National News

House bill slashes education funding

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-06-23 02:00

The House Appropriations Committee released its draft spending bill for Labor, Health, Human Services and Education, and budget watchers noted deep cuts to federal education funding.

It cuts nearly $3.8 billion from mostly education and healthcare. The National Institutes of Health is one area that gets more money.

You might think the GOP-controlled committee is responsible for these proposed cuts, but it’s really the fault of the Budget Control Act, also known as the sequester, which requires that Congress not increase the deficit.

"There is no good way to allocate this," says David Reich, a senior policy consultant with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The Veterans Affairs scandal means veterans' medical care will get more money. "There’s a pretty strong consensus that there is a need for a several billion dollar increase" at the VA, says Reich. But that means there's less to go around for everyone else.

The cuts would hit school improvement grants, literacy programs, magnet schools, teen pregnancy reduction programs, and more.

Joel Packer from the Raben Group says the deficit has shrunk so both Democrats and Republicans could work to raise the budget caps.

"Something has to happen by midnight, September 30 this year or the whole federal government shuts down," Packer says. 

But don’t worry too much about this bill becoming law. It also blocks all Obamacare funding. So there's little to no chance it will be signed into law by the president.

The final bill is due for a markup by the full committee on Wednesday. 

Baltimore lab program produces a positive reaction

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-06-23 02:00

Jamond Turner used to work as a security guard at Johns Hopkins University, where one evening, his rounds took him past a laboratory. Turner was impressed by what he saw and decided to pursue a career in laboratory work.

The decision brought him to the BioTechnical Institute of  Maryland, a nonprofit that trains unemployed and underemployed Baltimore residents tuition-free for entry-level, high-skill jobs in labs.

BTI's Lab Associates program has its genesis in Baltimore's Empowerment Zones. Baltimore was one of six U.S. cities that won the federal Empowerment Zone designation in 1994. The city was awarded $100 million dollars and a host of tax breaks for business and employers. Baltimore sunk the money into job creation and job training. And while many of the jobs have since disappeared, job training programs saw some successes.

The BTI program began in 1998, partnering with a laboratory company that received tax breaks for moving into one of the city's poorest areas.

Since then, about 350 students have graduated and gone to work for employers that include cutting-edge biotech firms, the American Red Cross and the McCormick spice company.

Kathleen Weiss, the executive director at BTI, says people often hear the term "entry-level jobs" and think of retail positions or warehouse work. She says students at BTI are preparing for entry-level jobs with a future. The average starting salary for a BTI graduate is about $27,000 a year and includes benefits.

 

Video visitations gain popularity in prison system

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-06-23 02:00

As part of a series about technology in prisons called "Jailbreak," we're talking about the growing use of video visitation in prisons. It's being used already in over 500 institutions around the country. Most of them are county jails, but a few are state prisons.

And while we know a lot about the impact of in-person visits between inmates and their familes while incarcerated, we don't know much about the impact of video visitation.

Bernadette Rabuy, a policy and communications associate at the Prison Policy Initiative, says the growth in popularity of video visitation technology has a lot to do with cutting costs. Prisons are also attracted to the fact that it eliminates the opportunity for the smuggling of contraband items to prisoners.

But Rabuy cautions that the benefits may not outweigh the emotional costs: "We don't know that these videos are equivalent to in-person visits, which have been shown by a lot of research to be one of the only ways we know for sure reduces the likelihood of future crimes."

Click the media player above to hear more.

Job training works in Baltimore

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-06-23 02:00

Jamond Turner used to work as a security guard at Johns Hopkins University, where one evening, his rounds took him past a laboratory. Turner was impressed by what he saw and decided to pursue a career in laboratory work.

The decision brought him to the BioTechnical Institute of  Maryland, a non-profit that trains unemployed and underemployed Baltimore residents for entry-level, high-skill jobs in labs.

BTI's Lab Associates program has its genesis in Baltimore's Empowerment Zones. Baltimore was one of six U.S. cities that won the federal Empowerment Zone designation in 1994. The city was awarded $100 million dollars and a host of tax breaks for business and employers. Baltimore sunk the money into job creation and job training. And while many of the jobs have since disappeared, job training programs saw some successes.

The BTI program began in 1998, partnering with a laboratory company that received tax breaks for moving into one of the city's poorest areas.

Since then, around 350 students have graduated and gone to work for employers that include cutting-edge biotech firms, the American Red Cross and the McCormick spice company.

