National News

Homeowners In Washington Wildfire Country Try To Reduce Risk

NPR News - Wed, 2015-08-26 01:06

The Okanogan fire burning in central Washington is the largest wildfire in the state's history. Some area homeowners have cleared brush to keep the fire away. One built a nonflammable concrete home.

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Why French Winemakers Are Seeing The World Through Rosé-Colored Glasses

NPR News - Wed, 2015-08-26 01:06

Many vintners in southern France used to make a few bottles of rosé only for themselves. But demand for the pale, dry wine has skyrocketed, transforming the lives of the region's winemakers.

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Beyond Jane Fonda Tapes: Home Workouts Go Virtual

NPR News - Wed, 2015-08-26 00:58

In New York City, an instructor leads an indoor spinning class while cyclists at home around the country ride along — and compete with other riders — on special bikes outfitted with tablets.

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A Hero Of French Train Attack Will Receive U.S. Army Medal

NPR News - Tue, 2015-08-25 16:18

Announcing Alek Skarlatos' award, senior Army officials called the Soldiers Medal the service's "highest award for acts of heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy."

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Justin Wilson, IndyCar Driver Who Died Monday, Helps 6 People With Organ Donations

NPR News - Tue, 2015-08-25 15:48

The 37-year-old racer and father of two died Monday, after suffering a head injury in Sunday's race in Pennsylvania.

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Ted Cruz Rallies Evangelicals In Campaign To Defund Planned Parenthood

NPR News - Tue, 2015-08-25 14:22

Religious voters are a key for Republicans running for president. One candidate — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — is making a bold play for them, promising to campaign on defunding Planned Parenthood.

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Gamestop is dropping off the leaderboard

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-08-25 13:59

There is a crisis in the video game universe. At least for Gamestop.

“The theory is that Gamestop over time is going to struggle because games being sold through boxes are just not going to be as popular,” says Ian Sherr, executive editor at CNet News. “I mean, if you look at the industry, selling over the internet is clearly the future."

"It’s just becoming a more and more popular way to do things, it makes a lot of sense. It’s easier for me to get my games, and it’s also easier for me to manage all my stuff – I don’t have spools of discs everywhere."

But, he says, the transition is not as fast as a simple download. The video game industry has yet to go the way of the movie industry where consumers are happy to store their collections on their hard drives, or rent, via Netflix, Amazon Prime and Itunes. Notes Evan Narcisse, a reporter with the popular video game website Kotaku, "people are still buying games in boxes."

And one way brick and mortar retailers are fighting back is by making sure what's in the box is special. Getting game publishers to create "seriously outlandish  collector’s editions," Narcisse says. These can include collectible statues,  fake foam ninja swords or even accessories for the digital characters themselves, like a skin for Batman to make him look like Adam West.

"These are the kinds of things that hardcore fans get all excited about," Narcisse says.

"If you’re invested in a game series, where you know, you’re pre-ordering, you're following every bit of news that comes down the pipe," he says, "chances are that you will plunk down an extra $40 on top of the $60 kind of baseline asking price to get these things."

Then there's the customer. Gamestop runs a thriving secondhand market for games bought and sold in boxes.

"The fact that that economy exists now is to enticing to resist," says Narcisse. "People are like, all right, if I beat this game in a month – I can sell it back to Gamestop."

But brick and mortar retailers know that’s not enough, says Brian Blau, a research director of the personal technology group with Gartner. They're expanding the merchandise on their shelves to include gaming accessories. 

"Keyboards and mice. You have headphones, you have speakers,” he says. 

The video game industry is worth $80 billion a year globally, Blau says, and if brick and mortar stores like Gamestop are going to remain relevant they'll need to continue to find additional ways to play the retail game.  

White House Fence Jumper Killed In Pennsylvania Courthouse

NPR News - Tue, 2015-08-25 13:53

Curtis Smith, 34 was arrested for scaling a wall at the White House in March and was killed after allegedly trying to attack a sheriff's deputy at a Pennsylvania courthouse Tuesday.

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Study Tracks Vast Racial Gap In School Discipline In 13 Southern States

NPR News - Tue, 2015-08-25 13:06

Expulsions and suspensions were much higher for African-American students, researchers found.

