Marketplace - American Public Media

What the U.S. has gained from sequestration

Thu, 2015-01-29 09:45

Since the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration started in 2013, the budget deficit has gotten smaller. But it’s still hundreds of billions of dollars. Sequestration just nibbled at it.

“Sequestration has been saving us between $60 [billion] and $90 billion per year,” says Marc Goldwein, senior policy director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Now, that’s not enough to solve our debt problems. But it’s not nothing, either.”

Congress eased some of sequestration’s sting during the past two budget years. But it still bit hard enough for people like Emily Holubowich of the Coalition for Health Funding to notice. Under sequestration, she says, Congress sacrificed planning for medical emergencies like Ebola.

“They look and say, 'Well, where can we cut?'  We don’t need to invest in planning and preparedness. And it’s when you let your guard down that we see something else happen, like Ebola,” she says.

At the Pentagon, sequestration forced cuts in training. It meant deferred maintenance, and it limited pay increases.  Jim Savage, who teaches politics and public policy at the University of Virginia, doesn’t think much of sequestration.

“When you rely upon across-the-board measures, it’s usually the sign of weak management," he says. "It’s also another way of sort of avoiding political accountability – to make the hard choices.” 

But, Savage says, sequestration will force some hard choices on Congress this year. Lawmakers have already cut the low-hanging fruit.  There aren’t many spending cuts left that everyone can agree on. And remember, sequestration is scheduled to last until 2021. 

Fake snow is a genuine business plan for ski resorts

Thu, 2015-01-29 09:23

Across the West, skiers and winter resort operators pine for a blizzard like the one that blanketed the Northeast this week. A number of resorts in California, Oregon and Washington have had to temporarily or permanently suspend operations this season due to low snowpack. Things are so topsy-turvy, trail groomers in Anchorage, Alaska, had to resort to snowmaking to be able to open in time for the winter holidays.

"They don't need it in Cape Cod. They need it here in Washington," Kevin McCarthy, general manager of White Pass Ski Area,  says with a chuckle.

The snowpack at his resort in Washington State's Cascade Mountain Range is about 25 percent of normal, McCarthy says, a common predicament this winter up and down the West Coast. For some resorts, this is the second or third tough year in a row. Unreliable winter weather is increasingly forcing ski areas to rely on expensive snowmaking machines to remain viable.

"For three weeks we made snow, and it has been a lifesaver, tying the lower area to the upper mountain, which has enough natural snow to operate," McCarthy says.

A stretch of unusually balmy weather caused headline writers and outdoor enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest to nickname the normally snowy month of January  "Juneuary." Skiers at White Pass, where the terrain ranges from 4,500 to 6,500 feet elevation, had to look out for rocks, ice sheets and brown patches as they navigated the lower slopes.

But snowmaking machines aren't a cure-all. The White Pass Ski Area machines were shut down this week because it was too warm for them to work.

Still, McCarthy credits his small collection of "snow guns" for his ability to open on time and stay open. "Every time we go by these, we want to give them a hug," McCarthy says.

Snowmaking systems are not new in the ski industry. Resorts in the Midwest and East have relied on snowmaking for decades. Farther West there are more holdouts.

"The challenges of the weather, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, are causing the resorts to rethink their reliance only on natural snow," says Joe VanderKelen, president of SMI Snowmakers. The Michigan-based company is one of the biggest purveyors of snowmaking equipment and services.

"A lot of folks that said, 'Hey Joe, you're a nice guy, but jeez, we'll never have snowmaking at our mountain because you know we actually have too much snow' are now circling back," VanderKelen says.

Resort owners recognize the threat of climate change, because they're seeing it, VanderKelen says. Spring now arrives more than two weeks earlier in the Lake Tahoe resort region than it did 50 years ago, according to a NASA study cited by the industry group Protect Our Winters.

 VanderKelen says he tells resort operators that snowmaking gives them a chance to weatherproof their businesses. "There are literally over 100 resorts in North America that would have gone out of business without snowmaking, maybe 200," he says.

