Transcript

366:

A Better Mousetrap 2008
Transcript

Originally aired 10.10.2008

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/366

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Andy's grandfather ran the business, then his father ran the business. They make mousetraps. Victor brand mousetraps with a big red V on them. But also glue traps and electric traps and those humane catch-and-release things and traps that only professionals use. Andy's in charge of the part of the company that develops the new products, and the job suits him. I called him in his office.

Andy Woolworth

I remember coming out here on Saturdays when I was very young and seeing the mousetraps being made and just being intrigued by the business.

Ira Glass

So I understand that, because you guys are the number one mousetrap company in the world, people pitch you ideas on how to make a better mousetrap, right?

Andy Woolworth

All the time.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you to just talk about some ones that were especially bad?

Andy Woolworth

Oh, my. One that we rejected was one that is basically like a pail that, in essence, the mouse can run up the side of up a stairway and then, between one side of the bucket and the other, there's a dowel. And in the middle of it a little cup of bait. So they run across the dowel and once they get to the cup, it turns over and spills them--

Ira Glass

Into the bucket.

Andy Woolworth

Into a pail of-- and since they wanted to be environmentally friendly, a pail of antifreeze that was environmentally friendly.

Ira Glass

Wait. Wait. What?

Andy Woolworth

Right, and I believe that the antifreeze would also keep the scent problem down of a dead rodent. You might have a whole 20 drowned mice in this thing. I mean, incredibly ingenious and very clever.

Ira Glass

So you think that actually could work?

Andy Woolworth

Oh, it does work.

Ira Glass

It does work, but it's not the sort of thing that you think many people are going to want to buy.

Andy Woolworth

Right. Right. People really don't want a pail-- to end up with-- I mean, having a dead mouse for a lot of people's a problem. Having a dead mouse in a pail of antifreeze and dumping it out-- or, in this case, having maybe six or seven-- just is not commercially, in our opinion, a great opportunity.

I mean, people are incredibly creative. I mean, I've got a book of patents that were just from the late 80s to, like, 1950 and there are thousands and thousands of tanks and cages, all sorts of weird looking shaped boxes and things that look like medieval torture chambers.

Ira Glass

Can you tell me one where you totally admired the ingenuity, but you just thought, no way?

Andy Woolworth

Yeah, I sure will. This one is alarming in its ingenuity. A mouse went into a little box area and when it nibbled at the bait, the door shut behind them. OK, nothing too abnormal about that. But it dropped a pill into a little bit of water and the pellet dropped into water and it gave off a gas that killed them. It would die of carbon monoxide poisoning. In other words, it went into a gas chamber.

Ira Glass

And was this ever sold anywhere?

Andy Woolworth

In Germany.

Ira Glass

Oh, come on.

Andy Woolworth

I am not kidding.

Ira Glass

I'm sitting here literally stunned. As a Jewish person, I actually am stunned.

Andy Woolworth

I was horrified. We didn't think that had very good commercial viability in the United States. And we were kind of surprised that it was available, that people were trying to market it in Germany.

Ira Glass

So with all of these people trying to invent a better mousetrap, the dirty secret of trapping mice is mice are really easy to catch. That's why every inventor thinks that he can do it. Catching a mouse is basically playing against a casino where you always win.

The regular, old-fashioned, cheap, little mousetrap, Andy says, will usually catch the mouse in 24 to 48 hours. It will kill it 88% of the time. Other traps that aren't much more expensive have 100% lethality. Mice are easy to kill because mice, unlike rats, are incredibly inquisitive animals.

Andy Woolworth

They investigate anything that's new, anything that's in their normal territory for the evening. And that's typically-- most people don't know this but most mice only stay within 10 feet of where they are, max. And oftentimes it's less than that. And they may investigate that area 30 times during the night. They're not just kind of going out once.

Ira Glass

Well, in a way, what you're describing is almost the ideal animal to be caught.

Andy Woolworth

Exactly.

Ira Glass

So the problem for the mousetrap inventor is the world doesn't need a better mousetrap. You know that old saying, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat its way to your door?" Not true. Andy makes a traditional mousetrap that sells two for $0.99. It does the job just fine. But most inventors never understand this.

Andy Woolworth

Well, they are always persistent. Whether it's letters or phone calls or stopping here, they are passionate about their idea and are so disappointed when we turn them down.

Ira Glass

Like, they can't believe it.

Andy Woolworth

They can't believe it.

Ira Glass

Because for them, there's the magic of the moment of invention, right? Like, they actually came up with a new idea.

Andy Woolworth

That's right.

Ira Glass

And it turns out that's just not enough in this cold, cold world.

Andy Woolworth

It's very hard. It's their baby. Again, they have nurtured this thing.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, we have four stories of inventions in a world that doesn't always need or want new ideas. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

We have four stories of ingenuity and heartbreak for you. Act One of our show today, "Mother of Invention," in which we look at an experimental child rearing technique, whose effectiveness you can judge for yourself. Act Two, "Financial Mousetrap," in which we return to our ongoing coverage of the economic crisis, a place where Wall Street invented all kinds of stuff and it turned out the world would have been better off without a lot of it. Act Three, "Everything Must Go," in which a man tries to solve the problem posed by big plastic bags of US currency. Act Four, "The Not-For-Profit Motive." Our own Alex Blumberg explains what happens when our government has to reinvent itself as a bank, and not necessarily a successful bank. Stay with us.

Act One. Mother Of Invention.

