Marketplace - American Public Media

For homebuilders, things are looking up...just a bit

Thu, 2014-10-16 02:00

The latest figures on builder confidence are out today. Tomorrow, the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report on housing starts and permits for September 2014 will be released. The consensus among economists is for a rise in both measures of homebuilding, compared to August figures.

Confidence among homebuilders is gradually improving, as unemployment falls and job creation has strengthened since the end of the recession, says David Crowe, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. Still, housing starts have only recovered to about half the level of the mid-2000s, before the housing crash.

From 2004 through early 2006, housing starts consistently numbered 2 million annually. So far in 2014, Crowe says, housing starts have bounced back and forth around the 1 million mark. Nonetheless, that’s a major improvement on construction levels at the depths of the recession, when housing starts fell below the 500,000 annual level.

“It’s pretty good now, from where we’ve been,” says Crowe of the current state of homebuilding.

Crowe points to several factors that are still holding back home construction. He points out that builders—those who are left in business after a severe winnowing of the industry following the housing crash—have a hard time securing financing, due to tight lending standards. They are also having trouble finding skilled construction workers, since so many left the field during the recession. Finally, land that has been prepared for development is scarce in many markets around the country.

Economist Stephanie Karol at IHS points out that the real estate market is still digesting a decade-old oversupply of new homes. “We saw a lot of overbuilding leading up to the crash,” says Karol. “There’s less of an incentive to add to the housing stock, especially when household formation is below expectations.” Young people have been delaying marriage, and eschewing major financial commitments, like getting a mortgage, since the recession hit. Many also face high levels of student loan debt.

David Crowe says the hottest sectors of the residential construction market right now are ‘move-up’ homes (in the $300,000-plus range) for those who already own, as well as multi-family housing, which has fully rebounded since the recession.

First-time homebuyers looking for new homes in the $125,000-$150,000 price range are having a harder time, he says.

“We have very tough lending standards,” says Crowe. “So even for people ready to buy, if they have the least ding on their credit, it gets more difficult.”

Priscilla Chan on why she gave $25 million to fight Ebola

Thu, 2014-10-16 02:00

Why people donate is a mystery. And when it comes to giving money to help contain the spread of Ebola, charitable giving has been modest. This week, Priscilla Chan and her husband Mark Zuckerberg — the co-founder of Facebook —  donated $25 million to help fight Ebola.

In an interview with Marketplace, Chan explains why one of the most prominent couples in the United States decided to donate millions to the cause — and what they hope they get for that money.

Thinking like a doctor

The gift — which Zuckerberg of course announced on Facebook — will go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the idea that it will filter through to many different organizations on the ground.

Chan, who works as a doctor, explains her rationale this way: "As a pediatrician, [my] training is in preventing disease and keeping children healthy. And so we take advantage of — and are appreciative of — the massive vaccine program in our country to help prevent the spread of a more serious epidemic, of anything ranging from...flu to measles...and what I see as cases of devastating illness that would otherwise be preventable...I understand how important it is to act now to keep Ebola from being a massive problem that affects the lives of many, and the importance of prevention and early intervention."

What they're worried about

Ebola is, at present, a disease without a cure

"Right now we don't have an effective vaccine program...Not acting now might lead this to be a more pervasive illness that's harder to control later down the line,"Chan says. "The examples Mark brings up are diseases like HIV, Polio...infectious diseases that are so difficult for us to control, or in Polio's case, eradicate. But we have an opportunity now to act quickly and to really change the direction and growth of Ebola."

A larger donation than originally planned

Chan and Zuckerberg had been contemplating a donation for a couple of weeks, she said. Then, Zuckerberg took a trip to India. After seeing the lack of public health resources in the country's poor and rural communities first-hand, Zuckerberg called Chan and suggested they make a larger gift than they had previously been considering (Chan declined to say how much they increased the donation by).

How did she react?

"We definitely had to think about it as a couple, if this was something we really wanted to commit to...the need to respond has always been a no-brainer, the thing that changed with Mark's visit, and seeing the disparity in resources," she said. "[We decided] that we need to act now and make a larger gift, to be able to keep Ebola to a confined state, where we can aggressively intervene, rather than have it evolve into something that ends up having to be costly and linger in our worldwide community for decades."