Customers may spend from $50,000 for a single snow gun and pumping station to $50 million to bring snow to an international resort such as Whistler in British Columbia, according to VanderKelen. And the expenses are ongoing. Ski industry consultant Dave Belin of RRC Associates in Boulder, Colorado, says the cost of water, energy use and labor make snowmaking a pricey proposition.

 "It really comes down to: Can you operate without it?" Belin says. "Most ski areas have decided they need it to maintain their operations from the beginning of the season all the way through to the end of the season."

Water availability and scarcity present additional challenges, especially for ski areas in drought-stricken parts of the West. In southern Oregon, Mount Ashland Ski Area management say they have looked into snowmaking systems to augment the snowpack at their oft-closed slopes. But they found the equipment too costly and say the ski area lacks an adequate water source to create manmade snow.

 "There are some big hurdles," says John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association. "Not only do you have to have water, you have to have low temps and low humidity" to make snow.

 

Change comes to Facebook one hire at a time

Thu, 2015-01-29 08:53

Before new Facebook employees get their computers, they go see Maxine Williams, global director of diversity at Facebook. Facebook says 85 percent of the tech employees at the company are male, and 53 percent are white. Williams has been charged with changing that, since she was hired a year and a half ago.

One of Williams' jobs is finding new talent for Facebook. “We have people now whose whole job is to think about how we can contribute to developing the pool for the future."

There are practical reasons behind Facebook's diversity mission, the value proposition isn't hard.

“We want to have as many different ways of seeing things,” Williams says, “and that’s what you miss when you don’t have enough diversity.”

And that can help Facebooks’ bottom line. “It will improve not just what we build but then how we serve people. Because we will understand people better," she says.

If Facebook can do that, Williams is convinced that the company will be more successful and create better products.

"There's a ridiculous amount of value in having more people that look like you, because now this place starts to belong to you," she says. "You see yourself in the fabric of it. You are now a protagonist in this story, and we all want to be protagonists in our story ... So it becomes our story when there are more of us."

 And that’s something Williams "likes."

Quiz: Women win the diploma race

Thu, 2015-01-29 07:19

Women earn more degrees than men at most levels of education, according to the Census Bureau.

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The fight over 529s is more important than you think

Thu, 2015-01-29 07:01

After a confident and sweeping State of the Union address focused on "middle-class economics," President Barack Obama found himself pivoting away from part of it Tuesday.

After an uproar over Obama's proposal to dismantle the college savings plan known as the 529, the President walked it back and abandoned the plan

How did one little program suddenly become so important? Here's what you need to know:

What's a 529 anyway?

Named for the relevant section in the tax code, a 529 college savings plan is similar to a 401k or IRA. It's a  a state-offered investment plan, often a mutual fund, set aside to cover college expenses for a set beneficiary.

The account grows tax-deferred, and 529 funds used for tuition, fees, books, supplies and in some cases room and board are tax-free. Some states also let the account holder write off contributions to 529s, so there are tax breaks going in both directions. Nearly every state offers them.

Who uses 529s?

The Obamas, for one, but they're part of a small group. A 2012 Government Accountability Office study found less than 3 percent of families have 529s. Even among households expecting education expenses or prioritizing college saving, 529s were rare. As of last summer, there were fewer than 12 million accounts nationwide, according to the College Savings Plans Network.

The families who use the plan are wealthier than those who don't. The GAO study found median income among families with 529s or the similar Coverdell plan had a median annual income of $142,400, and nearly half of them made more than $150,000 per year. That group was likely to see a median tax savings of $3,132, while families making less than $100,000 saved $561.

Why did Obama want to get rid of it?

It's part of his broader tax proposal laid out in the days leading up to the State of the Union and focused on the middle class. Obama's 2016 budget would get rid of the tax breaks from 529s and use the money to expand the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

That program applies only to households making less than $180,000 per year, and it can cut taxes by up to $2,500 per year or give households that don't make enough to owe taxes up to $1,000 in refunds. Obama's plan would up the refund and make the credit available to part-time and fifth-year college students. 

So what's the problem?

Prominent lawmakers on both sides of the aisle spoke out against the change in public and private. Speaker of the House John Boehner said the president was scuttling a plan that already helped middle-class families, and a Republican representative reintroduced bipartisan legislation to expand 529s.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also urged the White House to drop the 529 proposal, which it did Tuesday, calling the furor a "distraction." An administration official told the New York Times other changes to the tax code would be able to fund the plan instead.

