Marketplace - American Public Media

Subscribe to Marketplace - American Public Media feed
Updated: 54 min 53 sec ago

Wasn't the US going to start using the metric system?

Tue, 2014-08-05 10:37

There was a point not all that long ago when schools taught the metric system because it was "just a matter of time" until the United States ditched pounds, miles and inches.

Well, this adaptation has yet to happen, and who knows if it ever will?

"One thing that shocked me was that the first measure that was completely decimalized was the U.S dollar," says John Bemelmans Marciano, author of "Whatever Happened to the Metric System?". "And we largely have Thomas Jefferson to thank for that."

President Jefferson suggested the use of a decimal currency in 1782.

"It took about 100 years for decimals to catch on for everyday transactions," says Bemelmans Marciano. 

Hear the full conversation in the audio player above.

Those little Intel microchips were famous, somehow

Tue, 2014-08-05 10:10

In the early 2000s, Intel was named the most valuable manufacturing company in the world. 

Michael Malone, author of the book, "The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company", told us "at one point, Intel was one of the best known brand names in the world, which is insane if you think about it... this is a company wasn’t selling to consumers, it was selling chips to go onto motherboards, to go into somebody else’s personal computer, to be sold at Costco."

Intel has since been overshadowed by newer tech companies. Malone says techology has become so pervasive, the  microprocessors fueling daily lives are taken for granted.

"For most of the 21st Century, it’s been all about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and apps. And we forget, because we are so used to them now, that all that stuff rests upon hardware," says Malone. "Without the hardware, devices, chips, and especially the microprocessors it all grinds to a halt."

States raise transportation taxes after federal cuts

Tue, 2014-08-05 03:00

On Tuesday, Missouri voters are headed to the ballot booth to decide on whether to increase the state’s sales tax. The additional revenue would be used to fund the maintenance and construction of roads and bridges.

The state of disrepair of the nation’s transportation infrastructure has been a known problem for quite a while now. What isn't known is who's going to pay to fix it.

Phil Oliff, who researches infrastructure issues for the Pew Charitable Trust, says traditionally, “states get a lot of money that they spend on highway and transit infrastructure from the federal government.” Most of that money comes from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, but the fund is running out of money, and Congress has been doling out funding in short-term increments. That's bad news for states, who need more certainty about their financial situation when they commit to long term projects. Many states are taking it upon themseves to raise the money independently.

That could mean tolls on roads and bridges. It could mean borrowing from the bond market. In Missouri, lawmakers are proposing a three-quarter-of-a-cent increase in the sales tax.

Tom Shrout, of the advocacy group Missourians for Better Transportation, says says the tax is unfair to locals.

“Big trucks passing through Missouri, they would be asked to pay nothing while a senior citizen who doesn’t use the roads much will be asked to pay more,” he points out.

As Missourians head to the polls, the Associated Press says nearly a quarter of the states have already instituted similar taxes, fees or fines to pay for infrastructure projects.  

PODCAST: Food stamp transparency

Tue, 2014-08-05 03:00

Last week was a pretty crummy stretch for stocks, and today doesn't look much better. So how is the stock market really doing? Plus, does the public have the right to know how much a retailer takes in through the federal food stamp program, or is it a trade secret? More on that debate. Also, Missouri voters are headed to the polls today to decide whether to increase sales tax. Money raised would be used to fund roads and bridges. We tell you why your state might be next.

Tackling urban blight with a paintbrush

Tue, 2014-08-05 02:00

Terri Still has lived in Camden, New Jersey since she was in second grade. But these days, as she walks around her neighborhood, she tries not to look around her to avoid seeing the blight that surrounds her. 

“It’s depressing seeing it all constantly,” she says. “You try not to think about it.” 

Across the street, Christopher Toepfer pokes around inside an abandoned warehouse. There are stacks of broken palettes and scattered food wrappers, evidence of squatters. The building used to house a porta-potty company, but it’s been vacant for several decades.

“We call [these] ‘abando-miniums’ in the vacant building business,” he says.

But outside, the warehouse is getting a facelift. A small crew is painting the exterior dove grey, covering up years of graffiti. They're employed by Toepfer’s nonprofit, The Neighborhood Foundation, and the warehouse is one of about 40 buildings the Foundation has boarded up and painted in Camden this summer. Across the country, they’ve done about 1,500 similar projects, focusing primarily on residential buildings in 21 different cities.

Local officials who have to deal with large tracts of vacant and abandoned buildings often resort to one of two options: fix 'em up or tear 'em down.

Toepfer represents middle ground. His foundation paints the boarded-up buildings to look as though they have real, working windows and doors. Occasionally the painters even draw plants or pets in the window.

“Sometimes, we even do facades of trees, like silhouettes of trees, to cover graffiti,” he says.

Once an urban area falls into decline, there is a spiral effect. Abandonded houses fall into disrepair and are often used by vagrants or criminals. That depresses the value of occupied homes and makes the neighborhood less desirable. Property values decline, the remaining residents sell up or move out, and landlords find it difficult to rent the housing stock. Those houses fall into disrepair, and the downcycle continues.

The idea is that a makeover, even one that’s just skin deep, can stop this spiral and stabilize a neighborhood. The Neighborhood Foundation charges $500 to paint and secure a house or $2,500 for a larger commercial building. It's a lot cheaper than a renovation, or even a demolition, which could cost $10,000 or $15,000.

It's not just that a paint job can have a beneficial economic effect; it can raise peoples' spirits, too.

I think when they fix things up, it gives people more encouragement,” says Terri Still, the Camden resident. “It makes them want to take pride in where they live.”

Beautification does work, agrees Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Small investments can have large returns."

