National News

White House Deputy Chief Of Staff To Oversee VA Review

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 22:10

The move signals concerns over problems at the VA, particularly reports that hospital administrators in Phoenix kept a secret list to conceal delays as 40 veterans died waiting to get an appointment.

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Attack In Thai Capital Leaves Two Dead, A Score Wounded

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 16:59

Explosions and gunfire rocked an anti-government protest in Bangkok, Thai officials say.

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Hagel: U.S. Drones Searching For Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 16:30

The defense secretary confirmed that unmanned reconnaissance aircraft were being used to look for 270 girls abducted by Islamic militants last month.

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In Kansas, Professors Must Now Watch What They Tweet

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 15:12

Last fall, a University of Kansas professor criticized the National Rifle Association in a tweet. Wednesday, the Kansas Board of Regents approved a strict social media policy for university employees.

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Regulators Couldn't Close U.S. Mine Despite Poor Safety Record

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 15:04

The Mine Safety and Health Administration says it had no authority to shut down the W.Va. mine where two people were killed this week, despite having cited it for numerous violations.

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The $24 admission fee to the 9/11 Museum in context

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-14 15:00

The 9/11 Memorial Museum opens to the public this week, but the journey to its unveiling has not been without controversy. Questions over the purpose of the museum have been well-reported, but recent concerns have been raised over the relatively high cost of admission.

Those wishing to visit the memorial will have to pay a $24 admission fee.

At a recent press conference, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that those upset by the high cost should write to Congress. His point? While the U.S. government has provided $250 million towards the contruction of the 9/11 Memorial, more financial resources are needed to maintain security and its high operating costs.

Federal and state support are issues that factor into the price of admission at other memorials in the U.S. and around the world.

Brandi Simons/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City National Memorial, for example, does not receive any federal funding to contribute to the cost of its annual operation. Though, like the 9/11 Memorial, the museum did receive funding for the initial construction costs. Along with the $10 entrance fee paid by visitors, the self-sustaining museum covers its expenses using "store sales, the OKC Memorial Marathon, [and] earnings from an endowment and private fundraising."

Getty Images

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam also charges an admission fee -- a practice it began in the early 1970s when the Anne Frank Foundation began having diffuclty shouldering the costs of maintaining the house. Revenue from visitors to the museum now covers 95 percent of the organization's annual budget. While it does receive funding from the EU and the Dutch government, the money is reserved exclusively for projects not involved in running the museum.

Back in the U.S, while legislation was introduced in 2011 to set up a regular subsidy for the 9/11 Memorial, it was basically shelved. It would seem that for now, the price of admission remains.

Electricity as utility. A model for the internet?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-14 14:54

As Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler moves closer to releasing new rules on net neutrality and internet "fast lanes," many open internet advocates have been calling for the FCC to reclassify internet service providers as "common carriers."

Doing so would effectively turn them into public utilities like power, gas and water services, and thereby subject them to more strict regulation.

But some of those utilities themselves started out as products sold on the open market, just like internet service. So how did they get regulated as public utilities? For the best comparison with the internet's current situation, look at how another "new" technology went from market good to public good: electricity.

In the case of electricity, it starts with Edison.

With a patent for the first practical light bulb in 1879, Thomas Edison needed an actual market of people who could use his invention, meaning a way to get power to his customers. In 1882 his Edison Illuminating Company constructed the first central power plant in the United States, the Pearl Street Station in New York.

The catch with early direct current power plants, however, was that they couldn't generate power at very high voltages. The power couldn't travel that far along the copper wires without weakening the further it went. But as electricity gained popularity and more appliances were created to use it, numerous companies began building power plants to supply electricity to individual neighborhoods, each station selling power to customers within a small radius.

This is where goverment regulation entered the picture, in the form of municipal franchise agreements. Those agreements allowed the companies to dig up streets and build infrastructure. In exchange, they had to meet certain price caps and service standards. These controls, usually administered by city governments, were in fact very weak.

The large investment costs usually prohibited one company from owning all the power stations in a single city at first, but the different firms would often compete over customers in areas where their services overlapped. As companies were able to expand their reach, customers in large cities like New York and Chicago actually experienced a sort of golden age of price wars with many local companies competing against each other.

