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Planet Money's Supply Chain Holiday Extravaganza

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

Hello, and welcome to the PLANET MONEY Supply Chain Holiday Extravaganza.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

I'm Wailin Wong.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. If you're hearing this podcast, it is too late for you - too late to buy presents. You know, given all the warnings about shipping delays, container ship backups, labor shortages, we were told to shop early and that last-minute shoppers might be doomed.

WONG: And maybe those problems were a tad overstated, but we at PLANET MONEY knew there would still be listeners out there in need of eleventh-hour gift ideas. And so we've been hard at work, coming up with an exclusive gift guide made up of special items that for all kinds of reasons are basically immune to supply chain problems.

MALONE: Cue the happy music.

WONG: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WONG: Today on the show, we are going to tell you how you can get a highly collectible action figure.

MALONE: We've got an exclusive beverage that will be the star of your next party.

WONG: And we commissioned the next great holiday song because, shockingly, there weren't any about the greatest gift of them all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: We are here to save the day for last-minute shoppers. We have today five gift ideas that are virtually immune to supply chain problems.

WONG: And we've enlisted some members of our PLANET MONEY extended family to help bring you those ideas.

MALONE: Hello, hello.

OK, so for gift No. 1, I had to take a trip to my local grocery store. And I was waiting for a call from Dan Pashman.

WONG: Dan has helped PLANET MONEY make our own vodka. And he also made his own brand-new pasta shape.

MALONE: Oh, there he is.

DAN PASHMAN: Hey, man.

MALONE: Can you hear me OK?

PASHMAN: Yeah. You sound like a million bucks.

WONG: But today, for our PLANET MONEY Supply Chain Holiday Extravaganza, he's sharing a beloved personal recipe, the ingredients for which should be available at anyone's grocery store, including Kenny's.

MALONE: So my understanding is you have a list of ingredients in front of you.

PASHMAN: Yes, a shopping list.

MALONE: Lay it on me one at a time.

PASHMAN: All right. So you're going to need eggs and heavy cream.

MALONE: Is there any specific kind I need?

PASHMAN: You need a lot of heavy cream. Make sure it's full fat and the big 64-ounce container of heavy cream.

MALONE: Sixty-four ounces?

PASHMAN: I think so. You should - should I double-check?

MALONE: Yeah, double-check. That's so much. I've never bought that much whipping cream.

PASHMAN: Hang on one sec. I'll be back in 30 seconds.

MALONE: OK, while Dan runs off to check his actual recipe here, I do want to reflect on how early in the pandemic I would come to this very grocery store, and I wouldn't know if basic things were going to be on the shelves.

WONG: Yeah. And a lot of that was because we were stocking up, buying huge quantities compared to normal. But also, what we bought really changed, and some parts of the grocery supply chain had a really hard time adjusting.

MALONE: Yeah, I remember one interesting example of this was sometimes you couldn't get a gallon of milk at the grocery store, but at the same time, there was all this milk going to waste, apparently, because lots of our milk supply goes to schools and restaurants, but those were suddenly closed. But also, you know, it wasn't like we could just put those little-kid cartons of milk or giant industrial milk containers in grocery stores.

WONG: Everything was just kind of upside-down and sideways.

MALONE: And scary, I think. But two years into the pandemic, grocery supply chains have generally caught up. And so you can now go to your grocery store and expect to find all of the stuff on, you know, Dan Pashman's shopping list, including the preposterous amount of heavy whipping cream that, yes, it turns out we do need.

PASHMAN: Yes, 2 quarts or 64 ounces of heavy cream.

MALONE: (Laughter) OK.

PASHMAN: It's a dozen eggs, a pound of sugar and 64 ounces of heavy cream. I mean, that's - that is the foundation of a party right there.

MALONE: (Laughter) Yeah, that plus rum and bourbon, because gift No. 1 that we are bringing you today is celebrity food podcaster Dan Pashman's own personal homemade eggnog. It is a twist on an old "Joy Of Cooking" recipe.

