Wealth & Poverty

Ways to Connect

Episode 818: The Problem Of The Root

10 hours ago

Ginseng is a little ginger-like root that grows in the mountains of Appalachia. It has been used for thousands of years, mostly in China, as a remedy for everything from fatigue to cancer. It is poached from state forests, and it is farmed in secret locations. People have been killed over it.

But not all ginseng is created equal. There's cultivated ginseng and wild ginseng. And the wild stuff is where the money is. It can cost a thousand dollars a pound, or more.

Everybody needs oil. Saudi Arabia has a lot of oil. So the country has had an endless supply of money.

Then, things started changing. The U.S. started producing more oil, which means Saudi Arabia can't control world oil prices like they used to. Also, it's become clear that the world isn't going to run on oil forever.

Now, a young crown prince is trying to figure out how to save his country before the money runs out. Part of the plan: A Greek, new-age keyboardist.

The bridge to nowhere. The teapot museum. People loved to point out how congressional earmarks led to wasteful government spending. Then, in 2011, Congress dramatically restricted earmarks.

Now, Congress is considering bringing them back.

Earmarks are easy to mock. But on today's show, Jonathan Rauch of Brookings and The Atlantic argues that earmarks make democracy work better.

Cody Wilson makes gun-making machines. Depending whom you ask, he's either one of the most dangerous people in the world, or a hero of the first amendment.

Cody's never sold a gun. He's never killed anyone. And, to his knowledge, none of the guns he's made have ever killed anyone. So, how did Cody Wilson end up on the frontline of the debate over gun control? He ended up there, not by selling guns, but by creating ways for anyone to make their own gun.

Cody's game-changing tool? 3D printers.

There's a warning sign for the economy with an amazing track record: The last five times it flashed, the U.S. economy went into recession within about a year.

This economic crystal ball takes the views of people and institutions from from all around the world and boils them down into a single, simple signal.

That signal is called the yield curve. It's not flashing now, at least not yet, but it might be close enough to make you nervous.

In 2013, Jackson Palmer started paying close attention to cryptocurrencies — bitcoin, and everything that came after. Things seemed a little bubbly.

Also big back in 2013: Doge, an Internet meme that featured an adorable dog and strange syntax.

Jackson sent off a random tweet about "Dogecoin" — just a throwaway joke. But one thing led to another, and Dogecoin became a real thing. Jackson tried to keep Dogecoin light and fun — it was for learning about cryptocurrency, and giving money to charity.

Then things turned dark.

Note: This episode originally ran in 2013.

Back in 2013, we made a T-Shirt. And as you might remember, we made that T-Shirt with money raised on Kickstarter.

The War On Coal

Jan 10, 2018

Last September, Energy Secretary Rick Perry put a plan in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The plan was supposed to make our energy supply "resilient." But it was also a way to help subsidize coal.

The commission has five members. Four of them, including the chairman, were appointed by President Trump. This week, the commission unanimously rejected the Perry plan.

On today's indicator, we look at what the commission's decision tells us about energy markets in America, and about the future of coal.

This morning, the federal government released the JOLTS report. (The name is an acronym for Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.)

The has a bunch of useful data points about the jobs market. But, more than that, it implies a really dynamic, exciting way of looking at the job market.

Among its insights: Workers are getting more power relative to employers. Also, quitting is awesome.

Bonus: Our guest, Nick Bunker, tells the JOLTS story in graphs.

The job market is strong right now, with a 4.1 percent unemployment rate, and President Trump knows it. On Monday, he twice bragged about the latest jobs report, but he focused in on minorities in particular.

In the morning, he did it on Twitter, citing that black unemployment is "the lowest ever recorded in our country." And he jabbed: "Dems did nothing for you but get your vote!"

Income inequality is rising. Over the past few decades, the rich have seen huge gains, while incomes for the middle class and the poor have largely stagnated.

Lots of people have ideas for how to get middle-class incomes growing again. On today's show: Branko Milanovic, one of the most insightful economists we know on this subject, says a lot of those ideas won't be that helpful in the 21st-century economy. He has some surprising ideas about what will.

Plenty of people will tell you they're getting rich off of bitcoin. They could be right. But there's another group of bitcoin owners that aren't so ecstatic. Because they might be rich, too, but they lost the passkey that would let them get at their digital fortune. Syl Turner is in that second, less glamorous group. When he got around one-and-a-half bitcoins seven or eight years ago, they were nearly worthless. So worthless he bunked the hard drive that held the key somewhere and now he can't remember where.

You may already know the headline jobs numbers the government released this morning: The unemployment rate held steady last month at 4.1 percent. The economy added 148,000 jobs.

But these numbers are just the surface of the monthly jobs report; the report has a huge amount of information about how the job market is working (or not working) for people in different industries, and different age groups.

The U.S. economy added 148,000 jobs in December, the Labor Department says, issuing the monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate was 4.1 percent, unchanged from November.

Analysts had predicted the Labor Department report would show another month of solid job gains. But it's a sharp dropoff from the revised November result of more than 250,000 jobs.

For the last several months, Congress was almost all tax bill almost all the time. Lots of regular business got postponed.

As a result, there is an insane amount of economic policymaking that has to be done by both Congress and the president by the end of the month.

From tariffs to immigration to funding for the military and social programs, the next 27 days are going to be huge.

Two years ago, international sanctions against Iran were largely lifted. People expected the economy to come surging back. But so far, it's been a disappointment. Unemployment is high. Prices are rising. Corruption is persistent. A surge in the price of eggs was the last straw.

