National News

'Pineapple Express' Forecast To Drench The Parched West Coast

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 04:33

Some parts of California are expected to receive up to 9 inches of rain. Parts of Washington state may see more than 10 inches. That would be the most rain the region has gotten since 2009.

» E-Mail This

[PODCAST: Redefining currency in the Congo

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-12-10 03:00

First up, oil prices fell to new lows today, after the oil producer's cartel, OPEC, forecast that demand won't be there in the coming year for all the  fossil fuel its members plan to pump. Using the Texas benchmark, crude fell another 2 percent to $62.54 a barrel this morning, and some market analysts say this is the reason share prices are slumping this morning. And Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has now given the okay to end the city of Detroit's emergency status. This represents a milestone in the city's efforts to move out of its financial crisis, and positions Detroit to officially emerge from bankruptcy as early as this week. More on that. Plus, Eastern Congo was once a leading candidate for worst place on earth. War, child soldiers, rape, refugees. But cautiously, the region has entered a period of reconstruction. After all the reporting on the horrors of Eastern Congo over the years, we thought it's time to also look at efforts to get the region back on its feet. One lifeline over the years has been the U.S. dollar, which has operated in the area as alternative currency. But as we find out, the country is now trying to wring those dollars out of its economy.

Officials Set To Dismantle Final 'Occupy' Camp In Hong Kong

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 02:44

After two months of demonstrations, police said they would clear a camp near the government offices in the Central business district. Students planned one last sit in.

» E-Mail This

Lululemon tries to juice up its product line

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-12-10 02:00

Lululemon Athletica, the retailer known for its line of comfy but pricey yoga and athletic apparel, is still working to regain its balance after some major PR stumbles over the past couple years. It's forthcoming earnings report, out Thursday, will give a snapshot of its current performance.

Lululemon’s reputation, sales and stock price suffered when it had to recall some yoga pants in 2013 for their unfortunate see-through quality. The company’s founder made matters worse when he suggested some women’s bodies weren’t right for the pants.

Now it’s trying to bounce back by updating its product line with snazzy floral prints and even sequined pants. But sequins alone may not make Lululemon sparkle again.

“They’re going to take a lot more fashion risk. Whenever you have that much more variety you have more markdowns, misses," says John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence.

The fancier stuff costs more to produce, according to Sam Poser, an equity analyst with Sterne Agee. And he doubts it will bring new customers in the door.

“They can fix the product but they can't fix the mojo," Poser says.

Poser says Lululemon needs to focus on its other former strong suit: great customer service.

Autoworkers want to make up for long wage freeze

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-12-10 02:00

U.S. car manufacturers are wrapping up a banner year, which saw high sales and high profits, despite the many recalls.

Those profits will be front and center as the United Auto Workers sits down with industry executives to hammer out a new contract.

Five years ago, few would have imagined a future as bright as today. Hiring is up, profits are up, gas is down, and the Detroit Three have a stable of sexy new cars.

Profits are up in part because wages for senior workers have been frozen for 10 years, and new hires are now paid on a much lower scale.

"You know it is hard when you have people working right next to each other making two different wages, basically doing the same work,” says Tim O’Hara, vice president of UAW Local 1112 at the GM assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio. 

“Hopefully we can get that turned around in the negotiations coming up," he says.

Many industry analysts think the UAW has a strong case. Bill Visnic, a senior editor at Edmunds.com,  says the UAW will likely make the case that the period of austerity in Detroit is over.

“They could say, ‘We see your quarterly reports, you’re making billions of dollars, you know, share that with us,'” says Visnic.

Visnic points out that it hasn’t been all sacrifice for autoworkers, many of whom have received hefty profit-sharing bonuses in recent years. 

Moreover, carmakers aren’t likely to roll back the concessions they feel are key to their current success.

Why the Congo is so dependent on the U.S. dollar

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-12-10 02:00

Ask anyone in the Democratic Republic of Congo what they have in their wallets and you will most likely get the same answer: Congolese Francs, and U.S. dollars. 

"It's not normal. It's not normal!" says Arsene Ntambuka with a resigned laugh. Ntambuka is regional head of TMB, one of the major banks here. 

