National News

Rhode Island, hard hit by recession, slow to recover

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-04-23 11:09

When she was younger, Carolyn Rafaelian used to work in her dad’s jewelry factory as punishment if she misbehaved. Now, she and her sister run it.

“I love that factory smell,” she says, walking onto the factory floor. To her left are rows of waist-high cabinets, their drawers filled with beads. Some are yellow and orange like candy corns, others pink as grapefruit. To Rafaelian’s right, women sit at long tables, each working on a different task.

Alex and Ani founder and CEO Carolyn Rafaelian surveys vintage beads in the factory. 

Tracey Samuelson/Marketplace

Her dad started this factory in 1966, when Rhode Island was considered a global capital of jewelry manufacturing. During the 1980s, the state produced an estimated 80 percent of costume jewelry made in the U.S.

Much of that business has now moved overseas, but not Rafaelian. Instead of selling to wholesalers, who’d sell to stores, as her father had, Rafaelian launched her own line of jewelry called Alex and Ani, which specializes in thin metal bangles strung with charms. By 2009, the factory was making Alex and Ani products exclusively. In 2013, annual revenue hit $230 million (the company no longer releases revenue data).

“This is what you can’t find in China or anywhere else in the world, archives of stones,” Rafaelian says. “The sizes the shapes, the settings. They don’t even make this stuff anymore.”

The factory, Cinerama, holds drawers and drawers of vintage beads. 

Tracey Samuelson/Marketplace

Rafaelian insists that she can’t make her products in China — that part of their appeal is their story and their Rhode Island origins.

“There’s machines that would do it automatic, but that would probably take away 15 jobs, 20 jobs,” she says. “I like it this way. Everything’s being touched.”

But where she’s thrived, many other companies have folded. Rhode Island’s manufacturing sector, already struggling before the recession, is one reason economists believe the country’s smallest state has been one of the hardest hit by the economic downtown, as well as one of the slowest to return to pre-recession employment levels.

“Rhode Island’s manufacturing sector has essentially been cut in half in the past couple of decades,” says Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island’s governor. “We lost more than 80,000 manufacturing jobs.”

Governor Raimondo is just a couple months into the gig and very, very aware of the big structural problems her state’s economy faces. Like Rafaelian, Raimondo's dad also worked in the jewelry industry.

“My father made his career at the old Bulova watch factory in Providence,” she says. “At one time, Bulova employed over a thousand people. Those jobs are not coming back. My dad’s manufacturing, that is gone and I don’t see that coming back to America, much less Rhode Island.”

The jewelry and textiles and other labor-intensive products that Rhode Island historically made were more vulnerable to competition from China than other states, says Mary Burke, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston who recently published a paper on Rhode Island's recession and recovery.

She says by 2000, “the manufacturing sector was doing very poorly and in a lot of ways, that was hidden by the housing boom because the housing boom was creating jobs in construction and retail, [as well as] boosting spending in a lot of other things.”

As the housing boom turned into a housing bubble, the national economy suffered. Burke says the impact was magnified in Rhode Island because it had larger housing price increases during the boom years and deeper declines during the bust than other states in the region. 

During the recession, the state began earning the wrong kind of superlatives – its job losses were the worst in the region and it’s still 3.4 percent below its pre-recession peak in 2006. It had highest unemployment rate in the country for parts of 2013 and 2014.

But Burke says state’s economy is gradually recovering.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Raimondo says. “The decline has been over decades and it’s going to take time to turn the ship.”

To help make that turn, Raimondo recently proposed wide-ranging jobs plan, including everything from initiatives that seek to streamline the cost of doing business in the state to a new tourism campaign. She also wants manufacturing to play a role in the state’s future, but thinks the state needs to transition into high-tech manufacturing with better-paying jobs, even though she knows Rhode Island residents may not currently have the skills fill those positions. Another feature of her plan? Training programs — both for the jobs the state already has and the ones it hopes to create. 

Couples Counseling Catches On With Tech Co-Founders

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 10:56

Friction between close business partners is the reason many startups fail. But increasingly in Silicon Valley, co-founders of companies are turning to therapists before things go south.

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Dwayne Bowe, A Former Chief, Flies To Kansas City For Fan's Funeral

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 10:17

He plays in Cleveland now, but when Dwayne Bowe heard that Betty Johnson, his favorite fan in Kansas City, had died, he flew in to pay his respects.

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aha! Aha! AHA! How 3 Insightful Moments Changed Safeena Husain's Life

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 10:16

She ran away to an ashram to heal from an abusive childhood. She used the Yellow Pages to pick a new career. Then a harsh encounter in an Indian village inspired her to found a group to educate girls.

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Rubio Takes Up Koch Brothers Charge On Export-Import Bank

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 10:11

"We're not some sort of developing country," Rubio said Thursday, opposing reauthorization of the agency that helps finance American companies overseas. "We're a developed financial sector."

