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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Episode 679: You Asked For It

Jan 27, 2016

We ponder the origins of money, the economics of Santa, and the business of cemeteries. Why? Because you asked.

Today on the show, we answer listeners' questions.

Music: Matt Heaton's "Happy You Made It." Send us questions : Twitter/ Facebook.

Made in China.

You can see those words stamped on countless consumer products — electronics, clothes, but not cars. For the first time on a mass scale, a car built in China will be on sale in the United States — the Buick Envision.

China is the largest car market in the world. Chinese shoppers easily buy twice as many cars as Americans do. Chinese companies have been investing billions in the auto industry. The latest example is Volvo — the Swedish carmaker known for its boxy, safe, brazenly unstylish vehicles is pride of the Swedish car industry.

The DeLorean Motor Co., which hasn't made a car in more than 30 years, is planning to build several hundred new replicas of the stainless steel, gull-winged car featured in the sci-fi movie trilogy Back to the Future.

Thanks to the Low Volume Vehicle Manufacturing Act, which was inserted in last year's transportation bill, companies can build small batches of replica vehicles.

Ray's Sporting Goods in Dallas' Oak Cliff is a neighborhood firearm dreamland.

It's stocked with the latest pistols, shotguns and AR-15 military-style rifles. Chuck Payne, the store's manager, says he has sold to a lot more women recently.

"A lot of married ladies with their husbands, some without, but they've decided that their husband's not home, they need to be able to do something and they need a different gun than what their husband had," Payne says.

DeVry University, which has at least 55 locations across the U.S., advertises that 90 percent of its graduates seeking employment found jobs in their field within six months of graduation.

That claim by the for-profit university is coming under fire. The Federal Trade Commission has filed a lawsuit against the university's operators, saying the ads are deceptive.

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It's 5 a.m. in Lagos, Nigeria, and the Igwe twins are chopping and sweating in the kitchen. The generator is running because there's no electricity. It's hot. But the 27-year-olds, who run a catering service called Speed Meals, don't mind.

"For me it's fun. Really, I don't even feel the heat," says Tobias Igwe.

Tobias and Titus Igwe have huge hopes for their small business.

"By this time next year, we want to be feeding 1,000 people daily," says Titus. "The next 10 years, we want to be feeding at least 1 million people in Nigeria every day."

The Federal Reserve has decided to keep its benchmark interest rate where it is, even as Fed officials expressed somewhat more caution about global economic conditions.

In a statement issued after the end of policymakers' two-day meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee said the federal funds rate would stay at 25-50 basis points, where it was set at the Fed's December meeting.

If FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has his way, most people who subscribe to cable will stop paying a monthly fee to rent a set-top box from their provider.

As we've reported, about 99 percent of cable TV subscribers rent their cable boxes, netting cable companies about $19.5 billion a year.

Oysters are the sea's version of fine wine: Their taste varies with the water they grow in. And slow-growing oysters from northern waters — like the briny Wellfleets of Massachusetts and the sweet, mild Kumamotos of the Pacific Northwest — are among the most coveted.

That may be changing now. An oyster renaissance in the Southeastern U.S. is underway — from Virginia all the way down to Florida's Apalachicola Bay. The region is adopting the aquaculture that restored a decimated oyster industry in the north, and it has led to a huge boost in oyster production.

Local air regulators are suing Southern California Gas Co. over the massive ongoing natural gas leak near the Los Angeles neighborhood of Porter Ranch, seeking millions of dollars in penalties.

The civil suit alleges that the company's negligence led to injuries and has created "an ongoing public nuisance."

Last fall, Shalonda Brown decided she'd had it with paying nearly $1,000 a month for family health, dental and vision plans through her job at an independent lab in Dallas.

Casting about for an alternative, she checked out individual family plans on HealthCare.gov. No dice. The family's income was too high to qualify for subsidies and comparable coverage wouldn't be any cheaper.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Price Of Almonds May Have Met A Slippery Slope

Jan 27, 2016

Drive anywhere in Central California and you'll find fields of almonds. So many new trees have been planted in recent years that people have begun to wonder whether the growth of the almond industry is unsustainable. It seems like the price of the nut may have met a slippery slope.

It started out with almonds getting a lot of bad press over the last few years. The nut was called out for soaking up too much water, while at the same time farmers were making bank on the tree crop. Meanwhile, the commodity slowly lost value.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is on a goodwill tour through Italy and France this week, trying to drum up investment for his country's sanctions-battered economy.

