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Are we producing more grads than jobs?

Tue, 2014-09-09 15:09

Many jobs that used to require a high school diploma or a certificate now demand a four-year college degree, from executive assistants to registered nurses to construction supervisors. 


That is the finding of a new study from labor market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, which sorted through millions of online job postings. Some of those jobs — like nursing or drafting — are more complex than they used to be, says Burning Glass Technologies CEO Matt Sigelman.


“At the same time, we also saw lots and lots of jobs where the jobs haven’t changed,” he says.


For example, about half of IT help desk jobs now require a bachelor’s degree, even though the demands of the job are the same as in positions that don’t ask for a degree, the study found. When it comes to executive secretaries and assistants, 65 percent of listings require a B.A., yet only 19 percent of people in those jobs now have one.


A degree has become a convenient way for employers to sort through hundreds of applicants, Sigelman says. “The problem there is that doesn’t necessarily correspond with what makes people successful in the job,” he says.


And it’s made it harder for the nearly two-thirds of American workers without bachelor’s degrees to find work that pays well. For people with degrees, though, employers are willing to pay more.


“You might think that employers are just hiring degrees because they’re there and they can get them cheap,” says economist Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “But what the data also shows is that they’re paying for the degrees.”


Even for those with degrees there’s a downside, says Sigelman.


“The bad news is that a lot of the demand is for jobs that you probably didn’t go to college to do,” he says. “If you take on a lot of debt to get a college degree and you wind up working at a job that your parents were able to get without one, then you haven’t really gotten anywhere.”



What can retailers do after the Home Depot hack?

Tue, 2014-09-09 13:09

Retailers are increasingly seen as vulnerable to hackers. The cyberattack on Home Depot may be the largest data breach in history, and attacks have been made on Neiman Marcus, Target and Goodwill stores, just to name a few.

Remember back in the day when online shopping gave people the jitters? Those days, says Matthew Prince of CloudFlare, are over.

“I feel more safe in putting my credit card into an online form than I do handing it to a waiter at a restaurant,” he says.

Many of us don’t understand, Prince says, that the cash register is more than a point-of-sale device where we swipe our credit card. It is actually a computer.

In this Home Depot attack, and other similar ones, hackers are breaking in to that software system and stealing our credit and debit card information.

Lillian Ablon, a researcher with Rand, says, right now, the attackers are at least one step in front of the merchants.

“We’re in the golden age of cyber where there are still a lot of holes, still a lot of gaps,” she says.

One of the gaping gaps? Our sale information.

Forrester Research analyst John Kindervag says it’s too easy to grab that information when it enters the store computers. There’s a simple fix, though — encryption.

“That technology actually exists off the shelf. It just has to be purchased,” he says.

Of course, the magic word is "purchased."

“Retail is a low-margin, cheap business. So any time they have to spend money, they don’t want to do it,” says Kindervag.

In many cases, stores would need to upgrade hardware and software; for the largest companies, we are talking millions of dollars in equipment investments. 

Kindervag says the other issue is encrypting this data could stifle other lines of business for retailers.

“It will potentially mean they have to do business intelligence and marketing intelligence in totally different ways, and that will be a disruption of their decades-old business model,” he says.

Kindervag predicts retailers would shape up if consumers started shopping with competitors who take data breaches seriously.

More people own cats than stock these days

Tue, 2014-09-09 13:09

Some news at the tail end of the day for you:

According to CNN Money, more people own cats than individual stocks, which exclude mutual funds and all that good stuff.

New numbers out from the Federal Reserve show that just under 14 percent of Americans own individual stocks right now. That's down from a high of 18 percent before the recession.

Meanwhile, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 30 percent of households own at least one cat.

Does 'something rented' count as 'something borrowed'?

Tue, 2014-09-09 12:41

Americans buy a lot of stuff on the Internet — more than $262 billion worth last year, according to the Commerce Department. These days consumers can order pretty much anything online, including what they wear on their wedding day.

Dan Stover and his wife, Megan, got married a year ago this month. In the photos, the groom and his groomsmen are sporting seersucker bow ties, yellow boutonnieres and slim gray suits. “You can see it’s quality fabric,” says Stover. “It’s not like it’s polyester or something.” 

The suits were rentals, but not from a strip mall chain store. They came in the mail a week before the wedding, from  

“First thing I did was rip that thing open and I tried it on,” Stover says. “I wanted to see if this was a total disaster or a home run, and the fit was perfect. For our wedding, maybe it was a little bit of a leap of faith.”

The Black Tux is a web-only retailer, so Stover couldn’t try his suit on in advance. But the site lets customers enter their body type and measurements, then runs the information through an algorithm to fine-tune the fit before shipping. Stover says the customer reviews were good, and as a busy medical fellow, he was used to buying clothes online to save time. He says he also saved his five best friends a lot of money.

“It was like $100 and change. That’s less than renting a standard tux, and far less than buying a suit.”  

Without the cost of running retail stores, web-only companies can invest more in their products and sell them for less. The Black Tux launched last year and just wrapped its first full wedding season, with inventory fully booked as much as two months in advance.  

“I think absolutely that signals a huge consumer shift,” says Andrew Blackmon, co-founder of The Black Tux. “If people are able to trust us with the tuxedo rentals for arguably the most important day of their lives, I think that shows that people are adopting e-commerce at a level that they probably weren’t in the last five years.”

The top 200 web-only retailers (excluding Amazon) racked up almost $38 billion in sales last year — up 22 percent from the year before, according to  

“There’s another trend that’s underlying this as well, which is our willingness, maybe even preference to rent things instead of buying them outright,” says David Bell, professor of marketing and e-commerce at the University of Pennsylvania. His case in point: Rent the Runway. The website launched for women in 2009, renting designer dresses for as little as $30. The company now has more than 5 million members and just added a monthly rental program. It has been called a "Netflix for clothes."

“Firms have [gotten] better about giving us pre-information through better technology, better pictures, free returns and so on,” Bell says. “So I think we’ve gradually been trained to buying almost anything online.”

A new report from Business Insider shows 18- to-34-year-olds still spend more money online than any other age group, and in that demographic, 40 percent of guys and a third of women say they would “ideally buy everything online.”

Dan Stover says he’d recommend renting a wedding suit from the web to almost anyone. 

His wife, Megan, approves, too. “I think he looked quite handsome, and I thought the suits looked amazing,” she says.  

As for her wedding dress, she felt more comfortable getting it the old-fashioned way — from a store.  

3 things you probably didn't know about Richard Branson

Tue, 2014-09-09 12:37

Richard Branson is no stranger to the spotlight. He has built an enormous conglomerate by keeping himself and his brand — Virgin — front and center.

Virgin is airlines, music, space travel and 300 or more other companies. Branson has put down his thoughts on how to run such an enterprise in a new book called "The Virgin Way."

Three snippets of information we learned about Branson from our interview:

1. He doesn't sit on boards of any of the companies within the Virgin Group. 

"I've never thought of myself as a businessman," Branson said. "From a very young age, I decided I did not want to be a director of any of the Virgin companies. I wanted other people to do the business aspect so I could be freed up to be more of a creator." 

2. Branson seems fond of SpaceX's Elon Musk. 

They're both high-profile entrepreneurs in the private space flight industry, but Branson is friends with the competitor to his Virgin Galactic tourism enterprise.

"In fact, we're about to share a home next to each other on an island in the Virgin Islands. So, we're close friends," Branson said. "It's been tough for both of us. If it was easy, there'd be lots of private spaceship companies. I think we're both going to pull it off." 

3. He sees a future for Virgin without him, and has a succession plan in place. 

"I've spent a lifetime building the Virgin brand, and it can live on after me," Branson said. "I'm fortunate, I have two great kids, Holly and Sam, so there is a family succession plan in place... They can continue to be the face of Virgin once I've stepped down."

And, he notes, his delegation of the business over the years has made the brand stronger on its own: "Virgin runs really well."

You can listen to Kai Ryssdal's full conversation with Richard Branson in the audio player above.

Morning person, or night owl? It matters

Tue, 2014-09-09 11:33

It can be hard to do the right thing, the ethical thing — especially if you’re tired.

That's something Chuck Collins, a 38-year-old bouncer, knows all about. By day — or by afternoon, really, if you've got an eye on the clock — he's a comic book artist. But come night, he's standing post at the Bleecker Street Bar in Soho.

“I've gone to people and told them, 'Look — listen, I’m too tired to deal with it right now,' because at this point this is gone," he says, pointing to his head. "You need to leave or something bad is going to happen to you.”

Collins is bulky, built like a bouncer, and while he's the first to admit that he can look intimidating, he says his muscles are mostly around for backup. "This job is 99.9 percent psychological," he says. "You do get periods of time where people, they cannot be reasoned with — and you have to be able to be that guy.”

"That guy" is the one who can still find it in himself to decide to do the right thing, even if he is mentally exhausted. Dealing with routine and not-so-routine shenanigans —  like the regular from the bar, trying to chime in during this interview with not-clean-enough-for-broadcast material —  is hard enough at peak energy. 

“We know that ethical decisions are taxing," says Sunita Sah, a professor of business ethics at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. “We have limited cognitive resources and less self-control at certain times of the day.”

According to a new study authored by Sah, our ability to be ethical and to do ethical work lines up squarely with our chronotype, our sense of our own morning- or late-night-person-ness.

“And this is important because it means that people can be ethical at one point in time and unethical at another point in time," Sah says. "The same person.”

Employees' tendency to shift their ethics according to internal scheduling calls the very fabric of the workday schedule, as we know it, into question. Morning people, says Sah, have an easier time being ethical in the morning. Night owls, she says, should be filling out expense reports and giving out advice to clients later in the day. Employees should keep their chronotypes in mind when determining when to do certain types of work, she says, and employers should keep workers' ethical proclivities in mind when they’re making schedules.

But it's not just the choosing between right and wrong at the office that's affected by our body clocks — the quality of our work itself is impacted.

“To take a simple example, if you pull an all-nighter as a college student, some people the next morning are literally blithering idiots,” says Dr. David Rapoport, director of the Sleep Medicine Center at NYU’s Langone Medical Center.

While Rapoport says many of the patients he sees at the center have common sleep disorders like apnea, he also sees a lot of shift workers — frustrated insomniacs who work nights or other odd hours and have been unable to adapt.

“Shift work is essentially temporary jet lag," Rapoport says. "And that's why people don't feel well or are unable to do it. Or, in the case of this ethics discussion, have a great deal of difficulty at one time, but less so at another."

Some people deal with being out of sync with nature’s clock better than others, Rapoport says. According to Circadian, a consulting firm for companies that work 24-7, employees who cover the night shift cost an extra $10,000 a year each. They have more accidents, higher health care costs and higher turnover rates.

But, says Martin Moore-Ede, Circadian's CEO, not only do consumers in today's marketplace expect companies and services to operate around the clock — everything from police and fire departments to grocery stores — nonstop businesses provide a multitrillion-dollar advantage to the economy.

There can be a benefit to working against your body clock, says Mareike Wieth, a psychology professor at Albion College in Michigan. Along with a reporter, she tested her finding by participating in an interview at 10 p.m. While it might not sound late to some, Wieth says 10 is normally her cue for her head to hit her pillow. Not only had Wieth been up since 6 a.m., she's a morning person, so far out of her element after the sun goes down.

Which is why, she says, her brain started to wander during our interview: "I just spent time with my 2-year-old. And [I started] thinking, all of a sudden, about all the funny things that she's doing at the moment, or the giant temper tantrum that she threw," Wieth said, "which isn't relevant right now. But those are things that come to mind at a non-optimal time of day." 

This reporter, also a morning person, and also awake for many hours, felt like this cat:  


... so easy to distract that all it would take is a piece of yarn.

But Wieth says that’s the point — imagine if you gather a bunch of grumpy night owls at a breakfast meeting. Traditionally, she says, people have been advised to do their heaviest and most concentrated thinking in the morning. But she says, "For someone who's an evening person, it doesn't actually really work."

“They're going to be much more distracted," Wieth says of the night owls. "They’re going to be much more — they might check their devices a bunch, they may doodle a lot more and think about the conversations they had last night. Which may lead to something really creative.”

Wieth says choosing the right work hours requires considering what you want the outcome to be. If you're looking for a zany, goofy or creative end product, then breaking out of your typical cycle may be the way to go.

And for the workers who feel truly sleep-deprived and unable to sync up with new cycles, while medicine and technology can help, if your biology doesn't let you do shift work, Rapoport says, the best treatment is not to do it at all.

Something to sleep on. Or to consider while you try.

So about those new Apple products...

Tue, 2014-09-09 11:31

Apple announced the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, along with a new wearable device called the Apple Watch, on Tuesday.

Although this smart watch is the first brand new piece of hardware the company has put out since Steve Jobs’ time as CEO, Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson says the verdict is still out.

"It is sleek in that Apple way," says Johnson. "You can tap it and touch the screen to do stuff. It also has these sensors on the back that monitor your location, and tells you your heart rate in real time. But it’s not a game changer."

However, one revelation did interest many people: the new payment system called Apple Pay.

"The company partnered with American Express, MasterCard and Visa," says Johnson. "It’s exclusive, by the way, to the Apple Watch or the iPhone 6. The iPhone 6 has a special chip in it... [that] encrypts information and lets you add payment cards so that you can use it at merchants."

Johnson says merchants don’t get your credit card information through Apple Pay. Instead, they receive a code that allows the purchase. 

Listen to Ben and Kai's full conversation in the audio player above.

The numbers for September 9, 2014

Tue, 2014-09-09 07:09

Regardless of whether you want an iPhone 6, it's worth looking back at Steve Jobs' original iPhone announcement from 2007. Seven years isn't that long, but Jobs' presentation touting the iPhone's 3.5-inch screen and two-megapixel camera still feels bizarrely dated. How did we charge those cinderblocks again? Hand crank?


Here's a look at what we're reading — and five other numbers we're keeping an eye on — Tuesday morning:




That's the number of people Koch Industries employs in the U.S. and a key part of the company's new public image effort. The multinational corporation — which has a hand in everything from ranching to paper to asphalt to electronics — is trying to deflect attacks on its owners, Charles and David Koch, the Washington Post reported. The nationwide marketing effort, the company's first, is an attempt to keep criticism of their politics from tarnishing Koch Industries.


142 percent


How much more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere compared to the start of the industrial revolution, according to new data from the World Meteorological Organization. CO2 levels rose faster from 2012 to 2013 than they have since 1984. The U.N. will convene in New York later this month for a special summit on climate change, the BBC reported.




At least this many major websites are taking part in "Internet Slowdown Day," a protest for net neutrality Wednesday. Netflix, Reddit, Etsy, Kickstarter and many more will feature loading screens on their sites to simulate what the web might look like if companies were forced to pay broadband carriers for faster service. The  protest comes as the second round for public comment to the FCC ends next week, TechHive reported. (Disclosure: Marketplace's distributer, American Public Media, has filed a comment in favor of net neutrality.)


60 million


The number of customers whose credit card information may have been stolen during a data breach at Home Depot, reports the New York Times. The retailer confirmed the hack Monday and said in-store shoppers from April up to last week could be affected. The theft could dwarf Target's breach from last year, in which hackers got information for an estimated 40 million customers. 


99 cents


The new price of Amazon's Fire smartphone, slashed from $199 in a temporary promotion this week, The Wall Street Journal reports. Amazon hasn't released sales numbers for the phone, but it seems safe to say they're below expectations ahead of Apple's new iPhone launch.

Credit monitoring becomes a standard offer after breaches

Tue, 2014-09-09 07:00

Credit monitoring services are becoming part of the standard response from big companies after large data breaches. Target offered them, now Home Depot.   

Consumers, however, need to know what these services do and do not do.

“Think about it in layers,” says Suzanne Barber, director of the Center for Identity at the University of Texas at Austin. "Your identity information is connected. Remember your credit card/debit card application. All that information is connected to your credit card number. So, if your credit card is breached, what's the likelihood the criminal can access much more information about you?"

Finances and bank accounts can lead a criminal to other assets like mortgages and car loans, and then health care data and even social media. 

A credit reporting agency isn’t monitoring everything, but you should map out what it is and isn’t monitoring so you can fill in any gaps with your own vigilance. 

Barber says it’s important to know how long a credit monitoring agency will be monitoring for. “Criminals are willing to sit on this info for quite some time before they harvest your assets – as much as five years.”

Credit monitoring “is a specific step for a specific purpose,” says Ted Julian, chief marketing officer with CO3 Systems, an incident response firm. But it doesn’t absolve the consumer of worry or responsibility. “These incidents hammer home some basic good housekeeping that we all know,” he says.

Basics like having a unique and strong password: Don’t have a unique and strong set of passwords, with different ones for different services. 

Use a credit card over a debit card. While it’s likely you will be reimbursed for a debit card loss, it may be more difficult and will take longer than if you are reimbursed by a credit card company. 

Look at statements — and not just for the large $500 purchases at the electronics store. Little "test" purchases of $2 or $0.50 can be used by a thief to determine whether an account is functioning correctly or not. 

What does economic security mean in 2014?

Tue, 2014-09-09 07:00

How do American families define economic security these days? 

Wealthier people in America have been raising their standards on what they consider economic security, even as people struggling with less are lowering their standards about what they see as acceptable. That's among the findings of a new book called "Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times."

Its author is Stanford sociologist Dr. Marianne Cooper, who also served as the lead researcher on Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In," the Facebook COO's best seller on women and leadership. 

Click the media player above to hear Dr. Marianne Cooper in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.

PODCAST: Apple's payment plan

Tue, 2014-09-09 03:00

The way some people put ketchup on their fries, Apple's expected to to pour words like "amazing" and "awesome" all over its script at its product launch in California today. After all, the articles about what an Apple wristwatch might look like, it's now time to actually see what the company has to offer. What might get overshowed is expected news today that could make the economy an even more liquid place. It's about a new mobile payment system in which you wave an device like a magic wand at the point of sale. Plus, what is called the JOLTS Survey is expected out later this morning. It covers how many job openings and what's about workplace turnover. This monthly report's star has risen each time Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellin mentions it when discussing the health of the labor economy. So just what is JOLTS trying to measure? And what does being economically secure--or its antithesis--economic insecurity mean in 2014 America? Wealthier people in America have been raising their standards for what they consider economic security, even as people struggling with less are lowering their standards about what they see as acceptable. That's among the findings of a new book called "Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times." It's author, Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper, joins us to discuss.

Will Apple's iWatch lead to 'frictionless' payments?

Tue, 2014-09-09 02:00

Apple is hosting a big event for consumers and the press on Tuesday, and along with a new iPhone model and the long-rumored "iWatch," the tech world is buzzing with the possibility that one or both devices will allow for mobile payments.

Europeans can simply tap their credit cards to make a payment, a system that’s more secure than swiping a magnetic strip. Many African countries use mobile payment systems because they’re more convenient and safer than cash. But the U.S. has historically lagged a bit when it comes to adopting new payment technologies, says Deborah Baxley, a principal at CapGemini.

“In some ways, the good is the enemy of the better,” she says, explaining that the current system in the U.S. generally works well. “From the consumers’ point of view, it’s very fast and convenient.”

Plus, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem with new technologies: merchants don’t want to install them until they’re widely used, but consumers won’t adopt them until the infrastructure is in place to use them.

That could change with events hosted by Apple and Intel on Tuesday. The companies may debut products with near-field communication technology, or NFC, which would allow consumers to pay for purchases by holding their device near a register, instead of swiping a credit card.

More than simply replacing the plastic card, the real promise of a so-called mobile wallet is the benefits it could offer consumers, says Rajesh Kandaswamy, a research director with Gartner. “For instance, with your discounts [and] deals automatically applying, that is interesting for the consumer.”

The JOLTS report, or how secure you feel about your job

Tue, 2014-09-09 02:00

The JOLTS report is expected out later on Tuesday. That's the Job Opening and Labor Turnover Survey, for the uninitiated among us.

JOLTS is s a monthly report that gained some notoriety after Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen started mentioning it when discussing the health of the labor economy. These monthly labor numbers are closely watched by the Fed because they show the rate of job openings in the U.S. against unemployment levels. 

The predictions: Many on Wall Street expect interest rates to rise if and when the Fed sees labor markets improve.

If you boil it down to what the report signifies, many argue JOLTS gauges how secure workers feel about the job market.

"I'm very happy at my current job, but if push came to shove, I'd feel very comfortable being able to get a job within two weeks to a month," says Kansas City–based marketer Wayne Larson.

Sure, Larson sounds confident, but the 26-year-old actually doesn't much trust the labor market, which is why, on top of his 9-to-5 job, Larson is networking.

"You know, sometimes my girlfriend asks, ‘Gosh, why are you always out there having coffee with somebody?'" he says. "It's because you gotta do that." 

Economist Dean Baker says you've got a strong economy when workers feel like they can quit tomorrow — minus the coffee sit-downs.

He says JOLTS data shows workers' confidence still hasn't returned to pre-Recession levels.

"You still have a very weak labor market, and what we really want to focus on is getting more jobs," which Baker says means continuing to keep interest rates low.

Wayne Larson's not up for debating economic theories.

He says he's just going off a simple creed he's learned from entering adulthood after the Recession. "If you're not grinding, you're not getting," he says.

Americans never stop working

Mon, 2014-09-08 13:51

A new research paper from the OECD entitled "Long Workweeks and Strange Hours" sought to highlight some characteristics of the American workforce this week.

According to the study, the average workweek in this country for full-time workers comes in at 47 hours, just about the same as it was ten years ago.

More interesting, perhaps, is that 29 percent of American workers say they do some paid work on weekends, and a quarter of them work at night.

Most American workers are working for the weekend. Nearly 1/3 of Americans are working on it

— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) September 8, 2014

Americans, you work too much: says @_cingraham

— Wonkblog (@Wonkblog) September 8, 2014

What, exactly, Alibaba does

Mon, 2014-09-08 13:51

The Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba aims to hit a Wall Street milestone later this month: biggest IPO ever. Today, the company started what Wall Street calls a "road show" — nonstop meetings with potential investors, in an attempt to raise more than $24 billion. Analysts say the company’s likely to raise at least that much.

But all of the hype leaves open a basic question: What is Alibaba? Is this just a version of Amazon from China?  

No. Alibaba’s not a retailer. One of its biggest branches is a virtual shopping mall called Tmall, where consumers buy stuff from retailers and directly from commercial brands. Alibaba makes its money there much the way Google and Facebook do: by charging businesses for access to consumer eyeballs.

Jeff Papp, an analyst with Oberweis Asset Management, gives an example: “I go to Tmall, and I’m interested in buying bananas, and there’s 100 vendors of bananas,” he says. “So, [if] you’re a vendor of bananas and I am, too... I may pay more for my product to be listed first.”

Alibaba has two other major arms, one of them an eBay-like site called Taobao. The other, the company’s original site,, does something that barely exists here: helping businesses find suppliers.

Charlene Li, founder of the tech consultancy Altimeter Group, says she once used to research laptop manufacturing. “The fact that I could put out a bid, and talk to complete strangers in parts of China... that I had no idea where these people were,” says Li. “You think about: ‘I could actually do this at scale.’”

Alibaba has lots of other, smaller business lines — and recently it has made investments in U.S.companies like and the ride-share startup Lyft. The scale of those investments is small for a company that pegs its own value above $150 billion.

“I think what they’re trying to do with some of these investments is to better understand the U.S. markets,” says R.J. Hottovy, a tech analyst for Morningstar, “and the differences between its home market... China... and the U.S.”

In other words, this is R&D spending, not an attempt to take on Amazon directly.

What you could buy (on Alibaba) for $155 billion

As the massive Alibaba IPO approaches later this month, we've been trying to wrap our heads around the $155 billion valuation for the Chinese e-commerce company. As it happens, Alibaba lists a number of unique items on its online marketplace that could help put things in perspective. Here's a list of some interesting items you could buy on Alibaba, and how many of them you could get with $155 billion.

15 million silicone life-size Paul Walker statues


Image courtesy of Alibaba.

Are you still mourning the untimely loss of your favorite movie star? Maybe you could take the edge off by purchasing a silicone model of his exact likeness. You could buy not just one, but enough to populate a small country. If you want to mix things up, you could even throw in some wax models of other celebrities like Pierce Brosnan, Michael Jackson, or even the pope.

375 million pairs of breast implants


Image courtesy of Alibaba.

Alibaba apparently sells all sorts of medical equipment, even down to supplies for specific implants. For the old standby of cosmetic surgery, you are required to make a minimum order of 100 pairs, so you can't exactly get them on the cheap, but the breast implants probably wouldn't be much use without a surgeon anyway. With $155 billion, you could buy enough to stock the world's largest plastic surgery practice.

5 million worm-shaped amusement park trains


Image courtesy of Alibaba.

Planning to open the world's creepiest amusement park chain, but can't decide on what rides will best frighten children? Look no further than the "Popular! big worm amusement park electric train." With $155 billion, you could afford to buy a 300,000-kilometer track for your worm-themed attraction.

3.3 billion packs of human hair


Image courtesy of Alibaba.

We've reported before on how you can sell your own hair for a decent amount of money, and it seems Alibaba is the place to go to see the other side of that transaction. You can even pick out varieties like Brazilian, Peruvian or Malaysian for your wigs or extensions.

7.1 billion cases of whiskey


Image courtesy of Alibaba.

With $155 billion, that bar you've always thought about opening could be stocked well enough to serve a glass of whiskey to everyone on the planet for at least of couple of weeks, all thanks to Alibaba's surprisingly large selection of wholesale alcohol.

56.6 billion kilograms of spandex

Image courtesy of Alibaba.

Need more material for spare "Star Trek" uniforms for you and your friends after the old ones got a bit ripe at the last convention? Alibaba has got you covered, and with $155 billion, you could probably even manage to outfit Starfleet for real.

Should we know how much stores take in from food stamps?

Mon, 2014-09-08 13:51

In recent years, the U.S. has spent more than 70 billion taxpayer dollars annually on food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP dollars go to millions of low-income Americans, who spend the money to buy food at stores across the country.

Big-box discount stores and large supermarkets take in the most food stamp dollars. At the same time, most of their employees earn little enough to qualify for food stamps themselves. The nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, told investors it takes in about 18 percent of all SNAP spending, which would amount to an estimated $13 billion last year.

But the government has never disclosed how much individual companies take in from food stamp dollars.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program, has long argued it is required by law to keep the information private, because it amounts to a retailer’s trade secret. Now, the USDA is reconsidering.

Monday was the last day of a month-long public comment period set up by the USDA. A few hours before the deadline, nearly 500 comments had poured in from a range of voices in the food retail industry and beyond. Input has come from owners of large-supermarket franchises, gas station convenience stores, health food stores, farmers market managers, anti-hunger and nutrition advocates and private citizens.

