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The quality of American cars got a lot better after the financial crisis. They got lighter, more efficient and more reliable. And the car business boomed.

But now they're getting too expensive. Sticker prices for the SUVs and trucks that Americans love are high enough that manufacturers don't have to sell as many vehicles to make money.

But that's not going to last.

Listeners have questions. Google has answers. Sometimes, though, listeners have questions that Google can't answer. Like: Why is the lighting in hotel rooms so weird? How can a cooked and spiced rotisserie chicken be cheaper than an uncooked chicken? What is a Giffen Good, and why does demand for it go up when its price goes up? And why does it say on a coupon that it's worth 1/100th of a cent?

If you have a question you want us to answer, email us at planetmoney@npr.org. Or better yet, tell us a great story about economics that answered a question you had.

Like all oil well owners, Jason Bruns watches the oil market closely. When crude hits a certain price, he'll either switch a pump on - if prices are rising - or turn it off, if they're not.

Right now oil prices are at a bit of a sweet spot for small producers like Jason. Pumpjacks all over the country are being switched on. Consumers may not like rising oil prices much, but they're a sign the economy is doing better.

Since the late 1990s, inflation — or average prices — has increased by 55.6 percent. But while things like televisions and smartphones have gotten much cheaper in that time, certain other things have gotten much more expensive.

So while some people may be able to afford the latest gadget, certain other things remain out of reach. Today on the show we look at what that tells us about the true cost of living in America in the 21st century.

Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia host the Planet Money spin-off, The Indicator. Each day, they take a number or term in the news, and tell you what it means and why it matters.

Today on Planet Money, we are bringing you three indicators, three numbers that tell us something about the world. We'll tell you what the US really sells to the world, how the conservative tax plan is maybe just what a liberal economist had always hoped for, and how craft beer blew up the hops business.

The Trump Administration is making major changes to trade policy, and that is affecting all kinds of U.S. companies.

Usually we hear about these issues as they relate to big industries like steel and aluminum, or in markets for solar panels or washing machines. Today we look at another industry caught up in the debate over global trade: the rubber band business.

Most people are used to prices that don't change. You go into a store to buy some Quaker Oats, and they're going to cost the same for you as they will for whoever tries to buy them next.

But for a long time, that's not how it worked at all.

In the 1960s, there was a new fad in Germany: cheap, frozen American chicken. German families couldn't get enough of the stuff — it was great for the German consumer, but not so great for the German chicken farmer. So the farmers went to the government, and, lo, a trade war was born.

There's a new Fed chair in town. Jerome - call him Jay - Powell is a former investment banker who has worked in both the Treasury and the Fed.

He has already indicated that when it comes to the philosophy of monetary policy, he tracks pretty closely with his predecessor, Janet Yellen.

But as Karl Smith, Director of Economic Research at the Niskanen Center, discussed with us, Powell has got an entirely different challenge ahead.

Updated at 5:38 p.m. ET

The Federal Reserve remains on track to continue increasing interest rates gradually to keep the economy functioning smoothly, Jerome Powell told Congress on Tuesday in his first testimony as Fed chairman.

With a nod to the new tax-cutting law, Powell noted that "fiscal policy is becoming more stimulative" and he predicted inflation would rise this year and stabilize around the Fed's 2 percent target.

"My personal outlook for the economy has strengthened since December," Powell told the House Financial Services Committee.

Fixing A Forest For Puerto Rico's Recovery

Feb 27, 2018
Bert Johnson / GPB

Luigi Ramirez lets a yellow rope slip through his hands slowly at first. When his fingers open, 200 hundred pounds of concrete sail through the lush tropical canopy. Before Hurricane Maria, he sent tourists whizzing across ravines like this one in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest. But that business closed.

“Because that company depends on the trees, and all the trees are damaged in the majority of the forest,” Ramirez says.

Now, he’s running a zip line to deliver construction materials.

Today we debut a new segment on the Indicator: the two-minute explainer. Cardiff and Stacey take up the challenge of explaining what's behind an economic event or data point in 120 seconds or less.

On this show: what is productivity, how is it measured, and why is it such an important indicator?

And, why did KFC have to close almost all of its stores in the UK last week?

A bottle of fancy vodka, like Grey Goose, costs about $35. A bottle of the cheap stuff can be under $10. That's a wide range, but, by definition, vodka is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. So, could there really be a difference between vodkas? Or is the difference all in the marketing?

Sales of firearms have soared in America over the past twenty years. But fewer people are purchasing.

Today America's guns are concentrated in the hands of a comparatively small number of enthusiasts.

Their love of add-ons and special features has been a boon to gun manufacturers. Their periodic fear of anti-gun regulation has made sales spike in the past. But relying on a concentrated market of mega-buyers can come at a cost.

A couple of weeks ago the biggest labor union in Germany negotiated a big new deal with hundreds of German companies. Workers didn't just get a raise, they also won the option of working just 28 hours a week for up to two years without losing ground in their careers.

We talked to Simon Kuper of the Financial Times about the increasing need for companies to consider flexible working arrangements, as employees work longer and our lives become more complicated.

Tyler Cowen is an economist at George Mason University, but here at The Indicator we like to think of him as a speed-reading, hyper-prolific, polymath blogger — who does economics on the side.

We sometimes play a game with Tyler, a game he actually invented for his own podcast. It's called Overrated/Underrated. We ask him about a book, an idea, a movie, or really anything, and then he tells us whether he thinks it's overrated or underrated.

Today we discuss inflation as an economic threat, the influence of lobbyists, infrastructure, and Chinese food.

Note: This episode originally ran in 2014.

Certain things are just hard to improve. The classic example: the mousetrap. And for a while, the pallet was the mousetrap of good transportation.

In its way, the pallet is perfect. It's cheap and easy to make. It keeps things a few inches off the floor and works with a forklift. If you get cold, you can burn them. Amazing.

Today on the show: Yes, you can build a better pallet.

Project Lakhta was the Russian campaign to spend a million dollars a month to destabilize American democracy.

But that money didn't pay for sophisticated hackers or deadly assassins. Instead, it bought Facebook ads and Twitter accounts.

Today on the show: Russia's plan to mess with our election was crude, expensive ... and surprisingly effective.

Wildfires aren't like other natural disasters. You can't trace a hurricane to the first gust of wind, but you actually can trace your way back to a wildfire's first spark. And sometimes, someone has to pay.

In 2007, the Witch Creek Fire caused billions of dollars worth of damage in Southern California. While the fire was still burning, wildfire investigators showed up on the scene, and traced the flames back to where they began. The results spawned a ten year legal battle over who should pay for the damage.

Hops are the cones of the hop plant. They're used in making beer. Craft beer lovers love hops. (Just ask them; they'll tell you.)

As the market for craft beer exploded over the hops business boomed. Until it didn't.

Today on the show: The craft beer explosion, and the hops boom and bust that went with it.

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