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Beyond magnifying glasses: High-tech options for the vision-impaired

Fri, 2014-09-05 08:10

This week, Marketplace Tech has been talking technology and reading. We've heard about how new gadgets are changing reading in school and how they're changing reading education at home. We've talked about the impact of e-readers on the brain

But what happens if your vision makes it tough to read at all?

Today, we profiled Spotlight Text, one digital option for people with vision loss. However, there are many more tools for low-vision readers out there:

There’s an e-reader app for that.

Some e-reader apps are made specifically for those with reduced vision. Apps like Spotlight Text and Read2Go allow readers to increase or decrease font size as much as they need to.

E-readers like the Kindle or iPad already allow low-vision readers to adjust font sizes and contrast settings on the device. Many also have text-to-speech functionality.

The BARD Mobile app from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped offers readers almost 50,000 Braille and talking books. And it’s free.

Phone it in.

There are countless magnification apps that use a smartphone’s camera and flashlight to enlarge and illuminate text. Some are free, like iRead or Magnificent, while VisionAssist is $5.99 and EyeSight is $29.99.

EyeNote is a free app that identifies the denominations of U.S. paper currency for those with low vision.

The iPhone — and other smartphones — remains a powerful tool for low-vision readers. As Paul Otterness, who suffers from glaucoma, wrote on the Glaucoma Research Foundation's blog: “The big news for people with low vision is that high tech, big print, voice control and screen reading are brought together in a single handheld device: the Apple iPhone — a fully functioning computer with high-resolution screen and multiple magnification capabilities, small enough to carry in my pocket.”

Spoken words.

Text-to-speech apps like Speak it!, $1.99, and Voice Dream Reader, $4.99, allow low-vision readers to listen to texts read aloud.

Not out of sight.

Different high-tech glasses are being made to help those with low vision read more easily. These glasses from Low Vision Readers are equipped with LED lights and rechargeable batteries.

Some companies have also been trying to make Google Glass accessible for the deaf. They are working on live subtitle technology.

These high-tech devices can be expensive and insurance companies don’t always cover the costs. So support groups have been cropping up around the country to loan out devices or provide them for free to people with low vision.

If you have low vision, we want to know: Which technologies or devices have been helpful to you? Let us know in the comments below!

PODCAST: Colleges join ESPN

Fri, 2014-09-05 03:00

Just 142,000 jobs were added to American payrolls last month. That amounts to an unpleasant surprise. More on the disappointing numbers for August. And nearly a quarter of a million newly-naturalized American citizens or immigrants may lose their health insurance coverage under the federal reform law at the end of the month. The government is trying to verify people's identities and immigration status. Plus, ESPN3, the online streaming channel of the sports media giant is the place for less mass-market sports in America like cricket or volleyball. But it's growing it's share of college sports, including football. Schools eager for the exposure are finding creative ways to join the network. 

What to do when terrorists claim your company's name

Fri, 2014-09-05 02:00

What do you do when your brand gets adopted by a terrorist organization? That’s the question faced by businesses with ISIS in their names — the English-language acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

The most extreme strategy is to simply change the name. Mobile payment app Isis has announced it will change its name to Softcard. 

But so far, this is the exception. There are 49 corporations in New York State alone with "Isis" in their name, from Isis Fitness to Isis Nails. 

Patricia Luzi is the founder of Isis Essentials, selling organic oils and other products. She’s not afraid of a terrorist homophone.

"Isis is an Egyptian goddess and has been for thousands of years," she says. "I am not affected at all."

According to Steve Manning, founder of naming agency Igor, most Isis-branded businesses have nothing to fear because there is little chance of confusion with a violent sect of Sunni fundamentalists.

"But if your business isn't doing well or if you've got a bad reputation, it's the perfect excuse to make a change," he adds. 

This is what Manning believes was the true motivation of the mobile wallet app that is now called Softcard. 

"The irony being this mobile wallet was a huge initiative that never got any traction," Manning says. "Had it, they wouldn't have changed the name."

It wasn’t so much protecting a successful brand, as abandoning a failed one.

Many immigrants may lose health insurance under the ACA

Fri, 2014-09-05 02:00

Nearly a quarter of a million newly naturalized citizens or immigrants may lose their health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act at the end of the month.

The federal government is trying to verify people’s identities and immigration status, and Friday is the deadline to submit paperwork.

