As Venezuelans Strike, U.S. Announces Sanctions Against Maduro

Venezuelans began blocking deserted streets Wednesday as the opposition held a two-day strike opposing President Nicolas Maduro’s planned vote for a new Constituent Assembly. A banner reading “The Constituent Is Hunger,” is seen in Caracas’ Petare neighborhood on Wednesday.

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

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Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration announced sanctions on Wednesday against Venezuela, intended to pressure President Nicolas Maduro to drop plans for a controversial election.

The sanctions target 13 current or former officials from Maduro’s government, freezing their U.S. assets and preventing Americans from doing business with them, the AP reports.

“These sanctions are a fresh attempt to persuade Maduro to cancel Sunday’s elections for a new assembly that’ll have the power to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution,” according to NPR’s Phillip Reeves. “The election is set up in a way that all but ensures the assembly will be packed with Maduro supporters.”

U.S. officials warned that tougher measures could be coming, Reuters reports: “The most serious option is financial sanctions that would halt dollar payments for the country’s oil or a total ban on oil imports to the United States, a top cash-paying client.”

As The Two-Way’s Camila Domonoske reported last week, “Venezuela is one of the largest foreign suppliers of oil to the U.S., accounting for nearly 10 percent of total imports. The Trump administration says it is mindful of the impact that restricting those imports could have on U.S. oil refineries and retail gas prices but adds that it is prepared to make tough decisions if forced to.”

The sanctions were announced as a two-day national strike began in the country, organized by opposition groups.

“Highways were mostly empty and businesses shuttered across the country as millions of people observed the 48-hour strike and activists threw up roadblocks in many neighborhoods to keep others from getting to work,” The Associated Press reports. “By late afternoon, clashes between police and protesters erupted at some roadblocks in Caracas, and the chief prosecutor’s office reported at least one person killed.” At least 98 people have died in the four months of demonstrations, according to the AP.

It’s the second national strike in a week, after millions took part in last Thursday’s strike.

“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” President Trump declared last week. “If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions.”

What the protesters want now, Bloomberg’s Andrew Rosati toldMorning Edition from Caracas, is to halt the impending constituent assembly: “And on top of that, the main demand from the opposition is a new round of free and fair elections. They want international observers to come to make sure that these elections are genuine.”

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As Cost Of U.S. Health Care Skyrockets, So Does Pay Of Health Care CEOs

Vicki Reid, right, holds a likeness of John Martin, who was then CEO of the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences. Reid and others were protesting high drug prices in front of the conference on retroviruses and opportunistic infections — a meeting held at the World Congress Center in Atlanta in March 2013.

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John Amis/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation

In the seven years since the Affordable Care Act was passed, CEOs of U.S. health care companies have made a lot of money.

Their compensation far outstrips the wage growth of nearly all Americans, according to reporter Bob Herman, who published an analysis this week of “the sky-high pay of health care CEOs” for the online news site, Axios.

Based on corporate financial filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Herman did research on 113 heads of 70 of the largest U.S. health care companies in the last seven years. Cumulatively, he says, these CEOs have earned $9.8 billion since the ACA was first enacted. Only four of the 113 CEOs were women, he notes, and only two are right now in charge of major health care companies.

The top earner was John Martin, the former CEO of the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, who took home nearly $900 million, Herman says. Gilead makes, among other things, medicines to treat HIV and AIDS, as well as two leading drugs to treat hepatitis C.

Several other executives topped $250 million.

Robert Siegel, host of NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke with Herman about his analysis. Excerpts of the interview follow, edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

Who are these CEOs and why are they earning so much money — on average, $20 million per year, you say?

We looked at a wide array of different companies. They include pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, hospitals, pharmacies — it really spans the gamut. And we found that since the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2010, their pay has really gone up. So the ACA hasn’t really hurt their earnings, per se. And a lot of the money that they’re earning is coming in the form of vested stocks.

Of course, an underlying issue behind all the talk about Obamacare is not just how we pay for health care and who gets insurance (and in what form) to pay for health care, but how much we pay for health care. What do these CEOs’ earnings say about health care costs in the United States?

For the longest time, health care inflation has really blown away the rate at which the rest of the economy is growing. And a big reason why is because health care executives are not paid to slow spending. Because so much of their pay comes in the form of stock, their incentive is to do whatever it takes to make that stock go up. So that means selling more drugs; raising prices above inflation; performing more procedures; getting more people into the hospital. And those are the exact opposite things that health policy experts believe would benefit the broader system: lower prices; eliminating unnecessary care and drugs; coordinating better care.

