Marketplace - American Public Media

The numbers for October 9, 2014

Thu, 2014-10-09 07:47

The same hackers who stole contact information from 83 million JPMorgan Chase account holders last month also targeted a dozen more financial institutions. The Obama administration has been getting briefings on the breach since this summer, the New York Times reported, and national security officials and banks have been conferring over several IP addresses attributed to the attackers.

ETrade, Fidelity, ADP, Bank of the West, HSBC, Citigroup and Regions Financial are some of the institutions targeted by the addresses. The government is reportedly troubled by the lack of an apparent motivation for the hacks.

As we look out for more breaches, here's what we're reading — and numbers we're watching — Thursday.

4206

The number of words in activist investor Carl Icahn's open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook. In short: Icahn praises Cook and several new products but (still) believes the company is undervalued and wants it to buy back more stock. Apple stock should be trading at $203, Icahn wrote, double its current value. So far, the letter has helped: at about noon eastern time shares were up 1 percent.

$16,353

The average pay gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic employees in the high-tech sector, USA Today reported. Similarly, blacks and Asians in the industry earn $3,656 and $8,146 less than whites, respectively. 

1 million

How many signatures Greenpeace nabbed in a petition for Lego to end its long-standing promotional agreement with oil company Royal Dutch Shell. Lego bowed to pressure from Greenpeace — which also made a viral video showing a cute Lego arctic community ravaged by oil — and agreed not to renew the partnership, the Wall Street Journal reported.

PODCAST: Like cars? Head to Paris

Thu, 2014-10-09 03:00

The clothing company Gap, which also owns Old Navy and Banana Republic, is unfashionable right now--at least to investors. Its CEO announced his retirement, and since that news broke, the markets have been unkind to the company's stock. Plus, President Obama will be in California today. He's scheduled to deliver a speech on the economy. But the president's not making many campaign speeches ahead of the midterms. His role is to motivate donors more than voters. We look into the change in tactic. And if you like cars, Paris is a good place to be right now. The city is hosting the Paris Motor Show, one of the biggest events of the year for the global auto industry. More than 270 companies from 21 countries are showing off their latest products. A report from our friends at the BBC takes a look at a few of them.

Want to save money? Call your cable company.

Thu, 2014-10-09 02:00

Most of us have cellphone, pay-TV and credit card bills, but few of us realize that simply calling companies and asking for a better deal can save a substantial amount on those bills. 

“Many times customer reps are empowered to provide you with something,” says Tony Giorgianni, a money advisor with Consumer Reports. “It costs companies five times as much to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an old one.”

So, it is a factored-in cost of doing business to provide discounts or other incentives for customers who call and ask. Companies know that most customers won’t ask, so it’s a small price to pay to hang onto those who do. 

In fact, a recent survey by CreditCards.com found that only 23 percent of credit card  customers called to ask for better terms. But, when they did, most got better interest rates or waived late fees. 

Matt Schulz, a senior analyst with CreditCards.com, says even he was surprised by the survey’s findings. So he understands that most customers don’t realize they have the power to get better deals. 

“And that’s kind of understandable. Given that in the depths of the recession, all we saw in the headlines was credit limits being slashed and accounts being closed and all that sort of thing,” Schulz says, adding that banks are competing for customers again, as the economy recovers. 

Consumer Reports’ Giorgianni points out that consumers have leverage in any industry where there’s competition. 

Elizabeth Coffman, a college professor in Chicago, found out the power of the call recently when looking for a better price on her cellphone plan. She has a family plan with several cellphones on it at a price of $300 a month.

“We have called both the cable company and the cellphone company, because our charges were too high, and said we were going to go to another company if we couldn’t lower them. In both cases we were successful,” Coffman says. 

But, it has been a while, and she decided to contact her cellphone company again, just as other carriers were offering discounts and incentives to win over customers. The result: a more than $100 per month price reduction, saving her more than $1,200 a year. 

Carol Helton of Cape Coral, Florida had a similar story with her cable company. About six months ago, she called her cable company to complain about raised fees. 

“I mentioned that I keep getting mailers from their competition and I was thinking about switching. They put me through to their ‘retention specialist.’ Not only was she able to take off the new charges, she was able to give us a lower rate than we had been paying,” Helton wrote in response to a Marketplace questionnaire on the Public Insight Network. 