Click the media player above for audio.

Quiz: How much is a work-study job worth?

Wed, 2014-10-15 14:38

More than 700,000 higher-ed students get federal work-study funds.

What is the average annual pay for a work-study job?

You can buy ebola.com for $150,000

Wed, 2014-10-15 13:09

Yes, there's a market for everything, even ebola.com.

First of all: that domain name exists. But secondly: the guy who owns it, Jon Schultz, bought it six years ago for $13,500. The asking price today? $150,000, according to the Washington Post.

If that's too dour, Schultz also owns terror.com, fukushima.com, potassiumiodide.com and H1N1.com.

Yes, all of them are for sale, too.

 

 

 

HBO is cutting the cord. Will cable survive?

Wed, 2014-10-15 12:08

HBO has announced that starting next year it will offer its online streaming service HBO Go to anyone willing to pay, whether they have cable or not.

Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson says the move is an important about-face for entertainment giant Time Warner.

“The CEO [Richard Plepler] has promised that HBO wasn’t going to do this and now they’ve changed,” Johnson says. “I think that’s probably because there’s been a discussion behind the scenes about just what the lay of the land looks like.”

Access to HBO Go is widely shared, something Plepler has said he doesn’t mind. But last year HBO’s paid customer count was surpassed by Netflix, and Game of Thrones recently set a world record for piracy.

Johnson guesses HBO has been pressuring its parent company Time Warner toward this move for a while now.

“I think it’s kind of bad news for cable companies,” Johnson says. “By some estimates only like 3 percent of people are going to cut the cord next year, but those numbers are really growing fast for certain demographics and people’s behavior is really changing.”

Retail's new normal

Wed, 2014-10-15 11:54

Retail sales numbers released Wednesday from the Commerce Department suggest consumers spent slightly less in September than the month before.

There were some bright spots in the electronics category, and overall gains from the same period last year. Still, the headline numbers might give retailers some anxiety heading into the holiday season, says Georgetown University professor Marlene Morris Towns.

“I think that retailers are really, really, kind of struggling to get people in, to get people shopping,” she says. “I think they’re pushing to holidays on us faster and faster.”

But Towns is optimistic about consumer spending going forward.

It’s just that we have to take into account the economy’s new normal, says Susan Viamari, who tracks consumers and retail trends for IRI. “The new normal is going to be much more conservative mindset than what we saw before that proverbial bubble burst.”

Viamari says many consumers who cut back during the recession are keeping a tight grip on their spending.

Compare that with a decade ago, RBS Securities economist Omair Sharif says, when homeowners were pulling equity out of their homes or using credit cards to fuel shopping sprees.

“So it’s just a very different environment in terms of your ability to finance your expenditures,” he says. “It’s just night and day versus 2004.”

Consumers are largely limited to spending what they have, says Sharif, and he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Plant-based hamburger leaves 'blood' on the plate

Wed, 2014-10-15 11:49

You know how techies are all into disrupting businesses? Well, right now, there’s a lot of interest in the food industry. In Impossible Foods' case, its mission is to disrupt the $74 billion beef industry.

It’s egregiously inefficient,” says Patrick Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods.

Brown is talking specifically about the big business of raising animals for food. He says, worldwide, animal farming is one the biggest consumers of water.

“It’s using 30 percent of the entire land surface of earth,” he continues.

And that land is being cleared to make room for cattle to graze and to grow feed crops, which brings us to Brown’s next point.

It’s the biggest driver of biodiversity losses in the world,” Brown says. “Just to raise animals, to make cheeseburgers, it’s ridiculous.”

We've been using animals to make food for about 10,000 years, Brown says, and that technology is outdated. Take off the cultural veneer and you’ll see “livestock is a technology. We use it to take cheap plant biomass” and turn it into meat.

Or in layman’s terms: We grow and harvest tons of corn, grass and other plants and turn it into meat by feeding it to animals, which we then kill and package into chops and steaks.

