Saturday, March 26, 2016

Friday, March 11, 2016

America's High School Graduates Look Like Other Countries' High School Dropouts

A new study confirms what many Americans already knew deep in their hearts: We're not good at math.
Not only that, but when it comes to technology skills, we're dead last compared with other developed countries.
The PIAAC study — the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies — looks at the skills adults need to do everyday tasks, whether it's at work or in their social lives.
"Clearly, we have some work to do in this country," says Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the government's National Center for Education Statistics. The study compared countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Japan and Finland led the group in literacy, math and technology skills, while the United States' performance was average or well below average in each category.
Overall, Americans' everyday literacy skills were average. But if you zoom in and focus on just the young adults, a more complex picture emerges.
Americans who went to college and graduate school did well. They scored above their peers with similar degrees in other developed countries.
For young adults with a high school diploma or less, things did not look so good. These Americans performed significantly worse than those in other countries with the same education level.
"Postsecondary institutions should be happy," says Carr. "But on the other end of the continuum, we have young people coming out of high school — or not graduating from high school — that are struggling with everyday competencies."
Carr says this pattern is even more obvious if you look at the math skills of young adults. This study found that Americans with a high school diploma performed about the same as high school dropouts in other countries.
"We need to think seriously about how to get them functioning better," says Carr.
She offers a sample math problem from the test: You go to the store and there's a sale. Buy one, get the second half off. So if you buy two, how much do you pay?
"High school-credentialed adults, they can't do this task — on average," says Carr.
When it comes to technology skills, the story gets worse. The U.S. came in last place — right below Poland.
The study looked at basic technology tasks: things like using email, buying and returning items online, using a drop-down menu, naming a file on a computer or sending a text message.
Across the board, Americans performed poorly on these tasks. However, there was a significant racial difference, with nonwhites scoring below whites.
"I don't think we were particularly shocked by that finding," says Carr. She points out that these racial differences are similar to what other national and international studies have found.
She says these findings should be concerning to everyone, especially leaders in the business community and in the K-12 school systems. npr

Professor's baby-friendly policy earns him admiration

Professor Sydney Engelberg, was unfazed when the child of a mother at his lecture on organizational behavior began to cry. The embarrassed mom tried to leave the class, but instead, the father-of-four and grandfather-of-five scooped the kid up and soothed him in his arms – without missing a beat in the lesson. He allows the mothers that attend his masters’ lectures to bring their children and even breastfeed. No mother should have to choose between a child and an education! cnn

