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Cardiff Garcia

In 1921, Sadie Alexander became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in economics. A few years later, she went to law school and became a celebrated civil rights attorney. But she never abandoned her focus on economic issues. In speech after speech, she argued that full employment — when everyone who wants a job can get one — was absolutely necessary to achieve racial equality. Today on The Indicator, Episode 1 in our multipart series about overlooked economists from the past.

One of our listeners wrote in to ask why Americans are addicted to tipping and just can't seem to quit. This is a subject near and dear to our hearts: doesn't it seem like we're tipping everywhere these days? It's a also a great behavioral economics question. Tipping is one of those conventions that defies both common sense (why do we tip for some services and not others?) - and the rules of economics (why do most people prefer restaurants that don't include fixed service charges in their prices?).

President Trump wants $8 billion to build a wall on the southern border of the U.S. Congress refused to give it to him. So he declared a national emergency, in the hope that he can use his extraordinary powers to secure funding from other parts of the government.

We love that our listeners send us email, and we read every one. We'd like to answer every letter, but we have to pick and choose. Today we answer three of the questions we've been asked by listeners lately: the first on discrimination against older workers; the second on the way that working hours are measured, and the third on whether there are enough workers in America to do all the jobs that are being created. Thanks to all of you for your questions and comments. Please do keep 'em coming!

On February 11, 1937, General Motors and the United Auto Workers union signed a landmark agreement. A union contract. The relationship with U.S. automakers and the labor movement ushered in a period of tremendous worker prosperity and union strength that lasted decades. Today, though, unions are a shadow of their former selves and are sometimes even vilified for dragging down companies and hamstringing workers. What happened? How did unions lose their mojo?

Between 1870 and 1940 — a time period that included the Second Industrial Revolution and the outbreak of Jim Crow laws — only 726 patents were filed by African-Americans. Economist Lisa Cook calculated that number would have much higher, were it not for racial discrimination and violence against African-Americans.

India's finance minister included a radical proposal in his 2019 budget: Give India's poorest farmers a guaranteed income of 6000 rupees a year (about $84). The move is probably largely political: the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, and his party have elections coming up and they need rural votes. Still, the payout would significantly increase the income of more than 100 million of India's very poorest families, so a lot of people say the handouts would be a good thing. Today on The Indicator, we look at the pros and cons of payouts.

One of the main jobs of the Federal Reserve is to keep inflation rising at about 2 percent a year (yes, a little inflation is a good thing...but that's another story). When the economy is strong, as it is right now, the Fed keeps a close eye on inflation, and it uses interest rates to keep things in line. By raising interest rates the Fed makes it more expensive to borrow, which should keep spending low and keep prices down. And vice versa.

Climate change is snowballing into more extreme weather. Between hurricanes, tornadoes, and yes, polar vortices, life on earth is becoming increasingly disrupted by weather conditions. And that can get expensive. Today on The Indicator, we look at how extreme weather can affect the economy, and what the most costly climate conditions can be.

Today on The Indicator, we answer five questions about jobs. Is the economy creating a lot of jobs each month? Is wage growth accelerating? Are the benefits of this strong labor market also being shared by low-wage workers? Are there still a lot more people who don't have a job but who would like to get a job? And, finally, are there any clouds on the horizon for the job market right now?

Music: "Alright Alright"

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Utilities in the U.S. are generally private companies regulated by government commissions. With a dedicated customer base - everyone needs water and power, right? - and government protection and oversight, utilities seemed like a safe bet for most investors.

The Congressional Budget Office is a non-partisan part of the government that provides analysis about the economy and the federal budget to Congress. One of its new reports centers on the most recent government shutdown, where 800,000 federal workers missed paychecks, and 300,000 of those workers were furloughed.

Today on The Indicator, the shutdown's direct and indirect impacts on the economy.

The World Economic Forum sounds like it should be a gathering of nerdy people in discounted suits in a mid-range hotel in an off-season resort, all standing around drinking Two-Buck Chuck and discussing wonky things like cost-benefit analysis and market-driven incentives.

Research shows students who attend elite universities are more likely to graduate, and they earn higher incomes once they're in the labor market. But low-income students are underrepresented at those universities.

So Sue Dynarski, an economist at the University of Michigan, and her collaborators conducted an experiment to encourage high school seniors from low-income families in Michigan to apply to the school. Today on the Indicator, how that played out.

The trade spat with China has meant China taxing products coming from the U.S., and the U.S. doing the same to goods coming from China. As a result, American goods cost more in China, which can hurt the people who make those goods in America. Today on The Indicator, we hear from a peanut farmer in Georgia, whose business has been hammered by a one-two punch of Chinese tariffs and a hurricane that ravaged his crops.

John Clifton Bogle — "Jack" Bogle, the founder of the Vanguard Group — passed away yesterday, at the age of 89. He was a giant in the financial industry but in a way, his legacy is not about what he did for the financial sector, but rather about the ways that he tried to prevent the financial sector from ripping people off.

On today's Indicator, Cardiff talks with Katherine Bell, the editor-in-chief of Barron's, which covered Jack Bogle's ideas and career extensively over the years, and in fact published Bogle's last major interview.

There are plenty of reasons why the U.S. economy could slip into recession within the next couple of years. There's the trade war with China, slowing economic growth, rising interest rates, dysfunction in the government, and the prospect of fading stimulus.

But what about the other side? What about the case for optimism? Economist Jared Bernstein, an old friend of the show, got in touch because he thinks we shouldn't neglect the positive economic signals that he's seeing right now.

The labor force participation rate is the percentage of adults who have a job, or who are looking for one. In the U.S., about 75% of women ages 25 to 54 participate in the workforce. That's less than men of the same age, who come in at 90%. Still, the number is a big improvement over the early 70s, when fewer than half of women were in the labor force.

Today on The Indicator, we play Overrated/Underrated with a room full of economists at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association. We ask them which economic indicators get too much attention and which indicators we should pay more attention to.

A previous version of this podcast misstated Economist Gray Kimbrough's name.

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