National News

Labor board landmark ruling affects contract workers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-08-28 02:00

In what is being called a landmark decision by both proponents and opponents, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that a group of sanitation workers in central California, who were deciding whether to unionize, can negotiate directly with the sanitation company for which they work, and not just the temp agency that hires and supervises them.

Business groups say the board's decision is wide reaching, and could threaten how business is done in a modern economy increasingly reliant on temporary and contract workers. They say it could also eventually impact franchise businesses, such as fast food restaurants.

Proponents say the board is simply catching up with the times, making sure that the growing ranks of contract workers have the ability to unionize.

"The work arrangements in the country are changing. And employer definitions are changing. The NLRB has to change along with it," says Thomas Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.

Daniel Johns, a labor law attorney at the Philadelphia firm Ballard Spahr LLP, says the decision could have far reaching impact on companies that have come to rely on subcontractors.

"Often times you use these arrangements so that you can have some distance with respect to the employment of these individuals," Johns says.

A New Orleans Business Banks On New Connections

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-08-28 02:00

At McMillan's First Steps , a pre-school,  there's a big mural painted on the cafeteria wall. A smiling boy is held in the air by a doctor, a pastor, and a police officer.

Plus, a guy in a Home Depot uniform.

In another city that might seem weird, but not in a city that is rebuilding. Linda McMillan, who owns First Steps,  says the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, destroyed her campus.

"This building had a lot of damage after Katrina," she says. "We had about maybe seven and a half feet of water in this facility."

So McMillan, who exudes tough energy, parked two commercial trailers on the playground and held classes there. She also saw a growth opportunity. With New Orleans' education system in disarray, she decided to expand beyond pre-school to the 5th grade. For that, she'd need an additional school building, and a big loan. 

Three years ago, a colleague told McMillan about a program called 10,000 Small Businesses, run by Goldman Sachs.

The investment bank partners with local colleges to give small business owners around 100 hours of free college courses. McMillan likens it to business school.

"They gave you accounting, marketing," she says. "They had different speakers to come out and do the training. I got to know who I was. What kind of business owner I was."

 As it turned out, she was a successful one. When McMillan finished the classes, she was approved for a $586,000 loan. Today, her academy has one hundred fifteen students.

Her lender is a small credit union that works in low-income areas. The money itself comes from Goldman Sachs. 

McMillan got something else out of those classes: an opportunity to network with other small business owners. She met landscapers, master plumbers, signmakers, even the owner of a demolition company. When it was time to expand, those were the businesses she called upon. 

Katherine Jollon Colsher is the National Director of Ten Thousand Small Businesses. She says she hears stories like McMillan's surprisingly often.

"It was unexpected to us that so many of the businesses that go through the program would do business with each other," she says. Nationwide, around 84% of businesses that go through the program say they use the services of a fellow business owner they met in class.

Goldman Sachs hopes to eventually reach 10,000 business owners. So far, 5,000 have completed the classes and successfully applied for a business loan. 

Jollon Colsher says they have seen impressive results.

This year, Babson College examined how companies were doing eighteen months after their owners finished the program.

Three quarters of them had increased revenue and more than half had created new jobs.

 

You can't escape the campaign ad

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-08-28 02:00

The Democratic National Committee met in Minneapolis this week. Among the items on the agenda was a strategy to transform the party’s voter databases into something they can use to target online ads. Republicans are doing something similar, all in an effort to catch voters who spend more time than ever online.

For political campaigns, television ads and robo-calls just aren’t enough anymore.

“You’d want to reach people on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter or wherever they are talking to each other about political or other speech," says Nuala O’Connor of the Center for Democracy and Technology. She’s worried about merging voter details with the consumer data used to target online ads.

And there’s a lot of data out there, says John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation.

“Anything that can tell you a slice about your identity as a person," he says, "a sophisticated data manipulator can use to make inferences about your identity as a voter or a citizen.”

But Jay Friedman of Goodway Group, which helps deliver online ads, points out those inferences don't necessarily translate to identification. Friedman says the data gets made anonymous as it’s combined.

“[The parties] know up front their universe of who they can target," he says, "and they know on the back end that they might have hit 10,112 people, but they can’t match those two.”                                                                                                  

Although they probably wish they could.

Cadillac's one-way drive to New York and new branding

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-08-28 02:00

In New York's upscale SoHo neighborhood, workers are banging Cadillacs into shape. The construction site — on a pair of upper floors with magnificent views of the East River on one side and north to the Midtown skyscrapers on the other — is the new world headquarters of a famous brand that has, heretofore, been associated with Detroit. 

Click the above audio player to hear Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio speak with Cadillac CEO Johan de Nysschen about the car company's plans to revamp the brand. 