But from 2010 (when the Affordable Care Act was signed) through 2015, the Dow Jones went up from under 11,000 to almost 18,000. Wouldn’t executives in most sectors of the economy be making huge gains on stocks and stock options during the period that is also the lifetime of Obamacare?

The stock market really has been doing quite well since the Affordable Care Act has gone into effect, but the reason why this matters even more for health care is a sixth of our economy is devoted to health care. And that continues to grow more every year. So if the most influential executives of these companies are being paid to keep that trajectory up, that’s money that’s being taken away from education or infrastructure or other parts of the economy that may not be growing as quickly, and maybe that we’d want to grow more quickly.

Can a health care executive argue that the Affordable Care Act brought a lot of people into coverage who haven’t had it before? We’ve heard this anecdotally — that lots of people are getting treatment for things that they were skipping when they couldn’t afford it. So, more people are going to the doctor; they’re getting more prescriptions.

There is some effect there, but that doesn’t account for everything. The underlying incentives still really push these companies to do more — even if it’s unnecessary. There’s still this big issue of all these services that people are getting, are they necessary? And I think that’s one of the questions that still need to be answered.

Are there any proposals on the table now — either in Republican bills or in Democratic proposals — that would actually reduce health care costs significantly and reverse this trend?

In the health care debate right now, none of the proposals in Congress address this whatsoever. A lot of what’s being proposed merely tinkers with the financing of health care and who gets health insurance. Nothing is being addressed about drug prices, for example. Nothing’s being addressed about the actual costs of the system. The debate right now is still bickering over how to finance the system — not around how much the system itself costs, which I think is a big issue.

NPR editors Renita Jablonski and Gisele Grayson, and producer Ian Stewart contributed to this story.

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After Three-Year Hiatus, Ohio Carries Out An Execution

Inmate Ronald Phillips was executed at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, on Wednesday morning. Above, the prison’s death chamber in 2005.

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Kiichiro Sato/AP

At 10:43 a.m. Wednesday, inmate and convicted murderer Ronald Phillips was pronounced dead, executed via lethal injection by the state of Ohio — the first time the state has carried out a death sentence in more than three years.

Phillips’ death at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville may mark the end of one chapter in the state’s battle to find a legally permissible means of execution – and the state may soon begin carrying out many more death sentences.

Ohio paused its executions after a lethal injection in 2014 caused inmate Dennis McGuire to gasp and snort during the 15 minutes before he died.

Following Phillips’ death, Ohio now has 138 people sentenced to death, among the nation’s highest death row populations.

Ohio has executed 54 people since 1999. And it has a number of executions scheduled through 2020, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

As NPR’s Debbie Elliott reported in April, the number of executions in the United States has declined significantly in recent years, as states have struggled to find drugs that can kill death row inmates in a constitutional manner.

Phillips, 43, was convicted in 1993 of the rape and murder of Sheila Marie Evans, his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter.

He was 19 at the time, and his lawyers had argued that his young age should have been taken into consideration.

Phillips had appealed to the Supreme Court for a stay, saying that he “bears no resemblance to that teenager” sentenced to death long ago, and asking for more time to pursue legal arguments in his case, the Associated Press reports.

But on Tuesday, the Supreme Court denied his request, and the state went forward with his execution. Phillips was killed using the three drugs that comprise Ohio’s new method, including “a sedative, midazolam, used in some troubled executions in Ohio, Arkansas and Arizona. The other drugs are rocuronium bromide, which paralyzes inmates, and potassium chloride, which stop their hearts,” the AP reports.

“Ron Phillips committed an unspeakable crime when he was 19 years old, and was himself the product of a home filled with abuse and neglect,” Timothy F. Sweeney and Lisa M. Lagos, his attorneys, said in a joint statement to The Washington Post. “But the grown man who woke up this morning at age 43, ready to face his punishment, did not in any way resemble that troubled and broken teen. He had grown to be a good man, who was thoughtful, caring, compassionate, remorseful, and reflective. He tried every day to atone for his shameful role in Sheila’s death.”

Phillips read a last statement to the victim’s family, which the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction provided to NPR.

“To the Evans family, I’m sorry you had to live so long with my evil actions,” he said. “All those years I prayed you’d forgive me and find it in your heart to forgive and have mercy on me.”

“God may forgive him, but I don’t think I can,” the deceased girl’s aunt, Donna Hudson, toldThe Columbus Dispatch after witnessing Phillips’ execution. Hudson said she came “to make sure that baby girl got justice.”

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Episode 629: Buy Low, Sell Prime

Sam Cohen, middleman

Jacob Goldstein/NPR

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Jacob Goldstein/NPR

Note: This episode originally ran in 2015.

Sam Cohen’s business works like this: He walks into a big retail store and buys a bunch of stuff. Then he sells it on Amazon for more. It’s straightforward and surprisingly lucrative.

