Marketplace - American Public Media

Quiz: How effective are Teach for America teachers?

Wed, 2015-03-11 07:45

Mathematica Policy Research examined the effectiveness of Teach for America teachers after the nonprofit received a $50 million federal grant in 2010 to put more of its teachers in classrooms.

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PODCAST: Farm bill comes up short

Wed, 2015-03-11 07:27

The dollar is on a 12-year high driven by the potential for high interest rates, but what does that mean for the markets? We check in with Payden & Rygel chief economist Jeffrey Cleveland. Next, GM announced this week it’ll give shareholders $5 billion in dividends and a $5 billion stock buyback. That’s good news for investors, and for GM, which managed to avoid a major clash with hedge fund interests on the board. But when the company opens negotiations with the United Autoworkers Union this summer, it could be tough to argue for keeping a lid on wages. Finally, Washington lobbyists and think tank-types are tearing apart the Farm Bill, trying to figure out how far Congress was off in budgeting for the subsidies that were ushered in by the subsidies it ushered in.

Big change to farm subsidies

Wed, 2015-03-11 06:41

Washington lobbyists and think tank-types are tearing apart the Farm Bill, trying to figure out how far Congress was off in budgeting for the subsidies the new bill ushered in.

“For major crops like corn we would expect payments to be double what they expected: $6.5 billion" says Vince Smith, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute and Montana State University.   

Farmers used to get the same, direct payment every year. Now they’re offered a choice of two subsidies. One kicks in when their revenues per acre drop, the other is tied to crop prices. If the price of, say, corn, falls below a target the government makes up the difference. 

But critics like say the targets were set too high. They say prices are falling more than Congress expected, and don’t have to fall much, for the subsidies to kick in.

“They look like a safety net even though they’re more like a trampoline, when you really stop and think about it,” says Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, or EWG.

Plenty of people in Washington have been thinking about it.  But the nation's capital can be something of a bubble.  I wanted to break through the bubble, and hear from someone who’s actually living with the new subsidies I head to Robb Ewoldt’s farm, in Eastern Iowa. 

I meet him in his repair shop.

“We grow corn and soy beans.  We grow alfalfa grass, alfalfa hay and kids,” he says, laughing. (Ewoldt is a father of two.)

He thinks taxpayers will actually save money under the new subsidy system. Before, he got a government payment even if he was selling his corn at record prices. 

“I think this will be a little bit more fair for the taxpayer because the money’s going to come when we are in pretty tough shape," he says. "When we need it.”

Ewoldt says most farmers are independent. They don’t like taking the subsidies, but they need them to get through the tough times, he says.

Drones have still got a long way to go

Wed, 2015-03-11 05:30

Could drones solve some of Africa’s infrastructure problems? Afrotech, a Swiss company, seems to think so.

Transporting smaller cargo through the skies via drones, for instance, could be cheaper than investing in railways or roads right away.  So starting next year the company will test cargo drones that can carry small packages across 50 miles.

The idea isn’t that unusual, says Matthew Wall, a technology and business reporter for BBC who's covering Afrotech. “There are already these quadcopter drones ... These are these helicopter-style drones which can carry small packages.”

They can also be programmed to pick up small packages, he added.

But, it would take a while for this to happen over long distances. For one, we don’t have the battery technology to power drones for more than 50 miles. And the drones themselves aren’t strong or light enough to transport most cargo.

“That’s going to take some ten years at least I think before we see these things across the skies,” said Wall.

Banks prepare for round two of stress tests

Wed, 2015-03-11 03:01

Each year, the Federal Reserve puts the nation’s biggest banks through stress tests. It wants to make sure they can keep lending even in scenarios where home prices plummet and unemployment spikes. Thirty-one banks passed a round of tests last week. 

“The results last week were purely quantitative. How the banks do under each of the scenarios,” says Karen Petrou, managing director with Federal Financial Analytics.

The next round takes a more qualitative look at the individual banks and their capital planning—how they plan to distribute capital to shareholders through, say, dividends, and whether that leaves them with enough of a capital buffer to cover potential losses.

Petrou says some banks might fail this time.

“The Fed looks at the bank and says no, your mortgage loans are a lot riskier than other bank mortgage loans and you should know that,” Petrou says.

