National News

Singing About Chikungunya Might Not Cure You But Will Make You Laugh

NPR News - Fri, 2015-03-13 04:29

As one song puts it, the painful disease is "a crazy mess that you can't contain." So why not sing about it? Music videos from Latin America are going viral, just like chikungunya.

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Behold! The Cosmos Created From The Contents Of A Kitchen

NPR News - Fri, 2015-03-13 03:03

From spices, flour, milk, water and food coloring, a photographer creates startlingly realistic-looking images of space. These photos are convincing enough to impress an astrophysicist.

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Two Profiles of China's Economy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-03-13 02:32

It’s 3:00 a.m. in the most populated city of the world’s most populated country. Most of Shanghai’s 24 million inhabitants are fast asleep, but it’s rush hour inside the city’s largest wholesale fish market.

The Tongchuan Road market supplies the metropolis with one of its most popular staple foods. Vendors wearing rubber boots rush through miles of twisting, cramped corridors covered with a thick film of fish guts. It’s a slimy, lively labyrinth that’s difficult to navigate, not unlike finding one’s way into China’s elusive middle class.

Zhang Wenquan knows this all too well. The tall,  muscular 47-year old kicks off his sneaker. He pulls on a pair of camouflaged rubber boots before entering the sprawling market, oblivious to the calls from competing vendors. Zhang grew up in the impoverished countryside of Anhui province. When he turned 17, he came to Shanghai to work on an assembly line. He met his wife at the factory, and they now sell fish at a small neighborhood market. Zhang wakes up at midnight each day to buy his merchandise here.

And “buy” might not be the right term, constant haggling is more like it.

“How much?” Zhang asks a vendor as he plunges his strong hands into a box of live shrimp.

“Fifty,” the woman barks back.

“Fifty? Yesterday you sold them for 48! These are too small!” Zhang says.

He repeats this with every vendor: Too small, too expensive, too ugly – at one stall he takes one look at a tank of fish and declares: “They’re all dead.”

“Buying fish is tougher than raising children,” Zhang says. “By this afternoon, everything I just bought will be dead and worthless.”

His children, on the other hand, could someday be the family’s ticket into China’s middle class. “I’m not working this hard so that my daughters end up working as fish sellers like me,” Zhang says. “They’ve got to go to good colleges and find good jobs with good salaries.”

Zhang has twin daughters, a stroke of luck in a country with a one-child policy. But that’s where he sees his luck ending. His girls are 16, they were born in Shanghai and call the city home. Yet, Zhang and his wife had to send the girls to the countryside last year so that they could finish their schooling.  “They can’t legally attend high school in Shanghai because they don’t have Shanghai Hukou,” he explains.

Hukou means ‘household registration’. If you don’t have Hukou for Shanghai – in other words if you’re not registered to live there – then you’re not eligible for social benefits like health insurance, a pension, or even a high school education for your children. You have to return to where your family originally came from to qualify for those benefits.

China’s modern Hukou system has its roots in the country’s old communist-style command economy. Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong revived the ancient household registration system in 1958 as a mechanism to restrict peasants from swarming into the country’s largest cities. After the economic reforms of the 1980s, the system was relaxed to allow migrants to move to the city, but strict rules remain governing where their children can attend school and take college entrance exams.

Hukou supporters say controlling China’s massive population has helped prevent the creation of slums around its biggest cities that are common sights in the developing world.

The Zhang family Hukou belongs to his wife’s ancestral village in the countryside of Jiangsu province, and that’s why the couple has been without their daughters for more than a year.

At 6:00 a.m., Zhang arrives to his stall at a wet market in the Xujiahui neighborhood of central Shanghai. He’s dropped off the fresh fish, and his wife, Shi Huiqun, takes over the work so that he can go home and sleep. The 42-year-old tells me business is tougher than it’s ever been: “Competition here is fierce," she says with a sigh. "We used to be able to save money, but now we’re paying for our daughters to attend school back in my hometown, so we’re close to breaking even.”

Shi and Zhang own an apartment in Shanghai, a house in the countryside, a foreign car, and they make around the equivalent of $15,000 a year – three times more than the average urban family makes in China. Yet when I ask her if she considers herself middle class, Shi shakes her head. “I don’t think small business owners like us belong to the middle class. We don’t make that much money. What is the middle class, anyway?” she asks.

“I don’t know if anybody knows what the middle class is in China,” says James McGregor, Asia Chairman of APCO and author of the book, "One Billion Customers."