Why does it matter?

The proposal's undoing was, in part, that the definition of "middle class" is fluid. Any benefits to consolidating 529s into other tax credits aren't nearly as clear-cut as, say, as raising taxes on the super-rich and giving everyone else a break.

"The soaring cost of a college education makes even a six-figure income seem small," Russell Berman wrote in the Atlantic, adding that the small group benefiting from 529s might be doing well financially, but they're not all 1-percenters.

That's true for a lot of the little breaks in our complicated tax code, and cutting any of them can easily feel like a blow to the middle class — whoever that is.

None of this bodes well for  bipartisan tax reform. Writing for the Brookings Institution, David Wessel said it best: "It turns out that a lot of people prefer complexity to simplicity if simplicity means doing away with a tax break they get."

PODCAST: How do you solve a problem like Amazon?

Thu, 2015-01-29 03:00

Over the the last week, 43,000 fewer people had to file for unemployment benefits, which is a good sign. More on that. Plus, the first of the big oil companies to report their latest round of results is Shell. The Anglo-Dutch company managed to increase its profits even with the price of gasoline we've all been seeing. CEO Ben Van Beurden says he's cutting spending by $15 billion dollars over the next three years to adjust. But, in a controversial move, Shell will keep expanding off Alaska. Also later today, Amazon will report its sales and profits. The internet giant's stock has taken a beating from investors frustrated with the company's heavy spending and not so heavy profits. 

NASA's new satellite attracts data hungry businesses

Thu, 2015-01-29 03:00

SMAP stands for Soil Moisture Active Passive – a reference to the sensors on board. The satellite will scan the Earth’s soil for moisture down to about 5cm of depth ... once it gets aloft. Thursday's launch was scrubbed because of poor wind conditions; NASA will try again on Friday.

Bradley Doorn, program manager of NASA’s Water Resources Applied Research Program, says the mission has several primary purposes: “One largely is drought, and understanding drought better but also things like flood forecasting and weather forecasting. The information is unprecedented.”

The $916 million, three year mission has attracted the interest of hundreds of government agencies, private sector companies, environmental groups, and universities — 45 so-called “early adopters” have already started working with NASA to prepare to use the satellite’s data. 

The City University of New York and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection want the data for management of the city’s drinking water supply. The World Food Program plans on using the data for flood forecasting. Doorn says John Deere, Environment Canada, and Willis Re, a reinsurance company, are also preparing to use the soil moisture data.

Doorn says it isn’t unusual for NASA to partner with other groups, but NASA has been trying to get organizations involved earlier on in the process. “Soil moisture is such a critical measurement that many users readily see as needed, so they immediately are drawn to it. There are a lot of people hungry for data, and hungry for this type of information,” he says.

SMAP scans the Earth’s surface with microwaves, which can slightly penetrate soil, and interprets the reflected waves for signs of moisture. The observatory also scans the Earth’s natural microwave emissions. 

And if you're curious about what SMAP will hear while it's out in the atmosphere, NASA's soundcloud account has you covered:

Post-bankruptcy Detroit's a bargain for corporations

Thu, 2015-01-29 02:00

2014 was a big year for Detroit. It was the year the city emerged from bankruptcy, shed a crippling load of debt and saw a renewal of interest from outside investors.

Despite the positive buzz, 2015 will be another year of challenges for the motor city, as it seeks to continue creating jobs, while also slowly starting the process of rebuilding neighborhoods.

But, if you’re looking for proof that the “Detroit brand” still sells, take a look at Shinola. The epitome of hipster chic, the company makes thousand-dollar watches and high end leather goods.

Shinola moved to Detroit in 2013 with the idea of tapping into a kind of collective pining for America’s blue collar manufacturing past. Its big idea was that “Made in Detroit” would sell better than “Made in America,” and it was right.

"Often it is positioned that Shinola has done something wonderful for Detroit,” says Shinola CEO Steve Bock. “The reality of the situation is that Detroit has done a wonderful job of helping Shinola get off the ground; we are very, very happy with our decision to come here."

