Robert Smith

Robert Smith is a correspondent for NPR's Planet Money where he reports on how the global economy is affecting our lives.

If that sounds a little dry, then you've never heard Planet Money. The team specializes in making economic reporting funny, engaging and understandable. Planet Money has been known to set economic indicators to music, use superheroes to explain central banks, and even buy a toxic asset just to figure it out.

Smith admits that he has no special background in finance or math, just a curiosity about how money works. That kind of curiosity has driven Smith for his 20 years in radio.

Before joining Planet Money, Smith was the New York correspondent for NPR. He was responsible for covering all the mayhem and beauty that makes it the greatest city on Earth. Smith reported on the rebuilding of Ground Zero, the stunning landing of US Air flight 1549 in the Hudson River and the dysfunctional world of New York politics. He specialized in features about the overlooked joys of urban living: puddles, billboards, ice cream trucks, street musicians, drunks and obsessives.

When New York was strangely quiet, Smith pitched in covering the big national stories. He traveled with presidential campaigns, tracked the recovery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and reported from the BP oil spill.

Before his New York City gig, Smith worked for public radio stations in Seattle (KUOW), Salt Lake City (KUER) and Portland (KBOO). He's been an editor, a host, a news director and just about any other job you can think of in broadcasting. Smith also lectures on the dark arts of radio at universities and conferences. He trains fellow reporters how to sneak humor and action into even the dullest stories on tight deadlines.

Smith started in broadcasting playing music at KPCW in his hometown of Park City, Utah. Although the low-power radio station at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, likes to claim him as its own.

Pages

Planet Money
12:53 am
Fri October 19, 2012

The Candidate Is Fake; The Consultants Are Real

One consultant's vision for our political ad: "I see a horse."
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed October 24, 2012 10:31 am

When our series began yesterday, we brought together five economists from across the political spectrum and had them create a platform for their dream presidential candidate. It's a platform — Get rid of a tax deduction for homeowners!

Read more
Planet Money
1:32 am
Thu October 18, 2012

A Tax Plan That Economists Love (And Politicians Hate)

The mortgage is going to cost more than you thought.
Paul Sakuma AP

Originally published on Fri October 19, 2012 10:51 am

Watching a presidential campaign, it's easy to think that the nation is deeply divided over how to fix the economy. But when you talk to economists, it turns out they agree on an enormous number of issues.

So we brought together five economists from across the political spectrum and had them create their dream presidential candidate. Over the next few days, we'll have a series of stories on our economists' dream candidate. We start this morning with some changes to the tax code.

Read more
Planet Money
4:35 am
Wed October 3, 2012

Why New York Is A Hub In The Global Trinket Trade

Lam Thuy Vo NPR

Originally published on Thu October 4, 2012 9:07 am

For more on the junk economy, see this slideshow.

There's a neighborhood in New York City that has always been a mystery to us. Smack dab in the middle of Manhattan, around 29th street, is the wholesale district. There you can find rows of narrow storefronts packed to the ceiling with trinkets. Racks and racks of fake gold chains. Acres of souvenir lighters and walls of belt buckles. Plastic, plastic, plastic toys.

Read more
Planet Money
12:16 am
Thu September 13, 2012

The Fed's Other Big Power

Give us a sign.
Alex Brandon AP

Originally published on Fri September 14, 2012 12:06 pm

We think of the power of the Federal Reserve as the power of money. After all, the Fed is the one institution that can create U.S. dollars out of thin air.

But recently, Ben Bernanke has argued that the Fed has another, critical power: the power of words. And when you're the chairman of the Fed, a few words can go a long way.

Read more
Planet Money
12:05 pm
Fri August 10, 2012

How A Pasta Factory Got People To Show Up For Work

Robert Smith NPR

Originally published on Mon August 13, 2012 8:06 am

Zoe Chace and Robert Smith are reporting from European borders this week. This story is about the unofficial border within one country — the border that divides northern and southern Italy. This is the fourth story in a four-part series.

A decade ago, the Barilla pasta factory in Foggia, Italy, had a big problem with people skipping work. The absentee rate was around 10 percent.

Read more
Planet Money
12:59 am
Fri August 10, 2012

Why Don't More Unemployed Spaniards Get Jobs In Germany?

Jobs ahead.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Mon August 13, 2012 9:22 am

Zoe Chace and Robert Smith are reporting from European borders this week. This is the third story in a four-part series.

The eurozone was supposed to create one big labor market by making it easy to cross borders for work.

But Gerhard Wiegelmann, a CEO in Stuttgart, Germany, can't find enough workers to staff his company — even with unemployment in Spain over 20 percent. He's had to turn down projects because he can't hire enough people.

