National News

Top VA Health Official Resigns Amid Scandal Over Treatment Delays

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 10:59

The resignation of the department's undersecretary for health comes a day after he and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki testified before Congress.

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Five big stores that are moving online

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-16 10:49

To no one's surprise, online sales in the U.S. are continuing to steal a larger and larger share of the consumer market, and expected to hit $370 billion by 2017. Even though the overwhelming majority of stuff is sold offline, where you shouldn't shop for the latest Game of Thrones novel in your underwear, brick-and-mortar retailers are still doing everything they can to move into that still growing market. Here are five big stores that have said they are moving to become a bigger presence in the online market:

Staples

Staples is really feeling the pinch from online retail. According to its chairman, Ronald L. Sargent, online retail is the main reason Staples will close nearly 225 stores by the end of 2014. And with the closing of so many physical stores, Staples is trying to make sure it dominates the online office supply market. Already, online orders make up nearly half their business, and Staples now offers 500,000 products on its website, rather than the 100,000 offered just a year ago. It even acquired Runa, a tech company specializing in e-commerce personalization. However, investors might be wary of Staples' new direction, as its stocks fell 15 percent in one day when the company announced it would close stores.

Wal-Mart 

Amazon is still the king of selling everything you could possibly want over the internet, but Wal-Mart, known for its gargantuan stores in real life, could be closing the gap. In 2013, Wal-Mart’s online sales grew faster than Amazon’s for the first time. Wal-Mart’s had to invest heavily to catch up to Amazon, acquiring 12 tech companies and building a presence in Silicon Valley. But even though Wal-Mart is growing faster than Amazon, it’s still a world away. Just look at the numbers: While Wal-Mart racked up $10 billion dollars in online sales over 2013, Amazon took in $67.8 billion.

Apple

The Apple Store might be the shiniest place in the mall, but Apple’s online store might be even shinier -- metaphorically, that is. That’s because Apple is the second largest online retailer in the U.S., right behind Amazon. Factoring in the App store, iTunes, and sales of Apple’s hardware at Apple’s website, Apples pulls in $18.3 billion in online sales. It’s not that Apple doesn’t still value it’s retail stores; they’re doing very well. But for the first time in Apple’s history, one person is being put in charge of both the online store and the retail stores, which is supposed to bring more collaboration between the two entities. As it is now, Apple’s online and retail aspects are both extremely successful, leaving Apple in a pretty sweet spot.

Best Buy

According to its CEO, Best Buy is now an “online first” retailer -- as opposed to being a "showroom" when shoppers would browse Best Buy first, and then actually buy their electronics online. They’ve even hired a handful of tech people to update their decade-old (yup, decade old) website. They’ve also instituted a loyalty program that works with their website and started a big-data mining project called Athena to get customer information for a more focused experience. Perhaps most notably, they’re using innovative methods to attempt to get products to shoppers faster than Amazon. This is all in an effort to double their online sales, and hopefully compete in a market that may have left them behind.

Target

With the public relations fallout from a huge data breach as well as an employee rant going viral on Gawker, Target is in a pretty bad place right now. But the company is hoping a push toward online retail could help turn things around. It’s experimenting with Google to deliver same-day shipping, and it’s significantly expanded its online subscription service. However, if the anonymous employee rant is anything to go by, they have a long way to go.

Separatists Abandon Government Buildings In Eastern Ukraine

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 10:25

Patrols of miners and steelworkers, urged on by Ukraine's richest man, have forced pro-Russian partisans to end their occupation of some areas.

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That Darn Cat: 'Hero' Feline Will Throw Out First Pitch At Game

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 10:15

The cat that saved a young boy from an attacking dog became an Internet star this week. Next week, we'll see how Tara the cat does on the ball field.

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Introducing Roma Cuisine, The Little-Known 'Soul Food' Of Europe

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 09:46

There's a long history of prejudice against the Roma people in Europe. A non-profit in Slovenia is hoping to diffuse it by launching a restaurant serving the tastiest of the traditional Roma dishes.

