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The Transaction: Christmas dinner, a broken range and an unexpected miracle

Wed, 2015-03-04 11:44

Marketplace listener Vivian Simonsen-Jupp of Henderson, Nevada was excited to have everyone in her family home for Christmas for the first time in years. But when her oven broke the day before the big feast, her desperate scramble for a new one led to an unexpected epiphany. 

Her story is the debut installment of our listener-generated series, "The Transaction."

Tell us how a simple exchange of goods or services impacted you. Did it change your outlook? Your mood? Your mind? Maybe your life? We want to know. Click here to share.


King v. Burwell: Oral arguments on Obamacare

Wed, 2015-03-04 11:15

The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case known as King v. Burwell, a challenge to the subsidies included in the Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare, as some may call it.

Marketplace's Dan Gorenstein was in the Supreme Court Chamber Wednesday morning for arguments. He says, one of the big takeaways from the hearing was that the justices all seemed to get it.

“While they spent 84 minutes debating legal theory, the most vocal justices on the left and the right spoke to the potential real world impact,” says Gorenstein. "We’re talking about millions of Americans potentially losing their insurance.”

Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Samuel Alito, in a way, offered some sorts of contingency plans.

“Scalia talked about Congress coming up with a solution if these subsidies go away,” says Gorenstein. “Alito mentioned that the subsidies wouldn’t have to be eliminated immediately, potentially buying Congress some time.”

Why liberal arts colleges are struggling

Wed, 2015-03-04 11:12

These are tough times for  liberal arts colleges. Sweet Briar College announced Tuesday it could be closing 

"Fewer and fewer students want what they sell,"says Victor Ferrall, the former President of Beloit College and the author of “Liberal Arts at the Brink."

Gone are the days when kids and their parents are willing to pay for languid afternoon classes spent debating philosophy on a leafy quad. Today, says Ferrall, "education is very focused on a good job." 

In a 2014 national survey of college freshmen by UCLA, more students said they chose college to get a better job than to gain a general education.

For more, listen to our interview with Sweet Briar College president Dr. James Jones on the Marketplace Morning Report on Thursday, March 5.

Using personal email addresses for work isn't uncommon

Wed, 2015-03-04 09:40

Hillary Clinton used a personal email account while Secretary of State instead of an official government address – a possible breach of open-records laws which will likely be much-discussed during the 2016 presidential campaign.

But setting aside Clinton and the particulars of her case, to what extent is this an issue in the corporate world?

Using a personal email for work is fairly common and often driven by convenience, says Jill Fisch, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. John Challenger, the CEO of the outplacement and research firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., says there’s often not a strict boundary between work and personal life these days. 

Still, many companies try to make employees use their email to preserve records or because it may be more secure. 

In regulated industries, using work email is a must, says Michael Rivera, chair of Venable LLP’s Securities Enforcement and Compliance Practice.

“Particularly broker dealers, for example, they have to have a system in place to capture every single email that comes in and out of that firm to be able to satisfy their obligations to retain emails."

Toyota tries to break out of its island mindset

Wed, 2015-03-04 09:40

For the first time in company history, Toyota promoted a non-Japanese employee — Frenchman Didier Leroy — to the level of executive vice president.

To many observers, it addresses a broader problem at Japan Inc.: That its products and organizations have evolved mainly to survive in the home market, and now, it’s time to globalize.

Arthur Alexander, an economist and visiting professor at Georgetown University, says Toyota sells lots of cars abroad, yet “upper management has been very traditional.” The Japan-based decision makers must adapt, because “they can see what’s happening around them to these post-war dynamic companies falling on hard times.”

One of Toyota’s wake-up calls was a quality crisis where cars suddenly accelerated. The company blamed bad drivers and floor mats, and a public relations disaster ensued. Independent analyst Alan Baum in West Bloomfield, Michigan, faults an insular, hierarchical corporate culture.

“Because the decision-making process was still restricted to a smaller group of people in Japan,” Baum says, “it simply took awhile to get up the chain and they weren’t able to act as quickly as they would like.”



The Fed's 2009 transcripts show 299 'instances of laughter'

Wed, 2015-03-04 09:40

The Federal Reserve released the transcripts of its 2009 meetings and conference calls today — all 1,648 pages of 'em.

A quick word search this morning revealed the following: In those pages, there are 237 mentions of the word "recession," 242 mentions of "interest rates," and, for what it's worth, 299 instances of laughter being noted in the transcript.