Sometimes, success isn’t immediate. Sharon Forrest of Atlanta, Georgia, says she called her phone company three times and had to wait for her bill to increase, before she could get them to reduce her payments. 

“I learned not to take for granted that the company will make the changes they promise. I learned to persist,” Forrest wrote. 

Giorgianni says persistence is important. If you call and don’t get the answer you want from a customer service representative, hang up and call again later. A different representative might be more helpful, or might know of a deal or promotion that the first one didn’t. 

Most importantly, Giorgianni says, remain happy and positive. If a company thinks they still have a way of keeping you a happy customer, then they’ll try to do so. But if they think you’re so angry that they’ve already lost you, they’ll have little incentive to try. 

AT&T pays a price for cramming

Thu, 2014-10-09 02:00

Two major federal government agencies and the country's state attorneys general have settled a case with AT&T in which the wireless carrier will pay $105 million dollars for cramming.

If you don't know what cramming is, you're not alone, and that's part of the problem. In this case—the biggest in history according to the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission—it's about AT&T allowing third party companies to hit its customers with fraudulent charges.

Click the media player above to hear FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

$80 million of the settlement will go through a program the FTC has set up to reimburse customers who suffered the charges.

Inside the Paris Motor Show

Thu, 2014-10-09 02:00

If you like cars, Paris is a pretty good place to be right now. Not for driving—the traffic is terrible there pretty much any time of the year.

But if you like checking out the newest innovations in car design, there's a festival for petrolheads at the Paris Motor Show. More than 270 companies from 20 countries are showing off their latest vehicles.

BBC reporter Theo Leggett has this report from inside the show.

The president as fundraiser-in-chief

Thu, 2014-10-09 02:00

President Barack Obama is making a series of economic speeches around the country, and the latest comes Thursday in Santa Monica, California. 

All this speaking means the president hasn't been doing a lot of campaigning for Democrats in close red state races. 

“When you look at the approval ratings for President Obama in most of these states, he’s in the low 30s,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. 

Sabato says the president is helping Democrats more by staying out of sight and raising big money. 

Who still loves him? The party’s base. 

“There are a lot of very affluent Democrats and liberals who are willing to pay money to see the president,” says John Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

The White House doesn't have numbers for how much President Obama has raised for Democrats. When asked, The Democratic National Committee wouldn't provide one, either. 

The Center for Responsive Politics does keeps track of fundraising reports, though. It says the Democratic Party has raised almost $600 million so far this year.

Most seniors aren't saving enough for retirement

Thu, 2014-10-09 02:00

Despite recent gains, older Americans still aren’t saving enough for a comfortable retirement, according to a new survey from Interest.com. There's a personal finance rule of thumb that says seniors need at least 70 percent of their pre-retirement income once they quit working.

In 2013, seniors in only two places met that threshold: Nevada and Washington D.C.

Mike Sante, managing editor of Interest.com, says many federal workers in the District of Columbia retire with government pensions. Nevada may be harder to explain, but he suspects the predominance of union workers in Las Vegas may be part of the reason.

“Union membership tends to mean that they still have traditional retirement plans,” says Sante.

American seniors are inching closer to meeting that retirement “rule of thumb," however. They now earn close to 60 percent of pre-retirement income.

Americans 65 and over earn about 60 percent of what pre-retirement Americans ages 45-64 earn. That's a 10 percent jump from 2005.

Sante contends those gains are partly due to the fact that more seniors are staying on the job longer. Many can't afford to retire at age 65.  

Sante says the survey is aimed not at seniors but “everybody who’s working in their 30s, 40s and 50s.” 

He says, “When you’re still in your 30s and 40s, even in your 50s, you can still save a significant amount of money and have a big impact on your quality of life after you stop working."

Drill for the cure

Wed, 2014-10-08 13:24

October is, as you may know if you watched an NFL game in the past weekend, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Pink whistles, pink cleats — pink everything, practically, makes an appearance in support of the cause.

Also, which we saw in Salon today, courtesy of the oilfield services company Baker Hughes, one-thousand pink drill bits.

