In 2011, my colleagues and I went on the radio show This American Life to ask a question: What is money? Ira Glass called it “the most stoner question” he had ever posed on the show. Maybe. But some stoner questions are good questions!

I liked this question so much I wrote a book about it. It’s called Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing, and it comes out today.

What counts as money (and what doesn’t) is the result of choices we make, and those choices have a profound effect on who gets more stuff and who gets less, who gets to take risks when times are good, and who gets screwed when things go bad.

I’ve been making podcasts and radio stories at Planet Money since 2010. My most recent show was about John Law, who I write about in the book. Law was a gambler and convicted murderer who escaped from prison, brought modern money to France and became incredibly wealthy -- until he destroyed the country’s economy.

Earlier in my career, I was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

In addition to answering questions about money, I’m happy to talk about Planet Money, journalism, podcasting, etc.


Thanks for the great questions!

One last thing: If you buy the book and want me to sign it, just DM me your receipt and address on twitter @jacobgoldstein. I'll send you a bookplate signed to you (or whoever) that you can stick in the book.

Comments: 182 • Responses: 20  • Date: 

CrassostreaVirginica268 karma

First, let me say that Planet Money does excellent reporting. I love the stories you choose to report on, and the interesting angles you have on them. Not to mention your sound design, writing, editing, but I'm gushing here, and I'm supposed to be asking a question...

What do you see as the future funding model for local journalism? Does it need government support?

jacobjulius183 karma

I'm glad you like Planet Money!

When I read your question about funding for local journalism I literally said "Oh, man" out loud, alone in my room.

I worked at local newspapers (shoutout Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Miami Herald), and I love them, and I don't know what the answer is for funding. Sorry.

RedeyeChillin100 karma

money good or money bad?

jacobjulius222 karma

money useful, even though money cause some problems

Empigee52 karma

How do you and your co-workers handle stories that deal with companies which fund NPR (e.g. Amazon)? What precautions do you take to avoid bias or undue influence?

jacobjulius105 karma


When we cover companies that buy underwriting on NPR, we mention that fact in our stories.

Advertising and reporting are entirely different parts of the company, and advertising never, ever tells the reporting side what to do or not do.

In my experience of working at a number of places (NPR, WSJ, etc.) journalists truly don't care about offending advertisers or making them happy. We just want to get the story right.

ShadowBlade61552 karma

Hi Jacob! Thank you so much for doing this, such a big fan of you and Planet Money!!

Another one of my favorite podcasts is Startup by Alex Blumberg. Season 1 was a raw account of him leaving NPR to start a for-profit company, largely inspired by his experience with Planet Money and the t-shirt project. Fast forward a few years and Gimlet sells to Spotify for hundreds of millions. Alex is ostensibly much more well off than he would've been in non-for-profit radio.

How was it when he left? Did he offer early positions in Gimlet to you or other Planet Money colleagues? Do you regret not getting into Gimlet at the ground floor? And more generally, do you think operating as a for-profit company contorts the mission of radio journalism?

Thank you again and looking forward to your book!

jacobjulius88 karma

I think for-profit companies can do good journalism. I also think non-profit companies can do bad journalism. What matters is the journalism, not the tax structure of the company.

Alex Blumberg is a great journalist and a wonderful human being and I am very happy for his success.

pinkdolphi36 karma

When you say you write about things that count as money (and those that don't), what is your favorite example of something not counting as money?

jacobjulius93 karma


Gold was at the center of the international financial system from the early part of the 19th century until the 1930s.

In the U.S., gold effectively stopped being money in 1933, when FDR took the country off the gold standard*. One of his advisers said it would mean "the end of Western Civilization." This was a common sentiment. But the adviser was wrong. Going off the gold standard was a great economic move that helped the U.S. start to climb out of the Depression.

I tell this story at greater length in the book, and I love it in part because it shows the way people tend to think that whatever system of money is currently in place is the only "real" way to do money, and everything else is just made up. What FDR understood is that it's all made up, and we can make up something else if we want.

*Technically the U.S. was on a half-baked gold standard until 1971, but it wasn't really the gold standard.

Togapr3333 karma

Jacob -- can you describe the differences of working at the WSJ and NPR? Also -- where do you find time between work, life, family, etc to write a book!?

jacobjulius70 karma

At both the WSJ and NPR, I managed to find a small team within a larger organization -- at the WSJ, I wrote the health blog (remember blogs?). And at NPR I work at Planet Money. I don't really like navigating big organizations, so finding small teams has been great for me.