To be fair, sometimes macroeconomics can be kind of funny.

Also, in the March 2009 meeting, Janet Yellen, then the head of the San Francisco Fed, said the economy was so lousy that it needed so much help that the Federal Funds rate, the Fed's main interest rate, ought to have been at -0.6 percent.

Think about that for a minute.

Quiz: Student loans with staying power

Wed, 2015-03-04 08:33

Still paying college debt? You’re not alone, according to the New York Federal Reserve, which examined how long it takes to pay student loans.

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The New York Times picks up where SkyMall left off

Wed, 2015-03-04 07:15

When it began a little over a decade ago, the New York Times store was only meant to satisfy readers seeking reprints of articles.

It has since blossomed into a destination for hostess gifts, where shoppers can find anything from a personalized oak wine barrel, to a vintage English silver cream jug, to a novelty cutting board shaped like a pig. And recently the site got a makeover, further differentiating it from the online stores of other media outlets. As a press release for the relaunch boasts, the new online shop offers "personalized products that are curated for and recommended to each individual shopper."

Those personalized oak wine barrels went like hot cakes. The Times sold 10,000 in the first quarter they were offered, says Joseph Adelantar, executive director of retail for The New York Times Store.

"Our readers have an affinity for something special.  They want something that has some kind of a background to it, or some kind of historical note, rather than just saying here’s a beautiful watch and it’s gold," he says.

But at the NPR Shop, fans love the more practical items.

“When I started I thought we’re never going to sell a tote bag or a mug, because everyone that’s involved in public broadcasting has those things from a pledge drive," says Barbara Sopato, director of consumer products and e-commerce for NPR. "But those are huge sellers for us."

It seems nothing shows your love for public radio like the humble canvas tote bag, a perennial fan favorite.

NPR shoppers, notes Sopata, are eco-conscious. They also tend to have pets and a lot are gardeners or cooks says Sopata, who notes every spring she's sure to offer up some gardening merchandising. But overall, they're curious. A public radio fan doesn't just want a cocktail, Sopata says, hey want a book that shows what plants are grown to make the booze so they can talk about the drink's origins at happy hour. So that's what Sopata sells. 

But Margaret Duffy, director of the Institute for Advertising Ethics at the Missouri school of journalism, says that for media outlets, a snazzy store isn't just about the cash in the till. After all, it's one thing to sell a branded sweatshirt, mug and cuff links, and another altogether to land a corporate advertising campaign. If media outlets play their cards right, she says, they can use their sales as bait, to lure in bigger fish.

“One of the things they would clearly like to tell their advertisers is that they have a demographic that is willing and able to spend significantly on products and services," she says.

Say, an antique brass clock in the Times store for $6,500.  

When it all comes down to it, “media outlets are brands," says Allen Adamson, chairman of branding firm Landor's North American headquarters. "The New York Times is as much a brand as Pepsi, Coke or McDonalds.”

And just like any other retailer, Adamson says, a media store has to know what its customers want.

“So, the [Times] you’d want to sell upscale, powerfully intellectual brand items,” he says.

"These are products for people who have a very curated life style," says Marissa Gluck of the digital branding agency Huge.

"If you’re an NPR listener, you’re probably likely to drink craft beer and, you know, enjoy artisanal cheese," Gluck says. "Fox is maybe a little bit older, certainly not fashion-forward."

But for most media outlets, it's not the coffee cup or baseball cap they're trying to sell, but the logo on the front or side, Gluck says.

“Their primary revenue stream is advertising – it’s not really selling sweatshirts for 50 bucks a pop," she says.

Five more strange finds from the depths of the New York Times store

  1. A rare German console set sells for $3,200 (conveniently linked to the store's silver polish listing) for the hostess with the most-est.
  2. Your Titanic aficionado friend might have a boat replica, but they definitely need a 1912 Ford truck model replica, carrying paper bundles announcing the disaster - on sale for $99.99.
  3. The Times didn't forget about Fido. On sale for $24.99, this houndstooth dog leash and matching color seems like a great deal for stylish pups.
  4. Dad blazed through that Abraham Lincoln biography you gave him last year? No worries, the Times can sell you a rare, original tintype photo of the president on a ribbon for $2,325.
  5. If you have been scouring the internet for a puzzle that appeals to both cat fans and/or people who love shaped jigsaws, look no further than this $50 tapestry cat wooden jigsaw puzzle.

