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The New Cover of Bloomberg Businessweek Reminds Us: Businesses Can’t Thrive Amid Chaos

The reason the U.S. is a good place to do business is that, for the past two centuries, it’s built a firm foundation on the rule of law. President Trump almost undid that in a weekend. That’s bad for business.

-From a scathing short column by Matt Levine about businesses waking up to a harsh reality under President Trump.


Businessweek's Sheelah Kolhatkar: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Sheelah Kolhatkar is features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.


Some of my favorite non-Businessweek features that were published this year:

“Lost at Sea,” Jon Ronson, The Guardian

This piece combines a genre I love—the gritty crime story—with the utter weirdness of the cruise ship industry. Apparently people disappear from cruise ships all the time, but you usually don’t hear about it because the cruise lines keep it quiet. Ronson goes deep into the bizarre cruise culture as he tries to figure out what happened to Rebecca Coriam, who vanished from the Disney Wonder last March.

“All The Angry People,” George Packer, The New Yorker

This story accomplished what seemed almost impossible, at least from an editor’s perspective: it made a compelling narrative out of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in lower Manhattan. Even though OWS was being covered to death, this story—along with Bloomberg Businessweek’s own fine contribution, Drake Bennett’s profile of David Graeber—found a new angle on it and made it fresh and compelling.

“The Girl from Trails End,” Kathy Dobie, GQ

This devastating story just really stayed with me.

“California and Bust,” Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair

His piece about Iceland (“Wall Street on the Tundra”) is my favorite one he’s done about the global financial crisis, but Michael Lewis’s breakdown of the fiscal disaster that is California was his best in 2011. It really makes you think about the scary place we might be headed as a country, and the scene with Arnold Schwarzenegger is priceless.

“Lady, Where’s My Magazine**?” Ann Friedman

This is a parody, and it isn’t terribly long, so I’m not sure that it qualifies. But it is hilarious, and perfectly illustrates much of what is wrong with the publishing business.


See more lists from our Top 5 Longreads of 2011 >

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Anti-death penalty activists march with a sign to free Jeff Wood
Family and friends of Jeff Wood and anti-death penalty activists march to deliver a petition with over 10,000 signatures asking the governor and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Wood's sentence. (Tamir Kalifa / AFP / Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Sabine Heinlein, Leslie Jamison, Ijeoma Oluo, Eric Newcomer with Brad Stone, and Jill Lepore.

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How the American Meat Industry Exploits Undocumented Laborers

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Industrial meat processing is a messy, smelly, unsavory business, which is why it’s highly regulated. Once animals are slaughtered for processing, a team of sanitation workers come into facilities after hours to clean up. But where 30% of America’s meat production workers are foreign-born, the majority of sanitation workers are immigrants. The reason is economic: to keep costs low, profits high, and legal responsibility minimal for producers like Tyson, contractors do the dirty work — some of most dangerous industrial work in America — without workers’ comp insurance.

At Bloomberg Businessweek, Kartikay Mehrotra and Peter Waldman expose the dangerous conditions sanitation workers labor under. In addition to low pay and frequent amputations,  many sanitation companies do their best to deny compensation to injured workers and dodge Federal safety inspectors. American meat is cheap for a reason, Workers’ lives are treated cheaply because employers know that the undocumented want to stay as low profile as possible.

Gilberto Gonzalez, a 47-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who has been cleaning poultry plants in Alabama for 11 years, says smaller plants and sanitation contractors ask few questions of undocumented hires and accept virtually any supposed proof of employment eligibility. “They have a way of working it out to get people on,” he says. (“Gonzalez” is a pseudonym he provided for this article in order to speak openly about his experiences as an undocumented sanitation worker.)

He lives with three of his sons in a decaying mobile home just outside Albertville on northeastern Alabama’s Sand Mountain, famous for its snake-handling preachers. He sent for each son separately in recent years. Just teenagers when they came, the boys paid smugglers $10,000 apiece to spirit them along the 2,300-mile trek from Guatemala through Mexico, across the Rio Grande, and on to Alabama, the last leg in the back of 18-wheel trucks. They’re still mostly invisible. They work at night, stay inside during the day, use back roads to avoid police, and never open the door for anyone they don’t know. Once, the family huddled inside as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents snooped around the trailer park and knocked on their door for several minutes. “We just prayed to God, and they finally left,” Gonzalez says.

