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Monday, December 30, 2013


Story first appeared on NYTimes.com.

ALBANY — New York, whose status as the most populous state has long been ceded, will soon fall behind Florida into fourth place, a long-anticipated drop that is rife with symbolism and that could carry potentially serious economic consequences in coming years.

When the Census Bureau releases its latest population estimates on Monday, demographers expect that Florida and New York will be narrowly separated — perhaps by as little as a few thousand people — and that if Florida does not pass New York this time, it almost certainly will do so in 2014.

The census figures underscore immigration trends, as foreign-born migrants continue to move to warm-weather states such as California and Texas — No. 1 and 2 — as well as to Florida. The newcomers also include winter-weary New Yorkers who move or retire to Florida at a rate of over 50,000 a year, twice the number of Floridians who head to New York.

But the shift also highlights the struggles in upstate New York, which has lost large-scale manufacturing jobs and large chunks of population, offsetting consistent gains in New York City. But the city’s growth has seemingly not been robust enough to stave off hubs in Florida like Jacksonville, Miami-Dade County and Tampa.

“It’s going to happen,” said Andrew A. Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College and an expert on the census, on New York’s falling into fourth place. “And if Florida accidentally grew faster and New York slowed down, it could have happened already.”

Beyond a blow to New Yorkers’ collective ego, the changing population pattern could have many practical and political implications, including diminished congressional delegations, a setback New York already suffered in 2010 — the year of the last decennial census count — when the state lost two districts, while Florida gained two seats. Census data also inform how billions of dollars in federal funding and grants are divvied up among the states, for things like highway planning and construction, public aid for housing and health care and education programs.

All of which has Florida feeling good.

“Every number we see, if we don’t pass them this year, we’re going to pass them in the next few months,” Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican, said in an interview last week. “Florida’s on a roll.”

A closer look at the numbers shows that New York is not actually losing population. It has been growing at about 1 percent annually of late, but it simply cannot keep up with Florida’s rate of growth, which was about 2.7 percent between April 2010 and mid-2012, according to the Census Bureau. However, New York’s population is declining in upstate cities like Buffalo, which has lost more than 10 percent of its population since 2000, as well as places like Syracuse and Rochester, where population is largely stagnant.

Turning around upstate has been a major focus of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, who has tried to revive its fortunes through a variety of economic development programs, including the legalization of more casinos and a program that allows businesses to start or relocate on or near college campuses and pay no state taxes for 10 years.

Florida has actually been creeping up on the Empire State for decades. The last census estimate, for July 2012, put the states nearly tied: New York with 19.6 million and Florida with 19.3 million. But that margin was getting narrower by the day, according to Jan K. Vink, a specialist with the Program on Applied Demographics at Cornell University, which both supplies data to the Census Bureau and reviews its estimates.

Scott Cody, a demographer at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research in Gainesville, which also consults with the bureau, said that trends showed Florida passing New York “in the near future,” barring what he called “the unusual events that can occur: tsunamis, or asteroids, and total economic breakdown.”

Florida had such a meltdown — a bursting housing bubble — but is on the rebound and continues to be a magnet for new arrivals.

While demographers tend to stay neutral on the issue of population growth, they say that bigger is generally better because it tends to reflect an attractive economic climate.

“Once you have a growing economy, you tend to attract a lot of young people,” said Mark Mather, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research group in Washington. And that, in turn, he said, means “a lot of babies.”

New York City certainly still attracts young people, Mr. Mather said, “but the city is different from the state.”

However, bigger is not always better. While politicians might welcome the larger tax bases that come with bigger populations, demographers say a need for more services increases. More populous places also have more congestion on highways and more wear-and-tear on public spaces.

“Just because one state is passing another, it’s not a good or a bad thing,” Mr. Cody said. “It doesn’t mean one state is better than another.”

But Mr. Scott said he believes that a large part of Florida’s appeal has to do with its pro-business, low tax approach. Florida also has no personal income tax.

And then there is Florida’s decided climatological edge, which attracts both retirees and those still in the work force, he said.

“When I call on companies around the country, I clearly talk to them about what the weather’s like,” Mr. Scott said. “I say, ‘Oh it’s 40-what?,’ and I joke, ‘I’ve got to turn down the air conditioning so you can hear me.’ ”

Gov. Cuomo pointed to his tax-free campus plan, known as Start-up NY, as an example of how “it’s less expensive for businesses to locate in New York State.”

And as for the weather, Mr. Cuomo said he was happy with New York’s. “Florida and the South have a warmer climate if that’s what you prefer,” he said. “I prefer to have seasons.”


Story first appeared on NYTimes.com.

More than a million unemployed Americans are about to get the cruelest of Christmas “gifts.” They’re about to have their unemployment benefits cut off. You see, Republicans in Congress insist that if you haven’t found a job after months of searching, it must be because you aren’t trying hard enough. So you need an extra incentive in the form of sheer desperation.

As a result, the plight of the unemployed, already terrible, is about to get even worse. Obviously those who have jobs are much better off. Yet the continuing weakness of the labor market takes a toll on them, too. So let’s talk a bit about the plight of the employed.

Some people would have you believe that employment relations are just like any other market transaction; workers have something to sell, employers want to buy what they offer, and they simply make a deal. But anyone who has ever held a job in the real world — or, for that matter, seen a Dilbert cartoon — knows that it’s not like that.

The fact is that employment generally involves a power relationship: you have a boss, who tells you what to do, and if you refuse, you may be fired. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If employers value their workers, they won’t make unreasonable demands. But it’s not a simple transaction. There’s a country music classic titled “Take This Job and Shove It.” There isn’t and won’t be a song titled “Take This Consumer Durable and Shove It.”

So employment is a power relationship, and high unemployment has greatly weakened workers’ already weak position in that relationship.

We can actually quantify that weakness by looking at the quits rate — the percentage of workers voluntarily leaving their jobs (as opposed to being fired) each month. Obviously, there are many reasons a worker might want to leave his or her job. Quitting is, however, a risk; unless a worker already has a new job lined up, he or she doesn’t know how long it will take to find a new job, and how that job will compare with the old one.

And the risk of quitting is much greater when unemployment is high, and there are many more people seeking jobs than there are job openings. As a result, you would expect to see the quits rate rise during booms, fall during slumps — and, indeed, it does. Quits plunged during the 2007-9 recession, and they have only partially rebounded, reflecting the weakness and inadequacy of our economic recovery.

Now think about what this means for workers’ bargaining power. When the economy is strong, workers are empowered. They can leave if they’re unhappy with the way they’re being treated and know that they can quickly find a new job if they are let go. When the economy is weak, however, workers have a very weak hand, and employers are in a position to work them harder, pay them less, or both.

Is there any evidence that this is happening? And how. The economic recovery has, as I said, been weak and inadequate, but all the burden of that weakness is being borne by workers. Corporate profits plunged during the financial crisis, but quickly bounced back, and they continued to soar. Indeed, at this point, after-tax profits are more than 60 percent higher than they were in 2007, before the recession began. We don’t know how much of this profit surge can be explained by the fear factor — the ability to squeeze workers who know that they have no place to go. But it must be at least part of the explanation. In fact, it’s possible (although by no means certain) that corporate interests are actually doing better in a somewhat depressed economy than they would if we had full employment.

What’s more, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that this reality helps explain why our political system has turned its backs on the unemployed. No, I don’t believe that there’s a secret cabal of C.E.O.’s plotting to keep the economy weak. But I do think that a major reason why reducing unemployment isn’t a political priority is that the economy may be lousy for workers, but corporate America is doing just fine.