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Investors want McDonald's out of real estate

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-08-25 13:00

If you think things are tough for McDonald’s now, imagine what it was like when the company was starting out.  

Banks didn’t want to loan McDonald’s money. So the Golden Arches transformed itself into a business the banks would lend to.  

Sort of a real estate company. Buying land and building restaurants, then renting them to franchisees. The sales pitch became:

“It’s not a burger company, it’s a real estate company that sells burgers,” says Sam Oches, editor of QSR, a trade magazine for the fast food industry.  

Oches says this is a unique business model that gives McDonald’s a lot of control over its franchisees.

“If they own that restaurant, they’ll be able to dictate a lot more about the upkeep of the restaurant,” he says.

For example, McDonald’s can give franchisees a break on the rent if they upgrade their stores. John Gordon, a restaurant analyst at Pacific Management Consulting Group, says rent accounted for about a fifth of McDonald’s worldwide revenue last year. But McDonald’s is coming under pressure from some of its investors who want the chain to start selling off its real estate.

“It’s some activist investors looking for ways to juice the stock higher,” Gordon says.

But others think the investors are right — McDonald’s should sell.

“It would be good for McDonald’s, because McDonald’s would have to focus on the food service business and not on real estate,” says Don Sniegowski, editor of Blue Maumau, a news site for franchise owners.

McDonald’s refused an interview request, but a spokeswoman said McDonald’s will provide an update on "financial areas of opportunity" at its November investor meeting.

 

It's a contraction, not another Great Recession

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-08-25 13:00

U.S. financial markets rallied through most of the Tuesday, then fell back in the final hour of trading to close with another day of solid losses.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 204 points, 1.3 percent, to close at 15,666. The Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 25 points, 1.3 percent, to close at 1867. The Nasdaq fell 19 points, 0.44 percent, to close at 4506. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury bond rose to 2.07 percent.

The Tuesday morning rally in the market (after steep losses on the two previous trading days) came after China’s central bank lowered interest rates to stimulate the country’s economy and try to reverse recent stock market declines, and the Conference Board reported an improvement in U.S. consumer sentiment.

While investors may be experiencing a high degree of fear and uncertainty, the overall financial picture does not resemble the financial crisis of 2008. From August to October 2008, the stock market was also tanking. Plus, Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual had failed; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were seized by the government as subprime borrowers defaulted, mortgage bonds went bad and home prices crashed; the Big 3 automakers and the nation's biggest banks were on their way to receiving massive government bailouts to stay afloat.

The global financial system was seizing up, says economist Paul Ashworth at Capital Economics in Toronto. “What we’ve had over the last few days is a drop-back in equity prices,” he says. “But we haven’t seen any sign of a credit crunch. Banks are still freely lending to other banks, which was a big problem in the financial crisis. And banks are pretty much willing to lend freely to most businesses and individuals.”

Ashworth says this time around, the underlying economy remains strong, and growth prospects so far haven’t suffered from the recent market turmoil. “The unemployment rate has come down substantially, a lot more people are employed,” Ashworth says. “Domestic sectors of the economy, including housing, look like they’re finally coming back.”

Boston University finance and law professor Cornelius Hurley points out that a key aspect of the 2008 crisis was the bursting of the housing bubble. That left homeowners, institutions, banks and investors holding assets — homes and mortgages and mortgage-backed securities — that couldn’t be valued because there were no buyers for them.

Hurley points out that was also a homegrown crisis that spread globally. “This crisis is generated through China and Greece, and other foreign venues, so it seems somewhat remote,” he says.

The U.S. economy is connected to Europe and China and other emerging markets through imports and exports and investment flows. Which means that a global economic slowdown could take a toll on domestic businesses and consumers. But that needn’t be alarming, says policy analyst Gordon Gray at the American Action Forum.

“It just so happens that the Great Recession is our most recent memory of a big economic slowdown,” Gray says. “But the law of the business cycle is that at some point, you’re going to see some contraction. And contractions don’t necessarily need to look anything like the Great Recession.”

