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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last came to the U.S. in 2011 as American troops were pulling out of his country. But with violence again on the rise in Iraq, there's much at stake as he prepares to sit down with President Obama at the White House on Friday.

Here's a primer:

There's been a wave of attacks by al-Qaida-linked Sunni militants against the majority Shiite population. Casualty levels aren't as high as they were in 2007 at the height of the country's civil war, but they threaten to reignite a repeat of that sectarian bloodletting. At least 5,000 people have been killed this year, according to counts by Agence France-Presse and the United Nations.

The violence is driving the discussion. Maliki says this is why the United States needs to help him take on a common enemy — al-Qaida — by selling more sophisticated weapons to Iraq, including military helicopters and jets.

Iraq has made a down payment for F-16s (which usually have to come with American trainers). Maliki outlined the argument in a column Tuesday in The New York Times.

And in a speech Thursday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, he said, "We will defeat the terrorists through our local efforts and our partnership with the United States."

The U.S. withdrew from Iraq two years ago in part because Maliki would not agree to grant immunity from Iraqi law to American soldiers stationed there. At the time, many Iraqis were fed up with civilian casualties and blamed the U.S. forces. Now Maliki is asking for U.S. muscle but specifying that he is not requesting troops, just equipment.

Still, the requests raise concerns about just what he'll do with more firepower. Maliki has won two elections by riding the support of the majority Shiites, and he is fiercely sectarian — in part because Shiites suffered badly under Saddam Hussein's mostly Sunni rule.

Senators Call For Maliki To Share Power

Maliki has jailed Sunni politicians, and the Sunni vice president fled the country when he faced murder charges that eventually led to a conviction in absentia and a death sentence.

Several U.S. senators wrote an open letter to Obama on Tuesday saying that U.S. support should be contingent on Maliki's willingness to shed his authoritarian tendencies and share power with Sunnis.

The Senate letter also urges Obama to push for assurances that next year's Iraqi elections will be fair and free. Some speculate that Maliki might ask Obama for tacit American support in his expected bid for a third term.

Retired Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw the troop surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, paints a picture of Maliki as "courageous" and cooperative — to a point — in a piece on ForeignPolicy.com. Petraeus warns that gains made in Iraq by U.S. troops are in jeopardy unless sectarian tension is reduced.

But the scope of Maliki's visit goes far beyond just Iraq and its relationship with the U.S.

Iraq's Complicated Relations With Iran

Iraq is both an ally and a contentious next-door neighbor to Iran. Many blame Maliki for letting Iran have too much influence in his country. This includes things like allowing Iran to use Iraq's airspace to fly support to President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria.

But Maliki also bristles at Iranian attempts to control him and likes to pit Washington against Tehran, taking counsel from both, seeing who will give him the best deals and hoping to find an independent route between them. In his commentary, he calls the U.S. "our security partner of choice."

And that raises Syria, another regional concern sure to come up at the White House meeting. Maliki is thought to oppose toppling Assad, who is a close Iran ally. And U.S. officials have pressured Maliki to prevent Iran from using Iraqi airspace to fly supplies to Assad. But Iraqis note that they aren't equipped to enforce their airspace. And that, Maliki writes, is why he needs the American fighter jets.

Indonesia, Kompas

There's more fallout over disclosures that the U.S. spied on many of its allies — this time in Indonesia.

The Foreign Ministry on Friday summoned Greg Moriarty, the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, over allegations that Australian diplomatic posts, including the one in Jakarta, were used as part of the U.S. surveillance network.

The disclosures came Thursday in the Sydney Morning Herald, which reported that the diplomatic posts involved included Beijing, Bangkok, Thailand; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

China also demanded an explanation of the reports.

Australia is part of the "five eyes" alliances, which includes the U.S., Britain, Canada and New Zealand. The five countries have shared sensitive information since World War II.

Last week, there was outrage in Germany following reports that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germany, Deutsche Welle

We'll stay in Germany, which on Friday became the first European country to allow parents to leave the gender field blank on birth certificates. The move effectively creates an intersex option.

The law, which came following a report last year by the German Ethics Council, is intended to ease pressure on parents whose children are born with the characteristics of both sexes.

A spokesman for the German Interior Ministry said the law "is not adequate to fully resolve the complex problems of intersex people."

South Africa, IOL News

The man accused of raping and murdering a 17-year-old girl in a case that shocked the country was sentenced Friday to life terms in prison without parole.

Johannes Kana was found guilty earlier this week of raping and disemboweling Anene Booysen on Feb. 2. She died later at a Cape Town hospital.

Kana was seen with her outside a pub in Bredasdorp, about 130 miles from Cape Town, earlier that day. He admitted during the trial to leaving the pub with Booysen, and hitting and raping her. But he denied killing her.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual violence against women.

Mexico, El Universal

Finally, a story that will sounds familiar to many Americans: Mexican snack food makers are warning that a tax on junk food passed by the Mexican Congress on Thursday will ultimately hurt consumers.

The Mexican Senate voted Thursday to raise the tax on junk foods from 5 percent to 8 percent.

Bruno Lemon Celorio of the snack manufacturers association told El Universal the move, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2014, would result in a price rise of between 8 percent and 10 percent.

Nearly a third of all Mexicans are obese, putting the country atop the list of overweight nations.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced this week that he wanted London to become "one of the great capitals of Islamic finance anywhere in the world."

Cameron said Britain will issue sukuk, or Islamic bonds, valued at $320 million as early as next year.

But what does all that mean? We take a look:

What are Islamic bonds?

Sukuk, which are compliant with Shariah, or Islamic law, are backed by assets or cash. A core tenet of Islamic finance is that it forbids interest, replacing it with profit- and loss-sharing. So instead of charging interest, the sukuk brings a fixed return from an asset or service.

For a fuller explanation of how Islamic finance works, do read this FAQ in the Guardian.

Why is the U.K. interested?

