#884: The Rest Of The Story, Winter 2018 We check in on some stories we did this year to see what's changed. Find a full list of the episodes we referenced at our website, NPR.org/money.
NPR logo

#884: The Rest Of The Story, Winter 2018

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/679324136/680702302" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
#884: The Rest Of The Story, Winter 2018

#884: The Rest Of The Story, Winter 2018

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/679324136/680702302" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: The other day I called up an expert.

MICHAEL NELSON: This is Michael Nelson. May I help you?

FOUNTAIN: Hey, Michael.

Michael works at the mothership of fundraising.

NELSON: Yeah, we're the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

FOUNTAIN: There truly is an association for everything.

NELSON: There absolutely is.

FOUNTAIN: And we were calling Michael because there's sort of an existential crisis in his world right now. There's a new tax law. And in it, there's less of an incentive for non-rich people to donate to charity and then write it off on their taxes. And so Michael's question is, will us not-so-rich people still donate?

NELSON: That's basically the $1 million question right now.

FOUNTAIN: It's like we're all part of some giant economics experiment. And Michael says we won't have the results until the new year.

NELSON: December is critical. And the last week of December can actually get crazy.

FOUNTAIN: So look; we're an economics show. We know there's less of an incentive for you to donate this year. But maybe if we ask extra nice, so pretty please. You can support us by going to donate.npr.org/planetmoney and supporting your local NPR member station.

KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

We are inches from the end of 2018, which has made us all a little reflective. We here at PLANET MONEY have looked into a lot of different things this year. But we know that the story does not end when we turn off our microphones. So today we give you, with apologies to radio legend Paul Harvey, the rest of the story.

FOUNTAIN: You know, I was expecting, like, Fox News and CNN and CBS to all be out here with their, like, live shots. Why is it just us?

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Maybe we're just early. Maybe they don't know where he is.

DUFFIN: That is our very own Kenny Malone and Nick Fountain reporting an update on Episode 857, Postal Illuminati. That was the episode where a listener had emailed us a conspiracy theory which they found out was actually true. It was about a worldwide secret-ish postal organization, the Universal Postal Union or UPU. The UPU sets mail rates all over the world. And those mail rates give America a pretty bum deal. Like, it can cost more to send a package to your neighbor than for somebody in China to send that same package to your neighbor.

There has been a huge update since we first reported this story, and Nick and Kenny were on the scene as the news broke a few months ago. They went to talk to the listener who first told us about this, Jayme Smaldone. All right, Nick and Kenny are going to take it from here.

FOUNTAIN: Less than a month after we published that episode, the Trump administration announced that they were looking into this Universal Postal Union.

MALONE: Now, we're not saying Trump listens to PLANET MONEY. We're not not saying he listens to PLANET MONEY.

FOUNTAIN: He probably doesn't listen to PLANET MONEY.

MALONE: Sure. But today, October 17, the Trump administration announced, we're done with this thing. We are planning to leave the Universal Postal Union.

FOUNTAIN: So immediately we thought the conspiracy theorist (unintelligible).

MALONE: Jayme.

FOUNTAIN: And we found out he's attending an e-commerce meetup in New York City right now. So we rushed down here to Lower Manhattan. And we are right now waiting for Jayme Smaldone to walk out of this building.

MALONE: We are a press gaggle of two.

Here he comes. Here he comes. Here he comes. Jayme.

FOUNTAIN: Mr. Smaldone.

MALONE: Jayme. Mr. Smaldone. Mr. Smaldone. We just need a second, please, sir.

JAYME SMALDONE: You guys are crazy. Good to see you guys.

FOUNTAIN: Great to see you.

SMALDONE: Today's a big day in mail, I think.

FOUNTAIN: A momentous day in mail.

SMALDONE: Fantastic day for America, I think.

FOUNTAIN: You know, Jayme, if we're being serious here, we don't actually think that the Trump administration listened to Episode 857 of PLANET MONEY. What is more likely, though, is that you have been out there talking about how American small businesses are disadvantaged against their foreign competitors because of rules at the UPU. And so there is a chance that you had something to do with this decision today. How are you feeling, man?

SMALDONE: I think it's incredible that someone can complain and get a result in this country. It's fantastic.

MALONE: Has anyone told you that you specifically had a hand in this happening?

SMALDONE: Sure.

MALONE: Who told you that, the president?

