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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 5:57 am | Fair 50º


NPR’s ‘Planet Money’ Journalists Provide Lighthearted Perspective on the Economy

David Kestenbaum and Alex Blumberg keep the discussion lively and witty about the serious topics of unemployment and health care

With the same energy they infuse into their twice weekly podcast, journalists David Kestenbaum and Alex Blumberg of the National Public Radio show “Planet Money” took the stage last week to answer the looming economic question: How screwed are we?

In a witty and engaging presentation, the pair walked through two of the biggest challenges facing America’s economy — unemployment and health-care costs.

Their live appearance was hosted by UCSB Arts & Lectures. About 500 people gathered in Campbell Hall on Wednesday to listen to their presentation — an impressive turnout considering the show’s meaty economic topics.

As with the podcast, however, the team kept the subject matter lively. A woman’s sick pet hedgehog was the central storytelling device to illustrate the hidden costs of insurance, and clips from a preschool were used to explain the importance of job training.

Planet Money’s ability to joyfully explain the wonky is the reason the podcast has flourished throughout the economic crisis. Perhaps one of its best episodes came in 2008, when it helped produced “The Global Pool of Money,” which deftly explained how the housing crisis came to be.

Blumberg played a clip last Wednesday from that piece. The story revolves around a man who qualified for a $540,000 mortgage while making only $40,000 a year in income.

“Would you have lent you the money?” Blumberg asks the man in the radio clip. “I wouldn’t have loaned me the money, and nobody that I know would have loaned me the money,” the man responds.

In addition to a still depressed housing market, unemployment continues to hover around 9 percent. That’s only one look at the picture, though, according to Kestenbaum and Blumberg. Unemployment remains vastly higher among Americans without college degrees than those with a degree.

In the past, Blumberg explained, there were two ways to the American Dream: using your mind, or using your body. But as the service economy has displaced manufacturing and manual labor-based jobs, that has shifted.

Government tried adult job training but with terrible results. The “soft skills” workers needed were actually learned, or not, much earlier in life. A fascinating study shows that children who attended preschool were much more likely to stay employed later in life, and the Planet Money team explored in a podcast.

Health care is another looming challenge. A third of the money spent in the American economy today goes toward health care, and if trends continue over the next 30 years, it’s where “the government will be spending all of its money,” Blumberg said.

The pair then showed some truly frightening slides. The United States spends the most of any developed country on health care, but somehow ranks among the lowest in terms of life expectancy. Insurance shields the consumer from worrying about the price, and patients, doctors and even hospitals have no idea how much health-care procedures actually cost.

HMOs were one way to keep down the cost, but weren’t received well by the public. The bright side, Kestenbaum said, is that “this is a system that is so screwed up that you can’t do much worse.”

Though a solution for health care is mathematically simple, it’s a move that’s politically difficult, Blumberg said.

The brightest part of the evening came with audience questions, and Blumberg and Kestenbaum kept the audience laughing as they answered.

One audience member asked for a status update on “Toxie,” the nickname given to a toxic asset purchased by the staff. 

They pooled $1,000 of their own cash to purchase a mortgage-backed security, one of the prime vehicles of the financial crisis.  They’ve been slowly watching the asset lose value over the months. 

However, some of the mortgages in Toxie’s assets are now part of a lawsuit from homeowners that say their mortgages weren’t as they were advertised, so “it’s possible she could rise from the grave,” Blumberg said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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