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Medicaid's new patients: healthier, and maybe cheaper

Fri, 2014-05-09 00:37

Since the launch of the Affordable Care Act last fall, some five million more Americans have enrolled in the nation's healthcare program for low-income people.

With only half the states expanding their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act, researchers believe that number would double if all 50 states moved ahead, and several new reports suggest it may be cheaper for states to go ahead than previously estimated.

Cost is one of the top reasons politicians cite to explain why they're against expanding the program.

A recent Congressional Budget Office report said the cost for states would be nearly a third less than expected. Why the cut?

The CBO over-estimated the number of people eligible for Medicaid pre-ACA who would come out of the woodwork – an effect known in the industry as "woodworking" – as efforts got underway to recruit newly-eligible folks to sign up for Medicaid. And because fewer of previously-eligible people signed up, the bill for states is lower, because states pay a vastly higher share of costs for the previously eligible.

And there are other signs that Medicaid's expansion may help the bottom line.

"We improved care. We improved outcomes and we reduced costs," says Dr. Randy Cebul, who runs the Center for Health Care Research & Policy. He's also the one keeping tabs on the data from a Medicaid pilot project in Cleveland involving nearly 30,000 low-income residents.

Cebul says in this test case for Medicaid expansion in Ohio, health providers helped cut ER use, increased primary care visits and kept spending 25 percent below projections.

"There are probably half of the states that have not expanded Medicaid," he says, "and I think this should be a reason they want to reconsider their decision."

And new Medicaid patients are generally less depressed and not as heavy as people already enrolled, according to a study from Steven Hill, an economist with the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

"I think some people were concerned that the people who will be newly eligible might be very unhealthy," he says. "But that's not what we found. And so they may need even less care than current enrollees," he says.

Edwin Park with the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities believes the growing body of information strengthens the proposition that states can afford an expansion.

"All this evidence continues to undermine that it's too costly for the states to take up," he says.

There's just one thing.

Many health policy people, including Park and George Washington health policy professor Sara Rosenbaum say state opposition isn't driven by economics as much as philosophy.

"It's a belief that somehow when you help the poor with governmental assistance you are encouraging bad behavior, laziness," says Rosenbaum.

Josh Archambault with the right-leaning Foundation for Government Accountability says there's some truth to that.

Ultimately though, he says the problem is that you're expanding a broken program that doesn't work for people currently enrolled. And why, he asks, would you just expand something like that?

"Not only does it hurt the people you are adding, but it already hurts people who are on the boat," he says.

But what some conservatives want – and they've begun to get it – is more flexibility in how the expansion program is designed. Even with that, full acceptance could take years. Don't forget, Arizona adopted the original Medicaid program in 1982, 17 years after it was first introduced.

An insider's look into Alibaba and its quirky founder

Thu, 2014-05-08 23:55

In 1995, Alibaba founder Jack Ma was an English teacher. He was visiting Seattle when a friend introduced him to the internet. Ma quickly typed "China" into the search engine. The result? "No data found" appeared on the screen.

Weeks later, Ma was in Beijing, on a Quixotic quest to convince China's government to create the country's first internet site.

The film "Crocodile in the Yangtze" shows grainy footage of a floppy-haired Ma delivering his pitch to a skeptical bureaucrat: "Nowadays, foreigners can use computers from any desktop to find products from around the world," says Ma to a confused-looking senior level official. "They can order directly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore. But they can't order anything from China, because right now there's nothing from China on the Internet."

The official politely asked Ma to take a hike. The film's director Porter Erisman says none of the officials Ma visited on that trip had even heard about the Internet. "You can just see in the footage, the people who are looking at him, they just think he's crazy."

Erisman got the footage from a reporter for state-run television, who thought it'd be funny to follow Ma around as he got kicked out of one government office after another. "The reason the woman was filming Jack was because she thought here's this crazy guy who's clearly not going to go anywhere -- we should record this as an example of how not to behave."

Five years later, Ma started Alibaba, which would become the world's largest online marketplace, and Porter Erisman was hired as the company's first American employee.

At the time, eBay set its sights on China – and Erisman said Jack Ma used his background as a student of martial arts to engage the Western giant.

"One of the key principles in martial arts is you can use an opponents strength against them," says Erisman. "So when we looked at eBay with their big advertising campaign, we realized we could use that campaign to help promote Taobao."

Taobao, Alibaba's shopping site, was launched to fend off eBay.

Alibaba embarked on an aggressive media campaign, attacking eBay and questioning which company was better for China. The strategy worked -- every time eBay ran a local ad, it got people thinking about this new Chinese shopping site Taobao. eBay eventually pulled out of China, and Taobao -- with its hundreds of millions of users -- is a big reason Alibaba is expected to raise billions from investors when it goes public.

That's despite Jack Ma's attitude towards Wall Street, which he shared with Alibaba empoyees at a company gala in Porter Erisman's film.

"Let the Wall Street investors curse us if they want," Ma shouts from a stage in front of thousands of employees, "We will still follow the principle of customers first, employees second, and investors third."

The nuances of the "1 percent"

Thu, 2014-05-08 15:33

Last week, we did a story about how likely it is that anyone in the United States will spend even a little part of their lives in the 1 percent. We got a lot of feedback —comments, questions and discussion about income inequality vs. wealth inequality, about the 1 percent vs. the 0.1 percent and about economic mobility. There's so much interesting stuff to talk about, we decided to dive back in to the issue and answer some of the questions you raised.

