Marketplace - American Public Media

IMF creates global safety net for poorest countries

Thu, 2015-02-05 10:44

To say Liberia took an economic hit from Ebola would be an understatement.

“The economy slowed to basically a halt and even began to contract,” says Steven Radelet, professor of human development at Georgetown University and an adviser to Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. “Fruit markets and food stalls were gone, nobody was touching each other, restaurants were empty, hotels were empty, the two major iron ore mines shut down, rubber plantation workers stopped going to work, palm oil plantations stopped.”

Liberia lost 25 percent of its annual receipts because of Ebola, according to its ministry of finance.

“You have this unprecedented need for an increase in spending, unplanned spending at the exact time the government lost revenue,” says Benjamin Spatz, a Truman National Security Fellow and expert on West Africa.

At the same time, Liberia owes about $130 million to the IMF.  Neighboring Guinea, also dealing with Ebola and also indebted, was spending more on debt relief than on public health.   

The IMF has created a $100 million dollar fund to defray the debt service of these three countries, freeing up money to go elsewhere, and is attempting to procure $70 million more in debt relief from individual creditor countries.  It’s added $160 million in concessionary loans – that means loans at low interest rates or with fewer conditions than normal.  Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea collectively owe $372 million to the IMF.

The IMF has also created a “Catastrophe Containment and Relief” Trust to serve as a source of emergency debt relief and assistance to the world’s poorest countries in the future.

“Essentially it's creating a global social safety net for world’s poorest countries,” says Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, a religious-based organization that advocates for international debt relief.

Under international law, debt relief comes with conditions, LeCompte says. “It comes with special rules that the money be used for social infrastructure. Building hospitals or building schools.”

“In the longer term it enables countries to improve their credit rating and regain access to international financial markets,” says Tony Addison, chief economist and deputy director of United Nations University’s UNU-Wider research and training program in Helsinki, Finland.

“For example some of the debt relief given over the last 10 years as part of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative and its successors helped poor countries re-enter global capital market, so you’ve had over the last five years in particular some low-income and middle-income countries able to sell their sovereign debt quite successfully,” Addison says.

But he says it doesn’t prevent a country from spending itself into debt all over again.  And that, he adds, isn’t just a poor country problem. Just look at Greece.

The value of hacked data

Thu, 2015-02-05 09:47

The biggest U.S. health insurer, Anthem Blue Cross, revealed Thursday that hackers obtained data on up to 80 million current and former customers. The compromised information includes Social Security numbers, email addresses and birthdates as well as such employee data as income.

Given the steady stream of data hacks – whether it's Target, Home Depot or Anthem – how much is all this data worth?

Unlike previous high-profile hacks, the Anthem hackers did not take credit card numbers. But personal data, like Social Security numbers, can be even more valuable on the so-called “Dark Web," the invisible part of the Internet you can’t find on Google.

 

Europe resists Greece's charm offensive

Thu, 2015-02-05 09:12

This may not rank as one of the world’s most successful charm offensives.

Earlier this week Yannis Varoufakis, Greek's finance minister, embarked on a tour of European capitals in an attempt to win support for his government’s anti-austerity policies. He also wants Greece to be allowed to renegotiate the terms of its multibillion-dollar bailout and cut its crippling debt.

The trip has not gone as smoothly as Varoufakis might have hoped. His meeting in Berlin with the German finance minister ended without agreement; they even disagreed over whether they had agreed to disagree. And after Varoufakis met the head of the European Central Bank, the bank announced that it was cutting off cheap funding to Greece’s commercial banks.

Quiz: Higher ed in the halls of Congress

Thu, 2015-02-05 07:29

The education industry spent more than $79 million lobbying the federal government last year, according to OpenSecrets.org.

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Counting gallons: How much water do you use?

Thu, 2015-02-05 06:03

Try to imagine a ticker, or counter, that tallies all your water use: every cup of coffee, every shower, every flush. That’s what I did for this story. I went out and checked my water meter (OK, first it required … locating the water meter), outside near the front curb.

Scott Tong/Marketplace

To show how ignorant we can be about our water footprint, I started by making a guess: 500 gallons a day for five Tongs. Then, I asked moms and dads at the bus stop to place their bets.

