Planet Money Podcasts for Econ Lowdown

Teachers, our Economic Education team is proud to provide this collection of Planet Money episodes for your class. You can assign these specially edited episodes—plus assessment questions—to students through our Econ Lowdown Teacher Portal.

NPR’s Planet Money is a podcast about the economy for people who think they aren’t interested in economics. Over 10 years and more than 1,000 episodes, the podcast has drawn millions of regular listeners through humor, storytelling and an accessible style.

Alaska Fisherman Protected by Changing Market Structure

Government policies designed to prevent overfishing inadvertently made halibut fishing in Alaska very dangerous. Fishermen pushed back, and a new policy was put in place that has made the industry safer. The new policy regulated competition by making the fishing more efficient. Listen to this story to understand how government-mandated changes in the market structure had unintended consequences.

Should You Have a License to Braid Hair?

To work in many occupations, people must get a license. Licenses are issued by states and usually require some kind of education or training, test, and/or fee. Licensing exists to protect consumers from untrained, unqualified providers. But there’s another side to licensing. Listen to learn about how licensing also offers economic benefits to people in licensed professions as it keeps others out of the job market.

Index Funds vs. Managed Funds: Decision-Making and the Stock Market

Millions of people invest billions of dollars in the stock market to make their money grow. Some pool their money with other investors in hedge funds.  Warren Buffett, made a $1 million bet that he could beat the earnings of any hedge fund with his own investments in low-risk index funds. A hedge fund manager took him up on the challenge. Listen to the story to learn who is on his way to winning the bet and why.

Venezuela’s Economy: A Government Failure Case Study

Venezuela has one of the world’s largest oil reserves, but its economy has collapsed, and its government isn’t doing too well either. Listen to this story to find out how a country rich in natural resources has descended from wealth and democracy into financial and political chaos.

Entrepreneurs Created the Big Box Store

Some basic economic norms shape how most retail stores operate. These include: attract as many potential shoppers as possible; make it easy for them to find what they need; and make it appealing for them to return often so that they will spend money at the store. But some members-only warehouse stores break all those rules—and succeed anyway. Listen to find out why these stores do it differently and why, despite breaking the rules of retail, they thrive.

Is GDP Like Your GPA?

Gross domestic product, or GDP, measures the value of all the goods and services produced in a country during a year. Knowing their GDP helps countries monitor how strong or weak their economies are. When GDP gets bigger, conventional wisdom says that the economy is healthy and growing, while a shrinking GDP means that something is wrong. GDP provides a way to see the fluctuations in a nation’s economy over time. But the usefulness of GDP is limited. Listen to this story to find out why.

How Did Machines Change Production?

The Industrial Revolution changed forever both the way goods are made and the lives of the workers who make them. In the early years, workers did not like the changes. They challenged the factory owners, sometimes violently destroying the machinery that was transforming their lives. These protesters were called Luddites. Listen to learn about how these protesters tried to keep their world from changing.

The Rising Cost of Parenting Explained by the Tooth Fairy

This story explores an important economic question: When a kid loses a tooth, how much should the tooth fairy pay? That may sound like a joke, but the tooth fairy’s payoff provides an example of inflation—the amount by which the price of goods and services increases each year—and of the economic principle called “income elasticity of demand.” Listen to the story to find out what teeth are going for these days, and what economists have to say about it.

Can Incentives Improve Absenteeism Rates at Work?

Scarcity is a basic economic problem: People have unlimited wants and needs, but the world has limited resources. Resources in that equation include materials, capital, and labor. A pasta factory in southern Italy faced a very particular sort of labor shortage. The Barilla pasta factory in Foggia, Italy, had enough employees to keep up with production schedules, but the employees weren’t showing up to work. The absentee rate among workers threatened the survival of the plant. Listen to the story to learn how bosses and managers changed employees’ attitudes and behavior and solved their scarcity issue.

