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PODCAST: Millennials aren't building credit

Mon, 2014-09-08 03:00

First up, a new report that millennials are avoiding credit cards. A study out today by Bankrate.com finds that younger adults--the ones who hit the workforce around the year 2000 and younger--are avoiding credit cards. That's in part because they don't want more debt beyond their student loans. And when members of Congress get back to work in Washington today, Republicans and Democrats expect to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government open. The lack of drama on that score is connected to the election year. Plus, more on the growth in popularity of Latin music among non-hispanic people.

What's next for Atlantic City?

Mon, 2014-09-08 02:30

Around dusk on a recent sticky summer night, Mark Gawel and his son took turns taking photos of each other standing in front of the big silver letters marking the entrance to the Revel, Atlantic City’s newest casino.

He wanted to “get a couple shots of it, just in case it doesn’t exist [soon],” he said.

In late August, the city was still hoping a last-minute buyer would swoop in and keep the bankrupt casino open. But the Revel closed in early September and workers took down those silver letters. Three other casinos have already closed or will close this year, leaving roughly 6,000 casino workers unemployed and the city searching for a new path forward.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will host a summit on the future of Atlantic City on Monday, with local officials, congressmen, and gambling industry stakeholders all pondering the fate of the faded gambling mecca.

“Reinvent Atlantic City again,” advised Gawel, a housekeeping supervisor at a nearby casino. “It’s a shame. After 35 years of having casinos here, we should have been bigger, more like Vegas.”

He thinks the city needs to capitalize on its ocean location and to better cater to families.

“We’re going through a transitional time,” said John Palmieri, the executive director of the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. “There are 20 new casino operations within a couple hours' drive now, and five years ago they didn’t exist.”

He agrees that Atlantic City needs to bolster its non-gaming options.

“Our role is to create these other reasons for visitation, mostly driven by tourism, but the convention trades and some of the destination retail and the hotel activities that can survive beyond gaming,” he explained.

Gaming revenue peaked in 2006 at over $5 billion, but it’s been on a steep slide since. A few years ago, Atlantic City started using the slogan “Do Anything. Do Everything. Do AC,” trying to market itself as more than just casinos.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian wants the city to host more events, concerts, and conferences.

“What we’ve lost is the older people who used to come,” he says. “The blue-haired Italian ladies aren’t coming here anymore [to] the casinos. What we have is a young crowd, because the casinos that have nightclubs are doing real well.”

He’s hoping a new campus for a local university will open by 2016, attracting even more young people.

But the city could take another hit if plans move forward to build new casinos in northern New Jersey.

Del Rowley was a regular at one of Atlantic City’s closed casinos. Standing on a street corner in Manhattan, he says if a casino opens closer to New York with similar games and “comps,” he’d switch in a heartbeat.

“Atlantic City’s two and a half hours [away],” he said. “So it’s a lot easier to go someplace closer.”

Moreover, all the press over Atlantic City’s troubles doesn’t help its fight for business.

There’s a famous quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Atlantic City is hoping to be able to say something similar.

For personal finance advice, ask a millennial

Mon, 2014-09-08 02:30

Millennials seem to be avoiding credit cards. A study published on Monday by Bankrate.com says younger adults prefer debit cards because they don’t want to fall into debt — or, in the case of people with student loans, further into debt.

When Bankrate analyst Jeanine Skowronski first looked at the data, she thought she saw naiveté. These younger adults who shun credit cards didn't seem to know they would need a credit history when they wanted to buy a car or a house.

Then she did some interviewing.

"I talked to a lot of millennials that said they were going to get credit cards, but they weren't so thrilled with it," she says. "They were like, 'I know I have to do this because I want to rent an apartment,' or 'I know I have to do this because I’m getting married, and I want to buy a home — but if I didn't have to, I wouldn't.'"

That sounds pretty smart to Marc Fusaro, an economist at Arkansas Tech. Millennials have figured out what economists — and businesses — have known for years: "Hands down, if people are using a credit card, they will spend more money," Fusaro says. 

One possible caveat is this recent study from researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University, who expected to confirm the general consensus with a new experiment, but then didn't. They gave consumers an incentive to use credit cards for lunch to see if that led them to buy pricier meals. They identified two kinds of credit-card users in their study group: “Convenience users,” who pay off balances in full every month, spent more; “revolvers,” who carry balances and pay interest and fees, spent less.

In general, though, Fusaro's research shows that some consumers used debit cards to counter the tendency to spend, and to avoid racking up interest.

"A debit card is a check on how much money I can spend," he says.

Millennial spending by the numbers:

63 percent

 That's the big number here. 63 percent of consumers aged 18 to 29 don't carry a credit card at all, and 23 percent carry just one card. Next to no millennials have more than two cards.

35 percent

 That same figure for adults aged 30 or over — only a little more than a third have no cards. The older set was also far more likely to carry a lot of plastic. Of the consumers with two credit cards, Bankrate found, about two-thirds were over 50.

3 to 1

 A recent Creditcards.com survey found millennials prefer debit over credit three-to-one, and they don't use cash nearly as often as their elders, especially for small purchases. But young people aren't alone — an April study from the Fed found debit-card use has risen across the board since 2000. And checks? Forget it.

$29,400

 The average debt for graduating seniors from four-year colleges in 2012, according to Project Student Debts. Entering adulthood with this burden and growing up during the Great Recession could be making millennials very debt-adverse, Bankrate says.

40 percent

 The number of millennials who pay off their credit card bill each month. Per Bankrate's own study, that's only a portion of a pretty small group, but the idea of paying off purchases on time could be scaring other young adults away from getting a card at all.

A separate survey from BMO Harris points to a possible reason for the slow payment. They say 39 percent of millennials — defined here as 18- to 35-year-olds — erroneously believe keeping a balance on one's card can boost credit scores. In fact, the opposite is true.

628

 The average millennial's credit score, according to Experian. Regardless of their attitude toward paying on time, waiting to get a credit card can make it harder to build a credit score. Let's look back at the older set, with the George Costanza wallets full of credit cards. Baby Boomers average a credit score of 700, and Generation X averages 653.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated 63 percent of consumers aged 18 to 24 don't carry a credit card at all. The correct consumer age bracket is 18 to 29. The text has been corrected.

The rise and fall... and rise and fall of Atlantic City

Mon, 2014-09-08 02:00

On a recent summer day, Atlantic City’s famed boardwalk was thick with tourists in bathing suits and T-shirts, crossing between casinos and a beach dotted with candy-colored umbrellas. Nelson Johnson, a local historian and author of the book "Boardwalk Empire," stood beside one of the area's oldest buildings, built as a hotel in the 1860s and now used as a casino.

At the height of Atlantic City, he explained, there wouldn’t have been any blank spaces along the boardwalk.

“The thought of an unbuilt piece of property on the Boardwalk in the 1920s was impossible,” he said. “It was such hot property; there were so many people walking by.”

But there are empty spaces on the boardwalk now, plus empty buildings. As the HBO show "Boardwalk Empire" (based on Johnson's book) begins its fifth and final season this Sunday, the curtain is also dropping in real life for some of Atlantic City’s casinos — three have closed this year so far, and another will follow in a few weeks.

So, how’d Atlantic City get here?

A resort for the working class

Johnson says the city got its start with the opening of a railroad in 1854. Originally, the idea was to build a health retreat for the wealthy, though it was the working class from Philadelphia — 55 miles to the northwest — who really made the city into “America’s Famous Playground," one of its slogans. Factory workers could come down for the day, dress up to stroll the boardwalk, and feel like they were a part of the middle class.

“So it was a booming town for close to 50 years, from the late 1870s, past World War I, and into Prohibition,” say Johnson. “Prohibition really was the zenith of this town.”

Authorities in Atlantic City ignored alcohol bans because it was good for business. The city was always a one-industry town, completely dependent on tourists — and keeping them happy.

The playground tires

But when prohibition ended in 1933, there was less reason to come here.

“So after World War II is really when things started to decline in terms of numbers,” says Heather Pérez, archivist at the Atlantic City Free Public Library. “The rise of commercial airplane flights made things much easier for people to go elsewhere, more exotic locations, more interesting things to do and see.”

Over the next few decades, Atlantic City began to fade; its hotels failed to keep up with their counterparts elsewhere. When the Democratic National Convention was held here in 1964, the press gave the city terrible reviews, says Pérez.

Atlantic City needed something to draw the crowds back, so in 1976, New Jersey passed a law allowing casinos here. And for a while, gambling worked.

Casinos as (temporary) salvation

“The first casinos opened late ’70s and there were crowds of people waiting to get into them,” says Pérez. “The boardwalk was filled with these lines and, one by one, the casinos popped up along the beach and along the marina.”

For years, Atlantic City enjoyed a monopoly on gambling on the East Coast. But in the mid-2000s, the city’s luck turned along with the nation’s economy. Gamblers abandoned Atlantic City for new casinos in the region, including Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. Casino revenues are now roughly half their 2006 peak.

About two years ago, developers cut the ribbon on the Revel, a sleek, blue-glass hotel and casino with a $2.4 billion price tag. It was supposed to help revive the city.

But last month, a customer rode down the elevator of the Revel shouting "Last time." It closed on September 1, just a day after its neighbor, the Showboat.

Mary Thomas and her husband made a last stop at the Revel a few weeks ago. There’s a new casino just a few miles from her home in Hanover, Pennsylvania, but they still prefer to come here.

“We drive three hours to Atlantic City because we just enjoy the ocean and the boardwalk and all the shops on the boardwalk,” she says. “It’s just a nice little getaway.”

Thomas comes to gamble, too — and that’s encouraging to Don Guardian, the mayor of Atlantic City. Dressed in a sharp cream suit and bright blue shirt, he sits in his office overlooking downtown. He has big plans for the city, but he believes a large part of the city’s future lies in its roots with tourists like Thomas.  

“Where you came here, it was a casino. I think now you come to a place like the Borgata, like Harrah’s, cause it’s a resort,” he explains. “So a nice room, water views, a spa, a nightclub, a theater, fun food, fine food, conference rooms and, oh by the way, gambling as well.”

Four casinos are closing, but eight will remain, and Atlantic City gets a nice cut of their gaming revenue. Guardian thinks the gambling business here will stabilize and continue to be a mainstay of the local economy.

The city’s shuffling the deck and hoping for a better hand this time.

Congress is back in town

Mon, 2014-09-08 02:00

As Congress returns to Washington on Monday, Republicans and Democrats expect to pass a continuing resolution in the coming weeks to keep the government open.

Unlike recent years, when we’ve had our share of partisan economic drama, this fall looks calm as we approach the midterm elections. 

Politically, that’s smart, says American University Professor James Thurber. With an approval rating in the cellar — nearly 8 out of 10 Americans think Congress is doing a bad job — you want to tread lightly.

Thurber says passing a continuing resolution to keep funding the government is the epitome of treading lightly. “A continuing resolution, or a CR, which continues spending at the same level, avoids making hard choices,” he says.

This approach means federal programs that are performing well don’t get extra funding, and the programs that need to be eliminated keep getting cash.

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says it’s nice to have less drama in the early fall air. But he recommends the public guard against any sense of optimism.

“What [is really going on] is just another indicator of how our government can no longer work when power is divided between the two parties,” he says.

Mann says given the general dysfunction, Congress isn’t expected accomplish much else in the coming weeks, when members have campaign trail commitments. 

Salsa helps drive Latin music higher

Mon, 2014-09-08 02:00

The Latin Grammys are coming: Nominations will be out September 24, and the 15th annual broadcast will be held in Las Vegas on November 20.

The popularity of the show is a sign that the Latin music market is strong, and getting stronger. One category within Latin music — salsa, or “tropical” as it is designated in the awards — is gaining more fans among non-Latinos in the U.S., and abroad as well.

All one has to do is to Google the phrase "I want to go salsa dancing tonight" in any major American city, and multiple venues for social dancing will pop up. They often feature live, multipiece bands, and are packed several nights per week with dancers spinning, dipping and flipping their partners across the floor.

Learning to do this flashy, athletic and intimate dance form takes time and money.

Sarah Riddle owns The Viscount studio in Portland, Oregon. She’s done good business teaching salsa to Latinos and others — even through the recession. “People are struggling and they want to spend money on things that feel good,” says Riddle, “and so there’s an increase in that market.”

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Here's Sarah Riddle demonstrating various styles of salsa. In order: ballroom, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and L..A. styles. (Video cred: Mitchell Hartman)

The Latin market — not just salsa from the Caribbean (which also includes salsa variants bachata, timba and kizomba), but also Mexican regional and pop music — is one of the bright spots for the industry. Latin digital-music sales were up twice as much as the rest of the music market last year (14 percent vs. 7.6 percent), according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Music marketing consultant Peggy Dold of Navigation Partners has penned the “Latin Corner” blog for the Association of Independent Music Producers. She points out that this a promising market for a struggling music industry. The U.S. Latino population skews young; Hispanics listen to radio, use online streaming services such as Pandora and watch music and dance videos, more than other demographic groups.

Salsa is now expanding across the U.S. and overseas, with flashy competitions hosted in several hundred cities now. According to Albert Torres, a Los Angeles–based salsa promoter, interest and participation is growing, from North America and South America to Europe, Asia and North Africa. He regularly travels to Japan, Germany, Morocco, Turkey and other countries to host Salsa Congresses.

“I don’t care why people walk in the door — whether it’s to watch, to dance or to perform in a show themselves, it just gets into your core,” says Torres. “All these African beats that came over from 1533 until now — sooner or later you have to put your seat belt on because you’re hooked.”

