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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    NewHour’s investigation into how the Netherlands has managed the sale of pot for 40 years illustrated that laws and regulations governing marijuana are often in flux. Use the timeline below to see how both nations have changed their official feelings about marijuana many times over the century.

    The post Timeline of marijuana policy in the U.S. and Netherlands appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Monday is the deadline to sign up for private health insurance in the new online markets created by President Barack Obama’s health care law.

    So far, about 4 out of every 5 people enrolling have qualified for tax credits to reduce the cost of their premiums.

    Here’s what you need to know:

    • The deadline is Mar. 31 at midnight EDT for the states where the federal government is running the sign-up website; states running their own exchanges set their own deadlines.
    • You can sign up online by going to HealthCare.gov or your state insurance exchange. If you don’t know what your state marketplace is called, HealthCare.gov will direct you.
    • You can call 1-800-318-2596 to sign up by phone or get help from an enrollment specialist.
    • Check online for sign-up centers that may be open locally, offering in-person assistance.
    • If you started an application by Monday but didn’t finish, perhaps because of errors, missing information or website glitches, you can take advantage of a grace period. The government says it will accept paper applications until April 7 and take as much time as necessary to handle unfinished cases on HealthCare.gov.
    • Be prepared for the possibility of long wait times.


    How has the Affordable Care Act affected you?

    Key dates to watch for in the Affordable Care Act rollout 

    The post Deadline approaches to sign up for health insurance appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    NewsHour Weekend’s piece on a lawsuit filed by nine California students against the teacher tenure system tells the story of just one battle in a war being waged across the country.

    More than a dozen states have changed their tenure laws in the last few years. The Education Commission of the States found that as of 2011, 18 state legislatures had modified their tenure laws and that trend continues.

    747321 teacher blackboard

    In 2011 Florida eliminated continuing contracts for teachers. South Dakota got rid of tenure for new hires but will grandfather those hired until 2016 into the previous tenure system. Idaho gave school districts the option of forgoing  tenure, but voters overturned that decision in a referendum.

    Today, the Education Commission of the states keeps a database on its website to inform teachers, parents, administrators and legislators of changes and the status of related lawsuits.

    Louisiana and North Carolina are cases in point. In 2012 Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal spearheaded a sweeping reform to the state education system which included ending teacher tenure.

    That section of the law has twice been found unconstitutional in court, most recently in February 2014.

    It is clear that (the law) does not provide for a full and fair or ‘elaborate’ post-termination due process hearing before a credible, objective, independent, hearing body,” according to Judge Benjamin Jones’ ruling in the case of Monroe City School Board vs. DeAnne Williams.

    Governor Jindal plans on appealing the ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

    In 2013 the North Carolina state legislature approved a set of changes to public education rules, including ending teacher tenure, removing a salary increase tied to earning a master’s degree and eliminating caps on class sizes.

    North Carolina teachers have filed two lawsuits in an effort to roll back the changes. The Durham school district recently joined 11 other North Carolina school districts in passing resolutions asking for a repeal of the law.

    Pro/Con has put together a robust compendium on the issue designed for use in classrooms.

    Additional context: 

    Watch the report on the California student’s lawsuit:

    The post Teacher tenure rules are in state of flux across the nation appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko spoke at a convention in Kiev on Saturday to announce he will not run for president in May. The former boxer will instead run for mayor of Kiev. (Credit: Getty Images/AFP/Anatoliy Stepanov)

    Former world boxing champion and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko announced on Saturday that he will not run in the Ukrainian presidential elections set to be held on May 25.

    Klitschko was considered a strong potential candidate for the office, but the UDAR party member will instead run for mayor of Kiev. He said he will support fellow protest leader and billionaire candy maker, Petro Poroshenko, for the office of president.

    Saturday’s announcement is seen as a move to diminish former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s chances of returning to power. Based on polls taken in mid-March, Poroshenko appears to be the front runner.

    Candidacy announcements and discussions took place throughout Kiev on Saturday with the deadline for submitting bids for the elections approaching on Sunday.

    Ousted prime minister Viktor Yanukovych addressed the elections on Friday and discussed the need for a nation-wide referendum about turning Ukraine into a federation.

    “Only an all-Ukrainian referendum, not the early presidential elections, could to a large extent stabilize the political situation and preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Yanukovych said in a statement via the ITAR-Tass news agency.

    Russia has been a proponent for federalization despite rejections from the interim government in Kiev.

    Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with President Barack Obama for an hour on Friday to discuss a possible diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had proposed the solution to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov earlier this week. Putin and Obama decided that Kerry and Lavrov will meet to address the issue.

    With concerns rising that Russia will advance further into Ukraine, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Putin had reassured him that there would be no new movement into the country.

    The post Klitschko will support billionaire candy king for Ukraine presidency appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    PARIS — After a week of travel in the Mideast, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry changed course and arrived in Paris Saturday for talks with his Russian counterpart on the Ukraine crisis.

    Halfway home from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Kerry landed in Shannon, Ireland, for a refueling stop, when decided to turn his plane around and headed to Paris. Kerry is to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Sunday evening at the Russian ambassador’s residence.

    Kerry spoke to Lavrov on the flight to Shannon after President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a call on Friday to have their foreign ministers meet to discuss a possible diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine situation.

    While in Paris, Kerry may also meet separately with the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius.

    State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki on Saturday confirmed the day and general time of the Kerry-Lavrov meeting.

    During Friday’s hourlong call Obama urged Putin to withdraw his troops from the border with Ukraine. The Russian leader, who initiated the call, asserted that Ukraine’s government is allowing extremists to intimidate civilians with impunity – something Ukraine insists has not happened.

    The White House and the Kremlin offered starkly different summaries of the call, which occurred while Obama was traveling in Saudi Arabia. The contrasting interpretations underscored the chasm between how Moscow and Washington perceive the escalating international standoff sparked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea away from Ukraine.

    White House officials described the call as “frank and direct” and said Obama had urged Putin to offer a written response to a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis that the U.S. has presented. He urged Moscow to scale back its troop build-up on the border with Ukraine, which has prompted concerns in Kiev and Washington about a possible Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine.

    The Kremlin, on the other hand, said Putin had drawn Obama’s attention to a “rampage of extremists” in Ukraine and suggested “possible steps by the international community to help stabilize the situation” in Ukraine.

    Kerry had already been due to return to Europe on Tuesday for a NATO foreign ministers meeting and had been considering returning to the Middle East to continue a press to salvage foundering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Kerry aides said the option of going to Israel, the Palestinian territories or Jordan remained a possibility.

    Psaki said Saturday Kerry would remain in close touch with Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and the negotiating team in Jerusalem and Ramallah, West Bank, in the event Kerry needs to return to the region from Paris in advance of NATO.

    Kerry had been in Riyadh, as well as Rome and The Hague, with President Barack Obama this week but is traveling on his own plane.

    He had made a side trip to Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas while Obama visited Brussels. Kerry has also had several conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since he left Washington last Monday.

    The post Kerry arrives in Paris for talks with Russia on Ukraine appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A judge in Egypt sentenced two men to death on Saturday for murders that took place during pro-Morsi demonstrations last year in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.

    Mahmoud Ramadan and Abdullah el-Ahmedi were sentenced to death and their case will now be passed along to the mufti, Egypt’s top religious official, to be reviewed. The trial will resume on May 19 after the review process.

