Marketplace - American Public Media
When Adena DeMonte first met her boyfriend Dan, he put one thing out on the table: one day, he wanted to get married. His own parents had never tied the knot, and he'd grown up wanting to have marriage in his life.
“So from day one of our relationship, we literally had this conversation,” DeMonte says. “I basically committed to him that not then, but one day, I would get married.”
Fast forward nine years, they've got good careers in the tech industry, an apartment together in Mountain View, California and DeMonte's starting to feel ready to make good on that marriage promise.
There's one thing you should know about her: she's a total finance nut. So much so, that she thought she'd broach the marriage conversation with Dan by talking about tax savings.
“Kind of to tease him a little bit,” she says. “'If we were married, we would save x number of dollars this year and next year.'"
But, when DeMonte looked up that number of dollars online, she discovered that if she and Dan got married this year, they'd actually pay about $1,000 more in taxes than they would as single people. If they both make more money down the line, they could get an even higher tax penalty for being married.
The idea that marriage might cost her tens of thousands of dollars some day, when those dollars might sustain her if she lost her job or wanted to stay home with kids, suddenly didn't seem very responsible — which was pretty tough news to break to Dan.
“We both said, 'Wow that's crazy that the government is actually saying that if you are two people making the same amount of money married, versus two people making the same amount of money separate, you're actually going to end up paying more,'” she says.
The marriage penalty comes from an attempt to make taxes fairer. Up until the 1940s, couples would file as individuals, but around World War II, when the top income tax rate was very high, some rich couples were figuring out a trick. Say one spouse made a $100,000 a year and the other made nothing. If they split it, report that each spouse made $50,000, they'd dodge the highest tax bracket. A good deal for them, but unfair to less-savvy tax filers.
“So the result in 1948 was actually just to accept that benefit, and give it to every married couple,"says Stephanie McMahon of the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
The government decided to let every married couple file jointly.
“Every married couple could shift income from one spouse and split it between both spouses,” McMahon says.
But single people started complaining about the fairness of filing jointly, questioning why married people got to save money on taxes. In 1969, McMahon says, single individuals managed to get a reduced tax bracket compared to joint filers.
This created the little-known singles bonus. But there's a problem, if someone is in a marriage where both people make a similar amount of money, they don't get any benefit from shifting their income between spouses. So, they pay more taxes than everyone else.
The cutoffs for certain tax benefits, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, are lower for two married people than they are for two single people. So lower-income married couples can get penalized too.
James Alm, an economist at Tulane University, found a small, but significant, impact of the marriage penalty on people's marriage decisions.
"A 10 percent increase in the marriage penalty decreases the likelihood of your getting married by one or two percent," he says.
But it's more about the principle of the thing to him.
“The main factor in regards to the marriage penalty is just kind of the notion of fairness,” he says. “Is it appropriate that people's taxes should change, positively or negatively, simply because they're getting married?”
Alm would prefer to return to a system where everyone files as an individual, a trend he sees in other countries right now.
Meanwhile, Adena DeMonte is still weighing her options.
“If anyone out there can convince me that I should get married, please do, because I want to get married. But it just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense right now," she says.
She says if Dan proposed today, she'd say yes. But instead of actually getting married, she'd ask to have a lawyer write up a marriage-like commitment agreement for them — which she admits, sounds terribly unromantic.
Instead of house or trance music, it’s mostly pop and dance remixes blaring from the speakers at Cielo, a club in Manhattan’s trendy meatpacking district. The music’s loud, but not too loud. Club-goers in T-shirts and Converse sneakers fill the dance floor, coated in neon stickers with glowsticks looped around their necks and wrists.
While a team of professional dancers call out steps, 7-year-old Atlas Geirsson is busy covering himself in orange tape that glows under the club’s lights. In a word, he thinks the party is “awesome.”
Kids ranging from 3 to 12-year-olds, joined by their parents, came clubbing in New York to celebrate Halloween 2014.JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
For 8-year-old Jeremy Vanderhook, it’s all about the novelty: “I’ve never been to a club before,” Vanderhook says.
“You have all of these beautiful venues that are vacant during the day,” says Jesse Sprague, who runs these events with his wife Jenny Song through their company, Cirkiz.
“We joke with the bouncer when we come in [to a club] for the first time,” he says. “We say, ‘You have the opposite job today, your job is to keep everyone in.’”
