National News

Teens And Mall Culture: The Fading Love Affair?

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 23:36

Teens used to be all over malls, working the registers and wandering the walkways. But now fewer of them have retail jobs and it appears they prefer tech goodies at home to going to the mall.

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Mental Health Cops Help Reweave Social Safety Net In San Antonio

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 23:34

Across the U.S., jails hold many more people with serious mental illness than state hospitals do. San Antonio is reweaving its safety net for the mentally ill — and saving $10 million annually.

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Iconic TV Announcer Don Pardo Dies At 96

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 21:53

Saturday Night Live announcer Don Pardo died Monday in Tucson, Ariz. He also was the announcer for the original versions of the game shows The Price is Right and Jeopardy.

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U.S. Says Syria's Chemical Weapons Stockpile Is Destroyed

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 19:59

President Obama said it was an important step in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, but added that Syria must still destroy its other weapons production facilities.

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Cease-Fire In Gaza Reportedly Extended 24 Hours

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 16:37

The previous cease-fire lasted five days and expired at midnight. Unlike other deal extensions, there have been no reports of rockets fired or Israeli action. Talks continue with mediators in Egypt.

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Experimental Vaccine For Chikungunya Passes First Test

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 15:12

Using a new technology, scientists have created a vaccine for an emerging mosquito-borne virus. The vaccine was safe and produced some degree of immunity in a preliminary study.

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Where all those charges on your phone bill come from

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 14:53

Starting on Sept. 1, Chicago residents will see their phone bills go up, thanks to higher fees collected by their city government. The nominal purpose is to fund 911 operations.

However, the acknowledged goal is to raise money that the city desperately needs to pay for pensions. And the widely-understood rationale among politicians is: If we raised the same amount by hiking property tax bills, people would notice, and complain. But people are used to seeing taxes and fees tacked onto phone bills. Who’s going to notice another few bucks? 

Which raises the question:  What are all those damn fees on your phone bill? 

1.  No matter where you live, some are sneaky taxes from all levels of government.

Experts confirm: Government officials love to sneak taxes and fees into phone bills— and anywhere they can that isn’t an actual tax bill.

"The bias is toward hiding taxes," says David Brunori, a professor at George Washington University and deputy publisher of Tax Analysts. "That is true at every level of government. Politicians would rather have you pay the tax and not know about it."

And yes, wireless phone bills in particular have become a favorite hiding place, says Scott Mackey, a consultant to the wireless industry with KSE Partners. "Really from 2003 to about 2012 we saw sort of a steady upward increase in wireless taxes and fees," he says.

2.  Though in some places, you'll pay more taxes than others.

Mackey publishes a report every couple of years on wireless tax rates from state to state.   The Tax Foundation made a sortable list from his last report.

"Chicago is going to be prominently featured in the 2014 report," says Mackey.  The new 911 fee will make the effective tax on cellphones the country's highest.  

3. A lot of items that look like taxes are just extra charges from your phone company

Chicago politicians are not the only ones who figure they can sneak an extra charge into your bill without you noticing. Your phone company probably does the same thing. Marc-David Seidel is a business professor at the University of British Columbia and the co-founder of a site dedicated to making sense of phone bills.

He says the heading "taxes and fees" on your bill should be a giveaway. 

"The fact that it’s grouped together called taxes and fees, instead of just taxes, is a really high signal that there’s other stuff in there that’s actually not mandated," he says. "It’s just a company-specific fee."

Every company charges a different mix, he says, and they change all the time. If you really want to know what you’re paying— and why— he recommends looking for a consumer-advocate office in your state.

4. And then there's the cramming scam.

The FTC recently accused T-Mobile of bilking customers out of millions of dollars by allowing third parties to place bogus charges on their bills, and taking a cut.  T-Mobile's public defense was essentially:  Hey, we stopped doing this a few months ago—and it's not like the other carriers are better. 

Marketplace recently looked at how those charges end up on phone bills in the first place, and our friends at Ars Technica have been covering the story for years.