    Charges against the men include throwing youths from a rooftop during protests in the Sidi Gaber district of Alexandria days after the Egyptian army ousted then-President Mohamed Morsi on July 3.

    Video footage has been broadcast throughout Egypt of two young individuals being thrown off of the roof during the incident. According to Egypt’s state news agency MENA, a total of 18 people died during the clashes in Alexandria.

    Chants from both sides were heard after the ruling. According to Reuters, the defendants responded to the sentence by chanting “Life is not important. Nothing is important, but our Islam is important,” while holding the Koran.

    There are 60 other individuals on trial in the same case. Their verdicts are also expected on May 19.

    Saturday’s sentence comes after 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were sentenced to death on Monday in the southern Egyptian province of Minya.

    The post Two sentenced to death in Egypt for rooftop murders appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    As part of a campaign to encourage environmental awareness well before Earth Day on April 22, the United Nations and the World Wildlife Fund are urging people around the globe to turn off their lights for one hour from 8:30 to 9:30 pm local time on March 29, 2104.

    The campaign, called “Earth Hour,” invites participants to “celebrate their commitment to the planet.”

    A candle display outside Parliament House in Canberra spells out "It's Lights Out For The Reef", as people take a stand for the Great Barrier Reef. Image © WWF Australia

    A candle display outside Parliament House in Canberra spells out “It’s Lights Out For The Reef” in support of the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: WWF Australia

    Get Earth Hour updates, join in on Facebook or find out about local events.

    And view images posted in cities and towns all over the map on Earth Hour’s Twitter and Instagram feeds.


    The post People across the planet celebrate ‘Earth Hour’ by switching off the lights appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The revelation late yesterday afternoon that Russian President Vladimir Putin had called President Obama raised hopes that the crisis in Ukraine might be resolved through diplomacy. But that’s hardly a sure thing. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have deployed near the border with Ukraine and they show no sign of pulling back. For more about that we’re joined now from Washington by Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. So there are some estimates by Ukrainians that there might be as many as 85,000 Russian troops along the border. Whatever the number is, do we know about the composition of those forces and what can Russia do with that kind of an army?

    ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Well first, we don’t really know the exact structure of that. We have been told that on background there are between 40,000 and 50,000, at least, troops. They haven’t identified which units they belong to. But Russia announced there are going to be exercises and there haven’t been any exercises. They’ve just kept building up a presence, one that could directly go into the eastern Ukraine. The other problem is that troops aren’t the only problem. There are very large numbers of Ministry of Interior units Russia also has. These are almost ideal troops for occupying cities and urban areas. They’re certainly pro-Russian elements in some of the cities in the eastern Ukraine so at almost anytime you could have a Russian thrust into the eastern Ukraine and one that could at least take some cities probably in a matter of days if not hours.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: We’ve been focused so much on Crimea, are there other regions that we need to be concerned about? Last week we mentioned Transnistria which is a small region on the border of Moldova and Ukraine.

    ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Russia has a limited presence already in the area. It’s not a major combat presence, but there is no major combat presence in that area — in Moldova, which is a nation to the west or in the Ukraine to the east. So it certainly is an area where Russia could suddenly put pressure on the Ukraine. And there is an airborne guard division, basically, which could be moved in at least in part fairly quickly. Because the Ukraine frankly is not capable of effective air defense. So Russia certainly has the ability to put pressure on the Ukraine in two different directions. And I think what’s of great concern of the Ukraine. When Putin called Obama, he didn’t talk about negotiations alone, he talked about the fact that Russia had no intention of invading if the Ukraine did not have hard line elements in its government, if there are no protests against the Russians. So it really was not in any sense a quick initiative towards peace.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So countries like Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, they’ve been asking for increased NATO presence. Do they have reason to be scared and concerned?

    ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think really we have not seen any element of russian mobilization or deployment. But these small Baltic states are near major Russian forces. They don’t really have to do anything, they’re already there to put pressure on them. And we have moved U.S. aircraft into one of those states, as we have into Poland. But I think certainly in today’s climate, the problem is if the Ukraine becomes a major source of confrontation between east and west, if Russia goes beyond the Crimea and thrusts into the Ukraine, then NATO’s response would have to be largely in other areas and that could trigger a process of confrontation that none of these states can predict.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic International Studies, joining us from Washington. Thanks so much.



    The post Russian troop presence builds near Ukraine’s border appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Listen to the Audio

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And now to our occasional feature: Viewers Like You. Your chance to tell us what you think. Tonight: some of the comments you judged most popular.

    We heard from many of you about our report last week from the Netherlands about the pot laws there — something we thought was especially timely as two states — Colorado and Washington — have legalized recreational marijuana.

    Viewer Jillian Galloway echoed comments by a Dutch researcher who said marijuana is less damaging than other ‘legal’ substances and, based on that, said:

    “We could prevent a lot of the harm that alcohol causes by giving people the right to choose cannabis instead of alcohol. End the failed and counterproductive cannabis prohibition!”

    “August” responded by saying:

    “I agree, tolerance/flexibility/pragmatism is key indeed… I am against drugs, i always discourage cannabis consumption, but I endorse a tolerant system for cannabis regulation because it results in a happier, more efficient, less harmful society.”

    A viewer called “candid one” was critical of our report, saying:

    “Comparing two modest-size western us states with a modest-size, sovereign old-world nation is a stretch.”

    Pier Giacalone chimed in on Facebook. He wrote:

    “As with all things, Americans will do things our own way and we don’t need lessons in capitalism from anyone. Stronger forces will overcome weaker ones, advantages will be exploited, etc. etc. Whatever negative health implications there are will be absorbed in the name of the money generated just like they are for alcohol, tobacco, firearms, cars, prescription drugs.

    And Jim Hassinger wrote this:

    “With anything people want to use, there will be people who will supply it, and if it’s illegal, the price goes up. Yes, tax it and regulate the market– but if you limit the strength or price too much, it shows up in the black market.”

    Some of the toughest language we heard came from Douglas Snazel who wanted us to come down forcefully in favor of legalization:

    “Would it kill you to develop just a little bit of an edge? Something bold, rather than meandering dithering pieces like this?”

    Let us know what you think. Our website is newshour.pbs.org. There, you’ll also see a timeline documenting the dramatic changes to American and Dutch drug laws.

    The post Viewers respond to NewsHour’s report on Dutch pot policy appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    E-waste recycling plant, Kenya

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: A busy stretch of road on the outskirts of Nairobi, running right past an unremarkable looking building except there is no other building like this in East Africa. That truck is hauling e-waste, tons of it.

    Coming here for processing at a plant built especially to deal with e-waste.


    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Amina Abdullah heads Kenya’s special environmental committee.

    AMINA ABDULLAH: We want to make sure that it’s sorted out and we, we’ll be able to be ahead of the situation before it poisons our rivers and our people.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Used electronics are one of the fastest growing sources of waste globally. In Africa two countries feature as dumping hot zones: Nigeria and Ghana.  There are also ‘suspected’ e-waste dump sites in a number of other African countries. Kenya is one and it is urgently trying to enact legislation to target disposal of used electronics.

    It is estimated that 15,000 tons of used computers and mobile phones are shipped to Kenya every year, flooding in from the West, especially the U.S., adding to the e-waste generated by the new electronic goods that Kenyans are already buying.

