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PODCAST: U.S. sanctions won't hurt Russia

Tue, 2014-03-04 08:27

The Obama administration is threatening Russia with economic sanctions if it continues with its military action in Ukraine. But Russia’s main exports are oil and gas, and the United States, which imports about $30 billion of goods, or less than 1 percent of the Russian economy, isn’t a big customer.

When President Obama releases his 2015 budget proposal today, he's expected to include a call for $56 billion in new spending. Part of it would expand pre-kindergarden and Head Start programs by tying their budgets to increased defense spending. But like the rest of his budget proposals, this one will face an uphill battle.

The Federal Reserve system sometimes gives the impression that it flies at 37,000 feet over the economy. But in New England, the Fed has recently been spotted closer to the ground, coordinating a program to funnel grants to distressed cities in Massachusetts. Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss the initiative, called the "Working Cities Challenge."

Could Detroit strong arm its creditors?

Tue, 2014-03-04 06:52

Last night, the city of Detroit announced that it had reached a possible deal to pay about 30 cents on the dollar for about $288 million of debts owed to UBS AG and Merrill Lynch Capital Services. 

That’s a relatively small part of the city’s roughly $18 billion in debt. But it could be a huge deal. 

As long as Detroit has a deal with one creditor (or in this case, two), it can ask the judge, Steven Rhodes, to force all the others to accept the city’s proposed terms—an arrangement called a “cramdown.” 

Those terms are on the table, in a plan filed with the bankruptcy court by the city’s Emergency Manager, Kevin Orr, on February 21. Orr’s plan calls for some cuts to pension payouts—up to 26 percent for some retired workers.

The pension funds and unions have said “No way.”

But, as Orr has emphasized, there’s a carrot attached: More than $800 million from private donors, foundations, and the state of Michigan. (The Detroit Institute of Arts would also get some protection—remember, some people have talked about selling off its collection.)

That money won’t come through unless the pensions have to accept the cuts the city has already proposed. Otherwise, Orr has warned, the cuts could get worse.

The city’s plan also hits other creditors very hard. Some of them would get back just 20 cents on the dollar, which could also be a big deal, beyond Detroit.

Investors have thought of municipal debt as being really safe, which is how cities get to borrow money to build bridges and schools and stuff. A precedent like Detroit proposes — allowing  a city in trouble to write off 80 percent of its debts — could change all that.

Judge Rhodes has been issuing deadlines. Parties have until March 28 to file any objections to the city’s plan.  

And he’s set a trial date: June 16. He says he wants everybody to negotiate everything they possibly can before then.

The city says it hopes to get out of bankruptcy by September—so the clock is ticking.

For now, the city needs Judge Rhodes to approve this proposed deal with UBS and Merrill Lynch. He rejected two earlier proposals, which would have given the banks much higher payments. 

By cutting a deal with these two creditors, could Detroit force all the others to fall in line?

Tue, 2014-03-04 06:52

Last night, the city of Detroit announced that it had reached a possible deal to pay about 30 cents on the dollar for about $288 million of debts owed to UBS AG and Merrill Lynch Capital Services. 

That’s a relatively small part of the city’s roughly $18 billion in debt. But it could be a huge deal. 

As long as Detroit has a deal with one creditor (or in this case, two), it can ask the judge, Steven Rhodes, to force all the others to accept the city’s proposed terms—an arrangement called a “cramdown.” 

Those terms are on the table, in a plan filed with the bankruptcy court by the city’s Emergency Manager, Kevin Orr, on February 21. Orr’s plan calls for some cuts to pension payouts—up to 26 percent for some retired workers.

The pension funds and unions have said “No way.”

But, as Orr has emphasized, there’s a carrot attached: More than $800 million from private donors, foundations, and the state of Michigan. (The Detroit Institute of Arts would also get some protection—remember, some people have talked about selling off its collection.)

