NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in New York City today. In 2007, Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank introduced us to "Richestan," where inhabitants wore million dollar watches and sneered at $50,000 cars. Times have changed. Today, Frank returns with a new book, "The High-Beta Rich," and joins us here at our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us.
ROBERT FRANK: Good to be here.
CONAN: And in your last book, I learned about shadow yachts, the ships that follow the yachts of the super rich, someplace to keep their helicopters and their cars and their submarines. In this book, I learned another new phrase, zombie jets. What's a zombie jet?
FRANK: A zombie jet is a jet that has been purchased by a person that, at one point, was worth somewhere - $100 million, maybe $200 million, maybe a billion dollars and they borrowed the money to buy the jet and then jet prices fell. Their own fortunes fell and basically the jets were upside down. They were worth less than the actual loan value. So the banks didn't want them back. The people who owned them didn't want them back. So as a result, you've got all these jets that are flying around, thousands of them, private jets, that the owners haven't been able to pay for and the banks don't want back.
CONAN: And this illustrates a world where - well, we often think of the words of the old song, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That is not really the case.
FRANK: That's right. You know, before I started this book, I just assumed that wealth was like an escalator in America, that the 1 percent were always just getting richer and the rest of us were not. In fact, when I started to look at both the people and the statistics on wealth, what I learned is that the 1 percent has become the most volatile and unsteady part of our economy, that you have these people crashing in and out of the 1 percent due to the changing nature of the way wealth is created today, but also, the culture of spending and borrowing that we've seen on things like shadow yachts and zombie jets.
CONAN: And that - well, give us an example. There's a couple that you profile. This is Tim and Edra Blixseth.
FRANK: Yeah, they were a couple that I had first looked at in "Richestan." They were billionaires. They made their money from a resort called The Yellowstone Club, which is a private golf and ski resort that counted Bill Gates as a member and they had a personal household staff of 110 people. They had three private jets. They had two yachts and, you know, they told me they would never have to worry about money again. Well, flash forward. I visited them in 2000. They had divorced.
Each are filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy, which means liquidation. So she had zero. The jets were gone. The yachts were gone. And I was in her 30,000 square foot mansion where she's all alone and we were looking at the fish tank, which used to be this huge fish tank filled with coral and it was empty. And I said, Edra, what happened to the fish tank? And she said, well, the fish coral got repossessed because I couldn't pay the monthly fee.
And so, you know, looking at that fish tank made me wonder, how does somebody in America go from a billion to zero, and what does that say about wealth today? So I proceeded to then interview other people. Maybe they didn't go from a billion to zero, but some of them went to $100 million to $10 million - one guy who went from $10 million to zero - to really look at this new era of the high-beta rich.
CONAN: And not that we should feel sorry for them and nor do they deserve necessarily that little snicker of schadenfreude that I just erupted when the coral got repossessed. But nevertheless, why should the rest of us care that somebody who had a billion and a half now only has a half a billion? It's a big loss, but so what?
FRANK: Well, one reason is that they're just great stories. I mean, some of the people interviewed - there was a couple that built the largest home in America until they ran out of money. And, you know, I profile how does that happen? It was a, you know, 90,000 square foot house.
CONAN: Tiger Woods neighbors down at Versailles.
FRANK: Yes, exactly. Their house was called Versailles. And, you know, there's a profile of a repo man who goes around and takes the jets and yachts of the formerly rich. So these were just great stories. And first and foremost, you know, I believe that a story has to be, you know, worth telling, worth reading, with great characters. But there are also some financial lessons from these people. I think that some of us learn best from extremes and I think, you know, for me personally, I learned a lot financially from looking at how these people who, again, had so much money and didn't think they'd ever have to worry about it again borrowed, spent and, you know, drove themselves into the ground.
And what you learn is that, you know, debt can be very dangerous no matter how much you have, that spending levels should be modest for people, and that we always misprice risk in our lives. We always assume, OK, worst case scenario, my house will be worth 50 percent of what it is now, when, in fact, a lot of these people, their assets fell by 80 or 90 percent. So we tend to misprice risk in our lives.
