Party committees and outside groups on both sides of the aisle have latched on to the latest Washington budget crisis, using the moment to rile their bases and fill their coffers for the 2014 campaign.
Just who is Ross Ulbricht? The man who went by "Dread Pirate Roberts" and ran a vast black market bazaar was a well-educated 29-year-old with libertarian leanings. He made a StoryCorps recording last year saying he wanted to make a "positive impact on humanity."
Wherever you go in the coastal city of Wenzhou, you hear the sounds of people working, spilling out of thousands of small factories which line the streets. One neighborhood makes most of the world’s metal cigarette lighters. A couple of miles away, there's a neighborhood devoted to shoe soles. The district beyond that? Felt tip pens.
Nearly all of them are small, privately-owned businesses getting zero help from the government. According to Wenzhou businessman Huang Fajing, this -- combined with the city's geography -- has created some of the keenest businessmen on the planet.
"We’re a coastal city near Taiwan. The government was always scared Taiwan would bomb or invade us. So the government never bothered to invest any money in our infrastructure," says Huang, pausing to take a drag on his cigarette. "They left us alone."
Some here say the government got out of the way -- allowing the capitalist-minded people of Wenzhou to develop their own economy, complete with a lending system that predates banks. A place where a loan is simply a pile of money pooled together by friends and family.
"I began making cigarette lighters 20 years ago," continues Huang. "Four of my family members each put in $1,500 and lent it to me without interest. That’s what we call a Wenzhou loan."
Thanks to his Wenzhou loan, Huang Fajing made a fortune selling cigarette lighters–Chinese media now call him the ‘lighter king.’
On his road to cigarette lighter fame and fortune, the Lighter King watched on as more money flowed into Wenzhou. Over time, loans were no longer limited to just family and friends. The ‘Wenzhou loan,’ says Huang, became a lot less innocent.
"Bigger groups of lenders began to form. They pooled money together and took turns taking out loans. Then they started lending money with very high interest rates - to strangers."
This system of lending -- in all its variations -- is called shadow banking. It’s now popular throughout China. In a report earlier this year, JPMorgan Chase estimated China’s shadow banking industry could be worth up to 70 percent of the country’s GDP. China’s central bank has become so worried about this that in June it essentially froze lending between the country’s banks, sending global markets into a freefall. The big concern here is that if China’s economic growth continues to slow down, all these off-the-books loans won’t be paid back.
Along a busy thoroughfare in Wenzhou simply called ‘shoe street,’ shoe factories that export to Europe are now-- like the EU -- suffering.
Shoe factory owner Gao Shenyi sits inside his storefront sipping tea and smoking cigarettes with his friends. He wears a silver chain around his neck, bright red shoes, and a tight t-shirt filled with random English words: "staple text," "free floral decorative pack," "January," and so on. The shirt’s tucked into bright white chinos, showing off a sparkly rhinestone belt buckle.
His friends are dressed like Chinese gangsters, too. There’s a reason for that.
"My friend lent some money to a businessman who agreed to pay it back with interest in 60 days," mutters Gao, "But then the guy disappears. We’ve been looking for him, but he ran away."
This has become common in Wenzhou. Private loan defaults have soared over the past two years. Dozens of Wenzhou businessmen unable to pay back their loans have gone missing or been found dead. Yin Zhichao, deputy director of the China household finance survey, has studied China’s shadow banking sector for years. He fears these types of defaults could lead to social instability throughout China.
"They have a sudden, far-reaching impact on everyone who's lent that money," says Yin. "From my point of view, China’s biggest economic risk isn’t from the existing banking system, but from this type of shadow banking."
And now China wants to bring this sector out of the shadows. A year ago, it chose Wenzhou to start a pilot program to legalize shadow lending networks. It built a center where people can apply for these loans, with more tightly regulated oversight.
But here at the Wenzhou Private Lending Registration Center on a recent weekday, there isn’t one customer. Rows of chairs sit empty and dozens of staff pretend to look busy, surfing the Internet.
“It’s always this empty,” says Zhou Xiang, a loan officer who works here.
Zhou sits under a poster depicting a smiling elderly couple lying on their stomachs in a verdant meadow of wildflowers, admiring a butterfly collecting pollen. The sky is blue, and in the background, skyscrapers rise from the pasture. It’s a landscape that doesn’t exist in China, promising loans nobody seems to want.
"Most businesses that come here don’t have a credit history," admits Zhou. "They just don’t qualify for a loan."
Which is exactly how shadow banking started here in the first place.What is shadow banking? The shadow banking system is a key component of the U.S. economy. Paddy Hirsch explains what it is. Watch the video
Former Nixon administration attorney John Dean and a North Carolina divorce lawyer warn that if you think you have nothing to hide, think again.