And I solicited estimates via Twitter and Facebook. Here’s how they guessed:

The median guess: 225 gallons a day. Low: 30. High: 5,000.

For context: The United Nation's estimate for the bare minimum a person needs to drink, bathe and clean is 13 gallons a day. My family of five lives in Arlington, Virginia, in an old brick house. Midmorning check: 60 gallons. That’s after one bath, two shampoos, five toothbrushings, one overnight load of the dishwasher and … roughly eight flushes.

The Tong kids brush their teeth.

Scott Tong/Marketplace

How much does 60 gallons cost? Under the rate charged by my county, a mere 25 cents. Yeah. A bargain. Consider how U.S. drinking water rates compare with other countries:

Many, including Stanford University’s Newsha Ajami, consider American water underpriced.

Water scarcity – a problem in many parts of the country – is not baked into the price, as scarcity is with other products, say strawberries in winter, diamonds or Picassos. My bill just charges me for treating and delivery of water. The actual water costs zero.

In many cases, what we pay does not cover the utilities' full costs of sending water, replacing century-old pipes and adhering to Clean Water Act mandates.

Early afternoon check: 200 gallons. Yikes. The culprit, as best I can tell, is two loads of semi-dirty, semi-full laundry. It turns out a single load in an, um, legacy model like ours can drink 40 gallons.

My early-afternoon shower, lasting nine minutes, uses about 18 gallons. Which seemed like a good time to ask: How clean is this water?

“Quite stunning” is how Duke law professor Jim Salzman puts it. He wrote "Drinking Water: A History," and speaks of what’s known as the Great Sanitation Awakening.

“100 years ago it was commonplace to die of typhoid and cholera. Wilbur Wright, the famed aviator ...  died of typhoid. It’s said [German field marshal] Rommel lost more men to dysentery than the Allies."

Back then, people figured they got sick from bad air, not bad water. The 19th century awakening brought us sewer systems and the biggie: chlorination. Consider: In 1900 America, your chance of dying from waterborne disease was 1 in 200. It’s now 1 in 2 million.

That does reframe the question: How appropriate is it to use this ultraclean drinking water for flushing? Or putting through our garden hose? It doesn’t happen everywhere.

“If I told a Dutch person he should go outside and water his lawn with his drinking water, he would look at you like you were crazy,” says economist David Zetland, author of "Living with Water Scarcity." He’s from California but teaches in the Netherlands. “Because it’s money. And Dutch people don’t like spending money. If they do have gardens usually those gardens are rain-fed."

 There are cultural differences around the world. But Zetland says when something is underpriced, we tend to overuse it – around the world.

Let’s return to this global chart, a slight variation on the previous one (adjusted for income). Note the inverse price/usage relationship:

Stanford University

Here’s another way to think about overuse: We pay for water way after we use it, in my case quarterly.

To behavioral economist Dan Ariely of Duke University, the timing is crucial. He’s the author of several books, including "Predictably Irrational."

Ariely explains a concept called "pain of paying." If you pay as you go, he found, you tend to buy less of something. It hurts.

“I charge the students 25 cents per bite. And you know what, they eat such big bites that they suffer from the whole thing. Because you sit there with the pizza and you say, ‘If can only push a little bit more in, I will get more value for my money.’ But you are really decreasing your joy.”

By contrast, what happens if you pay after the fact, the way I do with water? Ariely tested that. “People consumed five times more,” he says.

Final check: 9:30 p.m. Verdict: 310 gallons. Here it is on the scatter chart.

That’s much less than my guess of 500, which many experts say is about the national average – 100 gallons per person daily. The winning guess of 300 gallons came from 10-year-old Willem Desimone of Washington D.C. (Lorna Baldwin, Karin Rotchford and Marketplace’s David Weinberg also guessed 300, but they’re not 10). I should note that our own correspondent, Amy Scott, talked a bit of trash early on. She let us know she is past champion of a seventh-grade count-the-gumballs contest. Amy’s guess: 425 gallons.

310 gallons. It’s not bad for an American family of five. But it’s a ton of water (1.15 tons, to be precise). And that one ton for one day costs $1.30.

Put another way: It’s about the price of one bottle of water.

