There were three simple rules for writing an exceptionally popular business article this year. First, be cosmopolitan. Four of our 11 most popular business stories of the year prominently featured other countries and international comparisons -- five, if you use a liberal definition of the word prominently. Second, be collegiate. The two most similar stories on our list deal with rising levels of college debt and the government's plan to do something about it. Third, be quirky. We called Steve Jobs an asshole (a lot). We asked why flight attendants weren't so hot, anymore. You seemed to like that stuff.
Here are the eleven most popular business stories (by unique visitors) we wrote in 2011:
11. Nearly 50% of the Young People in Greece and Spain Are Unemployed, by Derek Thompson
The euro was created partly to let poorer countries borrow more cheaply and help net exporters like Germany sell to richer neighbors. This has given Germany an amazing trade advantage, allowing it to sell its stuff to richer neighbors without seeing its currency appreciate or its goods get more expensive for Greeks and Irish to buy. Look how nicely that's worked out for Germany!
10. Obama's Student Loan Order Saves the Average Grad Less Than $10 a Month, by Dan Indiviglio
Of the many long-term problems the U.S. economy faces, student loans are a big one. Education costs are rising very quickly and incomes aren't. As a result, students will have to borrow more and more money to obtain university degrees and will have a tougher time paying their loans. President Obama seeks to respond to this question with an executive order in the next part of his "We Can't Wait" unilateral stimulus effort. While the president's heart may be in the right place, his effort isn't like to have much impact.
9. India: The World's Secret Silicon Valley, by Nirmalya Kumar & Phanish Puranam
For many firms, developing new products for consumers around the world is the most visible manifestation of innovation - the "real deal." But many people still see India as a place where other people's ideas are made or executed and not where innovation begins. (After all, you don't hear about an Indian equivalent to Google, iPod or Viagra.) Bu they're wrong. In more than 600 captive research and development (R&D) centers across India today, corporations are designing and building amazing new things.
8. Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?, by Edward Jay Epstein [Originally published in 1982]
The diamond invention is far more than a monopoly for fixing diamond prices; it is a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into universally recognized tokens of wealth, power, and romance. To achieve this goal, De Beers had to control demand as well as supply. Both women and men had to be made to perceive diamonds not as marketable precious stones but as an inseparable part of courtship and married life. To stabilize the market, De Beers had to endow these stones with a sentiment that would inhibit the public from ever reselling them. The illusion had to be created that diamonds were forever -- "forever" in the sense that they should never be resold.
7. Be a Jerk: The Worst Business Lesson From the Steve Jobs Biography, by Tom McNichol
Steve Jobs was a visionary, a brilliant innovator who reshaped entire industries by the force of his will, a genius at giving consumers not only what they wanted, but what they didn't yet know they wanted.
He was also a world-class asshole.
6. I Was Wrong, and So Are You, by Daniel B. Klein [Originally published in December 2011 magazine]
The new results invalidated our original result: under the right circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions. The proper inference from our work is not that one group is more enlightened, or less. It's that "myside bias"--the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one's settled position--is pervasive among all of America's political groups. The bias is seen in the data, and in my actions.
5. The Debt Crisis at American Colleges, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus
How do colleges manage it? Kenyon has erected a $70 million sports palace featuring a 20-lane olympic pool. Stanford's professors now get paid sabbaticals every fourth year, handing them $115,000 for not teaching. Vanderbilt pays its president $2.4 million. Alumni gifts and endowment earnings help with the costs. But a major source is tuition payments, which at private schools are breaking the $40,000 barrier, more than many families earn. Sadly, there's more to the story. Most students have to take out loans to remit what colleges demand. At colleges lacking rich endowments, budgeting is based on turning a generation of young people into debtors.
4. Picture of the Day: Shanghai in 1990 and 2010, by Derek Thompson
3. The Declining Hotness of Flight Attendants, by Megan McArdle
If you look at the national airlines in countries where anti-discrimination rules and/or unions are less powerful, like Qatar or Asia, you'll notice that they spend a lot of time here advertising ... their hot stewardesses. (Also their lay-flat seats. But don't forget the super-hot stewardesses). That's not because they're in an oligopoly. It's because the domestic labor market lets them get away with it, and ours doesn't.
2. Can the Middle Class Be Saved?, by Don Peck [Originally published in September 2011 magazine]
Arguably, the most important economic trend in the United States over the past couple of generations has been the ever more distinct sorting of Americans into winners and losers, and the slow hollowing-out of the middle class. Median incomes declined outright from 1999 to 2009. For most of the aughts, that trend was masked by the housing bubble, which allowed working-class and middle-class families to raise their standard of living despite income stagnation or downward job mobility. But that fig leaf has since blown away. And the recession has pressed hard on the broad center of American society.