Marketplace - American Public Media
The environmental group Greenpeace put out a video over the summer featuring an awesome Arctic landscape built entirely out of Legos. In it, a Shell-branded Lego oil rig spills, flooding artfully constructed Lego ice floes, and drowning adorable Lego polar bears and distressed-looking Lego eskimos. The message: Get Lego to “stop polluting our kids’ imaginations” by putting the Shell logo on toys.
Lego has now announced that when its “co-promotion” contract with Shell expires, the deal won’t be renewed.
The video campaign, an inspired piece of brandjacking, borrows everything that’s awesome about Lego — the cuteness, the see-what-you-can-build-spirit — even the theme song from the hit Lego movie … deconstructed a bit.
Greenpeace spokesman Travis Nichols says the video helped re-position people’s image of Greenpeace — its brand.
"When we’re talking about the Arctic, they might think, 'OK, I’m going to see a sad polar bear, or I'm going to see an oil rig.' And with this campaign, you got to see these toys that you care about.”
Which are polar bears and oil rigs, but made out of Lego.
In other words, Greenpeace is doing with Lego what Lego has done with other franchises. The idea of borrowing power from another brand helped make Lego what it is today: the world’s number-one toy company. Fifteen years ago, Lego was a brand in decline. Then, it paid big bucks to put out a line of “Star Wars” Legos, and had a monster hit.
I asked Lego spokesman Roar Rude Trangbaek if there wasn’t some irony to getting attacked now for associating with another brand.
"That’s not the same," he said. "Partnerships or licensed products. That’s something entirely different. That’s not a co-promotion. This is a co-promotion."
Greenpeace isn’t a paying partner. What’s a brand like Lego to do when its brand power gets appropriated?
First, don't fight back by trying to get the video deleted, says Marc Fetscherin, a marketing professor at Rollins College and co-editor of the book “Consumer Brand Relationships: Theory and Practice.”
"It could backfire in the social media, and you get an unwanted, huge media presence," he says. That's called "the Streisand Effect" after singer Barbra Streisand, who sued to have a photo of her house taken off the Internet in 2003. The lawsuit brought more attention to the photo, and didn't reflect well on the singer.
However, Fetscherin says Lego doesn’t have to just play defense here. "I can imagine a lot of new opportunities for Lego," he says, to pursue a greener image. "Why not team up with Tesla, or any other green company?"
Neither Lego nor Shell will comment on the details of their agreement.
If you follow business news, you've probably heard about "activist investor Carl Icahn."
But who is Carl Icahn?
He's a 78-year-old man worth $23 billion, whose favorite sport seems to be arguing with CEOs.
"Activism in general draws a person who does not shy away from the limelight or shy away from a fight," says Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at NYU's Stern School of Business.
Icahn has been fighting for decades.
"Oh, gee, he goes way back," says Donald Margotta, associate professor of finance at Northeastern University.
In the 1980s, Icahn was known not as an activist, but as a corporate raider, using debt to acquire companies, often to break them up.
"The corporate raiders were a little bit different [than today's activist investors] in that usually their objective was to acquire the company," says Margotta. "Whereas now people don’t really want to acquire the company, although they do want to break it up."
Instead of acquiring entire companies, today's activist investors acquire large portions, and then leverage that portion through the media.
"Since activist investors are only taking an ownership position and a portion of the company they also are reliant on other stockholders to have their viewpoint," says Don Steinbrugge, managing partner of hedge-fund consultant Agecroft Partners. "The more media attention they can get the more they can educate the other stockholders in what their position is."
The position could be to buy back stock, to split up the company, to seek an acquisition or a number of other strategies, but the underlying plan is to rally shareholders to force the CEOs hand, and then profit off any resulting increase in the stock price.
But for Icahn it seems to be about more than making money. He seems to want to set things right — as he sees it.
"He basically believes that corporate managers are, by and large, inept and self-serving," Margotta says.
Apple CEO Tim Cook may be the exception. In his open letter, Icahn called Cook "the ideal CEO" and insisted "this letter is in no way intended as a criticism of you as CEO, nor is it intended to be critical of anything you or your team are doing from an operational perspective at Apple."
Except for that share buyback thing, of course.