Sprague used to manage nightclubs and met Song at the Limelight two decades ago, at a party for fashion designer Jean Paul Gautier’s birthday. When they became parents and wanted to throw a party for their son’s first birthday — forget Chuck E. Cheese or a bouncy castle — a club seemed a natural choice for them.
The positive feedback from their guests gave them the idea to develop a business around kids’ parties. Their model is relatively simple: rent the clubs during the day when they’d usually be closed, hire entertainers, add some decorations, offer food and charge for admission. A single person costs $20 with group packages topping $1,000 or more.
Kids dance at a New York club during a party organized by CirKiz last October.JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Cirkiz’s last three monthly parties have sold out at 300 spots each. That’s encouraged Sprague and Song to look for opportunities to expand, perhaps to larger clubs and other cities.
Mom Kelvia Rosario comes to the grown-up version of Cielo every couple of months — it’s one of her favorite nightspots. When she heard they were hosting kids’ parties, she decided to bring her five-year-old son Ociel.
Ociel, dressed in a button -own shirt, was practically hugging his mom’s leg at the edge of the dance floor, not yet ready to join in. For some kids, club life takes a little getting used to.
A robot entertainer delights kids at a party hosted in a nightclub for Halloween 2014.JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
It might just be the the real estate story to end all real estate stories.
There's a new paper out from the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Commerce Department about the value of the land in the United States.
Well, the 48 contiguous states, at least.
It all adds up to 1.89 billion acres, worth a grand total of approximately $23 trillion. California is cited as the most valuable state, and Wyoming the least.
The federal government owns 24 percent of all the land by area, but just 8 percent by dollar value.
President Obama is now trying to sell the framework agreement to monitor and limit Iran's nuclear program to the American people, to skeptical members of Congress and to very skeptical allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
A final deal will still be difficult to conclude and could be scuttled by opponents in Congress or Tehran, but if Iran does eventually emerge from decades of economic sanctions (originally dating to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and significantly expanded by the U.N. in 2006), it could become a regional economic powerhouse.
According to sources including the CIA World Factbook, the World Bank and the United Nations, Iran has:
- The largest natural gas reserves in the world.
- The third-largest proven oil reserves in the world.
- Among the most zinc in the world, plus copper, iron, lead and coal.
- Well-developed industry compared to its Middle East neighbors, including auto and cement plants, food production and telecom.
- More than 75 million consumers, many of them middle class and attuned to Western products and styles.
“If sanctions are removed, then you could see a country that becomes quite dynamic and would be seen as the next big emerging market,” says Daniel Yergin, energy expert at IHS and author of "The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World."
Iran also has a skilled, well-educated, highly literate population, says Kaveh Ehsani at DePaul University.
"The human resources are tremendous, the higher-education system is very good and Iranian students are highly motivated," Ehsani says.
But there are significant obstacles to Iran becoming a significant player in global markets, Eshani and others point out. The biggest potential global entry for Iran would be in natural gas. By sheer reserves, Iran could knock out Russia as the major supplier to Europe. But sanctions have left Iran’s infrastructure outdated and in ill-repair, says former oil trader Stephen Schork, editor of the Schork Report.
The country also lacks adequate pipelines or liquid natural-gas plants to get its gas to market. And it would have to significantly improve relations with neighbors to add new pipeline capacity across their territories.
“I am skeptical that Iran can compete with Russia or Qatar or Australia or the United States,” says Schork.
Other analysts say that decades of sanctions and economic isolation combined with Iran’s centralized theocratic government, have suffocated the private sector and innovation, and bred corruption among a powerful conservative political elite that may not want its wings clipped by economic reformers now.
Think of Girl Scouts and immediately, the mind wanders back to a box Thin Mints stored away in the freezer. But besides building business savvy with cookie selling, Girl Scouts also aims to teach young women leadership, compassion and other lifelong skills.
Anna Maria Chávez grew up in Eloy, Arizona, participating in her local Girl Scout troop. Now, as CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, Chavez wants to be an advocate for the organization.
"I go out to local communities and talk to their local leaders about the need to invest in girls," says Chávez, who took on the organization's top job in 2011 and is the first Latina at the helm.
Today’s young workers will be part of one of the most technologically advanced generations. With that in mind, the Girls Scouts decided to integrate technology into their famous cookie business.
