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Europe resists Greece's charm offensive

Thu, 2015-02-05 09:12

This may not rank as one of the world’s most successful charm offensives.

Earlier this week Yannis Varoufakis, Greek's finance minister, embarked on a tour of European capitals in an attempt to win support for his government’s anti-austerity policies. He also wants Greece to be allowed to renegotiate the terms of its multibillion-dollar bailout and cut its crippling debt.

The trip has not gone as smoothly as Varoufakis might have hoped. His meeting in Berlin with the German finance minister ended without agreement; they even disagreed over whether they had agreed to disagree. And after Varoufakis met the head of the European Central Bank, the bank announced that it was cutting off cheap funding to Greece’s commercial banks.

Quiz: Higher ed in the halls of Congress

Thu, 2015-02-05 07:29

The education industry spent more than $79 million lobbying the federal government last year, according to OpenSecrets.org.

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Counting gallons: How much water do you use?

Thu, 2015-02-05 06:03

Try to imagine a ticker, or counter, that tallies all your water use: every cup of coffee, every shower, every flush. That’s what I did for this story. I went out and checked my water meter (OK, first it required … locating the water meter), outside near the front curb.

Scott Tong/Marketplace

To show how ignorant we can be about our water footprint, I started by making a guess: 500 gallons a day for five Tongs. Then, I asked moms and dads at the bus stop to place their bets.

And I solicited estimates via Twitter and Facebook. Here’s how they guessed:

The median guess: 225 gallons a day. Low: 30. High: 5,000.

For context: The United Nation's estimate for the bare minimum a person needs to drink, bathe and clean is 13 gallons a day. My family of five lives in Arlington, Virginia, in an old brick house. Midmorning check: 60 gallons. That’s after one bath, two shampoos, five toothbrushings, one overnight load of the dishwasher and … roughly eight flushes.

The Tong kids brush their teeth.

Scott Tong/Marketplace

How much does 60 gallons cost? Under the rate charged by my county, a mere 25 cents. Yeah. A bargain. Consider how U.S. drinking water rates compare with other countries:

Many, including Stanford University’s Newsha Ajami, consider American water underpriced.

Water scarcity – a problem in many parts of the country – is not baked into the price, as scarcity is with other products, say strawberries in winter, diamonds or Picassos. My bill just charges me for treating and delivery of water. The actual water costs zero.

In many cases, what we pay does not cover the utilities' full costs of sending water, replacing century-old pipes and adhering to Clean Water Act mandates.

Early afternoon check: 200 gallons. Yikes. The culprit, as best I can tell, is two loads of semi-dirty, semi-full laundry. It turns out a single load in an, um, legacy model like ours can drink 40 gallons.

My early-afternoon shower, lasting nine minutes, uses about 18 gallons. Which seemed like a good time to ask: How clean is this water?

“Quite stunning” is how Duke law professor Jim Salzman puts it. He wrote "Drinking Water: A History," and speaks of what’s known as the Great Sanitation Awakening.

“100 years ago it was commonplace to die of typhoid and cholera. Wilbur Wright, the famed aviator ...  died of typhoid. It’s said [German field marshal] Rommel lost more men to dysentery than the Allies."

Back then, people figured they got sick from bad air, not bad water. The 19th century awakening brought us sewer systems and the biggie: chlorination. Consider: In 1900 America, your chance of dying from waterborne disease was 1 in 200. It’s now 1 in 2 million.

That does reframe the question: How appropriate is it to use this ultraclean drinking water for flushing? Or putting through our garden hose? It doesn’t happen everywhere.

“If I told a Dutch person he should go outside and water his lawn with his drinking water, he would look at you like you were crazy,” says economist David Zetland, author of "Living with Water Scarcity." He’s from California but teaches in the Netherlands. “Because it’s money. And Dutch people don’t like spending money. If they do have gardens usually those gardens are rain-fed."

 There are cultural differences around the world. But Zetland says when something is underpriced, we tend to overuse it – around the world.

Let’s return to this global chart, a slight variation on the previous one (adjusted for income). Note the inverse price/usage relationship:

Stanford University

Here’s another way to think about overuse: We pay for water way after we use it, in my case quarterly.

To behavioral economist Dan Ariely of Duke University, the timing is crucial. He’s the author of several books, including "Predictably Irrational."