The competition was short lived, however, as single companies gained monopolies over large cities and increasingly advancing technology made for high barriers of investment in infrastructure needed for a new competitor to enter a market. The market for internet service providers is kind of at the same point right now in terms of barriers to entry, as telecom and cable companies have consolidated to a certain extent, buying up smaller regional ISPs. This has made it pretty much unfeasable for new competitors to get in the the game without considerable resources.

The old municipal franchises that governed electric companies also became prone to corruption from city politicians. In the early 1900s, an entrepreneur named Samuel Insull who had exploited the economies of scale to dominate the Chicago market argued along with other electric utilites that they were "natural monopolies," that resulted from the inherent barriers to competition in large markets.

State governments attempted to regulate these monopolies with legislation, but power barons like Insull were able to outmaneuver the efforts by restructuring their businesses with holding companies that were not covered by the reforms. By the late 1920s, the Federal Trade Commission was investigating the holding companies for market manipulations.

It wasn't until the onset of the Great Depression, and the strong reforms of the New Deal that power over electric utilites was taken away from the holding companies in the form of the Public Utility Holding Company Act and the Federal Power Act of 1935, transferring much of the regulatory power over eletricity over to the federal goverment.

This was significant not because power utility monopolies were split up, but that the "natural monopolies" were in fact legitimated; they could exist, but they had to be under government control. The federal legislation, along with other New Deal legislation, actually provided for the creation of a number of government monopolies over public goods.

As it stands now, internet service providers are sort of stuck in between being a wholly private good or a heavily-regulated public utility. Until recently, the FCC has successfully imposed on ISPs to treat all content the same in terms of speed of access, but they haven't set caps on how much they can charge or set standards for quality of service as are required of utilites like water and power.

The federal government has also subsidized ISPs to the tune of $200 billion to build a fiber broadband infrastructure for schools and low-income regions, which many activists contend they never completed. Following the model of electic utilites, further government investment could hypothetically result in internet infrastructure owned by the government itself.

It's unclear whether the internet will go along the same route to regulation as a utility, but with nearly a third of Americans having no choice for their internet service provider, the circumstances are starting to look very similar.

After Referendum In Eastern Ukraine, Different Visions Emerge

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 14:29

Residents of eastern Ukraine are trying to figure out what happens next, now that pro-Russian separatists have claimed independence. But there's even disagreement over what's feasible.

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Feinstein Wants CIA To Speed 'Torture Report' Release

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 14:22

With a bipartisan vote in April, the Senate Intelligence Committee told the CIA to declassify and make public parts of the "Torture Report." The agency isn't exactly rushing to do so.

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How Food Companies Court Nutrition Educators With Junk Food

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 14:09

Corporate sponsorship of professional events for nutritionists has been on the rise. But should the gatekeepers of nutrition information be taking free meals and snacks from McDonald's and Hershey's?

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Where do nudists keep their bitcoin?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-14 14:04

The following public relations email landed in my inbox this morning:   I'll just paste the first line here: "Bitcoin is now accpeted for payment at Bare Oaks Family Naturist Park."   It brings to mind the opening scene in my colleague David Brancaccio's book from a decade or so ago in which he went to report on the economics of a French nudist colony, and finds himself clutching a a fistful of French banknotes... with nowhere to put them.   Think about it.   The book's called "Squandering Aimlessly".  It's on Amazon.  

At the end of tonight's @Marketplace, @kairyssdal references a book by @DavidBrancaccio WITH AN AMAZING COVER.

— David Gura (@davidgura) May 14, 2014

Why retailers still bother to print catalogs

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-14 13:49

Whether it's yoga pants or fruit dipped in chocolate, Americans spend an average of $850 a year on catalog purchases, according to FGI Research.

In fact, check the mail at the beginning of the workweek, and you'll probably find a catalog in there.  According to research, Monday and Tuesday are the biggest catalog mail days. Every week, Americans get about two to three of them in the mail.

You'd think online retail would've killed catalogs. But no, says Paul Miller, vice-president of the American Catalog Mailers Association: "Catalog companies are still vibrant businesses."

Miller says postage hikes, cyber retail, and the recession all hurt catalogs. But he says catalogs offer something to retailers that the internet can't: customer loyalty.

