Marketplace - American Public Media

Show me a hero in housing policies

Fri, 2015-08-21 02:56

HBO has begun a six-part miniseries about a long running movement in America: fair housing -- how best to integrate communities and stop discrimination when it comes to where people live. It's called "Show Me a Hero," and it's a dramatization of what happened in Yonkers, just up from New York City, when a federal judge in the 1980s ordered Yonkers to put in low-income housing as the law required, provoking ferocious opposition. The showrunner for Show Me a Hero is the guy who did the Wire about Baltimore. 

Click the multimedia player above to hear the conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.

Undocumented

Fri, 2015-08-21 02:00

This week, Actuality considers Donald Trump's plans for immigration reform and finds them wanting. And do U.S. farms need more immigrant labor, or do they just need to pay higher wages? Plus, the neuroscience of long-distance Turkish whistling. 

Western states scrambling for more firefighters

Fri, 2015-08-21 02:00

Wildfires are burning in ten states across the American West. States and the federal government are struggling to contain them, but they are running short on firefighters. The National Guard is participating, and some active duty military are getting last minute training to join by Sunday.

Tina Boehle, a public information officer at the National Interagency Fire Center, says smoke is even clogging the air near their headquarters in Boise, Idaho.

“I can’t even see the foothills, which are a only few miles away,” she says. The Fire Center coordinates logistics among state and federal agencies to help organize the response to wildfires. Boehle says almost 30,000 people, including firefighters and support staff, are struggling against the western fires.

“We have crews from the eastern states, the Midwest, the south, coming down from Alaska, as well as from Canada,” she says, adding that the U.S. is in negotiations with Australia and New Zealand to for additional crews.

Regular fire houses have skeleton crews while their staff heads to the burning forests. 

“We have employees that are on the duty for 20-25 days in a row with no days off,” says Mike Lopez, the president of Cal Fire Local 2881, part of a union representing many California firefighters. With staff being pulled away from their normal stations, Lopez says many are missing time with their families, adding additional stress to the grueling work.

Some 4,000 prisoners are also helping, says Bill Sessa of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as part of a program that's been going on since the 1940s.

“When [the inmates] are on the fire line," he says, "they do everything that a trained firefighter would do to fight a wildland fire.”

Prisoners can earn up to $26 a day, which Sessa says is pretty good for prison pay.

John Deere releases earnings

Fri, 2015-08-21 02:00

Farm equipment manufacturer John Deere releases its quarterly report before the market opens on Friday. The news is not expected to be good, because many farmers are struggling with low grain prices, such as those for corn and soybean prices which have dropped by 45 percent or more.

"Profitability for farmers is the worst that it's been in definitely well over five or six years," says Kwame Webb, an analyst at Morningstar, "Sales for Deere and most of its competitors in the agricultural market [are] down in the order of 20 to 30 percent."

It could take two years before farmers start to recover enough for sales to pick up again, according to Webb and Lawrence De Maria, a global industrial infrastructure analyst at William Blair & Co.

"[John Deere has] taken production down quite a bit," De Maria says, "They've had a lot of factory people being laid off around the enterprise to reduce costs."

Would you rather?

Fri, 2015-08-21 01:00
10,000

That's how many employees at Uniqlo's Japan locations can opt for a three-day weekend. Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo, will give the option of a four-day workweek to some of its workforce starting this fall. According to Bloomberg, about 10,000 employees at Uniqlo Japan can take a three-day weekend in exchange for 10-hour work days. If the initial rollout is a success, the fashion retailer will also consider introducing a shorter week at its corporate headquarters. 

1980s

That's the time frame of the HBO miniseries "Show Me a Hero." It focuses on fair housing, dramatizing what happened in Yonkers, New York, when a judge ordered it to provide affordable housing. Showrunner David Simon talks to David Brancaccio about how to best integrate communities and stop discrimination.

$200,000

That's how much NASA granted researchers to figure out how to turn human waste into usable products, according to Quartz. Mark Blenner, a Clemson University professor in the chemical and bioengineering department, is engineering yeast to produce onboard items for astronauts, including plastics and vitamins.  

20 percent

This is how much revenue dropped for John Deere from a year ago, according to the company's third-quarter earnings report. The fortunes of the equipment manufacturer is tied to farmers, who are struggling with low grain prices; corn and soybean prices have dropped by 45 percent or more.