Which is great, I guess, but doesn't the pink get scraped off when the drills start drilling?

And, aren't there all kinds of carcinogens in oil?

Tell us what the economy feels like to you

Wed, 2014-10-08 12:45

It’s doing better by lots of measurements — but people don’t feel it. Which is part of what Obama is out stumping for through November.

The data says the economy’s doing better — much better. But does it feel better? How’s your economy doing? 

Tell us your story above, we might include it in the show.

Frack that! Oil tries to own a word that rallies critics

Wed, 2014-10-08 12:10

Few industries have bigger branding issues than the oil industry with fracking.

Not least of those issues: The word itself, which is short for hydraulic fracturing and near in sound to a four-letter word that's taboo on the radio. Activists have long exploited that connection — the Natural Resources Defense Council’s page on drilling is headlined "Don’t get fracked!" — and industry PR types have advised against using the term at all.

Pennsylvania has been a particularly hot battleground. Drilling has exploded, and so has opposition to the oil and gas wells popping up all over the state — and the pollution and truck traffic they create. 

In the heat of election season, an industry group there has introduced an ad that touts fracking’s contribution to jobs and lower energy costs — and which, in its punch-line, makes an effort to reclaim the word.

"Fracking’s a good word," says a middle-aged man collecting his mail. "Fracking’s a good word," says a woman on her front porch. "Fracking rocks," says a teenage girl on an elliptical machine. 

The ad started running in late September, commissioned by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the beginning of a larger campaign called “Rock solid for PA." 

"Some people will try to use that word in a negative connotation," says the group's president, David Spigelmyer. "All we’re trying to do is shine a light on the fact that there’s a lot of good that comes out of that technology. That’s all."

David Masur has noticed the ads. He's director of PennEnvironment, a non-profit that opposes fracking.  "It’s been highly entertaining," he says.

He thinks it means he and his allies are winning in the court of public opinion. "There’s something funny," he says, "when companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell and Halliburton and BP are saying, ‘Man, we’re just getting creamed by the local non-profit group.’"

But maybe it could work? It did for Obamacare.

"Obamacare is very interesting," says Tim Calkins, author of “Defending Your Brand” and a marketing professor at Northwestern University.  "It did start out as an attack on the program, and now supporters use it just the same as everybody else. In a way, it’s actually very smart."

However, Obamacare had a charismatic, witty spokesman who could get on TV, for free, whenever he wanted. 

Without that, says Calkins, "it's going to take a lot of money, if you're going to get in front of people and get them to re-think a word," he says. "Especially when you've got a word that has such deep-set associations around it."

He gives the industry credit for trying. "I don't know if this initiative is going to work," he says, "but at least they're looking at it, and taking action, and they've certainly got to do that."

A car with no driver. What could go wrong?

Wed, 2014-10-08 11:56

Wouldn’t it be nice to own a self-driving car? You could skip all of the traffic, read the newspaper and drink a latte on the way to work every morning.

Although, self-driving cars might be the next big thing in Silicon Valley, you won't seem them on roads for another decade or so, says Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson. There's still a lot of work to make them street-ready, and right now they come with a hefty price tag: about $320,000.

"Your average American family can apparently afford to spend maybe about twenty grand on a car, so cost is a problem," Johnson says.

Google's self-driving cars have some GPS problems, but programming the software to respond to changing, unpredictable driving conditions is another issue.

"Software is really good at dealing with stuff that it’s been designed to deal with," Johnson says. "It’s way harder for you to design software to deal with data that it has not predicted yet."

The jobs mismatch

Wed, 2014-10-08 11:56

Jobs are out there – so why is it taking employers so long to fill them?

"The key reason is that there’s a mismatch in the jobs market going on,” says Robert Johnson, Director of Economic Analysis at Morningstar.

Like trying to pair plaid with polka dots — there are many patterns to follow. First, while there are jobs, some are part time and workers may be holding out for the real deal of a full-time gig. Next,  some industries may be looking for skilled workers who don’t exist.

“There definitely is a shortage in the labor market right now – everybody is experiencing it in construction," says Kristen Ripmaster, sales and operations manager at Constructionjobs.com. There are jobs on the site says Ripmaster, but applications are down or nonexistent.

