National News

The Reasons Why Israel's Military Is In Such A Tough Fight

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 18:52

Israel's military has been the dominant Middle East force since the 1967 war. Yet for the third time in a decade, the army is bogged down in a protracted fight with Islamist militants.

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Video: Haboob, A Huge Dust Storm, Hits Phoenix Area

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 17:22

The storm is commonly referred to as a haboob, from the Arabic word for an intense summer dust storm. Today's storm hit in time to complicate the Friday afternoon commute.

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How will Puerto Rico's poor economy affect you?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-07-25 16:51

For the first time in more than a decade, lawmakers in Puerto Rico balanced their budget. And during the past ten years, the US territory has had a rough economic go: A major recession hampered state revenues, while a major crackdown on the drug trade along the U.S. border pushed much of the trafficking (and violence) into Puerto Rico. The combination of a lingering recession and an influx of drugs has led to the highest murder rate in the U.S. – almost six times higher than the national average.

It’s also led some analysts to call Puerto Rico “the New Detroit.”

That got us wondering if the balanced budget is an indicator of brighter days ahead for the Puerto Rico. And if you’re thinking at this point, “who cares about some small, tropical island?” we’ll ask you: “Do you have mutual funds?”

Puerto Rico is one of the largest issuers of bonds in the U.S. And because of a preferred tax status granted to the commonwealth, Puerto Rico’s bonds end up in many portfolios. We wanted to find out whether Puerto Rico is, indeed, the new Detroit, so we spoke with the President of Maglan Capital,

An app that combats texting while driving accidents

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-07-25 16:46

Kids, you gotta start looking up. It’s never been a more dangerous time to be a pedestrian, in large part, because people are no longer looking where they’re walking. Instead, they keep their eyes fixed on their mobile phones, because a broken leg or a shattered clavicle is totally worth keeping up to the minute tabs on what your FB friends are eating, drinking, or how they’re dressing their pets.

In this installment of Tech IRL, Lizzie and Marketplace’s Tech Ben Johnson walk around Manhattan to spotlight new technology that is supposed to help mobile-phone caused pedestrian and motorist accidents.

12-Hour Cease-Fire Begins In Gaza

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 15:51

The truce will allow Palestinian civilians to get food and aid where it's needed, officials say.

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'I Love Your Country,' New House Member Tells U.S. Officials

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 14:32

Rep. Curt Clawson, a Republican from Florida, tells subcommittee witnesses from two U.S. agencies, "I'm familiar with your country; I love your country."

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Have red light cameras reached the end of the road?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-07-25 13:56

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced at least 9,000 drivers will get a second chance to appeal $100 tickets issued by red light cameras. The Mayor’s decision follows a Chicago Tribune report documenting periods where some cameras generated huge, sudden and completely inexplicable spikes in tickets.

For years, red light camera hatred grew almost as fast as the number of cities using them. Until around 2012, when the number of programs actually started to drop, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The initial promise — safer streets and more city revenue — no longer seemed so promising.

Jeff Brandes, a Republican state senator from Florida, proposed a bill that would have put some limits on red light cameras there. Among other things, he was alarmed by media reports showing that after some local governments put in red light cameras, they also shortened the time for yellow lights

“Well, reducing yellow light timing has never been shown to be safer,” he says. “But it has been shown to generate a lot more red light camera revenue.”  

A state report he requested did show revenue going up year-by-year. His poster child was a mom who just missed a yellow light on a rainy day. He says no cop would’ve written her a ticket.

“You know, there’s a human factor to law enforcement,” says Brandes. “And we’re taking that out.”

Of course drivers hate the gotcha-every-time factor, says Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering professor at Northwestern University. “From the perspective of the driver, you’ve really taken away my margin,” he says.  “I can’t push it a little bit and get away with it.”

Schofer also thinks there’s an upside, if cities want people to run fewer red lights, but he recognizes that the money creates a conflict of interest.

“If you’re doing this to make money, set up a tollbooth,” he says. “Then it becomes more transparent.  We know what you’re doing.”

There’s also a question about how well the cameras work. Some studies have shown that when red light cameras go in, rear-end crashes go up.

However, researchers who favor red light cameras have an answer for that one. Anne McCartt is Senior Vice President for Research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. She cites a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

“While rear-end crashes went up, the more serious right-angle crashes went down by a greater extent,” she says. “So there was an overall net safety benefit.”