Here's an example the FTC says comes from an actual T-Mobile bill:

How police presence in Ferguson shut down one business

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:51

Not far from the Swiish Bar and Grill, business owners are boarding up their windows and preparing for another night of clashes between protesters and police in Ferguson, Missouri. Swiish’s owner, Corey Nickson-Clark, is absolutely certain his business will be safe. The parking lot out front is filled with police vehicles and police officers.

Lindsay Foster Thomas/Marketplace

Nickson-Clark’s popular hangout spot is tucked into one corner of a large, suburban mall in the town of Jennings, just down the road from where the Ferguson protests turned violent. About a week ago, he and his wife got a call from the property owner, who told them the parking lot was going to be used as a command center for the police. In the past week, Nickson-Clark has seen a lot of the police.

“I’ve seen St. Louis County, I’ve seen St. Louis City,” he said. “I’ve seen state troopers. I’ve seen some FBI. I think pretty much every department of the police department has been here.”

Nickson-Clark’s sister, Andra Crawford, who was keeping him company in the silent, empty bar, can barely believe what she’s seen: helicopters landing in the parking lot, tanks being loaded.

Lindsay Foster Thomas/Marketplace

Nobody has been able to tell Nickson-Clark why the parking lot of his small business, with it’s two-for-one happy hours and famous strawberry chicken wings, was chosen as a command center, rather than the Target, Schnucks grocery or Foot Locker that occupy the same mall. Their parking lots are at least partially accessible.

“Those guys are able to open at some point during the day,” he said. “I’m not able to open at all. At least they’re able to get some type of revenue coming in.”

Nickson-Clark guesses he’s lost around $30,000 in the past week. He admits that if he’d purchased riot insurance, he’d be covered, but he asks, with disbelief in his voice, "when was the last time there was a riot here? The 1950s?

Lindsay Foster Thomas and Noel King/Marketplace

The officers outside Swiish don’t know why this part of the parking lot was chosen, either. “That’s above my pay grade,” said Sergeant Al Nothum of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Nothum says he hates to see a small business owner losing money, but the police plan to stay until the situation improves.

“There’s not one of us here that want to be here any longer than we need to,” Nothum said.”We want things to settle down. We want the citizens of Ferguson to know we’re doing the best we can. And that we’re looking for a good resolution to this whole thing here.”

Thus far, though, there has been no resolution. Sunday night was one of the worst nights in Ferguson to date. The National Guard is being sent in... and Nickson-Clark has just found out they’re going to be using his parking lot, too.

Lindsay Foster Thomas/Marketplace

 

Behind the indicators: Job quality vs. job quantity

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

Keil Hubert is a part-time writer and cyber-security consultant.

He is also an indicator. 

He’d rather not be. But he is. 

“Since April of 2013 I’ve applied for 476 positions, not one of which has led to an actual offer for full-time work.” 

Hubert reached the maximum number of years allowable at his government job, and had to retire from public service. But at age 45 he isn’t ready to retire, and finds himself routinely overqualified for many private sector jobs. So, he is left working part time.

“Even with part time and unemployment benefits it’s not enough to get by,” he says. “It’s a little frustrating.”

Hubert is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls a part-time worker “for economic reasons.” It means that he is looking for full-time work but can’t find it. His situation is invisible if one looks only at the unemployment rate (6.2 percent), but it’s still important because it’s a glimpse into job quality, as opposed to quantity.

“It’s an indicator of job market slack,” says Gary Burtless, economist at the Brookings Institution. “A lot of Americans have been forced to accept jobs in part-time positions when they would prefer to work full time.”

Ten years ago, about 4.5 million Americans fit that bill. Today, around 7.5 million do. That’s up slightly from 7.3 million in January, though the number fluctuates regularly. 

This is tied to the long term unemployed – those out of work for six months or longer – whose levels have also been slower to come down, says Burtless. “That is pushing a lot of Americans to take second or third or fourth or fifth choice jobs rather than the jobs and occupations and levels of hours they would prefer,” says Burtless.