    This first electronics recycling hub is funded by Kenyan investors, the German Development Bank, HP, and a private businessman with a lot of experience in this field.


    Find out how the e-cycling chain works

    ROBERT TRUSCOTT, CEO, EAST AFRICAN COMPLIANT RECYCLING: Some of the laptops, they contain a fluorescent tube in the back which is used as a backlight and that contains mercury so that needs to be removed carefully.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Robert Truscott has been dealing with electronic waste for many years, in the United Kingdom.

    ROBERT TRUSCOTT: The importance of this is, goes far beyond Kenya. This is about proving a concept, an economic, social and environmental concept that works. And it’s really envisaged that this model can be replicated in similar countries in Africa.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The plant is staffed entirely by Kenyans—most had never heard about e-waste before they started working here.

    And there is plenty to keep them busy. No shortage of packed containers arriving.

    Processing e-Waste, helping the environment is a big part of what they are doing here, but it’s not the only thing. The idea is to also get people to start thinking about e-waste as a resource.

    AMINA ABDULLAH:  Waste has always been seen as waste. Nobody’s looking at it as income generating.

    ROBERT TRUSCOTT: In Europe the word waste is fast disappearing and it’s being replaced with another word…resource.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: It begins, with the collectors—private individuals hunting for discarded electronic products.  In Mukuru slum a group of women work at it every day.

    It is not easy, long hours, scorching sun. And lately they are finding they are not the only ones looking for e-waste. Informal collectors are snapping it up too.

    It can take days to gather one load. They carry it to Mukuru’s collection point. It is sorted and weighed. But they get cash right away.

    Joycy Nyawira says she regularly makes 5000 shillings a month…nearly $60 —more than most in the slums and enough to support her three children.

    JOYCE NYAWIRA: God is good because at least I usually get daily bread from this place.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: This collection container in Mukuru also one in Mombasa are sponsored by Dell. Dell worked with the government in writing the legislation aimed at electronic waste. The laws are expected to come into force in September.

    AMINA ABDULLAH: The regulation we are producing deals with the fact that if you are bringing to the country, if you are a producer of an electronic gadget and you sell it to Kenya you will need to have the responsibility of dealing with it once it becomes obsolete.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: So Dell, or any of the big computer corporations will be responsible for disposal in Kenya if they have an office here. If they don’t, they’ll have to ensure their distributors comply with the law.

    JEAN COX KEARNS, DELL:  A lot of old electronic products and new electronic products actually is in Africa and other developing countries and Dell has a responsible commitment to the product that we put on the market and so we want to help to collect that product when its end of life.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Across the border, in Uganda, there is intense interest in what’s happening in Kenya because a few years back Uganda enacted strict laws banning the importation of used or second hand products, especially computers.

    ISAAC NTUJU, UGANDAN NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT AUTHORITY:  This is dumping because it has been used, half of its valuable life it was used in the west then the end of life is in Uganda and disposal is in Uganda which, ideally, is not fair.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Kampala, like Nairobi is turning into a major tech hub here in Uganda. Go to Kampala’s tech strip and its all brand new products. No ‘used’ deals here. But developments in Kenya may lead to change.

    This is the largest waste dump in Uganda, it serves the capital city of Kampala—but of all the waste that comes here only a fraction of it is e-waste.

    Dumps like this aren’t really prepared to deal with all the obsolete electronics and that, it seems, is what people are waiting for.

    OBED LUTAKOME, MANAGER, KAMPALA LANDFILL SITE: The only way we can manage electronic waste is actually if people knew how they can benefit or the final point where the e-waste can go.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: No surprise then that the Ugandans are talking to the Kenyans about e-waste and the possibility of profiting from it.

    ISAAC NTUJU: We could either send to the refurbishment facilities in Kenya or replicate what our brothers in Kenya are doing within Uganda.

    AMINA ABDULLAH: I look forward for more plants to come up in the region, so that we, all  our neighbors, because you know we have a lot of cross country rivers and lakes so if they dispose badly we may still be effected by the products they have disposed wrongly.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And that fits with the broader vision about how to manage e-waste in this part of the world.

    ROBERT TRUSCOTT: It’s really our wish our hope that we create an east African common approach, ideally with harmonized legislation, ease of moving waste between boundaries within Africa.

    MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The model for managing e-waste in Africa and making money doing it, busy day and night—proving—with a lot of hard work—it can be done.

    The post Kenya takes on e-waste problem with new recycling hub appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Paris as the sun sets, on March 29, 2014. John Kerry will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday for talks on the Ukraine crisis in the French capital. Kerry left Riyadh early on Saturday, due to fly home to Washington via a refuelling stop in Ireland, but decided mid-flight to stop in Paris instead for this meeting. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Jacquelyn Martin (Photo credit should read JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)

    Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Paris on March 29, 2014. Sec. Kerry will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday for talks on the Ukraine crisis in the French capital. Credit: JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

    PARIS — Russia on Sunday set out demands for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine, saying the former Soviet republic should be unified in a federation allowing wide autonomy to its various regions as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov prepared to meet in Paris in another bid to calm tensions and resolve the crisis over Ukraine.

    After a brief call on French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Kerry was to sit down with Lavrov at the residence of the Russian ambassador to France to go over Moscow’s response to a U.S. plan to de-escalate the situation as Russian troops continue to mass along the Ukrainian border.

    Appearing on Russian television ahead of his talks with Kerry, Lavrov rejected suspicions that the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops near Ukraine is a sign Moscow plans to invade the country following its annexation of the strategic Crimean peninsula.

    “We have absolutely no intention of, or interest in, crossing Ukraine’s borders,” Lavrov said.

    Russia says the troops near the border are there for military exercises and that they have no plans to invade, but U.S. and European officials say the numbers and locations of the troops suggest something more than exercises.

    And, despite the Russian assurances, U.S., European and Ukrainian officials are deeply concerned about the buildup, which they fear could be a prelude to an invasion or intimidation to compel Kiev to accept Moscow’s demands.

    In his interview, Lavrov made clear that Moscow believes a federation is the only way to guarantee Ukraine’s stability and neutrality.

    “We can’t see any other way to ensure the stable development of Ukraine but to sign a federal agreement”, Lavrov said, adding that he understood the United States was open to the idea.

    U.S. officials have been coy about their position on a federation and insist that any changes to Ukraine’s governing structure must be acceptable to the Ukrainians. Ukrainian officials are wary of decentralizing power but are now exploring political reforms that could grant more authority to local governments.

    The plan that Kerry and Lavrov are to discuss covers Ukrainian political and constitutional reforms, as well as the disarmament of irregular forces, international monitors to protect minority rights and direct dialogue between Russia and Ukraine, according to U.S. officials, who say it has backing of Ukraine’s government.

    Kerry and Lavrov have met several times in person and spoken by phone almost daily since the crisis began but have not yet been able to agree on a way forward. The pair met last week in The Hague, where Kerry presented Lavrov with the proposal, which was a response to ideas Lavrov gave him at a March 10 meeting in London.

    Sunday’s meeting follows an hourlong phone call Friday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Obama urged Putin to withdraw his troops from the border with Ukraine. The Russian leader, who initiated the call, asserted that Ukraine’s government is allowing extremists to intimidate ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking civilians with impunity – something Ukraine insists is not happening.