Highland Park Swap Mall: A Year Later

Thu, 2015-08-20 13:33

This is a story about an old two-story brick building in a working class neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles called Highland Park. For several decades the building’s top floor has been home to the Highland Hotel, a 28-unit residential hotel for low-income men. The bottom floor was a “swap mall” where mom-and-pop vendors sold discounted goods.

I first encountered the building about a year ago, walking through the neighborhood with a real estate agent who, like many of her colleagues, was peering through the windows, imagining what it could be, now that the area was attracting a wave of new investment. Her verdict: the space divided into "cute boutiques." She said that would likely happen soon.

Ever since then, I have wondered what did happen.

But before I tell you that, let me introduce you to some of the people inside this building. Because there was more to the place than what you could see when you peered in through the dusty windows or read the real estate brochure about it being a Prime Highland Park Mixed Use Opportunity.

John Piper, who spent much of his childhood in Highland Park and came back as an adult to live in the hotel for almost a decade, described some of his most memorable hall-mates.

“There was Crazy Ralph — big, huge, bald Ralph,” Piper says. “He was tone deaf, but he’d crank up his music and sing like a bird.”

"And there was Crazy Tony,” Piper says. “Walking up and down the streets talking to nobody on his cell phone.” This, Piper says, was a mode of self-defense to keep people from bothering Tony in what could be a rough neighborhood.

And there was “Rodney the Kool-Aid guy,” because he always drank Kool-Aid.

John Piper 

Krissy Clark/Marketplace

Piper, 52, is a character in his own right: an artist and former welder and former air force guy and former heavy-metal drummer who used to perform at the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas. He moved to the Highland Hotel right around the time he became disabled, after he collapsed during a pulmonary embolism and lost most of the movement in his right hand.

“It's such a good place to live for guys. We can't help but like the place,” Piper says. His rent was cheap — $500 a month, including utilities. He loved the view he had from his room, which looked out over the main drag in Highland Park, Figueroa Street. “I could watch the parades and watch Santa Claus go by. What's not to like about that?”

There were definitely some things not to like about the place though, Piper says. It was a building where people without a lot of other options came to stay. Some struggled with mental health issues or addiction. Some just struggled. There was a morbid joke around the building, Piper says. “Once you come in there you leave in a bag.”

During the eight-plus years Piper lived at the Highland Hotel, he says one resident died of a gunshot wound. Another guy hanged himself. Another died of lung cancer. But Piper says there was also an accidental, if slightly chaotic, community that formed among people on the edge who looked out for each other.

If a hotel resident was in trouble, Piper says, they could often find dinner and Kool-Aid from Rodney the Kool-Aid guy. Piper says he used to go with another neighbor, who had a brain injury, to a food pantry at a local church once a month.

“I was broke and trying to figure out how I was going to eat,” Piper says. “And he needed somebody to help him out.”

***

When I first went in to the building last fall, around the time that real estate agent was scoping it out for a couple of potential cute boutiques, a bunch of tenants, including John Piper, were shooting the breeze downstairs in the Swap Mall. They were well aware of the attention their building was getting. What might happen if the building was sold was, in fact, a big topic of conversation.

Some of the former business owners and residents of the Highland Park Swap Mall, including Frank Valenzuela (second from left), Carlos Valdez (second from right) and John Piper (far right). This photo was taken last year. (Krissy Clark/Marketplace)  

Carlos Valdez, who ran a little computer repair shop at one of the Swap Mall kiosks, made the point that a new owner could mean upgrades to the building, which had suffered from years of deferred maintenance. That could be good for his business.

“If you had landlords that would care about their building and go, ‘Hey, look, we got to improve for our tenants,’ I'm pro for it,” he said. “I’ve seen other buildings up the street that were a mess, and now they're making money.”

But Frank Valenzuela, another residential hotel tenant, saw it differently. If the building was bought, he said, “everyone would get evicted and the building would get refurbished in to something else.” Valenzuela argued that whoever bought it would want to clear out the tenants and put the building to a more lucrative use to make the most of their investment.

“I really doubt that's renting rooms to crazy people,” Valenzuela warned his neighbors.

John Piper sat back and listened in on the debate. I asked him what he expected if the building was sold. “I'd probably go live at my brother's house in Redondo Beach,” he said, thinking for a moment. “It'd probably be good for me.”

***

That was almost a year ago. Since then, the building has been sold for $3.6 million. John Piper did not end up in Redondo Beach.

Instead, he ended up in Van Nuys, a working class neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, in a two-bedroom apartment he shares with two other people. I visited him recently on a sweltering summer day. We retreated to the doorway of his air-conditioned bedroom.

