National News

Middle Class Economics Dominate Obama's State Of The Union

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 12:25

President Obama wants to expand an existing tax credit for child care and create a new one for families with two working spouses. He also wants to make two years of community college free and expand access to retirement savings programs.

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Police, Counter-Demonstrators Dampen Anti-Islam March In Leipzig

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 12:25

Thousands of opponents of Muslim immigration to Germany staged a mass rally in the German city of Leipzig on Wednesday night, but the turnout was lower than expected thanks to counter-demonstrations and a massive police presence.

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Sen. Jeff Flake: Republicans Can Work With President On Trade

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 12:25

Robert Siegel talks to Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona for his reaction to the State of the Union.

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Obama Draws Battle Lines In State Of The Union Address

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 12:25

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said he still believed in a United America — one that wasn't divided into red and blue camps. But the reaction to his speech, from both camps, was anything but united.

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Voters Said Yes, But D.C. And Congress Continue To Spar Over Pot

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 12:25

In November, District of Columbia residents voted to legalize marijuana. Still, the measure's status remains in flux while the city fights against Congress for autonomy on the issue.

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Historic Diplomatic Talks Begin In Cuba

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 12:25

The most high-level U.S. delegation to visit Cuba in 35 years is in Havana for two days of talks. The meetings follow the historic thaw in relations announced simultaneously last month by President Obama and President Raul Castro. The focus of the talks will be migration and the nuts and bolts of restoring diplomatic ties.

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Tired Of Paying For Checked Baggage? You're Actually Getting A Good Deal

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 12:25

Everyone hates to pay extra for checked baggage on an airline. But you probably aren't paying enough — in fact, your baggage is bumping far more lucrative cargo.

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Standard & Poor's Settles In SEC Ratings Fraud Case

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 12:25

Standard & Poor's has agreed to pay fines of nearly $80 million to settle charges that it changed the way it was rating securities in a bid to win business, but didn't bother to tell investors. The firm also agreed to a one year ban on rating certain kinds of securities. A separate Justice Department investigation is still underway.

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Going For The Gold Sends Mercury Down The River

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 12:25

Illegal mining in the headwaters of the Amazon is endangering people and fish hundreds of miles downstream.

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Ruthless smuggling trade's new business: 'Ghost ships'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-01-21 12:03

The wars in Syria and Iraq have triggered an unprecedented wave of refugees eagerly seeking – and prepared to pay for – a new life in Europe.

The United Nations reckons that last year 170,000 migrants, who are fleeing war, persecution or simply seeking a better standard of living, have arrived in Italy. Many have paid people traffickers to smuggle them in, making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in small fishing boats and even rubber dinghies. More than 3,000 lives have been lost. 

But now the traffickers have developed another business model to cater to this burgeoning new trade: It’s been called “the Ghost Ship” route, and here’s how it works: You buy a battered old cargo ship, pack it with hundreds of migrants, sail it across the Mediterranean, aim the vessel at the coast of a European Union country, and then abandon the ship and hope that the migrants reach safety. 

The Ezadeen, a 50-year-old former livestock carrier, is one of these so-called “ghost”  ships. The Italian Coast Guard intercepted it at sea last month, on its way from Turkey to Italy, and found 359 migrants on board, most of them Syrians, but no actual ship crew.

“It was incredibly dangerous,” says Ewa Moncure of Frontex, a European Union border agency. “There were no lifeboats or life vests." The crew apparently abandoned the ship at full-speed at night in the Mediterranean, a danger to those on board and to others who are at sea, Moncure says.

Three of these ghost ships carrying a total of more than 1,000 migrants have arrived in European waters in recent weeks, an escalation by traffickers that does not entirely surprise experts on this grisly trade. Andrea Di Nicola, a criminologist at the University of Trento and co-author of “Confessions of a People Smuggler,” says traffickers are always quick to exploit a new business opportunity. “These are businessmen, opportunistic, criminal businessmen.” he says. "And this is a travel agency, the most ruthless travel agency on the planet. There’s a huge profit involved.”

Let’s look at the costs. “Ships at the end of their working life are worth little more than the scrap value they will yield if they are sailed to the breaking yards of Bangladesh or India.” says David Osler of Lloyd's List, a maritime newspaper. Italian police claim that one of the ghost ships, the Ezadeen, cost the smugglers only $110,000.