The U.K., as Cameron noted in his speech to the World Islamic Economic Forum in London this week, is already the biggest center for Islamic finance outside the Muslim world. Britain has banks that work on Islamic principles. British landmarks, including the Olympic Village and the Shard skyscraper, have been financed with Islamic investments, as have Britain's first deep-sea container port and the Battersea power station.

The move would, Reuters notes, "provide a much-needed liquidity management tool for Britain's six Islamic lenders and could encourage local firms to consider issuing sukuk of their own."

Where else are they issued?

Malaysia and Dubai dominate the sector. The Economist reports:

"Islamic-banking assets in Saudi Arabia account for more than half the market. Roughly $21 billion in sukuk were issued in Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states in 2012, three times as much as 2011. ... Other countries are emulating the Gulf model. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, has emerged as a leading champion of Islamic finance."


When many Americans hear the word "globalization," they think: "jobs going overseas."

And sometimes it does mean just that.

But as globalization knits nations closer together, foreign companies increasingly are creating jobs in the United States, not luring them away. Despite the Great Recession, slow recovery and political dysfunction in Washington, the United States remains a top destination for the world's wealth.

Overseas investors have U.S. assets totaling nearly $4 trillion, including auto plants, banks, mines and more. U.S. affiliates of foreign companies employ about 5.6 million people in this country.

On Thursday, President Obama highlighted those investments, and urged foreign business leaders — packed into a Washington, D.C., hotel ballroom — to build more plants and offices in this country.

"There is no better place in the world to do business," Obama said.

The administration welcomed 1,200 participants from roughly 60 countries, and urged them to learn more about an initiative called SelectUSA. Under the program, the U.S. State Department works closely with the Commerce Department to help foreign companies set up shop here.

U.S. ambassadors in 32 countries will now add "economic development" to their list of chores, according to the Commerce Department. The goal is to have local, state and federal officials in all departments working together to smooth the way for foreign direct investments.

Obama told the foreign guests "when you bet on America, that bet pays off," thanks to this country's many economic advantages, including cheap energy, an educated workforce, intellectual-property protections, a sophisticated financial system and much more.

"There are a whole lot of reasons you ought to come here," he said. "We are the land of opportunity. That is not a myth; it's a proven fact. "

U.S. business leaders who spoke at the gathering raised concerns about this country's ability to continue to be attractive to investors. For example, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, a global investment management firm based in New York City, said he has become "alarmed" by Washington's political dysfunction, which he says unnerved many foreign investors.


Asian Investors Find Hot Market In U.S. Properties

In a certain region of the Missouri Ozarks called Devil's Promenade, there are tales of a "spook light." According to local accounts, it's a mysterious orb-like light that appears in the woods — but only on chance nights. And, as many local legends are, this one is shrouded in mystery: Is the spook light real? What is it? Is it evil? Is it good?

Photographer Lara Shipley says there's no consensus — and that's what drew her to the spook light. She and her collaborator, Antone Dolezal, have been to the region — right where Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas meet — twice. Their photos don't literally show the light (which, Shipley says, they may or may not have seen at one point), but they convey "a feeling of what this place is like."

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Random Questions With: Ian MacKaye


Assuming HealthCare.gov's technical problems are largely fixed by November's end, as Obama administration officials have reassured, Democrats will still face an even headier challenge: They must square with reality President Obama's oft-made promise that the new health care law would allow people to keep existing insurance plans they like.

It turns out that promise isn't entirely true.

Yes, most people who get their health insurance through large employers aren't likely to see major changes.

But for the millions who buy their health insurance through the individual market, changes prompted by the Affordable Care Act are definitely happening. Among them: people finding insurance cancellation letters in their mailboxes.

Although the law includes a provision for some existing policies to continue even if they don't meet Obamacare's minimum coverage standards, some insurance companies are dropping such policies rather than claim their "grandfathered" exception. And people who held (and perhaps liked) those minimalist policies and what they cost now must find insurance elsewhere.

In a Boston speech Wednesday partly aimed at rebutting charges that he misled Americans through blanket statements about individuals maintaining coverage they liked, Obama suggested he always played it straight. Any misunderstanding must've come from elsewhere:

"Now if you had one of these substandard plans before the Affordable Care Act became law and you really liked that plan, you were able to keep it. That's what I said when I was running for office.

"That was part of the promise we made.

"But ever since the law was passed, if insurers decided to downgrade or cancel these substandard plans, what we said under the law is, you've got to replace them with quality, comprehensive coverage because that too was a central premise of the Affordable Care Act from the very beginning."

Look around. Do you see much inflation?

Gas prices are down more than 7 percent from last year. Grocery costs haven't budged lately. And — just in time for Halloween — the price of candy is down 2.3 percent from last year, according to the government's consumer price index released Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, Federal Reserve policymakers concluded that amid tame inflation and slow growth, they see no need to change direction in their approach to helping the economy. They will continue their program of buying bonds to help put downward pressure on the cost of borrowing, which is intended to help boost the battered housing market. The policymakers said the housing recovery "slowed somewhat in recent months" and "the unemployment rate remains elevated."

They "decided to await more evidence that progress will be sustained before adjusting the pace of its purchases" of bonds, the Fed said in its statement.

The Fed's bond-buying efforts helped tamp down mortgage rates to historic lows. While everyone agrees that effort has made mortgage refinancing and homebuying easier, it also has worried many economists who fear that such prolonged intervention in markets will lead to trouble down the road. Trouble is spelled i-n-f-l-a-t-i-o-n.

Fed officials themselves have stated they will have to "taper down" bond purchases eventually to allow rates to return to higher, more normal levels. But as of the end of Wednesday's meeting, that time hasn't come.

The central bank policymakers are worried that without their intervention, lending would get tighter and that would slow the economy.

So what do the latest data tell us about the current state of the economy? Because of the federal government shutdown earlier this month, many key reports have been canceled or delayed, so economists have been working with fewer numbers than usual.

