David Kestenbaum

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.

In his years at NPR, David has covered science's discoveries and its darker side, including the Northeast blackout, the anthrax attacks and the collapse of the New Orleans levees. He has also reported on energy issues, particularly nuclear and climate change.

David has won awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

David worked briefly on the show This American Life, and set up a radio journalism program in Cambodia on a Fulbright fellowship. He also teaches a journalism class at Johns Hopkins University.

David holds a bachelor's of science degree in physics from Yale University and a doctorate in physics from Harvard University.

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3:24am

Fri December 14, 2012
Planet Money

Why A Principal Created His Own Currency

Originally published on Fri December 14, 2012 2:43 pm

David Kestenbaum NPR

Shawn Rux took over as principal of MS 53, a New York City middle school, last year. At the time, 50 or 60 kids were absent every day. You could understand why they stayed away: The school was chaos.

Twenty-two teachers had quit, the entire office staff had quit, and hundreds of kids had been suspended. The school was given a grade of F from the city's department of education.

"It was in a bad place," Rux says.

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3:18am

Wed November 21, 2012
Planet Money

How The Government Set Up A Fake Bank To Launder Drug Money

Originally published on Tue November 27, 2012 1:18 pm

Skip Latson marks the fake opening of RHM Trust Bank.
Bill Bruton

In the early 1990s, Colombian drug cartels had a problem: They had more money than they knew what to do with.

"They were having a very difficult time with just the logistics of laundering millions and millions and millions of dollars every week," says Skip Latson, who worked for the DEA at the time.

So Latson and Bill Bruton, who was a special agent with the IRS, hatched a plan: They'd create a fake, offshore bank catering to the needs of the drug cartel.

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5:25am

Sat November 17, 2012
Planet Money

A Sequester Is A 'Jelly-Like Mass,' And Other Notes On Fiscal-Cliff Jargon

Originally published on Sat November 17, 2012 7:48 am

Charles Dharapak AP

Here's a quick rundown on three of the most impenetrable terms related to the fiscal cliff. For more, see our post, The Fiscal Cliff In Three And A Half Graphics.

1. Sequester

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4:04am

Thu November 15, 2012
Planet Money

Why Coke Cost A Nickel For 70 Years

Originally published on Mon November 19, 2012 2:04 pm

An oilcloth sign advertising Coca-Cola from 1905.
The Coca-Cola Company

Prices change; that's fundamental to how economies work.

And yet: In 1886, a bottle of Coke cost a nickel. It was also a nickel in 1900, 1915 and 1930. In fact, 70 years after the first Coke was sold, you could still buy a bottle for a nickel.

Three wars, the Great Depression, hundreds of competitors — none of it made any difference for the price of Coke. Why not?

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4:16pm

Tue November 6, 2012
Planet Money

A Hidden Safety Net, Made Visible By The Storm

Originally published on Thu November 8, 2012 4:54 pm

Shopping carts full of food damaged by Sandy await disposal at Fairway.
Seth Wenig AP

The Fairway supermarket in Red Hook, Brooklyn is the sort of place New Yorkers, accustomed to cramped spaces, talk about with amazement. It's an actual, full-size supermarket, right at the edge of New York Harbor.

It's a beautiful setting, but one that was diastrous last week, when Sandy came through.

"There were five feet of water throughout the store," Bill Sanford, the president of the company told me. "Everything was submerged."

They had to throw out dumpsters worth of food. Chicken, fish, vegetables.

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4:19am

Fri October 26, 2012
Planet Money

Energy Independence Wouldn't Make Gasoline Any Cheaper

Originally published on Fri October 26, 2012 4:05 pm

Friedemann Vogel Getty Images

Just about every president since Richard Nixon has set energy independence as a goal, and both major candidates have brought it up the current campaign.

As it turns out, there is a place, not so far from here, that has achieved energy independence: Canada.

Canada produces far more oil than it consumes. They're not dependent on the Middle East! They've got all the oil they need!

