National News

Why Bob McDonald is a big departure for the VA

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-06-30 13:40

Today, one month to the day after Eric Shinseki resigned as the Secretary of Department of Veterans Affairs, President Obama announced his pick to replace him: Bob McDonald, former president and CEO of Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company.

In the past, the VA has been led by generals, a colonel, and a congressman, in addition to lobbyists and lawyers. Alan Simpson, who used to chair the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, praises the president for picking someone who hasn’t spent his career in the military or government service: “Oh, that’s big,” he says. “It’s huge and it’s critical.”

It's definitely different -- check out this list of McDonald's forbears: 

Ed Derwinski attended Loyola University, a private university in Chicago, and graduated in 1951. Before he became a Republican congressman, he served in the U.S. Army.

Anthony Principi, a Naval Academy graduate, served in Vietnam before attending law school at Seton Hall. He was a Navy JAG and a lawyer for the Department of the Navy before he became deputy secretary of the VA.

Jesse Brown graduated from City College of Illinois, then served as a marine in the Vietnam War. From 1973 until 1983, Brown was the supervisor of the National Service Office, National Appeals Office, Chief of Claims, National Service and Legislative Headquarters, and Deputy National Service Director.

Hershel Gober served in Vietnam, before he became the director of the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs and the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Togo West went to Howard University for college and law school, before he became a U.S. Army JAG. He went on to become a corporate lawyer, then the Defense Department’s general counsel.

Jim Nicholson, a West Point graduate, received a master’s in public policy from Columbia University, and a law degree from the University of Denver School of Law.

Gordon Mansfield, a Villanova University graduate, served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Injured by an enemy solider, he received the Distinguished Service Cross.

James Peake went to West Point. After he served in the Army, he became the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Project Hope; then, QTC’s chief medical officer and CEO.

Eric Shinseki, who went to West Point, received a master’s degree in English literature from Duke Uiversity. He received a purple heart for his service in Vietnam, and was the director of several major corporations.

Sloan Gibson, another West Point grad, led the USO. He was an Army Ranger.

'Family-like' Hobby Lobby has religion, Court rules

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-06-30 13:33

Corporations have religious beliefs -- or, at least some corporations do. That’s one takeaway from the 5-4 ruling of the Supreme Court today in the "Hobby Lobby" case.

The victory for the Oklahoma City-based crafts store Hobby Lobby and dozens of other businesses who filed suit means “closely held” companies can deny contraception coverage to their employees. The question in front of the Supreme Court was fairly straightforward: Can Hobby Lobby be forced to offer contraception coverage as part of its health insurance, if that contraception violates its religious beliefs?

Specifically, the company opposed covering certain forms of contraception, such as some intrauterine devices and products like Plan B One-Step, because it believes they amount to abortion.

In writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito went out of his way to focus on certain businesses, says Duke Law professor James Cox.

“The Justice was fairly clear in saying he’s talking about a closely held, family-dominated corporation with no outside owners and no diversity of opinion,” Cox says.

It’s not clear how many businesses meet that definition. Some 9 out of 10 corporations are “closely held.” That includes everything from mom and pop shops to giants like Koch Industries and Cargill, which employ hundreds of thousands.

The bright line the court draws is about religious intent.

George Washington law professor Robert Tuttle says you can imagine how two or three owners (who may be related) share religious views. Publicly traded companies like Apple and IBM and their armies of shareholders are a different animal.

“It’s just really hard to see how they can have a sincere religious objection to anything,” says Tuttle.

While this verdict is aimed at a class of corporation, Boston College’s Kent Greenfield – who filed an amicus brief in the case – expects companies of all shapes and sizes to try to squeeze through this new opening.

“This opinion gives companies the opportunity to ask for a waiver for regulation, and usually regulation costs money, he says. "And if they can avoid those costs by asserting a religious waiver, then they will.”

Greenfield says this decision could give certain companies a competitive advantage on the basis of religion.

BNP Paribas Agrees To Pay $8.83 Billion In Sanctions Probe

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 13:13

The U.S. alleges that the French bank violated U.S. sanctions laws by facilitating transactions involving Sudan, Cuba and Iran.

