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Khaled Hosseini on the economics behind 'And the Mountains Echoed'

Tue, 2014-06-03 08:44

Success in publishing is about a lot of things. Sales, of course. Staying power. And the business of words.We've asked some of our favorite contemporary authors to share the numbers they think about as they write -- how they infuse the economic world around them into storytelling. 

Listen to this installment from best-selling author Khaled Hosseini ("The Kite Runner", "A Thousand Splendid Suns") in the audio player above. He talks about the very real, very human economics in his new book, "And the Mountains Echoed". We've reprinted the first chapter here:

Back home, in Shadbagh, Pari kept underneath her pillow an old tin tea box Abdullah had given her. It had a rusty latch, and on the lid was a bearded Indian man, wearing a turban and a long red tunic, holding up a steaming cup of tea with both hands. Inside the box were all of the feathers that Pari collected. They were her most cherished belongings. Deep green and dense burgundy rooster feathers; a white tail feather from a dove; a sparrow feather,dust brown, dotted with dark blotches; and the one of which Pari was proudest, an iridescent green peacock feather with a beautiful large eye at the tip.

This last was a gift Abdullah had given her two months earlier. He had heard of a boy from another village whose family owned a peacock. One day when Father was away digging ditches in a town south of Shadbagh, Abdullah walked to this other village, found the boy, and asked him for a feather from the bird. Negotiation ensued, at the end of which Abdullah agreed to trade his shoes for the feather. By the time he returned to Shadbagh, peacock feather tucked in the waist of his trousers beneath his shirt, his heels had split open and left bloody smudges on the ground. Thorns and splinters had burrowed into the skin of his soles. Every step sent barbs of pain shooting through his feet.

When he arrived home, he found his stepmother, Parwana, outside the hut, hunched before the tandoor, making the daily naan. He quickly ducked behind the giant oak tree near their home and waited for her to finish. Peeking around the trunk, he watched her work, a thick-shouldered woman with long arms, rough-skinned hands, and stubby fingers; a woman with a puffed, rounded face who possessed none of the grace of the butterfly she’d been named after.

Abdullah wished he could love her as he had his own mother. Mother, who had bled to death giving birth to Pari three and a

half years earlier when Abdullah was seven. Mother, whose face was all but lost to him now. Mother, who cupped his head in both palms and held it to her chest and stroked his cheek every night before sleep and sang him a lullaby:

I found a sad little fairy

Beneath the shade of a paper tree.

I know a sad little fairy

Who was blown away by the wind one night.

He wished he could love his new mother in the same way. And perhaps Parwana, he thought, secretly wished the same, that she could love him

Reprinted from And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,  Copyright © 2014 by Khaled Hosseini.

Why it's so hard to serve healthy food in schools

Tue, 2014-06-03 06:29

The White House waded into in the middle of a Congressional food fight over how to regulate school lunch. 

The debate stems from the Health Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which put in place new rules aimed at getting kids to eat healthier by requiring schools to serve whole grains and more fruits and vegetables.

But now many school districts argue the new rules are too expensive.

The federal government reimburses schools $3.01 for a lunch, which is supposed to cover everything: the food, the labor and things like new kitchen equipment or repairs.

But to get the money, schools need to follow the rules.

Gitta Grether-Sweeney runs the nutrition program for Portland Public Schools in Portland, Oregon, where every day the district serves about 20,000 kids lunch.

“The rules went into effect last year where you had to serve more fruits and vegetables,” she said --  half cup of either with every meal.

Starting in July, the guidelines get stricter. Nationwide, schools have to serve more whole grains and less sodium.

Now Congress is debating whether to relax some of those rules -- a move First Lady Michelle Obama and her supporters vowed to fight.

“What we still believe is a big fight is holding steady on the sodium requirements and the whole grain requirements for school lunches,” said Claire Benjamin, managing director of Food Policy Action, a Washington DC-based group that scores lawmakers votes on food and farming policy. “When we did these rules we knew that some of these changes were going to be hard and it was going to take some time to implement.”

To help school districts out, the feds offered to pay six cents more per lunch.

