Marketplace - American Public Media

Some same-sex couples still struggle at tax time

Mon, 2015-03-16 11:30

Last month, a federal judge made Alabama the 37th state where same-sex marriage is legal. Weeks later, the state Supreme Court put an end to that. Filing taxes as a same-sex couple is also confusing — not to mention costlier.

Eva Walton and Kathryn Kendrick dated for three years. They got married in Washington D.C., and last September, they had a big wedding in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Just a few years ago, there weren't many places where same-sex couples could get married, especially in the South. Since then, gay couples in dozens of states have gained the right to marry, the latest of which was — briefly anyway — Alabama, where Walton and Kendrick live.

“So the marriage equality boom that's happened since we started dating really opened up our options for what marriage would look like,” Walton says.

They had no idea what their taxes would look like. They spent most of last year in Georgia, where same-sex marriage still isn't recognized. They moved to Alabama in December and had one month of income there. Just as soon as she got W-2's in the mail, Kendrick got to work.

“I went onto TurboTax and you know you go through these series of questions, like, 'Have you had any major life events lately? Have you moved states? Gotten a new job? Purchased a house?' And you know, I was just marking yes to all of these things. Then it asked, "Is this a same-sex marriage?' When I selected yes," Kendrick says, “TurboTax said ‘You will need to download this file instead of continuing because you live in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriages.’ But federally you were recognized, and so it was just a separate packet and I couldn't continue doing the online registration.”

And that was the end of simple online tax returns.

“I just felt like it was completely unfair,” Kendrick says, "and I also thought, 'I have to hire someone to do this because I don't know if I'm going to get everything right.'”

It's frustrating, says Robin Maril, senior legislative council at the Human Rights Campaign. “It's been pretty confusing for a lot of folks given the patchwork of marriage laws.”

Federal taxes are pretty straightforward, the government has recognized same-sex marriages since last tax season. Things get muddy if a couple marries in one state, but lives in another where same-sex marriage isn't recognized, or when couples move from one state to another.

And they get even muddier in states like Alabama. The Alabama Supreme Court month halted same-sex marriages this month, just a few weeks after it complied with a federal judge's ruling to allow them.

But even when couples are clear on what to do, it's still a headache. “The biggest hurdle is couples that live in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage, they could be looking at filing up to five separate tax returns,” says Cindy Hockenberry from the National Association of Tax Professionals. 

Not to mention the worksheets, doing and undoing their federal returns to arrive at Adjusted Gross Income as singles and as a couple.

“Yup, more dividing more adding, more double-checking your calculations to make sure you didn't transpose numbers, put the wrong income on the wrong return, that kind of thing.”

There's more potential for error and preparing the returns costs more, she says. And figuring out who gets to claim the mortgage interest or the kids as deductions? It’s sound kind of like a divorce.

“It kind of is!” Hockenberry said. ”Because you're going from joint income to separate income.”

Ahead of a close election, Israel's Netanyahu buys bread

Mon, 2015-03-16 11:26

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have a little trouble getting to sleep tonight.

On the eve of the country’s elections, early reports show him trailing in the polls.

He’s got a long record as a political strongman. He’s touted his foreign-policy credentials for months. And in a last-minute attempt to woo conservative voters, the incumbent today withdrew support for a plan that would have created a separate Palestinian state.

But these Hail Mary attempts to sway the election seem to indicate how out of touch the PM may be. For Israelis, it’s all about the economy, stupid.

“You talk to Israelis privately and many of them will feel that they live from month-to-month on credit-card debt,” says Kevin Connolly, Middle East correspondent for BBC. “You buy something with a credit card in Europe, it’s a one-time transaction. Buy something with a credit card here [in Jerusalem] and you’ll be asked if you want to split the cost of that sweater or new pair of shoes into maybe 10 or 12 payments.”