Ariely explains a concept called "pain of paying." If you pay as you go, he found, you tend to buy less of something. It hurts.

“I charge the students 25 cents per bite. And you know what, they eat such big bites that they suffer from the whole thing. Because you sit there with the pizza and you say, ‘If can only push a little bit more in, I will get more value for my money.’ But you are really decreasing your joy.”

By contrast, what happens if you pay after the fact, the way I do with water? Ariely tested that. “People consumed five times more,” he says.

Final check: 9:30 p.m. Verdict: 310 gallons. Here it is on the scatter chart.

That’s much less than my guess of 500, which many experts say is about the national average – 100 gallons per person daily. The winning guess of 300 gallons came from 10-year-old Willem Desimone of Washington D.C. (Lorna Baldwin, Karin Rotchford and Marketplace’s David Weinberg also guessed 300, but they’re not 10). I should note that our own correspondent, Amy Scott, talked a bit of trash early on. She let us know she is past champion of a seventh-grade count-the-gumballs contest. Amy’s guess: 425 gallons.

310 gallons. It’s not bad for an American family of five. But it’s a ton of water (1.15 tons, to be precise). And that one ton for one day costs $1.30.

Put another way: It’s about the price of one bottle of water.

 

PODCAST: Ordainment is just a click away

Thu, 2015-02-05 03:00

The European Central Bank last night applied new financial restrictions on Greece, with analysts seeing this as a move to remind Greece who holds the purse-strings. At stake is Greece's membership in the Euro-zone, and more widely, the stability of the global financial system. More on that. And anyone who uses the internet should pay attention to what at first blush may seem like a minor bureaucratic shift in Washington. The FCC chairman today will circulate a proposal to reclassify internet providers. Regulators regard them as "information services," but FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wants to call them "telecommunications" companies. Those little words have weight in the debate over network neutrality. Plus, some will see the next story as a charming development. For others, it's a new sign society is going to hades in a handbasket. People going online to get ordained so they can officiate at a wedding. 

College graduation rates skewed by income

Thu, 2015-02-05 02:00

More and more students are pursuing higher education, either by attending a two- or four-year college. But the growth in the demand for college diplomas has affected the wealthy different than the poor. A new study found that only a fifth of the students from the poorest families finished college by age 24, while nearly all of the richest students did.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Lack of paid sick leave endangers healthy workers

Thu, 2015-02-05 02:00

This year’s flu season is relatively severe, with the annual flu vaccine only about 25 percent effective against the main flu strains that are circulating, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There are outbreaks of measles and meningitis around the country, not to mention the common cold.

And in workplaces across the country, millions of people continue to show up sick, infecting coworkers and customers. A survey by AARP published in December 2013 found that 52 percent of adults go to work or school 'most of the time' when they are sick; another 20 percent go 'sometimes.'

The Obama Administration is pushing hard for Congress to pass legislation—the Healthy Families Act—that would guarantee workers could earn up to seven days of paid sick leave per year. Some cities and states already mandate that paid sick leave be provided by some or all employers—to be used by a sick employee, and sometimes also to care for a sick family member, such as a child or elderly relative. But Republican lawmakers are unlikely to pass any such new labor mandates on employers in this Congress.

Health-policy advocates point out that Americans often have close direct contact with those sick workers who are least likely to get paid sick leave. For instance, says Alina Salganicoff, head of Women's Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, “people who work in the restaurant industry have very low rates of paid sick leave”—the rate is 24 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just 47 percent of retail workers get paid sick leave.

Salganicoff says if these workers do call in sick, they lose a day or more in wages, and risk being fired.

Showing up sick and underperforming at work, or even damaging equipment or products because of diminished capacity or the effects of medication, is known as ‘presenteeism’ in HR-parlance. The Centers for Disease Control reports lost productivity from illness costs employers $225 billion annually; and it cites data from the Harvard Business Review that the cost of presenteeism is $150 billion or higher.

Workers at the top of the income scale—especially managers and other professionals—are most likely to get paid sick leave. The rate is 84 percent among the top quartile (top 25 percent) of income-earners. The rate of paid sick leave is 30 percent for those in the bottom quartile of earners.