What's in a name? A lot, apparently, if you happen to be one of the most powerful men in money.
Back during the financial crisis, then-Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke used an alias while planning the rescue of the global economy. Evidence in the AIG lawsuit introduced Thursday revealed Bernanke emailed with colleagues and others using the name "Edward Quince."
According to the Wall Street Journal, it's still unclear where Bernanke got his pseudonym, or why it was even used.
Lego announced Thursday it will cut ties with oil giant Royal Dutch Shell today following pressure from Greenpeace, which released a viral video and gathered signatures to protest the partnership. Shell-branded Legos aren't as common as "Star Wars" or superhero themed kits, but the agreement dates back decades and it's reportedly worth at least $110 million.
Inspired by those strange bedfellows, we found a few more examples of corporate incongruity.
McDonald's and Play-Doh
Thanks to brand licensing, children can pretend to do chores with their own Dyson vacuum or Home Depot leaf blower, and plenty of other toys. But fewer products let kids turn processed, salty, artificially colored goop into McDonald's food.
The discontinued Play-Doh McDonald's Restaurant playset molded fries, burgers and milkshakes, using plenty of the best Play-Doh color: brown.
Electronic Arts Games and various weapon manufacturers
A screenshot of the \"Medal of Honor\" website, via Eurogamer.
Blockbuster video games trade on their realism: in settings, character models, physics, anything. That's especially true for war-related titles, some of which depict weapons and equipment specifically modeled after commercial firearms and real military gear.
Electronic Arts took the idea a step further in promoting "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" in 2012. The game's website featured links to buy the real-world weapons and equipment included in the game. One developer blogged about using the advertised gear. A knife company sold a "Medal of Honor"-branded tomahawk, with proceeds going to EA's program to aid the Navy SEAL Foundation and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
Critics bashed EA for advertising and licensing weapons, and the company rolled back the promotion. EA claimed none of their marketing partners paid for product placement, but were merely trying to give back to service members.
Susan G. Komen and KFC
We've told you about oilfield services company Baker Hughes making pink drill bits for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Not quite as strange, but certainly more ironic: KFC's 2010 "Buckets for the Cure" campaign.
The fast food chain donated 50 cents of each pink bucket sold to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and raised $2 million in the first week. But the idea of selling fried food to fight cancer was criticized by activists and roundly mocked. ABC called the effort "Eat a Breast to Save a Breast," and Stephen Colbert described it as "hypo-crispy."
'The Sims' and various record labels
The life simulation video game series "The Sims" theoretically offers limitless possibilities for product placement, but EA — the company of the branded weapons for charity — have kept the games marketing partnerships both restrained and deeply strange. Sims can wear clothes by H&M and Diesel, sure, but far weirder is the "Sims 3: Katy Perry's Sweet Treats."
The expansion pack adds outfits, decorations and locations inspired by Perry's album "Teenage Dream," and Perry recorded a version of her song "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)" in the game's made-up Simlish language.
A little-known plant that has been an ingredient in foods for decades has taken on outsize importance in the fracking world over the past few years - and it has created huge swings in its commodity price and in the fortunes of farmers.
Ever since the 1950s, the guar plant has been the source of the guar gum additive the food industry uses to thicken foods or keep various ingredients smoothly mixed together. It’s in everything from frozen pizza to ice cream, egg white substitutes and baked goods.
“Guar is what we call an emulsifier,” says Calvin Trostle, a professor of agriculture at Texas A&M and a guar expert. “Guar is somewhat like a soybean plant. It has pods up and down the main stem."
Guar gum is not only a common food additive, but also an important ingredient in the fracking process (the hydraulic fracturing of underground rock to release oil and gas deposits).
Crop specialist Calvin Trostle, Texas A&M University, adjust branches on a guar plant that contain maturing seed pods.Courtesy of Calvin Trostle
In the last 40 years, multiple companies including Halliburton, Baker Hughes, FTS International and others have tried to create a synthetic substitute for guar gum, but they’ve failed to develop anything as effective for hydraulic fracturing, according to Trostle.
With guar gum as its only option, the industry has demanded more and more of the stuff.
