National / International News
Four college students came together to create a social network that does not collect users' personal data. They wanted to build something better than Facebook or an alternative to Facebook. They did end up building that site, but it's by no means a rival to Facebook. That site is called Diaspora.
Author Jim Dwyer documents the start-up story in his latest book, "More Awesome Than Money." He says that Diaspora is supposed to be a decentralized social network focused on privacy, while giving users the sense of connection they crave.
"What they did that was important — and will continue to be worked on — is to look for ways to keep the web a democratic institution where people have authentic control over what they share and who they share it with," Dwyer says.
- Not compromise people's privacy: What drove the project from the beginning was the idea that you didn't really need to compromise your privacy to have a good social experience on the web.
- Keep it decentralized: The entire project of the web as invented was not intended to be in the hands of giant corporations. It was sort of a democratic, decentralized setup.
- Put control into the user's hands: You can take your data off of Diaspora. Facebook now says you can take your data off of their servers although that takes a while and they don't really want you to do that.
Why it didn't succeed, as planned:
- It lacked organic networks: Users' real life friends weren't using it, that causes people to lose interest in using it.
A super PAC is sometimes born out of a strong sense of mission – maybe its founder cares about gun control or education reform. But other times, says Stefan Passantino, a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge, “part of that mission is to create a client for their own consulting firm.”
Political consultants can create super PACs or political nonprofits to raise money, Passantino says, and then they can use that money to pay themselves.
“Yeah, I would say it is the new growth industry,” says Trevor Potter, former chair of the Federal Election Commission and general counsel to John McCain’s two presidential campaigns. “If you are a consultant who is part of the control group that forms a super PAC or one of these nonprofits, then you get to figure out how you are going to compensate yourself, and it is not always a matter of public record.”
Inside a ‘black box’
There are a few ways this can work. A super PAC can pay a fee to a consulting firm that is run by the same consultant who started the super PAC. That firm could charge fees on ads the super PAC buys. According to Potter, this happens in what he calls “a black box.”
“It’s actually pretty hard to figure out how much administrative costs many of these groups have, and then, how much of that is ending up back in the consultant’s pocket,” he notes.
A super PAC’s founder can be an employee of his own super PAC. “Under election laws, there is nothing improper about taking a salary out of your own super PAC,” says Ken Gross, who spent most of his career as an FEC attorney. That money is taxable, however. He notes there is also nothing improper under election laws about taking money you have raised and spending it on personal items.
“Right now, there are 109 super PACs in our data that reported spending money but have made no independent expenditures,” says Sheila Krumholz, who tracks political spending at the Center for Responsive Politics. All they are doing, Krumholz explains, is paying staff and consultants to help them raise more money. “They are capitalizing on political interests in order to siphon off money that would otherwise go to support candidates and parties, and instead, they are using it for their own personal enrichment.”
Krumholz worries that is weakening civic engagement and making the electorate even more cynical.
Easy to set up
Super PACs have only been around since 2010, and according to Potter, one reason they have proliferated is they are so easy to set up. “It has an incredibly simple one-page form you file with the FEC,” he says. “You need a treasurer and a bank account, and that’s it. You’re off and running.” And creating a political nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose donors is not much harder.
There are, according to the FEC, about 900 active independent expenditure-only committees, commonly called super PACs, and on top of that, there are hundreds of political nonprofits that have registered with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c)4s and 501(c)6s.
Potter says that, because there are so many super PACs and nonprofits, political consultants are busier than ever. “The good ones used to just have a campaign or a party they could work for,” he points out. “Now they have all these super PACs; so, people end up bidding for their services.”
Of course, every cycle, some super PACs whither on the vine. Richard Briffault, an election law expert at Columbia Law School, says this highlights something eve the savviest consultant should keep in mind: “At some point, they do have to get donations.”
You can start your own group, hoping it will become a steady source of income, but you have to make sure there is money in the coffers.
Leave the chip-making to Frito Lay: International Business Machines will sell off its microchip factories. More on that. And SolarCity, the country's biggest installer of rooftop solar-power systems, has a new product: Bonds for consumers to buy into the future of solar in thousand dollar increments. SolarCity has $200 million in bonds for sale. But it already has billions in capital from banks and the stock market. So why go after retail investors? Plus, we've been hearing about Apple and what could be their record profits due out later today. Meanwhile, Google, Facebook, and Samsung are interested in what they see as a new frontier. The catch phrase is The Next Billion...the next billion customers for digital devices. Who are these people and where do they live?
