National News

Housing market recovery is limping along

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 08:45

The Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development report on residential construction for February is out Tuesday.

Economists expect a moderate decline in housing starts from January, and a slight uptick in housing permits. In January, housing starts were up 18.7 percent from the previous year; permits were up 8.1 percent year-over-year.

Economist Patrick Newport at IHS Global Insight says the housing sector – both homebuilding and existing-home sales – is growing by approximately 5 percent on an annual basis at this point. To contribute meaningfully to the economic recovery, he says the sector would have to grow by at least 20 percent annually.

Instead, he says, “the market for single-family construction has hardly improved at all in the last 18 months.” Multifamily housing is doing much better, with many young people moving to hip urban centers on the coasts — like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. — and choosing to rent or buy small apartments. Luxury home-building is also doing better than the market for single-family starter- and move-up homes; people in upper wealth brackets have experienced more recovery in their assets since the recession ended than lower- and middle-income Americans.

These developments mirror the struggle of many mid-market homebuilders, and their construction workforce. Construction payrolls peaked in March 2007 at 7.7 million; the crash left only 5.4 million construction workers employed by January 2011, a 30 percent decline. Now, construction employment in the U.S. has recovered to 6.3 million—still nearly 20 percent below the peak.

Employment, hours, and earnings in the construction sector, from the national Current Employment Statistics survey.

Courtesy:Bureau of Labor Statistics

“The housing market started crashing about ten years ago, and we’re just barely a third of the way back, so we’re just improving at a snail’s pace,” says Newport.

The biggest challenge is demographic, says Daren Blomquist at RealtyTrac. “With the homeownership rate at historic lows, especially among the younger crowd, the first-time homebuyer is largely absent in this market,” he says.

Female power fuels Pinterest's value

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 08:43

The buying power and influence of women is fueling interest in Pinterest, the online photo-sharing site that's something of a digital scrapbook.

The company says it has raised $367 million in its latest round of funding, valuing Pinterest at $11 billion — more than double its previous valuation less than one year ago.

"Women still are some of the biggest spenders. They control a lot of the... family budget. In categories where they are not the buyer, they are also an influencer," says Carol Phillips, president of the marketing consultancy Brand Amplitude and professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame.

Pinterest has some important user stats. Women make up about 70 percent of its users. And, one-third of its users are in $100,000+ households, which is also important, says Don Stanley, who teaches digital marketing at the University of Wisconsin and is founder of 3Rhino Media.

"Pinterest is a mature network," Stanley says, "It has the deepest penetration in demographics that tend to have the higher socioeconomic statuses."

Congressman resigns over Downton Abbey faux pas

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 08:43

Last month, the Washington Post published a piece about a Republican congressman. 

Aaron Schock, who's 33, had outfitted his Capitol Hill office with "a gold-colored wall sconce," a "crystal chandelier," and "massive arrangements of pheasant feathers." 

All that was inspired by one of the congressman's favorite shows, "Downton Abbey." 

That article raised some questions — namely, about how he paid for that redecoration, and Schock ultimately spent $40,000 to re-pay the government.

Well this morning, Politico reported Schock "billed the federal government and his campaign for logging roughly 170,000 miles on his personal car," but when he sold that car, it "had ... roughly 80,000 miles on the odometer." 

This afternoon, Congressman Schock resigned.

And so, he'll have to give up something that was so important to Lord Grantham: His title. for companies

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 08:43

ICANN,  the organization that governs internet domain names, recently rolled out hundreds of new domain extensions. We still have ".com" and ".net," but they're joined by ".app" and ".baby," as well as foreign language extensions. 

The domains that had multiple bids went to auction or arbitration, and Google broke records by paying $25 million for ".app". Johnson & Johnson paid $3 million for ".baby" and a Chinese corporation paid $600,000 for ".信息" which is Chinese for "information."

The most controversial new domain may be ".sucks" which will be administered by a company called Vox Populi. They won the rights to administer the extension in an auction — the exact price they paid is confidential. 

Vox Populi says ".sucks" will serve as a place for consumers to publicly air grievances against companies, but the pricing scheme raised eyebrows by allowing trademarked corporations to purchase their ".sucks" domain names early for $2,500


Secret Service Head Clancy Tells Panel: 'This Is My First Test'

NPR News - Tue, 2015-03-17 08:40

Answering pointed questions about new claims of misconduct by his agents, Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy says he had a "good stern talk" with his staff about why he wasn't told about it sooner.