everybody hates you: Ted Cruz And The Senate: Now We've Got Bad Blood

Even though the thought of Donald Trump at the top of the ticket is making a lot of Republicans in Congress queasy, they're not exactly flocking to the guy in second place to save them — Ted Cruz. Cruz did not have a single endorsement from any of his Senate colleagues, until this week when Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah committed his support. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, has landed 14 Senate endorsements.
That's because the bad blood between Cruz and his colleagues runs so deep.
It's Getting Awkward
Probably the most awkward question you can ask Republican senators these days is why they're still giving Ted Cruz the cold shoulder when it comes to endorsements.
"Well, I think you know the answer to that," said Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
"I'm going to let you ... speculate about that," offered Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
"I think it's pretty obvious," said Dean Heller of Nevada, without elaborating further.
What each of these senators is tiptoeing around is common knowledge in Washington: Ted Cruz is probably the most disliked member of the Senate.
South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who dropped his own presidential bid, even joked about it at the Washington Press Club dinner last month.
"If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you," Graham said to a ballroom full of reporters.
Cause, Baby, Now We've Got Bad Blood
How did the relationship go so wrong? Well, the romance never took off.
During Cruz's very first year in the Senate, he and a group of House Republicans helped force a 16-day government shutdown. At the time, in 2013, he crowed about it. But his Senate Republican colleagues were fuming. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said Cruz had led them on with a promise to defund Obamacare.
"You know, we've been asking from the beginning: What's the end game? How does this end? How do you achieve what you're purporting to achieve on defunding Obamacare? And I never got an answer to that," Ayotte told reporters when the government was reopening that October.
And then there was the time Cruz flirted with the idea of defunding the president's executive action on immigration. He fumbled a procedural maneuver on the Senate floor, which forced his colleagues to come to work on a Saturday. Not the kind of smooth move that will earn one's way into senators' hearts.
"You should have an end goal in sight if you're going to do these types of things," said Utah Republican Orrin Hatch that weekend in December 2014. "And I don't see any end goal that can be won — other than just irritating a lot of people."
And then, of course, there was the time Cruz called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar.
"He is willing to say things he knows are false. That has consequences for how this body operates," said Cruz during a nearly 20-minute speech on the Senate floor last July. The spat was over renewing the Export-Import Bank.
But this year, Republicans anguishing over the rise of Donald Trump can see that Cruz has pulled way ahead of Marco Rubio, who has the most Senate endorsements. Maybe it's time for the rift between Cruz and his colleagues to heal.
Republican Bill Cassidy of Louisiana compared it to marriage.
"Occasionally my wife has said something to me, or I to her, that we wish we had not said later. At the time, we're thinking, 'Oh, my gosh.' But we've worked through that, and we forget it, and we move on because there's something far more important than an occasional harsh word," said Cassidy.
Utah's Lee became the first senator to endorse Cruz, on Thursday. Maybe others will follow. Even the guy who joked about murdering Cruz on the Senate floor is coming around.
"Increasingly more clear to me that Ted Cruz is the most viable alternative to Donald Trump," Sen. Graham said this week. "I think a Trump candidacy would be a disaster for the Republican brand. I think John Kasich and Rubio are more electable than Ted, but Ted's running effectively as an outsider in an outsider year."
But, of course, no outsider wants too many love notes from Republican senators. npr

Shadow Of The Moon Crosses Earth During Solar Eclipse

Thursday, March 10, 2016

This Plastic-Eating Bacterium Might Help Deal With Waste One Day

Plastic makes great food packaging. It's waterproof and flexible. And best of all, it's impervious to all known bacteria – until now. Researchers have found a bacterium in the debris fields around a recycling plant in Japan that can feed off a common type of plastic used in clothing, plastic bottles and food packaging.
The bacterium is a new species called Ideonella sakaiensis, named for the Japanese city Sakai where it was found growing on plastic debris made from a type of plastic called PET or polyethylene terephthalate. "It's the most unique thing. This bacterium can degrade PET and then make their body from PET," says Shosuke Yoshida, a microbiologist at Kyoto University and lead author on the study published in Science on Thursday.
Most plastics are insurmountable obstacles for microbes because plastics are large chains of repeating molecules called polymers. The entire chain is far larger than the individual microbe. "So the organism can't take it inside the cell to metabolize it," says John Coates, a microbiologist at the University of California, Berkeley who was not involved with the work. Imagine a baby trying to eat an enormous pizza from the middle. It can't do it. The pie is too big.
But Ideonella sakaiensis, which we here at NPR have decided to call "the polymer chomper," has two enzymes that can slice and dice the plastic polymer into smaller pieces. In other words, the baby gets a pizza cutter. The bacterium can then take the pieces and eat them, eventually converting the plastic into carbon dioxide and water.
After Yoshida and his colleagues isolated the polymer chomper, they were able to watch it disintegrate a plastic film in about six weeks. It would be great if we could culture the bacteria, spray landfills down with them and let them deal with our mountains of plastic refuse. But alas, that may never happen. "It grows very fast," Yoshida explains, "but it's likely not so useful in the field" because it chomps very slowly.
And if getting rid of our plastic waste were so easy, Coates notes, the bacterium would likely have already been found in landfills and anywhere you find mounds of plastic waste.
But with more research, Coates thinks that the bacterium might be engineered for such a purpose. "It's certainly a move in the right direction. Having an organism that seems to be capable of biodegrading these components directly will help us develop a bioremediation technology," he says. Certain species of fungi have been found to be able to degrade plastics before – though none have been converted to landfill-munching purposes. The polymer chomper offers new hope, Coates says, because bacteria are easier to work with and engineer. npr