Connolly says the cost of living is very high in Israel, causing many people to turn to credit just to put food on the table. While economic woes have always been a big political issue, it would seem that Netanyahu got that memo a bit late; he now appears to be changing the tone of his campaign.

“He released some television footage … He was going around one of the big markets in Jerusalem buying bread. The signal was that he gets it on the issues of the economy,” says Connolly.

Still, it’s hard to know what impact this shift will have until Israelis go to the polls tomorrow.

The TARP police are still on call

Mon, 2015-03-16 10:22

TARP, or the "Troubled Assets Relief Program," was a major part of the bank and automaker bailout that Congress passed in the wake of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

The government's last major TARP holding — a stake in Ally Financial — was sold in December 2014.

That doesn't mean TARP is entirely over. 

SIGTARP, or the Office of the Special Inspector General for TARP, is headed by Christy Romero. SIGTARP has the legal authority to investigate and prosecute misuse of TARP funds. Dozens of scammers have already been prosecuted, and Romero says that so far her office has recovered $1.57 billion in taxpayer money.

American TP is getting more luxurious

Mon, 2015-03-16 10:20
662

The number of Chicago police officers accounting for nearly half of the abuse complaints leveled against the 13,500-member force from 2001 to 2006. Turns out, despite the high costs of lawsuits, very few police departments do this kind of number-crunching to avoid them. Many of the largest departments don't consistently track the spending or circumstances around these cases.

$1.4 billion

That's how much Americans spent on quilted, ultra soft, lotioned, scented and other "luxury" toilet paper last year, the Washington Post reported, and that number is on track to eclipse regular and budget TP spending in the years to come. It's an "affordable indulgence" and brands are embracing the trend with all kinds of new varieties and boy band pitchmen.

7.5 fluid ounces

The size of Coca-Cola's mini cans, which several nutritionists and bloggers have pitched in blog posts and articles as a "good snack," the Associated Press reported. Many of the post writers have worked with Coke in the past, or were paid to recommend the smaller-portion sodas. The company likens the practice to product placement, and the AP notes it comes at a time when cola sales are falling in the U.S.

30 years

That's how long ago America Online was just taking shape, reaching a million subscribers a year later. CEO Steve Case left the company more than a decade ago, and now he's a venture capitalist in Washington. Case sat down with Marketplace Tech at SXSW Interactive to talk about Facebook, the state of tech in D.C. and "the third wave of the Internet."

43.4 million

That's about how many digital cameras were sold last year, a 30 percent drop from 2013 and a new low for the decade. On his blog, Gigaom founder Om Malik traces the fall of the standalone camera and charts it along with the iPhone's rise.

American TP is getting more luxuious

Mon, 2015-03-16 10:20
662

The number of Chicago police officers accounting for nearly half of the abuse complaints leveled against the 13,500-member force from 2001 to 2006. Turns out, despite the high costs of lawsuits, very few police departments do this kind of number-crunching to avoid them. Many of the largest departments don't consistently track the spending or circumstances around these cases.

$1.4 billion

That's how much Americans spent on quilted, ultra soft, lotioned, scented and other "luxury" toilet paper last year, the Washington Post reported, and that number is on track to eclipse regular and budget TP spending in the years to come. It's an "affordable indulgence" and brands are embracing the trend with all kinds of new varieties and boy band pitchmen.

7.5 fluid ounces

The size of Coca-Cola's mini cans, which several nutritionists and bloggers have pitched in blog posts and articles as a "good snack," the Associated Press reported. Many of the post writers have worked with Coke in the past, or were paid to recommend the smaller-portion sodas. The company likens the practice to product placement, and the AP notes it comes at a time when cola sales are falling in the U.S.

30 years

That's how long ago America Online was just taking shape, reaching a million subscribers a year later. CEO Steve Case left the company more than a decade ago, and now he's a venture capitalist in Washington. Case sat down with Marketplace Tech at SXSW Interactive to talk about Facebook, the state of tech in D.C. and "the third wave of the Internet."