The Fed could tell those banks to keep more capital on hand. Duke University law professor Lawrence Baxter says that could mean share buybacks and dividends are forbidden. Stock repurchases benefit stockholders, because they increase the value of an individual share, but they cut into capital.

“The view is that if they don't maintain sufficient capital to deal with these adverse circumstances, the rest of us are exposed,” he says.

Social and emotional learning emerges at SXSWedu

Wed, 2015-03-11 02:08

Marketplace reporter Adriene Hill has been in Austin this week, covering SXSWedu with the LearningCurve team. She spoke with Tech's Ben Johnson about the emergence of social and emotional learning as a trend at this year’s event.

Hunter Gehlbach, associate professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, says "human skills" are a trending topic at SXSWedu because, “at our core, we are fundamentally social creatures," he says.

"So if students are preoccupied with this fundamental need that they don’t feel like they belong, that they’re being bullied, those kinds of things, there’s no way that they’re going to pay attention to what’s going on in the classroom," Gehlbach says.

More research is finding that strengthening social and emotional skills can help kids learn. The focus stems from digital citizenship, and a desire to encourage kids to take a step back from their constantly connected, tech-infused, app-filled world.

Mindfulness instructor and former teacher Erin Sharaf says social and emotional learning can look different depending on how students learn best:

“It might look like students sitting on the floor doing postures that look like yoga; it might look like a bell ringing and their task right now is just to listen to the bell. It might look like eating a raisin, and really being fully present with that raisin, and actually noticing what it tastes like instead of thinking about the math lesson that they have to do next or the fight that they had at home before they came into the classroom,” she says.

Erin Sharef / Hunter Gehlbach

But there are applications of technology in this social and emotional space as well. Gelhbach brings up a virtual reality project in the works that allows kids to experience multiple perspectives of a bullying situation, and says tech is helping researchers like him get better data — and use it in better ways — to help show these social skills can improve learning.

The tricky business behind fake Hollywood money

Tue, 2015-03-10 09:32

Greg Bilson Jr. runs a company called Independent Studio Services or ISS. They make props for pretty much every movie and television show you’ve seen in the last 40 years, including 90210, CSI, and Indiana Jones.

One of ISS’s specialties? Prop money.

That made ISS the ideal company to work on Rush Hour 2. The premise of the movie is that two police offices, played by Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, chase a counterfeiter known for producing high grade counterfeit money. To prepare for the climax of the film, ISS created a billion dollars of fake money.

Bilson says, “it was fourteen pallet loads of $100 bills, stacked four feet high, solid.” That’s a lot of money, all of which was to be blown up in a casino.

The scene went well but as thousands of these fake bills rained down, many extras grabbed a few of these bills and kept them as souvenirs. Some of those extras tried to spend the money.

The federal authorities weren't too pleased about this. Secret service agents swarmed the set, shut down production, confiscated all the bills that were left, and then they paid Bilson a visit at ISS. He was essentially blamed for counterfeiting.

“Most people would look at this bill and kind of laugh” says Bilson. “It is a very bad picture of Ben Franklin, who we named ‘Franken,’ it says, ‘Motion picture use only’ on 15 different places, it [says], ‘In dog we trust.’ There are many many things that are different from the real bill, but it’s still not within the parameters of legal.”

Bilson has to operate under the counterfeit detection act of 1992. Essentially what this law says is that bills must be either 75% smaller than or 150% larger than the size of a real bill and one color, one side.

And that puts Greg Bilson and other prop builders in Hollywood in a tough spot. They have to skirt the line between these strict counterfeiting laws and producers' demands for this incredibly realistic money. And sometimes, these prop builders have trouble finding that sweet spot in the middle.

“Movie producers and films and TV shows are kind of wanting us to break the law all the time. So we have to keep within those parameters, or do it in a manner that is legal.”

Like other prop masters, Bilson isn't trying to dupe the public. He’s just doing his job.

Read the full story on Pricenomics.

Janet Yellen needs to work on her brand

Tue, 2015-03-10 09:29

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that came out on Monday, just 14 percent of Americans know who Janet Yellen is and have an opinion about her, good or bad.

The rest of us don't know, or aren't sure, whether she's the most powerful person in the global economy.

So ... I quit.

(Just kidding.)