SMALDONE: I didn't speak to the president directly, but I connected with people in the White House and people in the Senate and Congress. And I think that this was an underlying issue, and really my only part was just elevating the awareness. Seems like it's going to be resolved, so I think it's pretty fast.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, so resolved - like, there are definitely some bad things about the Universal Postal Union when it comes to, like, small businesses like yours. But also, it kind of makes global mail work. Did you - did the administration just break global mail?

SMALDONE: I don't know exactly how everything is going to play out, right? I think that's for the future to tell. But I think that they'll figure out a way to continue to have the mail flow around the world. I think that might - my feeling is that, ultimately, this one thing will get resolved.

MALONE: All right. Jayme Smaldone, thanks for talking to us.

SMALDONE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID ISAAC FELDSTEIN, ERIC J. BERDON AND MARC FERRARI SONG, "GET YA OUTTA THEM BOOTS")

DUFFIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Karen Duffin. Today on the show, 2018. As we near the end of this year, this incredibly long year, we look back.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID ISAAC FELDSTEIN, ERIC J. BERDON AND MARC FERRARI SONG, "GET YA OUTTA THEM BOOTS")

DUFFIN: Hey, Noel. You are here to give us an update on a story that you reported earlier this year.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Episode No. 817. We called it The Gun Man.

DUFFIN: OK.

KING: There was a very big development in this story over the summer, and then there was a very unexpected twist as well. So listeners might remember this episode was about a man named Cody Wilson. He was the first person to ever successfully make a gun using a 3D printer. He made a pistol. And he took the blueprints for how to make that gun, and he put them online so that anyone in the world could access them.

DUFFIN: This, of course, made lawmakers very nervous because you cannot trace these guns, which is how police often can solve a crime.

KING: That's right. And when lawmakers came after him in the press and said, what you're doing is dangerous, Cody's response was to tell lawmakers to go to hell. Like, he openly mocked them in the media. He said, you cannot stop me.

DUFFIN: Which I assume went over well with them.

KING: Yeah, the government loves being told to go to hell.

DUFFIN: Sure. Me too.

KING: And so in 2015, Cody got a letter from the State Department, and it said, you are in violation of the law, and you need to take those blueprints offline. So he takes the blueprints down, but he turns around and he sues the government. He says what the government is doing is a violation of my First Amendment.

DUFFIN: So he's basically putting, like, a right-wing issue on the back of a more, like, left-wing argument.

KING: In fact, some of the top First Amendment lawyers in the country ended up representing him.

DUFFIN: OK, so that brings us to our first update.

KING: Yes. This summer, out of the blue, the government settled with Cody Wilson and gave him permission to put the blueprints for the 3D-printed gun back online. And then immediately, a group of state attorneys general got together, and they sued the Trump administration...

DUFFIN: Oh, wow.

KING: ...For having allowed Cody to put the blueprints back online. A federal judge then gets involved and says, everyone freeze until I've had a chance to look at some things and make a decision. So at that point, Cody takes the blueprints back offline, and his company says, all right, fine. You're not going to let us put them online, we'll sell them to people through the mail. And that's what they start doing. That was what was happening late this summer.

DUFFIN: OK.

KING: And then there was a really surprising twist in Cody Wilson's story. A 16-year-old girl in Austin, Texas, where Cody lives, went to a counselor and told the counselor that she met Cody on a pay-for-sex website and that the two of them had sex in a hotel room and that Cody paid her for it. The police investigated, and they charged Cody with second-degree sexual assault.

DUFFIN: Wow.

KING: Yeah. And Cody's left the company that he founded.

DUFFIN: So the fight that he started, he's kind of had to recuse himself from.

KING: That's right. And if he's convicted, he's facing up to 20 years in prison.

DUFFIN: And if he is convicted, he's a felon, in which case he cannot own guns.

KING: Yeah. That, maybe, is the final twist.

DUFFIN: Wow, this is not how, I think, anyone thought this story was going to end.

KING: No. Everybody was really astonished.

DUFFIN: All right. Thanks, Noel. By the way, we did reach out to Cody Wilson for comment, but he did not respond.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID GERARD LAWRENCE SONG, "NIGHT CALLING")

DUFFIN: For our next update, we're going to take you back to Episode 845, called REDMAP. And in this episode, we talk to a Republican strategist named Chris Jankowski. He is the architect of REDMAP, which was a Republican plan to control redistricting. It was launched around 2009, 2010. And it allowed Republicans to gerrymander maps across the country and, they hoped, lock in a Republican advantage for at least a decade.