Q. The story looked at some new research by Mark Rank and Thomas Hirschl that suggests one in eight americans will make it in to the "1 percent" of earners for at least a year of their lives, to which Andrew Tong responded on Facebook: "Perhaps in income. But most certainly not based on net worth!" 

So what’s the difference between income and net worth?

Andrew brings up a good point. Rank and Hirschl's research looks at the 1 percent in terms of income. In this case “income” means the money a household makes in the course of a year, mainly through working a job and getting a paycheck.  (The data did also count money a family might have inherited in a given year. It did not include capital gains.) 

In dollar terms, a household would be in the 1 percent of earners today if it makes more than about $360,000 in a year. 

But as Andrew and others pointed out--- income is just part of the story. If you’re interested in the way economic resources in the U.S. are distributed, you have to look at income but also about wealth or net worth. That is, the total money you have in the bank, plus the value of your home(s), car(s), investments; minus all your debts.

To be in the top 1 percent in terms of wealth there is a much higher bar. You'd have to be worth more than roughly $8.4 million. 

Q. What do we know about wealth inequality versus income inequality?

@Marketplace So income inequality isn't so much the problem. It's WEALTH inequality.

— Sammy Saber (@SammySaber) May 5, 2014

The short story is that wealth inequality is growing right along with income inequality, especially at the very top. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that in the early 1960s, the wealthiest 1 percent in the U.S. had 125 times the wealth of a median household. In 2010, that ratio had doubled, reaching 288 to 1.

It’s worth noting that data on wealth and wealth inequality is harder to come by than data on incomes. The census measures income, not wealth. Tax returns don’t paint a full picture of a person’s net holdings. Surveys like the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances have trouble capturing the super-rich.

Part of what makes the work of Thomas Piketty and his colleagues Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman so ground-breaking is that they have developed new ways to measure private wealth and wealth inequality over time.  Their method involves taking tax returns, which record the income generated from assets (in dividends, interest payments or rental income), and teasing out the underlying value of those assets.

Q. Does the 1 percent even matter? Or, as Kevin Tyler put it on Facebook, “The 1 percent people are complaining about are probably only about the .01 percent!”

Yes, “We are the 99.99%" might have been a less catchy but more accurate chant for Occupy Wall Street. (Shout out to Carl Swanson for making this point on Facebook). 

That’s because the most intense rise in incomes the U.S. has seen in the last forty years isn’t among the top 1 percent, but the top 0.1 and 0.01 percent.  Check out this graph, that the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson built out of data from Thomas Piketty and friends’ World Top Incomes Database:

 Chart by Derek Thompson, Data from World Top Incomes Database

It’s also important to note that the kind of income the tippy top of the 1 percent is earning is mostly not the wage or salary kind that most Americans earn. It’s capital gains-- money made from investments in real estate or in the stock market. And that money is taxed at a lower rate than the plain old “income” you get from a pay check at a job.

There are also growing disparities within the 1 percent of households as measured by wealth (as opposed to income).  The rise over the last few decades in the share of total wealth these households own has been almost completely driven by a rise in the wealth of the top 0.1 percent (households with a net worth of more than $20 million today). Those at the “bottom” of the 1 percent have seen their wealth relatively stagnant.

And yet, as critical as the 0.1 and 0.01 percent are to our understanding of wealth and income inequality, we shouldn’t entirely ignore the plain old 1 percent. Even if people at the bottom of this percentile don’t always “feel” rich, it’s worth remembering that if your household makes more than $360,000 in a year—even just a single year—you’ve got things pretty darn good compared to 99 percent of the rest of America. 

Q.  What about economic mobility? How does the fact that one in eight Americans might join the 1 percent of earners for a year at some point in their lives fit in to the larger question of how possible it is to move up the economic ladder over the course of your life?

This is a really important question.  We love our rags to riches stories, but it's a mixed bag here in America. Rank and Hirschl’s research suggests that more Americans than you might expect jump in to the 1 percent of income distribution at some point in their lives, but very few stay there for very long. And it’s more than seven times more likely for a white person to reach the 1 percent than for a person of color. 

Then there’s the fact that Americans have a greater chance of living in poverty for a year than living for a year in the 1 percent.  In earlier research, Rank found that  40 percent of American adults will spend at least a year below the official poverty line. 

When it comes to overall rates of economic mobility, new research from Harvard economist Raj Chetty shows that it’s about as hard to climb the economic ladder in the U.S. as it was 20 years ago. The good news is that today most Americans will live in households with higher incomes than their parents (even after adjusting for inflation).  But that’s largely due to the rise in two-earner homes. 

And when you look at economic mobility in the U.S. compared to other industrialized democracies, we don’t fare so well.  It’s harder for Americans to climb in to a different part of the income distribution than the one their parents were in— say, from the bottom 20 percent to the top 20 percent.   If you were born in to poverty in America, the chances of escaping it are half as good as they are in a country like Denmark.  

If the housing market can't find its mojo...

Thu, 2014-05-08 13:11

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen feels alright about most of the economy, she told Congress’ Joint Economic Committee yesterday, saying that “many recent indicators suggest a rebound in spending and production is already underway.” 

But keep an eye, she advised, on one sector:

“One cautionary note though is that readings on housing activity, a sector that has been recovering since 2011 have remained disappointing so far this year and will bear watching.”