PODCAST: A forecast to Friday's Jobs Report

Wed, 2015-03-04 03:00

First up, we'll talk about what the jobs report is likely to look like on Friday. Plus, Ukraine’s central bank is raising its interest rate from 19.5 percent to 30 percent. The hike comes as the government is seeking a $17.5 billion assistance program from the International Monetary Fund. Inflation is rampant and the national currency has tumbled since Russia annexed Ukraine's southern Crimea peninsula and pro-Russian separatists took up arms in the country's east.  We look at the reasons behind the hike in the interest rate. And gas prices sure seem to go up a lot faster than they go down. On the West Coast, 37 cents a gallon just last week. We explain.

Target announces layoffs at company headquarters

Wed, 2015-03-04 02:00

Target Corporation has announced thousands of job cuts, most of them at company headquarters, set to roll out over the next two years. CEO Brian Cornell, who joined Target last year, told investors the cuts were part of a broader turnaround. 

The biggest event in Target’s recent history was a black eye for the retailer: A data breach in 2013 that saw millions of customer credit cards exposed to possible fraud.

However, that's not what's behind these cuts, says Brian Yarbrough, an analyst from Edward Jones. "Of course some customers will never shop them again," he says. "But for the most part, most of the customers have come back. So I don’t think this has anything to do with the data breach."

There have been other problems, too — like a failed expansion into Canada, which collapsed. Target Canada filed for bankruptcy in January after just two years in operation. It’s in the process of closing more than 100 stores and laying off more than 17,000 workers.

"Target’s last five years have been the most challenging in the history of the company," says Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a retail consultancy. "Every major move Target made seemed to be a major management mistake."

However, Flickinger thinks the company may be poised for a rebound. For instance, he thinks Target is addressing supply-chain problems, which helped sink Target Canada and which Flickinger says have hurt stores here.

Also in the works: A new emphasis on fancier groceries, to lure younger shoppers. Once shoppers come to Target, the thinking goes, they will buy stuff. Come for the organic yogurt and gluten-free granola, stick around and pick up some pants or a deck chair.

The Sound of Computers

Wed, 2015-03-04 02:00

Have you ever wondered what computers sounded like before they evolved into the sleek, silent processors we know and use. Well, now you can find out.

Matt Parker, a UK-based sound artist, is the man behind the Imitation Archive - it’s a collection of sounds from the early days of computing. The archive will be in the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park, England. Parker is also working on turning some of these sounds into musical compositions.

What was surprising, he said, was the rich variety of sounds he encountered. “Certainly the assumption would be that they all sound the same,” said Parker.  

“Very early electromechanical computers running on relay switches make a very different sort of sound to the sounds you get from high processing smaller devices,” he explained, before playing sounds from one particular device, known as the WITCH. It sounded, he said, like “various pieces of metal grinding.”

Parker described the device as “basically, a very advanced calculator.”

He also said the WITCH was the most musical of all the technology he's recorded: “It’s very interesting, very rhythmic."

His goal is to explore the separation between the quiet devices that we keep beside us or tucked away in our pockets and bags, and the place where all the information they process is ending up. “I want to try and find a way using sound to remind people of that,” said Parker.   


Why two companies dominate the private prison industry

Wed, 2015-03-04 02:00

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved funding for the Department of Homeland Security until next fiscal year. Republicans had held up funding for DHS in an attempt to overturn President Obama’s executive action to give up to five million undocumented immigrants a reprieve from deportation. A federal judge blocked the President’s order, but the administration has vowed to appeal the decision.

No matter what happens with President Obama’s executive action, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, will still detain up to 34,000 immigrants. ICE partners with private prison companies to house undocumented immigrants in prison-like facilities around the country.

One such facility is the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, run by a corporation called the Geo Group. Detainees there complain of low wages, abuse from guards, even maggots in their food. They staged three hunger strikes in the past year. Byron Hernandez Lopez, a 26-year-old man from Guatemala, claims a guard assaulted him, grabbing his wrist and leaving marks on his arm.

The entrance to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA.

Ryan Katz

ICE doesn’t officially acknowledge these allegations. ICE Spokesman Andrew Munoz says the Northwest Detention Center remains in compliance with the agency’s 2011 detention standards. But ICE’s own audit inspection found the Northwest Detention Center violated almost half of the standards it reviewed last year.