I took a 10-month unpaid book leave from NPR to write the book. (Then I had to rewrite it after I went back to work, but that's another story.)

gumnos31 karma

Any predictions on the death of cash? Or barter? It seems that online/e-transactions and government seek to kill both.

jacobjulius87 karma

It certainly feels like cash is going away.

And yet! The amount of cash circulating in the world is actually growing even faster than the economy.


It seems like a lot of the cash is probably used for crime. It's largely hundred-dollar bills. There are more hundreds than ones! There are more than 40 hundreds in circulation for every man, woman and child in America! Where is all this money? Nobody knows! It's cash! that's the whole point!

If cash does eventually go away, that wouldn't fundamentally change the way we do money. We could have a cashless world where we still have the Federal Reserve and private banks operating basically the way they do now.

The two big things to think about in the cashless world are:

  1. Privacy. Every transaction would be trackable. (This might providing an opening for the growth of cryptocurrency.)
  2. People without bank accounts. In a cashless world, the government would need to provide debit cards or bank accounts for people who don't have a bank account.

John27109525 karma

Do you believe cryptocurrency will be the main source of money transactions in everyday businesses sometime in the future?

jacobjulius55 karma

I don't know! One thing that writing the book taught me is that money can change in ways that few people expect.

I will say that governments have almost always had a central role in money. So it's much easier to imagine government-backed digital currencies rather than truly decentralized cryptocurrencies.

Samuel-L-Chang15 karma

Will the U.S. dollar ever stop being the "world" currency? Seems that our empire is in decline, what would replace it?

jacobjulius38 karma

tl;dr: People have been wondering for a long time whether or when the dollar's dominance will end, but that end doesn't seem any closer now than it did when I started working at Planet Money 10 years ago.

When someone in, say, Brazil, buys something from someone in, say, Vietnam, they pay for it in dollars! Still! This is amazing, and it has lots of benefits for the U.S.

People used to talk about the euro replacing the dollar, but the euro crisis made that seem less likely.

The other obvious candidate is the yuan, China's currency. But China currently has lots of restrictions on money flowing in and out of the country, and for the yuan to become a global reserve currency it seems like they'd have to remove or at least significantly reduce those restrictions.

armstrmw15 karma

When switching from Healthcare reporting to financial/economics; how did you get your self up to speed and proficient on the world of economics so you sounded like you knew what you were talking about when reporting on Planet money?

jacobjulius28 karma

I read everything every day! Also talked to people and read even more when I was working on particular stories. You can learn a lot from reading the economics coverage in the business press (WSJ, FT, Economist, Bloomberg) which is generally quite good.

anditsonfire14 karma

Hello, long time fan of Planet Money and looking forward to your book.


Whatever happened to “Unbelizable” and “Delawho?”

How many Planet Money shirts do you personally own?

Do you think there would be a long run benefit to central banks solely focusing on a constant inflation rate, as opposed to balancing that with unemployment?

jacobjulius24 karma

I love the range of these three questions!

I think we had to shut down Unbeliezable and Delawho, because they were going to mess up David or Chana's taxes.

I own three Planet Money shirts! I'd offer to send you one, but they've gotten kind of ... worn.

I feel like over the last few decades, central banks have, if anything, worried too much about inflation and not enough about unemployment. Since the Fed announced its 2 percent inflation target several years ago, inflation has been under 2 percent most of the time. And unemployment was able to fall far more than the Fed expected without generating inflation.

Josy5611 karma

Do you think it would be possible to live entirely without money nowadays?

jacobjulius36 karma

I think there are two ways to live without money.

  1. Live in a very small, largely self-sufficient society with strong norms of sharing and reciprocity.
  2. Live in a society where the government takes everything everybody makes at work and redistributes everything as it (the government) sees fit.

I can't figure out how to find my way to option 1 (and I'm not sure if I'd want to), and I definitely don't want to live in option 2.

Chazmer875 karma

What if in option two it was a very advanced ai, decades off what we have now, deciding the most efficient way to distribute resources - would that change your opinion?

jacobjulius39 karma

It seems like you're describing a benevolent dictator, where the benevolent dictator happens to be ai. I'm skeptical.

Markets and money have lots of problems, and there are many settings where they are not the best way to arrange things. We shouldn't build our society entirely around markets and money.

