Archive

December 1st

U.S. shoppers are losing their holiday spirit

    Could Americans be losing their holiday spending spirit? More than 20 years of retail sales data suggest it's a distinct possibility.

    U.S. retailers have come to rely on a shopping frenzy toward the end of the year, as the annual gift-giving season compels people to open their wallets. That holiday bump, though, appears to be shrinking.

    Last year, December's share of annual retail sales (excluding gasoline) amounted to 9.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That compares with a high point of 10.6 percent in 1993 -- a difference worth more than $30 billion. Although the holiday boost tends to fluctuate with economic cycles, the trend is down.

    What's going on? "Black Friday" could be partly responsible, if retailers have pulled some of the holiday action into November with deep discounts and special opening hours. But as Bloomberg View's Justin Fox notes, that particular shopping event is on the wane. And even combining sales for November and December doesn't do much to change the long-term trend.

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Turkey's main problem comes from 'Erdoganomics'

    On the day Turkey shot down a Russian jet this week, it also formed a new government. That went little noticed, given the frisson of a NATO-Russia clash, but it may be as important as any economic sanctions Russia might impose in retaliation for its loss.

    The makeup of the new cabinet helps to answer two questions that have been open since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party regained its majority in elections this month: Will Erdogan co-opt Turkey's parliamentary system to run Turkey's $800 billion economy himself? And will he impose his sometimes eccentric theories on economic and monetary policy?

    The first answer is: yes. The new cabinet is made up largely of presidential loyalists, in some cases embarrassingly so. The new minister for energy and natural resources will be Erdogan's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. Turkey plans $125 billion in energy sector investments by 2023, so that's a big job.

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The GOP's self-inflicted wound

    As the leading Republican presidential candidates rant and rave about deporting 11 million immigrants, fighting some kind of world war against Islam, implementing gimmicky tax plans that would bankrupt the nation and other such madness, keep one thing in mind: The party establishment brought this plague upon itself.

    The self-harming was unintentional but inevitable -- and should have been foreseeable. Donald Trump and Ben Carson didn't come out of nowhere. Fully half of the party's voters didn't wake up one morning and decide, for no particular reason, that experience as a Republican elected official was the last thing they wanted in a presidential candidate.

    The insurrection that has reduced Jeb Bush to single-digit support while Trump and Carson soar is nothing more than the understandable reaction of the jilted. Republican leaders have spent the years of the Obama presidency inflaming GOP base voters with extreme rhetoric and wooing them with empty promises. The establishment won its goal -- electoral gains in Congress and many statehouses -- but in the process may have lost the party.

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The better cure for offensive speech

    I think it's a great mistake to write off what is happening on campus right now as the demands of coddled youngsters for more coddling. Good luck with that approach. We are going to outlive you.

    There is a much more serious discussion to be had.

    Forty percent of millennials favor government restrictions on offensive speech. Forty percent!

    That is high. Let me put my cards on the table: I am not one of those millennials.

    Speaking up in favor of free speech as a principle is a tricky business for a simple reason: The impact of offensive speech is not evenly distributed. It is easier to view the theoretical curtailing of offensive speech as The Real Horror when you have never had and can never have the experience of being on the receiving end. (As Louis C.K. jokes, "I'm a white man. You can't even hurt my feelings! What can you really call a white man that really digs deep? 'Hey, cracker!' 'Uh. Ruined my day. Boy, shouldn't have called me a cracker. Bringing me back to owning land and people, what a drag.' ")

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Putin's pipe dreams in perspective

    "They all laughed when President Obama warned Russia about getting into a Syrian quagmire.

    "They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round.

    "They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.

    "They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly.

    "Well check out Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria:

    "For oh, ho, ho, who's got the last laugh now." (Apologies to George and Ira Gershwin.)

    Of course what's happening in nuclear-armed Moscow is no laughing matter.

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My Afghan battle partner deserves a U.S. visa

    War is always tough, but my July 2011 to February 2012 trip to Afghanistan was one of the most dangerous deployments I was sent on during a decade in the Marines.

