Europe Rediscovers Nationalism

In his latest novel, French writer Michel Houellebecq presents a controversial situation: The year is 2022, and France has become an Islamicized country where universities have to teach the Koran, women have to wear the veil and polygamy is legal. The book, which created a stir in France, went on sale Jan. 7. That day, a group of terrorists killed 12 people at the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Also on Jan. 7, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met British Prime Minister David Cameron in London. Although the formal reason for the meeting was to discuss the upcoming G-7 summit, the two leaders also discussed Cameron's proposals to limit migration in Europe.

Finally, a much less publicized event took place in Germany that day: A group of politicians from the Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany party met with members of Pegida, the anti-Islam protest group that has staged large protests in Dresden and minor protests in other German cities.

The date of these four episodes is only a coincidence, but the issues involved are not. A growing number of Europeans believe that people from other cultures are threatening their national identities and livelihoods. The emergence of Germany's Pegida movement, which opposes the "Islamization" of Germany, the terrorist attack in Paris and the recent attacks against mosques in Sweden put the focus on Muslims. But the Europeans' fear and mistrust of "foreigners" is a much broader phenomenon that goes beyond the issue of Islam-related violence. What is actually happening is that Europe is rediscovering nationalism.

The Limits of European Integration

Europe traditionally has been a cradle for nationalism. From the romantic nationalism of the 19th century to the totalitarianism of the 20th century, Europeans have long defined themselves by a strong sentiment of national belonging, often linked to language, ethnicity and religion, and distrust of foreigners. The love for the place you were born, the trust of the people who surround you, and the fear of what strangers could do to you and your community is a basic human feeling. But in Europe, nationalism is particularly notable for the sheer scale of death and destruction it historically has brought to the Continent.

Conscious of the dangers of nationalism, after World War II Europeans sought to weaken the nation-state and progressively replace it with the European Union, a grouping of supranational institutions that, over time, were meant to create a supranational European identity. The idea worked for some time, especially at the economic level, where institutions quickly achieved integration. But over the past few years, several changes in Europe have exposed the limits of the project.

The first is the economic crisis. To a large extent, prosperity was the glue holding the European Union together. During good times, when most people have a job and children are convinced that they will have a better life than their parents, the idea of giving up national sovereignty to supranational institutions is easier to accept. But prosperity is no longer a certainty, and many in Europe are beginning to have second thoughts about the benefits of the European project.

The economic decline is also leading to a crisis of representation; a growing number of citizens no longer feel represented by mainstream political parties, unions and other traditional institutions.

The second element is immigration. The economic crisis is affecting the Continent unevenly; countries in northern Europe generally are faring better than those in the south. In addition, the European Union's enlargement in the mid 2000s opened the door for immigration from countries in the former Communist bloc. As a result, countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are dealing with immigration from southern and eastern EU countries.

Moreover, Europe's economic crisis coincides with a deepening of the chronic instability in the Middle East and the Levant. This instability has led to a refugee crisis in Europe as hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers arrive in Europe every year, most of whom are Muslims.

In times of economic hardship, people tend to look for simple answers to complex problems, and "foreigners" are usually the easiest target. It is not a coincidence that the Pegida protests emerged in Saxony — one of the German states with the lowest rates of immigration but with some of the highest rates of unemployment. Ethnically and linguistically cohesive areas tend to be less tolerant of people with a different cultural background.

The third issue is integration. Most European governments operate under the idea that immigration could help the European Union mitigate the effects of their shrinking, aging populations. But many countries struggle to fully integrate the newly arrived. Encountering obstacles such as rigid citizenship laws and pervasive cultural barriers, many foreigners find it hard to feel at home in their new countries of residence. In some cases, this situation continues for generations.

Youth unemployment, lack of opportunities and social discrimination were some of the triggers of the French riots of 2005. A decade later, nothing much has changed in France in terms of integration, while the economic crisis has compounded some of the country's structural problems, and Islamist groups such as the Islamic State are successfully using social networks to attract Western European youth.