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Introducing Roma Cuisine, The Little-Known 'Soul Food' Of Europe

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 09:46

There's a long history of prejudice against the Roma people in Europe. A non-profit in Slovenia is hoping to diffuse it by launching a restaurant serving the tastiest of the traditional Roma dishes.

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Economists find same-sex marriage gives a boost

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-16 09:03

This week marks ten years since the first legal same-sex marriages took place in the U.S. At 12:01 am on May 17, 2004, the state of Massachusetts started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Since then, more than a dozen states have followed suit, and still more are in the middle of legal battles over whether they should.

Setting aside for a moment the debates around justice, personal freedom, and religion, there are also plenty of economic dimensions to the legalization of same sex marriage. While the research is limited, there are a number of studies that show that legalizing same sex marriage is a net good for the economy. A few years ago, researchers at the William’s Institute at UCLA conducted surveys and combed through state- tax records, and found that during the first years of same-sex weddings in Massachusetts, the local economy got a boost of more than $111 million. Studies of other states have shown similar benefits.

The benefits extend from a family budget to a state budget, says Lee Badgett, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who is behind much of the research.

At the personal level, for couples who live in a state that recognizes gay marriage, legalization has “probably saved them a lot of money,” she says. “It gives people security to be treated legally as a family and to have access to health care benefits, social security benefits,” she says.

Across the country about 150,000 same sex couples have gotten married in the last ten years according to Badgett. Meaning, a bump in business for the companies that make those weddings happen. A survey from TheKnot.com found that the average same-sex couple spends about $10,000 on their wedding.

“That’s millions and millions of dollars that are being pumped in to local economies and small businesses, like florists, caterers and hotels,” Badgett says, pointing out that all this business has come at an important time-- during an otherwise gloomy economy.

“Our business keeps tripling every year,” says Michael Jamrock, the founder of EnGAYgedweddings.com, a national clearinghouse where LGBT-friendly wedding services pay to advertise their businesses to same-sex couples about to tie the knot. When Jamrock started the company six years ago, Massachusetts and Connecticut were the only states where same-sex marriage was legal. “Whenever a new state becomes legal, the traffic to the website is just absolutely phenomenal,” he says.

Legalization can also boost state revenue, says economist Badgett. States see more sales tax dollars—from couples spending on their weddings, and guests who travel from out of state to celebrate. There can also be a rise in income tax revenue from couples filing jointly.

Badgett says legalizing gay marriage can also mean less government spending on social safety net programs, as married couples pool financial resources often rely on less public assistance.

“When marriage strengthens families in terms of economic security, that's also good for state budgets,” she says.

Legalizing gay marriage can also bring some extra costs. Spouses of state and private employees may qualify for more retirement and health-care benefits. But economists who’ve crunched the numbers say on net, those costs don't outweigh the overall revenues.

A report in 2004 from the Congressional Budget Office, then headed up by Doug Holtz-Eakin (who now runs the conservative American Action Forum) estimated that if same-sex marriage was recognized in all fifty states and at the federal level, the federal budget’s bottom line “would improve the budget’s bottom line to a small extent: by less than $1 billion in each of the next 10 years.”

After Finding $40,000 In Thrift-Store Couch, Roommates Return Money

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 08:32

Two months after they bought a couch for $20, three roommates realized it was stuffed with envelopes of cash. They decided to track down the rightful owner.

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How Do You Count 500 Million Votes? A Look At India's Election

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 08:32

Parliamentary elections in the world's largest democracy ended on Friday with a landslide victory for the opposition. Photos offer a glimpse at the logistics behind a massive, six-week election.

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When Numbers Bleed, Freeze, Starve And Die On A Battlefield: The Dark Poetry Of Data

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 08:25

Let me tell you a story — a history story — that's all numbers, only numbers, and still packs an emotional wallop. Button up. It's 1812. In Russia. It's cold.

