A blog about business and economics.

Oct. 26 2016 9:25 PM

Remember When the PC Was Dying? It's Making a Comeback.

Remember the death of the PC? The workhorse of the consumer technology industry has reportedly been “dying” for years now, which really just means that it’s aging. A few years ago, however, the rise of the tablet had industry watchers convinced it was about to strike the laptop’s final blow.

There was one problem with that story. Yes, tablets were great for browsing the Web, watching movies, and playing mobile games. They even have some neat applications in the workplace, especially for people who work on their feet. But those who tried to replace their PCs with tablets quickly found that smaller and flatter isn’t always better. For crucial tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet crunching, hardcore gaming, or graphic design, a touchscreen proved a poor substitute for a real keyboard.  Meanwhile, the growing size of smartphones has allowed them to usurp some of tablets’ early use cases. When Apple reported its quarterly earnings this week, it reported a year-on-year drop in iPad sales for the 11th consecutive quarter.


That’s the kind of steady decline we might have instead expected from the PC industry. But while quarterly iPad sales have plummeted over the past three years, Mac sales have held steady. A 14 percent dip in Mac sales this quarter can be attributed largely to Apple’s delay in updating the category: Sites across the Web have been warning people for months to wait for the new ones.

Outside Cupertino, PC sales have mostly trended downward. Still, there are signs that it may have more life left than the devices that were supposed to replace it. In 2015, Wired’s Davey Alba reported that not only was the PC dying, it was “not coming back.” A year later, in July 2016, the same reporter’s headline told us that PC sales were up in the United States. That’s thanks in part to analysts’ decision to include in the category hybrid devices such as Microsoft’s Surface, which looks like a tablet but competes more directly with Apple’s MacBooks than its iPads. The blurring of this line suggests that tablets haven’t so much beaten the PC as joined it.

Now for the plot twist. At Microsoft’s Windows 10 event on Wednesday, the headliner was neither a tablet nor a notebook computer. The Surface Pro and the Surface Book rated only brief mentions. The main attraction: a massive, gorgeous, $3,000 desktop PC called the Surface Studio.

Microsoft bills it as a “new class of device” designed for “creative and professionals.”  The ultra-HD 4.5k 28-inch screen, which is just an inch thick, pivots on a hinge from an upright desktop display to a touchscreen “digital canvas.” In this configuration, which Microsoft calls Studio Mode, it reclines at a 20-degree angle, like a drafting table. You can use it two-handed with a digital pen and a new accessory called Surface Dial, which activates application-specific functions when you place it on the screen. Whether the Surface Studio sells in large numbers remains to be seen, but it feels like a coup for Microsoft regardless. It was just the type of delightful surprise that the technology industry used to expect from Apple, and it shows Microsoft competing on innovation and quality rather than price and compatibility.

It makes sense that Microsoft’s growing hardware division would turn its attention to the desktop market. Productivity has always been its strength, mobile technology its weakness. Yet for several years Apple has been the only company still making interesting PCs, and even Apple has been slacking off lately. This at a time when early adopters are buying VR headsets that require ultra-powerful desktop PCs with fancy graphics chips. (In what seems like a missed opportunity, the Surface Studio offers underwhelming graphics chips that that make it suboptimal for heavy-duty VR. Perhaps Microsoft can address that with its next version.)

The PC’s unforeseen return to the spotlight is not over. On Thursday, Apple is expected to finally reveal its latest laptops and desktops. Among them should be a new MacBook Pro, which is rumored to have replaced some keys with a touch-enabled panel. Compared to the Surface Studio, that sounds like a rather incremental maneuver, along the lines of removing the headphone jack on the iPhone 7. But then, Apple may have in store some surprises of its own.

Regardless, loyal MacBook owners’ public venting of frustration at the long wait for an upgrade suggests there’s some pent-up demand for the company’s new PCs. It wouldn’t be surprising to see U.S. PC sales tick upward once again in the final quarter of this year.