California To Permit Medically Assisted Suicide As Of June 9

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed landmark legislation last October that would allow terminally ill people to request life-ending medication from their physicians.
But no one knew when the law would take effect, because of the unusual way in which the law was passed — in a legislative "extraordinary session" called by Brown. The bill could not go into effect until 90 days after that session adjourned.
The session closed Thursday, which means the End of Life Option Act will go into effect June 9.
"We're glad to finally have arrived at this day where we have a date certain," says Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel.
"It's a historic achievement for California, and for a limited universe of people dealing with a terminal illness," Monning says. "It could indeed be a transformative way of giving them the option of a compassionate end-of-life process."
Disability-rights advocates fought hard last year against passage of the legislative act, and they continue to voice concern.
Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, says it would be impossible to know, for example, if a depressed patient went to many doctors — who all denied the request for lethal medication — before finding one who agreed to write the prescription.
"We are looking ahead at measures to protect people from abuse," Golden says, "and to explore and inform doctors, nurses and pharmacists that they don't have to participate."
As written, the law requires two doctors to agree, before prescribing the drugs, that a patient has six months or less to live. Patients must be able to swallow the medication themselves and must affirm in writing, 48 hours before taking the medication, that they will do so.
California is the fifth state to permit this option at the end of life. It joins Vermont, Oregon, Washington and Montana.
Across the state, some patients with advanced cancer welcomed the news.
"It gives me a great peace of mind to know that I will not be forced to die slowly and painfully," says Elizabeth Wallner, in a release from Compassion & Choices, an aid-in-dying advocacy group. Wallner, 52, of Sacramento, is a single mother with stage 4 colon cancer that has spread to her liver and lungs.
"It gives great comfort to know that the agonizingly traumatic image of me suffering will not be my family's last memory of me," she says.
Monning says he's grateful to people who worked for passage of the law, some in their final days:
  • Brittany Maynard, an Orange County, Calif., woman with brain cancer, moved to Oregon to take advantage of laws there that allowed her to get lethal medication. Before she died in 2014, she recorded a video that was shown during hearings on the End of Life Option Act in Sacramento.
  • Jennifer Glass, of San Mateo, Calif., helped to launch the campaign in 2014, then died of lung cancer last year.
  • Christy O'Donnell, 47, of Los Angeles, died of lung cancer last month.
"I really believe," Monning says, "we use today to mark and dedicate the memory of some true champions." npr

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Fact-Check: Bernie Sanders and Detroit

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will face off in the Michigan primary on Tuesday, at a time when the state's major cities have seen better days. Flint faces a lead-tainted-water crisis, while Detroit is still reeling from its bankruptcy.
Sanders attacked Clinton on Twitter this week, connecting Clinton's support for free trade, specifically the North American Free Trade Agreement signed into law by her husband, to the kind of blight Detroit and other cities in the Upper Midwest are seeing.
But is it that simple? We decided to try and find out.
On Thursday, Sanders tweeted, "The people of Detroit know the real cost of Hillary Clinton's free trade policies," along with five photos of dilapidated buildings. Shortly after that initial tweet, he added: "43,000 Michiganders lost their jobs due to NAFTA. I opposed that bad deal, @HillaryClinton did not."

The Big Question:

There's a lot going on here, so we're going to break this into two parts:
1. What does free trade (and especially NAFTA) have to do with the devastation Sanders' tweet depicted?
2. How big of a proponent of NAFTA was Hillary Clinton?

The Short Answers:

1. Probably not much (though it did cost some people their jobs), and
2. She supported it, though she expressed reservations sometimes. (Either way, importantly, it was signed under her husband's administration.)