How online minister ordination mills work (or don't)

Thu, 2015-02-05 02:00

Kate Black is getting married and wants her brother-in-law, Matthew Carrigan, to officiate. So the two of them are perched on a small couch in a slightly cheesy Manhattan hotel, searching the Internet for a church.

"So we have universal life church, getordained.org," Black reads from the Google search results. 

They settle on the Universal Life Church Monastery—a website that has ordained everyone from Conan O'Brien to Joan Rivers. 

There are no questions about your beliefs. The only real limitation is age. 

"Are you over 13?" asks Black. "I am," says Carrigan. 

The entire process takes less than two minutes. 

"Welcome Matthew Charles Carrigan to the worldwide congregation of the Universal Life Church ministers!" Black reads from the laptop screen. 

"Almost everything we do is by Internet," says ULC Monastery's founder George Freeman. He says more than a thousand people of all faiths—atheists included—are ordained through their website each day, and hundreds also order "church supplies," which are mailed out of the Monastery's offices in a squat office building in a Seattle warehouse district. 

This is how the nonprofit pays for what Freeman says is a one- or two- million dollar operating budget: selling wallet credentials, certificates, letters of good standing and other goods. Some are souvenirs, but many are also supposed to function as documentation to convince higher legal powers of the church's legitimacy. A "marriage laws" section of the website gives recommendations for each state. For example: "Certification of ordination may be required in the form of certificate, wallet card, or letter of good standing.”

But this is where the quick and easy process becomes more difficult. "It should be a simple process," says Freeman. "But unfortunately the state has its requirements, and they're all different."

"Some of these websites, they lead people to believe they can perform weddings in all states," says Bob Rains, emeritus professor at the Dickinson School of Law at the Pennsylvania State University. "And that's just not true." 

The question of who is allowed to solemnize a marriage is primarily a matter of state law, according to Rains, and the state laws are an odd patchwork. In Alaska, an officer of the Salvation Army is allowed, as Rains noted in a 2010 law journal article, "Marriage in the Time of Internet Ministers: I Now Pronounce You Married, But Who Am I To Do So?" While states typically have a provision that allows ministers to perform marriages, both the language of the law and its interpretation, varies. Both Rains and the Universal Life Church monastery direct prospective couples to speak with their county clerk, because the requirements can differ not just by state, but by county. 

But the bigger problem, according to Rains, isn't what counties may require in order to grant a marriage license, but what could happen years later. "Typically, just like a divorce, this is going to come up when a marriage has hit the skids," says Rains. When there is a dispute—over property or alimony, for instance—one member of an ostensibly-married couple may call the validity of their marriage into question, and the findings may not conform to that of the county official who granted the original license. 

For this reason, Rains has two simple pieces of advice for anyone considering being married by a minister ordained online: 

"Number one: You should not take legal advice off the Internet," he says. 

And second, if you have any doubts about whether the way you intend to get married is legal, the time to figure that out is now—before you get married. 

Net neutrality rules face legal challenges

Thu, 2015-02-05 02:00

The Federal Communications Commission is considering new rules to regulate the Internet. The proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would reclassify Internet service providers (ISPs) as telecommunications services, as opposed to information services.

That seemingly small change would allow the FCC to regulate ISPs and enforce so-called net-neutrality rules.

The FCC is honing in on three areas of oversight: the blocking of access to any content, the 'throttling' of Internet traffic (slowing it down for reasons other than what may be technically necessary to maintain a network's operations), and paid prioritization (in which providers may favor some Internet traffic over others by creating 'fast lanes' for websites and services that can pay for them).

The FCC is proposing banning all of those practices.

"The day before the rules, and the day after: they're probably going to look pretty similar," at least for consumers, says Doug Drake, a telecom policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

For Internet providers, though, the adoption of the new rules could lead to a lot of uncertainty as lawsuits are sure to follow, Drake says. And he says they could lead to a number of unintended consequences as reclassifiying ISPs as telecommunications companies throws into question othe contracts that were agreed to on the premise that they are information companies.

"Companies like AT&T and Verizon have already stated very explicitly that they're going to sue," says Kevin Werbach, a former FCC counsel in the Clinton administration who is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

One of the key legal arguments to expect in the months to come, according to Werbach, is that the FCC previously said a company can either be a telecommunications service or an information service, but not both. ISPs may argue that they are elements of both and that the FCC must prove that they are not information companies before it can reclassify them, says Werbach.