“My room’s a wreck still,” he apologizes.

Piper pays $100 more for this room than the unit he had to himself in Highland Park. But unlike his old unit, he has his own bathroom.

The last few months have been a scramble for Piper. He says he was informed back in February, right after his birthday, that the Highland Hotel had been sold. He says the building manager and the new property manager arranged a meeting with him to explain the new owners had plans to renovate the building — maybe turn it in to offices.

“’And everybody's going to need to move,’” he remembers one of them telling him.

“I said, ‘Really, everybody? Me and everybody that lives up here and the whole Swap Mall and everybody?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ And I'm, like, ‘Wow. That really sucks.'”

It took Piper two weeks to find a new place to live. In the meantime, he says he stayed in a motel for $70 a night. He says he looked for another place to rent in Highland Park and neighboring areas, but couldn’t find anything he could afford. When he finally found the room in Van Nuys, he took it. But he didn’t like the fact that it would be a 45 minute drive from his old community.

“That's where I had all my connections and everything, right there in Highland Park,” he says. “I kind of miss living there. Now for me to do anything, I got to drive all the way back over there.”

The silver lining, Piper says, is he received some money from the building's new owners. He used some of it to buy a car, which he needs now since his new place is so far away. The money came out of a series of negotiations with the new property managers, Piper says.

“They said ‘You have to move, here's $8,000.’ And I said ‘No, thank you.’ And then they raised it to $10,000 and I said ‘Nope, sorry.’”

Piper had done some research online about rent control laws. He says he told the property manager, “I know what I'm entitled to. That is the amount that I will get.”

The amount Piper had in his head was a little more than $19,000. According to Los Angeles rent control laws, that’s how much relocation money a tenant who is disabled and has lived in an eligible unit for more than three years is entitled to under a “no-fault eviction.”

Piper says he figured rather than fight for that amount, which might require a lawyer, he would agree to less. He says he agreed to a little more than $14,000. Between all the moving costs, staying in a hotel while he found a new (more expensive) place to live and buying a car, most of the money is already gone.

“The money definitely helped,” Piper says. “But look what it’s taken me. Now I’m down to $1,500.”

But there was something that Piper did not know. Residential hotel units like the one he used to live in have special protections in Los Angeles. Landlords have to get city approval in order to convert them to another use — approvals the city says the new property owners have not applied for yet. In the meantime, Piper was under no obligation to leave his old unit. He could have told the new owners he wanted to stay.

When I told this to Piper, he was surprised. “I never knew that I could have stayed. They never even mentioned it.”

“Tenants, they often don't know their rights,” says Raphael Bostic, a housing expert and professor of public policy at University of Southern California. He says these kinds of negotiations happen all the time.

Tom Majich

Krissy Clark/Marketplace

“Most of these folks are not skilled, seasoned negotiators, whereas the developer is going to have a team of folks where this is what they do.” Bostic says there's a distinct possibility in negotiations like these “for the tenant to agree to a worse deal than they might have otherwise been able to get.”

I tracked down one of the new owners of the building, Tom Majich, president of RedCar Properties, a real estate investment company in Los Angeles. He says he wasn't involved himself in the negotiation with John Piper, but that in general, it's up to tenants to know their own rights.

“I'm not ... and this is like a derogatory word, but I'm not their babysitter, and I'm not their parent,” Majich says.

Majich says some of the residential hotel’s former tenants did not pay rent, had firearms or were using or dealing drugs on the property. He says he paid tenants to leave the property because cares about the neighborhood. He wants to clean it up.

“Can I support everyone's challenge? Absolutely not,” he says. “But I very much care about this part of town, and it's because I care that we made the investment so it isn't an area where people are overdosing in our driveway. We're going to prevent that.”

I ask him if he knows where any of his former tenants went, and he says he only knows of one, who moved in to his sister’s in Highland Park. I ask if Majich wonders where the others went.

He pauses for a moment. “I don’t.”

A note pays tribute to former occupants of the hotel. 

Krissy Clark/Marketplace

Here is what I was able to find: One man moved in with his mom and used the buyout money to start medical technician school. Another purchased a house out by the Salton Sea. Another is currently working for the new building owners.

And of course, Piper lives with two roommates, farther away from his old stomping grounds in Highland Park than he would like.

“My life is OK,” Piper tells me. “But I'm not as happy as I was when I was living where I was.”

