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Gym plans in the New Year? Economists think otherwise

Fri, 2015-01-02 02:00

January is the busiest month for health clubs to sign up new members, as people try to make good on their New Year’s resolutions. But few show up often enough to justify the expense. 

Economists have some theories about why that's the case. 

“The cost of getting out of bed, driving to the gym, and so forth, weighs more heavily than the long-term health benefits,” says Dan Acland, a behavioral economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Acland says when people consider whether to hit the gym, the payoff might seem too remote. Instead they focus on the immediate barriers, a tendency called “present bias.” (A yet fancier term, “quasi hyperbolic discounting,” describes the tendency through a mathematical model).

Acland says when folks plunk down money on new gym memberships to fulfill their New Year’s resolutions, they're often overly optimistic that the current barriers to working out will go away. 

“We say that they are naive with respect to their future self control problems,” Acland says. 

The result is that about half the people with health club memberships are no-shows, according to Justin Sydnor, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He says a lot of people think the money they spend on gym memberships will push them to exercise more. But Sydnor says the gym might be part of the problem. 

“Is the gym the easiest place, is it the place that you're not going to struggle as much on a daily basis to go to?” he asks. 

That’s a question that Jenel Farrell of St. Paul, Minn. has been facing as she considers a gym membership at her local YWCA. Farrell has cancelled a membership at a yoga center across town because she couldn’t drag herself there often enough to get her money’s worth. But she hopes to hit the Y more regularly and meet one of her recurring New Year’s goals. 

“It's always fitness,” she says. “And the other thing is chew my food slower.”

 

Silicon Tally: Hello, 911? My PlayStation doesn't work

Fri, 2015-01-02 02:00

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by science and technology reporter, Rose Eveleth.

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Illinois faces sudden drop in state tax

Fri, 2015-01-02 02:00

The new year brings profound budget challenges for the state of Illinois, which has the worst credit rating of any state in the U.S. and is dealing with the expiration of temporary tax increases.

Illlinois also has a divided government: a newly-elected Republican governor Bruce Rauner who campaigned against making the state's temporary income tax increase permanent, an unfunded pension liabilities of about $100 billion (or possibly more), and a solidly Democratic state legislature.

The state has a flat income tax. Everyone pays the same rate regardless of income. Lawmakers had hiked that rate in 2011 from 3.75 percent to 5 percent to deal with the effects of the recession, promising that the hike would be temporary and would expire in 2015. But they spent the money on the state's pension obligations instead of helping local municipalities deal with the recession, says Laurence Msall of the Chicago Civic Federation, a non-partisan budget watchdog group.

"There has been a willingness to ignore longterm financial repurcussions of short-term politically-attractive answers," says Msall, whose group earlier in 2014 had proposed fixing the state's budget woes by gradually reducing the income tax rate down to 4 percent while also consolidating various branches of state government to cut spending.

Msall's organization also proposed taxing retiree income, at least to some extent. Illinois is one of only three states — out of 41 that impose income taxes — that doesn't tax pension income, the Chicago Civic Federation said in a report.

Instead, before Rauner's election, Illinois' Democratic Governor Pat Quinn proposed making the temporary tax hike permanent — a plan Msall says would not have solved all of the state's fiscal woes anyway.

Rauner ran a successful campaign that criticized Quinn's proposal. And now, the Democratic-controlled legislature is waiting on the new governor to propose how to close the budget gap while accounting for about $2 billion in tax revenues that will disappear in the current fiscal year, and another $4 billion revenue reduction in the fiscal year starting in June 2015.

"There is no plan right now," says Msall. "The budget that they've passed is going to run up the unpaid bills ... The state is borrowing from its own resources and it's relying on accounting gimmicks"

Richard Kaplan, an expert in tax law at the University of Illinois, says there are other revenue sources the state could draw upon outside of the state income tax.

"There are a variety of these excise taxes on gasoline, telephone service, alcohol and tobacco products," says Kaplan, who adds that the state could also expand its sales tax to apply not only to goods purchased but also services such as hair cuts, medical care and others.

If such taxes are enacted, it could mean Illinois tax payers who see additional money in their paychecks now, may soon end up paying higher prices for daily expenses in the near future.