The Florida study that Jeff Brandes requested showed the same thing. And fewer T-bone crashes generally means fewer deaths.

Amazon makes a lot of money. But it still loses more.

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-07-25 13:49

Amazon has developed a kind of parlor trick of not making a profit, despite the fact that it has gobs of revenue coming in.

The online retailing giant announced Thursday that its revenues soared to $20 billion in the second quarter. But high costs pushed it into the red. It lost $126 million.

"That in and of itself is quite a feat - to be able to crank up the spending machine to that degree," says Colin Gillis, senior technology analyst with BGC Financial.

Gillis says Amazon invests aggressively in many areas: E-commerce, its own smartphone, TV shows and web services like document sharing.

But Gillis and others wonder when Amazon, which has snubbed short-term profitability as a longer-term business strategy, is going to shift gears.

"If they shouldn't be valued based on profitability, what should they be valued based on?" asks Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst at Forrester Research.

Mulpuru points out that other tech giants like Google and Facebook do turn in big profits even as they spend on innovation. Just yesterday, Facebook announced a second quarter profit of $800 million.

Mulpuru says Amazon is frittering money away with steep subsidies of shipping costs for stuff customers buy from its website.

But RJ Hottovy, an e-commerce analyst with Morningstar, says Amazon is building a lot of brand loyalty along the way.

"Really it's important to lock in those consumers and give them less of a reason to shop elsewhere," he notes.

Hottovy thinks Amazon's strategy will eventually pay off. But for now, the company is projecting up to $800 million in operating losses for the current quarter.

Want to shop like a pro? Buy generic

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-07-25 13:10

A new study from the University of Chicago and a university in the Netherlands asked who's more likely to spend a little extra for name brands. The conclusion? Professionals don't seem to care if what they're using is generic.

"More informed consumers are less likely to pay extra to buy national brands," the study says.

For example, pharmacists buy generic asprin 90 percent of the time.

The same's true with salt and sugar. It turns out chefs like to go generic too; they devote 12 percent less of their purchases to national brands than demographically similar non-chefs.

Who gets a healthcare rebate? 4 questions answered

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-07-25 13:07

This week the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that nearly 7 million consumers would receive $330 million in refunds from health insurers.  

Under the Affordable Care Act, the carriers must spend 80 cents of every dollar in premiums towards medical care or steps to improve healthcare quality.

That leaves 20 cents for things like salaries, bonuses and other administrative costs.

This provision of the ACA is often called the 80/20 rule.

Q. What’s the reason for the 80/20 rule?

Kaiser Family Foundation Senior Vice President Larry Levitt was pretty succinct when he said “this is really a protection against insurers trying to gouge people.”

When Obamacare architects were designing the law, they wanted to make sure most of the money consumers spent on premiums would actually be dedicated to medical care.

While Levitt says 80/20 was a late addition to the legislation, he believes it’s actually changing the nature of the insurance industry.

“It’s in effect putting a cap on overhead and profits and that’s a pretty dramatic step that I don’t think people fully appreciate,” says Levitt.

Q. I’ve paid my premiums and haven’t visited the doctor once this year. Will I see some money in my mailbox soon?

It depends.

The only way someone qualifies for a rebate is if the particular insurance plan you’ve enrolled in falls short of the 80/20 ratio.

If you’re enrolled in an insurance policy that meets the target, you won’t be getting a check any time soon.

If you get coverage at work, your company gets the refund, or a credit towards next year’s coverage.

Q. How is this rule impacting insurance companies?

When the 80/20 rule began in 2011, insurers paid out more than $1 billion in rebates. This year it’s a third that much.

Matthew Eyles with Avalere Health says the industry has clearly figured out how to calculate their expenses and how money they’ll spend providing medical coverage.

“This is almost pixie dust really if you think about the amount of premiums that insurers collect in hundreds of billions,” he says.

Under this new system there is little incentive for insurers to inflate premium prices, particularly on the health exchanges.

If prices are too high, not only are consumers less likely to buy those plans, insures know they’ll have to return profits at the end of the year.

In that regard, Kaiser’s Larry Levitt says insurers are becoming more like public utilities.

“Insurers still have some flexibility in how they design these products. But an insurance policy is a much more standardized product. And the pricing is much more regimented as well,” he says.

Q. If insurers can’t make as much off of premiums, are they finding new ways to make profits?

HealthLeaders-InterStudy analyst Paula Wade says insurers can make up any lost revenue by increasing deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses consumers face.