Brown says we don't need to do that any more. We now know how to extract nutrients and proteins from plants, and use those ingredients to make meat without animals. Enter Impossible Foods, one of a handful of tech start-ups that wants to make animal products, from cheese to eggs and beef, from plants.

To show me what he’s talking about, Brown asks Beth Fryksdale, the food scientist in charge of making the plant-based meat.

So I’m going to put the patty on the griddle here,” she says, plopping down two of Impossible Foods’ most recent burger prototypes. When the "meat" it hits the fry pan, it sizzles.

You’ll notice we’ve got this nice transition in color from red to brown,” Fryksdale says, just like a real burger.

I glance over at the plate the patty was on and I see ... blood?

“Yup, it looks like blood although this is not blood from an animal, this is blood from plant,” Fryksdale says triumphantly.

That’s the color of the 'heme' that I was talking about,” Brown interjects.

Heme is a substance found on the roots of bean plants. It gives meat its unique flavor. It’s naturally red, and when you taste the heme raw, like I did, it tastes like blood.

When the burger was done, I ate it. And If I’d tasted it at a fast-food joint, I probably wouldn’t have noticed a difference. At the same time, it’s not as good as the grass-fed burger that I get at my favorite restaurant, and that’s what Impossible Foods is going for.  

Google Ventures invested in the start-up, and partner Andy Wheeler said while he’d like to go after that gourmet market, “it really is the mass-market opportunity that’s interesting.”

To get into there, Wheeler says, Impossible Foods needs to make its ground beef cheaper than the real stuff. And that’s a challenge. Right now, one Impossible Foods burger costs about $20 to make. Despite that, Wheeler says a bunch of events have made investors more bullish on food.

We all see that obesity is a huge problem and people are getting more concerned with health,” Wheeler says.

And more people are concerned about sustainability. Traditional food companies have been slow to address these concerns, Wheeler says. Investors see an opportunity, and they think advances in science have made food more of a tech play.

So the company may be starting with a ground beef product, but the core technology they’re developing around food science is really applicable to a really wide range of potential foods,” Wheeler says.

The idea of synthesizing real food is an age-old dream, says Michael Pollan, a food journalist and activist.

Think: Tang, non-dairy creamers and Cool Whip. But he says what’s new this go-around is that techies are on a mission.

“Which I think is distinct, and I think it’s political,” Pollan said. “These companies aim to shrink animal agriculture because of their environmental footprint.”

Pollan applauds that effort, but “I think you run into some of the limitations of Silicon Valley thinking when it comes to culture, which is the pleasure of eating meat is not simply a sensory pleasure,” he says. “Meat connotes prestige all over the world. Will fake meat offer that pleasure?”

And while this new crop food techies are using plant-based nutrients, instead of, say, artificial chemicals like they did decades ago. Pollan says there are reasons to be skeptical.

Foods that we’ve been eating for tens of thousands of years have kind of proven themselves out and we are talking about introducing some novel foods and so we need to be careful,” he says.

But he says, that's not so say we shouldn’t do it.

Pollan says, we make processed foods for all kinds of reasons. We make it for convenience, taste and to make money. And so why not make it to save the environment?

The NBA's experiment: offering fans a shorter game

Wed, 2014-10-15 11:34

The National Basketball Association will run an experiment this week to test the premise "Less is more." A preseason game pairing the Brooklyn Nets with the Boston Celtics will have just 44 minutes of play, instead of the usual 48. 

NBA officials mentioned “our schedule” as one motivation behind the experiment. That is: Lots of games often means lots of injuries. Maybe shorter games could mean less wear and tear on players’ bodies.

Then again, maybe not, says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. "If for instance, it’s the case that LeBron James, out of a 48 minute game plays 37 minutes, we don’t know if he’ll play proportionately fewer minutes" in a shorter game.    

In other words, the coach is already asking himself:  "How many minutes can I play LeBron without worrying too much about injury?"

"If that number's 37," says Zimbalist, "it could still be 37 in a 44-minute game."

There is the possibility that fans — and TV networks — would prefer shorter games, says Glenn Wong, who teaches sports management for the University of Massachusetts business school.

