Episode 673: The Rest of the Story, 2015 Edition : Planet Money Not every story has an ending. Sometimes after we finish a podcast and send it to you, the facts change, a new chapter unfolds. Today on the show, we update some of our favorite episodes from 2015.
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Episode 673: The Rest of the Story, 2015 Edition

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Episode 673: The Rest of the Story, 2015 Edition

Episode 673: The Rest of the Story, 2015 Edition

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ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith, and let me tell you a secret about being a reporter. If it were not for deadlines, reporters like myself would work on the same story for the rest of our lives. The only way we get things done around here is deadlines. But it does mean that sometimes you don't have a real ending to the story you're telling. You just have to sort of figure out some kind of way to end the podcast. Now, oftentimes - I will admit this - oftentimes we sort of end with a kind of time-will-tell. But not today. Today on the show, time has told. We follow up on our favorite stories of the year, and we find out what happened after we turned off our recorders, after the deadline. It's an annual tradition we have here at PLANET MONEY named after a certain catchphrase of the radio legend Paul Harvey.


PAUL HARVEY: Today, together, you and I are going to learn the rest of the story.

SMITH: It's the rest of the story for 2015.


SMITH: All right, we wanted to start our annual follow-up show, The Rest of the Story, with really one of the biggest economic stories of the year. Jacob Goldstein is here. I have one question for you, is Greece still in the Euro?


SMITH: OK, you can leave now.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, that's enough.

SMITH: That's the update.

GOLDSTEIN: It's the annual Greece update.

SMITH: It is the annual Greece update. But no we bring this back up because this was a country that seemed on the brink of collapse, on the brink of leaving the eurozone, changing the currency. I flew over there. We did a bunch of podcasts on this.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, and one of the people I talked to, the guy who really stuck in my head, his name is Miltiades Gkouzouris. I talked to him about that moment when the government made this big announcement. Among other things, they said the banks are shutting down. It was a Sunday afternoon. He was driving and he heard the news on the radio.


MILTIADES GKOUZOURIS: Oh, my god (laughter). It was the first thing that came up to my mind. The second thing was to fill the car with gasoline, so we stopped immediately at the first gas station, and we filled it up to the neck .

GOLDSTEIN: I love that - filled it up to the neck, very vivid. And he filled it up to the neck because he was worried that Greece was going to be a real - he was worried, like, riots in the streets. He was worried no food on the shelves. And he said, I've been keeping my car full of gas because if it goes to hell I'm driving to the border. I'm packing up my wife and my kids, and we are getting out of here.

SMITH: Now, after we aired that podcast, the sense of crisis passed. Greece worked out a deal with the rest of Europe, kept the bailout thing going. The banks opened up again - for the most part.

GOLDSTEIN: Sort of, yeah.

SMITH: Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: But, you know, Greece is still really a mess. So just the other day, I called Miltiades back to just check in with him.

Are you still keeping the gas tank in your car filled up?

GKOUZOURIS: Well, actually, tomorrow I'm leaving the country permanently.

GOLDSTEIN: Wait, so you're leaving Greece?

GKOUZOURIS: Yes, I'm leaving Greece.

GOLDSTEIN: Did you say you're leaving tomorrow?

GKOUZOURIS: Yes, tomorrow. Tomorrow at eleven o'clock I'm on the plane on my way to the Netherlands.

GOLDSTEIN: He's moving. He's leaving.

SMITH: He's leaving.

GOLDSTEIN: Just by coincidence literally the day I called him on the phone was the day before he left Greece for good.

SMITH: So, why?

GOLDSTEIN: I asked him.

GKOUZOURIS: Well, I'm fed up with this country. That's the reason.

GOLDSTEIN: You're fed up. You're fed up.

GKOUZOURIS: Yes, yes. Listen, in the next years, our two little daughters would have to go to school. One of the public schools nearby our place - where we live now - has no teachers. So they let the cleaning lady take care of the kids, and the kids are watching television inside the school.