43.4 million

That's about how many digital cameras were sold last year, a 30 percent drop from 2013 and a new low for the decade. On his blog, Gigaom founder Om Malik traces the fall of the standalone camera and charts it along with the iPhone's rise.

Canada proposes tougher standards for oil tankers

Mon, 2015-03-16 09:46

North America has seen four oil train disasters in the last month. Trains carrying crude oil have derailed and caught fire. Even before these events, Canadian authorities toughened standards for railroad tank cars. Now they’ve proposed even tighter rules.

Thicker steel walls will be required for tank cars, as well as shields on top and outer thermal “jackets” to protect in case of fire.

Chris Barken, professor and executive director of the University of Illinois Rail Transportation and Engineering Center, says the changes will “make it much less likely to overheat and suffer a thermal tear, such as we’ve seen in a number of these recent accidents.”

Thinner-walled cars were blamed for a Quebec disaster two years ago that killed 47 people. Of the cars that derailed, 94 percent spilled oil that burned.

Canada plans a 10-year phase-in of new tank cars, which strikes some critics as too slow. Critics also say the current oil train safety conversation is too narrow. It’s a complex issue and they want it to include issues of train speed, tracks, bridges, insurance coverage and routes.

 

A question for the Fed: What inflation?

Mon, 2015-03-16 09:42

The Federal Reserve meets Tuesday for two days, and many market watchers expect more clues about when the central bank will raise interest rates.

But the Producer Price Index released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday suggests that there might not be much inflation to combat. It dropped unexpectedly by 0.5 percent, which could mean that interest rates aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

SxSW Interactive: Robot petting zoos and a bionic man

Mon, 2015-03-16 09:33

Marketplace host David Gura checked in with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson to get the latest on this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference.

“Brands come down here to gain visibility among a really large media audience: actors, venture capitalists, music fans,” Johnson says.

It makes sense that established brands — as well as startups — would want to make an impression at SxSW.

“There have been some big things launched here, like Twitter many years back – now a public company with a market cap of $30 billion or thereabouts,” says Johnson. 

According to Johnson, the interactive portion of SxSW is really about “an exchange of ideas.”

What are some of the prominent topics at this year’s SxSW Interactive? Johnson says privacy and virtual reality are getting a lot of attention. And a robot petting zoo

“But one big idea this year is bionics. And more broadly, when and how our bodies will actually merge with technology,” says Johnson. 

Hugh Herr of MIT’s Media Lab Center for Extreme Bionics, presented at SXSW as part of the IEEE's "The Future of Identity" series, and wore what he called the "world’s first powered ankle foot prosthesis."

Johnson says, consumers won’t necessarily see any of the bionics at this year’s SxSW any time soon. But that doesn’t mean big companies aren’t listening to conversations about the future of bionics.

“The more those discussions happen they get closer to reality,” Johnson says.  

FTC changes its procedures for challenging mergers

Mon, 2015-03-16 08:31

The Federal Trade Commission has announced changes to the way it challenges mergers it believes are anti-competitive or bad for consumers. The new rules come as the commission faces criticism from Republican lawmakers, some of whom are pitching legislation that would press the FTC to rely on federal courts instead of its own in-house system.

Under its old procedures, when the FTC views a merger as anti-competitive, it typically goes down two different paths: It asks a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction -- which essentially freezes the merger-- while it also holds a trial in its own in-house administrative court system.

Under the new rules, if the FTC’s request for a preliminary injunction is denied, merging parties can request to withdraw from the administrative proceeding -- a request which will now be automatically granted. This allows the parties to be able talk to the commission, which they can't do when the case is ongoing, and gives them the opportunity to try to settle or convince the commissioners to abandon the administrative case altogether. However, the FTC retains the option to re-start administrative proceeding if it believes it's in the public's interest.

This approach means companies will get a faster resolution to their cases, says John Coffee,  a professor at Columbia Law School.