And once you understand this, you also understand why it’s so important to change those priorities.

There’s been a somewhat strange debate among progressives lately, with some arguing that populism and condemnations of inequality are a diversion, that full employment should instead be the top priority. As some leading progressive economists have pointed out, however, full employment is itself a populist issue: weak labor markets are a main reason workers are losing ground, and the excessive power of corporations and the wealthy is a main reason we aren’t doing anything about jobs.

Too many Americans currently live in a climate of economic fear. There are many steps that we can take to end that state of affairs, but the most important is to put jobs back on the agenda.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Story first appeared on WashingtonPost.com.

We meet again, as 2.1 million residents of the Washington area attempt to leave the city by car this Christmas week, desperately crawling along the demonic hellscape of your infernal asphalt wasteland.
Ah, 95, you are crafty this year — with your dulcet promises of fully staffed toll plazas and repaired roads, of HOV lanes for everyone. But you can’t fool us, not this time. Not while the Maryland House travel plaza remains closed for renovation and we’ve had to use the bathroom since New York Avenue 40 minutes ago. Not while the signs to Philadelphia turn blurry and fiendish before our eyes, a Hieronymus Bosch painting disguised as a road.

For whom do those jingle bells toll? They toll for us, I-95, your wretched, wretched prisoners, bottlenecking to our doom.

“If I compare it to other roads — it’s not Route 66,” says Doug Kirby, the publisher of the Roadside America series. “People don’t come from around the world for the romance of it.”

No, Mr. Kirby. No, they do not. I-95 does not have Route 66’s cross-country nostalgia. It doesn’t have the splendor of the I-10, either, which weaves from California through Texas, showcasing the magnificence of the desert. It doesn’t even have the cultural cachet of the materialistic, broken-dreamed Sunset Boulevard.

“It’s really more of a utilitarian road,” Kirby says. “It’s not about a scenic route.”

He broke down on I-95 once, back in college years ago. A truck rammed the trailer he and some friends were pulling; they had to limp back up the East Coast from Florida, where they had vacationed, to New Jersey, where they went to school. They hadn’t budgeted for the delay. They paid for gas and had $2 left for food, which they spent on french fries at a weird rest stop in South Carolina called South of the Border, which features a sombrero-shaped observation deck.

These are the sorts of things that happen on I-95.

If the Donner Party set off on a road trip now, I-95 is the interstate they would eat each other on.

It is the longest north-south interstate in the country, and it passes through the most states (15). From Houlton, Maine, to Miami, it stretches 1,900 miles. It was built in pieces, built on dreams, built on the notion that northerners might like to travel south for the cold months of the year. Construction on the route that would one day become I-95 began in Maine in the 1940s and Florida in the 1950s. The portion linking the Delaware Memorial Bridge with the Maryland Harbor Tunnel was dedicated by John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963.

Fifty years passed since then. A man would land on the moon, and I-95 would still be unable to deposit you to your mother-in-law’s house in time for the wilting relish tray. Science: The traffic analysis company INRIX calculated that last year, the I-95 trip between Franconia and Fredericksburg — which typically takes less than an hour — took 2?1 / 2 during Christmas’s busiest travel times. Speeds along busy stretches dipped to an average of 30 miles an hour.

The data of our pathetic fate is all there, in INRIX’s color-coded bar graphs, and yet every year we do it again. Every year. Stupid masochists.

When Victor Buono thinks of I-95 at Christmas he thinks, “Smooth traffic running through.” That’s his goal. That’s his vision. Buono is the chief of toll operations for the Delaware Department of Transportation. It is his job to make sure that all tollbooths along Delaware’s stretch of I-95 are fully staffed on the two weeks surrounding Christmas, a feat that requires 72 employees to manage the anticipated 1.1 million visitors who will pass though his domain.

“We let [toll workers] wear Santa hats and Santa sweaters and that,” he offers. “We focus on them being customer-centric .?.?. as opposed to some of the other turnpikes. Namely the New Jersey one.”

The sorry sad sacks, who must take I-95 all the way up through the New Jersey Turnpike and beyond. Good luck. Good freaking luck.

Friday, December 20, 2013


Story first appeared on Reuters.

BOSTON (Reuters) - Target Corp said hackers have stolen data from up to 40 million credit and debit cards of shoppers who visited its stores during the first three weeks of the holiday season in the second-largest such breach reported by a U.S. retailer.

The hackers worked at unprecedented speed, carrying out their operation from the day before Thanksgiving to this past Sunday, 19 days that are the heart of the crucial Christmas holiday sales season.

Target, the third-largest U.S. retailer, said on Thursday that it was working with federal law enforcement and outside experts to prevent similar attacks in the future. It did not disclose how its systems were compromised.

The retailer was alerted its systems might have been compromised by credit card processors who had noticed a surge in fraudulent transactions involving credit cards that had been used at Target, according to a person familiar with the investigation who was not authorized to discuss the matter.

The timing of the breach could not have been worse for Target, coming just before three of the four busiest days of what has been a bruising holiday season for retailers, with the highest level of discounting in years. Target last month lowered its profit forecast for the year.

"Most of these attacks are just a cost of doing business," said Mark Rasch, a former U.S. prosecutor of cyber crimes.

"But an attack that's targeted against a major retailer during the peak of the Christmas season is much more than that because it undermines confidence."

Investigators are still trying to understand how the attack was carried out, including whether hackers found a weakness at Target's computer network or through credit card services vendors. It was not immediately clear what percent of the transactions at its brick and mortar stores had been compromised but the company said its online business had not been affected.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who headed a multi-state probe into a 2007 data breach at TJX Cos, said in a statement that her office was talking to Target about the breach and planned to work with other Attorneys General to determine whether the company had proper safeguards in place.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a public statement that he had asked Target for more information.

A customer in California filed a class-action lawsuit against the company late on Thursday, the first of what lawyers said could be many such suits.

Samantha Wredberg said in a court filing that she was a regular shopper at Target and had used her credit card at a company store on December 8. Besides seeking damages, Wredberg asked the court to certify the lawsuit as class action.

She also asked the court to explore whether "Target unreasonably delayed in notifying affected customers of the data breach".

The theft of credit and debit card data from Target customers could end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is unclear who will bear the expense, lawyers and industry sources said.

The affected payment cards include Target's REDcard private label debit and credit cards as well as other bank cards, Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said. She declined to say if the incident was affecting store traffic.

The largest breach against a U.S. retailer, uncovered in 2007 at TJX Cos Inc, led to the theft of data from more than 90 million credit cards over about 18 months.

Since then, companies have become far more adept at identifying intruders. But criminals have responded by developing more-powerful attack strategies, spending months on reconnaissance to launch sophisticated schemes with the goal of extracting as much data as they can in the shortest period of time.

Representatives for J.C. Penney Co Inc, Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Best Buy Co Inc and Home Depot Inc told Reuters they believed their systems had not been compromised in similar attacks.

Target will provide more details on costs related to the issue at a later date, Snyder said. She declined to comment when asked if Target expected potential fines from MasterCard, Visa and American Express or saw a possible increase in merchant fees.

"It's so early in this investigation," Snyder said.

Avivah Litan, a Gartner analyst who specializes in cyber-security and fraud detection, saw costs for Target. "They are going to pay for any fraud on the card," she said. "They will get fined (by card issuers) for non-compliance with payment card security standards. Their merchant fee will probably go up a few basis points."

Target's shares closed down 2.2 percent at $62.15 on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday afternoon, while the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index fell 0.06 percent.