"Two hours is something that fits well in terms of fans — and in terms of TV slots," Wong says. Typical NBA games last significantly longer.  "I think there’s a certain trend toward reducing the length of the game."

In particular, the final minutes of an NBA game can drag. The 44-minute game would also cut one of three mandatory ad breaks in the fourth quarter. But what slows down those last minutes, really, is part of how the game gets played. The NBA's own website lays out how teams use intentional fouls to stop the clock.

"You can just keep fouling people, and fouling people, and fouling people and extending this," says David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University, "and hope something’s going to happen."

A 44-minute game doesn't address that problem.

"I think you could say that the game in terms of actual chronological time is too long, and you could take steps to address what’s actually making it go longer," Berri says. "But just giving people less product — that just doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense."

John Nagl says the U.S. isn't finished in Iraq

Wed, 2014-10-15 11:15

American soldiers found chemical weapons in Iraq as long as a decade ago, left over from Saddam Hussein's war with Iran, according to a New York Times investigation. Some U.S. troops were injured by the shells. Both the discoveries and injuries were kept secret. 

This comes against the backdrop of deepening American involvement in the region, where we've already invested close to $2 trillion in Iraq alone. 

John Nagl helped write the Army and Marine Corps' "Counterinsurgency Field Manual." In a new memoir he details the cost of the wars - both in terms of money and, in his view, credibility - through the lens of his own life. A retired Lt. Col. and Pentagon official, Nagl served in Iraq twice. 

"There clearly is another war happening in Iraq right now," Nagl said, referring to the 1,600 troops on the ground as military advisers, plus the supporting planes, ships, and intelligence officers. 

"I don't think it's going to be as big for the United States as the last Iraq war was, or my first Iraq war was. But the implications of the war and the necessity of to get it right is just as big as it was the last two times. 

Nagl's new book"Knife Fights," catalogs what he sees as the costs of the second Iraq war through the lens of his personal experience in the region: 

1990
Nagl deployed to Iraq in first Gulf War

2003-2004
Nagl deployed to Al Anbar province, Iraq

NYT Magazine cover story: Prof. Nagl’s War 

2004 
Saddam Hussein captured. 

Nagl returned to Washington, DC to work in office of Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. Co-authored the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual with Gen. David Petraeus.

Donald Rumsfeld on Iraq 

Job prospects for Petraeus

2007
Iraq Surge: U.S. sends additional 20,000 troops to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province

Troop cuts could mean contractor surge

2011
Official end of U.S. combat mission in Iraq

U.S. troops quit Iraq, but large U.S. presence remains

What Iraq taught us about reconstruction

2014
Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

ISIS gains control of key infrastructure in Iraq

Read an excerpt from "Knife Fights" below:

PREFACE

 

This is a book about modern wars and how they affect the lives of young men and women. It is a tale of wars that needed to be fought and wars that were not necessary but that happened nonetheless, at enormous cost in blood and treasure. It is also an intellectual coming-of-age story, that of both the author and the institution to which he devoted most of his adult life, the American military. It is a book about counterinsurgency and its journey from the far periphery of U.S. military doctrine to its center, for better and, some would argue, for worse. It is also, then, a book about America’s role in the world, and specifically about when and how we use military force abroad in the name of national security.

The book largely takes the form of a memoir, which feels somewhat self-indulgent to me—I was very much more shaped by than shaper of the events this book relates. But my hope is that following the arc of my own learning curve will be the easiest way for a reader to understand the broader story of the American military’s radical adaptation to a world of threats very different from those involving nuclear weapons and Soviet tanks massed at the Fulda Gap that I studied at West Point a generation ago. Following that arc will also help to explain why, after decades of responsibility for the lives of American soldiers, I have recently shouldered the responsibility to prepare another generation of young men for a life of service far from the battlefield, in the classrooms and on the playing fields of friendly strife as the ninth headmaster of The Haverford School.