Stephanie Rizk didn’t need to hear it from Ms Yellen though. Two years after the housing market bottomed out, she can see it from the window of her house in Laurel, Maryland. 

“On my street there are three abandoned or foreclosed properties that are empty,” she says. “There’s a decaying speedboat in the back yard of one. I can’t do anything about that as a homeowner.” 

Rizk put her house up for sale last year because she wanted to move closer to work and school. The house didn’t sell, even after six months on the market.

“It’s really hard to sell a house when there are literally no neighbors because the houses are empty,” she says. Luckily, Rizk found renters. She and her family were able to move...but not buy. 

Buying a home new home was a whole other ordeal involving disputes over appraisals and stubborn sellers. “It was very frustrating,” she says.  

Chris Mayer, professor of real estate at Columbia School of Business says this is not terribly surprising. “Sales activity of new and existing homes have not recovered anywhere near the levels in a normal recovery,” says Mayer. 

Whereas we would expect to see maybe 2 million housing starts a month, says Mayer, we’re seeing less than a million.

Malcolm Hollensteiner, who directs retail lending and sales at TD Bank, says from his vantage point “the concern we have in the industry is that the first time homebuyer has not resurfaced during this recovery.” Rather, “In many markets, 30-40 percent of home buyers are all cash buyers – this means that a high percentage are investors instead of first time homebuyers.”

One reason for this is that Federal Housing Authority has increased the cost of loans for first time home buyers, charging more for mortgage insurance. 

“In typical years,” says Hollensteiner, “the FHA share of the first time homebuyer market was as high as 60 or 70 percent -- it’s dropped to the 30 percent range as of today.”

Another, less structural factor behind the current flatness of housing sales compared to last year is that “some sales a year ago were leftover foreclosures,” says Nicholas Retsinas, senior lecturer on real estate at Harvard Business School. “Some is left but a lot went by the wayside,” he says. Additionally, last year there were even more investors buying homes. Now that prices have risen modestly, “investors can’t find that low hanging fruit anymore,” further reducing sales.  

The problem for economists including those at the Federal Reserve is that when people don’t buy homes, they don’t buy a lot of other things. “When you buy a home one of the first things you do is go out and get new furniture, talk to contractors, supply companies,” says Columbia’s Mayer. And don’t forget the real estate agents and the lawyers.

In the past, economic recovery depended on this, depended on housing.

Retsinas says “if you go back to the last six or seven recessions, it was the secret sauce.” 

No longer, he says. It’s a smaller part of the economy now, and it’s just not recovering quickly.

“It still has some punch, but the punch may not be what it once was.”

If housing isn’t the main driver of the economy, what is? Retsinas says he doesn’t know. Maybe there isn’t just one, or maybe there just isn’t one. 

Size does matter for FedEx

Thu, 2014-05-08 12:34

Heads up if you buy lots of diapers, paper towels or shoes online. FedEx has announced starting next year all ground packages will be priced according to size.

Analysts believe this could mean a price spike on 30 percent of the company's shipments, primarily the bulky, lightweight stuff. Yes prices will go up, but people in the shipping business say there may be a way around me and my pillow retailer paying it, especially if cost – not speed – is the primary consideration.

Local couriers – and even USPS – are ready and willing says Kent Smith with Ursa Major Associates.

"Sophisticated ecommerce mailers will manage it in stride because they are not tied to a single deliverer," he says.

Another potential change to watch for: box sizes. Supply chain consultant Marc Wulfratt with MWPVL International says he expects to see companies tailor box size to the precise dimensions of what's being shipped.

"Today if you put an item in a box and it doesn't fill the full height they add air bags, paper. Well that space in the box is costing them money," he says.

by Shea Huffman

But when thinking about how this change will affect shipping items and online shopping, what items can you order, say from Amazon, that push the boundaries or are otherwise unsusal in terms size and weight?

In an attempt to answer that question, we put together a wish list on Amazon of things that are bulky, heavy and dense, or light, fluffy and compact. You can see a few selections below, but we are most certainly only scratching the surface.

The heaviest thing on Amazon

The honor for the heaviest item on Amazon famously used to belong to this three-quarter ton gun safe, but it has since been overtaken, as far as we can tell, by a 4.5 ton industrial-grade lathe, which Amazon will ship to you for free.

The most dense element on earth

Osmium has the highest density of any naturally occuring element and in certain forms, particularly the kind you can order from Amazon, it can become toxic when exposed to the air. Hazardous materials fees are included in the pricing.

Feathers

What springs to mind when thinking of things that are light? Feathers of course. Certain packages of them are so light and small that its apparently not even worth if for Amazon to ship them on their own.

Our wish list is by no means exhaustive, so if you have any suggestions about light, heavy or unsually voluminous items you can find on Amazon, we'd love to hear about them.

And while we're on the subject, if anyone is feeling like making a generous contribution to public radio, there is a handy wish list available...

Go to college, wash your own clothes. Right?

Thu, 2014-05-08 12:04

When I was growing up in North Carolina, I'd heard about this, but it sounded like a myth.

According to The Charlotte Observer, however, the rumors were true: For more than 90 years, Davidson College, a liberal arts college in Western North Carolina, has offered students this perk: They've "washed, dried, folded, and ironed students' clothes for free."

 

Well, no more.

Davidson College's president says that starting next year on May 15, students will have to use washers and dryers themselves.

