The U.S. economy, now a $16 trillion behemoth, grew in the first quarter. By 2.5 percent.
That would be ONLY 2.5 percent. That seems the upshot of today's instant analysis -- a disappointment. Why the negativity?
When the GDP number came out this morning, the headlines shouted: misses expectations. Less than forecast. Fears of a stalled recovery.
Economic forecaster Joel Naroff explains the dominant frame of reference here is financial markets -- folks who bet based on expectations.
"Investors look at the numbers very very differently," Naroff says. "They'll look at this number as 2.5 percent and say this is a disappointment, because we could have had above three percent."
It's true there are clouds out there: Consumer spending may soon ebb. The sequester's coming, jobs are soft. But zoom back the frame, and Mark Vitner at Wells Fargo notes 2.5 percent growth beats the recent average.
"It's actually 2.1 percent on average since the recession ended," Vitner says. "From that perspective, we're a little bit better in the first quarter on average than since the recession ended."
Ended, as in recovery. In a weak world market. In our very big, post-industrial U.S. economy.
Michael Goldstein teaches finance at Babson College: "We're the world's largest economy. How fast could we possibly grow? When you're huge, you're going to grow slower. 2.5 percent is probably what you could reasonably expect. We're not, I mean, we're not Bangladesh, nothing against Bangladesh."
He says news organizations tend to overdo the negative. In a not-too-fast, not-too-slow Goldilocks recovery, he says, no one likes to report on room-temperature porridge.
The average amount a family will spend on prom this year is up to $1,139, according to a recent survey from Visa, based on interviews with 3,000 households across the country. That’s a 40 percent increase from just two years ago. One statistic that's caught special attention is how the spending breaks down across various income brackets. Surveyed parents who fell in lower income brackets, below $50,000 a year, planned to spend more on their children’s proms than parents who made more.
Those sorts of trends have inspired headlines like: Crazy Prom Spending: Even Financially Challenged Families Spend More Than $1,000 on Prom. But the spending doesn’t seem so crazy to Sue Rosenberger. She owns Fantastic Finds, a prom dress store in Lansing, Michigan, where she says plenty of customers have splurged on prom, even if their budgets were tight.
Some will save up for months, and pay in tens and $1 bills.
“There was one girl that came in who loved the dress she was in,” Rosenberger says. “A gorgeous metallic dress, the styling was fabulous, just fit her like a glove.” It cost $525.
That was much more than the girl and her mother could spend, “so the dialing of the phone starts, to the grandmother, to the aunt,” says Rosenberger. They put it on lay-away, and each week, for months, family members chipped in with checks and credit cards.
After the financing came together, Rosenberger says emotions were high. “The girl was crying. She was appreciative of the fact that everybody would pitch in and help her, and she got her dream dress.”
Rosenberger says her better-off clients often don’t always spend as much. “I think it’s a matter of what different income levels really want,” she says of the choice to splurge on something like a prom dress. “Sometimes it’s not important to somebody who has the means to buy anything. Maybe they’re going to Disney World for Spring Break, getting the kid a used car for graduation.”
For girls in lower-income families, Rosenberger says it can be a “whole different divvying up of the money. It’s their main social event that they have.”
That rings true for Barbara Jensen, author of “Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America.” Jensen, a family therapist, grew up in a working class family, but married a man from the middle class. She now works with cross-class couples and people who “have a foot in each class,” as she puts it. She says spending habits are often a big source of tension and misunderstanding.
“Working class people tend to be much more generous with their money when it comes to special occasions -- holidays, proms,” she says. “Working class people tend to want to share money with other people. It’s part of the ethic of solidarity that is strong in the working class.”
On the other hand, she’s observed that her middle class clients are “raised to save their pennies, to be frugal.” She’s puzzled over this difference for years, and has a working theory. If you don’t make much money, she posits, “maybe you don’t really feel like it’s going to add up to much if you did save it all."
In her mind, one approach isn’t better or worse, “it’s just how people are raised.”
But for Adelaida Cruz, to spend a lot on a single prom night, is “crazy.” Cruz is a receptionist from Philadelphia with six kids. Her daughter, Ariel, is about to go to prom for the first time, after staying home last year because she couldn't' afford it.
Ariel says she’s looking for a dress in her favorite color, teal. “Something elegant, nothing too big or over the top.”
Her mom says they won't spend more than $400 on the dress, shoes, hair, prom tickets, and dinner combined. But she has friends who will. When she heard one talk of spending $800 on prom shoes for her son, she was shocked. “I was like, ‘that's ridiculous, girl. Do you know what you could do with $800!?'”