The Long Answers:

Let's do this point by point:
1. What does free trade have to do with the devastation Sanders tweeted about?
Detroit's blight makes for striking photos, but its causes go well beyond trade policy.
"I'm pretty sure the buildings he posted were abandoned before 1993 [when NAFTA was signed]," said James Hohman, assistant director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Policy Institute, a Michigan-based economic policy think tank that describes itself as "free market"-oriented.
White flight: Clearly, Detroit had plenty of problems (and abandoned buildings) outside of trade agreements. And those problems started well before, for example NAFTA or the decision to normalize trade relations with China in 2000. In the 1950s and 1960s, and particularly after the 1967 race riots, Detroit was the poster child of "white flight," as hundreds of thousands of white Detroiters fled to the suburbs.
Since then, other factors have contributed to Detroit's decline:
Auto industry problems: Threatened by strikes, some factories started to leave the city — and no other industry could fill the gap left by those factories, as the New York Times reported in 2013. Foreign competition also contributed to the decline in employment, and many argue that automation also has hurt manufacturing.
Mismanagement: Many also point the finger at a series of Detroit's mayors for problems ranging from bad fiscal decisions to outright corruption.
All of this made for a vicious cycle. A diminished population left a weaker economy and also less government revenue, which meant fewer government services, which meant a lower quality of life, which helped send more people packing.
Even in the last few years, the population continued to plummet — the Census Bureau reported in 2011 that the Motor City's population fell by a stunning 25 percent between 2000 and 2010.
"That's really not going to be NAFTA," Hohman said. "That's basic corruption and mismanagement of the city government that has made it unable to provide the basic services."
Also, there's the question of what Sanders means by "Hillary Clinton's free trade policies." It's true that she voted for some trade pacts as a senator and that she once was an advocate for TPP (more on that later), but as for NAFTA, that was signed under her husband's administration. She did promote it at one point (more on that later, too), as Sanders says, but that in particular isn't her policy.
OK. So if free trade policies like NAFTA didn't drive Detroit's decline, that doesn't mean it didn't affect the city's (or the state of Michigan's) economy. Sanders' 43,000 figure comes from a 2011 report by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning policy think tank that has produced several reports about the potential detrimental effects of trade pacts like NAFTA and TPP.
Specifically, that 43,000 number refers to the number of jobs "displaced due to trade deficits with Mexico" — and, in terms of percent change, EPI ranks Michigan as the hardest hit. Altogether, that report said the U.S. lost more than 680,000 jobs, as of 2010, to Mexico, thanks to NAFTA.
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration had argued that the pact would create hundreds of thousands of jobs. And that argument for NAFTA continues to this day. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce last year said that NAFTA "supports" millions of jobs. The idea is that opening up the U.S. to that many new markets (and new customers) sparks more economic activity.
So two different sides disagree on the direction of the employment effects of trade policy — but then, some economists believe that trade pacts simply don't bring about any major changes in the long run.
"Most analysts would agree that, and we certainly agree that, jobs were lost. It's true that jobs are lost," said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow and trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
He added that the auto industry was one of the hardest hit by NAFTA, as some production was shifted to Mexico. However, Hufbauer contended the net number of jobs created by a trade agreement usually balances that out.
"Any trade agreement is basically a job churn agreement," he said. "Jobs are lost, and jobs are gained, and on balance it's about zero in terms of number of jobs." (Read more about this dynamic in a fact check on TPP job gains from the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler.)
As one 2004 Congressional Research Service study — itself a review of other studies — found, NAFTA had "little or no impact on aggregate employment" during its then-10-year existence.
Hufbauer added that he believes, on balance, that the gains from trade are positive, leading to lower prices on consumer goods and higher-wage jobs. Of course, if that's true, that still stings for the workers who loses her job at, say, a Michigan auto plant, if she isn't qualified for or can't reach the job that replaces hers.
And not everyone buys this idea. Robert Scott, who wrote the EPI report, argued that while the net-zero effect might be true in theory, it's not true in practice. He believes that, thanks to a number of factors including what economists call secular stagnation, the U.S. isn't producing those replacement jobs. And those jobs that NAFTA did create he believes tend to be lower-wage than the ones it sent elsewhere.
So NAFTA meant that some people lost their jobs as factories moved South of the border, while other jobs were created.
And it's true that employment has fallen in Michigan's manufacturing sector since the agreement was signed (though the major decline began years after NAFTA took effect).
But knowing exactly how many of those job losses (or gains in other sectors or other places) to attribute NAFTA is virtually impossible, as NPR's Don Gonyea put it in 2013, as the causes are complicated and interwoven.
Regardless of how trade affected the local economy, tying Detroit's problems to more open trade is far oversimplifying what's going on. "Detroit and Flint are suffering, largely from self-inflicted, in some cases state-inflicted, wounds," said Hohman.
2. Did Hillary Clinton support NAFTA?
Yes, though she often expressed reservations.
"I think NAFTA is proving its worth," she said in 1996.
And she told an audience at Davos in 1998, "I hope that American business voices will be heard" in promoting fast-track authority, a policy under which Congress can give trade pacts an up-or-down vote only.
However, she added that there needed to be "sensitivity to worker and environmental concerns."
In her book Living History, she characterized NAFTA as an "important administration goal" for her husband's presidency and praised the pact's potential to create jobs, despite the fact that it was "unpopular with labor unions." But over the years, she offered measured critiques. In 2000, she had called the agreement "flawed," and, in 2004, she said that while the agreement was "on balance" good for the U.S., it could have been negotiated better.
Later, when running for president, she was more explicitly critical of the agreement. "NAFTA was a mistake to the extent that it did not deliver on what we had hoped it would," she said in a 2007 CNN presidential primary debate.
Clinton's record doesn't show her to be fully in favor of or opposed to all instances of trade liberalization. While she voted for several deals as a New York senator, she also voted against the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement.
"Some people are generally pro-trade or anti-trade. She's case-by-case on trade," as Gene Sperling, chairman of the National Economic Council under both Presidents Clinton and Obama, told the Washington Post in 2015.

