The voices of NPR’s ‘Planet Money’ wonder if we’re all doomed, financially speaking

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The sideshow performer and the 'Planet Money' hosts. (Lauren Kirchner)
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The question of the night, at NPR’s Planet Money’s sold-out live event at the Bell House on Wednesday, was “Is America screwed?”

As the show opened, Planet Money editor and This American Life contributor Alex Blumberg started by revealing the answer.

“Are you and I and everyone here screwed?” he asked, then laughed. “No! You’re not screwed! You people are the least screwed people in the history of the planet—you people, with your smartphones, and your Velcro diapers!” But the answer wasn’t as simple as all that; hence, the “multimedia theatrical extravaganza” he said was to come.

The show opened with the kind of lesson you wish your high school econ teacher had taught you. Planet Money correspondent Robert Smith bartered a drink ticket to an audience member in exchange for a simple task, and in so doing, demonstrated some key economic concepts.

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Smith offered a reward for an audience member who would pull a nail out of a block of wood; so many audience members volunteered that the reward kept getting smaller and smaller, and the group of volunteers shrank accordingly. But a woman pulled the nail out in exchange for a drink ticket, as Smith declared the exercise a success.

"What just happened here, this is actually how all prices are determined," he said. "At the end of the day, Katie's happy—she's got a drink ticket—I'm happy (the nail is out), and Adam Smith is happy in his grave. The invisible hand of the marketplace works. But—not all the time."

This was the cue for Chana Joffe-Walt to join Smith onstage.

"The area in which none of the simple, logical rules of supply and demand that we just saw apply is the United States healthcare system," she said. "The way prices are determined in healthcare is one reason that I would argue that we are, actually, screwed."

To demonstrate just how screwed, another volunteer from the audience was asked up on stage, and was asked to choose a hypothetical injury for a hypothetical series of doctors to then evaluate, treat, and bill him for.

That’s when it got weird.

The severely-mustachioed volunteer proceeded to casually hammer a huge nail straight into his nostril, where it stayed for the rest of the scene. The awkward rapport between the hosts and the “volunteer” had been so convincing that at least some of the gasping audience (speaking for myself) did not realize for a while that he was a plant, an experienced sideshow performer. Seeing him stick a nail into his face and then seem pretty okay was, for a few moments anyway, rather disturbing. At the end of the scene, a power drill was involved that I’d rather not even think about.

Act Two saw Planet Money regulars Zoe Chase and Caitlin Kenney explaining the export economy by using Korean pop-factory “product” Psy (and helped by a young dancer, pictured at right) as an example of how the U.S. isn’t the only global exporter that matters anymore, but that’s okay, because the more music in the world the better. My memory of this portion of the program is a bit foggy though since, full disclosure, after about 20 minutes of looking at the nail-in-face guy I sort of fainted a little bit and had to sit down on the floor.

I recovered in time for the funniest portion of the show, a sketch hosted by NPR science correspondent David Kestenbaum and Planet Money writer Jacob Goldstein and performed by (real) volunteers. Through silly props and a very simple script, the scene illustrated the Fed’s role in regulating the flow of money in America. A woman in a “Ben Bernanke” beard was to print out reams of cash while a man in a banker costume (top hat, cigar) and a woman in a construction hat with a toy dump-truck negotiated business loan interest rates.

"We have, right now, before your eyes, in a matter of moments, created a model of the entire U.S. economy," Goldstein declared. "I don't want to blow your minds, but now we have here a play inside of a play," intoned Kestenbaum, dramatically.

The scene culminated in a frenzied attempt by Bernanke-beard to shred the money fast enough to shut off the erupting “inflation” alarm, but not so fast as to set off the corresponding “unemployment” alarm. Despite the goofy game show atmosphere, the scene was incredibly effective at demonstrating a complex system. Planet Money at its best.

The final act of the night was a solo performance by host Adam Davidson: a guy, a stool, a mic, and an iPad. His act was a veryThis-American-Life-ish combo of scripted voiceover and compelling interview audio, with which he explored the question of why so many low-skill, entry-level workers in America getting stuck where they are, unable to advance? Behind him were projected video interviews with two employees from a South Carolina factory (sources from his Atlantic story from last year, “Making It in America”), Luke and Maddie.

Together his interview subjects were meant to personify the two types of workers—skilled and unskilled—who can expect two different results from the increasing automation of manufacturing plants. It’s still cheaper to keep an unskilled worker like Maddie on the factory line than to get a machine to do her job, Davidson explained, but that won’t always be the case. What will she do when the machines get cheap, and when she’s still got two kids to feed and no time for college?

"If you add up all the Maddies, it's something like 95 million adults in America—that's a lot of people—who don't have a lot of likelihood, given current conditions, of doing a whole lot better when they're fifty than they did when they were twenty," Davidson said. "It hurts all of us when a third of the adult workforce is incapable of advancing, it's just bad economically, because it means that the country is less productive, but it's also kind of scary. I don't want to live in a country where a third of the people don't see the benefit of staying within the system."

Then Davidson wowed the crowd when he, Oprah-like, revealed a surprise to the audience: he’d flown Maddie and her mother up North for a few days and she was there in person. He gave her a stool and asked her some more questions about her job and her plans for the future.

Finally, revealing the last trick up his sleeve, Davidson brought up the CEO of the company she works for, Larry Sills, who happens to live in Brooklyn.

"Please don't boo me," a smiling Sills asked the audience—twice.

Davidson had arranged for Maddie to meet Sills at his office in New York to exchange ideas about training programs and educational opportunities for employees like her. They were all little light on details about that last part, but Maddie seemed genuinely optimistic, and it all felt like progress. It was a feel-good note to end the night on.

Many in the upbeat crowd of bespectacled 30-somethings hung around The Bell House after the show for beers. Walking past the sideshow nail-in-face guy (stage name, fittingly: Donny Vomit), I saw an audience member approach him.

“You were terrifying!”

His response: “Thank you!”

Thankfully, the sideshow element was far scarier than Planet Money’s take on our economic prospectus.