The cost of inefficient Social Security record keeping

Tue, 2015-03-10 09:29

The Social Security Administration keeps track of deaths in the U.S. with a death master file. The Inspector General at Social Security decided to give it an audit, after getting a call from a bank that went something like this: "Hey, a young guy just opened an account with us. But his Social Security Number says he was born in 1886."

“How do you have people who were supposedly born those dates, and yet there’s no death on the death master file?” asks Rona Lawson, Deputy Assistant Inspector General for Audit in the Inspector General’s office. 

Lawson says banks use the "death master file" to make sure dead people's Social Security numbers aren't being used fraudulently. The E-Verify program uses it to find undocumented workers. Lawson says 4,000 of those 112-year-olds were put through E-verify.

"I don’t know whether those 4,000 people got the jobs or not,” she says, tongue-in-cheek.

At least eight federal agencies use the "death master file," including the Department of Veterans Affairs and the IRS. Since the file isn’t 100 percent accurate, they could be paying out refunds and pensions to dead people. The Social Security Administration did respond to the audit, and says it doesn’t have the money or manpower to correct the "death master file."

One problem is shrinking budget appropriations from Congress, says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“It’s a little hypocritical to insist on cutting the funding and then blame the program for not adequately dealing with recording people’s deaths,” Baker says.

Social Security says it’ll look into problems and report back to the Inspector General by the end of September.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Rona Lawson. The text has been corrected.


Why the stock market just dropped

Tue, 2015-03-10 09:29

On Tuesday, the US stock market opened by plummeting, with the S&P 500 dropping into negative territory for the year.


Scott Wren, senior global equity strategist at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute, points to two main factors: A rapidly strengthening dollar and fears that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates sooner than expected, stoked by comments by outgoing Dallas Fed president Richard Fisher.  

But Steven Englander, global head of G10 foreign exchange strategy at Citigroup, is less certain. He points out that interest rate fears have been significant since late February, when Fed vice chair Stanley Fischer told CNBC a rate hike this year was highly probable. "We've gotten used to thinking of a zero interest rate as normal," Fischer said. "It's far from normal."

As for the dollar, it did rapidly strengthen overnight, but the initiating event is a bit of a mystery. "Why this sort of realization hit the market at around 8 p.m. New York time or 8 a.m. Asia time is a bit of a puzzle," says Englander. "Because I've checked with colleagues and there's no real news." 

An article in Bloomberg suggested a slump in the Euro and Yen was prompted by a sell-off the New Zealand dollar, or "kiwi," after threatening letters were sent to dairy producers there. 

"The little kiwi that roared?" asks Englander. "I don't think so."

But when it comes to the origin of a market move, it's hard to definitively rule any explanation out.

For returnees to Mexico, English is a lucrative skill

Tue, 2015-03-10 08:31

For almost ten years now, more people have been leaving the U.S. for Mexico than immigrating here. Whether they’re leaving voluntarily or not, some experts estimate that over a decade, half a million young adults between 18 and 35 have returned to Mexico after living in America for five years or more. Returning home isn’t always easy, but it has created some opportunities for bilingual employees and the businesses that hire them.

When you walk down Padre Mier, one of the main drags in downtown Monterrey, you’d be hard pressed to avoid hearing someone speaking English.  It turns out those English speakers are increasingly working in one particular industry: call centers. There are at least nine on this particular street.

Now, Monterrey’s a big city — Mexico’s second-largest, but it’s still surprising to learn there are more than 30 call centers here. Big American companies outsource to Mexico to provide billing, technical and sometimes even direct sales support.

Juan Jose Cruz says his first job in Mexico was at Hispanic Teleservices. He spent most of his teenage years as an undocumented immigrant in Virginia. He’s now 26 and decided to move back to Mexico about five years ago. Cruz is from Guadalajara, but like many Mexicans that return home, he landed in Monterrey and started looking for a job.

“I was like, ‘OK, I can speak English and nobody speaks English down there.’ But I was completely wrong, you know?”

It turned out that there were lots of English speakers in Monterrey. And there was also lots of work in the call centers.

Omar Solis also returned to go back to college. He says he was pleasantly surprised with this particular job market, too.