Kathleen Weiss is the Executive Director at BTI. She says people often hear the term "entry-level jobs" and think of retail positions or warehouse work. She says students at BTI are preparing for entry-level with a future. The average starting salary for a BTI graduate is about $27,000 a year, and includes benefits.

 

Niagara recalls bottled spring water

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-06-23 01:42
14 brands

That's how many brands had to issue a recall for bottled water sourced from Niagara Bottling. The reason? A spring contaminated with E. coli. And as NBC Philadelphia reports, while the contamination was discovered on June 10, the spring waited to notify the affected brands.

$1 billion

That's how much Alibaba has sunk into its once dormant food-ordering app known as Koubei. It's part of a move by the company to enter what is known as the O2O (online-to-offline) market of using apps to order goods and services. And as the Wall Street Journal reports, the company is attempting to compete with its rival Tencent Holdings Ltd. and its app, Ele.me

$150

That's how much Gary Portnoy originally was paid for writing the "Cheers" theme at 25. But television royalties are structured so that one is paid every time the show airs, so although the initial payday might be small, songwriters can make millions from getting their work on a hit show. We looked into the world of TV themes for the latest installment of our series "I've Always Wondered."

350 students

That's about how many students have graduated from the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland since it was founded in 1998. BTI's Lab Associates program offers job training to students looking to get into laboratory work — students like Jamond Turner who used to work as a security guard at Johns Hopkins University. The program started when Baltimore decided to use the $100 million it received as part of its designation as an Empowerment Zone to focus on job training and job creation. While the latter may have fallen off, the former seems to be one of the positive remnants of the program

$16.3 million

That was the average pay in the C-suite at the top 350 companies last year, on the rise since the Depression. Meanwhile, worker pay is remaining steady or even falling, according to the Economic Policy Institute study as reported by Mother Jones, meaning CEOs now make more than 300 times what workers in their respective fields earn. 

$236 billion

That's how high Facebook's market value reached during trading Monday, surpassing Walmart. Quartz notes that the shift points to technology's increasing prominence in the economy, even if Walmart brings in hundreds of billions more in revenue.

The VA's Broken Promise To Thousands Of Vets Exposed To Mustard Gas

NPR News - Tue, 2015-06-23 01:00

When the Pentagon revealed it secretly exposed enlisted men to mustard gas during WWII, VA officials promised disability benefits. But an NPR investigation finds that most were never contacted.

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How Fracking Is Fueling A Power Shift From Coal To Gas

NPR News - Tue, 2015-06-23 00:49

Driven by new regulations and fracking, more coal power plants are retiring for cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas. But scientists have yet to work out the fossil fuel's imperfect climate footprint.

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China's Island-Building Has Neighbors On Edge, But Tensions May Be Easing

NPR News - Tue, 2015-06-23 00:47

In just 18 months, China has created more than 2,000 acres of new land where before there were just waves and reef, according to the U.S., which sees the work as a threat to regional stability.

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Take A Hike To Do Your Heart And Spirit Good

NPR News - Tue, 2015-06-23 00:45

For many Americans, an NPR poll suggests, walking is their most consistent exercise. But how much can a moderately paced walk really help your health?

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School Scrambles To Preserve Newly Discovered Chalkboards From 1917

NPR News - Tue, 2015-06-23 00:44

Behind the walls at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City, construction workers found old chalkboards with drawings and class lessons, written almost a century ago and in remarkable condition.

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Fraud Still Plagues Medicare's Prescription Drug Program

NPR News - Mon, 2015-06-22 20:03

More than 1,400 pharmacies billed for questionable prescriptions last year, according to the inspector general at Health and Human Services. That includes prescriptions for commonly abused opioids.

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Pete Rose Bet On Baseball Games As A Player, ESPN Reports

NPR News - Mon, 2015-06-22 14:43

After years of denial, baseball's all-time hits leader admitted in 2004 that he bet on games, but only while he was manager. But ESPN obtained documents that show the betting began in 1986.

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Painfully Skinny Jeans Land A Woman In The Hospital

NPR News - Mon, 2015-06-22 14:33

It turns out jeans really can be too tight. An Australian woman suffered nerve and muscle damage after wearing super-skinny jeans. She couldn't walk and was hospitalized, but has since recovered.

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Local Food Is Still A Niche. Can It Grow Beyond That?