He works now at a Tyson plant, an employee of a large cleaning contractor called QSI, owned by the Vincit Group of Chattanooga, Tenn. (QSI and Packers say they use the federal E-Verify system to confirm employment authorization.) The work is good, as these things go. He’s still haunted, though, by his previous job. For about 15 months, he and his oldest son, who is 22 and identifies himself as Miguel, worked sanitation at a small processing plant called Farm Fresh Foods LLC in Guntersville, Ala. The facility is typical of the makeshift warehouses that dot the back roads of chicken country, picking up deboning work and other butchering jobs from the big poultry producers. Most operate on thin margins—bad news for workers, particularly the undocumented, who are always the most vulnerable to abuse.

Farm Fresh’s sanitation supervisor rode the cleaning crew without mercy, according to the Gonzalezes and other former colleagues, who filed a complaint with OSHA in 2016. They were forced to work at punishing speeds in ankle-deep water with floating fat and chicken guts. They were enclosed in poorly ventilated rooms with chlorinated cleaning products wafting in the air, severely limited in bathroom and water breaks. The chemical vapor caused heart-pounding insomnia, Miguel says. Several workers had to seek medical help. Workers who didn’t keep up the pace were moved to an extremely cold area of the plant as punishment.

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Suburbanizing Survivalism

AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Katherine Jones

As the disaster preparedness phenomenon spreads from the rich and eccentric into mainstream America, survivalism is becoming big business. One leader in this sector is Wise Co., a manufacturer of shelf-stable food packed in Mylar pouches. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Amanda Little examines how Wise Co. CEO Aaron Jackson is steadily growing the business by targeting who he calls Mr. and Mrs. Smith in everyday America.

Rather than focusing on niche survivalists and evangelicals who believe in end times, Jackson is focusing on Target, Home Depot and Walmart, where survival foods are positioned as purchases just as practical as fire extinguishers and bottled water, and consumer habits are shaped by mounting global paranoia about natural disasters, terrorism and climate change. So far only 2% of Americans buy survival foods. He intends to change that. The whole approach seems a bit strange, though, since as a CEO who wants what he calls “stable customers” and “predictability,” his success has everything to do with global instability. Also, he doesn’t really believe the world will end, because if he did, why would he work so hard to make money he won’t be able to spend?

Then again, it’s the fear behind the idea that you should be prepared, just in case, that nags at you as a potential consumer. It can’t hurt, right? Because what if you’re wrong? Maybe it won’t matter. When the world has been devastated by warlords and ecological disaster, and you’re hiding in a bunker in the burned out woods, eating shelf-stable beef stroganoff mixed with radioactive rainwater, the flavor will probably make you feel like the rest of the world can’t end fast enough.

Jackson first connected with Wise in 2012, when a headhunter tried to recruit him from Post to run the fast-growing startup. He declined the offer, but commenced some research. “My aha! came in mid-2012 when I read that more than half of American homes have first-aid kits on hand, along with fire extinguishers and flashlights. I realized then they haven’t added the food component. I saw incredible growth potential.” When the headhunter extended the offer again a few months later, Jackson accepted the job of CEO and cautiously started to shift the marketing focus to his ideal customer, one who looks less like Ted Kaczynski and more like himself, his wife, who’s an attorney, and their two tweens: someone who isn’t entirely convinced that humanity is hurtling toward annihilation but who’s willing to stock the pantry with a Mylar-fortified food supply just in case. “This is the food equivalent of life insurance—staples that every American household in this age of uncertainty should have,” he says.

Jackson hired a young designer who’d been at the surf company Quiksilver to revamp the packaging. “We’d been selling our products in large, black plastic tubs. We needed something that doesn’t scream doomsday, so we moved to clean white boxes, contemporary fonts, high-quality food images—packaging that makes sense on a Target shelf,” Jackson says. As orders came in from big-box stores, he added a manufacturing facility a 15-minute drive from the office (production had previously been outsourced) that can produce 25 million pouches a year.

In the past four months, the spate of natural disasters combined with the specter of nuclear war with North Korea has pushed up Wise’s total sales 40 percent from the previous four-month period. Concerned suburbanites as well as disaster responders have contributed to the increase. The factory has made it possible for Jackson to meet both sudden surges and steady growth in demand. He ultimately managed to ship the 2 million servings to FEMA in a matter of weeks, with only a brief disruption to his regular customers’ supply.

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Longreads Best of 2017: All of Our No. 1 Story Picks

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2017. Here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

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Mexico’s Manufacturing Sector Will Survive With or Without America

AP Photo/Ivan Pierre Aguirre

In the late 1960s, Jaime Bermúdez Cuarón, an engineer from a wealthy family, decided to build factories on his cotton fields in northern Mexico. Over time, he, low wages and trade agreements helped turn Juárez into a city of 400 factories that employ 300,000 people, and gave rise to similar industrial areas along the border. People call Cuarón the godfather of Mexico’s manufacturing sector.