McGregor says the first wave of China’s middle class were the 400 million people who grew up in China’s largest cities and are now – on paper – upper class. They became wealthy on China’s real estate boom and they now drink Starbucks, own iPhones, and drive imported luxury cars.  “Maybe the middle class is China’s next wave of migrant workers who are getting legal registration in the cities and getting city services and becoming the next consumers,” says McGregor. “Actually, if you look at studies of the future of Chinese economy, that group of people, if you can get 10 million of them a year and they can become consumers, you can have 6 percent growth in China for 20 years.”

And that’s why China’s government has launched an urbanization campaign with the goal of moving a 250,000 rural Chinese to the cities over the next decade. Government propaganda posters throughout the country advertise “The Chinese Dream,” the guiding principle of president Xi Jinping’s government.

Back at the market, I ask Shi if she’s pursuing the Chinese Dream.  

“What’s the Chinese Dream? Is that something from TV? I haven’t heard about it,” says Shi, embarrassed.

Instead, I ask her, “What’s your dream?”

“Originally, I dreamt that my girls could finish their schooling here in Shanghai,” Shi tells me, “but that dream never came true.”

Nearly half of Shanghai’s 24 million residents are in the same conundrum as Zhang and Shi: According to Shanghai’s municipal statistics bureau, nearly ten million children can’t attend Shanghai schools because they don’t possess city Hukou. Nationwide, it adds up to nearly a third of China’s urban population: A quarter of a billion Chinese lack legal rights to social welfare and high school for their children in the cities where they reside.

China’s leaders have vowed to reform the Hukou system, but so far, meaningful change hasn’t taken place. Meanwhile, migrants continue to move into the country’s largest cities.

Today, though, Shi Huiqun is heading in the opposite direction. She’s driving two hours north of Shanghai to her rural hometown to visit her twin daughters. Shi has rented a bare, unfurnished apartment for them located next door to their private middle school. The 16 year-olds have had to repeat the 9th grade, because the curriculum in their new school is a year ahead of that of their former middle school in Shanghai.

When their mother arrives, the twins are studying their textbooks side-by-side. Their grandmother, who can’t read or write, stands guard behind them, making sure they complete their homework.  Zhang Ming studies physics while Zhang Yue reads her English homework out loud. “Our own planet, the Earth is becoming more and more crowded and polluted because of the rapid increase of p ... population,” she says in broken English with help from her sister.

The two are identical twins, they wear identical jackets and identical hairstyles – it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. Throughout our conversation, though, their mother recites their differences to me: Zhang Ming is ranked 4th in class, Zhang Yue is 15th; Zhang Ming’s eyesight is worse; Zhang Yue is quieter; Zhang Ming is temperamental; Zhang Yue is lazier. The girls nod in unison.

Shi’s daughters tell me school here is much more demanding than in Shanghai. They’re in class from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m., and they attend half days on Sundays.

“I’d prefer to be in Shanghai,” says Zhang Yue. “I feel like a foreigner here. I think China should allow children to attend school where they grew up. We consider ourselves Shanghainese, but according to our Hukou, we’re not.”

Despite what their Hukou says, the family has come a long way. Shi accompanies me to the farm she grew up on down the road from the school – a couple acres of crops, pigs, chicken, and sheep. “I grew up here in a house with a dirt floor,” Shi tells me.

Life is better now, but not for everyone. Hukou laws have forced parents throughout China to leave their children behind – they’re called ‘left-behind children,’ and there are an estimated 60 million of them, nearly as much as the entire population of the UK. Shi isn’t too worried about her daughters because she and her husband are just a two-hour drive away. But for most left-behind children, that’s not the case. With their parents in another part of China, many of them drop out of school, all but removing an entire population of Chinese from the dream of making it into the middle class.

But the story of the Chinese economy is also about the expansion of wealth and the business leaders who have paved their path to prosperity. How did a poor communist country transform itself into having the second most billionaires in the world, after the United States, in just over a generation? 

The Hurun Report is an annual survey of China's wealthy. Hurun identified 400 billionaires in China, but there are another 800 yet to be profiled. The report estimates that one in seven people in Shanghai and Guangdong are millionaires – and it's even higher in Beijing, where it's one out of six.

It's an extraordinary change from a centrally-planned economy where everyone was at least nominally equal. Hurun estimates that more than half of millionaires started their own businesses. Of the rest, 10 percent made their fortunes from the stock market, 15 percent from real estate, and 20 percent are highly-paid executives.

Of the super-rich – those with $16 million or more – the number of entrepreneurs stands out even more. Some 80 percent of the super-rich own their own firms and 15 percent made their money from real estate.