"It tends to pay more than any other typical Mexican job without having any sort of formal qualifications," Solis says. "Any sort of diplomas or formal education. However, where I think there was a bit of a difference there, was just the way I speak."

Bill Colton, the President and co-founder of Global Telesourcing, says that’s exactly it. His company has had a call center in Monterrey for about eight years. He says about 95 percent of the people they hire spent their formative years in the U.S. and you can tell when you’re on the phone with them.

“Our employees speak English not just well, but they speak it natively,” Colton says

Mexicans who have lived in the U.S. can give better service because they’re essentially Americans and understand the way American consumers think, Colton says, therefore they’re worth paying a little more.

Juan Jose Cruz says there’s not a lot of glory working in a call center – it’s the pay that attracted him.

“They were like, ‘Oh, do you want to come work for us? We offer this salary.’ It was like, whoa that’s a big salary for Mexico. They were paying like 20,000 pesos.”

That’s 20,000 pesos a month or about $17,000 a year. That’s significantly more than the $13,000 most Mexicans earn annually.

Colton says the biggest reason employees in Monterrey quit is not because they don’t like the work or aren’t happy with the salary. It’s because they’re going back the U.S.

“Based on what their life situation is and where they think they can best achieve their next objective, they’re very comfortable picking up and moving across the border one way or the other because they’re truly bicultural and comfortable in both countries,” Colton says.

For some, it’s a little more complicated than that. Undocumented immigrants still can’t legally work in the US. So, as long as there’s a market for these returnees in Monterrey, there could be more Mexicans returning home for work than coming up to America. And as long as that’s the case, the call center business in Mexico will continue to grow.

Quiz: Why lawmakers may not feel your pain over student debt

Tue, 2015-03-10 07:49

Open Secrets examined financial disclosures of members of Congress and found 47 who listed student loan debt.

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In world of health data, enemies may become friends

Tue, 2015-03-10 07:27

Sharing patient information is a key to improving patient health. That’s a mantra in health care these days, but it is much harder to pull off than you might think.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell’s recent announcement ushering in paying doctors and hospitals based more on quality than quantity makes exchanging this data more valuable by the day from a business perspective.

And while there’s money to be made and customer satisfaction to be gained, many doctors say still say they aren’t getting the information they need to help their patients.

Dr. Neal Weinberg says sharing that data is essential to helping a person be well.

“Not having immediate, accurate information in one chart can lead to complications for the patient, they could die, they could be pretty sick and end up back in the hospital with other problems,” he says.

That seriousness helps explain why doctors and hospitals around the country have begun to share information. For example, the Penn Medical System uses 600 servers to exchange patient data with surrounding providers including some competitors.

But Chief Medical Information Officer Dr. Bill Hanson explains there are real world limitations that cap Penn’s ability to share more than they do.

“There’s sort of a yin/yang of the desire to exchange information and protect information. There are also the politics of working with competitors,” he says.

We’ve been hearing about these issues — technical kinks, patient privacy and collaborating with competitors — for a while now. New data shows more than half the groups who are trying to better manage care — through what are called Accountable Care Organizations — say they can’t get timely patient data. And if those folks, who have every economic incentive to get that information, can’t, there’s a serious problem.

University of Michigan Professor Julia Adler-Milstein says she’s focused on finding ways to cut through the challenges. There’s too much at stake, she says.

“You need complete information to ensure that care is safe,” she says. “You need complete information to ensure that care is effective. You need complete information to ensure that care is efficient and not wasteful.”

Given the potential to improve health and lower spending, Adler-Milstein says we must learn which challenges are really blocking up the data. One problem, she says, is that electronic health record companies are making it difficult to connect with other health record companies.

“We don’t have good empirical data on that but you just can sort of hear the chorus of complaints from anyone you talk to about how hard it is,” she says.

Adler-Milstein says one solution is to create a consumers’ report of sorts for doctors and hospitals to show which electronic records companies make sharing easier.

Dr. Ira Nash, an executive with North Shore LIJ Health System on Long Island, says change the idea that doctors are in charge of all this stuff.

“You want the patients in the middle. They are the consumer. We exist to serve their needs. Why should we own the data,” he says.

By its nature much of medicine is guesswork. But when it comes to patient data, Michigan’s Adler-Milstein says, some of the guesswork goes away.