European nationals returning home after receiving training in the Middle East perpetrated many of the recent terrorist attacks in Europe. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria, more than 550 Islamists reportedly have left Germany to travel to the region. Slightly more than half of them held German citizenship. French media recently reported that some 400 French nationals are fighting in Syria. There is a vicious cycle of young men and women who feel disenfranchised and discriminated against turning to violence — which only fuels anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric.

Political Systems Under Duress

Western European governments are under considerable stress. They have to deal with immigration from less-developed EU nations while trying to assimilate the asylum seekers that arrive from the Mediterranean. Simultaneously, they face the emergence of anti-immigration parties (from the National Front in France to the U.K. Independence Party in the United Kingdom) and recurring terrorist attacks by nationals who received training in the Middle East. Many Western European countries have to deal with these problems alongside stagnating economies and pervasively high unemployment. The combination of economic malaise and resistance to immigration is seriously challenging the cohesion of the European Union.

National and regional governments are questioning the Schengen agreement, which eliminates border controls among most EU member states. In recent months, a debate erupted when the government of the German state of Bavaria accused the Italian government of allowing asylum seekers (who, according to EU norms, should have remained in Italy) to leave the country and request asylum somewhere else in the bloc. Rome demanded more solidarity among EU members in the reception of refugees. From Bavaria's point of view, the Schengen agreement should be suspended. From Italy's point of view, the European Union cannot force its coastal nations to bear the sole responsibility of housing the asylum seekers.

The Schengen pact also faces criticism from groups arguing that insufficient internal border controls makes it easier for terrorists to move within the European Union after they enter the bloc. Moreover, some countries have been accused of applying weaker border controls than others. In recent months EU members have discussed ways to improve information sharing across the Continent, but regardless of better cooperation in this area, it is impossible to follow every single potential threat.

Even outside the Schengen agreement, the principle of the free movement of people — one of the founding pillars of the European Union — is under question. Partly because of pressure from the U.K. Independence Party and partly because of its own ideology, the British government flirted with the idea of introducing "emergency brakes" on EU immigration. Germany quickly dismissed the idea, and London eventually abandoned it. But the fact that a moderate government in a core EU country is making these proposals reflects the extent to which the debate over migration in the European Union is no longer at the ideological fringes of the political spectrum.

After decades of post-war supranationalism, the Europeans are once again discussing their national identities. The French tried to start a discussion in 2009, when then-President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a public debate on "what it means to be French" — an exercise that degenerated quickly into a discussion of the role of Muslims in the country. The Pegida protests led to similar debates in Germany, a country that for historical reasons feels extremely uncomfortable with the topic but also considers generational change to be breaking old taboos.

Pegida-inspired demonstrations will take place in Austria in February, potentially leading to controversy there as well. These debates will not go away in Europe and will force the Europeans to deal with difficult questions that have remained dormant for decades.

At the core of these problems is growing resistance to globalization, understood as the free movement of goods, services and, most important, people. From the Italian shoemaker who cannot compete with cheap Chinese imports to the British factory worker who believes that Polish immigrants are threatening his job, many Europeans believe globalization is a menace to their way of life. The fact that the European Union was built on many of the principles of globalization explains why the bloc is becoming increasingly fragmented and why the promise of a "United States of Europe" probably will never be achieved.