China's struggle for a free (stock) market

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-08-25 13:00

China’s stock market was conceived with an entirely different purpose than stock markets of large economies elsewhere, says Scott Kennedy, director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The purpose of China’s stock market is to raise capital for state-owned enterprises and other privileged companies,” he says. “It is not to act as a way for investors to find highly efficient and profitable companies to put money into and provide external oversight of these companies by allowing investors to have information and voting power.” 

It’s a fundamental difference in China’s stock market that he says has never been resolved since those markets were created.

The government has managed the stock market accordingly. For example, last year it promoted the idea of stock ownership as a way to diversify financial exposure away from the property market investment. 

“Investors thought they were going to get a free ride from the government,” says Alan Robinson, vice president at RBC Wealth Management.

When officials then said that they were going to take their hands off the markets, people lost confidence. “And that has caused the meltdown we’ve seen over the last few sessions,” Robinson says.

At that point, the degree to which the government is willing to intervene became even more apparent — the gloves came off and it started buying stocks to prop up the market.

“The parallel would be if the U.S. Treasury or Federal Reserve stepped in to purchase the stocks of IBM or of Apple,” says Matthew Slaughter, dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

The government prohibited selling until the market reached 4,000 points. It threatened imprisonment for people who were “maliciously” short-selling stocks.

“The broader problem the Chinese government has created with these interventions,” says Slaughter, “is setting the expectations that stock prices can go and should go only up.” It’s particularly significant because millions of Chinese households are learning what a stock market is and how to participate in it. Part of a stock market — especially at a moment of uncertainty and reform, is volatility and downward movements. 

Despite all of this, China’s stock markets have potential. Jennifer Carpenter is associate professor of finance at New York University's Stern School of Business, and along with professor Robert Whitelaw and Fangzhou Lu recently authored a paper in which “we find that against all odds, China’s stock prices are surprisingly informative about future corporate earnings,” says Carpenter. “It’s comparable to levels of price informativeness that you see in the U.S.”

Otherwise put, China’s stock market can be a real stock market if the government would just let it. 

Freakonomics and end-of-life health care

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-08-25 13:00

Stephen Dubner admits that he and the team behind Freakonomics Radio sometimes explore ideas most sane people would leave untouched. This time, Dubner decided to look at the economics of end-of-life health care.

It’s certainly a touchy subject, but also one that most families will have to face at some time in their lives.

Dubner poses the question: “What if someone was suffering from a terminal illness and they had the option of forgoing standard-end-of-life medical care, and instead they could get a cash medical rebate from their insurance companies?”

He’s calling the idea the Glorious Sunset Proposal, and the Freakonomics folks even made a fake commercial so you can hear how it might be pitched.

Dubner took the Glorious Sunsets Proposal and shopped it around to health care experts to see what they thought.

Health care economist Uwe Reinhardt wasn’t having it. Reinhardt says if he were an insurance company CEO, he wouldn’t offer a Glorious Sunsets option. As a health insurer, “your incentive is actually, in many ways, to increase health spending,” Reinhardt said.

When Dubner took the idea to doctor and bioethicist Zeke Emanuel, he wasn’t interested either.

“It’s so cold blooded, it’s so calculating, it’s so utilitarian that it’s not American,” Emanuel told Dubner.

Thomas Smith is an oncologist at Johns Hopkins. Dubner says Smith actually tried a Glorious Sunsets-like experiment years ago that gave cancer patients the option to forgo treatment and keep the money. But the experiment failed.

“Our patients were actually interested, but their doctor/providers weren’t,” Smith said. “It’s pretty hard to look at those two choices and decide what to do.”

It’s clear these three health care experts weren’t thrilled about the Glorious Sunsets Proposal. But Dubner says all three people — and more — that they spoke with did agree on one thing: “If anything in our health care system really needs to be revolutionized right now, it’s end-of-life treatment.”

But Dubner says, in the end, the economics are perhaps the least important factor. He points to what Zeke Emanuel had to say on the matter. “The health care system, instead of talking to a patient and getting it right, we sort of pound on their chest and try to resuscitate them, even when that may not be what they want,” Emanuel said. “And I think trying to get what patients want ought to be our primary focus." 

Dubner says doctors may soon pay more attention to what patients want. “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has just proposed a regulation that would actually finally pay doctors to do nothing more than have a conversation with patients about their impending death,” Dubner says.