Target warned customers in an alert on its website that the criminals had stolen names, payment card numbers, expiration dates and security codes.

The company had identified the breach on Sunday and had begun responding to it the same day, Snyder said. She declined to explain why the retailer waited until Thursday to alert customers.

Krebs on Security, a security industry blog that broke the news on Wednesday, said the breach involved nearly all of Target's 1,797 stores in the United States.

The U.S. Secret Service is working on the investigation, according to an agency spokeswoman. A Federal Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman declined to comment.

Customers began to complain early on Thursday via Target's Facebook page.

"Thank you Target for nearly costing me and my wife our identities, we will never shop or purchase anything in your store again," said one posting.

"Shop at Target, become a target," remarked another. "Gee, thanks."

Target's Snyder said it had been getting an "extremely high" volume of calls from customers.

JPMorgan Chase & Co, one of the biggest U.S. credit card issuers, said it was monitoring the accounts involved for suspicious activity and urged customers to contact the bank if they noticed any.

An American Express spokeswoman said the company was aware of the incident and was putting fraud controls in place.

Major card brands typically offer their cardholders zero liability and cardholders should contact their issuer if they spot suspicious transactions, a Visa spokesman said, adding that a breached account did not necessarily result in a fraudulent purchase.

"This could hurt the end of the holiday season if for no other reason than many of their customers have to cancel cards ahead of holidays," said Janney Capital Markets analyst David Strasser.

The breach also comes at a time Target is trying to build its online business, which by some estimates is only 2 percent of sales.

"All consumers will hear is that Target is not a safe place to use your credit card. That impacts trust, which in turn can impact retail's fastest-growing and most trust-sensitive touch points: online and mobile," said Carol Spieckerman, president of retail strategy firm newmarketbuilders.

Still, consumers tend to have short memories with these things, so it will likely be less of an issue next quarter, said Gartner analyst Litan.

"(Consumers) care more about discounts than security," she said.

The case is Samantha Wredberg vs Target Corp, Case No. 13-cv-05901, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Meet The 'Liberator': Test-Firing The World's First Fully 3D-Printed Gun

Story first appeared on Forbes.com.

Even Wilson himself says he’s not sure exactly how that’s possible. But one important trick may be the group’s added step of treating the gun’s barrel in a jar of acetone vaporized with a pan of water and a camp stove, a process that chemically melts its surface slightly and smooths the bore to avoid friction. The Dimension printer Defense Distributed used also keeps its print chamber heated to 167 degrees Fahrenheit, a method patented by Stratasys that improves the parts’ resiliency.

Defense Distributed’s goal is to eventually adapt its method to work on cheaper printers, too, like the $2,200 Replicator sold by Makerbot or the even cheaper, open-source RepRap. Even if a barrel is deformed after firing, Defense Distributed has designed the Liberator to use removable barrels that can be swapped in and out in seconds.

Wilson hasn’t shied from the growing controversy around his project. The Sandy Hook, Connecticut massacre in which a lone gunman killed twenty children and six adults only increased his sense of urgency to circumvent the anticipated wave of gun control laws. As Congress mulled limits on ammunition magazines larger than ten rounds, Defense Distributed created 3D-printable 30-round magazines for AR-15 and AK-47 rifles. In March, it released a YouTube video of a 3D-printable AR-15 lower receiver that can fire hundreds of rounds without failing. The lower receiver is the regulated body of the gun. Anyone who prints it can skirt gun laws and order the rest of the weapon’s parts by mail.

Much of the criticism has focused on Wilson himself, by far the most visible figure in Defense Distributed’s collection of 15 on-and-off volunteer designers and engineers spread across the world. He’s received more than a dozen death threats, along with many wishes that someone would use his own 3D printed weapons to kill him. Wired included Wilson in its list of the 15 most dangerous people in the world. The Coalition To Stop Gun Violence calls him a “hardcore insurrectionist” who advocates anti-government violence. ”This guy is basically saying ‘print your own guns and be ready to kill government officials,’” says Ladd Everitt, a CSGV spokesperson. “The fact that we’re not talking about [him in those terms] after the Boston bombings is incredible.”

But Wilson denies advocating any sort of violent revolt in America. Instead, he argues that his goal is to demonstrate how technology can circumvent laws until governments simply become irrelevant. “This is about enabling individuals to create their own sovereign space…The government will increasingly be on the sidelines, saying ‘hey, wait,’” says Wilson. “It’s about creating the new order in the crumbling shell of the old order.”

Wilson doesn’t deny that his gun could be used for murder or political violence. “I recognize that this tool might be used to harm people. That’s what it is: It’s a gun,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s a reason to not put it out there. I think that liberty in the end is a better interest.”

He prefers to think of his Liberator in the same terms as its namesake, the one built for distribution to resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied countries in the 1940s. That plan was conceived in part as a psychological operation aimed at lowering the occupying forces’ morale, Wilson says, and he believes his project will strike a similar symbolic blow against governments around the world. “The enemy took notice that weapons were being dropped from the sky,” he says. “Our execution will be better. We have the Internet.”

On a blazing Saturday afternoon, Wilson returns to the remote firing range where he first tested the Liberator. None of his Defense Distributed compatriots have joined him this time–John the engineer is away at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association in Houston. But Wilson is accompanied by his father, Dennis, a lawyer from Little Rock, Arkansas who has flown in to witness a historic moment: His son plans to fire a fully 3D-printed weapon by hand for the first time.

Wilson has spent the last few days tweaking the Liberator’s CAD file and re-printing its barrel, hammer and body to realign its firing pin and solve the misfire issue. But he becomes quieter as the moment of testing approaches. His father asks how far it is to the nearest hospital: a 45 minute drive. We consider how to make a tourniquet if things go badly. “You guys are going to make me lose my nerve,” says Wilson, smiling nervously.

Everyone but Wilson falls back behind him. Wilson opens the case holding the newly-printed pieces and assembles them, then loads the gun and inserts ear plugs into his ears.

He inhales sharply, aims the Liberator, fires it, and then exhales, in quick succession.
“Outstanding,” says Dennis Wilson. “Congratulations, my son.”

Wilson visibly relaxes. He shakes his father’s hand with his own fully-intact digits. Later he’ll examine the gun and find no obvious signs of damage other than a cracked pin used to hold the barrel in place.

For a few moments, Wilson seems lost for words. His expression is hidden behind his sunglasses. Then he says the first thing that comes to his mind. “Well, there are going to be some changes around here.”

Duck Dynasty Star's Anti-Gay Rant: Is Walmart And A&E's $400 Million Empire At Stake?

Full story first appeared on Forbes.com.

“It’s a huge risk, taking on personalities,” said Charlie Anderson, CEO of retail marketing agency Shoptology. “Look at what happened with Paula Deen,” he said, referring to the Southern chef’s racism scandal and resulting loss of lucrative partnerships.

Anderson added: “The Duck Dynasty guys have flaws, but they’re wholesome.”

Hmm. Wholesome, if you get warm fuzzy feelings from horribly outdated, ignorant anti-gay rhetoric.

One of the cast members of A&E’s hugely popular reality series gave an interview with GQ that must be read in full, partly because I can’t reprint some of its language, but here’s a delightful snippet from inside the brain of Phil Robertson, duck hunter:

    “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. [...] “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

He also has some distressing thoughts on pre-Civil Rights era Louisiana, but I’ll leave you to discover those in the pages of GQ.

GLAAD has called on A&E and its advertisers to “re-examine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.” Robertson himself, via A&E’s press office, issued what can be charitably described as a fauxpology saying his anti-gay beliefs are based on Bible teachings.