Ira Glass

Act One, "Mother of Invention." So we start with somebody inventing a new way to do something in an area of life where you might not think there could be any new ways to do anything left. Karen Sosnoski tells the story. Her son, Anton, was born with Mosaic Down Syndrome, which is this very rare form of Down Syndrome. Essentially, some of his cells have the extra chromosome that causes Down Syndrome. And the other cells don't.

So as he grows, he could actually end up having all the health risks and challenges of Down Syndrome, or very few of them. There's no way to know. Some kids with MDS look totally normal, but then have all kinds of learning disabilities. Others have all the physical features of a person with Down Syndrome, but then have a high IQ. It's a diagnosis that's so vague, it can drive a parent crazy. And Karen had no idea what the diagnosis would mean for her son's future.

So she started doing some research. She found a Mosaic Down Syndrome website. And on that website, she started reading about a boy named Tim. A boy who, in a bunch of different ways, was not what she was expecting. And whose mom had invented a radical way of dealing with the diagnosis, something Karen had never heard of. Here she is.

Karen Sosnoski

Tim was 13 when I first saw his picture on the Internet. He had geeky, blunt cut bangs and a wide, innocent smile. He had the same diagnosis as my son, Anton, but he had the happy face of an ordinary boy. And when I looked at this photo, my heart raced with hope. Here was a kid I could imagine as my own. a late bloomer, his mom wrote, but so what? He had hobbies and friends. He was a book worm like I am.

To be honest, Tim's bio made me feel less guilty about Anton. Part of me blamed myself for what had happened. Everyone knew advanced maternal age was a major risk factor for having a baby with Down Syndrome, and here I'd waited until 40 to have him. But maybe if I played my cards absolutely right from here on in, he could still turn out just fine.

Tim's mother, Kristy, was kind of like a role model for me. She founded an international support group for parents of kids with Mosaic Down Syndrome. She wanted us to be sure the world gave them a fair shake, and I liked this. But to make this happen for her own son, she did something I could never have imagined, something that shocks people every time I tell them.

For years, she kept her son's diagnosis a secret. She didn't tell his teachers, she didn't tell her neighbors, and, most incredibly, for the first 14 years of his life, she didn't tell Tim. I first heard Kristy talk about her secret at a conference. Then a couple months ago, I left my one-year-old son Anton for the first time and traveled down to Texas to find out more from Kristy and Tim.

How had Tim turned out so well? How much of it was because she'd kept his diagnosis a secret? She told me she didn't start off planning to deceive anyone. When Tim started kindergarten, Kristy did what most parents do. She didn't keep his disability a secret. She explained to the teachers that he had Mosaic Down Syndrome, she asked the teachers to treat him like any other kid, and she crossed her fingers. But it didn't work out as she'd planned. This is Kristy.

Kristy Colvin

I know one time I went in there to visit the classroom and all the little children are sitting up in their nice little story time circle, and he's laying in the middle of the carpet, rolling around and laying around. And I asked the teacher, I said, why is he laying when everyone else is sitting down? And she said, well, he likes to do that and we just want to make him happy. And so, it was because he had Mosaic Down Syndrome.

And so I knew then, maybe it's not a good idea for everybody to know because they're going to make excuses for him. And I wanted him, more than anything, to just be as normal as normal is, to have the same opportunities that everyone else had. So the next year, when school began, I didn't tell his teacher.

And then we thought, you know, if he knows that he has Mosaic Down Syndrome, he's going to use that for a crutch, big time. So we decided, you know, we're just not going to tell him until he gets a little bit older.

Karen Sosnoski

Which could get kind of complicated. She had to talk behind Tim's back and over his head. She had to tell family members never to mention Tim's condition in front of him.

Kristy Colvin

And it's OK if you people know it, but I don't want him to know it. I turned into a tricky person.

Karen Sosnoski

Were there times when you were tempted to tell him?

Kristy Colvin

One time stands out really, really deeply in my mind. He was around 10 years old. And he had a little tree house, and all the kids would come over to be in his tree house with him. And this one little boy in our neighborhood had Down Syndrome.

And I looked outside. All the kids are playing, and Tim pushed this little boy down. And I was, like, no, you don't push him down. That's not nice, you know.

And I made him come inside and I said, why did you push this little boy down? And he goes, I don't like him. He looks different. That crushed me. That crushed me.

And I said, well, why don't you like him? Just because he looks different? Everybody looks different. And he said, no, he talks funny. I don't like him. And I wanted so much at that point to say, don't you know that you have the same chromosomes as him.

Tim Colvin

When I was a lot younger, I used to think that because I was different that made me-- because I was different, I thought maybe I was from another world. That I was an alien or something.

Karen Sosnoski

This is Tim. He's almost 20 now but he doesn't look much older than his picture at 13. It's not super obvious that he has a medical condition, but if you're at all tuned into Down Syndrome, you could probably guess. His eyes have those extra folds and he talks in a slow, careful way like he's having to work to shape his words.

Academically, though, Tim blows any stereotypes about Down Syndrome out of the water. His IQ is 110, higher than the national average. He got A's and B's with no special help at a mainstream school.

But by junior high, Tim was starting to have a hard time fitting in with other kids. He would do weird things like burp, or rock on his heels in class. He'd say inappropriate things, like the time he got so excited about a slasher movie that he confused himself with the main character. "I started shooting people," he told the kids at his lunch table. As you can imagine, he didn't make a lot of friends this way.

Tim Colvin

All I knew was that I was different because people were bothering me all the time.

Karen Sosnoski

Can you give an example?

Tim Colvin

Insults, being picked on, teased, hazing, if you know what that is.

