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Hungry for Savings

Thu, 2014-04-03 01:57

This story is part of collaboration with Slate called “The Secret Life of a Food Stamp.” 

Karrie Denniston is standing in the meat department of a Walmart Supercenter peering at the sell-by dates on a stack of pork chops. Denniston, director of hunger relief and nutrition programs at the Walmart Foundation, is at Walmart’s “Store 100,” the showcase Supercenter across the street from company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Store 100 is one of thousands of Walmart locations where the company collects billions of pounds of vegetables, dry goods, and other items for its food-donation program. Every day, as part of its anti-hunger initiative, Walmart associates scour the shelves looking for food that falls into a donation sweet spot: just past its sell-by date but still safe to eat. 

Karrie Denniston of the Walmart foundation.

Walmart—which in 2012 made a five-year pledge to donate $2 billion in cash and food to fight hunger—works with local food banks to distribute the meat, in a system of carefully temperature-controlled steps. Denniston holds up a family pack of pork chops. If no one buys it before its sell-by date, “that meat may end up as part of a stew at a local soup kitchen, or it may end up being distributed at a food pantry to a mom so that she can make tacos for her kids,” she says. 

Some of Walmart’s donations end up on the shelves of the Lutheran Social Services food pantry in Columbus, Ohio. “Walmart, Save-a-Lot, Giant Eagle, Kroger, they all send a lot of food back here,” volunteer Jordan Moore says. The donations are “a blessing,” he says. 

But there can be moments that throw him. Recently, a shopper at the food pantry took an item off a shelf and told Moore, “I put this on the shelf, too.” The shopper was a Walmart worker. 

“It’s this cycle that keeps going around and around,” says Jason Elchert, deputy director for the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “We need to take a deep breath and think about how can we move our country forward.” Elchert says that over the past few years more and more working people in need of food assistance have been showing up at the charities his group serves. These include workers whose food stamps have run out before the end of the month as well as people who still can’t make ends meet even though they make too much to qualify for government food assistance.  (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for food stamps, has an annual gross income cap of just under $25,400 for a household of three.)

Like many anti-hunger advocates who receive donations from corporate retailers known for low wages, Elchert is in a tricky spot when it comes to addressing the paradoxes of the food stamp economy. His group gets financial support from Walmart and other food retailers. “When we’re talking a lot with corporations,” he says, “it’s one of those situations where, well, let's talk about this in some way where we’re not offending them.” 

Matt Habash, president of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank—which has representatives from retail companies including Kroger and Giant Eagle supermarkets on its board—has tried to broach the issue of low wages with his corporate supporters. At a recent board meeting, Habash brought up the idea of promoting a living wage as part of the food bank’s mission. “Some of the folks in that room were employers who knew their wages were not” living wages, Habash says. “They were willing to engage in the conversation,” he says. “But no one employer can do it on their own.” 

Wages might be a sensitive issue to tackle, but there is one cause many big retailers have already come together on: protecting funding for SNAP. The program, which gives low-income families an average of $130 a month in food assistance, is lucrative for stores; food stamps accounted for $76 billion in store revenue in 2013.

But spending on the program has become the subject of protracted debates in recent years as food stamp rolls have soared, largely in response to the poor economy. Congress voted earlier this year to cut $8 billion from SNAP over the next decade, after House Republicans gave up their fight for much larger cuts (that would have reached nearly $40 billion).

In the middle of the battles over food stamp funding, the Ohio Grocers Association sent Congress a joint letter with the state’s Association of Food Banks. They wrote, "Cutting SNAP doesn't just hurt the poor, it hurts business too."

Food banks receive a sizeable proportion of their donations from big stores like Walmart.

“You tend to think that larger retail chains, with their corporate culture and perspective, might be less inclined to support a large, federal program, but certainly on the other side, these programs benefit them tremendously,” says Julie Paradis, former administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service at the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program.

Toward the end of the SNAP funding debates in January, I met with Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio (and the daughter of a grocer) who was working to persuade her Republican colleagues to minimize the food stamp cuts. “Walmart is a helpful force, as well as many other retail stores. All the big retailers, the grocers, make a great deal of money” from SNAP, she said. 