Read more
Planet Money
10:45 am
Thu August 9, 2012

The Marijuana Trade In The Euro's Birthplace

Marijuana in Maastricht
Ermindo Armino AP

Originally published on Mon August 13, 2012 8:26 am

Zoe Chace and Robert Smith are reporting from European borders this week. This is the second story in a four-part series.

Maastricht, a town in the Netherlands, is known largely for two things.

  1. The treaty that created the euro was signed there.
  2. Marijuana is legal there, and it's sold at "coffee shops" around town.

This is the story of the troubled relationship between those two claims to fame.

Read more
Planet Money
1:22 am
Thu August 9, 2012

The Building That's In Two Countries At Once

Hans Hover has one foot in Germany, and one in the Netherlands.
Robert Smith NPR

Originally published on Thu August 9, 2012 12:43 pm

Zoe Chace and Robert Smith are reporting from European borders this week. This is the first story in a four-part series.

A metal strip on the floor of Eurode Business Center marks the border between Germany and the Netherlands.

On one side of the building, there's a German mailbox and a German policeman. On the other side, a Dutch mailbox and a Dutch policeman.

The building was supposed to make it easy to work in both countries. But it's also a reminder of how the European dream isn't yet a reality.

Read more
Planet Money
2:11 pm
Fri July 20, 2012

Just How Blind Are Blind Trusts, Anyway?

J.D. Pooley Getty Images

Originally published on Mon July 23, 2012 8:32 am

As Mitt Romney has faced questions about his investments and tax returns, the likely Republican presidential nominee has responded with two words of explanation: blind trust.

Romney keeps most of his wealth in a blind trust designed to prevent him from knowing exactly where his money is and what it's doing. It's a long tradition for presidents and candidates, though anyone can set one up if he wants to.

But it turns out that not all blind trusts are equally blind. Some are cast into complete and utter darkness. Others are more nearsighted.

Read more
Planet Money
9:53 am
Fri July 6, 2012

Rigging LIBOR: Banking Scandal Hits Home (Literally)

Lefteris Pitarakis AP

Originally published on Mon July 30, 2012 7:20 pm

The biggest scandal in the world right now has nothing to do with sex or celebrities. It's about an interest rate called LIBOR, or the London Interbank Offered Rate.

Most Americans probably never heard of LIBOR. When I first moved to New York, I hadn't. Back then, I could barely afford my apartment and got an adjustable rate mortgage. And so I wondered: When my rate adjusts, how will I know how much I'll be paying?

I searched through all the documents and it was right there — LIBOR. I would be paying a few percentage points above whatever LIBOR was.

Read more
Planet Money
1:16 am
Thu June 28, 2012

Going Public Is A Hassle

Meh.
Richard Drew AP

Originally published on Wed July 11, 2012 3:09 pm

Here's a classic story of how a multimillion-dollar company gets started.

A young guy named Seung Bak is on a trip to China. He gets back to his hotel room late one night and turns on the TV.

"I'm flipping through channels, and in the middle of China they are showing Korean dramas all around the clock," Bak says.

Read more
Planet Money
1:04 am
Fri May 4, 2012

Food Trucks Seek 'That Mystical Spot'

Lam Thuy Vo NPR

Originally published on Mon May 7, 2012 12:55 pm

The Rickshaw Dumpling Truck is a retired postal van, painted red and filled with Chinese dumplings. I'm riding shotgun with Kenny Lao, the van's co-owner. It's a weekday morning, and we're driving into Manhattan looking for a killer spot to set up shop for the day.

"I think there is that mystical spot in midtown that every truck owner dreams of," Lao says. "Easy parking. It's a wide sidewalk. There's no restaurant but there's lots of offices."

There are 3,000 year-round food trucks and carts competing for that mystical spot. And no one has an official place to park.

Read more
Planet Money
1:00 am
Thu April 26, 2012

On The Million-Dollar Trail Of A Mystery SuperPAC Donor

Some superPAC donors are hiding from public scrutiny.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Thu April 26, 2012 9:19 am

The superPACs raising money to support presidential candidates have few restrictions. They can accept checks for any amount.

One rule they do have: They have to reveal who donated money.

Read more
Planet Money
10:01 pm
Thu March 1, 2012

What The IRS Could Learn From Mormons

The money Mormons tithe goes to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, and then is distributed to congregations around the world.
Douglas C. Pizac AP

Many religious traditions stress the importance of charity. But Mormons are remarkable for the amount and the precision with which they give to their church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that each Mormon in good standing should tithe 10 percent of his or her income. The money goes right to church headquarters in Salt Lake City and then is distributed back to congregations around the world.

"That's written in stone, and preached from the pulpit," says Gordon Dahl, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, who is Mormon.

Read more
Planet Money
3:33 pm
Fri February 3, 2012

Who Killed Lard?

Old school.
Steve Snodgrass Flickr

Originally published on Mon February 6, 2012 9:01 am

Ron Silver, the owner of Bubby's restaurant in Brooklyn, recently put a word on his menu you don't often see anymore: lard. The white, creamy, processed fat from a pig. And he didn't use the word just once.