She's decided the $400,000 that  pays for the laundry service could be better spent on things like research. And keeping the library open 24/7.

Why books always seem to have a discounted price

Thu, 2014-05-08 12:01

If you want to get a sense of just how dramatic online book pricing can be, it helps to go to a local bookstore. Like Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Carol Chittenden is the owner there. She lets me play price-check. Her price for Michael Lewis's "Flash Boys"? $22.36. And Amazon's price that day? $16.77.

“I think that's a little less than we could buy it for from the publisher,” Chittenden says.

We look another bestseller. "The Goldfinch". Eight Cousins sells it for $24. Amazon sells it for $17. So far, online's looking like the way better deal.

We move onto notebooks. And that's when things get interesting. The store's notebooks are pretty much the same price as Amazon's. Same with the store's totebags. In fact, it turns out just about everything Eight Cousins Books sells that isn't a book is pretty much the same price as on Amazon.

Online has way cheaper book prices . But compare other products, and that price difference goes away.  So what is it about books as products that leads to these steep price cuts by discounters?

Oren Teicher's CEO of the American Booksellers Association says "Books are the one significant product left in the marketplace today in which the manufacturer actually prints the suggested retail price on the product.”

This means book markdowns are extremely visible. Sellers can tout their low prices compared to what's on the back of book covers, the price publishers want to sell it for. And that can be a convenient psychological device -- especially if you're a big retailer with lots of other stuff to sell.

“When the customer sees a book at 40, 50 percent off,” Teicher says, “the presumption is that everything else that that retailer is selling is also equally inexpensive.”

And books bring in some pretty attractive consumers.

“Book buyers are good customers,” Teicher adds. “They tend to be slightly more affluent, they tend to be consumers who shop and therefore are always in the marketplace for other products.”

But Dennis Johnson, the founder of the Brooklyn publisher Melville House, says books are getting used as a vehicle here.

“It really devalues the whole concept of the book,” he says. “And the book is very important to our culture.”

Johnson is worried about these discounts in the book industry. But he's not about to stop selling his books to Amazon.

“That would be very stupid business,” he explains. “They're the biggest part of our sales, and my core job as a publisher is to sell books.”

Hardcover sales are actually on the rise, they're growing faster than ebooks. And despite all the online discounts, Oren Teicher at the American Booksellers Association says sales at independent bookstores are growing too. He explains that the localism trend – shopping at local farmers markets, drinking local microbrews – has also driven sales at independent booksellers.

“I feel that booksellers are very powerful in fact,” says Carol Chittenden at Eight Cousins Books, "because we're very involved in our communities, and our customers are so loyal.”

A short history of the billionaire

Thu, 2014-05-08 11:51

The following is part of a collection of essays in "But Enough About You."

Cassius Binocularius Anthrax
Residence: Capri, 3 B.C.
Net Worth: 90 million aureii.  
Source of Wealth: Off-circus betting, slave trading.

Nickname "Buddy" bestowed on him by the emperor Tiberius during a three day Lupercal drinking binge.

Said to have fixed the 1 B.C. chariot race at the Circus Maximus between Ben Hur and his rival Messala. Pocketed enormous winnings after Messala (favored 50-1) was trampled under Ben Hur's chariot.

Parlayed windfall into franchise betting operations in Parthia, Dacia, Iberia and Germania, using a highly controversial system of reporting Roman chariot race results.

Forced to shut down Germania operations after tribes torched his betting shops (with the concessionaires inside) following years of consistent losing.

Bounced back; established a slave-trading network (Jeevus Dottus Commus) that kept patrician homes from Rome to the Amalfi Coast supplied with prized Britannic butlers.

Gilead (Sam) Starbuck
Residence: Boston, 1775.
Net Worth:140,000 dollars to 160,000 dollars (silver)
Source of Wealth: Tea

In December 1773 Starbuck was purser on the New Bedford whaleship Incontinent when it put into Boston Harbor to offload. Observing a crowd of Bostonians oddly dressed as Native Americans and hurling bricks of valuable English tea into the harbor, he lowered one of Incontinent's whaleboats and rescued some of the 45 tons of jettisoned tea.

Opened his first tea shop in Braintree several days later, serving a beverage called "Sal-Tea." When Sal-Tea failed to catch on, he rebranded it "Patrio-Tea," which did eventually find acceptance with Boston's tea-starved public.

Subsequently struck a deal with the East India Company to supply (that is, smuggle) non-salty tea to Massachusetts.

His string of tea shops prospered, but scholars argue that Starbuck made a mistake calling them "Gileads" instead of some other catchier name.

Why the Beverly Hills Hotel boycott could backfire

Thu, 2014-05-08 11:40

Hollywood's concerns over the enactment of strict Islamic law in Brunei may fall on deaf ears.

Demonstrators gathered across the street from the historic Beverly Hills Hotel to protest against Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, who announced strict sharia law in his country would go into effect on May 1. Reports indicate the penal code provides for the imprisonment of those who miss Friday prayer, amputation of the limbs of robbers, and stoning to death of homosexuals.

The sultan owns the Dorchester Collection, a British company that runs--along with other hotels across Europe--the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air.

The Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles, owned by the Dorchester Collection.

David McNew/Getty Images

"When this law became known, it started to spread on social media and within the celebrity community," says Sharon Waxman, founder of The Wrap. "What has happened is that this has boomeranged against the hotel."