"There have been studies that have shown that if somebody purchases an item online, they're much less likely to be a loyal customer than if they purchase something as a result of seeing it in a catalog," Miller says.

Companies have gotten smarter about getting their catalogs into the right hands with the help of huge databases containing all sorts of info on millions of households.

"In many of the databases they'll have every purchase you've basically made for years," says John Lenser,  president of CohereOne, a consulting firm that works with catalog companies. "So they will know whether you're buying in different product categories, they'll know how much you've spent."

Database companies track a lot about our lifestyles. If someone moves, furniture catalogs start appearing. They know who buys office supplies in bulk, and who's developing a taste for wine. It's really specific.

The result? Fewer catalogs immediately tossed into the recycle bin.

Places like American Printing Company, a catalog printer in Birmingham, are all about efficiency. Craig McConnell, sales manager there, says there's a ton of potential waste in the printing business.

"So if you're not very efficient, if you don't do a good job and if you don't provide some extra value to your customers, it's very difficult to compete," he says.

The cost of postage and paper have gone up over the years. On the upside, McConnell says, "For every dollar that someone spends for the production of a catalog, they expect to generate at least $4 of additional sales revenues."

For retailers, that might be the best dollar they've ever spent. 

In New Jersey, mass transit for the masses

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-14 13:45

In Jersey City and other towns along the Hudson, home-grown capitalists have wiped out the urban ritual called waiting for the bus.

Private operators jam commercial streets with mini-buses— and in turn spark new issues. (Think: traffic jams.)  Longtime complaints peaked last summer, when a wayward bus killed a baby girl, and the state created new regulations, which take effect next year.

Meanwhile, to hear Haroun Khan tell it, most drivers regulate themselves. He drives part-time, but today he’s a passenger. Sitting near the front of a jitney heading down Bergenline Avenue, he explains to a fellow-rider how drivers keep out of each other’s way.  

“They try to keep two or three traffic lights before or ahead," he says. "Wait, see what he did? There’s a bus behind him. So he’ll skip that passenger, try to get the space, and he’ll pick the other passengers up. So that way, they can both make money.”

People call the buses jitneys, collectivos, immi-vans. They’ve got maybe 20 seats.  They charge less than New Jersey Transit buses. They stop on any corner when a passenger hails. And they always make change, something New Jersey Transit drivers will not do. 

They’ve been driving through towns like Jersey City, Weehawken, and Bergen for decades. And they’re still growing, 40 percent just in the last four years, according to regulators.

Big operators rent out branded buses to drivers like Pasquale Gomez. At the end of his route, he waits in line for a dispatcher to call his turn.

He pays$100 a shift and buys the gas. Asked how much he makes, he says, “Well, it depends, man. Today, I don’t have a dime for me yet.”

He plays by the rules. Waiting for a dispatcher to call his turn, he says, “Sometimes we’re here maybe 20 minutes. Sometimes an hour.”

Nicholas Sacco, the state Senator who sponsored the new regulations, seems surprised when he hears about Gomez’s situation.

“If they were all that organized, maybe we wouldn’t have needed the bill,” he says. “We had no desire to get rid of the omnibuses. Just to  make them safe.”

The new regulations include higher insurance minimums— $1 million — and a hotline for riders to report anything unsafe.

Many of the jitneys fall under federal regulation— taking passengers back and forth to Manhattan, that’s interstate commerce. Anne Ferro, who runs the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, doesn’t expect tighter regulation to slow business.

“It’s a supply/demand situation,” she says. "Trucks and buses are like water: They will always find a way through.”

Pasquale Gomez would like to see things more tightly regulated, even if it meant fewer buses.

“We are too many,” he says, “going up and down like crazy. That will make us doing things we don’t want to do.”

Meaning: Not all drivers follow the rules.

“They have three blocks to work on, they want five,” he says. So greedy drivers block the way for other buses, slowing up traffic in the process.

And misbehavior begets misbehavior— or at least, aggressive driving. “I see him doing that to me—playing games— and what am I going to do?” he says. “I’m not going to stay behind him.”

