it was a master stroke.

The manner in which Spitzer crashed and burned has essentially wiped out the pre-prostitution portion of the Spitzer tale, which included his longtime stint as a critic of corporate excesses. But Spitzer's opening column in Slate is a reminder that in these days of multi-billion-dollar bailouts, there are few powerful and knowledgeable figures in government raising the appropriate questions and challenging the save-the-rich orthodoxy.

From his Slate piece:

Yet More News From Canada

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 3:13 PM EST

YET MORE NEWS FROM CANADA....Unions support card check legislation because they think it will make it easier to organize new industries. Business leaders dislike card check for the same reason. But what they say is that card check is bad because it allows union organizers to intimidate workers into signing cards. Now, business leaders are well-known for their tender sensibilities toward worker rights, but Jonathan Zasloff decided to check up on the intimidation story anyway:

For 50 years, from the 40's to the 90's. the province of Ontario had a card-check organizing system....So what was the record there?

I used advanced research techniques unknown to many reporters, and called up Harry Arthurs of York University, Canada's pre-eminent labour law scholar. Arthurs literally wrote the book on this stuff. And I asked him: what does the evidence show?

Arthurs answered that in all of his research about labour law complaints under card check, he could not find a single case where the employer complained of a union intimidating workers to unionize when they didn't want to.

That's right: zero. Zilch. Nada. Efes. Rien.

....This isn't some obscure jurisdiction. It's Ontario, the largest and richest province in the country. 50 years. A half a century. Zero.

Look: unions aren't perfect. Nothing is perfect. The financial industry, just to pick an example out of my hat, is obviously wildly imperfect, but that doesn't mean we should get rid of the private financial industry. It just means we should regulate it to avoid some of its worst pathologies.

Ditto for unions. If anyone has a better mechanism for giving workers more bargaining clout and therefore higher wages, I'm all ears. Anyone who thinks collective bargaining is a good idea but believes we ought to reform the Wagner Act, I'll listen to them too. But the evidence of the past 30 years makes it pretty clear that productivity growth and improved education aren't nearly enough on their own to keep median wages growing. Neither is unionization, for that matter. But at least it pushes in the right direction. If card check helps that along, I'm all for it.

Sugar Daddy Redux

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 3:09 PM EST

Nearly a year ago, Mother Jones covered the employment opportunities available to hot young hookers via websites like SugarDaddy.com. Today a college senior tells the Daily Beast all about her own arrangement with one such sugar daddy, who made her a sexy proposition she couldn't refuse. After all, she had "tried working, but in retail, surrounded by temptation all day, I spent more than I made. Waiting tables was exhausting."

Seriously, you guys, working and spending within your means is HARD. And certainly all of the sex workers I know would disagree with the implication that sex work isn't physically and emotionally demanding, too. Not that this classy college student considers her "relationship" sex work. The most she'll concede is that it's "maybe even the distant cousin of—dare I say it?—prostitution."

No, please, you best not dare say that, since having sex with somebody you wouldn't have sex with if they weren't throwing loads of money at you for it is not so much a faraway relative of prostitution as it is rampant prostitution. Listen. When the great depression of aught eight kicks in to full gear, we may all have to start screwing old rich guys for money. But let's call it what it is. There ain't no shame in the sex-work game, but there is something sad, and alarming, about smart men and women saying that keeping or being a 20-year-old call girl on a personal payroll is simply a natural, apolitical, magnanimous situation all around.

Will a Western Gross National Happiness Index Catch On?

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 2:42 PM EST

Below is a guest blog entry by Hong Kong-based journalist Don Duncan.

In Buddhist Bhutan, it is common wisdom that every creation requires destruction. That's hearteningly optimistic for the Western economists who descended on the tiny country for the international Gross National Happiness Conference last week.

Gross National Happiness, or GNH, requires that advances be made on nine key fronts in order for national progress to be achieve—education, health, culture, community vitality, living standards, psychological wellbeing, the ecology, and balanced time use. All government policy making in Bhutan is guided by these principles.

During the high capitalism of Reaganomics, Thatcherism and, more recently, free market fundamentalism, the doctrine met with incredulity and derision. Even if you can define national happiness, how on earth can you measure it?