At Bloomberg Businessweek, Lauren Etter tells Cuarón’s story and the way American manufacturers came to rely so heavily on Mexico’s factories, called maquiladoras, to build everything from medical devices to car parts. Trump called NAFTA “the worst trade deal ever made,” but Juárez’s industries are starting to rely less on America as they used to, so Cuarón believes Mexico will fare well despite president Trump’s loco rhetoric about border walls and NAFTA.

Martinez says the city is undergoing perhaps one of the most uncertain periods in its history. And that largely has to do with a man to the north.

Maquiladoras haven’t been a direct topic of the recent Nafta negotiations, but the industry is in the crosshairs of the administration, whose trade delegation argues that Mexico’s low wages and poor working conditions create unfair competition for American business. Even the slightest upward adjustment to wages in the maquiladoras or tweak in labor laws could threaten the industry’s advantages. But Juárez has strengths it lacked even a few years ago. Companies around the world are constantly prowling for lower production costs, and it’s now cheaper to hire a worker in Mexico than in China. In 2000, Chinese workers earned half of what Mexican workers did, adjusted for productivity. By 2014, Mexico’s adjusted labor costs were 9 percent lower than China’s, according to an analysis by the Boston Consulting Group.

For decades almost every maquiladora in Juárez was owned by a U.S. company. Today the figure is 63 percent. Japanese companies own 8 percent, German companies 7 percent. Other owners are from China, France, South Korea, Malaysia, Sweden, and Taiwan, according to María Teresa Delgado, president of Index Ciudad Juárez, a trade group that represents the maquiladora industry. “The Trump experience, it really opened our eyes,” she says. “At first we were all kind of nervous because we thought the world would come to an end. But there is a bright side to every dark side, and that’s what we found out. … We’re more global than we were a few years ago.”


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Nestlé Is Sucking the World’s Aquifers Dry

Nestle takes about 25 million gallons of water a year from the San Bernardino National Forest under a permit that expired decades ago. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun via AP)

At Bloomberg Businesweek, Caroline Winter visits Nestlé’s bottling plant in Mecosta County, Michigan to analyze how the multinational corporations targets small communities with promises of jobs, and buys up public land to gain control of water resources. Nestle sold $7.7 billion dollars worth of bottled water last year, making it the world’s largest bottled water company. It made that money partly by paying a pittance for its product. Nestlé pays the U.S. Forest Service only $524 a year to draw 30 million gallons of public water in San Bernardino, California, and Nestlé pays the city of Evart, Michigan just $250,000 a year for its water. Consumers drink bottled water because they assume it’s safer than tap, but that makes us complicit in what many analysts and activists warn is the gradual privatization of water. These multinational corporations don’t have the public’s best interests in mind, activists warn. If anybody should own water, it’s the public.

Nestlé has been preparing for shortages for decades. The company’s former chief executive officer, Helmut Maucher, said in a 1994 interview with the New York Times: “Springs are like petroleum. You can always build a chocolate factory. But springs you have or you don’t have.” His successor, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who retired recently after 21 years in charge, drew criticism for encouraging the commodification of water in a 2005 documentary, saying: “One perspective held by various NGOs—which I would call extreme—is that water should be declared a human right. … The other view is that water is a grocery product. And just as every other product, it should have a market value.” Public outrage ensued. Brabeck-Letmathe says his comments were taken out of context and that water is a human right. He later proposed that people should have free access to 30 liters per day, paying only for additional use.

Compared with the water needs of agriculture and energy production, the bottled water business is barely responsible for a trickle; in Michigan, it accounts for less than 1 percent of total water usage, according to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). But it rankles many because the natural resource gets hauled out of local watersheds for private profit, not used in the service of feeding people or keeping their lights on. There’s also, of course, the issue of plastic pollution.

In the U.S., Nestlé tends to set up shop in areas with weak water regulations or lobbies to enfeeble laws. States such as Maine and Texas operate under a remarkably lax rule from the 1800s called “absolute capture,” which lets landowners take all the groundwater they want. Michigan, New York, and other states have stricter laws, allowing “reasonable use,” which means property owners can extract water as long as it doesn’t unreasonably affect other wells or the aquifer system. Laws vary even within states. New Hampshire is a reasonable-use state, but in 2006, the municipality of Barnstead became the first nationwide to ban the pumping of its water for sale elsewhere.

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