Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.

Feb. 26 2015 5:40 PM

The Enormous Black-White Wealth Gap Is Getting Even Wider

The housing bust and and recession led to a seismic collapse of middle-class wealth that, according to at least one prominent economist, has left the median American family poorer today than it was in 1969. But, as the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reminds us in a report, the fallout hasn't been quite the same for families of all races. While there has always been an enormous wealth gap between whites, blacks, and Hispanics, the past few years have only seen it widen.  

Households of all ethnicities saw their net worth decline after 2007. But between 2010 and 2013, white and Asian families experienced a slight rebound. Black and Hispanic families did not.

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As a result, the typical black or Hispanic household is a bit poorer compared with the typical white household now than it was a few years ago.

The important issue here isn't the precise ratio of white wealth to black or Hispanic wealth. Rather, it's the divergent paths. Whites and Asians, who tend to have more of their money saved in the sorts of financial assets that have rebounded nicely in the past few years, are recovering. Blacks and Hispanics, who before the crash tended to have an outsize portion of their net worth tied up in their homes, are simply not.

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Feb. 26 2015 4:43 PM

Barnes & Noble’s College Bookstores Are Becoming Their Own Business

Barnes & Noble, the retailer cursed with selling, you know, books, said on Thursday that it plans to spin off its college bookstores unit into Barnes & Noble Education, a separate publicly traded company this summer. The college business has been a lone bright spot for Barnes & Noble lately, with revenue that rose 1.9 percent to $751.3 million in the latest quarter (as compared with revenue that declined in the company’s retail and Nook segments). Last May, Barnes & Noble announced an ambitious plan to grow its number of college stores from 696 to 1,000 over the next five years. Nearly a year down the line, it has increased that number to 714.

The college bookstores spinoff will take the place of the Nook business separation that Barnes & Noble had been planning since last June. According to the Wall Street Journal, that plan was nixed after a 55 percent drop in Nook revenue during the most recent holiday season made it a tough sell for investors. From the Journal:

Under the new plan, the Nook business will stay with the core retail stores group, which also includes BarnesandNoble.com.
John Tinker, an analyst at Maxim Group, said the new structure makes sense. “What this does is create a pure play for investors interested in the college market,” said Mr. Tinker. “Keeping the Nook inside the retail group is logical because they don’t currently know where it stands. Nook losses are shrinking, but it is still uncertain what’s really happening there.”
Barnes & Noble has long argued it needs to have a digital offering for its customers. Retaining the Nook business will allow it to do that.
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Michael Huseby, Barnes & Noble’s CEO, said in a statement that spinning off the company’s college arm “will create an industry-leading, pure-play public company with more flexibility to pursue strategic opportunities in the growing educational services markets.” Barnes & Noble values its college business at $775 million, according to a filing, and its spinoff is expected to be complete by the end of August.

Barnes & Noble’s stock rose nearly 7 percent Thursday on the news.

Feb. 26 2015 1:39 PM

The Further This Line Falls, the More Money Companies Are Going to Have to Pay Their Workers

It's been a decent couple of weeks for America's underpaid retail workers. First, Walmart announced it was raising wages for 500,000 of its associates—up to a minimum of $9 an hour this spring, and $10 next year—in a bid to increase morale and performance. Wednesday, TJX, the owner of clothing discounters T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, said that it was following suit. Target is still holding out, but companies are obviously feeling some pressure to up their renumeration for the people who make their stores run.

Why now? There are lots of little reasons, to start. States are hiking their minimum wages—in all-important California, the floor will be $10 in 2016—meaning that these companies would have faced higher payroll costs regardless. Meanwhile, Walmart is trying to combat its toxic public image as the king of low-wage employment, which hasn't been helped by the steady protests organized by the worker group OUR Walmart. At the same time, its labor practices, designed to ruthlessly minimize expenses, have become a major business liability in recent years, as badly understaffed supercenters haven't been able to keep merchandise stocked on shelves, leaving it to stack up in storage while customers head elsewhere. The company's new chief executive, Doug McMillon, thinks that improving customer service is key to turning around its performance and is betting higher pay will lead to happier, more productive staff (and the best research suggests he's right).* And if Walmart is offering higher wages, its competitors will probably need to do the same to compete.