"Just this year, we created the first ever digital cookie program," Chávez says. "It allowed girls to use the technology they use every day to create their own business online."
The digital cookie program teaches some basic principles of running an online business, and as well as giving buyers an option to have orders shipped or delivered in person. Taking the cookie business onto the web was a slow process, Chávez says, because of safety concerns about exposing Scouts to new technologies.
"It's a pretty complicated Girl Scout program," she says. "When you think about the millions of customers we touch every day during our Girl Scout cookie program, and the transactions that happen, we had to ensure that customers felt comfortable giving us their Visa numbers and that girls were also in a safe space to communicate with adults."
Chávez says the biggest type of investment young girls need from adults is time. Unfortunately, there are not enough adults volunteering to lead troops, she says.
"Right now, sadly, I have about 30,000 girls on a wait list to be a Girl Scout," she says. "The reality is, because of the economy, people having to work two jobs, it’s harder and harder for adults to find time to volunteer."
A new study, which shows farmers have recently converted millions of acres of grassland to plant crops like corn, highlights a not-so-obvious downside: converting grassland to cropland has a large carbon footprint.
The primary reason is not the diesel farmers burn with their tractors. Rather, the release of carbon comes from microbes that lie dormant in the soil, according to the study's lead author, Tyler Lask, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.
"When they are tilled up and exposed to oxygen, they 'wake up,' in a sense," Lark says. "When they go through that process, just like humans, they release CO2 when they 'exhale.'”
In addition to that one-time release, harvesting annual crops like corn does not store as much carbon in the soil as allowing perennials like grass to stay put.
That’s the biology. Markets play a role too, with high prices in recent years creating big incentives for farmers to convert more grassland to grow corn.
Government policies contribute as well. For instance, one driver for those high prices was a federal mandate to add more ethanol to the gasoline supply, which pushed up demand. Another policy may have played a role too: subsidized crop insurance, which mitigates financial risk to farmers.
"A lot of those lands that are being converted are high-risk lands," says Bruce Babcock, an Iowa State University economist who studies corn markets. "I think you can point the finger directly at the crop-insurance program for de-risking that conversion decision."
Those decisions may be more difficult to undo, thanks to a third policy decision: a provision in the 2014 farm bill, cutting back a program that pays farmers to set aside land for conservation.
Two years of bumper crops have created huge surpluses, and dramatically lower corn prices — conditions that would make the conservation program more attractive to farmers — but the program's smaller size means fewer farmers can participate.
Babcock is less concerned about the carbon impacts of these conversions than about the fact some of these grasslands provided habitats for songbirds.
"We can do lots of CO2 mitigation by simply converting coal-fired plants into natural gas or solar," he says. "It's very hard to replace songbird habitats."
Planning on running for president? Don’t say you’re testing the waters. Because once you form an exploratory committee, or outright announce you’re running, there are limits on how much money you can raise and how you can spend it. So presidential hopefuls act like candidates, but wait to make it official.
“The 2016 election is shaping up so far to be the biggest joke under the campaign-finance laws,” says Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission. “It’s an arms race. When some candidates do it, the other candidates think, unless I act the same way, I’m just going to get swamped.”
As long as you’re not an official candidate for president, you can raise millions of dollars for your super PAC — and coordinate with it closely.
“You can say, 'Here are five people I want you to hire,'" says Bob Biersack, who worked at the FEC for 30 years. "You can say, 'You should be advertising in these states and these are the messages you should use.'”
Once a candidate makes it official, that game plan goes out the window. They also have to publicly report how much money they've raised. Biersack and Noble are now advocates of campaign-finance reform.
Dan Backer is on the other side of the spectrum. He’s a conservative lawyer who brought a Supreme Court challenge to campaign finance regulations. He says the law is clear, and says reformers are just complaining that the spirit of the law isn't being followed.
“The law doesn't have a spirit," he says. "It has ink and it has paper, and we need to do exactly what the law says it is to be compliant.”
Plus, even if the FEC worried that non-presidential candidates weren't being compliant, and decided to look into whether anyone was breaking the law, any investigation would take years and wouldn't be finished until after the 2016 presidential election.
