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Updated: 32 min 48 sec ago

The price of AC units has cooled down

Fri, 2014-09-26 01:30

As Marketplace celebrates its 25th birthday this year, we are looking at the surprising, sometimes delightful and sometimes destructive ways that prices have changed during that quarter century.

A 1989 Sears catalog reveals that a medium capacity window air conditioner (in '80s-style faux-wood paneling) could be had for around $300. Factor in inflation, and that's about $575 in today's dollars. An equivalent 8000 BTU window AC unit, again Kenmore, today goes for just $219.

But what about the cost of running an AC unit? In the most recent period when stats are available, people on average spent $237 a year on electricity specifically for AC cooling. This includes the whole country, rich and poor, hot climates and cold. In 1989, adjusted for inflation, people spent $321 on power for the AC. In other words, the average household is paying less now for AC than in 1989.

So here's the concern when it comes to household budgets and climate change: When something like this gets so much cheaper, it changes our behavior. But how?

Click the media player above to hear Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio talk about what inflation can tell us about how we use energy.

No iPads for Clippers, says new owner Steve Ballmer

Thu, 2014-09-25 13:28

We learn once again that when you're writing the paychecks, you get to set the rules.

Steve Ballmer is the former CEO of Microsoft and new owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. He spent $2 billion to buy 'em, and he's remaking the team culture to his liking.

Just as Ballmer's family isn't allowed to own any iPhones, he told Reuters that the Clippers are getting rid of their iPads in the offseason. He's keeping track of which coaches use Windows, too.

When employees are given 'unlimited' vacation time

Thu, 2014-09-25 13:16

Billionaire businessman Richard Branson is telling some of his Virgin Group employees to take as much vacation time as they want.

They don’t have to ask permission first and no one will be keeping track, according to a company announcement, as long as they’re caught up on all projects and “their absence will not in any way damage the business — or, for that matter, their careers."

It may sound like a dream, but Scott Francis, and engineer, says an unlimited vacation policy wasn’t the perk he thought it would be.

“It sounded really cool to me until I started working at a company that had one,” he said. “The two problems that I had were not feeling like I had necessarily earned vacation because it wasn’t accruing, and also feeling like it was going to reflect negatively on me if I took vacation that wasn’t owed to me.”

Now, he’s changed jobs to a position which offers a set amount of vacation time, which he likes better. When his kids had the day off from school recently, he took a vacation day so they could spend it together, encouraged to do so because it would expire in a few months if he didn’t use it.

“It’s sometimes easier to accept something given to you, even if you don’t like it, than to be the one to decide how to extend this time off from work,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She says Americans have a particularly strong work ethic and fear they’ll look lazy if they take too much vacation.

A survey of vacation time by the travel company Expedia found the average American has 14 vacation days, but only uses ten. Meanwhile, the French take all 30 days they’re allotted.

“The U.S. is more of a rat race that way,” says Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell University.

Despite the fact that many companies don’t offer much vacation time, employees feel reluctant to use their entire allotment for fear they’ll seem like slackers.

“You see the same problem in the decision of how long the workweek is at very competitive firms,” Frank says. “The investment bankers and the consultants work 65- or 80-hour workweeks, not because there’s that much to do, but because promotion chances are limited and the ones who are seen to be working the hardest are the most likely to get them.”

In terms of building trust between management and workers, a benefit of the unlimited vacation policy can be shifting workplace priorities from time spent at work to the amount of work accomplished, says Lotte Bailyn, an emeritus professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

But in practice, “without any guidelines, people are going to be quite nervous,” she says. “And we know in some companies, actually people have not been taking very much.”

One solution might be for management and executives to lead by example, she says, and dash off to Hawaii for a couple of weeks – living the dream.

FAA approves drones in Hollywood

Thu, 2014-09-25 13:09

You've heard how drones are being used in all kinds of industries, from real estate to agriculture to the movies. It turns out that in the U.S., most of those drones have been flying illegally. With a few exceptions, the Federal Aviation Administration has long banned the use of drones for commercial purposes, but it loosened those restrictions on Thursday.

Phil Finnegan, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group, said while the U.S. has led the world in developing the technology behind drones, it’s fallen far behind when it comes to letting them fly legally.

“Countries like Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom — a lot of European countries — are going after this market,” he says.

It’ll take the FAA several years to finalize regulations for all drones, Finnegan says, but he believes this initial move will make the American motion picture industry more competitive on the world stage.