PCs will probably never regain their central position in personal computing—that mantle has passed to the smartphone. For many individuals, a phone is enough, while for others a cheaper tablet can suffice as a backup. But PCs’ place in offices and living rooms, especially in relatively wealthy homes and countries, may be more secure than industry watchers had imagined. And Microsoft’s big bet on Surface Studio suggests they’ll remain a staple of design studios and other specialized workplaces.

Tablets were supposed to be the new PCs—the exciting personal computers of the future. But if anything, it’s the other way around. PCs appear poised to be the new tablets—versatile devices that may not be essential for everyone, but which excel at specific applications and fill large personal and professional niches. Tablets, meanwhile, have stagnated. And guess which category is getting the premature obituaries now.

Oct. 26 2016 2:21 PM

London Is the World’s Dandiest City, Global Plutocrats Report

The London press is puffing its chest this week over the news that London has been “voted the best city in the world for quality of life,” as a Daily Mailheadline put it, based on a PricewaterhouseCoopers study.


The coverage that follows such reports seems designed to plumb the same rich Facebook vein of tribal allegiance as a vintage Buzzfeed listicle. But the PWC study, “Empowering city brands,” is part of a two-part series that reveals something important about urban development today.


This portion, which PWC calls “Best Cities,” is a survey of perception. It’s explicitly designed to allocate weight to wealth. The survey group consisted of 5,200 adults from 16 countries, divided evenly among the three groups that share power in the developed world today: “business decision makers, informed elites, and other general population adults.” (It was also conducted in December 2015, a pre-Brexit era in which London was still Europe’s undisputed business and financial capital.)


Obviously this audience would not care much for local issues like the minimum wage, evictions, or education. And, it’s fair to ask: Who the hell cares what the crowd in the Emirates airport lounge thinks about Hong Kong or Tokyo?

Oct. 25 2016 12:29 PM

Donald Trump May or May Not Know What Obamacare Is

This one really should have been a layup for Donald Trump. The Obama administration confirmed Monday afternoon that insurance premiums on the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces are set to rise 22 percent in 2017. While one can debate just how bad that news truly is (I'd say: medium bad), it should be easy fodder for critics who would like to repeal the health reform law. All a politician has to do is make noise about skyrocketing costs and—one way or another—promise to fix them.

And yet Trump has somehow made a hash of this straightforward task. On Monday, during an event at Trump National Doral Miami resort, the Republican nominee told his crowd that “all of my employees are having a tremendous problem with Obamacare.” He then added, “You look at what they're going through with their health care is horrible because of Obamacare. So we'll repeal it and replace it.” This was odd. Trump seemed to imply that his workers didn't receive health benefits, since Obamacare's exchanges are specifically meant for those who don't get insurance through their employers. But reporters have previously confirmed that Trump's full-time hotel staff do get health care, and the general manager of National Doral Miami told Politico that 95 percent of the resort's employees were covered through the company. And indeed, when reporters asked a departing Trump whether his workers were actually on Obamacare, he said, "Some of them, but most of them, no."


So maybe Trump was just exaggerating when he said “all” of his employees were having trouble with Obamacare—gilding the lily, as he is wont to do. Or maybe he really meant to say, “all of my part-time employees who rely on Obamacare are having trouble with it.” Perhaps it was sloppy shorthand.

But then came this exchange on Fox News on Tuesday.


It is unclear, based on these comments, whether Trump actually knows what Obamacare is. When he says, “I don't use much Obamacare,” and “I spend more money on health coverage, but we don't use it,” he makes it sound as if Obamacare is some sort insurance plan that employers typically purchase for their employees. It is not. Again, the Affordable Care Act set up a series of online exchanges where Americans could buy heavily regulated coverage on the individual market if they didn't get insurance through their job. While small businesses with 50 or fewer full-time equivalent employees can provide coverage to their workers through's SHOP marketplace, there is no reason a company as large as the Trump Organization would ever “use much Obamacare.”

