Brood X Economy: Indicators Of The Week : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money The Brood X cicadas are finally back this summer, but what was life like 17 years ago when they first went underground?

Brood X Economy: Indicators Of The Week

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Robert Smith.



VANEK SMITH: How's it going? What are you doing?

SMITH: I am listening for the cicadas. We're here in Prospect Park.


SMITH: And they're supposed to emerge at some point after 17 years with a distinctive sound, and I can't hear them yet.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, I can't hear them either. I've been kind of waiting for the cicadas, too. I think we might be slightly too far north.


SMITH: I believe they're coming.

VANEK SMITH: But it is amazing, right? Like, think about it. The last time they were roaming around on Earth was 17 years ago.

SMITH: I know. I check my phone every five minutes. They've just been clueless for 17 years.

VANEK SMITH: Seventeen years - I mean, you know what? Actually, Robert, this feels like it might be a pretty solid indicator of the week - 17.

SMITH: Seventeen.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, where were you 17 years ago?

SMITH: Oh, 17 years ago, I had just moved to New York City as a new reporter for NPR...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, nice.

SMITH: ...Covering the whole city, but also Wall Street. And you?

VANEK SMITH: I had just started my very first radio job at Marketplace. I started covering the economy, paying attention to the economy for the first time. Yeah, I wonder what it would be like if we ran into each other in the park 17 years ago. Like, I wonder what we would be talking about.



SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith.

VANEK SMITH: Today's indicator is 17. What was going on in the economy 17 years ago when the cicadas went underground, and what's happened since then?

SMITH: Time to go back in time to 2004.



VANEK SMITH: Well, hello, Robert Smith of 2004.

SMITH: Hello, Stacey Vanek Smith. So what do you see around the world of 2004 that might indicate the health of the economy?

VANEK SMITH: What do you mean?

SMITH: Like a - like an indicator.

VANEK SMITH: Hmm. That seems like a clunky term. Maybe, like, a signal, is what you...

SMITH: Oh, a signal. Yes.

VANEK SMITH: A signal - OK, so some signals from the economy. Well, you know, the housing market is going crazy right now.

SMITH: Oh, yeah, prices going up.

VANEK SMITH: Everybody's buying houses - two houses, flipping houses, three houses. You can't lose money.

SMITH: No, people really should buy a lot of houses.

VANEK SMITH: I think that's true. And, in fact, the head of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, has come out and said housing bubble is not a problem. Housing prices, they're just going to keep going up.

SMITH: Look; we just came out of a recession in 2001. I can't see how it could get worse.

VANEK SMITH: Exactly. I think it's only aces from here.

SMITH: Well, you know what I've been covering a lot here at NPR in 2004, is this whole shopping on a computer thing, right?

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah.

SMITH: Now, I know it was, like, a big fad in 1999 that you could, like, order dog food online, and they'd deliver it...

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, people got - yeah, such a gimmick.

SMITH: ...To you, and, like, people would lose a ton of money on it. It's never going to happen. But this is the signal that I see right now in 2004. There is a huge merger. Kmart just bought Sears.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Well, it's the once bankrupt Kmart that's buying Sears in this $11 billion deal.


SMITH: I know.

VANEK SMITH: That's like retail King Kong meets retail Godzilla, like, coming together, working together. They're going to be unbeatable.

SMITH: Think about it. The bargain prices of Kmart combined with the selection of Sears with their great locations. I mean, I think this is the rebirth of brick-and-mortar retail. It cannot miss.

VANEK SMITH: Right. I agree. And, like, these companies that are, like, trying to move everything online - like, you know there's that bookseller

SMITH: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, they've gone public. I think they finally turned a profit just recently, like, barely. I mean, they've been just losing money for 10 years. They keep thinking like, oh, we're going to make everybody buy everything online, but no one's ever going to buy clothes online. Like, you want to go into a store and try clothes on. It's not going to happen.

SMITH: So weird. And, you know, they don't make very much money on every purchase. It's like their plan is to somehow - like, oh, we're going to sell everything and sell so many things that we're going to put everyone else out of business, and then we'll jack the prices up.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. I mean, it's an admirable long game, but good luck with that. Then again, what do I know? I still have my Razr phone. But I did hear about this phone, the iPhone from Apple. It is like the iPod, but you can call people on it, and you can store your favorite songs on it and listen to them - songs exactly like Destiny's Child's No. 1 hit, "Lose My Breath."


DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Can you keep up? Baby boy, make me lose my breath. Bring the noise. Make me lose my breath.

SMITH: Arguably their most popular, best song ever, but still a little early to tell.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, they're super-talented women. I just don't know if I see much of a future for them.

SMITH: Speaking of hip music...


SMITH: ...That the college kids like these days, there is the latest college fad. Have you heard of this? It's called TheFacebook.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: - and then in Watertown, Mass., Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Harvard's And I guess we'll start...

VANEK SMITH: What is it?

SMITH: TheFacebook, as I understand it, is a way to communicate, share pictures, maybe, like, find coeds. I don't know. It's just at Harvard. It was invented by these twins, the Winklevosses, Winklevi (ph), something like that, and then this other geeky guy. And they made this thing. And get this - it has now spread to half of Harvard's campus. That's, like, thousands of people all using TheFacebook at the same time.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, who cares what they're doing at Harvard, though? That doesn't seem like it's going to go anywhere.

SMITH: Well, they're about to expand it to Princeton, Stanford and Yale.

VANEK SMITH: Still not - I don't know. I'm still not convinced. Is this this new - like, is this like MySpace or something?

SMITH: Yeah, it's a little too complicated. You always have to ask yourself, like, could my mom use this? And it's just not possible with Facebook. No. No.

VANEK SMITH: No way. Oh, my God. Are you kidding?

SMITH: Oh, you know, there is something I'm working on. You've maybe never heard of this, but I'm working on this story. It's probably going to air early next year...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah.

SMITH: ...About this thing - well, here. Listen to how I plan to start this story.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah, yeah.

SMITH: This is Alex Chadwick speaking.


ALEX CHADWICK: If you love your digital music player, here's another perk. You can now download podcasts. These are amateur radio shows created by iPod users. Hey, amateur radio - that's what they call us. Anyway, here's NPR's Robert Smith with that story.

SMITH: Just like blogs on the internet are providing a new stage for alternative writers and journalists, the podcast has caught on with people who always dreamed of being DJs or talk show hosts. In just the last few months, a young man in California started Insomnia Radio, which features independent rock bands.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Here is 100K. Turn this up.


SMITH: Isn't that amazing? It's like a blog for audio.

VANEK SMITH: I can't imagine who's going to listen to this, though, right? Like, it's not edited. It's just - anybody can do it.

SMITH: You know, here's the thing. I imagine that there may come a time where our flip phones and our BlackBerries can actually play audio and that we could carry them around with us wherever we go and that these podcasts will just, like, be beamed to it magically. And then we can walk along, and we can listen to our radio stories whenever we want, wherever we want, anywhere in the world.


SMITH: Nah (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: That's not going to happen (laughter).

SMITH: I was just playing with you.


VANEK SMITH: I mean, imagine, though, if it did. I could be like, well, thank you to our guest, Robert Smith. And this episode of THE INDICATOR was mixed by Jamila Huxtable with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact checked by Sam Cai. THE INDICATOR's edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR (laughter).

SMITH: Never happening.

VANEK SMITH: Never going to happen.


VANEK SMITH: I'll see you in 17 years, I guess.

SMITH: Yeah. Bye. See you then.


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