The FAA announced six filming permits today. Ziv Marom is with ZM Interactive, which used drones to provide aerial shots in this summer's "The Expendables 3," and he applauded the FAA’s decision. But the process is moving slowly, he says, and we shouldn't expect a critical mass of movie drones anytime soon.

“It will take some time before people will actually get the permits,” Marom says.

Drone pilots will also have to follow strict regulations, Marom says, including rules for training and equipment.

But how will this affect the helicopter and airplane industry that has effectively cornered this market so far? Star Helicopters owner Keith Harter says he isn’t too worried that drones will cut into his business.

“There’s room for both types,” he says. And if that's not the case, Harter says most helicopter companies have diversified their business enough so that they don’t rely on the film industry as a sole source of revenue.

California tries to grow olive oil industry

Thu, 2014-09-25 13:07

This week new standards go into effect for California olive oil. The state is eager to grow its tiny share of the global olive oil market, which is currently at less than 1 percent. Demand in the U.S. is up, but the vast majority of the olive oil Americans buy still comes from the Mediterranean. That raises the question: Why isn’t California, which is blessed with a Mediterranean climate, an olive oil powerhouse like Spain or Italy?

In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries established a small olive oil trade, but American demand for olive oil was relatively small compared to demand for butter and vegetable oils. “Consider that 40 years ago, olive oil was sold in pharmacies in the United States,” says Eryn Balch, executive vice president at the North American Olive Oil Association, a trade group representing importers. It was “a specialized health product,” she says.

Italian cooks had always used it, of course, but it wasn’t until Americans focused more on heart-healthy eating that olive oil started flying off the shelves. U.S. consumers now buy more than three times the olive oil they did 20 years ago. It's been a significant enough jump to draw many California growers into the olive business. The state's drought also provides incentive. Olives are a less thirsty crop than, for example, almonds.

Thom Curry, general manager of Temecula Olive Oil in Southern California, says domestic olive oil is as good as Europe’s, and certainly higher quality than much of the cheap, imported oil sold in American supermarkets. Some of those imports are mislabeled as extra virgin when they’re not, according to reports over the past few years. Growers have complained to trade authorities about labeling fraud and generous European subsidies. But low-cost imports aren’t their only problem.

“I think we’re going to be limited for at least the near future by the amount of acres planted,” Curry says. “Once we get to tens and hundreds of thousands of acres, that’s when we can really start taking over the world.”

Just for comparison, right now California has about 35,000 acres in olive production, according to the California Olive Oil Council. Spain, meanwhile, has between 5 million and 6 million acres. But California growers are expanding quickly. “Right now, olives are the fastest growing specialty crop in California,” says the council’s executive director, Patty Darragh. She says California produced 1.2 million gallons of olive oil in 2011. Just two years later, it was producing almost three times that.

Much like California’s neophyte vintners in the '70s, olive-oil-makers in the state are trying to convince Americans to seek out domestic brands, even if some of them cost more than they’re used to paying. Many growers here are planting trees close together so they can harvest mechanically and cut costs. They’re also experimenting in new terrain. Temecula Olive Oil is expanding into the Imperial Valley, a dry, desolate region north of the Mexican border. “If they can grow there they can grow pretty much anywhere,” Curry says.

Supporters of California’s new labeling and testing rules hope they will signal “high quality” to consumers. “We want to make it easier for consumers to understand the product before them,” says Darragh.

One of the labeling rules bans using the term “light,” which denotes a type of oil common among imports. Darragh says many Americans falsely believe that means the oil is less caloric, though the term actually refers to the flavor and/or color.

Importers believe the new California rules are simply self-promotional. “They appear to be written in a way to name things based on a very specific flavor profile,” says NAOO's Balch. “They don’t take into account the reality of the broad market of olive oils today.”

Graphic by Shea Huffman

Olive oil pairings

We asked our sources for their favorite things to eat with olive oil, but we want your favorite pairings too! Post your suggestions on our Facebook page and we'll add the best ones here.

Patty Darragh, California Olive Oil Council: Vanilla ice cream with olive oil drizzled on top with a dash of sea salt.

Trudy Batty, Temecula Olive Oil: Grilled peaches brushed with blood-orange olive oil.

Via Facebook:

Anne Lewis: "Broccoli tossed in olive oil and roasted at 400° for about 30 minutes with a little feta added after. #kneebuckle"

Todd Hoffman: "Vermouth and gin."

