The Science of Popularity: A Review of Hit Makers

In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson tries to explain why some ideas become popular and others fade away. It’s an important question and one facing every content creator in today’s hyper-competitive media landscape. Technology platforms like Spotify, Facebook, and Twitter have transformed media into a winner take’s all market. How does a new band break through on Spotify—when the top one percent of acts capture 80 percent of recorded music revenue? How can a television show break through hundreds of channels and streaming options? How can an unknown writer catch-on? Hit Makers claims to answer these questions. Unfortunately, Thompson fails to offer new insights to this question. Instead, Hit Makers is a book on how cultural hits are created, published in 2017, with arguments from 2010.

Continue reading

Nixonland: How a book about Richard Nixon helps explains Donald Trump

The central thesis of Nixonland, a sprawling look at the origin, rise, and decline of the Nixon administration, is that there was simmering white resentment underneath the optimism and change of the Kennedy Administration. Hidden behind the civil rights movement was a mass of unhappy middle-class white people. Nixon wasn’t the first politician to exploit white rage, that honor would go to Ronald Reagan. Nixon merely copied it, perfected it, and fractured the nation into Nixonland. Richard Nixon, Ron Perlstein writes, “so brilliantly co-opted the liberals’ populism.” Re-directing well-meaning reforms, “into a white middle-class rage at the sophisticated, the wellborn, the “best circles” — all those who looked down their noses at “you and me”…that sneered imperiously at the simple faiths of ordinary folk, their simple patriotism, their simple pleasures.”

In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson won 61.05 percent of the popular vote on a platform of expanding FDR’s New Deal to non-white Americans. Its sole goal was to eradicate poverty and racial injustice. He coined it the “Great Society.” When lighting the national Christmas Tree, President Lyndon Johnson described it as “the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” Eight years later Richard Nixon won 60.67 percent of the vote on a platform of “Law and Order”; an ideological repudiation of the Great Society. Nixonland is fundamentally about this uniquely American transformation. How America went from believing civil rights law leveled the playing field to one that held it caused race riots. How it went from viewing welfare as help for the weakest to help for the laziest. How political dissent became tantamount to treason. Nixon was at the center of it all, weaponizing a white populace’s fears into an “us versus them” political revolution. “Far from becoming a great society,” Nixon wrote in Reader’s Digest leading up to his Presidential election, “ours is becoming a lawless society.” The underlying context was that only Richard Nixon, and people like him, could protect society from the hordes of others.

Sound familiar?

Continue reading

Retailers should look to the past to compete against Amazon

Amazon has engulfed nearly every aspect of retail and is positioned for more. Its North American sales have quintupled since 2010. Between 2015 and 2016, Amazon captured well over a third of all American online retail sales—including 43 percent in 2016. Moves to vertically integrate its supply chain by solidifying an ocean freight license, marketing in-home deliver, and creating a $1.5 billion cargo airline would make the 1920s robber barons blush. Traditional retailers looking to compete against Amazon face even bigger obstacles: Amazon’s market capitalization. In the last 10 years, retailer mainstays Sears, JC Penny and Kohls lost an average of 82 percent of their valueAmazon gained 1,934 percent, allowing it access to the cheap capital the finances its growth.

It isn’t just the company’s world-class logistics traditional retailers are facing—it’s the threat Amazon poses to different retail segments combined with its reputation among consumers. The recent Whole Foods acquisition instantly erased $12 billion in shareholder value from six major food retailers. Meanwhile, consumers love Amazon. It is one of the most trusted brands in America. It controls one of the world’s least exclusive clubs: in 2017, 80 million Americans were members of its Prime 2-day shipping and entertainment program (by contrast, France has a population of about 69 million people).

How can retailers compete with Amazon? It’s an 800-pound gorilla that is beloved by consumers, with exceptional operations and a limitless pocketbook.

This is an attempt to scratch the surface of the tactics and strategies that powered history’s Fortune 100 retailers. The analysis is based off a data set created from Fortune Magazine, industry publications, Capital IQ, and public financial documents. It was then organized across 10 industries, 22 supersectors, and 30 sectors through Russell’s Industry Classification Benchmark (ICB). Drawing on this data, six major insights emerged—each powering the eras’ greatest retailers. Some are obvious, some aren’t. All are required if modern retail executives want to compete against Amazon.

Continue reading

A Review of Joshua Greene’s Devil’s Bargain

Joshua Greene’s Devil’s Bargain is ostensibly about Steve Bannon, arguably mainstream Democrats biggest boogeyman not named Vladimir Putin.

The book, of course, covers his evolution from the Navy to Goldman Sachs, to World of Warcraft, to Hollywood, and to (supposedly) anti-Goldman right-wing crusader. However, the book is really about how three well-financed forces coalesced and resulted in the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States.

Continue reading

Yelp, Antitrust, and Google

Google, Amazon, and Facebook are modern-day railroads. The technology companies are three of the few organizations that own and control our modern infrastructure.

