National News

How Do We Stop Ebola? WHO Declares War On The Virus

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 13:43

Over the next six months, about 20,000 people will get Ebola. Half will likely die. To stop the virus, the World Health Organization says it needs thousands of health care workers and $600 million.

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Hotels jack up fees... and consumers continue to pay

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-09-04 13:25

If you have gone on a trip and stayed in a nice hotel lately, you might have shelled out more than expected. You are not alone. Hotels are increasingly boosting the bill with add-ons: fees for their gym, Wi-Fi, the “free” newspaper. God forbid you actually open the mini-fridge.

Fees have become a big part of the hotel business model. A study by Bjorn Hanson of New York University shows that the industry is going to rake in $2.25 billion this year from all those little additional charges. That is 6 percent more than in 2013, and a new all-time record.

These are not your garden-variety charges, says Colin Johnson, the chair of hospitality management at San Francisco State University. He says customers used to balk at bills for long-distance telephone calls. Now the list of fees scrolls on and on: charges for early check-in, using the gym, late checkout, baggage holding, even putting your own stuff in the minibar. Now that, Johnson says, is really creative.

Hotels have had some rough years: first the recession, and now rental websites like Airbnb. Fees offer some extra profit. So why not raise them? Airlines do it, and passengers make do with a pack of peanuts.

“Some of the businesses, honestly, just don't care,” says Carl Winston, who directs the Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at San Diego State University. Nor do those business have to, he says.

Winston says these fees are not due to bad times. They are the product of big data. Hotels now know better what we will and won’t pay for. “They are really able to predict consumer behavior in a way that they had no possibility of doing in the past,” he says.

Lots of little fees give hotels more information to profile us, to squeeze out every dollar. Plus, they create ammunition to build customer loyalty. And if you’re angry, maybe you’ll get the “free newspaper” for free.

Stripping out all the perks allows hotels to keep the initial room price low. If they bring you in the door with that, Winston says, they won’t waste what is called “perishable inventory.”

“An airline or hotel can only sell its seat or its bed today,” Winston says. “If they don't sell it, it's gone.”

So, gripe all you want about the fees. As long as you keep coming back for the cheap rooms, they won’t be going anywhere.

Yelp gets a positive review from the courts

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-09-04 13:19

A federal court of appeals in San Francisco has ruled that Yelp can, if it so chooses, raise or lower the rating of a business on the site depending on whether or not that business advertises with them.

Such a move would not be classified as extortion, which is what the lawsuit at issue had claimed.

Yelp is happy with the results, but claims it doesn't do such things, anyways. The company said in a blog post:

"We are obviously happy that the court reached the right result, and saw through these thin attempts by a few businesses and their lawyers to disparage Yelp and draw attention away from their own occasional negative review."

ABC is betting big on Shonda Rhimes

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-09-04 13:19

While CBS airs football games on Thursday nights, ABC is hoping all the not-so-sports-inclined spouses settle in for a night of Shonda Rhimes.

Don’t know the name? Rhimes created "Grey’s Anatomy" and "Scandal." The two TV shows have been bright spots for a network that’s had a rough couple of years when it comes to prime time, says Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate.

“Last year, they were last in adults 18–49. But when it came to women 18–49, they were second,” Adgate says.

Shonda Rhimes is credited, in large part, for that success. She's a creator and showrunner who champions strong female leads and a diverse cast. Adgate says that formula appeals to women, who now make up about 65 percent of the network’s audience. With network ratings sliding, he says, it’s not surprising that ABC would double down on its niche success.

So the network is promoting Rhimes to its audience. An advertisement for the Thursday night lineup edits together dialogue from each show to make the characters say "I love Shonda Rhimes."

Cynthia Littleton, TV editor at Variety, says while there have been powerful showrunners in the past, this may be the first time a network promoted one as a star.

“This branding and the three shows stacked on one night,” Littleton says. “That is absolutely a function of social media and how it has turned Shonda Rhimes literally into a marketable star for the network.”

Littleton says Rhimes was also masterful in using Twitter to promote shows and make herself a star with viewers.

The script. #Scandal #season4 pic.twitter.com/drTWONNODN

— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) July 24, 2014

But will this branding work?

“Network TV these days is a game of trying to do better than you did last year, which is hard to do,” says Joe Adalian, an editor with Vulture.

Adalian said by that measure, ABC’s Thursday strategy will work. The night is already filled with two hit shows, and with Rhimes' star status, the third has a good chance of becoming one, too.

Shonda Rhimes didn't initially set out to be a television writer, much less one of the industry's most powerful showrunners. According to a New York Times profile from last year, Rhimes decided to apply to USC's film school after graduating from Dartmouth because she read that it was more competitive than Harvard Law.