I called Stephen Gordon, a professor of economics at Université Laval in Quebec City, to ask him about what energy independence means for his nation.

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2:58pm

Thu October 4, 2012
Planet Money

The Accountant Who Changed The World

Originally published on Fri October 5, 2012 4:04 pm

Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita." href="/post/accountant-who-changed-world" class="noexit lightbox">
A page from Pacioli's math encyclopedia, Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita.
via Jane Gleeson-White

The story of the birth of accounting begins with numbers. In the 1400s, much of Europe was still using Roman numerals, and finding it really hard to easily add or subtract. (Try adding MCVI to XCIV.)

But fortunately, Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) started catching on, and with those numbers, merchants in Venice developed a revolutionary system we now call "double-entry" bookkeeping. This is how it works:

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3:25am

Fri September 28, 2012
Planet Money

He Won't Tell You His Name, But He'll Help You Hide Your Money

Originally published on Sat September 29, 2012 7:11 pm

Meet Adam Wolf*, your asset protection adviser. (*Not his real name.)
via Global Wealth Protection

We set up our shell companies. Then we wondered: What do people actually do with shell companies?

One popular use, it turns out, is what professionals call "asset protection." Ordinary people call this "hiding money."

Maybe you're a surgeon worried a patient might sue you and take everything you have. Or you want to hide money from your ex (or your soon-to-be ex).

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3:32am

Thu September 20, 2012
Planet Money

Insurance Companies Send Out Rebate Checks; Economists Get Nervous

Originally published on Thu September 20, 2012 5:41 pm

iStockphoto.com

Nearly 13 million Americans have gotten, or will soon be getting, rebates from their health insurance companies. This is because of a provision in the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) that's supposed to force insurance companies to run better.

But while the idea of getting a check from your health insurance company may sound great, some economists worry this rule could actually make health insurance more expensive.

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2:50pm

Fri September 14, 2012
Planet Money

Even If You're All-Powerful, It's Hard To Fix The Economy

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 2:43 pm

This guy lives in a computer. Can you get him a job?
Walt Disney Pictures The Kobal Collection

The world inside Mark Zandi's computer model feels pretty familiar. It's full of people who are worried about the economy. Their homes are being foreclosed on. They're paying more for gas. Something like 13 million of them can't find jobs.

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3:42pm

Mon August 27, 2012
Planet Money

A Father Of High-Speed Trading Thinks We Should Slow Down

Originally published on Tue August 28, 2012 3:54 pm

Thomas Peterffy, shown here in 2010
Brendan Smialowski Getty Images

First, three stories from Thomas Peterffy's life as a trader:

Story #1:

When Peterffy was a kid growing up in communist Hungary in the 1950s his buddy went to Austria and brought back a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. Peterffy bought the pack, broke the sticks of gum up into little pieces, and sold them at a profit. The principal at his school was not amused. "Where's your communist conscience?" the principal asked.

Not surprisingly, given story #1, Peterffy moved to the U.S. as a young man.

Story #2:

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4:03pm

Fri July 27, 2012
Planet Money

Losing With LIBOR: One Trader's Story

Originally published on Fri July 27, 2012 6:02 pm

London-based Barclays Bank agreed to pay a $453 million fine over charges it manipulated the London Interbank Offered Rate — LIBOR — a key global interest rate.
Oli Scarff Getty Images

We've been talking a lot lately about what's been dubbed the "LIBOR rate fixing scandal," where some of the biggest banks in the world have been accused of manipulating a key global interest rate.

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3:06am

Thu July 5, 2012
Planet Money

The Farmer And The Commerce Clause

Originally published on Thu July 5, 2012 10:25 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court, 70 years after rejecting Roscoe Filburn's bid to limit the federal government's power to regulate commerce.
Chip Somodevilla Getty Images

Last week's Supreme Court ruling on the health care law might have made Roscoe Filburn a little happier.

