Wealth & Poverty

Ways to Connect

Episode 820: P Is For Phosphorus

Jan 26, 2018

Phosphorus is in pretty much everything: bombs, toothpaste, cheese. It's irreplaceable. Nothing can live without it and it's only economically recoverable in a few places. Like Morocco, and China.

Most of our phosphorus—or phosphate, which is its usable form—goes into fertilizer. The farmers pile it on, and then the bulk of it just washes right off into the rivers and then ocean. It's really hard to get phosphorus out of the ocean, which means, as far as we're concerned, that phosphorus is pretty much gone once it's in the water.

Glenn Kelman has been running the real-estate company Redfin since 2007. He saw it through the housing crash and the recovery. Last year, Redfin went public. It's now worth more than $1.7 billion.

Glenn was in town recently, and we asked him to come in and play overrated/underrated with us.

We bring up a bunch of trends and ideas — really, anything we want — and ask: is this overrated or underrated?

Among other things, we asked Glenn about home ownership, the cult of the CEO and the importance of the dungeon master.

There's a new study out about the origins of the mafia. It finds that the essential ingredient in the birth of the mafia as we know it isn't the threats or the murders or the other stuff that's great for Hollywood. The detail that matters is lemons.

Music: "Head of The Family".

In 1992, Douglas Bruce proposed a measure called the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, TABOR for short. TABOR was effectively a tax-limitation measure that said, whenever a government wanted more money — whenever it wanted to increase taxes — it had to put the question on the ballot. Increased taxes for roads? The voters would get to decide. Better schools? Put it on the ballot. But put the price there first.

Last week, General Electric said it was taking a massive loss — $6.2 billion — related to an obscure corner of the company: long-term-care insurance.

Long-term-care insurance is this kind of insurance that anyone can buy. It covers things like nursing home care, or a home health aide.

But recently, GE came out and said it was having an "adverse claims experience" with these policies. Basically, the company got the math wrong, and lost billions as a result.

Google Selfies

Jan 23, 2018

Today's show is about Google art selfies, the value of biometric data, and the law.

We talk to a data expert who can't use Google art selfies because his state prohibits it. He makes a case for how to manage the coming boom in biometric data.

Also, we see what famous portraits we look like (according to Google). It's not pretty.

Congress is on the verge of a deal that will end the partial government shutdown. But that deal will only keep the government open for a few weeks.

There's a bigger underlying issue here: Year after year, Congress fails to pass a budget in time.

Today on the show: Why this keeps happening, and why it's a problem.

Last June the price of oil was $44 a barrel. Then, it started climbing. Earlier this week, it briefly hit $70.

The price of oil is a big deal. It affects how much you pay for heating, or a gallon of gas, or a flight home.

The price of oil is also famously volatile, and in the last six or seven years it's taken an incredible ride. On today's show, we tell the story of what happened and try to figure out what it means for the future of oil prices.

Episode 508: A Bet On The Future Of Humanity

Jan 19, 2018

Note: This episode originally ran in 2014.

A famous biologist, Paul Ehrlich, predicts that overpopulation will lead to global catastrophe. He writes a bestselling book — The Population Bomb — and goes on the Tonight Show to make his case.

An economist, Julian Simon, disagrees. He thinks Ehrlich isn't accounting for how clever people can be, and how shortages can lead to new, more efficient ways of doing things.

The Beigies

Jan 18, 2018

Eight times a year, the Federal Reserve publishes the Beige Book. It's a report that is, oddly, a collection of little, random anecdotes.

An example from the latest Beige Book, which dropped yesterday: "Crop yields in Central California slipped slightly at year-end, driven by the weak performance of certain nuts."

Some of these stories deliver really interesting little insights into the economy. Insights so illuminating, someone should give out prizes for the best anecdotes in the Beige Book.

So: Welcome to the first Beigie awards, brought to you by the Indicator.

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