 

PODCAST: Ordainment is just a click away

Thu, 2015-02-05 03:00

The European Central Bank last night applied new financial restrictions on Greece, with analysts seeing this as a move to remind Greece who holds the purse-strings. At stake is Greece's membership in the Euro-zone, and more widely, the stability of the global financial system. More on that. And anyone who uses the internet should pay attention to what at first blush may seem like a minor bureaucratic shift in Washington. The FCC chairman today will circulate a proposal to reclassify internet providers. Regulators regard them as "information services," but FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wants to call them "telecommunications" companies. Those little words have weight in the debate over network neutrality. Plus, some will see the next story as a charming development. For others, it's a new sign society is going to hades in a handbasket. People going online to get ordained so they can officiate at a wedding. 

College graduation rates skewed by income

Thu, 2015-02-05 02:00

More and more students are pursuing higher education, either by attending a two- or four-year college. But the growth in the demand for college diplomas has affected the wealthy different than the poor. A new study found that only a fifth of the students from the poorest families finished college by age 24, while nearly all of the richest students did.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Lack of paid sick leave endangers healthy workers

Thu, 2015-02-05 02:00

This year’s flu season is relatively severe, with the annual flu vaccine only about 25 percent effective against the main flu strains that are circulating, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There are outbreaks of measles and meningitis around the country, not to mention the common cold.

And in workplaces across the country, millions of people continue to show up sick, infecting coworkers and customers. A survey by AARP published in December 2013 found that 52 percent of adults go to work or school 'most of the time' when they are sick; another 20 percent go 'sometimes.'

The Obama Administration is pushing hard for Congress to pass legislation—the Healthy Families Act—that would guarantee workers could earn up to seven days of paid sick leave per year. Some cities and states already mandate that paid sick leave be provided by some or all employers—to be used by a sick employee, and sometimes also to care for a sick family member, such as a child or elderly relative. But Republican lawmakers are unlikely to pass any such new labor mandates on employers in this Congress.

Health-policy advocates point out that Americans often have close direct contact with those sick workers who are least likely to get paid sick leave. For instance, says Alina Salganicoff, head of Women's Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, “people who work in the restaurant industry have very low rates of paid sick leave”—the rate is 24 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just 47 percent of retail workers get paid sick leave.

Salganicoff says if these workers do call in sick, they lose a day or more in wages, and risk being fired.

Showing up sick and underperforming at work, or even damaging equipment or products because of diminished capacity or the effects of medication, is known as ‘presenteeism’ in HR-parlance. The Centers for Disease Control reports lost productivity from illness costs employers $225 billion annually; and it cites data from the Harvard Business Review that the cost of presenteeism is $150 billion or higher.

Workers at the top of the income scale—especially managers and other professionals—are most likely to get paid sick leave. The rate is 84 percent among the top quartile (top 25 percent) of income-earners. The rate of paid sick leave is 30 percent for those in the bottom quartile of earners.

How online minister ordination mills work (or don't)

Thu, 2015-02-05 02:00

Kate Black is getting married and wants her brother-in-law, Matthew Carrigan, to officiate. So the two of them are perched on a small couch in a slightly cheesy Manhattan hotel, searching the Internet for a church.

"So we have universal life church, getordained.org," Black reads from the Google search results. 

They settle on the Universal Life Church Monastery—a website that has ordained everyone from Conan O'Brien to Joan Rivers. 

There are no questions about your beliefs. The only real limitation is age. 

"Are you over 13?" asks Black. "I am," says Carrigan. 

The entire process takes less than two minutes. 

"Welcome Matthew Charles Carrigan to the worldwide congregation of the Universal Life Church ministers!" Black reads from the laptop screen. 

"Almost everything we do is by Internet," says ULC Monastery's founder George Freeman. He says more than a thousand people of all faiths—atheists included—are ordained through their website each day, and hundreds also order "church supplies," which are mailed out of the Monastery's offices in a squat office building in a Seattle warehouse district. 

This is how the nonprofit pays for what Freeman says is a one- or two- million dollar operating budget: selling wallet credentials, certificates, letters of good standing and other goods. Some are souvenirs, but many are also supposed to function as documentation to convince higher legal powers of the church's legitimacy. A "marriage laws" section of the website gives recommendations for each state. For example: "Certification of ordination may be required in the form of certificate, wallet card, or letter of good standing.”

But this is where the quick and easy process becomes more difficult. "It should be a simple process," says Freeman. "But unfortunately the state has its requirements, and they're all different."