“This is a big victory for the corporate community,” he explains. “Mergers need to be resolved in the near term. If they stretch on for a year without being resolved, many of the benefits are lost.”

The cost of keeping social media sites in check

Mon, 2015-03-16 08:27

Facebook has a new set of "community standards" — the rules governing what you can and cannot do on the platform. It's nearly three times as long as the previous version thanks to more detail about, for example, what kind of nude photos are acceptable. 

Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the New America Foundation's Ranking Digital Rights project, says it's in part a reaction to criticism that Facebook has clamped down too much on free speech, from photographs to pseudonyms of anonymous protesters. 

Twitter, in contrast, has taken flak for being too permissive of bullying.

"Twitter is a much easier place to kind of drop in, drop a little bomb, and go away," says Fatemeh Khatibloo, analyst at Forrester.

Jonathon Morgan, a data scientist who co-authored a report on the use of Twitter by the terrorist group ISIS, says the difference between the two social networks' approach to free speech is more about being different products than having different philosophies.

Advice to would-be 'Jeopardy' contestants

Mon, 2015-03-16 08:27

If you ever find yourself on the "Jeopardy" stage in front of Alex Trebek and you're totally stumped, what's your best Hail Mary guess?

Well, someone has gone through every Jeopardy episode between 1984 and 2012, He looked at close to 200,000 clues and found that one has been the answer, or question in this case, 216 times.

The answer is, "What is China?"

Based on this analysis: You'd be wise to "focus on science, literature, history, and geography." And the most common final Jeopardy category, at least recently, is "word origins."

An environmental movement is awakening in China

Mon, 2015-03-16 07:51

China’s Premier Li Keqiang said this week the government is serious about cutting smog and will impose harsher fines on polluters. Keqiang's comments came after the online release this month of a groundbreaking — at least, for China — documentary on the country’s air pollution crisis, called “Under the Dome” (video).

The country’s environment minister compared it to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the book that paved the way for the U.S. environmental movement, but Chinese officials have been silent on the film since — and it’s even been taken offline in the country, presumably by government censors.

Still, China observers say this may be the country’s “Silent Spring” moment.

“The Chinese public has come to believe they have a right to a clean environment,” says Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center. 

Like the early U.S. anti-air pollution movement, mothers worried about pollution's health effects have initiated much of the dissent, and big polluting industries are resisting change. Change in China is complicated by the fact that powerful local governments have little incentive to curb the dirty industries that fuel their economies, and often try to skirt the central government’s regulations.

PODCAST: Doing the numbers on police misconduct

Mon, 2015-03-16 07:46

The FTC is changing the way it fights mergers it doesn't like, cutting back on challenges in its own internal court and relying more on federal injunctions. We check in with Marketplace's Tracey Samuelson on what the rule changes could mean for pending, controversial mergers. Then, China has reportedly passed Germany to become the world's third-largest arms exporter. That hardware is primarily going to equipping African and other Asian armies, many of them at odds with the U.S. and its allies. Finally, police misconduct trials and settlements can be hugely expensive, but departments keep surprisingly little data on suits and frequent offenders. Dan Weissmann investigates.

Quiz: Swarms of small colleges

Mon, 2015-03-16 06:38

The closure of Sweet Briar College, a women’s college with about 700 students, put a spotlight on small schools.

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Former AOL CEO Steve Case on the web's 'third wave'

Mon, 2015-03-16 03:57

This week Marketplace Tech is exploring South by Southwest Interactive, the tech-oriented event that draws tens of thousands of people to Austin, Texas. That audience comes to talk about what’s next in tech and to pitch their ideas.

Steve Case is no exception. The Billionaire and AOL CEO turned venture capitalist is here to advocate for tech hubs outside of Silicon Valley. We sat down with him to talk about the past, present and future of the Internet.

Twenty years ago, AOL had just hit 1 million subscribers. That feels like centuries ago, not decades ago.