The U.S. military changed quickly after 9/11—not quickly enough from the perspective of those we lost and had injured, but quickly indeed by the standards of very large, hierarchical institutions. Some say the military in fact has changed too quickly, embracing counterinsurgency with a fervor that has had unforeseen negative consequences. I do not take that view. This book is not a pep rally, not a victory lap around counterinsurgency’s successes in Iraq, and certainly not in Afghanistan, where they have been thinner on the ground. But as the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., liked to say, the right question is often “Compared to what?” Any intellectually serious reckoning with America’s post-9/11 wars has to contend with what the alternatives were once the decision to invade Iraq had been too hastily made and too poorly implemented. In the wake of mistakes there are sometimes no good choices; in both Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency was the least bad option available.

I had the rare opportunity to be involved in both the theory and the practice of war, helping write doctrine and also living with the consequences of implementing doctrine in the field as an officer responsible for the lives of America’s sons and daughters. The bulk of my combat experience was in Iraq, and Iraq is central to the story this book tells. But the shadow of Afghanistan hangs over all of it, even the Iraq story.

The first post-9/11 consequence of the American military’s pre-9/11 focus on large, conventional combat operations wasn’t the failure to see the Iraq War for what it was. First there was the Afghan campaign of the fall of 2001, a campaign conceived of and initiated by the CIA because the American military had no plan on the shelf that spoke to such a situation. The Afghan campaign’s initial success at scattering America’s enemies allowed us to make the mistake of immediately pivoting to Iraq, sinking us into the morass of two ground wars in Asia when one would have been more than enough.

Focusing on Iraq meant taking our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and Pakistan, allowing the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup and gain strength, blinding us to the true nature of the situation there until it was almost too late.

If Iraq was the midterm, Afghanistan is the final exam. It’s a lot harder than the midterm. And while we eked out a passing grade on the midterm, after a horrible start, the final grade remains in doubt, an incomplete. We’re unlikely to know the answer for some years to come, but the Afghan end state is important for the future of the region and for America’s place in the world—a world that is likely to be roiled by insurgency and counterinsurgency for decades to come.

The story begins in a very different place and time, a time when the Soviet Union had just been tossed into the dustbin of history, its internal contradictions rendered unbearable after its own painful war in Afghanistan. America stood unchallenged as the world’s only superpower for the first time in history, but Saddam Hussein had misread American determination to enforce the international security regime it had created in the wake of the Second World War. For the first time since Vietnam, the United States deployed the full weight of American power abroad. It was a heady and unsettling time for a young man who had studied war but never seen it.

What it takes to make all hospitals Ebola-ready

Wed, 2014-10-15 11:14

The largest nurse organization in the country, National Nurses United, is asking President Obama to take executive action and mandate “uniform, national standards” at all U.S. hospitals to help protect healthcare workers confronting Ebola.

"We know that without these mandates to health care facilities we are putting registered nurses, physicians and other healthcare workers at extreme risk," the letter says. "They are our first line of defense. We would not send soldiers to the battlefield without armor and weapons."

The group says those standards should include protective equipment like Hazmat suits and hands-on training to protect nurses and other hospital workers, even at the smallest of hospitals. And there are 5,000 community hospitals in the U.S.

Dr. Dennis Maki, a disease control expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says it takes at least half a day to train people in the protective garb alone. “I’ve just gone through Ebola training in my own hospital for putting the garb on and off this week, and I can tell you that’s a very complex undertaking.”

Dr. Ashish Jha,  director of the Harvard Global Health Institute,  says proper Ebola training and equipment at every hospital in the U.S. will probably cost in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. But not every hospital worker needs in-depth training.

“I think every hospital person certainly needs to know something basic about isolation,” Jha says.  “And then probably every hospital needs a small number of staff who can stabilize and manage that patient for the short run.”

Jha and Maki say it’s unreasonable to expect that small community hospitals be able to care for Ebola patients long-term. Large medical centers have more staff and resources to safely care for them, they say.  

The CDC says it is reaching out to hospitals to help them prepare for Ebola cases. The agency is investigating exactly how two healthcare workers at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas contracted the disease.