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Senate Confirms Loretta Lynch For Attorney General

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 10:01

On a mostly party-line vote, 10 Republicans joined the chamber's Democrats in a 56 to 43 vote to approve the long-delayed nomination to replace Eric Holder.

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Senate Confirms Loretta Lynch As Attorney General

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 09:58

After a five-month delay, Lynch will be the first black woman to lead the Justice Department. Now she has to build a relationship with the same Congress that stalled her confirmation.

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Live Tweets: Day 3 Of Boston Marathon Bombing Trial's Penalty Phase

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 09:25

A Boston jury is weighing whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be put to death for his crimes.

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Checking in with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-04-23 09:12

Brian Chesky is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, a company that he says may very well be “the worst idea that ever worked.” The website allows users to rent rooms, apartments, houses, and even yurts from people they’ve never met, all around the world.

Chesky and his roommate and co-founder, Joe Gebbia, came up with the idea in 2007. The pair couldn’t make rent and needed to come up with an idea fast. Luckily, a design conference was in town, something the two RISD graduates knew a little something about, and all the area hotels had been booked up. Chesky and Gebbia inflated a few air mattresses and rented them out to three people — the first three Airbnb customers.

Photos of the first three Airbnb guests to stay in Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia’s San Francisco apartment. 

Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace

Since then, the company’s grown rapidly. Chesky explained some of the company’s future plans while giving Kai Ryssdal, a tour of their San Francisco headquarters.

Chesky on whether Airbnb is a tech company, a hospitality company, or a social media company:
“I define the company as whatever the customer or person’s buying. I think our guests are buying hospitality. Now, I don’t think of us as a hospitality company the way these 100 year old companies are. In those ways, we look and feel a lot like a technology company. But I think we are a hospitality company powered by design and technology.”

Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace

On who Airbnb’s competition is, and isn’t:

“We are primarily a new form of travel. As we’ve grown, hotels have grown. Hotels have record occupancy rates. And a lot of people, when we launched, thought we couldn’t coexist. But we are fundamentally a different way to travel. People stay in Airbnbs almost twice as long so it’s almost like a whole new behavior.”

On making mainstream partnerships:

“We’re definitely leaning more mainstream … now we’re one of the official housing providers for the Rio Olympics next year.”

On criticisms about Airbnb’s effect on rent prices:

“I’m totally sympathetic to the complaints. Ultimately, we want to enrich the cities we’re in. When we launch, these other externalities happen. That being said, I fundamentally believe Airbnb is a really good thing for the city of San Francisco, New York, many other cities.”

The Airbnb offices consist of a mix of open work spaces and private conference rooms designed to look like real-life Airbnb rentals. 

Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace

On how long he plans to stay at Airbnb:

Chesky names two people he admires – Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. “I think really great entrepreneurs, they do one thing and that one thing is so significant that that’s how they’re remembered and that’s what they do for a very long period of time.”

 Airbnb uses one wall in their office as a timeline for major events in the company. 

Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace

Earlier this month, Chesky was named one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People. His profile was written by Jonathan Ive, senior vice president of design at Apple.

U.S. Counterterrorism Operations Kill 2 Hostages Of Al-Qaida

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 09:03

President Obama announced that a U.S. drone strike killed two hostages held by al-Qaida: one American and one Italian. Separate operations also killed two U.S. citizens who were members of al-Qaida.

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Lunch With Monet, Dinner With Jackson Pollock

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 08:55

Two new books focus on the culinary lives of these two artists. Turns out, their approaches to food provide a new way of thinking about their two very different approaches to art.

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Pine Beetle timber boom could soon bust

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-04-23 08:51

When you hear the word “boom” in the West, you usually think of the energy industry, but in the last 15 years, a timber boom has taken over.

Thanks to the mountain pine beetle, a tiny ravenous bug that’s now chomped its way through over 40 million acres of forest in the U.S., forest managers have turned to the timber industry to clean up all that dead wood, leading to a surge in jobs and enterprise. 

But now, the bugs have almost eaten up all the host trees. And that raises the question, what’s next for the industry?

Hank Lucido looks just like a lumberjack out of a fairy tale with the big burly beard, the stocking cap and the boisterous laugh. Today, the company he manages, West Range Reclamations, is harvesting beetle-killed ponderosa pines on the Colorado-Wyoming border. He gives a holler and a log loader’s giant metal claw starts grabbing up several logs at a time and stacking them on a logging truck to ship for processing — even smaller branches and rotting logs.

“With a lot of our byproduct, we grind it up and we make the colored bark mulch. Then there are other places, such as dairies and horse barns that like to have wood shavings. We sell that product too,” Lucido says.

Lucido's company also supplies wood for products never before manufactured in the region, like pellets for heating stoves and biofuel for the energy grid. Timber industry jobs in Wyoming have increased by 25 percent in the last 10 years, but Lucido says all this work could soon come to an end. That’s because the quality of the wood available to the industry is deteriorating, fast. The pine beetle has killed all its best host trees and what’s left is rotting from the inside out.