Shinola employs 350 people, with 260 actually based in Detroit. The company has plans to add 5 to 6 new stores in 2015. Following the resolution of the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy, many investors and corporations now see Detroit as a bargain.

Despite all the positive trends, Detroit’s unemployment rate still is still hovering around 14 percent—roughly twice the state average.

"There's no magic jobs fairy and so someone's got to be able to create jobs and to create jobs you need capital,” says Crain’s Detroit Business Editor Amy Haimerl. Unlike previous “Come to Jesus” moments for the city, this time she says Detroit can’t ignore the need for investment in small and medium-sized businesses.

"In the past, it was always about tax breaks and get the big company to come in from somewhere else,” she says. “That's wonderful, but we're also focusing on the other end of jobs creation which are neighborhood businesses, small businesses which may only hire 3 or 4 people at a time."

Job growth is one thing, but for many Detroiters the first step forward is as simple as streetlights — close to half of which haven’t worked in years. This has been a particular problem for restaurants and shops.

“So a lot of businesses had to cut down their hours, because after a certain time there was no business,” says Esteban Perez. Perez is manager of La Terezza Mexican restaurant in Southwest Detroit.

Detroit is now turning on some 500 new LED streetlights per week. And Perez says other, small but big things are happening, too. Trash is getting picked up, police response times are decreasing, and things he says, just seem better.

“You know we're all coming together as a city,” he says. “So right now, Detroit is the place to be, whether you want to open up a business, whether you want to buy a house."

In terms of housing, blight remains a huge challenge for Detroit. As many as 40,000 properties are slated for demolition. The city’s land bank is auctioning the few that remain salvageable, and it just announced a new program to sell vacant homes to city employees and retirees at half price.

How health insurance will factor into your tax return

Thu, 2015-01-29 02:00

U.S. officials now say as many as six million households in America may have to pay a fine for failing to have health care coverage. Whether you do or don't is reported on your next tax return, and those who don't meet the rules for exceptions will have to pay $95 a person, or 1 percent of family income as a penalty.

Under the Obama Administration's Affordable Care Act, the principle is known as "shared responsibility." But how well has this insurance mandate worked?

Click the media player above to hear more.

Post bankruptcy, corporations see Detroit as a bargain

Thu, 2015-01-29 02:00

2014 was a big year for Detroit. It was the year the city emerged from bankruptcy, shed a crippling load of debt and saw a renewal of interest from outside investors.

Despite the positive buzz, 2015 will be another year of challenges for the motor city, as it seeks to continue creating jobs, while also slowly starting the process of rebuilding neighborhoods.

But, if you’re looking for proof that the “Detroit brand” still sells, take a look at Shinola. The epitome of hipster chic, the company makes thousand-dollar watches and high end leather goods.

Shinola moved to Detroit in 2013 with the idea of tapping into a kind of collective pining for America’s blue collar manufacturing past. Its big idea was that “Made in Detroit” would sell better than “Made in America,” and it was right.

"Often it is positioned that Shinola has done something wonderful for Detroit,” says Shinola CEO Steve Bock. “The reality of the situation is that Detroit has done a wonderful job of helping Shinola get off the ground; we are very, very happy with our decision to come here."

Shinola employs 350 people, with 260 actually based in Detroit. The company has plans to add 5 to 6 new stores in 2015. Following the resolution of the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy, many investors and corporations now see Detroit as a bargain.

Despite all the positive trends, Detroit’s unemployment rate still is still hovering around 14 percent—roughly twice the state average.

"There's no magic jobs fairy and so someone's got to be able to create jobs and to create jobs you need capital,” says Crain’s Detroit Business Editor Amy Haimerl. Unlike previous “Come to Jesus” moments for the city, this time she says Detroit can’t ignore the need for investment in small and medium-sized businesses.

"In the past, it was always about tax breaks and get the big company to come in from somewhere else,” she says. “That's wonderful, but we're also focusing on the other end of jobs creation which are neighborhood businesses, small businesses which may only hire 3 or 4 people at a time."

Job growth is one thing, but for many Detroiters the first step forward is as simple as streetlights — close to half of which haven’t worked in years. This has been a particular problem for restaurants and shops.