Beth Patrick: "Salmorejo."

Tom White: "Soft boiled eggs on toast... With avocado."

Jennifer Hamlin Lamott: "Fresh grape tomatoes, halved, with garlic olive oil, pepper, basil, and cubed fresh (whole milk) mozzarella."

Gwyn Alcock: "Popcorn. No, really. Regular Orville's kernels, popped homestyle in a saucepan with olive oil (rather than peanut oil or butter-flavored oil). Little salt. The better the oil, the better the popcorn."

 

These are the ISIS refineries we're bombing

Thu, 2014-09-25 13:05

The U.S. and its allies bombed 12 “modular” refineries in territory controlled by ISIS on Wednesday. The terror group is considered well-funded, in part because of oil revenue. But Middle East analysts say the refineries are unsophisticated, not unlike homemade moonshine operations.

“These refineries are so rudimentary,” says analyst Shwan Zulal of Carduchi Consulting in London. “It’s almost like distilling your alcohol at home. They get these big barrels and they just burn the petrol underneath it to get it distilled. You can make a new refinery in a week.”

Zulal says private citizens – often a couple of guys – own the refineries, not ISIS. ISIS makes money by selling crude oil to these refiners. And the group needs the refined product — say diesel for Humvees, or kerosene for lamps.

The air campaign is meant to dent ISIS finances. But for now, a dozen refineries may be trivial.

“I think it’s really 1 percent of the volume that goes through their hands every day,” says Valerie Marcel of the Chatham House think tank in London. “So the U.S. and the coalition will need to bomb relentlessly for a sustained impact on the revenue generation.”

One argument in favor of the strategy: There’s little downside. Homemade refineries are often in remote areas, far from potential civilian casualties.

By contrast, targeting oil fields controlled by ISIS carries more risk.

“If people got concerned that, ‘Oh, what does that mean? We’re bombing crude-oil-producing wells in the Middle East,' the market itself might be concerned,” says Mark Routt at KBC Technologies in Houston. “Which would raise the price of crude, which would raise the price of gasoline for everyone around the world. So this is very clearly a thought-through strategy to minimize the market impact while still achieving the stated aims of degrading this group.”

By all accounts, degrading ISIS will take more than going after oil assets. The group is known to make money taking hostages for ransom, extorting traders and farmers and selling stolen antiquities.

New York and New Jersey bet on casinos

Thu, 2014-09-25 11:57

The casino industry needs a winning streak. According to Moody’s, with the exception of Las Vegas, the gaming industry is in the red. But even so, more and more cash-strapped communities are betting big on gambling. In New York, municipalities are competing to be one of four potential spots developers build on. In New Jersey, Paul Fireman, the billionaire founder of Reebok, is seemingly unfazed by the growing number of bankrupt casinos in Atlantic City and pushing plans for a mega-casino.

But despite a lot of talk about Fireman's multibillion-dollar plan – and promises of tens of thousands of jobs – the details are hard to come by. Fireman’s company isn't talking. Steven Fulop, the Mayor of Jersey City, also didn't respond to requests for interviews. The only local politician who would talk was the pro-casino Democratic state senator Ray Lesniak.

"When I saw this, I said 'Wow,'" Lesniak says, referring to a shiny, full-color brochure promoting the benefits of the new casino. But while he let a reporter thumb through the brochure, he only allowed access for the briefest of moments. "I’ve already shown you too much," he says. "It’s just something for us to consider as legislatures."

The project, says Lesniak, is expected to produce hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue a year. But while a brief look at the brochure revealed a lot of pretty pictures and big numbers, few details were apparent. Even so, Lesniak says the new casino would transform New Jersey into a global destination, drawing tourists from as far as Singapore and even those from just across the river. He thinks visitors to Manhattan would be interested in taking a trip to New Jersey for the planned convention center, hotel, racetrack and the world’s largest Ferris wheel, where they'd be able to look back across to New York City. 

"Can you imagine being on this Ferris wheel and overlooking the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty? People will put this on their bucket list," said Lesniak.  "It’s an experience that does not exist anywhere in the world," he says. "Everyone who comes to Manhattan – this will be on their list. This will be a must-see."

If the project does goes ahead, it will be built next to Liberty State Park. It’s not yet on the radar of many community members, but Yvonne Balcer, a local activist and retired teacher, has concerns.