But Grether-Sweeney said to meet the new federal requirements Portland Public Schools had to order more fruits and vegetables last year -- a lot more.

“I spent over $200,000 more in produce. But that six cents only covered about 60 percent of that,” she said.

Along with the requirement to serve healthier lunches came an unfortunate consequence, Grether-Sweeney said. 

The district saw a dramatic increase in trash from students dumping the unwanted produce. One small school threw away 55 gallons of fruits and veggies every week.

“In a number of our schools, we started composting because of this,” Grether-Sweeney said. 

She argued that the current mandates aren’t working and that kids should be able to choose which healthy foods they want.

“They’re not going to eat it necessarily just because you put it on their plate,” she said.

Before the new rules, the number of kids eating lunch in the Portland Public School District had been steadily increasing.

Now Grether-Sweeney said the district is serving three percent fewer students school lunch compared to last year. Nationally, nearly one million fewer kids are eating school lunch this year, according to USDA data.

Parke Wilde, a food economist at Tufts University, said it’s hard to know if schools are just having a difficult time transitioning to the new rules or -- more troubling -- that kids today are more reluctant to eat healthy foods.

“Everybody can sympathize with what it’s like to be a school food service director, reading all the small print on the new school meals requirements and thinking to him or herself, ‘How am I going to do this?'" Wilde said.

But on the other hand, he said, without rules there would probably be districts that don’t serve healthy meals.

Congress is still debating what will happen with the school lunch program, but as of right now schools will be serving even healthier -- and more expensive meals -- next fall.

Girls who game could turn into girls who code

Tue, 2014-06-03 06:28

It has been well established that there is a large and problematic gender gap in the tech industry. Last week's unprecedented report from Google on the company's diversity was just one of the latest headlines. A lot of people tend to think that, like many things, the problem starts in our education system -- Girls don't get the encouragement they need to get into tech areas like coding.

It's an issue that Nitasha Tiku*, co-editor of tech news site ValleyWag, has been thinking a lot about. In an op-ed piece for the New York Times this week, Tiku posits that the easiest way to get girls into coding might be to look at what already interests them: gaming.

Games like Minecraft, which has a "creative" mode where gamers can use Java to build their own worlds, are introducing players to coding without them realizing that they are developing a skill. It's these kinds of covert methods of getting a diverse group of people interested in programming that Tiku thinks will ultimately be more effective. 

Certainly groups like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code are doing their part as well. Tiku says these programs are important for thinking about how to get more girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields:

"These after school programs...their goal is to be incorporated into the classroom. They think of themselves as a sandbox where you can sort of experiment with different languages."

*CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, ValleyWag co-editor Nitasha Tiku was misidentified. The text has been corrected.

2/27/07, 416, 546 and the day the market broke

Tue, 2014-06-03 06:18

Stephen Millbrook jumped up from his desk, dashed across the trading floor and looked out the window. The Empire State Building was still there.

On the streets, people were walking calmly through midtown Manhattan, dressed in thick coats and covered with scarves to fend off the near freezing February air. No one looked panicked. There were no signs of another attack.

The evidence for an attack was confined to Millbrook's trading screens. In a matter of minutes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped 200 points. That was on top of a 346 point decline that the market had already registered. A 546 point drop meant something had gone seriously wrong. We're talking 9/11 wrong. On the first day of trading following the 2001 attacks, the Dow dropped 684 points.

Shares of Goldman Sachs had cratered. Goldman Sachs! Millbrook dialed a friend's number at Goldman just to see if Goldman was still there. The guy on the other end of the phone — Thank God there was a guy on the other end of the phone! — asked him if everything was alright in midtown. Goldman traders located at the southern tip of Manhattan were wondering if someone had attacked Times Square.

Later Millbrook would learn that the sudden drop was due to a "glitch." Something had gone wrong with the computer systems of the New York Stock Exchange, triggering a flash crash. This was on February 27, 2007, however, and no one had invented the term "flash crash" yet.

