NPR Watch — Planet Money’s Oil Series

Dear Planet Money,

I’ve been listening to Planet Money since the beginning, so take these comments as coming from a fan.

The oil series was interesting, more so if you are a high-schooler who loves science museums. I’m a grownup who loves science museums, so it was okay, but not much of a revelation. I did not know that they could send different fractions of oil through the pipeline – that was news to me. And I didn’t know the details of the invention of Bakelite, just the rough outlines, so that was interesting.

Planet Money made one small, but I thought revealing, mistake: when mentioning the price of gasoline, they spoke about the oddness of it being priced down to the 10th of a cent, and gave, as an example, 6/10 of a cent. But, at least in my experience (mostly in SoCal), it’s never 6/10, or 4/10, or 1/10. It’s ALWAYS 9/10 of a cent. That indicates there are forces other than the cost of the supply. Perhaps they could discuss that 9/10 of a cent one day.

It made me think, though — why make that mistake? What story does 6/10 of a cent tell that might be undercut by the price always having 9/10 of a cent tacked on?

Your show has a definite voice – “Business! Ain’t it Grand?” Even when you started out, in the depths of the Great Recession, your show refused to countenance the possibility that there might be villains, or even just people making choices that, outside of a business context, would be considered sociopathic. So it serves the story your show tells that gas is priced strictly according to the price of supply (which seems reasonable) rather than some combination of supply cost and what they can get away with, even if it’s slightly dishonest. (Of course, neighboring gas stations having quite different prices is also a clue that their pricing has an opportunistic element)

Another, perhaps inadvertent, window onto the soul of your show is the segment about the descendants of Baekeland. Their less than perfect enthusiasm for plastic isn’t linked to the serious health effects of plastic, the horrible effects of plastic on the ocean environment (see Great Pacific garbage patch), or indeed anything that Big Business could or even should do anything about… that would undercut your show’s message. Instead, it’s a kind of aesthetic issue, perhaps about littering. Of course, littering was business’s way of diverting the attention of a more environmentally-minded public away from polluters and onto themselves and their neighbors. (another clue – the insistence that the only other material for a toothbrush was sterling; wow! thanks to plastic, we can all have toothbrushes! Grand! But I think there were wooden toothbrushes too, actually)

That would be an interesting show, by the way – anti-littering crusades as a way to greenwash big businesses at the beginning of the environmental era.

Finally, your finale. You could have gone two ways: a “where do we go from here” finale, about how to go into the post-fossil fuel era, or the “where would we be without fossil fuels.” Of course you picked the latter, because even though you mention pollution and global warming, you had to show them as being the necessary (and perhaps not so terrible) cost of our wonderful progress. The “where do we go from here” narrative would be much more about the downsides of fossil fuel use.

Thanks for your podcast, though. It’s often very interesting and covers material I just can’t find elsewhere. But you might listen to the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast, specifically #82, the one about Crowds. It might illuminate for you the seeming paradox that business people are perfectly nice when you talk to them face-to-face, but are still capable, in the context of their enterprise, of actions that harm a lot of people in order to enrich their managers (if we’re lucky, their shareholders, too – but more often, I suspect, just their managers).