“So a lot of businesses had to cut down their hours, because after a certain time there was no business,” says Esteban Perez. Perez is manager of La Terezza Mexican restaurant in Southwest Detroit.

Detroit is now turning on some 500 new LED streetlights per week. And Perez says other, small but big things are happening, too. Trash is getting picked up, police response times are decreasing, and things he says, just seem better.

“You know we're all coming together as a city,” he says. “So right now, Detroit is the place to be, whether you want to open up a business, whether you want to buy a house."

In terms of housing, blight remains a huge challenge for Detroit. As many as 40,000 properties are slated for demolition. The city’s land bank is auctioning the few that remain salvageable, and it just announced a new program to sell vacant homes to city employees and retirees at half price.

Why the internet is a luxury in Cuba

Thu, 2015-01-29 02:00

After 50 years, the United States and Cuba announced in December that they plan to normalize relations. It’s too early to tell what this will mean exactly, but U.S. companies are eager to start doing business with Cuba—Especially telecom companies that see opportunities to build infrastructure in one of the least connected countries in the world.

Ted Henken, Chair of Baruch College’s Sociology and Anthropology Departments and co-author of Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape, says expense is a huge factor in preventing Cubans from using the internet. One hour of internet service typically costs $5. That might not seem like much, but average monthly earnings in Cuba are just $20. Cuba also bans certain websites.

But none of this has stopped people from accessing the internet, says Henken. “There’s a saying in Cuba,” he adds. “Everything is prohibited but anything goes.”

The most common way people use the internet is through flash drives loaded with news and apps, which they buy every week to stay up to date. Henken says this method has “penetrated all parts of the island.”

The other options is “mesh networks," where people hook up a bunch of computers together in various neighborhoods. This allows people in the network to share information and play games

Henken sees a “broad based demand” for open access to the internet among Cubans. He says there is “a rising level of frustration, because Cubans ... they are connected to modern ideas but they can't share them easily with one another or get new ideas easily from outside the country.”

Amazon reports earnings amid frustrated investors

Thu, 2015-01-29 02:00

Late Thursday, Amazon will report its earnings for the fourth quarter of 2014. The internet giant’s stock has taken a beating from investors frustrated with the company’s heavy spending and not-so-heavy profits.

This despite a new report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners that estimates Amazon's Prime service now has 40 million U.S. subscribers, many of them added during the holiday shopping season. 

Is it possible the company finished up the year on an upswing?

Click the media player above to hear more.

Detroit looking to build momentum in 2015

Thu, 2015-01-29 02:00

2014 was a big year for Detroit. It was the year the city emerged from bankruptcy, shed a crippling load of debt and saw a renewal of interest from outside investors.

Despite the positive buzz, 2015 will be another year of challenges for the motor city, as it seeks to continue creating jobs, while also slowly starting the process of rebuilding neighborhoods.

But, if you’re looking for proof that the “Detroit brand” still sells, take a look at Shinola. The epitome of hipster chic, the company makes thousand-dollar watches and high end leather goods.

Shinola moved to Detroit in 2013 with the idea of tapping into a kind of collective pining for America’s blue collar manufacturing past. Its big idea was that “Made in Detroit” would sell better than “Made in America,” and it was right.

"Often it is positioned that Shinola has done something wonderful for Detroit,” says Shinola CEO Steve Bock. “The reality of the situation is that Detroit has done a wonderful job of helping Shinola get off the ground; we are very, very happy with our decision to come here."

Shinola employs 350 people, with 260 actually based in Detroit. The company has plans to add 5 to 6 new stores in 2015. Following the resolution of the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy, many investors and corporations now see Detroit as a bargain.

Despite all the positive trends, Detroit’s unemployment rate still is still hovering around 14 percent—roughly twice the state average.

"There's no magic jobs fairy and so someone's got to be able to create jobs and to create jobs you need capital,” says Crain’s Detroit Business Editor Amy Haimerl. Unlike previous “Come to Jesus” moments for the city, this time she says Detroit can’t ignore the need for investment in small and medium-sized businesses.