WONG: And given the ingredients, Dan says eggnog is the perfect gift to give someone exactly once per year and no more.

PASHMAN: You want me to say about my philosophy of eggnog, Kenny?

MALONE: Yeah, yeah. Please.

PASHMAN: It's basically like, imagine that you're making a cake, but instead of flour, you're going to use liquor. And that's eggnog.

MALONE: You heard it here first. Dan Pashman says, let them drink cake.

PASHMAN: (Laughter) That was good, man.

MALONE: You got it.

I should say I - no trouble finding the ingredients to this. I did make this eggnog.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID SLOSHING)

MALONE: A bit of work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIXER WHIRRING)

MALONE: And this does contain raw eggs, so obviously drink at your own risk. But, yeah, here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIPPING LIQUID)

MALONE: Oh, that is more boozy than I expected. Very good, very boozy drinkable cake.

WONG: We'll post Dan's full recipe online so that you, too, can give the gift of drinkable cake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: All right, so we've got gift No. 1 - Dan Pashman's eggnog, a celebration of fully stocked grocery stores. But let us now move on to item No. 2 in our holiday gift guide - toys.

WONG: And specifically, collectible toys.

JACQUELINE VONG: So Beanie Babies - and they're holiday hits (ph), Beanie Babies. They charter...

MALONE: I did not know Beanie Babies were still a thing. Like I...

VONG: They were...

MALONE: ...I thought we left those behind in the '90s.

VONG: Oh, they're huge.

MALONE: Jacqueline Vong is president and founder of a company called Playology International - and she is my go-to expert for toys - and told me that supply chain stuff this year has been wild for toys.

WONG: Case in point, she says look at Ty, the company that makes Beanie Babies.

VONG: So instead of sending their goods on a vessel in the water and being part of the container port backup, they have chartered 150 planes from China to Chicago O'Hare to get them in stores just for the holiday season.

MALONE: Little private jets for Beanie Babies.

VONG: Yes.

MALONE: I'm picturing them on little, teeny seats, sipping little, teeny bottles of alcohol.

VONG: The sloths and those beautiful unicorns - yes, absolutely. You know, bubbly for them.

MALONE: So Beanie Baby is airlifting toys. The Mattel company has started doing nearshoring, which is moving parts of production closer to home so it can move faster. These big toy companies are spending big money to get their toys on shelves.

WONG: But if you are not a giant toy company, Jacqueline says it's been so hard to make a toy. Factories are backed up, ships are backed up, ports are backed up.

MALONE: And, you know, we've never mentioned this on air, Wailin, but we, as a show, did briefly dabble in the world of toy manufacturing. We did this superhero series, and we revived an old comic book character named Micro-Face. And, of course, we wanted to make an action figure, but all we ever really managed to do was make exactly one prototype of an action figure.

Jacqueline, would you like to see the one and only Micro-Face action figure that does exist?

VONG: I would be delighted.

MALONE: And let me just say before I show this to Jacqueline, when I say we made a prototype, what I actually mean is that we paid a guy on Etsy to design and 3D print a Micro-Face head.

OK, don't judge too harshly. I mean, we did have to, like, kind of make it ourselves. All right, here we go. You ready?

VONG: Yeah.

MALONE: (Vocalizing).

VONG: Oh, my God. It looks so cool. It's really cool. I like the accessories it comes with.

MALONE: Well, those are just "Star Wars" accessories, to be fair.

VONG: OK (laughter).

MALONE: Yeah, 'cause what we've done is we didn't want to pay for a whole action figure made from scratch, so we paid to have a head designed that you could swap with the head of an existing action figure.

VONG: You know what? That's really smart. So it's multi-use. It looks pretty, pretty sweet.

MALONE: Yeah. So what we actually do have here is a 3D-printed Micro-Face head atop an existing action figure of a "Star Wars" guy.

WONG: And look. Beanie Babies, Mattel - they are showing us ways to get around supply chain problems by cutting out entire links in the chain. But it occurred to us, we are in a position to cut out the entire supply chain.

