TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 28

1. New Orleans is at the heart of a new HIV epidemic, and only massive health system reform can remedy the situation.

By Jessica Wapner in Aeon

2. From dismantling Syria’s chemical arsenal to hunting down Joseph Kony, America’s military missions abroad far outlast the public’s attention span.

By Kate Brannen in Foreign Policy

3. To look beyond stereotypes and understand the programs and interventions that improve life for young men of color, the U.S. Department of Education invited them to a “Data Jam.”

By Charley Locke in EdSurge

4. Taking a page from silicon valley, incubators for restaurateurs can help get new ideas on the plate.

By Allison Aubrey at National Public Radio

5. So the homeless can work, worship, and transition to normal life, cities should offer safe, flexible storage options.

By Kriston Capps in Citylab

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 25

1. Slavery’s long shadow is inextricably linked to modern income inequality in the south.

By Stephen Mihm in the Boston Globe

2. Superdistricts in the House of Representatives could end the tyranny of incumbency in Congress.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post

3. Yelp the Police: Georgia teens build an app to rate law enforcement interactions.

By Rebecca Borison in Business Insider

4. The new Egyptian government’s policies of repression and exclusion could push citizens into the arms of extremist groups.

By Michele Dunn and Scott Williamson at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

5. Transforming oil and gas rigs into artificial reefs could save the delicate ecosystems formed around the structures.

By Amber Jackson in Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Money

Bank of America Reported Close To Record DOJ Settlement

Paying up for their role in the housing crisis

+ READ ARTICLE

Bank of America may pay $16 billion to $17 billion to the Department of Justice as a settlement for their role in the housing crisis, according to media reports.

That would be the highest payment to the DOJ for mortgage securities fraud to date, exceeding the $13 billion settlement that J.P. Morgan Chase negotiated in November.

Bank of America issued the most mortgage securities of any large bank on Wall Street in the years leading up to the financial crisis. According to the Wall Street Journal, of the $965 billion in mortgage securities that the bank issued between 2004 and 2008, $245 billion in securities have defaulted or become delinquent.

 

TIME China

China ‘Effectively Bans’ Hillary Clinton’s Memoir

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives to sign copies of her book "Hard Choices" at a Barnes & Noble book store in Los Angeles
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives to sign copies of her book "Hard Choices" at a Barnes & Noble book store in Los Angeles, California on June 19, 2014. Lucy Nicholson—Reuters

Chinese publishers have declined to distribute Hillary Clinton’s new book, which includes anecdotes that are critical of Asian superpower

Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, which focuses on her tenure as U.S. secretary of state, will not be sold in mainland China, according to her publisher in an interview with BuzzFeed.

Simon & Schuster said they were not able to secure translation rights with Chinese publishers and that one of the nation’s leading import agencies, Shanghai Book Traders, has refused to distribute the English-language version.

Jonathan Karp, president of Simon & Schuster, said that China’s reaction to the book is an “effective ban.”

Clinton’s memoir is seen as critical of the People’s Republic. She wrote how the country is “full of contradictions” and the “epicenter of the antidemocratic movement in Asia.”

Ironically, she also wrote of her address to the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, where she “felt the heavy hand of Chinese censorship when the government blocked the broadcast of my speech.”

[BuzzFeed]

TIME Military

What You Need to Know About the Top Federal Contractors In 3 Graphs

The business is big, but with the wars winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan it could become smaller soon.

In his farewell address to the nation, President Eisenhower warned against the economic and political influence of the rising military industrial complex: the relationship between government entities and private government contractors.

Yet almost 60 years later, with the government contracting industry so large that many call it a fourth branch of government, Eisenhower’s warning appears unheeded.

Proponents of the industry say that contractors keep the nation safe, doing work the government does not have the capability to do. Its critics, on the other hand, assert that contractors have an incentive to perpetuate war—the more weaponry contractors produce, the more profits they make.

To find out which companies are at the head of this debate (the ones that are making billions every year), research engine FindTheBest compiled data from USASpending.gov, ranking the top ten contractors by U.S. government dollars obligated (the dollar amount paid to the contractor) from 2000-2013.

Together, the top ten contractors made $1.5 trillion—or 15% of the total $9.7 trillion obligated from 2000-2013—with Lockheed Martin in the lead at $410 billion, followed by The Boeing Company’s $259 billion.

So what do these companies do to make so much money?