Wildfires In Southern California Consume Thousands Of Acres

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 13:36

Nine wildfires were confirmed in the region on Wednesday alone, prompting more than 11,000 mandatory evacuations in the city of Carlsbad and multiple school closures.

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How U.S. Hospitals Are Planning To Stop The Deadly MERS Virus

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 13:34

A second case of the new Middle East Respiratory syndrome has shown up in the U.S. The virus has been spreading through Saudi hospitals. Health officials expect more cases to appear here.

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Why 'infrastructure' may be the new political buzzword

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-14 13:30

One of the biggest economic problems facing the nation has become something of a buzzword in politics of late: "infrastructure."

President Barack Obama was in Tarrytown, New York on Wednesday, just up the Hudson River from New York City, talking about the need to upgrade infrastructure, in the shadow of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which is being replaced.

The President isn't the only one who's been talking about infrastructure, and it's enough to make you wonder if it's the new "addicted to foreign oil," i.e., something politicians say over and over again, knowing full well how hard it is to change.

"We laid in place a very good infrastructure, but a lot of those investments were made 50, 80, 100 years ago, and it is time for the U.S. to upgrade and modernize," says Casey Dinges, a senior managing director at the American Society of Engineers (ASCE), a group that gave U.S. infrastructure a “D+” grade last year.

According to Rob Puentes, who directs the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, the numbers are staggering.

"I mean we have 63,000 bridges that are structurally deficient," he says. "Two hundred and forty thousand water mains break every year."

 You can get lost in those numbers, and that is part of the problem. It helps, Puentes says, to talk about what constitutes infrastructure. Yes, it is roads and bridges and waterways, but it is also broadband – pipes of a different sort.

"It's not true that Americans don't understand this," Puentes argues. "When they're confronted with these choices, they are willing to pay for infrastructure projects."

And they have demonstrated that at the local level. States have raised gas taxes, to pay for renovations and modernization, and cities are improving their infrastructure.

But there's another problem, according to Rae Zimmerman a professor of planning and public administration at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Fixing infrastructure often becomes urgent only after disasters happen.

"And then there seems to be a lull, and then it comes back, and a lull, and comes back, and hopefully, this time it is going to stick," she says, noting the fact that we are talking about infrastructure now, absent a big disaster, can’t be such a bad thing.

To illustrate part of the infrastructure problem facing the U.S., check out a map showing the 20 worst bottlenecks of traffic congestion, as well as the metropolitan regions around the country with the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges, organized by population size. All data is based on the 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, from the American Society of Civil Engineers and the 2012 Metropolitan Bridge Rankings, from Transportation for America.

One piece of healthcare jargon worth knowing

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-14 13:28

In healthcare there’s a ton of mind-numbing jargon – "providers", "carriers", "the dual eligibles", "fee-for-service".

But if there’s one acronym that should take up just a bit of brain space – other than the ACA, which stands for the Affordable Care Act, of course – it’s ACO. What does it stand for? Accountable Care Organization.

There are more than 600 ACOs up and running across the country. And while you may not know what it means, you may be in one, with an estimated 1 in 7 Americans served by one.

So what is it?

It’s basically a group of doctors, nurses and pharmacists who work together to improve care and lower the cost of that care. Sometimes it’s a simple follow-up call to a patient. Sometimes it’s unraveling a mystery.

Jeff Brown – who works with three New Jersey-based ACOs remembers one Trenton guy who kept showing up in the ER.

“His wife had recently passed away, and he didn’t know how to cook for himself or go to the grocery store," Brown recalled. "And so what the Trenton health team determined was they needed to take this guy home and [show him] how to shop for himself and how to prepare some meals."

If that sounds like more work for doctors and nurses, it is. Shifting people away from expensive ER and hospital stays, and moving them towards cheaper primary doctor visits takes effort. What’s the incentive for healthcare providers? In a word: Money.

In an ACO, providers can get paid more if they meet patient quality benchmarks and keep costs down, said Dr. Kavita Patel at the Brookings Institution.

“This is one of the few ways that we have of trying to change how we actually interact with patients and providers and cut costs at the same time,” she said.

But Northwestern economist David Dranove said, based on 20 years experimenting with similar concepts, when healthcare providers have teamed up, we’ve seen prices rise and consumer choice shrink, leaving communities with partnerships that can stymie future change.