"Some of these websites, they lead people to believe they can perform weddings in all states," says Bob Rains, emeritus professor at the Dickinson School of Law at the Pennsylvania State University. "And that's just not true." 

The question of who is allowed to solemnize a marriage is primarily a matter of state law, according to Rains, and the state laws are an odd patchwork. In Alaska, an officer of the Salvation Army is allowed, as Rains noted in a 2010 law journal article, "Marriage in the Time of Internet Ministers: I Now Pronounce You Married, But Who Am I To Do So?" While states typically have a provision that allows ministers to perform marriages, both the language of the law and its interpretation, varies. Both Rains and the Universal Life Church monastery direct prospective couples to speak with their county clerk, because the requirements can differ not just by state, but by county. 

But the bigger problem, according to Rains, isn't what counties may require in order to grant a marriage license, but what could happen years later. "Typically, just like a divorce, this is going to come up when a marriage has hit the skids," says Rains. When there is a dispute—over property or alimony, for instance—one member of an ostensibly-married couple may call the validity of their marriage into question, and the findings may not conform to that of the county official who granted the original license. 

For this reason, Rains has two simple pieces of advice for anyone considering being married by a minister ordained online: 

"Number one: You should not take legal advice off the Internet," he says. 

And second, if you have any doubts about whether the way you intend to get married is legal, the time to figure that out is now—before you get married. 

Net neutrality rules face legal challenges

Thu, 2015-02-05 02:00

The Federal Communications Commission is considering new rules to regulate the Internet. The proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would reclassify Internet service providers (ISPs) as telecommunications services, as opposed to information services.

That seemingly small change would allow the FCC to regulate ISPs and enforce so-called net-neutrality rules.

The FCC is honing in on three areas of oversight: the blocking of access to any content, the 'throttling' of Internet traffic (slowing it down for reasons other than what may be technically necessary to maintain a network's operations), and paid prioritization (in which providers may favor some Internet traffic over others by creating 'fast lanes' for websites and services that can pay for them).

The FCC is proposing banning all of those practices.

"The day before the rules, and the day after: they're probably going to look pretty similar," at least for consumers, says Doug Drake, a telecom policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

For Internet providers, though, the adoption of the new rules could lead to a lot of uncertainty as lawsuits are sure to follow, Drake says. And he says they could lead to a number of unintended consequences as reclassifiying ISPs as telecommunications companies throws into question othe contracts that were agreed to on the premise that they are information companies.

"Companies like AT&T and Verizon have already stated very explicitly that they're going to sue," says Kevin Werbach, a former FCC counsel in the Clinton administration who is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

One of the key legal arguments to expect in the months to come, according to Werbach, is that the FCC previously said a company can either be a telecommunications service or an information service, but not both. ISPs may argue that they are elements of both and that the FCC must prove that they are not information companies before it can reclassify them, says Werbach.

"It's very unlikely that the legal issues will be resolved in less than a year or two," Werbach says.

And the lawsuits may not just challenge the new rules themselves. They could challenge how those rules are implemented, says David Farber, a former chief technologist at the FCC.

"Special interest groups will come and say: you can't not do this because it's in the rules," says Farber, referring to the discretion senior FCC officials say they have in deciding which elements of a law that now applies to telecommunications companies it will impose on Internet service providers.

Lobbying and lawsuits may force the FCC to impose new restrictions it hadn't planned on, says Farber, who opposes the new classification proposal.

We find the defendant, :-(

Thu, 2015-02-05 01:30
80 million

How many customers are in the database for Anthem Inc., the country's second-largest health insurer. In what is being reported as the largest data-breach of a health insurer to date, tens of millions of records have been hacked from the company — the exact number is currently being investigated. The WSJ has more on what steps Anthem is taking, including offering a credit-monitoring service to customers.

7 days

How many days of paid sick leave would be granted under the Healthy Families Act, legislation being pushed for by the Obama Administration. The change could have a big impact on the lives of restaurant and retail workers; statistically, just 24 percent and 47 percent of them get paid sick days, respectively.

25 million

How many Apple TV set-top boxes the tech giant has sold in the product's lifetime, without a substantial upgrade in years. Now Re/Code is reporting that Apple is in talks with producers to start its own web-TV service, ostensibly to compete with Netflix, HBO Go, Dish's new Sling and others. It would be a big step for Apple, which has been rumored to be prepping some kind of "smart TV" for years.