To be fair, Trump has previously made comments that suggest he has some familiarity with the basic structure of Affordable Care Act. For instance, he understands that it involves customers paying premiums, that many of the plans involve large deductibles, and that insurers are required to cover a large number of basic services. There is also at least one charitable way to read his statement from Tuesday. Early on, there was some speculation that many companies would choose to nix their health plans and instead give their employees vouchers to go buy individual coverage on the marketplaces. That hasn't happened much, and it's possible Trump was trying to say that he hadn't done it because of how much Affordable Care Act plans cost. When he talks about the “people who have to use” Obamacare, it implies he might understand that the marketplaces are meant for people who don't get employer-based coverage, like part-time cleaning staff at a hotel.

But that interpretation requires reading many, many missing words into his half-formed sentences. At this moment, I think it is fair to question what basic facts Trump knows about the law he's been railing on for an entire presidential campaign. Someone should ask him to explain it, just for fun.

Update October 25, 12:45 pm: This post has been updated to note that small businesses—much smaller than Trump's companies—can provide coverage through the SHOP marketplace.

Oct. 24 2016 7:55 PM

Some Obamacare Premiums Are Going Up a Lot This Year

Just in time for the election, the Obama administration confirmed Monday that premiums on the Affordable Care Act's insurance marketplaces are set to rise by double digits in 2017. Before subsidies, the average monthly cost of a benchmark silver plan will increase by 22 percent in states that use or where data is otherwise available, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

That number hides a lot of local variation—in some large states, the increases will be small or nonexistent. For a 27-year-old customer in California, benchmark premiums are going up by 7 percent; in Massachusetts, they're set to fall 3 percent. But many more states are set for large hikes, with seven looking at increases of 50 percent or more. All of this is, unsurprisingly, giving birth to all sorts of #unaffordablecareact jokes on Twitter.


Jordan Weissmann/Slate


This news was ultimately not much of a surprise. Many insurers have been losing money on the Obamacare marketplaces, as the pool of customers has turned out to be older and sicker than they expected. Some major insurers, including United Health and Aetna, responded by pulling back from the marektplace while others asked for large increases. (I wrote about these growing pains at length back in August.)

The reality is that, despite these hikes, many Americans won't end up paying more for their insurance, because Obamacare's insurance subsidies cap premiums at a percentage of a family's income. Currently, 85 percent of customers on the exchanges get some sort of assistance. The administration notes that after tax credits, 73 percent of current enrollees will still be able to find a silver plan for less than $100 per month (a little more than half will be able to purchase one for less than $50).

Unfortunately, families that earn too much to qualify for subsidies are going to feel the pinch, and the higher prices could discourage new customers from enrolling next year, especially younger, healthier Americans. The exchanges were already having trouble attracting middle- and upper-middle-class households who don't get government help purchasing their coverage. The price increases certainly won't help on that front, even if, as the administration notes in its report, premiums are still pretty much in line with what the Congressional Budget Office projected they would be in 2009.

The HHS report reaffirms one other big problem Obamacare is facing: Some customers are looking at a serious lack of options when it comes to buying a plan. Five states will have just one insurer offering coverage; about 1 in 5 Americans will have only one issuer to pick from. Which is to say that, on many of the marketplaces, there isn't much of a market to speak of.

Oct. 24 2016 6:31 PM

Everyone Is Wrong in the Battle Between New York City and Airbnb

On Friday, New York State became the latest U.S. jurisdiction to spar with Airbnb over short-term rental laws. Shortly after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to levy fines on the company’s hosts who break state housing law, the San Francisco-based company filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the new law would “impose significant immediate burdens and irreparable harm” on the company.

The law in question actually doesn’t change what’s legal or illegal in New York City, which is Airbnb’s largest market. The company's 46,000 hosts in the state are already prohibited by a five-year-old law from renting most apartments for a period shorter than 30 days. (They do it anyway.) What the new law does is create a hierarchy of penalties and fines for advertising that conflicts with the existing statute, from $1,000 for a first offense to $7,500 for a third.

The idea is to clamp down on the segment of the $1 billion New York City Airbnb market which, city pols have argued, consists largely of illegal hoteliers taking apartments out of the local rental market—not striving New Yorkers trying to make rent. Renting out a spare room in your apartment on Airbnb remains legal, as does renting out one of two units in a home.