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On Hold in Canada

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 2:21 PM EST

ON HOLD IN CANADA....The "Canadian coup" has been put on hold. After the three minority parties in the Canadian parliament banded together to challenge the ruling Conservative Party, one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's options was to ask the governor general for a suspension, or prorogue, of parliament. Michael Stickings reports:

Well, he did so this morning, and she granted his request — meaning that there will be no no-confidence vote until, at the earliest, Parliament resumes sitting late next month. The government may then lose a no-confidence vote on the Throne Speech or the budget, but, in the meantime, both sides (and the Conservatives even more so because they have more money) will campaign aggressively to woo public opinion.

More here.

Piracy Update

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 2:06 PM EST

PIRACY UPDATE....Following a failed pirate attack on a cruise liner in the Gulf of Aden a few days ago, there were reports yesterday of yet another pirate attack on a cruise ship, the MV Athena en route to the Seychelles. But apparently not:

Grant Hunter, Australian managing director of Classic International Cruises, which operates the ship, today told ABC radio that no pirates had tried to board.

Mr Hunter acknowledged that as the Athena pulled up to the southern end of the Gulf of Aden, several tuna fishing skiffs loomed "some half a kilometre to three kilometres away" as the ship queued to enter a secure port area.

...."Under normal international security regulations, all the ships in that particular grouping put their fire hoses on board (and) activated those," Mr Hunter said.

"The crew were spraying water off the side of the ship but at no stage did any of the skiffs attempt to get near the vessel, board the vessel. "They weren't aggressive to the vessel."

....He said that it was difficult to understand how the reports emanated, because passengers had been eyeing the tuna boats from afar with binoculars — and vice versa.

Tuna boats, eh?

The GM Bailout

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 1:24 PM EST

THE GM BAILOUT....Jim Manzi comments on the restructuring plan that GM is submitting to Congress today:

I guess somebody who's never read a real business plan might mistake this document for one, but it's a joke. It's basically a list of assertions of amazing improvements, entirely discontinuous with actual performance to date, that they will achieve. What's missing is any real indication of how they will go about accomplishing this.

Hmmm. Sounds pretty normal for a business plan to me. List of assertions? Check. Unrelated to past performance? Check. Lots of handwaving about how goals will be accomplished? Check. Back in 1999 some venture fund on Sand Hill Road would have funded it in a minute.

Kidding aside, though, Manzi is probably right: this is meant as a political document, not a real business plan. And after GM blows through the $18 billion they're asking for by next spring, they'll be back asking for more. And who will have the guts to turn them down after already investing so much taxpayer dough in the first place?

I'm just very skeptical of this. Bailing out the financial industry is one thing because the financial industry is different. When it goes down, we all go down. But there really is a slippery slope problem here: once we go beyond the financial industry to the auto industry, what stops us from bailing out farmers and house builders and shipbuilders too? There just has to be a better way of handling this than forking over giant wads of cash with very few strings attached. GM doesn't need surgery, it needs to be rebuilt. That won't happen if they get an $18 billion bailout from Uncle Sam.

Gore: Clean Coal Doesn't Exist. But Should It?

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 1:06 PM EST

During his campaign, Obama called for clean coal technology. His website promises to "enter into public private partnerships to develop five 'first-of-a-kind' commercial scale coal-fired plants with clean carbon capture and sequestration technology." But on Thursday, Al Gore tossed a bucket of cold water on so-called "clean coal."

He launched a new coalition called the Reality Campaign, a multimillion dollar ad campaign that seeks to convince the public that clean coal—at least for now—is a myth.

Gore's goal is to counter claims that coal companies and the US Department of Energy have made about "a new generation of energy processes that sharply reduce air emissions...from coal-burning power plants," as the DoE puts it. Here's a recent ad from America's Power, a company that makes electricity from coal, that maintains clean coal technology can produce lower emissions than regular coal-burning power plants do now (which the coalition says are greater than emissions from all the cars and trucks in America):

The problem is, according to the Reality Coalition, there's no such thing yet as "clean" coal. The coalition doesn't exactly say there could never be a clean way of burning coal in the future. But they do say that the myth that clean coal already exists today allows companies like Clean Coal Technologies Inc. to misrepresent their plants' impact on the environment and make a buck while doing so.

Ultimately, there might not be a major disagreement between Gore and Obama on clean coal. Obama is only for it if it can be developed, and he acknowledges it's not here yet. The Gore campaign seems to be more concerned with now rather than later and trying to make sure that people know what Obama knows. The technology to burn coal cleanly has yet to be developed and implemented. Might Gore support clean coal technology if it ever does get off the shelf? Maybe he'll tell us that in the next ad.