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.

The Relationship between Unemployment and Inflation

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.

Paying 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.

How GDP Is 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.

The Invention of 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.

Braiding Hair Without a License

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.

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.

How Machines Changed 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 History of Light and Economic Growth

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.

How the Tooth Fairy Helps Explain the Rising Cost of Parenting

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.

The Island of Stone 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.

A Change in Market Structure Protects Alaskan Fishermen

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.

The 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.

Not All Santa Suits Are Created Equal

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.

Incentives to Work Hard

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.

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