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Meet Chef Chane, Ethiopia's Version Of The Infamous 'Soup Nazi'

NPR News - Tue, 2015-03-17 08:35

Like the famously curt broth ladler on Seinfeld, Addis Ababa's Chef Chane is known for serving up both delectable cuisine and insults. He says he learned his vaunted culinary skills in royal kitchens.

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Tweets: Under Pressure — Service Director Testifies

NPR News - Tue, 2015-03-17 07:40

Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy takes to Capitol Hill and faces tough questions about the agency's latest scandal.

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Starbucks leaves room for a conversation about race

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 07:37

The number of Starbucks locations worldwide as of late 2014. Now, some of those cafes could also start serving discussion on race relations. A new company initiative has baristas writing "Race Together" on cups, and striking up a conversation about racial divides in the U.S. It's upping the ante significantly from McDonald's "Pay with Lovin'" promotion, and it's skewered thoroughly over at the Washington Post's Compost blog.


The estimated number of Americans who spend any given night homeless on the street. Oakland, California carpenter Greg Kloehn is trying to fight homelessness in his city by building tiny houses on wheels out of salvaged wood, appliance parts and other debris.

$28.5 billion

The bonus pool for securities employees in New York last year, according to a report from the city comptroller last week. That's almost twice the roughly $15 billion all American workers earning minimum wage made in 2014, according to the New York Times' Upshot.


The total amount of money remaining on former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland's contract. Borland announced Tuesday he plans on retiring from the NFL. Borland cited health concerns over concussions for leaving the league after playing professionally for one year.


The price for a pack of Gillette Fusion ProGlide razors on Amazon. That's especially startling when razor handles can be purchased more or less for a song. You've always wondered by blades are so expensive, so we looked into it for our ongoing series investigating your questions about business and the economy.

PODCAST: A cost/benefit analysis for playing in the NFL

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 07:35

First up: San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland surprised the sports world by announcing he'll retire from professional football at age 24, due to the risks associated with concussions. We chat with Sports Business Journal's Daniel Kaplan about Borland's decision and what it means for the game. Then, it's a short trip over to Oakland, where we talk to carpenter Greg Kloehn, who uses salvaged wood and junk to build tiny homes for people without them.

7 Creative Wedding Ideas From History

NPR News - Tue, 2015-03-17 07:33

Couples nowadays are tying the knot in original ways — like some pioneering newlyweds in America's past.

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Quiz: Women at the head of the class

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 07:32

Most college professors are male, but that’s not the case in earlier education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Chris Borland retires from NFL, citing brain concerns

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 07:19

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland is retiring at age 24, citing concerns about the long-term health consequences of repeated head injuries.

What makes Chris Borland a unique case is that he’s choosing to leave the NFL without having racked up numerous concussions while playing in the league. says sports economist Victor Matheson, a professor at The College of the Holy Cross.

“Think about Chris Borland as the gambler at the casino,” says Matheson. “He’s been on a great winning streak so far. He’s had a great rookie season, made over a million dollars, and the question is, ‘Is now the time to walk away with the winnings or do you play for a couple extra seasons and let the money ride?’”

Between Borland’s contract and potential endorsements, Matheson says this could be the best paying job the linebacker will ever have -- yet he decided the income wasn't worth the potential health problems. 

It’s a cost-benefit calculation players – at all levels – have to make, says John Culhane, a professor at Widener Law School. He’s studied compensation and health risks in the sport and thinks more players may begin to follow Borland's lead, either in the NFL or in school and recreational leagues.

He says NFL players may decide “if my brain's not operating when I’m 40 years old, it doesn’t matter if I have $5 million or $10 million.”

While it’s difficult to predict the cost of brain injuries, Culhane says players with severe health problems could eventually rack up million dollar medical bills to go with those million dollar paychecks. 

The path to the middle class in China

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 07:05

It’s three in the morning in the most populated city of the world’s most populated country. Most of Shanghai’s 24 million inhabitants are fast asleep, but it’s rush hour inside the city’s largest wholesale fish market.

The Tongchuan Road market supplies the metropolis with one of its most popular staple foods. Vendors wearing rubber boots rush through miles of twisting, cramped corridors covered with a thick film of fish guts. It’s a slimy, lively labyrinth that’s difficult to navigate, not unlike finding one’s way into China’s elusive middle class.

Zhang Wenquan knows this all too well. The tall, muscular 47-year old kicks off his sneaker. He pulls on a pair of camouflaged rubber boots before entering the sprawling market, oblivious to the calls from competing vendors. Zhang grew up in the impoverished countryside of Anhui province. When he turned 17, he came to Shanghai to work on an assembly line. He met his wife at the factory, and they now sell fish at a small neighborhood market. Zhang wakes up at midnight each day to buy his merchandise here.