    That call did little to reassure U.S. officials that Russia is not planning to invade Ukraine after its annexation of Crimea that the west has condemned as illegal and a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on senior Russian officials in response, sparking reciprocal moves from Moscow.

    In the interview with Russian television, Lavrov called the sanctions a “dead-end” strategy that would not achieve results and accused the west of hypocrisy. He said it was inconsistent for the west to refuse to recognize Crimea’s annexation, which followed a referendum on joining Russia that was overwhelmingly approved, while at the same time accepting the new government in Kiev, which was formed after the pro-Moscow president fled the country.

    “If they are willing to accept the first event as legitimate, then surely they are obliged to acknowledge the second,” Lavrov told Russia’s Channel One television.

    The two sides remain far apart, a situation underscored by the fact that the White House and the Kremlin offered starkly different summaries of the Obama-Putin call, which occurred while Obama was traveling in Saudi Arabia.

    White House officials described the call as “frank and direct” and said Obama had urged Putin to offer a written response to a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis that the U.S. has presented. He urged Moscow to scale back its troop buildup on the border with Ukraine, which has prompted concerns in Kiev and Washington about a possible Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine.

    The Kremlin, on the other hand, said Putin had drawn Obama’s attention to a “rampage of extremists” in Ukraine and suggested “possible steps by the international community to help stabilize the situation” in Ukraine.

    This report was written by AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee.

    The post Kerry, Lavrov will meet to discuss diplomatic resolution to Ukraine crisis appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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     (Credit: David Ryder/Getty Images)

    Rescue workers, including a search dog, enter the site of the last week’s landslide in Oso, Washington on Saturday. The missing person count has dropped dramatically and authorities have identified 18 bodies.(Credit: David Ryder/Getty Images)

    The number of people thought to be missing from a deadly landslide in a Washington town has dropped from 90 to 30 late Saturday as authorities verified information and cross-referenced lists.

    This development comes a week after the slide hit the mountainside community of Oso, located 55 miles northeast of Seattle. In the days since the slide occurred on the morning of March 22, rescue crews have searched through the debris field amid heavy rains and rough weather conditions.

    While authorities have found more than two dozen bodies, the official death count remains at 18 as bodies were sent to be officially identified by the medical examiner.

    During the week-long search, Snohomish County Department of Emergency program manager Jason Biermann said rescuers are often finding incomplete remains.

    Officials expect the search could last a long time, with the possibility that in the end, some of those who were lost may never be found.

    Dogs are proving helpful as workers sift through debris, but the animals are being kept to four-hour shifts to prevent hypothermia.

    The landslide took place after weeks of heavy rain in the area, however residents had no warning until they heard mud and trees barreling down the mountain.

    This incident has brought to light the fact that there is no national warning system in place to monitor slide activity. The federal government doesn’t track slides and there is no movement to create nationwide hazard maps.

    The post Number of missing drops in Washington landslide as search continues appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    South African opera singer Thesele Kemane performs for the United Nations.

    Listen to the Audio

    THESELE KEMANE: I grew up in difficulty, I grew up in poverty. There was a time when both my mom and dad didn’t work. But they always tried to make sure there was something on the table for us to eat.

    JULIE COEHN: Thesele Kemane grew up in a township in central South Africa called Galeshewe, with the same challenges confronting many of the country’s black communities – crime, poor access to health care and an unemployment rate of up to 70 percent.

    THESELE KEMANE: My father was a cleaner and a messenger for Standard Bank before he was retrenched.

    JULIE COEHN: In Thesele’s early childhood, before Apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, the family had to contend with racist laws that restricted travel and education.

    DAD: that is why I always tell all my children that since we are in a new environment please devote yourselves to studies and for better life.

    JULIE COEHN: Thesele’s vision of a better life was filled with music. In his church choir he discovered a talent for singing. He was chosen for a community chorus where he first learned opera, which he wanted to pursue as a career. His parents, who hope Thesele will support them in old age, were skeptical.

    JULIE COEHN: Did your father make those concerns clear to you?

    THESELE KEMANE: Yup he actually made it quite clear but then again the dream was mine.

    JULIE COEHN: Thesele was accepted to the opera school at the University of Cape Town, which had been whites only for most of its hundred year history.

    THESELE KEMANE: For us in our culture it’s like a big thing if one could go to university.

    JULIE COEHN: But the Kemanes were overwhelmed by the price tag of a college education.

    THESELE KEMANE: I was struggling I was struggling. I didn’t have much money by then. How are we going to pay for this?

    JULIE COEHN: The family was able to scrape together bus fare to send him to Cape Town. And Thesele, like many of his black classmates was awarded a scholarship, including room and board.

    KAMAL: Music is a fundamental human right. We all have the right to have a chance to make music.

    JULIE COEHN: For Thesele, a first rate education opened the door to opportunities unthinkable a generation ago. In 2012, shortly after completing his undergraduate degree, he was selected as an apprentice at the prestigious Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York, and invited to sing before the United Nations General Assembly.

    Thesele singing La Calunnia

    THESELE KEMANE: I felt I was it was an auspicious occasion. Did you see my posture when I walked? It was a very decent elegant posture.

    JULIE COEHN: But as thrilled as he was by accolades from around the world, Thesele had another audience in mind… his mom and dad had never seen an opera.

    MOM: I would like to see him at the theater.

    JULIE COEHN: The makers of I live to sing, the documentary about Thesele and his classmates, paid for plane tickets so that Mr. and Mrs. Kemane could come to Cape Town to see him perform. The city’s main opera hall, once closed to both black performers and black audiences, is now a launching pad for the new generation of black opera stars. As his parents listened intently, Thesele took center stage.

    Thesele Sings

    Dad ovation, cheering

    DAD: When I was cheering Thesele it was a tribal praise. It means oh you are pleasing me my son. I am proud about it.

    The post South African opera singers’ lives documented in new film appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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  • 03/30/14--11:54: How do e-cycling hubs work?
  • Sunday on NewsHour Weekend, special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports on Kenya’s e-waste issue.

    Used electronics are one of the fastest growing sources of waste globally. In Africa two countries feature as dumping hot zones: Nigeria and Ghana. There are also ‘suspected’ e-waste dump sites in a number of other African countries. Kenya is one and it is urgently trying to enact legislation to target disposal of used electronics.

    It is estimated that 15,000 tons of used computers and mobile phones are shipped to Kenya every year, flooding in from the West, especially the U.S., adding to the e-waste generated by the new electronic goods that Kenyans are already buying.

    The company profiled in the report, Kenya’s East African Compliant Recycling, will begin to make money as more and more hubs join the process is outlined below:


    The post How do e-cycling hubs work? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    French Socialist party (PS) deputy mayor of Paris and candidate to the municipal elections in the French capital, Anne Hidalgo (C) hugs her husband Jean-Marc Germain after the announcement the results of the secound round of the French municipal elections, in her campaign headquarters in Paris, on March 30, 2014. Anne Hidalgo, the candidate of France's ruling Socialist Party, will be the first female mayor of Paris after winning municipal elections in the French capital on Sunday, exit polls indicated. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET        (Photo credit should read JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

    French Socialist party deputy mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo hugs her husband after the announcement of the results of the second round of the French municipal elections on March 30. Exit polls indicate Hidalgo will be the first female mayor of Paris. Credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

    Exit polls indicate that Anne Hidalgo has been elected as Paris’ first female mayor in Sunday’s run-off vote.

