Also: At least seven people died at site of Harlem explosion; two people were killed in Austin when a car plowed into SXSW crowd; and the Oscar Pistorius murder trial continues.
Americans put on their layers, their boots, their gloves and shopped anyway. Economists are worried about what the weather's doing to the economy, yet there was a vivid sign today that Americans were out there buying after all. The government said retail sales bounced back in February, up three tenths percent. It was a decent months for cars and trucks, furniture, and clothes.
Plus, foreclosure filings in the U.S. hit a seven-year low in February, according to a monthly report from RealtyTrac. But that doesn’t mean there aren't still problems – the newest of which is so-called “zombie properties,” properties vacated by the homeowner, lingering for years without being repossessed or resold, attracting vandals and blight.
Two buildings in Harlem were leveled. Authorities say there were reports of a gas leak shortly before Wednesday's explosion and fire. Along with the deaths, there were dozens of injuries.
Two people were killed and at least 23 more were injured early Thursday when a vehicle sped through one of Austin's crowded streets. Police say the man behind the wheel fled a drunken-driving stop.
Turns out Republicans and Democrats can agree on some things. A bipartisan plan emerged in the Senate this week, backed by Senate Banking Committee leaders Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), that would wind down mortgage providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Fannie and Freddie were originally set up to make buying a home cheaper for many Americans. But after they went bust during the last financial crisis, many in Washington want the quasi-governmental outfits snuffed out for good. That's a tall order, since voters and the powerful real estate industry enjoy their subsidized mortgages.
Marketplace's economics commentator Chris Farrell joins Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss the potential consequences for home buyers -- good and bad.
Click on the audio player above to hear the full report.
You know about Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia anyone can edit. Well, there’s an effort in California to use the wiki model to draft legislation -- actual bills that will be introduced to the state legislature.
It’s often said there are two certainties in life, death and taxes. That’s what’s California Assemblyman Mike Gatto was thinking about when he decided to launch an experiment in crowdsourcing legislation.
His chosen topic? The state’s probate code, which regulates wills.
“We’ve seen a lot of very excited feedback on what is, you know, a somewhat boring subject,” he says.
Gatto had heard the probate code needed some updating. And it seemed like a safe topic for his first wiki-bill. Plus, he wanted a boring subject, so special-interest groups would be less likely to co-opt the legislation.
“So we thought this was a wonderfully happy medium, pun intended, for the public to get involved to directly affect a bill,” Gatto says.
Through March 7, anyone can go to the page and add language or start a discussion. But, so far, not too many people have. The wiki-page shows about 12 contributors.
Tim Bonnemann is CEO of Intellitics, a company that helps organizations connect and interact with people through social media. He’s been observing the wiki-bill process and says Gatto’s team was too hands off.
“And they also started at the most difficult part, which is writing legislative copy,” he says. “When maybe they should have invited people more to share stories and indentify challenges and develop solutions together.”
And as for keeping special interests out of the mix, Bonnemann says wiki-bills might actually help.
“In general, the more public, the more transparent the process is overall, the more difficult it becomes for people to slip things in unnoticed,” he says.
Gatto has pledged to introduce whatever bill his wiki-contributors come up with. And he says, maybe next year, they can refine the process and take on more timely issues, like crowd sourcing ideas for dealing with California’s drought.
A recent study found that the populations of for-profit prisons tend to be younger, which correlates with a skew toward more black and Latino inmates than in publicly run prisons.
U.S. investigators tell The Wall Street Journal that equipment aboard the missing plane was transmitting for four hours after it is thought to have vanished. Malaysian officials say that's not true.
Russian Oligarchs are everywhere. Whether they’re losing billions in Sochi investments, escaping sanctions over the Ukranian occupation, or fearing a new front in the crisis, they seem to pop up like boogeymen whenever the media talks about Russia. But who exactly are these shadowy figures? To put it simply, they’re extremely wealthy men that wield an incredible amount of influence in Russian politics. Think the Koch brothers or George Soros multiplied by a thousand. To understand anything about Russia, you have to understand the oligarchs. Here are six of the most prominent:
The richest man in Russia and the 40th richest person in the world, Alisher Usmanov started in the metal industry, but now has interests in telecommunications, media, and sports. Last year, he invested about $100 million in Apple. The former fencing champion spent six years in an Uzbeki jail on fraud and extortion charges, but was eventually cleared by a Soviet court. Usmanov is close with Putin, firing managers of a magazine he owned after it printed ‘anti-Putin’ photos. Last July, he was given the Order for Service to the Fatherland, Russia’s highest civil award.