That money won’t come through unless the pensions have to accept the cuts the city has already proposed. Otherwise, Orr has warned, the cuts could get worse.

The city’s plan also hits other creditors very hard. Some of them would get back just 20 cents on the dollar, which could also be a big deal, beyond Detroit.

Investors have thought of municipal debt as being really safe, which is how cities get to borrow money to build bridges and schools and stuff. A precedent like Detroit proposes — allowing  a city in trouble to write off 80 percent of its debts — could change all that.

Judge Rhodes has been issuing deadlines. Parties have until March 28 to file any objections to the city’s plan.  

And he’s set a trial date: June 16. He says he wants everybody to negotiate everything they possibly can before then.

The city says it hopes to get out of bankruptcy by September—so the clock is ticking.

For now, the city needs Judge Rhodes to approve this proposed deal with UBS and Merrill Lynch. He rejected two earlier proposals, which would have given the banks much higher payments. 

What can the Fed do to solve social problems?

Tue, 2014-03-04 03:01

The Federal Reserve system sometimes gives the impression that it flies at 37,000 feet over the economy. But in New England, the Fed has recently been spotted closer to the ground, coordinating a program to funnel grants to distressed cities in Massachusetts.

Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss the initiative, called the "Working Cities Challenge."

Click on the audio player above to hear more.

Social media as witness

Tue, 2014-03-04 01:00

Social media can be a powerful tool, especially when considering how it empowers regular people with the ability to reach a large audience. It certainly played a prominent role in the Arab Spring protests of 2010, when protestors took to Twitter and Facebook to document the uncensored reality of their experience. Robert Mackey, a writer for the Lede Blog at the New York Times, says Ukranian protesters are utilizing social media in a similar way. In fact, the platform has proven useful for combating what some Ukranians feel is the Russian agenda in media coverage: Portraying the situation as spiraling out of control, and violently so. 

"The core of this group - the people who started the protest movement in Kiev - are using Twitter and YouTube and Instagram to point to evidence of a different picture. They’re posting videos and images of peaceful protests. They’re also posting video of what they say are provocateurs coming from Russia to start trouble. In a way, they’re trying to chip away at the Russian narrative."

According to Mackey, the situation makes for an interesting challenge as a journalist, especially when looking specifically at what people are posting as opposed to reporting on personal experience.

"This is somewhat similar to doing historical research. You can’t actually go to the French Revolution now and watch it for yourself, but you can find, and of course historians do find, firsthand accounts of things that can give remarkable insights."

The larger effect social media will may or may not have on the situation in Ukraine remains to be seen, but it is certainly creating a powerful new dynamic in how the world witnesses the events as they unfold.

Thousand dollar house, million dollar view

Mon, 2014-03-03 19:49

New homes in America are a lot bigger than they used to be. In fact since 1950 they've doubled in size, to an average about 2,500-square feet per home. And a bigger home generally uses more energy. So one college professor is attempting to trash some of our ideas about home ownership, by sleeping in a six-by-six-foot dumpster.

Everywhere he goes, students holler-call Jeff Wilson by his new nickname: Professor Dumpster. That's because, this month, Wilson moved into a sanitized recycling dumpster on the Austin, Texas, campus of Huston-Tillotson University.

"One day I was just sitting at a coffee shop, looking out the window, and decided that the dumpster I saw outside was the one I was going to be making my home," Wilson says.

It's not exactly comfy, but at least his dumpster's tall: You can stand-up inside it. And there isn't much stuff in your way. When Wilson moved out of his house, he sold almost everything he owned, for $1. Now, his clothes and gear hang from one little rack.

"And I'm happier, you know. There's not a whole lot of decisions I have to make in the morning on what to wear to work," Wilson says. "I have three pairs of pants, and one of them's bright orange."

Wilson will sleep inside the dumpster for an entire year, to make a point about sustainability. And he says, the goal of the Dumpster Project, as it's called, is to prove that we don't need to thousands of square feet to live in comfort.

