Planet Money detectives get to the bottom of your listener questions : Planet Money It was just another day at the office. Then the phone started ringing and the caseload kept growing...on today's show, your favorite Planet Money gumshoes investigate your listener questions. | Fill out our listener survey here.

On the case: Recession, formula, and greenbacks

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

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ERIKA BERAS, HOST:

Out there, it was raining, but in here, it was just another day at the office. Long pull of my coffee - I was up to my elbows in cases to follow.

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BERAS: And that phone, it just kept ringing.

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BERAS: PLANET MONEY here. What you got for me?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I have a question.

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BERAS: Yeah, it's PLANET MONEY. What's your mystery?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I need your help with a very particular problem.

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BERAS: This wretched phone.

Yes, this is PLANET MONEY. What needs investigating?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I have a money mystery that PLANET MONEY could solve.

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BERAS: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Erika Beras, just a detective dame, ready for the relentless pursuit of your cases. Today on the show, we've sent our very best gumshoes to get to the bottom of all your questions. It's a suspenseful, hardboiled caper into the dark, depraved world of economics or, you know, the PLANET MONEY podcast.

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BERAS: It's not easy being a detective for PLANET MONEY. Every day, I get questions from folks just as curious as I am. And these days, there seems to be one question that everyone's worrying about.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah, I have a mystery for...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: So I have a question.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: So a question that I had regarding, like...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I don't know if there's any data to sort of, like, look into...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Are there different indicators that would show...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: What are the early indicators of a recession?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And even more broad than that, are we headed for a recession?

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BERAS: You, our listeners, want to know, are we in a recession? Are we not? How do we know? So we put the one and only Mary Childs on the case, and she found that sometimes, the answers lie in unexpected places.

MARY CHILDS, BYLINE: So the thing about calling a recession is that it relies on indicators, the main one being GDP. But that is a lagging measurement, meaning it comes after the fact. So we could be in a recession for months, but we can't make it official.

BERAS: But Mary, there are earlier signs. You found someone who says she has the answer because of a somewhat unorthodox economic indicator.

CHILDS: Yes. I went to an expert who has been doing field research, collecting empirical evidence on her leading indicator.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I don't even know if it's, like, NPR appropriate to say my handle. It's kind of...

(LAUGHTER)

CHILDS: I think it's fine. There are no swears in it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I'm reversecowgirl69, or my @ is botticellibimbo.

CHILDS: We're not using reversecowgirl69's real name because her family doesn't know about her job. She is a stripper in New York City. And a few weeks ago, she did a viral tweet that says strip club tips are a leading indicator of a recession. And she would know because she keeps a meticulous spreadsheet of her weekly earnings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I started doing that because I wanted to know which outfits were working well, and I was like, I need to know whether I'm crazy or, like, this dress is a good dress.

CHILDS: Wait, what - what was your best dress?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: OK, yeah. I have, like, one dress that always works really well. It's a sparkly, purplish, metallic cutout dress that, like, just has, like, underboob as, like, the main attraction. Yeah.

CHILDS: The feature (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: And I noticed that was my highest-earning dress on weekdays.

CHILDS: And she's also thinking a lot about current events, like what's happening in the world, because it can have a really big effect on how much she will make in tips on a given night.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: You pay a house fee to work, which can range anywhere from, like, $60 to, like, $200 on a peak night. So it's, like, always a gamble. You always have to, like, think ahead of how the night's going to be before you even go in.

BERAS: So, of course, at PLANET MONEY, we love a good spreadsheet. What has she noticed that makes her think we're in a recession?

CHILDS: So as with any industry, there are ebbs and flows to the calendar year. And reversecowgirl69 told me that in New York, where she works, January is generally the worst. It's right after the holidays. The weather is crappy. People just are hunkered down. They don't want to leave their house. February, things start to pick up a little bit more. And by March, things are back to basically normal, getting into the good swing of things. And this year, things were kind of following that pattern. You know, January was rough, February, too. And then...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: March was really shaky. And I noticed it wasn't, like, increasing the way it was - like it normally increases 'cause, like, I have previous years, obviously.