Bracing for Stagnation

Raghuram Rajan

JAN 14, 2015
hold on tight

MUMBAI – As 2015 begins, the global economy remains weak. The United States may be seeing signs of a strengthening recovery, but the eurozone risks following Japan into recession, and emerging markets worry that their export-led growth strategies have left them vulnerable to stagnation abroad. With few signs that this year will bring any improvement, policymakers would be wise to understand the factors underlying the global economy’s anemic performance – and the implications of continued feebleness.
In the words of Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, we are experiencing the “new mediocre.” The implication is that growth is unacceptably low relative to potential and that more can be done to lift it, especially given that some major economies are flirting with deflation.
Conventional policy advice urges innovative monetary interventions bearing an ever expanding array of acronyms, even as governments are admonished to spend on “obvious” needs such as infrastructure. The need for structural reforms is acknowledged, but they are typically deemed painful, and possibly growth-reducing in the short run. So the focus remains on monetary and fiscal stimulus – and as much of it as possible, given the deadening effects of debt overhang.
And yet, the efficacy of such policy advice remains to be seen. It is worth noting that the Japanese checked each of these boxes over the last two decades: They held interest rates low, introduced quantitative easing, and launched massive debt-financed spending on infrastructure. Few would argue that Japan has recovered fully from its malaise.
An emerging narrative might better explain why stimulus efforts have been unsuccessful: As former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has argued, the world economy may be going through a sustained period of “secular stagnation.”
The causes of the stagnation very much depend on which economist one asks. Summers emphasizes the inadequacy of aggregate demand, exacerbated by the inability of central banks to reduce nominal interest rates below zero. The reasons for weak aggregate demand include aging populations that consume less and the growing concentration of wealth among the very rich, whose marginal propensity to consume is small.
The economists Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon, on the other hand, argue that the problem is on the supply side. In their view, the years following World War II were an aberration, with industrial countries’ growth helped by post-war reconstruction, rising education levels, higher workforce participation rates (owing to the entry of women), restored global trade, increasing investment, and the diffusion of technologies such as electricity, telephones, and automobiles.
Whatever the causes, growth started to slow in the 1970s, and adverse consequences like high unemployment rates among immigrants and the young were compounded by the growing realization that governments would struggle to deliver on their promises of social security. These promises, notes the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, had been made in the 1960s, when economies were surging and visions of a “Great Society” seemed affordable. Promises have since been augmented with pension hikes and old-age health-care commitments for public-sector workers.
To meet their obligations, governments needed growth. So, from the 1970s on, they began to spend to stimulate the economy. Because of the supply-side problems, however, the spending translated into spiraling inflation. Price stability needed to be restored, but the spending had to be maintained. The ultimate solution was to finance spending not with the inflation tax, but with debt: first public debt, and then, as governments cut their deficits, private-sector debt. In 2008, these elevated debt levels – in banks, businesses, households, and governments – sparked the financial crisis.
Today, debt is making it difficult for developed countries to resume pre-2008 growth rates, let alone restore the levels of GDP that would have been attained if the subsequent Great Recession had not happened. Meanwhile, industrial countries’ overall debt/GDP ratios are continuing to grow.
In emerging markets, slow growth in the advanced economies has shut down a traditional development path: export-led growth. As a result, emerging markets have had to rely once again on domestic demand. This is always a difficult task, given the temptation to over-stimulate.
The abundance of liquidity sloshing around the world – the result of developed countries’ ultra-accommodative monetary policies – has made the task more difficult still, as the smallest sign of growth in an emerging economy can attract foreign capital. If not properly managed, these flows can precipitate a credit and asset-price boom and drive up exchange rates. When developed-country monetary policies are eventually tightened, some of the capital is likely to depart. Emerging markets will have to ensure that they are not vulnerable.
To be sure, the world’s economic outlook could still take a turn for the better. The US may become the world’s engine of growth. Declining oil prices could provide a major boost, especially to oil-importing developed economies. Technological advances could still come to the rescue.
But, overall, there is a palpable sense of gloom in the developed world, a feeling that growth is unlikely to take off in the foreseeable future. If secular stagnation persists, these countries will have to undertake painful structural reforms, figure out how to restructure their promises (debts, social-security commitments, and pledges to keep taxes low), and distribute the resulting burden.
After the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013, it had to make tough choices between servicing its pensioners or its debt, keeping its museums open or its police force intact. As 2015 begins, similar difficult decisions may become increasingly common.


Companies Tiptoe Back Toward ‘Made in the U.S.A.’

For years, the U.S. has ceded more and more of its manufacturing to low-cost corners of the global economy. Some firms now want to come home.

