Marketplace - American Public Media

Before Facebook, there was Tuskegee and Milgram

Thu, 2014-07-03 09:40

It turns out the Facebook mood experiment was just the tip of an unsettling-sounding  iceberg. The Wall Street Journal reports that the company’s research division has been running all kinds of studies on us— hundreds of them—with very little oversight. Here's a quick recap of why universities don't do things that way:

For decades the U.S. government ran a study on African-American sharecroppers, to see what happened when you didn’t treat syphillis.  

"You could argue: 'Yes, but how interesting! We can see what the effects of untreated syphillis are," says Columbia University bio-ethicist Robert Klitzman

When the story came out in the early 1970s, people didn’t see things that way.  "As a society, we've decided that we can't turn people into human guinea pigs," says Klitzman.

By then, there were also second thoughts about a couple of social psychology’s greatest hits. Like the one where Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram got people to flip a switch they thought was going to kill someone.

In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act, which led to the development of regulations for any research done by an institution receiving federal money.

The regulations boiled down to three things:  First, minimize risks to study participants.  Second, disclose those risks, so people know what they're getting into. And third, get an internal group at your institution has to sign off. That group is an Institutional Review Board, or IRB.

However, the existence of IRBs doesn't guarantee that social science experiments get the most careful review, says Jesse Goldner, a St. Louis University law professor and co-author of a book on human-subjects research rules and ethics.

"IRBs are kind of overwhelmed," he says. "There’s a little bit of a tendnecy to say, 'Gosh, you know, there’s so much of this biomedical research where there’s, quote, real risks of people dying, or becoming disabled.' You know, 'How much attention should we be giving to this little stuff?'"  

The "little stuff" being the kinds of emotional risks that got so much attention with Facebook's mood study.

Obama: Middle-class issues drive my agenda

Thu, 2014-07-03 08:43

Marketplace host and senior editor Kai Ryssdal sat down for an Oval Office interview with President Barack Obama on July 2, 2014.

Kai Ryssdal: Mr. President, good to have you with us.

President Barack Obama: Great to be here.

Ryssdal: Last time we had you on the show, sir, March of 2012, unemployment was 8.3 percent, the Great Recession, financial crisis were really fresh in everybody's memory. Now, you know, numbers are better, right? Unemployment is down, economy's growing, recovery's underway, and yet, for so many millions of people out there, it just feels lousy. And I want to know how you reconcile the headline numbers with what's going on in the real economy that people actually live in.

President Obama: Well, first of all, people took a really big hit in 2007, 2008, 2009. We had the worst recession since the Great Depression. In some ways the contraction was even sharper than what happened in the late 20s and 30s, so people have still been in recovery mode throughout this period. In some cases they've gotten back to square one, but that doesn't take away some of their long-term worries about retirement or saving for their kid's college education. The other thing that we've seen is that although the economy has been growing, wages and incomes continue to be relatively stagnant, and that's been a 20- to 30-year trend, and that involves some structural issues that we've really got to work on. But, having said all that, what is indisputable is that the economy is much better now than it was when I took office and than it was the last time we spoke, and that does make a difference. It makes a difference that we've created 9.4 million new jobs, it makes a difference that manufacturing continues to strengthen for the first since the 90s, it makes a difference that we've been able to slow the rise of healthcare costs, it makes a difference that we have seen housing recover in many communities so that people are finally getting their houses back above water. So all these things add to confidence, add some momentum to the economy, but that underlying trend for middle-class families -- that they don't feel like no matter how hard they work, they're able to get ahead in the same way that their parents were able to get ahead -- that's something that we continue to tackle and drives a lot of my agenda now.

Ryssdal: I get that and I appreciate it, but I want to take you to the speech you gave earlier this week out by Key Bridge, and many other speeches you've given throughout your presidency, in which you've said we have to grow the economy from the middle, we can't grow this economy top down. Now, setting aside the irony of you, the ultimate guy on top, trying to grow an economy from the top down, right, we sit here in an economy where corporate profits are up, but the money's not being spent, where the jobs that are being created are low-wage, low-skill jobs. How's that supposed to work? How do you reconcile the disconnect there?

President Obama: Well, there's some things we could be doing right now that would make a huge difference. When I was at that bridge in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., yesterday, we were talking about the fact that we've got $2 trillion of deferred maintenance: roads, bridges, an air-traffic control system that's creaky, an electrical grid that wastes too much energy and is highly inefficient, and we could be putting hundreds of thousands of folks back to work right now and not only put a big boost to the economy in the short term, but also lay the foundation for economic competitiveness in the long term. That creates a lot of middle-class jobs. The challenge we have is not that we don't know what to do. The problem is that we've got a Congress right now that's been saying no to proposals that would make a difference. And so, part of our task this year and perhaps next year, is to look at what can we do administratively, or by partnering with states and local governments or by partnering with the private sector to boost wages, to improve job training so that people have better skills, to make sure that we're matching up jobs that are out there with people who are looking for work. And a lot of those steps are ones that are reflected in my budget and my agenda.

Ryssdal: We'll get to the Congress in a minute, and your recent executive orders on the economy. We'll talk about that in a minute. I want to talk for a second about Wall Street and its role in the economy. The Dow today sits plus or minus 17,000, right? Record highs. Banks' profits are up; the big banks are bigger than they were during the financial crisis; their appetite for risk is growing, as we've seen; and all of this is happening after Dodd-Frank -- the financial reform bill that we were told was going to prevent all these things from happening. It was going to rein in the banking system. So how do you look at the American people and say, "You know what? 'Too big to fail' has been taken care of. What happened in 2008 is not going to happen to you again."

