The Best Business Reads of January

The month’s most interesting stories about money and economics from around the web

In January, Bloomberg investigated the corporatization of pet care.  (Mariana Bazo / Reuters)

Each month’s The Atlantic’s Business Channel editors compile a list of the most insightful and interesting pieces of journalism about money and economics from around the web.

This month’s picks include pieces that offer insight into the labor market, the world of doulas, corporate veterinarians, and the economic plans of President Trump.

If you’ve missed a recent month’s roundup, you can find some here and here.

Why Men Don’t Want the Jobs Done Mostly by Women

Claire Cain Miller | The New York Times

Women have always entered male-dominated fields — usually well-paid, professional ones — more than men enter female-dominated ones. There are now many female lawyers, but male nurses are still rare. One reason is that jobs done by women, especially caregiving jobs, have always had lower pay and lower status. Yet when men, especially white men, enter female-dominated fields, they are paid more and promoted faster than women, a phenomenon known as the glass escalator.

Much of men’s resistance to pink-collar jobs is tied up in the culture of masculinity, say people who study the issue. Women are assumed to be empathetic and caring; men are supposed to be strong, tough and able to support a family.

“Traditional masculinity is standing in the way of working-class men’s employment, and I think it’s a problem,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins and author of “Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America.”

“We have a cultural lag where our views of masculinity have not caught up to the change in the job market,” he said.

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Americans Eat 554 Million Jack in the Box Tacos a Year, and No One Knows Why

Russell Adams | The Wall Street Journal

The first time Heather Johnson tasted a Jack in the Box taco, she was at a drive-through in Cincinnati when she noticed you could get two for 99 cents, so she added them to her burger order.

She took two bites, threw the rest on the passenger seat and kept driving. “It was stale, greasy, spicy, crunchy, saucy and just plain strange,” said Ms. Johnson, a 43-year-old director of operations at an advertising agency in Cincinnati and author of a blog called the Food Hussy. “Who puts a slice of American cheese in a taco?”

Two minutes later, she picked the taco off the seat and finished it. Then she ate the other one.

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Inside the Million-Dollar Get-Rich Doula Clique

Katie J.M. Baker | Buzzfeed

ProDoula is only three-and-a-half years old, but its co-founders — Patterson and her longtime business partner, Debbie Aglietti — say it’s the fastest-growing doula certification company in the country. It’s also the most controversial. While other leading organizations prioritize the needs of mothers, ProDoula also focuses on the needs of doulas, helping them turn “their passion into a paycheck,” through business-centered trainings and support. Patterson and Aglietti say they’ve earned six-figure incomes working in the doula industry. If they can do it, why can’t you?

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Why Trump Doesn’t Tweet About Automation

Thomas H. Davenport | Harvard Business Review

Trump’s lack of attention to the issue is based on good reasons and bad ones. The bad ones are more fun, so let’s start with them. Trump knows virtually nothing about technology — other than a smartphone, he doesn’t use it much. And the industries he’s worked in — construction, real estate, hotels, and resorts — are among the least sophisticated in their use of information technology. So he’s not well equipped to understand the dynamics of automation-driven job loss.

The other Trump shortcoming is that the automation phenomenon is not driven by deals and negotiation. The Art of the Deal‘s author clearly has a penchant for sparring with opponents in highly visible negotiations. But automation-related job loss is difficult to negotiate about. It’s the silent killer of human labor, eliminating job after job over a period of time. Jobs often disappear through attrition. There are no visible plant closings to respond to, no press releases by foreign rivals to counter. It’s a complex subject that doesn’t lend itself to TV sound bites or tweets.

To be fair, it’s not just Trump who finds this a difficult enemy to battle; other politicians don’t engage with it much either. And there are several good reasons why Trump and other politicians don’t tackle the automation issue. One is that automation usually comes with corporate investment rather than cutbacks. Note that United Technologies announced a $16 million investment in the Indiana Carrier plant. Who wants to criticize that?

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Retraining Day

Noel King and Alex Goldmark | Planet Money

He starts by acknowledging this really sucks. You are a victim of the global economy. But he says here's some good news, kind of. He gives everyone a blue booklet. It's a copy of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act. And he explains because your job has been lost to trade, you get to take advantage of these benefits. You might not feel lucky, but you're pretty lucky. Joe's boss has a way of describing this, and you should just hear it directly from him.

This is the - what we call the Cadillac of all training programs.

