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You Asked For Shots, Tuna, Metal, and Money

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You Asked For Shots, Tuna, Metal, and Money

You Asked For Shots, Tuna, Metal, and Money

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HAYLEY: Hi, PLANET MONEY. This is Hayley (ph) calling from Boston. I went to my local Whole Foods recently and splurged on what I thought was sustainably caught tuna. And then I see when I get home in tiny print that it is wild caught in the USA - great - but it's packed in Thailand. And I started thinking about all the miles that my tuna had traveled to get to me and my Whole Foods in Boston. And my question is, is it worth buying this supposedly sustainably caught tuna even though it has traveled who knows how far around the globe to get to me? What is the environmental impact of this tuna?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

Yes, that question means that it is time, once again, to answer questions from our listeners. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein. First question of the day comes from Hayley. It's about tuna, a delicious fish. And, Emma Peaslee, you are here to answer this question.

EMMA PEASLEE, BYLINE: Hello. Yes. So I talked to a fish economist to get to the bottom of this one.

CHRIS ANDERSON: I'm Chris Anderson. I'm a professor of fishery economics in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington.

PEASLEE: So the first thing Chris says is that it is cheaper to pack the tuna in Thailand than in the U.S. And it's worth mentioning here that there have been labor issues at Thai fishpacking plants in the past.

GOLDSTEIN: OK.

PEASLEE: Also, Chris says it just doesn't cost as much as you'd think to ship things across the ocean and back.

ANDERSON: Ocean shipping is really cheap - really cheap. And it's really cheap because the boats that do it are really efficient because they move so much stuff.

PEASLEE: So cheap packing and cheap shipping - that's why they send tuna across the ocean and back. But Hayley's real question is about the environmental cost.

GOLDSTEIN: Right, this idea of food miles, right? This idea that, you know, you want to know how many miles your food has traveled by the time it gets to your plate. And the idea there is the farther it's traveled, presumably, the worse it is for the environment, the bigger the carbon footprint.

PEASLEE: Right. But Chris says food miles actually aren't a great proxy for the environmental footprint.

ANDERSON: There's so much on those boats that the carbon footprint of moving that 6 ounces of tuna to Thailand and back was very, very small. In fact, that shipping is probably dwarfed by the carbon footprint of trucking it around once it got back to the United States to get to the Whole Foods.

PEASLEE: Specifically, ships are about 20 times more efficient than trucks. So sending Hayley's tuna from the U.S. to Thailand and back in a ship emits less than, say, sending it from LA to Seattle in a truck.

GOLDSTEIN: That is really striking. You know, like, I guess I knew ships were more efficient, but I didn't know they were 20 times more efficient than a truck. Thanks, Emma.

PEASLEE: Yeah. And thank you, Hayley, for the question.

GOLDSTEIN: Still to come on the show today, a scrap metal collector wonders why he's now getting paid so much more for his metal than he used to be. Also, can your boss make you get a COVID shot? And finally, there is a lot more money than there was in the world a year ago - like, a lot. Does that mean inflation is on the way?

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYAN NEW'S "DEVIL RIDER")

GOLDSTEIN: Our next listener question comes from Chad Palmer (ph), and his hobby is recycling metal. And Bryant Urstadt - you there, Bryant Urstadt?

BRYANT URSTADT, BYLINE: I'm here.

GOLDSTEIN: So you called up Chad Palmer, yes?

URSTADT: Yes. I called him on a Saturday.

So what's your morning been like?

CHAD PALMER: Oh, I got up about 4, 4:30, made some coffee, then went down to the garage, and I start kind of sorting and separating different metals.

URSTADT: Yeah, sorting and separating all of his different metals is kind of the way that Chad unwinds.

PALMER: It's kind of my me time of the week, typically.

URSTADT: I like that. I like that sorting metal is your you time.

PALMER: It really is, yeah.

URSTADT: So his not-you-time is his job, which is actually demolishing carwashes and - which is a bit of an odd specialty, but that is his full-time job. And he has this huge van. And as he's tearing stuff down, he collects whatever metal's left over and puts it in his van. And then on the weekend, he takes it all to his local scrap yard, which happens to be called City Scrap. It is in Lee's Summit, Mo. And we actually stayed on the phone chitchatting until he got to the yard, and he told me what it looked like.