SMITH: It's a school with no teachers?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, I mean, you know, this is a really clear reminder of this fact that even though Greece, you know, made a deal with Europe, they got another round of bailouts, Greece is still broken. And the way the EU is set up, it's really easy to move. I mean, Miltiades, he went to school in the Netherlands. And, you know, he doesn't need a visa or a green card or anything. He can just move there and start working there. And in the Netherlands, not only are there enough teachers in the schools, there are extra teachers to help immigrant kids like his, you know, adjust to life in their new country.

SMITH: Good for him, probably good for the Netherlands, probably not good for Greece.

GOLDSTEIN: Probably bad for Greece. A lot of really educated people are leaving Greece. And that's not what you want if you want your economy to be growing again.

SMITH: All right. Thank you, Jacob.

GOLDSTEIN: Thanks, Robert.

SMITH: We'll do it again next year.


SMITH: Remember when I said that Greece was the biggest economic story of the year? I forgot about oil, the price of oil, which in fact was - I'm going to say now - the biggest economic story of the year. A year and a half ago it was over a hundred dollars a barrel, and then it's plunged. The last time I checked, $37 a barrel. It's absolutely crazy.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: It is really remarkable. There's just very sudden, very, very big drop.

SMITH: David Kestenbaum, he's with us now. The price of oil just transforms the world. Entire countries, small towns here in America are up and down based solely on the price of oil. You visited a small town - what was it - three years ago?

KESTENBAUM: Yeah, three years ago, at basically what was the peak of the oil boom, we were out in Williston, N.D. Williston is like a small town, you know, one of those places that actually has a main street called Main Street. There are thousands and thousands of people coming to this little town to work, to drill oil wells. There weren't even places for everybody to sleep. We talked to this one guy who's a major figure in town, Rich Vestal. He runs a supply company. He had so many workers coming in, he needed places for them to stay. So he bought an extra house. That's how it started.


RICH VESTAL: Was down by our own warehouse, we paid about $10,000 for it.

KESTENBAUM: Then he bought another one.

VESTAL: Well, we bought the house right next door from the lady that lived there. She passed away, so we bought it from her estate.

KESTENBAUM: Also, one by the cemetery.

VESTAL: We bought 14 trailer houses up in a trailer park.

KESTENBAUM: There's more.

VESTAL: We bought some condos.

KESTENBAUM: Grand total?

VESTAL: We got 68 now.

KESTENBAUM: You have 68 houses?


KESTENBAUM: That's a boom town.

SMITH: That is a boom town.

KESTENBAUM: One more example of crazy life in a boom town - you know, this is winter. They have really harsh winters out there. There's not much to do in the winter. So the city, to try and keep everyone happy, was building this giant rec center. We met with this guy Shawn Wenko, who was at the Economic Development office. He told us this thing, by some standard or other, was going to be the largest of its kind in the country.


SHAWN WENKO: Workout facilities, golf simulators, batting cages, tennis courts, racquetball courts, basketball courts, a turf field, running track. It's got three swimming pools in there.

KESTENBAUM: Three swimming pools?

WENKO: It's got three. It's got Olympic-size swimming pool, a dive pool and a lazy river.

KESTENBAUM: What's that?

WENKO: A kind of an inner-tubing style of river.

KESTENBAUM: Indoors here in North Dakota?

WENKO: Indoor is correct.

SMITH: It is like an empire built solely on the high price of oil.

KESTENBAUM: And when we were out there we talked to the mayor, and I said, are you sure this is all going to be OK? And he's like, look, look, we're going to be fine. The price of oil would have to drop by half for there to be a problem.

SMITH: That would never happen, until it did. What's Williston like today?

KESTENBAUM: Well, I called up the mayor, Ward Koeser. He is now retired from being mayor, but he runs a small business selling sirens and communications equipment for trucks. I asked him what it felt like in town now.

WARD KOESER: Well, it feels good, to be honest with you. I mean, I wish it was busier, don't get me wrong. I have a small business, and we certainly aren't as busy as I'd like us to be. But the town itself is doing OK. It's still a great place to live.

KESTENBAUM: I remember you saying something like, everything is going to be fine as long as the price of oil doesn't drop by 50 percent.