Oleg Deripaska spent $1 billion of his own money to fund the Sochi Olympics, but he’s best known to western audiences for the $15,000 he spent to construct a dog shelter and save some of Sochi’s strays. That good publicity is something of a rarity for aluminum magnate Deripaska, as he was embroiled in ‘yachtgate’, when two prominent British politicians boarded a yacht he owned. He also lost a fair amount of his fortune when the great recession hit and the aluminum market collapsed. Nevertheless, he remains a favorite of Putin, and he’s still worth $6.5 billion, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Mikhail Prokorov owns the Brooklyn Nets, rapped on Russian TV, and has backflipped on a jet ski. If that weren’t exciting enough, he’s even criticized Vladimir Putin. In public. Although Prokorov got rich through metals, his current concern is politics. He ran as an independent candidate against Putin in the 2012 election, and he’s now building a political party called ‘The Civic Platform’. Although he only got 8% of the vote two years ago, he intends to expand ‘The Civic Platform’ until it’s ready to face Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party.
An oil tycoon, former governor, and owner of the world’s largest yacht, Roman Abramovich is one of Putin’s closest allies. He also happens to be the 137th richest person in the world. Not just a businessman, Abramovich was governor, then Duma chairman of Chutokta, an icy province in Russia’s far east. At times controversial, Abramovich had a major falling out with former bussiness-partner and Putin king-maker Boris Berezovsky, who committed suicide after his $5 billion lawsuit against Abramovich was unsuccessful.
Leonid Mikhelson sold his Soviet car in order to take part in the first rounds of Russia’s privatization. He’s now CEO of Novatek, one of Russia’s largest natural gas producers, and his fortune is estimated at $15.6 billion. Mikhelson is also one of the most important players in the art world, running the V-A-C foundation, which promotes Russian art. And who does he want to eventually run the foundation after him? Why, his daughter Victoria, who, perhaps not coincidentally, the foundation is named after. Not bad for an art history student at NYU.
Perhaps the most well known oligarch isn’t really an oligarch at all, as he’s only worth $170 million. Before he spent more than a decade in prison on charges of tax evasion and fraud, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia. Like so many other oligarchs, he made his fortune when the Soviet Union privatized its resources, tying himself in to the country’s controversial move to a non-communist economy. But after supporting Putin’s liberal opposition, Khodorkovsky found himself in jail, on what his lawyers contended were trumped charges. Ten years later, in what was widely seen as a move to improve Russia’s image before the Sochi games, Putin pardoned him. Khodorkovsky declared that he would no longer be involved in Russian politics, but on March 10th, he addressed a crowd of protesters in Kiev, railing against the Russian government. As for what’s next for one of the most famous (former) Russian oligarchs, only time will tell.
China’s industrial output, fixed asset investment and retail sales all fell the first two months of 2014, a troubling sign that indicates the world’s second largest economy isn’t recovering. Every single economic index released from Beijing today fell short of economists’ expectations, dipping to lows not seen since 2009, during the height of the global recession. News that won’t help investor confidence was a question that Premier Li Keqiang received from a reporter today at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Li was asked what his biggest challenge was as Premier last year. His answer? –The economy: “We’ve had very limited space for maneuvering and carrying out our new fiscal and monetary policies, and we were faced with touch choices in exercising microeconomic control,” Li told reporters. “What should we do? When confronted with such challenges, one needs to show guts.”
Showing guts is how some economists explain today’s lackluster economic numbers, theorizing that a dip in these indices means China’s government has taken efforts to stabilize the country’s economy. A competing theory says China’s not doing enough to rebalance its economy and that these numbers are a sign of bad things to come. This camp points to the fact that China’s central bank has loosened credit for businesses lately – something that, if left unchecked, has proven to be a bad idea for China’s economy in recent years. China’s currency, the Renminbi, is also being deliberately weakened by the central bank to make Chinese exports cheaper.
New foreclosure filings are down to pre-recession levels. But the blight of abandoned homes in foreclosure — so-called 'zombie properties' — hasn’t improved. According to data released by RealtyTrac, 21 percent of homes in foreclosure nationwide in February had been vacated by the owner—unchanged from one year earlier. The rate was 30 percent or higher in distressed real estate markets in states such as Michigan, Nevada and Alabama. The average amount of time nationwide that an owner-abandonned home sits in the foreclosure process—without being repaired, put on the market and resold—was 1,031 days, or nearly three years.
"They're sitting vacant," said RealtyTrac vice president Daren Blomquist of these so-called zombie properties. "The bank is not claiming responsibility, the homeowner is not claiming responsibility, the property is falling into disrepair. The property taxes aren't being paid. So it's causing an eyesore in the community, and also potentially dragging down home values of surrounding properties."
University of Arizona law professor Brent White said there's an even worse problem for the housing market right now: "Hundreds of thousands of bank-owned properties that are similarly 'zombie properties,' for which banks have foreclosed and then just let the properties sit there."