The National Immigration Law Center’s Jenny Rejeske says people are hustling to confirm their eligibility. But there are only so many ways they can reach out.

“People have mailed in their documents by certified mail, who have also tried to upload their documents online,” she says.

Despite that, Rejeske says, immigrants and naturalized citizens keep getting termination notices.

She says this is an old story for the Obama Administration.

“It’s just been part of the whole of array of technical problems that HealthCare.gov has faced,” she says.

Sonya Schwartz with the Georgetown Health Policy Institute also faults a lack of thorough planning. Why, she wonders, were most notices in English?

“It should have been a higher priority to think about how to communicate to all the different people in America, not just the people in English,” she says.

Apart from interrupting people’s health coverage, Schwartz says basic problems like this have a chilling effect on the millions who remain uninsured.

The federal government says it has whittled down immigration cases by nearly 75 percent.

Even if the deadline passes, Schwartz has a piece of advice for anyone who has received a notice:

“When in doubt, submit your paperwork again.”

'Security Princess' or 'Engineering Manager'?

Fri, 2014-09-05 02:00

In the tech world, it’s not uncommon to meet a princess. Mine is named Parisa Tabriz. I know, because it says so on her business card.

“So, 'security princess' is my self-appointed title,” Tabriz says. “My actual job title is I am the engineering manager for the Chrome security team.”

But she figures the title “security princess” is “more fun.”

It’s also much more Silicon Valley. It’s sort of like a tradition here, at least when companies are starting up, to let employees choose their titles — not their real titles — but the ones they put on their business card.

“This is my last business card when I worked at Apple,” says Guy Kawasaki.

It reads “chief evangelist.”

I ask, “Who gave you the title?”

“I took that title,” Kawasaki answers. “I assumed that title.”

Kawasaki says choosing your title — even if it’s just the one on your business card — encourages you to think big about your job. Take Kawasaki’s title: evangelist.

He says when Apple was introducing the Macintosh in the mid-1980s, the masses barely knew about personal computers. And they sure didn’t get why you’d buy one.

So Apple needed more than just sales people; it needed somebody to sell the idea that personal computing would change their lives. They needed an evangelist.

“Evangelism is seeing your product or service as a way to change the world, and you want to bring this good news to people,” says Kawasaki.

He says it might sound delusional, but it is different than sales. You're not worrying about quotas and selling units. So a new job needs a new name.

Kawasaki left Apple in the late '90s, and since then, techies have introduced all sort of titles, says Scott Brosnan, a tech recruiter at Workbridge Associates.

“Ruby on rails rockstar,” he says. "Software ninja, data wrangler, I see a lot of now."

Brosnan isn’t impressed by the titles. But, he says, like wearing jeans and T-shirts to work, when tech companies allow employees to choose their title, they’re saying: We’re not corporate types, we’re creatives! Come work for us!

Keith Rollag, a management professor at Babson College, says there’s a study that shows this practice can make employees happier. The study was conducted by two researchers from Wharton and one from the London Business School.

They went into a health care company and let some of the employees define their titles.

“And what they found was it actually reduced people’s feelings of job exhaustion and it reduced the stress they felt while they’re on the job,” says Rollag.

Rollag says those employees felt empowered to redefine their jobs in ways that felt more meaningful.

ESPN3 grows its offerings with student productions

Fri, 2014-09-05 01:30

On Saturday, the Mercer Bears from Macon, Georgia, will play their first Southern Conference football game against Furman. Fans can watch it on the ESPN3 Web stream, even though the Bears football program is only one year old. Mercer decided to take advantage of an ESPN3 initiative that allows schools to join the network.

“We're one of the first in football to pick that up and run with it and self-produce an event for ESPN,” said Mercer Athletic director Jim Cole.

It took an investment of $150,000 to upgrade the university's TV production studio, get some high-grade cameras and pull fiber cable throughout campus. But, Cole says, joining the ESPN network is money well spent — even if it's only their Web stream.

“I'm looking for name ID for Mercer,” Cole said, to showcase Mercer to potential students around the country. “Kids understand what ESPN means, so we view this as a recruiting advantage as well,” he said.

ESPN3 has been the place for niche events like cricket, tennis or volleyball, but it's making headway into college sports, including football. Colleges and universities are eager for exposure on any of the sports media giant's network, and the school production initiative is part of ESPN3's business strategy.

“There is the ability for us to leverage our position in the marketplace to deliver a Mercer college-football game in the same APP as Monday Night Football,” said Jason Bernstein, ESPN's senior director of programming and acquisitions.