And it did look like it was working. For years after 2010, when this was implemented, the maps did start to favor Republicans in a lot of different states. In fact, when I started reporting on gerrymandering two years ago, I called up a bunch of Democrats. And back then, in 2016, they said, look; because of gerrymandering, there is no way we can win back the House. Like, it's basically not even possible.

Then, as we all saw this fall, the midterms happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOLF BLITZER: The Democrats will win the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

DUFFIN: And as I was watching these results come in, I was thinking about REDMAP, and I was wondering, what does this mean for gerrymandering? Does it mean that gerrymandering doesn't work? Is it not the boogeyman that we think it is?

So I called back Chris Jankowski, that REDMAP guy, and he told me, look; these results just prove what I have been trying to tell people for a long time.

CHRIS JANKOWSKI: I've said all along the district lines are only so influential.

DUFFIN: He said, you can't lock in partisan advantage forever because of how the maps are drawn.

JANKOWSKI: You are using data from the previous 10 years, really, to draw maps for the next 10 years. And each election cycle, the data is less reliable, there's population shifts, there's unforeseen political issues.

DUFFIN: And when he said that, I thought, yeah, population shifts, unforeseen political issues - it does feel like we've had a few of those since 2016. And so what Chris concludes from the midterms is that voters can overrule the maps. They are not all-powerful.

But I wanted a gut check, so I also called Kelly Ward, who is the executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. And she sees something very different in those midterm results.

And she pointed to Pennsylvania, that is a swing state that had been gerrymandered to benefit Republicans. But after a long battle, the courts recently redrew the maps. And these less gerrymandered maps - they got less gerrymandered results. Going into the midterms, Democrats had only five seats, and Republicans had 13. But with these newly drawn maps...

KELLY WARD: The new map created a 9-9 outcome, which is representative of a swing state like Pennsylvania.

DUFFIN: But in states that did not try to undo partisan gerrymandering, states that remained gerrymandered...

WARD: In states like Ohio and North Carolina and Georgia and Wisconsin, Democrats won about 50 percent of the vote in those states but only have, you know, between 25 and 30 percent of the seats in those states.

DUFFIN: So while Chris sees the midterm results as proof that gerrymandering is not as powerful a monster as everyone says, Kelly sees the results as proof of just how bad it actually is. Any way around it, of course, all eyes are now on 2020. My eyes, personally, are on 2021 because that is when the next maps will be redrawn.

And I asked Chris, will you be working on redistricting this next round?

JANKOWSKI: I will not be. Others have stepped up, and I will not be doing anything with it.

DUFFIN: You sound happy about that.

JANKOWSKI: I'm very happy about that.

DUFFIN: After the break, we tell you about a surprising twist in a story we reported in California earlier this year, and we do a lightning round.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOUNTAIN: Hey. Nick here again. Remember at the top of the show when I mentioned that we don't know how the new tax law will affect charitable giving but that you can help us answer that and many other questions about the economy if you go to donate.npr.org/planetmoney? Still true - donate.npr.org/planetmoney.

DUFFIN: Dan, you are in the D.C. office today.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: I am.

DUFFIN: We are talking on the phone. Dan Charles - he is a reporter in the D.C. bureau. You reported a great story for us last summer called Yes In My Backyard or YIMBY. It's a movement in the San Francisco Bay area to build more housing. And YIMBY is a play on NIMBY, which is Not In My Backyard, and that's people who are opposed to more housing.

As I understand it, a few things have happened since you first reported this last summer. First of all, the - I guess we can call her the chief YIMBY of our story, Sonja Trauss - she launched this whole YIMBY movement. And when we did our episode, she was running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. And the first thing I want to know is if she won.

CHARLES: No, she lost - came in third. But there is something else - something that was happening behind the scenes while I was reporting that episode, and nobody even knew about it.

DUFFIN: Oh, that sounds mysterious.

CHARLES: One of the places where this housing battle's been going on is the city of Lafayette, east of San Francisco. There were two things. First, they were trying to block construction of a big apartment building on a hill overlooking town. Sonja Trauss was suing the city over that.

And the other thing was a bill that would let the commuter rail system build big apartment buildings on land that it owns near its rail station. YIMBYs wanted this bill. Lafayette was opposing it.

And I'm going to play you something. It's an audio recording of one moment at a hearing in Sacramento on this bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN FALK: I'm Steven Falk. I'm the Lafayette city manager representing the city of Lafayette, which is opposed to this bill.