Still, Cruz says she understands the impulse to make the night a special one. Cruz dropped out of high school before she could go to her own prom. So her daughter's prom is a symbolic step.
“She didn't do like mommy did. Mommy had kids and then mommy couldn’t finish school. She’s very motivated. I’m so happy that I’m going to do anything that I can to help her complete school and do the prom and accomplish her dreams.”
Cruz says her daughter’s dreams include a memorable prom night, and hopefully, in a few years, medical school.
President Obama on Friday defended Planned Parenthood at the group's annual meeting and attacked new laws in several states that severely restrict when a woman can have an abortion. "When you read about some of these laws ... you want to make sure you're still living in 2013."
The tiny Gulf nation of Qatar has been "punching above its weight" diplomatically in the region in recent years. Now, it's taking a prominent role in Syria, arming rebels there. The U.S. wants to see such aid go to moderates. Qatar has its own approach.
According to a newly released survey by the Federal Trade Commission, more then 25 million adults were victims of fraud in 2011. Most bought fraudulent items through the Internet using email, social media and auctions sites. But telephone scams came in a close second. Of course, there are ringtone scams that hit your credit card with recurring fees, the bogus-lottery scams, the fake-check scams and the Nigerian 419 scam. But, there's also Rachel.
Rachel usually says something along these lines: "Hello. This is Rachel at cardholder services calling in reference to your current credit card account. There are no problems currently with your account. It is urgent that you contact us concerning your eligibility for lowering your interest rate. Your eligibility expires shortly so please consider this your final notice. Please press No. 1 on your phone now to speak with a live operator and lower your interest rate. Or press No. 2 to discontinue further notices. Thank you."
So who's Rachel? And what does she want?
"These are robocalls. In other words, you pick up the phone and you don't hear a human, you hear a prerecorded message. Usually they're claiming that they can reduce your credit card interest rate substantially and because of that you'll be saving thousands of dollars. Advances in technology have also made it easy for them to do what's called 'spoof' the caller I.D. information that the consumer sees on their telephone. So it might say the name of your bank or it might say cardholder services and trick consumers into thinking that they are talking about their own accounts when really that is not the case," says Kati Daffan, a staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Marketing Practices.
If you manage to click No. 1 and speak with a live human, he or she will try and see if you are eligible for the scam. If you meet certain criteria, you will forwarded to the next person in the chain, which is someone who will make charges to your credit card and claim that they will reduce your interest rates. But that doesn't happen and consumers may lose their money, get locked into a new credit card, or face recurring charges.
So why hasn't the FTC been able to stop Rachel?
"When you hear these calls you think they are coming from one particular entity or scam artist, but in fact this is a readily available recording and people have found that it's easily compressible, in other words it's very easy and cheap to send out this message to millions of people at the same time. So a lot of different fraudsters all over the world are using the exact same message and pitch," says Daffan. "The FTC has been able to stop a lot of them."
But there are still many of these types of robocallers out there.
"The vast majority of sales robocalls that people are receiving are completely illegal under the FTC telemarketing sales rule. Basically if you haven't given your expressed, written consent to receive that call from that entity, then it's an illegal call. But what we're finding is the changes in technology have made it so cheap and easy to do, that the calls are proliferating anyway. So we're taking a multi-pronged approach to that problem, which involves aggressive law enforcement," says Daffan. "And then we're also improving our targeting, making it more strategic."
Daffan says the FTC is also working with industry experts and others to try to identify technological solutions to the problem. In the meantime, what can consumers do if they receive a robocall?
"When you hear a prerecorded message and it's a sales pitch, just hang up the phone. Do not press 1, do not press 2 to get yourself removed from the list. These calls are illegal in the first place, so it's unlikely that somebody will actually be creating a list and not calling you back the second time. In fact we suspect that a lot of times they're just trying to identify which numbers are working telephone numbers and you might be added to lists and get more robocalls," says Daffan. "The one thing that consumers can do and that we really encourage is report these calls to the Federal Trade Commission at DoNotCall.gov. Those reports are really crucial to us in our targeting and law enforcement efforts."
How hard can it be to measure the health of a population? Oregon is finding out it's difficult to decide even what to track. But the state received almost $2 billion in federal funds to improve the health of its residents and to cut costs. The state faces substantial fines if it can't prove it has done the job.
The suspect arrested in Spain is thought to have perpetrated what's been described as the biggest distributed denial-of-service attack in the history of the Internet.
While the most recent data show a slight dip in the rate of fatal injuries, the actual number of people who lost their lives while at work edged up. Groups that push to make work safer say not enough is being done to prevent such deaths.
"Go back with me, if you will, to the time before iTunes," Miller said.