PALMER: Big piles of metal everywhere. It's loud, and there's a big crushing machine that's always running. There's a big crane that just always seems to be picking up metal and moving it and smashing it. Yeah, it's pretty awesome.

URSTADT: Yeah, it's pretty awesome. I love that. And the other day, he sent us a question.

PALMER: I was just wondering why scrap prices have gotten so high in the last six months to a year.

URSTADT: So why have scrap prices gotten so high? I mean, after all, it is still a pandemic, and we're still climbing out of an historic economic slump. It kind of doesn't make sense that prices for metals and things would be going up and at such an extreme rate. So I did some internoodling (ph) around, which is now a total job category, and I found the perfect person to talk to about scrap metal.

JOE PICKARD: Joe Pickard, chief economist and director of commodities at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

URSTADT: What's your favorite metal?

PICKARD: Copper.

(LAUGHTER)

URSTADT: Why copper? I thought you were going to say aluminum.

PICKARD: (Laughter) Well, it's, you know, infinitely recyclable, which is always good.

URSTADT: Anyway, enough small talk. We turn to Chad's question.

In his telling, prices are going through the roof. Is that true?

PICKARD: That is true. And it's true for a whole range of metals, including ferrous and nonferrous metals like copper, aluminum and others.

URSTADT: If you talk to anyone in the metals industry, they always talk about ferrous and nonferrous metals, which is basically the difference between metals with iron and steel in them, ferrous, and metals without iron and steel in them, nonferrous. I asked him why they paid such close attention to that distinction.

PICKARD: One, nonferrous metals tend to have a much higher value. Two, ferrous metal sticks to a magnet, and nonferrous metal does not. So when you're sorting the ferrous from the nonferrous, everything that basically sticks to the magnet is ferrous. And because ferrous is of much lower value, you want to be able to separate the two.

URSTADT: So this is counterintuitive to me because I - it seems to me to be a major advantage to be able to attach a magnet to anything.

PICKARD: It's an advantage in terms of separation.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, Bryant, I feel like I'm deep in a pile of ferrous and nonferrous metals here. I want to climb out, get back to the question. Why is the price of scrap metal going up so much?

URSTADT: If you were magnetic, we could easily get you out of that pile, I just would like to say.

Anyway, we did get to some of the reasons that the price of all kinds of metals have been skyrocketing. And first of all is that the expectations are that demand for those things is going to go up. Traders are looking at the Biden administration's plans and seeing major infrastructure and green initiatives becoming real. And those are going to require just a huge amount of metals and materials of every kind. So the expectation of activity is driving the prices up.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, so that's basically like speculation. People are beating up the price because they think there's going to be a lot of demand for metal coming.

URSTADT: Another reason - there are still tariffs around from the last president, which is increasing costs, particularly of steel.

GOLDSTEIN: OK.

URSTADT: In addition, manufacturing is actually really picking up. Like, factories are getting going again. And that's causing a demand for new steel. And the price of used steel tends to kind of just follow the price of new steel, like they kind of track each other.

GOLDSTEIN: So, OK, that is a bunch of reasons. There's speculation that demand is going to go up. That's driving up the prices. There's tariffs. And then there's just straight-up demand for steel. All of those things are driving up the price of steel and of other metals, ferrous and nonferrous.

URSTADT: So this is all heading somewhere, Jacob, and maybe you've been expecting it. I don't know. But this is the point at which Jeff Goldblum is wearing his lab coat. He whips around, and he looks at you and goes, it's a commodity supercycle, Jacob.

GOLDSTEIN: Supercycle.

URSTADT: Supercycle.

GOLDSTEIN: So this is this word that, like, people who talk about commodities markets use, and it seems sort of - I don't know - like some kind of buzzword.

URSTADT: It's a total buzzword. It's completely ridiculous. And it is also totally fun to say.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm going to be honest with you, though. I don't think I know exactly what it means. So what is a commodity supercycle?

URSTADT: So a commodity supercycle is an event in which the prices of all kinds of different materials go up - not just metals. It's every different kind of thing, from, like, food, energy, livestock, anything that you would use to make something else. All of these things go up together to record highs, and then they stay expensive, and sometimes for years.