KOESER: Yeah (laughter).

KESTENBAUM: And it basically has dropped by 50 percent.

KOESER: Oh, yeah. I'll be honest with you, I never expected it to go down this low.

KESTENBAUM: When I was out there, it was a boom town. And now there's been a bust.

KOESER: Right.

KESTENBAUM: It doesn't feel sad?

KOESER: No. It feels, you know - oh, what would be a good word for that? I wouldn't say sad. I mean, there's discouragement, you know. And there's some apprehension because we don't know where it's going to end. I mean, that's probably the scariest part. If things leveled off right like they are today, we'd be all right. But you don't know, is it going to get, you know, even quieter before it gets better? I don't know. I don't know how to describe it. But it's - I wouldn't say sad.

KESTENBAUM: He says some things have changed, like rents have basically dropped in half, which is good if you're renting. But if you're someone who just built a bunch of buildings, you're not going to be getting as much as you were planning on.

SMITH: But what I really want to know is, what happened to the rec center? Did they build the rec center?

KESTENBAUM: Here you go.

SMITH: You have given me photos here of - oh, yeah.

KESTENBAUM: That's the lazy river.

SMITH: This is beautiful. This is beautiful. It's a lazy river, and there's one of those tube slides going down. There's a fountains.

KESTENBAUM: Look, I think the tube slide actually, like, it goes through the wall into I don't know what else and then it spits you out one of these holes here.

SMITH: And you handed me another picture from this place. There is an indoor surfing hill. I mean, this guy is surfing.

KESTENBAUM: Yeah, the guy is surfing.

SMITH: Yeah, amazing.

KESTENBAUM: Yeah, they got a nice gym out of it. The way Ward Koeser, the mayor, puts it is that, you know, it's like someone pressed the pause button. It's not like the oil is gone, not like they ran out of oil. The oil is there in the ground. It just doesn't make economic sense to take it out right now. So everyone's waiting for the price of oil to go back up. They don't know if that's going to be a year or much longer.

SMITH: Thank you, David.


SMITH: So another place being hit by the low price of oil - and this one is surprising - is recycling centers, places that recycle plastic. Because of course, plastic is made out of oil, and the higher the oil price the more it makes economic sense to recycle your plastic bags and other plastic items. And in fact, Stacey Vanek Smith did a whole podcast about recycling of plastic bags. She went out to visit Sims Recycling in Brooklyn and talked to Tom Outerbridge, who showed her how they recycle plastic bags.


TOM OUTERBRIDGE: This is really sort of the bottom of the barrel in terms of the plastics market. The value of it is relatively low, which means we can't afford to put a lot of time and money into trying to recycle it.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: And so then what happens to the plastic bags if you can't sell them?

OUTERBRIDGE: We will certainly - you can get to the point where these are going to the landfill. I mean, these are sort of borderline.

SMITH: So Stacey, when you visited the recycling center, what was the price of oil?

VANEK SMITH: It was about $60 a barrel.

SMITH: Sixty dollars a barrel and it's almost half that now.


SMITH: Is Tom still able to recycle plastic bags?

VANEK SMITH: Well, back when I left Tom, he had just made this bet. And the bet was to hire a new position called a picker. That was a person who was going to go through the plastic bags and really make sure that they were clean and well-sorted.

SMITH: These were going to be really high-level plastic bag - the best plastic bags in the business.

VANEK SMITH: Luxury plastic bags, if you will. And he was hoping that this would help him charge a few cents more per ton, and that that would make it worth it for the companies that buy the plastic from recyclers to melt it down and reuse it. He thought he might be able to get a little bit more money and make this into a viable business.

SMITH: So how did the plan work?

VANEK SMITH: Well, I called him up and asked.

Do you still have that picker?

OUTERBRIDGE: No, we were not able to find a customer for whom that extra step in upgrading the material justified the cost of having somebody on the material.

SMITH: So, wait a minute, I live in Brooklyn. I recycle plastic bags.


SMITH: You're telling me that he just throws them out? He doesn't have a customer that he can recycle them for?

