National / International News
First up, the Federal Reserve doesn't think the U.S. economy is healthy enough to raise interest rates for a quote "considerable" time. And fresh numbers this morning from the housing market lend support to that view. And last evening, the Senate joined the House in passing a measure to approve new ingredients for sunscreen in America. There's a backlog at the Food and Drug Administration, meaning Americans have had to do without modern sunscreen formulations that people in other countries have been using. Plus, this year's corn crop is expected to break records thanks, in part, to weather that was generally just about right. The great crop is a paradox for farmers. The Agriculture department says the average price per bushel will probably drop by more than thirty percent. We traveled to Iowa to meet with a young farmer facing a difficult bounty.
A survey out on Thursday suggests many Americans who signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) find their coverage affordable.
That’s particularly true for people with low incomes who are paying less than $125 a month in premiums, similar to people that get coverage at work. To be sure, there were good deals for consumers in the first year of the ACA.
But the Commonwealth Fund’s Sara Collins, who co-authored this report, says for individuals earning about $30,000, or say $60,000 for a family of four, those deals could be hard to find.
“People are paying more than they would have if they had gotten a plan from an employer,” she says.
Collins’ report raises an important question: Are the ACA subsidies generous enough to make insurance affordable? The federal government is on track to spend at least $11 billion in financial assistance this year.
Sharon Long with the Urban Institute says a chunk of people who buy their own coverage—in and off of the exchanges—are still struggling.
“Among those who are buying coverage on their own, almost half report they are satisfied with their coverage. But that means about half are not satisfied,” she says. For the unsatisfied, the big problem is price, says Long.
And, she adds, that’s the case for more than half of the 41 million Americans who remain uninsured.
One day, there may be universal pre-school everywhere in the U.S., but the scenario where every four-year-old is in school remains a long way off. In the meantime, some of the gap is filled by a fleet of women, working out of their own homes, providing childcare and preschool services. They tend to only make news when something awful happens to a child. Yet in many neighborhoods, these workers are the glue that holds a community together.
Take Vernessa Easly. She has run a home-based childcare for 19 years out of her Long Beach, California home. Her day starts around 5:45 AM as she prepares breakfast for her early arrivals. The first child is dropped off at 6:00 AM.
Vernessa’s husband, Earle, quit his job at the local school district some years ago and joined her in running the business, which they call "Little Tykes." They employ one full-time and one part-time teacher, and they serve up to 24 kids a day.
Easly’s proud of her blended curriculum that incorporates all the things little ones need; from singing, literacy and pre-science lessons, to healthy meals and lots of outdoor play.
Home childcare providers like Easly tend to do it all these days, as families rely on them for more than just childcare. Single mom, Kinta Cox, has sent her daughters to Easly since they were toddlers.
Easly has attended parent-teacher meetings when Cox could not get off from work, and she has even driven the girls home when Cox had car issues—all at no-extra charge.
“She’s taken my kids to the doctor during emergencies,” Cox says. “She is there for me.”
Easly will often keep Cox’s daughters well into the evening if she is running late at work or stuck in traffic. Easly also feeds the girls a hot breakfast and dinner, lessening Cox’s food costs.
Yet providers like Easly are not making much more than the low-income families they serve. Easly estimates she and her husband brought in a maximum of $40,000 combined last year. A 2012 Health and Human Services study found that the average home childcare provider nationwide worked 54 hours a week and earned just $22,000.
William Yu of UCLA’s Anderson Forecast studies the economy of early childhood education. He says preschool teachers tend to only make a little more than daycare providers. Last year, according to Yu, the average early childhood teacher in California made $30,000. Yu compares this to a profession in California that demands similar entry qualifications yet pays much more money—prison guards.
“If you look at prison guards, they are making $72,000,” he says.
Yu says it’s all good and well to have bipartisan support for expanding preschool access. Yet, he asks, if you were thinking about your future career, doesn’t it make much more bottom-line sense to become a prison guard?
Almost 14 hours after the day began, around 7:30 PM, there are still a couple of kids waiting to be picked up. Easly’s husband keeps them busy with a coloring project—she’s still bustling about in the kitchen prepping the food for the next day.
The sunscreen you used over the summer is about 15 years out of date.
That's because the FDA hasn’t approved applications for new sunscreen ingredients since the late 1990s.
The applications are mired in complex regulations that ironically were supposed to simplify FDA approval of ingredients that have been used safely in other countries.
“It’s just ridiculous,” says Scott Faber, vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group. “Consumers in Canada, the EU, Australia, are able to use sunscreens that are much more effective at blocking out both UVA and UVB rays."
Sunscreen makers have joined dermatologists in a coalition called PASS, or Public Access to Sunscreens. The coalition says manufacturers want access to the very latest ingredients.
“It would allow product developers to innovate and use new technologies and new science," says Michael Werner, chief lobbyist for PASS.
While the FDA declined an interview, it did issue a statement saying that it "has prioritized reviewing the safety and effectiveness of additional sunscreen ingredients as quickly as possible given the agency’s resources."
Graphic by Shea Huffman/Marketplace
This year’s corn crop is expected to break records, thanks in part to near-perfect weather. Paradoxically, that means bad news for corn farmers. The United States Department of Agriculture says the average price per bushel will probably drop by more than 30 percent. I went to Iowa, the nation's top corn-producing state, to see how that is playing out.