Traders on the floor of the NYSE would wind up having to keep their books open past the official closing bell as the exchange struggled to put things in order. None of the traders had ever been called upon to keep trading open after the bell. One trader told me over drinks that night that this marked "the death of the God of the closing bell."

In the end the Dow closed for a decline of 416.02 points. That was the still the biggest point drop in the market since it had reopened after the September 11, 2001 attacks. It was the seventh ever biggest one-day decline.

Earlier in the day, trying to limit the declines following a 200 point drop, the NYSE had imposed trading curbs. The effect, however, was to give traders more time to worry.

The talking heads on television blamed the crash on Chinese economic data and comments about a possible recession from Alan Greenspan. Most ignored something that was arguably far more important — the announcement by Freddie Mac that it would stop buying subprime loans.

The housing boom had ended two years earlier. Freddie's subprime exit indicated that the mortgage bust was upon us. Within a few months, subprime lender New Century and a pair of Bear Stearns hedge funds focused on investing in subprime would go down. Over the summer, highly unusual market movements would trigger massive losses by quant hedge funds over the course of weeks that became known as "the quant bloodbath." The housing bust was quickly transforming into a financial crisis.

The numbers 416 and 546 were indicators that something was seriously wrong. Millbrook (obviously not his real name) was right to panic. But few of us understood this on that cold day in February.

Small businesses create new jobs for autistic adults

Tue, 2014-06-03 06:06

It is high school graduation season across the country and most young adults are preparing for life in college or in the workforce.  Landing a job in this economy continues to be hard for millions of people. But what if you have autism?  

The good news is there are communities popping up across the country that have come up with several small business models that ease young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) into the adult world of work and self-sufficiency. 

Lori Ireland and several of her friends in Chapel Hill, North Carolina have children with autism.  They have become very familiar with a term known in autism circles as “The Cliff.”

“As they aged, we saw the handwriting on the wall, so to speak,” said Ireland.  “The level of services really fall off.”   

“The Cliff” becomes especially visible when a young person with autism reaches his or her early 20s and is no longer able to attend high school. 

Laura Klinger is a leading autism researcher at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.  She is also Director of the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication related handicapped Children (TEACCH).  

“After graduation, about 35 percent of people with autism sit home and do nothing: not college, not employment, not vocational training,” said Klinger.

That’s why the Ireland Family and friends decided to find jobs for their autistic children, even if they had to create the jobs themselves.

 “We measure ourselves a little differently,” said Gregg Ireland*.  “For us, if we give someone a meaningful hour of employment, that’s our goal.”

So the business model they came up with is EV, which stands for Extraordinary Ventures.  EV is responsible for several small businesses, including a successful laundry service. 

At 22-years old, Patrick Eden has worked for EV Laundry for more than a year.  Eden is very particular about how he sorts, washes and folds the clothes they collect.  He was recently promoted to assistant manager.

 “I like the people and I like giving quality work,” said Eden.

And a growing number of small businesses are employing workers with autism.  Thomas D’Eri and his family opened Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, Florida to provide meaningful work for his autistic brother.

 “When car washes are run really well, they are very structured, lots of really well-defined processes,” said D’Eri.  “And those are situations that people with autism really excel in.”

Experts studying autism hope the jobs keep coming, especially considering that about 50,000 children on the autism spectrum turn 18 every year in the U.S.

 

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Gregg Ireland. The text has been corrected.

PODCAST: Chicken wars over sausage; EPA creating green-jobs

Tue, 2014-06-03 05:54

More on the current landscape of the food market, including the war between Pilgrim's Pride and Tyson Foods to purchase Hillshire Brands. Also, a look at just how many green-energy jobs might be created by new EPA regulations on carbon emissions. Plus, there's a concerted effort going on in the UK to train young people to make clothes in the hopes of increasing home-grown products.

President Obama to increase military presence in Europe

Tue, 2014-06-03 04:42

President Obama asked Congress today to approve up to $1 billion to boost the U.S. military presence in Europe, where unease over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has altered the security dynamic.

The president announced the effort after meeting with the Polish president at the start of a European tour, which should include Obama’s first bilateral meeting with the president-elect of Ukraine.

