National News

Do federal contractors save the government money?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-07-31 13:00

Groups of federal contract workers have been walking off the job and holding protests every few months.  

It’s part of a campaign called Good Jobs Nation, backed by organized labor. It's pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage for federal contract workers and union representation. The most recent demonstration was in Washington, in late July.

Sontia Bailey is one of the government contract workers speaking out at the rallies.  She’s a cashier in a Senate cafeteria, working for a contractor hired by the government. It pays her $10.59 per hour.

Sontia Bailey

Good Jobs Nation

I met her recently in a park down the hill from the Capitol.

“I’ve worked at the Capitol for two years and seven months,” she told me.

Bailey says her Capitol paycheck didn’t pay all of her bills. So, two years ago, she got a second job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. 

She says she had a miscarriage recently because she was working so much.

“I do, probably like 40 hours plus at the Capitol, then 30 plus hours at KFC," she says. "So I really didn’t have time to rest, because I never had a day off.”

The government started replacing full-time federal workers with contract employees back in the '80s, under the Reagan administration. The idea has had bipartisan support over the years and is part of initiatives to control government spending. 

Supporters of privatization say it does save the government money. Among them: Adrian Moore, vice president of the free-market Reason Foundation, says contractors are more efficient than the federal government.

“Contractors don’t use as many workers to do the same work," he says. "They run with leaner workforces.”

But Moore also says contracting has to be done well to save money. Contractors have to be supervised.

Jeffrey Miron is an economist at Harvard and the libertarian Cato Institute. He says supervision is needed from the moment contractors submit bids to the federal government.

“The bidding process can be somewhat messy and complicated," he says. "It can sometimes be rigged, it can sometimes be manipulated. So it’s not a completely fail-safe approach.”

That’s led to a backlash against privatization, and assertions that it doesn’t save the government money. Tara Young is an organizer with Good Jobs Nation. 

I met Young in the park with the Senate cashier, Sontia Bailey. Young says the contractor employees make so little, they end up on government programs for the poor. Bailey is on Medicaid.

“Workers are on Section 8, they use food stamps," she says. "So we’re paying workers extra money, really, to help them with their low pay.”

Young says taxpayers get hit up twice: once to pay for the contract workers’ salaries and again to pay for government programs they need to get by. 


The Plan To Give Pell Grants To Prisoners

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 12:42

The Obama administration unveiled a pilot program Friday morning that will once again allow some prisoners access to federal Pell grants.

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Autonomous weapons and the eventual robot uprising

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-07-31 12:13

This past week, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and about a thousand other artificial intelligence researchers signed a letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons.

The remote-operated drones that we use in modern warfare can already fly virtually undetected and use advanced targeting systems to drop bombs on buildings and people below — but the key phrase is "remote-operated." A human is usually controlling the weapon from afar.

Professor Noel Sharkey teaches robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. and is also chairman of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. He signed the letter and told us why:

"What the big concern is the step where we delegate the decision to kill people to the machine, and that hasn't been used yet. In the U.K., we have the Taranis, which is a fully autonomous combat aircraft. And that has been tested in Australia, searching for targets on its own. You've got the X-47B in the United States, which looks like something Batman would fly. And that's had very advanced testing. But then China and Russia have developments, and so have South Korea. But America's still the leader here, as far as we know. You've got DARPA there developing things like an autonomous submarine, now in Phase 2 or 3 of testing, which hunts other submarines and sinks them. Then you've got the Crusher, which is a fully autonomous 7.5 ton truck with a machine gun on board.... The developments could escalate at any time and take off depending on the type of conflict."

Ready to build yourself a fallout bunker?  

Daniela Hernandez, who writes about AI and autonomous weapons for Fusion, says the debate over AI ethics has been carried on before this letter:

Although the debate has gotten more press lately, thanks to high-profile figures like Musk and Hawking taking notice, it’s been ongoing for some time now. Earlier this year, the United Nations called for an international treaty that would ban fully autonomous weapons. In 2012, Human Rights Watch published a report stating “that such revolutionary weapons would not be consistent with international humanitarian law and would increase the risk of death or injury to civilians during armed conflict."

Part of that “risk of death or injury” comes from the fact that AI systems make mistakes. Earlier this month, for instance, Google Photos mistook images of black people for gorillas. That’s offensive and awful, but no one died as a result of the software flaw. In military scenarios ... people’s lives are on the line.

Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-07-31 12:04

Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The city beat out Almaty, Kazakhstan, which was the only other bid. This will make Beijing the first city in over a century to host the summer and winter Olympics.

These games come at a very different time in China’s economic life than the 2008 games. “China was a very different country in 2001," says Rob Schmitz, Marketplace China correspondent. "Things were looking up. The economy was going crazy. It was going almost at double digit speed,” he says. “In the years leading up to 2008, we had 10 to 14 percent GDP growth. That’s not the case anymore. We’ve got 5 to 7 percent GDP growth and things are slowing down.”