DUFFIN: OK, for being the representative of the city that is opposing all of this, Steve doesn't sound very, like, enthusiastically opposed.

CHARLES: No, he doesn't sound that enthusiastic because Steve Falk personally really supported the bill. He wants apartment buildings near that train station.

DUFFIN: Wow.

CHARLES: That reticence you hear in his voice is because, at that moment, it was kind of a personal crossroads for him.

DUFFIN: Yeah, it sounds like he - it was, like, a conflict between his personal beliefs and what he was required to do for his job.

CHARLES: It really was. And the first time he laid out the whole story publicly was just the other day, when I met him at his home.

FALK: I spoke against the bill because I'm a professional city manager, and I take direction from the city council. But I knew after that, I couldn't do this work anymore.

CHARLES: A few months later, he announced he was resigning his position as manager of the city of Lafayette.

DUFFIN: And this is because the city manager of the city fighting the YIMBYs was secretly a YIMBY himself?

CHARLES: Well, kind of. His motivation was slightly different. The thing that makes him want more housing near public transportation is climate change, actually, because if people live close to trains, less driving, less burning fossil fuels.

FALK: The analogy I've used is I say, the house is on fire and our children and our grandchildren are trapped in the attic. And so what are we going to do about it? Well, one thing you're going to do, for sure, is pass that law that makes it easier to build near the BART station.

CHARLES: It did pass, by the way. And now that he's resigned, he can say that out loud - that he's pleased with that.

DUFFIN: Well, thank you so much, Dan.

CHARLES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES THOMAS DONALDSON AND SKINNY WILLIAMS' "SUBTLY SILLY THUG")

DUFFIN: You cannot see Alex Goldmark dancing with me here in the studio. Welcome to the studio, Alex.

ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: Is that how we're going to get into it? We're going to call me out for doing the studio dance?

DUFFIN: Yes.

GOLDMARK: OK.

DUFFIN: OK.

GOLDMARK: All right.

DUFFIN: Look; I brought you in here 'cause I'm about to lose my voice. I've been talking too much. I stand here with a cup of tea. There's no whiskey in it yet, but I brought you in here...

GOLDMARK: It's almost 5.

DUFFIN: ...To do a lightning round with me because this has been quite a year.

GOLDMARK: So much stuff has happened, so many updates. I have this piece of paper here. You found a bunch of episodes that we can update.

DUFFIN: Yes.

GOLDMARK: I'm going to call them out. Let's start with episode 863. The 13th Hole was the title, and this was your episode where you told the story of a celebrity golf tournament that kind of went awry. And it was for charity, sponsored by the Trump Foundation. And it was about how money for these kinds of charity events doesn't always go to charity.

DUFFIN: Which is exactly why the New York attorney general's office has been investigating the Trump Foundation for, as they put it, quote, "persistently illegal conduct."

GOLDMARK: Sounds bad.

DUFFIN: Yes. And just this month, President Trump has agreed to shut down the whole foundation and give away the remaining money.

GOLDMARK: And the lawsuit is ongoing.

DUFFIN: Correct.

GOLDMARK: OK, next update. It's episode No. 861, Food Scare Squad. It was about the aftermath of last year's romaine lettuce contamination scare.

DUFFIN: And this year, just for kicks, 2018 brought us another romaine lettuce scare.

GOLDMARK: Almost exactly as it was described in our episode, happened all over again.

DUFFIN: But one thing has changed, and that is that lettuce is starting to be labeled. It has, like, a birth certificate that says, I was born in California or Arizona.

GOLDMARK: And so that means that if there is a food scare about Arizona lettuce, then grocery stores can just throw out just the Arizona lettuce and don't have to throw out all of the lettuce.

DUFFIN: Exactly.

GOLDMARK: Baby steps. OK. Next update, Swamp Gravy, episode 843 from May. Small town in Georgia facing hard times does the impossible - saves itself by putting on a musical theater show.

DUFFIN: Sadly, this town was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Michael, and they had to cancel a few of their shows. It is back on, but they are still cleaning up the town.

GOLDMARK: Episode 860, World's Longest Yard Sale. You and Nick drive almost 700 miles along the World's Longest Yard Sale, buying trinkets and making friends along the way. But question hanging in the air - lots of people writing in about this one - cookie jar. They want to know about the cookie jar.