President Obama says he wants to preposition more equipment in Europe, expand training exercises with allies, and increase the number of U.S. military personnel rotating through Europe. He also wants to “step up” partnerships with non-NATO countries like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.

All this comes amidst Russia and Ukraine trying to find a way to settle Kiev’s multi-billion dollar gas bill.

President Obama looks to increase presence in Europe

Tue, 2014-06-03 04:42

President Obama asked Congress today to approve up to $1 billion to boost the U.S. military presence in Europe, where unease over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has altered the security dynamic.

The president announced the effort after meeting with the Polish president at the start of a European tour, which should include Obama’s first bilateral meeting with the president-elect of Ukraine.

President Obama says he wants to preposition more equipment in Europe, expand training exercises with allies, and increase the number of U.S. military personnel rotating through Europe. He also wants to “step up” partnerships with non-NATO countries like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.

All this comes amidst Russia and Ukraine trying to find a way to settle Kiev’s multi-billion dollar gas bill.

I vow...to hide my assets in Bitcoin

Tue, 2014-06-03 04:33

Here at Marketplace, we've talked a lot about the various uses of bitcoin. From buying beef jerky in bulk online, to getting a check up at the doctor's, the cryptocurrency is getting closer and closer to becoming part of every day life. Certainly, though, it has seen its share of controversy, and the fact that it has largely been used for the sale of illicit material via online black markets is a blight on its reputation. But now there's an entirely new possibility for bitcoin users who want to use the digital currency for evil: hiding assets from a spouse.

A recent report looks at the possibility that the unique qualities of bitcoin might allow, in this case, a husband to hide finances while dividing assets in divorce proceedings. It could be especially problematic in the UK, where judges tend to recognize spouses as being more equal, while making less of a distinction between the merits of who is the breadwinner versus who is the homemaker. Considering the fact that bitcoin is hard to associate with a distinct owner, and that a spouse could discreetly and quickly move their currency into a friend's digital wallet, divorce proceedings could be made entirely more difficult to get right. 

So before walking down the aisle, maybe think about a bitcoin addendum to your prenup. 

Reduce carbon, create jobs?

Tue, 2014-06-03 02:18

New carbon-emission targets proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week will put some coal-fired power plants out of operation, and could eventually squeeze employment in the coal-mining industry as well.

The EPA is calling for a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030, from 2005 levels. They also predict that meeting the new target will cost electric utilities $8 billion per year, but says it will ultimately save the U.S. economy $50 billion a year or more in health care costs, as pollution from power plants and fossil fuel production falls.

The EPA’s fact-sheet and press release provided no firm numbers on projected job creation from meeting the new carbon standards, though. A lengthy “Regulatory Impact Analysis” report, however, provided tentative estimates from peer-reviewed labor-economics research, predicting net job increases totaling 105,000 a year.

That figure takes into account coal-mining jobs that would be lost, offset by new renewable-energy and energy-efficiency jobs: retrofitting power plants, pumping cleaner natural gas, upgrading the electricity grid, installing solar and wind generation capacity, and deploying energy-saving appliances.

But green-energy job predictions can vary widely — the Natural Resources Defense Council recently predicted more than 200,000 new jobs per year, based on slightly different carbon targets and date benchmarks.

Job predictions can also be highly politicized, says Ron Pernick, managing director at Clean Edge, an energy research firm.

“There are a lot of variables,” says Pernick. “It’s part art, part science.”

Pernick says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has stopped collecting and crunching data on green-economy jobs due to sequester-related budget cuts. Though, he points out that jobs in renewable energy have been growing strongly for years, and tougher carbon regulation can only help.

Marty Rosenberg, editor-in-chief of the trade magazine EnergyBiz, says the EPA’s plan to let states develop their own plans and energy mixes for hitting the new carbon targets will help drive innovation, and promote new green-energy startups. 

“Each state, if you will, will become a laboratory,” says Rosenberg. “There are men and women out there testing new ideas. I do think this will be an economic stimulant.”