3 1/2 hours

The amount of time it took jurors to convict Ross Ulbricht, "digital kingpin" behind Silk Road, the online market for drugs and illicit goods. As reported by the New York Times, Ulbricht could face life in prison. The trial included moments of digital intrigue, including when a debate broke out about an emoticon in a text read aloud to the jury.

4,160,080

About how many commuters there are in Los Angeles County, Marketplace's home base. Most leave home between 7 and 9 a.m. A cool new interactive graphic from the blog Flowing Data shows how average commute times compare in counties around the country.

$2.25 per square foot

The rent in SubTropolis, a massive underground industrial park in Kansas City, about half the rent topside. Bloomberg has a profile and gorgeous photos of the space, built into an abandoned mine. About a thousand people work in the subterranean digs. The owners are trying to figure out what to do with the millions of square feet they have yet to develop.

We find the defendent, :-(

Thu, 2015-02-05 01:30
80 million

That's how many customers are in the database for Anthem Inc., the country's second-largest health insurer. In what is being reported as the largest data-breach of a health insurer to date, tens of millions of records have been hacked from the company — the exact number is currently being investigated. The WSJ has more on what steps Anthem is taking, including offering a credit-monitoring service to customers.

7 days

That's how many days of paid sick leave would be granted under the Healthy Families Act, legislation being pushed for by the Obama Administration. The change could have a big impact on the lives of restaurant and retail workers; statistically, just 24 percent and 47 percent of them get paid sick days, respectively.

25 million

That's how many Apple TV set-top boxes the tech giant has sold in the product's lifetime, without a substantial upgrade in years. Now Re/Code is reporting that Apple is in talks with producers to start its own web-TV service, ostensibly to Netflix, HBO Go, Dish's new Sling and others. It would be a big step for Apple, which has been rumored to be prepping some kind of "smart TV" for years.

3 1/2 hours

That's the little amount of time it took jurors to reach a verdict in the case against Ross Ulbricht, alleged mastermind behind the online market known as Silk Road. As reported by the NY Times, Ulbricht could now face a life sentence in prison. The trial included moments of digital intrigue, including when a debate broke out about the use of an emoticon in a text read aloud to the jury.

4,160,080

That's about how many commuters are in Los Angeles county, Marketplace's homebase, and most of them leave between 7 and 9 a.m. A cool new interactive graphic from the blog Flowing Data shows how average commute times compare in counties around the country.

$2.25 per square foot

That's the rent in SubTropolis, a massive underground industrial park in Kansas City, about half of rent topside. Bloomberg has a profile and gorgeous photos of the space, which has been built into an abandoned mine. About a thousand people work down there, and its owners are trying to figure out what to do with the millions of square feet they haven't developed yet.

One man's mission to get 'comprised of' off Wikipedia

Wed, 2015-02-04 13:07

I guess everyone has their pet peeves.

Medium profiled the Wikipedia editor "Giraffedata" on Tuesday. The prolific wiki-contributor — real name Bryan Henderson — has made over 47,000 edits, almost always to remove the common but erroneous phrase "comprised of."

For example: "The monthly jobs report is comprised of two surveys" should read: "The monthly jobs report consists of two surveys."

Henderson has the editing process down to a science, and most take seconds. Fellow editors and Wikipedia higher-ups have praised Giraffedata's commitment to his noble task.

Insurers often take sting out of high price of drugs

Wed, 2015-02-04 12:05

California-based bio-pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences released strong quarterly earnings Tuesday – revenues more than doubled from a year earlier and profits beat analysts’ estimates. Then, on Wednesday, the company’s stock fell more than 8 percent on the Nasdaq exchange.

The stock decline is pegged to Gilead’s telling investors that the company will offer deeper discounts in 2015 than it did last year on its most successful new drugs – Sovaldi and Harvoni – that are highly effective treatments for hepatitis C. The list price for an eight-to-12-week course of treatment with either drug ranges from $84,000 to well over $100,000.

Discounts being negotiated by health insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers will double to 46 percent in 2015, according to the company, while discounts for Medicaid and Veterans Administration programs are expected to be above 50 percent.