Celebrity protestors include Ellen DeGeneres, Richard Branson, and Jay Leno. But despite all this star power backing the cause, the CEO of the Dorchester Group, Christopher Cowdray, released a statement saying that this boycott is misguided.

"He's trying to defend the interests of his hotel and his employees, which has nothing to do with the policy and laws being passed in Brunei," Waxman said. "And he has no power over that. That's his boss, that's his owner."

But the economic plea on Cowdray's part appears to have had no effect on the efforts of the boycott. As for the sultan himself, he has said nothing so far.

"He's in the economic position where he can say, 'I don't care,'" Waxman said.

Double charged: The true cost of juvenile justice

Thu, 2014-05-08 10:50

Double Charged is a special investigation into the U.S. Juvenile Justice system, produced by Youth Radio. This is part one of a two-part series:

Standing in the hallway outside a hearing room at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, you see benches filled with teenagers and their families--waiting to appear in court-- many dressed up in button down shirts and ties, looking their Sunday best. There are a lot of moms, too, and little brothers and sisters who’d clearly rather be elsewhere.

Families and youth wait in the hallway outside juvenile courtrooms, San Leandro, California. 

Brett Myers/Youth Radio

Many teens are here for trials and probation hearings, but on any given day, others are trying to negotiate fines and fees.

The bill starts adding up as soon as you're arrested, before anyone reaches the courtroom. Even if you’re innocent, in Alameda County, the investigation alone will cost you $250.

“You get fined for the public defender,” said Debra Mendoza, probation officer-turned-advocate, who can list fees off the top of her head. “You get charged for incarceration. There’s a fee for being in juvenile hall. There’s a daily fee if you’re on GPS.”

Add the fees together for a juvenile who’s been incarcerated for an average amount of time in this county, and the total bill will be close to $2,000. 

It’s parents who are responsible for the bill. And that’s the trend across states. 

“There are more and more criminal justice fees that are added every year in this country,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, legal scholar at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice. “In recent years, about 20 state legislatures passed laws holding parents responsible for their children’s crimes,” said Eisen. 

In California, parents have the right to negotiate fees, but it’s not easy. If they don’t pay, officials can garnish parents’ wages, take their tax refunds or place liens against property. In Alameda County, one of the poorest counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, half of the fees charged to parents remain unpaid. That’s according to the county’s own data, based on a recent five-year period.

“And sometimes it is more expensive administratively to collect these fees than the money you are actually receiving in revenue.” said Eisen. “That’s the great irony of the situation.”

At the Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro, California, Joshua Hopkins is sitting on a bench waiting to be called into a hearing. Hopkins is 13, but he looks a lot older.

“People mess with me and then they get me frustrated, and then they just like to push my buttons. And when they push my buttons, I get very upset and I fight,” Hopkins said .

The fighting has led to time in juvenile detention. And that adds up to a lot of fees, according to his mom, LaPorscha John.

“So basically this is my statement of account. So I owe a total of $736,” she said.

Because of a mental health issue, Joshua lives in a private group home. But his mom is still responsible for the court fees when he messes up. So LaPorscha John owes the money, even though her son is not in her care.

“He is my son… But I’m getting hurt, because it’s financially creating hardship,” she said.

Terry Wiley, Assistant District Attorney for Alameda County’s Juvenile Division, said, “That’s part of being a parent. You’re responsible for your kids and their actions.”

If young people and their families have a problem paying, Wiley said there’s a straightforward solution: “Don’t be committing crimes and you won’t owe any money. Very simple.”

For Zoe Mathews, it’s not simple at all.

In 2010, her son DeShawn Morris was incarcerated for the better part of a year. Months after being released from jail, he was shot and killed. Her son was dead, but the debt lived on, including ongoing calls from county collections.

“It's a constant reminder that, no -- he's not here anymore,” she said.

Mathews’ son was locked up for 208 days at a cost of almost $30 per day.

Zoe Mathews (right) and her mother Jackie stand in front of a wall of family photos, including childhood pictures of Zoe's son DeShawn Morris. DeShawn was killed several months after being released from Juvenile Hall and years later, his mother is still paying the fees for his incarceration.

Teresa Chin/Youth Radio

“By being incarcerated, you're paying your debt back to society. So then they're going to charge you an additional per-night stay as if there were some options?” said Mathews. “The bills are additional stress to already a very painful situation that I will be dealing with for the rest of my life.”

Mathews said the county has agreed to reduce her monthly payment, but won’t reduce the total bill: More than $7,500 for her deceased son’s fees.

Infographics by: Teresa Chin and Jenny Lei Bolario of Youth Radio.

Everything else you wanted to know about olives

Thu, 2014-05-08 10:04

Turns out a lot of people had always wondered why black olives come in cans, but green olives come in jars. Since, of course, one wondering leads to another, our Facebook and Twitter have been alight with questions...

The science: What made black olives in jars so good for botulism?  Why don’t green olives have the same problem?

 Yes, we skipped this part. Here’s the basic deal: Acid and salt retard botulism’s growth. California Ripe Olives are lower in acid than other olives, and the brine isn’t as salty.

 That, plus the low-oxygen environment, makes a black olive in a sealed-up jar so good for botulism. Unless you kill the bacteria with high heat.

 Hey, wait a minute! You can heat up a glass jar to 240 degrees. Home canners do it all the time.