Rhimes got in, graduated, and initially broke through as a writer for HBO's Dorothy Dandridge biopic, starring Halle Berry. She went on to write Britney Spears' acting debut, "Crossroads," which was critically panned but a box office hit. She scored her first Disney credit with "The Princess Diaries 2" and sold "Grey's Anatomy" to the Disney-owned ABC around the same time.

"Grey's" was a midseason replacement but an instant hit, prompting a Rhimes-lead spinoff in 2007 that lasted six seasons. Broadcast TV is crowded with medical shows, but Rhimes' series distinguished themselves and became a cultural touchstone. Just ask the many, many people who tossed around nicknames like "McDreamy," "McSteamy," etc. in the late 2000s.

In 2013, Rhimes' shows were pulling in $300 million in advertising each season, Forbes reported, or about 5 percent of ABC's revenue. Since "Grey's" premiered, she has adopted two children, who, the Times wrote, regularly come to work with her.

After cementing her place at ABC with two hits, Rhimes created "Scandal," which she told the Times is her most unfiltered project, uninhibited by network notes, and appropriately insane and melodramatic.

"What were they going to do, fire me? I wasn't worried about what anybody else thought," she told the Times. "This one was for me."

Rhimes has said she doesn't want to be pigeonholed into a certain type of show. So, she's branching into another crowded space — the legal drama — with "How to Get Away With Murder," starring Viola Davis as a law professor who becomes embroiled in a homicide with four of her students. The show will follow "Scandal" to round out ABC's three-hour Rhimes block.

How productive are we? It depends on how you look at it.

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-09-04 13:19

This is not your father’s productivity rate.

Back before the recession, the Labor Department reported worker productivity increases of 2 to 3 percent a year. We’ve been stuck at around 1 percent for the past few years.  

“One percent today is not the 1 percent of 2006 before we went into the recession,” says Christopher Rupkey, chief economist of MUFG Union Bank.

Rupkey says, before the recession, a 1 percent productivity-rate increase would have been awful, because we were in that crazy housing bubble. It skewed productivity up. After the bubble burst, productivity skewed down.  

So, if you think about it, 1 percent isn’t so bad, says James Craft, a business administration professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Given what we’ve experienced in terms of some of the problems in the economy and its recovery and so forth, I think that is reasonable at this point in time,” he says.

And here’s another thing to think about: It’s harder to measure productivity now. It was easier when technologies like Microsoft Word first came along, and the cause-and-effect was clearer. 

“The big benefit was, of course, secretaries don’t have to retype memos here after taking advantage of word processing,” says Doug Handler, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight.

Now, Handler says, we have so many new technologies it's hard to tell what's responsible for productivity improvements. The cloud? That new app on your phone? Both?

Still, Handler says, some things haven’t changed. Companies need to hire good people and spring for the latest technology, even if they’re not sure how it will affect productivity.

The European Central Bank whips out the big guns

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-09-04 13:19

Whipping out the big guns, monetarily speaking.

Europe’s Central Bank announced today it was stepping on the economic gas, giving the eurozone a shot, or whatever your choice of analogy. 

More specifically: It lowered its deposit rate for banks to negative-0.2 percent from negative-0.1 percent. 

“Nobody except the ECB has flirted with negative interest rates. Even Japan. This is unprecedented,” says Marc Chandler, Global Head of Currency Strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman.

A positive interest rate means banks earn money on what they hold on reserve with a central bank — whereas a negative interest rate means banks have to pay to park their money there. The idea is that this will push money out into the financial system and promote lending. 

Secondly, the ECB said it would start purchasing asset-backed securities, much like the United States Federal Reserve and the Bank of England has done (the quantitative easing strategy) to promote lending and inject money into the stock market and economy.

Why now?  

Second-quarter GDP growth flat-lined in Europe.

“The eurozone economy is failing to recover in the way that the U.S. or U.K. economy has been recovering,” says Andrew Lilico, head of Europe Economics. “You have countries with 25 percent and up unemployment that are still very much trapped. While it just got out of recession, the economy has gone from contraction to stagnation.” 

One symptom of this, says Chandler, has been that “lending has collapsed in the euro area as banks try to rebuild balance sheets and deleverage.”

The European Central Bank is preparing to take on new regulatory authorities. As banks brace for future stress tests, they have cut back on lending. At the same time, says Chandler, consumers and small businesses aren’t inclined to borrow.

Plus, the inflation rate has inched down over the past few months, reaching precariously close to zero. 

“We had the inflation rate of eurozone countries running at 0.5 percent  in June, 0.4 percent in July, 0.3 percent in August. It has been gradually declining,” says Abdur Chowdhury of Marquette University and chief economist at Capital Market Consultants. 

Chowdhury predicted the ECB’s move, contrary to many analysts who assumed the bank would wait until later this year to act. “The major concern that people have is they don’t want deflation, because that would create a vicious cycle” of economic contraction.