Walmart confirms it takes in about 18 percent of U.S. food stamp dollars, a share that would have amounted to more than $13 billion last year. Walmart spokesman David Tovar told me the company did not take a position on the recent food stamp funding cuts but that it likes to be “part of the dialogue” to help elected officials consider the issue of food stamp funding. “We oftentimes will provide useful information about our business, some of the trends we’re seeing, how it’s impacting customers,” Tovar says.

But public lobbying records suggest Walmart is playing a more active role in those discussions. Disclosure forms for the end of 2013, when debate over SNAP funding was in full swing, show that Walmart paid in-house lobbyists $1.9 million. The report itemizes lobbying activity on a broad range of issues, among them SNAP, the farm bill legislation that determines SNAP funding levels, and “discussions regarding Federal Nutrition programs from the consumer and retail perspective.”

Further down the lobbying form, Walmart also disclosed discussing the minimum wage. (Walmart says that it has not taken a stand on the proposed raise to the federal minimum wage to $10.10 but that it’s looking into the effect it would have on its business.)

If you go to Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, in a drab brick building that looks more like a public school than a corporate HQ, you will probably hear at least one person quote a certain Walmart aphorism: “EDLC equals EDLP.” Translation: “Every Day Low Costs” equal “Every Day Low Prices.” That’s part of why discount retailers like Walmart take in so many food stamp dollars in the first place, as low-income customers look to get the most bang for their food stamp bucks.

You can think about that equation two different ways. Walmart sees its low prices as a chief force in fighting hunger, says Denniston of the Walmart Foundation. “We want to take the best of what Walmart as a business has to offer and build on that,” she says, “and so one of the greatest assets that we provide to local communities is being a grocer that can bring safe, affordable, nutritious products.”

But one of the Every Day Low Costs that Walmart needs to keep in check is the price of labor. In the EDLC = EDLP equation, low wages help make low prices possible—and if that means some companies don’t pay their workers enough to make ends meet, it’s the government that makes up the difference. 

Additional reporting and production on this story from Jolie Myers and Martha Little.

Part Two: The Secret Life of a Food Stamp

New study looks beyond GDP to measure economic health

Thu, 2014-04-03 01:32

When it comes to measuring the health of a country's economy, using the nation's Gross Domestic Product is often the barometer of choice. But as more dollars change hands, why aren't the outcomes always better?

There's a new listing of 132 countries out today that uses 54 different indicators that together measure how well a country is doing in giving its citizens good lives. It's called the Social Progress Index. Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, says that although GDP is important, it doesn't tell the whole story. He joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss the report. 

Is privacy a luxury good?

Thu, 2014-04-03 00:44

How much does it cost to keep your information from prying eyes? Julia Angwin, ProPublica reporter and author of "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," shelled out nearly $2,500 to protect her data. From the encrypted cloud service to the burner laptop, she found that privacy really is a luxury good. 

"People who are like me, tech elites basically, are going to get these sophisticated tools to really carefully manage our data. But the group of people who aren't empowered, don't have time or money to have these tools are going to be on what I call a giant suckers' list," Angwin said. 

A wealth gap in the world of privacy could mean a very different online reality depending on your income.

According to Angwin, websites will soon dynamically create themselves based on your data, determining what product options are available to you. 

Is privacy a luxury good?

Thu, 2014-04-03 00:44

How much does it cost to keep your information from prying eyes? Julia Angwin, ProPublica reporter and author of "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," shelled out nearly $2,500 to protect her data. From the encrypted cloud service to the burner laptop, she found that privacy really is a luxury good. 

"People who are like me, tech elites basically, are going to get these sophisticated tools to really carefully manage our data. But the group of people who aren't empowered, don't have time or money to have these tools are going to be on what I call a giant suckers' list," Angwin said. 

A wealth gap in the world of privacy could mean a very different online reality depending on your income.

According to Angwin, websites will soon dynamically create themselves based on your data, determining what product options are available to you. 

Investors hunger for GrubHub

Wed, 2014-04-02 15:07
Friday, April 4, 2014 - 05:56 GrubHub.com screenshot

Momentum is building ahead of the initial public offering for GrubHub.

"So far this year, there have been 65 IPOs, raising $10.7 billion, a level of activity we have not seen since 2000," says Kathy Smith, a principal with Renaissance Capital, which specializes in researching and investing in IPOs.

In the case of GrubHub, Smith says sales are growing by more than 40 percent. 

And with more people using smartphones, the number of consumers using GrubHub could keep growing.

But GrubHub also faces potential challenges from other Internet companies like Yelp and Google.

“All these companies could theoretically can come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be competing against you. Watch out.’ That’s their biggest worry,” says Peter Krasilovsky, a senior analyst with the media-research firm BIA/Kelsey.

Marketplace Morning Report for Friday April 4, 2014by Jeff TylerPodcast Title: Investors hunger for GrubHub Story Type: News StorySyndication: SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond: No

Warren Buffett's advice: Tweet cats

Wed, 2014-04-02 14:59
Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - 17:12 Kabukicho Shinjuku/Flickr

We're just taking Warren Buffett's advice.

In a video produced by his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Warren Buffett advises the chancellor on what to tweet.   Yeah. Cats.   Marketplace for Wednesday April 2, 2014by David GuraPodcast Title: Warren Buffett's advice: Tweet catsStory Type: News StorySyndication: SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond: No

Warren Buffett's advice: Tweet cats

Wed, 2014-04-02 14:12

In a video produced by his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Warren Buffett advises the chancellor on what to tweet.   Yeah. Cats.  

Lagarde: Global recovery hinges on IMF reforms

Wed, 2014-04-02 13:57
Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - 16:36 BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Without U.S. support for reforms of institutions like the International Monetary Fund, global recovery from the financial crisis will likely continue at an unacceptably slow place, the head of the IMF says.

In an interview with PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff on Wednesday, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, discussed the decision by lawmakers to pass an aid package to Ukraine but dropped sections of legislation regarding IMF reforms that would "make a bit more space for China," as Lagarde says. The failed provisions were supported by both the Treasury Department and Lagarde (prompting this op-ed written by Lagarde in the Wall Street Journal in late March), but raised the ire of Republicans and Democrats in Washington, including Speaker of the House John Boehner. 

The IMF will release a revised version of its global economic outlook next week, which is expected to show a slight upward trend in activity, but Lagarde says that even talk of global reforms, such as sanctions on Russia in response to activities in Ukraine and Crimea, points to the continued powerful role of U.S. involvement: 

Delays in implementing IMF-suggested governmental reforms in countries such as Ukraine will result in global economic growth slowing down in kind, she noted. 

“The U.S. was one of the founding partner[s] of the IMF, and it is the leading shareholder of the institution. No matter what is said, the United States will keep its veto right over decisions that are made in this institution. So to make a bit more space for China or for the emerging market economies is only representative of where the world is going.  And we have to be the institution of the future or serve international cooperation with the constant solid leadership of the United States of America. Not exercising that leadership is a mistake.”

Whether U.S. lawmakers agree with Lagarde that supporting IMF-suggested policy is or is not an act of leadership is up for debate. 

Watch the full interview here, courtesy of PBS NewsHour.

Lagarde continues her public speaking tour prior to the IMF's latest outlook on Thursday, April 3 at the Women in the World conference, which you can watch here

by Margarita NoriegaStory Type: BlogSyndication: PMPApp Respond: No

What to do when healthcare isn't enough

Wed, 2014-04-02 13:50
Thursday, April 3, 2014 - 15:48 Jessica Kourkounis

“I wish I could get better and get all this cleared and get me a job and work,” Garcia says.

We were all trying to breathe through our mouths, and despite his obvious pain, 45-year-old Mariano Garcia sat transfixed, watching his podiatrist Dr. David Millili cut through the bandages wrapped around Garcia's left calf.

It was one of those moments that takes forever, the smell filling the air. As the dressings came off, the room went quiet.

Garcia gagged, and Millili balked.

“I don’t have access to treat this right,” Millili said. “I don’t see any maggots or anything. I’m not dealing with this.”

Millili turned to Garcia:  “When was the last time the bandages were changed?”

“Last time I was here,” Garcia said.

Millili was incredulous. “Really? A week?” he said.

Jessica Kourkounis

Millili changing Garcia's bandages.

Garcia’s been coming to Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J. for two years now, and everybody in the exam room knows exactly what needs to happen: Those bandages must get changed daily. But no matter how simple it sounds, it’s not happening.

Garcia says it hurts him too much to do it, and visiting nurses say they don’t feel safe going to his neighborhood. Frustrated and defeated, Millili has one choice right now, but he knows sending Garcia to the hospital is just a temporary fix.

“When we finally get things turned in the right direction again for him, how do we keep it that way?” Millili says. “Three weeks after he leaves the hospital, why are we not in the same situation? I can’t control infection. I can’t control pain. I can’t control these wounds.”

The doctor is talking about Garcia, but he may as well be talking about one of the biggest puzzles in this new era of healthcare. How can doctors keep people healthy when they have almost no control over what happens outside the four walls of the hospital?

It’s the edge of the healthcare world.

“A lot of clinical care is kind of like the tree falling in the forest,” saysRebecca Onie who runs the non-profit Health Leads, which works with medical providers to connect their patients to social services. “For example, a patient will come in to manage her diabetes but needs to refrigerate her medication and hasn’t had electricity for six weeks.”

Onie says now that hospitals either must drive down costs, or face what could be crippling financial penalties. Healthcare executives must leave the medical map behind and head out for the uncharted territory.

“They are going to have to begin paying for a set of things that have historically [been] considered outside the scope of traditional healthcare,” she says.

And so we are beginning to see healthcare’s first, hesitant steps, where doctors and hospitals wade into the world of social services. 

Health Leads works with 20 providers, serving some 15,000 families. Kaiser Permanente, one of the top health systems, has several pilot programs, including one in Oregon where ambulance staff act more like social workers – helping solve would-be domestic problems, and avoiding trips to the ER.

“We spend almost 1.5 times more than the next most expensive country and yet our health outcomes are among the very worst in all high income countries,” says Yale public health professor Elizabeth Bradley.

She says it’s no mystery that education, poverty and safety have more to do with a person’s overall health than medical care does. In her book last fall, Bradley and her co-author, Lauren Taylor, found people in countries that spend less on medical care but more on social services were healthier than people in the United States.

“The major reason we are not doing better... the unnamed culprit is that we are probably spending less on the social services than is necessary,” Bradley says.

This social service healthcare frontier isn’t as popular as the California Gold Rush, but it's close. It’s on the tip of tongues at healthcare conferences. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation identified it earlier this year as one of three critical steps to move healthcare forward. Even the nation’s largest healthcare program for the poor – Medicaid – has signaled its willingness to pay for some care outside the traditional stuff -- for example, air conditioners for asthmatics.

“We recognize that it can’t just be the office visit,” says Dr. Stephen Cha, the chief medical officer for Medicaid. “That’s the core of it, but we have to think about when we face this patient, we are looking at much more than just what we can do in that 15-minute span.”

In this first wave of programs, insurers aren’t paying for job training, hospitals aren’t moving families out of dangerous neighborhoods. But if interventions save money, then the game changes.

Kaiser Permanente’s Raymond Baxter, who oversees several non-medical projects, including the paramedic pilot, says it’s early, but that he sees promise.

“We are now adding a cost to the system in the short term,” he says. “However, if that intervention averts a series of visits to emergency rooms, in the long run you are going to see some real gains here.

Harvard health economist Amitabh Chandra has his doubts. Providers can only save money if they can pinpoint which patients truly benefit – a tall order – he says.

“I think of that as analogous to the man mission to Mars,” Chandra says. “It’s something that can be done. There is no theorem in economics or statistics that says it’s not possible. But you need absolutely terrific data to be able to make that happen. And I’ve just never seen it.”

Chandra’s driving at the X-Factor so often at the crux of healthcare: What can make people change their behavior?

Which brings us back to Mariano Garcia in Camden.

“I wish I could get better and get all this cleared and get me a job and work,” Garcia says.

Garcia’s life is so precarious, his options all risky. If he lands a spot in an inpatient treatment program for his leg, he’s not sure what happens to his one-room apartment.

Jessica Kourkounis

Garcia at home. 

“I don’t want to lose my place because I’ve going to the hospital,” he says. “When I get discharged from the hospital, then I’m where am I going to go out?”

There’s no easy answer, which is what makes wading outside medical care tricky. But hospital staff addressing Garcia’s social needs has helped him keep appointments and – even once or twice – change his own bandages.

Marketplace for Thursday April 3, 2014by Dan GorensteinPodcast Title: What to do when healthcare isn't enoughStory Type: FeatureSyndication: Flipboard BusinessSlackerSoundcloudStitcherBusiness InsiderSwellPMPApp Respond: No

Lagarde: Global recovery hinges on IMF reforms

Wed, 2014-04-02 13:36

Without U.S. support for reforms of institutions like the International Monetary Fund, global recovery from the financial crisis will likely continue at an unacceptably slow place, the head of the IMF says.

In an interview with PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff on Wednesday, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, discussed the decision by lawmakers to pass an aid package to Ukraine but dropped sections of legislation regarding IMF reforms that would "make a bit more space for China," as Lagarde says. The failed provisions were supported by both the Treasury Department and Lagarde (prompting this op-ed written by Lagarde in the Wall Street Journal in late March), but raised the ire of Republicans and Democrats in Washington, including Speaker of the House John Boehner. 

The IMF will release a revised version of its global economic outlook next week, which is expected to show a slight upward trend in activity, but Lagarde says that even talk of global reforms, such as sanctions on Russia in response to activities in Ukraine and Crimea, points to the continued powerful role of U.S. involvement: 

Delays in implementing IMF-suggested governmental reforms in countries such as Ukraine will result in global economic growth slowing down in kind, she noted. 

“The U.S. was one of the founding partner[s] of the IMF, and it is the leading shareholder of the institution. No matter what is said, the United States will keep its veto right over decisions that are made in this institution. So to make a bit more space for China or for the emerging market economies is only representative of where the world is going.  And we have to be the institution of the future or serve international cooperation with the constant solid leadership of the United States of America. Not exercising that leadership is a mistake.”

Whether U.S. lawmakers agree with Lagarde that supporting IMF-suggested policy is or is not an act of leadership is up for debate. 

Watch the full interview here, courtesy of PBS NewsHour.

Lagarde continues her public speaking tour prior to the IMF's latest outlook on Thursday, April 3 at the Women in the World conference, which you can watch here

Supreme Court opens gates for political money

Wed, 2014-04-02 13:23

The Supreme Court says you can put a whole lot of money into politics. Its 5-4 decision Wednesday in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission strikes down overall limits on what people can give to candidates and political parties. There are still limits as to what someone can give to a single candidate. But now, theoretically, individuals can max out their giving to every candidate nationwide.

Many expect the ruling to mean an overall increase in how much money goes into politics. And it may also mean some money that goes now to independent political vehicles such as super PACs and 501(c)(4)s may go instead to candidates and parties.

Mark Garrison: Let’s meet two folks on two sides of this issue, who both filed briefs with the Court. Ilya Shapiro of the libertarian Cato Institute is happier of the pair.

Ilya Shapiro: The Supreme Court should free up the arena for political speech.

Trevor Potter is with Campaign Legal Center. You may have seen him on TV in his role as lawyer for Steven Colbert’s many satirical political ventures. The Court did not agree with him.

Trevor Potter: If they read our brief, they apparently didn’t care about the consequences.

This is Marketplace, not Legalplace, so we won’t dwell on their arguments. In short, Potter worries about money causing corruption. Shapiro says restricting campaign spending restrains free speech. But there’s one place they agree. First, Potter.

Potter: I think there will be a net increase in the amount of money going into politics.

And Shapiro.

Shapiro: I think there will be increased contributions in general to the candidates and campaigns.

And it may mean less money given to outside groups. In recent years, dollars have flowed from billionaires to super PACs and 501(c)(4)s. Outside money has been the trendy thing in campaigns. But this ruling may bring a vintage political force back into style. Scott Bland is with National Journal Hotline, a news source for political insiders.

Scott Bland: it’s possible that as a result of this, the parties will be able to exercise a little bit more influence than they have over the last few years.

In a political environment full of new ways to spend money, today’s ruling may help empower a very old one. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

Keating's legacy, from John McCain to a camp classic

Wed, 2014-04-02 13:17

Charles Keating, who died this week, is best-known as the poster boy for the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. More than 1,000 banks failed, and taxpayers spent a quarter-billion dollars bailing them out.

Here are a few of his more colorful legacies:

1. Keating gave birth to John McCain as-we-know-him. By making McCain a figure of shame.

Keating's status as the king of the S&L swindlers rests on his sponsorship of the "Keating Five": a group of five U.S. Senators whose campaigns he supported financially-- and who in turn attempted to dissuade regulators from investigating Keating's shenanigans. The sole Republican in the group was John McCain, then a relatively new U.S. Senator. McCain later called the episode "my asterisk" -- and became better-known as a bi-partisan crusader for campaign-finance reform.

2. Also on Keating's payroll in the 1980s: Alan Greenspan.

As a private economist, Alan Greenspan took on a consulting job for Keating in 1984. His job: Drafting a report to regulators, arguing that Keating's bank, Lincoln Savings and Loan, be exempted from certain rules because it was well-run. 

3. He was good for a shameless quote.  

From the New York Times obituary: "Mr. Keating, a 6-foot-5-inch beanpole who walked with a swagger, never minced words about buying political influence. Asked once whether his payments to politicians had worked, he told reporters, 'I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so.'”

4. He did like to peddle shame. 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Keating was a huge anti-pornography crusader. He sponsored a hilarious infomercial The Atlantic called “The Reefer Madness of porn.”

5. We can thank him, in part, for financial tools that later blew up in 2008.

Roy Smith teaches finance at NYU. And he spent much of the 1980s at Goldman Sachs. "You have to remember that the S&L crisis actually spawned two of the financial industry's most lucrative product streams," he says. "One was the securitization of mortgages into mortgage-backed securities. Hello! Those things that blew up in 2008..."

They were created for sale to savings and loans. "The other was the derivatives business."

Smith says it took more deregulation, time, and financial creativity for both products to cause problems. 

An uncertain future for big data in education

Wed, 2014-04-02 13:07

A victory for privacy advocates in New York spells trouble for a national effort to track student data--everything from grades and test scores to disabilities and suspensions. The New York State Education Department has confirmed it will no longer store any student information with the non-profit inBloom. That makes New York the last big customer to drop out of an initiative backed by the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. Once boasting nine states as potential customers, the nonprofit group says it’s still talking with individual school districts around the country.

What GM's mea culpa could mean for the brand

Wed, 2014-04-02 12:34

Mary Barra, the newly appointed CEO of General Motors spent another day on Capitol Hill, testifying before lawmakers about why it took GM a decade to recall millions of cars with defective ignition switches.

Barra apologized again today, but how well GM will weather public outcry is still a question.  The company’s success at selling cars after this crisis ends “depends on whether this is attributed to the old GM or the new GM” says David Vinjamuri, author of “Accidental Branding”.

Vinjamuri is impressed at how well Barra has handled the recall so far. He says Barra and GM showed they were serious when they brought on Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney known for his work with compensation funds. Feinberg worked with victims of 9/11 and the BP Oil Spill, for example.  

Bringing on Feinberg also shows General Motors is looking for a quick -- rather than inexpensive -- way of putting the recall behind them, and it seems likely they’ll pay the families of crash victims related to the recall.

It’s smart for GM to agree to a large payout early on, says Vinjamuri, because in the long run, they’ll make that money back only if American car-buyers learn to trust the company again.

Supreme Court opens gates for political money

Wed, 2014-04-02 12:25
Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - 16:23 Rod Lamkey/Getty Images

Joan Stallard (L) of Washington DC talks about the issue of the Supreme Court striking down the limit one can donate to political as Scott Dorn (R) of Washington DC looks on in front of the U.S. Supreme Court April 2, 2014, in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court struck down the limits on how much one person can donate overall to political campaigns. The limit to individual candiates is still $2,600 per candidate. 

The Supreme Court says you can put a whole lot of money into politics. Its 5-4 decision Wednesday in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission strikes down overall limits on what people can give to candidates and political parties. There are still limits as to what someone can give to a single candidate. But now, theoretically, individuals can max out their giving to every candidate nationwide.