The network itself has yet to respond to a request for comment, but it seems unlikely that A&E would dump the most-watched reality show of all time, and one that’s spawned such a successful merchandise business.

What, then, will Walmart do? The big box giant is responsible for about 50% of this year’s incredible $400 million in Duck Dynasty-related retail sales, with Phil Robertson’s mug (along with his bearded relatives) gracing its bestselling t-shirt in both men’s and women’s apparel. Some Walmart stores in the south feature entire aisles devoted to the Louisiana duck hunters, selling everything from bedding to prayer devotionals adorned with their trademark camouflage and folksy catchphrases.

Walmart publicly dumped Paula Deen after the Southern chef’s headline-grabbing allegations of racism this past summer, although you can still find her cookware on Walmart.com. The question is whether the powers that be in Bentonville, Ark. believe Robertson’s vile homophobia will anger their shoppers the same way they clearly imagined Deen’s apparent racism would.

Walmart declined to comment. Watch this space, though. The pressure will be on the world’s largest retailer to take the lead over every other store carrying Duck Dynasty merchandise in dealing with this ugly situation.

Update: A&E Networks released the following statement on Wednesday evening:

“We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty. His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.  The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Story first appeared on USATODAY.com.

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — The waitress who said she was denied a tip because she was gay — before evidence surfaced that her claim may have been a hoax — and the restaurant at the center of the incident have decided mutually to part ways.

According to a post on the restaurant's Facebook page, Gallop Asian Bistro has taken seriously the allegations made by the waitress, Dayna Morales, and those made against her.
"Despite news reports to the contrary, this is not a simple, straight-forward matter and we have conducted our own internal investigation," the post said. "The results of that investigation are inconclusive as to exactly what happened between Ms. Morales and the customers that night. However, in light of the investigation and recent events, both Ms. Morales and Gallop Asian Bistro have made a joint decision that Ms. Morales will no longer continue her employment at our restaurant. We wish her well in the future."
Further, the Facebook post called the incident an unfortunate one for the restaurant, its employees and customers.

"We are dedicated to providing excellent Asian cuisine and superior service," the post said. "We have the utmost faith in our management and staff and we welcome the opportunity to serve our customers."

On Sunday, a manager at the Gallop Asian Bistro confirmed that the Facebook statement was posted Saturday and is representative of the restaurant's position on the matter at this time.

Donation refunds

Last week, Morales began to refund some of the hundreds of dollars in donations she received from people all over the country.

New York City resident Jocelyn Carlisle said that a $3 donation made to Morales through the online payment website PayPal had been returned Friday.

"Clearly, if she is doing something under false pretense, that is a good thing," Carlisle said about the refund.

But not all the people who might have been hoodwinked are looking for their money back.

Alan Crone, a Memphis Employment Lawyer, said he feels for the 22-year-old waitress.

Last month, Morales made headlines after posting on Facebook a picture of a restaurant check that had a written note explaining that the reason the customer did not leave a tip was because they did not agree with Morales' lifestyle.

Morales, a former U.S. Marine, garnered a lot of sympathy and collected nearly $2,000 in donations, which she promised to donate to the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project.

But doubts began to surface about the authenticity of the check when the unidentified family presented its copy of the receipt and a credit-card statement to a reporter from WNBC-TV in New York. The documents showed that the family indeed had left an $18 tip.

Former friends and colleagues of Morales said she habitually lied about supposed tragedies in her life.

On Nov. 29, the restaurant posted on its Facebook page that Morales had been suspended pending an investigation.

The Wounded Warrior Project, meanwhile, said last week it had no record of a donation from Morales.

Carlisle said she decided to send Morales a few dollars after reading the initial news reports about her.

"As a gender queer, I get a lot of unpleasantness in my life and I wanted to share support for someone going through the same kind of discrimination," Carlisle said.

Neither Morales nor the restaurant has acknowledged that the tip story was fake. Morales initially stood by her story but since has not spoken publicly.

Weintraub said she decided to send Morales money because she "felt for her" — and still does. She called the restaurant Friday to ask the manager and staff to "make sure she has family or friends looking out for" Morales.

"I know I can't speak for other people, but I don't want my money back. I don't consider myself a victim of a fraud or hoax," Weintraub said. "I wish I could tell her that not everybody in the world hates her. I hope she's OK."


Story first appeared in the DetroitNews.com.

Mary Barra is blazing more than one trail on her way to becoming the next CEO of General Motors Co., effective next month.

After five years of outsiders guiding the Motor City’s automakers back from the brink of extinction, the appointment of the 51-year-old GM veteran marks the return of a native Detroiter to an industry C-suite — and signals that a humbling crisis finally is giving way to a new generation of leaders tasked with executing business fundamentals and winning.

Not that the new gig will be easy for Barra, considered an up-and-comer since her days in the 1990s as former CEO Jack Smith’s assistant. It won’t be, because the leadership change accelerated by Chairman Dan Akerson’s need to care for an ailing wife is about more than Barra or the historic fact that she will be the first woman to head a global automaker.

It’s about ensuring GM’s future continues to distance itself from the bad habits of its past. As much as the new boss will need to prove she’s got the mettle to run the whole show, GM will need to demonstrate that the next crop of leaders can work as a team to keep GM moving in a direction that impresses customers and satisfies investors at the same time.

“Team trumps talent,” Akerson said Tuesday in remarks describing the leadership change. “If you can’t run the play we call, then there isn’t a place for you. Mary is an adaptive personality, one who adapts to change well. We’ve tried to adopt a culture here of team instead of personality.”

Dan Ammann, the 41-year-old chief financial officer and relative newcomer to GM, becomes president with responsibility for the automaker’s regional businesses and its restructured financial operations. Mark Reuss, gearhead-in-chief and president of GM North America, replaces Barra as head of global product development.

GM’s leadership moves may be surprising to casual observers, particularly the promotion of Barra. But they’re largely predictable to students of the company attuned to the unofficial leadership race, the bias to elevate an insider and Akerson’s public comments, chiefly his remarks that it was “inevitable” that a “car gal” would soon head a Detroit automaker.

“It seems to me the board has really been savvy this time,” said Marina v.N. Whitman, a former chief economist for GM and now professor of business administration and public policy at the University of Michigan. “Mary Barra is clearly future-oriented.”

Meaning what? As GM’s chief product boss, she worked to discern what customers would want, not to deliver what the company thought they should have. As head of global HR, she witnessed first-hand the changing priorities in young ambition and stultifying effects of allowing mid-level problems to block paths to advancement and change.

But there’s more to succession planning accelerated because Akerson’s wife, Karin, was diagnosed this fall with late-stage cancer. The new executive lineup had been taking shape for months behind the scenes, the result being a group that seems designed to simultaneously leverage individual strengths to complement the whole.

In a bid to maintain GM’s momentum and bolster its credibility on Wall Street, the company’s directors appear to be executing the automotive equivalent of “best available athlete” for a leadership team that will pick up where the federal bailout and the “Government Motors” rap leaves off.

CEO goes to an engineering-trained veteran of 33 years with a demonstrated record of building consensus, leading a team, exhibiting empathy when needed and toughness when required. President goes to a foreign-born Wall Street hand, Ammann, whose stature and record of disciplined financial management at GM instill confidence with investors.

And global product goes to the Michigan-born, locally-reared son of a former GM president ousted in the boardroom coup that culminated in the Jack Smith era at GM. By all accounts, Mark Reuss was a contender for the top job, but his new gig is likely to prove a winner for GM’s improving product cred.

GM’s leadership shake-up may not necessarily be cause for celebration, but it nonetheless marks the end of a painful era and the beginning of a new one. The U.S. Treasury on Monday sold its final share in the automaker, and one day later came a new leadership trio disproportionately staffed with two Detroiters who thrived in the crucible of the past five years and emerged on top.

There will be critics, as there always are of whatever decision GM chooses to make. Such as: not good; Vice-Chairman Steve Girsky is stepping away from his executive role even as he’ll keep his seat on the board. Or it’s too soon for Barra; she never ran a region, like Europe or Asia-Pacific.

She’s “very good at product development,” Warren Browne, a former GM executive in Europe and now vice president of business development for AutomotiveCompass LLC, wrote in an email. But she has “no regional experience” and “no financial experience.”

The record of the past five years suggests a different lesson: Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally neither worked abroad nor served as a CFO. And yet he’s the rock star credited with leading the Blue Oval’s effort to save itself, to re-establish the credibility of American manufacturing and to do it with a team culled from the best of Detroit.


Story first appeared on DetroitNews.com.

New York — The former right-hand man of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff told a New York City jury Tuesday that a crying Madoff revealed to him that his financial empire was a gigantic fraud just before the rest of the world learned the truth nearly five years ago.

Frank DiPascali, Madoff’s former lieutenant and the government’s star witness at the trial of five former Madoff employees, said Madoff called him into his Manhattan office and told him to close the door behind him on a day that Madoff, the former Nasdaq chairman, had spent staring out his window.

“Crying, he said: ‘I’m at the end of my rope. I have no money,’ ” DiPascali told jurors in federal court on the eve of the five-year anniversary of Madoff’s arrest.

When it seemed DiPascali didn’t understand, Madoff said: “I don’t have any more god------- money! Don’t you get it?” DiPascali recalled, his own voice rising and accelerating so fast that the judge had to direct him to slow down.

DiPascali said he spent several hours in the office listening to Madoff recount his detailed plan to reveal the true nature of a private investment business that had blown nearly $20 billion of money entrusted to him by thousands of investors, including charities, Hollywood actors and producers and the owners of the New York Mets baseball team.

Just days after sending out statements implying that the money he managed had more than tripled in value since he began investing decades earlier, Madoff revealed his biggest worry amid his description of “a little game plan” to reveal his house of cards, the witness testified.

“One of the last things I want is to go out of this office in handcuffs in front of all of the employees,” DiPascali said Madoff told him. “I want to do this on my terms.”

DiPascali said Madoff’s revelations hit him hard, making him realize “the whole shooting match is going right down the toilet and we’re all going to get arrested.”

DiPascali, 57, has been testifying for the past week about his role in fabricating trades that he said began after the stock market crashed in 1987. He is cooperating with the government in the hopes that his testimony leads to a major reduction in any prison sentence. Among those being tried are Madoff’s former longtime secretary, his director of operations, an account manager and two computer programmers.

On Dec. 11, 2008, Madoff was arrested at his Manhattan apartment by FBI agents.

Several months later, he pleaded guilty to fraud charges, maintained he had acted alone and was sentenced to 150 years in prison. Madoff, 75, is imprisoned in North Carolina.

DiPascali testified he always believed Madoff had investments in foreign banks and major real estate projects to cover investors’ accounts, even as he and others created fake trading programs.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Story first appeared on USATODAY.com.

In September, major U.S. pork producer Smithfield Foods was purchased by Chinese holding company Shanghui International Holdings for $4.7 billion. The deal represents the largest purchase of a U.S. company by a Chinese entity. Of course, it isn't the first major U.S. brand to be acquired by a foreign operation.

Established American brands are extremely valuable to foreign companies. Building a reputation in this country, which is one of the largest consumer markets in the world, can take decades, if it can be done at all. Many of America's most well-known names have been around since the 19th century. 24/7 Wall St. examined 10 famous brands founded in the U.S. that are no longer owned by American companies.

Many of these brands are not just iconic American names because they were founded and developed in the U.S., but also because they marketed themselves over the years as American. Budweiser beer, introduced by Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis in 1876, is the most widely known American beer brand. In 2008, Anheuser-Busch was purchased by Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate InBev. The company continues to market Budweiser as American, and even introduced an "American Ale" the same year, although that line has been discontinued.

Nearly all of these brands were purchased by an international conglomerate with large and diversified brand portfolios. Notably, Anglo-Dutch giant Unilever has purchased several of the iconic brands on this list, including Hellmann's and Good Humor.

These are 10 classic American brands that are foreign-owned.

1. Lucky Strike
• Founded: 1871
• Sector: Tobacco
• Current parent company: British American Tobacco
• Currently headquartered: England

The Lucky Strike Cigarettes company was founded in Virginia in 1871. At the turn of the century, American Tobacco Co. acquired the brand. The North Carolina-based company was one of the first to implement cigarette-manufacturing machines. During their heyday, through the first half of the 20th century, Lucky Strike was one of the top-selling tobacco brands, and was the No. 1 cigarette in the country by the 1930s. While sales have fallen since then, the brand has seen a modest resurgence lately due in part to the use of the cigarettes in the popular TV dramatic series "Mad Men." In 1994, U.K.-based British American Tobacco acquired the American Tobacco Co. and its subsidiaries.

2. Budweiser
• Founded: 1852
• Sector: Beverages
• Current parent company: Anheuser-Busch Inbev
• Currently headquartered: Belgium

Iconic American lager Budweiser was developed in 1876 by Adolphus Busch — son-in-law of German immigrant Eberhard Anheuser — and his friend Carl Conrad. It was the first American brewery to use pasteurization, allowing the company to ship the beer over large distances and reach a wider audience. Over the years, Budweiser became America's best-selling beer prompting the company to adopt the slogan: "The King of Beers." In 2008, Brazilian-Belgian company InBev purchased Anheuser-Busch Cos. for roughly $52 billion. Budweiser remains the top-selling beer brand in the U.S., with 2012 Bud Light sales close to $6 billion in 2012, more than any other brand, according to market research firm SymphonyIRI Group.

3. Vaseline
• Founded: 1876
• Sector: Skin Products
• Current parent company: Unilever
• Currently headquartered: England

Brooklyn chemist Robert A. Chesebrough developed petroleum jelly in 1870 from what was then considered a waste product from oil drilling. The substance can be used to treat injuries such as burns, cuts, and diaper rash. Chesebrough began marketing it as Vaseline in 1870, and it wasn't long before the brand became the most popular petroleum jelly product nationwide. By the early 20th century Chesebrough Manufacturing Co. was selling and manufacturing its product internationally. Anglo-Dutch multinational consumer goods company Unilever acquired Vaseline in 1987.

4. Good Humor
• Founded: 1923
• Category: Ice cream
• Current parent company: Unilever
• Currently headquartered: England

In 1923, Harry B. Burt of Youngstown, Ohio, patented his new method of making frozen confections — freezing ice cream bars to wooden handles and coating them in a hard chocolate layer. According to Burt, the value of the new process was in its sanitation and cleanliness. Instead of opening a store to sell his new Good Humor bars, Burt organized a fleet of ice-cream trucks with bells and carefully trained white-clad salesmen. When its founder died in 1926, the company went public and successfully expanded across much of the U.S. Unilever subsidiary Lipton purchased Good Humor in 1961.