"In the past, it was always about tax breaks and get the big company to come in from somewhere else,” she says. “That's wonderful, but we're also focusing on the other end of jobs creation which are neighborhood businesses, small businesses which may only hire 3 or 4 people at a time."

Job growth is one thing, but for many Detroiters the first step forward is as simple as streetlights — close to half of which haven’t worked in years. This has been a particular problem for restaurants and shops.

“So a lot of businesses had to cut down their hours, because after a certain time there was no business,” says Esteban Perez. Perez is manager of La Terezza Mexican restaurant in Southwest Detroit.

Detroit is now turning on some 500 new LED streetlights per week. And Perez says other, small but big things are happening, too. Trash is getting picked up, police response times are decreasing, and things he says, just seem better.

“You know we're all coming together as a city,” he says. “So right now, Detroit is the place to be, whether you want to open up a business, whether you want to buy a house."

In terms of housing, blight remains a huge challenge for Detroit. As many as 40,000 properties are slated for demolition. The city’s land bank is auctioning the few that remain salvageable, and it just announced a new program to sell vacant homes to city employees and retirees at half price.

Flights of fancy: There's big money in drones

Thu, 2015-01-29 01:30
12 percent

How much Royal Dutch Shell reported its earnings rose in the fourth quarter, as reported by the New York Times. But as oil prices continue to plunge, some have questioned if big oil companies would pull back on exploration projects planned in the next year or so — a suspicion confirmed by chief executive Ben van Beurden, who said the company would defer some projects and cancel others. 

$9

How much ad revenue Facebook made per user in the U.S. and Canada last quarter, the Wall Street Journal reported. Revenue is up 49 percent, thanks to the company's incredible growth in mobile advertising. More than a third of users now experience Facebook solely on mobile. But it's not all good news for investors: Facebook's expenses have grown 87 percent, cutting deeply into profits.

260 workers

How many workers hipster-chic company Shinola — maker of thousand-dollar watches and leather goods — employs in Detroit. The company moved to the city in 2013 as part of a bet that "Made in Detroit" would sell better than "Made in America." So far, so good, says Shinola CEO Steve Bock. And now that Detroit's bankruptcy is settled, other businesses are seeing the Motor City as a bargain.

$16.6 million

How much eBay made selling drones over the past 10 months, Forbes reported. Sales spiked over the holidays, with the retailer moving an average of 7,600 recreational drones per week between Thanksgiving and Christmas, five times the average sales over the summer.

$80

The most start-up Plowz and Mowz will charge to clear a driveway this winter. The company expected to process 2,000 plowing jobs in Boston following this week's blizzard. Bloomberg profiled so-called "Uber for snowplows" companies, which are capitalizing on the nor'easter and trying to modernize the lucrative private plowing business.

487 bytes

The size of the world's smallest chess computer program. As reported by the BBC, the program takes up about as much space as a couple imageless tweets.

You get a drone! You get a drone! Everyone gets drones!

Thu, 2015-01-29 01:30
12 percent

That's how much Royal Dutch Shell reported its earnings rose in the fourth quarter, as reported by the New York Times. But as oil prices continue to plunge, some have questioned if big oil companies would pull back on exploration projects planned in the next year or so — a suspicion confirmed by chief executive Ben van Beurden, who said the company would defer some projects and cancel others. 

$9

That's how much ad revenue Facebook made per user in the U.S. and Canada last quarter, the Wall Street Journal reported. Revenue is up 49 percent, thanks to the company's incredible growth in mobile advertising. These days more than a third of users experience Facebook solely on mobile. But it's not all good news for investors: Facebook's expenses have grown 87 percent, cutting deeply into profits.

260 workers

That's how many workers hipster-chic company Shinola—maker of thousand-dollar watches and leather goods—employs in Detroit. The company moved to the city in 2013 as part of a bet that "Made in Detroit" would sell better than "Made in America." So far, so good, says Shinola CEO Steve Bock. And now that Detroit's bankruptcy is settled, other businesses are seeing the Motor City as a bargain.

$16.6 million

That's how much eBay made selling drones in the past ten months, Forbes reported. Sales spiked over the holidays, with the retailer moving an average of 7,600 recreational drones per week between Thanksgiving and Christmas, five times average sales over the summer.

