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Does net neutrality have a loophole?

Fri, 2015-03-20 09:14

The simple understanding of the FCC's recent net neutrality regulation is this: it makes it so cable companies can't charge the Netflixes of the world more for an Internet fast lane. 

But net neutrality applies only to the "highway" of data that is the public Internet. The cable companies have three routes into your house: the public Internet, pay TV, and "specialized services." The Wall Street Journal reports HBO, Sony and Showtime are in talks with cable provider Comcast to bring their "Web TV" product to that "specialized services" highway, where fast lanes are allowed. 

Susan Crawford, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says this could present an opportunity for cable companies to cap bandwidth on the public Internet, and then charge web TV providers for special treatment for products delivered through the "specialized services" pipe.

But Ian Olgeirson, an industry analyst at SNL Kagan, doesn't see, from the details we know now, how this would be a smart business proposition for the cable companies, since it would undermine their pay TV business.

"There's sort of a tradeoff for the operators," he says. "They're giving up a revenue stream — to gain another revenue stream." 

Your Wallet: What are you waiting for?

Fri, 2015-03-20 09:05

Next week, we explore the economics of waiting.

What are you waiting for? Is it a big purchase? Maybe marriage? Childbirth?

We want to hear from you. Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter @MarketplaceWKND.

What are you waiting for?

Fri, 2015-03-20 09:05

Next week, we explore the economics of waiting.

What are you waiting for? Is it a big purchase? Maybe marriage? Childbirth?

We want to hear from you. Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter @MarketplaceWKND.

Small town hopes to rescue itself by selling pot

Fri, 2015-03-20 09:04

North Bonneville, Washington, is surrounded by forests on one side. On the other is the Columbia River. 

“There is one gas station. There is one restaurant. There is a golf course. And there is the Bonneville Hot Springs Hotel,” says John Spencer, the former city administrator. Now he’s a consultant. And with some exceptions, he’s just described most of the town’s economy.

A few years ago, the town of about 1,000 people stopped watering parks and other public places to save money. And a few months ago, it started turning off streetlights to cut down on its electricity bill.

“The city is on its knees financially. They have run negative numbers in the general fund multiple months in a row because they have no retail sector here,” Spencer says. “This store could very well make a town that is otherwise going to fail.”

The store Spencer is talking about is The Cannabis Corner: the first recreational pot shop in the country run by a government.  

It opened earlier this month. Technically, the city doesn’t own it. Rather, it set up a public development authority to run it.

“In the headlines, everybody wants to say it’s a city-owned pot shop, which, I guess, I leave for the lawyers," says North Bonneville Mayor Don Stevens, who embraces the title of “The Marijuana Mayor,” right down to the personalized license plates he’s ordered for his car that read "MJMAYOR." 

"I guess technically, on some level, it is.” Stevens says there was a strong likelihood of a pot shop opening in the town anyway. So the city decided to open its own store to have more control over how it’s operated.

“Whereas if a private person came in and opened a store and it wasn’t working out in the community’s best interest, we’d have a really long, ugly path to try and straighten that situation out,” Stevens says. He says all the profits from North Bonneville’s pot shop will go back to the community, by partnering the shop with the city on projects.

“While it can’t just deposit its profit directly into our general fund, (it) can as a separate corporation, help us defray costs with law-enforcement contracts, public health and safety programs, any number of things that ultimately will have a positive affect on our bottom line,” he says.

Right now, the city’s annual budget is $1.2 million. Officials think The Cannabis Corner could eventually bring in half a million dollars in profit every year.

That’s big money here. After the timber industry collapsed in the 1990s, tourism became the county’s main industry.

Casey Roeder, the executive director of the Skamania County Chamber of Commerce, says the town’s pot shop adds another reason for people to visit.

“It’s an amenity, in my mind, just as a winery or brewery,” she says. “The cannabis store in North Bonneville just adds to that whole menu of options for folks to come and spend money.”

And Roeder says if people come here and see the region’s natural beauty and lifestyle, they just may want to move here and bring their business with them.

 

Fun Fact Friday: Much ado about macaroni and cheese

Fri, 2015-03-20 08:35

David Gura offered his final Marketplace sign off Friday, but not before he hosted a discussion about the week that was with Leigh Gallagher of Fortune and Sudeep Reddy with the Wall Street Journal. Listen to that above, then read about some of the best stuff we learned this week at Marketplace:

Fun Fact: It can take between $70,000 and $100,000 to keep a kennel full of racing dogs running year-round. This week, Alaska hosted the Iditarod.

We spoke to Alaska's top musher in long-distance sled dog racing history, Lance Mackey, who broke down the economics behind running races like the Iditarod. This large sum includes the cost of fuel, entry fees and food for the dogs, which costs around $5,000 every race season.

Want to run the Iditarod? You'll need a lot of scratch

Fun Fact: Kids take an average of 113 standardized tests by the time they finish high school.

This year, standardized tests are being tied to Common Core education standards, creating a divide between schools and parents. According to a Gallup poll conducted late last year, 41 percent of teachers say they view common core standards positively, vs. 33 percent of parents. Should parents let their kids decide whether to take the Common Core tests? Take our poll: 

Parents weigh the lessons of common core testing

Fun Fact: Kraft is recalling 6.5 million boxes of macaroni and cheese.

The company said numerous consumers reported finding metal pieces in the packages. While it may be too early to determine the cost of this recall, some experts warn it proves that the food-safety system in the United States is inadequate.

Kraft recalls 6.5 million boxes of macaroni and cheese

Oh, one more thing: We already miss David.

'Match Day' is a rite of passage for young doctors

Fri, 2015-03-20 08:15

Friday was a big day for young doctors across the country. It's Match Day — the day medical students find out where they will spend their residencies.

It's a competitive process. This year, more 41,000 applicants are vying for about 30,000 spots. 

Dr. Atul Grover, Chief Public Policy Officer with the Association for American Medical Colleges, says he remembers his 1998 Match Day well.

"It was really all about the envelopes," Grover says. "We went back to our groups of friends, family, sat down and everybody kind of opened their envelopes on the count of three. And I can just remember, myself, being personally elated of getting my first choice."

But not everyone is so lucky. Thousands will not be placed. A record number of young doctors applied for residencies this year, and while enrollment in medical schools is increasing, funding for residency positions has stayed about the the same, making the process more competitive.

Marketplace asks: Have you cut the cord?

Fri, 2015-03-20 07:38
In 2014, Time Warner Cable lost nearly 600,000 subscribers. Comcast lost 150,00 subscribers of their own service.

1.4 million U.S. households "either canceled pay-TV over the trailing 12 months or never subscribed," according to Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett.

Are you one of them? Tell us how you watch TV:

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Your Wallet: The economics of waiting

Fri, 2015-03-20 06:48

Next week, we explore the economics of waiting.

What are you waiting for in you personal economy? Is it that big purchase? Maybe marriage?

We want to hear from you. Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter, @MarketplaceWKND

PODCAST: A grande race relations conversation

Fri, 2015-03-20 03:00

An announcement from Tesla in the I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it category. More on that. Plus, Starbucks said this week it wanted to use its big retail footprint to foster a conversation on race in America. It hasn’t gone as planned, as critics have panned the effort as ham-handed. We look at ways companies have had success in talking about diversity and inclusion. And women with limited education beyond high school, especially single working mothers, earn less than men. They’re often shunted into minimum-wage unskilled jobs—in the Wendy’s drive-through or behind the register at Rite-Aid. At the same time, the skilled trades are begging for new recruits: electricians, welders, machinists. There are initiatives to bring women into these traditionally male-dominated professions (by labor unions, community colleges, employer groups). But it’s not an easy gig to work—with a bunch of men on a building site or a machine-shop floor.

Michelle Obama promotes girls' education in Asia

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

First lady Michelle Obama is traveling in Asia this week to promote a new initiative with the Peace Corps aimed at closing the education gap for girls. Around the world, an estimated 62 million girls between the ages of 6 and 15 are not in school. The Peace Corps plans to recruit and train at least 650 new volunteers to help remove the barriers to education in developing countries like Albania, Cambodia, Georgia, and Uganda.

The economic payoff can be significant, says Sarah Lynch, a senior director of the global charity Care, which will help train volunteers. "Investments in girls' education have proven to go further than any other spending in global development," she says.

Click the media player above to hear more.

 

Tesla plans to launch 'autopilot' feature this summer

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

Tesla announced a few software updates it’s planning for its electric vehicles on Thursday, including one where the car tracks its distance from charging stations to try to alleviate driver anxiety about running out of juice. CEO Elon Musk said that the company could push another update — autopilot — to its Model S fleet as soon as June.

While Musk said cars would be technically capable of getting from place to place without a driver having to do anything, initially this feature limited to use on highways, as neighborhoods pose safety issues given their many obstacles and variables. Eventually, drivers could also summon their cars or let the vehicles park themselves.

Mike Wall, an auto analyst at IHS, says this move echoes steps taken by other car companies and that driver-less technology is advancing faster than regulations that will govern its use.

Michelle Krebs, an analyst with AutoTrader, says driverless cars could be on the road tomorrow, but manufacturers are holding back because of regulatory concerns and questions about who’s to blame if there’s an accident. Tesla believes its autopilot feature meets current regulations. 

Michelle Obama promotes girls' education in Asia

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

First lady Michelle Obama is traveling in Asia this week to promote a new initiative with the Peace Corps aimed at closing the education gap for girls. Around the world, an estimated 62 million girls between the ages of 6 and 15 are not in school. The Peace Corps plans to recruit and train at least 650 new volunteers to help remove the barriers to education in developing countries like Albania, Cambodia, Georgia, and Uganda.

The economic payoff can be significant, says Sarah Lynch, a senior director of the global charity Care, which will help train volunteers. "Investments in girls' education have proven to go further than any other spending in global development," she says.

Click the media player above to hear more.

 

Silicon Tally: Where's my tax refund?

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by David Gura, senior reporter for Marketplace in our Washington D.C. bureau. We're celebrating his last day at Marketplace, as he leaves for Bloomberg TV.

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Starbucks' race push irks some

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

Starbucks new #RaceTogether campaign has set off a storm of controversy. The coffee giant is hoping baristas and customers will have a more frank discussion about American race relations. 

So what's the best way to bring up issues of diversity? Nicole Sanchez, CEO of Vaya Consulting, says Starbucks may have helped create controversy by trying to force this conversation when people are at their most vulnerable—that is to say, before they've had their morning coffee.

But Robert Raben, president of the Raben Group, says Starbucks may be onto something. Its coffee houses are so ubiquitous and integrated that they serve as de facto town halls and community centers for places all across the country. 

Freight rail is king in U.S.

Fri, 2015-03-20 02:00

Railways carry more than 40 percent of the freight shipped between U.S. cities. The U.S. freight rail system is uniquely profitable, and it's been attracting international attention. Europe, Russia, Brazil and Australia have all sent representatives here.

“There have been dozens of delegations just over the last couple of years,” says Patricia Reilly, senior vice president  for communications at the Association of American Railroads, a trade group for freight rail companies.

Reilly has met with some of the international visitors. They want to know everything, down to what stone is used for rail beds. Some come with interpreters, but Reilly says they speak a common tongue.

“They might not speak our language, but they love railroads," she says. "They love the sound of a whistle.”

Garrick Francis loves the sound of a whistle, too. He’s a lobbyist with the freight rail company CSX Transportation.  

He’s also met with the international delegations. He says they’re curious about a huge difference between the U.S. and the rest of the world. The American freight rail system is run entirely by private companies. Francis says he gets lots of questions about investment.

“So how do we have private investors," he says. "How is this a business that attracts investment from major funds or major shareholders on Wall Street and in other places?” 

But Francis gets harder questions, too, about rail congestion in places like Chicago. Freight trains have to share track with passenger trains, adding to the congestion. 

The international delegations also want to know about new safety technology freight railways have developed. Freight rail’s safety record has improved, with the accident rate down by 42 percent since 2000. Still, accidents do happen. 

“Some of these accidents with the crude oil trains have been drastic reminders that there’s still a long way to go,” says Pasi Lautala, director of the rail transportation program at Michigan Technological University. 

Lautala says, in some ways, freight rail in the U.S. is a victim of its own success, making money and growing enough to attract admirers from around the world — but still facing expensive challenges.  

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Facebook me some money

Fri, 2015-03-20 01:30
500 million

A low estimate for the number of people using Facebook's Messenger app. With the reveal of mobile payments on Messenger earlier this week, Facebook's plans for the app are becoming clearer. TechCrunch reported Messenger will become a platform for third-party developers, who will add more content and commerce. The company is expected to build on the success of its WhatsApp acquisition, and model Messenger after Asia's extremely popular messaging apps like WeChat and Line.

One in four

The whiter a census tract is, except in extreme cases, the more likely it is to have a Starbucks, according to an analysis by Quartz. For example, one in four tracts with 70 percent white people have a 'Bucks. Something to keep in mind if you see "#RaceTogether" on your cup one morning.

$1.9 billion

Last year's revenue across all streaming music services like Spotify, Pandora and Vevo, according to a new report from the RIAA. Streaming is on track to overtake digital downloads, which had already taken a bite out of recording industry revenue in the past decade. All this disruption added up to a flat year for the recording industry.

3 percent

Fewer than 3 percent of construction workers are women. And as employers report job shortages of skilled workers in fields like welding and carpentry, some are calling for women to go after employment in these professions. 

40 percent

That's the percentage of freight carried by the U.S. railway system across the country. It's why this unusually profitable venture has been studied by the global market.

Women in construction: few and far between

Thu, 2015-03-19 15:06

As the job market heats up, employers are starting to report labor-shortages—especially of skilled workers like welders, machinists, and carpenters in manufacturing and construction.

Those jobs can pay $15/hour or more, and often offer health insurance, a pension, and on-the-job-training, especially if the worker rises through the ranks of a union apprenticeship program.

And for three decades now, Lauren Sugerman, director of the National Center for Women’s Employment Equity at Wider Opportunities for Women has been trying to get more women into well-paying construction jobs.

“The construction trades represent a significant segment of the blue-collar jobs that earn over $20/hour,” she says. “And these jobs are also growing dramatically.”

In the late 1970s, Sugerman herself entered an apprenticeship program for elevator constructors in Chicago. At the time, she says women made up less than 0.01 percent of construction workers. The percentage has gone up, but not by much, in her opinion. “Now, women are 2.6 percent of the construction workforce, so that’s very little progress.”

Sugerman says she left construction work after years struggling against discrimination and harassment on the job. It started right away. “The superintendent who interviewed me said ‘You don’t want this job, it’s too dangerous for you, girls really shouldn’t be doing this, you won’t like it.’ I just kept saying ‘Yes I do.’ And, not very different from what many women still report today, I was subjected to physical harassment, I worked around men who talked about rape in jokes.”

Sugerman became an advocate for women in the trades, working with the Chicago Women in Trades and other groups pushing for gender equality in employment. And she’s well aware of what she missed out on by leaving construction—what women today can be earning if they’re protected and well-prepared and manage to stick it out.

“‘Let’s just do the numbers,’” she quips. “I would currently be making $50/hour as an elevator constructor. Compare that to the wage in a typically female job, $9/hour as a nurse’s aide, preschool teachers are also very low on the scale. That’s a $900,000 to $2 million gap in earnings over a lifetime.”

Holly Huntley runs Environs, a small construction firm in Portland, Oregon. She’s 37 and grew up in South Carolina. She was a debutante in her teens, and started as an amateur in construction during college, helping to manage and maintain an apartment building her family owned.

“After college I just kept practicing on friends’ and families’ properties,” she says. She worked for several small construction firms, moved to Portland, and started her own company. She also teaches in a pre-apprenticeship program for Oregon Tradeswomen. Some of her current employees came through the program.

“I know a lot of women in the trades that experience harassment on a daily basis,” she says. “And what I all my female employees get from subcontractors and people making deliveries is: ‘Where’s the contractor?’ They all think that we’re the homeowner. They don’t even think that we’re working. And the odds are that I’m not the boss. The odds are that the guy on the project is the boss.”

Sajru Dueber has been studying welding at Mt. Hood Community College near Portland. Before joining the program, she taught English, dealt cards, did other jobs to support herself and her daughter. None of them, though, paid as well as a skilled trade like welding.

“I’m hoping to get involved in the train yards,” says Dueber, “do some spot welding on trains, get my foot in the door that way.” She wants to do artistic welding as well. “Ultimately I want my daughter to have the best education she can ,and that will require money, so I hope going into this field will help.”

In her welding program last year, Dueber did a report surveying women’s experience of working in welding shops. “I found a lot of females online talking about how hard it was for them to get a job, how hard it was to get accepted, how hard it was for a foreman to take them seriously,” she says. “And a lot of them were told ‘You’ll be a sexual distraction,’ or ‘Maybe you can’t pick up a box that’s forty pounds,’ or ‘You’re just a woman, I can’t take your application.’ And I’m sure that that’s something I’m going to run into.”

Plant businesses have struggled since the recession

Thu, 2015-03-19 14:10

The heating bill can reach $30,000 for the month of January at Spring Hill Nurseries, but that is the price to be paid for green grape buds, flowering black berries, and pink hellebores — triumphant in rows ready to be shipped to the gardening public at the first hint that winter might be relenting.  

Felix Cooper, Vice President of Gardens Alive, the parent company of Spring Hill Nurseries, and greenhouse manager Jenny Lewis are giving a balmy tour through what seem like endless rows of blood-red sedum, glowing pink coral bells, and lush vining clematis. Coolers are filled with grub-like arisaema tubers, and phlox roots tumble through conveyor belts and packing machines into bags of peat moss. 

Spring Hill Nurseries has been around longer than California has been a state, and it's even older than the Washington Monument. Founded in 1848, it’s been as hardy as the goldenrod one can find on Ohio side roads. It made it through the Civil War and mechanization and everything a modern economy has thrown at it — up until now. After 166 springs, this may be it’s last. 

“It’s been a fairly steady ride down,” says Niles Kinerk, CEO of Gardens Alive. Gardens Alive owns several plant businesses and sells environmentally responsible gardening products.  

While some of its seed companies and bulb companies are doing great, Spring Hill is draining cash. A particularly nasty winter last year didn’t help. Kinerk is trying to sell it.

“The alternative for us is to cut way back,” he says.  

The demise – or dramatic scaling back – of Spring Hill Nurseries is the tail end of a nationwide phenomenon that is decades in the making but came to a head in the great recession. 

Nurseries ramped up with the housing boom, took out loans to expand, and were left holding the bag. 

“As many as 30 percent of the growers in the country exited during this period of financial stress,” says Charles Hall, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University. “That’s a significant number of growers.”

“In previous recessions,” he says, “we had a situation where we sold more flowers, shrubs and trees because people stayed home and engaged in gardening more because they weren’t taking trips to Disneyland.”

But not this time.

Tony Avent runs Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the industry was especially hard hit. “North Carolina lost 40 percent of its nursery industry, including garden retailers, nurseries, the whole bit. Georgia lost sixty percent.”

The collapse is evident today in the shortage of woody ornamental plants, like landscape trees. They take five years or more to reach a sell-able size, and not many people were planting five years ago, so there aren’t enough ready now. 

There’s also new competition. 

“The big box stores have put quite a bit of effort into their green goods areas,” says Gardens Alive’s Kinerk. “They’re very competitive and they’ve taken a good hunk of business that used to be fulfilled by companies like ours.”

Credit, especially for smaller companies, is harder to come by.

“Back in 2001 the bank was willing to extend to us 10 times our earnings,” Kinerk recalls. “And now it’s down to three times earnings.” 

Federal regulations reigning in lending are partly responsible for that, and while banks have expanded small business loans as a whole, plant nurseries’ biggest source of collateral is their land.

It’s usually not worth much.

“I’ve actually had my banker say to me don’t even talk to me about the land value or building value ,” says Kinerk.   

But hovering behind the economic factors is how America’s relationship to its gardens and its plants is changing. For one, fewer people grow their own food.

“People’s size of their yards are getting smaller.  Two-income families have less time.  Gardening takes time” he says.  “It’s a great way to relax, I will hasten to add, and forget about your day!”

Kinerk still has faith that Spring Hill can flourish again, but he can’t be the one to rescue it. He needs to use his cash to invest in his businesses that are growing.

“They’re good businesses, and if we could find a buyer who had the cash to invest to get it going like it could again, it’d be better for everyone .”

The plant nursery industry will not disappear, its roots are too deep for that, but for now it is smaller and a bit wilted. 

Are pro sports teams economic winners for cities?