Graphic by Shea Huffman & Tony Wagner/Marketplace

The numbers for October 15, 2014

Wed, 2014-10-15 07:31

Another health care worker from Dallas was diagnosed with Ebola Wednesday morning, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are trying to find passengers on a flight she took Monday. The unidentified patient flew from Cleveland to Dallas with about 130 others just before she reported symptoms. The CDC is asking those passengers to call 1-800-CDC-INFO.

Vox has an explainer with five ways you can catch Ebola on a plane, and the many more ways you can't. In short: it's pretty difficult. Here are some other stories we're reading — and numbers we're watching — Wednesday:

130 million

That's how many people subscribe to HBO worldwide. The network — once resistant to cord-cutting and blasé about password sharing — will uncouple its streaming service, HBOGo, from cable packages next year. Time Warner stock rallied at the news.

5,000

The number of chemical weapons secretly discovered in Iraq in the years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, according to an extensive New York Times investigation. The abandoned weapons — and injuries sustained by the soldiers that found them — were reportedly kept hidden until now, even within the military.

$20,000

That's how much Facebook is offering female employees to cover the costs of freezing their eggs, TechCrunch reported. Apple will begin offering the ostensible perk next year. The tech industry has a well-documented gender gap the move is seemingly addressing, but critics say egg freezing is just another way — along with free food, shuttles, laundry, massages and so on — for tech companies to keep employees content and working without distractions.

Rethinking a corporate inversion

Wed, 2014-10-15 07:00

A $54 billion pharmaceutical merger is up in the air after the U.S. Treasury Department said it would crack down on so-called corporate inversions — that’s when a U.S. business merges with a foreign company to save money on taxes. Illinois-based AbbVie Inc. is reconsidering an agreement to buy UK rival Shire PLC.

AbbVie hasn’t called off the merger, but the company says its board is rethinking the deal in light of new tax regulations. The Treasury Department announced changes last month that make inversions less attractive.

It’s likely that AbbVie will renegotiate rather than walk away, says tax consultant Robert Willens, and not just because the company risks a $1.6 billion breakup fee.

“They’re going to lose a lot of credibility if they pull out of the deal in response to the Treasury announcement, after telling the market for weeks that the deal was primarily motivated by business reasons,” he says.

To comply with the Treasury rules, AbbVie could restructure the deal so that Shire shareholders had more control.

“But that’s not necessarily a desirable result for the acquirers,” says Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “I’m not sure we’re going to see a lot of those kinds of deals go through.”

Still, several high profile inversions are moving forward, including Burger King’s acquisition of Canadian chain Tim Horton’s. Medical device maker Medtronic said it would refinance its deal to buy Irish company Covidien to comply with the new rules.

Willens says new inversions have slowed down since the regulations changed, but stopping them would require tougher action by Congress. The rules do not address a practice known as “earnings stripping,” for example, which allows a foreign parent company to essentially lend money to its American subsidiary, and then deduct the interest payments from its taxes.

The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation has estimated that a bill to stop corporate inversions would save the U.S. Treasury about $20 billion over ten years. 

PODCAST: Netflix goes ultra-high-definition

Wed, 2014-10-15 03:00

A merger in the pharmaceutical industry is up in the air after the U.S. Treasury Department cracked down on what are called corporate inversions. Illinois-based AbbVie is reconsidering a $54 billion deal to buy UK rival Shire. More on inversions and why the Obama administration wants to stop these deals from happening. Plus, Netflix has quietly raised prices for a service almost no one uses: streaming video in 4-K, or ultra-high-definition, used to be available for eight or nine dollars a month. Now, a subscription is $12 a month. Only a few manufacturers make devices with 4-K displays. So, why raise the price on a service that's not in high demand? And the price of oil is falling that's partly because the oil industry's been booming in this country. Well, a consequence of that growth is a shortage of regulators who oversee drilling.

 

One shortage in booming oil fields: regulators

Wed, 2014-10-15 02:00

Regulators in Wyoming are hemorrhaging employees. The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration lost a quarter of its inspectors last year. The state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission fared no better. And Mark Watson, the oil and gas supervisor, says rehiring, especially for specialized positions, is extremely difficult.

“They're in demand and we don't pay as much,” he says.

