There were 315,000 first-time claims filed for unemployment benefits last week, the Employment and Training Administration says.
That's down 9,000 from the previous week and marks a three-month low.
So, for the second straight week, there's at least modestly good news to report about the labor market.
Last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said there were 175,000 more jobs on employers' payrolls last month than in January — better growth than had been expected.
Reuters says the news about jobless claims suggests some "strengthening" in the labor market. Bloomberg News looks a little ahead and writes that "faster gains in hiring will help to boost consumer spending, the biggest part of the economy, after harsh winter weather weighed on everything from retail sales to home purchases earlier this year."
On Thursday, President Obama will roll out his plan for strengthening overtime pay protections for millions of workers. In his view, if more workers got fatter paychecks, they could spend more and stimulate the economy.
But if his critics are right, then employers would end up laying off workers to make up for the higher wage costs. And that would hurt the already painfully slow recovery.
Which scenario is right?
Economists are divided. Some say the proposed changes would give the economy just what it needs: more consumer demand. Others say it would lead to exactly what the economy doesn't need: fewer jobs.
Sound familiar? This is very similar to the intense debate over the president's other proposal. He wants to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. That matter is stalled in Congress, but the White House does have the power to rewrite the wording of the overtime rules.
As Obama lays out his case for changes, the two sides are squaring off — each accusing the other of not understanding how today's economy really works.
Let's consider the arguments one at a time. The president gets the floor first.
Why More Overtime Pay Would Help
Obama is asking the Labor Department to revise overtime pay rules to cover many more salaried workers, such as shift supervisors at fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.
The most commonly used exemption to avoid overtime pay involves designating people as "executive, administrative and professional" employees. Under existing rules, these exempt employees can be denied overtime if they are paid more than $455 a week.
As a result, a "supervisor" could earn as little as $24,000 a year, while working well beyond 40 hours. In some cases, such a worker might put in enough hours to end up getting paid — in effect — less than the minimum wage.
The administration points out that the $455 level set in 2004 would be worth $553 today, after adjusting for inflation.
Supporters say an update of that $455 pay level and a rewrite of the exemption rules could have a fairly large stimulative effect by giving workers more money to spend.
A change in overtime rules "could raise the pay of several million workers who may currently be misclassified as managers," Jeff Grabelsky, associate director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University, wrote in a statement. "Growing income inequality is a persistent problem in the United States and contributes to anemic economic growth."
Why More Overtime Pay Would Hurt
Now House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, gets the microphone.
On Wednesday, he told reporters that if companies must pay more for supervisors, then they will eliminate other positions. Resulting layoffs would ripple out and slow the economy, he says.
"If you don't have a job, you don't qualify for overtime. So what do you get out of it? You get nothing," Boehner said. "The president's policies are making it difficult for employers to expand employment."
Jonathan Meer, an economist at Texas A&M University, agreed that the White House proposal would increase labor costs, and therefore result in layoffs. "It is likely to slow job growth since, when costs of any kind go up, businesses will adjust" and cut jobs, he said.
Meer said it's not yet clear exactly which businesses would be most affected, but fast-food restaurants likely would be among those that may have to pay more. "The owner of that restaurant is likely to be a franchisee with a razor-thin profit margin who can ill-afford increases in labor costs," he said.
But Richard DeKaser, corporate economist for Wells Fargo, said how one assesses the broad economic impact "depends on what you believe is happening in the economy" during this slow recovery.
"If you think the problem is insufficient demand, then increasing pay for workers is helpful," DeKaser said. "I would argue that that is where we are. At this particular time, programs that increase income will stimulate growth."
This series on first novels continues with a look at the book auction: what triggers one, how one is organized, and what running one is like. Previous posts covered how agents fall in love with books and how editors acquire them.
Book auctions are not all that uncommon. As Karen Dionne writes in dailyfinance.com: "For a book to go to auction, all that's required is for two or more publishers to want to purchase it."
There are three basic models for book auctions. Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management - who sold Tara Conklin's first novel, The House Girl - explains them:
The most basic and most frequent is a round robin auction, where publishers submit offers and keep besting each other until there is only the highest bidder left. There is also a best bids auction, where publishers know how many other people are bidding, but they only have one chance to make an offer and the highest wins the auction. Then there's the two-round best bid auction, which is like the best bid but the top two or three publishers get another chance to improve their offer.
As for what constitutes good manners during a book auction, Michelle says, "The main piece of etiquette I can think of as an agent is to keep the rules clear so that publishers know how to participate.["]
At the moment, Chris Parris-Lamb of The Gernert Company may be the most visible agent to the general reading public. He's had two high-profile first-novel offerings: Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding went for around $650,000 in 2009, and in 2013, Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire reportedly garnered close to $2 million. Both sales made news, because — let's face it — mega-prices for first novels are rare.
Parris-Lamb echoes Karen Dionne on why certain books go to auction and others do not, saying it's simply a matter of publishers wanting some books more than others. "I know that's a bit of a tautology," he says, "but that's pretty much it. It's not necessarily that the books that go to auction are 'better' than the ones that don't — though multiple publishers almost always want a novel that is truly great — it's just the ones that go to auction are the ones that publishers want the most."
More from Michelle Brower and Chris Parris-Lamb:
How do you decide how much you're expecting for a first novel gone to auction? Gut? Exhaustive research? Complicated algorithms?
M.B: I'd love to think I could even interact with a complicated algorithm. I go with my gut; sometimes I have a sense of how much a book should be worth ahead of time, and sometimes I have no idea.
C. P-L: It's not a 'decision' — I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a ballpark in mind of what I thought I could get for a book, but my job is to let the market decide; that is, to create a situation in which the publishers who want a book tell us the maximum they're willing to pay for it. Sometimes the final numbers are in that original ballpark, and sometimes they're far outside it, for better or worse. And remember, we don't just sell the book off to the highest bidder - it's about placing the book with the best publisher for the most they'll pay, which is not always more than everyone else.
How do you pick the editors to whom you submit the manuscript? Are they generally people you know? Have had lunch with? Or, do you just know their work?
M.B: I submit almost entirely to people I know, and often they are people that I've developed a relationship with over a number of years. But I always love to take a chance on people I've just met or whose taste I've respected from afar.
C. P-L: Yes to all three! One of the most important parts of an agent's job is knowing editors' tastes, sensibilities, strengths and weaknesses, and trying to get their books in the hands of the best editor for it. That knowledge comes through observing what books they acquire and publish, listening to what people who have worked with them have to say about the experience, and knowing them personally and talking to them about books.
Do you ask other people for advice on price? Including friends, your wife, your PR department?
M.B: I often ask for advice from my foreign rights department, especially as I am preparing to send a book out to editors. They tell me what territories they think would be a good fit for translations.
C. P-L: We don't set a 'price.' But I do confer with the other agents at the agency quite a bit at all points in the process of selling a book, including assessing the offers that come in.
How difficult is it to turn down a hefty pre-emptive bid from a single publisher that would stop an auction before it starts?
M.B: Oh, man, it's very hard. There's something about turning down a great deal of money that is somehow against my inner nature. But again I rely on my gut. I only consider taking a pre-empt if I feel like it's the right publisher and enough money that the author is getting a fantastic deal.
C. P-L: It can be nerve-wracking, but if you actually turn it down, then it's for a good reason — because you're confident that publisher will pay more, or that other publishers you'd rather be with will pay more. If I felt like turning down a pre-empt was something an author would regret doing — because it is her decision, remember — then we wouldn't turn it down! It's also important to note that a lot of authors don't want to snatch their book away from people who haven't had a chance to read, or finish reading, yet. Or they just want to see what different publishers have to say about it. Which is a perfectly good reason to turn down a pre-empt — it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with strategy.
Is running a book auction more a high or an ordeal?
M.B: It's entirely nerve wracking. But somehow really fun at the same time.
C. P-L: It can be exhilarating, certainly, and it's satisfying to see your author rewarded for their work. But it's not all fun — I truly hate having to make calls to the editors who didn't get the book when the auction is over to tell them that we've gone with someone else.
How are authors to work with during this process? Do they have a lot of input or say, you're the professional, you do it?
M.B: The author always makes the decisions, but I offer my advice along the way and lay out the various possible scenarios so that they feel informed about the sometimes byzantine ways that auctions can work.
C.P-L: Every author is different, in all respects. Generally they're pretty anxious, as you would expect. Some cope with that by wanting to know every single piece of information about what's going on, others by wanting to be in the dark as much as possible until it's time to make a final decision. But the decision about who is going to be their publisher is always theirs, and not something I'd ever make for them.
Since I, personally, am always in search of creative ways to celebrate, I ended my conversations with both Chris Parris-Lamb of The Gernert Company and Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management by asking how each of them likes to celebrate a successful auction outcome. Parris-Lamb's classic way of celebrating — "with something bubbly" — is just a teeny bit too staid for my tastes.
Michelle Brower, on the other hand, is a bird of my very own celebratory feather. "I usually do a little happy dance," she says. "Seriously. I hope no one ever has to see it because it's pretty silly, but after the tension of the day it's the perfect way to celebrate."
Martha Woodroof's own first novel Small Blessings will be published by St. Martin's Press in July 2014. Next post in this series: OMIGOD! and other Astute Comments from Writers on the Sale of their First Novels.
Our early headlines:
Other stories in the news:
— "Merkel Joins Obama In Pressuring Russia To Back Down On Crimea." (Bloomberg Businessweek)
— "Delhi Gang Rape: Death Penalty For Four Men Upheld." (BBC News)
— "Israel-Gaza Cross-Border Attacks Escalate." (Time)
— "One Year Later, 'A Pope For All' Keeps Catholics Guessing." (Parallels)
— At Oscar Pistorius Murder Trial, Photos Show "Trail Of Blood." (The Associated Press)
"Four more bodies were found overnight in the smoldering rubble of two upper Manhattan buildings leveled by a gas explosion that injured more than 70 people and spewed debris for blocks, bringing the death toll to seven," NBC News writes.
Unfortunately, according to CBS New York, not everyone has been accounted for: As of early Thursday, at least nine people were still missing.
We began posting about the explosion Wednesday morning. The blast, which came shortly after reports of a gas leak at the location, leveled two buildings that contained a total of 15 apartments as well as several businesses.
"The call to Consolidated Edison came at 9:13 a.m. on Wednesday: The smell of gas, detectable the night before, had strengthened around two buildings by 116th Street and Park Avenue in East Harlem.
"Less than 20 minutes later, the buildings were gone, leveled by a tremendous explosion whose tremors could be felt more than a mile away."