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New York City extends paid sick days to more workers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-06-30 13:05

Workers of New York, July 30 is the first day you can use your earned sick days under New York City’s new paid sick day law.

How are you feeling - can you make it?

Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work,  a network of coalitions in 21 states that work for policies like paid sick days, says come the end of the month, don’t expect to see a sick day bubble where workers all over the city call in with hives.

“No, what we’re going to see is fewer people going to work sick and making co-workers and customers sick," she says. "Fewer people losing jobs and paychecks.”

On average, Bravo notes, workers use fewer sick days than they earn.

Sherry Leiwant, co-president and cofounder of A Better Balance, a legal advocacy organization based in New York that does advocacy around paid sick days, says more often than not, workers treat sick days like insurance.

"They save them because they know they’re going to maybe need them to take care of their kids, or take care of themselves if they get sick, so don’t want to waste them," she says.

New York City estimates there are about half a million employees who had no paid sick time before the new law. Leiwant notes the lack of sick leave cuts across sectors, so the list of industries where workers are currently without sick time includes retail, child and health care, leisure, hospitality and dining.

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the *New York City Hospitality Alliance, and a personal recipient of sick day leave, says restaurant owners understand that people get sick and they want to take care of their teams, but that the new policy does present challenges for business owners in the dining industry. 

“A lot of business owners believe it’s going to be expensive, it’s also going to be tricky, especially in restaurant industry or nightlife industry if an employee calls in sick, you need to replace them," he says. "There are some office jobs, where if someone comes in sick, they’ll come in the following day and their work will be there on their desk. But if you’re working in a restaurant and you’re short a line cook, you need to bring in an additional line cook.”

Ellen Bravo notes that paying employees for a handful of sick days a year is much cheaper than spending the thousands of dollars it costs to replace even low wage workers. While it would be more convenient if no one got sick, she says, from a business perspective sick days make sense.

"You certainly don’t want to be the restaurant that gets in the headlines for having a norovirus, as a number of them had, because the worker felt obliged to come in for fear of losing their job, or simply because they couldn’t afford the time."

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the affiliation of Andrew Rigie, a hospitality executive. He is executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. The article has been corrected.

Nominating New VA Chief, Obama Says 'We Have To Do Better' For Vets

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 13:03

President Obama nominated the former chief of Procter & Gamble to take over the Department of Veterans Affairs. Robert McDonald said he wanted to make the system more efficient and effective.

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Lead Exposure May Cause Depression In Chinese Children

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:51

Lead exposure lowers children's IQ and causes aggression. But children exposed to low levels of lead show different symptoms, including more depression and anxiety, a study of preschoolers finds.

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An Algorithm Is A Curator At The Sept. 11 Museum

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:50

Curators at the September 11 Memorial and Museum came up with a novel solution to the problem of interpreting the tragedy. They put a computer algorithm in charge of an exhibit. But is it objective?

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Between Israel And Hamas, 3 Killed Teens Escalate Tensions

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:42

Three Israeli teens who have been missing since June 12 were found killed in the West Bank. Israel blames Hamas and is expected to take action against the militant group.

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High Court Allows Some Companies To Opt Out Of Contraceptives Mandate

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:38

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that closely held companies can defy the Affordable Care Act mandate to cover some forms of contraception if they object on religious grounds.

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Hobby Lobby Ruling Cuts Into Contraceptive Mandate

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:35

The Supreme Court says closely held corporations may be exempted from the health law's contraceptive mandate. Here are some questions and answers about the ruling.

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More than 85% of the seafood Americans eat is imported

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:34

Once upon a time, America relied on its own shores for seafood. The state of New York was famous for their fresh oysters; Louisiana and Mississippi were famous for their shrimp. The clean coastal waters allowed us to farm our own stuff. But things have changed.

"More than 85 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported," says Paul Greenberg, author of "American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood".  