“You know, that job," he says, "we’re competing with someone in industry that might have 20 years of experience and we probably would pay 50 percent less than what they could get in industry.”

That’s right. 50 percent less. Watson says he’s talked to new graduates whose first offers out of college are $25,000 more than he makes as the state’s top oil and gas regulator. And it’s not just him. Nationwide, petroleum engineers working in industry make 70 percent more than those working for governments, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“In the boom times, I’ll say, we especially have a hard time competing with industry when it comes to recruiting and retaining people,” says Michael Madrid, who heads the minerals division of the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming. Right now, Madrid’s division is actually mostly staffed.

But there’s concern about the future, and not just in Wyoming. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office says BLM offices nationwide could find themselves short-handed as the boom continues. And Madrid says that would be bad for everyone, including industry.

“The work will eventually get done, but there’s long, significant delays if we’re short-handed,” he says.

Which is bad for those who want to keep the boom booming.

This story comes from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America’s energy issues.

 

 

 

 

Avocado sales ripen around the world

Wed, 2014-10-15 02:00

The U.S. is the biggest importer of Mexican avocados—We eat about 1.7 billion pounds a year. But Mexico is eyeing an even larger market: Asia.  

Behind 20-foot-doors in a chilly warehouse, hundreds of thousands of avocados are ripening in cardboard boxes. 

“We take the rooms up as far as 72 degrees,” says Luis Galicia. He’s the assistant manager at Mission Produce’s ripening center in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Customers want to sell and use avocados at different stages of softness. So, Galicia explains, the avocados are heated to ripen only a certain amount, and then chilled at about 38 degrees.

The avocado business, he says, is hot. Mexican avocado sales increased by about 30 percent the first half of this year—and that’s not the result of a Chipotle rush or a Super Bowl guacamole bump. Yes, avocados are a popular condiment for sandwiches at Subway and breakfast items at Denny’s, but the real growth is happening in Asia. Japan is already the second largest importer of Mexican avocados. And in the first six months of 2014, Mexico sent nearly $3 million dollars worth of avocados to China.

Eduardo Serena, Marketing Director of the Mexican Avocado Industry, says for the first time, the industry will have marketing campaigns specifically designed for China and Japan.  

Maura Maxwell, Latin America editor for The Market Intelligence Group, says marketers will have their work cut out for them.

“The thing with China is there isn’t an avocado consuming habit,” she says. “People aren’t familiar with the fruit yet.”

Consumers need basic education about when the fruit is ripe—Black on the outside for Hass avocados is a good thing, but Maxwell says many people assume the soft bumpy pear-shaped fruit is rotten.

Right now, Serena says the most popular ways to eat avocados in Japan is with sushi, or fried. 

“In China in particular, they like to use as smoothies as a juice, and also of course in soups,” Serena says. In today’s avocado awakening, there’s no wrong way to eat the fruit.

So go ahead, toss on the Tabasco, limón, or soy sauce.

 

 

Netflix raised prices on a service nobody uses (yet)

Wed, 2014-10-15 02:00

Until recently, streaming Netflix video in 4K, or ultra-high-definition display, was available for $8 or $9 a month. It now requires a $12 dollar-a-month subscription. 

Only a few manufacturers make devices with 4K displays, and it’s probably not too late to be the first on your block to get one.  

"We’re expecting 10 million of these 4K TVs to be sold this year, worldwide," says Eric Smith, who looks at home-entertainment devices for Strategy Analytics. "And most of them are in China, actually."

But prices are dropping, and sales will probably go up. Smith says in a few years, a third of new TVs may be 4K.

Strategy Analytics projects that sales of ultra-high-definition TVs will climb in the next few years.

Eric Smith/Strategy Analytics

Overall, getting 4K will mean paying more: a new TV, and probably more bandwidth, since the sharper picture takes four times as much data.

For Netflix, producing shows like “House of Cards” in 4K means spending more. The company says that’s why it's raising prices. 

But, despite the costs, the tech ramp-up in video will continue. 

"We’ll get to three-dimensional, eventually we’ll get to holographic projection," says Larry Hettick, who looks at consumer services for Current Analysis, a telecom consultancy. "And as the price point becomes bearable to consumers, then eventually they’re going to pay for it."