Maybe it’s not Glorious Sunsets, but it’s “certainly a step in the right direction,” Dubner says. 

Click on the audio player above to hear the fake ad and the full interview.

Lebanon's Cabinet Rejects Bid That Might Have Eased Garbage Crisis

NPR News - Tue, 2015-08-25 13:00

Protesters from a group that's translated as either "You Stink" or "You Reek" criticized the bid for being too expensive and the government for being too corrupt.

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American Climber Confronts 'The Wall Of Death'

NPR News - Tue, 2015-08-25 12:56

Sasha DiGiulian is posting vertigo-inducing updates to social media as she tries to become the first woman to scale the north face of Eiger, an infamous Swiss peak.

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For Most Of Us, The "Real" Economy Matters More Than Markets

NPR News - Tue, 2015-08-25 12:52

Stock prices may be having a meltdown, but consumers and home buyers are still pushing the economy forward. In fact, a new round of data suggest the economy is gaining strength even as markets fall.

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Wildfire Smoke Becomes The Health Threat That Won't Go Away

NPR News - Tue, 2015-08-25 12:35

Cities and towns across the West are warning residents that high levels of smoke from forest fires threatens their health, with no sign of abating. That means indoor recess and no vacuuming.

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In Texas, a coal mine opens to power Mexico

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-08-25 12:29

The coal industry is struggling as cheaper and cleaner natural gas undercuts coal, and environmental regulations push utilities to shut down their older coal-burning plants.

Yet new coal mines open and others expand. In one Texas county on the Mexican border, local officials and residents seem nearly united in their opposition to a new coal strip mine, the Eagle Pass Mine. The company that owns it, Dos Republicas Coal Partnership, says it intends to ship out the first load of coal by train next month.

The Dos Republicas Coal Partnership owns the Eagle Pass Mine. 

Ingrid Lobet

Dos Republicas is backed, through layered ownership, by a major Mexican steel and coal firm, Altos Hornos de Mexico, S.A. All the coal from the Eagle Pass Mine is bound for Mexico. It will fire the Carbon I and II power plants half an hour south of the border in Nava, in the state of Coahuila.

“The excuse is that ‘we need energy,’” says Martha Bowles Baxter, a resident of Eagle Pass who opposes the mining plans. “Well, the energy is going to Mexico.”

It appears to be the first time a coal mine has been opened in the United States to serve a power plant in Latin America.

George Baxter, her husband and a civil engineer, says the smoke from the generating station in Mexico often drifts north to Eagle Pass.  

“You see the brown line, horizontal line of pollution," he says. "It extends as far as the eye can see.”

Now, he says, those results of burning coal will be added to the insults of mining it.

“Apparently the war on coal does not extend to Maverick County,” he says.

The Baxters’ chief preoccupations are widely shared. The local school district, city council and hospital officials oppose the mine. Many concerns focus on water. The Eagle Pass Mine intends to discharge into Elm Creek, which runs through the mine just before it joins the Rio Grande. Less than a mile downstream, the city of Eagle Pass takes its drinking water.

Elm Creek neighborhood residents fear that floods, like this one in 2013, will carry mine silt and waste from the Eagle Pass mine on either side of the creek. (Permission to reprint granted by Eagle Pass Business Journal)

Events in recent months have heightened a second water concern. The Eagle Pass area has had two 100-year floods in two years, according to David Saucedo, the Maverick County flood plain administrator.

“In 2013, we had 16 inches of rain in a 24-hour period," he says. "In 2014, we had 12 inches in a 24-hour period.”

One hundred and twenty houses were damaged or destroyed.

“You have seen these people go through these things," says Saucedo, who is also the Maverick County judge. "And on top of those floods, now you have to worry what is in the water? It weighs on you.”

The chance of two 100-year floods occurring back to back is one in 10,000. Texas mining regulations require that the ponds that collect heavy rains before they carry silt into the creek be dug deep enough to withstand just a 10-year flood.

Flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicate an official flood zone along the creek where it runs through the mine, so Saucedo opposed the mine’s flood permit. The company sued him. A lower court judge agreed he acted within his authority and that case is at the state’s 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi. 