Airing on Monday, April 6, 2015: Crude oil is up 2,7 percent at the moment, after Saudi Arabia raised prices for oil bound for Asia. More on that. Plus, can technology help us see into the future? Microsoft is helping researchers in Brazil study whether they can use big data to predict traffic snarls up to an hour before they happen. Finally, let's take a quiz from quiz master Stephan Richter, editor in chief of the Globalist. Can you guess how many billionaires there are in the world? It might be fewer than you think.
Large tournaments like March Madness mean equally large logistical challenges. The numbers are staggering when you consider that 68 teams also means 68 coaches, 68 marching bands, 68 cheerleading squads. The numbers made Marketplace listener Angela Barker curious:
How do teams, which include support staff and pep bands, arrange their flights home? Most teams go home the day after they lose. Figure 50-75 plane tickets per team. That's a lot of seats to have the airline hold over multiple days.
Short answer: The NCAA arranges and pays for all travel. Or most of it, rather. Here are the numbers behind getting teams from campus to court.75
NCAA Division I rules pay for travel and a per-diem stipend for parties of up to 75 for preliminary games. Aside from supporting staff, that number allows for 15 players, 29 band members, 1 band director, 12 cheerleaders, 1 cheer coach, and 1 mascot.
If teams make it to the Final Four, that number goes up to 100.350 miles
If a team is traveling under 350 miles to a game, they have to take a bus, which is arranged by the NCAA. And that’s a hard rule, even if a team is traveling, say, 347 miles.467 buses
That’s how many bus trips will be organized by the NCAA. This number includes buses involved in transporting teams to and from airports (these trips are organized by the NCAA, but are paid for by the schools).214 flights
That’s how many flights will be arranged by Short’s Travel on behalf of the NCAA. As soon as the bracket for March Madness is announced, Shorts launches into action — coordinating flights, making deals with charter companies and mapping out airports as rapidly as possible.3 PM
Which brings us to Barker’s question: When a team loses, how is it that they manage to fly home so soon after the game?
The answer: charter flights.
Over at the NCAA website, they’ve got an exhaustive explainer on how Short’s Travel figures out how to get each team where they need to be. The process involves non-stop communication with charter plane companies to the point that Shorts representatives refer to the airlines by the gender of their representative. These planes exist on a “what-if” schedule — prepared to drop or pick-up flights depending on who wins and loses.
Those organizing flights don’t pay attention to the game so much as they wait for the buzzer to make a round of calls about who is flying where.
Three o'clock in the afternoon is a crucial time: if a game’s tip-off is before 3 p.m., the losing team flies home that night. If it’s after 3 p.m., flights are arranged for early the next day. Shorts handles travel arrangements for all of these flights, with the NCAA reimbursing for the personnel counts listed above.90 percent
But some argue that with the amount of money the NCAA makes on March Madness, it could be doing a better job helping schools out with expenses. After all, 90 percent of the NCAA's $800 million revenue originates in television and marketing-rights fees for the men's basketball championship alone.
In a recent article for Forbes Magazine, Robert Tuchman points out that those 75- and 100-personnel allotments barely cover costs when you factor in extra staff, band members, and cheerleaders who are also traveling to an away game. And if a university has a smaller program, they don’t necessarily have the money to cover those extra costs. It can add up, with some schools barely breaking even on participating in the tournament. (Though, Tuchman also says schools can earn back lost money through increased visibility from making it further into the tournament).
Which leads to the last number:$3,000
That’s how much the NCAA will give each of the players on Final Four teams. The stipend is meant to cover travel and housing costs for family to make it to the final games. It's a pilot program for this season — many expect an announcement soon about whether or not the NCAA will choose to continue paying out the stipend.
Microsoft is helping researchers in Brazil study whether they can predict traffic congestion 15 minutes to an hour before it happens.
The plan is to use Microsoft's cloud computing service to store and crunch data from multiple sources.
"The Traffic Prediction Project uses data available by social networks, department of transportation, and data that the users create themselves while they move around the city," Juliana Salles of Microsoft Research said in a promotional video.
Those data points aren't new, and neither is work to predict traffic jams. In fact, such predictions are happening now, says Peter Keen of Digital Traffic Systems.
"It is being done now. It can always be done better," Keen says, because right now prediction models depend on past traffic information.
"You have historical trends of what the volume's going to be at a given day of the week, at a given time of day," says Keen, which can help make predictions that are accurate much of the time, especially about typical traffic patterns on major passageways.