 True! Thanks for pointing that out. I bet I know what you’re asking next…   

 So, why don't the black olives come in jars?

 Turns out, we may owe Mort Rosenblum an apology. He guessed that it was because green olives are prettier. He was half-right.

 We turned here to Kristin Daley, vice president for corporate development at the Musco Family Olive Co.-- one of the two big olive canneries in California.

 Daley says black olives are darn cute. Their brine, not so much.

 “The brine is so dark that it’s barely translucent,” she says. “It’s not very attractive. So there’s not a huge benefit to putting the product into a glass jar.”

And, she says, there are costs: Jars are heavier, so shipping them is more expensive. And there’s more waste from breakage.

At this point, you may be wondering: Why is the brine so dark?

Because the olives got cooked in it, says Eric A. Johnson, a bacteriologist at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in botulism — or, as he calls it for short, “bot.”

“The heat treatment for bot spores is gonna decay some of the tissue,” he says.  

Mother's Day turns 100 (not-so-subtle reminder)

Thu, 2014-05-08 09:06

From the Marketplace Datebook, here's a look at what's coming up Friday, May 9:

In Washington, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology holds a hearing titled, "Space Traffic Management: How to Prevent a Real Life 'Gravity'."

The Labor Department releases its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey for March.

The Commerce Department reports on wholesale inventories and sales for March.

On this date in 1961, then FCC chairman Newton Minow referred to television as a vast wasteland. Today you can watch TV on your Smartphone.

Here's an opportunity to thank those married to the nation's men and women in uniform. It's Military Spouse Appreciation Day. Always the Friday before Mother's Day.

And Mother's Day was declared a national observance 100 years ago by President Woodrow Wilson. Make those brunch reservations.

Double Charged: Teens on house arrest on GPS

Thu, 2014-05-08 08:00

Double Charged is a special investigation into the U.S. Juvenile Justice system, produced by Youth Radio. This is part two of a two-part series:

Seventeen-year-old Elisa Morris-Jackson is sitting on the couch in sweatpants and a hoodie. It’s 7 p.m. and she’s watching the TV show “Dancing With The Stars”. Each evening, 7 is also the time when about 130 other juvenile offenders in Alameda County, California are required to plug in and sit down for their mandatory two-hour battery charge.

“I’m going to be so excited to get this thing off of me,” she said.

Jackson has a GPS monitor fastened around her ankle with a rubber strap. It’s part of her probation. The GPS unit is black and plastic -- about the size and shape of a computer mouse -- with three LED lights and a big button. Its purpose: to track her every movement.

17-year-old Elisa Morris-Jackson showing her GPS ankle monitor.

Youth Radio

Where does that information end up? At the Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro, California. A probation officer named Chris showed me how GPS monitors work.

“We use Google Maps, and it shows real time. So this kid we released today...this shows us that he was here at the Juvenile Justice Center,” he said, pointing at the computer screen.

We are looking at the digital breadcrumbs of one teenager’s movements since he was released from juvenile hall, just an hour or two ago, and fitted with a GPS monitor.

The map shows the teen’s path out of the building to the parking lot. Then, down the hill to the freeway.

“It’s very high tech,” said Chris. The officers can even tell if a teenager is in the front yard or backyard of their home.

The probation officer drags a green circle over the kid’s home. On the screen, it’s about two inches, but in real life it represents a radius of 150 feet – the zone the kid is restricted to. Outside of that, it would be a GPS violation and a judge could send him back to juvenile hall or lengthen probation.

Teens on GPS monitoring have to call their probation officer before they leave for school in the morning. And anything outside of school and home – like a job – requires special permission at least 48 hours in advance. So, it’s basically house arrest.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley says GPS monitoring saves money because it costs a lot less than incarceration. In fact, locking a kid up in juvenile hall costs about $429 per day. GPS costs only $85. O’Malley credits the surveillance technology for helping to keep young people at home with their families and out of incarceration.

“When they were originally building a juvenile justice center, the original idea was that it was going to be more than 500 beds,” said O’Malley. “And I think that on any given day now, there are less than 200.”

While incarceration is down, use of electronic monitoring like GPS has increased, more than tripling in the last ten years. And the devices cost families up to $15 a day.

Dominique Pinkney is a juvenile public defender in Alameda County. He’s glad to have more kids out of jail, but he has big problems with GPS: “It’s absolutely overused,” he said. Pinkney argues that judges assign it almost reflexively, even to teens who never would have been sent to juvenile hall. Not only that, Pinkney says it’s too restrictive and teens get in trouble for silly reasons, like not keeping their device properly charged or hanging out with friends.

The consequence of these violations? Lengthening teens’ probation, or even sending them back to juvenile hall.

“When you extend the consequence beyond some rational period, it becomes abusive. It makes kids angry. It actually has the opposite effect,” said Pinkney. “So you engage in a battle instead of sending a corrective signal.”

Nearly half of the young people who are electronically monitored end up violating the terms, according to a study cited by the American Bar Association. A quarter cut the device off entirely.

Sixteen-year-old Manny Velazquez is waiting outside of a courtroom. Besides his towering spiked hair, the most noticeable thing about him is the GPS monitor strapped around his
ankle.

Manny Velazquez, 16, after a court appearance in the Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro, California. 

Brett Myers/Youth Radio

“I am ashamed of it. But that’s not stopping me from…being myself, of the way I dress,” he said.