“The demand for guar exploded, literally mulitiplied by five, ten times, caught the suppliers’ side by surprise, and basically created a drastic shortage,” says Dennis Seisun, a guar market analyst and the publisher of The Quarterly Review of Food Hydrocolloids. (Hydrocolloids are substances that form a gel when mixed with water.)
As fracking and the demand for guar boomed, so did the price of the commodity, 98 percent of which comes from India and Pakistan. A couple of years ago, the price peaked at about 35 times what the cost of the plant product was just a few years earlier.
Seisun, who regularly visits India and the region where guar is produced, says that’s been an economic boon for farmers there. There is now a futures market set up for guar, and farmers are able to hold back part of their crop yield to wait for a better price.
Some farmers in the U.S. wanted to get into the guar business, too.
“Last year, it was kind of like a revolution,” says Curtis Erickson, a north Texas farmer who was one of many spurred to plant guar because of its exploding price. “We knew we could plant it and farm it and make money at the end of the day. And we were very excited.”
Texas farmers grew about $20 million worth of the plant, based on what a Texas-based raw guar processor had contracted to pay them. The processor was the only one in the U.S. that could handle raw guar.
But as demand soared, India and Pakistan guar suppliers managed to catch up with increased supply. And oil companies, which were paying high prices, stopped hoarding guar.
The price plummeted.
The Texas-based guar processor, which had promised the farmers a set price for their guar, could not pay. And the farmers are now stuck with a crop they can’t reclaim, and which they couldn’t sell anywhere else in the U.S. even if it was returned to them.
“There’s a lot of farmers that I’m aware of that borrowed money last year to farm the guar on,” Erickson says “And since they didn’t get paid back, they in turn couldn’t pay their banks back.”
“And then the bank will come looking to collect somehow,” Erickson says.
The farmers have taken their case to court, and the Texas guar plant is now bankrupt.
While the price of guar has declined, it’s still about three times higher than it used to be. But since the U.S. historically has had little to no supply chain for processing raw guar, Seisun says India and Pakistan will remain the major suppliers.
“Competing with costs of production in low-cost areas like India and Pakistan have always presented a problem. And I don’t see that source of supply is going to be very different in the near future,” Seisun says.
Meanwhile a few Texas farmers, including Erickson, have planted a small quantity of guar again this year. Erickson says he wants to be ready, in case the guar market in the U.S. bounces back.
The same hackers who stole contact information from 83 million JPMorgan Chase account holders last month also targeted a dozen more financial institutions. The Obama administration has been getting briefings on the breach since this summer, the New York Times reported, and national security officials and banks have been conferring over several IP addresses attributed to the attackers.
ETrade, Fidelity, ADP, Bank of the West, HSBC, Citigroup and Regions Financial are some of the institutions targeted by the addresses. The government is reportedly troubled by the lack of an apparent motivation for the hacks.
As we look out for more breaches, here's what we're reading — and numbers we're watching — Thursday.4206
The number of words in activist investor Carl Icahn's open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook. In short: Icahn praises Cook and several new products but (still) believes the company is undervalued and wants it to buy back more stock. Apple stock should be trading at $203, Icahn wrote, double its current value. So far, the letter has helped: at about noon eastern time shares were up 1 percent.$16,353
The average pay gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic employees in the high-tech sector, USA Today reported. Similarly, blacks and Asians in the industry earn $3,656 and $8,146 less than whites, respectively.1 million
How many signatures Greenpeace nabbed in a petition for Lego to end its long-standing promotional agreement with oil company Royal Dutch Shell. Lego bowed to pressure from Greenpeace — which also made a viral video showing a cute Lego arctic community ravaged by oil — and agreed not to renew the partnership, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The clothing company Gap, which also owns Old Navy and Banana Republic, is unfashionable right now--at least to investors. Its CEO announced his retirement, and since that news broke, the markets have been unkind to the company's stock. Plus, President Obama will be in California today. He's scheduled to deliver a speech on the economy. But the president's not making many campaign speeches ahead of the midterms. His role is to motivate donors more than voters. We look into the change in tactic. And if you like cars, Paris is a good place to be right now. The city is hosting the Paris Motor Show, one of the biggest events of the year for the global auto industry. More than 270 companies from 21 countries are showing off their latest products. A report from our friends at the BBC takes a look at a few of them.