But the real reason we should care is that there's this whole body of research that suggests that more and more of our economy is tied to this top 1 percent. So they pay the bulk of the taxes, you know, 40 percent of the nation's income taxes are paid by the top 1 percent. If you look at California and New York, other states, it's a little higher.
CONAN: It's not an argument whether that's enough or not, but it's just a fact.
FRANK: Yeah, no, exactly. But, you know, the sad fact is, as the wealthy have become more volatile, the contagion from that group will be felt by the rest of us.
CONAN: We're talking with Robert Frank about his book. I have it right here. It's "The High-Beta Rich." If you'd like to join the conversation about the rich and the formerly rich, how they made and lost their fortunes, why the rest of us should care, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr@org. Click on Talk Of The Nation.
Later in the program, back to the 99 percent and where the Occupy movement goes after Wall Street. You can send us email on that now, if you'd like. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org, again. But back to Robert Frank and the full title of his book, "The High Beta Rich: Why the Unstable Super Wealthy Will Lead Us to the Next Boom, Bubble and Bust." And in fact, you suggest some of those booms and bubbles are being inflated right now.
FRANK: Absolutely. I mean, you know, when you look back at the 1 percent or the wealthy, however you want to define them, before 1982 they were the flatline on the income scale. They were the most conservative in America. When times were good in America, the 1 percent didn't do quite as well. When times are bad, they didn't do as badly as everyone else. Suddenly, in 1982, the year I call the magic year for wealth, the 1 percent, which used to be like the teetotalers of our economy became the binge drinkers.
And when time were good, they did two or three times better than everyone else. When times were bad, they did two or three times worse. So if you look at the last three recessions, the top 1 percent lost two to three times in income what the rest of America lost. And, you know, part of it has to do with more and more of today's wealth is tied to the stock market, whether it's executives who are paid in stock or somebody who's starting a company and takes it public with an IPO.
And the stock market is more than 20 times as volatile as the real economy. So, before 1982, wealth came from inheritance or oil or land, real estate, some kind of steady asset. After '82, the stocks...
CONAN: Well, let me ask you to illustrate with the story of the family that you tell in the book, the Sterns. This is a family fortune that begins in the 1920s, a boom cycle, and this is a German man who comes over with absolutely not a dime to his name but a boatload of canaries.
FRANK: That's right. Max Stern came over with some singing German canaries. It was all he had and he started selling them to all the department stores. He did very well and eventually these people buying the canaries needed food so he started selling bird food and pet food. And so it became the Hartz pet empire, which is flea collars and puppy chews and all the things that they make. One day, Eddie Stern, who's the grandson, went to his father, Leonard Stern, and said, dad, why do we need to make anything?
In this economy today, this is the 1990s, we can make money just from trading, just from money, so let's get rid of this pet food business and just start trading money. So they started a hedge fund and now the family is really just making money from money, rather than making things. And that's really the story of today's one percent.
CONAN: And there's another family, you tell their story and this is an Irish family, the story of the Mars.
FRANK: Yeah, the Mars were - they started a cargo shipping operation in New Jersey, three generations. They worked hard on the docks, loading and unloading cargo from vessels. And they sold the company and immediately invested the money with several banks, including Lehman Brothers. And as soon as they invested the money that they got from selling the business, $200 million of it was lost by Lehman Brothers. And so many families, so many wealthy families in the past 10, 20 years sold their businesses, what's called a liquidity event, which means you have...
CONAN: Another wonderful phrase.
FRANK: Yeah, you have this sudden pile of cash from selling your business and a lot of that's finance-driven and they invested it and immediately lost, you know, probably 20, 30 years worth of work. And what that shows is that many families that owned companies since World War II thought that they were doing the smart thing by selling their business and getting this pile of cash. They could just live on the investment. When, in fact, it's a very dangerous financial world out there.
CONAN: Again, our book is "The High Beta Rich." Our guest is Robert Frank. 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And Alex is on the line with us from Salt Lake City.
ALEX: Yeah, good afternoon.
ALEX: You know, (unintelligible) are these people, like, totally broke, living on $18,000 a year in a 1,000 square foot house or are they still, you know, pulling in a fairly respectable income, living comfortably? I'll take my response off the air. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call.