At the annual Salsa & Bachata Congress in Portland, Oregon, in June, partner teams from as far away as Idaho and British Columbia spent hundreds of dollars each on travel and sequined costumes to compete. Latinos and non-Latinos were represented among the top competitors. The winners — including Erika Lachen Meier and Malik Delgado — will go on to compete at Torres’s World Latin Dance Cup in Miami in December.

“I go out there onstage, and when I come back and remember nothing, that’s when I know it went well,” said Lachen Meier after the competition. Delgado added: “It’s great just to feel the energy, and next thing I know her foot’s up in the air and she’s in a dip and I’m asking, ‘Are we done?’”

Latin rap artist Carsello was in town from New York, showcasing his "urban salsa" — a crossover genre — at the Portland event. “Now we’re taking salsa to a pop-culture level, by English-rapping, but with traditional salsa music,” he said. “Salsa is here to stay, and it’s just going to get bigger.”

Click the video player at the top of the article to see Sarah Riddle giving reporter Mitchell Hartman a dance lesson at The Viscount studio in Portland, Oregon. (Video cred: Cliff Rees)

Marketplace’s inflation calculator: some fishy prices

Mon, 2014-09-08 01:00

In 1989, the year Marketplace first went on the air, the average cost for a year of a private, four-year college was $11,474 for tuition, room and board. If those costs had risen only with inflation, the average price would be $22,045 these days. According to the College Board, the actual cost for the 2013–2014 academic year was $40,917. We plan to dig deeper into the cost of higher ed later this fall in our inflation series.

I am currently paying for two college tuitions, so I find the subject too grim to discuss right now. And when I am feeling down, there’s nothing like something on a bagel to cheer me up. Something like smoked salmon.

We are conditioned to assume that everything gets more expensive over time. However, that is not necessarily the case, which is why silky, red-orange fish comes to mind. When I was a kid, my family treated smoked salmon like it was caviar. Somebody would bring back from the deli just an eighth of a pound, which we would carefully apportion as morsels on the bagel like scraps of gold leaf. The cream cheese completely overwhelmed the salmon. These days the cream cheese has lost the battle. There is a place near me where you can get a fresh, toasted bagel with a good three-quarters-of-an-inch slab of smoked salmon for $6.50.

What has changed? In part, aquaculture. A fisheries economist tells me that more than half of the fish the world eats now is, essentially, farmed. In the last 25 years, countries from Scotland to Chile have taken to large-scale-farming the salmon that become smoked salmon. Fish farming can have an environmental cost, and done poorly the practice is unsustainable and can hurt the wild salmon fishery. Yet there is no doubt the practice has altered the wholesale and retail markets. For a time, prices dropped and smoked-salmon sandwiches got a lot thicker.

But the story of smoked salmon does not end there. There is salmon production and there is salmon consumption. Around the world people have developed a taste for the stuff, nowhere more so than in China with its burgeoning middle-class. All this demand could have put smoked salmon back into caviar class.

One man who knows is Saul Zabar, president of New York City’s legendary grocery Zabar’s. Saul figures he sells about 2,000 pounds of smoked salmon a week. That’s, literally, a ton. He sees the gradual shift from wild salmon to farmed helping to keep prices under control.

“The fact that we have farmed salmon has kept the product at a reasonable level so that it’s available to the people who are not wealthy,” said Zabar. “It’s kept it as a middle-class product, which is great. It’s enabled us to sell product to a wide variety of people, where if it had remained wild, it would be only available to people who have the means to buy it.”

Zabar couldn’t remember what he was charging for smoked salmon 25 years ago. However, I did find a New York Magazine from that year that mentioned a Zabar’s sale price: $15.95 a pound, Scotch salmon, pre-sliced. That’s like $30.65 today. And what is Saul actually charging today, routinely, no special sale? $23.95 a pound. In real terms, that’s a 22 percent decline in 25 years. 

Also interesting is why the price hasn’t come down further at Zabar’s. Saul told us his prices have to reflect not just the wholesale price of the salmon, but his other costs. He owns his famous building, so that’s not the problem. He does single out what he has to pay for health care for his employees. Now that’s a whole other kettle of fish where deflation has certainly not been the trend. 

No one trusts anyone

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:54

Okay, this is kind of sad.

Turns out nobody in this country trusts anybody anymore. 

A study out in the journal "Psychological Science" today shows that back in the early '70s 46 percent of American adults agreed that most people can be trusted. Only 33 percent agree with that statement now.

It gets worse.