The Broader Context

This doesn't just matter because the Michigan primary is coming up. And it's not that Sanders is unnecessarily fixated on a 23-year-old trade deal. Rather, this is all part of a bigger fight over the Trans Pacific Partnership, the massive trade deal that the U.S. has been negotiating with Asia.
On TPP, President Obama has found himself in the unusual position of agreeing with many Republicans and the business community on TPP while alienating farther-left lawmakers, with Sanders among the most vocal critics of the deal.
As secretary of state, Clinton most famously supported the TPP when she, in 2012, told an audience that it "sets the gold standard" for trade agreements. (CNN later counted 45 instances in which she praised the deal.) And this has been one of the areas on which Sanders has been able to contrast himself most with Clinton — and therefore hit her hard. Many labor unions are strongly opposed to the trade deal as well, meaning hitting Clinton on TPP could threaten her support.
But on the campaign trail in 2015, she expressed doubts about the deal. And then in October, she made her position clear, telling PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff that the deal didn't meet the "high bar" she said she had set for it.
Not that Sanders is about to let this go. As Sanders Campaign Manager Jeff Weaver said on Thursday, "Election-year conversions won't bring back American jobs."

trump doesn't own the steaks, water, airline, magazine, winery and the university is a bust

It appears that the attacks on presidential candidate Donald Trump's business record seem to have touched a nerve.
Despite three more primary and caucus victories on Tuesday, Trump eschewed a traditional victory speech, adding in a press conference — and something else: a table piled high with a veritable Trump-ucopia of Trump-branded products.
"I have very successful companies," the New York billionaire told reporters at the event at Trump National Golf Club Jupiter, in Jupiter, Fla., as raw steaks, bottles of wine and vodka, and magazines stood near the man himself.
In particular, Trump appeared irked about last week's speech by 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who declared, "Whatever happened to Trump Airlines? How about Trump University? And then there's Trump magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks and Trump Mortgage. A business genius he is not."
So what's the backstory of those products Trump pitched as a sign of his success?
Trump Steaks
Raw meat — of the real and rhetorical kinds — was front and center last night.
"Do we have steaks? We have Trump steaks," Trump boasted. "If you want to take one, we'll charge you about, what, 50 bucks a steak?"
Trump did have an eponymous steak line, sold via Sharper Image. The company's website notes, however:
"Unfortunately, Trump Steaks are no longer available, but their legacy endures."
A search for "Trump" on QVC's website finds various Melania Trump jewelry products, a line of Trump mattresses and one entry for Trump Steaks. But they're not actual steaks; they're "Certified Angus Beef Steakburgers" and QVC notes, "We're sorry, this item is not available at this time."
A reporter present at Trump's press conference notes that the steaks on the table were not actually a Trump brand, but appear, ironically, to have come from a company named "Bush Brothers."
Trump Magazine
"[Romney] said Trump Magazine is out. I said, it is? I thought I read one two days ago. This comes out, and it's called The Jewel of Palm Beach, and we — it goes to all of my clubs," said Trump, before throwing a copy out to the audience.