5. Hellmann's
• Founded: 1913
• Sector: Condiments
• Current parent company: Unilever
• Currently headquartered: England

Capitalizing on his wife's popular mayonnaise recipe, German immigrant Richard Hellmann founded Hellmann's delicatessen over 100 years ago in New York City. In 1932, West Coast mayonnaise competitor Best Foods acquired Hellmann's. By that time, Hellmann's was flourishing and had already expanded across much of the East Coast, introducing new condiments including its Tartar Sauce and Sandwich Spread, a combination of relish and mayonnaise. In 2000, Anglo-Dutch multinational consumer goods company Unilever acquired Best Foods and its subsidiaries. The company claims Best Food and Hellmann's mayonnaise, which are sold on the West and East coasts respectively, are identical products.

6. Purina
• Founded: 1894
• Sector: Pet food
• Current parent company: Nestle
• Currently headquartered: Switzerland

Founded in St. Louis in 1894 by William H. Danforth, George Robinson and William Andrews, the original Purina company was initially known for its wheat cereal. Company president Danforth revolutionized the production of pet food by producing animal feeds in pellet form and renamed the company Ralston Purina. General Mills acquired Ralston's cereal business in 1997. Swiss multinational food manufacturer Nestle merged with Ralston Purina Co. in December 2001, creating a new division, Nestle Purina PetCare.

7. French's
• Founded: 1876
• Sector: Condiments
• Current parent company: Reckitt Benckiser
• Currently headquartered: England

Francis French, co-owner of R.T. French Co., expanded his father's spice business to include a prepared mustard spread, which in general was not commercially available in 1904. Since its introduction at that year's World's Fair in St. Louis, French's mustard has become an American staple. According to the company, French's can be found in roughly 36% of all U.S. households. The company was acquired by a foreign entity early in its history. In 1926, J&J Colman, based in the U.K., purchased French's for $3.8 million. Now, after two additional mergers, French's is controlled by U.K.-based Reckitt Benckiser.

8. Frigidaire
• Founded: 1918
• Cateogry: Appliances
• Current parent company: AB Electrolux
• Currently headquartered: Sweden

The Guardian Frigerator Co. was founded in 1916 to manufacture the newly developed electric refrigerating units. Prior to the invention, consumers generally kept their food cold with ice boxes. Compression-driven air conditioning was a novel concept. General Motors purchased the refrigerator manufacturer just two years later, naming it Frigidaire. Over the following few decades, General Motors often competed with Kelvinator and General Electric for top share in the new lucrative refrigeration market. In 1979, White Consolidated Industries, also an American company, acquired Frigidaire. Seven years later, however, the company changed hands again when it was acquired by multinational Swedish appliance manufacturer AB Electrolux.

9. Popsicle
• Founded: 1923
• Product: Ice cream
• Current parent company: Unilever
• Currently headquartered: England

Popsicle, touted as an "American classic," began by accident when 11-year old Frank Epperson left a stick in a cup of soda outside in freezing temperatures in 1905. Epperson sold the product to the Popsicle Corporation, and the frozen fruit juice on a stick was on its way to becoming an American icon. Following complicated legal battles between the ice pop company and ice cream manufacturer Good Humor over the definition of ice cream, Good Humor acquired Popsicle in 1989. Eventually, Anglo–Dutch multinational consumer goods company Unilever acquired Good Humor and its subsidiaries.

10. 7-Eleven
• Founded: 1946
• Product: Convenience stores
• Current parent company: Seven & I Holdings
• Currently headquartered: Japan

7-Eleven, aptly-named for its extended hours, was one of the first convenience retailers. Jefferson Green, an employee at Dallas, Tex.-based Southland Ice Co., began offering milk, bread, and eggs at one of Southland's ice houses in 1927. As the ice houses grew in popularity, they became convenience outlets and came to be known as Tote'm stores, because "customers 'toted' away their purchases." It was not until 1946 that the stores changed their name to 7-Eleven. Today, 7-Eleven is the world's largest convenience store franchisor. In 2005, Seven-Eleven Japan completed its purchase of 7-Eleven, Inc, becoming Seven & I Holdings, Co. Ltd.


Story first appeared on USATODAY.com.

A swath of heavy snow and ice that hit the eastern USA on Sunday — from West Virginia to Philadelphia — dumping snow on NFL fields and causing highway pileups threatened to disrupt commuters on Monday morning.

The snow came from an arctic blast of frigid air that froze highways in the middle of the country over the weekend and knocked power out to thousands of homes.

The forecast for Monday remained up in the air for the Northeast, depending on how quickly the system moves and temperatures rise, according to the National Weather Service. But travel problems could linger into Monday afternoon, with freezing rain and icy conditions sticking around as wintry weather stretched from Missouri to Maine.

Federal agencies in the Washington, D.C., area will delay opening times by two hours Monday due to the weather, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management said on its website.

Earlier, the harsh weather was blamed for three deaths around the Dallas area. More than 35,000 homes and businesses in North Texas remained without power as of Sunday afternoon.

Forecasts had predicted 1 to 4 inches of snow across the Northeast, but the system dumped 6 to 12 inches in a swath that stretched from northern West Virginia to Philadelphia and east into New Jersey, said Brian Hurley, meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center.

"We knew there was going to be some bands of precipitation," Hurley said. "We didn't quite expect it to have the intensity in snowfall that it did."

Warmer air was expected to move in Monday, raising temperatures into the 40s, he said. The rest of the week looks sunny and cold, Hurley said.

Ice and perhaps an inch of snow will stick along the Interstate 95 corridor from New York City through Boston to Portland, Maine.

Due to severe weather conditions, communication, power and transportation lines may be disrupted across the Midwest and through the Southeastern regions of the United States.

The auction site eBay warned that severe weather across the country could delay shipments, especially in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio and Texas. The site urged customers to be patient with shippers.

The lousy weather is something for which the major retailers and shippers do their best to accommodate, but they can only do so much.

"Sure, it drives them crazy," says Dick Seesel, owner of Retailing in Focus, a retail consulting firm. "But you're talking about companies that today operate coast-to-coast." Macy's, for example, which is now a national instead of regional retailer, he says, is much less vulnerable to bad weather in one part of the country when it has operations across the country.

Also, some retailers, including Macy's and Nordstrom, have a unique ability to ship from some of their brick-and-mortar retail locations if their e-commerce hubs have weather issues, Seesel says.

Before purchasing something online during lousy weather, Seesel suggests, it's a good idea to check first with a live customer service agent via phone or online chat to see if the weather might delay shipment.

Blowing snow hurt visibility and traction at football games in Pittsburgh, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. The snow obscured yard markers, and ground crews tried to keep pace with shovels and even plows. The Detroit Lions fumbled four times playing the Philadelphia Eagles.

Flight delays due to rain and low ceilings may linger through much of Monday along I-95 in the Northeast because of low clouds.

The storm canceled more than 2,500 flights Sunday and delayed thousands more, according to estimates from the website Flightaware.com. More than 1,000 of Monday's flights were already canceled, the greatest share from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which was still reeling from the effects of the ice storm that brought North Texas to a standstill.

On Sunday, flight delays littered the country by late afternoon. The worst were 1 hour and 43 minutes in Philadelphia, more than 1 hour in Newark, and nearly 1 hour at New York's JFK and in Houston, with more than half-hour delays at Washington's Dulles and New York's LaGuardia airports, according to tracking site FlightAware.com.

By Monday, precipitation will focus over much of New York state and inland New England, with freezing rain across central Pennsylvania. Heavier snow of 3 to 6 inches will fall in the St. Lawrence Valley.

But road conditions are expected to improve Monday from Washington to New York City, as rain replaces snow, according to AccuWeather. Travel may be slushy and slippery around Boston.