By James R. Hagerty And Mark Magnier

Updated Jan. 13, 2015 10:33 p.m. ET

Kathryn Masterson and Jessica Butala discuss seat fabrics for a new car seat from the 4moms line of baby products designed and made by Pittsburgh-based Thorley Industries. Jeff Swensen for The Wall Street Journal

PITTSBURGH—Thorley Industries LLC began planning several years ago to launch a baby car seat with a set of electronic controls and a potential novelty: The Pittsburgh-based firm considered making the seats in the U.S.

Officials at Thorley, which manufactures most of its infant-care line in China, sought to avoid for at least one product the trans-Pacific flights and language barriers that come with doing business overseas. They looked to lower shipping costs and eliminate the monthslong wait for supplies to arrive and clear customs. There also was the chance customers might prefer American-made.

In the beginning, at least, “I think we were all definitely rooting for the U.S.,” said Rich Juchniewicz, a product developer at Thorley, which markets its baby line under the 4moms brand.

For years, the U.S. has ceded more and more of its manufacturing to lower-cost corners of the global economy. No one expects the U.S. to again make most of the electronic gadgets, tools, toys, furniture, lighting and other household products that tally more than $500 billion a year in imports.

But some companies contend the U.S. has renewed its attraction. Wages are stable, for example, while China’s have soared. The U.S. energy boom has reduced natural gas prices and kept a lid on electricity costs. Plus, more companies want to protect designs from overseas copycats, keep closer tabs on quality control and avoid potential disruption in supply chains that span oceans. 

As China’s cost advantages shrink, the U.S. has the potential, with investments in automation, to retrieve a share of such imported household products as TVs, vacuum cleaners and toasters, said Hal Sirkin, a Chicago-based senior partner at Boston Consulting Group. U.S. firms will do it “not to be patriotic,” he said, “but because they can make money.”

Any shift, no matter how small, may well depend on the experience of such companies as Thorley, which plans to begin selling its new infant car seat later this year.

A dozen Thorley managers began their quest with a tour of prospective U.S. factories in four states to find a manufacturer—a mission undertaken by other pioneering companies.

K’Nex Brands LP, a family owned toy maker in Hatfield, Pa., several years ago returned most production of its plastic building toys to the U.S. from China, for example. Unlike Thorley, K’Nex already had a U.S. manufacturing plant, making it easier to bring work home.

But K’Nex struggled to find a U.S. maker for Lincoln Logs, the toy it produces in China under license from Hasbro Inc. Michael Araten, chief executive of K’Nex, found that some U.S. wood factories were geared only for furniture and other large products; others couldn’t shape the small wooden toy at high volumes.

PrideSports LLC, a maker of golf tees, contacted K’Nex in 2013 after seeing an article in The Wall Street Journal mentioning the search. PrideSports said its factory in Burnham, Maine, had equipment for golf tees that could also make toy logs. The made-in-U.S. Lincoln Logs will hit the market this year.

Capital Brands LLC of Los Angeles, maker of the Nutribullet and Magic Bullet blenders, is considering moving production to the U.S. from China. But Colin Sapire, chief executive, said his Chinese partners have engineering skills and a work ethic that could be hard to match in the U.S. He said the company has sold more than 20 million of the Chinese-made blenders in the past two years.

Even so, Mr. Sapire said, his company would continue to search for opportunities to make products in the U.S.

More U.S. companies would shift production from abroad if they analyzed the costs of overseas production to include such things as the shuttling of executives abroad and holding large inventories as a hedge against supply disruptions, said Harry Moser, founder of the Reshoring Initiative, an industry-funded nonprofit that promotes U.S. manufacturing.

Willy Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School, is less optimistic. “China has really captured the whole electronic supply chain,” he said, and that is unlikely to return to the U.S.

Instead of trying to make established products in the U.S., Mr. Shih said, “we’re going to have to focus on next-generation technologies” in, for example, advanced pharmaceuticals.