Electronic Banking in Myanmar: Learning to Trust Banks

In the developed world, a lot of money changes hands without anyone actually touching it. That’s because many people get paychecks, do their shopping, and pay their bills electronically. When you put your debit card into an ATM, you assume that the machine is connected to a trusted institution and knows how much is in your account and will, in fact, give you the amount of cash you asked for. In other words, you trust the process and the bank. But what if you couldn’t? Listen to find out how people in Myanmar are trying to adjust to banking electronically in a setting where it’s not always reliable.

What's Keeping Us from a 15-Hour Work Week?

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay in which he predicted that by the time his children were grown up, people would be working just 15 hours a week. Today, in some countries, people do work a bit less than they did 50 years ago, but Keynes’ prediction was essentially wrong. There is a counterintuitive response to incentives, and that is one factor that keeps people working long hours. According to his descendants, Keynes himself was a workhorse who couldn’t slow down. Listen to this audio story to learn more about Keynes and why making money doesn’t necessarily free us to work less.

Not All Santa Suits Are Made the Same

Taxing imports makes imported goods more expensive for consumers. So why aren’t all seemingly similar items taxed the same? This audio story focuses on imported suits for Santa Claus impersonators. These red suits with white fur trim are worn by thousands of Santa Clauses around the Christmas holidays. Some of these outfits are taxed, while others are not. Listen to learn more about the sometimes complicated laws that determine why not all Santa suits are taxed equally.

The Allocation of Organ Transplants

Many people need organ transplants, but there are not enough organs for all of them. Doctors have had to develop criteria for deciding who gets the organs that are available, knowing that those who don’t get the organs they need may die. Listen to hear how the allocation of available organs puts doctors in the position to make life or death decisions, and who keeps them honest about it.

What If We Paid Off the National Debt?

In 1835, the United States had a completely unique moment in its history: For exactly one year, the country had no debt. Making America debt-free was something of an obsession for then-President Andrew Jackson, who sold off government-owned land and vetoed federal spending in order to pull the country out of the red. Hear about Jackson’s attitude toward debt, the fiscal policy he imposed, and some of the unforeseen consequences of that policy.

When Should Government Foot the Bill? Public Goods and Government Spending

What should the government spend its money on? With a growing national debt, this has become an important question. Economists see government’s role in providing goods and services as filling needs: Government should pay for things that make our lives better but that the private market cannot or will not provide. Listen to this story from Planet Money to learn the reasons governments have decided to pay for public goods such as lighthouses and autopsies.

Why Quebec Stockpiles Maple Syrup

A basic rule of economics is that the price of products increases when demand exceeds supply, and the price decreases when supply exceeds demand. But producers can tinker with that formula. If they want to get around the supply-and-demand cycle, they can stockpile supplies and decide how much of a product to make available for consumers. Listen to find out how maple syrup producers in Quebec, Canada, keep prices high for this prized commodity.

Where Did Your Cotton Come From? Technologies, Subsidies and the Search for Cheap Cotton

Chances are you’re wearing something made from cotton. You can check the label on most garments to find out where they were made. But where was the cotton grown that was the starting point? This story tracks down the source of the cotton that went into a T-shirt. A spinning mill in Indonesia is where the fabric may have been made, and the cotton fields of Mississippi is where the cotton may have been grown. But cotton is grown all over the world. Why would a textile mill in Indonesia buy cotton from the United States when they can get it from much closer? Listen to this story to find out how technology and subsidies give American cotton farmers an advantage in international trade.

How a Teenager Became an Entrepreneur

In the early 2000s, housing prices in the United States rose quickly, and many people paid high prices to buy houses. In 2008, the housing market collapsed and prices fell fast. In 2012, an enterprising 14-year-old girl in Florida saw a business opportunity from the housing crisis. Listen to learn how a 14-year-old became a real estate entrepreneur.