CHILDS: And it wasn't just her either. She told me that there's this great camaraderie in the locker room where the dancers all talk and counsel each other. And in March, when it felt like every night was kind of a wash, the other women would say, hey, it's not just you. Everybody didn't make a lot of money tonight. Something is going on. Some of the older dancers were even saying, yeah, this feels like 2007 because the high-rolling regulars, the whales, they're not coming in as much anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: When you start noticing that the "whales," quote, unquote - a whale is, like, a customer who is going to spend a lot of money. When the whales start dying is when the strip - you know the strip club's in trouble.

BERAS: So we're in a recession?

CHILDS: Well, technically, generally, for a recession, we need at least two quarters with negative GDP growth, and so far, we have one. And according to reversecowgirl69, it does seem like we are on track for another. So she would say, yeah, we're in a recession.

BERAS: That's right, folks. You heard it here. When strip tips start lacking, GDP is contracting. Thank you so much, Mary.

CHILDS: Thank you. One down, many more to go. Good luck, Erika.

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BERAS: For my next case, I had a handful of clues and a curious question.

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LEEHY: Hey, PLANET MONEY. This is Leehy (ph) calling from Brookline. I am 10 years old. I have a question. Why are dollar bills green? And why do other countries have different colors for different amounts and we don't? Thank you.

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BERAS: As I pondered this question, I slowly swiveled in my chair. Then, a knock...

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BERAS: ...On the door. A shadowy figure, a long-lost character from the past - he used to host this podcast. Now, he's off hosting a show called "What's Your Problem?" It was Jacob Goldstein.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Erika Beras.

BERAS: So, Jacob, this is a big question, one I've often wondered about. Why is our money green?

GOLDSTEIN: So the green dollar goes back to the Civil War, back to the mid-1800s. And at the time, it was actually a weird, rare thing for the government to print paper money. What was normal at the time was for private banks to print paper money.

BERAS: OK.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. And in fact, in the decades before the Civil War, there were actually thousands of different kinds of paper money in the United States printed by private banks all across the country. And it came in all different colors. You know, there was orange money and yellow money. And some of it had pictures of whales, and some of it had pictures...

BERAS: Why whales?

GOLDSTEIN: ...Of bankers. Yeah, whales, anything, everything. It was a wild money era.

BERAS: OK.

GOLDSTEIN: Then we get to the Civil War. The government needs money to pay for the war. And so they do what governments do when they need money. They printed it. And they decide on this temporary emergency money. They are going to print the back - wait for it. This is our big moment. They're going to print the back in green ink. And in fact, people called these bills greenbacks, which, I guess, is still technically slang for dollar bills. You might hear some, like, grizzled detective talk about, you know...

BERAS: (Laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: ...She paid me 50 greenbacks.

BERAS: I hear that all the time.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

BERAS: But why green, Jacob?

GOLDSTEIN: Fair question. Clearly, part of it was anti-counterfeiting. You know, black and white photography was emerging at this time, right? So if the printing is all in black and white, you can make counterfeit bills with a camera. And so by printing the backs in green, it was harder to counterfeit. Also, apparently, green ink just worked well. Like, it didn't rub off. It worked well as ink for money.

So for those reasons, we wound up with green money. It was, in fact, temporary money. It went away. And then we get to the 1920s. By this time, we have the Federal Reserve, the - you know, the central bank, the Fed.

BERAS: Heard of them.

GOLDSTEIN: And in the late '20s, they come out with this new series of paper dollars. And that is the money that is boring, uniform in size, green. That is the money that looks like the money we have now.

BERAS: OK. So that explains how we got green money. But why don't we change it now to something more multicolored? That's what lots of other countries have done.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, so fun. Yeah.

BERAS: Why don't we? Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, one idea for why don't we is the dollar really is a global currency much more than any other money. In fact, the value of U.S. paper money outside the U.S. is greater than the value of paper money inside the U.S.

BERAS: Right.

GOLDSTEIN: And, you know, that's good for the United States. It gives us a kind of power. And so, you know, we don't want to, like, mess with that, right? Like, it's not broken.

BERAS: So it's a brand, essentially. Why change the logo?

GOLDSTEIN: It's a brand.

BERAS: Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: It's a good brand. Yeah.

BERAS: Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: But wait.

BERAS: Uh-huh.

GOLDSTEIN: Sounds like the end. But there is one really interesting thing we haven't talked about yet.