Filburn was an Ohio dairy farmer who had a beef with the federal government, one he took to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1942. He lost.

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1:30pm

Tue May 8, 2012
Planet Money

Nobel Laureate: 'I've Been Wrong So Often, I Don't Find It Extraordinary At All'

Originally published on Wed May 9, 2012 7:07 pm

"I'm 101 at the moment," Ronald Coase said.
University of Chicago

I recently had a brief conversation with Ronald Coase.

"I'm 101 at the moment," he told me. "I get older by the minute."

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2:49am

Fri April 27, 2012
Planet Money

When Should A Country Abandon Its Own Money?

Originally published on Mon May 7, 2012 12:16 pm

Enough already with the krona?
Jesse Garrison Flickr

Iceland is a tiny nation in a big financial mess. It's still recovering from the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis, which caused a domestic banking collapse.

Its currency, the krona, is also in really bad shape. That's led Icelanders to pose an existential currency question: Should they abandon the krona?

One key problem is size. Iceland has about as many people as Staten Island, so there just aren't that many people on the planet who need to use the krona.

"There are more people using Disney dollars," says Arsaell Valfells, an Icelandic economist.

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4:56am

Thu March 22, 2012
Planet Money

From Abe Lincoln To Donald Duck: History Of The Income Tax

Originally published on Fri March 23, 2012 9:02 am

U.S. Treasury Department/Walt Disney

The story of how the U.S. wound up with the income tax is the story of two wars, a Supreme Court justice on his death bed, and Donald Duck.

It's also the story of how the government overcame three obstacles.

Obstacle No. 1: Logistics

How do you make sure people pay?

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12:01am

Thu March 15, 2012
Planet Money

China's Giant Pool Of Dollars

Originally published on Thu March 15, 2012 11:08 am

There is an advantage to strengthening the currency for people in China: It makes their imports cheaper. A clerk counts bank notes in a bank in Nantong, east China's Jiangsu Province.
Xinhua /Landov

China's central bank is sitting on a giant pool of U.S. dollars. It's the world's biggest holder of foreign reserves, worth over $3 trillion at last count.

All that money has piled up because every year, China exports more than it imports; it runs a trade surplus.

There are lots of reasons for China's trade surplus. In the past few decades, China has built an amazing manufacturing ecosystem. It's become the factory to the world.

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3:38pm

Mon February 27, 2012
Planet Money

From Cell Phones To Cigarettes: The Long Arm Of The Chinese Government

How many government-owned businesses do you see in this picture?
Ed Jones AFP/Getty Images

The streets of Beijing and Shanghai feel like an entrepreneurial free-for-all, full of mom-and-pop stores and street vendors selling snacks and cheap toys.

But when you pull back the curtain, you see a different picture: a country where the government still controls huge swaths of the economy.

When you're in China, there's a good chance you're doing business with the government every time you:

  • make a call on your cellphone (the government owns the country's biggest cellphone network)
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12:00pm

Thu February 16, 2012
Planet Money

Is China An Economic Miracle, Or A Bubble Waiting To Pop?

Originally published on Fri February 17, 2012 12:18 pm

This can't go on forever.
Jacob Goldstein NPR

China's economy sailed through the financial crisis unscathed — at least in the short run.

When the global crisis hit, the country's government-owned banks started lending out lots more money. The money came largely from the savings accounts of ordinary Chinese people. It went largely to finance big construction projects, which helped keep China's economy growing.

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11:55am

Fri January 20, 2012
Planet Money

The Secret Document That Transformed China

Originally published on Fri January 20, 2012 9:03 pm

Yen Jingchang was one of the signers of the secret document.
Jacob Goldstein NPR

In 1978, the farmers in a small Chinese village called Xiaogang gathered in a mud hut to sign a secret contract. They thought it might get them executed. Instead, it wound up transforming China's economy in ways that are still reverberating today.