Keen says predictions can be better if both past and current data is combined. But such data is often in multiple formats and multiple databases, and hard to combine.
Rahim Benekohal, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois who studies traffic flows, says we already know a lot about traffic patterns.
"By understanding how the congestion grows, where the congestions grows and what's the cause of it," says Benekohal, you can often predict future congestion without the need for crunching huge amounts of data.
In fact, Benekohal says, most of us can predict traffic congestion just from our own past experience with around 80 percent accuracy. Still, he says he admires the effort being undertaken by Brazilian researchers with the help of Microsoft.
Keen adds that there have been a lot of efforts to research traffic congestion prediction, but no one has yet discovered "a magic bullet," he says.
It's time for a set of fiendishly confounding questions about the global economy in the form of a quiz. Stephan Richter, editor in chief of the Globalist, joined Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to talk about something most people aren't aware of about the globalized world. The question of the day is: "How many billionaires are there in the world?"
A. 13.7 million
B. 3.1 Million
Click the media player above to find out.
On a perfect day at the Taos Ski Valley, the skies are deep blue and the powder is fresh, thanks to a mid-week storm.
But among the skiers and snowboarders waiting for the lift, there are people with more than freshies and black diamonds on their minds. Molly Cernicek is the CEO of SportXast. She's one of one of 11 entrepreneurs competing for a $10,000 prize in a contest sponsored by ABQid, a business accelerator in Albuquerque. Dalton Wright is with Kickstart Seed Fund in Salt Lake City and he's one of the investors judging the pitches from startup founders like Cernicek.
As the they settle into the chairlift and start the ascent, the wind picks up and casual chit chat ends.
“Molly, tell us about the business,” Wright says.
“We have two products, Dalton,” Cernicek answers. “The first is an app that makes it easy for parents and fans to capture and share video highlights of a game.”
Over the course of 10 minutes Wright lobs a series of questions to Cernicek.
“What’s the revenue model? Who pays for it? How is that a significant improvement over how they’re already doing things? How far along are you?”
And she answers.
“The revenue model is going to come from the Athlete Channel ... Nobody’s looked at the media part of the value chain ... We’re up to about 6,000 downloads and we’re starting to see a lot of activity.”
As the lift crests the top of the mountain, they jump from the chair and continue talking as they ski to the next lift for the next round of pitching.
Four finalists make the initial cut, including Cernicek, and they each make a final pitch over lunch for a large crowd. Then everyone heads for the slopes, only to reconvene later at the historic Bavarian Inn for the prize announcement.
Katie Rice is a board member with ABQ id and the Ski Lift Pitch was her idea. An avid skier, she saw potential in the conversations that start on chair lifts. “We thought they can make a much more meaningful connection than they can at a conference or a board room or a setting like that, right?”
As the snowfall intensifies outside, attendees applaud the ultimate winner: Taos Mountain Energy Bar. The company launched in 2010 with the idea of making an anti-energy bar, namely one that actually tastes good and has decent branding. The company is in 1100 retailers now and has about $1 million in revenues. But the founders plan to expand production and reach $100 million by 2020.
New Mexico has struggled since the recession, and it's this kind of optimism that the Ski Lift Pitch organizers hope will help pull the state from the economic doldrums.
When the Iraqi army gave up Mosul in June 2014, the fleeing soldiers left behind large amounts of weaponry that had been supplied by the United States. By some accounts, three army divisions’ worth of Humvees, helicopters, anti-aircraft missiles and tanks fell into the hands of ISIS.
The news made Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard professor and one of the directors of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wonder if there was some way to build weapons that could be turned off remotely. Like the way you turn off a smartphone that is lost or stolen.
In an article he published in Scientific American, Zittrain argued: “It is past time that we consider whether we should build in a way to remotely disable such dangerous tools in an emergency. Other technologies, including smartphones, already incorporate this kind of capability.”
He was referring to the “kill switch,” a feature that allows Apple users to turn off their iPhone remotely so it cannot be turned on or accessed without the original owner’s permission.
“I probably shouldn't have called them kill switches,” said Zittrain, while speaking to Marketplace Tech. “This would really be a not kill switch.”