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But that brings us to the big issue. The job market isn't just healing. It's now getting somewhere close to normal again. There are about 1.7 unemployed workers per job opening now, close to the lows of early 2007. That line you're looking at? The lower it falls, the more impetus companies will have to raise their compensation, since employees will feel more comfortable quitting to go looking for a higher paycheck elsewhere. And indeed, as Matt Yglesias notes today, more and more Americans have been saying "so long" to their bosses lately.

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Jordan Weissmann

There is one potential sour note here. Since the recession, many Americans have simply given up on finding work after facing grueling stretches of unemployment. One reason the job market looks like it's getting tight now is that many of those people are sitting on the sidelines, and it's unclear if the recent good news will bring them back. The labor force participation rate for workers between the ages of 25 and 54—basically, people who are too young to be retiring—has ticked up slightly in recent months after a period of decline followed by stagnation. But it's too early to tell if that's a blip or the beginning of a sustained trend.

We want those missing workers to return to job market. If they do, that should help alleviate the need for companies to increase wages. If they don't, well, at least a few more Americans should be in for a raise.

*Correction, Feb. 26, 2015: This post originally misspelled Walmart CEO Doug McMillon’s last name.

Feb. 26 2015 12:16 PM

For Women in Tech, Silicon Valley Is Way Worse Than D.C., New Orleans, and Kansas City

This post originally appeared in Inc.

There's been much written lately about the dearth of women in technology, and about the droves of women who are leaving tech companies. Much of the conversation has centered around Silicon Valley startups, given their reputation as the source of hot new technology.

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But some new research from SmartAsset, which draws on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that if you're a woman working in tech, Silicon Valley really isn't all it's cracked up to be. For women, the hotbed of tech innovation is more likely to be New York, where the sheer number of women working in tech is three times that of Silicon Valley. And while women face a substantial pay gap compared with men in Silicon Valley, there are two other major metro areas where women working in tech actually get paid more, on average, then their male colleagues.

To figure out which cities are the best for women working in tech, SmartAssets ranked cities based on the percentage of the tech industry that is made up of women, the gender pay gap in tech in each city, the average wage for women in tech minus the cost of housing (to account for cost of living), and the three-year employment growth for women in tech.

In no city do women make up more than 37 percent of the tech workforce. But women in tech have it a whole lot better in cities such as Washington, D.C.the top-rated citythan they do in any West Coast city. In two cities, women in tech, on average, actually get paid more than their male colleagues.

SmartAsset has not done a study on best cities for men in tech, but they did do a study of best cities for tech workers overall. Omaha, Nebraska, topped that list, followed by Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The best city for women in tech, according to the research, is Washington, D.C. In the nation's capital, about 37 percent of tech jobs are filled by womencompared with a national average of about 25 percent—and women in tech, on average, earn 93.3 percent of what men do. Perhaps that's not hugely surprising, given that an analysis of the Inc. 5000 showed Washington, D.C., to be the best city for women entrepreneurs.

In the second-ranked city, Kansas City, Missouri, women make up about 33 percent of the tech workforce and on average make 106.6 percent of what the guys do. Women in tech outearn the men in Arlington, Texas, too, and by a hefty margin: 107.4 percent. Arlington is ranked 15th.

So what is going on in Silicon Valley, the supposed tech epicenter of the U.S.? In San Jose, California, which ranks 11th, women make up only 23 percent of the tech workforce and make 86.4 percent of what men do. In San Francisco, 21 percent of the tech workforce is female and women earn about 88 percent of what the guys do.

That means the highest-ranked city in California, with an impressive third-place finish, is Fremont, where women in tech get paid 86.7 percent of what men do. Like Washington, D.C., Fremont owes its high ranking partly to the fact that three-year job growth for women in tech has been heady: 44 percent in Fremont and 49 percent in D.C.

Other cities in the Top 10: Houston; New York; Tucson, Arizona; New Orleans; Milwaukee; Philadelphia; and Plano, Texas.