Construction, notes Ripmaster, took a hit during the downturn and so the flow of young people choosing to go into the industry stopped. Furthermore, anyone still in the market is already working because of the boom in the industry.

But Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy research, has another take on the mismatch. “It doesn’t seem that skills are the issue,” he says.

The biggest disconnect, he says, between available jobs and how long it takes to fill them, is in the retail and restaurant industries.

"It’s a little hard to believe that the reason restaurants and retail stores have all these openings that are going unfilled, is because they can’t find qualified workers," Baker says.

DiceHoldings, a company that tracks how long it takes to fill jobs, says both employers and workers have been getting pickier about what they want – which makes it harder to find a match.

But if employers need workers, Baker says, they’ll have to begin offering higher salaries.

"We all understand that if you want a really good quarterback, you’re willing to pay $20 million a year to get a really good quarterback" he says. "And you’ll get a really good quarterback."

IMF offers mixed economic picture, all eyes on Europe

Wed, 2014-10-08 11:52

The IMF has revised its view of global economic growth prospects: It’s a mixed picture, leaning towards poor.

The U.S. will have grown 2.2 percent by the end of this year, the IMF says. That's not stunning, but still 0.5 percent higher than the fund’s previous prediction.  The U.S. is expected to grow 3.1 percent in 2015.

The IMF reduced its prediction for growth in Europe from 1.1 percent to a mere 0.8 percent.  Europe is still struggling with an 11.5 percent unemployment rate (the U.S. rate is 5.9 percent).  The continent is precariously close to deflation - a form of economic stagnation that can last decades, as it did in Japan.

China’s growth is slowing and will continue to slow, says the IMF.  It will decelerate from 7.7 percent growth in 2013 to 7.4 percent in 2014 and 7.1 percent in 2015. 

“The U.S. is the one eyed man in the country of the blind,” says Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.  “The U.S. is the only one that seems to be turning in the other direction.”

Kirkegaard credits both the aggressive response of the U.S. Federal Reserve and the underlying “flexibility and dynamism” of the U.S. economy: “The U.S. is an economy that is able to absorb shocks far more rapidly than certainly the European countries but also Japan and it is an economy where simple entrepreneurship plays a much bigger role.”

“The U.S. is once again the rudder that’s going to keep the world steered in the right direction I hope,” says Ross DeVol, Chief Research Officer at the Milken Institute. The rising dollar and increasing consumer appetite in the U.S. will spur the export sectors of other economies around the world.

The modest success of the U.S. may also pose a challenge to the rest of the world. When the U.S. was in crisis, investors shifted money to developing and emerging economies. Now that the U.S. is getting back on its feet and interest rates may rise in 2015, the reverse is happening, says Stephen Kaplan, assistant professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

“It might be more difficult for governments and firms abroad to borrow in an environment where more capital is going to be dedicated to the United States,” he says.

The larger source of concern for many economists however is the situation in Europe.

“Europe is avoiding a technical recession but will get so close to one that you won’t know the difference,” says DeVol. “The global cycle is out of balance.” 

Europe not growing at all, or very slowly, is not good for anyone in the world, says Matthew Slaughter, professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

Europe all together has the largest economy in the world. A weak Europe is less likely to import from the U.S. or China which is also slowing down. Slaughter says its problems – like an 11.5 percent unemployment rate and a not fully resolved sovereign debt problem – run deep.

“Those problems have been layered on top of what for many countries, even before the crisis, was this no growth in population, slow productivity growth environment they were already in,” Slaughter says.

Demographically, Europe is aging, Slaughter continued: “In many countries the labor force growth will be zero and there’s not much inflow of immigration so that dynamism from a young and growing population is not there.”

The European policy response to the recession has not been as aggressive or effective as responses elsewhere in the world. 

“The combination of fiscal and monetary policy has just been too firm,” says Peter Fisher, senior fellow at the Center for Global Business and Government at Dartmouth.  “It’s partly because they’ve been fighting a multiple front war – they’ve had to hold the euro together in addition to stimulating economy and that’s both a political challenge and an economic one.”

The IMF says Europe has a 38 percent chance of slipping into a recession again, double the odds in April.

