Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Yes, online media brands do matter

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 25, 2011 15:52 UTC

Shakespeare was wrong. He assured us that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. One reason that is such a beloved line is its comforting message that intrinsic quality, rather than external labels, is what really counts. But recent research from a Harvard Business School professor suggests that, at least when it comes to the written word, labels matter quite a lot.

That is one of the conclusions of not-yet-published work by Bharat Anand, the professor at Harvard, and Alexsander Rosinski, a former visiting researcher there. The two wanted to figure out two things: whether brands influence our perceptions of quality, and whether adjacent advertising does.

It has become conventional wisdom to believe that information has been commodified. Google is the great leveller, with algorithms that can promote content-farm stories ahead of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations. But it turns out that, to readers, provenance still matters a lot.

The two researchers took a story about Greek public finances that appeared online on the Huffington Post and showed it to a test group of 700 readers in three forms: as an unlabeled piece published online, as an online piece published by the Huffington Post and as an online piece published by The Economist.

The scent of this rose depended very much on its name: When respondents believed they were reading an Economist story, they rated its quality at 6.9 on a scale of 10; when the same piece was attributed to the Huffington Post, it drew a score of 6.1; and when it had no label, it scored just 5.4.

Americans live in Russia, but think they live in Sweden

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 22, 2011 17:53 UTC

Americans actually live in Russia, although they think they live in Sweden. And they would like to live on a kibbutz. This isn’t the set-up for some sort of politically incorrect Catskills stand-up joke circa 1960. It is the takeaway from a remarkable study by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely on how Americans think about income inequality.

The right likes to argue that income inequality as an issue doesn’t win elections because Americans don’t begrudge the rich so much as they want to join them. The Norton and Ariely study suggests otherwise. Given a choice, the authors find, Americans would prefer to live in a society more equal than even highly egalitarian Sweden.

Another popular view is that income inequality isn’t experienced as acutely by most Americans as the numbers suggest because of how much can be “consumed” by the lower rungs of the nation’s socioeconomic ladder. No less a figure than Alan Greenspan, the maestro himself, once made this case at the Federal Reserve’s annual Jackson Hole conference, presenting data on the consumption of dishwashers, microwaves and clothes dryers showing that if measured by the possession of these goods – as opposed to the huge and growing income divide — inequality was decreasing.

Syria’s charming offensive

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 17, 2011 15:40 UTC

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a dictator who wants to be accepted by polite Western society should look for a charming, glamorous wife. That, at least, is what the world’s autocrats are learning from the example of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria.

First, his wife, Asma al-Assad, was the subject of a glowing profile in the March issue of the U.S. edition of Vogue, which described this ‘‘rose in the desert’’ as ‘‘the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies’’ and reported on the ‘‘wildly democratic principles’’ that govern family life chez Assad. Now, the Harvard Arab Alumni Association has organized an event in Damascus, ‘‘under the patronage’’ of Mrs. Assad, who was scheduled to deliver a keynote address on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the day before the planned Harvard alumni event, security officers beat and detained a group of nonviolent demonstrators who gathered to call for the release of the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 political prisoners in the country.

Finding a place in a rebalanced global economy

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 14, 2011 17:15 UTC

Warning — unashamedly patriotic Canadian content to follow!!! If you are a member of the “Blame Canada” constituency, or if you share Michael Kinsley’s view that the world’s most boring headline is “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative,” then please read no further ….

I, however, am an enthusiastic Canadian, and I was absolutely thrilled earlier this year when Morris Rosenberg, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, invited me to deliver the annual O.D. Skelton lecture on foreign policy at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa.

At the beginning of my talk last week, I asked for feedback and promised to post my lecture online so that anyone who is interested could read it and respond. Here it is. The O.D. Skelton lectures are published online and in pamphlet form by the DFAIT and before mine appears I would love to take advantage of your ideas to improve it.

Mary Meeker captures America in PowerPoint

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 11, 2011 16:09 UTC

Mary Meeker first became famous as Queen of the Net. That is the title Barron’s magazine granted her in 1998, after a 1995 report she wrote for Morgan Stanley predicted the power and shape of the then still exotic World Wide Web. Ms. Meeker, who recently moved to San Francisco to become a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, continues to be a forward-thinking guide to the global technology revolution: Her recent reports on mobile devices and the Internet in China have joined her 1995 ‘‘Internet bible’’ as instant classics among the digital cognoscenti.

One of the secrets of Ms. Meeker’s success is her flair for PowerPoint. In the hands of most of its users, PowerPoint is both an excuse for fuzzy thinking and one of its causes. But Ms. Meeker, who told me working with PowerPoint was a fun personal hobby, is a poet of this usually dreary and bureaucratic medium.

Ms. Meeker’s PowerPoint presentations pack a powerful numerical punch — which appeals to everyone’s inner geek and confers a potent aura of legitimacy in this age of the supremacy of data. But her real genius is using those charts and graphs to tell a story, always with an emotive zing and a dramatic narrative arc.