As for Crazy Ralph, Crazy Tony and all the other former tenants, Piper doesn't know where they went. But when I walked through the halls of the old hotel a few weeks ago with Majich as workers were clearing out some of the units, I saw something: little green post-it notes on the doors to some of the rooms, with names of old tenants and the letters R.I.P.

 

When sharing is scaring

Thu, 2015-08-20 13:00

The sharing economy has drawn some unpleasant headlines recently: rape, assault and the alleged failure to do proper background checks. The horror stories have added fuel to the debate over the ability of an industry to regulate itself and the necessity of government intervention. 

"To paint a broad brush to say that there are major trust issues or safety issues in the sharing economy is a bit of sensationalism," says Billee Howard, CEO of Brandthropologie and author of the book "We-commerce."

According to Airbnb, there have been 340 complaints over property damage in 2015 out of 23 million guest stays — that's fewer than one in every 67,000 guests. Guest complaints about hosts are "incredibly rare," the company says. Uber, which is accused by several U.S. attorneys general of having substandard background checks that failed to catch dozens of people with criminal records, did not return a request for comment. 

Arvind Malhotra, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says while the numbers may be small, it naturally raises suspicions. "It's an emerging problem. Similar issues, when they crop up in diverse locations, tend to indicate possible system breakdown."

He says this poses a double risk to sharing-economy companies because negative stories can scare away both customers and suppliers, like drivers and hosts. 

For advocates of the sharing economy, this is exactly what they say will drive improvements, as opposed to government intervention. 

"We generally don't start by saying let's get the government involved," says Arun Sundararajan, professor of  information, operations and management sciences at New York University's Stern School of Business.  "In the American economy, what we've traditionally done is let the market provide what it can and then have the government step in and surgically correct market failures." 

In other words, competition can sometimes be its own regulator. Matthew Mitchell, senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, says excessive regulation can have similar effects to under-regulation. "Ironically, highly regulated industries, like taxi industries, have some of the worst safety and quality records in part because regulations have protected incumbents from any sort of competition that might serve customers better."

UNC's Malhotra says industries trying to protect their image will likely move faster than lawsuits and government regulation alone, but "somewhere there's a happy medium." After all, we don't leave businesses to develop their own fire codes. 

 

When sharing is scaring

Thu, 2015-08-20 13:00

The sharing economy has drawn some unpleasant headlines recently: rape, assault and the alleged failure to do proper background checks. The horror stories have added fuel to the debate over the ability of an industry to regulate itself and the necessity of government intervention. 

"To paint a broad brush to say that there are major trust issues or safety issues in the sharing economy is a bit of sensationalism," says Billee Howard, CEO of Brandthropologie and author of the book "We-commerce."

According to Airbnb, there have been 340 complaints over property damage in 2015 out of 23 million guest stays — that's fewer than one in every 67,000 guests. Guest complaints about hosts are "incredibly rare," the company says. Uber, which is accused by several U.S. attorneys general of having substandard background checks that failed to catch dozens of people with criminal records, did not return a request for comment. 

Arvind Malhotra, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says while the numbers may be small, it naturally raises suspicions. "It's an emerging problem. Similar issues, when they crop up in diverse locations, tend to indicate possible system breakdown."

He says this poses a double risk to sharing-economy companies because negative stories can scare away both customers and suppliers, like drivers and hosts. 

For advocates of the sharing economy, this is exactly what they say will drive improvements, as opposed to government intervention. 

"We generally don't start by saying let's get the government involved," says Arun Sundararajan, professor of  information, operations and management sciences at New York University's Stern School of Business.  "In the American economy, what we've traditionally done is let the market provide what it can and then have the government step in and surgically correct market failures." 

In other words, competition can sometimes be its own regulator. Matthew Mitchell, senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, says excessive regulation can have similar effects to under-regulation. "Ironically, highly regulated industries, like taxi industries, have some of the worst safety and quality records in part because regulations have protected incumbents from any sort of competition that might serve customers better."

UNC's Malhotra says industries trying to protect their image will likely move faster than lawsuits and government regulation alone, but "somewhere there's a happy medium." After all, we don't leave businesses to develop their own fire codes. 

 

The case for calling wildfires natural disasters

Thu, 2015-08-20 13:00

Dozens of wildfires are raging throughout the West. In eastern Washington, three firefighters were killed Wednesday. Entire communities have been ordered to evacuate. Hundreds of homes and buildings have been destroyed. More than 230,000 acres have burned in Washington alone. This is a disaster, right? 

Many think so. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is asking the federal government to declare an emergency to provide more money to fight the fires. The U.S. Forest Service has already issued a request, and sponsored legislation, to have wildfires classed as natural disasters. That would free more money for fighting and maybe even preventing them.

