China reported its lowest Gross Domestic Product in 14 years. In 2013, China's economy only grew by 7.7 percent, lower that economists were expecting. But Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group, says that this slowdown may be useful.
"The underlying reasons are healthy," Rein says. "The country can no longer rely on heavy investment and exports for growth, so the government is trying to push more consumption. And in 2013, 13.6 percent retail sale growth came in and showed that shift is starting to happen."
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In borderland Texas, a widespread lack of health insurance goes along with poverty, and high rates of diseases like diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure.
Cheaper prescription drugs to treat these conditions are available across the border in Mexico. But physicians and law enforcement are tracking a relatively new trend -- the smuggling of medicine in bulk from Mexico to U.S. patients who no longer feel safe shopping for them over the border.
Pharmacist Jorge Sandoval says people who buy his medicines these days often buy for people they don’t even know.
"There's a trade in legal prescription medication," he says. "The trade is generated by people (in both countries) who want to buy medicine at a lower price. People are bringing in ice chests to fill with medicines that they sell to friends and relatives.”
About 33 percent of Texans have no medical insurance, the highest percentage of uninsured in the nation.
That’s one reason why, for years, people have crossed the border for cheaper medicine. The diabetes medicine Metformin is $35 a month here in the U.S., only $15 in Mexico. The blood thinner Coumadin is $60 a month here, $15 in Mexico.
But what’s new is a cottage industry of smugglers buying medicines in bulk to bring back to the U.S.
At emergency rooms on the border, physicians like Juan Nieto of Presidio, Texas say patients are at risk. He says they’re increasingly showing up with medications that don’t look right.
"These are medications that sometimes can’t identify. They appear to be black market, homemade," he says.
Nieto said patients are unapologetic about how they get medicine from Mexico, even if they don’t buy it themselves.
“Some of them say they have them bring it over for them, others say they just buy them here," Nieto says.
"Medications have made the scene in flea markets," he explains. "It’s a good avenue for people to be inconspicuous in obtaining their medicines, without seeming like they’re dealing with a drug dealer."
Branwyn Maxwell-Watts, a small business owner in West Texas, is hardly a dealer. She's a married mother of four, and engaged in her tight-knit rural community. But she crosses the border to buy medicine for friends and herself.
“Mainly diabetes, a ton of high blood pressure medicine. For me it’s migraine medicine, "she says. “It’s something that I was providing that they needed. I didn’t think about the consequences, I still don’t, because I still do it.”
A recent report by the British medical journal The Lancet says Maxwell’s case isn’t rare.
“There’s a lot of people, and even people that I know who’ve gone down there in the past, that won’t go down there now," Maxwell says. "Not even for their medicine. So they’re always asking, ‘Do you know anyone who is going that can pick this up for me?’.”
Medical professionals are sometimes asked the same question.
“I had a patient who had blood pressure, high cholesterol, congestive heart failure and diabetes," recalls physician’s assistant Don Culbertson, who has a license to prescribe prescription medicine.
Culbertson is talking about a patient who said he couldn’t afford to buy the medicine in the United States.
So he went to Mexico himself. Then Culbertson showed up at U.S. Customs, knowing it’s illegal to bring back medicine for anyone but yourself.
“The Customs officer asked me if I had anything to declare," he told Marketplace.
"And I declared, medications. And he asked me if they were from me for someone else. And I told him they were for someone else," Culbertson said.
"The Customs officer was a compassionate, reasonable person. And I know they have a job to do and laws to uphold. But they let me through that one time."
Back in Mexico, pharmacist Sandoval says "It’s being done in kilograms the same way it’s done with illegal drugs."
Sandoval is a passive participant in this trade. Nothing he does is illegal. He can't sell to anyone without a prescription. The days of walking into Mexican pharmacies and leaving with controlled drugs like the pain medication OxyContin are long gone.
But he acknowledges that obtaining prescriptions inside Mexico is easy.
In one raid alone last summer, authorities in Texas, seized 25,000 bottles of prescription medicine like antibiotics at a flea market across from Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
Nine people were charged with membership in a prescription drug organization that allegedly earned $5,000 a day.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the infrastructure for local food is lacking but growing fast. "Food hubs respond to that call," one official says.
The government job has lost some of its luster. There have been pay freezes, hiring freezes, and on top of that, there was the shutdown just a few months ago.
Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recalls giving a speech to a group of Presidential Management Fellows -- young men and women who he says are among the government’s best and brightest.
“And when we got to the Q&A, it was all about: ‘Am I crazy?’ ‘What am I doing here?’ ‘Can I count on this as a reasonable and productive career?’” Ornstein recalls.
Questions like that aren’t unreasonable on the heels of a government shutdown. Ann Porter, a law student at George Washington University, notes federal salaries had been frozen.
“I’m not applying for a government job because they don’t pay as well as private sector positions do,” she says.
And according to her classmate, Austen Walsh, a lot is up in the air.
“It’s certainly not a sure shot whether you are going to get hired, or whether you are going to get a raise or be able to advance if you are hired, which is scary,” he says.
Maggie New deals with that anxiety directly every day. She is the associate director of career services at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs. You can see the State Department from her office window, but it has gotten harder and harder for students to land jobs there.
“You have to have two people leave or retire or resign for one person to be hired,” New says.
As the head of career services at the Harvard Kennedy School, Mary Beaulieu has heard about that partial hiring freeze too. “When you get a sequester situation or a shutdown situation, where people’s budgets are cut, what it means is they can’t do any hiring,” Beaulieu explains.
Kennedy School students want to make a difference, she says.
“And certainly, when the government is shut down or opportunities are more limited because budgets are cut in a sequester situation, it’s frustrating for them.”
Beaulieu says she finds herself telling students this: You can tackle big problems in the public sector, but also in the private sector and at nonprofits.
Count the big three U.S. credit rating agencies among those companies that could have been, but weren't hurt by the financial crisis.
Moody's, S&P, and Fitch were all accused of giving inflated ratings to mortgage investments that helped trigger the financial crisis. Yet the Big Three still control nearly 97 percent of the industry. But competition may be coming.
Five international credit ratings agencies from around the world have opened Arc Ratings. Arc's strategy is to focus on mid-size companies in emerging markets like in Africa and India.
"We believe we know better than the local conditions to judge about the conditions of the risk," ARC chief executive Jose Esteves says. He adds that the big agencies cater to the world's largest corporations and banks.
But William Cohan, author of the book, "Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World," says breaking into the business is a long shot.
"While Arc has a chance and there is a real need to dislodge these three guys, it's frankly like trying to dislodge OPEC out of the oil market," he says.
Cohan says he doesn't expect much of a shakeup in the $5 billion U.S. credit rating business unless the federal government demands it. And Cohan says that's a long-shot too.
The conference, set for Wednesday, will bring together a delegation representing President Bashar Assad and the Western-backed, exiled political opposition. A lot of diplomatic capital has been spent to make this happen, but it's unclear whether there will be a meaningful outcome.