And I've been reading a term, commodities supercycle. Is that - do you use that term? Do you feel - what do you think of that?

PICKARD: I would say that the prices that we're seeing today are at supercycle levels. But I think as soon as analysts started saying that publicly, we did start to see prices fall back a little bit. And so that's an important thing to keep in mind, is that...

URSTADT: Wait a minute.

PICKARD: Yeah.

URSTADT: So you're saying if you want to get rid of a commodity supercycle, you just have to announce there's a commodity supercycle.

PICKARD: That probably would help, yeah. I think any time you get too convinced that prices are going to go up continually, normally that's time for a market correction.

URSTADT: OK, I feel like we would just do everyone a huge favor if we just declared this a commodity supercycle.

PICKARD: (Laughter) You can declare if you'd like, but you might...

URSTADT: You're not...

PICKARD: ...See a correction as a result.

URSTADT: You're not going to touch that one.

PICKARD: I'm not willing to declare that we're currently in a supercycle right now. You know, talk to me again in a year, and maybe I can say, you know, we actually were in a supercycle.

URSTADT: I'm worried he's not going to take my call in a year, Jacob.

GOLDSTEIN: I just want to keep saying supercycle, Bryant. Supercycle.

URSTADT: I love that the cure for the thing is just basically talking about the thing.

GOLDSTEIN: I mean, there is this idea in the economics of commodities. There is this phrase you hear, and that is the cure for high prices is high prices. And the idea is, you know, when prices go up, people shift away to use cheaper things and, also, producers make more to capture those high prices. And that shifting away and using other things and producing more actually brings prices down.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL DELANEY AND TY NOAM FRANKEL'S "TAKE CHARGE")

GOLDSTEIN: Still to come, one, can your boss make you get a COVID vaccine, and, two, a question about all the money in the world - or at least all the dollars.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL DELANEY AND TY NOAM FRANKEL'S "TAKE CHARGE")

GOLDSTEIN: Amanda Aronczyk, you're here to answer another question.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: I am. I have brought with me a listener question. It is about vaccines. We got a lot of questions about vaccines, and this is the one that I thought was most interesting. So the question is, can your workplace make you get the vaccine?

GOLDSTEIN: Basically, can your boss say you have to get a shot to keep working...

ARONCZYK: Right, exactly

GOLDSTEIN: ...To keep your job?

ARONCZYK: Right. So I took this question to Carmel Shachar. She's a bioethicist. She's also a lawyer. She runs a center at Harvard that deals with health law. And actually, when I first got in touch with her, I emailed her, and she's like, oh, yeah, we are in a meeting right now discussing this.

CARMEL SHACHAR: I think this absolutely will get litigated because a lot of people will feel like, I don't want to take this vaccine; my rights are being violated.

ARONCZYK: And in fact, there appears to be the first lawsuit of this kind just filed last month. There's a guy, corrections officer in New Mexico, and he was told that he needed to get the shot. He didn't want to get it. But his employers at the detention center said, look; you've got five days to get the vaccine or you might lose your job. As far as I know, he has not lost his job yet, but he's arguing that these vaccines just have emergency approval. They've not received the full approval that vaccines usually get and so that we shouldn't have to take it. But Carmel says that that argument will probably not hold up in court.

SHACHAR: So the idea that, oh, we're being the guinea pigs here, and we're not getting a vaccine that's been properly vetted doesn't really...

ARONCZYK: Yeah.

SHACHAR: ...Have a lot of legs to it. Really, the law does not treat vaccines nearly as controversially as I think some elements of popular culture do.

ARONCZYK: She says, of course, there are some special cases. You know, if you have a disability or you have a sincerely held religious belief, you know, your workplace can't make you get a vaccine. But for most people, she says, yeah, once you're eligible, you've had the time to go get the shot, your workplace can make you go get the vaccine.

GOLDSTEIN: So the emergency use authorization - that part is just not legally relevant here.

