National News

Value of a dollar in Indiana's Medicaid expansion

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-29 09:54

A deal between Indiana and the federal government to expand Medicaid provides a telling glimpse into how flexible the Obama Administration is willing to be to get more people on the healthcare insurance rolls. Under the agreement reached this week – which could serve as a model for other states – monthly premiums will be at least $1.

Doesn’t sound like much, right? But that dollar is enormous to people who are philosophically opposed to the Medicaid expansion. It’s also huge to those whose incomes are staggeringly low.

Penalties on the way for the uninsured under Obamacare

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-29 09:53

According to the new numbers from the Department of Treasury, 2 to 4 percent of taxpayers will owe a penalty for not having health insurance last year. That's approximately 3 million to 6 million households. But who has to pay — and what happens if they don't?

The penalty this tax season is $95 per adult — about half that per child — or 1 percent of household income, whichever amount is  higher. The fines will also keep going up. Not having insurance in 2015 will cost $325 per adult or 2.5 percent of household income. In 2016? 2.5 percent or $695 per person and tied to inflation in the years that follow. 

It's unclear how many will actually have to pay up, however. Many groups are exempt from the penalty and the IRS' ability to enforce could be limited, especially after recent budget cuts.

For more, listen to the story in the audio player above.

McDonald's orders a fast-food quick-fix

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-29 09:51

McDonald's Don Thompson announced this week he'll resign after two years as CEO — two years that were not very successful for the company. Sales at McDonald's roughly 14,000 U.S. restaurants have slumped.

Raghu Manavalan/Marketplace

Sara Senatore, a research analyst with research firm Sanford C. Bernstein, says part of the problem is competition from more "wholesome" competitors, so-called fast-casual chains like Chipotle. “The food is better quality and tends to be higher priced as a result. There's a real emphasis on provenance, sourcing, local farms,” she says.

McDonald's also faces image problems with customers who just want a good deal on lunch. Carla Norfleet Taylor at Fitch Ratings says that's another area where competitors are winning. “Whether it’s Burger King with '2 for $5,' 'mix and match,' 'choose what you want,' [they’re] just being a lot more creative than what we're seeing with McDonald’s, I think, on the promotional front,” she says.

Incoming CEO Steve Easterbrook is currently McDonald's chief brand officer. He's spearheaded efforts to boost marketing and allow diners to more easily customize their orders. He previously led a successful turnaround in McDonald's United Kingdom business. He helped dispel worries about food quality, and even took part in a televised debate about the fast-food industry.

Still, Sara Senatore wonders why the chief brand officer will face a brand crisis when he takes over the corner office. "He should've had some imprint when there does seem to be an issue with brand resonance,” she says.

Easterbrook takes over on March 1, 2015.

McCain Calls Protesters 'Low-Life Scum' At Senate Hearing

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 09:49

The anti-war demonstrators were shouting at former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was attending a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global security challenges.

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What the U.S. has gained from sequestration

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-29 09:45

Since the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration started in 2013, the budget deficit has gotten smaller. But it’s still hundreds of billions of dollars. Sequestration just nibbled at it.

“Sequestration has been saving us between $60 [billion] and $90 billion per year,” says Marc Goldwein, senior policy director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Now, that’s not enough to solve our debt problems. But it’s not nothing, either.”

Congress eased some of sequestration’s sting during the past two budget years. But it still bit hard enough for people like Emily Holubowich of the Coalition for Health Funding to notice. Under sequestration, she says, Congress sacrificed planning for medical emergencies like Ebola.

“They look and say, 'Well, where can we cut?'  We don’t need to invest in planning and preparedness. And it’s when you let your guard down that we see something else happen, like Ebola,” she says.

At the Pentagon, sequestration forced cuts in training. It meant deferred maintenance, and it limited pay increases.  Jim Savage, who teaches politics and public policy at the University of Virginia, doesn’t think much of sequestration.

“When you rely upon across-the-board measures, it’s usually the sign of weak management," he says. "It’s also another way of sort of avoiding political accountability – to make the hard choices.” 

But, Savage says, sequestration will force some hard choices on Congress this year. Lawmakers have already cut the low-hanging fruit.  There aren’t many spending cuts left that everyone can agree on. And remember, sequestration is scheduled to last until 2021. 

Fake snow is a genuine business plan for ski resorts

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-29 09:23

Across the West, skiers and winter resort operators pine for a blizzard like the one that blanketed the Northeast this week. A number of resorts in California, Oregon and Washington have had to temporarily or permanently suspend operations this season due to low snowpack. Things are so topsy-turvy, trail groomers in Anchorage, Alaska, had to resort to snowmaking to be able to open in time for the winter holidays.

"They don't need it in Cape Cod. They need it here in Washington," Kevin McCarthy, general manager of White Pass Ski Area,  says with a chuckle.

