Longform’s Best Business Stories of 2011

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Dec. 29 2011 6:35 AM

Longform’s Guide to the Best Business Stories of 2011

Postal service woes, strip mall casinos, and more great writing about money.

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Jack Hitt • New York Times Magazine

How the lowest end of American retail does business:

"We are awakening to a dollar-store economy. For years the dollar store has not only made a market out of the detritus of a hyperproductive global manufacturing system, but it has also made it appealing — by making it amazingly cheap. Before the market meltdown of 2008 and the stagnant, jobless recovery that followed, the conventional wisdom about dollar stores — whether one of the three big corporate chains (Dollar General, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree) or any of the smaller chains (like '99 Cents Only Stores') or the world of independents — was that they appeal to only poor people. And while it’s true that low-wage earners still make up the core of dollar-store customers (42 percent earn $30,000 or less), what has turned this sector into a nearly recession-proof corner of the economy is a new customer base. “What’s driving the growth,” says James Russo, a vice president with the Nielsen Company, a consumer survey firm, 'is affluent households.'"

Felix Gillette • Businessweek

How slot machines snuck into the mall:

“It's a Wednesday morning in mid-March, and the Bakers are sitting inside Jacks, a new type of neighborhood business that is flourishing in shopping malls throughout Florida—and across America. Jacks bills itself as a 'Business Center and Internet Cafe,' but it looks more like a pop-up casino.

“Jacks is about the size of a neighborhood deli. There is a bar next door and a convenience store around the corner. Inside, jumbo playing cards decorate the walls. The room is filled with about 30 desktop computers. Here and there, men and women sit in office chairs and tap at the computers. They are playing "sweepstakes" games that mimic the look and feel of traditional slot machines. Rows of symbols—cherries, lucky sevens, four-leaf clovers—tumble with every click of the mouse.

“John Pate, a 50-year-old wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, says he is wagering the equivalent of 60 cents a spin. 'This place is pretty laid-back,' says Pate. 'You can come here and get your mind off everything. You're not going to win the mortgage. You're not going to lose the mortgage. It's pretty harmless.' "

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Jeanne Marie Laskas • GQ

The lives of illegal-immigrant fruit pickers:

"Wash the apple before you bite into it, because that's the way you were raised. Germs, pesticides, dirt, gunk, it doesn't matter—just wash it. The fingerprints, too, go down the drain with the rest. It's easy to forget that there are people who harvest our food. Sometimes, maybe, we are reminded of the seasons and the sun and the way of the apple tree, and if we multiply that by millions of apple trees, times millions of tomato plants, times all the other fruits and vegetables, we realize, holy potato chips, that's a lot of picking. Without 1 million people on the ground, on ladders, in bushes—armies of pickers swooping in like bees—all the tilling, planting, and fertilizing of America's $144 billion horticultural production is for naught. The fruit falls to the ground and rots."

Matt Taibbi • Rolling Stone

The case for criminal charges:

"Defenders of Goldman have been quick to insist that while the bank may have had a few ethical slips here and there, its only real offense was being too good at making money. We now know, unequivocally, that this is bullshit. Goldman isn't a pudgy housewife who broke her diet with a few Nilla Wafers between meals — it's an advanced-stage, 1,100-pound medical emergency who hasn't left his apartment in six years, and is found by paramedics buried up to his eyes in cupcake wrappers and pizza boxes. If the evidence in the Levin report is ignored, then Goldman will have achieved a kind of corrupt-enterprise nirvana. Caught, but still free: above the law."

Malcolm Harris • n+1

On the emerging student-loan bubble:

“Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy,  then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt."