What is the most important indicator of 2021? : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Indicator family feud is back, and the stakes are higher than ever! Stacey is joined by our friends from Planet Money as everyone makes their case for the indicator of the year. Who will win?

One indicator to rule them all

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It is time for "Family Feud."

(CHEERING)

VANEK SMITH: OK, so we're getting to the end of this year, 2021, which, of course, brings us to the question of, like, what was the biggest story of the year? What was the indicator of indicators? So I just figured I would invite our little family over from Planet Money and ask them to make a case for what they think the indicator of the year, the indicator of indicators should be. Here are the rules. We all prepared our indicator of the year. We're making our case. We will make that case in 60-ish seconds. And in the end, you, the listener, will vote. You will pick who you think made the best case for the indicator of indicators for 2021.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: Welcome to "Family Feud," indicator of the year edition.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: We've all picked what we think is the economic story of the year, and we're going take a little 60-second case. Robert Smith, tell me what your topic is. And I'll time you while you make your case.

SMITH: All right. I think it's entirely clear to anyone who's paid attention this year that the indicator of the year is inflation. It's the word of the year. It's the indicator of the year it is the story of the year. Supply chain bottlenecks come and go. Labor numbers go up and down. But serious inflation in the United States happens once in a generation. This year's inflation isn't just the indicator of the year. It may define the entire decade. I mean, think about it. What do you know about the 1970s? Bell bottom jeans, disco and high inflation. Inflation destroyed presidents. In order to fight it, the Federal Reserve had to drive the country into a recession. Now, that was double-digit inflation. We're not quite there yet, but I would argue that inflation is the biggest story of the year because of what's about to happen next. Fed Chair Jay Powell just had to admit we can no longer use the term transitory about these price hikes. Republicans are already running on the impacts of inflation. And polls show they can take back the House and Senate. You can pretend it's not happening, but it's already too late. Inflation is in the driver's seat in this economy and...

VANEK SMITH: And time.

SMITH: ...It's now the indicator of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: All right. Erika Beras, Planet Money correspondent extraordinaire.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: All right. My indicator of the year is the supply chain. So this is "Family Feud" and because this time of year's so busy and to prevent any feuds within my own family, I thought I'd repackage a poem by the great poet also doctor, William Carlos Williams. And here it goes. This is just to say I have not yet ordered the presents that are probably stuck on a container ship, which you are most likely expecting on Christmas morning. Forgive me. I should have clicked place order, and now it's too late.

So the story of the year is supply chain shortages. To be fair, it's a story that started not just this year, but it's escalated. Quick rundown - the whole supply chain is broken. Things people need, they're not getting anywhere. They're just stuck on ships. They're idling at sea. They're on port terminals, and it intersects with all the other big stories of the year, like labor shortages. There aren't enough drivers. There aren't enough warehouse workers, not enough factory workers to make the stuff, inflation. There's not enough stuff. That increases competition, prices get higher - kind of an issue. And one more thing - I did order my gifts months ago because I was paying attention to the biggest story of the year.

VANEK SMITH: And time.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Introducing...

BERAS: Got it in.

VANEK SMITH: William Carlos Williams poem.

MALONE: Very good.

SMITH: Bravo. I just heard the part where you talked about inflation, and I thought you were right on about that.

BERAS: (Laughter) That's the only thing you heard.

MARY CHILDS, BYLINE: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: That's quite a strong filter you've got there, Robert (laughter). Kenny Malone, are you ready to bring your 60-second indicator of the year?

MALONE: Yes. I don't disagree with any of my colleagues that these are important indicators. But to me, the indicator of the year is the word trillion. Hear me out here for a second. OK. I shall begin with a few pandemic headlines. President Trump signs $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package. Federal Reserve takes additional actions to provide up to $2.3 trillion in loans. Biden signs landmark $1.2 trillion U.S. infrastructure bill. We have entered the paradigm of the trillion once-in-a-lifetime generation pieces of spending from the government that come now with more economic questions than ever. Has the role of government fundamentally changed? Did this save the economy during the pandemic? How will this affect inflation and labor and supply chain and education and climate change?

This story touches every other story you have heard or will hear defended today in ways that we do not even know yet. And so that is why I will concede. Government spending is not the story of the year. It is the story of the century. The fact is, the U.S. government tacked on those zeros, and we will be reporting on this for years and years to come. I conclude today by paraphrasing that one quote that I always forget - a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon, we are talking about real money and the real economic story of the year. Thank you.