You can read them all here. Below is a sampling:

I throw my full weight into supporting the release of retailer data concerning food stamps. As a publicly-funded support service, citizens deserve total transparency in what happens to that money, and especially if there's the possibility that companies are profiting from the program. From the reports I've heard concerning Wal-Mart in particular, their employees who receive food stamp support are not only encouraged to then purchase products from Wal-Mart, their very employment at such low wages is made possible by receiving supplemental support.

This latter point mirrors the corporate welfare loophole that also occurs with health care coverage i.e. employees not making enough to have health insurance so they resort to publicly-funded emergency room treatment.

Wal-Mart's only defense to releasing the data seems to be that they are afraid competitor companies could exploit said data to better target the market base in the area. So what's on the scales here is, on the one hand, Wal-Mart's business interest and on the other, the entire public's interest. 

Please side with democracy, transparency, and fairness, not the corporate favoritism that is going to erode our great country.

— Lisa Roiter, New York, NY


 Seven-Eleven Hawaii is adamantly opposed to sharing our store SNAP sales information for various reasons.

1. Sales information of any type and for any company should be proprietary and not shared with other competitors or the general public.

2. The disclosure of SNAP sales or any sales information to our competitors would provide them with information that they are not entitled to have nor have they worked to build the clientele for the related sales.

3. All companies work continuously to increase their competitive advantage in the marketplace and should not be required to share their corporate intelligence with the competitors or the general public.

— Greg Hanna, Seven-Eleven Hawaii, Inc, Honolulu, HI


Aggregated annual/monthly SNAP redemption data at the individual store level is indeed confidential. Release of this data will harm the small stores in the following ways.

The big box store could use this data to target areas of potential growth. Studies have shown that when a big box store (Wal-Mart, Lowes, Home Depots, etc) I placed in a neighborhood the small businesses in the area goes out of business.

Small stores are already overburden with the amount of regulations that they have to report and follow. This is reporting requirement will add more cost to the small businesses. This cost will eventually be past down to the consumer. Small retailer in comparison to big box stores are already operating will slim profit margins. They do not need the added burden of this requirement.

For transparency, I would have no problem with the release of this data at the state level. This would protect the small retailer from the big box stores using this data to target their growth. The burden will also shift to the local FNS offices. They already have the data at hand and the small retailer do not have to worry over additional reporting requirements.

My store have been a SNAP authorized retailer for over twenty (20) years. Small retailer are the back bone of this country. It is the small retailer that hires the most people in comparison to the big box store. It is the small business that will have the greatest harm because of this requirement.

— Xavier Gallon, Carolina Market, Philadelphia, PA

I'm not as concerned about the public seeing this info as if anyone cares, but big competition could use that info to target smaller competitors like us as if we don't already have a target on our backs.

— Randy Jackson, Rockdale Grocery, Conyers, GA


If retailers SNAP transparency impedes their business, that's a problem they have to deal with internally. Tax payers support SNAP to aid their fellow citizens in need, not to aid SNAP authorized retailers make their bottom line. Their business models should not be reliant on SNAP benefits in the first place. 

I think data per store is most useful. It's always best to be as detailed as possible and there's no reason to withhold details from the tax payers funding the SNAP program. Aggregated sales at all stores within a state or nationally should be provided in addition to per-store data. The public has a right to know where SNAP benefits are being spent at every level. How else would we be able to make informed decisions when we vote or reach out to our representatives about changes we'd like to see in SNAP benefits. Transparency is the only thing that can empower the public to make informed decisions. 

I think it's crazy  this information was ever not available to any citizen who was interested.

— Bri Kapellas, Private Industry


The New York City Coalition Against Hunger stands in support of the United States Department of Agriculture in providing greater transparency in the release of data related to retailers and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The New York City Coalition Against Hunger agrees that the retail data that the USDA requests to be released to the public in the Food and Nutrition Act should be less restricted for transparency purposes.

In general, releasing of data and increasing transparency is in the interest of the public. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger supports the USDA as it strives for the production of more information that can be used to hold government accountable to the public, increase the trust between the government and public, allow the citizenry to be more educated, and allow the government to make better decisions about the peoples well-being, both at elections and at all other times.

Aggregated annual SNAP redemption data at the individual store level should not be considered confidential business information. 

The amount of money that is spent by SNAP recipients is a sizable share of our economy. In 2013, alone, $76 billion were allotted to SNAP beneficiaries. Currently there are approximately 47 million Americans who spend an average of about $133 per person each month in SNAP benefits at grocery stores throughout the nation. While statistics are available for the demographics of the recipients of those SNAP benefits, the public does not have information on where the benefits are spent. 