These new drugs are very costly to research and test, and have an astronomical list price, says Dr. Kavita Patel, who treats patients with hepatitis  C and researches drug pricing at the Brookings Institution. But “what is advertised as the ‘sticker price’ is not what anybody really pays if you have private health insurance,” she says.

Large insurers are likely to get the best deals on these drugs and pass at least some of the savings on to their customers, she says. Many patients in those plans will only pay up to a specific limit for the drugs, and then their health plan – whether private or government-run – will pick up the rest, according to Patel. Some patients may still face very high drug costs, or hurdles other than cost, to get the drugs – including multiple screenings, approvals and delays from their health plans, she says.

Health economist Gail Wilensky, a senior fellow at Project HOPE and an administrator of Medicare and Medicaid in the early 1990s, says the market is working properly in this case to allow prices for specialty drugs to fluctuate as competitors bring new hepatitis C drugs to market. Gilead and other pharmaceutical companies try to recoup as much of their development costs as they can in the window of time before they face serious competition from rival drugs, she says.

Gilead is facing that competition. And she says charges of overpricing in this case may be unjustified. Wilensky says she believes Gilead initially set its pricing so high not only to recoup drug development costs for hepatitis C and other research, but also because successful treatment with Sovaldi and Harvoni can dramatically decrease the long-term cost of hepatitis treatment and drugs, since in many cases it cures what has been until now a devastating chronic condition.

Why Staples may be allowed to buy Office Depot

Wed, 2015-02-04 11:03

On Wednesday, Staples announced it had entered into an agreement to purchase Office Depot for $6.3 billion in cash and stock. The merger came after a concerted effort by activist hedge fund Starboard Value. But it also came nearly two decades after a previous attempt to combine the two companies. That effort was foiled by antitrust issues, but this time the outcome may be different. 

In the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission decided that a merger between Office Depot and Staples would result in higher prices for consumers, according to Michael Keeley, an antitrust lawyer with Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider.

The rise of big-box stores and online retailers like Amazon have since changed the competitive landscape, says Robert Salomon, an associate professor of management and organizations at NYU's Stern School of Business.

Chris Christopher, an economist in charge of consumer markets at IHS Global Insight, says office supply and stationary retailer sales have been declining since 2008, and are expected to contract from $17.1 billion in 2014 to $15.9 billion in 2015 — a decline of 7 percent.

Keeley expects that Staples and Office Depot will argue that the changed competitive environment means a merger no longer allows them to control prices, but is simply about survival in a declining market. But FTC approval is never certain.

A brief history of Staples trying to buy Office Depot

Wed, 2015-02-04 11:03

On Wednesday, Staples announced it had entered into an agreement to purchase Office Depot for $6.3 billion in cash and stock. The merger came after a concerted effort by activist hedge fund Starboard Value. But it also came nearly two decades after a previous attempt to combine the two companies. That effort was foiled by antitrust issues, but this time the outcome may be different. 

Michael Keeley, an antitrust lawyer at Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider, says back in the 1990s, the FTC found Office Depot and Staples were setting their prices based on each other, and found a merger would result in higher prices for consumers. 

Robert Salomon, associate professor of management and organizations at NYU's Stern School of Business, says the years since have changed the competitive landscape, with the rise of big box stores and online retailers like Amazon. 

Chris Christopher, economist in charge of consumer markets at IHS Global Insight, says office supply and stationary retailer sales have been declining since 2008, and are expected to contract from $17.1 billion in 2014 to $15.9 billion in 2015 — a decline of 7 percent.

Keeley expects the companies to argue that the changed competitive environment means a merger no longer allows them to control prices, but is simply about survival in a declining market. But FTC approval is never certain.

Pent-up demand happily collides with new car models

Wed, 2015-02-04 11:00

Sales of new cars and trucks got off to a brisk start in January.  Low gas prices coupled with a resurgent U.S. economy are driving sales, particularly of high-end SUVs and pickup trucks. The world’s best-selling carmaker, Toyota, raised its fiscal-year forecast to a record high Wednesday, thanks to a weaker yen and strong U.S. sales.

The domestic auto market has been surging for some time. Nearly every carmaker selling in the U.S. has seen good things happen to its bottom line, partly because of operating changes made during the recession.