“You’re talking about maybe 100,ooo people coming to the city,” she says.

Balcer says she's worried about everything from traffic capacity to the unsavory types gambling might bring, even prostitution. She says Jersey City isn’t prepared to handle large crowds, and, as a taxpayer, she doesn’t want to foot the bills.

“The developers don't put in the infrastructure at all; I mean water, I mean sewage, I mean roads. Those are the things done on the backs of taxpayers. It’s not done on the backs of developers at all,” she says.

It's hard to know who would foot the bill for what, or how the new project might affect Atlantic City’s financially troubled casinos. Alex Bumazhny, director of gaming, lodging and leisure at Fitch Ratings notes that even though there’s talk of Atlantic City sharing in the revenues from the new project, the plans are uncertain and the Northeast is already oversaturated with casinos.

“Having another casino in northern New Jersey would be pretty detrimental to Atlantic City,” he says. 

The discussion remains theoretical at this point. Plus, there is another issue that looms larger than fuzzy details or potentially clogged roads. Gambling in New Jersey is illegal, outside of Atlantic City. And the next time a vote can take place to change that issue is next year.

First Heartbleed, now Shellshock

Thu, 2014-09-25 11:37

You might remember back in April when thousands of servers were hit with the Heartbleed bug. Well, the Department of Homeland Security warned Thursday against a new bug called Shellshock, which could be far worse.

"Shellshock is a new security hole and this is a way for hackers to get access to our information that we don’t want to give up," says "Marketplace Tech" host Ben Johnson.

While Heartbleed gave hackers access to a user’s data, Johnson says, the Shellshock bug allows hackers to take total control of a person’s computer.

So, what now? Unfortunately it's too early to tell.

"There’s not much you can do here except wait for the people who know what they’re doing to build the patches and fix these things on the back end," Johnson says. "In the meantime, I think you should be extra careful about clicking on links that come from mysterious people on your email, and just ride it out and hope for the best."

For more on Shellshock, click the audio player above.

Do you know what your college is doing with your data?

Thu, 2014-09-25 11:16

By the time most college freshmen step on campus, it’s a good bet Facebook knows who their friends are, Amazon knows what they buy, Netflix knows what they watch and Google knows …well, pretty much everything they do online.

What students may not realize is that their colleges are collecting data about them, too.

It’s not just grades and transcripts. Most colleges are completely wired. Students turn over their data when they take a book out of the library, when they log on to the campus Wi-Fi network, when they swipe their student ID to get into their dorms, when they buy lunch at the dining hall, when they post an assignment on a class discussion board and at almost every other point throughout their day.

Students typically don’t sign a blanket data-use agreement when they arrive on campus, like they do when they sign up for Facebook or Gmail. But the data colleges collect could be just as valuable.

So who owns these data? The students, who create it? Or the colleges, who collect it?

The short answer: No one knows.

“I think it’s unclear at this point,” says Bruce Maas, chief information officer at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. “We’re in a learning phase right now about this.”

A lot of student data can be used to make colleges operate better, Maas says. Knowing that students prefer pizza over chicken in the cafeteria, for instance, can help food-service operators be more efficient. Data on what time students return to their dorms could be used to improve campus security. Data on how many use the library could affect staffing or inventory.

Data can also make a difference in the bottom line, as colleges fight to get more students in the door — and turn them into successful graduates in six years or less.

From the moment a student first inquires about a college, admissions offices are learning about them through social media, campus visits and interviews. Applications, which are often submitted online through the ubiquitous Common Application, have long been rich sources of data about a student’s academic history, interests, family and finances.

Many colleges are using this trove of data, along with information gleaned from digital school work, to predict student behavior, to craft interventions for students at risk of dropping out and even to direct students to the classes and majors in which they are most likely to succeed. Companies like Naviance, which provide college-counseling services to high school students, make this easier by collecting even more detailed data on students.

"It’s difficult, because if we can help the student to be more successful through the analysis of disparate pieces of data, is that by itself sufficient to justify that we’re using it this way?” Maas says. “I don’t know the answer to that question.”

To the extent that students are even aware of what data are being collected about them, they don’t like the idea of college officials tracking their movements. Does anyone really want administrators to know that they didn’t get back to their dorm until 3 a.m. when they had a discussion section at 9 the next morning?