One cluster of wildfires has burned more than 200 square miles in central Washington, threatening the resort town of Chelan. After weeks, the fires are only 50 percent contained, and strong winds and extreme dryness aren’t making it any easier.

Thomas Gormley, the general manager of Lakeside Lodge in Chelan, says his family hasn’t lost any buildings, but these fires are hurting his bottom line. 

“This is the biggest month of the year, revenue-wise, and we lost just about everything," he says. "I don’t think that insurance-wise we would get any help or assistance there. I’m sure there may be some relief from the government, but I’m not sure what that would be.”

Tourism isn’t the only thing small communities in central and eastern Washington rely on. The timber industry has been a major source of revenue, as well. Jerry Bonagofsky, president of the Washington Contract Loggers Association, said these fires are causing the loss of major logging dollars. “Right now, virtually most of eastern Washington is at a fire precaution level four, which means there’s no industrial activity at all allowed,” he says.

The cost of fighting all these fires is also an issue. There are almost 20 active fires in Washington alone. Mike Ferris with the forest service is wondering where that money is going to come from. "We’ll probably tap what we have available this year," he says. "It’s likely we’ll tap what we have available this year and exceed it.”

The forest service expects to spend more than half its budget on fighting fires this year. But it’s the mega-fires, like the one threatening Chelan, that it wants deemed natural disasters and subsequently funded at the level of flood or hurricane responses.

Why drugmakers are suddenly merging

Thu, 2015-08-20 13:00

The latest deal in the pharmaceutical industry is the $1 billion purchase of Sprout Pharmaceuticals, which just won FDA approval for its female libido pill, by Valeant Pharmaceuticals.

According to the consulting firm KPMG, in just the first half of 2015, we saw $221 billion worth of deals in this sector, triple last year's figure through the same period.

That's because the early stage research and development work traditionally done by the Mercks and Pfizers of the world is now also being done by small startups. Avalere Health’ s Dan Mendelson says that’s possible as DNA sequencing, molecular modeling and powerful computer costs have plummeted.

“It used to be that you needed a huge amount of scale to be able to comb through millions of compounds,” he says. “And now drug development is really more about the clinical brain power and less about brawn.”

An army of entrepreneurs has entered the industry and is doing early and mid-stage research. With more people in the pool, Big Pharma has developed a new set of skills — namely, knowing how to shop for the next blockbuster. 

Steven Goldman, a corporate attorney at Kramer Levin in New York, says that’s why so many drugmakers are snapping up these promising biotech firms.

“This is their business, and they need to be players in it. And so they are buying these companies because it is the new frontier in medicine,” he says.

So as some traditional R&D by the largest manufacturers seems to be replaced by smaller outfits. Craig Garthwaite, a professor at Northwestern Kellogg School, says the question is whether this new model is actually more expensive.

“I don’t think there is anything inherent in it that we are going to spend more on drugs because we are doing it out of the company than we are doing it in the company,” he says.

But Garthwaite says no one has studied that question. Given the concern over the rising cost of drugs, it may be worth taking a look.

Celebrating the catfish economy

Thu, 2015-08-20 12:04

Maybe you haven’t heard, but August is National Catfish Month. Townsend Kyser, owner of a catfish farm in Alabama, says this is an important time of year.

“It means a whole lot to me, and a whole lot of people in the South. A lot of jobs in our area … depend on catfish for their livelihood.... Summer is a busy, long season.”

Even with all the talk about the economy and inflation, Kyser doesn’t have time to worry about it. “I’m keeping my head down, feeding my catfish,” he says. 

In a typical season, Kyser says he brings about 4 to 5 million pounds of catfish to market. That’s a lot of catfish.

Kyser started catfish farming because of his family.

“It’s a family business; we started in the late '60s … 1967 with my grandfather. My father is still around, and my brother and I are carrying on the tradition as third-generation catfish farmers,” he says. 

Even if his father isn’t running the business anymore, he still has some input.

“He still comes in to work every day and tells us what we did wrong,” Kyser says.

York & Fig: Where are they now?

Thu, 2015-08-20 12:00

What happens to people who get displaced when a neighborhood undergoes that transformation? About a year ago, Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty team did something unusual — they set up a “pop-up” bureau in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The goal was get a street’s-eye view of the changes happening there, as hip new bars and shops replaced old businesses, as longtime residents sold their homes to young couples.