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How we measure the poverty line(s)

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-16 08:23

Until the mid-1960s, the U.S. didn't have an official, federal poverty line.

In 1963, the Social Security Administration asked one of its researchers, Mollie Orshanksy, to report on child poverty. Orshansky quickly realized there was no way to tell exactly how many children were living in poverty, and devised a simple calculation to determine who was poor. 

She took the the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "thrifty food plan," which estimated the minimum amount of food that cash-strapped families could survive on, and still be healthy.

In 1963, that food cost $1,033 dollars for the year. Data from surveys at the time showed the average family spent about a third of their income on food, so Orshanksy took that $1,033 and multiplied it by three. Any family earning less than that amount was below the poverty line. Fifty years later, that is still how the federal government determines who is in poverty: the minimum you need for food, multiplied by three.

Many poverty researchers find that problematic, because these days, the average family spends about one-seventh of its income on food, not one third. But other costs, like housing, medical care, childcare and commuting have risen.

For the past few years, the Census Bureau has published a Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes those rising costs into account, along with whether people live in low-cost or high-cost areas. The Supplemental measure also adds in the benefits that many low-income people recieve like SNAP and subsidized housing.

Many poverty researchers agree the supplemental measure paints a more accurate picture of who is in poverty, but the government still uses Orshanky's original formula to determine its official measure.

Why The U.S. Shunned The Man Who Will Now Lead India

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 08:21

The U.S. and other Western governments ostracized Narendra Modi for the past decade. They are now willing to deal with him, but it's not clear how warm those relations might be.

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Wole Soyinka: I Just Want Those Monsters Exterminated

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 08:09

The Nigerian Nobel laureate says the abduction of more than 250 girls by extremist group Boko Haram is a defining moment for his country.

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GM To Pay Record Fine Over Safety Recall

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 08:06

The Department of Transportation on Friday announced that it's ordering General Motors to pay a $35 million civil penalty for the handling of its ignition switch problems.

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Is It Donald Sterling's Right To Fight For His Team?

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 08:05

LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling will reportedly fight the NBA to keep his team. The Barbershop guys weigh in on that feud, and Solange and Jay-Z's elevator dust-up.

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Medicare Eases Restrictions On Pricey Hepatitis C Treatment

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 08:02

This policy change would pay for treatment with a combination of new, expensive drugs for patients who haven't responded to older treatment regimens and are approaching or have cirrhosis of the liver.

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Does It Matter if Schools Are Racially Integrated?

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 08:01

Sixty years ago, the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling was supposed to level the field for all students. But some educators say we haven't made a lot of progress.

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The cookie factory that balances profit with progress

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-16 07:55

Through the 1960’s, companies felt social responsibility was part of their culture. That all changed after a 1970 essay by Milton Friedman in the New York Times –“The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits."  But recently a new type of corporate status has become popular, the Benefit Corporation, which requires companies to do social and environmental good.

Social responsibility has a warm, chocolatey, toasty fragrance. It's what the air inside Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, N.Y., is perfumed with, and it's enough to stop a reporter in her tracks.

"That would be remnants of brownies," says Mike Brady, the company's CEO. 

Greyston turns out 30,000 pounds of brownies a day for Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream. The bakery sold almost $10 million of brownies last year. But Greyston isn’t a typical company. It’s what's called a Benefit Corporation. That means in addition to normal  requirements, Greyston also has to create a “material positive impact on society and the environment.”

Brady can provide a substantial list of positive projects the company has undertaken: solar panels on its roof, buying sustainable cocoa and sugar, providing social support for workers who need extra help outside of work -- and when jobs open up, anyone gets the chance to work, no questions asked. The company even keeps a sign-up sheet in its reception area.

Companies can now become benefit corporations in 22 states, but how do you reconcile a social mission with a bottom line?