“I actually didn’t really think about it at all,” said Rae Friedman, a freshman at Oberlin College, when confronted with the fact that her college collects data every time she swipes her student ID card. “The swiping was just kind of like, ‘Oh, I have to get into my dorm, I have to eat.’ But now that I think about it, it’s kind of a weird tracking device on each student.”

Of course, colleges say they aren’t actually tracking students. Instead, these location data could be useful in drawing connections if students begin to do poorly. But they could track students, which is enough to worry privacy advocates.

“There’s definitely an imbalance of power and an imbalance of knowledge about the extent to which things are being collected,” says Michael Zimmer, associate professor of information studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, who writes about online privacy. “We really need to be educating parents and students.”

It’s unclear what rights, if any, students have to protect this data. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the law that governs what data about students educational institutions can disclose, protects “education records.” Experts disagree on whether metadata created when a specific student logs on to the Wi-Fi network or enters the library are protected under FERPA. After all, the law was written when student records were kept on paper.

“A lot of the student information that we see today unfortunately falls out of the scope of the very narrow definition of education records,” says Khaliah Barnes, director of the EPIC Student Privacy Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Which could give colleges the ability to sell student data to the highest bidder. It’s not hard to imagine PepsiCo, say, being interested in the eating habits of undergraduates. Under current law, there is little stopping the university — or the third parties to whom they contract out many campus services, including data storage — from selling data about this valuable, captive, 18-to-22-year-old demographic.

Colleges already sell access to their students to banks through campus debit cards, which are typically linked directly to a student’s ID card. The lucrative contracts often offer colleges incentives for signing up more students, who then become bank customers.

And with hacks becoming commonplace, security is a big issue, no matter who is collecting the data. Colleges and universities are juicy targets for hackers, because student records typically include social security numbers, and may also include credit card information and financial information on family members. (Explore our graphic on data breaches.)

Some students are hoping schools will do a better job of protecting and using student data out of sheer regard for their reputations. Kyle M.L. Jones, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, believes it's in universities’ best interests to be at the forefront of responsible data-privacy practices.

“I think it’s our ethical responsibility as academic institutions to understand what’s going on with Google and Amazon and to say, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way,’” says Jones. “We can be a model for how data can be used.”

Jones, who recently wrote an article about ownership of student data, says that this model would require colleges to be transparent about what data the collect and what they do with it, and only to use it to advance students’ interests.

That’s asking students to put a lot of trust in their educational institutions, Barnes says. Luckily for the colleges, most students already feel an affinity for their universities.

“If I’m going to feel uncomfortable about giving data out, it’s going to be about giving it to big social network companies, not about giving it to my college, which I feel a personal connection with,” says Friedman, the Oberlin freshman. “I trust Facebook less than the college that I’m giving $60,000 to a year.”

But with technology moving faster than many schools' and regulators' ability to keep up with it, Friedman may look back one day and find she was just another idealistic college student.

Airstrikes hit ISIS-controlled oil refineries

Thu, 2014-09-25 07:00

The U.S. and its allies are pursuing a new target in eastern Syria. A wave of airstrikes is being aimed at modular oil refineries controlled by ISIS. The revenue from those small refineries is believed to be helping ISIS finance its operations in the region.

Click the media player above to hear reporter Noel King in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio. 

The numbers for September 25, 2014

Thu, 2014-09-25 06:39

After nearly six years as attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr. will step down, according to several published reports. President Obama is expected to make the announcement Thursday. This is not a complete surprise. Holder had said earlier that he planned to step down before the end of the year. Word is he will stay at the Justice Department until a successor is chosen, even if it's not until 2015.

In the meantime, here's what we're reading — and the numbers we're watching.

$2 million

That's how much the Pentagon estimates ISIS makes every day from selling oil, now that the extremist group controls 60 percent of production in Syria. Last night, the U.S. and its allies hit about a dozen ISIS mobile refineries in an effort to choke that funding stream.

Seven

The number of television and movie companies expected to get Federal Aviation Administration permission on Thursday to use drones, the Washington Post reports. Commercial drone use has been effectively banned by the FAA for some time, but filmmakers will soon be able to use them for aerial shots in place of helicopters, saving money. 

$548

 The average price on StubHub yesterday for a ticket to Derek Jeter's final game with the Yankees, which is now in danger of being rained out. According to Business Insider, that's bad news for sellers, who would have to return the money they made — as much as $12,000 for the best seats — if the game is called off and not rescheduled.