But still, they have enough information from industry and government sources to be able to estimate what is happening. Here are some of the things we know:

Jobs are growing, but at a disappointing rate. On Wednesday, payroll processing firm ADP said private sector employment rose by 130,000 in October, lower than September's gain of 145,000. "Hiring slowed in October with the government shutdown and debt limit debate, but did not stall," PNC Financial Services Group chief economist Stuart Hoffman said in his assessment.

The consumer price index shows food prices are flat, and inflation generally is tame. "Soggy demand, weak energy prices, reversal of post-drought price gains in food, and relatively high unemployment rates are all slowly cooling price pressures," IHS Global Insight economist Chris Christopher wrote in his analysis.

Gasoline in particular has taken a dive, at least compared with last year. Gasbuddy.com says the average gallon of regular gas costs $3.29. At this time last year, it was $3.55.

Middle-market companies — businesses with annual sales between $10 million and $1 billion — saw revenues grow by 5.5 percent over the past year, but nearly half say government dysfunction is a drag going forward, according to a new survey. "Markets have been roiled by the uncertainties arising out of fiscal cliff, sequestration, government shutdown, and the threat of default," said Anil Makhija, director of the National Center for the Middle Market. In that environment, midsize companies are "intending to create 200,000 less jobs over the next 12 months," he said.

Consumer confidence, as measured by the Conference Board, a business group, showed a sharp plunge in the past month, with the index falling 11 percent. Lynn Franco, the group's director of economic indicators, said: "Consumer confidence deteriorated considerably as the federal government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis took a particularly large toll on consumers' expectations."

The 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government and the wrangling in Washington over the nation's finances combined to shake consumers' confidence sharply in October, the private Conference Board reported Tuesday morning.

Its widely watched consumer confidence index dropped to 71.2 from 80.2 in September.

How consumers are feeling is an important economic indicator because they purchase about 70 percent of all the goods and services that businesses produce. If consumers scale back their spending because they aren't feeling like things are going well, that can set off an unfortunate chain of events: soft sales that lead companies to postpone hiring or shed some workers, moves that then make consumers feel even more nervous and more reluctant to spend.

In Tuesday's release, Conference Board economist Lynn Franco says that "the federal government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis took a particularly large toll on consumers' expectations."

She adds that:

Community supported agriculture shares are moving out of the crisper and into the pantry.

That's the hope, anyway, of a growing number of farmers and small processors who are marketing local goods under the CSA model.

In traditional a CSA, a farmer sells shares of their fruit and vegetable crop ahead of the growing season to generate cash flow for the year. The farmer then provides boxes of seasonal produce on a regular basis to shareholders during the harvest.

The farmer and the customers share equally in the harvest, come bumper crop or blight. The practice started in the U.S. in Massachusetts back in 1986 and now rivals farmers markets as the best way to access local food. Local Harvest maintains a CSA registry, and to date there are close to 7,600 CSAs, up from 3,500 in 2008.

Community supported canners have copied the model, and they're helping to fill the gap in the winter months when CSA shares of fresh vegetables peter out. Their offerings might include dried beans, grains, baking mixes, frozen meats and farmhouse cheese in addition to salsa, jams, syrups, pickles and other fermented vegetables.

Cheryl Wixon's Kitchen operates out of Coastal Farm and Foods, an incubator for commercial small-scale food processing in Belfast, Maine. For $300, a share in Wixon's CSA will get you 54 jars of pasta and pizza sauces, cranberry ketchups and fruit jams and butters delivered between November and April.

Enlarge image i

Two wily veterans of Congress' fiscal wars will lead the budget talks scheduled to start Wednesday: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairs of the House and Senate budget committees.

As the 29 lawmakers on the budget conference committee — 22 from the Senate and 7 from the House — sit down to begin negotiations, they'll have in Ryan and Murray two lawmakers who from most accounts get along well despite their many differences.

"I think they've established a good working relationship with mutual respect for each other when you think about how many of our leaders aren't really talking to each other anymore," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget who has talked about fiscal matters with both lawmakers over the years.

Even so, you couldn't ask for a more striking contrast between two members of Congress in terms of their personal qualities or ideologies.

Here's a tale of the tape for Murray and Ryan:


Ryan: A charismatic fitness buff who revels in the spotlight and discourses on fiscal minutiae the way Jay-Z spits rap lyrics. He's 43 years old, in his sixth term and is much better known than Murray thanks to his place on the 2012 Republican presidential ticket with Mitt Romney.

He became such a lightning rod for his 2011 proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher system that President Obama singled him out in a speech as Ryan sat in the front row. Democrats cut an ad featuring an actor portraying Ryan pushing Granny and her wheelchair off a cliff.

Murray: Charisma, or a spot on a national ticket, aren't what immediately come to mind when considering Murray. The 63-year old has quietly impressed her Senate colleagues despite her general colorlessness. In a group of spotlight-seeking egos, she has emerged as a leader, the fourth in the Senate Democrats' chain of command.

Murray has twice run Senate Democrats' election efforts. So she has much experience thinking like a campaign manager who's trying to appeal to her party's political base while expanding the map of potential seat pickups.


Their competing ideologies are best seen in their fiscal 2014 budgets issued early this year.

Ryan: He proposes to balance the federal budget in 10 years with spending cuts and lower interest costs that would amount to $5.74 trillion in savings. He would leave sequestration intact. He also would get there with no tax increases and large cuts to entitlement programs. Most of his proposed savings would come from about $4 trillion in entitlement cuts over 10 years.

Murray: Her budget would leave the budget unbalanced after 10 years and not by a little. She would achieve $1.78 trillion in savings over that period. She would end sequestration, adding nearly $1 trillion in spending over a decade. Much of that spending would be for investments in education which is close to the heart of the one-time preschool teacher. In one of the biggest differences with Ryan, her proposed budget includes $810 billion in new revenues from higher taxes and fees.

An interesting similarity

Both were raised in families helped by the social-safety net programs when misfortune struck.

Ryan: He's the youngest of four children. His father died when he was 16 and Social Security survivor's benefits helped his mother pay his college tuition.