President Obama: Well, keep in mind that the goal of Dodd-Frank was to prevent another catastrophic financial crisis. It wasn't expected that it was going to solve all the problems --

Ryssdal: But you get that it's small steps, right?

President Obama: Well, some of these are not small steps. I mean, the fact of the matter is, for example, we have massively increased the capitalization requirements in banks, and what that means is that they've got more of a cushion. If they screw up and make a bad bet, they are less likely to need to be bailed out because they've got to have a certain amount of capital on hand. We have mandated that they all have what we call living wills, so that if they do screw up, there is an orderly process of winding them down, and their creditors and shareholders are taking hits, so that taxpayers don't have to do so. The consumer finance protection provisions in the law make a big difference in preventing ordinary families from being taken advantage of by predatory lenders of the sort that helped to cause the crisis in 2007, 2008. So, those aren't small steps, those are big steps, and relative to what's been done in other parts of the world, we are way ahead in terms of regulating the financial sector. Here's the problem, the problem is that for 60 years, we've seen the financial sector grow massively. Now, it's a great strength of our economies that we've got the deepest, strongest capital markets in the world, but what has also happened is that as the financial sector has grown, more and more of the revenue generated on Wall Street is based on arbitrage -- trading bets -- as opposed to investing in companies that actually make something and hire people. And so, what I've said to my economic team, is that we have to continue to see how can we rebalance the economy sensibly, so that we have a banking system that is doing what it is supposed to be doing to grow the real economy, but not a situation in which we continue to see a lot of these banks take big risks because the profit incentive and the bonus incentive is there for them. That is an unfinished piece of business, but that doesn't detract from the important stabilization functions that Dodd-Frank were designed to address.

Ryssdal: Would we be better off if banking was boring again?

President Obama: Absolutely. And I've said that repeatedly. Some of the work to get that done, though, involves restructuring the banks themselves -- how they work internally. Right now, if you are in one of the big banks, the profit center is the trading desk, and you can generate a huge amount of bonuses by making some big bets; you will be rewarded on the upside. If you make a really bad bet, a lot of times you've already banked all your bonuses. You might end up leaving the shop, but in the meantime everybody else is left holding the bag. Now what we've been able to do is to try to prevent taxpayers from being the folks who are left holding the bag. But it's still not a real efficient way for us to run a financial system. That's going to require some further reforms. That's going to require us looking at additional steps that we can take. But keep in mind that one of my key focuses over the last couple of years has just been to make sure that we've got a circuit breaker so that if certain banks are making bad decisions, they are less likely to bring down the entire system, which is what happened in 2007, 2008.

Ryssdal: You've turned increasingly to the private sector in your second term and in the last couple of years. Penny Pritzker at Commerce, Jeffrey Zients at healthcare.gov although he's been around for a while and most recently Bob McDonald for Veterans Affairs, former CEO of Procter & Gamble. About Veterans Affairs, a report from your office, your chief of staff, your deputy chief of staff maybe, said there is a corrosive management culture at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and you have brought Bob McDonald in to fix that. The VA is an office with a great sense of command responsibility, right, a lot of military people in there. The question then is, what is your risk tolerance for Bob McDonald going in there and holding people responsible? How many people are you going to let him fire? How many people are you going to let him clean out to get veterans the care that they have earned and deserve?

President Obama: Well keep in mind, first of all, that we've already fired a whole bunch of folks who were responsible for cooking the books on some of these waiting lists --

Ryssdal: Phoenix, yeah.

President Obama: -- that generated so much attention. It's also important to keep in mind that the VA is the largest agency we have outside of the Department of Defense and probably touches more Americans than any other federal agency. So, let's just take the example of waiting lists. It is inexcusable, terrible that there were some folks who thought it was appropriate to pretend like they were serving our veterans when in fact, they were not -- and huge wait times for folks to get in. It's also important to recognize that they're dealing with six million appointments a day. It is a massive system. So, what we need to do, and what I expect Bob will do, is set a tone at the top of accountability, of transparency, recognizing you're not going to solve every problem at the VA overnight. Keep in mind this is an agency that has been chronically underfunded in the past. I increased funding for Veterans Affairs more than any president ever has. We had problems with the homeless veteran, and we have significantly cut homelessness among veterans. We had a problem with folks with PTSD -- post-traumatic stress disorder -- or brain trauma who weren't getting quality treatment; we've been chipping away at that. Agent Orange, a legacy from Vietnam that hadn't been dealt with in three, four decades. We said, "You guys have access to the system." All that raised backlogs in terms of disability claims. We started chipping away at that. So, what we've tried to do is systematically work through a massive agency with some big legacy problems, and what I've said to Bob is that I expect the kind of attention to detail, structural reform, staffing with people who are about results as opposed to just being in a job. And Bob has a really strong track record -- and obviously Procter & Gamble is one of the biggest corporations in the world, so he's accustomed to dealing with large agencies. The fact that he was an Army Ranger and a West Point grad, I think, is going to give him some good credibility. And the fact that his own family needed Veterans Affairs -- his wife's uncle was a victim of Agent Orange and is still getting serviced at the VA -- all those things I think will contribute to a real energy and passion. He really wanted the job, and I think he's going to do a great job.

Ryssdal: Another culture question -- the culture of this town. Your mantra this year has been "pen and phone," right? "I am going to do whatever it takes with executive order to govern," basically. And you have done that on immigration, you have done it on the minimum wage for new federal contract workers -- all kinds of things. The question, though, is -- and I understand your frustration with the Republican majority in the House of Representatives -- is that where we are now? That it's one guy with a pen in this town, who is running the American economy?

