Inside Portland’s million-dollar begging business

Inside Portland’s million-dollar begging business

You might think the reason a particular individual flies a sign at a particular intersection at any given moment is governed by chance. In fact, flagging is anything but random. It is a profession with its own rules and hierarchies. Ninety flaggers, each earning $35 a day, pencils out to more than $1 million a year. Chickenfeed by your standards, maybe, but it’s enough money to spawn careers, cartels, competition, and enforcers.

The Surprising Truths About Income Inequality in America

The Surprising Truths About Income Inequality in America

I tell Nick about Rebecca and Dennis in Iowa, about how their health-insurance costs are preventing them from driving across the state to celebrate their anniversary, thus denying them happiness and small businesses across Iowa their money.

“I fly around in a $25 million Falcon 2000,” he replies. “And they can’t afford to drive across the state to celebrate their anniversary? It’s not fair, and it’s terrible for business. The best ideas in the world aren’t worth jack shit unless you have someone to sell to.”

“I don’t even know how much my health care costs are,” he continues. “It doesn’t matter! For them it’s the difference between celebrating an anniversary and not celebrating an anniversary.” The solution, Nick says, is to raise taxes for the rich. He says a 50 percent rate for people like him seems about right.

“If you’re so concerned about it, why don’t you write a check?” I ask.

“You can’t build a society around the effort of a few do-gooders,” he replies. “History shows that most people would not do it voluntarily. People have to be required to participate.”

So instead, he says, he’s trying to convince everyone that the system needs a radical change. He co-authored a book about it: The Gardens of Democracy.

“The view that regulation is bad for business is almost universally held,” he says. “But in every country where you find prosperity, you find massive amounts of regulation. Show me a libertarian paradise where nobody pays any taxes and nobody follows rules and everybody lives like a king! Show me one!”

Why Smart People Are Stupid

Why Smart People Are Stupid

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

For more than five decades, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this and analyzing our answers. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman and his scientific partner, the late Amos Tversky, demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether. Asked about the bat and the ball, we forget our arithmetic lessons and instead default to the answer that requires the least mental effort.

Welcome to America, Please Be On Time: What Guide Books Tell Foreign Visitors to the U.S.

Welcome to America, Please Be On Time: What Guide Books Tell Foreign Visitors to the U.S.

The United States is the second greatest tourist draw in the world, with 60-million-plus visitors in 2010 alone (France, number one, attracted almost 80 million). Flipping through a few of the many English-language tourist guides provides a fascinating, if non-scientific and narrow, window into how people from the outside world perceive America, Americans, and the surprises and pitfalls of spending time here.

Of the many pieces of advice proffered, four of the most common are: eat with your fingers (sometimes), arrive on time (always), don’t drink and drive (they take it seriously here!), and be careful about talking politics (unless you’ve got some time to spare). But they say more than that.

One of the first things you notice in picking up Lonely Planet USA or Rough Guides: The USA or reading WikiTravel’s United States of America page, as I did (traditional guides such as Fodor’s or Frommer’s are more circumspect and not nearly as interesting), is the surprising frankness in discussing the warts of American history and society. The destruction of native communities and slavery both get long sections, the latter usually including some comments on still-present racial sensitivities.

Why Has There Been Such a Decline in the Quality of Popular Music?

Why Has There Been Such a Decline in the Quality of Popular Music?

As Napster and later iTunes (and MySpace!) facilitated rapid discovery of long-tail music selection, both music producers AND consumers arranged themselves in much smaller niches. So, indie rock fans no longer listen to mainstream rock radio to discover new music; they don’t even need to interact with the greater indie music community. They can just read Pitchfork and have extremely relevant content pushed to them directly. As a consequence of this microtargeting, the remaining mainstream music outlets (MTV, pop radio, etc.) have had to move even further to the center, since any even slightly fringe interest is better served by more personalized content sources. This is why variety on the radio has decreased and our biggest musical institution, American Idol, caters to middle-aged Middle-Americans. The only way they can compete with personalized sources of music is by casting the widest net possible.

“If I were you…”

“If I were you…”

But of course, you’re not.

And this is the most important component of strategic marketing: we’re not our customer.

Empathy isn’t dictated to us by a focus group or a statistical analysis. Empathy is the powerful (and rare) ability to imagine what motivates someone else to act.

Is aging a disease?

Is aging a disease?

It’s clear that the simple fact of growing older — chronological aging — is relentless and unstoppable. But experts studying the science of aging say it’s time for a fresh look at the biological process — one which recognizes it as a condition that can be manipulated, treated and delayed.

Taking this new approach would turn the search for drugs to fight age-related diseases on its head, they say, and could speed the path to market of drugs that treat multiple illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s at the same time.

“If aging is seen as a disease, it changes how we respond to it. For example, it becomes the duty of doctors to treat it,” said David Gems, a biogerontologist who spoke at a conference on aging in London last week called “Turning Back the Clock.”

The frequent fliers who flew too much

The frequent fliers who flew too much

There are frequent fliers, and then there are people like Steven Rothstein and Jacques Vroom.

Both men bought tickets that gave them unlimited first-class travel for life on American Airlines. It was almost like owning a fleet of private jets.

Passes in hand, Rothstein and Vroom flew for business. They flew for pleasure. They flew just because they liked being on planes. They bypassed long lines, booked backup itineraries in case the weather turned, and never worried about cancellation fees. Flight crews memorized their names and favorite meals.

Each had paid American more than $350,000 for an unlimited AAirpass and a companion ticket that allowed them to take someone along on their adventures. Both agree it was the best purchase they ever made, one that completely redefined their lives.