Even the IMF now agrees it’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 7, 2011 22:38 UTC

Regular readers of Chrystia’s column will remember that she recently called out the IMF for failing to foresee the destabilizing effects of rising youth unemployment in Egypt. Specifically, in its April 2010 Article IV assessment of Egypt, the IMF concluded the country’s economy was in fact more resistant to external shocks thanks to “sustained and wide-ranging reforms.” Well, it turns out that the IMF has evolved in its thinking.  In an exclusive interview today with Chrystia and Reuters IMF correspondent Lesley Wroughton, IMF First Managing Director John Lipsky announced that going forward the Fund will more heavily weight unemployment risks in its annual country assessments.  “We think that these are very important issues and need to be looked at, and again, not just in cases where it might result in political turmoil but just as a matter of course in examining economic developments and policies,” Lipsky said.

Watch the whole exchange here:

Posted by Peter Rudegeair.

Revolutions are all about jobs

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 4, 2011 16:33 UTC

There’s nothing like a few revolutions to focus the mind. The lesson the world’s smartest authoritarians are drawing from Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and its neighborhood copycats is simple: It’s all about jobs.

“The leadership in China is always worried about how do you stay ahead of the growth to create enough jobs,” says Dominic Barton, the global managing director of consulting firm McKinsey, who has lived in Asia for much of the past decade. “They have to create over 30 million jobs a year. … They know that if they don’t and there are disruptions and the people don’t have jobs, there will be revolution.”

To illustrate how focused China’s Communist rulers are on jobs, Barton described work he had done helping the Chinese government structure its economic stimulus in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The Chinese authorities came to him with a very specific question: What sort of discount should you put on TVs in Tier 3 cities? “It was a very focused question. And the reason was, they were trying to create consumer demand in a very sophisticated manner.”

Colbert riffs on the global super-elite

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 2, 2011 17:37 UTC

On the Colbert Report last night, Stephen Colbert took off and ran with the idea from Chrystia’s recent Atlantic essay that the super-elite “are increasingly a nation unto themselves.” “Let the rich start their own country,” Colbert said. “Call it ‘America Plus.’ We already live in gated communities. I say we just connect them all with really long driveways.”

Colbert deadpanned that creating a rich America and a poor America might just ameliorate U.S. unemployment overall: “To us [in America Plus] you’ll now be cheap foreign labor, and we might just start hiring you again.”

Do watch the whole clip: The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c The Word – New Country for Old Men www.colbertnation.com Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

Posted by Peter Rudegeair.

Barton and Kleinfeld’s tips for Uncle Sam

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 1, 2011 20:21 UTC

During the depths of the financial crisis, Alcoa announced that it would lay off 13% of its global workforce, or about 13,500 people. Since then, they have built up their presence in China and Russia, finalized a new mine in Brazil, and started construction of the world’s largest aluminum facilities in Saudi Arabia. Alcoa’s rate of job creation in its home country of the United States, however, has been rather tepid in comparison.

Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld acknowledged that prospects for his business today were better abroad than they were at home, but he did note that in the past year Alcoa hired 1,500 people in the U.S. in the automotive and aerospace industries and so long as the United States retained its sense of entrepreneurship, creativity and excellence in higher education, jobs will come.

Dominic Barton was similarly sober about the current state of the U.S. labor market, saying that it’s currently undergoing an acute phase of creative destruction. However, he urged the audience to focus on long-term job growth, citing the example of Samsung in the wake of Korea’s financial crisis in 1997:

The revolutionary significance of job growth

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 1, 2011 20:18 UTC

It was striking to hear how encouraged both Klaus Kleinfeld and Dominic Barton sounded when Chrystia asked them about the effects of the recent turmoil in the Middle East on the business environment there. Barton believed the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt were “the dawn of a new good thing that’s occurring” and noted that it is likely that new capital will come into these countries as a new leadership emerges. Kleinfeld, whose company is in the process of building the world’s largest integrated aluminum system in Saudi Arabia, said that Alcoa is still very comfortable in the region and that the only surprises with their Saudi partners have been positive surprises. For Kleinfeld, the most assured way to bring about stability in a region plagued by unrest is to have businesses come in and create jobs:

If there’s one thing that the Middle East needs particularly for the young — as well as well-educated people — it’s jobs. And it does it in a region which typically has not had much of an economic growth around Ras Azzour. So that’s all very, very good. And not just for us as a company but also for the region. And it’s gonna have a stabilizing as well as a kind of uplifting, positive element

Like Saudi Arabia, China has a large population that accepts a level of repression so long as the leadership can deliver economic growth. Barton, a China expert who headed McKinsey’s Asia operations before ascending to the consultancy’s top spot, said that he did not think that dissent in China would spillover and create a Middle-East-style uprising because the Chinese Communist Party has been able to stay on top of job growth. He had an interesting anecdote about McKinsey’s study on the effectiveness of China’s stimulus plan that illustrated the leadership’s obsession with maintaining growth:

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