DUFFIN: I honestly think I've never gotten more tweets on anything but very issue, which is that Nick and I bought a cookie jar that looked like a cat for Stacey Vanek Smith. Everyone wanted to know if Stacey liked the cookie jar. I am very sad to report that the cookie jar broke before we could give it to Stacey.

GOLDMARK: Wow, we're getting downers here - back-to-back here. OK, we're still on the market for a cookie jar. Next up, episode 877, Laws Of The Office. And this is something else a lot of people have been writing in about. Our dishes - are they getting done in the sink? Remember, Alice Evans, professor of international development, suggested that we get a giant trophy to encourage people to do the dishes in our office.

And we did. It's, like, 4 feet tall, has a golden mug on top. And when all of the dishes were done in the sink, the trophy would just appear.

DUFFIN: And so a lot of you asked about the dish trophy, mostly wanting to know if it worked so that they could use it if it does.

GOLDMARK: So knowing that I'm biased, I asked the expert on this.

DUFFIN: OK.

GOLDMARK: Devin Miller (ph), our office manager.

DUFFIN: Oh, really? I'm dying to hear what Devin said.

GOLDMARK: OK, Devin, in your professional opinion, did the trophy we put in the kitchen to make people do the dishes work?

DEVIN MILLER, BYLINE: Yes. But I think it worked because a couple individuals were more motivated to do dishes.

GOLDMARK: Well, we took it away because someone told me it seemed passive-aggressive.

MILLER: That's not an inaccurate description.

GOLDMARK: But now that it's gone, I think the dishes have gotten worse.

MILLER: I would agree with that. Yeah, I don't think it had a lasting effect.

GOLDMARK: Should we bring it back?

MILLER: Totally.

DUFFIN: OK. I'm not surprised that Devin wants the trophy back because he's right. The dishes are not being done.

GOLDMARK: So 2019, trophy might come back.

DUFFIN: I hope so.

GOLDMARK: One more update - more like office gossip...

DUFFIN: All right, dish.

GOLDMARK: ...From PLANET MONEY than an episode, but it is about episode 826, The Vodka Proof. That one is where we made our own homemade vodka and then tested it against fancy vodka to prove that fancy vodka is all just marketing.

DUFFIN: Which is true.

GOLDMARK: And so we put that to use at our holiday party here at the NPR New York bureau.

DUFFIN: Yes, we had a cocktail competition between the various teams at the bureau. And for PLANET MONEY's entry, Ginflation Spiral is what we called it.

GOLDMARK: Clever. We're so clever.

DUFFIN: No, we're nerds. But it's basically gin and some of our homemade vodka.

GOLDMARK: It tasted awful.

DUFFIN: It was terrible. I honestly don't think a single person voted for it.

GOLDMARK: We didn't get a single vote. We didn't get a single vote. But our colleagues at The Indicator, one of my other podcasts, they nailed this thing.

DUFFIN: Theirs was good.

GOLDMARK: They had Trade Spat Spritzers made from seven tariffed ingredients. And everyone who was drinking it had to guess, what were the seven tariffed goods?

DUFFIN: I didn't get them all. Did anyone?

GOLDMARK: Nobody got the secret ingredient. It was honey.

DUFFIN: Really?

GOLDMARK: Yeah. We posted on our Instagram. All the ingredients are there, too. You can see pictures.

DUFFIN: OK, but don't make the Ginflation. It's terrible.

GOLDMARK: Yeah. We didn't post about that one.

DUFFIN: All right, I think that brings us to not just the end of the show, but the end of the year, which means we should probably go drink some Trade Spat Spritzers.

GOLDMARK: I think there are - actually is, like, a pitcher still in the fridge.

DUFFIN: OK. Let's go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMON JAMES, VON HEMINGWAY AND WILLIAM RIDDIMS SONG, "GET ON DOWN")

DUFFIN: If there is anything you want to hear more of, or less of, from us in 2019, please be in touch.

GOLDMARK: You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org, or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram - wherever - we are @planetmoney.

DUFFIN: Our show today was produced by Sally Helm. Our supervising producer is you, Alex Goldmark. Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

GOLDMARK: Special thanks to Andy Greenberg of Wired magazine and Alvin Lum from the South China Morning Post. I'm Alex Goldmark.

DUFFIN: And I am Karen Duffin. And on behalf of everyone here at PLANET MONEY, we want to say thank you so much for listening, and we hope you have a very happy new year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMON JAMES, VON HEMINGWAY AND WILLIAM RIDDIMS SONG, "GET ON DOWN")

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.