Now, consider what the smugglers are charging for the trip: up to $6,000 per passenger.

“We estimated that one of the ships should have grossed revenues of $3 million," says Joel Millman of the International Organization of Migration. "So if you do the math, you can see there are millions to be made.”

It looks like all of the passengers that have arrived on ghost ships so far are likely to be offered asylum. So far, none have perished at sea. The smugglers’ new business model is paying off, for the smugglers and their customers.

But the scale of the operation is putting many more people at risk. With another four ghost ships reportedly ready to sail, more migrant lives are likely to be lost in the Mediterranean this winter.

Soccer Players End Lawsuit Over Artificial Turf At Women's World Cup

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 11:52

The suit accused the organizers of discrimination, saying elite men's teams would never be forced to play on an artificial surface instead of natural grass. The plaintiffs included Abby Wambach.

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The true biography of 'Davos Man'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-01-21 11:15

The origins of "Davos Man" are murky.  

As a name, it's often an epithet, spoken with venom. It refers both to the individual human beings who attend the World Economic Forum at a ski resort in Davos, Switzerland each year, and the global, capitalist power structure they are taken to represent.

Its first use is often credited to "The Clash of Civilizations" by Samuel Huntington, but, in fact, the words "Davos Man" never actually appear in the book. Instead, the earliest reference I could find was an editorial from 1997 in The Economist, "In Defense of Davos Man," that ostensibly reviews Huntington's book. It seeks not to bury, but to praise and defend "Davos Man" as a paragon of a global capitalism that could transcend culture and bring people of the world together. Here is the ending:  

Although 40 or so heads of state will troop to Davos this weekend, the event is paid for by companies, and run in their interests. They do not go to butter up the politicians; it is the other way around (see previous leader). Davos Man, finding it boring to shake the hand of an obscure prime minister, prefers to meet Microsoft's Bill Gates.

All this should cheer up Mr Huntington, not cast him down. Some people find Davos Man hard to take: there is something uncultured about all the money-grubbing and managerialism. But it is part of the beauty of Davos Man that, by and large, he does not give a fig for culture as the Huntingtons of the world define it. He will attend a piano recital, but does not mind whether an idea, a technique or a market is (in Mr Huntington's complex scheme) Sinic, Hindu, Islamic or Orthodox. If an idea works or a market arises, he will grab it. Like it or loathe it, that is an approach more likely to bring peoples together than to force them apart.

Matthew Bishop, an editor at the Economist who was in the meeting that debated this editorial in 1997, says elements of the argument are still valid.

But Seyla Benhabib, professor of political science and philosophy at Yale University, says the forces that Davos Man represents have also pulled people apart, exacerbating global inequality.

Felix Salmon, senior editor at Fusion, says Davos Man hasn't changed since he started attending. "Rich people don't change that much, I don't think," he says.

Fallout from S&P ban could last longer than a year

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-01-21 11:14

The Securities and Exchange Commission banned Standard & Poor's, the world's largest credit rater, from a large part of the mortgage market for one year. SEC says the time out is because of ratings S&P issued in 2011 that regulators claim were “misleading.”

The suspension will bar S&P from rating securities backed by bundles of loans tied to such structures as shopping malls and office buildings. The ban is significant because investors typically require these kinds of bonds to be graded by two of the three ratings agencies, and now that S&P has been benched, the math is easy.

"So, who do they go to? They have to now, sort of go to Moody's and Fitch," says Amiyatosh Purnanandam, a University of Michigan finance professor. The long-term impact of the ban may extend well beyond a year because so much sensitive information is shared with ratings agencies. "Once you as a potential rater have giving all of this Fitch, you would be reluctant to switch to S&P, even after a year when S&P comes back into the game," he says.

S&P can still issue ratings for corporate bonds. They can also service the residential and municipal bond markets. Moreover, some say the securities S&P is not allowed to rate were never really in its wheelhouse.

"It’s not like these companies are going to be doing more business now that S&P has dropped out," says Dick Larkin, director of credit analysis for H.J. Sims.

In a statement, S&P said that it does not admit or deny any of the charges filed against it. The company also agreed to pay $77 million to the SEC, New York and Massachusetts to settle charges tied to its ratings of mortgage-backed securities.