Greenberg says the biggest shift has been the exchange of oysters for foreign shrimp. Americans used to be able to farm and bring in billions of pounds of oysters per year. But we then lost our natural productive estuaries and traded them for foreign ones. Now, Americans eat more pounds of shrimp per year than tuna and salmon combined.

Although the majority of our seafood is imported, America fisheries export about one-third of what they catch.

"Primarily, it’s Alaska. They send tons of salmon," says Greenberg. "In fact, we actually send as much salmon abroad as we import. The only thing is, we are sending all the wild salmon abroad, and importing all their farmed stuff."

A consequence? Since we are not eating from our own waters, Greenberg says we aren’t taking great care of them -- one reason we have seen so much environmental degradation since the 1950s. However, Greenberg says there has been more hope since the Clean Water Act was passed in the early 1970s.

"We have seen a marked improvement in water quality," says Greenberg. "But the problem is, we’ve turned our markets around so much that we can’t even really seem to figure out how to get our own fish back onto our plates."

A Role Model Pipeline For Young Black Men

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:29

Young male African-American teacher trainees learn to "embody hope" for their students.

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Obama Taps Former Procter & Gamble Chief To Helm VA

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:17

President Obama has picked Robert McDonald, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. If confirmed by the Senate, McDonald will face a difficult task. The VA is is embroiled in a controversy over falsified and lengthy wait times for veterans.

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Ecuador's President Tests The Waters On Wiping Away Term Limits

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:17

Fiery Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa had sworn that his current term, his third, would be his last. But his ruling party is now moving to remove constitutional term limits, potentially opening the door to a fourth term.

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Detroit's Crackdown To Collect Owed Money Means Thousands Lose Water

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:17

Melissa Block speaks with Steve Pardo, a reporter with The Detroit News, about how and why Detroit is aggressively shutting off water service to residents.

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Supreme Court Deals A Blow To Unions, But It's Not Quite Mortal

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:17

By a 5-4 majority along ideological lines, the Supreme Court has ruled that Illinois can't compel home health aides to pay union dues because it violates the First Amendment. The ruling is a defeat for unions, but it falls short of the kind of sweeping denunciation that could have derailed unions' fundraising and organizing efforts.

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In GM's Payout Plan, End Of The Road Is A Long Way Off

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:17

Kenneth Feinberg, who also oversaw the Sept. 11 victims fund, is administering the compensation plan for victims of General Motors' ignition switch defect. There is no cap on the total amount GM will spend, and even drivers who were drunk or distracted are eligible for compensation if the defect had any impact on their accident.

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ISIS Gets A Rebrand, Declaring Its New Caliphate In The Process

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:17

The militant group that has swept over much of Syria and now Iraq has renamed itself. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria now wants to be called, simply, "The Islamic State." It's a new and ambitious claim to rule the Muslim world.

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Carbon-Sensing Satellite Prepares For Second Launch

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-30 12:16

An earlier version of the satellite crashed into the ocean near Antarctica shortly after launch. Scientists are keeping their fingers crossed for the second attempt.

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How rising rents, falling incomes crush communities

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-06-30 11:42

Garrado Odigie sat sobbing in his chair. 

He’d gotten the most important thing to him in his life, and it meant his life was falling apart. Four months earlier his long, drawn out, international custody battle for his children had finally ended. After several years of separation, his children had been returned to him.

All five of them, ages 5 to 14. To his one bedroom apartment in Flushing. 

“These are the things I live for,” Odigie said. “Five kids, one bedroom apartment. I put the girls on the bedroom, then I let the boys sleep on the living room, then I sleep on the floor. Then everybody’s coming down to sleep with daddy on the floor. Nobody wants to sleep on the bed.”

Odigie says he’s been looking for a two or three bedroom in his area of Brooklyn, but most places ask for around $2,000. “I cannot afford that right now.”

In fact, he can’t afford his current rent either now. The rent is a little over $1,000 a month, half of his annual income. A single father accustomed to working two to three jobs late into the evening when his children weren’t with him, Odigie found he needed to quit one job and reduce his hours at the other if he was to take them to therapy, go with them to the doctor’s, or to simply spend time with them.