Connor Dougherty published a nice look at how Google’s monopolist position impacts the businesses that rely on the infrastructure it owns. Like farmers and railroads before, web service providers like Yelp are effectively dependent on Google’s network and at the mercy of Mountain View. As the recent EU ruling confirmed, Google engaged in anti-competitive behavior that stifles innovation, destroys Yelp, and rewards itself.

Antitrust may seem somewhat obtuse and unimportant, but it may just be the number one issue of our time. It’s one thing to see a distant company like Yelp, who has been accused of similar thuggish behavior, struggle. It’s another to imagine what will happen when Amazon begins openly discriminating against local grocery suppliers to benefit their private label brand.

Image via Flickr

Why did FDR drop Henry Wallace from the 1944 Presidential Ticket?

In July 1944, a little over a year before the end of WW2, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked tired and sick. Publicly, he was taking month-long rests under the guise of war planning. Privately, he was diagnosed with severe hypertension, heart disease, cardiac failure and acute bronchitis.

The stress of leading a nation at war, rehabilitating a depressed economy and a two pack a day cigarette habit had turned his heart into a time bomb. It wasn’t a question of “if”, but “when” FDR would succumb to a major stroke. Most insiders knew in the upcoming election, a Democratic vote for President was really a vote for the Vice President. It was under these conditions that FDR made a decision that transformed the next fifty years of American history. He removed Vice President Henry Wallace from the Presidential ticket.

Prior to the rise of Bernie Sanders, Henry Wallace was the last true Progressive leader to wield national power. A scientist farmer, and capable administrator, Wallace revolutionized American farming as the Secretary of Agriculture. He spearheaded the New Deal’s most revolutionary and innovative programs, fought concentrations of power, and transformed the Federal Government into a leading incubator of scientific research. He spoke openly about the need to end racial segregation, the benefits of international cooperation, and the importance of economic development. When Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing disease-resistant wheat–it’s estimated that the hybrid grain saved over 1 billion lives—he credited Wallace as his inspiration. He was also popular. At the time of FDR’s decision, a Gallop poll showed Wallace was overwhelming backed by Democratic voters. “Nationwide,” wrote biographers, John Culver and John Hyde, “Wallace’s support equaled the next three (Vice-Presidential) candidates’ combined.” The man who ultimately replaced him, Harry Truman, a generic Democratic Party loyalist, earned 2 percent.

The question is, why? Why did FDR drop Henry Wallace from the 1944 Presidential ticket? Why did FDR want Henry Wallace, the consummate New Dealer, with vast popularity, and support among key voting-blocs removed? It’s one of the greatest “what-ifs” in American history. Critics argue that Wallace’s sympathetic view towards the Soviet Union would have weakened American interests. Supporters argue he would have ended the Cold War before it started. I don’t think there will ever be a clear answer to this question, but I wanted to illuminate 8 key drivers.

Continue reading

Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns

With a scope wide as it is personal, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns paints a historical picture of one of the largest, but least reported events in the 21st century: the mass northern migration of African Americans.

Despite losing the Civil War, an open caste system remained in the South. Blacks were restricted in both their opportunities and possibilities. Most were relegated to sharecropping—in practice a form of pseudo-slavery. Voting was technically legal but practically unheard of. Lynchings were common.  At the turn of the 20th century, 90% of African Americans lived in the south. By the end of the 1960s, roughly half called the North home.

Continue reading

Book Review: How Not to Network a Nation

In the thirty-some years since it fell, American analysis of the Soviet Union has been reduced to one sentiment: communism failed because capitalism is superior. Professional people—especially ones employed by media companies—spend an awful lot of time and energy attempting to rationalize its downfall through clichéd ideological arguments. They bring up the work of Hayek, stories about full grocery aisles, or simply argue that people are too self-interested for mass collectivism to work.

And yes, I understand and even agree with many of these arguments, but it’s also lazy. It’s like analyzing the most recent Super Bowl and concluding that the New England Patriots won because they wanted it more. In How Not To Network a Nation Benjamin Peters provides an exhaustive look at one of the functional problems that plagued the Soviet experiment: information.
Continue reading

Book Review: The Most Powerful Idea in the World by William Rosen

I read The Most Powerful Idea in the World, William Rosen’s book about the invention of the steam engine, for two reasons, one of which was Bill Gates’ glowing recommendation. In his review, he raved about how Rosen was one of the first people to successfully argue that patent law had a large impact on innovation.

Since I am working on a project that looks at the impact of legal systems on innovation it only seemed natural. But I had a reservation. Not about the time period, I’d read a few books about the industrial revolution this year. It’s the simple fact that most books on innovation suck. They’re filled with bland platitudes and offer generic advice that is obvious to anyone with five years of business experience and a subscription to Harvard Business Review.

Continue reading