BERAS: OK.

GOLDSTEIN: I asked you to bring a $10 bill. Did you? Do you have one?

BERAS: I'm going to find a $10 bill in here.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. I have one, too.

BERAS: Here it is. OK.

GOLDSTEIN: Let me get it out. OK.

BERAS: I am looking at it.

GOLDSTEIN: Now, OK, what color is it?

BERAS: So it actually, to me, it looks kind of cream colored. There's a flame there.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, a flame - there is a flame there.

BERAS: Yes.

GOLDSTEIN: What color is the flame?

BERAS: That's, like, pink...

GOLDSTEIN: Pink.

BERAS: ...Salmon.

GOLDSTEIN: Reddish.

BERAS: Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: Reddish.

BERAS: Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: Also to the right of Hamilton, a reddish, we the people.

BERAS: See that, too.

GOLDSTEIN: So this bill, it is green on the back, I should say. There's green printing on the back. So it is still a greenback.

BERAS: I see that.

GOLDSTEIN: But it is a peach-colored bill with red on it. And if you look at other denominations issued over the past - more than a decade now, all these colors have actually been sneaking onto dollar bills, and sort of we didn't notice. Like, frankly, to be honest, I didn't notice. I've been covering this for more than 10 years. And until I was working on this, I assumed that dollars were green like they had always been. They aren't just green anymore.

BERAS: The U.S. government's been sneaking color onto our money, and we never even noticed it.

GOLDSTEIN: What else are they sneaking that we don't notice?

BERAS: (Laughter) Jacob Goldstein, thank you so much for joining us.

GOLDSTEIN: Oh, it's so fun to come back.

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BERAS: And we'll be back to solve a few more mysteries after this break.

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BERAS: Back to the grindstone, solving mysteries, I see a red light blinking on the machine.

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JAMES VILLARRUBIA: This is James Villarrubia (ph) calling from Leigh, Mass. I have a question. My wife is pregnant with our first child, and we're both pretty worried about the current baby formula shortages. I was surprised to hear that there are only four major suppliers of formula in the U.S. at all. My question is this, can you explain how or why the market is consolidated down to only four companies? Thanks.

BERAS: And to answer your question, I have Wailin Wong, co-host at The Indicator, on the case. Hey, hey, Wailin.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: At your service, Erika.

BERAS: All right. So question number one, which is something I, too, was wondering about when this all started happening, how on earth in the age of the baby industrial complex and such a wildly competitive marketplace did this monopoly happen?

WONG: Well, you have to go back to the '80s. This is a time when the government was really worried about families being able to afford formula. The cost of formula was rising very quickly. So through this program called WIC...

BERAS: Women, Infants and Children, right?

WONG: Exactly. It's a government nutrition program. They tried to make formula more affordable. And the way they did it would fundamentally change the landscape of suppliers that we have today because the WIC program is run by each individual state, and each state's program asked formula manufacturers to submit bids. Whichever company offered the biggest discount got the sole-source contract. So you would get the entire state's WIC market and basically total market dominance.

BERAS: OK. Why is that?

WONG: Well, so grocery stores would dedicate the most shelf space to whichever formula brand had that sole-source contract. And then non-WIC shoppers would end up buying that brand, too, because that's all they saw when they went to the grocery store. So thanks to this spillover effect, the WIC system of awarding sole-source contracts ended up creating this winner-takes-all market for formula in each state.

BERAS: So, like, a state allowed monopoly set up from the '80s is the reason why we have shortages today.

WONG: Exactly. And actually, it's gotten even more concentrated because states now band together. And so, for example, you have a group of 24 states that all pick the same exclusive formula manufacturer because it's, like, collectively they get an even better deal. So it's, like, a winner-takes-24, you know?

BERAS: All right. Thanks for being on the case, Wong.

WONG: Anytime, Beras.

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BERAS: So we've been closing cases left and right, but there's one case left. Dave Blanchard, what you got for us?

DAVE BLANCHARD, BYLINE: Well, Erika, you know how sometimes we'll get questions and we'll just be like, oh, yeah, like, I've always wondered that same thing?

BERAS: All the time.

BLANCHARD: This is not one of those questions.

BERAS: (Laughter) OK.