ARONCZYK: Well, it's not quite that. You know, we're in this, like, unprecedented moment. We haven't really done this before. So it's a little unclear how the courts are going to rule. But Carmel says, you know what? These vaccines have gone through lots of tests. Millions of people have taken them now. So they are experimental really just in name at this point. But she does point out, if it's really important to you, you can refuse to get the shot. Like, let's say my boss at PLANET MONEY says, go get the vaccine. I can say no.

SHACHAR: Pretty much, yeah. You can make the choice to not get this vaccine and see if you can find another job, or you can get this vaccine and continue to work for PLANET MONEY.

ARONCZYK: OK, so if I was really insistent on not getting the vaccine, maybe there's other podcasts I could go to work for.

SHACHAR: You never know. You could go to We Hate Vaccines Weekly.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: OK, the boss can make you get a shot. Thank you, Amanda.

ARONCZYK: Thank you. I am not actually going to leave yet because, Jacob, I think this next listener question is good for you. I think you are the right person to answer it. You wrote a book about money. This question is about money. Seems like it should be for you. Let's switch roles here. It's a two-part question. So let me play you the first part.

JAMES: Hi. My name is James (ph). I am from Virginia. My question is, what is the M1 money supply, and the M2 money supply, for that matter?

GOLDSTEIN: What is the M1 money supply, and the M2 money supply, for that matter? OK, the money supply is basically how much money is there in total in the world. And the money supply the listener's asking about here is the supply of U.S. dollars. So how many U.S. dollars are there in the world?

ARONCZYK: And why is it called M1?

GOLDSTEIN: I mean, M1, it's just a term that somebody made up. The M is for money. M2 - this is another just made-up term. It's a broader definition of money. It includes everything in M1 - checking accounts, cash in circulation - plus money that's a little bit more tied-up - certain money in savings accounts and money market mutual funds. That's it.

ARONCZYK: OK, so M1 is cash that is in circulation plus checking accounts, and M2 is that plus some saving accounts and other stuff, right?

GOLDSTEIN: Exactly.

ARONCZYK: Great, OK. There is a follow-up question from the listener. Here it is.

JAMES: And why has it increased dramatically several times in the past year compared to its previous trend?

GOLDSTEIN: So - right. So what he's saying there is the money supply, the amount of money in the world, has gone up a lot in the past year. And there's a few things going on there. One is with M1 in particular, it's gone up, like, a ridiculous amount, but that's really just this weird accounting thing that's happening where the Fed changed the way it counts M1. So nothing really changed in the world. There's just a weird accounting thing that happened.

ARONCZYK: OK.

GOLDSTEIN: But there is more to the story than that. M2, the other measure of the money supply, that has gone up. It's gone up from somewhere around $15 trillion to $19 trillion. So there really were 4 trillion more dollars at the start of this year than there were, you know, a year ago.

And there's a few reasons for that. One is at the beginning of the pandemic, lots of big businesses and institutions took out big loans. And when banks make loans, that is actually newly created money in the world to a significant degree. So there's that. And then the other thing that has happened is basically the Fed. The Fed has created lots of money - right? - as we've discussed many times. So those two things together means there is, in fact, a lot more money in the world than there was a year ago.

ARONCZYK: Right. And, of course, this is the question we keep getting, the trillion-dollar question, which is the trillion-dollar question because my million-dollar question has suffered from inflation. So the trillion-dollar question is, will there be inflation now?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, I do think that is the question behind this question, right? When people talk about the money supply, they typically talk about inflation. There was historically this link where when the money supply went up, inflation also went up. So to talk about this, I called an expert, as we do. His name is Steve Cecchetti. He's an economist at Brandeis. And he actually wrote a whole textbook about how money works.

What causes inflation?

STEVE CECCHETTI: Yeah, that's a good question.

(LAUGHTER)

CECCHETTI: What causes inflation turns out to be people thinking there's going to be inflation.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, that's one cause. Another cause of inflation is...

CECCHETTI: Is overheating the economy with aggregate demand increasing.

GOLDSTEIN: So this is the one you hear a lot about right now. You know, if everybody suddenly later this year starts going out and buying more stuff...

ARONCZYK: Right, because everybody's vaccinated, their employers are forcing them to get vaccinated later this year.

GOLDSTEIN: Exactly. And they feel safe, and they're back in the store, and they're buying more stuff. That is an increase in aggregate demand, and that can drive up prices, drive up inflation. And this is something we might see at least for a little bit later this year.