    When I joined the Marines, I knew that the battles I would experience would forever live in my heart, but I did not realize that my mission would be far from over even after I returned home. Today, my battle partner Sami Khazikani needs me to fight for his life more than ever.

    Upon returning safely to the United States, I learned that Khazikani was in serious danger from the Taliban. Khazikani served on the battle lines with U.S. forces, ensuring our safety every day. We worked together to make sure the Marines in our unit made it back to their families in the United States.

    But though Khazikani worked so hard to ensure my return to the United States, he is not able to come here himself - because he is an Afghan. Once the Marines he was serving with departed, the Taliban placed a price on his head. He and his wife, who was pregnant, had to flee the country.

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How to revive Japan Inc.'s entertainment division

    The other day I asked an executive at Kodansha, Japan's largest comics publisher, what happened to Hideaki Anno. In the 1990s, Anno created "Neon Genesis Evangelion," a cartoon series that introduced generations of young people all over the world to Japanese pop culture. "Evangelion" is now a household name all over the world, like "Star Wars" or "Batman," but in the last decade, Anno hasn't released any major follow-ups.

    The Kodansha executive replied that since Anno is rich, he no longer has to work, and is probably just enjoying life.

    That answer could have served as a metaphor for the entire Japanese entertainment industry -- including Kodansha itself. Basking in the comfort of a captive domestic market, Japan's comics and animation producers have passed up huge opportunities to expand into global businesses. As a result, the country is losing out on a key potential export market.

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Four tough things universities should do to rein in costs

    Universities in the United States are the best in the world, but the cost of attending them is rising faster than the cost of almost anything else. Professors blame administrative bloat, administrators blame a decline in state funding, politicians blame unproductive faculties who've become too set in their ways.

    Yet while students are paying more, they are getting less, at least as measured by learning outcomes, intellectual engagement, time with professors and graduation rates. And although students are working more hours at outside jobs and receiving more tuition assistance, student debt now exceeds credit card debt and has become something of a national obsession.

    So you would expect universities to have embarked on the fundamental restructuring that nearly every other sector has done to reduce costs and improve quality. They haven't. Oh, yes, pay and hiring have been frozen, travel budgets cut, secretaries eliminated and class sizes increased, even as cheaper graduate students and adjunct professors have been hired to teach more. Everything has been done that can be done - except changing the traditions, rhythms and prerogatives of academic life.

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Europe isn't doomed to a clash of civilizations

    The terrorist attacks on Paris earlier this month have given rise to an explosion of nasty prejudice. According to one survey, anti-Muslim hate crimes quickly spiked 300 percent in Britain -- the vast majority of them directed against Muslim women and girls. The New York Times reports that the harshest effects of France's state of emergency are felt by Muslims. The competitive rabble-rousing of Republican presidential candidates heard from across the Atlantic can only help in drawing a Maginot Line across minds and hearts in Europe -- and fulfilling the wildest dreams of Islamic State.

    It may be hard for some to resist the conclusion that Samuel Huntington was right and that we are on the verge of a worldwide clash of civilizations. But Europe's long history of self-invention and resilience suggests other possible futures.

    One should start with a sober, non-apocalyptic diagnosis: Europe's once-mighty nation-states are undergoing a perilous transition, coping as they are simultaneously with shifts in demography, weakening of national sovereignty, shocks of economic globalization and other radical changes in economy and lifestyles.

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Europe the Unready

    Thanksgiving as we know it dates not to Colonial days but to the middle of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln made it a federal holiday. It is, in other words, a celebration of national unity. And our national unity is indeed something to be thankful for.

    To see why, consider the slow-motion disaster overtaking the European project on multiple fronts.

    For those not familiar with the term, the “European project” has a very specific meaning. It refers to the long-term effort to foster a peaceful, prosperous Europe through ever-closer economic and social integration, an effort that began more than 60 years ago with the formation of the Coal and Steel Community.

    The effort continued with the creation of the Common Market in 1959; the expansion of that market to include newly democratic nations in southern Europe; the Single European Act, assuring free movement of people as well as goods; further extension of the European Union to former communist nations; the Schengen agreement, which removed many border controls within the Continent; and, of course, the creation of a common European currency.

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