For a one-night-only "Lard Exoneration Dinner", Silver served up lard fried potatoes. And root vegetables, baked in lard. Fried chicken, fried in lard. Roasted fennel glazed with lard sugar and sea salt. Pies, with lard inside and out. All from lard he made himself in the kitchen.

Read more
Planet Money
2:58 pm
Fri January 27, 2012

Rethinking The Oreo For Chinese Consumers

Kraft Foods has reinvented the Oreo for Chinese consumers. It's latest offering in China: straw-shaped wafers with vanilla-flavored cream filling.
Kraft Foods

Everyone knows what an Oreo cookie is supposed to be like. It's round, black and white, and intensely sweet. Has been for 100 years. But sometimes, in order to succeed in the world, even the most iconic product has to adapt.

In China, that meant totally reconsidering what gives an Oreo its Oreoness.

At first, though, Kraft Foods thought that the Chinese would love the Oreo. Who doesn't? They launched the product there in 1996 as a clone of the American version.

Read more
Planet Money
2:50 am
Fri December 30, 2011

Coconut Water Companies Sell Image, Not Taste

godutchbaby Flickr

Originally published on Wed January 4, 2012 4:13 pm

A couple of years ago if you wanted to drink coconut water, you had to buy your own coconut, bring it to your kitchen, and start whacking away with a knife.

Today, you can find packaged coconut water in a convenience store, Wal-Mart or your friendly neighborhood yoga studio.

"I think it was a great year for coconut water, " says Alejandra Simon, an assistant manager at the Laughing Lotus yoga studio in New York City. "I can't walk down the street without seeing someone with coconut water in their hands."

Read more
Planet Money
2:28 pm
Wed November 23, 2011

Boom Town, U.S.A.

Brandi and Kaylee plan to open a truck repair shop when they graduate from high school.
Robert Smith NPR

Originally published on Wed November 23, 2011 4:12 pm

In the small-town of Elko, ambition looks like high-heel suede booties on the floor of the auto shop at the local high school.

Brandi and Kaylee look like the Olsen twins. And they're the best auto-shop students at Elko High. The girls have a plan. Everyday out the school window, they see trucks heading up to the gold mines. Day and night. So, the girls figure, why not open a truck repair shop after they graduate?

"In Elko we've been really blessed and really lucky to actually have a good economy," Kaylee says. "We can actually have our hopes and dreams."

Read more
Planet Money
10:01 pm
Thu October 13, 2011

Playing Chicken To Cut The Deficit

U.S. Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) speaks as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) listen during a hearing before the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee, also known as the supercommittee.

Alex Wong Getty Images

Originally published on Sun October 16, 2011 11:38 am

If you've ever thought that most of politics is game-playing, you're right. Political scientists often use mathematical game theory to describe how Congress works. And when they look at the current battle over how to handle the deficit, the game that comes to mind is chicken.

Steven Smith is a professor of political science at Washington University, and he says yes, Republicans and Democrats sometimes remind him of two cars driving as fast as they can toward a cliff.

Read more
Around the Nation
2:44 pm
Sat October 8, 2011

It's A Bloody Business, Being A Demon

A closer look and you'll be dinner.

Courtesy of Blood Manor

It's October, which means the country's supply of fake cobwebs is getting dangerously low.

The reason, of course, are the commercial haunted houses opening for business, filling the night with the screams of terrified teenage girls.

Wait. That's actually me — at Blood Manor in New York City. From the name, you would never guess it's on the second floor of a downtown office building. It probably used to be a hedge fund.

Read more
Reflecting On Sept. 11, 2001
10:01 pm
Thu September 8, 2011

'The Banality Of Evil': Following The Steps To Sept. 11

Ten years ago Friday morning, the men who would become the Sept. 11 hijackers were ready. They woke up on Sept. 9, 2001, in small motels along the East Coast. Their leader, Mohammed Atta, was one of the last ones on the move. He was checking in with the teams on his way to Boston.

The White House counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, was also at work that day. He was watching something happening in al-Qaida email chatter — he just didn't know what.

Read more
Planet Money
10:01 pm
Thu August 11, 2011

The Dollar Is Still Central To The Global Economy. That May Not Last.

Everybody wants some.
Phil Dokas Flickr

The U.S. economy is spooking investors. But every day, all around the world, foreign businesses are still eager to use U.S. dollars — even when their business has nothing to do with the U.S.

When South Koreans buy Chilean wine, they convert their Korean won to U.S. dollars, and send those dollars to the winery in Chile. The winery then converts the dollars into Chilean pesos. This kind of thing is routine in global trade, according to Barry Eichengreen, an economist at U.C. Berkeley.

Why not just go from won to pesos?

Read more

Pages