Another interesting finding: While Silicon Valley may be the seat of all things tech, in raw numbers, there are more women working in tech in New York than in the Valley. There are about 22,000 women in tech in New York city while no other city has more than 10,000 women working in tech. That may be one reason New York women make 95.6 percent of what New York men dobetter networking opportunities.

I am sure there are a million explanations for these disparities, and for the fact that Silicon Valley and San Francisco both ranked relatively poorly in the study. Some of these explanations may even be totally reasonable and legitimate. But seriously. Move to Kansas City.

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Feb. 25 2015 3:39 PM

The Internet Has Already Revolutionized Prostitution. But Could Better Apps Make It Truly Safe?

These days, prostitution is very much an online enterprise. Escorts advertise on personal websites and email with clients before meeting up. Johns, meanwhile, post reviews on the Internet much the same way they’d rate a restaurant on Yelp. All of this, according to Scott Peppet, has made the black market safer and somewhat more lucrative for sex workers, at least compared with the days when they could mostly walk the streets looking to pick up men. But the University of Colorado Law School professor believes that technology could make prostitution even safer, if only we’d let it.

In his 2013 Iowa Law Review article “Prostitution 3.0?,” Peppet argued that state laws banning the “promotion” or “advancement” of prostitution have stopped entrepreneurs and nonprofits from creating apps or sites that could tell sex workers whether their clients have a criminal background or sexually transmitted disease, or that could assure clients that a sex worker isn’t the victim of human trafficking. Of course, if you’re of the opinion that prostitution should be banned as a matter of principle, then such government restriction makes good sense. But Peppet makes a fascinating point: Many people oppose prostitution not because they’re against selling sex, but because of the problems associated with it, like disease and trafficking. At the same time, states have stopped companies from offering products that might make the market safer and less objectionable. If they didn’t—if we could have prostitution without risks to health and safety—maybe voters would feel comfortable decriminalizing it. In any event, prostitution isn’t going to disappear. Technology could at least make it a little less hazardous.  

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In a blog post this week, Modeled Behavior’s Adam Ozimek cheekily referred to Peppet’s idea as “Uber for Prostitutes.” To learn a bit more, I called the professor up to discuss the online evolution of the world’s oldest profession, and how he thinks his ideas could clean it up further. The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: Your paper discusses how the Internet has already transformed prostitution in many ways. What does the business look like in 2015?

Peppet: It’s useful to think about different types of prostitution. What I call prostitution 1.0 is traditional street prostitution. The basic problems with street prostitution are that neither side knows much about the other. It's very hard for them to know about criminal background, STDs, about trafficking. The buyer [the John] has no idea if the seller [the prostitute] has been coerced or is healthy. And vice versa. The seller has very little idea if the buyer is a decent person or violent. It's a pretty dismal market, prostitution 1.0.

Prostitution 2.0—and I didn't coin that term—describes what's happening today. In the United States, at least, and in most places it seems, the vast majority of prostitution is taking place off the streets. Prostitutes and buyers are finding each other online, and finding each other because prostitutes have websites where they advertise. There are sites where buyers review prostitutes, and in some cases where prostitutes review buyers. They can say, "Hey, this person wasn’t very nice" or "this person didn't pay.” And so there are all sorts of technologies that are changing prostitution—at least, high-end prostitution. They are allowing prostitutes to screen out clients a little better. Prostitutes can email with a client in advance and can say, "Hey, I need to know where you work and I need to know your name." They can Google that person. They can do a little bit of research to make sure that person is acceptable. Prostitutes can contact each other about a potential client and say, "Hey did you have any problems with this person?"

And likewise, clients can look at reviews of prostitutes and decide what to pay.

At least the early empirical evidence suggests that this has allowed prostitutes to stay physically safer and that there are fewer pimps in that market. There may be less disease transmission—and there are higher prices. Prostitution 2.0 seems to be better than prostitution 1.0. The question is "how much better?"

Out of curiosity, why doesn’t law enforcement shut down more of these websites, or go after them? I know Craigslist was basically pressured into closing its adult-services section.

That's a good question. Some of them are housed offshore. And in many, many countries where prostitution is now legal—countries like Germany, Canada, and Great Britain—those problems aren't there.