“I could spend 100 percent of my time trying to figure out the solutions for selling a good product." Brady says. "But I dedicate my time and the time of my team to trying to focus on how we can figure out the environment and the community, ultimately hoping that that’s going to lead to us selling more products, and that’s been the case so far.”

Erik Trojian, director of policy for B Lab, a non-profit that certifies benefit corporations, says that traditional corporations are limited by their duty to maximize shareholder profits, rendering them unable to focus on other missions.

"The unique thing of a benefit corporation is it deregulates the purpose of a corporation by saying, you can consider other factors than profit," he says. "You can consider society and the environment. In addition to profit."  

Trojian notes that because benefit corporations have to report and answer to shareholders, just like traditional corporations, unlike traditional corporations they can be held accountable for doing good.

"If the only goal of a corporation is to maximize profits, these investors don’t have a right to say, well, I have a mission-oriented fund, I invested in your company, you said you were going to consider society and the environment, but you stopped doing that. You have no recourse," he says, "but to sell your stock and get out or take what’s given."

Reporting to shareholders, he says, means a benefit corporation keeps operations transparent -- unlike a traditional corporation, which may focus on a specific, targeted social or environmental project like cleaning up a polluted waterway but isn't necessarily held responsible for its achievement in that area.

"That doesn’t mean the company isn’t polluting out the front door," says Trojian, "while it’s cleaning the back door. So that’s the dilemma with that,  it doesn’t really provide the consumer with a complete understanding of what the totality of the company’s operations are."

Lynn Stout, a professor of corporate and business law at Cornell Law School, says the misunderstanding lies elsewhere. The purpose of a corporation, she wants to make clear, is not to maximize shareholder profits.

"It turns out the purpose of the corporation is to do, and I’m taking this right from what the vast majority of corporate charters say," she says, "they say the purpose of the corporation is to do anything lawful.”

Stout notes that companies do often focus on shareholder value. One of the biggest reasons for this, she says is that tax law requires executive pay to be tied to a metric and very often that metric is share price. "So we shouldn’t be surprised that if we pay executives to bump up the share price, that’s what they do," she says. "But that’s not required by the law in the sense that you can’t sue managers for making decisions that reduce profits, or perhaps don’t move the share price up as far as it can go."

Stout says we don't need benefit corporations.

"I don’t think we do," she says, "if what you want to do is create legal space for managers to run companies in a socially responsible fashion."

But she notes, when it comes to focusing on social and environmental goals, there are some benefits, to having benefit corporations, such as the inherent appeal, to some consumers, that comes along with the label of benefit corporation. 

"It’s very much a marketing thing," she says.  "For example, Patagonia is a benefit corporation and they make a line of clothing suited to outdoor activities. A lot of people who like outdoor activities are very concerned about the environment. And they might be willing to buy Pataonia instead of another brand, because it’s a benefit corporation."

Then Stout  says there's the requirement to report to shareholders about social and environmental impact.

"The benefit corporation is supposed to provide information that’s available to shareholders and others, to show that they’re actually making progress towards that objective," she says. "And that requirement, that you provide information, may be very, very important."

"There’s a saying in business," Stout says, "that what you measure, is what you manage. And if all you’re measuring is profits, that is naturally  going to be your focus."

PODCAST: Some (temporary) relief at the pump

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-16 07:53

After a steady rise since February, gas prices are leveling off, and even dropping in parts of the country. But the relief is only temporary.

Europe's biggest construction project is currently underway in London: a new 73-mile long rail link passing underneath the British capital.

It's the time of year when TV networks try to get audiences -- and advertisers -- excited about their upcoming season. One genre that's now a tough sell to both is music.

GM Will Pay $35 Million Fine Over Massive Safety Recall

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-16 07:01

The much-criticized recall of more than 2 million vehicles for ignition-switch and air-bag problems has resulted in a record fine for the automaker, the Department of Transportation says.

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