National News

The cost of travel, according to the federal government

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

The federal government has released its per diem lodging rates for federal road warriors for the coming fiscal year.

Those rates matter to the hotel industry. After all, the American Hotel & Lodging Association says the government generates billions of dollars in travel spending.

The spending, however large, isn't changing — the standard federal travel per diem is staying flat compared to last year at $83. The federal government is also trying to keep its travel budget down, cutting spending by 30 percent through 2016. 

“We do not include the luxury brands like the Ritz-Carltons or the Four Seasons types,” says Christine Harada, associate administrator of the Office of Government-wide Policy at the General Services Administration. “But we also want to be cognizant of our travelers' safety so we try not to go too, too budget.”

The rate is more flexible in many big cities. For example, it might run up to $300 a night in New York, depending on the time of booking.  Regardless of location, fancy hotels are generally off limits. 

Harada says lodging per diems are determined by market data. They're going up in about 270 areas and falling in 50.

Ryan Meliker, managing director of equity research at MLV & Co, an investment bank, says hotels that get a lot of business from feds will likely set their overall room rates based on the per diem. 

“If you think about a hotel right next to a major Air Force base that's generating a lot of their business from government as a result of the Air Force base, it's going to have a bigger impact on them than it is somebody else,” he says.

Jan Freitag with STR, a hotel research company that provides market data to the federal government, says the federal per diems also have spillover effects at private companies.

“They say, 'Okay, if the U.S. government reimburses this much we just follow suit,’” Freitag says, “especially if they are a consulting company to the U.S. government.”

How much does a per diem get you?

How well can you travel on that federal government per diem? Or the similar one from your employer?

We compared Lawrence, Kansas — one of many small-to-mid-size cities covered by the standard per diem — to our home base, Los Angeles — which, like most larger cities has an adjusted per diem. We checked hotel rates for a single traveler in the first week of September and user-submitted cost-of-living estimates from Numbeo.com.

Lawrence, Kansas
Per Diem: $83 for lodging, $46 for food and incidentals (the standard rate)

Lodging: That allowance gives you (or your boss) a few hotel options in Lawrence, but your best bet is the local Holiday Inn or Baymont Inn and Suites. They both run around $80 a night, and the Baymont touts a free breakfast. Hampton Inn and Comfort Inn are just out of reach at around $100 per night.

Food: A morning cappuccino (or other coffee beverage) will run you about $3 in Lawrence. A lunch averages about $6.25 for fast food and $10 for an inexpensive sit-down restaurant, like local favorite the Burger Stand. Dinner at a mid-range restaurant like the Free State brewery will run you about $20 per person. That leaves something like $15 for incidentals or midnight snacks. Not bad.

Los Angeles, California
Per Diem: $133 for lodging, $71 for food and incidentals

Lodging: If you're a federal employee travelling to LA, you'll get more money for a hotel, but expect to stay pretty far from downtown, the city's hot spot. A room runs around $130 per night at the Holiday or La Quinta Inns by LAX or the Marriott Courtyard in Pasadena. On Airbnb, there are some modest rooms available in Hollywood and Santa Monica for under $100, if your government employer is more the gitz or beach type.

Food: $71 is the most generous per diem the government offers for food and incidentals, and you can eat pretty well with it. A cappuccino in Los Angeles averages just under $4, and a lunch at Mendocino Farms or other restaurant will set you back about $12. A decent dinner out at Baco Mercat, Bottega Louie or other mid-range restaurant will run you about $26 per person. But don't blow that extra money on desserts, because the rest of your per diem could go toward transportation. You could get a cab or rent a car, but you'll be shelling out at least $20 a day.

Who will win the dollar store bidding war?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

Two dollar store chains are competing to buy a third, Family Dollar.

The retailer entertained an $8.5 billion merger deal with Dollar Tree last month, and Dollar General announced Monday it would pay a competitive $9.7 billion for the chain. While all of these discount stores are similar, they have several important differences.  

Here's a look:

Dollar General

  • Size: Biggest of the three.
  • Products: A lot of brand names, a mix of food and discretionary items like clothing and beauty products.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 164.
  • Locations: More than 11,500 locations in more than 40 states. Primarily in smaller towns, located in the southern and eastern U.S., as well as the Midwest and the Southwest.
  • Prices: About a fourth of their items are $1 or less.
  • How are they doing? Chain is thriving with $17.5 billion in revenue and $5.4 billion in profits.

Dollar Tree

  • Size: Smallest of the three.
  • Products: Mostly imported from China, focused on discretionary items like party supplies, beauty products, etc.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 342.
  • Locations: More than 5,000 locations in 48 states, mostly located in strip malls in small towns.
  • Prices: Most items cost $1 or less.
  • How are they doing? The chain is thriving and growing with $7.8 billion in revenue and $2.7 billion in profits.

The target of the bids: Family Dollar

  • Size: The takeover target, and second-largest of the three.
  • Products: A lot of brand names; focuses on food, also carries some linens and other products.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 271.
  • Locations: More than 8,200 stores in 45 states, mainly in urban and rural areas.
  • Prices: Most items are under $10.
  • How are they doing? Family Dollar has been struggling and closing stores. It tried raising prices and the plan back-fired. It has recently been closing stores. They have about $10.3 billion in revenue and $3.5 billion in profits.

What makes a good writer at Sports Illustrated?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:32

This is an observation, I guess, about the state of journalism today.

Gawker has published a spreadsheet prepared by Time Inc., which publishes Sports Illustrated, ranking a number of writers and editors on a scale from one to 10 on quality of writing, productivity, social media prowess, enthusiasm and whether the content they create is beneficial to the company's relationship with advertisers.