But because this is a story about how markets work, I stopped first at the Chicago Board of Trade, where Scott Shellady trades for TJM Investments. He described a farmer’s ideal scenario: "If you want high prices as a farmer, you want there to be a drought on everybody else’s farm except yours."
In theory, a big crop should have an upside. Sure, he said, prices are low, "but you, technically speaking, are making more of it, so lower prices but more of it should help make up for that."
So, does it? "Not really," he said with a rueful laugh. "Not all the time. No."
That’s because once the market has more than it wants, prices drop precipitously.
That’s a new experience for Alex Edgington. He’s 27, four years into his career as a farmer.
The day we met, on his farm about 10 miles south of the Minnesota border, corn prices at the Chicago Board of Trade had just gone below $3.45 a bushel.
"I sold my first 5,000 bushels of corn for $4.86, and it did nothing but go up after that," Edgington said. "So for me, this is definitely my first down year, and it’s nerve-wracking. It’s very scary for me."
Most of his acres are in corn, with some soybeans—which are also in oversupply. He's also got 53 goats, and gets paid by another farmer to keep 175 head of cattle on his land.
"Having the animals, that’ll keep me afloat this year," he said. "I don’t know how I would do with a five-year deal of this."
I ask him about Scott Shellady’s colleagues at the Board of Trade. Couldn’t Edgington have sold his crop on the futures market there earlier this year? Prices were above $5 at one point.
"The opportunity is always there to sell," he said. "And sometimes you do risk it, waiting for a higher price. Other times, especially last year, you don’t know if you’re gonna have a crop. We planted one third of our acres last year."
Spring rains made it impossible to plant more. If they had tried pre-selling super early, hoping to grab higher prices, he said, that would have been trouble.
"It's a risk," he says. "Everything's a risk, in farming."
I'm not a true gamer, but I love playing games on my tablet. As a New York commuter—though yes, I do spend time reading—gaming is a key part of my day. Or at least it used to be. Recently my commute has very little game play in it, thanks to the growing popularity of a feature I absolutely hate in mobile games: the always-online requirement.
More and more, the mobile games I'm downloading and trying to play on my phone or tablet use this, and in the process renders my gaming experience at best annoying and at worst impossible. The early versions of this road block started with getting a generic error message or pinwheel suggesting the game was having trouble booting up. Now, it's more direct: "Error! No Internet connection available. Please make sure your device is connected to the Internet."
Requiring a constant internet connection for PC and console games to work has been around for a few years. For game makers, it seems to serve some different purposes, some of which it can probably be argued do benefit the user. It makes it easier to deliver updates, have a more dynamic, changing game environment, especially in the case of massively multiplayer online games.
That hasn't stopped big controversies from blowing up over what has also been called "persistent online authentication." Remember the "Diablo III" release? OK, that was back in 2012. How about EA's "Sim City" always-online foul-up a bit later? Followed a few months later by the resignation of the company's CEO John Riccitiello? The most recent example would probably be not game-based but console-based. When it looked like Xbox One would have an always-online requirement built in, gamers revolted, and Microsoft reversed course so quickly that it made you worry the massive tech company might sprain an ankle.
In the mobile game space, this requirement seems to be about everything from getting me to spend more money with in-app purchases, to incorporating some sort of bogus "social" aspect of the game that is more often than not a nudge for a free bit of advertising. But it doesn't at all seem about making my experience as a game player better. I can't fix it or toggle it in the game's settings (which ought to be a no-brainer). I can't even easily tell while I'm shopping for games whether the requirement is part of what I'm buying unless I go through reviews with a fine-toothed comb. Basically 99.9% of the time, the benefit of always-online for the user seems nonexistent.
That might be because the benefit for the user is actually nonexistent 100% of the time. The always-online requirement is also a form of DRM, or digital rights management—essentially, a way for publishers to be sure that you aren't using a pirated copy of a game. I get that, but it seems to me that pirated copies of video games aren't a particularly popular form of personal copyright infringement.
And until the day the entire globe is magically blanketed in free WiFi shooting out of Google unicorn horns, making the mobile game player be online when they want to play hurts the user and the publisher. Why? Because the company that makes the game is cutting my potential in-app time in half, and making me not want to spend any money on games made by hardworking developers.
For the record, I'm happy to be convinced that making games this way is somehow essential, but I just don't see it as a user. For now, I hope that mobile gamers are one day as engaged with the products they buy as real-deal gamers, and that they too consider revolt.
Up until now, LinkedIn was blocking posts from its members in China that were deemed sensitive by China’s government—For example, posts about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, or about Tibetan independence.
Censored content was not only blocked inside of China, but removed from LinkedIn's site worldwide.
In an email to Marketplace, LinkedIn Director of Communications Hani Durzy wrote the company has officially changed its policy so that sensitive content will still be censored inside China, but not on its site outside China.
China social media expert Jeremy Goldkorn says LinkedIn isn’t the first Western company that has bent over backwards to please China’s government in return for access to its market.
“It’s a very difficult environment to navigate, because the lines shift. So today, you might be in a space where you feel comfortable and you feel like you’ve gone out of your way to please the government, but it still might not work," says Goldkorn.
Bloomberg’s a good example. Late last year, the news site killed a story that exposed corruption among China’s leadership.
Despite the kowtow to China’s government, Bloomberg’s site in China remains blocked.