At the same time, ICE sees few alternatives. Geo only has one major competitor, Corrections Corp. of America. The two of them claim they control around three-quarters of the private prison industry.

Ryan Meliker, an analyst with MLV and Company, says the main reason is because, unlike their competitors, Geo and CCA are publicly traded.

“There’s more transparency surrounding their business, government entities feel a little more comfortable selecting them from a contracting standpoint.”

Meliker says ICE can inspect their financial records and confirm they have sufficient credit.

He adds that ICE likes to work with companies it has contracted with in the past. They know Geo and CCA are capable of building, staffing and operating a detention center – not an easy task.

Activists see a different reason why Geo and CCA dominate the market. Jamie Trinkle of the Enlace Private Prison Divestment Campaign, claims that “In the last decade, CCA and Geo have spent $45 million lobbying the federal government.”

Trinkle concedes that Geo is very likely to re-win the contract at the Northwest Detention Center. 

Inside the center, many detainees sense whichever company runs the center, conditions will remain poor. Cipriano Rios, a 55-year-old man from Mexico, says “We’re a captive population, hidden from the public. If the company’s motive is profit, it spends as little as possible. Geo can leave and when the next one arrives, everything will be the same.”

The contract for the NWDC will be awarded later this month.   



When disaster strikes, FEMA turns to Waffle House

Wed, 2015-03-04 02:00

When a big storm or tornado devastates a community, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) usually steps in to help state and local officials. But in recent years, FEMA has been getting some help of its own from an unexpected source – one you see on almost every highway throughout the Southeast: Waffle House.

During a busy lunch hour at a Waffle House in Norcross, Ga., manager William Palmer grills up a Texas Lover’s BLT for one of his customers on the high counter.

But there were a couple of days last January where this Waffle House was packed to the brim. It was during the ice storm that paralyzed the metro Atlanta area, and Palmer says people took refuge here.

“A lot of people were stranded on the highway with cars and they couldn’t get to their cars,” Palmer said. “But since we’re a staple in the community, they always knew they can come here and get great service and great food.”

Palmer and his employees worked shifts around-the-clock as the city thawed – the company put him and other employees up in hotel rooms nearby.

The 24-hour restaurant chain prides itself on serving its customers at all hours of the day, seven days a week. And FEMA caught on to this. They discovered that if a Waffle House was closed after a storm, then that meant things were really bad.

“It just doesn’t happen where Waffle House is normally shut down,” said Philip Strouse, FEMA’s private sector liaison for the Southeast.

Strouse said Waffle Houses are able to bounce back relatively quickly after a natural disaster, and have a good sense of what their statuses are in a community.

“They’re the canary in the coalmine, if you will,” Strouse said.

In 2011, the current head of FEMA, administrator Craig Fugate, was said to have coined what’s called the Waffle House Index. There are three measures in the index: green, yellow and red.

Green means the restaurant is open as usual, yellow means it’s on a limited menu, and red means the restaurant’s closed.

The index isn’t necessarily scientific, Strouse said, but it allows FEMA to know quickly about how things are on the ground.

“It gives us a pretty good feel right away of what’s going on at what time,” he said.

Because Waffle Houses restaurants are in areas prone to hurricanes and tornadoes, the company has made it part of their business plan to be prepared, said Pat Warner, the vice president of culture at Waffle House.

“We all have, what I call, ‘day jobs’ and then when the crisis comes, we all kind of stop,” said Warner, who’s also part of the company’s disaster management team.

For example, the man who handles restaurant operations also monitors the weather during hurricane season. The company starts tracking storms when they're still a tropical depression, Warner said.

Every employee also has a copy of the company’s hurricane playbook, which has instructions on how to respond during a crisis. If a storm’s on its way, Warner said the company will rent generators and start sending teams to the area.  

Waffle House even has an emergency menu, pared down for quick production and efficiency.

“Unfortunately for bacon folks, bacon takes up too much grill so we do sausage instead of bacon,” Warner said.

Waffles are not on the menu either, because they take too much electricity to make.  

Back at the Waffle House outside Atlanta, manager William Palmer focuses on serving his customers for now. But he said if the next disaster strikes, he’s not worried.

“We’re ready for it,” Palmer said.

And FEMA will be watching.