"We're going to see a whole mix of precipitation, anywhere from snow at the onset across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and down to D.C., to sleet and freezing rain in the Shenandoah Valley," says AccuWeather meteorologist Danielle Knittle.

National Weather Service meteorologists in southwest Virginia warned of a "significant winter storm," and state Emergency Management spokeswoman Laura Southard said the storm has the potential to be a "historic ice event."

"This forecast is very concerning to us," Southard said. "I've worked multiple disasters, but I've never worked an ice storm with a forecast like this. It's just really important for everybody to take extra precautions."

Knittle said more than a half-inch of ice buildup expected on I-81, western Virginia and central Maryland's main highway could imperil travel.

Bob Nations Jr., director of the emergency operations command center for the Memphis area, said early Sunday that ice coating roads, bridges and overpasses caused several multi-vehicle crashes. He issued a statement urging drivers to use extreme caution, particularly on bridges and overpasses.

Police in Memphis, meanwhile, urged motorists to stay home altogether if they could avoid travel Sunday.

"It looks like we're going to be stuck with this for one, two, maybe three days," said Memphis attorney Sam Chafetz, who tried to get off the roads before the worst of the storm hit. "I'm not afraid of the ice and snow, I'm afraid of the other drivers who don't know how to drive in it."

The National Weather Service forecast for Monday says showers and thunderstorms will develop over the central Gulf Coast and move into the Southwest and Mid-Atlantic by evening.

Meanwhile, lake-effect snow will develop over the Upper Great Lakes on Monday evening and some additional snow is expected over the Southwest and Southern Rockies. That system could bring snow to the High Plains on Monday and the Upper Mississippi Valley by Monday night, according to the weather service.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

'You deserve better': Obama offers fix for canceled health insurance plans

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Saying "we fumbled the rollout," President Barack Obama announced a fix to the vexing problem of canceled health insurance policies Thursday. He told insurers they don’t have to cancel plans next year just because of the Affordable Care Act.

Insurers can continue the plans for 2014 on two conditions — they have to tell people what their plans don’t cover, and they have to let people know they do have the option of going onto the health insurance exchanges to buy new plans with federal government subsidies and perhaps go onto Medicaid.

"Insurers can extend current plans that otherwise would have been canceled in 2014," Obama said.

He also apologized for the messy rollout of the health insurance exchanges. "We should have done a better job of getting this right on Day One," Obama told an hour-long White House news conference. "We did fumble the ball on it and one of the things I am going to do is make sure we get it fixed."

Critics of the health reform law, known widely as Obamacare, have made hay with reports that tens of thousands of people have been getting cancellation notices from their insurance companies, despite Obama’s repeated promises that people who like their insurance plans can keep them. NBC News first reported that the White House knew the cancellations were coming.

"This is something I deeply regret because it's scary getting a cancellation notice," Obama said at the news conference. "It’s on me. Those who got cancellation notices do deserve better and they received an apology from me. But they deserve more than words."

One main goal of Obamacare was to get rid of what the White House says are the worst abuses of the insurance industry -- caps on coverage, policies that charged women three to five times what a similar man was charged, policies that didn’t pay for cancer screening.

Some of the policies that have been canceled were very inexpensive, part of the reason for the outrage. But insurance and health industry experts say it’s because they were so bare-bones, they wouldn’t have paid for much if they were ever needed. The White House keeps stressing that the new rules level the playing field a little bit, and offer most people much more in terms of coverage.

"A lot of people think, 'I've got pretty good health insurance', until they get sick," Obama said. "If you received one of those letters, I encourage you to look at the marketplace."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has also pointed out that the policies being canceled are mostly individual policies, not the big group policies offered by employers that cover most Americans. Those policies often change every year anyway, HHS says.

According to America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s group, 19 million Americans have individual plans.

Democrats who support the law have been pushing the White House to come up with some way to fix the problem. Health officials point out it’s a very small percentage of people who are actually affected by the cancellations, but the political and public relations damage has been extensive.

Obama eventually apologized in an exclusive NBC news interview last week. He apologized again Thursday for the disastrous debut of the HealthCare.gov website.

"I was not informed directly that the website would not be working the way it was supposed to,” he said. "I get accused of a lot of things but I don't think I am stupid enough to go around saying this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity a week before the website opens if I thought that it wasn't going to work."

"Clearly we and I did not have enough awareness about the problems on the website, even a week into it," he added.

The Health and Human Services Department released figures that show only 26,000 people got on the federally run website in October, the first month the exchanges were open. But more than 75,000 more got on using state-run websites, and more than 26 million have at least gone online to have a look.

Tech officials blamed poor management and analysts said the site's failure was a new political low for the administration.

The new plan announced by Obama gets out in front of a Republican-crafted plan that was due to come up in Congress Friday. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi called that GOP proposal “a very dangerous bill” that is “completely disruptive” to the insurance pools, characterizing it as simply another Republican attempt to gut – not repair – the underlying health care law.

House Speaker John Boehner rejected Obama's plan. "True to form, it appears this is little more than a political response designed to shift blame rather than solve the problem," Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said. "This problem cannot be papered over by another ream of Washington regulations. Americans losing their coverage because of the president's health care law need clear, unambiguous legislation that guarantees the plan they have and like will still be allowed. That's why the House will be voting on the Keep Your Health Plan Act tomorrow, and the president should support it."

Pelosi said Democrats will try to present their own idea for a vote on Friday to complement Obama’s “administrative” approach. “We are in agreement. We must have a fix, and we will,” she said.

Health insurance companies expressed concern about Obama's proposal. "Changing the rules after health plans have already met the requirements of the law could destabilize the market and result in higher premiums for consumers," Karen Ignagni, CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, said in a statement.

"Premiums have already been set for next year based on an assumption of when consumers will be transitioning to the new marketplace. If now fewer younger and healthier people choose to purchase coverage in the exchange, premiums will increase and there will be fewer choices for consumers. Additional steps must be taken to stabilize the marketplace and mitigate the adverse impact on consumers."

One fear is that if too many people are allowed to keep their older, cheap policies, they won’t join the pool of people buying on the exchanges – and that’ll drive up prices next year for everyone else. The more healthy people are in the pool buying policies, the more they offset the sicker people, and the less insurance companies can charge everyone. White House officials said they’ll watch and see what happens in the next year, and tweak as necessary.

Price is the main concern of most Americans when it comes to buying insurance, and the administration is keen to be able to say Obamacare is keeping prices low.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


This story first appeared in Reuters.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. insurers fear that a surge in enrollments on the revamped government-run healthcare website could create more problems for insurance companies already struggling with error-filled applications for coverage three weeks before a sign-up deadline.

In what could become the next major headache for President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy, a group representing leading U.S. insurers said on Tuesday that technology fixes that will enable millions of people to sign on to HealthCare.gov have not fully addressed faulty data that the site has been sending these companies about their new enrollees.

The problems include enrollment forms with erroneous personal information and duplicate or missing applications. In some cases, consumers who believe they have signed up may not have a file with the insurer.

The warning coincided with an effort by Obama to win back support for the healthcare overhaul after the website's disastrous October 1 debut sent his job approval ratings plummeting and threatened to damage fellow Democrats in next year's congressional elections.

The website, which allows consumers to shop for insurance policies, is a main component of the 2010 Affordable Care Act aimed at providing health benefits to millions of uninsured Americans.

Daniel Durham, a vice president for policy and regulatory affairs at America's Health Insurance Plans, a lobby group for health insurers, said companies were regularly receiving faulty enrollment forms. He did not give details on how frequently the errors were appearing.