President Obama: Well, unfortunately, we have a Congress that's broken down. And I know that a lot of times people who are watching what's happening in Washington sort of feel like, "You know, a plague on both their houses. Democrats, Republicans, they're all the same. None of them care about us." But the truth is that we have a very specific problem. We have a House of Representatives that is so ideologically driven at this point that they are not able to carry out basic functions of government. So we saw this during the government shutdown. The idea that we would shut down the government based on a notion that we've got to drastically cut the basic safety net -- despite the fact that the deficit has come down by more than half during my presidency -- is not based on common sense, it's not based on any sound economic theories. It's based on the ideological predispositions of a handful of folks who are currently calling the shots in the House of Representatives. The same is true, we just recently saw, with immigration reform; we have bipartisan support for immigration reform. We know that the economy would grow faster, that we would end up seeing $1.4 trillion in additional growth in the United States if in fact we passed immigration reform. We know that there are companies across the country, particularly in the high-tech sector, that are begging to have highly skilled immigrants -- who we've trained, we've paid for and are now going back to their home countries to start businesses -- stay here in the United States. Despite all that, we still couldn't get the House of Representatives to act, primarily because of politics, primarily because they're captive of a small ideological band inside their caucus. And so, I don't think this is a permanent state of affairs; I think over time the Republican Party will move back to the center, mainly because if they don't, they'll never win the presidency again. And at a certain point people are just going to get fed up. But in the mean time, what I have to make sure I'm doing is looking for every opportunity to go ahead and help the married couple that is struggling, working hard, paying their bills, but at the end of the month still don't have any savings and still don't feel like they're getting ahead. If I can help them on childcare costs, if I can help them boost their wages a little bit, if I can help them save for their kid's college education and keep college cost down, if I can do those things, then I will at least have the satisfaction of helping some people. And in the meantime I'm going to continue to reach out to Republicans wherever and whenever they're willing.

Ryssdal: We do this thing, every now and then, with CEOs that I have on the broadcast -- did it with Meg Whitman at HP, did it with Tim Armstrong at AOL -- and I ask them to tell me what their company does in five words or less. So in five words or less, what's your job?

President Obama: My job is to keep the American people safe and to create a platform for hardworking people to succeed.

Ryssdal: That's more than five words, sir, I mean I get that --

President Obama: But I could have edited that down if I had to.

Ryssdal: (Laughs)

President Obama: I thought that was pretty succinct.

Ryssdal: Sir, thanks very much for your time.

President Obama: Really enjoyed it. Appreciate it.

Finding a job isn't just a young person's problem

Thu, 2014-07-03 05:30

On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that the U.S. added 288,000 jobs in June, with the unemployment rate falling to 6.1%.

Those numbers are influenced by -- as has been predicted, but hasn't really happened yet -- people returning to the job hunt after having given up in spite of having the need and want to work.

Marketplace reporter Mitchell Hartman has been looking at one group of workers where there's likely a lot of people in that category: workers who are 55 and older.

Click the media player above to hear reporter Mitchell Hartman in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.

President Obama's job in 19 words

Thu, 2014-07-03 04:00

Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal had the opportunity to ask President Barack Obama seven questions on Wednesday.

It took fifteen minutes or thereabouts for the entire interview.

In that same spirit of conciseness, Kai asked the President: "In five words or less, what's your job?"

President Obama answered: "My job is to keep the American people safe and to create a platform for hardworking people to succeed."

For those counting, that means the president used 19 words:

Kai has used the "5 words or less" question before. The first time was quite by accident, during an interview with Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman in late 2012. Kai asked Whitman to cut the "marketing gobbledy-gook," to explain "what, exactly, HP is":

Whitman's answer wasn't particularly clarifying...:

...so a few minutes later, Kai tried again:

Eventually, Kai gave Whitman a word limit. At the very end, he tried asking what HP is "in five words or less". Whitman used 22 words, with the caveat that "it's a big, complicated company."

A month later, Kai interviewed AOL chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong about his business. Armstrong also was unable to keep his company's mission to five words. He eventually whittled it down to 12:

In an interview with Stephen Friedman, the president of MTV, Kai tried the question again. Friedman got close - just six words:

Only one interviewee so far, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good, has managed to answer the question as succinctly as requested. Good described Duke Energy as: "Industry leading innovative energy company." Five words and counting:

Brevity is the soul of Marketplace. (...count 'em)

So, in brief: We want to see how many of our listeners can beat the President's word count. How would you describe your job in five words or less? Comment below, tweet @Marketplace, or send us an email at marketplaceweb@marketplace.org

PODCAST: Jobs are up for June

Thu, 2014-07-03 03:00

With the jobs report for June looking strong, more on how the last couple months became some of the strongest in recent memory for job gains. Plus, a look at a demographic of unemployed workers that are often overlooked: those over 55 who are looking to get back into the workforce. Last up, Kai Ryssdal interviewed President Barack Obama on the state of the U.S. Economy. Hear a preview of the full interview airing later today.

Pop-up bus service looks to reinvent mass transit

Thu, 2014-07-03 02:00

Big data has already changed how we interact with many aspects of our cities, as well as how cities deliver services and enforce regulations. In New York, for example, the city has had success using public data to find restaurants illegally disposing grease waste, and stores selling untaxed cigarettes. In the realm of public transit, agencies have been able to make their data easily accessible online for app developers, adding value to the commuter.