In short, defense. These contractors produce aircrafts, ships, vehicles, weaponry, and electric systems, and provide logistics, technical, training, and telecommunication support.

Lockheed Martin provides an especially telling example, a contractor who won a $574.5 million contract to build a weapons system for the U.S. Navy last year. Also in 2013, General Dynamics was awarded $122 million to buy materials for three Virginia-class “fast attack” submarines, and Raytheon received $350 million to increase its acquisition of SM-3 missiles designed to destroy foreign missile threats by colliding with them in space.

Although these companies are making billions now, contractor revenue may not be as steady as it seems.

If American defense and security needs diminish, so will their profits. To find out just how much the contractors would lose, FindTheBest compared government dollars obligated in 2013, to the companies’ overall 2013 revenue.

The company that relies the most heavily on contracting work is Lockheed Martin, with 67% of its revenue coming from the government in 2013. It’s followed by Raytheon and Saic Inc., with each owing 49% and 46% of their revenue to contracts, respectively.

If the government stopped needing top contractors for security purposes, their revenue wouldn’t be the only thing to take a hit—their employees would too. Together, the companies below employ about 950,000 people.

TIME

The Dishonest Diplomat: How a Critical Profession Got a Bad Rap

I work in a profession devoted to compromise and incremental change — and we diplomats have acquired an unfortunate reputation for dishonesty

“An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

—Sir Henry Wotton, 1604

“Diplomacy, n. The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.”

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1906

There are few more odious figures in popular culture than the diplomat. Ben Kingsley’s ambassador to Yemen in the movie Rules of Engagement is first a coward, hiding under his desk from an angry mob, waiting to be rescued by U.S. Marines, and then later a snake, lying smoothly under oath to help convict the very Marine officer who saved him from the mob. In Costa-Gavras’ classic Missing, the American diplomats are alternately dissembling and disinterested. And it would be hard to top The Omen, in which an American diplomat, played by Gregory Peck, lies to his wife, played by Lee Remick, and tricks her into raising the Antichrist. That, needless to say, does not work out well.

Spies and soldiers can draw on the goodwill generated by thousands of popular books and movies that, on balance, present a broadly positive image. Tom Clancy’s CIA officers, for instance, are good-looking, hardworking, honorable patriots. The general public has every reason to feel that it understands what soldiers and spies do for a living and how they contribute to American security. Diplomats, on the other hand, are something else. Only a relatively small number of people have a good grasp of what it is that diplomats actually do. We are part of the national-security establishment. We collect information, formulate policy and seek to influence foreign governments in support of that policy. And as instruments of state power, we are considerably cheaper than spy satellites or cruise missiles.

To the extent the public thinks about it at all, however, there is something vaguely slippery about diplomacy as a profession. Part of the reason is that, at its core, diplomacy is fundamentally about compromise. It is the art of the possible. Victories are rarely clear-cut, and they are typically more of the incremental variety than of the transformational. Even more important, however, is the reputation diplomacy has acquired for dishonesty. Diplomats, it is widely assumed, are professional liars with expense accounts and nice suits. If not immoral, they are at best amoral.

The reality is that diplomacy — good diplomacy, at least — places a premium on honesty, defined here as credibility and trustworthiness. Do you mean what you say? Do you deliver on what you promise? If not, why would anyone give you the time of day?

I have devoted more than 20 years to the diplomatic service of the U.S., and I have never once been asked to lie for my country. I have said things — often with complete confidence and utter conviction — that later turned out to be wrong. And I have engaged in my fair share of lies of a social nature — “We’re friends, aren’t we?” “Of course we are” — but I have never, to the best of my recollection, deliberately lied to a contact.

I have said things I do not believe — lots of things. But that’s a very different issue. When I speak professionally on behalf of the U.S., whether in public or private, I represent U.S. policy and U.S. views to the best of my abilities. Like royalty, diplomats do a great deal of talking in the first-person plural (“We believe . . .”) or the third-person inanimate (“My government feels . . .”). My contacts — interlocutors, in diplomatese — don’t care what I think. Or at least they shouldn’t. They care a great deal, however, about what the U.S. thinks. So my job is to persuade others to see things our way but not necessarily my way.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought the board game Diplomacy for my 12-year-old son, drawing on my fond memories of late-night sessions in junior high school. The other day, I brought the game to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, where I am currently assigned. What could be more fun than playing Diplomacy with a bunch of diplomats?

We were terrible at it.