The snowpack at his resort in Washington State's Cascade Mountain Range is about 25 percent of normal, McCarthy says, a common predicament this winter up and down the West Coast. For some resorts, this is the second or third tough year in a row. Unreliable winter weather is increasingly forcing ski areas to rely on expensive snowmaking machines to remain viable.

"For three weeks we made snow, and it has been a lifesaver, tying the lower area to the upper mountain, which has enough natural snow to operate," McCarthy says.

A stretch of unusually balmy weather caused headline writers and outdoor enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest to nickname the normally snowy month of January  "Juneuary." Skiers at White Pass, where the terrain ranges from 4,500 to 6,500 feet elevation, had to look out for rocks, ice sheets and brown patches as they navigated the lower slopes.

But snowmaking machines aren't a cure-all. The White Pass Ski Area machines were shut down this week because it was too warm for them to work.

Still, McCarthy credits his small collection of "snow guns" for his ability to open on time and stay open. "Every time we go by these, we want to give them a hug," McCarthy says.

Snowmaking systems are not new in the ski industry. Resorts in the Midwest and East have relied on snowmaking for decades. Farther West there are more holdouts.

"The challenges of the weather, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, are causing the resorts to rethink their reliance only on natural snow," says Joe VanderKelen, president of SMI Snowmakers. The Michigan-based company is one of the biggest purveyors of snowmaking equipment and services.

"A lot of folks that said, 'Hey Joe, you're a nice guy, but jeez, we'll never have snowmaking at our mountain because you know we actually have too much snow' are now circling back," VanderKelen says.

Resort owners recognize the threat of climate change, because they're seeing it, VanderKelen says. Spring now arrives more than two weeks earlier in the Lake Tahoe resort region than it did 50 years ago, according to a NASA study cited by the industry group Protect Our Winters.

 VanderKelen says he tells resort operators that snowmaking gives them a chance to weatherproof their businesses. "There are literally over 100 resorts in North America that would have gone out of business without snowmaking, maybe 200," he says.

Customers may spend from $50,000 for a single snow gun and pumping station to $50 million to bring snow to an international resort such as Whistler in British Columbia, according to VanderKelen. And the expenses are ongoing. Ski industry consultant Dave Belin of RRC Associates in Boulder, Colorado, says the cost of water, energy use and labor make snowmaking a pricey proposition.

 "It really comes down to: Can you operate without it?" Belin says. "Most ski areas have decided they need it to maintain their operations from the beginning of the season all the way through to the end of the season."

Water availability and scarcity present additional challenges, especially for ski areas in drought-stricken parts of the West. In southern Oregon, Mount Ashland Ski Area management say they have looked into snowmaking systems to augment the snowpack at their oft-closed slopes. But they found the equipment too costly and say the ski area lacks an adequate water source to create manmade snow.

 "There are some big hurdles," says John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association. "Not only do you have to have water, you have to have low temps and low humidity" to make snow.

 

Senate Prepares To OK Keystone XL Oil Pipeline Despite Obama Veto Threat

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 09:21

Sixty senators support the measure, but it doesn't appear to have enough backing to override a presidential veto. A vote could come as early as today. The House approved a similar measure this month.

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Treasure Hunter Who Disappeared With Shipwreck Loot To Appear In Court

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 09:03

Tommy Thompson, who found one of the most lucrative wrecks in history, had been living under an assumed name for two years after failing to appear in a lawsuit brought by the project's backers.

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Change comes to Facebook one hire at a time

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-29 08:53

Before new Facebook employees get their computers, they go see Maxine Williams, global director of diversity at Facebook. Facebook says 85 percent of the tech employees at the company are male, and 53 percent are white. Williams has been charged with changing that, since she was hired a year and a half ago.

One of Williams' jobs is finding new talent for Facebook. “We have people now whose whole job is to think about how we can contribute to developing the pool for the future."

There are practical reasons behind Facebook's diversity mission, the value proposition isn't hard.

“We want to have as many different ways of seeing things,” Williams says, “and that’s what you miss when you don’t have enough diversity.”

And that can help Facebooks’ bottom line. “It will improve not just what we build but then how we serve people. Because we will understand people better," she says.

If Facebook can do that, Williams is convinced that the company will be more successful and create better products.

"There's a ridiculous amount of value in having more people that look like you, because now this place starts to belong to you," she says. "You see yourself in the fabric of it. You are now a protagonist in this story, and we all want to be protagonists in our story ... So it becomes our story when there are more of us."

 And that’s something Williams "likes."

U.S. Classifies Some Basic Statistics About Afghan Security Forces

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 08:27

The watchdog in charge of Afghan reconstruction said the classification threatens its ability to publicly account for the billions of dollars spent each year on Afghan forces.

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Portugal To Offer Citizenship To Descendants Of Expelled Jews

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 08:26

Portugal's Jews were expelled, burned at the stake or forcibly converted to Christianity 500 years ago. The government wants says it wants to right a wrong. Spain approved a similar law last year.