Here’s a market you’ll be likely to hear more of in tech: “The Next Billion.” It's shorthand for the next billion people that will become online consumers, and that makes them the target of tech giants like Google, Facebook and Samsung.
The next billion live in emerging economies like China, India, Brazil and Africa. Jenna Burrell, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, has been studying one of these markets, namely Ghana, since the early 2000s. She says even back then, it was clear that people who wanted to get online weren’t going to use desktops.
“You know it’s a small number of people who were going to Internet cafés, but almost everyone was either using, or owning or getting possession of a mobile phone,” Burrell says.
While a growing number of people in Ghana have smartphones today, the market is very different from the U.S.
Burrell shows me a phone she bought there. It has an antenna for the built-in transistor radio, and it has a flashlight for when the electricity goes out.
Burrell cracked open the back of her cellphone and points: “Underneath the battery pack where most of us don’t really look, it’s got a slot for your SIM card.”
Like most of the next billion, the majority of people in Ghana don’t have pre-paid mobile plans. Instead, they use SIM cards, which are basically phone cards or prepaid time that you insert into your phone.
“This unit is worth about two minutes of airtime, and that gives you a sense of how it’s a very precious commodity,” she says.
Burrell says that on a continent where most people make about a dollar a day, even a few minutes of airtime is a big expense. That’s where Mozilla, a non-profit organization teaming up with local carriers to make affordable phones, comes in.
Andreas Gal, Mozilla’s chief technology officer, dumps a number of handsets onto a desk in his Silicon Valley office.
“I brought these $25 smart phones,” he says. “These are the devices that launched recently in India.”
Critics of these $25 phones say web pages take forever to load, and you can’t run more than one app at a time.
But forget the quality of the phone, said Rakesh Agrawal, the CEO of reDesign Mobile, which develops products for the next billion. He says in most emerging economies, it's data that's the problem—data plans are prohibitively expensive.
“You have to think about how much people can afford and what kind of services they can use over their smaller data pipes,” said Agrawal.
He says the next billion aren’t going to run apps mindlessly like we do. Which means, in part, tech companies can’t rely on advertising to make money off them.
“If you’re living on a dollar a day, Proctor and Gamble can’t afford to advertise to you, because you can’t afford their products,” Agrawal said.
Despite these odds, tech companies will continue to pursue the next billion. Smart phone ownership — and sales of apps — will inevitably slow in the developed world over the next decades. Tech companies need the next billion to keep growing. So, they're getting ready.
Just two years ago, Hurricane Sandy knocked out power stations and shut down Wall Street.
Now, Scientists say by the middle of this century, low lying areas from Boston to Baltimore will flood frequently due to climate change, with recovery becoming increasingly expensive. A storm on the level of Hurricane Sandy could cost as much as $90 billion in 2050.
These kinds of changes in the weather will put increasing pressure on state and local governments to boost their financial resilience.
Click the media player above to hear more.
It was a case of two people, separated by 243 statute miles, having the same thought at the same time.
I was on the air talking to an expert about the government’s main assessment of inflation, and meanwhile, a listener near Washington, D.C. was getting annoyed. It would turn out that Gregory, from Falls Church, Virginia was thinking the same thing I was: It’s one thing to say that the Consumer Price Index hasn’t moved up much in recent years. But be careful before you conclude that inflation is therefore not a problem.
“Can you please get someone on your show who actually knows that there is real price inflation?” Gregory wrote in a note to us. “Every time I hear one of your guests talk about low inflation, or CPI as reported by the government, I cringe with disbelief!”
I myself wasn’t cringing with disbelief in that shared moment, but I was thinking I’d better do something soon in our ongoing Marketplace Inflation Calculator series on what has been happening to incomes over time. It is one thing to point towards low inflation (low if you leave out the cost of higher education; low if you leave out the cost of health care; low if you leave out the cost of rental apartments in America). Gregory, however, was pointing out that if what we earn is sliding, then our budgets will still be stretched – even when CPI just treads water.
Experts often tell us that our incomes are mostly “stagnant,” but what do the official numbers show? Our inflation series looks at prices over the last 25 years. The government helpfully examines household income over time by breaking down what we earn into five categories (or brackets). These include the bottom 20 percent of earners, the next to the bottom 20 percent, the middle 20 percent and so forth. When I looked through the data and adjusted for inflation, the numbers were there for everyone to see.