They asked 12th graders the same question in the late '70s. 32 percent agreed that most people can be trusted.

Now? Just 18 percent.

Tesla bets on the present while the future races on

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:54

Tesla has just made a big bet in the battery space, an investment in a $5 billion factory to produce at scale and push down the price.

Company founder Elon Musk promises it will lead to a more affordable electric vehicle – but technology always brings surprises.

For starters, a future of better, cheaper and smaller is no guarantee.

“If you look at the number of announcements, promises, high hopes, explorations to the number of things that actually deliver and ship, it’s a pretty narrow funnel,” says Boston-area clean energy investor Matthew Nordan of MNL Partners.

But let’s say step-change does happen. Streamlined costs could chop the price of a $14,000 electric car battery in half, or more.

Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere could develop batteries one-third the size of current models. That would boost the electric vehicle's driving range substantially.

“It would be awfully nice to have a fully charged vehicle that could take you say three or four hundred miles in a single charge,” says University of California, Berkeley chemist Steven Visco, founder of battery start-up PolyPlus

Of course, these forecasts assume drivers maintain the same relationship they have with their vehicles today: that each person owns one, refuels it, and cares about what’s under the hood.

Perhaps.

“Maybe we all just call an Uber or a Google car,” says University of Maryland business professor David Kirsch. “And we don’t care how it’s powered, or how much it costs. We’re kind of predicting marginal changes. We may be missing the radical change.”

Historians recall the unforeseen radical change that steam engines brought, as well as semiconductors and petroleum.

As far as next-generation batteries, leaps in energy storage could perhaps turn our homes into baby power plants. Or electrify an economy of drones that deliver packages and monitor crops.

Sound ridiculous? Berkeley’s Steven Visco recalls a conference in the early '90s where this crazy question turned up.

“’Is it possible that we’ll see lithium-ion batteries in power tools?’ And it was immediately reviled as a crazy idea. There’s no way. It’s dangerous.”

Today, of course, we’re drilling away, cordless.

Will Europe start spending more on defense?

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:54

Europe’s share of NATO’s defense spending has shrunk to less than a third since the financial crisis hit a few years ago. European governments are under pressure to cut their deficits, and have slashed defense budgets to the bone. Now, however, as new threats have emerged, that belt-tightening could be coming to an end.

Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute says the Russian bear rampaging around eastern Ukraine probably means an end to further reductions in defense spending among NATO’s European members. But, he adds, “The jury is still out as to whether it will mean significant increases.”

Of NATO’s 28 member states, only four currently meet the alliance’s defense spending target of at least 2 percent of the GDP. At this week’s summit, Britain called on its European allies to spend more. The response was muted, with most states making only a vague commitment to do so.

Dan Plesch of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy says:  

“I don’t think there’s any appetite for that in Europe. There is such concern to get the economies moving again.”

Plesch says that because of the military might of the U.S., the truth is that NATO doesn’t need to spend much more to meet any threat from Russia.

“The reality that the Russians are hugely militarily inferior to the West means that there’s little real objective need for new military capability. Rather, a little spending on redeployment.” 

But America’s patience with Europe’s paltry spending on defense is wearing thin. And Russia is upgrading. Within two years, the Russians will spend more on their  military than Germany and France combined.

Heard of Bethany Mota? She's one of ABC's newest stars

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:54

ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" just announced the lineup for its 19th season. Featured is one Bethany Mota, a teenage YouTube star who's been video blogging for seven years, racking up 7 million subscribers to her beauty-related videos. If you haven't heard of her, you just aren't part of the demographic that "Dancing With the Stars" is hoping to attract.

"Right now everybody’s looking to integrate stars from YouTube into traditional television," says Karen North, a professor of digital and social media at the University of Southern California. "And the primary reason is to bring in a younger audience."

That younger audience spends a lot more time watching shows online than they do watching traditional television. The majority of YouTube’s viewers are 35 and under. The median age of "Dancing With the Stars"' viewers is 60.

Advertising Age reporter Jeanine Poggi is skeptical. "I’m not sure if her audience will translate over," Poggi says. "But, I mean, Bethany Mota has such a big following. Her social presence and ... being able to promote the show. That in and of itself is a huge draw for ABC."

Brian Steinberg, TV reporter at Variety, says the Mota news is a sign of things to come.

"It’s an interesting gambit to see if someone who’s a viral star has what it takes to become a broadcast star," Steinberg says. 

YouTube stars often have a niche following, he says, but prime time requires a different kind of star power — one that attracts a diverse and broad-based audience. So ABC’s gamble will hinge not just on Mota’s ability to rhumba, but also on the online buzz she creates when the show’s new season starts September 15.