Kristy Colvin

Tim started realizing that there was something different about him. And when Tim was around 12 years old, we were on our way to the grocery store and I was driving and Tim was sitting in the front seat next to me. And we hadn't been talking at all. I mean, the radio's going, you know. We're not talking to each other. And all of a sudden--

Tim Colvin

I asked my mom, do I have a medical problem that you don't want to tell me about because you think I'm not mature enough to handle it?

Kristy Colvin

We pulled over at the park and I stopped the car and I looked at him and I said, why do you want to know this? And he said, well, you know, you know, I just know that I'm different.

Karen Sosnoski

But she couldn't bring herself to tell him the truth. She didn't know if Tim was ready and she didn't feel ready. She said nothing.

Kristy Colvin

I was really, really-- probably lost some sleep over it. Because I kept going back and forth with, have I done the right thing keeping this from him? But at that time I wasn't sure.

No matter how hard I tried to, you know, make his world so great still kids picked on him. And so as years progressed-- one day he came home-- and he was about 14-- and he said, Mom, I feel like I'm the only person in the whole world that has the same problems as me. And it just broke my heart. My husband came home from work that night and I said, you know, we're going to have to probably pretty soon tell him.

Karen Sosnoski

But they didn't. For another six whole months. It seemed so difficult. Here Kristy had to tell Tim that she'd kept the fundamental truth about his identity from him for most of his life. What's more, it seemed that her efforts to protect him might have actually made things worse.

Kristy Colvin

I think that we just worried how he was going to react. We didn't know how he was going-- we didn't know what to expect, at all, whatsoever. We didn't know if he would be happy or mad or sad or what. We just didn't know what to expect at all. And so, I think, that was our main worry.

So we sat down on the couch. My husband tried to leave. And so Tim comes in from his bedroom and sits down and I said, we've got something to tell you. And he said, what? I said, remember how a while back you asked me if you had a medical problem that I didn't want you to know about? And he said, yes. And I said, do you remember when you said you felt like you're the only person in the whole world that had the problems that you had? And he said, yes.

Tim Colvin

She told me I had Mosaic Down Syndrome. I don't know her exact words, but that's what she said.

Karen Sosnoski

What came into your mind when she told you that?

Tim Colvin

Storm, Cyclops, Rogue, X-Men.

Karen Sosnoski

Why did X-Men come into your mind?

Tim Colvin

Because the X-Men are mutants, genetic. They gain those genetic problems, and that's what I felt like. I felt like an X-Men. And I thought that was kind of cool.

Karen Sosnoski

And just like that, the truth was out. Ironically, what happened next was exactly the opposite of what Kristy had feared. Tim didn't seem angry. He didn't stop trying in school. The diagnosis actually made him more conscious of his strange behaviors, like the rocking on his heels, so he could work harder at controlling them.

Mostly he was relieved. He'd spent so many years feeling like there was something wrong with him that finding out there was wasn't so bad.

In his junior year, Tim came out to his classmates during a presentation on genetics. After that, the kids started cutting him some slack. He wasn't the weird kid anymore. He was the kid with that Mosaic Down thing and you couldn't blame him for that.

Kristy Colvin

So that was a real big turning point. He got a bunch of friends, real friends. And it was our first time to have real friends. And then these three big teenage boys came back to our house to spend the night. Never had such a thing. I mean, never.

And so they're going to spend the night. And so we've got all these boys and I'm going, we've got to make popcorn. We've got to watch movies. After I got them settled, I came in the bedroom and I bawled my head off. Because it was just so wonderful. I mean, it was-- in fact, it was like 10:30 at night and I'm calling my mother, I have teenage boys in the house.

Karen Sosnoski

You would think given how things turned out Kristy might have had some regrets about waiting so long to tell Tim the truth. I kept waiting for her to crack or something during our interview, to admit she'd made a mistake, but she didn't, and frankly, I was relieved.

I don't want to cast judgment on Kristy. Tim's a great kid. Whether that's because of what Kristy did or in spite of it, I don't think anyone can say. And anyway, Kristy and Tim have moved on to other issues, like teaching Tim how to balance a checkbook, how to drive, how to get ready to live on his own. And from Tim's point of view, Kristy's got her own learning to do.

Tim Colvin

My mom is being a control freak right now. I'm going to be 20 this May. It's time I started to be a bit more independent.

Karen Sosnoski

How will you have to change to be more independent?

Tim Colvin

When I leave this house, I plan to never wash dishes again.

Karen Sosnoski

Who's going to wash them?

Tim Colvin

My wife. [LAUGHS] I'm kidding. I'll have the kids do it. [LAUGHS]

Karen Sosnoski

It's funny or maybe just typical. Tim's critical of his mom, but when I ask him how he thinks I should raise Anton, his advice to me is to do just what she did. Let people get to know Anton first before you tell them anything, Tim says to me. Tell Anton when he's a teenager, when he's old enough to handle it.

I know I probably won't do this. After all, Kristy's secrecy didn't protect Tim from pain, which is what I want for my son. So I'm back to square one with no trick to give Anton the perfect future, any more than I could give him those perfect chromosomes. And like any other parent, I'm waiting to see who my son becomes.

Ira Glass

Karen Sosnoski. She's working on a book called, Love in the Time of Brain Tumors.

[MUSIC - "I KNOW WHO I AM" BY BUNNY RUGS]

Act Two. Financial Mousetrap.

Ira Glass

Act Two, "Financial Mousetrap." As you've probably heard by now, over the last few years the mortgage industry and the banking industry have been places that were rife with invention. People coming up with all kinds of better mousetraps, subprime mortgages and credit default swaps, and novel kinds of mortgage backed securities, all of which has sent the world's economy into a tailspin these last few weeks.