FRANK: Yeah. It varies. I mean, the Siegels who built the largest house in America and then ran out of money, they're still wealthy. They're going to back to their mere 26,000 square foot house. You know, they lost the private jet. The kids are in public school now, but by most measures, they'll still be rich. Other people in the book, like Jack Warner, who was a construction guy...
CONAN: Not the Jack Warner.
FRANK: Not the Jack Warner, a different Jack Warner. You know, grew up in Indiana, started buying real estate in Florida. At one point, was worth $15 million. When I saw him, he was living in a truck and I asked him how much he was worth and he pulled out his wallet and said, today, I'm worth $53 and you caught me on a good day. So, you know, the whole spectrum is in the book, but I was surprised how many people, especially, who had just crept up to being, you know, millionaires, they had five million, maybe three million, and then fell back down, how many of those there were was very surprising to me.
CONAN: And the percentages if you look, I mean, obviously the middle class, the upper middle class, everybody has suffered in the great recession. But again, contrary to popular wisdom, you look at the figures, nobody suffered more than the one percent.
FRANK: That's right. You look at dollar terms, percentage terms, again, they had the biggest losses in income and the largest dollar share in losses. You know, we - the number of millionaires in America fell by 20 percent in just a two-year period. The number of people making a million dollars or more has, fallen 40 percent so, you know, since the peak of 2007. So again, we shouldn't feel sorry for these people, but the numbers are staggering.
CONAN: And suffer is a relative term.
FRANK: That's right.
CONAN: I want to make sure we're clear on that, too.
CONAN: More with Robert Frank after we come back from a short break. If you'd like to join the conversation about the super rich and why the 99 percent of the rest of us should care about how they're doing, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk Of The Nation from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In his new book, Robert Frank explains how the richest may be the most dangerous factors in the economy. The top one percent, he says, control more than a third of the country's wealth and much of it largely dependent on the ups and downs of the stock market. That cycle of booms and busts wreaks havoc on the rest of us, he says. The book is titled "The High Beta Rich: How The Manic Wealthy Will Take Us To The Next Boom, Bubble and Bust."
If you'd like to join the conversation about the rich and formerly rich, how they made and lost their fortunes, why the rest of us should care, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can join the conversation at our website, too. That's at npr.org. Click on Talk Of The Nation. You can also get a better idea of the level of spending we're talking about, 19-hole personal golf courses in the backyard, his and her six-figure cars, the list goes on. That's an excerpt from the book also at our website.
And let's see if we go next to - this is Betty. Betty with us from Albany in Oregon.
BETTY: Yes, good afternoon. Enjoying the show very much, as usual. As you said, it's very hard to feel sorry for the very rich, especially some of the ridiculous spending that they do. But when you think about it, I'm definitely along with the 99 percenters, but you have to realize that these are the people that are spending large amounts of money, which support a lot of the people in the 99 percent group. The basketball players that make ridiculous salaries, all of the people, when they're not paying, such as concessions and motels and so forth, are suffering because of it.
So it's a trickledown effect in a lot of ways, even though most of us don't want to even consider feeling sorry for people that have such an excess. Thank you very much.
CONAN: And thanks very much for the call. And yeah, I mean, among the people you talk to are butlers who find themselves out of work.
FRANK: That's right. I mean, one of the scary things about today's economy and really about inequality, is that the top five percent control nearly 40 percent of consumer outlays. And we know that the American economy depends on consumer spending. So if that five percent is controlling 40 percent of spending, if they decide to stop spending, that creates huge problems for the rest of us. And I profile several people who lost their jobs who thought, just because they worked for wealthy people, they had lifetime job security.
And what they learned is that, you know, being attached to a wealthy family actually carries more risk than having, you know, a regular job. And I think, you know, as go the wealthy, unfortunately, so go the rest of us. So we're all high-betas now, that so much of the economy and our government is now tied to this group.
CONAN: Let's go next to Shawn. Shawn with us from Baton Rouge.