The games will happen seven years from now, and China will have to build the infrastructure to support the Olympics. "China's trying to change the way that its economy is run. They're trying to turn from an infrastructure-led economy to a consumer-growth-led economy. And here we have a huge, huge infrastructure project," Schmitz says. "This is the old model of growth. This is not the direction that China wants to go with its economy on paper at least." 

Pollution was a big issue for the Summer Olympics and will affect the Winter Olympics as well. “Beijing has made some significant efforts, some significant movement, on the pollution issue," Schmitz says. "Realistically, there’s going to be a lot of pollution for years to come. What we’ll probably see is a repeat of the 2008 Olympics, where they flipped the switch and basically had all these restrictions on factories, and when it’s done, start it all over.” 

U.K. Officials Instructed To Grant Ai Weiwei's Original U.K. Visa Request

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 11:55

The Home Office has apologized for denying the prominent Chinese dissident a six-month visa. He got only 20 days, because staff counted secret imprisonment as a criminal conviction.

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Pesticide Drift Threatens Organic Farms

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 11:45

Conventional farmers use millions of pounds of pesticides each year to protect crops from weeds and insects. When those chemicals drift to neighboring property, they can ruin crops on organic farms.

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Judge Says Virginia Can Refuse To Issue Confederate License Plates

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 11:42

Citing a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the federal judge effectively vacated a 14-year-old state injunction that prohibited officials from refusing to issue such plates.

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Alan Cheuse, Novelist And Longtime NPR Contributor, Dies At 75

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 11:28

The author and critic died Friday of injuries sustained in a car accident. For years, he was the voice of NPR's literature commentary — and, for many, the "guide to a very exciting world."

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Hillary Clinton's Doctor Says She's Healthy Enough To Be President

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 11:13

Clinton's doctor says she's eating healthily, drinking occasionally, swimming, lifting weights and, yes, doing yoga.

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The state of the market for consumer robots

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-07-31 10:52

The personal helper bot is the holy grail of our robot fantasies. What's the state of the market for consumer robots, whether they're humanoid or social? Senior tech correspondent Molly Wood spoke to Dan Kara, who studies robotics at the tech market intelligence firm ABI Research. Plus, hear what people in downtown L.A. would want their personal robots to do for them and what they would pay for it. Kara weighs in on just how realistic our fantasies are.

Listen to Molly Wood's interview in the audio player above.

Life as a busker bot in Hollywood

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-07-31 10:43

You'll usually find Daniel Moss on Hollywood Boulevard. He's the robot performer who calls himself the Gold Man, a job he's been doing on the streets of Los Angeles for 33 years. He has a treasure box where people tip him in cash as they walk by. At the end of the day, his earnings can range from zero to a thousand dollars. Why be a robot? Moss explains that in his experience, both children and adults like robots because they like toys. 

Listen to Daniel Moss's full story on the audio player above

Cheetos, Canned Foods, Deli Meat: How The U.S. Army Shapes Our Diet

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 10:43

Many of the processed foods that we eat — and the way they're made — were invented not for us, but for soldiers, says the author of the new book Combat-Ready Kitchen.

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Federal Court Places A Stay On Order Compelling NCAA To Pay Athletes

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 10:20

The ruling comes nearly a year after a district court judge ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust laws and should let schools pay athletes $5,000.

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Dylann Roof Pleads Not Guilty To Federal Hate Crime Charges

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 09:58

The 21-year-old is accused of carrying out the ruthless attack that killed nine worshippers in a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., last month.

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#NPRReads: Considering The Language Of Wine And What's In A Toddler's Mouth

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 09:16

Also, we explore a piece that argues that you should want robots to take your job. No. Seriously.

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Marine Version Of F-35 Reportedly Deemed 'Combat Ready'

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 09:10

With a total program cost estimated at $400 billion and a per-plane price tag of $135 million, the Joint Strike Fighter program is considered the most expensive in U.S. history.

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She Owes Her Activism To A Brave Mom, The ADA And Chocolate Cake

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 08:54

Born deaf and blind to a refugee mother, Haben Girma has had opportunities in the U.S. she'd never have had in Eritrea. But it was an urge for dessert that led her to advocate for the disabled.

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Toxic Lead Contaminates Some Traditional Ayurvedic Medicines

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 08:49

Traditional Ayurvedic treatments are popular in India and the United States, but some can be contaminated with high levels of lead and other toxic metals. People continue to be harmed.

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Despite High Expectations, Sentencing Reform Proposals Still On Ice

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 08:43

Sen. John Cornyn suggested a hearing and markup on reform proposals could be imminent. But multiple sources tell NPR that concrete language is still being hotly debated behind closed doors.

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Arson Attack That Killed Toddler In West Bank Is Called Terrorism

NPR News - Fri, 2015-07-31 07:33

An 18-month old died in the fire. The perpetrators scrawled slogans in Hebrew on an outside wall of the house. Palestinian leaders blamed the Israeli government.

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