False alarms

Bellwether election counties do not merit the epithet

WHEN predicting how America will vote, one popular crystal ball is the “bellwether county”. “Magic Town”, a 1947 film, envisioned a fictional town of Grandview that was a perfect microcosm of America, where everyone “thinks the way the whole country does.” Vigo County in Indiana, home to 100,000 people, appears to be America’s real-life Grandview: it has voted for the winner in 24 of the past 25 presidential contests. Every four years journalists flock there in the hope of taking the pulse of the nation.

Vigo’s record is remarkable, but many other counties are close on its heels. During the past century, 110 different counties (there are more than 3,000 in total) have voted for the winner in at least 12 consecutive presidential elections. It is natural to assume that such places must at least be broadly representative of the country as a whole, even if they are not necessarily populated entirely by soothsayers. The data suggest otherwise. Just two-thirds of these counties went on to pick the president correctly the 13th time.

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Corporate concentration

The creep of consolidation across America’s corporate landscape

PROFITS are an essential part of capitalism. They give investors a return, encourage innovation and signal where resources should be invested. Their accumulation allows investment in bold new ventures. But high profits across a whole economy can be a sign of sickness. In America, corporate profits are at near-record highs relative to GDP. There are a number of reasons for this. One factor is the creeping consolidation of industries in recent years.

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Silver-screen playbook

How to make a hit film

IN 1983 William Goldman, a screenwriter, coined the famous saying that in Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything” when it comes to predicting which films will succeed at the box office. To find out how true that remains, we have analysed the performance of more than 2,000 films with a budget of more than $10m, released in America and Canada since 1995, to see which factors help make a movie a hit.

Crunching information from The Numbers, a website that collects data on film releases, and Rotten Tomatoes, an aggregator of critics’ and punters’ reviews, we found that the strongest predictor of absolute box-office receipts is a film’s budget. Even if it got no boost from its cast, from favourable reviews or other factors, a movie would generate an average of 80 cents at American and Canadian cinemas for every dollar a studio promises to spend on it. A film’s budget is announced while it is in production, to create a buzz and signal its quality—though in practice its true cost may vary from the announced figure.

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A select group

Google joins a rarefied club

When Cisco was crowned as the world’s biggest company by market value in April 2000, its boss hoped it would go on to become the first firm worth over $1 trillion. But its reign was to prove short-lived: deposed by Microsoft two days later, it never regained top spot. It is now in 53rd place.

Cisco may be a cautionary tale for Alphabet, Google’s parent, which on February 2nd usurped Apple to become the world’s most valuable listed company, only to slip back behind the Cupertino-based firm the next day. Come what may, however, Alphabet is now a member of a select club of firms that have led the league over the past quarter-century.

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The march of Christianity

The future of the world’s most popular religion is African

AROUND 140,000 people crowded into St Peter’s Square to hear Pope Francis deliver Christmas mass today, Christmas day. Rome, and by extension Europe, has been the centre of Christianity ever since Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity some 300 years after, according to Christian tradition, Peter, the first pope, arrived there from the Holy Land to spread the gospel and was later crucified. Two millennia later, Christianity is the world’s most popular religion—there are 30% more self-identified Christians in the world than Muslims—and Europe is still the continent with the largest Christian population.

Nonetheless, European priests and ministers are preaching to ever-emptier pews. Just 10% of adults in France and Sweden go to church once a month or more. In Ireland, regular attendance fell from 90% in 1990 to 60% in 2009. Shrinking congregations have led the Church of England, one of Britain’s largest landowners, to close 1,900 churches since 1969, 11% of the total.

Read the full article on Economist.com