Murray: Her father developed multiple sclerosis when she was in her teens. After he could no longer work and before her mother found a job, the family of eight received welfare to survive the lean times.

What to expect

Murray co-chaired the supercommittee that failed to achieve an agreement to reduce deficits — leading to the sequester, with its $1 trillion of across-the-board spending cuts over 10 years. So she's truly motivated to have something to show this time.

Both Ryan and Murray have already lowered expectations for their budget conference. There will be no grand bargain on entitlement cuts and tax increases.

Instead, MacGuineas, who's been gathering intelligence from those close to the budget conferees expects the Murray and Ryan to work towards an agreement that would end perhaps part of the sequester cuts, maybe two years' worth. And she doesn't expect major entitlement cuts or tax increases in any final deal. More like changes to government subsidies and farm subsidies.

"Both are loyal to their respective parties but also interested in getting something done," she said.

Murray may have the easier hand to play, however, which could prove an advantage since she can persuasively argue after the united front Senate Democrats showed in the shutdown-debt ceiling fight, that her party is speaking with one voice. Not so for Ryan.

"What Chairman Murray is doing is keeping a pretty united group united," MacGuineas said. "She's close with leadership. She's close with members of the budget committee. And they're all walking pretty much in lockstep right now."

The Wisconsin Republican congressman has an entirely different hand to play. "Chairman Ryan has much tougher challenge," MacGuineas says. Ryan is persuasive and respected in the House Republican Conference as he showed during the shutdown fight where he nudged the House GOP away from the Tea Party focus on derailing the Affordable Care Act.

But "there's a huge diversity of opinion among his conference about what they should be doing." That's putting it mildly.


Joseph "Gray" Davis was the 37th governor of California. As governor, he signed legislation aimed at strengthening California's K-12 system by establishing the Academic Performance Index to increase accountability in schools, and worked to expand access to higher education with scholarships and college loans. Davis also funded and established Institutes of Science and Innovation in partnership with the University of California and private industry. Today, Davis is of counsel at Loeb & Loeb LLP; a member of the bipartisan Think Long Committee; a senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Affairs; and honorary co-chair of the Southern California Leadership Council. He has also served as lieutenant governor, state controller and state assemblyman. He began his public service as a captain in the U.S. Army, earning the Bronze Star for meritorious service in Vietnam.

Michael Lind is a co-founder of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., where he is the policy director of its Economic Growth Program and Next Social Contract Initiative. A columnist for Salon, he has been a staff writer or editor at The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, The New Republic and The National Interest and contributes frequently to The New York Times and the Financial Times. He is the author of a number of books of history, political journalism, fiction and poetry, including Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (2012). Lind has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities. He is a fifth-generation native of Texas, where he worked for the state legislature.

The big story in Washington today is expected to be the appearance of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius before the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

As NPR's Julie Rovner writes on the Shots blog, Sebelius follows Tuesday's testimony from Marilyn Tavenner — administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Tavenner first apologized for the botched rollout of the Healthcare.gov website, and then spent several hours being peppered with questions from Ways and Means Committee Republicans. Many of the queries were about cancellation notices being received by people who buy their own insurance.

Julie writes that:

"Many members of the committee, including [Rep. Peter] Roskam, R-Ill., read letters from constituents who say they'll have to pay more for new coverage. 'Can you understand the level of frustration and concern about what many Americans perceive to be a false claim from the administration?' he asked.

"Tavenner said it's not that simple, and it's not all bad. Many people who say they like their current plans don't realize how little they cover.

" 'Sometimes they were in plans that they thought were fine until they actually needed hospitalization,' she said. 'Then they found out it didn't cover hospitalization, or it didn't cover cancer.' "

Tuesday, Oct. 15, is the filing deadline for the roughly 12 million Americans who received an extension on their 2012 taxes. And having 90 percent of its staff furloughed in the partial government shutdown doesn't mean the IRS doesn't want your money.

"The IRS is shut down, but the tax law is never shut down," says Joshua Blank, professor of tax practice and faculty director of New York University Law School's Graduate Tax Program.

One of the few things the Internal Revenue Service is actually doing right now is cashing checks — but it's not issuing them. Don't expect a refund until the government reopens. Most of the agency's other functions are also suspended.

"The IRS is not examining any tax returns for deficiencies," Blank says. "It's not conducting audits. The IRS is not answering phones to answer questions from taxpayers."

The same goes for the media. No one answers the IRS's media line, other than a recorded message about the shutdown.

A Laundry List Of Problems

So instead, I called Margaret Richardson, the former head of the IRS who was in charge during the last government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996.

This time, Richardson is watching the current shutdown from outside government. She says, "I have to confess, I'm really incredulous that it could happen again."

In the 1990s, she says, the IRS office was eerily quiet with so many workers away. There was plenty of black humor among those who remained. But that shutdown came during the holidays. It was a slow time for the agency.

Today is different. Oct.15 has become a big filing day each year.

"I think today's shutdown is potentially much more damaging since it comes as the 2012 filing season is coming to an end," Richardson says.

It's All Politics

Main Street Frustrated By Washington's 'Total Absurdity'

We have been reporting for several weeks now on small businesses in America. Today, we explore a business system where entrepreneurs and corporations come together: franchising. Franchising is a bit like marriage. It takes a good long-term relationship to succeed.

It makes sense to begin a story about franchising and the hairstyling business by looking to Martha Matilda Harper, a servant living in Rochester, N.Y., in the late 19th century. In her spare time, she developed a special hair tonic. The tonic sold well. So she quit and opened a hair salon.

"The women just adored it," says Jane Plitt, a researcher and author of Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business. "This was a time in 1888 when, usually, wealthy women had their hair dressed in the privacy of their home. But Martha was now doing it boldly in public, and there was a lot of buzz. It was the showcase."

For many online and other small businesses, getting a loan or a big cash advance is tough. Banks and other traditional lenders are often leery of those without years of financial statements and solid credit scores.

But some lenders and other financial services companies are beginning to assess credit risk differently — using criteria you might not expect.