PODCAST: The number of uninsured Latinos drops

Thu, 2014-09-25 03:00

Here's why we have to be careful with headlines: There's news that orders for expensive, long-lasting merchandise fell more than 18 percent in August, the most precipitous drop on record. But all is not as it seems. And in health care news, there's data showing the percentage of Latinos who don't have health insurance in America has fallen by more than a third since the health care reform law kicked in. More on that. And we think we live in the future — Apple's new Dick Tracy watch might be evidence of that — but there is an argument that, in at least one regard, the United States currently is like Europe in the 19th century. 

The Airbnb of classical music

Thu, 2014-09-25 03:00

It’s not uncommon to sell the idea of a new startup based on the model of another (think: "It’s the Uber of pet adoption,” or “It’s like Tinder for baristas").

Sam Bodkin’s business is no different, even if he’s a bit reluctant to be categorized: “We refer to ourselves as the Airbnb of classical music,” he says.

The comparison isn’t unfair, though. Groupmuse — started in 2012 and run by Bodkin, Ezra Weller and Kyle Nichols-Schmolze — matches Groupmuse users looking to host a concert with willing musicians needing a venue to perform. Once a match is set up, other “Groupmusers” are invited to attend, creating an event that’s part house concert, part party, part social platform.

Where the sharing economy and the arts intersect

It’s a melding of some of Bodkin’s experiences: his travels through Europe using online platform couchsurfing.com to find people willing to host him, and his love of classical music discovered through musicians he befriended in Boston as an undergraduate student.

Combining his interest in classical music and the sharing economy of couch surfing, he came up with Groupmuse.

While the endeavor is inherently artistic, Bodkin isn't aiming to become a not-for-profit organization.

“We are absolutely a startup, and we fancy ourselves as such. It’s a social startup, built around a web platform,” he says.

There’s certainly a social network aspect to the experience: Members interested in attending a Groupmuse connect through Facebook, sending a message to prospective hosts to introduce themselves before the event. Additionally, musicians who regularly perform have access to guest lists of people who come to their performances and are regular Groupmuse attendees.

Have a problem? Found a startup.

If classical music and startup culture seem like odd bedfellows, to Bodkin, it only makes sense. Fading interest in classical music was a problem he wanted to address, and he sees this kind of entrepreneurial thinking as a solution.

“This is how, basically, people of our generation resolve to deal with these challenges that they see," he says. "We found companies.”

Groupmuse is currently up and running in three cities (New York, Boston and San Francisco), but there are still some aspects to be worked out as the company grows — for example, musicians are currently paid by donation, whereas ideally Bodkin envisions payment will eventually be built in to the Groupmuse platform.

While in the process of raising venture capital funding, Bodkin says he's also looking to partner with companies interested in hosting Groupmuse for their employees as part of a new funding structure.

Ultimately, aside from promoting the music itself, Bodkin would like to see it turn into a tool for musicians to manage their careers, building a fan base that is personally invested in their success.

He even has a startup buzzword for it: “Micropatronage.”

Grading the political campaign manager

Thu, 2014-09-25 02:00

In sports, a team's record is very important. Coaches and managers are judged on how many games they have won and lost. Is the same thing true of campaign managers and consultants?

This week, the Atlanta Braves held a press conference. "We have announced this morning that we have terminated our general manager, Frank Wren," said John Schuerholz, the team's president.

That got David Berri's attention. He's a sports economist at Southern Utah University.

"They didn't have that bad of a season," he says. The team's record is about .500, and that will keep them out of the postseason. "Why are they firing their general manager? Because the Braves have very high expectations. They expect to compete for a World Series every year."

Politicians also have high expectations. They also want to win. So, it is surprising to Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, "how little accountability there is, given the amount of money that's being spent on consultants." And even if they lose, they continue to get hired.

According to Nyhan, this is because politicians have a hard time evaluating managers and consultants.

"It's the same kind of problem you face as a patient when you go into the doctor's office," he explains. You have to gauge how good someone is at something you don't know much about.

Ethan Roeder, the New Organizing Institute's executive director, has looked at what campaign managers and consultants get paid. He says they don't tend to advertise their records "because there is a general understanding that races are much more individual than that." What they will advertise are individual races in which they beat the odds.

Roeder points to a primary election in which a then-unknown Tea Party candidate defeated Eric Cantor, now the former House Majority Leader. The campaign manager known for helping David Brat win that race will always be the campaign manager known for helping David Brat win that race.