"So far we've been able to deal with these issues because there's been relatively low volume," Durham said. "But now that the floodgates are open at the front end... we're going to see a lot more volume. And health plans just don't have the personnel to do all this manually."

Durham said insurers need "clean" enrollment files so they can be processed by the December 23 deadline for coverage to start on January 1.


The White House said that more than a million people had visited HealthCare.gov on Monday, the first day after major technical repairs to the website. It did not say how many people had completed applications and enrolled in new plans.

The botched rollout of Obamacare has hurt the popularity of the initiative. Opposition to the healthcare law stood at 59 percent in a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in mid-November.

Obama on Tuesday encouraged Americans to look beyond the website and recognize the benefits of the law known as Obamacare. "The bottom line is this law is working and will work into the future. People want the financial stability of health insurance," Obama said in a speech.

While Obama and his aides have been focusing on fixing the most visible problems with the website, insurers say that serious technical issues are still plaguing the so-called "back end" of the portal that transmits important user information to insurance companies.

"It's a real problem for plans when the enrollment file never comes over, and then you get the consumer calling, and the plan has no record of that individual," Durham said at a forum organized by Georgetown University and law firm Arent Fox. "Time is short. January 1 is coming around fairly quickly here."

Cynthia Michener, spokeswoman for Aetna Inc, the third-largest U.S. insurer, said the company is continuing to receive flawed enrollment files, including duplicate records.

She also said that while there have been improvements with the website's performance, Aetna is helping "identify, prioritize and test additional issues."

White House spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, said the government was working with experts to make sure every enrollment form on the site is accurate.

"We believe that and are confident that they will be able to ensure that accuracy in time for the January 1st beginning of coverage for those who have signed up for it," he said.


Republicans in Congress and conservative groups have attacked the law relentlessly as an example of government overreach, criticism that has snowballed since the problems with HealthCare.gov.

Obama's job approval rating is at historic lows. A Reuters-Ipsos poll released on Tuesday showed his overall job approval rating at 38 percent, with 63 percent of respondents saying the country is on the wrong track. The November 29-December 3 poll of 1,494 Americans is accurate to plus or minus 2.6 percentage points for all adults.

The administration is trying to win back disgruntled Democrats facing a backlash from the healthcare debacle when they run for re-election next year in Congress.

Democrats in the House of Representatives who met with White House officials on Tuesday said they plan to counter Republican attacks on the law with stories about people it has helped.

Some Democrats, however, remain frustrated by the botched rollout. "I'm glad they're working on it but I'm still very disappointed. I'm still absolutely bewildered as to why they weren't ready," said Representative Carol Shea-Porter, Democrat from New Hampshire.

The federal website was supposed to make it easy to buy health insurance in 36 states. Other states run their own online marketplaces.

Monday, December 2, 2013


This story first appeared in Reuters.

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. retailers' controversial choice to kick off the U.S. holiday shopping season early, on Thanksgiving, may not pay off as much as they had hoped.

Eager to entice cautious consumers, especially with six fewer shopping days this year than in 2012, many retailers launched sales on Thursday's U.S. holiday, traditionally a day for family, friends and football games. Even Macy's Inc's flagship store in New York City opened then for the first time in its 155-year history, at 8 p.m.

Some U.S. shoppers played along, hitting the Internet and stores on Thanksgiving. But by late Friday morning, foot traffic looked a lot more like on a regular Saturday than the typical Black Friday frenzy that kicks off the holiday season.

"It's a lot less than I thought," said Alison Goodwin, from Horsham, Pennsylvania, who ventured to an area mall on Friday seeking gifts and maybe something for herself.

"It's like any weekend in December," Goodwin said.

While mall traffic appeared slower than last year, overall Black Friday online sales as of noon EST were up more than 7 percent from a year ago, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark. That came on top of the 19.7 percent increase on Thanksgiving Day, the firm said.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon said Thanksgiving visits to stores of the largest U.S. retailer surpassed last year's 22 million mark, and a swarm of online shoppers temporarily crashed its online site.

David Berman, founder of Durban Capital, a New York hedge fund that specializes in retail and consumer stocks, said U.S. shopping habits have permanently shifted with the exponential rise in online shopping, thanks largely to smart devices, notably Apple Inc's top-selling iPad.

Sales of big-ticket items like smartphones have helped mask weaknesses in traditional retail, he noted.

"By our calculations, half of U.S. publicly held retailer sales growth is coming from SAA (Samsung, Apple and Amazon)," said Berman.


Retailers often record the majority of their annual sales during the end-of-year holiday shopping season, and rely on discounts and marketing blitzes to try and grab a slice of spending estimated at some $600 billion annually.

The battle for the consumer dollar has been particularly intense in a year when taxes have increased, unemployment has remained stubbornly high, and confidence has taken a hit from a recent government shutdown and uncertainty over the introduction of President Barack Obama's healthcare reforms.

Offsetting those negatives has been the wealth impact of a rise in home prices and a rallying stock market, though those are more likely to help the luxury end of retailing.

Even Apple is not immune to this year's heightened competition.

A new Ipsos/Reuters poll found that, among consumers thinking of buying a tablet, 21 percent favored Amazon Inc's Kindle Fire, followed by 19 percent for Apple's iPad and 17 percent for Samsung Electronics Co Ltd's Galaxy.

In a rare gesture from the iPad-maker and a nod to intense competition from Samsung, tech giants like Microsoft Corp and Google Inc, and online retailer Amazon, Apple is offering gift cards worth up to $75 for every purchase on its website.

Shoppers lured to a Target store in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, by an even better iPad Air deal (a $100 Target gift card along with the $479 device) arrived too late on Friday morning, as the store had sold out.

Reuters reporters in several U.S. cities found shoppers cherry-picking discounted flat-screen televisions and other door busters without adding higher-margin items to their purchases - behavior that could bite into retail profits.

Overall, Berman said, "sales will eventually be OK but margins won't."

EBay Inc was the second best performer in the Standard & Poor's 500 index on Friday, gaining 2.5 percent, and Best Buy was third, rising 2.4 percent. Apple and Amazon were also in the top 10 on Friday, when trading closed early.

Kohl's Corp and Nordstrom Inc fell 1.1 percent and 0.8 percent, respectively.


The National Retail Federation is predicting that sales for the November and December holiday season will grow 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion - excluding such items as gasoline, restaurant meals or purchases of gift cards - leaving retailers to battle for a bigger slice of that somewhat larger pie.

However, NRF estimates each consumer will spend an average of $737.95 during the season, down 2 percent from 2012. Its forecast is based on an online survey and actual spending, including on gift cards. Retailers book gift card sales when the cards are used to make actual purchases.

While growing briskly, online sales still account for a small portion of overall sales in November and December. Holiday sales are forecast to grow 13 to 15 percent to as much as $82 billion, according to Shop.org.

This year's holiday shopping results likely will mimic the slow-growing U.S. economy, said Can Erbil, an adjunct associate professor of economics at Boston College.

"Last year's shopping season was actually pretty bad. The Connecticut school shootings, Hurricane Sandy, and fiscal cliff fears really hit the shopping season hard. So the benchmark is low," Erbil said.

The sea of holiday deals failed to impress some shoppers.

For Luis Figueiro, a retired Brazilian on vacation in New York, called the scene at Macy's flagship store on Thanksgiving evening "madness" and said the mobs of shoppers made it difficult to see the products on sale.

His wife, Irene, traveled with him from Rio with Black Friday deals in mind, but was disappointed to find that many items were not discounted.

"If someone comes without a clear notion of prices, it awakens something in you. But if you know what the items usually cost, you aren't fazed," she said.