Planet Money: The Planet Money Indicator: NPR




This is THE PLANET MONEY INDICATOR. I am Stacey Vanek Smith.


I am Adrian Ma.


And I’m Darian Woods. And it’s time for another set of weekday indicators.

SMITH: Woo-hoo. It was kind of an action-packed week, wasn’t it? And there were plenty of choices.

WOODS: Panning for gold in a torrent of economic indicators.

MA: Searching for golden digital nuggets.

WOODS: Today on the show, we have pointers for a low-carbon, hydrogen-powered economy.

MA: Also, an indicator of a group of people who may still struggle to find work, even in the dynamic job market we find ourselves in.

SMITH: And the prices go up by a latte.

WOODS: I understand.

SMITH: Stay with us.

MA: It’s going to be a real chore.


SMITH: Indicators of the week. Darian Woods, why don’t you get us started?

WOODS: My indicator for the week is 80%. The Biden administration wants to see the price of hydrogen drop by 80% over the next decade.

SMITH: Like a sale of hydrogen.

WOODS: That’s right, 80% reduction in a decade, at least.

MA: I vaguely know what hydrogen is, don’t I? It’s like the cutest periodic element.

WOODS: Yeah, the smallest.

MA: And within that, you know, a little atom is a potential low-carbon energy source. But how does it work ?

WOODS: That’s a very good question, Adrian. And so to answer that, I called Bridget van Dorsten.

BRIDGET VAN DORSTEN: Never trust an atom. They make up everything.


WOODS: And in addition to doing chemistry comedy, Bridget is a hydrogen analyst at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. Bridget says there are two main ways to use hydrogen gas, such as using it in a factory or in a car. So one of those ways to use it is to burn it. For example, you might have a natural gas power plant. And you can add, say, 10% hydrogen into the mix, and you can create a cleaner power plant. And the other way of using hydrogen is in these types of almost battery cells that power your car. They are also known as fuel cells. And the car can be refueled in minutes without a dirty exhaust pipe.

SMITH: It sounds really dreamy.

WOODS: It can be a very good fuel, but hydrogen is not always zero carbon, not all the time. It all depends on how the hydrogen is made. So in the industry, there’s this whole rainbow of color palettes that they kind of use as industry shorthand to describe how it’s done.

VAN DORSTEN: There is green hydrogen, produced from renewable energy resources. There is yellow hydrogen, which is hydrogen produced from nuclear energy. There is turquoise hydrogen, gray hydrogen, blue hydrogen. You also have brown hydrogen. That’s a lot to follow.

SMITH: A rainbow of hydrogen.

WOOD: That’s true.

MA: Darian, what is your favorite color of hydrogen?

WOODS: I’m told green is, you know, the greenest, as you can imagine.

MA: It’s easy.

WOODS: So all these colors, this plethora, this palette, it all depends on how the hydrogen is made. So brown is made from coal, for example. This obviously has high carbon emissions. And that’s something to keep in mind when looking at the government’s objective. Its objective is, in quotation marks, to “reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80%”.

VAN DORSTEN: They didn’t say what kind of hydrogen they wanted it to be. They called it clean hydrogen. And that, to me, reminded me a lot of clean coal, as Trump would say.

WOOD: Oh. So you can have dirty hydrogen?

VAN DORSTEN: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Brown hydrogen and gray hydrogen are dirty.

WOODS: So Bridget thinks that proper word is just too vague.

SMITH: You can’t trust an atom.

WOODS: They make it all up.

SMITH: That was a wonderful indicator of the week. Adrian Ma, what is your indicator on this beautiful Friday?

MA: My indicator somewhat continues the scientific theme we have been focusing on so far. The indicator is 64%. It comes from this new study from the RAND Corporation that was published today in the journal Science Advances. And don’t worry, there’s a little saving here.

SMITH: I was starting to worry – I was starting to panic, sweaty palms.

WOODS: Give us the economy.

MA: And it has something to do with what we’ve been tracking a lot, which is that there are tons of job openings and not enough people to fill them. So this Rand study, what it did, looked at this representative sample of unemployed American men in their thirties. And it turns out that two-thirds of them, at some point in their past, have been arrested or convicted of a crime.