As part of our ongoing coverage of that mess, we now turn to the politics of all this. Last week on our radio show, we debunked an idea you hear a lot from Democrats these days. That this financial mess can be blamed entirely on Republicans deregulating financial markets. Today we take a look at the other side of the aisle.

This past week it seems to have actually hardened into a point of Republican dogma that the whole financial mess can be blamed on the Democrats. On Wednesday of this past week, I attended a McCain Palin rally in Lehigh, Pennsylvania. And I was amazed that nearly every person I talked to in this Republican crowd was quite certain who the culprits were behind our whole financial mess.

Woman

The liberal Democrats in the House encouraged and supported the notion that banks should be providing loans to people who couldn't afford them in inner city, wherever--

Man

They saw McCain and Bush coming through with the regulations and they refused to do anything about it. Barney Frank said, no, it's OK. No problem. This is running great. And here we are today.

Ira Glass

In this Republican version of the bailout story, there was a pivotal moment in 2005 when Republicans could have prevented a lot of the mess that we're in now, where they tried to regulate, where they tried to fix it, but the Democrats stopped them.

And the key to the whole crisis, they say, was the mortgage companies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They say Fannie and Freddie are at the center of the whole thing. Here's John McCain at the second presidential debate on Tuesday.

John Mccain

Really the match that lit this fire was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I'll bet you you may never even have heard of them before this crisis. But, you know, they're the ones that with the encouragement of Senator Obama and his cronies and his friends in Washington that went out and made all these risky loans, gave them to people that could never afford to pay back--

Ira Glass

So let's just start with the question, did the subprime crisis start with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

Charles Duhigg

Absolutely not. The subprime crisis did not start with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Ira Glass

This is Charles Duhigg who covers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and other parts of the subprime crisis for the New York Times. He says that it was not Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac but Wall Street, international investors, brokers, and banks who created and popularized subprime mortgages. Fannie and Freddie didn't get involved in a serious way until relatively late.

Charles Duhigg

This huge subprime economy had built. Wall Street came in and they said, we're going to basically buy any loan that anyone can make. And Fannie and Freddie at that point started losing a lot of their market share. So they started competing against Wall Street for worse and worse and riskier and riskier loans. And that, in turn, further fueled the growth of this thing.

So what started out as a kind of small brush fire that was worrisome was fanned, over time, into a huge, huge blaze. And Fannie and Freddie were an important part of fanning that, but they didn't create the subprime economy. They weren't the single greatest input to the subprime economy. They were part of the problem.

Ira Glass

Nonetheless, Republicans say that if they'd been allowed to regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac back in 2005, as they'd wanted, it would have prevented much of the current mess.

John Mccain

I was the one-- I was the one who called at the time for tighter restrictions on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that could have helped prevent this crisis, that could have helped prevent from happening in the first place and Senator Obama was silent on the regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And his Democratic allies in Congress opposed every effort to rein them in.

Ira Glass

So, Charles, what are they talking about? What did Republicans try to do a couple of years ago?

Charles Duhigg

So in 2005, a couple of Republicans introduced legislation that would have placed greater restrictions on Fannie and Freddie. It would have empowered the regulator to basically have a tighter hold on them.

Now what's important to keep in mind is John McCain didn't actually sponsor that legislation initially. He came to it kind of, you know, months and months after it had been introduced and after a big report had come out, saying that Fannie and Freddie are terrible companies. Everyone was kind of jumping on and John McCain jumped on to co-sponsor the legislation.

People we've interviewed in the Senate have said that John McCain was never a big bugaboo on Fannie or Freddie, but he did co-sponsor the legislation. He deserves some credit for that.

The 2005 legislation would have essentially done two things. First of all, it would have cut the number of loans that Fannie and Freddie can hold for themselves, so it would have avoided part of the problem that Freddie is having right now. And, theoretically, it might have caused Fannie and Freddie to stop buying so many risky loans, but that's not a guarantee.

In fact, it would have been completely up to the regulator. And the regulator who's holding the position right now is a man named James Lockhart. In the past year-- and he was a Bush appointee. In the past year, he actually helped Fannie and Freddie buy more and more riskier loans. Because Congress, over the past year, started asking Fannie and Freddie to buy risky loans because they thought that would help the economy.

Ira Glass

Right now it's a part of a Republican orthodoxy, it seems, that if we had fixed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2005, we wouldn't be in the crisis we're in today. Is that true?

Charles Duhigg

That's absolutely not true. So if we had fixed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2005, the crisis might be different and it might be slightly less, but the crisis would absolutely still be here.

Ira Glass

Another thing that's come up as a political talking point is the question of who associated with who. And Senator McCain said in Pennsylvania this week that executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have advised Senator Obama.

John Mccain

The executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have advised him and he's taken their money for his campaign. In fact, he's received more money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac than any other senator in history, with the exception of the chairman of the committee overseeing them.

Ira Glass

The McCain Campaign also has an ad linking Barack Obama to an executive at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Woman

Obama has no background in economics. Who advises him? The Post says it's Franklin Raines for advice on mortgage and housing policy. Shocking. Under Raines, Fannie Mae committed extensive financial fraud. Raines made millions. Fannie Mae collapsed. Taxpayers? Stuck with the bill. Barack Obama. Bad advice. Bad instincts. Not ready to lead.

Ira Glass

Franklin Raines.

Charles Duhigg

Right. Which is based on-- apparently Barack Obama and Franklin Raines once bumped into each other at some type of get-together. What Barack Obama has said is that they had one conversation, very briefly, once. So it's a little disingenuous to say that Franklin Raines was an adviser to Barack Obama.