“Buying fish is tougher than raising children,” Zhang says. “By this afternoon, everything I just bought will be dead and worthless.”

His children, on the other hand, could someday be the family’s ticket into China’s middle class. “I’m not working this hard so that my daughters end up working as fish sellers like me,” Zhang says. “They’ve got to go to good colleges and find good jobs with good salaries.”

Zhang has twin daughters, a stroke of luck in a country with a one-child policy — but that’s where he sees his luck ending. His girls are 16. They were born in Shanghai and call the city home. Yet Zhang and his wife had to send the girls to the countryside last year so that they could finish their schooling. “They can’t legally attend high school in Shanghai because they don’t have Shanghai Hukou,” he explains.

Hukou means ‘household registration’. If you don’t have Hukou for Shanghai – in other words if you’re not registered to live there – then you’re not eligible for social benefits like health insurance, a pension, or even a high school education for your children. You have to return to where your family originally came from to qualify for those benefits.

China’s modern Hukou system has its roots in the country’s old communist-style command economy. Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong revived the ancient household registration system in 1958 as a mechanism to restrict peasants from swarming into the country’s largest cities. After the economic reforms of the 1980s, the system was relaxed to allow migrants to move to the city, but strict rules remain governing where their children can attend school and take college entrance exams.

Hukou supporters say controlling China’s massive population like this has helped prevent the creation of slums around its biggest cities that are common sights in the developing world.

The Zhang family Hukou belongs to his wife’s ancestral village in the countryside of Jiangsu province, and that’s why the couple has been without their daughters for more than a year.

At six in the morning, Zhang arrives at his stall in a wet market in the Xujiahui neighborhood of central Shanghai. He’s dropped off the fresh fish, and his wife, Shi Huiqun, takes over the work so that he can go home and sleep. The 42-year old tells me business is tougher than it’s ever been. “Competition here is fierce," she says with a sigh. "We used to be able to save money, but now we’re paying for our daughters to attend school back in my hometown, so we’re close to breaking even.”

Shi and Zhang own an apartment in Shanghai, a house in the countryside, a foreign car, and they make around the equivalent of $15,000 a year – three times more than the average urban family makes in China. Yet when I ask her if she considers herself middle class, Shi shakes her head.  “I don’t think small business owners like us belong to the middle class. We don’t make that much money,” she says.

"It's a system that many think is holding China's economy back," says James McGregor, Asia Chairman of APCO and author of the book, "One Billion Customers." "Now they need to legalize these people because they need a new stage of consumption. And the next consumers are these migrants."

McGregor says the first wave of China’s middle class were the 400 million people who grew up in China’s largest cities and are now – on paper – upper class. They became wealthy on China’s real estate boom and they now drink Starbucks, own iPhones, and drive imported luxury cars.  “Maybe the middle class is China’s next wave of migrant workers who are getting legal registration in the cities and getting city services and becoming the next consumers,” says McGregor.  “Actually, if you look at studies of the future of Chinese economy, that group of people, if you can get 10 million of them a year and they can become consumers, you can have 6 percent growth in China for 20 years.”

Nearly half of Shanghai’s 24 million residents are in the same conundrum as Zhang and Shi: According to Shanghai’s municipal statistics bureau, some ten million children can’t attend Shanghai schools because they don’t possess city Hukou. Nationwide, it adds up to nearly a third of China’s urban population: a quarter of a billion Chinese lack legal rights to social welfare and high school for their children in the cities where they reside.

China’s leaders have vowed to reform the Hukou system, but so far, meaningful change has not taken place. Meanwhile, migrants continue to move into the country’s largest cities.

Today, though, Shi Huiqun is heading in the opposite direction. She’s driving two hours north of Shanghai to her rural hometown to visit her twin daughters. Shi has rented a bare, unfurnished apartment for them located next door to their private middle school. The 16-year olds have had to repeat the 9th grade, because the curriculum in their new school is a year ahead of that of their former middle school in Shanghai.

When their mother arrives, the twins are studying their textbooks side by side. Their grandmother, who can’t read or write, stands guard behind them, making sure they complete their homework.  Zhang Ming studies physics while Zhang Yue reads her English homework out loud. “Our own planet, the Earth is becoming more and more crowded and polluted because of the rapid increase of p-p-p-population,” she recites in broken English with help from her sister.