Velazquez has been on GPS for more than two months. He says the worst part is the isolation.

“It’s just the same routine over and over,” he said. “Go to school. Come home. Sometimes I do get frustrated because I feel like I’m trapped in my own house. Just last night, I felt like the walls were closing in on me.”

One courtroom away, 15-year-old Cameron Lopes had just met with a judge. He was caught carrying a pocketknife in school and spent five days in juvenile hall. Then he was strapped with a GPS unit for 30 days, after missing a court date. Today he and his dad, Jamie, were hoping they could get the device taken off.

Jamie walked out of the courtroom as the heavy wooden doors thumped shut behind him and his son. “He didn’t get his GPS off today,” he said.

Cameron was angry: “I’ve been trying real hard and they just throw all the bad stuff in there and never the good stuff.”

Jamie added, “It’s just little stuff that happened at school. If he got mad at school, they brought it up. If he yelled at somebody, they brought it up. They didn’t bring up that he was on the honor roll... It’s just a lot of negative stuff. So, another 30 days.”

Judges, DAs and public defenders are in rare agreement about GPS tracking as a good alternative to incarcerating teenagers. And it does save money.

But for the young people being monitored, the technology may be solving one problem and creating others, like extending their time in the criminal justice system.

Velazquez says he's ashamed of his GPS ankle monitor.

Brett Myers/Youth Radio

Read Part 1: The true cost of juvenile justice.

Photos and infographics by Youth Radio.

PODCAST: Size does matter for FedEx

Thu, 2014-05-08 07:31

The great mover of packages known as FedEx is shifting to what it calls "dimensional weight pricing." It's about size as well as heft and more money for FedEx. A FedEx spokesman gave this quote to Bloomberg News: "We felt like we weren't receiving the correct compensation for the services we were providing." Marketplace's David Weinberg explains.

President Barack Obama's pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services appears before the U.S. Senate on Thursday. Sylvia Burwell's nomination will be considered by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. There will be plenty of political questions about the future of Obamacare. But what questions would healthcare executives and policy wonks want to ask? We got in touch with a few to find out.

Meanwhile: Google. Amazon. Walmart.com—These aren’t the first places that people think of when planning a funeral service. But more people are shopping online for cremation urns.

PODCAST: Size does matter for FedEx

Thu, 2014-05-08 07:31

The great mover of packages known as FedEx is shifting to what it calls "dimensional weight pricing." It's about size as well as heft and more money for FedEx. A FedEx spokesman gave this quote to Bloomberg News: "We felt like we weren't receiving the correct compensation for the services we were providing." Marketplace's David Weinberg explains.

President Barack Obama's pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services appears before the U.S. Senate on Thursday. Sylvia Burwell's nomination will be considered by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. There will be plenty of political questions about the future of Obamacare. But what questions would healthcare executives and policy wonks want to ask? We got in touch with a few to find out.

Meanwhile: Google. Amazon. Walmart.com—These aren’t the first places that people think of when planning a funeral service. But more people are shopping online for cremation urns.

How long will your retirement savings live?

Thu, 2014-05-08 04:39

What's scarier than dying young? Well, for some, it's living longer without having enough money saved to ensure a good quality of life during retirement. 

Marketplace economics contributor Chris Farrell joins Morning Report host David Brancaccio with tips about how to make sure your savings live as long as you do. Click on the audio player above to hear more. 

What would you ask about Obamacare?

Thu, 2014-05-08 02:54

President Barack Obama's pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services appears before the U.S. Senate on Thursday. Sylvia Burwell's nomination will be considered by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

There will be plenty of political questions about the future of Obamacare. But what questions would healthcare executives and policy wonks want to ask? We got in touch with a few to find out.

Sonya Schwartz, Georgetown Center for Children and Families Research Fellow:

Q. You are known to be a management superstar, do you have ideas about how to improve HHS's work with contractors so that healthcare.gov does not inspire the film "Frozen II?"

Q. Verifying identity online continues to be a major roadblock for people applying for coverage on healthcare.gov – particularly for people with low incomes and limited credit history. How would you tackle this problem?

Q. HHS has been working on greater transparency and data sharing. Can you discuss points in your career where you made information more transparent even though you risked alienating some important stakeholders?

Q. Last year’s coverage goal was 7 million and HHS exceeded that mark, do you have a number in mind for 2014-2015?

Dr. Robert Wachter, University of California, San Francisco:

Q. Hospitals and physicians are reeling from the profusion of quality, safety, and efficiency measures they’re being asked to submit – and some experts have begun to call for a moratorium on new measures. Do you feel like we need to slow down the process of promulgating new measures until we have sorted this out?

Q. Now that HITECH has succeeded in wiring the American healthcare system — what do you see as the things that HHS can do that it couldn't before. And where do you see new potential hazards that we need to be mindful of?

Health economist Amitabh Chandra, Harvard: 

"I want to know a lot more about how she will get the exchanges to work better. The exchanges are central to reform. Right now, when we think of an exchange working, we often think of it working in the narrow IT sense. But what we really need to be thinking about, however, is whether price competition on the exchanges is able to reduce health insurance premiums. If it's not able to do this, the fact that they work in the IT sense is no good."

Q. Central to getting price competition to work in the exchanges is taking out a bunch of lard that is in the current exchange plans; a lot of what we call 'essential health benefits' aren't essential at all. As long as junk like this is being covered, the exchange plans will be expensive. What are [your] proposals to increase price competition on the exchanges and second, make the exchange plans leaner?