President Barack Obama is making a series of economic speeches around the country, and the latest comes Thursday in Santa Monica, California.
All this speaking means the president hasn't been doing a lot of campaigning for Democrats in close red state races.
“When you look at the approval ratings for President Obama in most of these states, he’s in the low 30s,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Sabato says the president is helping Democrats more by staying out of sight and raising big money.
Who still loves him? The party’s base.
“There are a lot of very affluent Democrats and liberals who are willing to pay money to see the president,” says John Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.
The White House doesn't have numbers for how much President Obama has raised for Democrats. When asked, The Democratic National Committee wouldn't provide one, either.
The Center for Responsive Politics does keeps track of fundraising reports, though. It says the Democratic Party has raised almost $600 million so far this year.
Two major federal government agencies and the country's state attorneys general have settled a case with AT&T in which the wireless carrier will pay $105 million dollars for cramming.
If you don't know what cramming is, you're not alone, and that's part of the problem. In this case—the biggest in history according to the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission—it's about AT&T allowing third party companies to hit its customers with fraudulent charges.
Click the media player above to hear FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.
$80 million of the settlement will go through a program the FTC has set up to reimburse customers who suffered the charges.
Despite recent gains, older Americans still aren’t saving enough for a comfortable retirement, according to a new survey from Interest.com. There's a personal finance rule of thumb that says seniors need at least 70 percent of their pre-retirement income once they quit working.
In 2013, seniors in only two places met that threshold: Nevada and Washington D.C.
Mike Sante, managing editor of Interest.com, says many federal workers in the District of Columbia retire with government pensions. Nevada may be harder to explain, but he suspects the predominance of union workers in Las Vegas may be part of the reason.
“Union membership tends to mean that they still have traditional retirement plans,” says Sante.
American seniors are inching closer to meeting that retirement “rule of thumb," however. They now earn close to 60 percent of pre-retirement income.
Americans 65 and over earn about 60 percent of what pre-retirement Americans ages 45-64 earn. That's a 10 percent jump from 2005.
Sante contends those gains are partly due to the fact that more seniors are staying on the job longer. Many can't afford to retire at age 65.
Sante says the survey is aimed not at seniors but “everybody who’s working in their 30s, 40s and 50s.”
He says, “When you’re still in your 30s and 40s, even in your 50s, you can still save a significant amount of money and have a big impact on your quality of life after you stop working."
If you like cars, Paris is a pretty good place to be right now. Not for driving—the traffic is terrible there pretty much any time of the year.
But if you like checking out the newest innovations in car design, there's a festival for petrolheads at the Paris Motor Show. More than 270 companies from 20 countries are showing off their latest vehicles.
BBC reporter Theo Leggett has this report from inside the show.
Most of us have cellphone, pay-TV and credit card bills, but few of us realize that simply calling companies and asking for a better deal can save a substantial amount on those bills.
“Many times customer reps are empowered to provide you with something,” says Tony Giorgianni, a money advisor with Consumer Reports. “It costs companies five times as much to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an old one.”
So, it is a factored-in cost of doing business to provide discounts or other incentives for customers who call and ask. Companies know that most customers won’t ask, so it’s a small price to pay to hang onto those who do.
In fact, a recent survey by CreditCards.com found that only 23 percent of credit card customers called to ask for better terms. But, when they did, most got better interest rates or waived late fees.
Matt Schulz, a senior analyst with CreditCards.com, says even he was surprised by the survey’s findings. So he understands that most customers don’t realize they have the power to get better deals.
“And that’s kind of understandable. Given that in the depths of the recession, all we saw in the headlines was credit limits being slashed and accounts being closed and all that sort of thing,” Schulz says, adding that banks are competing for customers again, as the economy recovers.
Consumer Reports’ Giorgianni points out that consumers have leverage in any industry where there’s competition.
Elizabeth Coffman, a college professor in Chicago, found out the power of the call recently when looking for a better price on her cellphone plan. She has a family plan with several cellphones on it at a price of $300 a month.
“We have called both the cable company and the cellphone company, because our charges were too high, and said we were going to go to another company if we couldn’t lower them. In both cases we were successful,” Coffman says.