The U.S. dollar is one of the many scars Congo bears from the two wars and prolonged guerilla conflict that has stayed with the country ever since Rwanda's genocide spilled over the border in the mid 90's. Congo's own currency, the franc, fell apart as the country was plunged into chaos twenty years ago.

"We had hyperinflation in the Congo, running at thousands of percent," recalls Mwanza Singoma, head of the North Kivu Chamber of Commerce. Inflation got so bad, groceries would double in price every 25 days.

The government decided it had to let in the dollar. 

"The only haven that companies had was to operate in foreign currency; this was the only way they could protect themselves against inflation," says Singoma.

The U.S. dollar saved the bank accounts and mattress hoards of innumerable Congolese from evaporating. To this day, 90 percent of Congolese savings are in dollars. 

So why not just adopt the dollar as the Congolese currency? There's one small, but simple, hitch.

"The Congolese Central Bank cannot issue dollars," says Ntambuka dryly.

As time moved on, the dollars didn’t. The Federal Reserve doesn’t operate in Congo, so there was nobody replacing old dollars. They got older, and dirtier. By 2008, some U.S. dollars in circulation were so fouled they were practically jet black. It was hard to see if they were actually dollars at all.

"Worn out dollars lose value," explains Esoko Akambele, a money trader. He stands on street corners with fat stacks of Congolese francs, Euros, and U.S. dollars, willing to trade with any car that pulls up. "The worn out or torn dollars are cheaper than new dollars."

Westerners accustomed to pulling out crumpled dollar bills receive glares or indignant stares for "keeping your dollars so badly."

These days though, many of his Akambele's bills are sparkling, crisp, new. The brand new hundred dollar bill can be found coming out of ATM's in Goma. 

"Currently we can find new dollars bills, it's easier," he says.

In some ways that is a good sign. It means trade is bringing in new dollars, and banks are operating normally. 

The dollar, however, has come with a price, says Ntambuka the banker.

"It costs us dearly to bring in those dollars," he says. Literally, his words translate to "it costs us gold to bring in these dollars." (It may indeed well—Goma is one of several regional hubs for gold trading.)

And quite literally, banks have to fly planeloads of dollars in from accounts in the U.S. These are either accounts that hold U.S. dollars earned from the export of Congolese goods or minerals, or they are investment accounts held by the banks. 

"We have to. All the banks in Congo have to do this," says Ntambuka. 

Banks pass on those costs in fees, says Ntambuka. And there are no U.S. coins here—too expensive to ship—so a price tag that should read $1.50 gets rounded up to $2.00. 

"It's unjustified inflation," he says. But the biggest problem is that the Congolese government can't control it's country's money supply.

"It's not your money, so you have to submit to the consequencs of decisions taken there [in Washington]. You have to adjust your own policy to deal with a monetary policy made by another country," he says.

The Congolese government is trying to slowly reassert the franc. It has kept inflation under control successfully for the past few years, which is important to regaining the trust of every day Congolese. It is slowly releasing 20,000 franc bills to make it more practical to make large payments in francs. Civil servants are only paid in francs, and taxes are demanded in them. But ultimately, you restore a currency "not by law, but by confidence," says Ntambuka.

Which means a dollar-free Congo is still a long way off.

Auto workers want to make up for long wage freeze

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-12-10 02:00

U.S. car manufacturers are wrapping up a banner year, which saw high sales and high profits, despite the many recalls.

Those profits will be front and center as the United Auto Workers sits down with industry executives to hammer out a new contract.

Five years ago, few would have imagined a future as bright as today. Hiring is up, profits are up, gas is down, and the Detroit Three have a stable of sexy new cars.

Profits are up in part because wages for senior workers have been frozen for 10 years and new hires are now paid on a much lower scale.

"You know it is hard when you have people working right next to each other making two different wages, basically doing the same work,” says Tim O’Hara, vice president of UAW Local 1112 at the GM assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio. 

“Hopefully we can get that turned around in the negotiations coming up," he says.

Many industry analysts think the UAW has a strong case to make. Bill Visnic is a senior editor at Edmunds.com. He says the UAW will likely make the case that the period of austerity in Detroit is over.

“They could say, ‘We see your quarterly reports, you’re making billions of dollars, you know, share that with us,'” says Visnic.

Visnic points out that it hasn’t been all sacrifice for autoworkers, many of whom have received hefty profit-sharing bonuses in recent years. 