There is indeed a magazine called The Jewel of Palm Beach published by the Palm Beach Media Group that is described as "the exclusive publication of Donald J. Trump's spectacular Mar-a-Lago Club" and other Trump properties.
Trump does not appear to own the publisher, and the magazine only comes out on an annual basis.
There was a Trump magazine, which went out of circulation in 2009. The New York Daily News reported:
"The last iteration of the luxury lifestyle mag reached a circulation of 100,000 and sold for $5.95 before it flopped. Issues are nowhere to be found online and hardcopies are likely a rare collector's item."
Trump Airline
"Well, I sold the airline, and I actually made a great deal, complicated and in really terrible times. The economy was horrible and I made a phenomenal deal," said Trump, referring to the Trump Shuttle.
NBC News recently looked back at the venture, and summarized Trump's ownership this way:
"Back in 1989, Trump pounced at the chance to buy the troubled Eastern Air Lines shuttle service for $365 million. He put the Trump name on the planes, dressed them up inside — and waited for business to boom. It didn't. But the business took on too much debt and eventually defaulted. It was sold to USAir."
Trump University
Trump launched Trump University in 2005 to help budding real-estate entrepreneurs, but it ran afoul of regulators, who noted that it was not a degree-granting institution. Former students sued, claiming they were tricked into spending tens of thousands of dollars for seminars that didn't do anywhere near what was advertised.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is also suing and claiming that Trump and his associates defrauded students of a collective $40 million. The now-renamed Trump Entrepreneur Initiative is mostly dormant.
Trump is challenging those lawsuits and says he will win and that, when that happens, he will reopen Trump U: "It's going to do very well," Trump said, "and it will continue to do very well."
Trump Winery
The table was stacked with bottles of Trump Wine, and Trump declared of the winery, "I own it 100 percent, no mortgage, no debt."
The winery's website says something different: "Trump Winery is a registered trade name of Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing LLC, which is not owned, managed or affiliated with Donald J. Trump, The Trump Organization or any of their affiliates."
Trump, who is a teetotaler, also used to sell Trump Vodka, although that venture has also been discontinued. A review described the vodka's taste this way:
"Vodka from The Donald. Nosings reveal dry, earthy scents of grain, paraffin, kid leather, jasmine, flowers, moss and soot. Palate entry displays far better than average grain focus and viscosity; at midpalate, the taste profile turns off-dry, intensely breakfast cereal-like and biscuity. Finishes oily/creamy and snack cracker-like."
Trump Water
There were also pallets of Trump Water on stage. On Trump's website, the water is touted as "one of the purest natural spring waters bottled in the world."
"I mean, we sell water, and we have water, and it's a very successful," Trump said, "you know, it's a private little water company, and I supply the water for all my places, and it's good."
So does Trump own the natural springs or bottle the water himself? According to reporters at the event who looked the label, probably not.
As Trump himself put it Tuesday night, "So you have the water; you have the steaks; you have the airline that I sold. I mean, what's wrong with selling? Every once in a while you can sell something. You have the wines and all of that, and Trump University, we're going to start it up as soon as I win the lawsuit. Does that make sense? I mean, that's it. OK." npr