CDC's Ebola workers find funding is strapped

Wed, 2014-10-08 10:41

The death Wednesday of the Dallas Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan underscores the high stakes around controlling the spread of the disease. To that point, the federal government has announced it would soon screen air travelers coming from West Africa to see if they have temperatures.

Separately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more than 1,000 people working around the world to contain Ebola. On-the-ground work involves risk and problem solving, where staff must do everything from collecting blood samples, to tracking the sick, to hiring workers to pick up the dead. 

It’s a difficult job, says Dr. Bridgette Gleason, who turned 30 this week. Gleason says she’s seen tragedy every day since Sept. 13, the day she arrived in Sierra Leone.

“Being surrounded by death, it’s obviously overwhelming if you really focus on that,” she says. “To really make a difference you have to focus on what you can do.”

That attitude gives a sense of the men and women who parachute into these communicable disease hot spots. Staffers are expert trouble-shooters. But with the Ebola spreading in West Africa, CDC folks like Peter Kilmarx – who is leading the operation in Sierra Leone — must do something outside the norm: think about budgets.

“We are not fully meeting the demand and it’s stressful. It’s a very challenging situation,” he says.

For the past 20 years, CDC field staff has depended on the non-profit CDC Foundation for money when it would otherwise take too long going through bureaucratic channels at the agency.

The outbreak has gotten so big so fast, so that’s changed.

“There is simply not enough money at this time to meet the needs that CDC is sending our way,” says the Foundation's executive director, Charlie Stokes.

Stokes understands putting a crimp in this financial lifeline is actually a matter of life and death. That’s why the foundation launched an emergency fund back in August to address Ebola.

“We initially thought $30 million would be enough," he says. "What we are seeing in terms of needs in the field tells me it’s going to be considerably more than that.”

To put that figure in perspective, that’s what the foundation spends on all of its programs in a year. Stokes estimates Ebola needs $50 million alone.

If the foundation falls short, Stokes knows he’ll have to level with the CDC docs.

“We are either going to have the money and send it, or we are going to have to say, 'you are going to have to prioritize,'” he says.

Stokes admits it’s easy to feel overmatched by this epidemic, but – much like Gleason in Sierra Leone –he says he’s going to focus on what he can do. 

Steel's slow, grinding growth

Wed, 2014-10-08 10:08

The economy is growing at 4 percent per year. Unemployment is down. But that's not always how the economy feels, day to day.

Lisa Goldenberg is the president of Delaware Steel Company of Pennsylvania, where she has a front-row seat to how the economic outlook is making life easier — or harder — for businesses. In a July interview, Goldenberg lamented that things weren't going as well as she had hoped. She has that same grinding sense of progress today.

"We should have had a stronger September. We're doing okay, but okay isn't good enough. It's a struggle," Goldenberg says.

The bright spots: construction, energy and cars.

"For the steel business, construction is a good thing," Goldenberg says. "People go out, they need washers and dryers made out of steel."

But are things better than July? No, she says. People have a little more money to spend, but not enough to pay off debts from the past few years. And definitely not enough savings to buy a house.

"It's painful to live through slow, even, deliberate growth," Goldenberg says. But even so, "it's the best way, in my opinion, to build a solid economy."

Why we tip more than we used to

Wed, 2014-10-08 09:00

Tipping can be a contentious issue in the U.S., especially in light of the debate over raising the minimum wage. Whether tipped employees should even be paid minimum wage is still a question up for debate in most states.

With the hardships of low-wage workers on their mind, consumers might be compelled to increase the percentage of their gratuity in instances like dining in a restaurant. Concerns over low wages might be the reason why, percentage-wise, we tip more compared to past decades.

Or is it some other economic reason tied to the rise or fall of food prices? Does the average diner even pay attention to those factors?

Looking at historical data on the U.S., there does seem to be a general rise in how big of a percentage people tip, says Mike Lynn, a marketing professor and expert in tipping behavior at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.

“If you look at etiquette books, going back pretty far, etiquette books were recommending 15 percent tips,” Lynn says, “But there was a survey by Leo Crespi in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1947, and what was clear was that people were tipping 10 percent on average in restaurants.”