Moreover, car makers aren’t likely to roll back the concessions they feel are key to their current success.

The shocking cost of wasted prescription pills

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-12-10 02:00

Every few months, typically Friday nights around 6 p.m., nurse Deane Kirchsner throws what she calls a drug party.

Except, she says, there’s nothing fun about it.

“I think if the public knew how we had to destroy so many drugs, they would be surprised,” she says.

Just like in nursing homes around the country, Kirchsner has excess drugs on hand because a patient may go home before finishing a prescription, or have an allergic reaction three days into a 30-day supply, or may pass away.

And people in nursing homes are typically on lots of medications. By law, nursing homes are forbidden from dispensing pills to other patients, even if the person down the hall has the same prescription.

So perfectly safe, up-to-date medications, already paid for, often by federal or state governments, are being cooked into healthcare concoctions in more than 16,000 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities around the country.

Data on this stuff is hard to come by. University of Chicago researchers put together an estimate for Marketplace: as much as $2 billion dollars a year of drugs that go into these long-term-facilities is being wasted.

Reusable meds are being thrown out. But one in four people struggle to afford their prescriptions. That makes no sense to George Wang of the California-based nonprofit Sirum, which wants to reduce prescription waste.

“I think lots of people can understand why there is such a desire to find an appropriate outlet to take that medicine and get it out of the waste stream and into someone’s hands,” he says.

Sirum says $700 million worth of medications can be salvaged each year – some 10 million prescriptions.

The nonprofit has developed software to make it easy and cheap for nursing homes to ship unused drugs to pharmacies that will dispense it to low-income and uninsured folks.

Sirum’s not alone in this line of work.

“It’s such a simple concept, and it has really, really helped real people,” says Linda Johnston, the Tulsa County Director of Social Services, which oversees the county’s drug donation program.

For the last decade, Johnston has convinced retired doctors to travel the northeast corner of Oklahoma picking up unused medications, redistributing $16 million worth to date.

Federal statistics show the most common class of drugs found in long-term care facilities are for behavioral health. Johnston knows psych drugs can be the difference between staying in work and being laid off, being healthy at home or admitted to the ER, being out on your own or incarcerated.

“The shameful thing is to waste it, shameful thing is to flush it down the toilet,” she says. Johnston means that literally – unused drugs are flushed down the toilet.

But even if you do get drugs to people in need, it doesn’t solve the simple problem that taxpayers continue buying drugs that don’t need to be bought.

This corner of healthcare is so upside down, pharmacists can sometimes make more money being inefficient. University of Chicago economist Rena Conti says this is an old story in healthcare. With twisted financial incentives often come snarls of waste.

“Given the kind of patchwork of incentives they are facing, there’s no reason we should see them investing in actually reducing waste in a systematic way. If we want to solve this problem for real there needs to be some clear and concise guidance across federal and state policy on how to deal with these issues,” she says.

Conti says pharmacists face a choice: maximize revenue and waste perfectly good drugs, or invest in better technology and lose money. But nobody knows whether money saved on less waste would even offset additional costs that may come.

As far as Johnston is concerned, what we do know is drug donation matters. She keeps thinking about a young man who got anti-depression medication.

“He wanted me to know he was not going to commit suicide, because he had his medication, he could take it,” she says.

Today, he’s enrolled in school working towards his dream, earning a college degree, she says.

I'm just a (trillion dollar spending) bill

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-12-10 01:30
$1.1 trillion

That's the spending package agreed upon by Congress on Tuesday which will keep government funded through the rest of the fiscal year. If approved, the spending bill will leave Republicans some wiggle room to avoid a budget deadline while still maintaining some leverage to influence policy.

$1,800

That's what CIA contractors that practiced "enhanced interrogation" were paid each day, four times what contractors not trained in those techniques would make. That's a small piece of the agency's $53 billion "dark budget," which has remained mostly secret even after leaks and the scathing Senate report on torture released Tuesday. Quartz rounded up the figures we know about. Also worth reading: ProPublica's timeline of the report, spanning Barack Obama's inauguration through Tuesday.