MALONE: Yeah, the whole thing. We've got a 3D Micro-Face file. Jacqueline pointed out that lots of libraries now have 3D printers. Boom, we can offer a print-your-own Micro-Face action figure.

VONG: So I think that's a really good solution for, you know, this holiday season. If anybody wanted to get a Micro-Face, I think jump onto your e-com shop and think about that 3D CAD drawing.

MALONE: We're not even going to charge people for it. You can have this 3D print file, whatever file kind that is, and print your own Micro-Face head. And then you got to buy your own action figure to swap the heads.

VONG: And that's the spirit of giving. Look at that, Kenny. Like, I'm all about just spreading the joy of toys in the world.

MALONE: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: All right, so gift No. 2 - make-your-own Micro-Face action figure. Gift No. 3 - we're going to need you to hear us out on this one.

WONG: Right. So our next gift idea is cash.

MALONE: Cash - you have to say excitedly. Cash. It's fun. Normalize cash, Wailin.

WONG: Normalize cash. So there are two reasons we're recommending this. No. 1, there is a lot of physical cash in circulation right now.

MALONE: Yeah. Basically, we all went running to the ATM at the beginning of the pandemic. I certainly did and then hid cash in my closet. So there are, in fact, a record number of physical bills floating around, according to the Federal Reserve. But reason No. 2 we're recommending this is because there is an argument that cash as a gift can prevent among the saddest of holiday tragedies known economically as destruction of value.

WONG: And there is one paper in particular that famously deals with this. It was published by an economist named Joel Waldfogel in 1993. The paper was titled "The Deadweight Loss Of Christmas."

MALONE: Yes. It is a modern-day "Christmas Carol" page-turner. But I do find the central argument compelling, which is that a person getting a gift often values that gift less than the amount of money it actually cost.

WONG: So for example, Kenny, let's say that I spend a hundred bucks on, like, a beautiful scarf for you. I'm not sure that you want a scarf or this is really your style, but it's very plaid and cozy

MALONE: And it's lovely, Wailin. Thank you so - a little scratchy, but this is the kind of scarf I'd be willing to buy. I would probably pay about 70 bucks for this. This seems about $70 worth of value for me.

WONG: Which is sad because I paid $100. And that mismatch, where Kenny only values the gift at 70 but I actually paid 100, that is $30 of lost value. And that is the deadweight loss of Christmas and what Joel Waldfogel found in his research.

MALONE: And his basic argument is, look; if you happen to be a great gift-giver and you know your gift recipient really, really well, then go ahead. Buy a normal present. Surprise and delight them and give them all that cheerful sentiment. But if you don't know that person well, you should be aware of the deadweight loss potential.

WONG: And there are ways to be more efficient if you want. If I had just bought Kenny a $100 gift card or even given Kenny $100 in cash, then for sure he would end up with $100 in value - no loss.

MALONE: Yes. And I have been trying to get people to give me cash for years. But giving cash as a gift - I believe the technical term is a bummer, at least in American culture.

WONG: Yeah, we don't sing carols about giving wads of cash during the holidays. All the songs are all about partridges in pear trees and bearing gifts and traversing afar with myrrh.

MALONE: Yeah, yeah. What the world maybe needs, we think, for the canon is a cash carol. And we knew just who to call.

LEO SIDRAN: My name is Leo Sidran, and I appeared on the PLANET MONEY Christmas tree holiday episode in 2020, in which I purchased a Christmas tree from the PLANET MONEY crew and then wrote a song about it

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY OF THE TREE")

SIDRAN: (Singing) 'Cause we bought it from the boys at PLANET MONEY.

WONG: Yeah, Leo. So we told him we wanted him to write another holiday tune, but this time it would be about the economic argument for giving cash.

SIDRAN: I love it. I'm super into it.

WONG: Excellent. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to kind of sum up the basic argument.

MALONE: Wailin gave Leo the whole Cash as Gift 101 lecture about the research from Professor Joel Waldfogel. She even gave Leo the 1993 deadweight loss Christmas paper for musical inspiration.