Expect more volatility. But don't let it freak you out

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-08-28 02:00

This week in the markets is brought to you by the letter V. That's V for VIX, V for violent swings in the market...

V ... for Volatility.

Now, you may be hoping we'll get a break from volatility after this turbulent week. Well, traders say, fuhgeddaboutit: the way things are in our new economic reality, we're likely to be hearing a lot more of the V word in coming weeks.

After all, they say, volatility is a normal part of any market. So It's hard to predict. But John Sweeney, executive vice president of retirement and investing strategies at Fidelity, has a theory.

"Volatility will be probably more prevalent than it has been over the last couple of years," he says.

That's because, he says, we're in the sixth year of a bull run. Prices have steadily gone up. So the market would be more volatile even without this week's swings.

Then question is, how long can we expect this to go on?

"That's unclear," Sweeney says.

Yeah, he doesn't have a crystal ball either. He says between the economic slowdown in China, the price of oil, and the Fed's plan to raise interest rates, there's still a lot of uncertainty.

But more volatility isn't always a bad thing, according to Jamie Cox, managing partner at Harris Financial Group.

"If you have a low volatility environment, you can basically just buy stocks indiscriminately," Cox says.

And buying on impulse without doing your homework is usually bad news for investors in the long term, he says.

So instead of fearing volatility, maybe we should embrace it.

Department Of Justice Sued For Fake News Story

NPR News - Fri, 2015-08-28 01:14

The Associated Press has filed a lawsuit against the DOJ for a government sting operation in 2007 in which the FBI created a fake news story and impersonated a journalist.

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White House Explores Ways To Do Business With Cuba

NPR News - Fri, 2015-08-28 01:06

It will take an act of Congress to lift the trade embargo against Cuba. President Obama, however, does have ways to make it easier for Americans to go to Havana or to sell goods there.

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White House Explores Regulatory Ways To Create Opportunities In Cuba

NPR News - Fri, 2015-08-28 01:06

It will take an act of Congress to lift the trade embargo against Cuba. President Obama, however, does have ways to make it easier for Americans to go to Havana or to sell goods there.

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The Survivors' Street: Ten Years of Life After Katrina

NPR News - Fri, 2015-08-28 00:15

NPR first visited Schnell Drive in St. Bernard Parish ten years ago, to speak with the Bordelon family as they rebuilt their home after Katrina's destruction. Unlike many, they're still there today.

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New Tesla Breaks Consumer Reports' Ratings Scale, Bolsters Company's Stock

NPR News - Thu, 2015-08-27 16:37

"It kind of broke the system," says Jake Fisher, director of the magazine's auto test division. Tesla's stock rose 8 percent Thursday.

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North Dakota Legalizes Armed Police Drones

NPR News - Thu, 2015-08-27 15:16

Law enforcement agencies in North Dakota are now allowed to operate drones armed with "less than lethal" weapons.

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Democratic Group Fires A Warning Shot With Immigration Attack Ad

NPR News - Thu, 2015-08-27 14:22

SuperPAC Priorities USA Action released a digital ad blasting Republican candidates for their heated rhetoric on immigration. It's a small campaign for now, but sends a clear message.

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Obama: Katrina A 'Man-Made' Disaster Caused By Government Failure

NPR News - Thu, 2015-08-27 13:14

The president said that what started out as a natural disaster became something much worse when government didn't "look out for its own citizens."

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Nation's Only All-Women MBA Program To Close

NPR News - Thu, 2015-08-27 13:03

Simmons College in Boston has announced it will transition its brick-and-mortar program to an online-only degree.

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Living in a wildfire zone

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-08-27 13:01

Hundreds of wildfires are burning in the West. The drought that's dried out the region got the fire season started early, and so far, this is shaping up as one of the worst years ever in the Pacific Northwest.

Lieutenant Kurt Stich of Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue fights fire — and boulders, snakes and bee stings — on the south side of Lake Chelan in central Washington state.

Anna King/Northwest News Network

But every year in the West there's a fire season. Malibu, not many miles from the city of Los Angeles, has had so many wildfires that the writer Mike Davis wrote an essay called "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn."

The community of Topanga sits deep in Topanga Canyon, in the Santa Monica Mountains, between Los Angeles and Malibu. It's an old hippie haven. Neil Young even wrote and recorded most of "After the Gold Rush" there. It's a beautiful place to live, but the scenery comes with a cost: worrying about nature.

More and more houses off Topanga Canyon Boulevard are being incorporated into the natural wildland.

Andy Uhler/Marketplace

Beth Burnham lives on 16 acres about a mile off the main road. She's got a big house, and she and her husband have horses and chickens. They call it paradise, but this is also California — a land of natural disasters. They say they're not worried about mudslides or flooding or even an earthquake.