Opponents of the EPA's carbon targets, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, disagree, arguing that shunning coal will destroy jobs and raise operating costs for American businesses.

 

 

Harley Davidson's fastest growing market? Women

Tue, 2014-06-03 02:11

Harley-Davidson is branching out.

The iconic motorcycle manufacturer plans to roll out leaner and lighter bikes into showrooms by the end of the month.

Good-bye hogs, hello street bikes?

“An interesting way for Harley to expand its business is to cater to a wider audience,” says Moringstar analyst Jaime Katz.

Katz says 30 percent of last year’s sales went to what Harley calls its "outreach market" -- anyone other than white men over the age of 35. The company hopes its "Street" models -- bikes that are lower, lighter, and easier to handle -- will create a higher demand, especially among the fastest growing demographic groups: women.

“Women are climbing corporate ladders, they own a lot of small businesses and so they have money and time,” says Genevieve Schmitt, founder and editor of Women Riders Now.com. Schmitt says in a sign that the female bikers market is growing, she expects Harley’s new line to attract new female riders.

Singapore's got some big retirement issues

Mon, 2014-06-02 23:39

Here in the U.S., it’s pretty standard to complain volubly and publicly about government programs, particularly those to do with retirement – Social Security, healthcare for the elderly and the poor and pension and retirement plans in general

Not so in Singapore. The people in Singapore rarely question government policy, and almost never criticize it. So when you hear people complain openly about government policy on retirement and Singapore’s version of social security, it’s worth paying attention.

“Openly” being, of course, on the Web. On blogs and on social media, and particularly on Facebook (Singaporeans were big users of Facebook at a time when most Americans were still obsessed with MySpace). A debate that would ordinarily have been held in private, in coffee shops or around dinner tables, has been running for some time in the very public forum of social media. 

Many Singaporeans are not happy about the way their retirement program, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), is being handled by the government, and, for once, they’re not being shy about expressing their feelings. Emotions are running so high that  a prominent blogger named Roy Ngerng recently made the claim that Singapore's prime minister had "misappropriated" Singaporeans retirement money. The prime minister responded equally disproportionately, by slapping Ngerng with a lawsuit.

I’m not going to drive you insane with an explanation of how CPF works: it deals with social security, retirement planning and medical insurance all in one-go, so as you can imagine, it’s pretty complicated. You can read more here and here. Many observers point admiringly at the CPF, saying it's an excellent example of effective central planning. But just like Social Security in the U.S. and equivalent programs in Europe and the rest of the world, CPF is coming under intense pressure.

The pressure comes in two parts. First, Singaporeans are living longer. Second, healthcare costs here are soaring. Any of that sound familiar? It's a double-barreled shotgun that every developed nation is facing down right now.

Singapore's response will sound equally familiar: The government, more accurately the ruling Peoples Action Party (which has won every election ever held here),  is demanding its citizens cough up more money. Its recent demand that some Singaporeans put a greater proportion of their salary into the CPF sounds to many like a tax hike. Which it effectively is.

The changes to CPF are not going down well. But it's encouraging to see some Singaporeans standing up and demanding transparency from the government about the way CPF is run. It's a pity, however, that the PAP is resorting to old-school methods to deal with the media storm. They're missing an opportunity to show how mature Singapore is, how unafraid are its leaders of criticism, and how much more open they can be about the way government programs are handled.

Regardless, Singapore has a problem: it has become too successful, too quickly. When the country gained independence in 1963, its people expected to live until around 66 years of age, on average. Today they expect to live until they're 82. That's a sign of how quickly and efficiently the country has developed, but it has put its systems under enormous strain.

It almost makes America's social security system look as though its in relatively good shape!

Paddy Hirsch filed this while on vacation in Southeast Asia.

Curveball: Are teachers prepared for test prep?

Mon, 2014-06-02 19:18
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Vox CEO Jim Bankoff on which numbers matter

Mon, 2014-06-02 14:21

Economists love the numbers. For some companies, the numbers that are most important are the ones that say how many clicks and hits they’re getting on their website.