How Specialization Made Bangladesh the Cheapest Place to Make a T-Shirt

Making a T-shirt takes a lot of time, but it can be made cheaply. The origins of your T-shirts probably come from Mississippi, where cotton is grown, and the shirts were probably spun in Indonesia. In this story, reporters track the assembly of a T-shirt to Bangladesh and try to understand why that Asian country is currently “the cheapest place in the world to make a T-shirt.” Bangladesh has established a specialization in garment production, and Bangladeshi garment factories further specialize in the production of cotton garments. Listen to the story to learn how these factories manage to undercut the prices of their competitors in other major garment producing countries and what the future may hold in store for them.

Economic Growth and the History of Light

How people have made artificial light over the past 4,000 years reflects the history of economic growth in the world. One economist has explored the cost of light, starting in Babylonian times and ending in the 1990s. He discovered that for most of the past four millennia, light was very expensive. Then, in the past 200 years, scientific advances caused the price of light to drop precipitously, and economies grew with a speed and intensity unknown before. Listen to hear how light became cheap and how its price demonstrates how economic growth happens.

Who Invented the Economy?

Household management involves using resources wisely and being thrifty to stay within a budget. The word “economy” comes from the Greek word for household management, oikonomia. This management is difficult when people have too little money to buy what they need, which was the case for many after the stock market crashed in 1929. In an effort to make sense of what was going on, members of the U.S. government began to talk about what they called “the economy,” and they developed methods to quantify the situation and account for economic fluctuations. Listen to the story to learn more about the invention of what we call the economy and about some of the means by which we measure its strength.

What Is Money?

This story looks at a small island in the Pacific Ocean called Yap to answer a big question: What is money? On Yap, limestone is considered valuable, much like gold and silver in other places. But because limestone is very heavy, people can’t move it easily. As a result, money has become more abstract. People agree to its value but don’t necessarily have the limestone itself. Listen to learn what money is and to explore how people in our society also buy and sell by using something (coins and bills) that represents something valuable, rather than by using the valuable thing itself.

Why Is It So Difficult to Purchase a Birkin Bag?

The luxury goods company Hermes makes and sells a high-end purse it calls the Birkin Bag. The Birkin costs $10,000—often more—and it is nearly impossible to find one to buy. Because very few bags are available, the Birkin has become a status symbol, something only very few people can buy. Listen to find out why a retail company, that by definition wants to sell things, makes it so difficult to buy their product.

Is There a Relationship between Inflation and Unemployment?

When economists track the performance of the U.S. economy, they pay attention to factors like economic growth, inflation and unemployment. One economic model, the Phillips curve, suggests that when unemployment is low, inflation increases, and vice versa. But is that always true? Listen to learn about the relationship between unemployment and inflation and about how economists’ interventions can actually change it.

Can an Economist Break a Toilet Cartel?

Many people in Dakar, Senegal, choose the least expensive way to dispose of the raw sewage that collects in their septic systems. The result is that sewage contaminates their neighborhoods and makes people sick. The healthier option is more expensive, and it stays expensive because sewage collection companies have agreed not to compete with each other. They set a price that is too high for most people to pay. Listen to learn about how an economist implemented a new program to bring down prices and clean up the local environment.

One Class Stands between You and a Higher Income

Nurses save lives. They practice in a variety of traditional healthcare settings, and classifications of nurses earn different salaries. On average, nursing salaries in the United States are 7% higher than the average job salary nationwide. For people who want a good-paying, stable nursing job, one class stands in the way: Anatomy and Physiology. Listen to learn how one technical college adapted its nursing program to increase its rate of student success.

How Much Would You Pay for Internet Service?

Many Internet services are free: email, Internet search, and maps, for example. But what if you had to pay to use them? An economist sets out to discover how much people value various Internet services by asking how much they would need to be paid to give them up. It’s an example of a core economic principle: decisionmaking. Listen to find out which Internet services people value most.

Incentives Don't Always Solve Worker Shortages

Farming in California has become more difficult in recent years as there aren’t enough people to do the arduous work involved in farming. The owner of one California farm has adjusted to this labor shortage in a few different ways and reached a conclusion about the cause of his problem and the best way to solve it. Listen to find out about the surprising decision he has made.

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