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Cleveland Hospitals Grapple With Readmission Fines

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 07:44

The Cleveland Clinic has seen its Medicare penalties go down, while those paid by hospitals that serve many of Cleveland's poorer residents have gone up.

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At Least 3 Dead, Dozens Injured In Explosion At Mexico City Maternity Hospital

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 07:38

A gas tank truck exploded while servicing the maternity and children's hospital in Mexico City. Fifty-four people were hurt and an unknown number remained trapped.

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Quiz: Women win the diploma race

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-29 07:19

Women earn more degrees than men at most levels of education, according to the Census Bureau.

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The fight over 529s is more important than you think

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-29 07:01

After a confident and sweeping State of the Union address focused on "middle-class economics," President Barack Obama found himself pivoting away from part of it Tuesday.

After an uproar over Obama's proposal to dismantle the college savings plan known as the 529, the President walked it back and abandoned the plan

How did one little program suddenly become so important? Here's what you need to know:

What's a 529 anyway?

Named for the relevant section in the tax code, a 529 college savings plan is similar to a 401k or IRA. It's a  a state-offered investment plan, often a mutual fund, set aside to cover college expenses for a set beneficiary.

The account grows tax-deferred, and 529 funds used for tuition, fees, books, supplies and in some cases room and board are tax-free. Some states also let the account holder write off contributions to 529s, so there are tax breaks going in both directions. Nearly every state offers them.

Who uses 529s?

The Obamas, for one, but they're part of a small group. A 2012 Government Accountability Office study found less than 3 percent of families have 529s. Even among households expecting education expenses or prioritizing college saving, 529s were rare. As of last summer, there were fewer than 12 million accounts nationwide, according to the College Savings Plans Network.

The families who use the plan are wealthier than those who don't. The GAO study found median income among families with 529s or the similar Coverdell plan had a median annual income of $142,400, and nearly half of them made more than $150,000 per year. That group was likely to see a median tax savings of $3,132, while families making less than $100,000 saved $561.

Why did Obama want to get rid of it?

It's part of his broader tax proposal laid out in the days leading up to the State of the Union and focused on the middle class. Obama's 2016 budget would get rid of the tax breaks from 529s and use the money to expand the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

That program applies only to households making less than $180,000 per year, and it can cut taxes by up to $2,500 per year or give households that don't make enough to owe taxes up to $1,000 in refunds. Obama's plan would up the refund and make the credit available to part-time and fifth-year college students. 

So what's the problem?

Prominent lawmakers on both sides of the aisle spoke out against the change in public and private. Speaker of the House John Boehner said the president was scuttling a plan that already helped middle-class families, and a Republican representative reintroduced bipartisan legislation to expand 529s.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also urged the White House to drop the 529 proposal, which it did Tuesday, calling the furor a "distraction." An administration official told the New York Times other changes to the tax code would be able to fund the plan instead.

Why does it matter?

The proposal's undoing was, in part, that the definition of "middle class" is fluid. Any benefits to consolidating 529s into other tax credits aren't nearly as clear-cut as, say, as raising taxes on the super-rich and giving everyone else a break.

"The soaring cost of a college education makes even a six-figure income seem small," Russell Berman wrote in the Atlantic, adding that the small group benefiting from 529s might be doing well financially, but they're not all 1-percenters.

That's true for a lot of the little breaks in our complicated tax code, and cutting any of them can easily feel like a blow to the middle class — whoever that is.

None of this bodes well for  bipartisan tax reform. Writing for the Brookings Institution, David Wessel said it best: "It turns out that a lot of people prefer complexity to simplicity if simplicity means doing away with a tax break they get."

French Police Question 8-Year-Old Over Alleged Support For Paris Gunmen

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 06:25

The third-grader allegedly refused to observe a minute of silence in school following the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Police say he also expressed solidarity with the gunmen. He has not been charged.

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Sri Lanka Plans Probe Into Alleged Atrocities During Civil War

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 06:23

The country's new government says it is thinking of a new investigation into reports of extrajudicial killings in the closing chapter of the island nation's 26-year civil war.

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Jordan Demands Proof Of Life From ISIS Militants

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 05:54

The country wants to know if the Jordanian pilot being held by the Sunni militants is still alive. The Islamic State said it would kill the pilot if a convicted terrorist was not released by sunset.

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U.S. Scientist Jailed For Trying To Help Venezuela Build Bombs

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 05:30

Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, 79, was sentenced to five years in jail after he told FBI agents posing as Venezuelan officials that he could design and supervise the building of 40 weapons.

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Castro Demands Return Of Guantánamo, Before Normalizing Ties With U.S.

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-29 04:35

In a speech at a summit of Latin American countries, President Raúl Castro said the rapprochement would not make sense otherwise.

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