Longform’s Guide to the Best Business Stories of 2011
Postal service woes, strip mall casinos, and more great writing about money.
This week, we’ll be sharing our favorite articles of the year on Slate. For our full list—including the top 10 stories about sports, politics, tech, and more—check out Longform’s Best of 2011. —The Editors
James Meek • London Review of Books
The brave new world of privatized postal services:
“Somewhere in the Netherlands a postwoman is in trouble. Bad health, snow and ice and a degree of chaos in her personal life have left her months behind on her deliveries. She rents a privatised ex-council flat with her partner and so many crates of mail have built up in the hallway that it’s getting hard to move around. Twice a week one of the private mail companies she works for, Selektmail, drops off three or four crates of letters, magazines and catalogues. She sorts and delivers the fresh crates but the winter backlog is tough to clear. She thinks her employers are getting suspicious. I counted 62 full mail crates stacked up in the hall when I visited recently. There was a narrow passageway between the wall of crates and her personal pile of stuff: banana boxes, a disused bead curtain, a mop bucket. One of the crates has crept into the study, where the postwoman’s computer rears up out of her own archival heaps of newspapers and magazines. Should these two streams of paper merge they would not be easily separated. The postwoman hasn’t given up. She had a similar problem with the other private mail company she works for, Sandd, a few years back. ‘When I began at Sandd in 2006 I delivered about 14 boxes of mail every time,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t cope and at Christmas 2006 I had about 90 of these boxes in the house. By New Year’s Day we had 97. There were even boxes in the toilet.’ The postwoman is paid a pittance to deliver corporate mail. She hasn’t done her job well, yet so few people have complained about missed deliveries that she hasn’t been found out."
How the utopian dream of a common currency turned tragic:
"The promises of the euro were recorded in the Maastricht Treaty. It was to be a currency that would make Europe strong in a competitive globalized world; that would bring the European economies closer together; that would oblige countries to limit their debts and deficits; that would guarantee that no country would be liable for the debts of another; and that would promote political unity.
“And the details? Well, they would be ironed out later.”
Clare Baldwin, Melanie Burton, Pratima Desai, and Susan Thomas • Reuters
Why Goldman Sachs is hoarding aluminum in Detroit:
"A string of warehouses in Detroit, most of them operated by Goldman, has stockpiled more than a million tonnes of the industrial metal aluminum, about a quarter of global reported inventories.
“Simply storing all that metal generates tens of millions of dollars in rental revenues for Goldman every year.
“There's just one problem: much less aluminum is leaving the depots than arriving, creating a supply pinch for manufacturers of everything from soft drink cans to aircraft."
George Packer • The New Yorker
The prosecution of former hedge-fund star Raj Rajaratnam:
"Rajaratnam’s view of human nature was not so different from that of Willie Stark, in 'All the King’s Men': 'Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.’ If there are examples of people whom Rajaratnam unsuccessfully tried to corrupt, they have not surfaced in the voluminous public record on Galleon. Once, his brash younger brother, Rengan, put out a feeler for inside information to a friend from Stanford’s business school who had become Kumar’s protégé at McKinsey. Rengan gleefully relayed to his brother that the young associate was ‘a little dirty.’ When Rajaratnam shared this assessment with Kumar, Kumar asked him to lay off the associate, not wanting his protégé to be sucked into Galleon’s corruption. Later, Rajaratnam laughed with his brother over the episode. 'I just wanted to show how your friend is—‘
“ 'Scumbag!' Rengan said. 'Everybody is a scumbag!' "
Michael Lewis • Vanity Fair
How a nation went bankrupt:
"Ireland’s financial disaster shared some things with Iceland’s. It was created by the sort of men who ignore their wives’ suggestions that maybe they should stop and ask for directions, for instance. But while Icelandic males used foreign money to conquer foreign places—trophy companies in Britain, chunks of Scandinavia—the Irish male used foreign money to conquer Ireland. Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was to buy Ireland. From one another. An Irish economist named Morgan Kelly, whose estimates of Irish bank losses have been the most prescient, made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that puts the losses of all Irish banks at roughly 106 billion euros. (Think $10 trillion.) At the rate money currently flows into the Irish treasury, Irish bank losses alone would absorb every penny of Irish taxes for at least the next three years.”