    Hidalgo tweeted a thank you to her followers after the exit poll numbers were announced:

    She told the Guardian in 2013 that being the mayor of the French capital was “the best elected job that exists.”

    Hidalgo’s anticipated victory was an exception in an otherwise tough election night for President Francois Hollande’s Socialist party, which lost races in towns across the country.

    According to Reuters, the Socialist party and its allies won 42 percent of the total vote, trailing the 49 percent won by the French right. The news agency cited an exit poll by survey group BVA.

    Exit polling also showed Hollande’s party was set to lose power in cities such as Toulouse, Angers and Quimper.

    “It’s a defeat firstly for the left. It’s a sad evening,” government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told the Associated Press.

    Based on the preliminary numbers, France’s conservative party National Front, widely known for its anti-immigration position, is expected to win a record number of town halls.

    The post Paris elects first female mayor, left loses dozens of towns appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Washington Post series, Pain and Pride

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The Washington Post is launching a special series today called “A legacy of pain and pride,” looking at the lives of military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan through stories and polls in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation. Joining us is Greg Jaffe, he covers the military for the Washington Post, is one of the authors of the series and helped design some of the poll questions. So Greg, let me throw up a couple of numbers and have you explain them. On the one hand, when soldiers are asked “Would you say you did anything in the wars that made you feel prouder,” now 87 percent of them said yes. However, when you asked them “Considering the cost versus benefits to the United States, do you think the war in Iraq was worth fighting?” less than half — 43 percent — thought it was worth fighting. Now the numbers are slightly different for the war in Afghanistan, but not much. How do these numbers make sense together.

    GREG JAFFE: You know I think it goes to the tremendous prides that soldiers feel — soldiers, marines, the people who served — as being part of this kind of 1 percent that served. you know they saw themselves as this sort of elite group that volunteered, at least that’s one explanation. And that even if the mission ended up not being worth it in their minds and in many cases it didn’t. They still feel pride at what they did. I think there’s also a sentiment in there that “hey, we did our jobs,” but others failed in their jobs. Whether it be the Iraqi or Afghani governments, or the rest of the U.S. government failed in giving them the tools they needed to succeed.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s been a great deal of focus and an increased amount of attention spent on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and you had two questions in there that I want to put on screen here: “For each tell me how often, if at all, you personally have experienced the following as a result of your military experience” — outbursts of anger, 41 percent said yes they often or sometimes do, and also relationship problems with your spouse or partners, 45 percent said yes they often or sometimes do. Now these problems can sometimes be signs of PTSD, how do they square with the numbers from the Veterans Administration?

    GREG JAFFE: You know they’re much higher than the government, both DOD and VA have sort of found in their surveys, which I think tend to be somewhere between 14 and 20 percent have PTSD. Now, of course, you can have outbursts of anger and relationship problems and not have PTSD, so that explains sometimes why these are higher. But it does go to show that some of the mental legacy of these wars is more than just PTSD. You know, you can have symptoms, you know can be trying to overcome things from combat mentally and emotionally and may not have diagnosable PTSD and I think that’s what these tell us.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Now you also spent a fair amount of time studying the economics of what happens when these soldiers return home. What did you find?

    GREG JAFFE: You know, actually, economically they’re not doing so bad. They’re unemployment rate for what we call post 9/11 vets is higher, but you know they start to look a bit like the rest of America — same levels of debt, credit card debt, things of that nature, same sort of financial struggles as the rest of the country.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And do they feel like they should be given a special chance if they are up for a job?

    GREG JAFFE: Yeah, no that’s interesting. They do feel a sort of sense of entitlement I think is one word for it. Which runs counter to sort of some of the notions of service that we have. I think more than 60 percent feel like they should be given special consideration when applying for jobs. What’s interesting is that on the whole Americans feel, I think 80 percent of them feel that they should be given special consideration. So I think the average American feels an even greater sense of debt to them than they feel sense of entitlement.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s also a theme of disconnection that your survey highlights. Two questions that I want to show the audience. Now, when you ask “For each tell me how often, if at all, you personally have experienced the following as a result of your military service” — feeling disconnected from civilian life, 55 percent said often or sometimes, and feeling the average American didn’t understand your experience, that number was really shocking, 69 percent said often or sometimes. What’s behind this? And what are the soldiers telling you in your interviews?

    GREG JAFFE: You know I think a lot of this is just, some of its combat, which is I think is fundamentally dislocating. And some if it is just the way we fought these wars. I mean this is the longest stretch of war in American history and it’s really the first long stretch of war that we fought with an all volunteer force. And that you know is just a fundamentally different way of going to war than what we’ve done in the past. And so these guys are coming home and they’re not coming home to large numbers of people in their neighborhoods and in their communities who served with them. I mean they’re coming home from people who’ve largely sort of tuned out the wars and gone on with their lives, particularly in these last few years. And that really I think adds to the normal sort of dislocation and feeling of disconnection that one feels coming home from combat. I think it’s even more acute because these guys are such a small population.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright Greg Jaffe joining us from Washington from the Washington Post. Thanks so much.

    GREG JAFFE: Yeah thanks for having me.

    The post Washington Post looks at lives of Iraq, Afghanistan veterans appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Obamacare Expedited Bid Process Limited Who Could Build Website
    Updated 1:25 p.m. EDT | Technicians are working to fix a new technical problem that has prevented users from creating new accounts on the health care website, Health and Human Service spokesman Aaron Albright said Monday.

    Albright added that more than 100,000 people are using the system simultaneously Monday, which is deadline day for sign-ups on HealthCare.gov.

    Original story:

    WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s health care website stumbled, falling out of service for nearly four hours on deadline day for new sign-ups.

    Visitors to HealthCare.gov on Monday morning saw messages that the site was down for maintenance. At times the visitors were also directed to a virtual waiting room — a feature designed to ease the strain on the site during periods of heavy use.

    Administration spokesman Aaron Albright said the website undergoes “regular nightly maintenance” during off-peak hours and that period was extended because of a “technical problem.” He did not say what the problem was, but a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services called it “a software bug” unrelated to application volume.

    Albright said consumers seeking to sign up will be able to leave their email were to be “invited back” when the system got up and running again.

    Officials said the website wasn’t hacked. The site, which was receiving 1.5 million visitors a day last week, received about 2 million a day over the weekend.

    Albright said the website is typically down for maintenance during the period from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. EDT, and that as a result of the technical problems the site was down for close to four additional hours before returning to full strength Monday morning.

    The sign-up website had been taken down briefly Friday, with consumer interest surging. Lately the site has been getting about 1.5 million visits a day.

    A recent analysis for The Associated Press by the performance-measurement firm Compuware found that the government site runs slow compared with health insurance industry peers.