Perhaps one of the most important “quality of jobs” indicators is wages and compensation, says Joe Kalish, Chief Global Macro strategist with Ned Davis Research. “One of the indicators that’s really been getting a lot of attention on the part of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and other members as of late, is what’s going on with wages and compensation.” This, says Kalish, “is where we really haven’t seen much of a pick up at this point,” despite four years of recovery.

Given the state of indicators regarding the quality of jobs and the tightness of the labor market, the Fed is unlikely to put the brakes on and raise interests before June of 2015 by Kalish’s estimate. 

The cost of travel, according to the federal government

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

The federal government has released its per diem lodging rates for federal road warriors for the coming fiscal year.

Those rates matter to the hotel industry. After all, the American Hotel & Lodging Association says the government generates billions of dollars in travel spending.

The spending, however large, isn't changing — the standard federal travel per diem is staying flat compared to last year at $83. The federal government is also trying to keep its travel budget down, cutting spending by 30 percent through 2016. 

“We do not include the luxury brands like the Ritz-Carltons or the Four Seasons types,” says Christine Harada, associate administrator of the Office of Government-wide Policy at the General Services Administration. “But we also want to be cognizant of our travelers' safety so we try not to go too, too budget.”

The rate is more flexible in many big cities. For example, it might run up to $300 a night in New York, depending on the time of booking.  Regardless of location, fancy hotels are generally off limits. 

Harada says lodging per diems are determined by market data. They're going up in about 270 areas and falling in 50.

Ryan Meliker, managing director of equity research at MLV & Co, an investment bank, says hotels that get a lot of business from feds will likely set their overall room rates based on the per diem. 

“If you think about a hotel right next to a major Air Force base that's generating a lot of their business from government as a result of the Air Force base, it's going to have a bigger impact on them than it is somebody else,” he says.

Jan Freitag with STR, a hotel research company that provides market data to the federal government, says the federal per diems also have spillover effects at private companies.

“They say, 'Okay, if the U.S. government reimburses this much we just follow suit,’” Freitag says, “especially if they are a consulting company to the U.S. government.”

How much does a per diem get you?

How well can you travel on that federal government per diem? Or the similar one from your employer?

We compared Lawrence, Kansas — one of many small-to-mid-size cities covered by the standard per diem — to our home base, Los Angeles — which, like most larger cities has an adjusted per diem. We checked hotel rates for a single traveler in the first week of September and user-submitted cost-of-living estimates from Numbeo.com.

Lawrence, Kansas
Per Diem: $83 for lodging, $46 for food and incidentals (the standard rate)

Lodging: That allowance gives you (or your boss) a few hotel options in Lawrence, but your best bet is the local Holiday Inn or Baymont Inn and Suites. They both run around $80 a night, and the Baymont touts a free breakfast. Hampton Inn and Comfort Inn are just out of reach at around $100 per night.

Food: A morning cappuccino (or other coffee beverage) will run you about $3 in Lawrence. A lunch averages about $6.25 for fast food and $10 for an inexpensive sit-down restaurant, like local favorite the Burger Stand. Dinner at a mid-range restaurant like the Free State brewery will run you about $20 per person. That leaves something like $15 for incidentals or midnight snacks. Not bad.

Los Angeles, California
Per Diem: $133 for lodging, $71 for food and incidentals

Lodging: If you're a federal employee travelling to LA, you'll get more money for a hotel, but expect to stay pretty far from downtown, the city's hot spot. A room runs around $130 per night at the Holiday or La Quinta Inns by LAX or the Marriott Courtyard in Pasadena. On Airbnb, there are some modest rooms available in Hollywood and Santa Monica for under $100, if your government employer is more the gitz or beach type.