The other thing is that a lot of these sites post various kinds of warnings at the beginning saying this is all fiction or this is just for adult connection, it's really not for prostitution. Of course, everyone knows that this is fiction. I really think, to some extent, some of these sites existed because regulators and/or police authorities just haven't gotten after them yet. And like you said, they have certainly begun to go after them and shut many or some of them down.

But you suggest governments should do the opposite, and make legal room for what you call prostitution 3.0. Tell me more about that.

I conclude that prostitution 2.0 is better than traditional street walking, but it's certainly not perfect. It's maybe not that much better, because of a couple of continuing core problems. One of them is the risk of violence. The prostitute continues to know relatively little of the client and the client's criminal history. Two is the problem of STDs and disease. Prostitutes and clients know next to nothing about each other's health status. And three is the very serious problem of trafficking. Prostitution 2.0—technology-enabled indoor prostitution—in some ways is being used to put sort of a gloss of legitimacy around trafficking. Anti-trafficking advocates are concerned that these websites and all of this online technology are actually allowing trafficking to occur or enable trafficking, because it's easy to pass off traffic prostitutes as more legitimate than they really are.

So, these are serious problems. The question I ask is: "OK, could technology adjust any of these problems and how?" And my answer is: Yes, It probably could. For example, if you had an Internet intermediary that could verify any criminal history, STDs, status, anti-trafficking credentials—basically your identity so that they could be pretty clear that this person hasn't been trafficked, because they have a U.S. ID and they have an educational history, and we can basically figure out who they are. If the intermediary is able to do that work and then confirm for both the buyer and the seller that both parties were of good standing, that would clean up the market even more than prostitution 2.0 has cleaned it up already. It would potentially deal with the anti-trafficking concern in the way prostitution 2.0 really hasn't addressed anti-trafficking at all.

I think particularly in countries that are legalizing prostitution, it's really worth thinking about technology and policy as part of prostitution-reform debates. They're really inseparable at this point.

If you were to compare these imaginary sites to a real company, which would it be?

Sure. There are lots of intermediaries in normal markets that serve to verify one or both sides of the transaction—and serve to verify quality, for example. Everything from an art auction house to a car dealership to financial intermediaries. The reason they're able to charge a small fee, as an intermediary, is because they are serving to verify the identity or quality of the goods or person on either side of the transaction. That's a really common function as an intermediary. Think about eBay with its reputational scores—what is eBay doing? In some ways, eBay is connecting buyers and sellers. It's able, with its reputation scores, to reassure buyers and sellers that they're not going to get ripped off. And that's a very similar function to what we're talking about here and we're just talking about a slightly higher level of verification of things like criminal history or health status.

In your paper, you say that the main thing stopping those kinds of services are laws that ban aiding or promoting prostitution. Would we have to eliminate those laws to make the innovations you’re imagining possible?

The answer wouldn't be to eliminate them, but to modify them. A state could say: "Aiding and abetting prostitution might still be problematic in the interim, but if you're developing technologies that significantly improve the lives of participants or the community, that has a safe harbor." So, you just carve out an exception. We could argue about the exact language that a state would use. But all you would be doing is saying: “Look, if you're a pimp manipulating street walkers, we're still going to criminalize that behavior while allowing the technology company or a startup, who was creating a Web app, to do something without being prosecuted."

We’re creating a chicken-and-the-egg problem. We dislike the market as it currently is, and we use it to justify prohibiting these kinds of exchanges. It's conceivable innovation could remedy these problems, except you can't do that. Innovation itself is illegal, because the market has been criminalized. The only way out of that chicken-and-the-egg problem is to allow innovation that has a potential for an individual or social good, and see if you can improve the market efficiently so that the justification for criminalization falls away.

So let’s say a site like this existed. What would stop a prosecutor or the FBI from just asking for data on its users?