This summer, we are revisiting Highland Park in a three-part podcast to see how the neighborhood continues to evolve.

This episode features the story of one particular place in Highland Park. We visited the building in 2014, a crumbling brick structure with a residential hotel for low-income men on the top floor and mom-and-pop vendors selling discounted goods on the bottom floor.



We also visited our old storefront on the corner of York Boulevard and Figueroa Street. It's now a high-end clothing boutique, as you can see below:

 
Photo credits: Rafael Cardenas Some of the music in this podcast is by the band Artichoke, our neighbors in Highland Park.

PODCAST: The economics of palliative care

Thu, 2015-08-20 03:00

On today's show, we'll talk about what to make of the latest consumer price index; how palliative care could save on healthcare costs; and a look at how businesses helped the recovery of Elysian Fields Avenue in New Orleans.

S&P launches Catholic Values Index

Thu, 2015-08-20 02:00

S&P Dow Jones Indices, which brings us the much-followed S&P 500, now has a new index for Catholics who want to put their money where their religion is. The new socially responsible investment (SRI) tool is called the Catholic Values Index, and it excludes S&P 500 companies that are linked to military production, labor abuses, medical practices and other activities that the church opposes.

The new Catholic Values Index notably includes companies that explore for, extract, and process fossil fuels, which Pope Francis critiqued in his June 2015 encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home. In the encyclical he wrote: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels — especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

Catholics and Catholic institutions in the U.S. have billions of dollars in investment portfolios. The money is in archdiocese pension and operating funds, Catholic university and charity endowments, and church investment clubs.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sets guidelines for how that money should be invested ethically. And S&P is following those guidelines, explains Alka Banerjee, S&P global head of equity indices: “They do not want to invest in nuclear weapons, adult entertainment, conventional military sales, child labor, and also abortion and stem-cell activity,” she says.

Reuters reported recently that energy stocks represent between 5 and 10 percent of Catholic institutional investments. Thus far, the USCCB has not taken aim at Catholic institutional investments in oil and gas stocks, and they are still included in the S&P Catholic Values Index. Banerjee predicts that may change in time, as the bishops study and take action in response to Pope Francis’s activist stance on climate change, and the impact of climate change on the world’s most vulnerable countries and poorest people.

Management professor Jared Peifer, an expert on socially responsible investing at Baruch College, says the fossil-fuel divestment movement has had some impact on university endowments. But he predicts that socially screened mutual funds will not respond right away.

“Divestment from fossil fuels — I don’t think it’s mainstream yet,” says Peifer. “We’re seeing more of that in universities, and some universityies are bowing to the pressure. But I’m not aware of a lot of mutual funds that have taken a stance on this.”

 

Can palliative care save money?

Thu, 2015-08-20 02:00

Palliative care is for patients who are coping with the symptoms of a serious disease. 

“Difficulty breathing, pain from the tumor. Nausea. And palliative care addresses those physical symptoms,” says Dr. Sean Morrison, a professor of palliative medicine at Mount Sinai who co-authored an article on palliative care in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Morrison says only about 5 percent of patients have serious illnesses, but they’re responsible for more than 50 percent of healthcare costs. 

He says patients getting palliative care are more involved in decisions, and may avoid expensive, end-of-life procedures. Palliative care-givers are also on call. That can keep their patients out of emergency rooms. Which should be avoided because, Morrison says.

“Once you’re into that system you’re likely to be hospitalized and then most likely it’s going to end up with something that’s not only expensive but is not really going to be a great experience for the patient,” says Don Taylor, a professor of public policy at Duke University. 

Taylor says more research is needed to determine just how much money palliative care could save.

He’s conducting a study on that right now.

Businesses revive one street in New Orleans

Thu, 2015-08-20 02:00

Elysian Fields Avenue in New Orleans connects the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain. It crosses from high ground to low, passing through wealthy neighborhoods and low-income communities. Some sections flooded after Hurricane Katrina, others didn't.

You can pretty much tell the story of the city's post-Katrina recovery just by dropping in on businesses along that street. So that's what we did. We zoomed in on one section of Elysian Fields — an industrial stretch that took many years to come back. And we talked to the business owners responsible for the rebirth.

First up, Floyd Simeon, a contractor who owns Crescent City Builders. We met him at his new warehouse where he rents studio space to craftsmen. He told us what it was like rebuilding New Orleans right after the storm.

