Having trouble wrapping your head around southern Europe's staggering unemployment problem?
Look no further than a single IKEA furniture store on Spain's Mediterranean coast.
The Swedish retailer plans to open a new megastore next summer near Valencia. On Monday, IKEA's Spanish website started taking applications for 400 jobs at the new store.
The company wasn't prepared for what came next.
Within 48 hours, more than 20,000 people applied online for those 400 jobs. The volume crashed IKEA's computer servers in Spain.
"We had an avalanche of applicants!" IKEA spokesman Rodrigo Sanchez told NPR in a phone interview. "With that quantity, our servers just didn't have the capacity. They collapsed. After 48 hours, we had to temporarily close the job application process. We're working on a solution, to re-open the job page as soon as possible."
That initial volume alone gives applicants a one-in-50 chance of landing the job — three times more difficult than getting into Harvard last year.
And that's factoring in only the applicants in the first 48 hours, who managed to apply online before IKEA's servers crashed. Once IKEA gets its servers back up and running, the job application window will still stay open until Dec. 31, allowing potentially tens of thousands more job seekers to file applications, Sanchez said.
"I feel lucky to have a job. IKEA is a great company. In this case we have 20,000 initial people who want to work with us," he said. "But we know we're in this situation at least in part because of the state of the Spanish economy."
Spain's unemployment rate is 26 percent, and more than double that for youth in their 20s. Greece, Italy and Portugal also suffer from painfully high unemployment — and economists predict they will continue to do so even after they emerge from recession.
The Spanish economy posted 0.1 percent growth in the third quarter of this year, marking the official halt of recession. Exports are up, and parliament has passed critical labor reforms.
Spain's jobless rate actually dropped 1 percent this year. But that's little consolation for those IKEA job seekers. It could be years before their odds improve.
A new report says the Justice Department regularly coerces defendants in federal drug cases to plead guilty by threatening them with steep prison sentences or stacking charges to increase their time behind bars.
And for the first time, the study by Human Rights Watch finds that defendants who take their fate to a judge or jury face prison sentences on average 11 years longer than those who plead guilty.
In all, a whopping 97 percent of defendants plead guilty — no surprise, says author Jamie Fellner, given the enormous and essentially unchecked power that federal prosecutors wield.
"As long as there are mandatory minimums, prosecutors dictate the sentences by the charges they bring," Fellner told NPR in an interview.
The issue matters because about half of the people in costly and overcrowded U.S. prisons got there after being charged with and convicted of drug offenses. Even though many of those inmates worked on the ground floor of drug operations, they still serve long prison sentences because of 5- and 10-year mandatory terms that Congress breathed into life during the heart of the crack cocaine scare in the 1980s. Prosecutors have the option of adding more charges based on a person's prior offenses, including low-level drug possession cases.
Fellner's interviews with prosecutors, judges and public defenders and her review of sentencing data uncovered dozens of cases where defendants got sent to prison for nearly a half century for first-time drug offenses.
In one such case, the Human Rights Watch report said, Mary Beth Looney of refused a plea deal that would have sent her to prison for 17 years for dealing methamphetamines and having guns in her house. Prosecutors added more charges against her. Ultimately, after trial and conviction, she was sentenced to more than 45 years behind bars. As a federal appeals court noted, mandatory minimum sentences left the trial judge with little discretion but to impose "effectively a life sentence" on the 53-year-old Texas woman who had no prior convictions.
For others with a history of small-time drug possession raps, the ability of the Justice Department to stack on those old histories adds up, too. One judge wrote that he was dismayed by the life sentence that prosecutors tried to impose on a defendant for carrying such a small amount of drugs over the course of his criminal history that the substance "would rattle around in a matchbox." But too often, Fellner wrote, judges find their hands are tied by the mandatory sentencing system.
"To have a judge and a jury relegated to essentially museum pieces, it's not healthy," Fellner said. "It doesn't lead to trust in the results. When you have innocent people tempted and also maybe pleading guilty just to avoid the possibility of a really long sentence, that doesn't give you a whole lot of faith in the integrity of the system."
The Justice Department had no immediate comment on the Human Rights Watch study.
In August, Attorney General Eric Holder told federal prosecutors not to hit low-level drug offenders with charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences, part of an effort to reduce U.S. incarceration levels and to reorient the criminal justice system toward violent criminals and to become more "smart" on crime. Human Rights Watch says it's too early to say how prosecutors around the country will interpret that broad guidance. There's no apparent remedy if prosecutors refuse to follow the directive. And Fellner said she already has found some cases where the Justice Department appeared to do just that.
Fellner said Congress needs to restore discretion to federal judges, by getting rid of mandatory minimums or giving judges more power to depart from sentencing guidelines based on the facts in an individual case. The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will consider some of these options when the Senate returns from recess next week. Fellner said Holder, in the meantime, should bar prosecutors from threatening longer sentences because defendants in drug cases refuse to plead guilty.
On today's show: the story of an often-overlooked innovation that's essential to the global economy. The innovation is a box. A big, metal box.
The standard shipping container has completely transformed commerce in the past 50 years. It's part of the reason the Planet Money men's T-shirt comes from cotton grown in Mississippi, spun into yarn in Indonesia, and sewn together in Bangladesh.
On today's show, we see the shipping container in action, and hear the story behind it.
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has been fined $100,000 for interfering with a kickoff return in a Thanksgiving Day game with the Baltimore Ravens.
"The league said Tomlin's actions — he was standing on the white stripe that borders the playing field and took a step onto the field during Jacoby Jones' kickoff return — should have resulted in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty."
In a statement, Tomlin said: "As I stated yesterday, I take full responsibility for my actions, and I apologize for causing negative attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization.
"I accept the penalty that I received. I will no longer address this issue as I am preparing for an important game this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins," he said.
The fine imposed on Tomlin is the second-largest for an NFL coach, ESPN says.
MSNBC host Martin Bashir has resigned from the network following controversial remarks he made about former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Some three weeks ago, Bashir referred to Palin as a "world-class idiot" for suggesting that U.S. indebtedness to China was akin to slavery. The television host quoted from plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood's diary describing a punishment for slaves that involved having others defecate in their mouths.
"When Mrs. Palin invokes slavery, she doesn't just prove her rank ignorance. She confirms if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, she would be the outstanding candidate," he said in a Nov. 15 broadcast.
The remarks caused a firestorm of controversy, and on Wednesday, Bashir said he'd tendered his resignation over the matter.
"It is my sincere hope that all of my colleagues, at this special network, will be allowed to focus on the issues that matter without the distraction of myself or my ill-judged comments," he wrote in a statement. "I deeply regret what was said, will endeavor to work hard at making constructive contributions in the future and will always have a deep appreciation for our viewers."
The Associated Press writes that Bashir's departure has "coincided with MSNBC's firing of Alec Baldwin from his weekly talk show after two weeks for using an anti-gay slur in a New York City street encounter."