Now that being said, if you're following the money trail, if you want to say who's taken less or more money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Barack Obama-- it is absolutely true-- is the second highest recipient of lobbying dollars from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Now the reason why what John McCain is saying is a little disingenuous is because his campaign manager-- John McCain's campaign manager-- a guy named Rick Davis, was a lobbyist for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and took over $2 million from them in lobbying fees to run this group that they had put together to try and fight back against more regulation. And, in fact, although Rick Davis left his firm when he joined the McCain campaign, his firm, that he still owns a part in, was receiving payments from Freddie Mac until earlier this year.

Ira Glass

Until earlier this year or just until a month or two ago?

Charles Duhigg

Right. Yeah. Yeah. I think it ended in August. I'm not certain of exactly the date. And, in fact, I worked on the story breaking that. And what they said, the reason why Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were paying Rick Davis-- John McCain's campaign manager-- is because they wanted access to John McCain. They thought that maybe he'd become President some day and so it would be good to be friends with the guy who's one of his closest aides.

Ira Glass

In general, Charles Duhigg says, it's true that Republicans have tried to rein in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae for years. And it's true that, in general, Democrats have urged Fannie and Freddie to take on more loans and riskier loans and push for loose spending and low interest rates that led to the housing boom. And it's also true that Republicans fought regulation of the financial markets. But he says, none of that gets to the overall truth of what happened.

Charles Duhigg

To say that either party had great foresight is completely untrue.

Ira Glass

So the blame for this is bipartisan.

Charles Duhigg

The blame for this is absolutely bipartisan. Both parties deserve a great deal of blame for what happened with the subprime mess and to try and pin the blame on one party or the other really muddies the issue. A crisis like what's going on right now can't develop without everyone fueling it.

I mean, we're looking at the biggest crisis in a century. That only happens when basically everyone drops the ball. So there's enough blame to give to both parties here. When it comes down to specific individuals, some individuals deserve a lot more blame than others. And the Times is sepending a couple weeks basically trying to point our fingers at who deserves that blame.

Ira Glass

And when you are looking at people who are especially good or especially bad, were Barack Obama and John McCain, either of them, especially great or especially terrible?

Charles Duhigg

No. Barack Obama cares about a whole bunch of other things than Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and subprime. John McCain cares about a whole bunch of things besides Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and subprime. They spent most of their careers talking about things besides Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and subprime. This just wasn't a big issue for them.

Ira Glass

Charles Duhigg of the New York Times. On Friday, the McCain Campaign released a brand new ad that they say will run nationally linking Democrats to the financial crisis. It's along the lines that we've talked about. The ad says, "Congressional liberals fought for risky subprime loans. Congressional liberals fought against more regulation. Then the housing market collapsed, costing you billions."

Man

Regulators. We regulate any stealing of his property. We're damn good, too. But you can't be any geek off the street. You've got to be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean, to earn your keep. Regulators, mount up.

[MUSIC - "REGULATORS" BY WARREN G]

Ira Glass

Coming up, the underground economy comes up with its own plan to lose lots and lots of money and in their case it means cash money. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Make a Better Mousetrap. We have stories of people trying to make inventions in the face of a world that does not care, does not necessarily need or want what they're making. We've arrived at Act Three of our show.

Act Three. Everything Must Go.

Ira Glass

Act Three, "Everything Must Go." In the early 1990s, Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh was researching the underground economies in the city of Chicago. He wanted to find out how people made money in the cash economy, off the books. And he spent a lot of time in the poorer areas of the city where people were inventing ways to make their livings.

He hung out with women selling food from their homes, car mechanics who ran their business from an alleyway, store owners who hosted late night gambling and dice games. None of them, of course, was reporting their income to the government. Then there was Nellie, who had a problem that not many people faced. Here's Sudhir.

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

Nellie Thomas was a hustler who worked in and around his South Side neighborhood and over the course of his life, he was a pimp, drug dealer, car thief, extorter, jackroller, prostitute and burglar. I met Nellie because I wanted to know how people bought guns in Chicago.

By the time I met him, Nellie had made a name for himself not because he sold guns, but because he sold ammunition. It's illegal to buy handguns in the city of Chicago. For guns and ammo, people usually have to trek out to the suburbs, which isn't so easy. Most gun stores are in white suburbs and the Black people in Nellie's community don't like to go there, so they buy guns in their own neighborhood for the most part.

Now in the South Side where Nellie lived, if you have money and a little patience, you can probably find a gun within a few days. But it's a lot harder to find ammo. Nellie understood this and he capitalized on the demand by becoming an ammunitions trader.

Nellie would drive to the suburbs or he'd hire people to go there and buy boxes of ammo for a few dollars each. Back in his own neighborhood, it might cost you $100 for a box. He sold bullets to gang members, robbers, drug dealers, prostitutes and just regular people who liked to have a weapon around.

And when the gang wars heated up in the mid- to late-90s, people bought several boxes at a time and Nellie was flush with cash. "Good money. No hassle," he'd like to say. "Cops don't care much about me."

When I started hanging out with Nellie, he was becoming bothered by his success. He was making so much money that he didn't know what to do with it. His needs were pretty minimal. He had a beat up old truck that he fixed himself. And his parents had long ago paid off the mortgage on the bungalow where he was born and where he still lived. The house was a kind of modest, two-story and basement and backyard design that you could see all over Chicago.

Nellie was hardly a big consumer. He liked to listen to a pocket-sized radio. And although he had a fancy TV, he usually watched a little black-and-white in his bedroom. And he never traveled. For 20 years, he'd been eating at the same soul food restaurant every day. He wore the same three or four pairs of clothes. And almost every day you could see him walking or playing golf-- "Very badly," he said-- in the park next to his house.