Ukraine raises interest rate to 30 percent

Wed, 2015-03-04 02:00

It’s tough to be a Ukrainian right now. In addition to Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia—and partially because of it—the country’s currency is collapsing and inflation rates are soaring. As a result, Ukraine’s central bank has raised its benchmark interest rate to 30 percent, up from just over 19 percent.

How did Ukraine get here?

“Ukraine is fighting a war that it cannot pay for [and] it has a budget that isn’t balanced,” says Keith Darden, a professor at the School of International Service at American University. He adds it also has long history of government corruption and it’s running out of money. As a result, Ukrainians are moving to more stable currencies or rushing to purchase staples like sugar and flour in bulk.  

Steve Hanke, a professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University and the director of the Troubled Currency Project at the Cato Institute, estimates Ukraine’s real annual inflation rate is now around 270 percent. Theoretically, raising interest rates could draw investors and convince people into leave their money in the bank, but Hanke says it also kills demand for loans and that without credit, Ukraine's economy will sink further into a "death spiral." He says to reverse it Ukraine must tackle the structural problems that got it here in the first place. 

The volatility of gasoline prices

Wed, 2015-03-04 01:45

The U.S. Energy Information Administration releases its weekly numbers on oil supplies on Thursday. The agency also surveys gas station prices, and they rose 14 cents a gallon nationally last week. In California, prices spiked up 37 cents a gallon, because of lower production at refineries.

More on why gas prices often seem to rise faster than they decline:

Click the media player above to hear more.

Blurred Lines and its blurred profits

Wed, 2015-03-04 01:30

That's how much "Blurred Lines," the biggest hit of 2013, made in profit. More than $5.6 million went in Robin Thicke's pocket, and Pharrell got more than $5.1 million. Poor T.I. got just $704,774 for his guest verse. Usually these details are top secret, the Hollywood Reporter notes, but they've come out in the ongoing legal battle over the song's alleged similarity to Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up."

270 percent

It’s tough to be a Ukrainian right now. Ukraine’s central bank has raised its benchmark interest rate to 30 percent, up from just over 19 percent. But with the country's currency collapsing, and with many Ukranians moving to more stable currencies, some estimate the country's real annual inflation rate is more like 270 percent.


The number of political scientists living in the District of Columbia, 120.5 more than one would expect based on the average across all 50 states. The Pew Charitable Trusts used Bureau of Labor Statistics data to calculate the jobs that are most disproportionally represented in each state.

$521 million

The estimated value of Florida-based Keiser University, a former for-profit college that was sold to a nonprofit in 2011 amid an investigation from the state's attorney general. But the nonprofit is also owned by the school's founders, the Keiser family, and the University uses several big-ticket services, facilities and vendors family members own a stake in, the New York Times reported. Keiser is far from the only school to go non-profit following a nationwide crackdown on for-profit institutions.

2 companies

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, partners with private prison companies to house undocumented immigrants in prison-like facilities around the country. These days, just two companies, Geo Group and Corrections Corp. of America, control around three-quarters of the private prison industry.

24 hours

If you're from the Southeast, chances are you're familiar with the Waffle House franchise. You may have also come to depend on the fact that the chain prides itself on being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Well, now the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) depends on that fact, too. Using Waflle House restaurants as a kind of community thermometer, the current head of FEMA, administrator Craig Fugate, was said to have coined what’s called the Waffle House Index. There are three measures in the index: green, yellow and red. Green means the restaurant is open as usual, yellow means it’s on a limited menu, and red means the restaurant’s closed.

The buying power of the Chinese middle class

Tue, 2015-03-03 10:37

It's dinnertime in Shanghai, China, and Ji Shengxian and some friends are eating at Pizza Express.

“It is probably one of the most tasty pizza restaurants I have tried in China,” Ji says. “It instantly surpasses pizzas from Pizza Hut and Papa John’s.”

Ji says she is a big fan of the carpaccio.

“Their raw ingredients are very fresh, and they have pizzas with Chinese elements, such as the roasted Peking duck pizza." she says.

Pizza Express is a chain, and it does what is called “premium casual” dining. Each restaurant looks modern and airy, and there is an open kitchen. It was founded in London, England, about 50 years ago, and today, there are around 500 restaurants worldwide, including 22 in China.

The plan is for that number to grow — a few months ago, a Beijing-based private equity firm bought the chain for $1.5 billion.