To put this in context, the self-employed make up only about 6 percent of the Chinese workforce. That's much lower than in developing countries such as India, where it's 82 percent.

The reason is because the market was only opened up to private enterprises in the past two decades when private firms were legally recognized and private contracts honored after the dramatic downsizing of the state-owned firms that have dominated since 1949. And those who took the plunge early on to start their own firms, such as Wang Jianlin, are among the richest people in China. 

Sixty-year-old Wang Jianlin is the biggest property tycoon in China. His company, Wanda, is the largest listed real estate company in China. His company has built housing complexes, entertainment and shopping centers.

His firm catered to the middle class, taking advantage of the developing consumer market in China.  

"Wanda is always trying to reinvent itself," says Wang Jianlin. "We are constantly changing our business model, for example, we started with residential property, then we turned to business centers. Now, we are tapping into culture, finance, and even e-business."

He believes that most Chinese companies are not reaching their potential.

“Currently, most Chinese companies are imitating. Innovative companies — be it technological innovation or business model innovation — are still lacking,” he says. “Chinese companies are still learning. I think it might take up to 10 years, or at least eight years, before Chinese companies can stop imitating their Western counterparts and become genuinely innovative.”

His desire for innovation has made his company invest in film production. The Wanda Studios in China will be the world's largest film and television studios in the world when it opens in 2017.

"We don't want to become another Disney," he says. "For one reason, Disney is too old. It already has an 80 year history. I don't want to be like that. I want to create a brand new Wanda Style entertainment project."

Wang Jianlin built his business anticipating the needs of the emerging middle class. But China is still a poor country – on par with Peru in terms of Gross Domestic Product per person – and there are still strict governing how ordinary people live their lives.

In Ferguson, The Shooting Of 2 Officers Stirs A Long-Simmering Anxiety

NPR News - Fri, 2015-03-13 01:12

Ferguson, Mo., looked like a community that was moving forward this week, with key officials resigning. But then police officers monitoring a protest were shot. For many, the unease is back.

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Mexico Takes Out Cartel Heads, But Crime Continues To Climb

NPR News - Fri, 2015-03-13 00:25

Mexican authorities have scored some big arrests of major drug cartel leaders in recent weeks. But most experts say that's not enough: Police, legal and judicial institutions need strengthening.

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2 Israeli Candidates Struggle With Nation's Uncertain Future

NPR News - Fri, 2015-03-13 00:23

The women, running for the Israeli parliament, share little beyond that concern. One sees a two-state solution as hopeless and supports West Bank settlers. The other sees them as an obstacle to peace.

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Mayweather, Pacquiao Will Brawl For Boxing's Richest Purse Ever

NPR News - Fri, 2015-03-13 00:22

The upcoming bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao may or may not be the greatest of all time, but the two fighters are expected to take home at least $200 million combined.

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Architect Michael Graves Dies At 80

NPR News - Thu, 2015-03-12 16:58

He was celebrated for designing everything from grand hotels to teapots. Graves died at his home in Princeton, N.J., of natural causes, his firm said.

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Texas Ends Contract With Group That Has Run Alamo For More Than A Century

NPR News - Thu, 2015-03-12 16:48

The news, reported by the The San Antonio Express-News, is a step toward a "brighter future" for the Alamo, said Land Commissioner George P. Bush and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

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How The Iran Letter Is Playing In The 2016 Campaign

NPR News - Thu, 2015-03-12 14:27

Republican presidential contenders are backing the letter 47 GOP senators wrote to Iran.

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Taxpayers say they plan to spend refunds responsibly

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-03-12 14:20

Forthwith, some tax-time number-crunching.

The average 2014 federal tax refund is $3,120, according to IRS data as of February 20, and 83 percent of taxpayers – more than 40 million people – are getting them.

A recent survey of by Bankrate.com finds that, of those who anticipate a refund, more would pay down debt and less would splurge on vacations or shopping than in years past.

Bankrate.com tax analyst Kay Bell says the survey shows taxpayers "are doing some pretty responsible things with these funds."

"Whether it's because they are finally recovering from the recession and finally getting a job, or getting a little more money from employers," Bell says, "I think people have realized the need to be more prepared."

Bell acknowledges Bankrate’s survey doesn't follow up to ascertain whether respondents follow through on their pre-refund financial plans.

“Like the IRS, we trust what they say,” she says.

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow at Golden Gate University, author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind," is not convinced that a majority of taxpayers will act as responsibly as they intend.