Standing next to a pile of wood, Lucido jabs his finger into the pulpy center of one log.

“Some of this, when it gets this red rot to it, if you were to grind that, it would turn to dust. When you go to grab it and it crumbles, it’s not worth anything to us.”    

And it’s not worth anything to other businesses that depend on the lumber from pines, either, like Rich Arbour’s. He manufactures rustic furniture and sells it in his store, Mountain Woods in Laramie, Wyoming. He used to sell lots of dining tables and bunk beds made from blue stain, a unique-looking wood made from beetle-killed trees.

But now?

“We only have one, and it’s a particularly nice piece, and that’s this entertainment center here.”

He points at the streaks of reds and blues on the cabinet’s door.

“The beetles have infected the wood,” Arbour says, “the tree is trying to preserve itself, and it’s emitting enzymes. And the enzymes are what makes that color in the wood. It makes for pretty woods.”

He says when the pine beetle was a big deal in the news, people couldn’t get enough of blue stain furniture. But with the epidemic on the decline, he says, “The interest in it has waned, in a big way.”

It will likely continue to wane as the forest turns green again. And timber manager Mark Westfahl says the U.S. Forest Service will likely manage that next generation of young trees with a tight fist until they’re mature enough to harvest.

“How long will we be offering traditional timber sales?” Westfahl asks. “That’s kind of to be seen. It really depends on how long the trees continue to stand.”

Westfahl is the guy issuing the Forest Service contracts to loggers like Hank Lucido, but with fewer and fewer trees left, Westfahl says they’ll have to start weighing the health of the timber industry against the health of the forest.

Logger Lucido says that means the timber industry is running out of time to harvest what’s left.

“If we don’t get into this wood in the next five years, it’s going be blown over or burned up. And once it falls onto the ground, it’s done,” says Lucido.

But he says, when the pine beetle boom is over, he trusts the timber industry will still have a role to play, managing a healthier forest less prone to such epidemics in the future.

Giovanni Lo Porto, Slain Italian Aid Worker, Loved Pakistan And Its People

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 08:48

Lo Porto was kidnapped in January 2012 soon after he arrived in Pakistan. President Obama announced today that the Italian aid worker was inadvertently killed in January in a U.S. strike.

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Tidal's wave is breaking

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-04-23 08:15
$1.7 billion

That's the budget for a planned NFL stadium, approved by the city of Carson, California Tuesday. Similar plans went through in Inglewood earlier this year. There are a few franchises weighing a move to Los Angeles after about 20 years with no NFL presence in the city. While a team could make a killing on luxe suites and skyboxes, moving to LA is a big expense, and teams in smaller markets like Green Bay enjoy devoted fans and healthy profits.

$56 million

That's what Jay Z paid for Aspiro and its streaming music service Tidal. Despite the massive star-power behind it and a promise to pay artists more than rival services, Tidal seems to be failing after about a month, the Guardian reported, dropping off the top-700 App Store chart. Meanwhile, Spotify and Pandora are still going strong.

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The date Marvel Comics published Avengers #1, and the world first met the super-team. Before "Avengers: Age of Ultron" hits theaters next week, the Wall Street Journal has analyzed 50 years of Avengers comic book covers, showing how color palettes, technique and printing technology have evolved. 

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That's the estimated buying power of Latinos in the U.S., and big brands are taking notice. Target has begun reaching out to millennial Latinos with a new campaign called "#SinTraduccion," focused on words and ideas that don't always translate.

8 million

That's how many taxpayers were disconnected from the IRS phone lines this season, up from 360,000 last year, the Washington Post reported. Agency officials say budget cuts and additional expenses from enforcing the health care bill were to blame. According to a report by House Republicans, the IRS spent $134 million less on customer service this year, all told.

Thoughts Can Fuel Some Deadly Brain Cancers

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 08:13

A doctor-scientist's long quest to help children with a rare form of brain cancer has led to the discovery that high levels of brain activity can make glioma tumors grow faster.

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Warren Weinstein, American Killed In U.S. Operation, Was Veteran Aid Worker

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 07:44

The USAID contractor was kidnapped in 2011 from his home Pakistan just days before he was scheduled to leave the country. He spent much of his career in some of the world's toughest places.

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7 Lost American Slang Words

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 07:03

Remembering cool words that are no longer cool — or even used much.

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Germany's Largest Bank Fined $2.5 Billion In Rate-Fixing Scandal

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 06:58

At least 29 employees of Deutsche Bank are thought to have participated in manipulating the Libor rate from 2005-2009.

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Feeling Blue? Share A Laugh With Archbishop Desmond Tutu

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 06:05

When he chuckled at a conference last week, the world was definitely a happier place. And when he spoke, he reminded us all how little moments can have a big impact.

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U.S. Operations Killed Two Hostages Held By Al-Qaida, Including American

NPR News - Thu, 2015-04-23 05:48

Two Americans who worked for al-Qaida were also killed in the counterterrorism operations in January, the White House said. The two hostages killed included an Italian who had been held since 2012.

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