NPR News - Mon, 2015-06-22 14:23

"Local" food makes up a small fraction of what Americans eat. But a recent study argues that 90 percent of people living in cities could be fed with food grown with 100 miles.

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The Complicated Political History Of The Confederate Flag

NPR News - Mon, 2015-06-22 14:19

After a massacre at a church in Charleston, South Carolina's governor called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the state Capitol. The flag has a long and divisive history.

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Items In N.Y. Hunting Cabin Linked To Escaped Killers, Police Say

NPR News - Mon, 2015-06-22 13:43

It has been 17 days since Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. The New York Times reports the men were in the cabin within the past 48 hours.

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How much do TV theme songwriters earn?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-06-22 13:07

Listener Cathy Lane wrote in with a question about music: How much do songwriters and performers earn when their music is used as a television theme song? Are they paid for every episode?

It’s a simple question with a complicated answer.

So we went to Gary Portnoy.  He was just 25 years old when he co-wrote the "Cheers" theme song in 1982.

“I think I got $150 for the "Cheers" theme,” Portnoy says. “And I had a very powerful lawyer, and he just says, 'Look, whatever it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be, but you’re not gonna make your money up front. So go for it.' ”

The song was Portnoy’s first big break. It also happened to be the most successful thing he’s ever done. Portnoy says his license plate actually reads: 1HIT1DR.

But that's not such a bad thing. Portnoy gets paid every time the song plays. In recent years, the song has been licensed for commercials — selling cars, Dr. Pepper and even insurance. He won’t say how much he has made off this one song. But he will say that it’s enough to live off of. Portnoy is now 59; he says he enjoys a simple life outside of New York City where he collects Japanese Maples and mid-Century studio pottery. And he never misses an episode of Judge Judy.

Entertainment lawyer Josh Grier has represented the B-52s, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall and others. He says writing one theme song for a hit show that plays over and over again can basically fund your retirement.

“Yeah, you don’t make hundreds of thousands of dollars, you end up making millions of dollars,” Grier says. 

Jonathan Wolff wrote the theme music to a show that always seems to be playing somewhere — "Seinfeld".

“My royalty statements are hundreds and hundreds of pages long from who knows how many countries,” he says.

Wolff has calculated what that one show has made him, calling that number “a happy secret.” Thanks to the royalties, Wolff retired early and moved his family to Kentucky. Wolff stopped taking calls from Hollywood and started coaching little league.

“We decided that we were going to challenge this notion that there’s no such thing as enough money,” Wolff says. “We decided how ever many marbles there are in 2005, that’s what we’re going to leave with.”

How those royalties are calculated is a complicated business. There are whole organizations that specialize in tracking, collecting and distributing royalties for songwriters.

“I think the simplest thing to say is the more often it’s played, the better,” Grier says. “And if it goes into syndication, then it just becomes a constant flow of royalties.”

So that’s what happens when you’re hired to write a song. But what happens when you get that call — a television network wants to use your band’s little-known song for their TV theme? That’s what happened to Brett and Rennie Sparks, the husband-wife duo behind the Handsome Family.

“We were surprised, that’s for sure,” Brett says. “I think we initially deleted the email thinking it was some kind of joke.”

The Handsome Family released the song “Far From Any Road” in 2003. About a decade later, HBO used the song as the theme of the first season of "True Detective." It was never considered one of the band’s more popular tunes, but since airing repeatedly on HBO, Rennie estimates the song has earned more than all their other songs combined.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of all this exposure: Tons of new fans. And a lot of these new fans buy records. Digital sales for the Sparks’ label Carrot Top Records increased nine times what it was making before "True Detective" — thanks in large part to the Handsome Family’s music.

“Years ago, people wouldn’t look to a TV show or a movie or a commercial to find new music, but nowadays, they do,” Rennie says.

“Well, it was considered selling out, and it was considered lame,” Brett adds.

“Yes, but nowadays, it’s perfectly fine, so people do find us that way and become great fans of our music,” says Rennie.

While it’s a wonderful song, “Far From Any Road” was not exactly a hit at first. If it were, it’s fair to say HBO would have had to pay a lot more. Entertainment lawyer Josh Grier says to license a popular contemporary song, a TV network would probably have to pay six-figures. But he says, for the most part, the actual price tags are confidential.

Still, for every theme song that gets stuck in your head — and earns the songwriter a steady income — there are dozens more sitting on studio shelves, written for canceled pilots or short-lived TV shows.