"Fire is the devastating event that will happen out here," she says.
 
It will happen. Topanga Canyon is full of chaparral — shrubs and trees adapted to a dry climate that burn explosively.

Two men work for Burnham, armed with chainsaws and weed trimmers, cutting back dead trees and brush. 

This is maintenance. The hard work was done when Burnham bought the property 13 years ago. A crew worked for weeks cutting back the chaparral to create a clear area around her buildings.

It was expensive. But she knew it had to be done.
 
"I'm fortunate to have these guys, I'm fortunate to be able to pay them," Burnham says. "It's a balance. Most people don't have these kinds of people or these kinds of tools. If a person has a gardener, it's more of a typical mowing and watering — basically 'blow and go."  But most people in Topanga don't even have gardeners."
 
Burnham would know. She's co-president of the North Topanga Canyon Fire Safe Council. The group writes grants to help those residents without as much money make their homes safer.

For every multimillion dollar estate out here, there's a little cabin built in the 1950s and '60s. And Cal Fire maintains it's the responsibility of individual homeowners to make their houses fire-safe.

Janet Upton, Cal Fire's deputy director, says compliance is pretty steady. One problem the agency deals with now is timing, because clearing brush with power tools at the height of fire season can start fires.
 
"And so folks are well meaning, they listen to our prevention messages in the spring," she says. "They think, 'Mental note: I've got to do my clearance.' And then they don't get around to it."
 
Ed Smith teaches at the University of Nevada-Reno and coordinates Nevada's Living with Fire Program. He says clearing a defensible space around a house is imperative. But convincing homeowners to do it is another thing.
 
"There's a variety of reasons why people don't take action," he says. "One of them is the aesthetics and the desire to live in a natural setting."

Many people want a view of Lake Tahoe, so they're reluctant to augment the natural landscape to make their homes fire-safe.

Amy Ashcraft/Flickr

Smith said some people also just feel bad about cutting down a tree — even though that might save other trees.

"If a fire does occur, and the people in the community felt the same way, and you lose your forest, was that worth it?" he says. 
 
Even those who do all they can to protect their home live with the realization that fire is going to come some day.

Which raises the question: Does it make sense to live out here?

Whether or not it makes sense, lots of people are moving closer to the wildlands. Over the last 25 years, about 2 million acres a year have been converted into what firefighters and experts call the wildland-urban interface: houses in the fire zone.

Scott Ferguson lives in a part of Topanga where his house is close to his neighbors. It's landscaped with wooden staircases and paved pathways.
 
"Don't sit there and worry about it, because if you're going to worry about burning up, you should just move," he says. "Because the reality is, it's just something that's there. It's a possibility."
 
Next month marks the 10-year anniversary of the Topanga Fire, which burned nearly 40 square miles and caused $16 million in damages. Beth Burnham says she spends a lot of her time thinking about that possibility.

"This is a community of somewhere between eight and 10 thousand people with one road, basically, in and out," she says. "How are we all going to get out of here when the fire is coming down?"

The Topanga Fires of 2005 caused $15.8 million in damage to the area.

Justinm / Flickr

Froggy Went A-Courtin', But Lady Frogs Chose Second-Best Guy Instead

NPR News - Thu, 2015-08-27 13:01

Given two choices of attractive mates, female frogs pick the top vocalist. But add a third, inferior male to the mix, and females go for No. 2. The "decoy effect" shapes some human choices, too.

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Digital assistants: If they only had a brain

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-08-27 13:00

If you’ve ever used Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana or another so-called “virtual assistant” on your smart phone, chances are there has been some cursing involved. That frustration has created a big opportunity for whomever can make a better one. Now Facebook is stepping into the fray on a small scale at first. For a few hundred users in the Bay Area, Facebook’s Messenger app will now come with a feature called M.

M “can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more,” David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products, wrote in a post announcing the pilot.

So why is it so hard to make a virtual assistant that actually works?

“Some of the problems are pure technical problems,” says Justine Cassell, co-director of a project at Carnegie Mellon to build what she calls “the next-next-next generation personal assistant.” The $10 million project is funded by Yahoo.

For example, it’s hard for machines to understand all of us all of the time — and not just what we’re saying, but what we actually mean.

To overcome some of the technical challenges, Facebook’s M will be text-only for now, avoiding the often comical limitations of voice-recognition technology. Human “trainers” will help interpret requests and supervise responses.

 “The trainers, very simply, will make sure that every request is answered appropriately, and each time that happens, that’s a lesson for the machine,” says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Over time, the machine will learn to do more on its own.

What Facebook and its competitors want, Etzioni says, is to be your mobile portal to internet and everything it offers. The easier they make it for you to get what you want without leaving their ecosystem, the more money they stand to make.