Many expect the ruling to mean an overall increase in how much money goes into politics. And it may also mean some money that goes now to independent political vehicles such as super PACs and 501(c)(4)s may go instead to candidates and parties.

Marketplace for Wednesday April 2, 2014

Mark Garrison: Let’s meet two folks on two sides of this issue, who both filed briefs with the Court. Ilya Shapiro of the libertarian Cato Institute is happier of the pair.

Ilya Shapiro: The Supreme Court should free up the arena for political speech.

Trevor Potter is with Campaign Legal Center. You may have seen him on TV in his role as lawyer for Steven Colbert’s many satirical political ventures. The Court did not agree with him.

Trevor Potter: If they read our brief, they apparently didn’t care about the consequences.

This is Marketplace, not Legalplace, so we won’t dwell on their arguments. In short, Potter worries about money causing corruption. Shapiro says restricting campaign spending restrains free speech. But there’s one place they agree. First, Potter.

Potter: I think there will be a net increase in the amount of money going into politics.

And Shapiro.

Shapiro: I think there will be increased contributions in general to the candidates and campaigns.

And it may mean less money given to outside groups. In recent years, dollars have flowed from billionaires to super PACs and 501(c)(4)s. Outside money has been the trendy thing in campaigns. But this ruling may bring a vintage political force back into style. Scott Bland is with National Journal Hotline, a news source for political insiders.

Scott Bland: it’s possible that as a result of this, the parties will be able to exercise a little bit more influence than they have over the last few years.

In a political environment full of new ways to spend money, today’s ruling may help empower a very old one. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

by Mark GarrisonStory Type: News StorySyndication: SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond: No

It might not lead to a pot of gold, but it could

Wed, 2014-04-02 11:39

From the Marketplace Datebook, here's a look at what's coming up Thursday:

  • 46 years ago Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "Mountaintop" speech in Memphis, Tenn. He was assassinated the next day.
  • In Washington, the Commerce Department reports on international trade for February.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee receives a closed briefing on Russia.
  • Actor Marlon Brando was born on April 3, 1924. He would have been 90.
  • And some folks observe National Find a Rainbow Day. Don't want to go outside? Just dig in your box of crayons.

The science of food and sound

Wed, 2014-04-02 11:06

What's the best sound to pair with wafting coffee smells? What's the right song for the tomato sauce on your pizza? What's most ideal aural ambiance for your milkshake?

Lucy Hooker is a reporter with the BBC. She has been looking into a field called "neurogastronomy," or, in plain terms, "what your brain does when you eat something."  

She points to one study in which scientists gave people a dessert and played different sounds while they were eating. Depending on which sounds were played, a dessert could taste more bitter or more sweet.

Starbucks liked the idea so much, they asked the scientists behind the research to compile a playlist of songs people should listen when drinking coffee at home. Hooker said Starbucks is not the only major company interested in this research.

“Lots of the really big food companies -- Unilever, Nestlé -- have massive research and development units, and they are putting a lot of effort and a lot of focus into seeing how they can use our different senses," said Hooker. "How they can combine the sound a food makes in our mouth, the sound of the packaging, the sight of it, the smell of it."

Keating's legacy, from John McCain to a camp classic

Wed, 2014-04-02 09:18
Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - 16:17 Nick Ut/Associated Press

Charles H. Keating Jr. in court in Los Angeles in 1992. Convicted of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy in state and federal trials, Mr. Keating went to prison for four and a half years.

Charles Keating, who died this week, is best-known as the poster boy for the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. More than 1,000 banks failed, and taxpayers spent a quarter-billion dollars bailing them out.

Here are a few of his more colorful legacies:

1. Keating gave birth to John McCain as-we-know-him. By making McCain a figure of shame.

Keating's status as the king of the S&L swindlers rests on his sponsorship of the "Keating Five": a group of five U.S. Senators whose campaigns he supported financially-- and who in turn attempted to dissuade regulators from investigating Keating's shenanigans. The sole Republican in the group was John McCain, then a relatively new U.S. Senator. McCain later called the episode "my asterisk" -- and became better-known as a bi-partisan crusader for campaign-finance reform.

2. Also on Keating's payroll in the 1980s: Alan Greenspan.

As a private economist, Alan Greenspan took on a consulting job for Keating in 1984. His job: Drafting a report to regulators, arguing that Keating's bank, Lincoln Savings and Loan, be exempted from certain rules because it was well-run. 

3. He was good for a shameless quote.  

From the New York Times obituary: "Mr. Keating, a 6-foot-5-inch beanpole who walked with a swagger, never minced words about buying political influence. Asked once whether his payments to politicians had worked, he told reporters, 'I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so.'”

4. He did like to peddle shame. 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Keating was a huge anti-pornography crusader. He sponsored a hilarious infomercial The Atlantic called “The Reefer Madness of porn.”

5. We can thank him, in part, for financial tools that later blew up in 2008.

Roy Smith teaches finance at NYU. And he spent much of the 1980s at Goldman Sachs. "You have to remember that the S&L crisis actually spawned two of the financial industry's most lucrative product streams," he says. "One was the securitization of mortgages into mortgage-backed securities. Hello! Those things that blew up in 2008..."

They were created for sale to savings and loans. "The other was the derivatives business."

Smith says it took more deregulation, time, and financial creativity for both products to cause problems. 

Marketplace for Wednesday April 2, 2014by Dan WeissmannPodcast Title: Keating's legacy, from John McCain to a camp classicStory Type: News StorySyndication: SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond: No

An uncertain future for big data in education

Wed, 2014-04-02 09:13
Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - 16:07 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Bill Gates sits next to students at Booker T. Washington high school in Miami, FL.

A victory for privacy advocates in New York spells trouble for a national effort to track student data--everything from grades and test scores to disabilities and suspensions. The New York State Education Department has confirmed it will no longer store any student information with the non-profit inBloom. That makes New York the last big customer to drop out of an initiative backed by the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. Once boasting nine states as potential customers, the nonprofit group says it’s still talking with individual school districts around the country.

Marketplace for Wednesday April 2, 2014by Amy ScottPodcast Title: An uncertain future for big data in educationStory Type: News StorySyndication: SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond: No

The dramatic changes in the stock floor trading businesses

Wed, 2014-04-02 08:27

Goldman Sachs Group is reportedly trying to sell one of its stock floor trading businesses (a firm called Spear, Leeds & Kellogg). Goldman paid $6.5 billion dollars in stock and cash for it 14 years ago, but may sell it for a mere $30 million – or less.

High Hopes

When Goldman first purchased Spear, Leeds & Kellogg, it was acquiring what’s known as a “market maker” and a “specialist”.  You can think of specialists as the auctioneers and market supervisors for a certain type of stock.  Much like the person who runs the butcher section of the bazaar that is the stock market, it’s the place on the trading floor you go to buy and sell a certain type of stocks. 

Specialists would be the auctioneers of certain stocks, they would help bring interested buyers and sellers together, and they could put in electronic  instructions for orders (don’t buy or sell  X stock until it hits Y price). 

Goldman Sachs announced that with its purchase of such a specialist firm, it was now “at the forefront of advanced technology.”

Unfortunately for them, that was not the case. 

What happened?  Computers happened.

“The way we visualize the stock markets has completely changed,” explains Eugene White, professor of economics at Rutgers University. No longer are swarms of brokers scurrying across the trading floor to a specialist’s post. “That’s gone right now pretty much.” 

Many orders are now akin to sizeable parking lot deals, done not in one central clearing house for a stock category but rather on any number of servers, says White.  Around half of all stock trades are done this way --  electronically through high speed trading. Computers implement orders and react to prices on their own, and on different electronic exchanges. And the volumes are enormous – often larger than any specialist could reasonably accommodate.   

“What’s happened is that there are huge orders now that come in and which are negotiated directly between different parties,” says White.

These deals are done millions of times a second and automatically. In fact, computers have gotten so  good at doing this they’ve driven down profits for all middle men – computers and humans alike. 

“The spreads have narrowed enormously,” says White, referring to the profits that specialists would make as middle men. It’s a long term trend dating back 50 years, but the rise of high speed trading  has accelerated it apace. 

It’s one other reason why a company that Goldman Sachs Group bought for $6.5 billion may sell for just a fraction of that - reportedly just $30 million --  “not even really the price of a trophy apartment” for a Goldman executive in New York, says White.

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