ESPN3 has different deals with each school, but the production quality has to fit their broadcast standards, Bernstein said.

Mercer University has a professional producer and director on staff, but the rest of its production crew are students who work for free.

Students Emanuela Rendini (left) and Sam Strickland (right) are part of the 20 student production team.

Susanna Capelouto

“Being paid, to me, is not really important,” said sophmore Emanuela Rendini. She is a journalism major and works as a grip during football games. She's in it for the experience, and the ability to leverage the ESPN brand name.

“Having ESPN on your resume when you graduate is really big to me,” she said.

Her volunteer efforts help her school add to the more than 7 ,000 exclusive live productions on ESPN3 this year, which can be seen by 95 million ESPN subscribers, 21 million college students and soldiers who get internet access through their school or military base.

ESPN3 will stream the Mercer vs. Furman game Saturday at 6 p.m. 

Silicon Tally: Taxi for two

Fri, 2014-09-05 01:30

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Stephanie Humphrey, who writes about tech for Ebony.com.

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Venture capitalists connect with local doctors

Thu, 2014-09-04 14:20

Venture capitalists are getting into the new health care game — a game in which the more money you save, the more money you make.

Enter Aledade, one of the first companies with VC backing. It's teaming up with small, independent primary care docs.

Why do investors think they can strike gold in these health care outposts?

It’s because of physicians like Dr. Rebecca Jaffe, who has spent the last 30 years running a family medicine practice in Wilmington, Delaware.

“We serve newborns and their parents, and their parents, and their parents, up to four generations of a family. We call it womb to tomb,” says Jaffe.

To Jaffe, “womb to tomb” is a pledge she makes to her patients. That type of attention often leads to meaningful patient-doctor relationships. To Aledade CEO Dr. Farzad Mostashari, those relationships represent a business opportunity.

“When a health plan sends a video out, a video about nutrition for people with diabetes, 4 percent of people open that link. When their primary care doctor sends it, 95 percent of the time we know that they click and open that video,” he says.

Today, the health care industry spends billions trying to buy the kind of persuasive power a physician like Jaffe wields.

If you can control — or at least influence — patient decisions, you can limit health care spending, which has become a high-stakes business. Mostashari says to imagine the case of a 30-something recreational runner who comes in complaining of knee pain and wants an MRI. The patient would think, “If they are not recommending an MRI for me, it’s because I don’t need one. And I trust my primary care physician,” says Mostashari.

Aledade is betting the relationships you find in these independent mom-and-pop practices will help control health care costs more than almost anything else. Already, the company is working with 100 doctors to form what are called Accountable Care Organizations, or ACOs.

That’s a jargon-y way of saying that the less spending overall, the more money doctors can earn while ensuring quality care.

To date, Aledade has helped the doctors create three ACOs under the federal government’s Medicare Shared Savings program. Mostashari says Aledade will be a savvy partner with cash.

“I’m going to give them what they need,” he says. “Whether that’s data, whether it’s capital, whether it’s tools, whether it’s technology.”

In exchange, Aledade keeps 40 percent of any savings.

The company is being backed by the venture capital firm Venrock, which hit health care grand slams with Athenahealth and Castlight Health, both multibillion-dollar businesses today.

Venrock’s Bryan Roberts sees that kind of possibility for Aledade, too.

Even though the practices are small independents, 100 doctors like Jaffe call the shots on nearly $1 billion of referrals, tests and hospitalizations every year. The trouble, says Roberts, is many don’t realize it.

“Today those primary care physicians have no control over and no incentive for control over those downstream dollars. And so to me that’s the place where magic can happen,” he says.

That magic will often mean offering same-day appointments, checking on patients just discharged from the hospital or extending hours to help avoid trips to the ER.

Similar programs in Massachusetts and Florida suggest this is a winning formula. 

Under its Alternative Quality Contract, Dr. Dana Safran of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts says not only do doctors make more money, but patients experience a new level of attention.

“Like never before, they have their doctor’s office calling them, just to check back in. So, they are finding, they are a patient the practice is thinking about all the time." 

The Urban Institute’s Dr. Robert Berenson says he’s preached this kind of approach for more than two decades.

But as hospitals have gobbled up physician practices, there are a shrinking number of doctor partners. Berenson sees no reason to think that trend will change anytime soon.