But! Markets and money are an extroardinarily good way of aggregating the desires and preferences of billions of people, each of whom make many decisions every day based on their relative likes, dislikes and needs. That bottom-up input, from each person, is really essential.

alert_bert9 karma

Does inflation in the US exist anymore? Will the FED continue easing in perpetuity?

jacobjulius23 karma

The persistence of low inflation over the past decade or so is one of the most interesting things in money-nerd world. We had unemployment under 4 percent, rising wages, and low inflation. HOW CAN THAT EVEN HAPPEN?

There are good theories about this -- decline of unions lowers ability of workers to get raises, globalization means persistently falling prices for many goods, etc.

But it is still very, very surprising.

Nothing goes on forever, but inflation has been really low for really long.

DatBoneDoh8 karma

Speaking of money, I’d wager that the Seiko SKX is one of the best money-to-quality watches out there. Now that they are being discontinued, what is your recommendation for the next bang for your buck watch? Is there a time in the future where SKX’s will be their own form of currency?😂

All joking aside, great reporting and congratulations on the new book! I’ll definitely pick up a copy!

jacobjulius11 karma

Thanks! Those new Seiko 5 sport watches seem nice, but they just don't quite have those classic SKX vibes for me. Shoutout r/watches!

gman20936 karma

Thanks for all your work with planet money, it has improved my road trips and flights immensely.

Do you have a favorite episode?

jacobjulius16 karma

That is a hard question. There are more than 1,000 episodes!

I think my first favorite episode was How Four Drinking Buddies Saved Brazil. Chana Joffe-Walt did that episode in 2010.

These four Brazilian economists defeated a huge inflation problem by creating a new, pretend currency and then making the entire nation of Brazil believe in their made-up currency. And it worked!

aRoseBy5 karma

Here's something I've always wondered about: How are international money exchange rates established? Is it just a mutual agreement that, say, one US dollar is worth NN Chinese Yuan, or is there some impartial, automatic method to establish value?

jacobjulius12 karma

For the most part exchange rates are set on the open market. So a dollar is worth however many euros someone will pay you for it. That's the exchange rate!

This is true for most currencies -- dollars, yen, euros, Swiss francs, etc. The Chinese yuan, which you mentioned, is a bit different, because China manages the value of its currency relative to other currencies.)

notnamed5 karma

Hi Jacob!

Are there any primary sources you liked enough when researching your book that you'd recommend as deeper dives into the subject?

What other economic news/podcasts/etc do you follow?

jacobjulius8 karma

Not technically a primary source, but Liaquat Ahamed's book Lords of Finance, about central bankers and the Great Depression is ... way more interesting than that description just made it sound. It's really a great narrative history that explains how a few powerful people who thought they were acting in the public good basically caused the Great Depression.

In terms of economic news, I read the obvious stuff -- WSJ, FT, Bloomberg, Economist. Standouts include Martin Wolf at the FT (who I quote in the book) and Matt Levine, whose free Bloomberg newsletter Money Stuff is just an extraordinary thing. I quote Matt in the book, too. The blog Marginal Revolution is also very good.

In terms of podcasts, Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal's Odd Lots is good (and I'm not just saying that because I was a guest this week). I also like Conversations with Tyler, from the economist Tyler Cowen. And Freakonomics.

Bad-Extreme3 karma

I’m not really familiar with money and economy so here goes nothing:

Do you think it’d be better if the whole world just had one unified currency? Like instead of having USD, RMB and all that, we just decide on one. Also, why do we need different exchange rates and are constantly changing?

Another question, I don’t know if this is in your expertise or not, but I found another post the other day and is this ancient money or some random clay piece?

Thanks for your time! Have a good day 😁

jacobjulius23 karma

In a sense, what you are describing is what happened in Europe when they created the euro.

They said: Why do we need the franc, mark, drachma, lira, etc? Let's just have one currency!

But what they didn't entirely realize was that, when they gave up their national currencies, they were giving up part of their sovereignty.

Having your own currency allows you to adjust the money supply to suit your country's economic situation. When you give up your own currency, you lose that power.

When an economic crisis hit, that was a huge problem for the countries of southern Europe. (There's a whole chapter about this in the book!)

throwingta2 karma

Hi Jacob, does your publisher have any plans for an audiobook?

jacobjulius10 karma

Yes! Here is the audiobook, narrated by me!