“The recession allowed the Detroit makers to catch up to in a lot of critical ways to their import competition, particularly the Japanese,” says Paul Eisenstein, publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com. "They were able to shed a lot of debt, they were able to drive down costs, labor costs in particular. They squeezed their suppliers, they got rid of unnecessary plants."

Pent-up demand from buyers also became a factor as many automakers rolled out a bevy of refreshed models, particularly in the high-profit, SUV and light truck markets.

"They have product in the market that they don't have to incentivize people to buy,” says Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research. Carmakers aren’t slashing sticker prices like they used to. But Dziczek says pressure to keep manufacturing costs low couldn’t be higher.

Per-car costs are much lower now because of wage and benefit concessions by the United Automobile Workers.  But the Detroit Three will negotiate a new four-year contract later this year. And this time labor wants a bigger share.

"Workers are going to be looking for base wage increases and more money, and companies are going to be looking for cost containment and cost constraint," Dziczek says.

Wage concessions have been key to a hiring surge at Ford.  On Wednesday, the company announced plans to add another 1,550 entry-level workers to help meet demand for its new F-150 trucks.

'Fresh Off the Boat' star Constance Wu on Asians and TV

Wed, 2015-02-04 10:42

Tonight a new network show premieres that is by all accounts your typical family comedy. It features young, attractive parents raising kids in a new city. But there is one big difference that makes the show stand out. The family at its center is Asian.

More than 20 years ago Margaret Cho’s show “All American Girl” debuted on ABC, and now the network is trying again with “Fresh Off the Boat,” a loose adaptation of celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir of the same name. It tells the story of Huang’s childhood in Orlando, Florida, after his family moves from Washington D.C. Constance Wu plays young Eddie’s mother, an immigrant from Taiwan.  

Wu says landing the role was a breath of fresh air for her:

“Usually I’ll be auditioning for the third lead and there will be Latina actresses, Indian actresses, African American actresses because it will be like, ‘let’s check off this box. We have our lead white girl and we need an ethnic slot.’ And I've actually been told ‘we've decided the guy’s best friend is going to be Asian so we needed the girl’s best friend to be black because we couldn't have two Asians. They want to check off their boxes, which in its own way is a kind of perverted gesture.”

Wu says she’s hoping “Fresh Off the Boat” along with ABC’s other minority-led shows “Black-ish” and “Cristela” signify changing tides industrywide:

“All the networks have always been willing to have ethnic people as the third or fourth lead or the best friend to the white person. But to actually let a black family or an Asian family carry a show, that’s something where there hasn't really been a precedent set in terms of a real financial gain. I think it’s good that they’re trying that, and I think it’s also necessary because the landscape of TV is changing.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” has faced some early criticism for stereotyping, and Eddie Huang recently wrote a piece for Vulture criticizing the show for being an "Asian sitcom for white people."  But Huang concludes by saying the show is still a positive step forward. Wu agrees:

“I’m really glad it’s happening, and it’s long overdue. There’s a lot of controversy in the Asian community about the fact that, for example, Scarlett Johansson recently was cast in the lead part for “Ghost in the Shell,” which is supposed to be an Asian female lead. And people are like, ‘Well, there is no Asian actor or actress who can carry that.’ And I understand from an investor’s viewpoint that if I want a return on my investment and I have Scarlett Johansson as my lead, I’ll probably get a bigger box office success than a no-name actor. That’s why I think our show, even if it’s not perfect, is important to the Asian community because if we do make money it’ll hopefully start the ball rolling in terms of finding that Asians can carry a show or a movie and be a box office draw, which will encourage investors to take that risk as well."

Starring in the first Asian-American sitcom in decades

Wed, 2015-02-04 10:42

Tonight a new network show premiere’s that is by all accounts your typical family comedy. It features young, attractive parents raising kids in a new city. But there is one big difference that makes the show stand out. The family at its center is Asian.

It was 20 years ago that Margaret Cho’s show “All American Girl” debuted on ABC, now the network is trying again with “Fresh Off the Boat,” a loose adaptation of celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir of the same name.The show tells the story of Huang’s childhood in Orlando, Florida after his family moves from Washington DC. Constance Wu plays young Eddie’s mother, an immigrant from Taiwan.  