One of the things I talk about in the paper is, if you were going to do this, ideally you would have confidentiality protection and some sort of qualified immunity—data couldn't be subpoenaed and used in that way. In addition to writing about market technology, I write about privacy. Yes, creating a database like this is scary—and it serves as the potential for abuse either by whoever has created it or if the state tried to get its hands on it. But again, those are legal problems. Those aren't technological problems. Those are largely legal problems of "OK, how can we protect this sensitive information if we want to try to improve this market?” Because there are real social and individual costs of the problems remaining in prostitution markets. That, for me, is the motivating reason to think about this. You know, people suffer.

Feb. 24 2015 7:16 PM

How Rand Paul’s Crusade to Audit the Fed Could Make His Worst Nightmares Come True

Rand Paul is quickly turning his absurd crusade to audit the Federal Reserve into a mainstream conservative cause célèbre—enough so that today, during her testimony before the Senate, Janet Yellen herself weighed in. (Like just about every other Fed official who has addressed the issue, the central bank's chair trashed the idea, saying it would “politicize monetary policy.”) Given the White House’s opposition to Paul's legislation, it shouldn’t become law any time soon. But let’s say it did. What would happen?

Ironically, it might just lead to higher inflation—which is supposedly the last thing the senator from Kentucky wants.

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Like his father, Paul is a monetary-policy paranoiac, the sort of person who goes on about the debasement of the dollar and flirts with the idea of linking our currency to a commodity. (Though not necessarily gold. Because, you know, the man's not that crazy.) He has referred to the Fed as an “an enormous creature, a creature that creates its own money,” as if he were describing Cthulhu with a printing press. He has fretted about Weimar-like hyperinflation just around the corner, even though prices are rising at less than 2 percent per year. He has delivered a factually challenged rant suggesting the Fed would be considered insolvent if we judged it like a normal bank (it wouldn’t be).*

While Paul acknowledges that the Fed is, in fact, already audited—its books are verified by Deloitte & Touche, and Congress can and does request separate audits by the Government Accountability Office—he says that the scrutiny isn’t enough, that those are “a bunch of fake audits.” Sure, you can go online and see every asset on the Fed’s balance sheet, including its serial tracking number. But, Paul says, that doesn’t tell readers “who they bought them from or whether they were bought at fair market price or whether they were bought at a haircut and whether or not there were any conflicts of interests in the buying and selling.”

That argument might be more convincing if Paul’s bill were focused just on conflicts of interest. But it’s not. In large part, it’s geared toward letting the Government Accountability Office “audit” the Fed’s monetary policy decision-making, one of the few areas of the central bank’s business it’s not allowed to assess. In plainer language, it gives the GAO the power to produce a lengthy report criticizing the central bank’s handling of interest rates, which might theoretically put political pressure on it to change its policy direction. In a small but meaningful way, it would chip away at the central bank’s independence.

This is where the humor comes into play. Politically independent central banks are better at fighting inflation. That has been the consensus ever since Larry Summers and Alberto Alesina published a famous paper on the subject in 1993.

There are some very obvious reasons why this should be the case. Politicians have a habit of pushing central banks to print money when they shouldn't. And unless they happen to live in Germany, officials in power generally don’t like it when central bankers hike interest rates to tamp down on inflation, because it leads to slower growth and can trigger a recession. Even if a Republican president ends up in office after a long campaign promising hard money, it is very unlikely that he or she would follow through if it meant jeopardizing re-election, nor would a Republican Congress undermine its own White House. During her speech today, Yellen made exactly that point, recalling Paul Volcker’s assault on inflation in the 1980s, which drove the economy into a sharp, double-dip downturn. “I really wonder whether or not the Volcker-led Fed would have had the courage to take the hard decisions necessary to bring down inflation and get that finally under control,” she said. “I wonder if that would have happened with GAO reviews in real time of monetary policy decision-making.”

This is why inflation hawks like Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher oppose Paul’s audit bill as well. An extra GAO report here or there wouldn't necessarily have a devastating impact on the Fed’s ability to function. But the audits would contribute to a slow chipping away of its independence. And that could set the stage for Paul’s worst, Weimar-themed nightmares to finally come true. 

*Update, Feb. 24, 2015: I originally referred to Paul as a "Cassandra" in this post. Turns out, I have been using that reference incorrectly up until now. According to Greek myth, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy, but cursed so that nobody would believe her predictions, leaving her unable to change the events she could foresee. Rand Paul is in precisely the opposite position: Influential, but not very prophetic. 