“Independent, small practices are likely going to die out simply because recent graduates of medical school don’t want to live that kind of life,” he says.

Venrock’s Roberts concedes the current crop of docs are more interested in shift work than paying bills and managing staff — the kind of responsibility that comes with running your own business. But he likes to think Aledade could reverse the trend.

“We show these primary care docs can have a real effect on their microcosm in the system. Having that effect will make them more money. That may in fact change the desires of doctors to be independent,” he says.

Dr. Jaffe certainly hopes signing on with Aledade makes life better for her and her patients.

She says she’s sick of hitting health care walls, like a recent case in which no repair company would fix a 101-year-old patient’s wheelchair.

“I have known this woman for more than 35 years. And I want what’s best for her — and what was best for her was for us to do our utmost at getting that seat fixed. I went so far as to ask my husband if he would consider doing it,” she says.

Jaffe worried the woman would get hurt trying to learn some new doodad of a device, but ultimately, that was the only choice.

“In less than two days, she fell, broke her leg and is now sitting in a nursing home,” she says.

It all goes back to Jaffe’s womb-to-tomb pledge. Even if Aledade makes bundles, but she does most of the work, Jaffe wants these sorts of health care pileups to go away. Something she knows she can’t do on her own.

How Mark Duplass makes movies on a microbudget

Thu, 2014-09-04 13:45

Making movies isn't for the faint of heart.

Filmmakers have to raise huge amounts of money and yet maintain creative control — all the while negotiating the twists and turns of a byzantine industry.

Mark Duplass does that and more, while writing, producing and directing independent films like "Cyrus" and "The Puffy Chair" with his brother Jay. 

Not to mention that he acts a bit, too. He plays football player Pete in FXX's "The League," which debuted its sixth season Wednesday, and he co-stars with Elisabeth Moss from "Mad Men" in the film "The One I Love." 

 

How does he do it? We've paraphrased some of his advice here — and you can listen to all of it in the audio player above.

A short guide to getting your film financed, via Mark Duplass:

Step 1 — Find yourself a star.

Decide to make a $5 million movie. Go to a movie star like Elisabeth Moss and offer "Schedule F," or $65,000.

Step 2 — Begin budget cuts.

When the $5 million budget gets cut down to $3.5 million, go back to the hopefully still-interested Elisabeth Moss and offer "scale," or about $3,000 a week. Then throw in "a point," or backend profits.

Don't dwell on the fact that with creative accounting at these companies, you'll never see that money. 

Thus, Elisabeth Moss is now working on this $5 million movie for four weeks and making making $12,000.

Step 3 — The twist.

Return to the agent and offer the minimum pay, with something extra added on. Everybody — Elisabeth Moss, a PA or Ted Danson — is going to make $100 per day, but they also get big points on the backend. And because they've made it so cheaply, profits will roll in sooner. 

The agents will say, "How do I know I'll see the points?"

Show them the documents from your other films. If you're Mark Duplass, that's "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Your Sister's Sister" and so on, including what everyone made. It dwarfs the Schedule F pay they were going to make in the first place.

Step 4 — Repeat.

Keep playing the game; keep producing.

Hotels jack up fees... and consumers continue to pay

Thu, 2014-09-04 13:25

If you have gone on a trip and stayed in a nice hotel lately, you might have shelled out more than expected. You are not alone. Hotels are increasingly boosting the bill with add-ons: fees for their gym, Wi-Fi, the “free” newspaper. God forbid you actually open the mini-fridge.

Fees have become a big part of the hotel business model. A study by Bjorn Hanson of New York University shows that the industry is going to rake in $2.25 billion this year from all those little additional charges. That is 6 percent more than in 2013, and a new all-time record.

These are not your garden-variety charges, says Colin Johnson, the chair of hospitality management at San Francisco State University. He says customers used to balk at bills for long-distance telephone calls. Now the list of fees scrolls on and on: charges for early check-in, using the gym, late checkout, baggage holding, even putting your own stuff in the minibar. Now that, Johnson says, is really creative.

Hotels have had some rough years: first the recession, and now rental websites like Airbnb. Fees offer some extra profit. So why not raise them? Airlines do it, and passengers make do with a pack of peanuts.

“Some of the businesses, honestly, just don't care,” says Carl Winston, who directs the Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at San Diego State University. Nor do those business have to, he says.

Winston says these fees are not due to bad times. They are the product of big data. Hotels now know better what we will and won’t pay for. “They are really able to predict consumer behavior in a way that they had no possibility of doing in the past,” he says.