“The universe has to shine on every aspect of it,” Gary Portnoy says. “It’s not just you wrote a magical song, but somebody wrote a magical script and somebody cast it well, and people took to it. So yeah, I’ve got a few TV themes that I think are as magical but probably no one’s ever going to hear them.”

Like this theme for the show "Marblehead Manor" that aired for one season in the late 1980s.

Reversing a trend, Instacart checks out part-timers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-06-22 12:59

In a move that's the opposite of many others in the on-demand, sharing economy, the online grocery delivery service Instacart is converting some of its independent contractor shoppers, who purchase groceries on behalf of customers, to part-time employees.

The company says it is making the change in Chicago, expanding a pilot program that began in Boston. Andrea Saul, Instacart's vice president of communications, says the program will continue to expand in the coming months. Instacart does business in 16 other cities.

The move will add to Instacart's costs. "We are going to incur workers' compensation, different payroll taxes like unemployment, social security and Medicare," Saul says.

But Instacart was willing to take on those costs, because converting independent contractor shoppers into employees improved the company's customer service. 

"Our shoppers got more accurate picking items," Saul says. "We had more on-time deliveries."  

The company attributes the change to improvements in training and supervision made possible because workers were employees. 

Instacart has some 7,000 contractors, only a few hundred of whom are affected by the change so far. But of those given the option to switch to employee status, Saul says 75 percent did. 

"Wages will vary by market for the part-time employees, but we will be competitive in each market to attract and retain shoppers," Saul says. "The hourly floor is above local minimum wage in all regions." She did not detail specific numbers.

The conversion from independent contractor to part-time employee is an important distinction. Other companies have fought such a change. Last week, a California regulatory agency ruled that an Uber driver was an employee. Uber is appealing that decision.

"What we're caught with are 20th century definitions for a 21st century workforce and economy," says Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, who has been vocal on the issue and says it is time for a new way of defining work.

"The idea that everybody fits neatly into being an employee, unemployed or an independent contractor really doesn't reflect the changing nature of this economy," Warner says.

One proposal is to create a dependent contractor designation, which would provide some employee-level benefits to independent workers. There are a host of other ideas, too.

Jeffrey Hirsch, an expert on labor law and a law professor at the University of North Carolina, says the issue is heating up as the on-demand economy explodes. "The indecision and the confusion involved is what's most harmful, both for the companies and for the workers," Hirsch says.

Existing home sales on the rise

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-06-22 12:59

The pace of existing homes sales increased just more than 5 percent from the month before, according to the National Association of Realtors, but perhaps more interesting is who it thinks is doing the buying: almost a third of buyers in May were first-timers. That's moving closer to the 40 percent that the organization sees as normal for the housing market.

Ben Fein-Smolinski and his girlfriend, both 26, were among those first-timers who leaped into the housing market in May.

“We figured that it was maybe time to stop paying rent and to get a place more permanent,” he says.

Buyers like Fein-Smolinski are an important piece of the housing economy. They tend to buy smaller homes, perhaps from people who might have decided they need more space for the kids. That family might then buy a home from baby boomers looking to downsize.

But Fein-Smolinski’s decision was also an economic one.

“We also thought it would be a little more cost effective, instead of finding a bigger apartment to rent,” he adds.

“Rents in this country have never been less affordable than they are now," says Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow. “If you can scrape together the down payment and qualify for a mortgage, it makes home ownership look very attractive.”

Other driving factors may be the improving job market or, perhaps, people who want to lock in low interest rates.

However, Richard Green, a professor at the University of Southern California, cautions not to get too excited about one month of data. Housing supply is tight and he says an even more important metric to watch is new construction.

“When you see a pick-up in existing home sales, that indicates there’s more demand for housing, and that extra demand for housing could boost the demand for new construction,” he says. “Things are better than they were three years ago, but we’re still not close to being normal.”

Bernanke wants Andrew Jackson gone from $20 bill

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-06-22 12:58

Currency wars are being waged in the Treasury Department. 

Secretary Jacob Lew has plans to take Alexander Hamilton off the $10 bill and replace him with a woman.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke weighed in today and said he's appalled by Lew's proposal to drop a man Bernanke calls "the best...economic policymaker in U.S. history."

Far better: Bernanke goes on to suggest that a woman should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. 

Me?

I'm with Ben.

 

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