Jeffrey Grossman is an acupuncturist in Bellingham, Wash. He's also a small businessman. He creates media marketing materials for other acupuncturists hoping to expand their practice.

Over the years, Grossman has borrowed money from family and from bank lines of credit, but recently, he needed a quick infusion of extra cash. He turned to a company called Kabbage, an online financing firm for small businesses.

He found the concept interesting, but the application also made him skeptical. "They wanted all this information about QuickBooks [accounting software] and UPS accounts and all this stuff," he says.

Such details, says Kathryn Petralia, a co-founder of Kabbage, allows the company to "effectively build a financial statement." The firm provides financing to small businesses — such as online merchants — that banks typically don't lend to. Petralia says Kabbage uses real-time and verifiable data from things like UPS shipments, eBay and PayPal accounts to assess creditworthiness.

"We can see historical data and current data, and we can see tomorrow's data. And we are looking at information that could be as detailed as what people are actually buying from you," Petralia says.

And she says that can be more useful than static financial documents that banks and other traditional lenders typically rely on.

“ Are customers saying that you are doing a good job? Are consumers complaining about you?

When it finally came out Tuesday, the September jobs report — delayed for 18 days by the government shutdown — showed a labor market moving forward. But the pace was slow enough to prompt many economists to view it as a letdown.

Job growth "is disappointing, given that employment is still down by about 1.8 million from its peak prior to the recession," Gus Faucher, senior economist with PNC Financial Services Group, said in his analysis.

The Labor Department said employers added 148,000 jobs last month — the 43rd straight month of growth. The unemployment rate slipped to 7.2 percent, down a 10th of a point from August. Still, the number of people with paychecks remained lower than before the Great Recession, with many potential workers not even in the game. They were sitting at home, rather than trying to find jobs.

The report showed labor-force participation was unchanged in September at 63.2 percent, but that rate's "long-term decent will continue" unless employers give sidelined workers more reason to resume job searches, Doug Handler, an economist with IHS Global Insight, wrote in his assessment.

Still, beneath the disappointing data, one could find some reasons for optimism in the new year. For one thing, economists are virtually unanimous in saying the relatively weak labor market makes it more likely the Federal Reserve will continue its efforts to stimulate growth.

Throughout the recession and weak recovery, the Fed has used all of its monetary tools to push down interest rates. One of those efforts involves a bond-buying program that has the effect of restraining long-term interest rates. In June, the Fed indicated that U.S. economic growth was getting strong enough that the central bank might begin to "taper" down its stimulus effort.

But given this month's economic disruptions caused by the federal government shutdown — combined with last month's sluggish job growth — the Fed probably will not act until 2014. "A December taper remains possible, but now is increasingly unlikely," Handler said.

Translation: Interest rates probably will still be low on home mortgages come spring.

Meanwhile, the September jobs report showed an increase in construction jobs, up about 20,000 workers. A separate report Tuesday from the Commerce Department showed that in August, private residential construction spending hit the highest level in five years.

So the real estate market may look pretty good for the spring buying season, with fresh inventory and cheap mortgages. A surge in homebuying would boost growth for lots of Americans, in construction, retail, landscaping and so on.

But that optimism assumes Congress will avoid another shutdown and debt ceiling crisis this winter. Congress has set a schedule for itself to complete a budget in January and resolve debt-ceiling issues by Feb. 7. If those federal fiscal matters are resolved in the winter, the economy could brighten with the blossoms. "Job growth should be stronger in 2014 as the drag from fiscal policy on economic growth lessens," PNC's Faucher said.


You probably know, or should know, that your cellphone is tracking your location everywhere you go. But whether law enforcement officials should have access to that data is at the center of a constitutional debate.

Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, says location tracking is key to how the cell system operates.

"As you move around, your phone is constantly checking to see whether the tower that it's currently registered with is the best one, or whether there's a better tower with a stronger signal coming in range," he says. Cellphone companies store that information so they can deliver better service.

That's handy for the police. Law enforcement agencies across the country already subpoena phone location data regularly. The district attorney for Suffolk County, Mass., regularly asks phone companies for cellphone location information.

The subpoenas are "part of almost every major case, including homicide, in some cases, sexual assault, drug trafficking cases," says Jake Wark, a spokesman for the office.

While the National Security Agency has conceded that it does collect records of U.S. phone traffic, it says it does not currently track the location of cellphones. But the agency also says that it would be legal to collect that information.

In Massachusetts, A Test Case

In many states, the use of that data has led to a movement to protect cellphone location information. One cellphone search, in particular, could serve as a test case for civil liberties groups challenging law enforcement's access to such information.

Shabazz Augustine stands accused of murdering a former girlfriend nine years ago. Massachusetts state prosecutors want to use information they got about the location of his cellphone at the time.

Matt Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, told the state's high court that the evidence should be thrown out, because police got it using a simple subpoena, not a search warrant.

"All the government has to show is that the information they're requesting is relevant and material to an ongoing investigation," Segal says.

“ What we're focused on is the possibility that governments are obtaining this kind of location information on many people who have not committed crimes.

On a quiet fall morning in the Delaware countryside, a lone sustained whistle pierces the air. Within moments, a train sweeps around a broad curve, its two heavy locomotives hauling dozens of white, cylindrical rail cars, loaded with 70,000 barrels of crude oil.

It's a scene playing out with growing frequency across the United States and Canada. The U.S. is awash in oil, due in large part to advances in drilling techniques such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. U.S. production hit a 24-year-high in September. Yet there is a challenge getting the crude from the field to the refinery.

Most oil is moved by pipeline and, five years ago, refiners pinned their hopes on the Keystone XL project. The 1,700-mile, Canadian-built pipeline would carry millions of gallons of crude oil from Alberta, Canada, south to refineries along the Gulf Coast. But the Obama administration has yet to decide whether to allow the project to go forward, in large part because of environmental concerns.

In the meantime, soaring production in the U.S. — especially light sweet crude coming out of North Dakota and Texas — has outpaced U.S. pipeline capability. So oil refiners and producers are turning increasingly to other transportation networks to move crude: barges, trucks and, in particular, railways.