Other etiquette books reinforced the 10 percent norm for tipping as well.

An excerpt from \"The itching palm; a study of the habit of tipping in America,\" an anti-tipping etiquette book published in 1916.

William R. Scott/The Penn publishing company of Philadelphia via California Digital Library

The rise of tipping to a more 15 percent standard may have more to do with how the tipper wants to be perceived, Lynn says.

“My theory is that some people tip as a positional good. To get ahead of others,” Lynn says, “They want better service than other people get. They want the server to look up to them and respect them more. They tip to get out ahead of others, and once some people do that, it puts pressure on everybody else.”

Lynn cautions that his theory is based more on his own observations rather than hard evidence on tipping, which is difficult to come by, but he does say there is evidence that tipping is more common in countries that are more status-oriented.

Lynn also says we shouldn’t totally discount people who say they do tip to rectify what they see as unfair wage practices for servers, in which they are paid below the state minimum wage. He also points out that in states like California, where tipped employees do make at least the state minimum wage, tipping rates aren’t significantly lower than in states with different policies.

The numbers for October 8, 2014

Wed, 2014-10-08 08:14

Five U.S. airports will begin screening passengers arriving from West Africa for Ebola starting this weekend. Kennedy International will be the first, the New York Times reported, followed by O'Hare, Washington Dulles, Hartsfield-Jackson and Newark Liberty international airports.

The announcement comes right after the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. since the outbreak began, on Wednesday morning.

In other news, the Fed minutes are expected later today, along with the usual combing for clues about interest rate hikes. In the meantime, here are the other numbers we're watching Wednesday:

25 minutes

That's how long one employee says he waited, unpaid, to be screened for stolen merchandise following a 12-hour shift at an Amazon fulfillment center. Jesse Busk sued the staffing agency that placed him in the job, Bloomberg reported, and several other suits against Amazon followed. The allegations will be heard by the Supreme Court Wednesday.

5

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Facebook all compromised with the Justice Department in January over disclosing details of government requests to the public. Those firms are now able to give some more general information about data requests that were previously confidential. Twitter argues the remaining restrictions infringe on its First Amendment rights, the Washington Post reported, and the tech company is suing the government.

$27 billion

Netflix's estimated market cap, making its recent deals for a "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sequel and four Adam Sandler movies seem downright affordable to a streaming service that already spends $3 billion on content annually. Those numbers come from a Variety analysis of Netflix's recent push to the big screen, which posits big theater chains might be forced to get on board with the streaming model... or go the way of Blockbuster.

Why water conservation doesn't mean lower water rates

Wed, 2014-10-08 05:27

Tap water is still one of the cheapest things you can buy these days.

Of course, out West many households have to conserve water because of a drought. In other parts of the country, folks are using less water not only because they want to conserve, but also because appliances are way more efficient than they used to be. Still, many of those folks are finding that no matter how much water they save, their water rates still go up. They’re using less water, but paying more per gallon.

Why? Put simply, when water consumption drops, so do the main revenue streams for water and sewer agencies. But whether you use one drop of water or a thousand gallons, utilities still bear the cost of cleaning it and sending it to you. Those costs are mounting.

To get a quick sense of the success of passive household conservation, just walk into a store that sells toilets.

“We’re looking at a couple of models here,” says Sean Jones as we walk down through the Home Depot in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “American Standard, Glacier and we have Kohler.”

Twenty toilets in a gleaming row, and when all of them flush, they flush low-flow. Decades ago, toilets used five to seven gallons of water per flush. Now, every toilet here uses far less, to meet EPA criteria.

Jones says now it's “1.28 gallons of water flushes per flush."

It’s not just toilets, though the EPA says toilets are the main source of residential water use. Decades of federal standards have created a new normal: water efficient dishwashers, shower heads and washing machines that save thousands of gallons a year.

Water and wastewater utilities also urged conservation, including the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, or WSSC, in Maryland.

“We’ve had a 30-plus year message of conserve, conserve, conserve,” says West Laurel resident and WSSC customer Melissa Daston.

So, that’s just what she did.

“I’ve replaced all of my toilets to low-flow toilets,” says Daston, the past-president of her local civic assocation. “I save up all my dishes until I have a full load. I have stopped watering my lawn years years and years ago.”