Nellie also lived in a world of cash. Like most underground traders, he couldn't take large sums of money to the bank, and for small sums he simply didn't trust banks. So he put his cash in mattresses and in large black trash bags that he hid inside his house, or that he buried outside in the backyard.

But Nellie was losing sleep because he was running out of places to keep his cash. He worried because there were other people living in his home, a girlfriend and her two children, a niece, his grandmother, an aunt, and a brother with his girlfriend and two kids. Nellie was scared he'd be robbed and so he began staying up all night with a big shotgun next to his window.

His anxiety grew so bad that he started taking medication and drinking more. He was restless and fidgety and he said he was yelling at his family for no good reason. Sometimes he'd call me early in the morning. We both knew many of the local gang leaders and he wanted me to tell him whether they were planning to raid his house.

He also asked me strange questions, like whether squirrels could smell paper money and whether they would dig in his backyard and eat his holdings. He admitted he was going to the hospital nearly every two weeks due to panic attacks.

At first I wondered why Nellie didn't just give his money away to his family, or to a charity, but it wasn't so simple for him. He said he was ashamed of how he'd earned it. He didn't want to tell people that he sold ammo to gang members for a living. I suppose Nellie could have bought some property or found a way to launder his money but that really wasn't in his character. Nellie didn't think in terms of the future, at least not in that way. And because he was very depressed and his job was so dangerous, Nellie didn't think he'd live long enough to spend his money on anything worthwhile.

One morning I went to Nellie's house and found him in tears. No one was home and he was lying on his bed with his money all over the room. He kept saying he couldn't take it anymore and he wanted a way out.

I noticed a few large bills but there were mostly piles and piles of one and five dollar bills crumpled up like waste paper. He was pleading with me to help him to do something with all of his money, which he estimated was about $15,000 or $20,000.

He asked me, "What do your people do when they have all the stuff that they can't use?" I'm Indian, but I assumed he meant middle-class folks. "Well," I said, "when my family has a lot of stuff, we give it away or we have a garage sale." His eyes lit up. "That's it. I'm going to have a garage sale." I wasn't sure I understood what he meant. "Let me get this straight. You're going to sell your money?" He grinned, stood up, hugged me, and said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you for getting me out of this mess."

So I made myself a cup of coffee, sat on the couch, and watched as Nellie put some of the money inside a television. Then he dumped a handful of bills inside a vacuum cleaner. Then he shoved bags full of cash inside his couch cushions and in a mattress. He picked up a basketball, examined it, looked over to me, and agreed when I shook my head, no.

And then with my help, he dragged everything out to the front lawn. He ran into the garage and came back with a hammer, nails, and cardboard. He made several for sale signs and tacked them on to the trees and on the windshield of his car.

He was so happy. He was running around like a child building a tree house. For his final gesture, Nellie ran back inside the house, grabbed two chairs and a six pack of beer and brought them outside. He told me that I couldn't tell anyone what he just did.

I exchanged my coffee for a beer and sat on Nellie's well-manicured front lawn unsure of exactly what was supposed to transpire. We sat on the lawn for about 10 minutes. I was getting a little agitated. My cell phone rang. Nellie looked at me and said, "Remember. You can't say what's in them things. You can't mention the money."

It was a friend of mine, Autry. He had three children and he had been looking for a job for about a year and now he was living off food stamps and was about three months late on his car and rent payments. Autry could definitely have used the money not to mention the nice TV set sitting in front of my feet.

"I'm at a garage sale," I told Autry, checking with Nellie to see if that was OK. Nellie nodded approval. "You should come over," I said checking with Nellie again, who didn't nod. "Autry, listen. You should really come over and see if anything interests you." Autry asked me why the hell would I want him to come to a garage sale when I knew he didn't have any money. I kept telling him to come anyway. Nellie began shaking his head. I sank in my chair, lowered my voice and told Autry to call me if he found some cash and wanted to buy some appliances, and then I hung up.

Nellie and I waited for what seemed like hours though my watch said only 20 minutes had passed. Every so often I asked him again whether he really wanted to do this. He would just stare out and tell me that he'd never been more sure about anything in his life. "I feel like the Lord gave me a sign," he said.

Just then a woman came by and looked at the couch. I leaned forward as if to pounce out of my chair and I could see that Nellie was doing the same. "Nice couch," she said. "Yeah," said Nellie. "You ain't never going to find another one like it."

"That's right, ma'am," I chimed in. "This is certainly a one-of-a-kind couch. You can take my word for it." "$20," she said. "For a couch?" said Nellie. "Ma'am, I need to make a little more than that." "But, sir," she said, trying to be polite, "it ain't worth more than that."

"Ma'am," I said, "I think on that count you are mistaken. It is certainly worth more." "Hey, shut up," Nellie yelled at me. The woman watched as Nellie and I began bickering. "You two need help," she said, and walked away.

As the morning turned to afternoon, more people came. The first successful sale was to a man pushing a shopping cart. He eyed the vacuum cleaner.

"What do you want for it?" he asked. "Give me $15," said Nellie. "$15. Are you nuts?" I said. I couldn't believe Nellie would charge so little. Nellie shot me a glance and I put my head in my hands.

"$15, my man, and it's all yours," Nellie said calmly. "All right. That'll work," the man said. He paid Nellie with some bills and a lot of loose change. Then he grinned and said within an hour he could sell the vacuum cleaner down at the thrift store for $30, double his take, just like that.