Tech IRL: Work it harder, make it better (with an app)

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:22

Fitness Apps are popular, really popular. But they have their own set of challenges, and what are these Apps doing with all your data?   Marketplace Tech’s Ben Johnson and Lizzie O’Leary work out a few fitness apps like One Hundred Pushups, and explore their challenges.  

Weekend brunch: Apple starts making the rules and economic pickles

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:22

This week, Lizzie O'Leary sits down for brunch with Nicolas Carlson from Business Insider and Reuters' Ben Walsh to discuss business news and the news of last week and what's on their plate this week (get it?).   Topics:   Tim Cook Says Apple to Add Security Alerts for iCloud Users Our Economic Pickle Single Women Irked by Pinterest Push Toward Altar

What Ebola costs one community

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:22

The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the worst on record, more than 3,500 people have contracted the illness, and more than 2,000 have died.

The outbreak has also meant profound changes to everyday life. Curfews, containment zones, and a near halt to agriculture have occurred, stalling the region's economy.

Balmed Holdings buys and sells cocoa, coffee, and cashews with local farmers in Sierra Leone. 

Medgar Brown, the CEO of Balmed Holdings, joined us over the phone from Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, to tell us how Ebola is affecting his community.

My money story: Writer Joey Slamon

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:22

Every week, we invite someone to tell us their story about money. This week, Los Angeles-based writer Joey Slamon tells us a story about the emotions money can create.

I’d like to say I don’t care about money. I’d love to be one of those cool, free-spirited hippies who lives with only what they can carry in their knapsacks or squeeze onto their rickshaws.

But the truth is, I love money.

Not because I love spending it, quite the opposite. I’m actually quite a hoarder with my money. No, I love money because of the emotional attachments I’ve developed for it. To me, money is a way of showing how much you care about someone. How much you spend on their birthday or Christmas present is a direct correlation with how much you care for them.

And it’s my grandmother’s fault.

I was born in 1982 and for 4 short, wonderful years, I was my grandmother’s favorite. My grandma (or Sito, as we called her) had three children but only one son, my father. And in the Syrian culture, men reign supreme. Maybe not even the Syrian culture anymore, but definitely the old-school mentality my Sito had. Women were to serve men and men were to provide.

And since my father was a doctor, well, you could burn your retinas on the pride she beamed.

So to be the only child of her only son, well, I was set. It was a given that I’d be her favorite grandchild and life was good ... until my brother was born. Everyone loves my brother more than me, to this day. But from the second he was born, it was clear that with my Sito, I was old news. Her son had a son and she couldn’t have loved him more.

It’s hard when you’re a child of around six to realize someone doesn’t love you as much as they love someone else. Especially when that “someone” is your own grandmother. And that “someone else” was this annoying, attention grabbing thing that kind of looked like me. But I wasn’t worried. Surely she’d have to see I was the superior grandchild and more deserving of her love and praise than my stupid brother who couldn’t even stand up on his own. But my efforts went unnoticed.

There is photographic proof of my grandmother’s love of my brother over me.

In every photo of the three of us, she’s practically pushing me out of frame so she can make room for her more loved grandson. This happened for years. One morning while visiting her in Pennsylvania, with my family she made a huge breakfast and there were three dishes on the dining room table. After coming back with a run with my father, I was starving and sat down at one of the place settings. You know what my Sito said? “Oh are you hungry? There’s cereal in the pantry.” He had made breakfast for my father, my brother and herself, so she could be surrounded by the ones she truly loved. I stood in the kitchen with my mother while we quietly ate old Wheetabix and my mother promised me a trip to Dunkin’ Donuts later to make up for it.

But it didn’t matter.

I knew that deep down she loved me as much as she loved my brother. I knew this for a fact because every Christmas, we’d each get a crisp $50 bill from my Sito. My other grandmother wrote checks, but my Sito sent cash. As a child with no allowance, seeing that much money at once was mind blowing. To this day I get a special feeling when seeing a $50. My Sito could pretend that she loved my brother more than me once a year when we made the trip to see her, she could dote over him and all but ignore me at her house in front of our family members, but here was cold hard proof that at the end of the day, my brother and I were the same. Each deserving of the same fifty dollar bill.

When she passed away years later, we were looking through some of her old belongings, and that’s when I saw it: The ledger. My Sito ran a cigarette and candy shop (which was a thing in the 70s) and was always a meticulous accountant. I never saw her pay for anything without writing down the exact amount to be officially recorded later. And going through her old money ledger, my heart welled with pride. This woman, who did so much for everyone around her, managed to stay independent even after the loss of her husband due to her meticulous finances. Good for her! To hell with men! We can be just as smart and capable with money! I vowed then and there to be as diligent with my own finances as an ode to my Sito, to run my own life and never let anyone tell me I was “less than."