"The hypothesis of this experiment is, you can have a pretty darn good life on the one percent: One percent the size, one percent the energy, one percent the water."

Wilson argues that our homes consume far too much energy. So, he's living the other extreme: hauling water from the river (which takes an hour, round-trip), using candles at night, and constantly hauling himself into a box with no doors, to prove that you life in thirty three square feet can really be done.

But this dumpster will undergo a renovation. Throughout the year, Wilson and his students at this historically black college will turn his green metal box into a solar-powered box. One without the rusty walls, but presumably with some insulation from the toasty Texas summer.

"By the end, you and I will be standing here, a year from now with a fully off-grid, sustainable home," Wilson says. But until then, this dumpster has one thing going for it that most Austin homes don't: A fully paid mortgage, and a clear view of the downtown skyline.

Wilson opens one of his "windows," and looks out. "Thousand dollar house. Million dollar view."

Trying the #fakeSXSW generator

Mon, 2014-03-03 16:23

I tried the Marketplace #fakeSXSW panel name generator before I came into the studio today, and got "How to be the Kai Ryssdal of LARPing."

Which would be great, if I knew what LARPing was.

I'm sure you'll tell me.

 

The EPA's new smog rules: Cost vs. benefit

Mon, 2014-03-03 14:30

The EPA is annoucning new regulations on emissions standards for gasoline. The goal is to reduce the amount of sulfur that's released into the air, something the Obama administration has been pushing for since 2010. The new rules would bring emissions regulations up to the same standards in place in Europe. Gasoline producers say the new rules will cost billions to implement, but proponents counter that the health benefits will eventually save far more money.

New EPA regulations call for reducing the amount of sulfur in gasoline by two thirds. Refineries and automakers have to comply by 2017.

"We will get an immediate public health benefit in 2017, when the cleaner fuel comes onto the market," says Janet McCabe, the acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at the agency. And by 2030, she says, billions of dollars in health savings from the reduction in sulfur emissions and smog.

The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufactures, representing refineries, opposes the new regulations, saying they will cost the industry $10 billion and raise the price of gas several cents a gallon. The EPA's estimate is much lower. The argument over the regulations is a question of how to balance short term costs against long term benefits, an issue that is not without precedent: refineries have already lowered sulfur emissions in fuels, and improvements in health have been seen.

Not quite a driverless car, but close

Mon, 2014-03-03 14:19

Ever texted, searched for music, or responded to emails (you know, crazy stuff) while you’re driving?

Those days may be coming to an end. Your car is the new frontier for Apple, Google and Microsoft as the tech giants can no longer afford to ignore consumers when they walk into their cars.  With 39 percent of car buyers saying these sorts of ‘in-vehicle’ devices are a top selling point, analysts expect this to quickly become a multi-billion dollar industry.

This week, Apple launches its new CarPlay  – a system that makes it more convenient to use an iPhone in a vehicle. 

Here's what it will look like:

Video of Volvo Cars Presents Apple CarPlay

In Crimea, fears of violence

Mon, 2014-03-03 13:21

Russian troops moved into Crimea – a peninsula in the southern part of Ukraine -- over the weekend.

"One way to describe it is it’s just extremely extremely tense," says the BBC’s Natalia Antelava, from Simferopol, the administrative center of Crimea.

She says daily life has not stopped, but it has only been a few days since the Russians arrived. Today there are people out in the streets, grocery stores are open, and there are no lines at gas stations. Still, Russian soldiers have taken over government buildings and the prices have gone up for things like food and fuel.

There are also fears about rising ethnic conflict between Ukrainians, Russians, and the Tatar Muslims that all call the area home.  Antelava says, “the presence of Russian troops have enflamed tensions that have existed here, but that have been dormant for a really long time.”

So far, there hasn’t been a mass exodus of people leaving the peninsula, “but there is definitely a lot of nervousness.”