"You know he was probably working for peanuts, and they gave him a gas stipend and a flip phone and that was basically his compensation for the job," Roeder says.

The way the system is set up, there is no incentive for the best consultants to work on the toughest, most competitive races. Greg Martin, a professor of political science at Emory University, discovered that, along with Zachary Peskowitz, who teaches at The Ohio State University.

"Congressional elections, in general, are extremely predictable," Martin says, noting an incumbent is likely to win 90 percent of the time.

 

Health care coverage reaches Latinos

Thu, 2014-09-25 02:00

The percentage of Latinos who lack health insurance has fallen by more than a third since the Affordable Care Act kicked in this year, according to a new report from The Commonwealth Fund, a health care policy group.

Historically, Latinos have been one of the least-covered groups in the U.S. when it comes to health insurance. Michelle Doty, the lead author of the report, says the low coverage has a lot to do with employment trends.

"For a long time, Latinos have tended to work in jobs that don't provide health insurance — low wage and small firms," Doty says.

But now that coverage gap is quickly being filled, Doty says, at least in states that have expanded Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act. The uninsured rate for Latinos has dropped from 35 percent to 17 percent in less than a year.

That shift translates to fewer emergency room visits and more preventive care for patients at the AltaMed community clinics that Alfonso Vega runs in Southern California. The clinics serve many low-income Latinos, many with diabetes. Without insurance, Vega says, many patients would avoid health care until crisis hit, but that has been changing as more people have enrolled in Medicaid in the last few months.

"There's countless patients that we're seeing that are seeing a primary care doctor every 90 days like they're supposed to — getting all the tests that they're supposed to have done on a periodic basis," Vega says.

In the states that have not expanded Medicaid coverage under Obamacare — where more than 20 million Latinos live — their uninsurance rates remain basically unchanged.

Americans appear ready to go shopping again

Thu, 2014-09-25 02:00

Over the past seven years, Americans have pulled back on major purchases, such as houses and big appliances — they’ve paid down debt, shopped "deep-discount," tried to put money away for a rainy day.

Now, according to a survey in the latest issue of Consumer Reports, Americans are ready to spend it up again. Of the people Consumer Reports surveyed, 64 percent said they were planning a big-ticket purchase this year — a new or used vehicle, a new home, a home remodel or a major appliance.

The trend can be seen among the ranks of wannabe homebuyers in many urban markets that have rebounded in the past several years. Lee Ritter, 31, is a successful web designer who had been outbid recently for houses in Portland, Oregon. He’s very eager to buy.

“I see the market going steeper and steeper into territory that I can’t follow,” said Ritter. “And there’s lots of competition.”

That competition makes realtors happy, and makes homebuilders more willing to take the risk of breaking ground. It’s also good news for big-box stores and local chains that sell washer-dryers and big-screen TVs.

Tod Marks, senior projects editor at Consumer Reports, says survey data from the publication show that as the acute effects of the recession fade, Americans are more ready to spend.

“Nearly half of Americans either bought a new or used vehicle in the past year, or plan to buy in the year ahead,” said Marks. “And a third recently completed or are ready to undertake a major home remodeling.” Marks said the 2015 housing market forecast is the best in years.

Marks chalks up these increasingly robust spending expectations to the fact that Americans see more jobs being created; many also see their family balance sheets improving. Also, people put off purchases for so long, cars are breaking down now and houses are no longer big enough for growing families.

Most economists anticipate steady improvement, rather than a sharp upward spike in major retail purchases in the coming year, though. They say Americans are still loathe to take on debt, or pay more than they have to for anything.

'Made in Italy' may not mean what you think it does

Wed, 2014-09-24 13:59

If a handbag is stamped “made in Italy,” it may seem safe to assume that it is, well, entirely made in Italy. But it’s not so simple.

Patricia Jurewicz directs the Responsible Sourcing Network, an organization that advocates for more transparency in supply chains. She says, “It's extremely difficult to understand what companies are doing and how they have their products manufactured.”

In the U.S., there are some laws covering this. The “last substantial transformation” of a product must happen in the country of origin. Guillermo Jimenez of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York says that phrase can be stretched pretty far.

"If you have the handle of the handbag come from South America, and the leather panels come from India, and another part comes from another country, well none of that is a handbag yet," Jimenez says. But put all those pieces together in Italy, and presto: Italian handbag.