And then I saw it: December 15th, 1997 – the entries for Christmas presents for her grandchildren. My brother’s name – Matthew – and next to it, $50. And then my name:

Joey - $25.

I was shocked and immediately went to my mother, hoping she would explain it away as a mistake. That my Sito obviously loved us both the same and there was no way she would give my brother double what she had given me. That I hadn’t been living a lie for the past 17 years and that the secret confirmation I had that my grandma loved me just as much as my brother was simply recorded wrong in the ledger.

A new way to apply to college: video

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:05

The postcard-perfect campus of Goucher College, in Baltimore, Maryland, might seem out-of-reach to students from low-income families, or those with iffy grades on their transcripts. New president José Antonio Bowen wants to change that.

"There are tens of thousands of high school seniors each year that do not apply to any selective liberal arts college, like Goucher College," he says, "despite the fact that they have great SATs and they have transcripts and they would get in."

To attract more of those students, Goucher introduced a new way to apply to the college — by making a video. On the college's website, a clip explaining the concept shows a student tearing up a transcript.

"That's it," he says. "No test scores, no transcripts."

Here's how their new system works: Students fill out a brief application, send two samples of their work from high school and submit a short video introducing themselves. Production value doesn't matter, Bowen says.

"You can use your phone, you can tell us who you are, and be admitted to college," he says. "That's a simple, straightforward message that I hope will resonate with lots of 18-year-olds."

Colleges are in fierce competition for those 18-year-olds. After a big boom, the number of high school seniors is shrinking in the Midwest and Northeast.

"The demographics are getting more challenging," says David Strauss, a higher education consultant with Art & Science Group. Students and families are worried about costs, and many are questioning the value of a liberal arts degree. "All of this adds up to a need for institutions to compete ever more effectively against each other for the students they need," he says.

Goucher isn't the only school experimenting with alternatives to the traditional application. Last year Bard College introduced an essay-only admissions exam, meant to attract talented students whose grades or test scores might not reflect their potential. Just 40 out of 6,000 applicants went that route, but nearly half of them got in.

There aren't enough teachers with coding skills

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:01

The looming shortage of coders and programmers in the tech industry has been well-documented. There are about a million (er, give or take) digital job openings predicted in the next decade, which has some schools mandating coding class. But where are the teachers?

“We need to train students today to have the skills that we don’t have,” says Ravi Gupta, founder of RePublic Charter Schools in Nashville. “But we don’t have enough people who have the skills to teach it.”

Schools around the world are trying to respond to tech entrepreneurs, who have been calling for required programming classes. Apple Founder Steve Jobs famously said in 1995 that everyone should learn how to program a computer. Now many people are echoing him, from President Obama to rappers like Will.i.am.

 

 

There are several programs designed for kids to teach themselves how to code. But for schools that take the project to the classroom, good luck finding a coding teacher.

Gupta’s schools in Nashville decided to require coding this year, but when he started looking for teachers, he basically found none.

“We all knew that our students needed the skills, but none of us knew how to tackle the challenge,” he says. “So we started teaching ourselves as we teach our students. Not because that’s the ideal situation, but because it is the only way.”

In an echo-filled classroom, Ryan York leads a one-month crash course for a group of teachers who know almost nothing about coding, even though that’s what they will be teaching this year. Day one is animating a cartoon fish.

The teachers hunched over laptops are learning a fairly rudimentary coding language called Scratch, developed by MIT. They’ll work up to projects like building an on-screen piano.

“I’m getting there,” says Ben Keil, one of those hired to teach coding. He admits it may be a long first year.

“I actually roomed with two computer science guys in college and watched them through the whole process,” he said. “In hindsight now, I wish I had done a little more learning from them along the way.”

School leaders are spinning the lack of experience as a potential plus: Teachers can identify with their students because they’re just a few steps ahead.

“This is something where you are learning alongside with your students,” York says. “And that’s a beautiful model that’s at the heart of programming. But it also means there’s a lot more preparation on the front end.”

Around the world, schools are dealing with this circular problem in which kids need to learn coding, but teachers can’t teach it. England’s primary schools have mandated programming classes, but a recent survey finds teachers don’t think they’re ready, calling the preparation “chaotic.”

And when a teacher does master an in-demand skill like coding, will they actually stay in the classroom? Or will they be poached by the higher-paying tech industry?