If we can turn off our smartphones from a distance to prevent them from being used by others, said Zittrain, why not try and do the same for deadly weapons? “We are talking tanks and anti-aircraft missiles and such,” he said.
How would the technology work? “Well, the technology is, of course, really tricky,” admitted Zittrain. “The last thing you want is for any form of kill switch or disabling mechanism to be triggered by the adversary when the thing hasn't been stolen.”
He thinks one way to do this would be to have equipment naturally expire at a certain date unless it’s renewed by a code. But in order to equip weapons with such technology, Zittrain added, consumers must be “down with the plan.”
“This is not about a secret kill switch,” he said. “This is about a perfectly open one. Ideally, viewed as a feature rather than a bug.”
He believes those who buy the weapons and deploy them in battle need to be invested in what happens to the weapons when the war ends or if they fall into the wrong hands.
He points to landmines as an example of what happens when consumers are not invested.
“Who’s going to take responsibility for digging it all up?” said Zittrain. “The consumer might be indifferent to the fact that it’s going to last 6 years because they don’t expect the war to go on that long but it could have incredibly important consequences.”
That's how far into the future technology can help us see...at least in traffic congestion. Microsoft is reportedly helping researchers in Brazil to calculate traffic jam up to an hour before it happens. The Traffic Prediction Project uses data available by social networks, department of transportation, and data that users create themselves while they move around the city.13.7 million? 3.1 Million? 2325? or 286?
One of these numbers is how many billionaires there are in the world. Find out the answer by listening to our conversation with quiz master Stephan Richter, editor in chief at the Globalist magazine.Half a billion dollars
This is how much debt Greece owe the IMF. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, spent several hours of her Easter Sunday with the finance minister of Greece, who offered assurances that his country will pay what it owes the IMF. The loan is due on Thursday this week. It's not clear if Greece has the money, which has to come from somewhere. Some say as Greece struggles to stay within the eurozone by not defaulting internationally, it may be defaulting internally.$10 dollars a ton
That's how much some municipalities in New Jersey used to earn for selling materials to recyclers who would, in turn, resell the scrap. But as oil prices have continued to fall, so has the price of plastic. That's because plastic is often derived from oil. And as a result, as the WSJ reports, it's no longer a cheaper option to buy recycled plastics.5,000 to 100,000
That's the population size of cities where Radioshack will focus its efforts as it regroups from near bankruptcy. The reason? Smaller cities still need a neighborhood electronics store. As reported by the NY Times, the company will stop selling items like smartphones and laptops, instead focusing on accessories like chargers and bluetooth headsets—items that customers would prefer to have as soon as possible rather than waiting for a delivery.
The world may run out of elephants. Poachers kill an estimated 40,000 of the big animals a year, even though trading in ivory has been essentially illegal for more than 20 years.
But 150 years ago, ivory was booming and nobody worried about elephants. The gorgeous material could be shaped into lots of things — and was. But for one entrepreneur, ivory’s specialness was a big problem.
That man was the father of American billiards — and the his ivory problem made him, in a sense, the grandfather of the modern world. Which is to say, of plastics.
It's tempting to call Michael Phelan the Steve Jobs of billiards.
"I think that would be an understatement," says Michael Shamos, author of "The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards."
"While Steve Jobs did amazingly brilliant things, he was not fully responsible for the computer," says Shamos, who is a computer-science professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. "But Phelan, in many ways, was responsible for the uptake of billiards in the United States."
And billiards, says Shamos, was the single most-popular amusement for men in the second half of the 19th century.
Phelan was the top player, a best-selling author, and the first big manufacturer of billiards tables.
To popularize the game, he helped standardize the gear — which, in the case of the balls, meant maintaining a very high standard.
"The billiard ball has to have certain physical properties," Shamos says. "It has to rebound properly. It has to be of uniform density."
In the 19th century, that meant it had to be made of ivory, which wasn’t cheap.
What's more, billiard balls required the top grade of ivory, much of which was wasted in the process.
"The average number of billiard balls that could be obtained from a single tusk," Shamos says, "is three."
Phelan and his partners saw the reliance on ivory as a threat to his industry's growth. It was as if the Apple Watch could be sold only in the $10,000 gold edition, because the gold was necessary to make the device function.
"They were really desperate, I don't think is too strong a word, to find some kind of substitute material," says Robert Friedel, a professor at the University of Maryland and the author of the book "Pioneer Plastic: The Making and Selling of Celluloid," which tells the story of what happened next.