A 54-year-old California man has never had health insurance and wasn't much interested in the debate over the Affordable Care Act. But after some recent health setbacks, he is eager to sign up for coverage made possible by Obamacare.
"It's been a faith journey."
That's how the Reverend Heywood Wiggins sees Camden's struggle toward affordable healthcare.
It's Day One, and the healthcare exchanges have just opened across the country. Wiggins is preaching passionately to a motley congregation under a baking noon sun. Hospital executives in suits and shades mingle with baseball-cap-clad residents. Primary-colored banners championing reform wave in the crowd.
They've gathered outside the Vision of Hope Center on dusty Atlantic Avenue to celebrate opening up healthcare to thousands here.
A reverential hush descends.
The Camden pastor steps up to the makeshift podium. "Today is a day of rejoicing… This day begins the process of liberty and healthcare justice for all."
Cheers of agreement ring out. You don't have to be a church-goer to feel the sense of communion here.
The groups behind the rally – the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers and Camden Churches Organized for People, among others - are heavily invested in seeing the sign-up succeed.
"This means a lot to me," says Patricia DeShields from Project HOPE, a community health center for the homeless. "There are a lot of faces that I see that… are going to have the opportunity to manage their health problems."
That wasn't always the case. After a decade of working together and sharing data, Camden's providers made some painful discoveries.
Nearly half the city's residents visited the ER in one year alone. The most common diagnoses? Colds, sore throats, earaches and viral infections. Ninety percent of Camden's healthcare costs were being spent on just 20 percent of patients.
Something had to give.
But those in the health business here insist the collaboration isn't driven purely by dollars.
"It's not just the money that it costs us as a provider," says Patient Access Director at Lourdes Health System, Joan Braveman. "It's [also about] the quality of life for the patient."
The "journey" to bring affordable care to one of America's most impoverished cities has been long. Too long says the Coalition's founder Jeff Brenner.
"I'm sick and tired as a front-line provider of taking care of people who lose their insurance. It's a tragedy."
A primary care doctor and community icon, we recently spoke to Brenner about winning a McArthur "Genius" Grant for his work in Camden. He says there's still some way to go.
"We can't give up… We've got a lot of work to do to get this thing over the finish line."
And what of the doubters? Volunteer Shirley Bush says they need some big ideas of their own. "They know that our current system is broken. But they have nothing to bring to the table."
Something else there's talk of here is hope.
Two young guys loitering by the information desk, looking to sign up, stop to talk. One of them – Bert – calls it a blessing that he can finally be part of the system. His friend, Asbah, works part-time, but hopes insurance will bring a better future. "I feel like it's an opportunity… We don't get these opportunities that much."
Brenner is keeping the faith too.
"My hope is that every American… gets incredible healthcare. And we can do that. We're America for God's sakes."
A lot of the grass-fed beef sold in the U.S. now comes from Australia because it's cheaper and available year-round. But U.S. producers say they still have an advantage over the imported meat: a homegrown story.
It is now day three of the government shutdown. Among the 800,000 federal employees furloughed are the people who run this country’s national parks, which are closed.
So if you were planning on flying to Arizona this weekend to take a donkey ride through the Grand Canyon, or maybe jet off to Wyoming to watch Old Faithful do its predictable dance in Yellowstone, you might want to call the airline. Some are offering refunds in the form of vouchers.
“It just allows the customer to take the trip later without getting gauged for a change fee. But the airline still keeps the money,” says Michael Boyd, an airline consultant with the Boyd group.
It’s unlikely that that airlines will see a substantial loss in revenue because there aren’t a lot of tourists traveling this time of year. The exception is Washington D.C. airports. Boyd says a prolonged shutdown could cause a 20 percent drop in D.C. air traffic.
“That’s the gateway to get inside the beltway. Since the beltway is closed, you are going to have people canceling trips,” says Boyd.
On the other side of the country, just outside of Yosemite National Park, Peggy Mosley is the innkeeper at the Groveland Motel. She says business is slower than normal because of the shutdown. “Our employees don’t get paid when we don’t have guests.”
Mosley had seen her business drop dramatically after the August Rim Fire. Many of her employees had to file for unemployment as a result. She was expecting a rebound, as tourists came to see huge fields of wildflowers that typically bloom after a fire.
Instead, with the park closed, she has fewer hours to offer her employees.
“They are eating out of the local food bank. Their water and their propane are getting turned off. It is an incredibly difficult time for our employees right now,” says Mosley.
The national parks themselves are offering refunds to park visitors.
The U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism was unable to respond to my request for an interview. It's closed as a result of the shutdown.