But, it has been a while, and she decided to contact her cellphone company again, just as other carriers were offering discounts and incentives to win over customers. The result: a more than $100 per month price reduction, saving her more than $1,200 a year.
Carol Helton of Cape Coral, Florida had a similar story with her cable company. About six months ago, she called her cable company to complain about raised fees.
“I mentioned that I keep getting mailers from their competition and I was thinking about switching. They put me through to their ‘retention specialist.’ Not only was she able to take off the new charges, she was able to give us a lower rate than we had been paying,” Helton wrote in response to a Marketplace questionnaire on the Public Insight Network.
Sometimes, success isn’t immediate. Sharon Forrest of Atlanta, Georgia, says she called her phone company three times and had to wait for her bill to increase, before she could get them to reduce her payments.
“I learned not to take for granted that the company will make the changes they promise. I learned to persist,” Forrest wrote.
Giorgianni says persistence is important. If you call and don’t get the answer you want from a customer service representative, hang up and call again later. A different representative might be more helpful, or might know of a deal or promotion that the first one didn’t.
Most importantly, Giorgianni says, remain happy and positive. If a company thinks they still have a way of keeping you a happy customer, then they’ll try to do so. But if they think you’re so angry that they’ve already lost you, they’ll have little incentive to try.
October is, as you may know if you watched an NFL game in the past weekend, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Pink whistles, pink cleats — pink everything, practically, makes an appearance in support of the cause.
Also, which we saw in Salon today, courtesy of the oilfield services company Baker Hughes, one-thousand pink drill bits.
Which is great, I guess, but doesn't the pink get scraped off when the drills start drilling?
And, aren't there all kinds of carcinogens in oil?
It’s doing better by lots of measurements — but people don’t feel it. Which is part of what Obama is out stumping for through November.
The data says the economy’s doing better — much better. But does it feel better? How’s your economy doing?
Tell us your story above, and we might include it in the show.
Few industries have bigger branding issues than the oil industry with fracking.
Not least of those issues: The word itself, which is short for hydraulic fracturing and near in sound to a four-letter word that's taboo on the radio. Activists have long exploited that connection — the Natural Resources Defense Council’s page on drilling is headlined "Don’t get fracked!" — and industry PR types have advised against using the term at all.
Pennsylvania has been a particularly hot battleground. Drilling has exploded, and so has opposition to the oil and gas wells popping up all over the state — and the pollution and truck traffic they create.
In the heat of election season, an industry group there has introduced an ad that touts fracking’s contribution to jobs and lower energy costs — and which, in its punch-line, makes an effort to reclaim the word.
"Fracking’s a good word," says a middle-aged man collecting his mail. "Fracking’s a good word," says a woman on her front porch. "Fracking rocks," says a teenage girl on an elliptical machine.
The ad started running in late September, commissioned by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the beginning of a larger campaign called “Rock solid for PA."
"Some people will try to use that word in a negative connotation," says the group's president, David Spigelmyer. "All we’re trying to do is shine a light on the fact that there’s a lot of good that comes out of that technology. That’s all."
David Masur has noticed the ads. He's director of PennEnvironment, a non-profit that opposes fracking. "It’s been highly entertaining," he says.
He thinks it means he and his allies are winning in the court of public opinion. "There’s something funny," he says, "when companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell and Halliburton and BP are saying, ‘Man, we’re just getting creamed by the local non-profit group.’"
But maybe it could work? It did for Obamacare.
"Obamacare is very interesting," says Tim Calkins, author of “Defending Your Brand” and a marketing professor at Northwestern University. "It did start out as an attack on the program, and now supporters use it just the same as everybody else. In a way, it’s actually very smart."
However, Obamacare had a charismatic, witty spokesman who could get on TV, for free, whenever he wanted.
Without that, says Calkins, "it's going to take a lot of money, if you're going to get in front of people and get them to re-think a word," he says. "Especially when you've got a word that has such deep-set associations around it."
He gives the industry credit for trying. "I don't know if this initiative is going to work," he says, "but at least they're looking at it, and taking action, and they've certainly got to do that."
Wouldn’t it be nice to own a self-driving car? You could skip all of the traffic, read the newspaper and drink a latte on the way to work every morning.