SHAWN: Hey, thank you for taking my call. What I was wondering is, from everything I've read in this recession, contrary to what you said, the top one percent are actually making more profit during this time, while everybody else is losing. And I was wondering how that reflects upon, you know, this being different than the others ones.
FRANK: Well, I'm not quite sure what you're referring to, but all of the data suggests that, you know, if you look at income-share of the top one percent, it's actually below where it was in 2006, 2007. If you look at the share of wealth by the one percent, it's lower than it was at its peak, even in the mid 1990s and also 2007. So, you know, it's not to say that inequality is not a problem. Inequality is a huge problem in America, and I'm glad that the Occupy Wall Street folks have drawn attention to that.
But it hasn't grown during this recession, and in fact, it may have even declined.
CONAN: And you note, for example, statistically, yes, some CEOs are still making ridiculous salaries, but less ridiculous than they used to be.
FRANK: That's right. And we see and read about those examples. We don't see and read about people who lose their fortunes, largely, as I found out, because no one wants to talk about it. You know, no one wants to be publicly identified as rich today. And even worse than that is being publicly identified as formerly rich because it make them look like they made dumb decisions or their not good with money. So we just don't hear about these examples, but the statistics show that, you know, yes, the wealthy are doing well relative to the rest of the economy, but not as well as you might think.
And they're certainly not doing as well as they were in 2007.
SHAWN: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks, Shawn. One of the fascinating profiles you have in the book, you mentioned that the repo men who go after these jets and yachts. And one of the things that you're told in this profile is the way to approach the very rich is to say, well, we're here. I'm sure there's just been a mix-up with the bank, sir, and we're just going to park this in a warehouse for a little while and you can come back and get your 120 foot Searay as soon as you've settled up this misunderstanding.
That's right. It was a very satisfying couple of days I spent with the repo man of Richistan. And they go around - we went around and we took a plane and we took a yacht. And for anybody who has any kind of envy or resentment against the rich, I highly recommend this experience. But, you know, the year I talked - in 2010, they had taken more than $100 million worth of stuff. And the real art to being a high-end repo man is to not have the wealthy lose pride or lose face.
FRANK: And to sort of pretend like, well, I'm sure you're paying for it and I'm sure everything's fine. But I'll just put this plane in storage and then when you work it out with the bank, you know, you can let me know. And, you know, rather than - most repo men and for most of the middle class, they get their cars taken or whatever, it's more about just force. It's more about taking it. Here, there's this sort of subtle negotiation and it's become a very profitable industry, not just for him, but for all these other repo men who take jets and yachts and even thoroughbred race horses.
CONAN: There's one very entertaining story they tell about repossessing a man's yacht and driving down the, I think, the intercoastal waterway in Florida with it and all of a sudden realizing he is chasing them in his other yacht.
FRANK: Yes. These wealthy people are used to getting their way so if they don't react to the subtle negotiation, they basically say, look, no one's taking my stuff. And so they've been shot at, they've been run over by Mercedes, you know, they've had all kinds of things happen to them. But it was interesting. You know, we were at this private jet terminal in Orlando, Florida, and to be with them as they stormed into this private jet terminal and took a plane is exciting, but it's also a sign that, you know, wealth has changed.
I mean, the fact that these guys even exist is a sign that wealth is different in America.
CONAN: Should point out they said they came back and got that second yacht later. Is that true?
FRANK: That's right.
CONAN: Let's go next to Bob. And Bob's with us from Bowling Green in Ohio.
BOB: Yes. Your guest keeps using the terms income and wealth as if they're interchangeable. And I wonder if he could kind of discuss the differences between those two measures.
FRANK: Sure. I mean, they are absolutely different and I've tried to differentiate. Income is more volatile than wealth so obviously, you know, what we've seen, the incomes of the top one percent are more than three times as volatile as the rest of the county. Wealth is a little more stable and persistent wealth is your total net worth, what everything you have is worth. But even there we've seen, you know, again, the wealthy lost 20 to 30 percent of their wealth in a two year period.
And the number of millionaires declined by a record amount, certainly the largest decline since the Great Depression. So, you know, while wealth does tend to be not quite as spiky as income, and they do measure different things, both follow the same patterns.