It was a long time ago. I agree with that. And we had actually been at it for more than a decade at that point. We started AOL 30 years ago this year. At the time only 3% of people were online, and they were only online an hour a week. It’s also worth remembering it wans’t until 1982 that it was even legal for people to connect to the internet. The first wave of the internet in the 70s and 80s was restricted to government use and university use, so scientists and educators and bureaurats could use it, but real people couldn’t.

What’s shocked you about the way the online world has changed since you first got in the game?

Well actually, what shocked me the first time was it actually took longer than I thought for the idea to take hold. PC manufacturers didn’t want to build in communications modems, because they thought, “Most people don’t want this, so why would we add that?”

Every start up needs a true believer

Every concept needs a tribe of true believers.

Speaking of which, talk to me about Washington

Well Washington, actually, is emerging very quickly as a hot startup center. It was not true 30 years ago when we started AOL in Virginia, across the river from D.C., and now you see the debates around net neutrality and other things, and the government role is heating up again. I think key parts of our economy are going to require more interaciton with the government as a regulator and a customer. The government spends more money on learning and health than any other organization. It’s going to require a different kind of entrepreneur.

You mention net neutrality. How do you feel about that issue? Where do you come down on it?

I think it’s important. AOL could not have been possible without breaking up the phone company. The key ruling there said that companies like AOL could connect to the telecomm system. Up until then, they couldn’t.

Is Facebook the next AOL?

In some ways it is, because our core was always people. Facebook has taken that baton and developed a strategy with a broad global footprint that’s really been quite impressive.

It seems like they’re trying to build a place where you go to do everything. In the early days it seems like AOL was similar. You were going into a space that was controlled by one company, even if there was plenty of community within that space.

That’s partially true. Our strategy was really to be the internet and a whole lot more.

Were most of your users getting outside of it?

In the early years the vast majority of the use was custom services that were exclusive to AOL. Over itme the broader internet services got more traciton. But even when I stopped running the company 15 years ago, the majority of the services used were the services that were part of the AOL package of unique services.

Tell me about the third wave of the internet.

The first wave was 1985 to 2000. That was really building the internet. And the second phase, over the last 15 years, has been building on top of the internet. But the next phase, the third wave, is going to be integrating the internet more seamlessly and pervasively in our everyday lives.

We’re asking a lot of people what they’re here to pitch. What’s your pitch?

It’s really what we’ve been talking about. I think there’s a new wave of innovation that’s about to break. And it’s going to be around this third wave of the internet, which is disrupting sectors like education and healthcare and energy. If you’re an entreprenneur in St. Louis or Des Moines or Minneapolis or Pittsburgh, you’re gonna have great opportunities to build companies on the back of these trends, but you need to know what battle you’re gearing up for.

And, because we couldn’t resist...

The music industry's cassette comeback

Fri, 2015-03-13 14:44

The way Popeye is about spinach or Jane Goodall is about chimpanzees is how Mike Haley is about cassette tapes. Haley’s got a podcast called Tabs Out and it’s all about cassettes. Haley lives in Wilmington, Delaware, and every few weeks or so he gets his friends together and talks tape.

“[We] sit around, and drink some beers, play some tapes, and ramble on about whatever dumb thing you can think about to critique a cassette tape, I think we’ve talked about it already,” says Haley.

While Haley features indie, quirky and unique artists who release cassettes, some big players are getting into the cassette game. Disney sold about 2,500 copies of the "Guardians of the Galaxy" soundtrack on tape, according to Nielsen. Then, there are indie labels like Burger Records, which claims to have sold more than 300,000 cassette tapes since 2007.

What’s driving this cassette tape renaissance? Well, tapes are cheap. Jessica Bordeaux is co-owner of Portland-based New Moss Records. Boudreaux says tapes are a low-risk gamble.

“We don’t know realistically how many people are going to buy [releases],” Bordeaux says. “And I think tapes do lend themselves to more creative packaging then … and a lot of the record stores aren’t going to sell your tapes, and so you can be more weird and creative.”