Some of the hurdles are practical. The U.S. needs to rebuild its supplier base, as well as invest in more efficient manufacturing equipment. The average age of industrial equipment in the U.S. has passed 10 years old, the highest since 1938, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley & Co. economists.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has beefed up efforts to buy more U.S.-made goods but finding U.S.-made electrical devices is difficult. The retailer sells electric fans produced by Lasko Products Inc., a family-owned company based in West Chester, Pa. But Lasko, like other U.S.-based manufacturers, can no longer find domestic suppliers of small electric motors.

Billions of these motors are made abroad every year, said Alex Chausovsky of IHS Technology, a research firm. They require manual labor, one reason the industry shifted to Asia decades ago. Even if wages in Asia climb, he said, production isn’t likely to move back to the U.S.

“It’s not the labor-cost advantage. It’s the economies of scale,” said Mr. Chausovsky. “We’re talking about absolutely enormous quantities.”

A few big companies have returned some production to the U.S., including Whirlpool Corp. , hand mixers; Caterpillar Inc., excavators; and Ford Motor Co. , medium-duty commercial trucks.

But many U.S.-based designers of consumer products over the past two decades have grown comfortable contracting with overseas manufacturers. Some doubt they can get the same expertise, efficiency and flexibility in the U.S.

The 10-year-old Thorley company, which has annual sales of about $50 million, had little experience with U.S. manufacturing, except for its infant bathtub, which is molded in Erie, Pa. Its automatically folding stroller, motorized baby swing and playpen are made in China.

In its early days, Thorley relied partly on Chinese partners to figure out how to make the gadgets it designed. The company has about 165 U.S. employees in such areas as engineering, design and marketing.

One of Thorley’s main manufacturers in China is Jetta Co., which makes more than 100 products for foreign firms, including robotic toys, vacuum cleaners and American Girl dolls. At Jetta’s factory complex in Guangzhou’s Nansha district, halls are piled high with parts-filled plastic boxes headed for dozens of production lines. On a recent day, a train of carts loaded with 4moms boxes rumbled toward a warehouse. Women on a production line assembled the 250 or so parts making up the 4moms mamaRoo infant seat.

“You come up with a good idea, we can make it happen,” said C.S. Wong, Jetta’s director of engineering.

But labor costs are rising as much as 20% a year. Jetta workers in Nansha typically earn around 3,300 yuan, about $537, a month. Those with more specialized skills earn more. The median wage of assembly workers in the U.S. is about $2,600 a month, according to government data.

Jetta and Kin Yat Industrial Ltd., which also makes Thorley’s 4moms products, are adding automation to cut labor costs. At Kin Yat’s plant in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, a woman in a green cap and a green-and-orange blouse drops bolts into a housing, then holds it up to a round machine that tightens seven at once. “This used to take five people by hand,” said Vincent W.C. Fung, executive director of Kin Yat. “Now it’s taking just one.”

Rob Daley, chief executive of Thorley Industries, a Pittsburgh-based company that designs and makes the 4moms baby line, plans to launch a new baby car seat with electronic controls this year. China, where most of the company's products are manufactured, has ‘this unbelievable ecosystem that supports manufacturing that's hard to duplicate,’ he said. Jeff Swensen for The Wall Street Journal        

Though Chinese factories are known for flexibility, Jetta and Kin Yat officials said it was getting harder to ramp up production to meet spikes in demand. Workers are harder to find.

“Years ago, we could hire 5,000 to 6,000 workers within a month, just put out the word,” said Jetta CEO Kenneth Wong. “But that’s all changed.”

Jetta still varies its workforce considerably. The Nansha factory swings from around 4,500 workers to 8,500 at peak times.

Most of Jetta and Kin Yat’s suppliers are within an hour’s drive. In China, “there’s just this unbelievable ecosystem that supports manufacturing that’s really hard to replicate,” said Thorley’s chief executive, Rob Daley.
Mr. Daley assigned David Yanov, his chief operating officer, to scout potential U.S. manufacturers for the new baby seat. Mr. Yanov, who joined Thorley in 2012, had spent two decades at a company that made medical devices, a job that involved overseeing factories in China and the Philippines.