In an FAQ on the lawsuit, Airbnb insists the majority of its listings are legal in New York City. But that hasn’t always been the case. Back in 2014, the state attorney general reported that more than one third of Airbnb reservations in the city were made with “commercial” hosts with three or more units, and that 72 percent of New York City units were rented illegally. The company says it has made huge strides since then. Last week in the New York Daily News, Airbnb’s policy chief noted that the company will limit all hosts in New York City to one apartment each starting on Nov. 1.

Oct. 24 2016 4:38 PM

Trump’s Campaign Explained Its Grand Conspiracy Theory About the Media in One Insane Press Release

Donald Trump is not the world's most detail-oriented conspiracy theorist. The Republican nominee prefers to make blanket accusations that the election is being rigged by corrupt elites without getting too bogged down by the specifics of how or why. This weekend, however, his campaign addressed that obvious shortcoming in a handy, 312-word press release. Signed by economic adviser Peter Navarro, it implies that major media organizations have been skewing their coverage in favor of Hillary Clinton at the behest of corporate parent companies that benefit from off-shoring American jobs to China and Mexico (which, of course, Trump opposes). Invoking the trust-busting legacy of Teddy Roosevelt, it states that Trump would “break up the new media conglomerate oligopolies that have gained enormous control over our information, intrude into our personal lives, and in this election, are attempting to unduly influence America’s political process.”

In any other election, a major candidate party vowing to use the power of antitrust regulation to wage war on his enemies in the media might be considered breathtaking news. But in 2016, it's just a day of the week that ends in y.


Given its timing, Trump's press release seems to be a response to AT&T's proposed merger with Time Warner, which a number of politicians, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, have voiced concerns about. Trump, too, is against the tie-up, but for perhaps less principled reasons. “AT&T, the original and abusive ‘Ma Bel’ telephone monopoly, is now trying to buy Time Warner and thus the wildly anti-Trump CNN,” the release states. “Donald Trump would never approve such a deal because it concentrates too much power in the hands of the too and powerful few.” While it's refreshing to see a Republican candidate sound the alarm about industry consolidation—who'dathunk?—it's a bit disconcerting that his team decided to frame the issue in terms of a personal vendetta (against a cable network that pays Jeffrey Lord, no less).

Navarro gets more explicit about the globalist conspiracy elsewhere. "NBC, and its Clinton megaphone MSNBC, were once owned by General Electric, a leader in offshoring factories to China,” we learn. “Now NBC has been bought by Comcast, which is specifically targeting the Chinese market—even as Comcast’s anchors and reporters at MSNBC engage in their Never Trump tactics.” So Rachel Maddow isn't just catering to an ideologically liberal audience—apparently, she's shilling for Shenzhen.* Meanwhile, we are informed that the New York Times' “strings are being pulled by Mexico’s Carlos Slim, a billionaire who benefits from NAFTA and supports Hillary Clinton’s open border policies.” The Washington Post is implicated in the cabal as well; it's owned by Jeff Bezos, who is the CEO of Amazon, which “profits from the flow of illegally subsidized foreign products through its distribution channels. Lower costs mean higher margins—no matter if bad trade deals lead to massive unemployment in America.” You can just imagine Navarro furiously drawing arrows on a chalkboard.

It is not crazy to think the U.S. should be more stringent about antitrust regulation. Neither is it absurd to fear how a massive, vertically integrated media monolith like a combined AT&T–Time Warner might wield its power to limit market competition. It is crazy, however, to treat the Sherman Act as a weapon for settling political scores, or to suggest that the Washington Post has been critical of the Trump Foundation because Amazon sells goods made overseas.

Also, it's a bit odd that Navarro makes no mention of Fox News or how it may promote the personal political interests of a certain Australian billionaire. A mere oversight, I'm sure.

*Correction, Oct. 24, 2016: This post originally misspelled Shenzhen.