Music by Drop Electric. Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

This episode originally aired on May 13, 2011.

On January 8, 1835, all the big political names in Washington gathered to celebrate what President Andrew Jackson had just accomplished. A senator rose to make the big announcement: "Gentlemen ... the national debt ... is PAID." The huzzahs rose up around the halls of Congress, or something like that.

The U.S. economy is doing great — unemployment is low, businesses are investing more. What could possibly go wrong?

It's like watching the first 20 minutes of a horror movie. Everything seems great. The kids are out swimming in the lake. It's a beautiful summer. But you know something bad is going to happen sooner or later. It always does.

On today's show, we talk about one way things might go wrong: We look at parts of the economy where borrowing is getting frighteningly easy — and where more and more people are struggling to repay their debts.

Happy New Year.

Destruction tends to happen quickly; progress is often gradual.

This combination of sudden, bad things and slow, good things can mess up the way we see the world. We notice the sudden but miss the gradual. The nature of daily (hourly, minutely) news only adds to the perception problem.

What would happen if, instead of getting constant news updates, we only got a news update once every 50 years?

Today's Indicator is 50. We're dreaming up a newspaper that comes out once every 50 years. What goes on the front page?

Spoiler alert: It's not all bad news.

Episode 815: The Rest of the Story 2017

Dec 29, 2017

Here at Planet Money, we know the story doesn't end when we turn off our microphones. That's why every year we revisit our favorite stories from the past year, and find out where things stand now. Today on the show, we check in on Vladimir Putin's least favorite person: Bill Browder. Browder is leading the change in support of the Magnitsky Act, which freezes the assets of human rights violators. Since we last spoke to him, Browder has been accused by Russian police of being a serial killer and placed on the INTERPOL most wanted list.

At The Indicator, we've been covering numbers in the news for literally weeks now. And we've hit some of the big stories — sexual harassment, jobs, taxes.

For today's show, we decided to do something a little different: Stacey and Cardiff looked back over 2017 and picked one indicator each — not necessarily the biggest or most important indicator, but one that stood out for one reason or another. These may not be the indicators of the year. But they're our indicators of the year.

Episode 544: The M&M Anomaly

Dec 27, 2017

One day we noticed something strange: a pack of Milk Chocolate M&M's weighs 1.69 ounces, but a pack of Peanut Butter M&M's weigh a tiny tiny bit less, 1.63 ounces. The two packs are the same price, but you get slightly less of the Peanut Butter M&M's! 0.06 ounces less! It turns out there is a whole weird world living down there at the third decimal place. When you pull on that little thread, lots of things start to unravel.

After today's show, you will never pop a piece of candy in your mouth and think about it the same way again.

The new tax bill is long. More than 1,000 pages. And complicated. And very important.

For starters, the corporate tax rate has been cut! For it or against it, this is a change of massive importance, and one many economists never thought they'd see. It's gone down from 35 percent to 21 percent. But what happens to the money that these corporations are saving? Will it increase investments? Or will it just enrich shareholders who are mostly rich already?

Our own Stacey Vanek Smith had to pay through the nose to fly home for Christmas. And not just because it was Christmas — her ticket was way more expensive than usual.

As we say in the news business: Stacey is not alone. Airfare dynamics have changed a ton in the past few years.

On today's show: Why it's getting cheaper to fly to some types of cities and more expensive to fly to others. Also: Why Stacey will probably get a better deal next year.

Note: This episode originally ran in 2015.

Today's Planet Money indicator is zero. Earlier today, a bill transforming America's tax code was approved by congress with zero Democratic votes.

On today's show, we talk with Josh Barro. He points out a problem Democrats have been struggling with for a while: Most Democratic candidates promise not to raise taxes on the middle class, but also want to expand social programs.

Barro argues that, in the long run, the Republican tax bill could help the Democrats solve this problem.

This month, The Virginia Department of Transportation added a new toll on a 10-mile stretch of highway that connects the Virginia suburbs with Washington, DC. The toll varies according to traffic — and it's been spiking much higher than many people expected. At one point last week, it spiked all the way to $44.

There is a beautiful, econ 101 logic behind a toll that spikes when demand spikes. On today's show, we talk to an economist who commutes on this road — and who thinks we need to go beyond econ 101 to really understand the toll.

The New York Produce Show and Conference looks like a grocery store the size of the Javits Center, one of the biggest convention centers in the country. But it's a grocery store that's nothing but produce aisle. Fruits are carefully displayed, often accompanied by slick videos or Christmas trees. Salespeople wait at booths to extol the virtues of their pumpkins and avocados. They're eager to give away t-shirts, pens, lip balm, even bags of sweet potatoes. Their goal isn't just to network, it's to woo the power players of produce, who make decisions about the fate of fruits.

Forget Neutrality

Dec 15, 2017

Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to end net neutrality — a rule that required internet providers to treat all web traffic equally.

The decision was really controversial. And a lot of the controversy boils down to a single number. As luck would have it, that number is today's indicator: 58 percent. As in, 58 percent of Americans have access to at most one option for broadband Internet.

On today's show, how the broadband market got the way it is, and what it means for the debate over net neutrality.

Trump SoHo is a high rise in lower Manhattan, part hotel, part condos; it's 46 stories tall, all slick grey glass. Conflicts, from zoning battles to accusations of fraud, have followed the project since it was announced during a 2006 episode of The Apprentice.

According to reports by Bloomberg News, Trump SoHo has attracted the interest of Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible ties between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russian officials.

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