But Iran still faces challenges that make it hard for companies to do business with Tehran.

In a move that was loudly celebrated in Iran, the United States and other countries earlier this month agreed to lift an economic embargo that had been imposed in 2012 in an effort to curb Iran's nuclear program.

Stocks plunged in Asia on Tuesday as global oil prices slid and investors worried that China's currency would continue to lose value. European markets also fell as oil prices slumped again.

From Shanghai, NPR's Frank Langfitt reports for our Newscast unit:

"The Shanghai Composite was down more than 6 percent, hitting the lowest level in about 14 months. Japan's Nikkei and Hong Kong's Hang Seng indexes were both down around 2 percent. Panic selling came as crude oil dropped back below $30 a barrel in Asian trading.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Charles Koch says he's not really spending all that much on politics. As one of the billionaire Koch brothers, Koch has made massive infusions of money to political causes — some of it in direct contributions to candidates, and much of it through support for think tanks and other political groups. The organization of donors led by Charles and his brother David has vowed to spend $889 million to influence the 2016 election.

Yet in an interview with NPR, Charles Koch suggested he is merely playing defense, not offense. The libertarian-leaning industrialist said he is outspent.

San Diego is the largest city in the country to commit to using only renewable energy, a goal that political parties, environmentalists and business groups hope to meet over the next 20 years.

That's right. There is broad consensus to reach this environmentally ambitious plan.

"A thriving business environment is one in which the quality of life is high so that we can attract the best and brightest talent from around the nation [and] around the world," says Sean Karafin, with the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

If you are getting spooked by plunging stock prices, you may be trying to figure out where the economy is heading.

Here's one new sign that better days are coming:

In the latest survey of business economists, most — 58 percent — say their companies plan to raise workers' wages this winter. That's the most upbeat wage outlook since mid-2014, according to the quarterly survey done by the National Association for Business Economics.

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In a tweet that was a lot longer than 140 characters, the CEO of Twitter announced some high-level departures at the company. Jack Dorsey's tweet came late last night and, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, after months of falling stock prices.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There are some signs that the long-running turnaround effort at McDonald's may be working. The company announced today that it beat fourth-quarter profit estimates and that sales increased both at home and abroad. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

The National Football League signed a five-year, $400 million contract with Microsoft in 2013 that gives teams custom Microsoft Surface tablets to use in training and, more importantly, on the sidelines during nationally televised games.

Coaches and players use the tablets to review plays and analyze data in real time — or at least that's how it's supposed to work.

Steve Miller has some customers on offer. Millions of them in fact.

The chief medical officer at Express Scripts, the largest pharmacy benefit manager in the U.S., has been essentially auctioning off his 80 million customers to the drug companies that will give him the best deal.

"Who wants my market share?" Miller says. "Whoever will give me the best price, I will reward you with an enormous amount of market share."

Overall, natural gas is by far the most popular source of home heating in the U.S. But in the Northeast, homeowners are much more likely than in other regions to use heating oil.

Many homeowners are smiling this winter, because fuel prices are down 50 percent from two years ago.

But not everyone is happy. Buying heating oil is a little like playing poker: Bet on the wrong price and it'll cost you.

Meet The Most Pampered Vegetables In America

Jan 25, 2016

There's a small corner of the restaurant world where food is art and the plate is just as exquisite as the mouthful.

In this world, chefs are constantly looking for new creative materials for the next stunning presentation.

The tiny community of farmers who grow vegetables for the elite chefs prize creativity, too, not just in what they grow but in how they grow it. They're seeking perfection, in vegetable form and flavor, like this tiny cucumber that looks like a watermelon — called a cucamelon.

As the old saying goes, the stock market has predicted nine of the last five recessions. In other words, sharply falling stock markets are crying wolf about half the time.

Dyke Messinger, who runs a small manufacturing company in Salisbury, N.C., thinks stock investors have been overreacting during this sell-off.

"It is bizarre to me when we see what we believe is good core strength in the U.S. market," he says.

North Carolina is one of the country's largest poultry producers — and getting bigger. Large-scale chicken farms are spreading across the state. Government regulations have allowed these farms to get much closer to where people live. That's not just a nuisance. Neighbors say it's also a potential health hazard.

Craig Watts is an industrial chicken farmer in Fairmont, N.C. He contracts with Perdue and has raised birds for more than 20 years. Still, he says sometimes it's a struggle to meet the demands of the industry.

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