CONAN: All right. Also, that income can be spiky for odd reasons if you have one of those liquidity events, for example. You can have a huge amount of income in one year. Your wealth didn't really change that much.
FRANK: That's right. And, you know, one of the studies said, well, the wealth can - the wealthy can manage their income so they can say, look, I'm gonna sell more stock one year and not the next 'cause the market's down. But even if you strip out stock sales, the incomes of the top 1 percent are the most volatile.
CONAN: And I was astonished at the levels of which you found, yes, there are these solid really wealthy people who are conservative with their money and they're going to pass that on to generations, yet so much of this wealth that we thought was wealth, this huge - not McMansions, but McPlantations - were built on a house of cards.
FRANK: That's right. I was surprised at how much of this was an illusion. Again, if you go back to the Blixseth who had, you know, a household staff of 110 people, seven or eight homes, you know, they were worth $1.2 billion, according to Forbes, and what nobody knew was how much debt they had. A bank had given them a loan of $375 million, which they never had to really pay back, but which basically, you know, ruined their empire.
And so it was all, you know, what I call a mirage in the desert because on the outside, they looked like one of the richest people in America. What you didn't know was how much debt was there. And when I talked to Edra about how her life has changed since she went from a billion to zero, she said, you know, in a sense, it's a relief because I now feel more authentic about my life. I was pretending before. I was trying to hide all this debt and present a façade of wealth, but it really wasn't who I am.
And now she feels that, in a sense, by losing her fortune, she's found herself.
CONAN: I bet at Marshall's she says, what wonderful prices they have there. I bet she never knew it existed.
FRANK: She had to suddenly go shopping for herself, do her own dishes, put gas in her car, which she had trouble with 'cause she hadn't done it in 25 years. And so it was a really interesting reinvention for a lot of these people.
CONAN: And told you the nightmare she suffered actually flying commercial, being put in the back of a plane between two other people. Well, just the indignity. Let's go to Fred. Fred with us from North Little Rock in Arkansas.
FRED: Yes. Good afternoon, gentlemen. Pleasure talking with you. And I'm very entertained by the topic of the discussion. I have a question for you. How has this recession affected the top one percent in their philanthropy, in their humanitarian side? I'll wait for your answer on the phone - on the radio. Thank you.
CONAN: OK. Thanks, Fred.
FRANK: It's a great question. You know, we can joke about buying less yachts and losing the private jet, but where this has really hurt - where high-beta wealth has really hurt - is in the taxes that go to the states that pay for teachers and firefighters, but also in philanthropy. You know, philanthropy took the biggest hit that's been on record since they've started charting this thing in the 1950s. You know, double-digit declines for two years in a row. And, you know, many of the wealthy - if you look at places like Palm Beach, which is built around these black tie charity balls, you know, many of the balls were canceled. The charities are down 20, 30, 50 percent.
CONAN: It had something to do with the Madoff scandal too.
FRANK: That, as well as just a lot of people lost their fortunes, whether it was from real estate or from the stock market or their companies. And, you know, a lot of charities and philanthropies that I talk to are saying, look, we're going to have to either shut down or merge with another charity or just stop funding the needy causes that we have to fund. So charity is one area where, you know, this really does have an impact. And it's fallen dramatically - it started to come back a little bit in 2011, but given where stock markets are today, I think it's still going to be a much lower level.
CONAN: And sometimes, the charities themselves got caught up in this sort of eddy. There was one that got a huge donation, an annual donation - I think $50 million a year, something like that - from a gambling magnate, well, a gambling magnate. Suddenly, a couple of years down the road, he couldn't provide that annual gift, and the people they'd hired to expand their business, they had to let go.
FRANK: That's right. A lot of these charities just said, look, you know, we found one big sugar daddy. He's willing to fund our whole program. Isn't that fantastic? And they didn't realize that today's wealth is high-beta wealth. And, you know, some of these charities, when they dropped a lot of donations from a lot of donors and just depended on a big donation from a big donor, kind of sealed their fate.