On one level, of course, Diplomacy the board game bears as much resemblance to diplomacy the profession as the board game Operation does to surgery. Diplomacy is the exercise of national power in its multidimensional complexity. The game version involves pushing little cardboard pieces across a map of long-defunct European empires. It also involves lying — lots of lying. You make promises to other players about how you are going to support them in achieving their ambitions, and then you don’t follow through. You deceive and cheat your way to Continental domination.

There was a demonstrable reluctance on the part of the diplomats playing Diplomacy to promise X and do Y, even in a game. In real diplomacy, if it ever becomes apparent that your word is no good, you are, for all intents and purposes, finished. A diplomat who can’t be trusted is little short of worthless.

This doesn’t mean that being a diplomat is being an open book. Far from it. We cherry-pick our facts, omit the inconvenient from our narratives and manipulate language without mercy to make our point. All of this is fair game. But just don’t lie. It’s not only unethical, it’s bad business.

The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State.

Matthew Palmer is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, currently serving as political counselor at the American embassy in Belgrade. While on the Secretary of State’s policy-planning staff, Palmer helped design and implement the Kimberley Process for certifying African diamonds as “conflict free.” His experience in Africa serves as the foundation for his debut novel, THE AMERICAN MISSION, out June 26.

MONEY Social Security

As Social Security Cuts Take Effect, The Most Vulnerable Are Left to Cope

Cuts to Social Security have closed offices in some of the areas where they're needed most.

Until earlier this year, there was a Social Security field office in Gadsden County, Florida, in the state’s panhandle. It’s the kind of place where seniors need to get in-person help with their benefits rather than pick up a phone or go online.

“Our poverty rate is nearly double the state average, and we trail the state averages in education,” said Brenda Holt, a county commissioner. “Most of the people here don’t have computers, let alone reliable Internet access.”

Holt testified Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is investigating the impact of budget cutting at the Social Security Administration over the past five years. Sixty-four field offices and more than 500 temporary mobile offices, known as contact stations, have been closed. And the SSA is reducing or eliminating a variety of in-person services that it once provided in its offices.

The SSA also has been developing a long-range strategy for delivering services. A draft document states that it will rely on the Internet and “self-service delivery”—and provide in-person services in “very limited circumstances, such as for complex transactions and to meet the needs of vulnerable populations.”

Gadsden County meets any criteria you could pick for vulnerability. But the field office in Quincy, the county seat, was closed with just a few weeks’ notice in March, Holt said. The nearest office is 30 miles away in Tallahassee—reachable only by car or a crowded shuttle bus that runs once a day in each direction.

The Senate committee’s investigation found SSA’s process for office consolidation wanting for clear criteria, transparency and community feedback. Only after persistent objections by local officials did the SSA offer to set up a videoconferencing station in a local library that connects seniors to representatives in its Tallahassee office.

“It’s deeply frustrated and angered our community,” said Holt. “Many of our residents live in a financial environment where they make choices between medications and food to feed their families. Problems with Social Security benefits can have a catastrophic effect on families.”

The SSA’s workload is rising as baby boomers retire; the number of claims in fiscal 2013 was 27 percent higher than in 2007. Yet the agency has 11,000 fewer workers than it did three years ago, and hiring freezes have led to uneven staffing in offices.

The SSA has received less than its budget request in 14 of the last 16 years. In fiscal 2012, it operated with 88% of the amount requested ($11.4 billion). The budget was restored somewhat in fiscal 2014 to $11.7 billion. And President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget request is $12 billion.

But service still suffers. The National Council of Social Security Management Associations reports that field office wait time is 30% longer than in 2012, and wait times and busy rates on the agency’s toll-free 800 number have doubled.

The SSA’s plan to save $70 million a year by replacing annual paper benefit statements with electronic access also has been a misstep, at least in the short run. Paper statements were suspended in 2011, but just 6 percent of all workers have signed up for online access, in some cases because of a lack of computer access or literacy but also because of sign-up difficulties related to the website’s complex anti-fraud systems.

In April the agency backtracked, announcing it will resume mailings of paper statements this September at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up to view their statements online. (You can create an online account here.)

Wednesday’s hearing shed much-needed light on the customer service squeeze at SSA, though it would have been good to hear legislators acknowledge that Congress had no business cutting the SSA budget in the first place. The agency is funded by the same dedicated stream (payroll taxes) that funds benefits, and its administrative costs are low, 1.4% of all outlays. The SSA is funded by Americans’ tax dollars and exists to provide customer service to all Americans.