Think about that for a second.

A Time spokesperson said SI's editorial content is uncompromised.

How Long Do CDs Last? It Depends, But Definitely Not Forever

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:21

Preservationists are worried about troves of records stored on what was once considered a durable medium: the compact disc. Many discs can last for centuries — but most won't.

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Ferguson Police Use Tear Gas, Flash Grenades To Disperse Protesters

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:16

Protests escalated Monday night as police tried to push back demonstrators who defied orders to disperse. Attorney General Eric Holders will travel to the Missouri city on Wednesday.

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One Year After Calif. Rim Fire, Debate Simmers Over Forest Recovery

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:15

This third-largest wildfire in California's history struck the area near Yosemite National Park. Since then, controversy has broken out over whether to log the trees and replant seedlings.

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Met Opera Tentatively Settles With 2 Major Unions

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:11

While agreements with 10 more unions need to be reached by Tuesday night, the deal struck with two of the Met's major unions represents a major turning point in a bitter dispute.

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Embattled Yazidis Say They Are Now Enduring Atrocity No. 74

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:10

The Yazidis are a small religious minority and have faced persecution again and again over the centuries. Some say it is now time to leave Iraq for good.

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An Account Of The Ferguson Shooting, From The Man Standing Beside Brown

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:09

Dorian Johnson was with Michael Brown on the night that he was shot by police in Ferguson, Mo. Freeman Bosley, Johnson's attorney and a former mayor of St. Louis, speaks about the situation.

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Amid Continued Chaos In Ferguson, A Second Autopsy Is Released

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:02

Requested by the family, a preliminary, independent autopsy has found that Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot six times by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

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More Men Put Ambitions On Back Burner For Their Partners' Careers

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 12:37

Women have been moving for their husbands' jobs for decades. But today, more men are following in their partners' footsteps — and grappling with the implications for their own careers.

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Obama Suspends Summer Vacation To Debrief On Issues At Home And Abroad

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 12:16

President Obama returned to Washington to hold White House meetings on the latest developments in Iraq and in Ferguson, Mo.

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The Designs Behind Airstrikes — And The Damage They've Dealt

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 12:16

As U.S. deputy commander in Iraq until January 2011, Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero oversaw targeting for airstrikes during 17 months of the troop surge there. He tells Robert Siegel that for such strikes to be effective, they must be one part of a larger, overarching strategy.

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Hit Hard By Ebola, Liberia Now Has A Third Treatment Center

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 12:16

Men, women and children began lining up hours before the new facility opened — only the third Ebola treatment center in a country where the virus is spreading with alarming speed.

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Ebola Hotspot Opens A New Treatment Center

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 12:16

The Ebola outbreak has been spreading through Liberia with alarming speed, yet for weeks there have been only two places in the whole country where people infected with the virus could get medical care. Doctors Without Borders just opened a third facility.

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What Washington Can, And Can't, Do In Ferguson

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 12:16

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited the White House to brief President Obama on the latest federal response to unrest in Ferguson, Mo. FBI agents are set to finish canvassing for witnesses to the shooting of Michael Brown, and more federal peacemakers will arrive to try to ease tensions.

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Oklahoma Wind Power Companies Run Into Headwinds

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 12:16

The state produces a lot of energy, but environmentalists and the oil industry are joining to combat wind power companies as they try to expand.

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Won't you please take a vacation?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 11:52

Chances are you know someone in your workplace who refuses to take a vacation. Or maybe it’s you. Research shows that one out of seven workers entitled to paid vacation time didn’t use it this past year.

Some managers prefer when their employees don’t take a vacation.

"Somewhere around 13 percent of U.S. managers are more likely to promote people who don’t take all of their vacation days," says Nancy Koehn, historian at the Harvard Business School.

Other companies want to fix this problem - so, they’re paying for their employees’ vacation expenses. In 2012, the company FullContact began offering their employees about $7,000 a year for a vacation.

"The perception of managers and workers is that somehow people who never take any vacation, or are always doing their job, are somehow better team members and are more productive," says Koehn. "But the evidence on all of that is unambiguous. People who take time off are actually less stressed, more focused and more productive."

Former Vermont Sen. Jeffords, Who Once Tipped Senate Scale, Dies

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 11:32

James Jeffords' decision to leave the GOP and become an independent handed power to Democrats for 18 months. In his career of more than 30 years, Jeffords focused on education and the environment.

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'No medical student goes to...become a businessperson'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 11:05

When Dr. Sandeep Jauhar was growing up, his mother held doctors in high esteem. 

"She always told us she wanted us to become doctors because she wanted people to stand when we walked into a room," says Jauhar, who went on to become a cardiologist.

Upon donning that hallowed white coat, however, Jauhar says he started to get uncomfortable. He felt like he was compromising some of the ideals of his youth to fit the business model of the American healthcare system. His new book, "Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician", voices his frustrations with today's changing medical landscape.

"What the system has done is forced physicians to behave in ways that they don't want to behave," he says. "No medical student goes to become a doctor to become a businessperson, but the system is so dysfunctional today that it has created this business mentality among doctors."

Jauhar says the system needs to be fixed to accommodate the needs of more ordinary patients.

"The system is wonderful if you have a rare disease or if you require very high-tech care, but if you're a run-of-the-mill patient who has a chronic disease that needs to be managed by multiple doctors, the level of coordination and communication in the American system is so weak, so lacking," he says. "Today, if a politician says, 'we have the best medical system in the world,' he doesn't sound patriotic, he just sounds clueless."

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