"You might want to take it home first," I told the man as he started walking away. "Just clean it out. Put a fresh bag in. Try it out. Take it apart, maybe." "Home?" the man said, looking at me. "Boy, are you blind or something? I live out of this cart. I live under the EL tracks. Home? [BLEEP] I ain't got no home. [BLEEP] What am I going to do with a vacuum cleaner?"

A Saturday morning church service must've ended because a line of black women wearing beautiful dresses and hats was coming our way. They looked at the items on the lawn and liked what they saw. One played with the television set, hitting it every so often while a few others sat on the couch.

"A little soft and, well, not so even," one said to me and Nellie. "These cushions are a little old, aren't they? How old are they?" "Oh, they're fairly new," I said. "Made fresh this morning actually." "Boy," Nellie yelled at me. This time he threw some beer on me.

"Don't mind him, ma'am. He's not the God-fearing sort. You understand." The woman cast a disparaging look my way and said, "Mm hm, I understand and Jesus do, too. OK, I'll take this couch. Probably throw these cushions away. The other parts are fine but I can't have people sitting on these raggedy things all day." "I would rethink that strategy," I shouted. My voice crackled and beer spilled down my shirt. "I'd probably not throw them away just yet."

"What he means to say," Nellie interrupted, "is that you may want to take it home first. Don't do anything so quick. You know, take your time." "I'm not sure there's really anything to think about," a second woman said, feeling the cushions stuffed with America's legal tender. "Yunella, you could replace these for $5. Ain't no need wasting your time with these cushions. Smell like cat piss anyway. Just throw them out."

"Oh, lord, I'd really think twice about that," I said, bending over in frustration. I was starting to feel delirious. "Why don't you go inside for a while," Nellie said, pushing me over and making me fall on the ground. I got up and walked toward the house.

"What is wrong with that young man?" I could hear the woman ask Nellie. "Oh, nothing that a little religion couldn't fix," Nellie said. Then he told them, "Listen, the truth is, ma'am, that I'm trying to buy my family all new furniture before they get home and I really need to sell this stuff and get rid of it so that I can surprise my wife."

"Oh, isn't that sweet," one of the women said. "Well, I'll take the television." "Yes," another one chimed in, "and I could use an extra bed." "I'd keep that mattress," I shouted from inside the house. "Don't throw away the mattress, please." "That is the strangest young man I have ever seen," one of the women said. "Yes," said Nellie. He twirled his finger in little circles next to his head. "He has a little bit of trouble, you know."

The woman then turned to me and spoke very slowly. "You be careful now, young man. And beer probably isn't very good for your health." "Neither is throwing away that mattress, ma'am."

Nellie asked the women for their address and he loaded the bed into the truck and drove off. I drank the rest of the beers and stared out into a warm blue sky. Nellie sold almost everything on the lawn that afternoon. The only thing that was left was a torn up pillow that couldn't attract anyone's interest. I tried for a while to find the people who had bought some of Nellie's furniture and appliances, but I didn't have any luck, so I'm not really sure if any of them found the cash.

Nellie didn't have anymore garage sales. He was still making money by selling ammo and he still kept the money in those big black garbage bags. He just stored them all in the attic where nobody ever went.

And Nellie's depression didn't end. For most people, all that money would have been a sign of success, but for Nellie it was just a bunch of paper that he couldn't get rid of. His problem was that he liked his job. He liked the fact that he worked and that he earned a living. The part he didn't like was the actual profits. They made him feel ashamed and he had to hide them from almost everyone he knew and loved.

A few years later, Nellie's girlfriend left him, his kids married and moved out, and there was no one else living in his house. He started going to church to ease his depression. It wasn't really helping, he said. But he did start talking a lot about charity and how he wanted to do something good for people. And he did it in his own peculiar way.

Nellie would leave a bag of money on a street corner or late at night he would quietly put some cash in front of a homeless person sleeping outside in the park. He would tell me that it was the only pure thing you can do on this earth, help people without taking credit for it.

I know of only one person who actually found Nellie's money, my friend Darrell. Nellie had stuffed $800 into the bottom part of a toaster oven and he left it near a dumpster where Darrell picked it up. Darrell figured some drug dealer had hidden the money there so his wife wouldn't find it and she accidentally threw the toaster out.

A day before his 45th birthday, Nellie was found dead inside his house. He'd had a massive stroke. No one was quite sure exactly how long he'd been lying there. I went to his funeral. Not many people were there and I felt sad for Nellie. I hoped that maybe the homeless man who had bought the vacuum cleaner would come pay his respects, but he didn't show up. In the middle of the room there was a casket but it was closed. Nellie's body was too decomposed for us to view.

In the end, Nellie's family got all his money when they cleaned out his house. That's when I finally met them. They told me that they'd known all along the thing that Nellie was ashamed for them to find out, how he made his money. But they could never figure out a way to tell him that it didn't matter.

Ira Glass

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. His most recent book is called, Gang Leader For a Day. It tells the story of the neighborhood in and around the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. He's a professor of sociology at Columbia University.

[MUSIC - "EVERYTHING MUST GO" BY WEAKERTHANS]

Act Four. The Not-for-profit Motive.

Ira Glass

Act Four, "The Not-For-Profit Motive." In responding to the current financial crisis, our government has had to invent all kinds of better mousetraps to fix the mess. With that in mind, one quick follow up to something I have here. It was on last week's radio show.

Last week NPR'S economics correspondent, Adam Davidson, reported on our program that one of these inventions, the Wall Street Bailout Bill included, buried deep inside, something called stock injection that had a number of advantages over the original bailout plan. The way it worked is that rather than buy a bank's toxic assets, stock injection would essentially buy stock in the bank. Infuse the bank with cash that way.