ARONCZYK: Right.

GOLDSTEIN: You know, it's like what Bryant was talking about earlier in the show with scrap metal, right? Demand goes up, prices go up. We just haven't seen that yet in the economy as a whole. But we might.

Now, notice that what Steve Cecchetti is not talking about when he talks about the causes of inflation, he is not talking about the money supply. He's not talking about M1 or M2 or how many dollars are in the world. And this was striking to me because his own textbook on money has a whole chapter - Chapter 20, I can lend you the book if you want - about how in the long run, increasing the money supply is associated with an increase in inflation.

Like, in the very long run - whatever - inflation is driven by the quantity of money. Is this some very basic...

CECCHETTI: Well, except for I don't think I believe that anymore. But, yes.

GOLDSTEIN: Printing more money leads to inflation. Like, that's literally what your book says.

CECCHETTI: I know. It's embarrassing. There's crazy stuff in Chapter 20 that I didn't want to put in. My co-author - he wants to remove Chapter 20 from the book. He thinks it's terrible.

GOLDSTEIN: Wow.

CECCHETTI: An abomination.

ARONCZYK: This is his textbook that he's talking about, and he's got a chapter in it that he doesn't think should be there.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. And it's sort of the legacy of the way economists thought about inflation for a long time - right? - this old idea that more money means more inflation. And to be clear, you know, this is definitely what happened in these famous, extreme cases, like in Venezuela recently or like in Weimar Germany.

But in the past few decades, it has become pretty clear that in less extreme circumstances, the money supply and inflation just are not as tightly linked as people used to think. The key driver of inflation is not just how much money exists in the world; it's what are people doing with that money. If they're out there buying stuff, that could cause inflation. But if it's just sitting in the bank, that is probably not going to cause inflation.

So here we are left with the fact that our understanding of the world has changed, but econ textbooks, like Steve Cecchetti's, still have whole chapters about the money supply and inflation.

Why is that in the book?

CECCHETTI: This is going to be a terrible answer - is when I first started writing the book, it wasn't going to be in the book. And the editor, wonderful guy, calls me up and says, well, I don't think this is going to work out for us.

GOLDSTEIN: Wow.

CECCHETTI: He said, well, and the reason it's not going to work out for them and for me is because of the instructors.

ARONCZYK: That is crazy, though. This is because of the instructors? Who is he talking about? This is, like, economics professors?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, yes. Crucially in this context, the people who decide what textbook to assign to their students, right? And what he told me was all the instructors learned in school that an increase in the money supply means an increase in inflation, and so they want a textbook that lets them teach that to their students.

ARONCZYK: OK, so it remains in the textbook. Did you answer the listener's question about the M1 and M2 money supply or is that something that you're going to have to go back and revise?

GOLDSTEIN: I think I did. Let me summarize here. So M1's weird accounting stuff. Ignore that. M2, a broader measure of the money supply, did go up a lot. And then I think there is the question behind the question, which is, is that going to mean inflation?

ARONCZYK: Right.

GOLDSTEIN: Not necessarily, right? And then - I don't know if it's a question behind the question behind the question, but, like, a big idea lurking behind all of this, and this is this idea that new ideas spread through society really slowly. And we see this in many domains. And this is an instance where you can, like, see it happening in front of you, right? College teachers refuse to buy textbooks that don't conform to what they learned in graduate school, even when the world has pretty clearly changed. And so students keep learning stuff that doesn't entirely make sense anymore.

ARONCZYK: OK, Jacob, and if 2021 is the year of runaway inflation, we are going to call up James, and you are going to apologize to him.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm going to say to him, it's because people went out and started buying a lot of stuff and because people's expectations changed, not just because there was more money in the world.

ARONCZYK: Got it.

GOLDSTEIN: Send us more questions. We're at planetmoney@npr.org or @planetmoney on the social media.

ARONCZYK: This episode was produced by James Sneed with help from Dan Girma. Gilly Moon helped out with engineering. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits our show.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm Jacob Goldstein.

ARONCZYK: And I'm Amanda Aronczyk. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOK'A'FACE'S "BALEARIC HOUSE")

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