WONG: So do you feel like you've got enough material to come up with a really rockin' holiday tune?

SIDRAN: I think so. I mean, I think I have a lot of thoughts about it and a lot of feelings about it. Do you want me to be specific about any of the players involved, like the name of the professor or the study or any of that stuff?

WONG: I think that could be - that could be funny. But, like, if Waldfogel proves very difficult to rhyme, I don't want you to feel like you got to (laughter) - you have to include his name.

SIDRAN: You never know until you sit down to write what's going to come out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY OF THE TREE")

SIDRAN: (Singing) We bought it from...

MALONE: After the break, a new holiday classic is born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY OF THE TREE")

LEO SIDRAN, AMANDA SIDRAN, SOL SIDRAN AND ZELTA SILS: (Singing) Yes, we bought it from the boys at PLANET MONEY. La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.

SIDRAN: Can you - (playing piano). Can you hear this piano here if I play?

WONG: Yeah.

SIDRAN: So I can just do a little - I can kind of slink (ph) it out.

MALONE: After a little over a week, Leo was ready to demo his new cash carol for us. Hopefully, this was the beginning of making it less of a bummer to get cash as a present.

SIDRAN: OK, so here we go.

(Playing piano, singing) Once again, it is the season. Feel the spirit in the air. Offer up a thoughtful gesture to show how much you really care. Watch the children with excitement. See the sparkle in their eye, tearing paper off their presents, hoping for a fun surprise. Well, here's the thing. Cash is king. When your memories fade and your sweater's frayed, cash, cash, cash. Yes, cash is king.

So that's the first verse.

MALONE: Oh, it's great. It's more than I could've ever hoped for.

WONG: Instant holiday classic.

MALONE: I mean, maybe, because, like, look; there is exactly one person who can truly decide if this cash carol is the right way to normalize cash and combat the deadweight loss of Christmas.

WONG: Good morning.

JOEL WALDFOGEL: Hello.

WONG: Are you Professor Joel Waldfogel?

WALDFOGEL: I am, yes.

WONG: Author of the seminal 1993 paper "The Deadweight Loss Of Christmas"?

WALDFOGEL: I am.

WONG: Well, this is very exciting because we have commissioned a new holiday carol that we think you should hear.

WALDFOGEL: Well, all right, that's sounds great.

WONG: All right. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CASH IS KING")

LEO SIDRAN, AMANDA SIDRAN AND SOL SIDRAN: (Singing) Cash, cash, cash. Yes, cash is - kingdoms rise, and then they fall. Fashions come and go. There's one thing you can count on through it all.

SIDRAN: (Singing) If you're a pauper or a mogul, just ask good old Joel Waldfogel.

L SIDRAN, A SIDRAN AND S SIDRAN: (Singing) Joel Waldfogel.

WALDFOGEL: (Laughter) It's not Irving Berlin, but I like it.

WONG: (Laughter).

WALDFOGEL: I love it. And I have to say, you know, this is, like, the best holiday gift I could get.

WONG: Oh, my goodness. Do you think that if someone sang this song while giving cash to their girlfriend it would maybe pep things up a little bit?

WALDFOGEL: I think the relationship would be over within a day.

WONG: (Laughter) Maybe, like, we'll keep working on, like, another song then. Happy holidays.

WALDFOGEL: My pleasure. Talk to you next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CASH IS KING")

L SIDRAN, A SIDRAN AND S SIDRAN: (Singing) Cash is king. And then your memories fade, and your sweater's frayed. Cash, cash, cash - yes, cash is king.

MALONE: So there you go, gift No. 3 - physical money. And you can go to our website to get the full version of the cash carol, officially titled "Cash Is King," performed by Leo with his wife, Amanda, and their daughter, Sol.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEO SIDRAN, AMANDA SIDRAN AND SOL SIDRAN SONG, "CASH IS KING")

WONG: OK, gift item No. 4 - we're going to give you a bit of setup here.