This is a multimillion-dollar business for Sam — and for lots of other people who do the same thing. It’s called retail arbitrage.

How is this even a job, much less an industry? It defies something called the law of one price. That economic principle says that the same item should sell for pretty much the same amount of money everywhere it’s available. If, say, a Nerf football costs $15 at Toys “R” Us, it should cost the same amount on Amazon. Because, if it’s cheaper in one of those places, everyone will just buy where it’s cheap. If it can sell for more on Amazon, why doesn’t Toys “R” Us sell it for more there themselves?

In a lot of cases, the law of one price still holds. But Sam Cohen is an expert at finding the sweet spot: Products that he can buy in bulk at a physical store, and then resell online for a profit. He knows, for example, that a board game like Monopoly is a “commodity item” that he probably won’t be able to make money on. It’s available everywhere, and it’ll probably have pretty much the same price no matter where you look. All those sellers are competing with each other, driving the price down. But a specialty box of Monopoly — say, a Game of Thrones-themed box — he could potentially sell for a profit.

Today on the show: We meet the modern middleman and we find out how he makes money doing something that should be economically impossible.

Music: BoxCat Games’ “Against the Wall” and “Light Up My Mind.” Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts or PocketCast.

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Federal Reserve Holds Interest Rates Steady

A television screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows the rate decision of the Federal Reserve on Wednesday.

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Richard Drew/AP

Following a two-day Fed meeting in Washington, D.C., Federal Reserve policymakers say they’ll keep their benchmark rate in a range between one and 1.25 percent for the time being.

Fed officials said “job gains have been solid” and the U.S. “labor market continues to strengthen,” in the statement following a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, or FOMC.

The officials described economic activity as “rising moderately.” They noted that unemployment rate has declined since the beginning of the year. The Fed is close to meeting its mandate to maximize employment.

However, officials also noted today that inflation is running below the 2 percent target they think is best for supporting economic growth. Concern about lagging inflation could pressure the Fed to hold rates lower for a longer period of time.

Fed officials also said that they plan to begin selling off some of the securities on their huge balance sheet “relatively soon.” The Fed bought trillions of dollars in government bonds and mortgage-backed securities after the financial crisis, injecting money into the economy in an effort to boost growth. During that time the total value of securities on the Fed’s balance sheet rose from under $900 billion dollars to over $4.5 trillion dollars.

Analysts expect the Fed will begin the process of selling those securities this fall. However, the sell-off will happen over a period of years. Dumping the securities on the market rapidly could destabilize financial markets and harm the economy.

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There Are So Many Cute 'Boys' In Charli XCX's New Video

Let’s count all of the cute boys in Charli XCX‘s new video: Bleachers‘ Jack Antonoff pumping pink weights, D.R.A.M. smashing TVs, Joe Jonas pouting over pancakes, Diplo cuddling with dogs, Mac DeMarco licking a guitar, Vampire Weekend‘s Ezra Koenig demonstrating good oral hygiene, Wiz Khalifa popping dollar bills. It’s nice to know all of these cute boys will have jobs if the whole music thing doesn’t work out.

“No boys were harmed in the making of this video,” Charli XCX jokes in the YouTube caption for the video, which she directed, blessing us with the gift of endless GIFs to come. After releasing the wide-spectrum pop mixtape Number 1 Angelin March, “Boys” is a catchy piece of electro-fluff that flirts and teases, “I’m sorry that I missed your party / I wish I had a better excuse, like ‘I had to trash a hotel lobby’/ But I was busy thinking ’bout boys/ I was busy dreaming ’bout boys.”

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Chelsea Wolfe Comes With Pummel In Tow On 'Vex'

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Chelsea Wolfe bends her work like shadow, doubling over or arcing her arms high, contorting its contours to effect a desired whole. The shapes she casts with her music are always dramatic and darkly balletic, the sound of someone dancing slowly into their depths and reaching a shaky peace with whatever they find in there.

“Vex,” the second song from Wolfe’s forthcoming Hiss Spun, stretches its three minutes towards forever. It’s a knife-balance of Wolfe’s hyaline voice and a trench of rhythm and black, metallic guitars screeching overhead like hawks on the hunt.

Aaron Turner, of Isis and Old Man Gloom (and founder of the much-loved Hydra Head Records), provides a tectonic, rumbling call-and-response to Wolfe’s paean to self-control in the face of madness. “Perfect psychosis / noiselessly whirrs,” she sings, before welcoming the doom.

Wolfe’s sixth official album, Hiss Spun, will be released Sept. 22 on Sargent House. You can hear the previous single, “16 Psyche,” here.

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