Nancy Berryhill, the SSA’s deputy commissioner for operations, did her best at the hearing to defend the agency’s efforts to cope. “It’s my job to balance service across nation—these are difficult times.”

Still, she conceded that there’s room for improvement. “We need to get more input from the community,” she said, speaking about the events in Gadsden County. “Adding the video service made a difference after the fact, but we need to be more thoughtful in the future.”

TIME Congress

Yes, Congress’ Approval Ratings Have Hit Yet Another Historic Low

State of the Union Address
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress, on January 28, 2014 in Washington. Bill O'Leary—The Washington Post/Getty Images

Nearly one in ten respondents said they had zero confidence in the legislature.

Just when you thought Congress’s approval ratings couldn’t get any lower—they sunk to another historic low.

A record-low seven percent of Americans said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, according to a Gallup poll released Thursday. That’s down from 10 percent in 2013 and 42 percent in 1973, the first year of the poll. As recently as the mid-2000s, that figure stood around 30%.

Today, just 4 percent of Americans say they have a “great deal” of confidence and 3 percent have “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, whose budget deadlock last fall resulted in a federal government shutdown. A third of Americans said they had “some” confidence in the legislature and another 7 percent said they had “none.”

If that doesn’t sound grim enough, Gallup says the responses represent the poorest confidence levels in any U.S. institution since it began taking measure. The poll also has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, meaning the actual approval rating could be as high as 11 percent — or as low as three percent.

TIME China

China’s Real Estate Downturn Spells Trouble for Global Economy

A sales assistant talks to visitors in front of models of apartments at a real estate exhibition in Shenyang
A sales assistant talks to visitors in front of models of apartments at a real estate exhibition in Shenyang, Liaoning province April 17, 2014. Sheng Li—Reuters

The world's largest trading nation's economic growth remains heavily dependent on property, meaning a sharp downturn in that sector would be felt across Asia and beyond

“Will the government save the market if housing prices fall?” That was the question being asked in China this week — not by stressed-out mortgage holders, but by the country’s most famous (and wealthy) property mogul, Pan Shiyi.

Pan, the chairman of giant real estate developer SOHO China, has made a series of pronouncements in recent weeks that reflect an increasingly bearish long-term outlook for China’s property sector.

At an industry forum in late May, Pan compared the nation’s real estate prospects to the Titanic. “It [the real estate industry] will soon hit the iceberg in front of it,” he declared.

Pan’s outlook may be bleak, but is borne out by statistics. According to Standard & Poor’s, residential housing prices in China will drop by 5% this year — a dramatic reversal from last year’s rise of 11.5%.

That’s bad news for China’s property holders, but potentially also a worrying sign for global investors. With Chinese economic growth heavily dependent on the real estate sector, which accounts for 20% of GDP by some estimates, a sharp slowdown in the property market would be felt far beyond China’s borders. (China is, after all, the world’s largest trading nation.)

After more than a decade of sizzling double-digit growth, the government is targeting 7% growth this year. But the potential for a real estate correction means that the actual number could be much lower.

There are already some signs that imports are being affected as consumer confidence weakens. The General Administration of Customs announced Sunday that imports in May declined 1.6% year on year — a drop that surprised industry analysts. That compared to an increase of 0.9% year on year in April.

With prices trending sharply downward, the president of the country’s largest residential real estate developer, Vanke, has declared that the “golden age” for property is over. “The period when everyone made money from property is gone,” Yu Liang was quoted as saying recently.

A conflagration of factors is driving the decrease in prices, not least repressive market policies that restrict the number of properties city dwellers can own. Markets in larger cities are also being flooded with knockdown properties being dumped by overextended investors or government officials looking to rid themselves of any undeclared assets in light of a recent and severe government crackdown on corruption.

Chinese media reported Monday that one coal-mining magnate was attempting to offload 100 apartments in a coveted location along Beijing’s Second Ring Road.

Little wonder, then, that the property mogul Pan is on the lookout for the visible hand of the government. But, for now at least, state intervention seems unlikely. In a report late last month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development declared that it would stay on the sidelines and “respect the adjustment role of the laws of the market in the real estate sector.”

MONEY Tourism

7 Cities Where the Sharing Economy Is Freshly Under Attack

140529_FF_NerdWallet_Lyft_1
A Lyft car in San Francisco courtesy of Lyft

As Uber, Lyft, and airbnb expand around the globe, even smaller cities like Grand Rapids are feeling forced to regulate sharing economy businesses.