Matt George, the founder of the Massachusetts-based startup Bridj, is looking to apply the potential for big data to transit. The service, which launched last month with three bus routes in Boston, takes the self-reported home and workplace data of each of its subscribers, as well as data from other sources, including census data and municipal data, and plots out potential bus routes accordingly. While the service is still in its infancy, there are plans for more dynamic routing in the future, such as routes to special events in areas not normally served by public transit. These more direct routes are capable of significantly reducing commute times over public transit. 

Aside from the innovative, purportedly faster routing, Bridj is one of a number of transit startups — perhaps most controversially symbolized by ridesharing service Uber — that aims to provide a luxury experience, complete with wi-fi enabled busses with plush seats. There is a price to that: the cost of a ride on Bridj ranges from $5 to $8, over double the fare range of Boston’s public bus operator. Though, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Bridj buses are faster than standard transit.

With many of these services, there have been fears in some quarters of a “two-tier” transit system — one of luxury for the technologically savvy elite, another, underinvested public system for the poor. Bridj has not faced these complaints yet, but it is an issue that may arise as the service expands elsewhere.

Another area that has bedeviled transit startups has not yet been an issue for Bridj -- According to founder Matt George: “One thing we thought would be a bigger challenge would be municipal cooperation.”

However, at least in Massachusetts, there has been a relatively welcoming response from local governments.

Five million stick to private health insurance

Thu, 2014-07-03 02:00

We all know people have signed up for insurance through the healthcare exchanges, or enrolled in Medicaid.

But a new report in the New England Journal of Medicine shows about five million people bought coverage straight from an insurance company.

There’s nothing new about people buying insurance policies directly from insurers; it’s been happening forever.

But Harvard’s Ben Sommers says not for everybody.

“It’s a good market if you’re healthy, but if you have pre-existing conditions, you either faced really high premiums or were denied coverage,” he says.

The Affordable Care Act blocks insurers from doing that anymore. Plus, the ACA requires most everyone to have insurance.

Because of all that, Sommers estimates 20 percent of the people who bought directly from companies are newly insured.

It could be the start of a dominant trend.

“As the marketplace matures, it will be folks with higher incomes that won’t be subsidy eligible that will be buying insurance in the future,” says Paula Sunshine with Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia.

She says her company has invested heavily to make it as easy as possible for consumers to buy policies.

Ultimately, Sunshine says her industry will grow as employers stop buying coverage for their workers, and workers start shopping for their own insurance.

Tech and train-hopping

Thu, 2014-07-03 01:00

My family likes to tell stories. Sometimes they get changed and exaggerated in the retelling: Dad got chased by a grizzly. No, it was two grizzlies. It was two grizzlies and he was on a horse. Wasn't it?

But one story I know to be true, at least in its simplest form: My dad used to hop trains out west.

I remember him telling me how dangerous it was. Sometimes the train would stop where you wanted to get off, sometimes it wouldn't. You had to hit the ground running as fast as you could just to stay on your feet and avoid falling into the tracks and under the wheels.

My family is from Colorado, and this is the type of story that reminds me of our roots. 

That's why when I heard about Ted and Asa Conover's story, I had to talk to them. This father and son duo is from New York City, but they've both caught the train-hopping bug --Ted first, then Asa -- and went on an adventure together to do it.

I can vaguely remember adventures like that with my own father. Not as dangerous or as illegal, but walking the line. Linking arms so we could pull something out of the rubble at the town dump because it wasn't trash. Hopping a fence here or there. As a kid you have to learn boundaries by pushing against them, and if you're lucky you have a guardian who helps you learn how to do that and survive it. 

The interesting thing about this week's conversation with the Conovers is that technology has changed the game of train-hopping. It used to be an oral tradition of sorts -- knowing the right moves and knowing when and where a train might stop. Heck, at any given time you could be riding a train and have no real idea how far you'd traveled or how close you were to your destination. But now there are smart phones and PDF documents shared among the hoppers that detail the gathered knowledge of this illegal pastime. There's even a rumor -- almost a tech ghost story -- about a special infrared scanner that law enforcement uses to catch people train-hopping near Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Ted Conover was saying that no matter how tech has changed the process, your success still depends completely on your own ingenuity. I thought that sounded like hacking, and he agreed. 

We all see our world change as we get older, and we lament the change. School shootings make for exhaustive visitation rules. More lawyers make for neighbors who don't invite you to use their pool on a hot day. Smart phones make for staring at screens instead of interacting with and meeting strangers. In the case of train-hopping, technology seems to hinder and help; depending on how you define "bad" and "good," it's got a bit of both.

Yeah, I know hopping trains is illegal and dangerous, and I'm not trying to encourage others to do it. In fact I would discourage people from doing it (for the record, Ted Conover probably would too). But that doesn't mean it's a story we shouldn't tell. It's part of my own family history -- part that's always made me proud to have a connection to the west. Like riding horses or knowing how to start a fire in the snowpack, there's something about train-hopping that makes me feel proud of the people and place where I come from. This July 4th week, that feels just about right. 

No electricity in Indonesia, but there's Facebook

Wed, 2014-07-02 14:36

Indonesia has a population of 240 million people — 64 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day, and 33 percent of whom live without electricity. And yet, somehow, 64 million Indonesians - including those without electricity - are on Facebook. 

In Elizabeth Pisani's new book, "Indonesia, Etc.", she talks about the country's changing economy and culture. Pisani has lived on and off in Indonesia for about 25 years, working as a journalist and an epidemiologist. In her book, she writes about how places that she once knew are changing rapidly, growing in population and experiencing an increase in the bourgeoisie culture. 