Lots of little fees give hotels more information to profile us, to squeeze out every dollar. Plus, they create ammunition to build customer loyalty. And if you’re angry, maybe you’ll get the “free newspaper” for free.

Stripping out all the perks allows hotels to keep the initial room price low. If they bring you in the door with that, Winston says, they won’t waste what is called “perishable inventory.”

“An airline or hotel can only sell its seat or its bed today,” Winston says. “If they don't sell it, it's gone.”

So, gripe all you want about the fees. As long as you keep coming back for the cheap rooms, they won’t be going anywhere.

Yelp gets a positive review from the courts

Thu, 2014-09-04 13:19

A federal court of appeals in San Francisco has ruled that Yelp can, if it so chooses, raise or lower the rating of a business on the site depending on whether or not that business advertises with them.

Such a move would not be classified as extortion, which is what the lawsuit at issue had claimed.

Yelp is happy with the results, but claims it doesn't do such things, anyways. The company said in a blog post:

"We are obviously happy that the court reached the right result, and saw through these thin attempts by a few businesses and their lawyers to disparage Yelp and draw attention away from their own occasional negative review."

ABC is betting big on Shonda Rhimes

Thu, 2014-09-04 13:19

While CBS airs football games on Thursday nights, ABC is hoping all the not-so-sports-inclined spouses settle in for a night of Shonda Rhimes.

Don’t know the name? Rhimes created "Grey’s Anatomy" and "Scandal." The two TV shows have been bright spots for a network that’s had a rough couple of years when it comes to prime time, says Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate.

“Last year, they were last in adults 18–49. But when it came to women 18–49, they were second,” Adgate says.

Shonda Rhimes is credited, in large part, for that success. She's a creator and showrunner who champions strong female leads and a diverse cast. Adgate says that formula appeals to women, who now make up about 65 percent of the network’s audience. With network ratings sliding, he says, it’s not surprising that ABC would double down on its niche success.

So the network is promoting Rhimes to its audience. An advertisement for the Thursday night lineup edits together dialogue from each show to make the characters say "I love Shonda Rhimes."

Cynthia Littleton, TV editor at Variety, says while there have been powerful showrunners in the past, this may be the first time a network promoted one as a star.

“This branding and the three shows stacked on one night,” Littleton says. “That is absolutely a function of social media and how it has turned Shonda Rhimes literally into a marketable star for the network.”

Littleton says Rhimes was also masterful in using Twitter to promote shows and make herself a star with viewers.

The script. #Scandal #season4 pic.twitter.com/drTWONNODN

— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) July 24, 2014

But will this branding work?

“Network TV these days is a game of trying to do better than you did last year, which is hard to do,” says Joe Adalian, an editor with Vulture.

Adalian said by that measure, ABC’s Thursday strategy will work. The night is already filled with two hit shows, and with Rhimes' star status, the third has a good chance of becoming one, too.

Shonda Rhimes didn't initially set out to be a television writer, much less one of the industry's most powerful showrunners. According to a New York Times profile from last year, Rhimes decided to apply to USC's film school after graduating from Dartmouth because she read that it was more competitive than Harvard Law.

Rhimes got in, graduated, and initially broke through as a writer for HBO's Dorothy Dandridge biopic, starring Halle Berry. She went on to write Britney Spears' acting debut, "Crossroads," which was critically panned but a box office hit. She scored her first Disney credit with "The Princess Diaries 2" and sold "Grey's Anatomy" to the Disney-owned ABC around the same time.

"Grey's" was a midseason replacement but an instant hit, prompting a Rhimes-lead spinoff in 2007 that lasted six seasons. Broadcast TV is crowded with medical shows, but Rhimes' series distinguished themselves and became a cultural touchstone. Just ask the many, many people who tossed around nicknames like "McDreamy," "McSteamy," etc. in the late 2000s.

In 2013, Rhimes' shows were pulling in $300 million in advertising each season, Forbes reported, or about 5 percent of ABC's revenue. Since "Grey's" premiered, she has adopted two children, who, the Times wrote, regularly come to work with her.

After cementing her place at ABC with two hits, Rhimes created "Scandal," which she told the Times is her most unfiltered project, uninhibited by network notes, and appropriately insane and melodramatic.

"What were they going to do, fire me? I wasn't worried about what anybody else thought," she told the Times. "This one was for me."