The income of the bottom 20 percent of households in America, on average, did not go up in 25 years, once you adjust for inflation. Those incomes didn’t just stagnate, they went down. The next-to-poorest of the five income categories? The average household income for those Americans also fell. Let’s call the middle income category a draw; depending on which inflation assumptions you use, incomes either went up a tad or fell a tad over 25 years. You already know about the top two earning categories; those went sharply up the last quarter century, the top category by a lot.
When hearing statistics like these, it’s common to argue that many families these days have not just one, but two or more earners to consider, and this should be taken into account before claiming that incomes are “stagnant” for many Americans. Even so, the data is already adjusts for that in the case above: It is data for average households, not average individual incomes.
The numbers showing that the bottom 40 percent of Americans make less now than they did a quarter century ago is a core notion for anyone thinking about wealth and poverty in America.
The American Indian College Fund celebrates its 25th anniversary with a fundraiser in New York on Monday. The nonprofit was created to assist the country’s more than 30 tribal colleges and universities. These are federally-funded schools located on or near native lands.
Only about 10 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to about 30 percent of all adults, according to the group.
The big reason is poverty, says president Cheryl Crazy Bull. Tribal colleges cost on average $15,000 a year to attend, she says. The maximum federal Pell grant for low-income students covers only $5,730.
“It’s a very affordable education,” Crazy Bull says. But for students living on reservations with a 60 to 80 percent unemployment rate, “it’s a huge gap.”
The College Fund tries to bridge that gap with scholarships. It’s aiming to raise an extra $25 million this year.
The group recently got a boost from Comcast and NBC Universal: $5 million in ad time for a new public service campaign.
Here are a few numbers from the American Indian College Fund:Up to 95 percent
The unemployment rate on some American Indian reservations. In total, almost 29 percent of American Indians on reservations live below the federal poverty level.$16,777
The per capita income of American Indians and Alaska Natives, according the American Community Survey in 2013. Meanwhile, the average cost of attendance at a tribal college or university is $14,566.10 percent
That's approximate percentage of American Indian and Alaska Natives who have earned a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to about 30 percent of all adults. Natives have the lowest educational attainment rates of all ethnic and racial groups in America.
SolarCity, the country’s biggest installer of home rooftop solar-energy systems, now has a new product: bonds that let consumers invest in thousand-dollar increments. But with billions in capital from big banks as well as the stock market, what's the point of borrowing up to $200 million from consumers?
It's not the cash, says the company's CEO, Lyndon Rive. At least not primarily. "The number one reason is to create more awareness," he says. "For people to participate, get a financial return. Now they tell their friends: 'Hey, have you looked at solar bonds? Have you looked at solar?'"
And have you looked at SolarCity?
In addition to raising money, the campaign could cut down on one of the company's biggest costs: sales. An investor is a hot lead, and a source of referrals.
"Customer acquisition is maddeningly expensive for residential-solar," says Shayle Kann, senior vice-president at GTM Research, which tracks the green-energy sector.
Right now, SolarCity’s business model only works in about 15 states. But the company can sell bonds — and build relationships — in all 50, for the day when, or if, other states open up.
Advocates in those states — for instance, bond-holders — can only help. "They're not exactly customers if they buy bonds," says Kann. "But they're probably advocates, or supporters."
The push to expand into new markets, and to lock up potential customers in those markets, is key to SolarCity’s overall strategy, says Severin Borenstein, an economics professor at Berkeley who studies renewable energy.
SolarCity's competitors are trying the same thing. "Right now, a lot of solar companies have the strategy of trying to get large enough on what is basically a bet on getting out ahead and being the recognized name brand, which could potentially have huge value," says Borenstein.
He compares it to the bet Microsoft made on computer operating systems in the 1980s. SolarCity wants to be the Microsoft of solar.
But what if it’s the AOL instead? Remember all those CDs from the 1990s?
That's not the worst-case scenario, says Borenstein. "It's not just a matter of whether they're going to be the Microsoft of solar or the AOL of solar," he says, "but whether they're going to be the Microsoft of solar or the Microsoft of a product that never takes off at all."
Residential solar isn't a sure bet, says Borenstein, so neither are SolarCity's bonds. "While it's a very exciting company right now, I think it's probably in a more volatile business than most people would invest in."
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