It’s a strategy realtors and developers have long used. 

“In the 'burbs, when you’re selling a property that hasn’t been lived in for a while, the first thing the realtor will say is 'mow the lawn',” says Wachter, adding that simple fix can boost property values as much as 20 percent.

 Of course, securing and painting a property isn’t a permanent solution — it’s a Band-Aid, literally plastering over the wounds of a city.

But hopefully, that Band-Aid gives it the chance to heal.

Wannabe tech cities need angel investors, too

Tue, 2014-08-05 02:00

The suburb of San Leandro sits just east of Oakland, California, within striking distance of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Underneath the city lies a loop of ultrafast fiber optic cable known as Lit San Leandro. Data speeds through these cables about 2,000 times faster than a typical internet hookup. 

The cable exists because of one guy: Pat Kennedy.

Kennedy runs OSIsoft, a company based in San Leandro. A few years ago, he was looking to expand, but he wanted the kind of infrastructure he saw in towns like Palo Alto. So he put down $3 million of his own money to make it happen in his backyard.

“The reason I did it is that I’ve actually been a 40-year resident of San Leandro," Kennedy says.

It became clear to him that industrial cities like his were never going to be top picks for things like broadband or fiber. "We’re really going to suffer as a result,” Kennedy says.

Can broadband speed up the economic of industrial towns? 

San Leandro was already struggling. It used to be a manufacturing town, but those jobs dried up in the '70s and '80s.

At one time, there were more than 20,000 manufacturing jobs in San Leandro. In 2013, fewer than 7,000 of those remained. Industrial-zoned land, much of it now used for storage, makes up nearly a quarter of the city. A 2013 report calls these areas “neither memorable nor particularly pleasant to get around.” 

On the other hand, a presentation by City Manager Chris Zapata calls broadband “a laser cheetah with explosive power accelerating economic growth.”

Deborah Acosta, San Leandro’s new Chief Innovation Officer, frames the issue differently: “How do we re-energize this industrial space to actually become alive again?” Her job is to convince businesses that San Leandro is the place to be.

That starts with the bright red streaks running through her hair. They put people on notice, Acosta says.

“When they see my red hair, they’re going, ‘Holy smokes! Something’s different here, I think I need to pay attention,’” she says. 

Investment in fiber and infrastructure — now at more than $13 million — wouldn’t have happened if Pat Kennedy hadn’t put down that initial money, Acosta says.

Analyst Craig Settles says private investment, like Kennedy's, is one way for cities to get broadband.

“The idea of going to local businesses and saying ‘can you contribute to the network?’ is one of the more viable options, in my book,” Settles says. Local businesspeople have helped get broadband off the ground in places far away from tech centers, like Emporia, Kansas; Fredericton, New Brunswick; Keene, New York.

In San Leandro, Pat Kennedy’s investment has paid off with buzzing and whirring on the second floor of the West Gate shopping mall. The sound comes from 3-D printers, manufactured by Type A Machines.

Based in San Francisco, Type A moved its manufacturing operations to San Leandro earlier this year. They’re currently based above a Sports Authority at the mall, a massive building that was once a Dodge auto plant. If all goes well this year, Type A’s workforce here could more than double, to about 50.

Since San Leandro first installed broadband a couple of years ago, the initiative has created about 90 jobs. But Acosta and Kennedy think they’re on to something. They’re doubling down, and point to half a million square feet of office space going up, with those ultrafast connections.

Call center jobs are coming back to the U.S.

Tue, 2014-08-05 02:00

If you’ve ever called a customer service line, you’ve likely talked to someone in India, the Philippines, or Mexico. Now, some U.S. companies are bringing their call centers home and changing the way they do business.

Have you ever been stuck in a phone tree so long you just lost it and started ranting on Twitter?

“In a call center, somebody’s calling to talk to you. In social media, somebody is talking about you,” says Paul Stockford, research director at the National Association of Call Centers.

Stockford says the industry has been growing in the U.S. since 2008, and more than half of contact centers here now have social media programs.

Kymberlaine Banks is a social media program manager with Telvista, which runs contact centers in Mexico, but also in Texas and Virginia. Her "small but mighty" stateside social media crew monitors the web for complaints. 

“They’re reaching out to people who are saying, ‘You suck, you failed, you whatever,’" she says. "It is not a happy thing.” 

She says social media representatives need more writing and problem-solving skills than people who answer phones. It’s a different skill set because they also respond to positive comments.

“If someone says, ‘I love you,’ we say, ‘We love you, too,’” Banks says.

General Motors brought back a number of customer service jobs from Argentina last year.

Just don't call them "call center" jobs. Now, the catch phrase is "customer engagement."

Comcast expands low-income internet program

Tue, 2014-08-05 01:00

Comcast is expanding its "Internet Essentials" program, which lets low-income Americans apply to receive broadband internet for ten dollars a month. The move to draw attention to the program has been part of a campaign to convince regulators to approve its merger with Time Warner Cable. Comcast says, if approved, the merger would extend Internet Essentials to millions more low-income people.

Comcast is also announcing is that they're changing their eligibility requirements so that former customers who still owe payments on their bills will be able to use the program.

“If your bill to Comcast is more than a year old, you will be able to apply for Internet Essentials,” says Brian Fung, technology reporter for the Washington Post.

While Comcast has touted the 1.4 million Americans currently enrolled in the program, critics counter that up to 2.6 million households would be eligible for the program, were it not for the current enrollment criteria -- A household is eligible for Internet Essentials if it has a child eligible for free or reduced school lunches.

What the program does make clear, according to Fung, is that there is now an understanding that internet access, especially for poorer families with children, is essential. 

Pages