Rhimes has said she doesn't want to be pigeonholed into a certain type of show. So, she's branching into another crowded space — the legal drama — with "How to Get Away With Murder," starring Viola Davis as a law professor who becomes embroiled in a homicide with four of her students. The show will follow "Scandal" to round out ABC's three-hour Rhimes block.

How productive are we? It depends on how you look at it.

Thu, 2014-09-04 13:19

This is not your father’s productivity rate.

Back before the recession, the Labor Department reported worker productivity increases of 2 to 3 percent a year. We’ve been stuck at around 1 percent for the past few years.  

“One percent today is not the 1 percent of 2006 before we went into the recession,” says Christopher Rupkey, chief economist of MUFG Union Bank.

Rupkey says, before the recession, a 1 percent productivity-rate increase would have been awful, because we were in that crazy housing bubble. It skewed productivity up. After the bubble burst, productivity skewed down.  

So, if you think about it, 1 percent isn’t so bad, says James Craft, a business administration professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Given what we’ve experienced in terms of some of the problems in the economy and its recovery and so forth, I think that is reasonable at this point in time,” he says.

And here’s another thing to think about: It’s harder to measure productivity now. It was easier when technologies like Microsoft Word first came along, and the cause-and-effect was clearer. 

“The big benefit was, of course, secretaries don’t have to retype memos here after taking advantage of word processing,” says Doug Handler, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight.

Now, Handler says, we have so many new technologies it's hard to tell what's responsible for productivity improvements. The cloud? That new app on your phone? Both?

Still, Handler says, some things haven’t changed. Companies need to hire good people and spring for the latest technology, even if they’re not sure how it will affect productivity.

The European Central Bank whips out the big guns

Thu, 2014-09-04 13:19

Whipping out the big guns, monetarily speaking.

Europe’s Central Bank announced today it was stepping on the economic gas, giving the eurozone a shot, or whatever your choice of analogy. 

More specifically: It lowered its deposit rate for banks to negative-0.2 percent from negative-0.1 percent. 

“Nobody except the ECB has flirted with negative interest rates. Even Japan. This is unprecedented,” says Marc Chandler, Global Head of Currency Strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman.

A positive interest rate means banks earn money on what they hold on reserve with a central bank — whereas a negative interest rate means banks have to pay to park their money there. The idea is that this will push money out into the financial system and promote lending. 

Secondly, the ECB said it would start purchasing asset-backed securities, much like the United States Federal Reserve and the Bank of England has done (the quantitative easing strategy) to promote lending and inject money into the stock market and economy.

Why now?  

Second-quarter GDP growth flat-lined in Europe.

“The eurozone economy is failing to recover in the way that the U.S. or U.K. economy has been recovering,” says Andrew Lilico, head of Europe Economics. “You have countries with 25 percent and up unemployment that are still very much trapped. While it just got out of recession, the economy has gone from contraction to stagnation.” 

One symptom of this, says Chandler, has been that “lending has collapsed in the euro area as banks try to rebuild balance sheets and deleverage.”

The European Central Bank is preparing to take on new regulatory authorities. As banks brace for future stress tests, they have cut back on lending. At the same time, says Chandler, consumers and small businesses aren’t inclined to borrow.

Plus, the inflation rate has inched down over the past few months, reaching precariously close to zero. 

“We had the inflation rate of eurozone countries running at 0.5 percent  in June, 0.4 percent in July, 0.3 percent in August. It has been gradually declining,” says Abdur Chowdhury of Marquette University and chief economist at Capital Market Consultants. 

Chowdhury predicted the ECB’s move, contrary to many analysts who assumed the bank would wait until later this year to act. “The major concern that people have is they don’t want deflation, because that would create a vicious cycle” of economic contraction.

Early ECB assessments have pointed out that drops in inflation were occurring for “good” reasons — fuel costs were falling, for example. But Chowdhury says even if that’s true, the fact that the GDP isn’t benefiting from those good reasons makes the threshold of 0 percent inflation and the risk of crossing over into deflation territory dangerous, because deflation is a difficult problem to solve once it starts.

Why not sooner?

Hindsight is 20-20, but many economists argue some things are just plain easy to see coming.  “They should’ve done it four or five years ago,” says Lilico, a sentiment Chowdhury echoes.  

“The governing council that makes the decision has one member for each of the eurozone countries,” says Chowdhury. “These member look at national interest first and the interests of the eurozone second, to be honest.”  Still, he says, “better late than never.”