The use of rail cars to ship crude is growing enormously, jumping from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 234,000 carloads last year, according to the Association of American Railroads. Canadian National Railway says moving crude oil by rail is one of its fastest growing businesses — despite increasing questions about rail safety, especially in the wake of a deadly crash in Quebec last July, when an oil train derailed, killing dozens of people.

Sandy Fielden, an analyst with RBN Energy, says that hasn't slowed down refiners wanting to move oil. It's less expensive to transfer crude by pipelines, but that can be offset by storage costs refiners have to pay if the pipelines are too congested. Fielden says laying rail track or upgrading refineries for trains is not as expensive as building a new pipeline. He says railways also require shorter and less rigid agreements with refiners.

"They only need to commit to about two years' worth, compared to 10 to 15 years on a pipeline — which means there's much less risk," says Fielden.

Refineries, Railways Making Necessary Changes

Michael Murray, a Roman Catholic priest in Elkton, Md., has studied and written about the rail industry for 40 years, and knows some of the best vantage points for spotting trains and studying oil refineries along the East Coast.

On a recent morning, he peers across an open field overlooking the PBF Energy refinery in Delaware City, Del. From here, a mile-long Norfolk Southern train being unloaded is visible.

Murray says the railroad recently reconfigured its tracks outside the refinery, apparently to better maneuver the oil trains. PBF Energy says it installed new oval tracks — which Murray calls "loops" — at the refinery to more efficiently unload the large amounts of oil coming in by rail.

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A Moldovan dancer who was on the bridge of the ill-fated Costa Concordia on the night that it crashed and sank nearly two years ago has admitted in court that she and the captain were lovers after having repeatedly denied the rumors in public.

Domnica Cemortan, 26, acknowledged her affair "under intense pressure during cross examination" in the trial of Captain Francesco Schettino, according to The Telegraph. Schettino is charged with manslaughter in the deaths of 32 people aboard the ship, which hit a rocky shoal off the island of Giglio on Jan. 13, 2012. He is also accused of abandoning the liner's 4,200 passengers and crew on the night of the wreck.

The Telegraph says Cemortan:

"[Refused] at least three times to answer the question of whether she and the 53-year-old married commander had had a relationship, prompting Giovanni Puliatti, the judge, to threaten her with criminal proceedings unless she told the truth.

The hearing had to be suspended while Ms Cemortan's lawyer explained to her the gravity of refusing to testify.

After the hearing reconvened, Miss Cemortan reluctantly admitted to prosecuting lawyer Michelina Suriano that she had been having an affair with the captain, telling the court in Moldovan, 'Yes, I had a relationship with him'.

Prosecutors say the presence of the dancer on the bridge that night distracted Capt Schettino and contributed to the accident, which cost the lives of 32 people."

Ed Marksberry is the longest of longshots against Kentucky GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell.

While the unknown Democrat-turned-independent is given little chance of defeating the Senate minority leader, Marksberry could still play an important role in the 2014 race — as a spoiler candidate in a contest that many expect will be decided by a close margin.

It's not McConnell who's most threatened by the third party candidate. Rather, it's the all-but-certain Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, who already had her work cut out for her prior to Marksberry's decision late last month to drop out of the Democratic primary to run as an independent.

In a tight race, if Marksberry is able to capture even a small percentage of the anti-McConnell vote, that could spell trouble for Grimes in a red state where she has little room for error: Kentucky has not elected a Democratic senator since 1992.

Marksberry, a building contractor who ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat in 2010, told NPR one of the main reasons he decided to run as an independent was because he was disappointed with the direction of the party.

He even sued the state Democratic Party in July, claiming it was violating its own bylaws by favoring Grimes over other candidates in the primary.

"There is no voice for the progressive- or liberal-minded voters here," Marksberry said.

He brushed off concerns that he could serve as a spoiler to Grimes, arguing it "would be short-sighted to try to get rid of McConnell at any cost." Marksberry did admit, though, that "the Grimes campaign is probably scratching their heads" over his decision.

Matt Wyatt, a Kentucky-based Democratic operative, said he could see Marksberry potentially winning over some liberal voters who are disenchanted with Grimes, especially her more conservative stance on coal. But, he argued, that wing of the party is usually not active enough to make a major difference.

"The vast majority of Democrats will stick with their best chance to upset Mitch McConnell," Wyatt said.

Veteran Kentucky Democratic political consultant Jim Cauley said the Grimes campaign should be less concerned with Marksberry taking Democratic votes than the "middle vote" — those who may not be engaged in politics on a regular basis but don't view McConnell favorably.

"I don't want to give them another place to go," Cauley said. "In that sense, a third party could make all the difference."

In 2012, for example, Republicans contended that Libertarian candidate Dan Cox cost them a shot to take out incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in Montana.

In Kentucky, a Reform Party candidate nearly tipped the balance in a 1998 Senate race by winning just over one percent in a contest that Republican incumbent Jim Bunning won by a razor-thin six-tenths of a percentage point.

So far, the Democratic establishment has coalesced around Grimes and is committed to making the 2014 election McConnell's toughest campaign in decades.

Both the McConnell and Grimes campaigns, along with a handful of outside groups, have already engaged in an aggressive advertising war with Election Day still more than a year away. Each candidate reported raising more than $2 million from the beginning of July through the end of September.

But before McConnell can focus solely on the general election, he must also deal with a Tea Party challenge from Matt Bevin, who earned the endorsement of the influential Senate Conservatives Fund last week.

In an alley in Northeast Washington, D.C., hundreds of pounds of produce are piled haphazardly on pallets. Mexican Fruits, a discount grocer, can't sell the fruit and vegetables inside these boxes because it has gone soft or is lightly bruised. Some will be donated, but most boxes are destined for a large, green Dumpster nearby.