Although, self-driving cars might be the next big thing in Silicon Valley, you won't seem them on roads for another decade or so, says Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson. There's still a lot of work to make them street-ready, and right now they come with a hefty price tag: about $320,000.
"Your average American family can apparently afford to spend maybe about twenty grand on a car, so cost is a problem," Johnson says.
Google's self-driving cars have some GPS problems, but programming the software to respond to changing, unpredictable driving conditions is another issue.
"Software is really good at dealing with stuff that it’s been designed to deal with," Johnson says. "It’s way harder for you to design software to deal with data that it has not predicted yet."
Jobs are out there – so why is it taking employers so long to fill them?
"The key reason is that there’s a mismatch in the jobs market going on,” says Robert Johnson, Director of Economic Analysis at Morningstar.
Like trying to pair plaid with polka dots — there are many patterns to follow. First, while there are jobs, some are part time and workers may be holding out for the real deal of a full-time gig. Next, some industries may be looking for skilled workers who don’t exist.
“There definitely is a shortage in the labor market right now – everybody is experiencing it in construction," says Kristen Ripmaster, sales and operations manager at Constructionjobs.com. There are jobs on the site says Ripmaster, but applications are down or nonexistent.
Construction, notes Ripmaster, took a hit during the downturn and so the flow of young people choosing to go into the industry stopped. Furthermore, anyone still in the market is already working because of the boom in the industry.
But Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy research, has another take on the mismatch. “It doesn’t seem that skills are the issue,” he says.
The biggest disconnect, he says, between available jobs and how long it takes to fill them, is in the retail and restaurant industries.
"It’s a little hard to believe that the reason restaurants and retail stores have all these openings that are going unfilled, is because they can’t find qualified workers," Baker says.
DiceHoldings, a company that tracks how long it takes to fill jobs, says both employers and workers have been getting pickier about what they want – which makes it harder to find a match.
But if employers need workers, Baker says, they’ll have to begin offering higher salaries.
"We all understand that if you want a really good quarterback, you’re willing to pay $20 million a year to get a really good quarterback" he says. "And you’ll get a really good quarterback."
The IMF has revised its view of global economic growth prospects: It’s a mixed picture, leaning towards poor.
The U.S. will have grown 2.2 percent by the end of this year, the IMF says. That's not stunning, but still 0.5 percent higher than the fund’s previous prediction. The U.S. is expected to grow 3.1 percent in 2015.
The IMF reduced its prediction for growth in Europe from 1.1 percent to a mere 0.8 percent. Europe is still struggling with an 11.5 percent unemployment rate (the U.S. rate is 5.9 percent). The continent is precariously close to deflation - a form of economic stagnation that can last decades, as it did in Japan.
China’s growth is slowing and will continue to slow, says the IMF. It will decelerate from 7.7 percent growth in 2013 to 7.4 percent in 2014 and 7.1 percent in 2015.
“The U.S. is the one eyed man in the country of the blind,” says Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The U.S. is the only one that seems to be turning in the other direction.”
Kirkegaard credits both the aggressive response of the U.S. Federal Reserve and the underlying “flexibility and dynamism” of the U.S. economy: “The U.S. is an economy that is able to absorb shocks far more rapidly than certainly the European countries but also Japan and it is an economy where simple entrepreneurship plays a much bigger role.”
“The U.S. is once again the rudder that’s going to keep the world steered in the right direction I hope,” says Ross DeVol, Chief Research Officer at the Milken Institute. The rising dollar and increasing consumer appetite in the U.S. will spur the export sectors of other economies around the world.
The modest success of the U.S. may also pose a challenge to the rest of the world. When the U.S. was in crisis, investors shifted money to developing and emerging economies. Now that the U.S. is getting back on its feet and interest rates may rise in 2015, the reverse is happening, says Stephen Kaplan, assistant professor of international affairs at George Washington University.
“It might be more difficult for governments and firms abroad to borrow in an environment where more capital is going to be dedicated to the United States,” he says.
The larger source of concern for many economists however is the situation in Europe.
“Europe is avoiding a technical recession but will get so close to one that you won’t know the difference,” says DeVol. “The global cycle is out of balance.”
