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.

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).

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

I recently had a brief conversation with Ronald Coase.

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

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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."

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.

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.

"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.

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.)