Thu, 2015-03-19 12:19

There are a lot of things economists disagree about, but the economic impact of sports stadiums isn't one of them.

“If you ever had a consensus in economics, this would be it," says Michael Leeds, a sports economist at Temple University.  "There is no impact."

Leeds studied Chicago – as big a sports town as there is, with five major teams.

“If every sports team in Chicago were to suddenly disappear, the impact on the Chicago economy would be a fraction of 1 percent,” Leeds says. “A baseball team has about the same impact on a community as a midsize department store.”

That’s for a sport with 80 home games a year. NFL teams only play eight regular season games. Still, politicians love building sports stadiums.

“Yes, we will have the NFL back in Los Angeles!” shouted Carson City Councilwoman Lula Davis-Holmes at a rally last month, celebrating plans for a new stadium housing the Chargers and Raiders that would be built in this small city 15 miles south of downtown.

“Stand to your feet and say we want the teams here, for jobs, for revenue, and for our young people,” Holmes said.

Down the freeway, next to Los Angeles International Airport, Inglewood is trying to stay one step ahead of Carson. So last month, its City Council approved plans to build the most expensive stadium in U.S. sports history.

Inglewood – one of poorest neighborhoods in LA — projects a football stadium would generate more than $800 million dollars worth of economic activity a year. 

But Victor Matheson, a sports economist at College of the Holy Cross, is dubious.

“A good rule of thumb that economists use is to take what stadium boosters are telling you and move that one decimal place to the left, and that’s usually a good estimate of what you’re going to get,” Matheson says.

Economists say the biggest reason sports teams don’t have much impact is that they don’t tend to spur new spending.  Most people have a limited entertainment budget, so the dollars they are spending when they go to a game is money they would have spent elsewhere, maybe even at a restaurant or small businesses where more money would have stayed in the community. Plus, Matheson says, rather than draw people to a neighborhood, games can actually repel them.

“Sporting events can cause significant crowds and congestion that can cause people to stop going to other events in the area,” he says.

That’s part of the reason why a 2003 analysis on Staples Center commissioned by the Los Angeles City Controller included a surprising finding.

“Economic activity in Inglewood actually increased when the Lakers left town,” says Matheson.

That is, sales tax revenue went up when the Lakers and Kings moved to Staples Center in 1999.

Chris Meany, who’s leading development of the Inglewood stadium site, strongly disagrees that Inglewood benefited from the Kings and Lakers leaving.

“To argue that Inglewood is better off because downtown L.A. took the Lakers and Kings is to stretch credulity,” says Meany.

Inglewood's mayor, James Butts, says even if the economic impact isn’t as good as advertised, building a stadium poses a win/win for taxpayers.

“There’s a lot of numbers floated about but whatever the numbers are, here’s the bottom line: The city is protected,” says Butts. “In every stadium deal you look at before this one the risk is borne by the city. In this case, the risk is borne by the developers.”

That’s not true in Missouri, where politicians are desperately trying to keep the Rams from moving to Inglewood.  Governor Jay Nixon announced a plan that would give the team $400 million to stay. 

Because as politically popular as it can be to attract a team, it’s seen as political suicide to let one get away.

The rich history of money and why we can't master it

Thu, 2015-03-19 11:03

Paper money dates back to the year 105 AD, yet we’re still trying to understand it. Author Kabir Sehgal explores the history, psychology, and future of currency in his new book, “Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How its History Has Shaped Us.”

A few facts about money:

  • Many of the symbols on American currency are from other parts of the world. For instance on the dollar bill, there’s a picture of an eagle with a ribbon it its mouth. That symbol goes back to ancient Babylonian times.
  • Eighty-five percent of transactions worldwide are still done in cash.
  • When you don’t see money being spent, there’s less activation in your insula, meaning there’s less anxiety.

Sehgal on where currency is headed:

“I happen to think the future of money is in the mobile phone ... Throughout the developing world, the emerging world. I think ApplePay is going to be a great success.”

Sehgal doesn't think we can master money, why?

“What we can’t master is that our brains are not equipped to be making financial decisions in a proper manner… The brain is using all kinds of shortcuts while we use this object. Money really influences our mind. It steers our body. It shapes our soul.”