$80

The most start-up Plowz and Mowz will charge to clear a driveway this winter. The company expected to process 2,000 plowing jobs in Boston following this week's blizzard. Bloomberg profiled so-called "Uber for snowplows" companies, which are capitalizing on the nor'easter and trying to modernize the lucrative private plowing business.

487 bytes

That's the size of the world's smallest chess computer program. As reported by the BBC, the program takes up about as much space as a couple image-less tweets.

Big Oil's first cut: exploration

Thu, 2015-01-29 01:30

Shell reports earnings on Thursday, the first of the Big Oil financial snapshots. And like the other companies, a big question is how plunging oil prices will affect exploration.

Projects a year or two off are the ones companies are likely to dial back in response to low oil prices. Dominic Haywood, an analyst at Energy Aspects in London, says that could mean postponing or canceling pricier oil discovery projects, like the Arctic, which holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, according to Shell. Drilling there is also controversial, says Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis for Oil Price Information Service.

“One of the casualties of the lower price environment will be some of those projects that are in places that are gonna be provoking some sort of public outrage,” he says. Kloza also says until prices go up, Big Oil will probably stick to what’s safer and cheaper.

A move to simplify the FAFSA

Wed, 2015-01-28 13:42

A huge chart outside of Terri Williams’ office at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy tracks where all 90 seniors at the Baltimore high school are in the college application process. “Have they gone on any college tours, how many applications have they done, have they completed their FAFSA?” says Williams, a college access specialist with the CollegeBound Foundation.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is used by the federal government, states and colleges to figure out who gets aid, and how much. Most of Williams’ students don’t have a shot at affording college without help, so she sends out letters and text messages – even intercepts students on their way to the bathroom – to make sure they complete the form on time.

The FAFSA goes live each year on Jan.1 and is due March 1 in most states. “I don’t care where they are,” she says. “I’m going to stop you so we can get it taken care of.”

Taking care of it means answering up to 108 questions. Questions like: Have you had a drug conviction? How much do your parents make? Is either a “dislocated worker?”

For many students, just tracking down some of that information can be a challenge. “They feel like ‘This is too much, I can't do it, and I’m not going to get anything anyway,’” Williams says. In reality, most of her students would be eligible for the maximum Pell grant, which is $5,730 this year. Because more than 1 million high school seniors don't bother to fill out the FAFSA each year, they fail to claim millions of dollars in financial aid.

The government is trying to make things easier. The Obama Administration proposed eliminating 27 questions. A bipartisan bill in Congress would replace the FAFSA with a postcard asking just two questions about household size and income. For most families, those two questions tell the government everything it needs to know, says Carrie Warick of the National College Access Network. “Most of those additional questions are really targeted at families with much more complicated financial situations,” Warick says, like wealthier families with assets and investments.

 The FAFSA does have some defenders. The vast majority of students now fill it out online, says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “Skip logic” technology lets them bypass questions that don’t apply. “The average student today can complete the entire FAFSA, start to finish, in 20 minutes,” Draeger says.

But that doesn’t count the time it may take to dig up and sort through tax files and bank records. Draeger is all for getting rid of questions that don’t have anything to do with a student’s financial need, like the one about drug convictions.

Still, Draeger says, colleges rank students according to their relative need when they distribute their own grants and scholarships, and they need a lot of details to do that fairly. “If we make the application too simple, that ultimately means that more colleges will introduce their own applications,” Draeger says. “The net result for students is nothing. Nothing’s changed.”

There is one change pretty much everyone agrees on: The current FAFSA asks for data from the most recent tax year, but if you’re applying for aid right now, that would be 2014. Most people haven’t filed their taxes yet. 

If families could use their returns from one year earlier, they could import their tax information directly from the IRS, says Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. They could also apply for aid earlier. “If you can file the FAFSA more easily and earlier, you’re much more likely to benefit from all the available aid that can help you pay for college and get to graduation,” she says.

In many states, grant money is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis — until it’s gone. A recent report from Edvisors, a publisher of student aid information, says students who file their FAFSA in the first three months of the year get more than twice as much grant aid, on average, as those who wait longer.