Tootsie Roll CEO, 95, leaves behind a sweet legacy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-01-21 11:05

Melvin Gordon, 95, who was the serving chief executive of Tootsie Roll Industries, a company he had run for more than a half-century, died yesterday. He will be succeeded by his wife, Ellen Gordon, who had been its president and COO.

Traders think the transition will lead to a buyout, which led to a 7.1 percent increase in shares today, according to Bloomberg.

Which leads to the question ... Tootsie Rolls are part of a publicly traded company? Well, yes, since 1922 when it was first listed on the New York Stock Exchange as Sweets Company of America. The company changed its name to Tootsie Roll Industries Inc. in 1966.

This vintage animated commercial from the 1970s is a testament to just how little the brand has changed over the years: The same color scheme, font and signature wrapper have stood the test of time to the present day. "Whatever it is I think I see, becomes a Tootsie Roll to me," sings a young child as the commercial complements the lyrics by having everything the animated children touch turn into animated, chewy, chocolate candy. 

Tootsie Roll Industries is one of the largest candy companies in the United States. It also owns Blow Pop, Junior Mints and Dubble Bubble, to name a few. What is perhaps the brand's most famous ad campaign asked a question that has been haunting candy lovers for years: How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?

The owl's answer — three — proved to be unsatisfying, since more than one group of students has tried to come up with a more scientific answer. (The Venn diagram of engineers and candy eaters apparently has a significant overlap.) A group at Purdue University created a licking machine that took an average of 364 licks to get to the Tootsie Roll center, while a group at Michigan's licking machine averaged 411 licks. The cow, the fox, the turtle and the owl don't know the answer ... and neither does anyone else.

Scientists Give Genetically Modified Organisms A Safety Switch

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 11:03

By making E. coli dependent on an artificial amino acid, scientists hope to show that engineered organisms can be safer and more useful for industrial processes like drug production.

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Bulgakov's 'Master' Still Strikes A Chord In Today's Russia

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 10:16

Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov's classic, The Master and Margarita, ridiculed Soviet leaders and bureaucracy. It wasn't published until 27 years after his death, but still resonates with Russians.

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Europe considers quantitative easing

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-01-21 10:00

The European Central Bank is expected to announce a large bond buying program Thursday. Quantitative easing, as it’s called, could help boost the moribund eurozone economy by encouraging investment, but many are not on board. The Germans are the biggest critics, reminded of hyperinflation nearly a century ago, and worried that QE would let weaker European economies off the hook. 

 

Explaining 'middle-class economics'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-01-21 09:55

Ask just about anybody, and they’ll tell you they’re part of the middle class.

“Certainly, it is the label of choice,” says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup. More than half of the people in Gallup's last survey identified themselves as middle class, he says. But there’s more to it than just wealth, or income. “Middle class seems to be a very comfortable place for Americans to put themselves,” Newport says.

In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Obama called middle-class economics "the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. "

But "middle class" has no formal economic definition, meaning many people define it themselves.

“And that often means working, not relying on government," says Melissa Kearney, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. "But it’s really a nebulous concept.”

Politicians love to talk about middle-class Americans, Kearney says, but it’s hard to tailor government programs to them, precisely because there’s no middle-class definition. As a result, Obama’s plan bleeds over to not-so-middle class Americans, she says.

“Some of these tax benefits would extend to folks – couples making $200,000,” she says, referring to beneficiaries of a proposed tax credit for two-income couples. 

Other parts of the president’s plan apply mainly to low-income Americans – things like increasing the minimum wage and instituting paid sick days. The president’s proposal would have to be more targeted to reach people truly in the middle of the pack.

Did he hit the target? 

“He threw a water balloon at it, and it splattered all over the place,” says Sharyn O’Halloran, a professor of political economy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “He saw a target – middle class – and just made a bunch of big sweeping proposals which he thought would be appealing to them.”

The proposals won’t necessarily be appealing to Congress.  Still, O’Halloran says, the president has set the stage for Democrats who want to make middle class economics part of the 2016 presidential race.

Marketplace's live coverage of the 2015 State of the Union address

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-01-21 09:41
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Boehner Invites Israel's Netanyahu To Address Congress On Iran

NPR News - Wed, 2015-01-21 09:33

The White House, which was not informed of the invitation, called it a departure from diplomatic protocol. Boehner, the House speaker, said, "Congress can make this decision on its own."

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