“The private equity industry in China has come of age over the last 20 years, and is now a very substantial component of the economy,” says Tom Manning. For two decades, he did business in Asia; now, he teaches at the University of Chicago.

Last year, private equity deals in China totaled $70 billion -- up more than 100 percent from 2013, and a lot of that investment was in consumer products. And now there are big firms financed and run by Chinese executives that are based there, and with that, the focus of private equity investment has started to shift.  

For years, Chinese private equity firms invested millions in mining and manufacturing. For the most part, they weren’t interested in restaurants and retail, but that has started to change. According to Manning, “The consumer products area is a great example, because in many cases, the market is just being built out.”

That is thanks to the size of China’s middle class – how much it has grown recently, and how much it is expected to grow.

“China’s middle-class growth even at a less-than-expected rate on an absolute scale is going to be huge,” says Paul Swinand, a retail analyst at Morningstar. He is talking about half a billion middle-class consumers in China in five years’ time. Just think about that purchasing power. What we are seeing, he says, is a shift. For a long time, the focus was on Ferraris and Fendis.

“Now, other aspirational luxury brands, like Coach, have gotten a lot stronger relative to their, quote, higher-end competitors,” says Swinand. These are brands that are expensive, but not as expensive, that still say something about the person who has bought them.

“Aspirational luxury” is the sweet spot Chinese investors are trying to target, and they are scouring Europe and the United States to identify brands that could appeal to a new class of consumers.

“The people with purchasing power just love to have Western brands,” says Z. John Zhang, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. There are companies that make good money off of cache, licensing Western brands – what he calls “defunct” Western brands – to Chinese manufacturers.

“So, you don’t really see London Fog very much here,” he says. London Fog has been around for almost a century, and a company bought it out of bankruptcy almost a decade ago. “But you go to China, and some manufacturer will buy the particular brand and use the particular brand to sell the product inside of China.”

According to Swinand, sometimes the closer you are to a brand, the more familiar you are with its history and how it is perceived, the uglier it looks. “A brand that maybe needs a little sprucing up or dusting off or repositioning could be really big in China,” he says.

A Chinese conglomerate just bought the American clothing company St. John. It also bought Club Med. The thinking is there will be many millions of middle-class Chinese eager and now able to travel.

The data-driven workplace of the future

Tue, 2015-03-03 10:04

The next craze in big data has to do with where you work.

“When employers have the capacity to monitor you, they will,” says Esther Kaplan. She took a look at how various industries, from shipping and transportation to retail to freelance work, has changed since the introduction of big data tracking to the workplace.

Her piece, “The Spy Who Fired Me” appears in the March edition of Harper’s Magazine.

Specifically, Kaplan wrote about telematics, a combination of information that could include everything from GPS data to sales information. Employers use telematics software to decide how to schedule, hire or even fire workers.

But measuring workers based on specific metrics can have some unintended consequences, says Kaplan. For example, she followed UPS drivers who have gotten into the habit of buckling their seat belts behind them when they drive. The vehicle logs that the seat belt has been buckled, but the drivers are able to sprint in and out of the trucks faster to meet their delivery quotas.

“So you’re maximizing certain metrics, but all kinds of incidental side effects are not being measured, not being captured, and may be getting worse,” Kaplan says.

Read an excerpt from Kaplan’s report in Harper's Magazine below:

Whenever you drive up to a McDonald’s window, or push your grocery cart to a Stop & Shop checkout line, or head to the register at Uniqlo with a blue lambswool sweater in hand, you, too, are about to be swept up into a detailed system of metrics. A point-of-sale (P.O.S.) system connected to the cash register captures the length of time between the end of the last customer’s transaction and the beginning of yours, how quickly the cashier rings up your order, and whether she has sold you on the new Jalapeño Double. It records how quickly a cashier scans each carton of milk and box of cereal, how many times she has to rescan an item, and how long it takes her to initiate the next sale. This data is being tracked at the employee level: some chains even post scan rates like scorecards in the break room; others have a cap on how many mistakes an employee can make before he or she is put on probation.