A move to simplify the dreaded FAFSA

Wed, 2015-01-28 13:42

A huge chart outside of Terri Williams’ office at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy tracks where all 90 seniors at the Baltimore high school are in the college application process. “Have they gone on any college tours, how many applications have they done, have they completed their FAFSA?” says Williams, a college access specialist with the CollegeBound Foundation.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is used by the federal government, states and colleges to figure out who gets aid, and how much. Most of Williams’ students don’t have a shot at affording college without help, so she sends out letters and text messages – even intercepts students on their way to the bathroom – to make sure they complete the form on time.

The FAFSA goes live each year on Jan.1 and is due March 1 in most states. “I don’t care where they are,” she says. “I’m going to stop you so we can get it taken care of.”

Taking care of it means answering up to 108 questions. Questions like: Have you had a drug conviction? How much do your parents make? Is either a “dislocated worker?”

For many students, just tracking down some of that information can be a challenge. “They feel like ‘This is too much, I can't do it, and I’m not going to get anything anyway,’” Williams says. In reality, most of her students would be eligible for the maximum Pell grant, which is $5,730 this year. Because more than 1 million high school seniors don't bother to fill out the FAFSA each year, they fail to claim millions of dollars in financial aid.

The government is trying to make things easier. The Obama Administration proposed eliminating 27 questions. A bipartisan bill in Congress would replace the FAFSA with a postcard asking just two questions about household size and income. For most families, those two questions tell the government everything it needs to know, says Carrie Warick of the National College Access Network. “Most of those additional questions are really targeted at families with much more complicated financial situations,” Warick says, like wealthier families with assets and investments.

 The FAFSA does have some defenders. The vast majority of students now fill it out online, says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “Skip logic” technology lets them bypass questions that don’t apply. “The average student today can complete the entire FAFSA, start to finish, in 20 minutes,” Draeger says.

But that doesn’t count the time it may take to dig up and sort through tax files and bank records. Draeger is all for getting rid of questions that don’t have anything to do with a student’s financial need, like the one about drug convictions.

Still, Draeger says, colleges rank students according to their relative need when they distribute their own grants and scholarships, and they need a lot of details to do that fairly. “If we make the application too simple, that ultimately means that more colleges will introduce their own applications,” Draeger says. “The net result for students is nothing. Nothing’s changed.”

There is one change pretty much everyone agrees on: The current FAFSA asks for data from the most recent tax year, but if you’re applying for aid right now, that would be 2014. Most people haven’t filed their taxes yet. 

If families could use their returns from one year earlier, they could import their tax information directly from the IRS, says Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. They could also apply for aid earlier. “If you can file the FAFSA more easily and earlier, you’re much more likely to benefit from all the available aid that can help you pay for college and get to graduation,” she says.

In many states, grant money is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis — until it’s gone. A recent report from Edvisors, a publisher of student aid information, says students who file their FAFSA in the first three months of the year get more than twice as much grant aid, on average, as those who wait longer.

Taylor Swift, trademark diva

Wed, 2015-01-28 13:32

Taylor Swift is the very model of a shrewd entrepreneur.

She has secured trademarks for a whole mess of lyrics from her most recent zillion-selling album, "1989," including "Party Like It's 1989," "This Sick Beat," and "Nice to Meet You. Where You Been?"

She owns them for "public appearances," "clothing" and "ornaments" among other goods and services, according to the trademark.

As the website Vox points out, singers make an increasing slice of their income not from actual singing, but from all of the related stuff. 

 

When oil prices fall, Big Oil has an advantage

Wed, 2015-01-28 11:11

It's not that big oil companies love low oil prices, but a part of them doesn't mind. Companies like Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron — which report earnings over the next few days — aren't just producers selling crude oil. They're also refiners, buying crude and selling gasoline. When crude prices drop, that's good for the refinery side of the business. 

The big producers have another big advantage: long-term planning. "They're always looking at least 10 to 20 years down the road, so they're not a quarter-to-quarter type company," says James Sweeney, a Stanford University professor who studies energy policy.

On the other hand, thousands of smaller producers borrowed money to finance their drilling. Low oil prices are likely putting some of them "in bankruptcy mode," says David Bellman of All Energy Consulting.

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