WOODS: I mean, two out of three, that seems really high.

MA: Yes, and that’s exactly what RAND Corp’s Jeffrey Wenger said he and his co-writers think.

JEFFREY WENGER: We were both absolutely shocked by the magnitude of that number.

MA: He says what’s interesting is that this number doesn’t actually change when you break the data down by race. And he says that even though this study is based on data from 2017, it is relevant to us today.

WENGER: There is definitely a high demand for workers these days. We have to ask ourselves, how many workers are screened out by employers who don’t want to hire people with criminal backgrounds? So some of the labor shortage we are experiencing is self-inflicted.

SMITH: But there’s also a countertrend here too, isn’t there? Because we have seen employers scrambling to find workers in some cases. And obviously, that can make them consider hiring people they might not consider hiring in other circumstances, like people with criminal records.

MA: Absolutely. Yeah. Jeffrey says it’s often the case that people who might have been discriminated against in a “normal job market,” in quotes, do better when the job market is booming. He says we saw this in the late 90s, mid-2000s. Women and black workers saw substantial employment gains. And more recently I read how some people with criminal records are starting to get more job opportunities.

WOOD: Alright. So I guess the big question is, how long could this last? For example, a booming economy can open up opportunities for groups that have historically been discriminated against like black workers and others. But those gains can also be wiped out when the economy slips.

MA: Yeah. According to Jeffrey, whether this is an anomaly or a longer-term trend will largely depend on the attitude of employers. He hopes that in the future more employers will rethink what it means when a job seeker has a criminal record. You know, after all, by some estimates, as many as 1 in 4 or even 1 in 3 Americans have a criminal record. So that’s my indicator. Stacey, how about you pick me up?

SMITH: Ah. Well, I don’t know if that’s really going to cheer me up. In some ways it’s a bit depressing, at least if you’re a big coffee lover like me.

WOODS: I love a good cup of coffee.

SMITH: Coffee prices are in this position where they are bound to rise. And obviously the prices of a lot of things are going up right now. Coffee is one of them. But what you might not know is that there are two main types of coffee beans, Arabica and Robusta. So robusta is like very caffeinated, but arabica is the one with the kind of sweet, chocolatey flavor that coffee lovers love. And as we became a nation of coffee snobs in the United States, we turned to the arabica bean.

Now the arabica bean, the price of it has gone up 75% in the last few months alone. So there are a few things going on here. The first one, which kind of started the domino effect on all of this, is that there was a freeze in Brazil. Now Brazil produces more coffee than any other country, and they produce about a third of the coffee we drink in the United States. And that frost was very, very destructive, and it killed some of the coffee trees. And coffee trees can take years to grow and produce beans. So when the trees die, it’s like a one-year supply decline that we’re talking about.

WOODS: It’s really sad for coffee farmers. And I guess it’s not like there are coffee farms proliferating in the United States.

SMITH: Almost nothing is grown in the United States because coffee has to be grown quite close to the equator, so it has to be imported. But most of the cost of a bag of coffee beans does not come from the beans. In fact, less than a third of the cost comes from the beans themselves. Much of the cost comes from other things. So generally in the past when bean prices have fluctuated, it hasn’t necessarily had such a big impact on prices.

But now this is where we come into why coffee prices could really go crazy because a lot of the price of coffee comes from overhead, like the store that sells it, labor work, the maintenance of the lights, on all these things. Of course, the price of labor is rising. The other thing that contributes a lot to the price of a bag of coffee is roasting, which is also labor. And, of course, transportation costs are rising because gasoline prices are rising. And then all the supply chain issues happen. Every part of the coffee supply chain is going up. And now even Starbucks has announced, like, get ready for more expensive coffee.

MA: Is there any good news here, Stacey?

SMITH: I guess maybe the benefit would be if we started weaning ourselves off of caffeine. Could be good, right?


MA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Nikki Willett (ph) with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It has been verified by Taylor Washington. Our main producer is Viet Le. Our editor is Kate Concannon. And THE INDICATOR is an NPR production.

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