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Child poverty rate, Lebanon bank robbery, Ethereum merger: Planet Money Indicator: NPR



SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DROP ELECTRIC SONG, “WAKING UP TO THE FIRE”)

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

Here on THE INDICATOR, we review the flashy catastrophism you might see in the news, and we like to show a balanced analysis of the world as it really is.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

So this week, we’re bringing you three indicators of things that we admit have a not-so-good starting point. But zoom out the lens a bit, they’re not as bad as they could have been.

WOODS: Could have been worse – shrug emoji.

WONG: This is THE PLANET MONEY INDICATOR. I am Wailin Wong.

WOODS: And I’m Darian Woods. This week we are joined by Jeff Guo from Planet Money.

Hi Jeff.

JEFF GUO, BYLINE: Guys, it’s so exciting to be here. I’ve been waiting for this literally all week.

WONG: We’re glad to have you.

WOODS: It’s mutual.

WONG: So this week, Jeff, Darian, and I will be talking about child poverty, the Ethereum merger, and a very unusual bank heist in Beirut.

WOODS: First in our indicators that could have been worse, we have Wailin Wong.

WONG: My indicator is 5.2%. This is the child poverty rate in 2021, according to the US Census Bureau. And, of course, any amount of child poverty is unacceptable, but it’s a huge drop. The rate was almost 10% in 2020. This new rate, of 5.2%, is the lowest rate ever recorded.

WOODS: It reminds me of the stories we’ve done over the past two years about child poverty and in particular the one about the expanded child tax credit where families got checks for thousands of dollars in the mail l ‘last year. And it looks like these relief measures are showing up in the census numbers in this really visible way.

WONG: Yes. Yeah. But then, you know, even zooming out and looking at the child poverty rate over time, there was a very big improvement. So a new analysis this week from The New York Times and a research group called Child Trends showed a nearly 60% decline in child poverty over the past three decades. And then the big question is, what is responsible for this big drop? Because understanding these reasons can help shape future policy.

GUO: Wait. Is it an economic fight? Because I love when economists fight.

(LAUGH)

WONG: So here’s the debate. Some economists attribute the credit to welfare changes that were enacted under the Clinton administration. You may remember this great controversy from the 90s. And these changes added work requirements to qualify for assistance. So if you look at, for example, the labor market participation of single mothers, that rate increased after the law. There was also, you know, higher public minimum wages and overall economic growth. But other economists, including those behind the Child Trends report, say most of the credit should go to expanded social safety net programs, things like the Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP. , or what we used to call food stamps.

GUO: Wailin, thank you. And now for something completely different. Darian, you said you had a history of burglary.

WOODS: Yes. So this could be one of the most intriguing heist stories of the year. My indicator is $13,000, which is the amount of money this young woman named Sally Hafez withdrew from a bank in Beirut on Wednesday. And she ran into the bank with a bunch of other people using a toy gun. And she’s actually, like, now a folk hero in Lebanon because that $13,000 was actually her own money. It was part of his own savings. She had tried to withdraw the money to pay for her sister’s brain cancer treatment, but the bank wouldn’t let her withdraw more than $200 a month at a time. So she teamed up with an activist group in Lebanon called Depositors Outcry, and they marched to this bank in downtown Beirut. They locked the doors and demanded the money.

(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (shouting).

WONG: Oh, my God.

WOODS: Yeah, it’s super intense. And our INDICATOR listeners may know the broader economic context of what’s going on here. We did an entire episode last year about Lebanon’s severe financial crisis, and we followed this engineer called Sandro Kassas as he tried to find an ATM that would allow him to withdraw his own money. The Lebanese government limits withdrawals from bank accounts. He imposed these very strict limits on foreign exchange in 2019. It was all part of this desperate effort by the government to maintain the value of its currency, the Lebanese pound.

But all of this government action to, you know, prop up the currency comes at a huge cost to ordinary people. There have been similar bank robberies, and this activist group warns more are to come. And so it made me think of Sandro from last year. So I caught up with him, and, you know, he says things in Lebanon are even worse than last year. But, you know, for him, he now has an engineering job in Malta. And so he’s just waiting for his visa so he can flee the country, which he says is a common story in his generation.