Along with Facebook, the people of Indonesia are big on social media and high-tech gadgets such as iPhones. Pisani says that while the country is quickly evolving, it is having a hard time finding its footing in the modern world:

"Even if we had a more educated and industrious workforce, we would probably still not be able to use them effectively because of that underinvestment in infrastructure." 

That lack of investment in infrastructure also affects the country's politics. According to Pisani, there has been a massive decentralization over the last 15 years. Today, there are about 500 different governments. In the past, all dictates came from one central location — Jakarta, Indonesia's capital.

We talked with Pisani about Indonesia's future. To hear her theory on how this country manages to function, listen to the full interview in the audio player above.

Bank risk-taking 'unfinished piece of business': Obama

Wed, 2014-07-02 13:57

In a wide-ranging interview covering the economy, President Obama on Wednesday said that despite financial reforms, Wall Street continues to take big risks, and for his administration, "that is an unfinished piece of business."

Obama also said that despite the fact that the economy has seen recovery and the unemployment rate has improved since the Great Recession, many Americans still feel like they haven't shared in those gains, particularly middle-class Americans. The President said gains have been made during his administration and said middle-class issues drive much of his agenda: 

"Although the economy has been growing, wages and incomes continue to be relatively stagnant, and that's been a 20- to 30-year trend, and that involves some structural issues that we've really got to work on. But, having said all that, what is indisputable is that the economy is much better now than it was when I took office and than it was the last time we spoke, and that does make a difference. It makes a difference that we've created 9.4 million new jobs, it makes a difference that manufacturing continues to strengthen for the first since the 90s, it makes a difference that we've been able to slow the rise of healthcare costs, it makes a difference that we have seen housing recover in many communities so that people are finally getting their houses back above water. So all these things add to confidence, add some momentum to the economy, but that underlying trend for middle-class families — that they don't feel like no matter how hard they work, they're able to get ahead in the same way that their parents were able to get ahead — that's something that we continue to tackle and drives a lot of my agenda now."

The President also criticized Wall Street — large banks in particular — for practices he said are aimed at generating revenue through "trading bets" instead of through investments that grow American businesses. Obama said that the United States has made significant economic reforms since the financial crisis in 2008, but there is still more work to be done:

The problem is that for 60 years, we've seen the financial sector grow massively. Now, it's a great strength of our economies that we've got the deepest, strongest capital markets in the world, but what has also happened is that as the financial sector has grown, more and more of the revenue generated on Wall Street is based on arbitrage -- trading bets -- as opposed to investing in companies that actually make something and hire people. And so, what I've said to my economic team, is that we have to continue to see how can we rebalance the economy sensibly, so that we have a banking system that is doing what it is supposed to be doing to grow the real economy, but not a situation in which we continue to see a lot of these banks take big risks because the profit incentive and the bonus incentive is there for them. That is an unfinished piece of business, but that doesn't detract from the important stabilization functions that Dodd-Frank were designed to address.

President Obama also took aim at the Republican majority in the House of Representatives for pushing back against policies he said would help the middle class, including immigration reform. The president spoke of House Republicans' "ideological predispositions," saying that they are "captive of a small ideological band inside their caucus."

I don't think this is a permanent state of affairs; I think over time the Republican Party will move back to the center, mainly because if they don't, they'll never win the presidency again. And at a certain point people are just going to get fed up. But in the mean time, what I have to make sure I'm doing is looking for every opportunity to go ahead and help the married couple that is struggling, working hard, paying their bills, but at the end of the month still don't have any savings and still don't feel like they're getting ahead. If I can help them on childcare costs, if I can help them boost their wages a little bit, if I can help them save for their kid's college education and keep college cost down, if I can do those things, then I will at least have the satisfaction of helping some people. And in the meantime I'm going to continue to reach out to Republicans wherever and whenever they're willing.

Music streaming is the next frontier for Google

Wed, 2014-07-02 13:52

The last few weeks have been busy in the online music industry. First, Apple bought Beats Music. Then Amazon added a music service to its Prime subscriptions. Now, Google is buying Songza, a streaming service that recommends music based on your mood or activity.

There are categories like “going to a festival” or “twerk at werk,” which queued up Pharrell’s “Happy.”

“Everybody’s competing for that slice of consumers’ time,” says Willy Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School. “You look at a service like Pandora, where the number of hours [users are] connected to the service per month is actually surprisingly high.”

When users aren’t on their computers, they can keep listening on smart-phone apps, which Shih says is appealing to advertisers. Since Google is already good at selling ads, this could be one more offering in their portfolio. 

But users have also shown they’re willing to pay to opt out of ads – and pay over and over again, essentially renting the music instead of buying it, says Sam Hamadeh, the founder and CEO of PrivCo, a research firm that’s looked into the financials of several streaming services.

“That’s sort of the holy grail in the internet or e-commerce business,” he explains. “Once you sign up, it’s a one-time sale, and a one-time marketing effort to get you to buy it and then it pays off dividends for years, if not forever.”

However, Hamadeh cautions these services aren’t actually profitable yet.

So there’s another reason to be in this business - and it’s not really about music.

“Every service that Google can offer that keep web users or mobile phone users within the Google universe of applications and services adds value,” says Matthew Crain, a professor of media studies at Queens College CUNY.

 It also keeps consumers away from Google’s competitors – which might be enough to make the company want to “twerk at werk.”