VANEK SMITH: Well, he says he can find a buyer about half the time. It's sort of a month-to-month thing. Every once in a while he can find a market for them. This month, actually, is a landfill month.

SMITH: Ouch.

VANEK SMITH: I know. And in fact, it's been really bad for the entire recycling industry. Low oil has put a lot of recycling centers out of business.

SMITH: But Tom's holding on?

VANEK SMITH: Tom is holding on. And, actually, all these places closing has given him a little bit of an edge because he is getting more material coming into his recycling center. And because the cost at recycling centers are kind of fixed, the more stuff they get, the more stuff they have to sell. So even if they're selling it for less, they're making more money just because they have more volume.

SMITH: When they can sell it.

VANEK SMITH: When they can sell it, yeah.

SMITH: Thanks, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: Thanks, Robert.


SMITH: We knew when we started a podcast about an Internet figure known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, it would be exciting. We didn't know it would be as exciting as it turned out. Steve Henn is here from our office in Silicon Valley. Steve, remind us who the Dread Pirate Roberts really was.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The Dread Pirate Roberts, according to the feds, was Ross Ulbricht. In his late '20s, he set up this website called the Silk Road that let people buy and sell drugs anonymously using Bitcoin. A couple of years ago, the feds busted him. We talked about that in our podcast. And a few months later, he went to trial, and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

SMITH: But since that time, there has been a lot of new information in the case that sort of makes us look differently at what happened.

HENN: So many people who knew Ross before it came out that he was the Dread Pirate said he was actually a sweet guy. And in the early days of the Silk Road, the site was all about creating a place where people could do what they want in complete freedom, without the use of coercive government force. But at some point, Ross broke bad. And what did it was when an employee stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bitcoin. It came out after his trial that that employee actually had never stolen anything. There were these two corrupt cops who were stealing money from Ross while they were investigating him.

SMITH: So part of this case was built on these corrupt cops who were actually stealing money?

HENN: That's right. And this pushed him to a really dark place. He tried to hire a hitman to kill that employee, which never happened. But all of this came out after his trial, that this was all driven by two corrupt federal agents.

SMITH: This sounds like such a mess. I can imagine Ross's lawyers are going to try and use this.

HENN: You'd think. And I asked Andy Greenberg, a reporter at Wired who helped us with our first podcast and has been following this story, if he thought this would get Ross off.

ANDY GREENBERG: Well, he's still appealing his case. And this will certainly be something that comes up. But I would say it's kind of a slim bet.

HENN: And the reason is there were actually two separate investigations of Ross. There was this really dirty investigation that was run out of Baltimore and another one by the FBI in New York.

GREENBERG: You kind of get the sense that the New York Bureau of the FBI, that they were trying to stay away from the Baltimore office. And maybe this is why, because they knew that there was something dirty going on there, and they wanted to completely quarantine their two investigations to make sure that theirs wasn't tainted with, you know, what turned out to be massive corruption of the Baltimore wing of the federal government trying to take down Silk Road.

SMITH: I feel like David Simon could do a sixth season of "The Wire" just on this.

HENN: Yeah, this is exciting. And it's kind of disturbing. But in the end it probably won't make a difference for Ross Ulbricht's case.

SMITH: So the odds are that the Dread Pirate Roberts will no longer roam the Internet sea.

HENN: That's correct. He'll be in jail for a long time.

SMITH: Thank you, Steve.

HENN: Yeah, thank you.

SMITH: Finally, I wanted to check in on one of my favorite stories of the year, or, I should say one of my favorite people of the year, Gene Freidman, the taxi king of New York. You may remember this guy. He was quite a character. We visited him in his taxi garage, and he listed off the names of all of his different taxi companies.

GENE FREIDMAN: Volcano Taxi. We have Vic Taxi, we have Wrestler Taxi. Why do I do I have Wrestler Taxi?

SMITH: 'Cause you used to wrestle?

FREIDMAN: Kind of. I actually dated a female wrestler.