    The post HealthCare.gov marred by technical problems on signup deadline day appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A woman holds a sign in support of the Affordable Care Act is seen as US President Barack Obama's motorcade in Hawaii in December 2013. Photo by Kent Nishimura/AFP/Getty Images

    A woman holds a sign in support of the Affordable Care Act is seen as US President Barack Obama’s motorcade in Hawaii in December 2013. Photo by Kent Nishimura/AFP/Getty Images

    Just because open enrollment for people who buy their own health insurance formally closes March 31 doesn’t mean debate over the health law will take a hiatus. After more than four years of strident rhetoric, evidence about how the law is actually working is starting to trickle in. Here are seven things to watch before the next enrollment period begins in November:

    1) How many enrolled, really?

    Rightly or wrongly, this figure has become a yardstick by which some are measuring the law’s success. But no one can give an accurate accounting yet.

    President Barack Obama announced Thursday that the administration had hit the 6 million enrollment mark — the revised projection of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (which had initially forecast 7 million before the disastrous rollout of the online marketplaces last October).

    As of March 1, another 4.4 million consumers had been deemed eligible for Medicaid, the state-federal insurance program for low-income Americans.

    Final tallies of enrollees may come in mid-April, but those figures won’t be the last word either. That’s because not everyone who signs up for a private plan will pay their first premium, and they aren’t covered unless they do. In addition, consumers who signed up through insurers or on nongovernment sites are not yet included in the count. And finally, the administration on March 26 relaxed the deadline for some people, including those who encountered computer glitches while trying to enroll.

    2) Who has signed up?

    Prior enrollment reports have shown the vast majority to be 35 and older with more women than men. Much attention will be focused on the coveted demographic, ages 18 to 34, who have accounted for just over a quarter of enrollees. While insurers hope for young enrollees, they can also benefit if older ones are in good health.

    Despite all the attention on national numbers, state and local enrollment figures are more important in any case because insurance markets are state-based, and big numbers or youthful enrollment in some places won’t make up for shortfalls in others. State markets are expected to vary significantly, with some seeing bigger premium increases next year because they have older and sicker enrollees, while others with a more robust mix are more likely to see rates hold steady.

    3) Has the law put a dent in the number of uninsured?

    This is a key question for a law designed to reduce the nation’s 48 million uninsured. It will take a while, though, to track changes. For one thing, no information has been released about how many of those who signed up were previously uninsured. Also, data so far includes those who signed up through the state and federal online markets, but not those who purchased coverage elsewhere, or who enrolled in job-based plans they had previously turned down.

    A McKinsey consulting firm telephone survey in February found that 27 percent of those purchasing coverage were previously uninsured, while a Gallup poll in March found the uninsurance rate falling. Both studies have limits, however, and cannot be considered the final word. Right now, “we have a pretty good sense the number of uninsured has gone down, but not a clue as to by how much,” said Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

    4) Will insurance plans, prices and rules be the same in the next enrollment period which begins Nov. 15?

    No. Right now, insurers are assessing their new enrollment and associated health care costs for the first three months of the year, which will help them set rates for next year. Most of them must submit those rates for review by state regulators by spring or early summer. But don’t expect to see the new rates until next fall, just before open enrollment begins. Analysts say much will depend on who enrolled this year and how healthy they turn out to be. Some predict big premium increases in some areas, while others say insurers are protected from the impact of large claims by provisions of the law that insulate them from unexpectedly high medical costs. Rule changes for next year will also factor into rate decisions. Insurers warn they may have to raise prices if they’re forced to offer greater selection of doctors, hospitals and drugs in their networks.

    5) Will Medicaid participation grow?

    As of March 1, 4.4 million people had been deemed eligible for Medicaid, but it’s unclear how many are newly eligible for the program or actually enrolled. That number doesn’t count people who have enrolled through their state Medicaid agency. Because there is no deadline for enrolling in Medicaid, final tallies for 2014 won’t be available until next year.

    The program for the poor continues to be a political battleground. Democratic architects of the health law envisioned Medicaid as a key tool for insuring more Americans, expanding eligibility to adults with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or $15,800 a year for an individual. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court made state participation effectively optional. While the District of Columbia and 26 states, most of them under Democratic control, moved forward, two dozen others declined to participate.

    A handful of states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia and Utah, are considering expansion next year. But lobbying by hospital groups and others have run into ideological headwinds and fears that state taxpayers would bear additional costs despite generous federal funding.

    6) How will insurance change for those of us who get it through our employers?

    The answer depends on what your employer is doing now. If you work for a large company and have job-based insurance, your employer will probably keep offering it, according to most surveys.

    It’s trickier to say what will happen for workers at firms that don’t offer coverage. That’s because all employers were given a pass this year on rules that say if they don’t offer health coverage to full-time workers, they could face fines.

    The Obama administration then extended that exemption until 2016 for firms with 50 to 99 workers. (Those with fewer than 50 workers were never included and don’t face fines.) But starting next year, employers with 100 or more workers must offer insurance to at least 70 percent of workers — rather than the 95 percent originally called for under the law — or face fines.

    For those with job-based coverage, the health law is also expected to accelerate existing trends, including rising deductibles and copayments for employees. Employers are making those moves to slow rising premium costs and to shift more expenses to workers. Analysts also expect to see an increase in workplace wellness programs, which often give workers incentives to participate. The health law allows employers to offer larger incentives, or up to 30 percent of the cost of coverage. That means workers who choose not to participate or, in some cases, to meet certain health goals, will pay more toward their coverage.

    7) What impact will the rollout have on congressional elections?

    Look for lots of advertising in vulnerable Democratic districts heading into the fall. If Republicans win control of the Senate (the GOP is expected to keep control of the House, if not increase its majority) that could mean health law defunding bills passed by the House will get a Senate floor vote. While Obama would surely veto them — and neither chamber is expected to have a veto-proof majority — the bills would keep anti-health law legislation front and center as both parties battle for the White House in 2016.

    This KHN story was produced in collaboration with USA Today. Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. Jay Hancock contributed to this report.

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    A 2003 map shows proposals to redistrict Texas. Photo by Jana Birchum/Getty Images

    A 2003 map shows proposals to redistrict Texas. Photo by Jana Birchum/Getty Images

    WASHINGTON — Even if Democrats recruit great candidates, raise gobs of money and run smart campaigns, they face an uphill fight to retake control of the House in this year’s congressional elections, regardless of the political climate in November.

    The reason? Republican strategists spent years developing a plan to take advantage of the 2010 census, first by winning state legislatures and then redrawing House districts to tilt the playing field in their favor. Their success was unprecedented.

    In states like Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina, Republicans were able to shape congressional maps to pack as many Democratic voters as possible into the fewest House districts. The practice is called gerrymandering, and it left fertile ground elsewhere in each state to spread Republican voters among more districts, increasing the GOP’s chances of winning more seats.

    Geography helped in some states. Democratic voters are more likely to live in densely populated urban areas, making it easier to pack them into fewer districts.

    The first payoff came in 2012, when Republicans kept control of the House despite a Democratic wave that swept President Barack Obama to a second term. The next payoff is likely to come this fall when candidates once again compete in House districts drawn by Republican legislators in key states.

    Gerrymandering has a long history in the United States, pursued enthusiastically by both Democrats and Republicans. But the GOP’s success at it this decade has been historic: In 2012, Republicans maintained a 33-seat majority in the House, even though GOP candidates as a group got 1.4 million fewer votes than their Democratic opponents.

    It was only the second time since World War II that the party receiving the most votes failed to win a majority of House seats, according to statistics compiled by the House Clerk. Democrats gained eight seats but were still a minority.