Oct. 21 2016 6:26 PM

The Latest Proof That Europe Is a Complete and Utter Political Wreck

Have you ever heard of Wallonia, home of the Walloons? It sounds like a place Roald Dahl might have invented, but is in fact the small, French-speaking region of Belgium, with a population of about 3.5 million. It is not, typically, a star player in world affairs. But as of now, the Walloon Parliament may be about to single-handedly bring about the collapse of a free trade deal between Canada and the European Union that has been in the works for seven years, providing the world with yet another example of the EU's utter political disarray.

The politics of this situation are almost as byzantine as they are absurd. Canadian and European officials have been trying to finally wrap up the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, a historic deal that would nix 98 percent of tariffs between the two sides. But under its own rules, the EU needs unanimous consent of all 28 of its member nations in order to ratify a new trade pact—and Belgium is awkwardly holding out. While its federal government supports the accord, it can't officially sign without the blessing of its five regional parliaments.


That’s where Wallonia comes in. Last week, lawmakers there voted 46–16 to reject CETA, which has been a target of large, left-wing anti-globalization protests across Belgium. Negotiators were left scrambling to write up some side language that would accompany the deal that they hoped would appease the Walloons' concerns. It hasn't worked yet, and on Friday things came to a head. Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland marched out of talks in Brussels “on the verge of tears” and all but declared the deal dead. "It seems evident for me and for Canada that the European Union is not now capable of having an international accord even with a country that has values as European as Canada," she said, adding that "Canada is disappointed, but I think it is impossible." Others seem more hopeful; EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, for instance, tweeted that “Good progress had been made in most areas of concerns for Wallonia in talks on CETA. I sincerely believe this is not the end of the process.” But things are certainly looking dicey.

Wallonia is a bit like Belgium's rust belt—a relatively poor region suffering from industrial decline and high unemployment (the Financial Times has called the city of Charleroi “Europe's Detroit”). As Tim King has explained for Politico, its socialist-led government shares many of the same concerns about trade deals as the rest of Europe's left. As far as CETA goes in particular, it's raised issues about agricultural protections and the controversial arbitration process investors can use to sue states, otherwise known as ISDS, that for better or worse is included in most modern trade deals, and has caused alarm among U.S. liberals skeptical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But the absurd thing isn't that Walloons may have qualms about CETA. It's that they're currently exercising veto power over a trade pact that would affect more than 500 million people. It's as if Ohio's state legislature could unilaterally decide whether or not the United States signed onto the TPP. Nobody in their right mind would design a system of governance that way.

You can blame this situation on the EU's own technocrats who, in an unusual step meant to appease globalization skeptics in the wake of Brexit, decided to give national and some regional parliaments veto power of CETA. In theory, that was a pragmatic gesture toward democracy. In practice, the bizarre precedent it has set is calling into question whether the EU will be able to hammer out new trade deals going forward, including a secession agreement with the United Kingdom. Even if this deal somehow survives the Walloon insurrection, this episode is one more sign of how Europe is fraying at its seams.

Oct. 21 2016 4:54 PM

Here’s How the Federal Government Made the Maps That Crippled Black Neighborhoods

If you want to understand the modern American city, consider exploring a new interactive mapping project from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. Building off several previous projects, Mapping Inequality is a database of more than 150 federal “risk maps,” the New Deal DNA that would dictate decades of disinvestment in cities. These maps, as Oscar Perry Abello writes for Next City, illustrate "how the great government-baked wealth-creation machine of the 1930s only worked for white people."

They’re a reminder that letting huge swaths of the American city fall apart was essentially federal policy beginning in the Great Depression, when banks began to withhold lending to certain communities based on color-coded risk maps.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, or HOLC, brought together mortgage lenders, developers, and real estate professionals in hundreds of American cities to design four-color maps. Neighborhoods were shaded green (“best"), blue (“still desirable”), yellow (“definitely declining”) or red (“hazardous”), in descending order of credit-worthiness. These maps, which came to shape not just the distribution of mortgages but other types of investment, were the origin of the term “redlining.” The practice was not made illegal until 1977, and continues in practice.