Before it gets tossed, Roger Gordon grabs one box of lightly speckled bananas. Gordon is the co-founder of Food Cowboy, a start-up that's trying to redirect discarded food from Dumpsters to hunger relief groups. He's here at Mexican Fruits because he's hoping they'll call him the next time they have this problem.

"We want to set ourselves up as air traffic control for food," says Gordon, who's based in the Washington, D.C., area.

According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten. And many see this wasted food as a business opportunity — from start-ups like Food Cowboy and Crop Mobster to the former president of Trader Joe's, who is opening up a market. But although food waste is an obvious problem, it's a complicated one to solve, whether you're targeting farmers, retailers or consumers.

In the retail food world, a lot of waste happens because distributors don't have time to find a home for the perishable food stores won't accept.

Gordon's brother, Richard, came to understand this first hand. In his work as a trucker, he often hauls "kick" loads of food that's been rejected by retailers often just for aesthetic reasons. If the load is small enough, he can take it home. But if it's large, his distributor might instruct him to drop it at the nearest Dumpster or landfill.

Convinced there should be a better way, the brothers started working together to scout out nearby food charities along Richard's trucking route. "The trucker is under time pressure ... But oftentimes the charity is just a few miles away from where the shipment has been rejected," he says. "It's just that the truckers don't know about it."

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The 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government and the wrangling in Washington over the nation's finances combined to shake consumers' confidence sharply in October, the private Conference Board reported Tuesday morning.

Its widely watched consumer confidence index dropped to 71.2 from 80.2 in September.

How consumers are feeling is an important economic indicator because they purchase about 70 percent of all the goods and services that businesses produce. If consumers scale back their spending because they aren't feeling like things are going well, that can set off an unfortunate chain of events: soft sales that lead companies to postpone hiring or shed some workers, moves that then make consumers feel even more nervous and more reluctant to spend.

In Tuesday's release, Conference Board economist Lynn Franco says that "the federal government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis took a particularly large toll on consumers' expectations."

She adds that:

NPR's Scott Horsley reported Monday on questions about a famous quote attributed to the late Winston Churchill. Did the former British prime minister say it? Use this interactive quiz to find out — and see if you can find the correct speaker for other famous comments.

Sources: NPR research. Credit: Shelly Tan / NPR

Under online marketplace Etsy's new policies, vendors can now use an outside manufacturer to help make their goods.

That is not going down well with some longtime sellers, who are calling the new policies a turnaround from the site's original mission.

"Their moniker is, you know, a place to buy handmade. It doesn't say a place to buy factory-made," says Rae Padulo, a potter who began selling dishes and ornaments on Etsy in 2009.

"There's nothing wrong with factory-made — it's just, that's not what Etsy started out to be," she says. "It started out to be a place where you could get something special, something one-of-a-kind, something made by a human being."

Padulo says Etsy is abandoning makers of handcrafted goods, who, like her, only have one pair of hands.

Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson says the company is still behind lone artisans — they make up most of its one million sellers. Still, it wants to support those whose businesses are growing, and under the old rules, that was difficult. Successful vendors were frustrated that they couldn't get enough help with their work.

"We heard from a wedding seller, for example, who said that when wedding season came around she was in a state of mild panic attack, because she just reached her limit and was working, you know, 18 hours a day," Dickerson says.

Under the new policy, anyone who wants to work with an outside manufacturer has to apply and be vetted by Etsy, which makes sure the arrangement meets its ethical guidelines.

Alexandra Ferguson started her pillow business on Etsy several years ago working from home. She's since expanded her line to makeup cases made out of organic cotton with recycled felt lettering.

Ferguson's business has tripled in the last two years. She now works out of a small factory in Brooklyn with 11 employees.

Ferguson says she's proud to be creating manufacturing jobs in New York City. "That Etsy is now encouraging and embracing that growth, to say it doesn't matter how many employees you have — you can have 25, you can have 50, you can have 100 — just means we've now been given free rein to hire as much as we need to sustain our growth," she says.

But not all vendors want to grow their businesses like Ferguson did, especially those who were attracted to the site's small business ethos.


Etsy Crafts A Strategy For Staying Handmade And Profitable

One of the effects of Superstorm Sandy a year ago could be seen at service stations throughout New York City and surrounding areas: motorists joined long lines outside the few stations that had both electricity and gasoline.

"People were fighting over here. People were fighting over there. People were coming through the wrong way. It was chaos," motorist Jessica Laura said at the time. "Then the cops came, and they just started organizing it."

Since then, the oil industry and policymakers have been working to shore up the region's fuel supply system.

Calm The Panic

To fix the power problem, New York and New Jersey announced grant programs to help station owners install wiring to quickly hook up mobile generators. But the long lines were about more than just the lack of power.

Superstorm Sandy: Before, During And Beyond


The doctor's office is clean and white and comfortingly bland in an upscale neighborhood of Sao Paulo. We were given the address by a health professional who told us one of the doctors here gives safe abortions in a country where they are illegal.

The doctor agrees to speak on condition of anonymity after we prove we are not there to entrap him. He does not admit on tape that he terminates unwanted pregnancies. But he says openly he favors legalizing abortions.

"Most women who want an abortion in Brazil can't afford to come to a doctor," he says. "Women die from a perforated uterus, from general infections."

In Brazil, the law says a woman is only allowed to terminate her pregnancy if she was raped, if her health is in danger or if the child won't be able to survive outside the womb.

But in practice, 800,000 to 1 million women have illegal abortions every year and some 250,000 end up in the hospital with complications, according to activists.

This is a two-tier system. The few who can afford it come to doctors like this one — the many who can't use other riskier methods.

The Other Side Of Sao Paulo

We travel to one of the soulless, concrete satellite cities of Sao Paulo whose only attraction seems to be a train that takes commuters into Brazil's financial capital. The woman we meet is black and statuesque, with a wide smile and grave watchful eyes.

At the time she found out she was pregnant, she was unemployed, her husband was barely making ends meet, and she already had two other children to take care of, one of them only nine months old. It was a heart-wrenching decision, she says, for both her and her husband.