    “The fact that Republicans controlled redistricting (after 2010) meant that they were able to build up a wall, stopping a lot of the tide from running out,” said Justin Levitt, a law professor and redistricting expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “They were able to shore up a lot of the districts that had been won by, in many cases, tea party freshmen or other Republican freshmen.”

    The Republicans’ advantage will fade as the decade wears on and the population changes. In the meantime, lopsided House districts are having a direct impact on the ability of Congress to tackle tough issues. House districts are drawn so that Democrats and Republicans often represent very different groups of people with different views on divisive issues. That can make it hard to find common ground.

    Democrats control the White House and the Senate, though control of the Senate will be up for grabs in November. Republicans control the House, giving them powerful leverage to block Obama’s second-term agenda.

    How did Republicans gain their historic advantage? It all started with the party’s sweeping victories in 2010 and a plan called REDMAP.

    The 2010 election was a disaster for Democrats. Voters were angry over bank bailouts, the poor economy, ballooning budget deficits and Obama’s new health law, which had just passed Congress without a single Republican vote. All these issues fueled the rise of conservative tea party groups that backed Republican candidates up and down the ballot.

    Obama called the election “a shellacking.”

    Republicans picked up 63 seats to win control of the House. They also gained seats in the Senate, though Democrats kept their majority.

    Perhaps more important, Republicans won control of state legislatures in key states, giving the party the edge that is still paying dividends.

    Every 10 years following the census, states redraw the boundaries of House districts to account for population changes. Some states gain seats and others lose them, so the overall total remains 435. In most states, the legislature and the governor draw up the new districts, which is why political parties pay special attention to elections at the start of each decade.

    “I think Democrats made a terrible mistake. They did not put nearly enough attention or resources into legislative races at the state level,” said Matt Bennett, a former aide to President Bill Clinton. “A bunch of these legislatures slipped by very narrow margins, and some of them flipped for the first time since Reconstruction in the South.”

    For Republicans, it was a combination of luck and planning. The political winds were in their favor, but they also had been plotting for years to take full advantage of redistricting.

    The project was called REDMAP, which stood for Redistricting Majority Project. It called for targeting statehouse races in states that were expected to gain or lose congressional seats following the census. GOP strategists reasoned that redistricting could have a greater impact in these states because there would have to be more changes to district boundaries, said Chris Jankowski, former president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which heads up the party’s national effort to elect candidates to state offices.

    Republicans spent more than $30 million through REDMAP to help elect legislative majorities in states like Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Jankowski said.

    In Ohio, REDMAP spent nearly $1 million on six Ohio House races. Republican candidates won five, helping them take control of the Ohio House.

    In Pennsylvania, REDMAP spent nearly $1 million on three state House races, winning all three and helping Republicans win a majority in the Pennsylvania House.

    “We’re not talking about 2-month-long broadcast buys on network TV that never stop, like you see in a U.S. Senate battle,” Jankowski said. “We’re talking about cable, radio, mail, ground game — very basic stuff.”

    Similar scenarios played out in Michigan and Wisconsin. In North Carolina, Republicans won control of the entire state legislature for the first time since the 1800s.

    “We targeted the resources to have maximum impact on congressional redistricting,” Jankowski said.

    The strategy worked. Before the 2010 election, the GOP had majorities in 36 state legislative bodies. Afterward, the party controlled 56, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

    In almost half the states, Republicans won control of the entire redistricting process. They gained control of at least one legislative chamber in other states, limiting Democrats’ ability to draw districts favoring their candidates.

    Democrats’ statehouse losses in 2010 were “a catastrophe that is going to have a much bigger impact on Obama’s second term than the congressional elections that year did, because it’s much more durable,” Bennett said.

    In all, Republicans controlled the process of drawing the boundaries for 210 House districts, compared to just 44 districts for Democrats, according to statistics compiled by Levitt. The rest were drawn by divided government, the courts, or in a handful of mostly western states, independent commissions.

    Six states illustrate the Republicans’ advantage in House elections: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and Florida. Obama won all six in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. But the House delegation for each state is overwhelmingly Republican.

    It might seem like voters split their ballots — voting for a Democrat for president and a Republican for Congress. But that’s not what happened.

    To help analyze voting patterns in congressional districts, The Associated Press divided the votes from the 2012 presidential election into all 435 House districts.

    Since Obama got the most votes, you might think he won the most congressional districts. But he didn’t.

    Nationally, Obama received nearly 5 million more votes than Republican Mitt Romney. But in some states, large numbers of Obama’s votes were packed into heavily Democratic congressional districts. As a result, Romney won 17 more House districts than Obama.

    Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and Florida accounted for the entire disparity. Obama won the statewide vote, but Romney won the most congressional districts in each state.

    Republicans engineered these disparities by packing large numbers of Democrats into relatively few districts. This resulted in lopsided Democratic districts. For example, Obama won more than 80 percent of the vote in 26 House districts spread across 10 states.

    Republican voters were spread more evenly. As a result, Romney won more than 80 percent of the vote in just a single House district, in the Texas panhandle.

    Lopsided districts help explain why Congress is so polarized. The divide is reflected in demographic differences, which can shape the debate on a variety of issues.

    — Immigration. The average Democratic district has about twice as many Hispanic residents as the typical Republican district. This helps explain why House Republicans have less incentive to pass an immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of people living in the U.S. illegally.

    — Minimum wage. Democrats represent the vast majority of districts with large pockets of low-income workers and families living in poverty. That helps explain why Democrats are more eager than Republicans to raise the minimum wage. Interestingly, Democrats also represent most of the wealthiest districts, along the East and West Coasts.

    — Health care. Democrats represent the vast majority of districts with high concentrations of people who had no health insurance before Obama’s new health law, one of many reasons Democrats and Republicans view the law so differently.

    Independent experts give Democrats little chance to retake the House this year. Even beyond Republicans’ redistricting advantage, the party of the president usually loses seats in Congress during midterm elections.

    Still, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who is in charge of the House Democrats’ campaign operation, rejects arguments that Democrats can’t do it, regardless of the map.

    “There’s no question that midterm elections are more challenging for the party whose president is in power,” Israel said.

    Jankowski, on the other hand, expects Republican candidates to continue enjoying the fruits of redistricting. But he notes that people move and populations change. As the decade wears on, the political benefits diminish, and another redistricting battle will loom.

    “It has a shelf life to it and it’s usually not the full 10 years,” Jankowski said. “That’s the reason we have a census every 10 years.”

    The post GOP gerrymandering creates uphill fight for Dems in the House appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Unlike conventional financial planning, an economics approach to financial planning will protect your living standard over time. Photo by Flikcr user Damian Gadal

    Unlike conventional financial planning, an economics approach to financial planning will protect your living standard over time. Photo by Flikcr user Damian Gadal.

    Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from Larry Kotlikoff’s earlier article in the Journal of Financial Planning. His Social Security Q+A will return next week, so keep the questions coming.

    Imagine a 35-year-old California couple, the Joneses, making $100,000 a year with two children, ages 3 and 5. How should a financial planner help them prepare for their future?