Food: $71 is the most generous per diem the government offers for food and incidentals, and you can eat pretty well with it. A cappuccino in Los Angeles averages just under $4, and a lunch at Mendocino Farms or other restaurant will set you back about $12. A decent dinner out at Baco Mercat, Bottega Louie or other mid-range restaurant will run you about $26 per person. But don't blow that extra money on desserts, because the rest of your per diem could go toward transportation. You could get a cab or rent a car, but you'll be shelling out at least $20 a day.

Who will win the dollar store bidding war?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

Two dollar store chains are competing to buy a third, Family Dollar.

The retailer entertained an $8.5 billion merger deal with Dollar Tree last month, and Dollar General announced Monday it would pay a competitive $9.7 billion for the chain. While all of these discount stores are similar, they have several important differences.  

Here's a look:

Dollar General

  • Size: Biggest of the three.
  • Products: A lot of brand names, a mix of food and discretionary items like clothing and beauty products.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 164.
  • Locations: More than 11,500 locations in more than 40 states. Primarily in smaller towns, located in the southern and eastern U.S., as well as the Midwest and the Southwest.
  • Prices: About a fourth of their items are $1 or less.
  • How are they doing? Chain is thriving with $17.5 billion in revenue and $5.4 billion in profits.

Dollar Tree

  • Size: Smallest of the three.
  • Products: Mostly imported from China, focused on discretionary items like party supplies, beauty products, etc.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 342.
  • Locations: More than 5,000 locations in 48 states, mostly located in strip malls in small towns.
  • Prices: Most items cost $1 or less.
  • How are they doing? The chain is thriving and growing with $7.8 billion in revenue and $2.7 billion in profits.

The target of the bids: Family Dollar

  • Size: The takeover target, and second-largest of the three.
  • Products: A lot of brand names; focuses on food, also carries some linens and other products.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 271.
  • Locations: More than 8,200 stores in 45 states, mainly in urban and rural areas.
  • Prices: Most items are under $10.
  • How are they doing? Family Dollar has been struggling and closing stores. It tried raising prices and the plan back-fired. It has recently been closing stores. They have about $10.3 billion in revenue and $3.5 billion in profits.

What makes a good writer at Sports Illustrated?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:32

This is an observation, I guess, about the state of journalism today.

Gawker has published a spreadsheet prepared by Time Inc., which publishes Sports Illustrated, ranking a number of writers and editors on a scale from one to 10 on quality of writing, productivity, social media prowess, enthusiasm and whether the content they create is beneficial to the company's relationship with advertisers.

Think about that for a second.

A Time spokesperson said SI's editorial content is uncompromised.

How Long Do CDs Last? It Depends, But Definitely Not Forever

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:21

Preservationists are worried about troves of records stored on what was once considered a durable medium: the compact disc. Many discs can last for centuries — but most won't.

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Ferguson Police Use Tear Gas, Flash Grenades To Disperse Protesters

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:16

Protests escalated Monday night as police tried to push back demonstrators who defied orders to disperse. Attorney General Eric Holders will travel to the Missouri city on Wednesday.

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One Year After Calif. Rim Fire, Debate Simmers Over Forest Recovery

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:15

This third-largest wildfire in California's history struck the area near Yosemite National Park. Since then, controversy has broken out over whether to log the trees and replant seedlings.

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Met Opera Tentatively Settles With 2 Major Unions

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:11

While agreements with 10 more unions need to be reached by Tuesday night, the deal struck with two of the Met's major unions represents a major turning point in a bitter dispute.

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Embattled Yazidis Say They Are Now Enduring Atrocity No. 74

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:10

The Yazidis are a small religious minority and have faced persecution again and again over the centuries. Some say it is now time to leave Iraq for good.

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An Account Of The Ferguson Shooting, From The Man Standing Beside Brown

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:09

Dorian Johnson was with Michael Brown on the night that he was shot by police in Ferguson, Mo. Freeman Bosley, Johnson's attorney and a former mayor of St. Louis, speaks about the situation.

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Amid Continued Chaos In Ferguson, A Second Autopsy Is Released

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-18 13:02

Requested by the family, a preliminary, independent autopsy has found that Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot six times by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

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