The banking industry and government officials mostly seemed to hate this idea a week ago, but if you've followed the news of this last week, treasury officials have now declared in the last couple days that they might actually try the stock injection plan. That would be in addition to their original plan of buying toxic assets. The advantage of the stock injection is that they can do it quicker.

With this action and many others recently, the government is reinventing itself, doing certain things that it has never done before. Alex Blumberg had been trying to figure out exactly what that means.

Alex Blumberg

Here's how the US government usually behaves. It borrows money, in the form of selling treasury bonds, and then it spends that money on stuff for the country, Black Hawk helicopters, or cancer research, an occasional bridge to nowhere, stuff in the budget.

But with the passage of the bailout bill, it's going to be doing something entirely different with that money. It's going to be buying up mortgage related assets from banks. And that's not all. Just this week it announced it would start lending the money it raises directly to individual companies in something called the commercial paper market.

Brad Setser is an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations and he used to work in the Treasury Department. NPR's Adam Davidson and I sat down with him a couple of days ago, and he told us that by doing all these new things, the United States has started acting like something completely different than a government.

Brad Setser

It's starting to act like a bank. It is borrowing money by selling these short term treasuries and lending to the banking system and lending to firms like GE and others that are big players in the commercial paper market.

Alex Blumberg

So instead of borrowing money and then building a bridge, it is borrowing money and then investing it, giving it to a company as a loan that will be paid back or something like that.

Brad Setser

That's the big change that happened today. And then in addition to doing all that, there's the $700 billion that's going to be used to buy assets that are harder to value and harder to sell and in that, it is also acting like a bank or an investment bank. But it's not acting completely like a bank, because if it was acting completely like a bank, it'd be trying to drive the hardest possible bargain so it can make the most money.

Alex Blumberg

The US government doesn't want to do that because making the most possible money means, in effect, buying these assets at the lowest prices possible. And there's a problem with that.

Brad Setser

The problem is that if you drive too hard of a bargain, if you're doing this is as a pure financial bet, sort of--

Alex Blumberg

Go for the kill.

Brad Setser

--go for the kill, get them at the lowest possible price, the banks are bust. So it's acting like a really badly run bank.

Alex Blumberg

It's like, well, nobody else will pay you more than, you know, $0.20 on the dollar for those things but we'll give you $0.40.

Brad Setser

Yes. But it's doing so for a reason which is that if the banks had to sell at $0.20, they're bust.

Alex Blumberg

Right. Right. Right. I'm not saying that it shouldn't be doing that. It's just sort of sucks that the US government is in this position that it's not normally in, which is to try to behave half like a business and half like a government.

Brad Setser

This is what-- I mean, you all are shocked. I used to work on emerging economies. This is what happens when you have a really bad crisis. This is what happens when the banking system is on the edge of collapse.

Adam Davidson

So it's just that this has happened before, it just hasn't happened to the US before.

Brad Setser

Exactly.

Adam Davidson

Where has it happened?

Brad Setser

Indonesia. Thailand. Argentina. Russia.

Alex Blumberg

OK, let's review that list. Indonesia, leadership deposed. Argentina, leadership deposed. Thailand, leadership forced to resign. Russia, leadership returned to authoritarian roots.

Brad Setser

It's generally not good for any political system if your banks come close to collapsing. It's not a good thing.

Adam Davidson

So I just don't know how to feel. Should we be very upset that they're doing this or should we be upset that the situation required them to do it but glad that they're doing it?

Brad Setser

I think you should be upset that the situation got to this point, but glad that there is an actor, namely the US government, that is still in a position to do this. The US government still has the ability to borrow and because it still has the ability to borrow, it can provide support for the banking system and the broader financial system and prevent what otherwise could be even a catastrophic run.

Alex Blumberg

Because in some of these other countries, the US government is right now in a position where they can borrow money essentially for free at very, very low interest rates, at 0.1%. That's the exact opposite of generally what happens when other crises happen in other countries, right? Their borrowing costs go way up.

Brad Setser

Either they have to pay exorbitant interest rates to borrow in their own currency or they can only borrow in someone else's currency, which means that you're taking on even more risk.

Alex Blumberg

So is there a limit to how much money the US government can borrow? Like, if they have to borrow another $700 billion in a month, and another $700 billion in a month after that, can they do it?

Brad Setser

Possibly. In some sense it depends on how much anxiety and fear there is, because the more anxiety and fear there is, the more money is leaving the banking system, leaving money markets, and the more money that's going into treasury bonds. So the more fearful everybody else is, the easier it is for the US government to borrow.

Alex Blumberg

In other words, people are saying, I don't want to put my money in stocks that are plunging or in bonds of companies that might go out of business or in any country that doesn't happen to have the most powerful economy on the earth. No. I want my money in the one safe place I can think to put it, US treasuries.

And this is another way the US government is different from a typical business. The more it screws things up, the more it mismanages its own economy, the more people want to lend it money.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg is one of the producers of our show. He's also one of the people putting together NPR's daily Planet Money podcast. You can find that by Googling Planet Money or going to the iTunes store.

Our program was produced today by Lisa Pollak and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Amy O'Leary, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Thea Chaloner, Sam Hallgren, Seth Lind, and PJ Vote.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free or sign up for our free weekly podcast, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management over sight for our show by Mr. Torey Malatia who I walked in on this week in his office.

Kristy Colvin

And he's laying in the middle of the carpet, rolling around and laying around.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This America Life.

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PRI, Public Radio International.