Europe not growing at all, or very slowly, is not good for anyone in the world, says Matthew Slaughter, professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
Europe all together has the largest economy in the world. A weak Europe is less likely to import from the U.S. or China which is also slowing down. Slaughter says its problems – like an 11.5 percent unemployment rate and a not fully resolved sovereign debt problem – run deep.
“Those problems have been layered on top of what for many countries, even before the crisis, was this no growth in population, slow productivity growth environment they were already in,” Slaughter says.
Demographically, Europe is aging, Slaughter continued: “In many countries the labor force growth will be zero and there’s not much inflow of immigration so that dynamism from a young and growing population is not there.”
The European policy response to the recession has not been as aggressive or effective as responses elsewhere in the world.
“The combination of fiscal and monetary policy has just been too firm,” says Peter Fisher, senior fellow at the Center for Global Business and Government at Dartmouth. “It’s partly because they’ve been fighting a multiple front war – they’ve had to hold the euro together in addition to stimulating economy and that’s both a political challenge and an economic one.”
The IMF says Europe has a 38 percent chance of slipping into a recession again, double the odds in April.
The death Wednesday of the Dallas Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan underscores the high stakes around controlling the spread of the disease. To that point, the federal government has announced it would soon screen air travelers coming from West Africa to see if they have temperatures.
Separately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more than 1,000 people working around the world to contain Ebola. On-the-ground work involves risk and problem solving, where staff must do everything from collecting blood samples, to tracking the sick, to hiring workers to pick up the dead.
It’s a difficult job, says Dr. Bridgette Gleason, who turned 30 this week. Gleason says she’s seen tragedy every day since Sept. 13, the day she arrived in Sierra Leone.
“Being surrounded by death, it’s obviously overwhelming if you really focus on that,” she says. “To really make a difference you have to focus on what you can do.”
That attitude gives a sense of the men and women who parachute into these communicable disease hot spots. Staffers are expert trouble-shooters. But with the Ebola spreading in West Africa, CDC folks like Peter Kilmarx – who is leading the operation in Sierra Leone — must do something outside the norm: think about budgets.
“We are not fully meeting the demand and it’s stressful. It’s a very challenging situation,” he says.
For the past 20 years, CDC field staff has depended on the non-profit CDC Foundation for money when it would otherwise take too long going through bureaucratic channels at the agency.
The outbreak has gotten so big so fast, so that’s changed.
“There is simply not enough money at this time to meet the needs that CDC is sending our way,” says the Foundation's executive director, Charlie Stokes.
Stokes understands putting a crimp in this financial lifeline is actually a matter of life and death. That’s why the foundation launched an emergency fund back in August to address Ebola.
“We initially thought $30 million would be enough," he says. "What we are seeing in terms of needs in the field tells me it’s going to be considerably more than that.”
To put that figure in perspective, that’s what the foundation spends on all of its programs in a year. Stokes estimates Ebola needs $50 million alone.
If the foundation falls short, Stokes knows he’ll have to level with the CDC docs.
“We are either going to have the money and send it, or we are going to have to say, 'you are going to have to prioritize,'” he says.
Stokes admits it’s easy to feel overmatched by this epidemic, but – much like Gleason in Sierra Leone –he says he’s going to focus on what he can do.
The economy is growing at 4 percent per year. Unemployment is down. But that's not always how the economy feels, day to day.
Lisa Goldenberg is the president of Delaware Steel Company of Pennsylvania, where she has a front-row seat to how the economic outlook is making life easier — or harder — for businesses. In a July interview, Goldenberg lamented that things weren't going as well as she had hoped. She has that same grinding sense of progress today.
"We should have had a stronger September. We're doing okay, but okay isn't good enough. It's a struggle," Goldenberg says.
The bright spots: construction, energy and cars.
"For the steel business, construction is a good thing," Goldenberg says. "People go out, they need washers and dryers made out of steel."
But are things better than July? No, she says. People have a little more money to spend, but not enough to pay off debts from the past few years. And definitely not enough savings to buy a house.
"It's painful to live through slow, even, deliberate growth," Goldenberg says. But even so, "it's the best way, in my opinion, to build a solid economy."