In the course of those arguments, the mine has gone from paper to reality. Sixty million dollars worth of equipment has arrived at the site, hundreds of acres have been excavated and offices and parking lots for workers carved into the mesquite.  

Yet Martha Bowles Baxter believes another flood, this time carrying mud or mine waste, is inevitable, and that many homes will be in the path of the water. The local newspaper refers to the area directly adjoining the mine as “densely populated.”

 “When FEMA comes in, they are going to render all of that land completely contaminated," she says. "And those people are going to be losing all their homesteads, what they plan to give their children. And no one cares because this area is very, very poor and Hispanic."

 

 

 

 

 

Some residents of Eagle Pass, Texas, note that residents living near mines on the Mexican side of the border complain of soot and land settling, which causes cracks in dwellings. This banner, from Palaú, Coahuila, Mexico, accuses mine owners of assuring their own future at the expense of local children. Alonso Ancira (his last name is misspelled above) is a principal investor in the Mexican and the new Texas mines.      Rudy Rodriguez, who represents the mine owners, says not all of the mine area is in the flood plain, and engineered ponds at the mine will actually ameliorate flooding. The mine plan also complies with numerous agencies’ requirements and all state and federal law, he says.

 

 

 

 

 

Already, Rodriguez says, hard-hit Maverick County is benefiting from the tens of millions of dollars the mine has spent on equipment. At the mine, he points to a mechanic changing a tire on a truck so large it makes his Cadillac Escalade look like a Matchbox car. The tire alone cost $35,000, he says. Under the current footprint of the mine, which the owners seek to expand, it would inject more than $147 million into the local and regional economy.

By one measure, the project has been popular: It held a fair to connect with local vendors and would-be employees.

“We started at eight o’clock in the morning and went on in the evening,” Rodriguez says. “We had so many people want jobs — 680 applicants for 100 jobs.”

Saucedo says most of the town would rather see retail employment. Eight thousand people signed a petition against the coal mine, he says.

“To put that in perspective, you had 5,500 people come out to vote in the last election," he says. "Now, when you have more people signing a petition than going out to vote, that should send a message.” 

On Aug. 10, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a hearing in Eagle Pass to gather public comment, following a request by Dos Republicas to add 25,000 acres of potential mine area to its existing 6,346 acres. According to the Eagle Pass Business Journal, all 28 people who testified, including Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey English Cantú, spoke against the mine and its expansion.

 

 

The steel business is trying to stay strong

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-08-25 12:28

With the economy still recovering, and the chaos with the stock markets and China, business is tough in the U.S. Lisa Goldenberg, president of the Delaware Steel Company, says things “could always be better. We’re still in recovery period…. Recovery, good recovery, takes a long time, years, 10 years.”

In addition to that, Goldenberg has to keep her eye on the ups and downs happening in China.

“China is the largest steel producing market in the world, so you know I’m watching it every day,” she says. However, she says that the most recent upset with the yuan devaluation hasn’t directly hurt business.

What has hurt her business is the strong U.S. dollar. Goldenberg explains: “For my daily business, I’m a proponent of a much weaker dollar…. For my business, it rocks my world.” When the dollar is strong she has a tough time exporting anything. “I have zero business, not a little, zero when the dollar is strong.”

The strong dollar isn’t the only thing affecting business. There’s also the cost of shipping and freight.

“In the United States, there are so many other factors to shipping across this country than the cost of fuel," Goldenberg says. "We want our drivers to be insured, we want the roads to be safe, we want drivers to be certified and have proper resting times, and have weigh stations, and all the things we’re used to in a developed, sophisticated economy. And those things are very, very expensive.”

It’s hard to conduct business in this hectic economy when everyone is just trying to stay afloat. “It’s very, very stressful. It wears you down. And keeping your employees motivated, keeping their families safe and secure and confident is a full-time job. This economy is not for the faint of heart,” she says.

In The Search For The Perfect Sugar Substitute, Another Candidate Emerges

NPR News - Tue, 2015-08-25 12:22

There's a new contender in the century-old quest for perfect, guiltless sweetness: allulose. It's sugar — but in a form that our bodies don't convert into calories. Perfect? Not quite.

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