Medicare open enrollment brings change

Wed, 2014-10-15 02:00

Medicare’s open enrollment period runs from October 15 to December 7. 

The open enrollment is for Medicare Part D, prescription drug coverage, and for private Medicare Advantage plans. You can enroll in Medicare at age 65. The open enrollment period is when you tweak your coverage.

“It’s a little bit like eating your spinach," says Tricia Neuman, director of Medicare policy research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "Nobody likes to do it.”

Neuman says most seniors are reluctant to change their Part D prescription plans, but should consider it.

“Just to be sure that there are no surprises," she says. "That might mean having greater difficulty seeing a doctor or difficulty getting a prescription you want to fill.”

Medicare is getting a few surprises from baby boomers. Almost two million more are expected to enroll this year.

They smoked less than their parents—Their problem is obesity. 

“They’re likely to cost more than their parents did but not just because of living longer lives," says Kate Baicker, a health economist at Harvard. "But also because of having more complicated health conditions."

Conditions like diabetes and heart disease, for instance.

Black Friday to start two hours earlier at Macy's

Tue, 2014-10-14 13:42

Another step in the relentless march of commerce over common sense, as found in the Huffington Post: Macy's is going to start Black Friday, the big day-after-Thanksgiving kickoff of Christmas shopping season by two hours. 

It's now 6 p.m... Thanksgiving Day.

Yes, I know it's not even Halloween yet. Don't get me started on that one.

 

Private donors keep pace with government Ebola funding

Tue, 2014-10-14 13:19

In September, the United Nations reported it would need nearly $1 billion to fight the Ebola virus, which has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Private donors have recently stepped up in order to help reach that goal. Donations so far have helped provide supplies such as masks, gloves and disinfectant. New thermal scanners help check travelers for fevers, one Ebola symptom, at airport screenings. More than 200 computers equipped with software and printers were part of donations for use in the field by the CDC and staff in the countries.

The CDC reported the U.S. government had contributed roughly $100 million by mid-September to fight Ebola, about as much as this (not-comprehensive) list of private organizations combined:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan ($25 million)
Zuckerberg and his wife gave the money straight to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ($50 million)
The Foundation donated to United Nations agencies and international organizations involved in the response, specifically $5 million to the World Health Organization and $5 million to UNICEF.

Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen ($20 million)
Allen gave to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Medical Teams International, various other emergency services and medical supplies.

Kaiser Permanente ($1 million)
The health company gave to Doctors Without Borders and International Medical Corps.

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation ($5 million)
This foundation gave to CDC Foundation, the UN Foundation, Humanitarian Open Street Map Team, International Medical Corps, Population Services International, the Global Giving Foundation and Capital for Good.

Why raising money to fight Ebola is so tough

Tue, 2014-10-14 12:24

Raising money for Ebola is hard.

“We try to put up stories and information and photos and let people know we have a microsite and a designated button that makes it easy for people to give,” says Jana Sweeny of the American Red Cross.

But people aren’t giving in significant numbers. The Red Cross, UNICEF and Doctors without Borders have raised a combined $20 million toward combating Ebola. Compare that to the $486 million the Red Cross alone raised after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

“In the case of disease outbreak, I think that Americans tend to think immediately of government, our government helps manage that,” says Sweeny.

The CDC Foundation – the philanthropic arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – is having more success than the traditional charities; it’s raised $40 million.

“What we’ve had to say to our donors is trust those 150 CDC experts who are putting their lives on the line,” says Foundation President Charlie Stokes.

Stokes says major givers like Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan, who pledged $25 million Tuesday, are trusting CDC epidemiologists to spend money at the scientists’ discretion. That risk, plus the invisibility of a viral epidemic makes raising money tricky, Stokes says.

“We’re talking about raising funding for people who are not yet sick but may die two weeks from now,” he says. “It’s harder to put a face on those victims.”

So, Stokes puts a face on public health scientists in the spooky Hazmat suits in West Africa, and how they are the ones best positioned to control this virus.

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