The list goes on. If Daston’s water use has fallen, however, her water rates have not. She doesn’t find her bill unreasonable – and she’s not complaining – but, she’s noticed.

“They’ve gone up,” she says. “Point blank, they’ve gone up year, after year, after year, after year.”

In fact, WSSC’s acting CFO Chris Cullinan says rates have gone up about 95 percent (on a compounded basis) over the last ten years. That’s far higher than the rate of inflation.

The reason? WSSC is producing less water than it did twenty years ago, even though it’s added more than 70,000 customer accounts. Again, because of fixed costs, the less water people use, the more these public utilities have to charge for it.

“We make money when we sell water,” Cullinan says. “That’s our primary revenue source. And so while from an environmental standpoint conservation is certainly one of our objectives, from a business standpoint it certainly presents some challenges.”

The biggest challenge is aging infrastructure. WSSC has about 5,600 miles of water pipes and almost as many sewer pipes. 

“It’s from New York to LA and back, within a service area encompassing two counties,” Cullinan says.

He says decades of improper infrastructure investment mean it’s now time to catch up and do reactive maintenance. The utility is under court order to fix sewer overflows, which Cullinan says will cost about $1.4 billion.

The head of the American Water Works Association says rate increases like the ones in Maryland are happening across the nation, as decreased water use collides with the financial burden posed by buried infrastructure.

“Those pipes were put into ground anywhere from 70 to 100 years ago,” says AWWA’s CEO David LaFrance. “There’s massive needs for replacements. We estimate that over the next 25 years it’s a trillion dollar problem.”

The solution won’t all come in the form of rate hikes.

Like other utilities, WSSC wants to stabilize rate increases by charging higher fees. It has proposed a revamped account maintenance fee, which would include an infrastructure investment charge. It’s also proposed a changed customer affordability program, which requires state approval.

The utility sees recalibrated fees as a more stable, equitable way for all users to fund the infrastructure that brings them water and takes away waste.

Small users like Melissa Daston worry increased fees hurt the biggest conservers the most.

PODCAST: Laying transatlantic sea cables

Wed, 2014-10-08 03:00

We often have to go through security to get into work, but in some occupations this takes a while. Question: Are workers entitled to get paid for time spent doing the required screening? The issue is before the Supreme Court this morning. And the Federal Reserve reported yesterday that while credit card borrowing fell in August, consumers borrowed more through car loans and student loans, driving borrowing up overall. The burden of student loans on young people, age 20 through 29, is much heavier than it was for that age group a decade ago. Plus, the private company Space X with entrepreneur Elon Musk at the helm is spending this fall pushing for clearance to compete for satellite launching contracts. Now it's Boeing and Lockheed who get a lot of support from Russia for the rockets. But when it comes to communications, satellites are not the only way to go. Bjarni Thovardarson is CEO of a company called Hibernia Networks. As we speak, he's got a huge infrastructure project underway to link New York and London via Nova Scotia that's both cutting-edge and and old-school at the same time. 

The heavy burden of student loans

Wed, 2014-10-08 02:00

According to a new report from TransUnion, the burden of student loans on young people, ages 20 through 29, is much heavier than it was for that age group a decade ago. Charlie Wise, a vice president at TransUnion, looks at what is called the “consumer loan wallet” – how debt shakes out.

“Certainly, that student loan piece is a much, much larger share of that overall wallet,” he says. “In fact, it has nearly tripled between 2005 and 2014.”

On average, a twentysomething today has about $25,000 in student loan debt. That is up about $10,000 from 2005. Older borrowers are also carrying more student loan debt, in part because they co-signed loans with kids and grandkids.

Mortgages are down, as a percentage of young American’s debt. “If you were to look at that as a graphic, a bar chart, you would essentially see that the decline in mortgages is almost exactly matched by the increase in the student loan piece,” Wise explains.

There are several reasons for that. According to Brent Ambrose, the Smeal Professor of Risk Management at Penn State University, “lenders have been tightening underwriting standards; so, it is more difficult to get a mortgage now.”

Today’s twentysomethings may have learned a thing or two from the downturn. Less of their debt is credit card debt.

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