Feb. 24 2015 12:42 PM

If America Is Hell for Working Women, France Might Just Be Heaven

By global standards, the United States used to be a great country for working women. But these days, we look hopelessly behind the times. As the White House noted in a recent economic report, American women between the ages of 25 and 54, which are considered an adult's prime career years, are now less likely to be employed or on the job market than women in much of the developed world. On that score, we're closer to Japan, a country still trying to overcome its history of hostility toward women in the workplace, than we are to Canada or Europe.  

The picture doesn't improve much if you broaden it out. According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, there were at least 18 rich countries where prime-age women were more likely to be employed than the United States in 2013, the last year with data. Aside from South Korea, which has a strong patriarchal culture, we were faring better than Greece, Italy, Spain, and Ireland—countries that were still digging their way out of economic crisis.

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Jordan Weissmann

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The reason for all of this isn't much of a mystery: It's our pitifully stingy public policy toward women and families. We are one of three countries in the world, along with Papua New Guinea and Oman, that doesn't guarantee paid leave for new mothers. We also offer few protections for part-time workers, which makes it harder for women to keep a foot in the workforce after children. A study by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn of Cornell University found that, if U.S. family policy looked more like Europe's, employment among U.S. women would have been 7.2 percentage points higher in 2010.

Europe does have its own struggles with this issue. While women there are more likely to stay in the workforce, Blau and Kahn find that the long leaves and flexible schedules guaranteed to them by law encourage them to work part time. That can stunt their careers, preventing them from moving into management. The U.S., in contrast, has relatively low rates of part-time work among women. (As an aside, that's also why, even though our labor force participation rate for women is on par with Japan's, it's misleading to suggest, as some have, that our problem with working women is as bad as theirs.)  

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Jordan Weissmann

That said, some countries clearly get the balance right. One of the best examples may be France. France has a higher rate of part-time work than the U.S. (22 percent versus 18 percent). But because more females work overall, a similar percentage of all women are employed full time there as they are here. It also has a somewhat smaller gender wage gap than the U.S., as well as European neighbors like Germany or even famously egalitarian Sweden. And, perhaps most tellingly, women make up a higher percentage of managers in France than just about any other truly rich nation tracked by the OECD. It's clearly possible to offer women bountiful social support without sidetracking them from their careers. They're also near the top for the percentage of women on corporate boards (though they trail far behind Norway, which has a legal quota for females on board seats). And should you be wondering, French women manage all this while having more children than American women.

A generous family policy can be a bit of a double-edged sword, capable of keeping women in the workforce, but out of top jobs. But as France shows, it's possible to hit the balance correctly. We could certainly stand to take a few of their lessons.

Feb. 24 2015 10:37 AM

Krispy Kreme Is Giving Out Free Doughnuts Today

Guys, free calories! Actually, though, of the sugary, glazed variety. To mark the opening of its 1,000th store in Kansas City, Kansas, Krispy Kreme is giving out one free original glazed doughnut to the first 1,000 customers at each of its locations. “No purchase necessary,” the company advises, so this really is free.

While free doughnuts are always pretty exciting, this marketing stunt doesn’t quite have the punch of Krispy Kreme’s last advertising endeavor, in which it stuffed 2,400 Krispy Kreme doughtnuts, or a half-million calories, into a single, heart-stopping box. They called that the Double Hundred Dozen. The entire package measured 11.4 feet by 3 feet and took eight workers to deliver (though what, exactly, it weighed remains unknown). It would have been cool to commemorate the 1,000th Krispy Kreme store with 1,000 Double Hundred Dozens, but that’s a lot of doughnuts.

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Krispy Kreme is due to report its fourth-quarter earnings in mid-March. In the prior quarter, the company said sales at stores open at least a year rose 3.7 percent domestically but declined by almost 3 percent internationally. As for today? It’s stock is up 1.9 percent so far. Wall Street apparently likes free doughnuts.