"ComScore.com is definitely one of the many metric sites we look at for sure," says Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media. "ComScore reports monthly. We have metric services that report in real time. We can literally look at a dashboard and just be obsessed with what’s going on, who’s looking at our content and how many people at any given moment."

So how interested are companies like Vox Media in having people understand the numbers by which they do their job?

"We make money by growing our metrics and those metrics are largely transparent," says Bankoff. "For instance, you can go to your favorite website and see how many people shared your favorite article on Facebook or Twitter. A lot of these metrics are now transparent and we’re making them more transparent. In our case, our ratings are transparent to our advertisers too."

Is there such thing as too much data?

"Absolutely," says Bankoff. "We like to tell our people that they should be data-informed as opposed to data-driven."

Bankoff says that although the numbers allow companies to produce content in a more targeted and efficient way, technology should be used to assist the story telling and assist the consumption, not replace it.

A revision to the revision

Mon, 2014-06-02 13:59

Today we present a number not to be loved.

Economic indicators are often revised, higher or lower, usually a month or two after they come out. Right?

Well, today's report from the Institute of Supply Management, the ISM for short, which measure how American factories are doing, was revised twice in the space of about three hours. Wall Street sold off hard on the initial weak, but incorrect, report.

The excuse:

"Software glitches," the ISM said.

Facial Recognition: From the NSA to Facebook to Vegas

Mon, 2014-06-02 13:57

The NSA, the New York Times reports, is harvesting people’s images, millions of them per day. It's using them, we are told, to search for terrorists and other intelligence targets. 

If the targets are U.S. citizens, the NSA must obtain court approval.  

Facial recognition technology has taken our present national Gordian knot of privacy and security concerns through a circuitous path.

“The NSA and CIA have quite openly been working with facial recognition technology at least for the past 20 years,” says Chris Green, chief technology analyst at the Davies Murphy Group. 

For a time, as that technology filtered into the private sector, it developed a life of its own. Notably “in Las Vegas,” Green says. A banned card counter can cost a casino half a million dollars in 20 minutes, so it was important for the private security industry to work on quick identification. “Vegas has been a great proving ground for facial recognition technology. It’s put a lot of money into it and really refined and honed it down.”

The groundwork laid by government agencies and the military, says Green, “created a secondary market in the private sector which is in turn is now feeding back” into government.

That feedback into government is also largely being financed by the government. Especially since 9/11.  

“I would have to guess its 70 percent or higher government dollars,” says Chris Boehnen, who leads the Secure Computer Vision Team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

When it comes down to what that public and private investment has brought us, it’s important to separate the fanciful from the factual, says Boehnen. 

Looking at Facebook’s tagging feature, for example, “you could easily get the idea that modern technology is capable of taking all of Facebook’s images and telling who you are, and that’s very inaccurate from a technical standpoint.”

Facebook, says Boehnen, almost certainly employs shortcuts that make it appear far more advanced than it is. For example, Facebook most likely isn’t comparing your photo album to all photo albums on Facebook from here to Mongolia. It’s comparing the faces in your album, most likely, to your friends, or maybe your friends’ friends. 

In the real world, facial recognition technology can be both much better, and much worse.  Patrick Grother tests commercially developed facial recognition technologies for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He says in a recent test, theyenrolled 1.6 million people and achieved a 96 percent recognition rate. Meaning that if they were searching for one person out of a group of 1.6 million, they could pick that person out successfully 96 percent of the time. 

But that comes with a big if: it only works if the photos being used are controlled – well lit, frontal photos like a passport or a driver’s license photo. (Incidentally, that’s why you’re not supposed to smile in those photos – all the better to identify you or someone impersonating you). 

This is tremendously useful for government agencies who are trying to determine if someone is fraudulently registering a new passport or driver’s license under another name.  Less so if you’re trying to pick a bomber out of a crowded mall.  

Grother is not privy to what the NSA or CIA use. Green, with Davies Murphy Group, suspects those agencies enjoy even higher success rates “in the high 99 percent range.” But even then, the accuracy is only as good as the data, a.k.a., the photos one is comparing. Clear photos make for high identification rates. Green says modern day surveillance cameras and Closed Circuit TV cameras can often provide such clear images.