It is essential to understand and manage our food systems. There have long been links between poverty and obesity, and lack of access to affordable, nutritious food. If we know what people are purchasing with their EBT cards and where, we can link subsidies to healthy food to make it affordable and more accessible through the use of programs such as New York Citys HealthBucks which is used at farmers markets. Purchases can also be tracked, tabulated and linked to the USDAs food desert map so that tactics can be developed to bring more nutritious, affordable options to those who lack them.

In addition to those individuals whose diets are subsidized, stores that sell food products and accept EBT transactions profit directly from SNAP. The public has a right to know which corporations are the beneficiaries of this government money. When many grocery and other stores that accept SNAP have employees who earn wages that are low enough to be eligible for the government food assistance that they and their customers spend, it is in everyones interest to know the facts.

— Lisa Levy, NYC Coalition Against Hunger, New York, NY

Disclosing all benefits utilized in a retail establishment should be no problem. For the retailers that administer the program/benefits correctly and legally they have nothing to hide.

Complete transparency with regards to the SNAP benefits is encouraged as far as I am concerned.

As well as everyone receiving benefits should have to pass a random drug test to get or continue getting benefits.

— Roy Johnson, CJ’s Quick Stop, Jacksonville, TX

What $500 million buys for the Syrian opposition

Mon, 2014-09-08 13:51

President Barack Obama is renewing his call for Congress to authorize another $500 million for pro-Western rebels in Syria. There is growing pressure on the president to combat ISIS, also known as the extremist terrorist group Islamic State, and to help topple the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

But what does $500 million buy in this scenario?

When the president first proposed the aid back in June, the money was expected to train and arm 2,300–2,500 Syrian rebels. That’s less aid than Assad's opposition wants.

“You’re talking about everything from Kalashnikovs to rocket launchers and grenade launchers,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syrian expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The real question is does that include anything close to an anti-aircraft weapon?”

The administration is worried about funding those kinds of weapons because they can easily fall into the wrong hands. A new report indicates that anti-tank weapons once owned by Syrian rebels are now in the hands of Islamic State militants.

Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the problem is figuring out exactly which groups to give money to.

“Many of them may share U.S. objectives of fighting the Islamic State or fighting the Assad regime today, but we’re not sure exactly what their agenda is going to be tomorrow.”

Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy predicts the U.S. will get more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict.

“We were naïve to think we could get out of it,” says Tabler. “What happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East.”

Your Wallet: The cost of elder care

Mon, 2014-09-08 13:14

The cost of elder care continues to rise, along with the number of people who need it.

Are you taking care of an older relative? Or planning to?

Tell us on Twitter @MarketplaceWknd or email us, we'd love to hear your story.

It's not you, it's my cost-benefit calculations

Mon, 2014-09-08 11:24

Companies have lots of ways of optimizing for the best results. Big data, customer satisfaction and good old cost-benefit analysis are, of course, the buzz words of the moment

As writer Josh Freedman made clear in a story at McSweeney's Internet Tendency, they are popping up everywhere

Susan, we need to talk. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. About us. I really like you, but ever since we met in that econ class in college I knew there was something missing from how I felt: quantitative reasoning. We can say we love each other all we want, but I just can’t trust it without the data. And after performing an in-depth cost-benefit analysis of our relationship, I just don’t think this is working out.

Listen to his piece adapted for the radio in the player above. 


Susan, we need to talk. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. About us. I really like you, but ever since we met in that econ class in college I knew there was something missing from how I felt: quantitative reasoning. We can say we love each other all we want, but I just can’t trust it without the data. And after performing an in-depth cost-benefit analysis of our relationship, I just don’t think this is working out.

Please know that this decision was not rash. I just made a series of quantitative calculations. The calculations are fairly simple. Sex with you grants me seventeen utils of pleasure, but I derive negative utils from all of the cuddling afterwards.

Meanwhile, I could be doing plenty of other things. I could be drinking at the Irishman with a bunch of friends from work. I derive between 20 and 28 utils from hitting on girls at the bar. However, most of those girls don’t laugh at my jokes, which drives down utils gained. 

I know this breakup might come as a bit of a shock to you. I have included in my calculations the fact that as a courtesy I will have to pay for this dinner in its entirety, which, given the gender parity we have previously expressed in our relationship, would normally cost me only half that.

In the meantime, I need to get back home. My utility calculations tell me that the best thing I can do right now is strip down to my boxers, microwave a quesadilla, and watch a bunch of episodes of The Wire. It might seem strange and horribly unproductive, but it’s not me — it’s just my utility function.