Fighting the classroom tech war in Los Angeles

Wed, 2014-07-02 13:50

The Los Angeles Unified School District had plans to give every kid an iPad; a billion-dollar proposition.

But it turns out the one-size-fits-all approach may not be  the best strategy after all.

So some LA schools will be allowed to choose between Apple, Microsoft and Google-based devices.

 

Broadening the choices makes sense, said Brandon Martinez from USC’s Rossier School of Education. “It allows students and teachers to see what works best for them. And then they can give feedback, they can swap devices, and give a more informed decision when they look to purchase at a larger scale.”

LA’s move isn’t great news for Apple. But it’s not going to knock the company off its throne, as king-of-the-educational-technology-market.

“Apple is in a very, very strong position,” said Mike Fisher, who studies the education technology market for Futuresource. “They are the number one in the U.S.”

But competition is coming on fast.

“The big trend we have seen in the last year is the rise of Chromebook,” said Fisher. Chromebooks run Google-based apps and they can be relatively cheap.

In 2012, Chromebooks accounted for only 1 percent of school devices shipped. By the end of last year, they had a quarter of the market.

Microsoft is also big player in the educational tech.  It recently scored a big contract with Houston Independent School District.

And Fisher thinks Amazon may be next to jump into the education game.

What's more, he thinks they’ll all start hooking up with curriculum providers.  “You’ll see some of the big publishers in the marketplace, people like Scholastic, Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, partnering with hardware vendors.

Schools are a $13 billion global battlefield for makers of educational technology.

“It’s a green field,” said Stephen Baker, an analyst at the NPD group. “A place to sell that doesn’t have anything now,  so it’s all new volume.”   

By some estimates, only about a quarter of students and teachers in the U.S. have a classroom computing device.

As we move to a world where more kids are taking tests and learning online, schools are likely to want computers in everyone’s hands.

 

Target asks shoppers to please leave guns at home

Wed, 2014-07-02 13:41

Target - itself the recent target of gripes from some gun owners - issued a "respectful request" that customers leave their guns at home. Its action follows similar moves by Starbucks, Sonic, Chili's and others.

Companies are increasingly taking stands on a host of hot-potato issues including gay rights, contraception, and guns, whether they want to or not.

"These things can actually be forced on you," said Neeru Paharia, a professor at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business. "You do have to take a stand, right? You have to pick a side."

Target was drawn into the fray after gun rights advocates toted their rifles into Target stores in Texas and elsewhere. In response, an anti-gun group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, collected almost 400,000 signatures protesting the carriage of firearms in stores.

Target says 80 to 90 percent of its customers are women and nearly 40 percent have children.

David Sutton, CEO of Top Right Strategic Marketing, said if a company takes a political stance, that stance should be aligned with the company's public image and private values.

"Whether it's gay marriage or gun control, if your inner identity is consistent with the statements you're making in public, I think you're on solid ground," Sutton said. "I think brands that take a stand on things they believe in - consumers appreciate that."

Not all consumers appreciate Target's decision. The company's interim CEO, John Mulligan, made the "no-guns" request in a post on the company's blog. It has received more than 2,000 comments, including some angry responses.

Target's request in no way affects gun carry laws. 

Paul Argenti, a professor of corporation communication at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, points out that Target may have some tough decisions to make if customers insist on bringing their guns to the store.

"I think the really interesting question is: what happens when the people who are obviously going to oppose this decision start pressing the issue," Argenti said. "That's when we're going to see some real action here."

What does the Fed chair worry about? Slack

Wed, 2014-07-02 13:31

The Labor Department releases its latest jobs report this Thursday, and a lot of economists are talking about  "slack" - the unused part of the economy.

“'Slack' means that there are significantly more people willing and capable of filling a job than there are jobs for them to fill,” said Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen during a speech in Chicago back in May. “There remains considerable slack in the economy in the labor market.”

Slack matters. But just how much of the economy isn’t being used right now is a matter of debate.

“Slack in the labor market is often one of the first things the Fed looks at in terms of setting monetary policy," says Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute.

And by monetary policy, he’s talking about interest rates and other ways the Fed fights inflation.

“To the extent there is slack in the labor market, slack in the overall economy, you’re not producing as much as you would otherwise," Calabria says. "You’re certainly falling short of the potential in terms of the economy.”

Calabria says slack means we’re a less wealthy society than we could otherwise be. It also matters for the un- or under-employed.

Justin Wolfers, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, says the economy is recovering from an "extremely unusual recession" that's left the labor market in a state it's never been in before. And that's causing some uncertainty. 

“If we had run out of slack, then we should start to see wages and inflation really starting to rise right now," Wolfers says. "But we don’t see that at all. And so by that measure it suggests we’ve got quite a long way to go.”

And since the head of the Federal Reserve thinks there’s a lot of slack in the economy, it probably means lower interest rates for a longer amount of time.

Meet the other undocumented immigrants

Wed, 2014-07-02 12:10

It doesn’t get much attention, but 30 – 40 percent of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. entered the country legally. Some come as tourists. Others arrive here with a student or work visa.

A man I’ll call "Will" came to Los Angeles from Canada.

The last time he crossed the border, Will told the U.S. official he was just coming to Seattle to shop for the weekend. “So I basically entered the country on a lie.”

He eventually applied for – and got – a visa to work legally for a music company in LA. Then, the music industry tanked. Will lost his job and his visa.

Now 50-years-old, Will has lived in LA for half of his life. Much of that time, he’s worked under the table.