The contract was so risky — and such a big deal — because it was created at the height of communism in China. Everyone worked on the village's collective farm; there was no personal property.

"Back then, even one straw belonged to the group," says Yen Jingchang, who was a farmer in Xiaogang in 1978. "No one owned anything."

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4:01pm

Mon January 9, 2012
Planet Money

People Want More Coins, That's A Good Sign For The Economy

Originally published on Wed January 11, 2012 5:40 pm

Demand for quarter, dimes, nickels, and pennies was up this year.
AP

All the instability in the global economy this year has been good for the United States Mint. People in search of a safe place to put their money have been buying gold and silver coins in record numbers.

"Precious metal coins were up $800 million dollars last year and that's approximately thirty some percent," says Richard Peterson, deputy director of the Mint.

According the the Mint's annual report, they sold 45.2 million ounces of gold and silver coins in 2011.

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12:01am

Mon November 21, 2011
Planet Money

Why A New York Cheese Buyer Hangs On The Euro's Fate

Aaron Foster, with cheese.
David Kestenbaum NPR

Among the chilly aisles at Murray's Cheese Shop in Manhattan, the entire continent of Europe is represented. Something like 60 percent of the cheese in Murray's comes from the continent, according to Aaron Foster, a cheese buyer at the store.

For all the talk about how the European debt crisis is effecting the global economy, it can be hard to connect it with daily life here in the U.S. Here's one link: Aaron Foster's bonus depends on how cheaply he can buy cheese from Europe. And the price of that cheese is driven largely by the strength (or weakness) of the euro.

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2:44pm

Thu November 10, 2011
Planet Money

Leaving The Euro Is Hard To Do

Originally published on Thu November 10, 2011 7:32 pm

A one-crown note from the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Wikimedia Commons

"I don't want the euro to fall apart," says Simon Wolfson.

Lots of people don't want the euro to fall apart. But Wolfson feels compelled to say so because he's offering a $400,000 prize for figuring out how to dismantle the euro.

Wolfson — aka Lord Wolfson of Aspley Guise — is the CEO of a big retailer called NEXT. He has argued against the UK joining the euro, but his company has stores all around the euro zone.

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12:59pm

Thu October 20, 2011
Planet Money

What If We Paid Off The Debt? The Secret Government Report

Originally published on Fri October 21, 2011 9:14 pm

This Feb. 1, 2010, file photo shows the National Debt Clock in New York.

Mark Lennihan AP

Planet Money has obtained a secret government report outlining what once looked like a potential crisis: The possibility that the U.S. government might pay off its entire debt.

It sounds ridiculous today. But not so long ago, the prospect of a debt-free U.S. was seen as a real possibility with the potential to upset the global financial system.

We recently obtained the report through a Freedom of Information Act Request. You can read the whole thing here. (It's a PDF.)

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12:01am

Mon September 12, 2011
Planet Money

The Return Of Toxie

Stephen Neary/Connie Li Chan/Robin Arnott

Last year, as part of a reporting project, we bought a toxic asset — one of those complicated financial instruments that that nearly brought down the global economy.

We spent $1000 of our own money and bought a tiny slice of a bond backed by mortgages. We paid just a fraction of what it originally cost. It was such a good deal, we thought maybe we'd make a few bucks, which we'd give to charity.

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12:01am

Wed August 24, 2011
Planet Money

What Is Bitcoin?

The U.S. has the dollar. Japan has the yen. Now some people are trying to invent a new currency that's not tied to any country or government. It's called bitcoin.

Bitcoin is a lot like cash — for the online universe. It doesn't actually exist in the physical world. You can't hold bitcoins in your hand because they just live on computers and the Internet.

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12:01am

Fri August 19, 2011
Planet Money

A Big Bridge In The Wrong Place

Why the long bridge?
Stuart Ramson AP

You would never look at a map of the Hudson River, point to the spot where the Tappan Zee Bridge is, and say, "Put the bridge here!"

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