Early ECB assessments have pointed out that drops in inflation were occurring for “good” reasons — fuel costs were falling, for example. But Chowdhury says even if that’s true, the fact that the GDP isn’t benefiting from those good reasons makes the threshold of 0 percent inflation and the risk of crossing over into deflation territory dangerous, because deflation is a difficult problem to solve once it starts.

Why not sooner?

Hindsight is 20-20, but many economists argue some things are just plain easy to see coming.  “They should’ve done it four or five years ago,” says Lilico, a sentiment Chowdhury echoes.  

“The governing council that makes the decision has one member for each of the eurozone countries,” says Chowdhury. “These member look at national interest first and the interests of the eurozone second, to be honest.”  Still, he says, “better late than never.”

Will it work?

Chandler, who also anticipated the ECB’s move, says “probably on the margins.” He expects inflation to bottom out in the next few months, but not cross over into deflation territory, and he says the stimulus, rate adjustment and resulting slide in the euro may all contribute to this. 

As for what this means for the U.S., Chandler says, “It makes us look like a high yielder; it makes the U.S. look more attractive."

European investors may opt to put money into U.S. bonds and securities at the same time the Federal Reserve stops doing so. This could keep yields on bonds from falling precipitously as the Fed exits its stimulus. 

As rates fall and yields in Europe shrink, the euro will become a less attractive currency to hold and will fall in value against the dollar (1 percent shortly after the ECB’s news was announced). This means European goods will be cheaper for Americans to buy, but it also means Europe will become less hungry for American exports as they become more expensive in Europe.

'Fight For 15' Struggles To Organize Fast-Food Workers

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 12:49

The Service Employees International Union ssays that workers will strike in 150 cities to call for the fast food industry to adopt a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

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The Big Picture Of The Fast-Food Wage Dispute

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 12:14

The 150-city protest for a minimum wage hike comes at a time when other changes are putting more pressure on businesses to pay their workers more. Home health care workers joining the fight also raises the issue of overtime rules, which are expected out from the Labor Department in November.

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Holder Says Ferguson Probe Will Look For Source Of Police Mistrust

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 12:14

The Justice Department investigation is likely to last for months and could result in a court-enforceable agreement to improve things like hiring and training of police in the Missouri city.

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Federal Judge Decides BP Acted With Gross Negligence In Gulf Oil Spill

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 12:14

A federal judge has ruled that British Petroleum is guilty of gross negligence in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and oil spill. The decision means BP might be fined billions of dollars in penalties for its role.

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Shark Encounter Wasn't 'Jaws,' Exactly — But It Was Still Jarring

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 12:14

Two Massachusetts girls were knocked into the water by a shark while kayaking near Plymouth. After half an hour in the ocean, they were finally picked up by the harbor master.

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Guilty Verdicts For Former Gov. McDonnell And Wife In Corruption Trial

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 12:14

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has been found guilty on all 11 public corruption charges that he faced. His wife, Maureen, was convicted of eight of those same charges, as well as one additional charge of obstructing the grand jury investigation.

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Report: Violence Against Children Runs Rampant In Nigeria's Northeast

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 12:14

A group that tracks violence against children is reporting "grave violations" in Nigeria's fragile northeast. Violence there is getting worse, the group says, despite a state of emergency in some states and the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign that raised awareness of the children kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram.

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Response In Ukraine Could Prove A Crucible For NATO's Future

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 12:14

To learn more about the NATO summit in Wales this week, Melissa Block speaks with Admiral James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and former supreme allied commander at NATO.

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World Leaders Descend On Wales To Help Decide NATO's Way Forward

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 12:14

President Obama is attending the NATO summit in Wales, which some people are calling the most important in decades. On the agenda are Russia's intentions in Ukraine and the threats posed by the Islamic State.

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Remembering Shacki: Liberia's Accidental Ebola Victim

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 12:03

Shacki Kamara went out to buy his aunt some tea. Then she heard from the neighborhood kids: "They shot Shacki." He died the next day. Eva Nah is still asking why.

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Chill Out, Pie-Makers. There's No Butter Shortage Looming

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 11:47

Butter prices are at their highest levels in years, and supplies are low. But it's not because Americans suddenly discovered that fat isn't evil. It's because other countries love our butter, too.

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Johnson & Johnson Pushes Ahead With Ebola Vaccine

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 11:31

The vaccine would target the Zaire species of Ebola that's now spreading through West Africa. The vaccine worked well in tests on macaque monkeys, and it could be tested in humans starting in 2015.

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Joan Rivers, An Enduring Comic Who Turned Tragedy Into Showbiz Success, Dies

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 11:22

NPR's Eric Deggans say the comedian was a show business survivor whose tireless work ethic kept her relevant long after other comics would have faded away. She died Thursday at 81.

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Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell Found Guilty In Corruption Trial

NPR News - Thu, 2014-09-04 11:15

McDonnell was found guilty on 11 of 14 charges related to taking gifts from a businessman in exchange for political favors. His wife, Maureen, was found guilty on nine of 14 charges.

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