An excerpt from "Coined":

Chapter 7: Angel Investors

Religion and Money

 I had never met a leper before. But here I was surrounded by several of them at Nirmal Hriday, or “Home of the Pure Heart.” It’s also known as Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying & Destitute in Kolkata, India. Established in 1952, it is a small hospice for thousands of poor people who are found languishing in the streets. Someone dies there almost every day.

I arrived on an overcast autumn evening. The sick men and women had been gathered into separate areas for supper. The men were dressed in teal shirts, pants, and short-sleeved black sweaters. They were seated close to each other on benches. Near me was a man without legs, quivering on the ground while yellow foam formed underneath his lips. His eyes were fixed in a thousand-yard stare. Another man in a wheelchair began to cough violently, spitting bits of idli sambar, rice cakes and vegetable stew, onto the floor. One of the eight volunteers rushed to remove the food from his mouth so he wouldn’t choke. He put his finger in the man’s mouth, only to have it bitten.

Seated among the sick was an eighteen-year-old volunteer from Toulouse, France. With a brown mop top, he looked like a young Mick Jagger. Hailing from a middle-class background, he recently finished high school, read about Nirmal Hriday on the Internet, booked a one-way ticket to Kolkata, and committed to be a volunteer at the hospice.

He swung his arm over the shoulder of an old man who was suffering from an enormous stomach tumor, as if they were old buddies.

“Time to eat,” he said in French to the man, who probably only spoke Bengali but smiled anyway. Kindness is a common language.

The presence of this vibrant young adult in a room full of old, frail men was curious to me. He was so different not only from them, but also from me. When I was his age, I was burnishing my college application so that I could attend a first-class university. Admission to a good school can mean an opportunity to land a great job. And now that I had a proverbial great job on Wall Street, I continued working at a frenetic pace in order to accumulate more money, which would supposedly take me to higher ground.

This young man wasn’t thinking about any of this. He was unsure when or whether he would attend college at all. It led me to ask: What leads a healthy young man to live among the old and sick, to forgo riches for rags?

“I do as my religion teaches,” he explained. He was raised as a Catholic and his parents regularly read to him the Gospels when he was a child. He then said something I’ll always remember, a paradoxical yet universal insight: “Though everybody here is poor, they are rich in spirit.” His response made me consider another question that has stayed with me: How is it that those who had nothing—at the edge of death—were nevertheless at peace?

Since its creation, money hasn’t been just a measure of wealth; at times it’s been a symbol of our values and a test of our morality. How one handles money has many implications beyond saving and spending, and can demonstrate whether someone honors the moral code of a society: A rich woman who never donates to those in need is judged as stingy, and a poor woman who gives what she can is considered generous. It seems as if the poor person is acting in the “right,” or at least, in a more humane manner. The way in which one uses money may build or destroy one’s reputation and standing in a community, and it certainly demonstrates one’s character. Because money is an expression of value, it matters how it’s expressed.

The manner in which money is expressed depends on one’s motivations. Consider a simple, clarifying way in which to think about our intentions. In the first case, someone wants more money. This view is predicated on the economic logic that more is better. In the second case, someone doesn’t strive for more money, because they have detached from it in search of something else. This view is based on the spiritual logic that less is more or enough is enough, because they are embracing the paradoxical premise that renouncing material wealth will yield spiritual growth and contentment.

Using economic logic, we desire more money because it helps us obtain the resources necessary to survive. Up until this point, this entire book has been predicated on the logic that more is better. Whether it’s our evolutionary algorithm or our reward circuitry in the brain, we are constantly in search of more money, which has come to symbolize attributes like success, status, and privilege. It follows that financial success has become an almost universal goal, and many work diligently in pursuit of this end. A Pew Research Center poll finds that 77 percent of Americans believe that hard work leads to success.

But wanting more money and status is about “external success,” which shapes and defines many who are engulfed in the competitive “rat race” culture. Yet the pursuit of external success doesn’t always engender personal contentment.5 Gallup measured the job satisfaction of 25 million people across almost two hundred countries and found that only 13 percent were “engaged” or “emotionally invested” in their job. They found twice as many “disengaged” workers, who exhibited negative or harmful feelings, as they did engaged workers. The obsession of making money can have deleterious consequences. In Japan, they even have a word for someone who dies from too much work: karo-shi.