“In conversation, I’ll kind of jokingly say, ‘Well, I’m an illegal alien,’” says Will. “And people are always shocked because I don’t look or sound like an illegal alien.”

He’s white, with a medium build and sandy-brown hair. And even though he may not look the part, he does represent so-called "illegal aliens."

At least a third of the 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. didn’t sneak across the border. Many of them flew here in an airplane with completely legitimate papers.

But it’s what happens next that concerns Republican Congressman Lou Barletta.

“They come on a visa. The visa expires and they simply don’t go home. They blend in to the interior of the country and we can’t find them,” says Barletta.

Those folks are known as ‘visa overstays.’

Will, the Canadian, is one of them. In the underground economy, he sometimes works alongside undocumented Latinos.

“As a handyman, I do work in houses that are under construction and I see how Mexicans are treated and how they’re paid. And I am not treated that way, even though I am just as undocumented as they are,” says Will.

Americans simply aren’t on the lookout for Canadians because they’re not seen as an economic threat.

Will says, “Canada has such a high standard of living. Much higher than it is in America. And most people in Canada have no desire to come here.”

But when Canadians do come here for work, Will says, they don’t necessarily have to start at the bottom. “I don’t see many Canadians who come here and work as busboys.”

Canadians are hardly alone. Educated professionals from around the world work in the U.S. without official authorization.

Congressman Barletta sees this flaw in the immigration system as a threat to national security - and job security.

“They may not be looking for an entry level job. They may be looking for much different jobs. And some of them even high tech jobs,” says Barletta.

Barletta has introduced a bill that would make it a crime to stay in the country after a visa expires.

In terms of any broader immigration reform, Congressman Barletta won’t support any legislation that doesn’t address visa overstays. He says, “It’s a non-starter for me.”

One solution involves the collection of biometric data from foreign visitors. At airports, we collect the biometric data on the way in. But not on the way out. That means there is no reliable calculation for the number of people who may have overstayed their visas.

“To do biometrics on departure would require implementation of some sort of infrastructure at all of our ports of entry – air, sea and land – that simply doesn’t exist yet,” says Theresa Cardinal Brown with the Bipartisan Policy Center, which recently studied the issue.

That new infrastructure would cost taxpayers north of $3 billion; money that hasn’t been allocated. So the U.S. is still a long way from being able to identify and track down visa overstays.

And that’s lucky for Will, the Canadian, living in LA. At home, Will plays the piano for an audience of one – his dog. It seems like a carefree existence.

But it could all be taken away. And after 25 years here, LA is the only home Will knows.

“I have nothing in Canada. I have no place to go,” says Will. “It would be just like going to another country and starting over. I have nightmares about it.”

Will is trapped in immigration limbo. If he ever returned to Canada, he would not be allowed back into the U.S. He’s already told his mother that he can’t return, even if she gets sick.

“I said, ‘You know, if something happens, I can’t go. If you have a heart-attack in Canada, I can’t go there.’ And she’s like, ‘I know. And I understand. And it’s okay,’” says Will.

That’s just one of the compromises necessary for people like Will who continue to work in this country after their visa has long since expired.

Homeowners brace for another foreclosure wave

Wed, 2014-07-02 10:42

In the thick of the housing crisis, some lenders slashed borrowers’ interest rates to as little as 2 percent. But rates start to rise again this year, and that will be hard for homeowners who are still struggling.

That group includes Adriana Martinez. She and her husband bought their dream house, in Olney, Maryland, in 2005. Right now, their monthly mortgage payment is about $2,200, thanks to an interest rate cut they got in 2010, through the government’s Home Affordable Loan Modification Program, which is referred to as HAMP. But even that payment has been tough, since Martinez lost her job last November.

“I need to find a job because, you know, it’s hard. It’s hard,” she says, holding back tears.

Martinez’s 16-year-old daughter, Julie, tries to help. She works part time at a gift shop. Julie says she and her mom were at the bank last week, confronted with a zero balance after the mortgage payment was deducted.

“I gave my mom my entire paycheck -- it was like $150 -- because she really actually needed it," she says.

And Martinez’s mortgage payment will rise by about $240 a month next year, because the HAMP interest rate cut is only temporary. After five years, the rate goes up by one percentage point a year, until it reaches the average interest rate at the time the loan was modified. Now, Martinez is afraid she’ll lose her home. 

She is trying to get help, meeting with a housing counselor at the non-profit Housing Initiative Partnership, or HIP. They talk about how Martinez can pare expenses, maybe try to get the principle on her loan reduced.

HIP counseling director Mary Hunter says they have a lot of clients like Martinez, who are already struggling and now face rising interest rates.

“If the mortgage payment goes up but their income hasn’t gone up, they’re going to be stretched,” she says, adding that some my lose their homes. “I am worried that there’ll be a new wave of foreclosures in the next year.”

It’s already happening. More than a million homeowners got a mortgage interest rate reduction through the HAMP program. But since the program began in 2009, about a third of them have dropped out. 

“Well, over 350,000 were not able to make their payments," says Christy Romero, inspector general of the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program. "And more than a third of those lost their home in foreclosures. Others lost their home in other ways, like short sales.” 

Romero says the Treasury still hasn’t spent about $26 billion that was supposed to be used to help homeowners. Recently, Treasury announced it’ll use some of that money to extend the HAMP program to more people, through 2016. But Romero says Treasury should focus on homeowners already in HAMP, to keep them from dropping out, and causing that new foreclosure wave.

Homeowners across the country who got an interest rate cut through HAMP are now facing a rate increase. Some haven’t been able to keep up with their mortgage payments.