 

Floyd Simeon, owner of Crescent City Builders. (Caitlin Esch/Marketplace) 

 

 

Simeon's neighbor, restaurant owner Sammy Schloegel, is a life-long New Orleanian. He was one of the first to rebuild his business, though Schloegel says he had to start "from scratch." He says Sammy's Food Service & Deli serves up some of the best po' boys in the city. 

Sammy Schloegel, owner of Sammy's Food Service & Deli. (Caitlin Esch/Marketplace)

 

 

Just down the street, William Watts owns NOLA Paint & Supplies. Watts is a relative newcomer to the area — he opened his shop in 2011 after closing another business in Memphis. He says owning a paint store in New Orleans is surprisingly interesting.

Will Watts owns NOLA Paint & Supplies. (Caitlin Esch/Marketplace) 

 

 

 

"The time is meow"

Thu, 2015-08-20 01:55
$14.5 billion

That's the size of the first payment of Greece's new bailout deal. Worth $96 billion total, the three-year plan is contingent on Greece adopting agreed upon reforms. As the Associated Press reports, part of this first installment will go toward repaying debts.

50 percent

That's the portion of health care costs taken up by patients with serious illnesses, in spite of this demographic being just 5 percent of all patients. Now, researchers are looking into whether palliative care — treatment where patients are more involved in decisions and may avoid expensive end-of-life procedures — could be the solution to some of the disproportionately high costs.

607

That's how many presidential candidates are currently in the race, highlighting a fairly light vetting process that takes place early on. Unless, of course, you consider Limberbutt McCubbins, a cat, to be a viable candidate — his campaign slogan, by the way, is "the time is meow." As Quartz writes, a candidate named Deez Nuts is doing surprisingly well in the polls, in spite of being made up by a high school sophomore.

5 to 10 percent

That's the portion of energy stocks in Catholic institutional investments. It's an important number to watch, considering Pope Francis' recent comments on climate change in which he criticized companies that extract and process fossil fuels. Now, for Catholics who want to put their money where their religion is, the S&P Dow Jones Indices, which brings us the much-followed S&P 500, has a new index for Catholics.

Oil prices are low, but some states see gas prices spike

Wed, 2015-08-19 13:00

First it was California. Now the latest spike in gasoline prices is in the Midwest, where drivers in Michigan are paying 23 cents a gallon more, bringing regular to $2.81 a gallon. How does this happen, when crude oil prices are at six-year lows? Not coincincidentally, there was a BP refinery breakdown outside of Chicago, the Midwest's largest. 

But refineries shut down all the time. It's when there's an unplanned outage at a major one that gas prices spike.

"And so that is sending a very big signal to the market that their supply chains need to adjust accordingly," says Mason Hamilton, petroleum markets analyst with the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

These markets in the Midwest are essentially saying, "Send us gasoline from somewhere else in the Midwest or the Gulf Coast—just get it to us!"

How much gas prices increase depends on a few things: "The tightness in the market, and the costs of acquiring those new supplies," Hamilton says.

And right now, the market is very tight. 

"The reality is that the demand for gasoline is up 6.6 percent for the latest four weeks compared to a year ago. So that's a big demand growth in this country and we haven't seen that in a very long time," says Steven Kopits, managing director of Princeton Energy Advisors.

That's pushing oil refineries to the limit, according to Guy Caruso, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says right now, refineries are running at more than 90 percent capacity.

"And any time you're running that many industrial facilities at that high rate," he says, "you're vulnerable to disruptions or industrial accidents or breakdowns."

So why not build more refineries to handle demand? Caruso says for one thing, it's difficult to get environmental permissions. And secondly, it's not been a very profitable business. Until now.

In Arizona desert, big farms are springing up

Wed, 2015-08-19 13:00

When Wayne and Glenda Erwin retired to a quiet, barren corner of the Mojave Desert in Arizona, farming wasn’t on their minds. Mostly it was stargazing and protecting their schnauzers from rattlesnakes.  

Wayne and Glenda Erwin 

Will Stone/KJZZ

“They know to keep their distance whenever there’s an encounter," Erwin says, as he walked down to the edge of his property and pointed to their small well house.

Like most people living in this sparsely populated area, about 100 miles south of Las Vegas, the Erwins depend on an aquifer for their drinking water. But recently the demand for groundwater — a valuable resource in this northwest region of Arizona near the city of Kingman — has shot up.

“You can see some green down there, which is alfalfa, I suspect," Erwin says. "That’s where we first started noticing the well drilling.”

On the horizon, tractors peel through clouds of dust. Red Lake Valley doesn’t exactly strike you as the land of plenty. But in the last couple years, thousands of acres have been converted into farmland and dozens of large-scale agricultural wells have been drilled.