$2 billion

As much as $2 billion a year in prescription medication is thrown away in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities around the country. The excess is a result of patients going home before finishing a prescription, having an allergic reaction three days into a 30-day supply, or perhaps passing away. By law, nursing homes are forbidden from dispensing pills to other patients, even if the person down the hall has the same prescription. That's why some organizations are taking aim at reducing prescription waste.

77 percent

That's how far Abercrombie & Fitch's profits tanked last year, pushing CEO and noted eccentric Mike Jeffries to step down Tuesday, Bloomberg reported. Jeffries joined Abercrombie in 1992, remaking the hundred-year-old defunct sporting goods store into a controversial and extremely popular teen clothing retailer. The store has lost its hold in recent years, and it's already made a number of changes to stay competitive, like toning down the branding and the sexiness.

$4

That's the amount Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman was overcharged by a Chinese restaurant in Brookline, MA for his takeout. When he noticed the discrepancy on his bill, he began a correspondence with Ran Duan, the manager of the restaurant, to complain. You can see where this is going. Oh, you didn't predict Edelman would contact the authorities and threaten litigation

108

The number of plots in Palo Alto's last remaining trailer park, Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. Residents pay $685 a month, while a 700 square-foot apartment across the street rents for four times that. The land is worth a small fortune these days, and Buena Vista's largely hispanic and low-income residents have been fighting the park owners' attempts to sell. The Awl has the full story.

Cheap Crops Mean Hard Times For Midwest's Fledgling Farmers

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

Recent years were a good time to invest for beginning farmers — who run a quarter of U.S. farms — but with prices crashing, paying back debts may require some hard conversations and delayed dreams.

» E-Mail This

Justices: If You Aren't Working, No Pay, Even If You Can't Leave

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

The Supreme Court has ruled that workers at a Nevada Amazon factory aren't due overtime for time spent in security lines at the ends of their shifts, waiting to be checked for stolen goods.

» E-Mail This

'The Interview,' The Hack, And The Movie Studio Dealing With The Fallout

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

A cyber attack on Sony may have been done by North Koreans in response to an new comedy about an attempt to kill Kim Jong Un. Huge amounts of personal data and five films have been leaked so far.

» E-Mail This

Ex-CIA Lawyer Says No One Was Misled On Torture, Abuses Were Reported

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

John Rizzo, who spent six years as acting general counsel for the CIA, says that while he believes intelligence gains justified the agency's interrogations, he understands those who feel otherwise.

» E-Mail This

Bertha, The Giant Borer That Broke, May Be Sinking Seattle's Downtown

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

The machine, the biggest of its type, was digging a tunnel under the city when it went kaput. To get to and fix Bertha, workers are digging a 12-story pit, which some say is damaging nearby buildings.

» E-Mail This

Representatives Laud A Departing Dean, 59-Year Veteran John Dingell

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

Leading Democrats and even some Republicans had kind words Tuesday for the Michigander, who was first elected to the House when Eisenhower was president. His wife was elected to his seat in November.

» E-Mail This

State Department Feared Torture Report Would Spark Fury. Where Is It?

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

The U.S. beefed up security at embassies ahead of the CIA interrogation report's release in anticipation of a violent reaction. But around the globe, the response was relatively muted.

» E-Mail This

Report Reveals Deeply Misguided Interrogation Tactics, Feinstein Says

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

The Senate's "torture report" finds that the CIA conducted brutal interrogations of detainees in the years after 9/11, misled elected leaders, and got little useful information from the harsh tactics.

» E-Mail This

Mexican Megafarms Supplying U.S. Market Are Rife With Labor Abuses

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

An investigation by the Los Angeles Times into labor camps on Mexican megafarms reveals appalling conditions. Reporter Richard Marosi says that U.S. consumers need to pressure retailers for change.

» E-Mail This

Scientists Often Skip A Simple Test That Could Verify Their Work

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

Scientists have published thousands of studies using immortal cell lines, but in many cases the cells in the experiments have been misidentified or contaminated. They could avoid the problem easily.

» E-Mail This

Cheap Crops Mean Tight Times For Midwest's Fledgling Farmers

NPR News - Wed, 2014-12-10 00:54

Recent years were a good time to invest for beginning farmers, who run a quarter of U.S. farms. But with some crop prices crashing, paying back debts may require hard conversations and delayed dreams.

» E-Mail This

Pages