"It was a moment of despair," she says. "I told my godmother and she said she knew someone who could get me the medicine. I was afraid of what it would do to me. But I took it anyway."

The mixture she took was bought on the black market. She didn't know what was in it or how it would work. And she remained pregnant for 40 days after she drank it.

"Then suddenly I had a very severe hemorrhaging and I was taken to the hospital," she says. "They knew what I'd done and the hospital kept me there for three days. I had to have surgery."

The woman says she knows many other women who have had abortions. Most take at-home concoctions because they are cheaper than back-street abortions, costing only a few hundred dollars.

Still the home-made medicines often leads to complications and the women tells me many of her friends have ended up in hospital as well.

A Plan To Change The Law

There have been a number of controversial cases lately in Latin America. In Chile, an 11-year-old girl who was raped by her mother's partner was unable to terminate the pregnancy. In El Salvador, a sick woman was forced to carry her child to term.

Those supporting abortion rights say that beyond these headline-grabbing stories, millions of women across the region are quietly seeking illegal and potentially fatal terminations.

"The majority of women who are at risk from abortions are black, poor, uneducated and live in the marginal neighborhoods," says Yury Puello Orozco, the director of the Catholics for the Right to Choose. "We estimate that one in five Brazilian women have had an insecure abortion. So we see this as an issue of public health."

Orozco says there is a push now in Brazil's Congress, led by powerful evangelical Christian and Catholic congressmen to change the law as it stands. It's called the Unborn Statute, and if passed, it will grant rights to the fetus. Among its controversial articles is one which would force a rapist to provide child support for any offspring of his crime.

Ives Gandra da Silva Martins is a lawyer who consults for the group Brazil Without Abortion and helped author the proposed law.

"It's a monumental hypocrisy to say because of a question of health its OK to kill babies in their mothers stomaches," he says, adding that even if the proposed law doesn't pass it's a victory that it's gotten this far.

"The fact that this law is being debated will raise people's consciousness of the absurdity of killing innocents," he adds.

In fact, polls show despite many women having abortions, a majority in Brazil are against legalizing it.

Back in the satellite city, the woman we interviewed agrees. She says despite her experience she is actually against abortion in principle.

"I love children and having the abortion caused a trauma," she says. "Until today, I suffer. I think about how old the child would be now, what it would look like."

Thinking it over, she says "'Maybe the laws should be relaxed but not changed."

There's little doubt that the Obama administration would like a health care website do-over.

Since its rollout Oct. 1, Obamacare's online insurance exchange sign-up, critical to success of the health care overhaul, has been a well-documented disaster.

The White House, in addition to managing considerable political fallout, also is dealing with a big, fat public relations problem. Just how does the administration go about winning the trust of the American people after the October Obamacare debacle?

For some answers, we turned separately to two top public relations executives: Ben Boyd, global chair of corporate practice at Edelman, the world's largest public relations firm; and Greg Jenkins, a former official in the George W. Bush White House, and now a San Francisco-based public relations consultant:

The next state to legalize same-sex marriage may be Hawaii, where the state's Legislature will begin a special session on the issue Monday. The governor called the session so that lawmakers could consider the Marriage Equality Act, which would allow same-sex couples to wed.

NPR's Nathan Rott reports for our Newscast unit:

"The gay marriage debate is nothing new to Hawaii. In 1990, gay couples who applied for a marriage license there helped start the national debate that resulted in the Defense of Marriage Act, the law that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

"Proponents for same-sex marriage, including Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, are trying to ride national momentum, pushing for legislation that would make Hawaii the 15th state to legalize gay marriage. They argue that the bill extends the state's Aloha spirit of equality and would spur tourism.

"Opponents of the bill have organized protests, saying that Hawaiian voters should decide the issue, not the state's lawmakers."

Douglas Lee thought he knew just about everything about the family business.

Since the late 1930s, the Lee family has sold insurance at 31 Pell Street in New York City's Chinatown. Their entrepreneurial roots in the Chinese-American community stretch back to 1888, when the Lees opened a grocery store at the same location.

One hundred twenty-five years later, the family's longstanding history in Chinatown is on display in a new exhibit at New York's Museum of Chinese in America.

When Lee and his sister Sandra started gathering artifacts for the exhibit, they pored over old business records stored in the family's safe. That's when Lee, a film and TV executive who has worked at HBO and 20th Century Fox, discovered his career in the entertainment industry is not such a divergence from the family business after all.

An old ledger book is one of the few remnants of the New York Chinese Film Exchange, a business venture founded by Lee's grandfather Harold in the late 1920s — and long forgotten by his descendants. The company distributed Chinese-language films to theaters serving immigrant moviegoers.

"Everybody's mind is a little bit blown," Lee says of his family's reaction to the recent discovery. "It's part of my family history that nobody really knew about or talked about until I did this research."

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Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and others from the GOP have spoken with NPR in recent years about why they believe the federal debt is the nation's "No. 1" problem.


The next state to legalize same-sex marriage may be Hawaii, where the state's Legislature will begin a special session on the issue Monday. The governor called the session so that lawmakers could consider the Marriage Equality Bill, which would allow same-sex couples to wed.

NPR's Nathan Rott reports for our Newscast unit:

"The gay marriage debate is nothing new to Hawaii. In 1990, gay couples who applied for a marriage license there helped start the national debate that resulted in the Defense of Marriage Act, the law that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

"Proponents for same-sex marriage, including Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, are trying to ride national momentum, pushing for legislation that would make Hawaii the 15th state to legalize gay marriage. They argue that the bill extends the state's Aloha spirit of equality and would spur tourism.

"Opponents of the bill have organized protests, saying that Hawaiian voters should decide the issue, not the state's lawmakers."

George Polk may have been born to make history. He was descended from the American president who led the conquest of Texas and much of the southwest. But for George, Texas was too small, says his brother, William Polk.

In the 1930s, "Texas was a little backwater at the time and very few people even knew where other countries were — what the names were, what the languages were that were spoken," William recalled. "And he had a tremendous sense of curiosity."

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