He’s four months behind on rent. He’s in housing court, on the verge of getting evicted. He says his kids will live at his church for awhile so he can work and save up some money.

“My 11-year-old just told me, ‘Daddy, why are we keeping on moving?’” says Odigie, his voice breaking along with his composure. “‘We tired.’ You know. I’m doin' my best to take up my children.”

People who, like Odigie, sit precariously on the edge of personal calamity don’t need much of a push to slip over. The rent will do it. The rent does do it. Often.

“We see all the time people having to make really terrible choices,” says Judith Goldiner, an attorney in charge of the Civil Law Reform unit at the Legal Aid Society. “Do they feed their kids, do they buy medicine for their kids, do they buy clothes -- or do they pay rent? The rents just keep on creeping higher and higher.”

It is not simply that rents have risen, it is that renter incomes have fallen since the recession. Between 2005 and 2012, median gross rent in the U.S. rose from $868 to $897 (in 2011 it was $902) In the same period, median household income declined from $55,158 to $52,123 in real terms according to data compiled by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

Some landlords, perhaps out of greed, or perhaps out of their own struggles to maintain old buildings, have tried to push lower income renters out.

“Sometimes we see landlords who cut off services, take people to housing court even if they don’t owe any money, tell people they don’t have the right immigration status and so they have to leave or they’ll call INS – all kinds of bullying,” says Goldiner.

Rent burden is the share of a renter’s income spent on gross rent – the lump sum to the landlord, plus utilities and other fees. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) labels rent burden “between 30 and 50 percent of household income on gross rent as “moderate,”  and anything above 50 percent as “severe”.

Last year was the first year more than half of households in New York City were rent burdened, meaning they pay more than a third of their income in rent. In 2011 37 percent of renters in Philadelphia were severely rent burdened, paying more than 50 percent of their income towards rent. Sixty-two percent of all renter households in Los Angeles were severely (50 percent going towards rent) or moderately rent burdened.

“The largest increases in the share of households that are rent burdened are actually happening at the moderate and middle income level,” says Max Weselcouch, director of the Moelis Institute for Affordable Housing Policy at NYU.

The forces behind all of this are, it turns out, fairly simple: supply and demand.

“There’s been very little production of new housing,” says Weselcouch. “Even though new housing construction has begun to rebound a little bit in 2012 and 2013, it’s still at lower levels than we’ve seen since at least 1960.”

Simply put: During the Recession, people made less money and built fewer places to live. After the Recession, people are still here, there are more of them, and they still need places to live. Many of them are moving to cities – 200,000 to New York City in the past three years alone – further piling onto demand.

“This is kind of a classic economic problem,” says Weselcouch.

Some of the strategies cities have used to address the problem are under strain.

Many cities offer developers incentives to build temporarily affordable units, though many of these agreements are now expiring (In New York, 25,000 expired since 2007 and another 50,000 will be eligible to do so in the next ten years). New York’s new mayor, Bill DeBlasio, has promised to create 200,000 new affordable units in ten years.

One approach is rent stabilization. For 34 percent of rental units in New York, a politically-appointed board determines by how much rents can rise each year. Several cities do this. Many landlords do not like it.

“To try and micromanage the increases each year is ludicrous,” says Frank Ricci, director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, the largest trade group for residential building owners in New York. He says landlords suffer when they can’t raise rents by as much as they’d like. 

“When you own a building, there are big expenses that pop up from time to time. Could be the roof, could be the boiler, you don’t know what it is, but when big things break, they cost a lot of money,” Ricci says - and half of all residential buildings are over 75-years-old. His opponents argue landlord incomes have been rising faster than operating expenses for nearly a decade.

Property taxes and fees put more pressure on landlords as well, says Ricci. Property taxes on rental units in New York City, which are higher than those for homeowners, are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit. 

There are many ingredients that go into the acrid crucible of the real estate market for renters. Supply, demand, taxes, investors, summering jetsetters, declining incomes, greed, desperation.

At the end of the day the exact recipe is of little consequence to people like Garrado Odigie, who is still searching for a way to keep a roof above himself and his children.

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