MALONE: Yeah. So, you know, with all of the messed-up supply chain talk, it is easy to forget that there is a whole category of our economy that does not have to be loaded into a storage container.

WONG: In fact, it is the biggest part of our economy. The U.S. is the biggest service economy in the world. Financial services, health services, technological services - these are all things that will not get stuck at the Port of Los Angeles.

MALONE: And, look; we do give services as gifts - a car wash in the old stocking, an IOU to do extra chores and, of course, the classic service as a gift, a spa treatment.

WONG: But that's a little played out. We wondered if there was a less expected kind of treatment that PLANET MONEY could spotlight this year.

JENNIFER JENKINS: Hey.

MALONE: Jennifer, hello.

JENKINS: What's up, Kenny? Did you cut your hair?

MALONE: I did get it cut today. It is a lot shorter than I wanted.

WONG: Jennifer Jenkins, law professor at Duke, our unofficial trademark attorney.

MALONE: That's right. You may remember Jennifer helped us when we got into a bit of a heated dispute about making soda pop earlier this year.

WONG: But today, we wanted to pitch her our big idea for a new service to give.

MALONE: We were like, well, people do give each other, like, spa treatments. That's a thing. That already exists. What about law treatments?

JENKINS: I'm kind of thinking most people would opt for the massage. I'm just - (laughter) I'm just putting that out there.

MALONE: Well, we - too late. We called you, Jennifer.

JENKINS: Oh, well.

WONG: Massages are great, but there are key moments in life when wouldn't you rather have the services of a legal professional?

MALONE: Just had a kid? Well, probably should get your will and trust done.

WONG: Lucky enough to buy a house in this market? It would be good to have a real estate lawyer look over those closing documents.

MALONE: And these are just the basics, Wailin.

WONG: The mani-pedis of law treatments, if you will.

MALONE: I will.

WONG: (Laughter) We pulled up a spa services list and went through it with Jennifer.

MALONE: OK, Jennifer, what is the legal equivalent of the mud facial?

JENKINS: Oh, maybe that's the prenup.

MALONE: Prenup.

JENKINS: You're slapping mud on your face. It's sort of - a sort of obscuring mask between, you know, you and the beautiful thing that is marriage and deciding to spend the rest of your life with somebody. But maybe it's a good idea and you're detoxified at the end.

WONG: What's the equivalent of a makeover? Jennifer says, how about incorporating? Yes, you can pay for someone to start their new life as a business.

MALONE: And my personal favorite law treatment idea - why not pay to help your aunt finally trademark that wacky catchphrase she's been pushing? Magic kazam (ph). Thanks to you, it's hers to sell on T-shirts.

WONG: This year, the gift of law treatments. Jennifer thinks your family will come around.

JENKINS: Oh, I think that's absolutely right. I mean, you know, lawyers are here to help you through important moments in your life. And I can't promise that they will be as enjoyable as what you experience in the spa, but they may be equally important and possibly more lasting.

MALONE: They will last longer than a Coco foot massage, probably.

JENKINS: The need - whatever that is - or the...

MALONE: Yes.

JENKINS: ...You know, ephemeral glow you get from a wax (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WONG: We have one final gift left, and it's a category of supply chain workaround we haven't really touched on - repurposing something there is a lot of. What about cloth face masks?

MALONE: Yeah. You know, maybe you've moved on to N95s. Maybe your parents wouldn't stop making cloth masks and sending them to you last year. Maybe you're just tired of the patterns you've got. Whatever it is, we figured that if we could come up with a way to turn cloth masks into a gift, people might have a few laying around.

WONG: So we started looking around, and there was stuff like an impressive origami nativity scene. But that was made of surgical masks.

MALONE: Someone suggested making hammocks for hamsters, which, like, yes. But then we - you know, it is kind of niche. Like, maybe a guinea pig could squeeze in, but maybe not broad appeal enough.

WONG: And that's when we started to think, all right, you've got your Micro-Face action figure, your pitcher of Pashmanian (ph) eggnog, your wad of cash. But we've given you nothing to put all these supply-chain-immune gifts in.