He said in 2000, the music industry was making money hand-over-fist from CDs. Remember those?
A number of CDs that year that sold a million copies or more in the first week including Britney Spears, Miller said. The boy pop bands were ringing up CD sales too.
Something else was happening. The file-sharing-site Napster was getting popular, and lots of young listeners were downloading music for free.
Ultimately, the industry sued Napster out of existence, but it also missed what was coming.
"They couldn’t imagine a time when anyone would ever pay for music acquired over the Internet," Miller said. "They just couldn’t see it."
When they did see it, record labels tried to sell music online, but their efforts failed because it wasn’t user friendly.
"You almost needed an advanced degree in computer science to listen to download and listen to legal music," Miller said.
Then in 2001, the iPod was introduced and the mp3 player was on the road to becoming a mass-market sensation, said Ted Cohen, who was working on the digital music-side at EMI then.
"Steve Jobs called all the music companies and said, 'I think there’s a business here for people to buy downloads'," Cohen said.
Cohen remembers flying up to Cupertino, where Jobs and his team showed off the iTunes store. He says, the a-ha moment came when it took one click to buy a song.
"It didn’t feel like I was buying anything. I was just getting music," Cohen said.
At 99 cents a song, consumers clicked and clicked again. Today, iTunes has sold more than 25 billion songs.
As for the iTunes impact on the music industry?
Bill Werde is the editorial director at Billboard. He says even iTunes couldn’t stop the digital music revolution from taking a big bite out of business. But he says, it helped stop the bleeding.
"I think it’s a mixed review, ultimately, the effect iTunes has had," he said.
Werde says it also pushed the music industry to embrace the Internet.
Instead of fighting YouTube and streaming music sites like Spotify and Pandora, they welcomed them as ways to make money. And Werde adds that after a decade of gloom, he’s finally seeing a glimmer of optimism in the industry.
Take a look at the history of iTunes with this interactive timeline.
Delays at the nation's airports surged this week because the Federal Aviation Administration furloughed air traffic controllers to stay within a reduced budget. Now Congress has voted quickly to give the FAA more spending flexibility to reduce staff cutbacks.
60 percent of U.S. businesses have terrorism insurance, according to the Congressional Research Service. Premiums can be as low as $25 a year. But larger businesses in high risk areas can pay thousands. Bob Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, says this extra protection gives businesses peace of mind.
“It would cover damaged or destroyed vehicles, injured workers, or benefits for workers who were killed during a terrorist attack," Hartwig says, but he adds right now, smaller businesses aren’t buying terrorism coverage.
Will that change, in Boston at least? Not for Boston cardiologist John Levinson.
“No, I will not buy terrorism insurance," Levinson says.
Dr. Levinson's outpatient practice is just a block away from the bomb site. Still, he doesn’t think the extra coverage is necessary.
“We’re in a safe world for the most part and those things happen but they’re rare," says Levinson.
Plus, he says, terrorism insurance is limited. It will not cover nuclear or biological attacks, or acts of war.
What is terrorism insurance?
Terrorism insurance covers property damage or business losses associated with terrorist acts. The Treasury Department is responsible for officially certifying whether an event is terrorism or not for insurance purposes. Nationally, 60 percent of businesses carry this type of coverage.
How has terrorism insurance changed since 9/11?
Before 9/11, insurance companies provided terrorism coverage to commercial customers for free or little charge. In Nov. 2002, Congress enacted the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which outlined insurance coverage for terrorist acts. In the years since, insurers have begun to assess the risk of terror, which is largely affected by location. Businesses in major urban areas that are considered potential attack targets have higher rates. Though yearly premiums can be as low as $25 in less vulnerable areas.
How does the Treasury determine if an event qualifies as terrorism?
Motivation is important. The event or attack must be "committed by an individual or individuals as part of an effort to coerce the civilian population of the United States or to influence the policy or affect the conduct of the United States Government by coercion." Additionally, total insured damage must reach at least $5 million.
When will the Treasury make its determination?
According to Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, the Treasury Department has no official deadline.
What is happening in Boston?
Although President Obama has called the Boston Marathon bombings an "act of terror", the Treasury Department hasn't officially made its certification. Many businesses near the site of the explosion, which suffered property damage and/or economic losses while they closed down, do not have terror coverage and risk losing insurance payouts if the event is designated as such.
The city has created an online questionnaire for businesses to help determine their insurance coverage. Businesses in need of legal counsel are being directed to the Boston Bar Association, which has developed a team of lawyers to help file claims, pro bono.
All this week on The Salt and on Morning Edition, we've explored the stories behind your ritual cup of joe. Watch archived video of our Coffee Week conversation in our first Google+ Hangout.