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RANDY SIMPSON: Hi, PLANET MONEY. This is Randy Simpson (ph) from Livermore, Calif. Have you ever noticed there are not numbers on U.S. coins? Instead, we spell out 1 cent, 5 cents, and quarter-dollar. So, PLANET MONEY, maybe you can solve this important mystery.

BLANCHARD: So, unlike Randy, I had literally never noticed that coins only have written-out numbers. But we are here to serve. This is a listener questions episode. And so...

DENNIS TUCKER: Looks like we've got a few seconds of recording. Yep.

BLANCHARD: ...I called up Dennis Tucker. He's a numismatist, which means he studies coins and money, and he's been looking into this for us.

BERAS: So was there a single person responsible for written-out numbers on coins?

BLANCHARD: You have a culprit.

TUCKER: (Laughter) Well, I don't know if I would call him a culprit, but he's certainly a character of note. And his name is Christian Gobrecht. And...

BLANCHARD: Christian Gobrecht.

TUCKER: Christian Gobrecht. That's right. He was born in the 1780s.

BLANCHARD: The 1780s. So this story goes back nearly to the founding of the country. Christian Gobrecht, at the time, was growing up in Pennsylvania.

TUCKER: And even when he was a kid, we have journals and sketchbooks from that period that show that he was really pretty talented. And if you happened to be an artist in Philadelphia, then you would catch the eye of mint officials, as he did.

BLANCHARD: So Gobrecht goes to work for the mint, and he doesn't get the job he really wants, which is chief engraver. He does get a job as second engraver. And Gobrecht is not just an engraver; he's an engraver who also happens to be an artist.

TUCKER: It's during this period that Gobrecht starts to come up with all of these coin designs that are a radical departure from what others before him had done.

BLANCHARD: So before Gobrecht, American coins had these samey, formal, traditional designs - think like Roman busts engraved on coins. They were usually a woman in profile. She's the personification of liberty. Gobrecht had a different vision.

TUCKER: His design was fresh. It was new. It was a full figure of liberty. You know, she's seated, and she's very much in control of her destiny and her surroundings.

BLANCHARD: She has flowing robes, this casual posture. It's kind of livelier. And the mint totally embraces this. Before long, literally every silver coin in circulation has this new liberty seated design, as it was known, and every American would have used these coins. And more to the point of our listener Randy's question, there was another radical departure in Gobrecht's design - how the numbers were written.

TUCKER: If you look at the way the denominations are spelled before Gobrecht, it was a combination of numerals and abbreviated cent signs, for example. So a half-dime, which was a denomination back in the day, would have been five C period. Gobrecht changed that to half-dime, spelled out.

BLANCHARD: Now, a lot has been lost to history, and we don't know why Gobrecht made this change. Dennis doesn't want to speculate too much - you know, he's a proper historian. But he has a theory. Gobrecht didn't get the job he wanted. Remember? He's only the second engraver.

TUCKER: Maybe some of his artistic innovation was a way to strike back at that and just kind of say, this is what I'm capable of doing. I'm not your grandfather's coin designer. You know, I'm a modern man. I'm a modern artist. And here's how I'm going to interpret modern coinage.

BLANCHARD: And, you know, his legacy has now lasted for some 200 years. Like, just go look at some change. The written-out numbers on those coins - that's Gobrecht. But there's this twist. A new set of quarters is beginning to be released honoring American women - so, like, Maya Angelou, Sally Ride. And the mint is allowing the artists who designed these quarters to go with a numeral design if they want to. And if that happens, it'll upend nearly two centuries of tradition that started with Christian Gobrecht. And in some ways, that change feels very, I don't know, Gobrechtian.

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BERAS: You've asked us lots of questions. Now we have some for you. It's survey time at NPR, and we'd like to better understand you, our listeners. Help us out by filling out a short, anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey - all one word. That's npr.org/podcastsurvey. Thank you so much.

Check us out on social media. We're on TikTok, Twitter, pretty much everywhere. We're @planetmoney. Today's episode was produced by Sam Yellowhorse Kessler with help from Willa Rubin. It was edited by Jess Jiang and engineered by Gilly Moon. Alex Goldmark is our executive producer. I'm Erika Beras. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT J WALSH'S "SHADY MOTEL")

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