Until recently, most retail and fast-food schedules were handmade by managers who were familiar with the strengths of their staff and their scheduling needs. Now an algorithm takes the P.O.S. data and spits out schedules that are typically programmed to fit store traffic, not employees’ lives. Scheduling software systems, some built in-house, some by third-party firms, analyze historical data (how many sales there were on this day last year, how rain or a Yankees game affects revenue) as well as moment-by-moment updates on the number of customers in the store or the number of sweaters sold in the past hour or the pay rate of each employee on the clock — what Kronos, one of the leading suppliers of these systems, calls “oceans of valuable workforce data.” In the world of retail, all of this information points toward one killer K.P.I.: labor cost as a percentage of revenue.

In postwar America, many retailers sought to increase profits by maximizing sales, a strategy that pushed stores to overstaff so that every customer received assistance, and by offering generous bonuses to star salespeople with strong customer relationships. Now the trend is to keep staffing as lean as possible, to treat employees as temporary and replaceable, and to schedule them exactly and only when needed. Charles DeWitt, a vice president at Kronos, calls it “the era of cost.”

Workforce-management technologies make productivity visible and measurable, allowing employers to distinguish between labor time that generates profits and labor time — down to the minute — that does not.




Oil wells produce even more water than oil

Tue, 2015-03-03 09:29

The American landscape is dotted with more than 100,000 deep injection wells that are a key part of the energy infrastructure. Without them, you probably wouldn't be able to fill up your tank. Because for every barrel of oil that comes out of the ground, salty and sometimes chemically-laced fluid comes up with it. This so-called produced water has to go somewhere. Much of it is injected back into the earth.

Justin Haigler is the head of Black Bison, a Wyoming wastewater disposal company. He was setting my expectations low as we drove to a wellhead. One of his partners, James Schaffner, agreed: “Prepare to be underwhelmed.”

We pulled up to a small, unassuming hut. But you can hear its pressurized insides whirring yards away

"1,700 psi, that’s the pressure we’re injecting at," Haigler said.

 The three-foot-tall wellhead has a big job. Nearly 2 miles below, Haigler explained, a narrow pipe shoots wastewater into a subterranean cavity.

In 2013, Colorado and Wyoming together produced around 128 million barrels of oil and a little more than 2.4 billion barrels of water. So for every barrel of oil, that was around 19 barrels of water. Some of it is naturally occurring in underground rock formations, and some is a product of the hydraulic fracking process itself. The problem is, in the oil boom of the last few years, it has all happened so quickly.

 "They get here," Haigler said, "and everybody is excited and they have enough bandwidth to do the drilling and they go for it, and then they wonder, where are we going to put the water, by the way?”

Companies like Black Bison have stepped in to fill that need. During the boom, water trucks would sometimes line up 15 deep to unload.

Things have changed with oil prices in freefall.  So now might not seem like the best time to get into the business. But T-Rex Oil believes the timing is just right.

“The first thing I wanted to show you," T-Rex geologist Marty Gottlob said as he pulled out a big map of the West. "Here’s Sioux County, our water well is located right up here.”

T-Rex has applied for an injection well permit in Sioux County, Nebraska. It's a brand new company, with no track record in the wastewater business, and is still in the process of raising money.

“Its like the stock market," Gotlob said. "Buy low, sell high.”

With oil prices down, rigs, equipment and workers become available, and cheaper. And wastewater disposal is BIG business. The Boston-based water consulting firm Bluefield Research estimates the U.S. hydraulic fracturing industry spent more than $6 billion in 2014 on water management.

Back at Black Bison’s unloading station, Haigler said, "We turn on our pumps and basically draw the fluids out of our trucks." Hundreds of barrels of wastewater rush through a hose into a series of pipes and tanks where it is filtered, pressurized and then injected.

The Black Bison guys compare the role of this process to our food supply.

“Like the farmer's tractor," Haigler said. "It might seem unimportant driving by on the highway, but its super critical. Without it, the green beans don’t get to the grocery store.”  

 In that analogy, I think green beans are oil or gasoline. So, here’s the thing: we want and need the fuel, and injection wells are the most common way to dispose of this salty water. But as their numbers continue to grow, so do concerns about their consequences.

The DHS gets funded ... for now

Tue, 2015-03-03 09:28

Two updates from Washington, DC:

Update one, on the sidelines of the Netanyahu speech today, the House passed a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security for the rest of the fiscal year, which means we're not gonna have more Friday night silliness this week.

Update two, the Congressional Budget Office reminded us today that the debt-limit extension expires on March 15th, which means we're gonna have a whole lot of that silliness when the Treasury exhausts what the CBO calls, its well-established toolbox of so-called extraordinary measures, come October or November.