Unlike China, the U.S. doesn’t have large numbers of so-called contract manufacturers that specialize in producing finished consumer goods. Mr. Yanov and his colleagues set up visits to potential partners in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky. Three companies bid on the project. Thorley also got bids from manufacturers in China.

Once shipping and other expenses were calculated, Thorley discovered it would cost about the same to make the baby seats in the U.S. as in China. The decision became, Mr. Juchniewicz, the product developer, said: “Who do we want to work with?”

Mr. Daley, the CEO, thought it would be easier to monitor production and maintain quality control with a local factory. “You burn a lot of time,” he said, in trips to China.  

The front desk of Thorley Industries in Pittsburgh displays some of the high-tech infant seats sold under the company's 4moms brand. Jeff Swensen for The Wall Street Journal

On the other hand, Mr. Yanov said, his company knew what to expect from Thorley’s Chinese partners, who expertly managed frequent changes in design and specifications for new products. “Our model is, ‘Oops, we just thought of something else we’d like to add,’ ” he said. Thorley executives worried that a U.S. firm might take weeks to respond to such changes.

“The clock speed is faster in China,” Mr. Yanov said. Because of the 13-hour time difference, he said, he can email a Chinese factory at the end of his workday and get an answer overnight. “It’s a quasi-24-hour day,” he said.

The new car seat requires electronics parts from Asia, as well as imported fabric. Mr. Yanov knew his Chinese partners were good at integrating the electronics with other parts, but, he said, he wasn’t sure what to expect from a U.S. factory.

“Who points the finger at whom if the electronics don’t work?” Mr. Yanov said. Mr. Daley, the CEO, said U.S. assembly of electronic parts from overseas “was just going to be that much more complicated to manage.”

After reviewing the Chinese and U.S. bids, Thorley decision makers began debate in the afternoon and finished around 8 p.m. They would make the car seats in China.

“I think the Chinese were trying a little harder” to get the business, Mr. Juchniewicz said.

Personal Technology

The Best Selfie Sticks: Look Ridiculous, Shoot Great

If You’re Going to Join the Silly Trend, You Might as Well Get the Best

By Joanna Stern

Jan. 13, 2015 1:35 p.m. ET

Since the dawn of time, the stick has been essential to human survival. Without it, our ancestors may not have been able to create fire, figure out writing or trudge their way toward new frontiers.

History books may soon be updated with the most recent (and possibly the greatest) chapter in the stick’s continuing relationship with humankind. That humble tool now enables us to lift our phones and cameras aloft, to take better photos of our surroundings...and ourselves.

Behold, the selfie stick.

I know what you are thinking. “If this narcissistic trend was meant to be, we’d have been born with really, really long arms!” I felt the same way when I first started noticing selfie sticks cropping up.

With many selfie sticks, you can plug your phone into the headphone port. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal        

But using a selfie stick is a little like eating an oyster for the first time: Don’t knock it until you try it. There are some real advantages to having one. No, looking respectable isn’t one of them. But it does capture more stable video, and you can shoot wider angles of yourself and your whole family—without having to hand your phone over to a total stranger.

I figured if I’m going to join this absurd-looking trend, I should have the best one. Now, you’re probably thinking, “How complicated can a stick be?” Not all are created equal, not remotely. So to pick a winner, I’ve been accumulating countless selfies, and the disdainful gazes of countless strangers, as I put 14 sticks through their paces.

Cheap Stick

Fundamentally, selfie sticks are just poles with attachments at the end for your smartphone or small camera. They’re no more than hand-held tripods.

The phone mounts sometimes clamp down hard, like you’re putting your delicate device in a bear trap. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal        

For just five bucks on Amazon, you can see countless listings for the same 40-inch, TV antenna-looking pole with a colorful rubberized grip and “Monopod” label. Most are made in Asia, which makes sense, since the selfie-stick phenomenon did take off there. Don’t buy this—your precious phone or camera should be worth your paying at least $15.