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The High-Cost, High-Risk World of Modern Pet Care

Jason Clenfield | Bloomberg Businessweek

Eight years ago is also when he made what he thought of even then as a deal with the devil. Robb is a born-again Christian who believes he’s been called to protect pets, because, he says, they can’t speak for themselves. But concern for animals wasn’t foremost in his mind in 2008, when he decided to buy a franchise of Banfield Pet Hospital, America’s biggest chain of veterinary clinics. He was thinking about money.

Many veterinarians scoffed that Banfield dumbed down its medicine by using a software program, PetWare, to standardize care. The company also put its hospitals inside the big-box retail stores of PetSmart, turning medical care into a product to be purchased along with dog food and chew toys—just another item on a one-stop shopping list. A former chief medical officer at Banfield once compared the business to the no-frills carrier Southwest Airlines. “If you want first class,” he said, “you can buy it from a different airline.” Some animal doctors called Banfield “vet in a box,” but it was a gibe that betrayed anxiety. Veterinarians feared Banfield just as mom and pop grocery stores once feared Walmart.

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Why More California Families Are Becoming Homeless

Rina Palta and Priska Neely | KPCC

An autopsy would turn up no illness that could explain it. Zah'Nyah’s death was reported as Sudden Unexplained Infant Death and the medical examiner noted “co-sleeping” as a factor.

The shelter didn’t have a crib, just bunk beds. Marshall said the shelter operators didn’t allow her to bring a bassinet or any other “outside” furniture. Fearing Zah'Nyah would fall and hurt herself, Marshall had dragged a mattress onto the floor and that’s where the two slept every night.

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Conservatives Plot Their Course on the Rising ‘Sea of Red’ in State Capitals

Robert Faturechi | ProPublica

ALEC executives also forecasted tax cuts and other conservative fiscal reforms in New Hampshire, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia. Jonathan Williams, vice president of ALEC’s Center for State Fiscal Reform, reminded the group that one of the only Republican majorities lost in November came in Nevada, where taxes had been raised.

Williams acknowledged the presidential campaign was “a little light on policy details” but said he was optimistic the Trump administration would follow the states’ lead. “The stars have aligned,” Williams said.

Bowman, who is ALEC’s vice president of policy, said the change in Washington might benefit ALEC’s fight to preserve anonymity for donors to politically active nonprofit groups at the state level. With Trump in office, Democrats might now start to see the value of this privacy. “Democrats who are afraid of the Republican administration are beginning to say ‘Maybe we need to embrace some First Amendment rights,’” Bowman said.

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Wilbur Ross and the Era of Billionaire Rule

Max Abelson | Bloomberg Businessweek

Although Trump ran as a populist, railing at the elite on behalf of blue-collar workers, he surrounded himself during his campaign with plutocrats. And now that he’s president, he’s elevating them to power. Trump’s proposed cabinet has a net worth of more than $6 billion. Ross is by far the richest, worth $2.9 billion, according to a Bloomberg estimate. And how he achieved his fortune—a well-known Wall Street tale of “vulture” investing at its shrewdest—takes on a different cast in light of his nomination.

Ross got rich in part with government assistance, taking advantage of bankruptcy laws and tariffs and having others pick up the bill for pensions owed to employees. He’s been on both sides of perhaps the most pivotal issue of the 2016 campaign—free trade—depending on how it affected his own wealth. If confirmed as Commerce secretary, as is widely anticipated, Ross would be expected by Trump’s electorate to deliver on promises of working-class jobs and an industrial renaissance. Yet he would have the means to continue rewarding the Establishment. Even before taking office, he’s pushed policies that would enrich private investors in public projects.

Ross is positioned to become the most powerful Commerce boss in years.

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The Champions of the 401(k) Lament the Revolution They Started

Timothy W. Martin | The Wall Street Journal

Many early backers of the 401(k) now say they have regrets about how their creation turned out despite its emergence as the dominant way most Americans save. Some say it wasn’t designed to be a primary retirement tool and acknowledge they used forecasts that were too optimistic to sell the plan in its early days.

Others say the proliferation of 401(k) plans has exposed workers to big drops in the stock market and high fees from Wall Street money managers while making it easier for companies to shed guaranteed retiree payouts.

“The great lie is that the 401(k) was capable of replacing the old system of pensions,” says former American Society of Pension Actuaries head Gerald Facciani, who helped turn back a 1986 Reagan administration push to kill the 401(k). “It was oversold.”