As funding drops, scientists turn to the crowd

Thu, 2015-01-01 11:54

Susan Nagel from the University of Missouri studies the health impacts of chemicals used in fracking. Last year, Nagel found remnants of fracking chemicals in Colorado streams near locations of previous fracking spills.

“This was an initial study, and we found this kind of strong association,” Nagel says. But she wanted to go farther and confirm her results with more testing.

Her grant application with the National Institutes of Health, however, sat in limbo for months, so she turned to crowdfunding. Nagel set up a project page on the site experiment.com

“We spent a lot of time on the actual site, developing a video, developing the content to be short but explicit, to be understandable to a broad audience,” Nagel says.

It worked.

Nagel raised $25,000 for a follow-up study. Research like hers is the latest destination for online donors looking to back projects they like. Brian Meece of the crowdfunder RocketHub says science that strikes an emotional chord does better on his site. “Research for animals, research for the environment ... things that are curious, things that are quirky, things that are fun” all do well, Meece says.

It helps if your page has captivating pictures of sharks or jaguars on it, or if the research is about a topic donors care about. With federal funding for science flat or falling behind inflation in recent years, more scientists are trying out crowdfunding.

The crowd has launched hundreds of small-scale science projects, but there are potential problems. When the federal government decides whether to fund a grant, panels of experts peer-review each application. The National Science Foundation’s Kevin Crowston says it’s not like that when the crowd is the judge.

“You really need an expert to be able to look at that and say 'well, this really is new and interesting' or 'in fact, this is like something that’s already been done,'” Crowston says.

Jai Ranganathan, a co-founder of the crowdfunding web site scifundchallenge.org, says his site vets projects to ensure the people behind them aren't, well, totally crazy. “Basically we’re trying to screen out cranks – that you’re not writing in crayon,” Ranganathan says.

Crowdfunding can fill in some gaps in federal funding, Ranganathan says. But in the end, it’s no match for the biggest crowd of all – taxpayers.

Ringing in the new year with a pay raise

Thu, 2015-01-01 11:07

For millions of workers around the country, the new year will mean a bigger paycheck. More than 20 states and the District of Columbia are raising their minimum wages in 2015.

In Florida, the increase is modest at just 12 cents an hour. In South Dakota, workers will earn an additional $1.25 per hour. What will that mean for the economy?

“I really don’t think it’s going to make a difference,” says Kedra Jackson, who works part-time at a McDonald’s in Baltimore, where minimum-wage workers will see a 75 cent raise. “A lot of employers are going to cut hours.”

But economists like Elise Gould say far more workers will benefit than lose out. “Families at the bottom really need to spend their money,” she says. “When they spend their money, it increases demand for goods and services, and that really stimulates the economy.”

Champagne wishes and hangover-cure dreams

Thu, 2015-01-01 11:01

Hangovers have existed as long as overconsumption of alcohol (that is to say, as long as alcohol has existed). But even though a new magical concoction, technique or pill comes along every few years to offer a cure, the task may be futile.

 

 

Anou, the accessible Etsy of Morocco

Thu, 2015-01-01 11:00

Etsy is great for the small-time crafts-person to reach new audiences. But there one problem: If you're among the millions of artisans around the world with limited reading and writing ability, it won't help much.

Anou, a new website launched in Morocco, helps rural artisans cut out middlemen. And you don't have to read or write to use it. 

Morocco is famous for its artisan crafts, like rugs, lamps, jewelry and mosaics.

A few years ago, Anou founder Dan Driscoll and some colleagues were working as Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco and noticed that many artisans were living in poverty. Some make only around $100 a month. The Anou site addresses the technological hurdle of posting to the web — but that's just the first step in a much bigger process of becoming actual business owners.

Inside the CIA's crystal ball for 2015

Thu, 2015-01-01 11:00

In 2000, the Central Intelligence Agency released a 70-page report predicting what the world would be like in 2015.

A few of the predictions:

  • The world population will grow by more than 1 billion, to 7.2 billion.

That's right on the nose.

  • Europe will not achieve fully the dreams of parity with the U.S. as a shaper of the global economic system.

Man, was that prescient as the Euro Zone faces slow growth, and another recession.

  • Populations in many African countries will fall because of aids, famine and continuing economy and political turmoil.