When external success becomes a singular focus, one may begin to evaluate everything with economic logic—the more, the better, even the right. Gallup found that those who believe hard work leads to financial success are more supportive of capitalism. Though support among Americans for free markets dropped from 80 percent to 59 percent in 2010 after the financial crisis, trusting the market has been a mainstay of mainstream US economic thought. Alan Greenspan and many leading economists long believed that the market is inherently right and self-correcting. The belief that the market is “right” even pervades American literature. In a study conducted by the Library of Congress, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was described as “the most influential book on American lives after the Bible.” The book supports libertarian views, notes the supremacy of the free market, and maintains that business and markets should be deregulated. Financial writer Justin Fox traces the belief that the market is “right” to the Middle Ages:

Hints of the same attitude could be found in the work of early economists like Adam Smith—and even religious thinkers of the Middle Ages. While some medieval scholars argued that lawgivers should set a “just price” for every good… St. Thomas Aquinas among them, held that the just price was set by the market.

The first person to reference the invisible hand wasn’t Adam Smith; it was John Calvin, notes Columbia University humanities professor Mark C. Taylor. Calvin believed that God’s hand brought order to an otherwise chaotic world. By using this terminology, Smith changed the “source of order” from “God, to internal relations among individual human actors. From this point of view, the market is a self-organizing system that regulates itself,” writes Taylor.

However, when market values reign supreme, the line between “right” and “wrong” can be blurred. The profitable can be confused for the “right.” These days almost everything has a price. You can pay someone to write your entire doctoral dissertation. You can even pay someone for their virginity. In one public incident, a Brazilian woman auctioned her virginity for $780,000 to a Japanese man. But is it right? She explained it away: “If you only do it once in your life then you are not a prostitute.” The deal fell through, and she tried to auction it again. Even Judas sells the sacred and betrays Jesus for thirty silver coins, demonstrating that even the messiah’s life had a price.

Harvard professor Michael Sandel writes that when everything is for sale, anything can be bought and subject to corruption.Putting a price on what was once priceless degrades it. These outrageous acts introduce a market norm into a previously nonmarket arena, similar to the example in chapter 3 in which a Mesopotamian man couldn’t sell his wife unless he was settling a debt.

Ironically, yearning for more external success can leave one with less time, satisfaction, and serenity. The economic logic can yield suboptimal results. This prompts the question, is there another way? Invoking the spiritual logic of less is more may yield superior results. If money symbolizes strength and power, then the lack of it represents the opposite: weakness and impotence. Why would someone want these things? Indeed, the spiritual logic is counterintuitive, yet it is the means to a different end, not financial treasure, but heavenly riches. It’s in experiencing vulnerability that one creates the space and need for faith. If money is a sign of external success, then the detachment from it is about attaining inner peace—where the shadow of money ends and the sunlight of God shines.

When it comes to money, many religious leaders champion the spiritual logic of less is more and the paradoxical wisdom that detachment from material treasures can yield spiritual riches. During different periods, as civilization and markets developed, various religious leaders, like Laozi, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad, embraced this paradoxical wisdom. They steered their followers away from coveting material things like money and toward a more ascetic path. These religious leaders sought to enlighten man regarding the outsized power of money. They warned their followers about being enveloped by greed. Considered a deity among some Taoists, Laozi once cautioned that “he who is attached to things will suffer much.” That so many religious leaders admonished the worship of money and advocated this paradoxical wisdom deserves further attention.

Anthropologist David Graeber points out that influential religious leaders like Pythagoras, Buddha, and Confucius all lived during the sixth century BC in areas where coinage was invented—Greece, India, and China.He suggests that it’s not a coincidence that from 800 BC to AD 600 both money and several lasting religions were created. It’s plausible that some organized religions spread as a response to the rising importance of the marketplace. Many of Jesus’s earliest followers, for example, were poor and receptive to his paradoxical, liberating wisdom regarding material wealth.

Here we explore the paradoxical wisdom embodied by the teenager I met in the hospice, but through the lens of the three Abrahamic religions and Hinduism. There are countless interpretations of religious texts from these faiths regarding money. But one can surely make a case that elements of this spiritual logic can be found in each.

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