“That's legally allowable,” Jimenez says, “but arguably can be deceptive to the consumer.”

The only way to know for sure how a bag is made is to visit the company factories. Jimenez says U.S. customs and the Federal Trade Commission don't have the resources to keep tabs on all of them.

“With the dizzying number of handbag companies in the world,” Jimenez says, “it's hard for the FTC to stay on top of it.”

In fact, the trade commission has not brought a case against a fashion company for violating country of origin laws in over a decade.

That country of origin label is a powerful brand for Italy. As a symbol of craftsmanship and prestige, it brings in boatloads of cash to producers of luxury products. Italians considers the label a national economic resource. Many would like to protect that brand with a stricter definition.

"Made in Italy" is an initiative funded by the Italian government to provide an additional label for products completely manufactured in the country: components, design, the works.

"If you want to buy a real Italian product, it's easier if you actually have a certification that proves that," says Made in Italy representative Marco Tomassini. “It's just to be very clear what you are offering to the end user.”

This certification helps smaller Italian manufacturers stand out from global brands with sophisticated supply chains. It reassures customers that the products are made entirely in Italy.

Keanan Duffty, a designer and professor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, wonders if customers today really care. “The younger consumer, I am not sure if they are concerned about where the goods are made,” he says. “I think they are more concerned about the label.”

Duffty says for many young people it's less about what the label actually means and more about what it signifies: status and luxury. And keep in mind, he says, “With luxury anything, you're buying a fantasy.”

Fantasy has always been a big part of fashion. If you need a refresher, just watch an “unboxing video.” They are part of a YouTube subgenre in which people post videos of themselves opening up new products so other people can watch. For handbags, big moment in these videos is when the person displays the country of origin label. Whether it is entirely true or just partly true, the “made in Italy” stamp makes owners proud.

'Made in Italy' may not mean what you think

Wed, 2014-09-24 13:59

If a handbag is stamped “made in Italy,” it may seem safe to assume that it is, well, entirely made in Italy. But it’s not so simple.

Patricia Jurewicz directs the Responsible Sourcing Network, an organization that advocates for more transparency in supply chains. She says, “It's extremely difficult to understand what companies are doing and how they have their products manufactured.”

In the U.S., there are some laws covering this. The “last substantial transformation” of a product must happen in the country of origin. Guillermo Jimenez of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, says that phrase can be stretched pretty far.

"If you have the handle of the handbag come from South America, and the leather panels come from India, and another part comes from another country, well none of that is a handbag yet," Jimenez says. But, put all those pieces together in Italy and presto: Italian handbag.

“That's legally allowable,” Jimenez says, “but arguably can be deceptive to the consumer.”

The only way to know for sure how a bag is made is to visit the company factories. Jimenez says U.S. customs and the Federal Trade Commission don't have the resources to keep tabs on all of them.

“With the dizzying number of handbag companies in the world,” Jimenez says, “It's hard for the FTC to stay on top of it.”

In fact, the trade commission has not brought a case against a fashion company for violating country of origin laws in over a decade.

That country of origin label is a powerful brand for Italy. As a symbol of craftsmanship and prestige, it brings in boatloads of cash to producers of luxury products. Italians considers the label a national economic resource. Many would like to protect that brand with a stricter definition.

Made In Italy is an initiative funded by the Italian government to provide an additional label for products completely manufactured in the country: components, design, the works.

"If you want to buy a real Italian product, it's easier if you actually have a certification that proves that," says Made In Italy representative Marco Tomassini. “It's just to be very clear what you are offering to the end user.”

This certification helps smaller Italian manufacturers stand out from global brands with sophisticated supply chains. It reassures customers that the products are made entirely in Italy.

Keanan Duffty, a designer and professor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, wonders if customers today really care. “The younger consumer, I am not sure if they are concerned about where the goods are made,” he says, “I think they are more concerned about the label.”

Duffty says for many young people it's less about what the label actually means and more about what it signifies: status and luxury. And keep in mind, he says “with luxury anything, you're buying a fantasy.”

Fantasy has always been a big part of fashion. If you need a refresher, just watch an “unboxing video.” They are part of a Youtube sub-genre were people post videos of themselves opening up new products so other people can watch. A big moment in these videos for handbags is when the person displays the country of origin label. Whether it is entirely true or just partly true, the “made in Italy” stamp makes owners proud.

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