The two are identical twins. They wear identical jackets and identical hairstyles – it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. Throughout our conversation, though, their mother recites their differences to me: Zhang Ming is ranked 4th in class, Zhang Yue is 15th; Zhang Ming’s eyesight is worse; Zhang Yue is quieter; Zhang Ming is temperamental; Zhang Yue is lazier. The girls nod in unison.

Shi’s daughters tell me school here is much more demanding than in Shanghai. They’re in class from six in the morning until 9 at night, and they attend half days on Sundays. “I’d prefer to be in Shanghai,” says Zhang Yue. “I feel like a foreigner here. I think China should allow children to attend school where they grew up. We consider ourselves Shanghainese, but according to our Hukou, we’re not.”

Despite what their Hukou says, the family has come a long way. Shi accompanies me to the farm she grew up on down the road from the school – a couple acres of crops, pigs, chicken, and sheep. “I grew up here in a house with a dirt floor,” Shi tells me.

Life is better now, but not for everyone. Hukou laws have forced parents throughout China to leave their children behind – they’re called ‘left-behind children,’ and there are an estimated 60 million of them, nearly as much as the entire population of the United Kingdom. Shi isn’t too worried about her daughters because she and her husband are just a two-hour drive away. But for most left-behind children, that’s not the case. With their parents in another part of China, many of them drop out of school, all but removing an entire population of Chinese from the dream of making it into the middle class.

Bhutan, World's Lowest-Ranked Soccer Team, Advances In World Cup Qualifying

NPR News - Tue, 2015-03-17 06:57

It had been ranked 209th out of 209 national teams — but Bhutan will now progress to the second round of World Cup Qualifying, after beating Sri Lanka in consecutive matches.

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Tiny houses give homeless a foothold

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 06:00

On a given night, over half a million people in the U.S. are out on the streets. That statistic comes from the federal government's point-in-time count last year.

In Oakland, California, carpenter Greg Kloehn is trying to help those around him without a place to live. His project is a small one — tiny to be exact.

We're driving in Kloehn's beat-up van through North Oakland's industrial landscape, looking for building materials. He pulls over at a pile of construction debris from an old Victorian house. We get out and he picks up a few old two-by-fours from the heap. "These are what I like", he says.

Kloehn turns trash into tiny houses. He's made about 30 so far. They're rectangular structures, big enough to sleep in, but not stand in. Kloehn builds them on wheels, so they're mobile. Then he gives them to people without homes, like Gregory Clinton.

Clinton's regular-sized house was foreclosed on ten years ago. Now he lives below a highway in a community of people with Kloehn's tiny houses. Clinton calls them “street homes.”

The houses are lined up like a wagon train, each made of different objects—old wood studs, futon frames, plywood. Some have glass refrigerator shelves for windows. One has a washing machine top for a door. The houses are a variety of colors, whatever paint Kloehn could find dumped around Oakland.

Clinton says Kloehn has inspired him to improve his tiny home. He built a little addition and has decorated. He used pieces of hard, white plastic to hide the wheels so his house looks more like a permanent residence than a mobile home.

Outside, Clinton has plants and artwork: a print of Van Gogh's "Cafe Terrace at Night." He didn't know it was so famous.

"I love that one," he says. "See the little people and the stuff. It's got everyone coming out to eat at the cafe. It's nice."

Clinton's neighbor, Sheila Williams says her tiny house is much better than living in a tent. “I feel a lot safer,” she says, “When you live in a tent you get sick when it rains in the winter time. Your shoes get wet and you have to stuff them with paper or change your socks. And the rats come in and get all over you.”

Williams says this is her first home in 32 years. She's proud of it. In the back, she points out a little mailbox with a red flag. It says "no soliciting" on the side.

While living in her tiny home, Williams has been able to meet with a case worker and is scheduled to move into an apartment soon. She plans to give the tiny house away to her neighbor, who lives in a tent and has breast cancer.

These tiny homes are not going to solve homelessness says Kloehn. But he says they give people a little more stability so they can work on getting off the street.

Back at his workshop, Kloehn shows me a new house he's finished up. It's all ready to go, he just has to decide who will get it. That's hard to do, he says. The demand these days is high.

Most N.Y. Marketplace Plans Lack Out-Of-Network Coverage

NPR News - Tue, 2015-03-17 05:49

With a few exceptions, all the policies sold in the individual New York market won't pay for routine expenses from doctors or hospitals not in their networks.