“In surveys, people answer according to what they hope they’ll do, as much as what they actually will do,” Yarrow says. In her own consumer-survey research, she finds that many people’s plans to use a tax refund to pay off debt, save, or invest, are aspirational.

"After the fact, this is what I hear: 'I’ve spent some of it on clothing,’ or ‘I’ve spent it on an evening out, it felt like a windfall.’"

Yarrow says some taxpayers use excessive withholding from their paychecks combined with an anticipated refund, as a strategy to pay for holiday gifts and entertainment. They spend it up on credit during the holidays, then pay off as much of that debt as they can once their tax refund arrives.

Some more key stats from Bankrate's survey:

  • 38 percent of taxpayers prefer to receive a big refund. Typically, this means allowing the IRS to withhold more money than is likely necessary from one’s paycheck.
  • 43 percent of millennials would accept higher taxes in exchange for free college tuition for all students. A fifth of other adults would agree to that.
  • 22 percent of Americans would accept higher taxes to provide free health care to all who need it.

The View From A Muddy Field In China: Women's Rights, In 1995 And Now

NPR News - Thu, 2015-03-12 13:47

Anne Marie Goetz was one of 47,000 who attended the landmark Beijing conference. Twenty years later, she thinks it might be risky to hold an event like that today.

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Obama, Unions On Opposite Sides Of The (Fast) Track For Trade Deals

NPR News - Thu, 2015-03-12 13:09

Labor groups, which have been allies of President Obama, are now stepping up their efforts to thwart White House plans for passing foreign trade deals on a "fast track" through Congress.

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U.S. Attorney General Deplores Police Shootings in Missouri

NPR News - Thu, 2015-03-12 13:07

Eric Holder calls the attacks on Ferguson officers disgusting and cowardly. He is putting in motion a pilot program in six cities to try to improve police-citizen interactions.

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The tricky practice of pricing parking

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-03-12 13:06

On a freezing cold day, Zhan Guo stood on a Manhattan street corner. Every available parking space on the surrounding blocks was taken. Turning to the cars driving past, Guo estimated one out of every three was circling the blocks, looking for a place to park.

“Why are they searching? Because [street-parking rates] are too cheap,” Guo says.

Guo researches parking at the Wagner School of Public Policy at New York University, and says studies show that on average, one-third of cars in a downtown area at any given time are looking for parking.

Metered parking in much of Manhattan costs $3.50 an hour, while other blocks require only that cars be moved for twice-weekly street cleaning. That means many people would rather search for street parking than pay for a private garage.

“If you’re a reasonable person, you’re willing to spend maybe thirty minutes searching around, instead of $20 right now into a garage,” he says.

Tell someone the price of their parking meter is too cheap and most people will probably disagree, probably pretty strongly, says Rachel Weinberger with Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates.

Weinberger says the average meter rate nationwide is $1.15. Accounting for inflation, that’s actually roughly about on par with the country’s first meters.

“The first parking meters were installed in the '30s, really at the behest of a merchant who felt like his employees were parking in front on his store and he couldn’t get them to move,” she says. “So he petitioned the city council to put meters in on his block.”

But if the price of parking hasn’t changed much in real terms, demand for it has. Weinberger says raising prices is difficult, as the process in many cities is more political than scientific.

“We sort of lost the will to change the prices,” she says. “It’s particularly humorous to me that someone might be going out to dinner for say $200, and yet they’re loathe to pay $6, let’s say it’s two hours, on top of your $200 dinner bill.”

However, in recent years, some cities, like Seattle, Pasadena and San Francisco have started to use systems that do try to take demand into account when setting the price of parking.

“So every six or eight weeks we adjust the rates up or down by 25 cents an hour or 50 cents an hour,” says Lauren Mattern, the manager of parking policy and technology at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

San Francisco recently finished a pilot program to test its new pricing strategy. The city nudges the rates up or down until sensors in the parking spots indicate that at any given time, there’s about one open space per block. Rates were also adjusted based on the day of the week or time of day.

“Then there is a ceiling and a floor to that, so we can go as low as 25 cents an hour or as high as $6 an hour,” she says. 

In one neighborhood, she says that meant increasing rates on a busy street, and dropping them on a nearby quieter one.

“Basically by adjusting rates, we’re able to draw some of the demand away from the busier street and give people a bargain for parking on the less popular street,” she explains. “So you’re able to price shop for parking in that neighborhood for the first time.”

Mattern says on the whole, the average price of parking in the pilot neighborhoods actually dropped, and no more circling, looking for a spot.

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