Special Inspector General, Troubled Asset Relief Program quarterly report to Congress. April 30, 2014

This is what happens when the White House calls

Wed, 2014-07-02 05:00

So here's something I don't get to say every day.

The White House called Tuesday.

I know, right?!

They said if I can be in Washington on Wednesday by 2 p.m., I can have 15 minutes with the President.

So...we said "Sure." (Duh.)

A funny thing happens when that happens, though.

We gather a brainstorming team, of course, to figure out what we want to get out of the interview and how to frame the questions.

But then the ideas start coming. Everybody's got a thought on what I should ask him – which is great. Catch is, I've only got a finite amount of brain space to process all those ideas.

So the closer the interview gets, the more the stress mounts.

It happened last time we had the President on, too. Exactly this way. More and more ideas, less and less time to process them, until that moment when he and I shook hands as we prepared to sit down.

Then – and this is the only way to describe it – I had a moment of clarity. I knew how the interview was going to go, I knew how his answers were going to go, and I knew exactly how it was going to turn out.

And it did. Just like I thought it would.

All of which is to say – I'll be in Washington today.

Because the White House called.

The interview airs on Thursday. Here's the way it turned out last time. Me and the leader of the free world. On folding chairs. In the middle of the desert.

Video Credits:

Produced by Preditorial http://preditorial.tv

Music:

"Faster Does It" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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"Backed Vibes (clean)" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com

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"Shades of Spring" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com

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"Acid Trumpet" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com

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Not just T-Mobile: how bogus charges get on your bill

Wed, 2014-07-02 04:00

The FTC says T- Mobile made hundreds of millions of dollars from bogus charges on consumers phone bills. The charges were from third parties, but T-Mobile’s cut was allegedly as much as 40 percent.

"These were charges for things like flirting tips, dating tips, horoscopes, and other things that the consumer didn’t want," says FTC attorney Malini Mithal. "This is a practice called mobile cramming."

And it’s not something that T-Mobile invented.  "It’s been going on for years—decades even," says David Butler, a spokesman for Consumers Union. "Long before the popularity of wireless phones, landline phone users were getting hit by cramming charges."

A Senate Commerce Committee investigation from 2011 estimated the costs to consumers across the industry in the billions. The committee report details just how consumers end up getting stuck with these charges: 

1. 100 Percent, straight-up scamming. Billers just submit customer phone numbers to telecoms.

That includes unpublished numbers that nobody actually uses for phone calls. 

"Numerous businesses and government agencies told Committee staff they have incurred crammed charges on telephone lines that are dedicated to alarm systems, elevators, modems, and other lines that are not assigned to any employees," says the report. Many of the numbers were completely unpublished. A fax line got billed for music downloads. An ATM line got billed for "Internet services." 

A man in Connecticut fought charges from "Talent & More," which was charging his mother-in-law for hosting an online profile marketed to casting agents. "My mother-in-law us 82 years old, does not have internet access, and would not know how to use a website," he wrote to the state attorney general.

2.  Dummy calls to get bogus "authorization"

Business owners told the Senate committee staff that when they tried to fight bogus charges, they were told there was a recording of them giving authorization. The committee got some of those recordings, which "show telemarkets quickly reading through long scripts, while employees answer 'yes' or 'okay' to questions they clearly do not understand." 

3. Soliciting business via text... and not taking "no" for an answer

One company allegedly sent text messages offering horoscopes, dating tips and other services, and (according to the complaint in a class-action lawsuit) started charging people even if they replied "STOP" or called to say they didn't want the service. 

4.  With telecoms generally turning a blind eye — and sharing the profits

The Senate committee estimated that phone companies, which take a cut from third-party transactions, made more than a billion dollars from the practice over a ten-year period, and found that telecom companies did little to help their customers fight charges, or to check out companies that were obvious scammers.  

Which is pretty much what the FTC is charging in T-Mobile’s case.  The FTC says the company ignored signs that charges were bogus. And that the company buried those charges deep inside phone bills.

For its part, T-Mobile doesn’t dispute that stuff like this happened. But the company says it stopped billing for these services in late 2013.

For further reading:  Our friends at Ars Technica have been covering the cramming story for years, starting with an account by editor Nate Anderson of his own experience getting crammed in 2008

Here's an example the FTC says comes from a T-Mobile bill:

 

Train-hopping in the digital age

Wed, 2014-07-02 04:00

Train hopping, or the act of getting on freight trains without permission and riding them from depot to depot, is illegal and dangerous. It's also something that is, for many, a romantic endeavor, capturing the American spirit of adventure and travel.

Ted Conover did some train hopping in his youth, later writing a book about the experience entitled, "Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes." When his son Asa read his book, he felt the impulse to go train hopping himself. So Ted and Asa took a trip together, discovering along the way that new technology had changed the game.

In Ted’s experience, one of the hardest things used to be knowing where one was geographically while riding on a train; less of an issue today in an age of GPS-enabled phones.

Smartphones also allowed Asa an advantage over his father's earlier train-hopping days: the ability to document the experience in greater detail.

“I was on the trip to see what riding trains was like, rather than what being a hobo was like,” Asa said.

In addition to keeping them abreast of their location, the smartphones they were using let them contact home, document the trip through photos, and download a digital copy of an older guide to riding the rails, which the pair used often during the trip.

But even with digital enhancement, Ted believes the basic spirit of the endeavor has remained the same:

“One of the things that hasn’t changed is that your ability to get from point A to B on the rails is 100% determined by your own ingenuity and what you bring to the table.”

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