They didn't get everything right. The continent's population has grown by about 300 million.

You can find a more complete list of the predictions on Business Insider's website.

Semi-rosy outlook for housing market

Thu, 2015-01-01 09:50

Real-estate analysts predict 2015 will be better for the housing market than 2014. How much better?

A 10 percent increase in home sales would be a "realistic expectation," according to Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance. "Frankly, if we just continued what we saw in the second half of 2014, we’d be up 10 percent." But, that's only if interest rates don’t shoot up too much, and unemployment continues to decline. 

How about prices? What’ll happen to them in 2015?

“We are predicting that the price of the average existing single family home will come in around 2.8 percent year-on-year for 2015, ” says Stephanie Karol, a U.S. economist with IHS Global Insight. In other words, prices will increase around 2.8 percent this year, compared to more than 3 percent in 2014.

So, it’s all sweetness and light for the housing market in the coming year?

Not quite. A housing Grinch looms in the background. “Just put a green face on me,” says Anthony Sanders teaches real estate finance at George Mason University.  He says a big shadow is looming over the 2015 housing market: wage growth. Wages have only increased by around 2 percent, but Sanders says we need 5 or 6 percent wage growth for people to have enough money to buy a house.

The jobs being created in this economic recovery don’t pay enough to support buying a home, he says. “Mostly service industry.... You know, wait staff. And those are not people that are traditional homeowners.”

Until wages pick up, Sanders says, we’ll have to rely on foreign investors who still see U.S. housing as a bargain. 

McDonald's makes a move toward not-so-fast food

Thu, 2015-01-01 08:44

McDonald's has hit hard times. Its earnings report in 2014 was the lowest in over a decade.

But the company announced a big change that may help spur sales: It's rolling out custom burgers across the country. 

The move towards customization is part of a growing trend in the food industry. Sales for fast food, or quick-service restaurants as they're officially known, have been flat, but fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle and Panera have seen surging growth.

So McDonald's is trying a few new tricks. Last week, the company opened a test kitchen restaurant in Sydney, Australia, called The Corner with fancier fare than the usual burgers and fries. And more upscale options could soon follow stateside.

Lithuania rings in the new year with a new currency

Thu, 2015-01-01 08:18

Along with ringing in the new year last night, Lithuania welcomed the euro, becoming the 19th nation to join the common currency. The BBC's Vishala Sri-Pathma has been reporting from Lithuania and tells us what the change could mean, from higher prices to tensions with Russia.

Listen to the full conversation in the audio player above.

PODCAST: Federal contractors get a raise

Thu, 2015-01-01 08:02

First up, federal contract workers will get a raise this year, making $10.10 an hour at minimum, but it's tough to tell how many of them will actually see a bump. Then: The so-called Internet of things - connected objects in the home, like soccer balls, appliances and  locks - reached a turning point last year, and it's poised to be huge in 2015. We look at the first bellwether: the Consumer Electronics show. Finally, Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson chats about the big tech stories to look for in 2015.

Quiz: Do you know the federal FAFSA deadline?

Thu, 2015-01-01 05:31

The widely-used Free Application for Federal Student Aid form for the 2015-2016 school year becomes available on New Year’s Day. There is a standard deadline to submit the form for federal aid, but states and colleges that use FAFSA may have their own deadlines.

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Internet's only just begun to run your life

Thu, 2015-01-01 02:31

Plugging everyday items onto the Internet is expected to be an expanding trend at this year's CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, which opens Tuesday in Las Vegas. 

"Things like your toothbrush or your door locks or other objects around your workplace or home" are all getting censors and being plugged onto the Internet, says Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association which puts on CES. DuBravac says last year was a turning point in this trend, known as "The Internet of Things." And this year, he says, there are more such objects than ever.

"For example, Adidas has a connected soccer ball ... and will measure your kick," DuBravac says. "How high it was, how fast it's rotating." Such a service can connect to a smartphone app, allowing athletes and amateurs to improve their form, he says.

But with more censors in everyday objects come more data collected about our everyday actions.

"Obviously there are privacy and security risks," says Adam Thierer, a technology policy researcher at George Mason University.

Thierer says consumers need to be more aware of who is collecting what information, and they need to become more vigilant about passwords and data protection. But Thierer says companies need to do their part, too, but adopting best practices "to make sure that these new technologies are as secure as possible and safeguard our information, and do not share it too freely or openly."