“If you look at the how the major insurers are doing, they are doing very well,” she says.

“I wouldn’t lose any sleep worrying about their profits.”

Obama: U.S., Central America Share Responsibility For Influx Of Minors

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 12:57

The presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador met at the White House to discuss the steep uptick in unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Bill Allowing Americans To Unlock Cellphones Passes House, Heads To Obama

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 12:49

The bill also directs the Librarian of Congress to review whether the exemption should also apply to tablets and other devices.

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Key Chain Blood-Alcohol Testing May Make Quantified Drinking Easy

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 12:44

Some of us now monitor our steps, sleep and calorie intake with wristbands and apps. So why not track blood-alcohol levels? We explore the next frontier in the self-measurement movement.

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Can Finishing A Big Bowl Of Ramen Make Dreams Come True?

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 12:42

At his ramen shop in Cambridge, Mass., chef Tsuyoshi Nishioka wants customers to follow their dreams. His philosophy? If you can finish a bowl of his ramen, you can accomplish anything in life.

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How Well Does A Drug Work? Look Beyond The Fine Print

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 12:35

A husband and wife who are doctors have been working on fact boxes for drugs that, like nutrition labels for foods, would more concisely convey a medicine's benefits and risks.

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As Political Disenchantment Soars, Lines At The Polls Grow Shorter

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 12:30

There has been record low turnout among voters in the 2014 primaries so far. Is it political dysfunction that's made voters lose interest? And what might this mean for November's general elections?

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Booming markets haven't translated to big profits on Wall Street

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-07-25 12:29

Markets have been setting records pretty much every other week for months, investors are making record money... and Wall Street?

Well, it’s looking a little lean.

"I think it’s really tough, even for people who are really good at it, to be honest," says Jesse Marrus, president of StreetID, a financial careers service. He says jobs on Wall Street have been drying up. "It’s definitely an ‘eat what you kill’ business, so there are people losing their positions in that space."

Why is there less of a killing to be made for Wall Street workers? 

"Trading volumes are way lower than they were," explains Max Wolff, chief economist at Citizen VC. Trading volumes - a.k.a. how many trades are done per day - is where Wall Street makes its money. Fewer trades mean a lot fewer commissions. Trading volume has been really low since the financial crisis. Last year, the number of trades was a third lower than it was in 2009.

A big reason for the low trading volume is the low level of investor enthusiasm. "It's no secret that this is one of the world’s most hated rallies," says Wolff. "It’s been pretty clear that the markets got well ahead of the macroeconomic health of the U.S. and they've stayed there. And everyone kept waiting for this correction that didn’t come and slowly, begrudgingly people jumped on board, because they couldn’t afford just to watch other people make money forever. But they didn’t believe in it and they definitely don’t want to catch the elevator ride down that everyone’s afraid may come."

So investors are putting their money in the markets and leaving it there: They’re not buying a hot new stock or selling it off based on a hot tip. Instead, they’re buying and holding. "For there to be trades, there have to be differences of opinion," says Lawrence White, a professor of Economics at the NYU Stern School of Business. "Somebody has to think, 'It’s a good time to buy!' and somebody else has to think, 'It’s a good time to sell!' When trading volumes are lower, it just means there’s less diversity of opinion, more consensus."

All of that consensus has had a very chilling impact on Wall Street. "It’s really alarming for the people who are in the broker/dealer seats that really rely on the trading volumes," says Marrus. "Despite the record highs, it’s still really hard for them to make the commissions that they were making and make the livings that they were making because the volume’s low and the volatilities are so low."

But even if volatility and volume come back, Wall Street workers probably won't be back to the good old days. Electronic trading has replaced brokers and traders to a large extent and the future Wall Street broker will probably look a lot more like Hal than a power player in a pin-striped suit.

In A Complex Web Of Tunnels, Israel Draws Its Red Line

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 12:15

Both the government and the people of Israel have been determined to continue the country's ground invasion in Gaza, despite a growing wave of international criticism. Israelis have been shaken by claims that Hamas has a heavily fortified network of tunnels leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel.

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Gaza Cease-Fire Still Just Out Of Reach: What Does Each Side Want?

NPR News - Fri, 2014-07-25 12:15

Secretary of State John Kerry is trying again to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, as casualty counts rise inexorably higher. NPR's Emily Harris explains both sides' demands.

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