We're already halfway toward the EPA's new CO2 limits

Mon, 2014-06-02 13:55

This morning, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced proposed regulations that call for a 30 percent reduction by 2030 in carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. But it’s not 30 percent from today's levels. It’s 30 percent from where the U.S. was in 2005— when emissions were a lot higher. In fact, they’ve dropped 15 percent since then.  If the country has already coasted halfway to the finish line, the next half promises to be tougher. 

It's worth remembering that the last nine years haven’t been an easy ride. "The biggest thing since 2005 has been the slow economic times since 2009, so that’s nothing to get excited about," says Lucas Davis, an energy economist at the University of California at Berkeley. The recession meant lower demand for energy— especially from industries that use electricity to run factories.

Doug Vine at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions offers another contender for what’s been driving emissions down: "The largest force is the natural gas boom that we’ve seen in this country," he says. Burning natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal for the same amount of energy.

However, another trend that's pushed emissions down—more efficiency, more solar, and more wind power — stems partly from higher natural gas prices, from the years before 2005.

"Those increases in natural gas prices were leading to increases in electricity prices," says Susan Tierney of the Analysis Group, "and that was making a lot of people very concerned." Those concerns prompted a lot of states to start promoting wind and solar power, and energy-efficiency.

That trend got a push from the federal government. "The 2009 federal stimulus put a big slug of money into energy efficiency and renewable energy," says Dan Bakal of Ceres.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $31 billion in energy programs, with the biggest chunk going toward energy-efficiency.

But the stimulus is over. The recession too. Natural gas prices have started going back up, and coal is making a small comeback. WIthout a policy like the EPA’s new regulations, analysts say we would expect to see greenhouse gas emissions start going up again.

China's economic boom leaves a trail of ghost cities

Mon, 2014-06-02 13:09

Nearly a year ago, I visited a replica of New York City under construction outside the Northern Chinese city of Tianjin. Workers were constructing dozens of skyscrapers on a piece of swampland inside a bend in the river, giving it an uncanny resemblance to the island of Manhattan. There were plans for a Lincoln Center, a Rockefeller center, and much more.

Lin Lixue, a salesman for one of the developers, was beside himself. “Our goal is to create the world’s largest financial center, right here, within ten years!” Lin told me. “We’re building skyscrapers, we’ve got China’s largest high-speed railway station coming soon, we’re building a tunnel under the sea, and we’ll soon build several subway lines.”

A year later, construction on this city, named Yujiapu, has all but grinded to a halt. Investors have pulled out. And a cluster of skyscrapers sit, half-finished – Manhattan on hold.

“It was a failure before it even started,” says Gao Fei inside the Tianjin office of Centaline Property, where he works as director of investment consulting. “The most important thing for Tianjin’s government has always been a high GDP rate. That means the government has to spend a lot of money on huge projects like this one. In China, these kinds of wasteful projects are everywhere.”

For years, high GDP growth has ensured local officials promotions within the Chinese Communist Party. In the case of the faltering Manhattan replica of Yujiapu, it helped boost Tianjin’s GDP growth rate to around 16 percent for three years, the fastest in China at the time. And that helped former Tianjin mayor Zhang Gaoli get promoted – to Vice Premier of China. In Zhang’s rearview mirror on his way to Beijing: a failed project and mountains of debt.

Hundreds of miles away lies China’s most infamous example of a colossal waste of investment: The city of Kangbashi, where on most mornings, you can watch staff members of the local hotel do a choreographed dance to techno music sprinkled with horse calls while taxi drivers pull up to watch.

There’s really nothing else to do here. The city – built for a population the size of Pittsburgh – is nearly empty. It was built a decade ago to house around a half a million people. At the time the region, known as Ordos, was rich from selling coal – Ordos sits atop one of China’s largest coal deposits. But today, coal prices are at an historic low, and according to state media, Ordos is in so much debt that it had to borrow tens of millions of dollars from a local developer just to pay the salaries for its city employees.