VANEK SMITH: What comes after trillion, by the way, Kenny?

MALONE: No one knows yet. And that's the question we're all asking ourselves, Stacey. So we'll see.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) OK. I see Mary Childs, and you are the current reigning champion.

CHILDS: I am. I have the golden trophy. My most important - no, not mine, everyone's. The most important indicator of the year is labor. For a lot of workers, it is the best market they've ever seen. First off, workers have leverage. Did you hear about Striketober (ph)? People have been walking off the job to demand better pay, safer working conditions, sick leave, health care, and it's working. Companies are paying higher wages. Hourly earnings have gone up. And did you hear about the great resignation? People are quitting their jobs in record numbers, which is maybe contributing to the so-called labor shortage, where a lot of companies are saying they can't find workers. The unemployment rate has dropped to almost 4%. That includes improvements for Black, Hispanic, Asian workers, for men, for women. We are regaining some of the horrifically unevenly lost ground from earlier.

But we still have fewer workers than pre-pandemic, which is kind of the big mystery. Like, where is everybody? Is it, like, not wanting to get sick in a pandemic? Or maybe people are caring for a sick loved one. Maybe they retired, and they're like, no, I'm good, I'm out. Maybe they dropped out because of their kids or, you know, schools keep closing, the day care is too expensive. Maybe it's years of draconian immigration laws. Or maybe everyone is a crypto billionaire and a TikTok influencer. But what we do know is that this is the biggest and best story of 2021, bar none, because it affects all of us. And we all love a mystery.

VANEK SMITH: That was, like, very fast. That was, like, packed with information.

SMITH: Mary, would you say your script inflated?

BERAS: (Laughter).

CHILDS: I would actually say nominally yes, but I would say the real script actually remained stagnant.

ERIKA BERAS AND ROBERT SMITH AND STACEY VANEK SMITH: Oh.

VANEK SMITH: That's a deep cut. That's a beautiful answer.

CHILDS: Thank you. It kind of undercuts my argument, though.

VANEK SMITH: All right. My economic story of the year is a little different, and it might sound a little quirky at first, but I think once I finish making my case, there will be no doubt that I have landed on, in fact, the economic story of the year and of the millennium.

MALONE: Whoa.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

MALONE: Whoa.

SMITH: Inflation.

VANEK SMITH: My economic indicator of the year is $69.3 million, and this is what somebody paid for an NFT from the artist Beeple. Of course, an NFT is like a digital painting or a digital piece of property that you can own. And the reason it's my indicator of the year is not so much the NFT phenomenon alone, but it is what it represents, which is this amazing amount of money swirling all around the globe. Someone on TikTok started as a joke a cryptocurrency called SCAM Coin. Within one hour, it was worth $70 million. The junk bond market is going crazy. People are pouring money into stocks. There is so much money roving around the planet right now looking for a return on investment. Of course, the last time we saw this was right before the big housing crash. And I'm a little worried with all of this money coursing around the globe that, you know, bubbles could happen. And hopefully we will not end up where we did back in 2008. But I think this is why this is the story of the year.

MALONE: Stacey, it's good. Beeples to bubbles.

CHILDS: That was pretty good.

SMITH: Bravo. Bravo.

MALONE: Beeples to bubbles.

SMITH: I just want to say it's so nice to see you all. I miss you all. This has inflated my Grinch heart three sizes this day.

VANEK SMITH: Aw.

SMITH: And isn't that the kind of inflation that matters?

VANEK SMITH: Oh, the inflation of love.

CHILDS: That was really beautiful.

VANEK SMITH: Love-flation (ph) and it's real love, not nominal.

CHILDS: It's real. That's right.

BERAS: I think that's the economic indicator of the year.

VANEK SMITH: Thank you, everybody, so much for joining me. But of course, now, dear listener, it is up to you. You are the only person who can really choose the indicator of the year. Who made the most compelling case and won you over? You can go to Twitter. We have pinned a tweet where you can vote. That is @theindicator. You can also send us an email. We are indicator@npr.org. And just put indicator of indicators in the subject line so we know what you're about. This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin, with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. Viet Le is our senior producer. And Kate Concannon edits the show. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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