The innovation of the Mapping Inequality project is that it is links maps from scores of American cities with contemporaneous neighborhood reports, which allows you to toggle easily between maps and more detailed descriptions. What’s revealed is how the mapmakers’ obsessive focus on racial “infiltration" dominated the outcome of appraisals.

Oct. 20 2016 11:30 AM

Tesla Is Now Selling Cars That One Day Will Be Able to Drive Themselves

Tesla announced on Wednesday that cars in production now, including the company’s soon-to-be-released mass-market Model 3, can be equipped with the necessary hardware to enable fully autonomous driving at some point in the future. “The foundation is onboard to bring full autonomy,” CEO Elon Musk told the media in a phone call. The software is not yet ready. When it is, the car will achieve Level 5 autonomy, the company says. Need a pick-up? Tap the “Summon” button on your phone, and this car, which is on sale now, will come to you.

With that, Tesla appears to vault to the front of the pack in the race to produce self-driving cars. By the end of 2017, the company expects to demonstrate an autonomous cross-country trip from Los Angeles to New York. For now, we have to settle for this four-minute video showing a Model X on a short self-guided drive that culminates in the car parking itself. (There’s a human in the car to stay on the right side of the law, but he does not touch the wheel.)

Oct. 20 2016 12:29 AM

Hillary Made One Big Mistake Wednesday Night

Hillary Clinton has lots to be pleased about after Wednesday evening's presidential debate, which will mainly be remembered as the night Donald Trump refused to say whether he would accept the results of an election, trampling yet another bedrock norm of the American political system. Beyond that, Clinton herself delivered a strong performance. Barring a shocking turn of events, she appears to be on a glide path to the White House.

But I think there's at least one answer Clinton offered this evening that she'll come to regret. On three separate occasions, the candidate said she would not “add a penny” to the national debt (she'd used that same phrase before the debate, too). “I pay for everything I'm proposing,” she told moderator Chris Wallace. “I take that very seriously because I do think it's one of the issues we've got to come to grips with.” This is bad economics and bad politics. It may have been her most regrettable moment of the night.


First, the economics. At this moment in history, there is little to no reason why the United States should be worried about its debt load. Over the very, very long term, we might have to do something to keep entitlements from causing our national tab to spiral upward uncontrollably. (That would happen a lot faster if any of the gonzo tax cuts Republicans like Trump have proposed ever came to pass.) But we are not on the precipice of some debt-fueled disaster. And frankly, we've been shooting ourselves in the foot by refusing to borrow more during this era of rock-bottom interest rates, which would allow us to finance investments in infrastructure and push the economy back to its full potential for practically nothing. Investors are all but begging the United States and other countries for new bonds. We should oblige them.

Clinton, of course, has a fairly large infrastructure plan, which she hopes will stimulate growth and new jobs. But stimulus works by increasing the deficit and creating new demand. If she pays for her whole plan upfront with tax increases, she may end up blunting some of its positive effects on growth. So, by buying into the debt-phobic Washington consensus that says our borrowing is an existential emergency, she's undermining her own best laid plans to get the country moving again. Now, it may be the case that the only way a Republican House will ever pass an infrastructure bill is if it's 100 percent paid for. But that doesn't change the GDP math.

As for the politics: One problem is that, as of now, Clinton's claim doesn't seem to be entirely true. Her plans are mostly paid for through new taxes on the wealthy. But as of September, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget still thought that over a decade, her proposals would add an additional $200 billion to the debt, which will grow to about 86 percent of GDP. (To be clear, Clinton isn't saying she'll balance the budget. She's just saying her plans won't cause the debt to grow any faster.) That would be fine on substance, but Clinton has now boxed herself in with her fiscally prudent rhetoric about not adding a penny to our national tab. And if her programs do end up increasing the debt, I can only assume Republicans will be ready to cut TV spots of her promising not to, accusing her of trashing a campaign vow.

Beyond all that, the penny line is just unnecessary. This election is not being fought over fiscal policy. It's about groping and whether Donald Trump can be trusted with the nuclear codes. There's no reason Clinton couldn't give herself a little wiggle room on this issue. Unless she really is a debt hawk at heart. That, of course, would be a true pity.