Xiong Gang, a migrant from faraway Sichuan province, came here to set up a restaurant to serve them. “Everyone knows this is a ghost town, so our restaurant doesn’t have to pay rent for three years,” says Xiong. “The government gave it to us for free so that they had a place to eat – they also hoped more businesses would come. “

The Ordos shopping mall next door is five floors of emptiness. Red banners hanging from the central atrium congratulate the mall on its grand opening. They dangle over a single squatter living in a tent in front of the first floor’s vacant information booth.

Across an empty public square filled with giant bronze statues of Genghis Khan’s family, I walk through the dark corridors of an office building, where dozens of doors have "for rent" signs on them.

I see a woman coming out of one of them. She says she works at a grocery store serving city employees, she came here from the countryside, and she pays the equivalent of $75 a month to sleep in an empty office space. She washes herself in the building’s public bathroom down the hall. She’s not alone. More than a hundred migrant workers live here, too – all trying to make what they can off of what’s left of this city.

Ordos’ government just issued a ban on all construction. But before it goes into effect, the city just can’t seem to help itself. It’s building a new skyscraper park near a manmade lake and three sports stadiums for the 2015 Chinese ethnic minority games costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Next door to that: a Formula 1 racetrack. Porsche used to sponsor the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia here until last year when sewage reportedly filled the pit stops and racers complained about the quality of the track.

Back in Tianjin, real estate analyst Gao Fei isn’t optimistic about China’s efforts to prevent future economic waste like Yujiapu and Ordos. “You can’t do anything about it,” says Gao, shaking his head. “Local officials are too powerful. They’re only concerned with the problems during their 5-year terms in office. If they can produce good numbers, they’ll be promoted. They’re not interested in the long-term plan."

Gao hopes for a day in China when government officials are evaluated for more than just local GDP growth. He says what really matters is the income of the people they govern, access to good health care and education. If these were the new goals in China, he says, all of this would be pretty easy to solve.

A glimpse into China's most-famed "ghost cities"

Gillian Flynn on the economics behind 'Gone Girl'

Mon, 2014-06-02 11:55

Success in publishing is about a lot of things. Sales, of course. Staying power. And the business of words.We've asked some of our favorite contemporary authors to share the numbers they think about as they write -- how they infuse the economic world around them into storytelling.

Here's a number for you: 78.

That's how many weeks author Gillian Flynn's book, "Gone Girl", has been on the New York Times bestseller list.

Flynn started writing her smash-hit of a novel at the height of the Recession. She had just lost her job at a magazine, and she found herself intrigued by what it meant to lose a job. Her main characters -- Nick and Amy -- wrestle with the economy in the most personal of ways.

“I wanted to explore what it meant to lose a job, what that meant to people of our age, people in their late 30s," Flynn says. "I had Nick and Amy, two people who had always thought their jobs would be very safe. And then, to have that taken away from them...to be forced to reinvent themselves a little bit. What that meant to them, what that meant to their marriage.”

Listen to the full commentary in the audio player above.

Gillian Flynn on the economics behind 'Gone Girl'

Mon, 2014-06-02 11:55

Success in publishing is about a lot of things. Sales, of course. Staying power. And the business of words.We've asked some of our favorite contemporary authors to share the numbers they think about as they write -- how they infuse the economic world around them into storytelling.

Here's a number for you: 78.

That's how many weeks author Gillian Flynn's book, "Gone Girl", has been on the New York Times bestseller list.

Flynn started writing her smash-hit of a novel at the height of the Recession. She had just lost her job at a magazine, and she found herself intrigued by what it meant to lose a job. Her main characters -- Nick and Amy -- wrestle with the economy in the most personal of ways.

“I wanted to explore what it meant to lose a job, what that meant to people of our age, people in their late 30s," Flynn says. "I had Nick and Amy, two people who had always thought their jobs would be very safe. And then, to have that taken away from them...to be forced to reinvent themselves a little bit. What that meant to them, what that meant to their marriage.”

Listen to the full commentary in the audio player above.

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