Tech companies plugging more stuff onto the Internet

Thu, 2015-01-01 02:31

Plugging every day items onto the Internet is expected to be an expanding trend at this year's CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, which opens Tuesday in Las Vegas. 

"Things like your toothbrush or your door locks or other objects around your workplace or home" are all getting censors and being plugged onto the Internet, says Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association which puts on CES. DuBravac says last year was a turning point in this trend, known as "The Internet of Things." And this year, he says, there are more such objects than ever.

"For example, Adidas has a connected soccer ball ... and will measure your kick," DuBravac says. "How high it was, how fast it's rotating." Such a service can connect to a smartphone app, allowing athletes and amateurs to improve their form, he says.

But with more censors in everyday objects come more data collected about our everyday actions.

"Obviously there are privacy and security risks," says Adam Thierer, a technology policy researcher at George Mason University.

Thierer says consumers need to be more aware of who is collecting what information, and they need to become more vigilant about passwords and data protection. But Thierer says companies need to do their part, too, but adopting best practices "to make sure that these new technologies are as secure as possible and safeguard our information, and do not share it too freely or openly."

2014 by the numbers

Thu, 2015-01-01 02:23
18,136,006

The total Tweets mentioning "#Ferguson" sent in August, after unarmed teenager Micheal Brown was killed by white police officer Darren Wilson. Twitter mentions spiked again after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson, making Ferguson the most tweeted-about story of the year by a longshot, according to analytics firm Echelon Insights

A survey of 184.5 million tweets shows the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri were the biggest news story of 2014, courtesy of Echelon Insights.

 

$3.7 billion

The entire cost of the 2014 midterm elections, which saw Republicans take over the Senate and grow their majority in the House. Incidentally, Bloomberg points out three of the country's biggest campaign donors saw their net worth increase by that same amount.

7,842

The worldwide death toll of this year's Ebola outbreak, largely in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, though several cases were reported in the U.S. this fall.

46 percent

That's how far the price of oil dropped in 2014, thanks in part to more output from domestic fracking. Prices are expected to stay low well into 2015. Last month we did a whole show about oil's role in the economy. 

Courtesy:Wall Street Journal

Wage rises for new federal contractors

Thu, 2015-01-01 02:00

New federal contractors are getting a new wage in the new year: $10.10 per hour.

Analysts say the biggest impact as being mostly regional, in cheaper parts of the country.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Wage for new federal contractors rises

Thu, 2015-01-01 02:00

New federal contractors are getting a new wage in the new year: $10.10 per hour.

Analysts say the biggest impact as being mostly regional, in cheaper parts of the country.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Back to the Future II takes place this year

Thu, 2015-01-01 02:00

Every decade produces iconic pieces of futurism that help to define a generation. For the 1960s it was The Jetsons and Star Trek. For the 1970s it was Future Shock and Soylent Green. What about the 1980s? It was almost certainly Back to the Future Part II.

Sure, Back to the Future Part II didn't get great reviews when it first came out. The 1989 film was seen as a lesser achievment than the original Back to the Future. But it became firmly wedged into the brains of a generation that wanted to believe the future was going to be filled with amazing technological advances.

I know I wanted to believe. It's half the reason I write about past visions of the future! When I was a kid I wanted nothing more than that hoverboard Marty zips around on. But BTTF2 was more than just hoverboards. 

It's now the year 2015 (the year that Marty McFly travels to in the film) and Marketplace Tech and Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog are launching a series looking at the different futuristic aspects of the movie.

You can hear the first episode in our series by clicking the media player below, and feel free to let us know what your favorite BTTF2 technology is by emailing deloreanhistorians@gmail.com. Was it the automatic dog walker? How about that thumbprint payment system? Some of the technological predictions were spot on, while others are still yet to be realized. We'll be exploring many of them in the next few months.

Tax season outlook: 'Miserable'

Thu, 2015-01-01 02:00

April brings more than showers for many people. It's tax season, and the Internal Revenue Service commissioner predicts it will be "miserable." Big funding and staffing cuts, new mandates and the last-minute extension of several dozen tax breaks are making things complicated.

Click the media player above to hear more.

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