CONAN: We are talking with Robert Frank. He's the author of the "High-Beta Rich." Previous book was titled "Richistan." He joins us here in our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. And let's go to Carl, Carl with us from Overland Park in Kansas.
CARL: Yes. (Unintelligible) good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
CARL: Yes. I think my comments are that, number one, I've seen the - and I have a number of very wealthy clients, I'm a CPA, and we have seen that the ultra wealthy have gotten much wealthier, the fringe, sort of, wealth seems to have fallen off the bandwagon, and the hangers on, the froth, have sunk back to middle classdom. But your comment about, you know, what is wealthy, generally, like, Barron's magazine classify somebody over $5 million in net worth, which would be assets minus liabilities.
CONAN: And in "Richistan," you put that number $10 million, Robert.
FRANK: Yeah. In "High-Beta Rich," I only interviewed people with a net worth or a former net worth of $10 million. You're absolutely right. I mean, there's a profile in "High-Beta Rich" of a low-beta rich guy who basically, you know, has, both by temperament and by design, shunned the entire high-beta phenomenon and doesn't spend money, takes a very low salary and just builds and sells companies and keeps a very low lifestyle. He tried to buy himself a Porsche at one point and drove it around for a couple of days and decided it was too excessive and gave it back. And he's an example of those people you talk about - he's worth, you know, probably $200 million - who have kept their head through this whole process and, you know, doubted himself whenever everyone around him was getting wealthy. But in the end, he's come out much smarter and wealthier than other people. The point is that there's a lot of churn within the top one percent, so some people actually made money during this crisis. Some people fell out and some people stayed in.
CONAN: But I was astonished at the number of people who are - that list of the four or five hundred richest, consistency on that list is – well, it isn't.
FRANK: That's right. If you look at the top 400 earners in America - now this is income, not wealth, so it's not the Forbes list - only 25 percent of that group makes it more than one year over a 20-year period. So, you know, three-quarters of that group just shows up for one year, and then they're not on again at least over this 20-year period. So, you know...
CONAN: (Unintelligible ) wonders, you call them.
FRANK: That's right. These are, you know, again, some of it - these liquidity events that they only show up once. But some of it is also these people, the fringe, the froth, call them what you will, who come in and fall out rather quickly.
CONAN: Email question from Jerry: What social value do the money investors provide to society?
FRANK: Well, that's a great question. I, you know, I asked that question myself to a lot of these people. And, you know, as Leonard Stern said, he's the father who ran the bird empire, their Hartz (unintelligible) empire, and then now it's largely real estate and money. And he said, look, some people like to grow tomatoes and some people like to trade tomatoes. I prefer to grow tomatoes. My son likes to trade tomatoes. And his view was financialization of wealth doesn't add much to the economy. And I agree with that. I think it's something that we need to wrestle with as a culture. Should you create so much wealth, give so much wealth to people and reward them so much for things that don't add value, for products that aren't improving people's lives? And is there a way to fix that from a policy perspective? So far there isn't, but it's a real problem.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Casey, Casey with us from St. Augustine.
CASEY: Hi. I have a question. How do you feel about the Occupy Wall Street and how do you think - do you think the one percent is paying attention?
FRANK: It's very interesting. The one percent is as divided as the rest of the country, on Occupy Wall Street. Half of them support it and half of them are against it. Half of the wealthy believe that the wealthy should be taxed more, like Warren Buffett. And half of them believe that they shouldn't be taxed more. So again, you know, the one percent are portrayed as this unified group that likes to preserve its self-interest, but, in fact, they're as politically partisan and divided as the rest of the country. And I was surprised at how many of the one percent, even in finance, support the Occupy Wall Street movement.
CASEY: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Casey. And, Robert Frank, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.
FRANK: Great to be here. Thank you.
CONAN: Robert Frank's latest book is titled "The High-Beta Rich." He also writes the daily Wealth Report for The Wall Street Journal, and he joined us here at our bureau in New York. You can read an excerpt from "The High-Beta Rich" at our website. Just go to npr.org.
When we come back, well, we'll go back to Occupy Wall Street. Police pushed out hundreds of protesters from their camp in Zuccotti Park. What has Occupy changed? Where do you think it goes from here? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.