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Facebook's Suicide Prevention Tools Connect Friends, Test Privacy

NPR News - Tue, 2015-03-17 05:35

When online social networks open up spaces for suicide prevention with untrained peer support, they walk the fragile line between invasion of privacy and supporting those who need help.

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U.S. Returns Dozens Of Looted Artifacts To Iraq

NPR News - Tue, 2015-03-17 05:18

Some of the artifacts date back more than 4,000 years. Among them is the head of a statue of Assyrian King Sargon II, similar to one destroyed by militants with the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

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49ers Linebacker Quits After 1 Season, Citing Safety Concerns

NPR News - Tue, 2015-03-17 04:42

Concerns over possible brain injuries prompt Chris Borland to end his NFL career after one season. Borland, 24, said, "I just honestly want to do what's best for my health."

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Alison Bechdel on storytelling "for the forces of good"

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-03-17 04:01

This week Marketplace Tech is exploring South by Southwest Interactive, the tech-oriented event that draws tens of thousands of people to Austin, Texas every year.

We spoke with cartoonist and memoirist Alison Bechdel, who came to SXSW to talk about telling stories that work “for the forces of good.” For 25 years, Bechdel chronicled the lesbian community in her comic strip "Dykes To Watch Out For." Since then, she has published her second graphic memoir, won a MacArthur Fellowship, and watched the Bechdel test take on a life of its own. We talked with her about record-keeping, Google image search,and putting Silicon Valley through the Bechdel test.

I want to ask you something about record keeping. This is something you have done since you were a kid. Diaries, pictures, stuff like that. It’s informed your work. How do you keep records now?

A lot of my record keeping is now digital. I’ve got email, photos and I keep my diary on my computer. Somehow that doesn't make it any easier to find anything. I thought it would but...

Do you have a folder that says "diary"?

I do. Sort of, yeah. My archives are just proliferating. The older I get, the more stuff there is. It's sort of like my aging brain. It gets harder to find stuff.

Do memoirs matter in a world where Facebook summarizes your year for you every year?

Well, yeah. you can't reflect meaningfully on something that you're posting in half a second. I think memoir is still really an important act.

I want to ask about your process a little bit. How has technology the cartoonist’s job since you’ve started?

Oh man. It’s changed it on every level, profoundly. I started way before the internet, way before photoshop when I drew stuff by hand and you copied at the copy shop and put it in the mail. I think the most profound shift for me has been Google Image Search. If you wanted to find out what a 1968 Oldsmobile looked like, you had to go to the picture file at the library where someone hopefully had clipped out a photo of that car. Now that I can draw anything in the universe, my tendency is to want to draw everything in the universe, which is its own sort of problem, but I’m working on that.

Do you get more sleep now that you’re a MacArthur “genius?” Or did you get more sleep before?

I definitely got more sleep before. It’s a very nerve-wracking experience. I am still adjusting to it. But it’s really making me feel like I better up my game.

What are your plans for upping your game?

I don’t know. I’m just working. I’m trying to work harder.

This is something you’re probably very bored of talking about, but I wanted to ask you about the…

The Bechdel test


This is my great legacy.

How do you feel about that?

At first I was sort of bewildered by it and didn’t feel like it was really mine. It was an idea I stole from someone else who probably stole it from Virginia Woolf. But now I am very proud of it. I feel like it reflects the idea that a woman can be a human, a fully human character and subject.

You may have heard that there is a diversity problem in the tech industry.

Oh really...

This may come as a shock to you. But I wanted to ask you if you would consider what a Bechdel test might be for a company?

Are there more than two women in managing positions?

We would hope so.

Do they talk to each other? I don’t know. But it’s a good template that you can apply to any  number of fields.

I think we are at a good moment right now. In the tech industry but also in the media. We are becoming more aware of white male hegemony. How do straight white men help to create a society where there is more power sharing with people outside of their group?

The fact that we are even able to see this, that people are aware of it is because that hegemony is not as hegemonic as it once was. The demographics of this country are really changing. I guess just to examine your privilege. It’s very hard to see what privilege is. We all want to believe that we deserve everything we have. And we don’t all have the same chances. So just looking carefully at that, I think, is the most anyone can do.

We’re asking people while we're here about their pitch...

Yeah. I am on a panel about storytelling and I want to talk about what makes a story good. Not just a compelling story, but what makes a story a story that works for the forces of good.

What is a story that works for the forces of good?

Oh, anything. You know most things. Advertising, propaganda...I think it’s important for any kind of story, especially journalism or non-fiction storytelling, to allow for its own possibility of being wrong.