She’s talked to many men who say they will send their wives and children away but plan to stay in Crimea themselves “in case they need to fight.”

"The biggest concern right now isn’t even the economy, I think it’s violence."

Russia's economy isn't doing so well, either

Mon, 2014-03-03 13:17

Russia's economy has been on something of a wild ride for the past couple of days. Markets plunged more than 10 percent and today the Russian Central Bank had to bail out the rouble to the tune of $10 billion.

Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin is probably not that worried for now.

"They’ve got $490 billion in reserves," explains Willis Sparks, Director of Global Macro at Eurasia Group. "That money, that rainy day fund, is designed specifically to help the Russian government absorb a shock like the one that they could potentially be beginning to go through at the moment. So they do have that near term buffer that does allow Putin to turn up his nose at all of the criticism and shrug off some of this market activity."

At least for now. If the situation worsens, it will scare off foreign investors, and Russia relies on foreign technology for oil and natural gas extraction, which is critical to its economy.

That creepy eye on the back of the dollar bill, explained

Mon, 2014-03-03 12:22

First thing to remember:  There are lots of conspiracy theories about the dollar bill’s eye and pyramid. I wanted to see which ones were most popular. So I headed to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in downtown Washington, to do my own, informal street survey.

First up, Ginny Cochran -- who actually works at the Mint.  Her theory: "Something to do with the Masons, and I know it goes farther back than that."

Well – it does go way back, to the founding of our country. Some of the founding fathers were Masons, and the eye has become a Masonic symbol. But it was actually added by an engraver who wasn’t a Mason.

"The official term is that’s the eye of providence. The eye of God, in some general way," says Steven Bullock, a history professor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

So, OK,  but where did the pyramid come from? The next theory from my impromptu survey comes from 9 year-old Brian Bush.

"Maybe King Tut?  That might be his pyramid?" he asks.

Brian had just finished touring the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. He says they didn’t mention the dollar bill’s pyramid on the tour. The conspiracy theorists would say, they don’t want us to know. But actually, Brian’s onto something. 

"The pyramid was seen as the kind of human structure that lasted out the ages," says Bill Ellis, a professor emeritus of American Studies at Penn State.  

He says the founding fathers wanted the country to last as long as the pyramids.

But the pyramid and eye didn’t show up on the dollar bill until 1935. They started out as part of our Great Seal. FDR added them to the dollar. 

That brings us to our next conspiracy theory, courtesy of Andrew Epting, who was waiting for a bus near the Mint.

“New world order.  It’s very folklorish,” he says about the back of the dollar.

"New order." It does say that, in Latin, under the pyramid. Historians say that refers to the birth of a new country. And FDR liked the way it jived with his New Deal. But, for conspiracy theorists, the words "new order" on the dollar bill were a signal that the U.S. government had been taken over by evil forces.  

Epting says that’s crazy.

"I’m glad we have video games [and] TV to take people’s minds off some of this stuff nowadays," he says, laughing.

Of course, some video games actually revolve around conspiracy theories. So, is it any wonder that there's so much conjecture about such a strange symbol? 

Especially since we carry it around in our pockets. 

What do you learn at SXSW? Buzzwords

Mon, 2014-03-03 12:06

Every spring, 30,000 members of the tech community arrive in Austin, Texas to eat tacos and present new technologies at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival.

In an environment that encourages cheekiness and experimentation, you'll find the seeds of good ideas: Facebook launched Facebook Connect, an early version of its mobile app, at SXSW in 2009. You'll also find spectacles that make you squirm, like the "Homeless Hotspots" program during the festival in 2012.

This is the technology industry's hype machine in overdrive. The schedule is crammed with buzzwords. Session topics range from the prophetic  to the poetically absurd.

You can't make this stuff up, but we wanted to try anyway. Use the Marketplace SXSW panel generator to make your own session topic, and hack your way to an optimized experience.