“We have definitely had that happen,” says Mike Palmer, who runs a teacher training program based in St. Louis called Code Red. 

One newly minted coding teacher recently left for greener pastures.

“We basically trained her up to be a coder. She ended up self-training a little bit more, and she ended up getting a job in the private sector,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s us doing our job too well or not, but it’s happened.”

The potential for high turnover is a problem that, at this point, Nashville’s coding education pioneers say they’d be happy to have.  

Perhaps, Palmer says, it’s further proof that coding is a skill worth teaching to every student.

Grunge and heroin chic: the '90s fashion reboot

Fri, 2014-09-05 11:38

Everybody who's anybody in the rarefied world of high fashion is in New York City. Fashion Week is upon us once again.

While the runway shows, lavish parties, and air kisses are a mainstay, fashion hasn't consistently been ground for avant-garde experimentation, says Maureen Callahan. She has has long covered the industry as a reporter and editor at the New York Post and has written a book called "Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and the '90's Renegades Who Remade Fashion".

Why did you pick these three people to anchor your book?

Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen epitomized the revolution that took place in fashion in the '90s. And they remain as culturally relevant today as they were 20 years ago. 

The odd one out, it seems, is Marc Jacobs. By the time this book starts he's already won a big fashion award, he's a VP at Perry Ellis. He doesn't seem to need much of a boost, and yet he engineers the move toward grunge fashion. 

On the surface of it, it does seem that Marc Jacobs is the odd one out. It's easy to see why. He is the most famous, impactful, influential designer — I think ever. But he, like Kate and McQueen, has a dark origin story. The grunge collection, which today is rightly regarded as the most seminal American collection of the 1990s, was, at the time, a colossal failure.  The critics loathed it. The buyers did not know what to do with it. The editors hated it. And the girls he was designing for thought it was a highly cynical co-option of their authentic, organic culture. They thought Marc Jacobs killed it. 

Early on in this book you talk about how what rock'n'roll was to the '50s, drugs to the '60s, film to the '70s and modern art to the '80s, fashion was to the '90s. What is fashion today? 

What you see now, and this is a legacy of the '90s, is a democratization of fashion that's unprecedented. A lot of that has to do with technology -the idea that you can go to H&M and buy something days after it was shown on a high fashion runway for a fraction of the price, and then throw it away when it's no longer on-trend. But you also have the rise of street style blogs. Any girl can be shot by a photographer, put up online, and that can be an aspirational image for anyone. Fashion now is far more open than it ever has been. Bloggers are seated front row at shows alongside Anna Wintour. 

For all that accessibility though, that high-end stuff is out of reach for over 90 percent of the population. 

It absolutely is. Say you see a piece in Vogue that you would love, but it's that or your rent. You wait two to three weeks. Some High Street chain, be it Zara or Topshop or H&M will knock it off. 

Two to three weeks? That speed? That's insane. 

It becomes this poisonous feedback loop. The pressure on high-end designers to keep producing is incredible for exactly this reason. You have to create newer and more product to convince women that they absolutely need to buy this to be on-trend. Every designer worth their salt, from Marc Jacobs to Tom Ford to Nicolas Ghesquiere has said the production schedule is crazy, completely inhumane, and unnecessary. 

What's college worth anyway?

Fri, 2014-09-05 11:16

It’s a more important question than ever when you look at our economy today. College graduates have a much lower unemployment rate (3.2  percent) than adults with only a high school degree (6.2 percent).

Two economists from the New York Fed wrote in a recent paper that “the value of a bachelor’s degree for the average graduate has held near its all-time high of about $300,000 for more than a decade.”

Essentially, a degree is worth a fair chunk of change. Plus, it gets you connections — possibly from your professors, or the people you meet around campus.

Business Insider wrote up their research nicely, essentially noting that it only takes about a decade to work off what you paid for your degree. Back in the late '70s, it used to take more than 20 years.

At the same time, wages for people with only a high school degree are falling, which exacerbates the split.

But that’s value, not cost. Which is where student loans come into play.

One the one hand, loans can be great, since they contribute to the democratization of higher education. Students who do not have the wherewithal to pay full freight, or get enough grants to do it, can take out loans. Yay? Maybe. It depends.

Color matters. While black and white students tend to borrow the same amount, debt weighs more heavily on black families, according to a new study.  This is where I think the difference between income inequality and wealth inequality is key.

Even though we talk a lot about income inequality, talking about wealth inequality (and the historical barriers preventing black families from amassing wealth), really matters.

If your income takes a hit and you or your family don’t have any cushion to absorb it? Then that degree isn’t worth all that much. And the loan bills feel heavier and heavier.

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