Phelan advertised a prize of $10,000 — the equivalent of almost $3 million today, compared to the wages earned by laborers at the time — for the discovery of a satisfactory substitute for ivory in making billiard balls. The contest prompted a printer named John Wesley Hyatt to experiment with a newly discovered material, nitrated cellulose: cotton fiber treated with nitric and sulfuric acid.
"That material turned out to have very interesting properties," Friedel says. "In particular, it dissolves, and it creates a kind of syrupy liquid."
After more than five years of tinkering, Hyatt produced the first plastic, which he called celluloid — but it doesn’t win Phelan’s prize.
"Celluloid is a wonderful material," Friedel says. "It’s a beautiful plastic, and it has a wonderful range of uses. But. Billiard balls is not one of them."
Balls made with celluloid just don’t bounce right.
Hyatt looked for another market, and eventually found a hit, producing fake ivory for knick-knacks: knife handles, combs, hand mirrors, all kinds of things.
"Celluloid a terrific faux-ivory," Friedel says. "And it’s a great faux-tortoise-shell, and amber and coral — there are all sorts of great effects you can get from it.
Billiard balls kept getting made out of ivory. Which was OK — for the billiards industry anyway — because Europeans keep colonizing and exploiting more of Africa. It was not great for the people of Africa, as documented in books like Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Adam Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost."
It was also terrible for elephants. By 1910, the elephant population had dropped to the point where billiard-ball makers, among others, were getting acutely worried about the ivory supply.
Right around then, a chemist named Leo Baekeland came up with a new kind of plastic, made from petroleum, naming it bakelite, after himself.
Among bakelite's advantages: It could be liquefied during production, and fillers could be added.
"With that capability," Friedel says, "you can vary the density, you can vary the elasticity— and you can make a perfect billiard ball."
Celluloid got supplanted by newer plastics except for one key use, one product for which celluloid is said to perform better than any other material: ping-pong balls.
Celluloid balls got bumped from tournament play just last year. It was a controversial decision.
Garry Shigeharu Greene grew up in Los Angeles. He worked for a pool maintenance business and eventually he became the owner, but it all fell apart.
Garry soon found himself desperate to find work. After a few bouts of homelessness, he discovered a new job and for the past 20 years, he's worked for himself, selling what others throw out: recyclable trash.
We caught up with Gary and his shopping cart at the Temple Street recycling facility.
Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.
It's college acceptance season — or perhaps, more accurately, rejection season — at the most elite schools. Harvard and Stanford turned away about 95 percent of applicants this year, a new record for Harvard.
There are lots of reasons top-ranked colleges are turning away more applicants. They're getting more, thanks to more aggressive recruiting. And because some kids are so unsure of what it will take to get accepted, they're applying everywhere.
All of this can be crazy-making and heartbreaking for a lot of kids and their parents. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni says it doesn't have to be. He's out with a new book: "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be."
The fixation on getting into top colleges is nothing new for hyper-talented and extra, extracurricular-engaged high school students. But with 95 percent rejection rates, the competition is all the more intense.
"It's fed by a whole industry of admissions consultants and coaches," Bruni says, adding the demand has deeper roots in parents' fears about the economy. "I think in their anxiety about the country's prosperity and its future, they want to give kids any leg up, anything that might be a leg up, and they see elite schools as one of those things."
One reason that the volume of applications have increased: ease. Most elite colleges and universities use the common app, an electronic form that allows students to apply to send the same information, scores and essays to an array of schools. Schools also market themselves aggressively to see as many applicants as possible.
"They want to get the best students and they want the most diverse student bodies, so that's the good impulse behind it," Bruni says. "But they also just want big, big numbers because we've entered an era here where a low acceptance rate – proof that you've turned away masses of people – is bragging rights among colleges."
For low-income students in particular, research shows that going to a selective school can make a big difference in graduation rates and future earnings.
"It's not fair to say that the brand doesn't buy opportunities," Bruni says of the most elite and selective colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. "But it's not a do-or-die, make-or-break advantage. It's not going to last your whole life."
Listen to the complete interview below to find out which school produces the strongest startup founders, according to venture capitalist and Y Combinator President Sam Altman. (That question comes at 3:21).
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