“The way they decide to deliver medical care in a community will become the way that that community receives its medical care, for better or for worse,” he said. Dranove said he hopes that as the creation of ACOs is on the rise, they'll proceed slowly.

Who will pay for climate change? Not us, insurer says

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-14 13:28

Climate change is shaping up to be really expensive. So who picks up the tab? That’s the issue in a lawsuit filed recently by Farmers Insurance against Chicago and its suburbs.

A big two-day rainstorm hit the Chicago area in April 2013. Sewers backed up into hundreds of homes. Some people had to leave their homes. Clean-up was a nightmare.

The company wants local governments to pay for damages, and experts say this marks the beginning of a trend.

Andrew Logan looks at the insurance industry for Ceres, a non-profit that coordinates private-sector efforts to address climate change.

“I think what the insurers are saying is: ‘We’re in the business of covering unforeseen risks. Things that are basically accidents,’” Logan says. “‘But we’re now at a point with the science where climate change is now a foreseeable risk.’”

That would make local governments liable, in theory, for not upgrading their stormwater-management systems to account for that risk.  

Legal experts say this theory faces an uphill fight. Very strong legal doctrines protect governments in these kinds of cases, says attorney James Bruen, a partner at Farella Braun + Martell LLP.

“They can say, ‘You can’t second-guess us on that,’” says Bruen. “‘We have to make a decision politically about where to put our services, and just because you don’t have as many services as you’d like is not a basis to sue us. Sorry.’”

So, why bother filing this kind of suit?

“It’s the lottery,” Bruen says.  In other words, the cost of the ticket— filing the suit— is nothing compared to the potential payout: Getting off the hook for climate-related liabilities.

Insurers may also hope lawsuits will influence future government decisions.  “They want to put cities on notice that they’re not going to walk away quietly,” says Robert Verchick, who teaches environmental law at Loyola University in New Orleans.

“Even if a city is likely to win a lawsuit, it still is going to have to spend quite a bit in defending itself,” he says. “And it might just be better for everybody involved for cities to take climate change seriously.”

Michael Gerrard, who runs the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, says he’s been waiting to see a lawsuit like this for a long time.

“There will be many such lawsuits,” says Gerrard. “Some against governments, some against private entities. Often, insurance companies will be in the mix, and we’ll see who pays what.”

For instance, he says, architecture firms could become targets. “If someone designs a building and the building doesn’t survive a foreseeable storm, is there malpractice liability on the part of the architect or the builder?”


Past And Future Collide In Silicon Valley Congressional Race

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-14 13:26

California Rep. Mike Honda and challenger Ro Khanna largely agree on the big issues. Style is where the two Democrats differ.

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How to survive the next economic collapse

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-14 12:57

Our global financial system relies on so many unpredictable factors that a total economic crash is all but inevitable.

But with careful planning now, you can still win in a post-crash economy where money doesn’t matter. Daniel Kibblesmith and Sam Weiner, authors of "How to Win At Everything" have some tips:
1. Immediately withdraw all the money from your 401K and invest it in burlap futures. Twenty-four hours after the coming crash, all clothing will be made from itchy sacks.
2. Sell all your stocks and bonds - soon, hearty grains will be more valuable than gold. Fill up a sock with millet seeds - it can be used as currency and doubles as a blackjack for self-defense.
3.Abandon your house right this minute and move to nature’s mansion - a cave. The huge home you worked so hard for will make you a target for roving gangs of bandits.
4. Gasoline will be impossible to find, so trade in your obsolete gas guzzler for a faithful donkey. Then trade any useless children you have lying around for a second donkey.
5. Your current white collar job won’t prepare you for a future where the only available jobs are warlord, balladeer, and widow. Start learning a practical skill today, like identifying poison berries or tricking your enemies into eating poison berries.
6. As society continues to crumble, strength will be the only law, so your civilized name is meaningless. Change it to something that inspires people to follow you. Goodbye John Smith, hello Dirk StormRider.
We’re headed for a brave new world where crime is legal, family is a liability and wild dogs will be everywhere. But if you follow our tips, you’ll become a pillar of the post-money economy, paving the way for future generations to become just as reckless and complacent as the investors of today.

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