A variation of that basic stick, such as the $20 Looq DG, has a remote-control feature: A dangling curly headphone-jack plug at the top lets you take a photo without having to tap your phone’s screen. Attach your iPhone or Android phone, plug in the cord, launch the camera app and you can start snapping away, just by pressing a button on the rubberized grip.

It is very convenient, but pressing the button can cause the stick to shake a bit, resulting in a potentially blurry photo.

The button on the Looq DG allows you to take the photo without tapping your phone’s screen. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal

Vivitar’s Bluetooth remote. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal

Vivitar’s $15 alternative, the Bluetooth Remote Selfie Monopod, which will be on sale early next week, comes with a wireless remote instead of a headphone plug. Its foam-like grip is also far more comfortable to hold and the stick, available in a number of different colors, has a more eye-pleasing design. I kept misplacing the tiny control, however.

Some have Bluetooth built in to the handle, even the forthcoming Belfie stick—yes, a Kardashian-inspired stick that’s hinged for taking DIY butt photos. However, you have to remember to charge your stick and you can’t get the pole wet.

All of the sub-$30 options have one thing in common. They feel really cheap. If someone really disliked your selfie stick, they would have no problem bending it right over their knee. Sometimes it even mistakenly presses on the iPhone’s camera button so you end up with hundreds of photos you don’t want. The plastic phone mount clamps down hard, like you’re putting your delicate device in a bear trap. Good luck fitting your big-screen iPhone 6 Plus or Galaxy Note.

Raise the Bar

For that beach or ski vacation, there are plenty of more durable and waterproof options. You just have to pay more.

Of the many I tested in this range, my favorite was the $60-to-$70 Digipower QuikPod Selfie Extreme (aka “QuikPod Ultra” or “Xpert”), in part because of its raised rubberized grip.

Look for the Digipower Quik Pod Selfie Extreme with this good grip. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal        

There’s no shutter gimmick built-in—to shoot remotely, you’d have to use a timer or buy a $5 Bluetooth remote, like one from Vivitar. (There’s a mirror, though, so you can frame selfies even with a GoPro , traditional point-and-shoot or the rear-facing better camera on your phone.)

The saltwater-proof pole, which extends 53 inches, is much sturdier than others, with a regular tripod leg that is held in place with lever lock. The QuikPod’s drawback is that its cheaper listings (like one I’ve seen for $50) don’t all come with a phone mount. Make sure to check the mount situation before buying.

If you need to buy a mount, iStabilizer’s $20 SmartMount is the sturdiest and safest I’ve found for my phone. Upgrading a bad mount could also be an important investment, especially if you plan to hold your phone out over the side of a boat or chairlift!

Going Extreme

These sticks aren’t just for beauty selfies and family photos. They’re great for capturing action shots on the fly. And when GoPro arrived, the trend really picked up. The good news? Pairing a selfie stick with a ski helmet or Jet Ski makes you look way less ridiculous.

                     GoPro's 3-Way stick. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal     

    GoPro’s 3-Way turns into a tripod. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal        

I highly recommend GoPro’s own $70 3-Way. It folds up into a fairly compact package that can easily be tossed in a backpack, it has two joints you can bend to nail a tricky shot, and the bottom pops off, so it can become a tripod.

I also liked PolarPro’s $100 PowerPole. It is the Tesla of selfie sticks, with a built-in battery that recharges phones and GoPros.

Still, my old standby the QuikPod costs less, is lighter and can be retracted into a much smaller pole. And a GoPro mount is included in the box.

I’m going to give it to you straight, dear reader. No matter which one of these you go with, you’ll still look a bit ridiculous walking around with your phone attached to a stick. But the better the photos of you and your family get, perhaps the more comfortable you’ll be with the social cost.

Mark my words, I’ll be taking the QuickPod on my next vacation. And every time I use it, I’ll be reminded of this epoch in human history where we, like our cave-dwelling ancestors, took up sticks to overcome our greatest obstacles.