Feb. 23 2015 12:42 PM

The Solar Business Now Employs More Americans Than Coal Mining  

My colleague Dan Gross has a great piece on Slate about the green energy business' latest coup: Companies like Apple are now buying mass quantities of solar power, as its production costs have fallen far enough in some regions to compete economically with fossil fuels. This, of course, bodes well for the future of renewables; it's one thing when local governments start purchasing solar- or wind-generated electricity as a political gesture; it's a whole other when the private sector jumps on board for the sake of dollars and cents.

Anyway, Dan's article reminded me of a cool tidbit I noticed in last week's Economic Report of the President: While solar may just be gaining traction with corporate America, by some measures it already employs more workers than coal mining. 

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Here's the story in two graphs from the White House. First the decline of big coal, which according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics directly employs about 80,000 workers these days.

And now, the rise of solar. While BLS doesn't break out data for the industry, the Solar Foundation conducts a censuslike survey of employers to track employment trends. As of now, it counts almost 174,000 workers.

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You can argue about whether this specific comparison is fair since, as PolitiFact has reported, other organizations have estimated much higher levels of coal industry employment. A survey by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, for instance, reports that there are more than 123,000 coal workers if you include contractors at mines. Add in transportation jobs, such as the hands who move coal on rail or barges, and the National Mining Association says the industry directly employees some 195,000 Americans.

Which number should we rely on? Its a little tough to say. Contractors at mines should obviously be counted. Transport workers are a little trickier, since many of them might still be working if, say, their railroad retooled in order to ship other kinds of freight. But even if you give the trade-group figures the benefit of the doubt, and concede that coal currently supports more jobs than solar, that could change by next year: The Solar Foundation projects industry employment will grow to 210,000 by the end of 2015.

Whether that's sustainable is an open question. Most solar workers are hired to do installations. Presumably, as solar's growth rate slows down at some point in the future, some of those jobs will naturally disappear. And, as Grist notes, that day could come sooner rather than later, as an important federal tax credit for renewables is scheduled to expire in 2017. So, from an employment perspective, coal may have a built-in advantage—you need workers to constantly dig more of it out of the ground to burn. Of course, that's also coal's biggest problem.

Feb. 20 2015 4:19 PM

Greece Strikes a Deal With the Eurozone, Pulls Off a Small Victory

There was sturm. There was drang. Somewhere, a group of masked men probably danced around and narrated the day-to-day action in song. But today, Greece finally reached a deal with the eurozone to extend its rescue package for the next four months, thereby staving off a potential financial crisis.

And, despite some stern posturing from Germany on Thursday, Athens even seems to have won some concessions. On the one hand, it won't get the full six-month continuation it had originally asked for. It seemingly will also have to abide by the broad outlines of the previous austerity deal that Greece's left-wing governing party, Syriza, campaigned so vehemently against. On Monday, it is scheduled to submit a list of economic reforms and budget steps—or an "action plan"—that the Eurogroup will have to approve before it actually hands out any additional cash.1 But, importantly, it appears the Greek government will finally get some wiggle room on spending.

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Which is a pretty big deal. Under the previous terms of the bailout, Greece was expected to produce a surplus on its primary budget (which doesn't include debt payments) equal to 3 percent of its gross domestic product. That was an insane expectation for a country effectively still mired in a depression, and now it seems it won't necessarily have to live up to that commitment. In its new statement, the Eurogroup states that the country's monitors "will, for the 2015 primary surplus target, take the economic circumstances in 2015 into account." In other words, they may cut the country a little fiscal slack and let it spend more freely since its economy is still in disarray.

The exact terms of this accord will become clearer in the coming days. Meanwhile, the parties still need to repeat this whole process to reach a permanent bargain within the next four months. But given the utter lack of leverage Greece seemed to have had going into these negotiations, and the degree to which Germany seemed determined not to give ground, the fact that the country may walk away from this standoff with a concession is rather impressive. Greece's electorate isn't getting anywhere close to all the promises it voted for. But it got a small piece of them, which is more than many onlookers expected.

1So, it's more like all the parties have agreed to agree to a deal, which could theoretically collapse again if Greece hands in a road map that doesn't satisfy the rest of Europe. But hopefully the next steps are mostly formalities.

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