Oscars streaming #fail: how it went down.

Mon, 2014-03-03 11:29

Last night, ABC televison promised to stream the Oscars live online for the first time. But it failed.

Overloaded computer networks kept the Oscars largely out-of-view for more than two hours of the broadcast.

In the end, a television streaming service called Aereo — a competitor the TV networks hope to kill -- won the night, just by being down for less of the time.

[View the story "And the award for live-streaming the Oscars goes to... Aereo " on Storify]

A whole day to focus on grammar

Mon, 2014-03-03 09:51

From the Marketplace Datebook, here’s a look at what’s coming up Tuesday:

  • In Washington, a hearing in the House focuses on the role of technology in protecting Americans from international cybercriminals.
  • People Magazine turns the big 4-0. The first issue was published on March 4, 1974. Mia Farrow graced the cover. 
  • And tomorrow is National Grammar Day. You can do your part by speaking and writing well and placing your commas correctly.

A look at ABC's Oscars streaming SNAFU

Mon, 2014-03-03 08:08

Last night, ABC promised to stream the Oscars live online for the first time. But it failed. Overloaded computer networks kept the Oscars largely out of view for more than two hours of the broadcast. For this year, an independent service called Aereo—a competitor the networks would like to kill—won the night, just by being down for less of the time.  

 

[<a href="//storify.com/danweissmann/and-the-award-for-live-streaming-the-oscars-goes-t" target="_blank">View the story "And the award for live-streaming the Oscars goes to... Aereo " on Storify</a>]

PODCAST: Markets react to Ukraine

Mon, 2014-03-03 06:24

Germany's leader is indicating this morning that the crisis in Ukraine can still be resolved by political means. An aide to Angela Merkel today says Germany has proposed to Russia's president sending what's labeled as a "fact-finding mission" to the Crimean peninsula, where Russia's military is now in control without a fight.

Meanwhile, the newly-installed Prime Minister of Ukraine said a military conflict in the country would ruin regional stabilty. He also says the new government has no intention of nationalizing private companies. Nevertheless, the markets are reacting to the tensions with investors moving toward the safe haven of the U.S. Treasury.

Endless snowstorms, freezing cold, and an uncertain economy has car sales skidding off the road in 2014. So carmakers are extending their incentive programs.

Obama's tough sell on early childhood spending

Mon, 2014-03-03 03:17

When President Obama releases his 2015 budget today, he’s expected to include a request for $56 billion in new spending. It’s for something called The Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative which would, among other things, expand preschool and Head Start programs by tying them to increased defense spending. But just yesterday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released a 204-page report criticizing the government’s anti-poverty programs, including Head Start. That could mean a tough sell for additional early childhood spending, even if it’s offset through tax changes and other spending cuts.

Can shipping containers solve London's housing crisis?

Mon, 2014-03-03 03:11

Are shipping containers the future of low-income living? A local YMCA in London is testing the idea.

Click on the audio player above to hear more. 

How much influence does the U.S. have on Russia's economy?

Mon, 2014-03-03 03:02

The Obama administration is threatening Russia with economic sanctions, if it continues with its military action in Ukraine. But Russia’s main exports are oil and gas, and the United States, which imports about $30 billion of goods, or less than 1 percent of the Russian economy, isn’t a big customer.

Much more powerful than sanctions, says Andy Kuchins, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Russia and Eurasia program, is the effect of Russia's actions on its own stock market, which has dropped 10 percent so far. 

Countries that buy Russian exports:

  • Netherlands, 13.0% of Russia's exports
  • Germany, 6.0%
  • France, 3.4%
  • Finland, 3.4%
  • Lithuania, 1.9%
  • Sweden, 1.7%
  • United Kingdom, 2.4%
  • Estonia, 0.43%
  • Norway, 0.41%
  • Latvia, 0.40%
  • Denmark, 0.37%

 Source: The Observatory of Economic Complexity/MIT

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