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Quartz Weekend Brief—The Democrats’ defeat, Indonesian migrants, financial propriety, life with al-Qaeda

By Quartz Staff & Gideon Lichfield

From abroad, this week’s US mid-term election looks like a disaster for the Democrats. To Americans watching closely, it signals something more subtle. Yes, the Republicans now have both houses of Congress, historic majorities in state legislatures, and the most governors they’ve had in 20 years.

But in many local ballot initiatives, people voted for Democratic issues such as the minimum wage, marijuana legalization and abortion rights. Some go so far as to argue that means the Republicans won by talking like Democrats, but a simpler explanation is that the voters were just punishing the incumbents in an off-year election.

At any rate, the one clear loser is Barack Obama, who, wrote David Rothkopf (paywall), the editor of Foreign Policy, “may end his term of office as the most isolated president since Richard Nixon.” At home, the president is seen as aloof, ineffectual, and deaf to his own party’s needs. Abroad, he now looks like a singularly inept choice for the Nobel peace prize.

This is more than a trifle harsh. Under Obama’s leadership, the US is the only wealthy economy that has largely recovered from the global recession, and his signature health-care reform is both the biggest expansion of US social benefits since Lyndon Johnson, and its most fiscally responsible. Many of his failings can be traced to the Republican strategy that resulted in this week’s electoral victories: No compromise, even when the two parties’ interests align.

But now that Republicans have won, might they meet Obama in the middle? If they can, the president would gladly ignore his ungrateful party’s most left-leaning constituents to sign free-trade deals, or reform America’s troubled tax, immigration and education policies. Otherwise, he will spend the next two years exercising his veto pen on behalf of the 47% of American voters who opposed the GOP last Tuesday.—Tim Fernholz and Gideon Lichfield

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

The lengths women will travel. Undocumented workers—mostly women—leave Indonesia at a rate of 700,000 per year, according to the government, though the actual number is likely four times higher. The two women a British banker murdered in Hong Kong this week are just a small part of a much bigger problem, as Heather Timmons found out.

Space tourism isn’t worth human lives. The tragic crash of Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo is being blamed on the premature deployment of its tail, but the real cause is that—unlike Elon Musk’s SpaceX—Branson’s Virgin Galactic has not made the transition from vanity project to serious business endeavor. And that, argues Tim Fernholz, is because there’s no business case for it.

The ultimate failure of the new World Trade Center. It’s a building that should have made a statement—that New Yorkers cannot be defeated, that the terrorists can’t win, and that America is more than capable of erecting new achievements for the world to gaze upon. Instead, the city got just another boring structure that fails to make any impact, muses Zachary Seward.

The most important statistic you shouldn’t pay any attention to. The American right is using the plummeting rate of labor-force participation in the US to tell a grim story of a declining economy. But it’s a statistical half-truth that conceals a simple demographic reality, explains Matt Phillips.

The next billion are coming online—and they won’t be writing in English. Though only 5% of the world’s citizens identify English as their primary language, over 55% of the internet is written in it. The future, though, will be different, Leo Mirani reports; companies are at last starting to understand it too.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

Welcome to the jungle. Edward Hadas on Breakingviews looks back on a career in a financial-services industry where the standards of success were “impossibly distant from what was good for our clients.” Occasional sessions on ethics, he recounts, made little impact on co-workers who considered a “modicum of mendacity” to be inherent to their roles.

Mississippi misery. The poorest state in the US state, ranking last in virtually every social indicator, is also, bizarrely, the only one in which the percentage of people without health insurance has risen, not fallen, in the year since Obamacare took effect. Sarah Varney reports for Politico Magazine on where it all went wrong.

The long arm of the Kremlin. Simon Shuster at Time tells the harrowing tale of Said-Emin Ibragimov, a former Chechen official in exile in France who says he was abducted and tortured as retaliation for accusing Russian president Vladimir Putin of war crimes. Western Europe isn’t safe for Russian dissidents, he says. “They want to show that they can get to anyone, anywhere.”

Inside the book wars. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in the long-running battle between Amazon, Apple, and the major book publishers? There’s no simple answer in Keith Gessen’s account in Vanity Fair; instead, there’s a revealing portrayal of the forces at work that will define the future of how we read.

Life with al-Qaeda. Sometimes they tortured him. Sometimes they let him drink tea with them under the stars and debate Islamic theology. Theo Padnos (a.k.a. Peter Theo Curtis) writes with dispassion and humor in the New York Times magazine about his two years in Syria as a hostage of al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, which released him in August.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, financial ethics handbooks, and Amazon vouchers to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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