    The couple has no assets apart from a $400,000 house with a 20-year, $300,000 mortgage, with monthly payments of $3,000. Property taxes, insurance and maintenance amount to $7,500 a year. The couple is covered by Social Security, plans to spend $25,000 a year in today’s dollars for four years helping their children pay for college, and anticipates hefty hikes in Medicare’s Part B premium. If they need nursing home care, the couple intends to do what most other households of their means do: rely on Medicaid. Finally, the couple is assumed to earn 3 percent above inflation each year on its investments and to plan for the worst-case scenario of living to 100.

    Conventional financial planning would encourage their household to put its saving on autopilot and force its living standard to adjust each year to annual changes in its income and off-the-top expenses. A better strategy would protect their living standard.

    The Joneses should adopt an economics (read common sense) strategy to spend more when there are more mouths to feed and less when there are fewer. This is called consumption smoothing because it will smooth their living standard over time.

    In the saving context, this means moving resources from good times, when one is working and earning money, to bad times, when one is retired and earning nothing. In the insurance context, it means moving money from good times, when the house hasn’t burned down or the principal earner hasn’t died, to bad times, when these events happen. And in the investment context, it means diversifying one’s resources so that there is something to eat not only when the stock market booms, but also when it crashes.

    Under this plan, to smooth their household’s living standard per person, the Joneses should spend $41,395 when both children are at home, $35,405 after the first child heads to college, and $28,886 after the second child leaves home. Once the second child graduates, and the couple gets out from under its borrowing constraint from the mortgage and college expenses, their spending rises to $30,345 a year and remains there until age 100, assuming each spouse lives that long. The household’s living standard per person is $18,054 until the children are out of college, and $18,965 thereafter.

    How To Smooth Your Spending

    Understanding this economic approach and actually implementing it, however, are two different things. Take deciding how much to spend today. If you are trying to smooth your living standard over time, you’ll need to know what your current spending will leave you with the next period and how those resources you bring into the next period will affect the following period’s spending, which will affect spending the period after that, and so forth into the future.

    Stated differently, knowing what you should do today requires a game plan for tomorrow. You can use what economists call dynamic programming to tackle seemingly intractable sequential problems where what you do next depends on what you do now.

    Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve got certain errands to do before catching a plane. Deciding when to head to the airport provides a simple example of dynamic programming, which most of us would instinctively use in our everyday lives.

    We would solve the problem backward, starting with the plane’s departure time, subtracting an hour to check in and go through security, subtracting the time needed to go from the office to the airport, subtracting the time needed to go from the bank to the office, and then subtracting the time needed to go from home to the bank. The end result would be the time to depart from home.

    The alternative to this dynamic programming approach is to simply try a range of different potential times at which to leave the house and keep adding in the amounts of time for the different tasks and then see whether that starting time leaves us arriving too early or too late to catch the plane. Such a method will eventually get us to the right answer, but take forever doing so.

    Conventional financial planning establishes spending targets through the same sort of guesswork — only the costs are higher because instead of missing your plane, you could be drastically lowering your standard of living if you use this approach. Even small targeting mistakes can make a major difference in saving recommendations. Why? Because the targeting mistakes are being applied to all 40-or-so years of a household’s potential retirement and a large number of small mistakes adds up.


    Pose Your Questions to Larry Here

    When retirement spending targets are set too high — higher than the appropriate living-standard-smoothing level — households are told to save too much and spend too little before retirement. When the targets are set too low, households are told to save too little and spend too much before retirement. Either way, when the household reaches retirement age, its living standard will change abruptly — its consumption will be disrupted rather than smoothed. Targeting mistakes of even 15 percent can readily induce 30 percent disruptions in living standards, pre- and post-retirement.

    Working backwards from the flight time (or using dynamic programming) to smooth (to the extent possible) a household’s living standard delivers a lifetime spending plan. These recommended spending amounts constitute the right household spending targets — not just for retirement, but for each year before retirement. Associated with this life-cycle spending plan is a life-cycle saving plan.

    Why Conventional Planning Fails

    Using the replacement rate methodology that conventional financial planning relies on is highly problematic for several reasons.

    First, these calculations assume that a household’s spending after retirement will be precisely the same as its spending before retirement. This is, to put it mildly, a strong assumption given that the pre-retirement spending being measured includes all household outlays, be they on consumption, mortgage payments, support for children, education, medical bills, and so on.

    Second, the replacement-rate method ignores new spending needs in retirement. Omitting Medicare Part B premiums and other retirement-specific expenditures, the replacement rate method understates the household’s future spending needs and, therefore, what it needs to save.

    Third, the replacement rate presumes that the household’s demographic composition will remain constant throughout retirement; that is, it ignores the fact that children will leave the household and that one spouse may be significantly younger than another.

    Fourth, the replacement-rate method assumes that the household’s current saving behavior is consistent with consumption smoothing — that is, with maintaining the household’s underlying living standard per person through time. There is no reason to believe this is the case. Ironically, if households are already saving the appropriate consumption-smoothing amounts, they have no need for a replacement-rate target. But if they are not, the replacement-rate methodology will produce the wrong replacement rate because it will use actual saving (that is, the wrong saving amount) in calculating the rate.

    Can You Really Save or Invest Too Much?

    Conventional methods, as a rule, appear to recommend much more saving and insurance than is economically justified. But can households really save and insure too much given life’s uncertainties?

    One of the risks that an economics approach considers, which is easily ignored, is the risk of spending too little when young and dying before having had a chance to spend too much when old. This risk of squandering one’s youth rather than one’s money is fully incorporated in the lifetime balancing act that is proper consumption smoothing.

    Over-insuring is also an economics no-no. The goal of insurance is to equalize one’s living standard across good and bad times, not deprive oneself when bad things don’t happen in order to live at a much higher level when they do. This is why none of us buys fire insurance for five times the value of our homes. The same logic applies to life insurance. It’s meant to insure one’s prior living standard, not multiply it.

    The same danger applies to evaluating investment risk. Households that are given inappropriately high savings goals may be induced to invest in higher yield, but also riskier securities in order to raise the probability of meeting the target. Although it’s true that higher-yield investing can improve one’s chances of success, as so defined, it also can worsen the extent of the downside. In focusing on the probability of meeting the target as opposed to the level to which one’s living standard will fall if one’s assets perform poorly, conventional planning may be inducing excessive risk-taking.

    Economics considers what really matters when it comes to risky investing — the level and variability of one’s living standard through time. Such analysis can help one choose how best to allocate one’s portfolio and how rapidly to spend down one’s assets given that portfolio allocation.

    Under the economics approach, your asset holdings should not smoothly decline with age, but rather follow a roller-coaster pattern. To be precise, young households should invest a small to moderate share of their financial assets in stock. They should increase this share dramatically in their middle ages. Then they should reduce this share as they approach retirement. Next they should increase the equity share modestly in early retirement, and reduce this share dramatically in late retirement. Also, at any age, they should set their equity share based on their risk aversion.

    It All Begins with the Living Standard

    Virtually all other personal financial questions begin and end with our living standard. Can we afford the addition? Can we retire in Hawaii? Can we help the kids buy a house? Does converting to a Roth IRA make sense? Does taking out long-term care insurance beat self-insuring?

    When it comes to personal finance, economics keeps one issue front and center: our living standards. Spending, saving, insuring, and investing — all of these decisions boil down to smoothing our living standards, protecting our living standards and making informed, careful gambles to raise our living standards.

    The post Make your standard of living the basis for all financial planning appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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