All that pumping is making people around here very nervous.

“Whoever’s got that water," Erwin says, "they control our destiny here, they really do.”

Look at California’s Central Valley, Erwin says, where aquifers are falling due to generations of pumping. That isn’t the story here in Kingman. Historically, farming never took off, mainly because pulling water out of the ground was too expensive. But with the historic drought in nearby California and the high price of commodity crops, investors are casting their sights elsewhere.

“The water table level is going to drop," says Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson, "There’s just no doubt about that.”

Johnson says the surge in agriculture is jeopardizing the economy of this already water-scarce region. If farms continue to mine groundwater, Johnson believes businesses will be reluctant to locate in the county.

A view of the Erwins' well house outside Kingman, AZ. 

Will Stone/KJZZ

“It’s their right to take the water," he says of the new farms. "If it works out as a model plan for them, a business plan that they can make money, they can pull the water."

"When it runs out they can go back, or go on to the next place,” he says.

Unlike Phoenix or Tucson, where groundwater is regulated, most of rural Arizona is basically the Wild West, with no restrictions on how much groundwater growers can pump. Kingman depends on some of the same aquifers as these farms. Some experts estimate the city could run out of water in as soon as 50 years.

So who are these farmers?

It turns out mostly out-of-state investors, including Bob Saul. He’s with Wood Creek Capital, a Connecticut-based investment manager.

At a public meeting this year, he told local officials and residents that he "represents a group of investors, mostly public pension funds."

Saul says he has closely studied the aquifers and disagrees with the doom and gloom projections. The untouched soil has vast potential for all sorts of crops, he said, mostly to feed the ever-hungry California dairy industry.

"When you are investing for institutions, you really have to use best practices," Saul says. "We are not in the business of trying to jeopardize anybody’s aquifer or their land base.”

Saul described his operation, Stockton Hill Farms, as probably “the most exciting farmland project” in the country. He says the whole enterprise relies on growing “sustainably,” not how it’s been done in much of California. 

“Now we have a chance in Red Lake to start over again, with brand new soils, brand new water resource, brand new systems,” he says.

And he is not the only one getting in on the action. A Las Vegas developer is also farming huge tracts of land. Despite opposition from some residents and elected officials, not everyone in Mohave County is against the farms.

Emmett Sturgill 

Will Stone/KJZZ

Emmett Sturgill owns a ranch in the valley and says he’s happy about this burgeoning farming community.

“The alternative, in my view, would be houses, and house tops, and dogs, and four wheelers, and people cutting my fences,” he says.

Sturgill has heard all the rumors — fears the aquifer will go dry, that this is a covert attempt to seize the water or send it to Vegas — but that doesn’t jibe with what he has seen so far.

“It looks to me like they’re trying to put farms together and sell the farms to other farmers to make money,” he says.

Sturgill says he isn’t going to worry about the water. That is, unless his wells start going dry.

Inflation barely moving, despite the Fed's efforts

Wed, 2015-08-19 13:00

Numbers out today from the Labor Department say consumer prices are moving at a crawl, up only two-tenths of a percent in the last year, and growing at the slowest monthly pace in three months. That low inflation certainly isn’t from lack of trying by the Federal Reserve, which has been keeping interest rates low, pumping trillions of dollars into the economy.

“They’ve printed all this money, right? And people aren’t spending it," says Anna Rathbun, director of research at CBIZ Retirement Plan Services.  "And they can’t make people go out and spend.”

But she warns there’s a risk if the Fed raises rates too soon.

“Because if they raise rates while the inflationary pressure is not there, and it’s too low, it could slip down and become deflation, and when this happens the Fed runs out of ammunition," she says.

The Federal Reserve is already trying to fight off global pressures, says Gennadiy Goldberg of TD Securities.

“The fact that we have a global supply chain has actually allowed us to be very sensitive to inflation in other places in the world,” Goldberg says. He adds that those pressures from countries like China and Brazil are pushing inflation down here at home, along with other factors.

And remember, a little bit of inflation is supposed to be a good thing, says Ted Peters, CEO of Bluestone Financial Institutions Fund and a former member of the Federal Reserve of Philadelphia.

“You need a little bit of inflation to give companies pricing power and for them to be able to increase their prices," he says. "And if they increase their prices and make more money, then hopefully they pass that along to their employees as well.”

But today’s minutes from the July meeting of the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee predict we won’t reach the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target anytime soon.  

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