Will it work?

Chandler, who also anticipated the ECB’s move, says “probably on the margins.” He expects inflation to bottom out in the next few months, but not cross over into deflation territory, and he says the stimulus, rate adjustment and resulting slide in the euro may all contribute to this. 

As for what this means for the U.S., Chandler says, “It makes us look like a high yielder; it makes the U.S. look more attractive."

European investors may opt to put money into U.S. bonds and securities at the same time the Federal Reserve stops doing so. This could keep yields on bonds from falling precipitously as the Fed exits its stimulus. 

As rates fall and yields in Europe shrink, the euro will become a less attractive currency to hold and will fall in value against the dollar (1 percent shortly after the ECB’s news was announced). This means European goods will be cheaper for Americans to buy, but it also means Europe will become less hungry for American exports as they become more expensive in Europe.

How to blow off steam – and the driver next to you

Thu, 2014-09-04 08:37

Tens of thousands of workers have flooded into rural North Dakota to take jobs created by the state's oil boom. Now, there's a shortage of housing and there's a shortage of restaurants. There's a shortage of workers for non-oil businesses. And at the end of the day, there's not a whole lot to do.

Some guys, though, have brought one hobby with them: tinkering with their pickups and showing them off. Todd Melby talked to a customizer shop about one distinct way to show off.

Listen to his story in the audio player above.

Diesel engines can be tuned so they pour out black smoke. In Williston, North Dakota diesel pickup truck owners turn to Mark Pyatt at Killer Diesel Performance.

Todd Melby

Todd's series "Black Gold Boom" is an initiative of Prairie Public and the Association for Independents in Radio.

European Central Bank cuts interest rates

Thu, 2014-09-04 07:00

Very few were predicting the European Central Bank would cut interest rates today, but cut they did. The benchmark rate went from a super-low 0.15 percent to just 0.05 percent. 

Brenda Kelly, Chief Market Strategist at London-based IG Group, joined us to offer some context on the surprising move.

Click the media player above to hear Brenda Kelly in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.

As fast-food workers strike, unions get redefined

Thu, 2014-09-04 07:00

Fast-food workers in more than 100 cities plan to walk off the job Thursday. The goal is a higher wage: $15 an hour. The Service Employees International Union, the SEIU, is backing the workers.

“They are not giving up until they are heard, and $15 and a union becomes a standard of practice in all fast-food restaurants in the United States,” says Mary Kay Henry, the union’s president. Corporations argue that would be bad for business.

The SEIU has spent millions of dollars getting the word out, but it has also asked home-care workers, a group it recently unionized, to strike in solidarity with the fast-food workers.

“I think it is part of the redefinition of what a union really is and how unions operate,” says Thomas Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

According to Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at The Graduate Center, CUNY, this push for a higher minimum wage is part of “a comprehensive campaign with lots of different pieces” born out of necessity.

“The traditional approach to unionization that SEIU and other unions have used isn’t really working too well these days, and they recognize that, and they are interested in experimenting with new approaches and new methods,” she says, noting that less than 7 percent of private-sector employees are unionized.

The real question, argues Harry Holzer, a labor economist at Georgetown University, is: “Is there really pressure on employers to raise wages?” Sure, a daylong strike affects the bottom line, but, he points out, that is nothing compared to what it would cost them to raise wages and offer better benefits.

PODCAST: Fast-food strike

Thu, 2014-09-04 03:00

First up, more on the surprise move from European Central Bank, which cut key interest rates from pretty low to really, really low. And fast-food workers in more than a hundred cities plan to walk off the job today. The goal: the desire to get paid $15 an hour. Plus, an example of the consumer becoming the advertiser. In India, there's a trend that goes way beyond, say, wearing a hat with the logo of some brand you like. 

How reading on screens is rewiring our brains

Thu, 2014-09-04 02:00

Dr. Maryanne Wolf says that reading isn't something we're born to do — it's something we train our brain to do.

Wolf is the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, and the author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." She says we rewire parts of our brain and build new circuits as we learn to read.

But something interesting is happening as we use new technology for the process of reading: The circuits we're building in our brain are different than those we build when we read books. And some of the implications are worrisome for our ability for deep thought.

Following other discussions for this week's series on technology and reading education, Wolf joins us to talk about reading, new tech and their impact on the brain.

Click the media player above to hear Dr. Maryanne Wolf in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

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