Big cities such as San Francisco and New York have been confronting the unusual tax and regulatory conundrums posed by sharing economy businesses like Lyft, Uber, and Airbnb for years. Now it’s Grand Rapids’ turn.

As rideshare services like Uber and Lyft expand rapidly around the globe, and as short-term rental operations like airbnb grow to the point of being genuine competitors to hotels, local officials don’t quite know what to make of them—and the kneejerk reaction of regulators is often to side with the tradition businesses these sharing economy services intend to disrupt.

It hasn’t helped that sharing economy businesses have been featured in a string of ugly incidents lately. There was the “XXX Freak Fest” orgy that took place when an unsuspecting tenant rented out his New York City apartment on airbnb last Month. Then there was an Uber driver accused of assault in Oklahoma City, and another Uber driver in San Francisco who was charged with hitting a passenger, and who was found to have convictions for felony drug dealing and misdemeanor battery, despite being subjected to Uber’s background check.

What’s more, no fewer than 14 states have issued warnings–fairly vague, sometimes misleading, but still scary warnings–about the insurance risks in driving or being a passenger in rideshare operations. The companies whose business models are being threatened by the sharing economy are taking action too: In Las Vegas, for instance, a local cab company posted a memo warning that it would terminate any “driver that picks up a passenger using an Uber, Lyft or Sidecar application” in a company taxi or limo. And even cities that seem more open to rideshare businesses sometimes aren’t entirely on board with how these tech companies operate. The Times-Picayune reported that the New Orleans city council is discussing new regulations that would allow Uber’s ridesharing service, but would keep certain taxi rules–such as $25 minimums for luxury sedan rides–that defy “Uber’s insistence on open market pricing.”

As for individual cities in the U.S. and Europe that are stepping up efforts to rein in or ban sharing economy businesses entirely, here are seven hot spots:

Albuquerque, New Mexico
In late May, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission voted unanimously to order the ridesharing service Lyft to cease operations in the state. Why? The same reason most often cited against ridesharing companies: They’re accused of being commercial taxi services whose drivers don’t have the appropriate licenses and certificates, and who haven’t paid the same fees as taxis. The commission warned Lyft and its drivers that each violation is subjected to a fine up to $10,000.

Barcelona, Spain
After being pressured by taxi companies and hotels, among others, officials in Barcelona are trying to crack down on Uber and airbnb and other sharing economy businesses, with tough fines for unlicensed drivers and a temporary freeze on licenses for owners who want to rent apartments as tourist lodging.

Brussels, Belgium
Uber launched in Brussels in February, and in April, officials banned the service in the city, threatening to hit drivers with a €10,000 fine for picking up a passenger via the app.

Buffalo, New York
A month after Lyft introduced its rideshare service in Buffalo in late April, the city’s director of permits and inspections recommended that police issue summonses to Lyft drivers, who he has determined to be the equivalent of unlicensed livery cab drivers. He also threatened that cars used in rideshare operations could be impounded.

Grand Rapids, Michigan
Strict new regulations are being proposed for owners who want to rent rooms via airbnb or other short-term services. If accepted, a homeowner would have to pay $291 for a license, the home must be owner-occupied in order to advertise room rentals (i.e., no vacation rentals), and only one room in the home can be rented at a time. Also, the city would grant no more than 200 licenses, and owners would have to notify all neighbors within 300 feet of the property about the rental situation. As tough as these rules seem, they could have been worse: A year ago, Grand Rapids was suggesting that homeowners would have to pay $2,000 for a license to advertise and rent via airbnb.

Kansas City, Missouri
Police began issuing tickets to Lyft drivers in Kansas City soon after the service was launched in late April. City officials had deemed that the rideshare service was illegal because drivers hadn’t gone through the training and certification required of taxi drivers. After some legal maneuvering, Lyft is still in action in the city, and a lengthy court battle is expected before the situation is settled.

Malibu, California
The Malibu city council recent voted in favor of issuing subpoenas to over 60 short-term lodging rental websites, including airbnb, according to the Los Angeles Times. There are hundreds of ads for short-term vacation rentals in Malibu, but only around 50 are officially registered with the city and pay the same 12% tax that hotels pay. Officials want to make sure that the city isn’t missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes from other rentals. They’re also hoping to crack down on the “party house” atmosphere in neighborhoods that have become popular for vacation rentals.

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