Robert Restuccia, Executive Director Community Catalyst:

Q. The first open enrollment period surpassed expectations in terms of the number of people enrolled. These numbers are due in large part to in-person assisters who helped consumers navigate healthcare.gov and make the best health care enrollment choice for their needs.  Funding from HHS was critical in providing this type of assistance.  What are your plans for supporting in-person assistance?

Q. With so many new enrollees, many of whom have never had insurance or haven’t had it for a long time, consumer assistance will be very important, but federal support for Consumer Assistance Programs (CAPs) has lapsed.  What are your plans to support people so that they can make effective use of their new coverage?

Q. The ACA has moved us forward by expanding coverage, but consumers are still grappling with costs- higher copays and deductibles. There are also still many cracks in the system. Consumers aren’t sure about the quality of the care they are getting. How would you push hospitals, doctors and insurers to provide better care at lower costs?

Finally, what about you? Tell us what questions you have on Twitter, on our Facebook page or in the comments below.

Rich and looking to invest? Don't buy a mansion

Thu, 2014-05-08 02:52

The highest end of the high end real estate market is buzzing. Already this year three homes in the U.S. have sold for more than $100 million. 

Just last week, a property in the Hamptons (outside New York) sold for $147 million -- the most ever paid for a single-family house in the U.S. Still, UCLA's Eric Sussman says real estate that gets this kind of attention is full of risk.

"I don't think any economist, any real estate expert ... would say that buying a $100 million home is a safe place to put your money. Because let's face it you're talking about a very scarce asset with very few potential buyers," says Sussman.

Below is a list of the top real estates sales in the U.S.: 

Address City State Price paid Date of sale 60 Further Lane East Hampton N.Y. $147,000,000 May 2014 Blossom Estate Palm Beach Fla. $140,000,000 Dec 2012 Broken O Ranch Augusta Mont. $132,500,000 2012 Copper Beech Farm Greenwich Conn. $120,000,000 April 2014 360 Mountain Home Road San Francisco Calif. $117,500,000 January 2013 Further Lane Hamptons N.Y. $103,000,000 2007 The Fleur de Lys Los Angles Calif. $102,000,000 2014

Credit/Compiled by: Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers

Jonny Greenwood's radio moves

Thu, 2014-05-08 01:36

Yeah, I'll admit it. I'm a Radiohead fan

We're a devoted lot, and because of that, we're pigeon-holed, stereotyped, etc. But everybody should have that one band they love, right? And because "The Bends" came out when I was in high school, Radiohead was that band for me.

I actually liked the later stuff better -- "Hail to the Thief" is my favorite album, the peak before the band's lesser works of recent years. But even better than the recordings were the live shows. Somehow, here was a group of musicians that was doing stadium rock without the Aquanet and tights.

A Radiohead live performance was truly odd and yet still had mass appeal. But I saw guitarist Jonny Greenwood do something in the early 2000s that really blew my mind. It gave me a new understanding of both improvisation and the art of making every performance unique. 

Greenwood pulled out a radio at the beginning of the song "National Anthem" and just started madly switching channels. Static spat, voices barked, music played over his brother Colin Greenwood's driving bassline -- it was awesome. And the beauty of it was that every time he pulled the move it was different.

In Germany, it was German radio. In Japan, the voices chirped in Japanese. Here's an example. 

 

Jonny Greenwood's move was part of the inspiration for this week's Marketplace Tech series Playing With Machines. Musicians are great ambassadors and early adopters of technology. Unless you're a staunch classicalist or a virtuoso on an acoustic instrument, you're always trying to figure out ways to make new sounds or bring forth new ideas.

That can mean picking up an instrument you don't understand, or trying to push an instrument you know to the limit for a surprising result. It can mean something as simple as playing to a metrinome, or something as complex as composing music for a robot guitarist with 78 fingers.

Like most artists, good musicians are a wonderful mix of technical ability and whimsy. So the way they think about and interact with technology is a treat to witness. 

Computers are jerks: a conversation with Dan Deacon

Thu, 2014-05-08 01:00

If you're going to see a Dan Deacon show, chances are the composer and electronic musician won't ask you to put your cell phone away. In fact, he'll probably encourage you to keep it handy. That's because having a smartphone loaded with Deacon's app turns the audience into a makeshift light show.

It looks something like this (skip to :55 to see the start of the show):

The app, made in conjunction with Wham City Lights, reacts to a tone which then syncs your phone to the next song in the set. It blurs the line between audience and performer in a way that Deacon enjoys -- rather than just going to see a show, attendees contribute to the performance. The app also invites smartphones into a concert setting, an area in which it is usually strictly banned. It's part of Deacon's M.O.: to use technology in a way that enhances his vision of what a Dan Deacon show should look and sound like.

This in spite of the fact that he also refers to the computer as "the biggest jerk I've ever worked with."

It overheats, it is unreliable, and it quits unexpectedly. Deacon points out, though, that it also has a right to be as fickle as it is, seeing as its advanced capability allows him to do so much with his compositions.

He also feels that technology is putting the music world on the precipice of its next big change:

"The last 100 years saw such an insane change in music, it's almost impossible to think about the next 100 years having any less. There was a time before music, there was a time before opera, and there was a time before what we're about to enter into."

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Paradigm Shift
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