SMITH: He controls close to a thousand yellow taxi medallions worth about a million dollars each - or, at least they were worth a million dollars each before Uber and Lyft came to town, a new level of competition for taxis everywhere. So when we met Gene Freidman, he was a little stressed out about the future of the taxi industry. Nick Fountain was the producer on this show, and he joins us now.

You've tried to reach out to Gene, and...

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: I tried. I emailed him, I called his office. He wasn't responding to me.

SMITH: Because he's having a little bit of a hard time this year.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, I mean, I have a Google alert set up for Gene Freidman, which means, like, I get an email every time he is in the news. He's been in the news a lot since our podcast came out. I'm just going to read a few of the headlines for you, Robert.

SMITH: Do it.

FOUNTAIN: (Reading) "Taxi King Owes $11 Million In Taxes, Five Million More Than He Claimed."

SMITH: Ouch.

FOUNTAIN: (Reading) "Bank Claims Gene Freidman Transferred $70 million Worth Of Real Estate To Hide Assets From Creditors."

SMITH: If true, that is bad.

FOUNTAIN: A little more recently, (reading) "Madison Realty Capital Moves To Foreclose On Taxi King's Properties."

He owns a lot of properties.

SMITH: And you told me his personal life is sort of in shambles, too.

FOUNTAIN: I mean, he was going through a nasty divorce when we did the podcast. Here's a headline I got recently.

(Reading) "Taxi King Says Estranged Wife Stole Two Pricey Chandeliers From Townhouse."

SMITH: Now, at one point maybe a couple of years ago, at the height of the taxi valuation...

FOUNTAIN: Before Uber.

SMITH: Before Uber, Gene Freidman would've been worth around a billion dollars if you totaled up the value of all of his taxi medallions.

FOUNTAIN: Sure, on paper.

SMITH: What is he worth now?

FOUNTAIN: It's unclear because there haven't been many sales of these taxi medallions.

SMITH: Because people are terrified.

FOUNTAIN: The market is just frozen. If anybody blinks and sells a taxi medallion for much less than they bought it for, the whole thing could crumble.

SMITH: So what do we know about the price of the last taxi medallion that sold?

FOUNTAIN: There've been a few foreclosures in recent months. Taxi medallions used to go for more than a million dollars. Now they're more in the $800,000 range.

SMITH: Thank you very much Nick Fountain.

FOUNTAIN: Thank you.


SMITH: There is one last important thing that we had to say this year. It's a sort of an update on a story that Steve Henn did about the bubble in Silicon Valley right now.

Steve, come back for a moment.

HENN: Hey.

SMITH: Hey. So you did this whole piece called Bubblicious about all the signs of a bubble in Silicon Valley, and you have one more sign that perhaps - perhaps we are living in a technological bubble.

HENN: That's right. You kept saying that we can't prove that it's a bubble, and just to prove you wrong, I'm quitting my job to start a tech company. I'm leaving PLANET MONEY.

SMITH: You're quitting a cushy job at PLANET MONEY in order to start some sort of speculative technology company?

HENN: Yes. And I think journalists quitting reporting jobs to launch tech companies is a sure sign of the bubble.

SMITH: Can you give us a little taste of what this new company might do?

HENN: It's like Uber for popcorn, but there's, like, a Slack component to it.

SMITH: (Laughter).

HENN: No, I'm just kidding. It has everything to do with audio and this kind of work, and hopefully making it more awesome.

SMITH: Intriguing, Steve. Steve, we are going to miss you at PLANET MONEY. We really will.

HENN: I'll miss you too.


ADAM PAUL BURNS: (Singing) People say we're on one, that we're making up the rules. But we're tearing up the mountain and we're taking in the views. Go.

SMITH: Our episode today was produced by Kristen Clark and Jess Jiang. As always, we love to hear from you and what you think about today's show and, heck, you know, all of 2015. Tell us what your favorite PLANET MONEY episode was. You can email us, planetmoney@npr.org, or tweet us at @planetmoney.

So take us out of the show. I'm Robert Smith.

HENN: And I'm Steve Henn. Thanks for listening.


BURNS: (Singing) Go. Whoa, whoa, whoa...

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