"It's very unlikely that the legal issues will be resolved in less than a year or two," Werbach says.

And the lawsuits may not just challenge the new rules themselves. They could challenge how those rules are implemented, says David Farber, a former chief technologist at the FCC.

"Special interest groups will come and say: you can't not do this because it's in the rules," says Farber, referring to the discretion senior FCC officials say they have in deciding which elements of a law that now applies to telecommunications companies it will impose on Internet service providers.

Lobbying and lawsuits may force the FCC to impose new restrictions it hadn't planned on, says Farber, who opposes the new classification proposal.

We find the defendant, :-(

Thu, 2015-02-05 01:30
80 million

How many customers are in the database for Anthem Inc., the country's second-largest health insurer. In what is being reported as the largest data-breach of a health insurer to date, tens of millions of records have been hacked from the company — the exact number is currently being investigated. The WSJ has more on what steps Anthem is taking, including offering a credit-monitoring service to customers.

7 days

How many days of paid sick leave would be granted under the Healthy Families Act, legislation being pushed for by the Obama Administration. The change could have a big impact on the lives of restaurant and retail workers; statistically, just 24 percent and 47 percent of them get paid sick days, respectively.

25 million

How many Apple TV set-top boxes the tech giant has sold in the product's lifetime, without a substantial upgrade in years. Now Re/Code is reporting that Apple is in talks with producers to start its own web-TV service, ostensibly to compete with Netflix, HBO Go, Dish's new Sling and others. It would be a big step for Apple, which has been rumored to be prepping some kind of "smart TV" for years.

3 1/2 hours

The amount of time it took jurors to convict Ross Ulbricht, "digital kingpin" behind Silk Road, the online market for drugs and illicit goods. As reported by the New York Times, Ulbricht could face life in prison. The trial included moments of digital intrigue, including when a debate broke out about an emoticon in a text read aloud to the jury.

4,160,080

About how many commuters there are in Los Angeles County, Marketplace's home base. Most leave home between 7 and 9 a.m. A cool new interactive graphic from the blog Flowing Data shows how average commute times compare in counties around the country.

$2.25 per square foot

The rent in SubTropolis, a massive underground industrial park in Kansas City, about half the rent topside. Bloomberg has a profile and gorgeous photos of the space, built into an abandoned mine. About a thousand people work in the subterranean digs. The owners are trying to figure out what to do with the millions of square feet they have yet to develop.

We find the defendent, :-(

Thu, 2015-02-05 01:30
80 million

That's how many customers are in the database for Anthem Inc., the country's second-largest health insurer. In what is being reported as the largest data-breach of a health insurer to date, tens of millions of records have been hacked from the company — the exact number is currently being investigated. The WSJ has more on what steps Anthem is taking, including offering a credit-monitoring service to customers.

7 days

That's how many days of paid sick leave would be granted under the Healthy Families Act, legislation being pushed for by the Obama Administration. The change could have a big impact on the lives of restaurant and retail workers; statistically, just 24 percent and 47 percent of them get paid sick days, respectively.

25 million

That's how many Apple TV set-top boxes the tech giant has sold in the product's lifetime, without a substantial upgrade in years. Now Re/Code is reporting that Apple is in talks with producers to start its own web-TV service, ostensibly to Netflix, HBO Go, Dish's new Sling and others. It would be a big step for Apple, which has been rumored to be prepping some kind of "smart TV" for years.

3 1/2 hours

That's the little amount of time it took jurors to reach a verdict in the case against Ross Ulbricht, alleged mastermind behind the online market known as Silk Road. As reported by the NY Times, Ulbricht could now face a life sentence in prison. The trial included moments of digital intrigue, including when a debate broke out about the use of an emoticon in a text read aloud to the jury.

4,160,080

That's about how many commuters are in Los Angeles county, Marketplace's homebase, and most of them leave between 7 and 9 a.m. A cool new interactive graphic from the blog Flowing Data shows how average commute times compare in counties around the country.

$2.25 per square foot

That's the rent in SubTropolis, a massive underground industrial park in Kansas City, about half of rent topside. Bloomberg has a profile and gorgeous photos of the space, which has been built into an abandoned mine. About a thousand people work down there, and its owners are trying to figure out what to do with the millions of square feet they haven't developed yet.

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