WONG: So it looks like Sandro faced the same issues as the woman who robbed the bank. It’s just that with the woman who robbed the bank, it was a much more extreme scenario of how someone might react.

WOOD: Yeah.

WONG: I feel like this video really brought him home. We’re going to go to Jeff with something that has high stakes, and it’s like another indicator of potential tragedy averted, but much harder to figure out.

GUO: Yeah. So I guess you all heard about what happened this week with Ethereum, you know, that popular crypto platform?

WOODS: Yes, as the second most popular cryptocurrency.

GUO: Yeah, yeah. But he does other things too, Darian.

WOOD: Alright.

GUO: You know those multi-million dollar NFTS monkeys?

WONG: Bored monkeys?

WOODS: Do you miss the Yacht Club Ape?

GUO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. The Bored Ape Yacht Club runs entirely on Ethereum, and the Ethereum network only used an absurd amount of electricity, like more than all of Belgium. But that all changed this week when Ethereum updated its software to use 99.95% less energy. They call it fusion. Crypto is therefore now less bad for the planet. It could have been worse – the merger.

WOODS: But I still think we need an explainer from you, Jeff, or should I say, J.eth (ph).

(LAUGH)

WOODS: Jeth (ph), hit us.

GUO: Alright.

WONG: I’m settling down. I’m setting up.

GUO: Get, for example, a power bar or something like that. OK. So it’s Ethereum. It’s a crypto thing. You know it’s blockchain. It is this digital ledger that tracks everyone’s transactions and activities. So, you know, you can buy and sell things, transfer money, make things. You just put it on the blockchain. That’s what you’ve probably heard. But I like to think of Ethereum as this giant common whiteboard for the internet, and people just try to write things on that whiteboard, like, here’s an NFT that I made, or this is a contract that I just signed with Wailin to keep my cats.

WONG: I’m so allergic. I am not signing this contract.

WOODS: But it’s on the blockchain, Wailin.

WONG: I’ll just take a Benadryl.

GUO: So we have this common whiteboard. And to avoid chaos, only one person at a time can write on this whiteboard. This person is like the class secretary. They log everyone’s transactions, NFTs and all. How do you choose the class secretary? Well, people used to race to solve the same very difficult math problem, and the winner had to be the next secretary. And they got a little reward. That’s what mining is all about – people competing to be the class secretary to collect that reward, which is, like, cryptocurrency. But that means winning the math contest, and that means filling basements and warehouses with non-stop computers.

WOODS: Okay, that’s where the electricity problem comes in.

GUO: Right. But now, with the merger, the Ethereum network has gotten rid of that pointless math contest. Now it’s like a lottery. You buy a lottery ticket – using cryptocurrency, obviously – and if you win, you become the class secretary.

WOODS: I mean, why didn’t they think of that sooner? We could have saved a lot of electricity and carbon emissions.

GUO: They’ve literally been trying to do this for years, since, like, 2017.

WOODS: That’s right.

GUO: But it was such a busy and valuable platform. Everyone was, like, nervous. Hundreds of billions of dollars could have disappeared. So everyone wanted to be really, really careful. Now that the merger is finally done, people are celebrating. And one guy even wrote a song for the occasion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “THE OFFICIAL MERGE SONG”)

JONATHAN MANN: (Singing) By singing the fusion song, the carbon footprint disappeared.

WONG: Is this song also on the blockchain?

GUO: Yeah.

WOOD: Yeah. No, he made it an NFT.

WONG: You have to.

WOOD: Yeah. He made it an NFT.

WONG: Oh, of course he did. Of course he did.

WOODS: This episode was produced by Nikki Ouellette, with engineering by Robert Rodriguez. Catherine Yang checked the facts. Our main producer is Viet Le. Kate Concannon is editing the show. And THE INDICATOR is an NPR production.

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