That creativity can help keep super fans interested in a band — and those super fans really matter for the $15 billion global music industry. According to Nielsen, which tracks music sales, about 70 cents of every music dollar comes from a super fan. So, if a band like Metallica puts out rare or hard to get material, there’s a good chance super fans will snatch it up.

If that material is on cassette — with its high profit margins — cha-ching.

For collectors, tapes are so much better than digital music, says label Kill Rock Stars' production manager, James Reling, since you can actually hold them.

“Things have become so disposable, when you see something that is so obviously not disposable, it has that much more appeal as something that is kinda precious or special,” Reling says.

That tangibility also has some data geeks are clamoring for these cassettes, as well. That’s because Sony, IBM and other hardware companies have developed tapes that aren’t your grandma’s tapes. They can store about 185 terabytes of data, the equivalent all the printed collected works in the Library of Congress times 18.5.

Graeme McMillian writes for Wired magazine, and he says cassette tapes are appealing for the same reason music collectors might like them — they exist in real life.

“If you have a glitch with your digital storage, it could be gone,” says McMillian. “Whereas with tape, it’s tangible. It’s right there.”

So, does all this mean we really do have a cassette tape renaissance? Mike Haley thinks probably not, they're just a fad.

“Metallica, and Jeff Bridges are making thousands and thousands of tapes or whatever,” Haley says. “I think they’ll eventually figure out that this isn’t really working. I think that enough people wrote think pieces that cassettes are making a comeback, to make people think cassettes are making a comeback, when in reality writing about cassettes are making a comeback.”

Wait a minute ... writing about cassette tapes was once a thing?

This story comes to us from The Future of What, a new public radio program focusing on the music industry.

'Going Clear' explores the finances of Scientology

Fri, 2015-03-13 11:38

Marketplace's Lizzie O'Leary speaks to filmmaker Alex Gibney and author-producer Lawrence Wright about their HBO documentary, "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief."

"Going Clear" opens in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York on Friday, March 13, with a broadcast release on HBO on March 29th.

More information about the Scientology response to the film is available at the Church of Scientology Freedom Magazine website

Listen to the full interview with Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright in the player above.

Pope pushes on with Vatican financial reforms

Fri, 2015-03-13 11:33

Friday marks the second anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. In just two years, he’s credited with breathing new life into the Catholic Church with his focus on reform and repairing the church's reputation.

One priority has been cleaning up the Vatican Bank, created during World War II to manage money for the Catholic Church. Over the years it became mired in allegations of money laundering and tax evasion.

“So far, he’s been the new sheriff in town,” says Gerald Posner, author of the book “God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican." “He’s really passing reforms that—if he’s there long enough—will change this bank into a boring, mid-level, sort of government bank, and the wild, crazy days of the past will be over.”

The return of the debt limit

Fri, 2015-03-13 11:33

This Sunday the United States' statutory debt limit will once again go into effect, essentially reinstating the debt ceiling at the level of the U.S. debt on Sunday, probably around $18 trillion.

The reason the debt limit is returning to haunt our fiscal dreams is because Congress kicked the can down the road when it passed a suspension of the debt limit in February, 2014. 

But it's hard to know how long the Department of Treasury can use "extraordinary measures" to keep paying its bills before it begins to risk defaulting on its debt. That's because government revenues are lumpy — lots comes in during tax season, for example. The best estimate sets the new deadline at some time in October or November.

My money story: When family values battle happiness

Fri, 2015-03-13 11:32

Betty Ming Liu's parents immigrated to the United States in the mid-1940s to escape political turmoil in China. Liu grew up in New York's Chinatown, where her father owned a book-keeping business.

She explains her outlook on money, and her experience growing up with immigrant parents.

Betty Ming Liu is a blogger, journalist, and professor in the New York City area. To hear Betty Ming Liu's full story, listen using the audio player above. 

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