Wu says landing the role was a breath of fresh air for her:

“Usually I’ll be auditioning for the third lead and there will be Latina actresses, Indian actresses, African American actresses because it will be like, ‘let’s check off this box. We have our lead white girl and we need an ethnic slot.’ And I've actually been told ‘we've decided the guy’s best friend is going to be Asian so we needed the girl’s best friend to be black because we couldn't have two Asians. They want to check off their boxes, which in its own way is a kind of perverted gesture.”

Wu says she’s hoping “Fresh Off the Boat” along with ABC’s other minority-led shows “Black-ish” and “Cristela” signify changing tides industry wide:

“All the networks have always been willing to have ethnic people as the third or fourth lead or the best friend to the white person. But to actually let a black family or an Asian family carry a show, that’s something where there hasn't really been a precedent set in terms of a real financial gain. I think it’s good that they’re trying that and I think it’s also necessary because the landscape of TV is changing.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” has faced some early criticism for stereotyping, and Eddie Huang recently wrote a piece for Vulture criticizing the show for being an "Asian sitcom for white people."  But Huang concludes by saying the show is still a positive step forward. Wu says she agrees:

“I’m really glad it’s happening and it’s long overdue. There’s a lot of controversy in the Asian community about the fact that for example Scarlett Johansson recently was cast in the lead part for “Ghost in the Shell,” which is supposed to be an Asian female lead. And people are like, ‘well, there is no Asian actor or actress who can carry that.’ And I understand from an investor’s viewpoint that if I want a return on my investment and I have Scarlett Johansson as my lead, I’ll probably get a bigger box office success than a no name actor. That’s why I think our show, even if it’s not perfect, is important to the Asian community because if we do make money it’ll hopefully start the ball rolling in terms of finding that Asians can carry a show or a movie and be a box office draw which will encourage investors to take that risk as well."

Starring in TV's first Asian sitcom in 20 years

Wed, 2015-02-04 10:42

Tonight a new network show premiere’s that is by all accounts your typical family comedy. It features young, attractive parents raising kids in a new city. But there is one big difference that makes the show stand out. The family at its center is Asian.

It was 20 years ago that Margaret Cho’s show “All American Girl” debuted on ABC, now the network is trying again with “Fresh Off the Boat,” a loose adaptation of celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir of the same name.The show tells the story of Huang’s childhood in Orlando, Florida after his family moves from Washington DC. Constance Wu plays young Eddie’s mother, an immigrant from Taiwan.  

Wu says landing the role was a breath of fresh air for her:

“Usually I’ll be auditioning for the third lead and there will be Latina actresses, Indian actresses, African American actresses because it will be like, ‘let’s check off this box. We have our lead white girl and we need an ethnic slot.’ And I've actually been told ‘we've decided the guy’s best friend is going to be Asian so we needed the girl’s best friend to be black because we couldn't have two Asians. They want to check off their boxes, which in its own way is a kind of perverted gesture.”

Wu says she’s hoping “Fresh Off the Boat” along with ABC’s other minority-led shows “Black-ish” and “Cristela” signify changing tides industry wide:

“All the networks have always been willing to have ethnic people as the third or fourth lead or the best friend to the white person. But to actually let a black family or an Asian family carry a show, that’s something where there hasn't really been a precedent set in terms of a real financial gain. I think it’s good that they’re trying that and I think it’s also necessary because the landscape of TV is changing.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” has faced some early criticism for stereotyping, and Eddie Huang recently wrote a piece for Vulture criticizing the show for being an "Asian sitcom for white people."  But Huang concludes by saying the show is still a positive step forward. Wu says she agrees:

“I’m really glad it’s happening and it’s long overdue. There’s a lot of controversy in the Asian community about the fact that for example Scarlett Johansson recently was cast in the lead part for “Ghost in the Shell,” which is supposed to be an Asian female lead. And people are like, ‘well, there is no Asian actor or actress who can carry that.’ And I understand from an investor’s viewpoint that if I want a return on my investment and I have Scarlett Johansson as my lead, I’ll probably get a bigger box office success than a no name actor. That’s why I think our show, even if it’s not perfect, is important to the Asian community because if we do make money it’ll hopefully start the ball rolling in terms of finding that Asians can carry a show or a movie and be a box office draw which will encourage investors to take that risk as well."

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