States with the most and least number of 'zombie properties' (i.e., owner-vacated properties in foreclosure):
3. New York
4. New Jersey
9. South Carolina
46. South Dakota
47. West Virginia
50. District of Columbia
Some Metro Areas with a High Percentage of Properties in Foreclosure that are 'Zombies' (i.e., owner-vacated):
Salem, Oregon -- 48%
Flint, Michigan -- 39%
Ocala, Florida -- 39%
Peoria, Illinois -- 39%
Des Moines, Iowa -- 35%
St. Louis, Missouri -- 33%
Las Vegas, Nevada -- 33%
Indianapolis, Indiana -- 33%
Port St. Lucie, Florida -- 32%
Binghamton, New York -- 32%
(Source: RealtyTrac, February 2014 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report)
Police in Austin, Texas, say a man and a woman have been killed after a drunk driver crashed through barricades set up for the South By Southwest festival.
"Nobody really compares" to Alan Williams number-wise, a statistician says. But the starting center for University of California, Santa Barbara, isn't widely expected to be named Player of the Year.
You’ve heard of Roku - the little box you attach to your television to stream TV shows, movies and music. There’s also Apple's TV, its set-top box. And the word is Amazon is going to release one any day too.
Why? Well, if you want to watch Amazon Prime’s streaming videos you can go to their website or download an app. But for most people, there’s no straightforward way to get Amazon Prime onto your TV. Kevin Klowden, an economist with the Milken Institute, says that’s a problem.
"The best screen that somebody’s going to have in their home is the TV screen," he says.
And Amazon wants to be on that screen. The set-top box gives it direct access and once it’s there, it can sell you other goods too. Word is Google is also going to introduce a set-top box and they might start selling video games.
For years, the tech industry’s talked about the impending fall of the TV. And so the set-top box, well, it seems sort of old-fashioned. But Susan Etlinger, an analyst at Altimeter group, says most of America hasn’t got the memo.
"People are kind of stubborn, we love our TVs," she says.
Etlinger says that while cable companies know what you like to watch on TV, tech companies are running blind. And so the new mantra is, if you can’t beat it, join it to a set-top box.
Following two doctrinally conservative leaders, Pope Francis' pastoral approach in his first year has given the Catholic Church a new glow. But it's still unclear where he intends to take the church.
Launched in August, the Maersk McKinney Moller is the first of a new class of megaships. It's 20 stories high and a quarter-mile long. NPR's Jackie Northam hopped on board in Poland.
Pileups on the Ohio Turnpike involving at least 50 vehicles killed three people and seriously injured a state trooper on Wednesday as a late-winter storm swept through the Midwest and the Northeast.
Neil Young's new music player focuses on high quality digital files, Pono, and seems on the surface like a dubious idea. In the age of smartphones as the ultimate mobile computing device, building something that looks like a weird cross between a Zune and an iPod seems like an old idea.
But now that we've got that skepticism out of the way, it's worth noting the PonoMusic Kickstarter project started on Tuesday has raised over $2 million dollars--breaking records for speedy funding on the site. Also, the players actually do sound really good. That's the goal for Young, who has said that even if Pono doesn't succeed, merely offering an alternative to our compressed, degraded MP3 world.
Good music, says the Canadian musician, is still something people love. And if young people heard it the way musicians meant for it to be heard, then Young thinks they might go for it.
"It's like an amazing drug, that once you have it, you have to have more," says Young. "That's the way real, good-sounding music is."
The question is, will earbud-toting mellenials will even know the difference. Or if I can tell, for that matter. And the answer remains to be seen. But Young believes in it enough to work on it for several years, and this is the result. If the kickstarter is any indication, Young is not alone. Listening to the player through earbuds and through a stereo at Pono's demo location in South Austin, you can almost imagine vinyl lovers of all ages picking it up.
There’s a good chance that, while you’re reading this, you’re "under the influence of a drug." And "it’s completely legal, it’s completely socially acceptable, most Americans take this drug daily, even most adolescents take the drug daily, in smaller doses," says Murray Carpenter, author of “Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks us.”
The drug is, of course, caffeine. It’s most often associated with coffee, but you can find caffeine in tea, soda pop, chocolate, and, of course, energy drinks.
From the coffee counter in back, to walls lined with coolers full of sodas, to the five-hour energy shots crammed near the cash register, "Corner stores are monuments to our lust for caffeine," says Carpenter.
The soft drink industry is a $70 billion industry and Carpenter estimates that coffee is another $30 billion.
“It’s a huge business,” he says.
And that’s because the effect caffeine has on us isn’t too different from nicotine. We reach for a daily cup of coffee or can of soda because we’re addicted.
“I think that they consistently downplay the importance of caffeine in their products, in terms of how appealing it makes the products to the consumer.”
While the Food and Drug Administration is investigating the effects of caffeine -- and the trend of adding caffeine to foods not normally associated with caffeine (like gum) -- even Carpenter says he still reaches for a daily up of caffeinated coffee: “I’m not crazy about decaf.”
A federal judge said Devyani Khobragade enjoys diplomatic immunity. Her case sparked a diplomatic row between India and the U.S.