 

Just how strong are those fundamentals?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-08-27 13:00

During this week’s wild ride for stocks, analysts have been telling people not to freak out because, essentially, the stock market is not the economy and vice versa. Kai Ryssdal says that on Marketplace so often that a fan built that phrase into a drinking game. (Which, by the way, is not to be played while driving!)

There’s a phrase politicians like to use: “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” As for economists, they answer questions about economic fundamentals by looking at an array of numbers.

There’s the gross domestic product, of course, which we learned Thursday grew at a 3.7 percent rate last quarter. Beyond that, analysts watch a mix of data including a range of employment and inflation numbers. Housing and industrial production data help too. Context is vital.

“There’s been a lot of talk about wages simply rising at around 2 percent,” says Bernie Baumohl of the Economic Outlook Group. “But that only tells half the story. You have to look at the rise in income relative to inflation.”

And with inflation currently low, 2 percent wage growth isn’t quite so disappointing.

It’s also important to look beyond the headlines, such as when the big employment report comes out a week from Friday.

“Certainly the overall unemployment rate is a number that a lot of people focus on,” says former Fed economist Ann Owen, now a professor at Hamilton College. “But I think when we wanna think about the health of the labor market right now, there are some really key numbers.”

She carefully watches the portion of Americans currently working or job hunting, a number that’s now stuck at 62.6 percent.

Add all this up, and many economists see a mixed bag.

“We’re not looking at growth in incomes or output that would make you, you know, wave your fist in the air and cheer,” says Michael Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute. “But we’re also not looking at a situation that you would describe as terrible.”

Mark Garrison: Asking economists to only pick three numbers is like asking kids at a birthday party to only take three bites of cake. No chance.

Michael Strain: I think it takes more than three.

Ann Owen: I wouldn’t always have the same top three.

That’s Michael Strain at the American Enterprise Institute and Ann Owen, a Hamilton College professor formerly at the Fed. But we can at least narrow it down to some key categories. There’s GDP of course, which we learned today grew at a 3-point-7 percent rate last quarter. Beyond that, they watch a mix of data including a range of employment and inflation numbers. Housing and industrial production data help too. Context is vital, says Bernie Baumohl of The Economic Outlook Group.

Bernie Baumohl: There’s been a lot of talk about wages simply rising at around two percent. But that only tells half the story. You have to look at the rise in income relative to inflation.

And with low inflation, two percent isn’t quite so disappointing. You also have to look beyond the headlines. That’s what Owen will do when the big employment report comes out a week from tomorrow.

Ann Owen: Certainly the overall unemployment rate is a number that a lot of people focus on, but I think when we wanna think about the health of the labor market right now, there are some really key numbers for people to be thinking about.

Like the percent of people working or job hunting, currently stuck under 63 percent. When Strain looks at all this and more, he sees a mixed bag.

Michael Strain: We’re not looking at growth in incomes or output that would make you, you know, wave your fist in the air and cheer, but we’re also not looking at a situation that you would describe as terrible.

So the fundamentals are Ok. In New York, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

China's Wanda buys Ironman race series

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-08-27 13:00

The Ironman triathlon competition has just been swallowed up by the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group.

The company announced today it bought Florida-based World Triathlon Corporation for $650 million. Wanda already owns the AMC movie theater chain in the U.S. It recently bought a Swiss sports marketing firm and a portion of a Spanish soccer team. It calls the Ironman purchase part of its “comprehensive sports strategy.”

“There’s a possibility that they see this as an opportunity for vertical integration in a completely different area of sports entertainment,” says Karl Gerth, who studies China at the University of California, San Diego.

He says the company wants internationally well-known brands like Ironman to draw attention — and people — to the hotels and other properties it already owns.

Wanda says triathlons are “on the cusp of explosion” in China, but Jeff Wasserstrom at University of California, Irvine is skeptical.

“Well, we’ve heard stories about skiing being poised to explode, we’ve been hearing about other things," he says. "But they are real niche things, and there is a bit of oversell.”

But he does agree with the company’s assessment that China’s middle class is ready to move away from watching popular sports to joining in.

David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University, says what makes triathlons appealing is that it’s not just for the most elite of athletes.

“Well, what we’re seeing as economies grow around the world," he says, "and incomes go up around the world, there’s more and more interest in all sorts of sports. One could argue this is a sport that lots of different people can participate in.”

And they need gear, hotels, training space and air time, which Wanda is happy to provide.

Boeing Case Is Latest Targeting 401(k) Plans With Excessive Fees

NPR News - Thu, 2015-08-27 12:38

The aerospace giant is moving to settle a suit accusing it of mishandling its plan. The case is part of a legal assault by an attorney to stop firms from offering workers high-cost retirement plans.

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