MALONE: No. What if - dare we, could we make a gift basket out of masks?

WONG: A masket?

MALONE: Yes. Yes, a masket.

WONG: And so, Kenny, while you were off printing Micro-Face heads and making eggnog, I set out to find someone crafty enough to pull this off, which is how I met Carly Kocurek. She is a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

MALONE: Wait. I did not know that you called a professor about mask basket making.

WONG: Well, she doesn't have, like, a Ph.D. in masket making.

MALONE: No, no.

WONG: She's like a professor of digital humanities for her day job. But she is extremely crafty.

MALONE: OK.

WONG: She makes quilts. And at the beginning of the pandemic, she actually sewed something like 200 masks that she gave away to neighbors and a community health clinic. So, you know, she knows her way around a cloth mask, is what I'm saying.

MALONE: OK.

WONG: And I figured she would know how to turn it into a basket.

CARLY KOCUREK: I love, like, crafting for the holidays. And I think a lot of people - like, oh, you have to make things look nice. I'm like, no, give your people ugly cookies. Like, I think people are so excited just to be cared for.

WONG: So in that spirit, I asked Carly to figure out how to make a basket out of masks.

MALONE: I am very curious.

WONG: And she sent us back a tutorial video. I'll play a little bit for you here.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

KOCUREK: Hi. My name's Carly Kocurek, and I am here to show you how to make the PLANET MONEY exclusive masket. It's a basket made of masks.

MALONE: Oh, OK. There's Carly.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

KOCUREK: So to do this, you need...

MALONE: The masket's not on screen. That is the basket? That's incredible.

WONG: Yeah. Yeah, she really delivered.

MALONE: That doesn't look like masks. That looks like a fancy thing I would buy at - what? How does this - how did she do this?

WONG: So what she did is she took two cloth masks, and then she...

MALONE: Yeah.

WONG: ...Just attached the long sides together. And then you kind of expand out the pleats. And then you take the ear loops that are on the ends, and you tie them together into little bows to attach the sides. And then you can even put a little bit more tape there where the ear loops are to kind of give it even more structural integrity. And it holds together.

MALONE: That is beautiful.

WONG: I will say I tried making one. It was not quite as lovely. But Carly says that's not what matters.

KOCUREK: I think our thing about the pandemic that I've really tried to focus on is it's really important to give grace to yourself and everyone else and, like, let yourself try things you might not be good at. And I think a lot of us have seen each other maybe at our not best, and it's OK. And I think sometimes when we try to be perfect all the time, we're actually cutting ourselves off from community and from being able to take care of each other. And we all deserve that. We all deserve to take care of each other and to be taken care of.

MALONE: And isn't that really what the holidays are about - taking care of each other, like PLANET MONEY taking care of you if you've waited too long to buy gifts for people?

WONG: Carly's full masket tutorial and everything else we have mentioned is available online at npr.org/planetmoney. Just look for the Holiday Extravaganza post.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Special thanks this week to Dan Pashman, who, in addition to knowing lots about eggnog, recently revealed his secret best way to eat pie with ice cream and then tried to make that go viral on TikTok. You can hear all about it on his podcast, "The Sporkful."

WONG: The Micro-Face 3D print design was created by Luigi from Antaeus Creations. And if you want more from the composer of "Cash Is King," Leo Sidran, he has a show called "The Third Story" podcast, where he interviews other musicians.

MALONE: If you give any of these things as gifts, we would love to know about it. You can email us. We are planetmoney@npr.org. Send us your Micro-Face action figure pictures. Send us your family's reaction when you sing them the cash carol. We want all of it. We're also on social media - @planetmoney.

This episode was produced by the incredible Emma Peaslee, with help from the very good, also, James Sneed. It was mastered by Andy Huether. It was edited by Molly Messick. Ebony Reed and Louise Story are our consulting senior editors. PLANET MONEY's executive producer is Alex Goldmark. I'm Kenny Malone.

WONG: And I'm Wailin Wong. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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