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Debate: Does U.S. Military Intervention In The Middle East Help Or Hurt?

NPR News - Tue, 2014-10-07 09:31

As the U.S. presses on with airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, two teams tackled the motion "Flexing American Muscles In The Middle East Will Make Things Worse," in the latest Intelligence Squared debate.

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What you need to know about the AIG trial

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-07 08:39

There's a star witness in a big trial today.

You've heard of him: Timothy Geithner. The case: AIG shareholders, including former CEO Maurice R. Greenberg, are suing the Feds, saying they feel cheated by the terms of the bailout in 2008.

Didn't Henry Paulson testify yesterday?
Yup. Then-Treasury Secretary Paulson testified. He said the AIG bailout deal was "punitive." AIG made risky bets, he said, and its shareholders deserved to be punished for them. The key was to send a message to Wall Street: "Just so you know, we are not the Santa Claus of easy bailouts. If you come and ask for one, the terms will be harsh." Okay, that's a made-up quote.

So why does this testimony matter?
Because Paulson was not the key player in regards to details of the AIG bailout. Geithner, then-head of the NY Fed, was. He's the big witness this morning, says Columbia law professor John Coffee, and the guy Greenberg's lawyer (one David Boies) really wants to grill.

Oh yeah, the bailout.
Recall: in the fog of the banking crisis, the Feds realized AIG was in big money trouble. Why? AIG was the insurance company for banks that bought risky subprime loans. If those loans defaulted, AIG was on the hook. (five-dollar word: credit default swaps).

What's the AIG shareholder beef?
The Feds were overly mean, they say, and they punished us too harshly. Or, in legal-speak, they took control of AIG without "just compensation" - a Constitutional no-no.
The details:

  •  In return for $192 billion in loans, we got hit with a 14 percent interest rate. Beltway loan sharks.
  •  The feds took an 80% stock share in the company.
  •  We got these harsh terms, but the banks got paid back 100 cents on the dollar for their risky investments. How come only we sat in the barber chair for the haircut?

What do AIG shareholder want?

Led by former CEO Greenberg, they are suing for $40 billion in compensation.

What's the counter-argument against AIG?
We needed to punish you, because you took bad risks. But we needed to save the banks because the financial system was on life support. That's the job of the Federal Reserve.

What role did Geithner play?
He ran the NY Fed, which engineered the details of the whole bailout.

Geithner argues – in his recent book, "Stress Test" – that the government had no choice. If they hadn't bailed out AIG, it would be ruined the economy. His NY Fed has also been accused of hiding the terms of the 100% payments to the banks that bought AIG default insurance.

How could Geithner's testimony impact?

“If the evidence that comes out in the case shows that there was a big misfire at the fed, then congress may react and change the way that the Fed does business,” says Georgetown finance professor Jim Angel.

Public reaction to the government's bailouts of large financial institution during the financial crisis was so negative says Angel, that when congress passed Dodd-Frank it reduced the fed’s ability act. New restrictions, he says, could be key in a future crisis.

Why do we care, again?

In litigation, there's this thing called discovery where each side has to "open its kimono" to the other.  Lawsuits are all about getting to the bottom of things. And observers are hoping that this lawsuit could get to the bottom of the financial crisis. Angel says “There’ve been a lot of studies of the financial crisis, but do we really know what happened?”

His answer: not really. He hopes this lawsuit could reveal facts that we don’t know, we don’t know about how the crisis and the bailout of AIG occurred, as well as a potential answer to the “Watergate question” -  what the Fed knew and when it knew it.

That sounds pretty exciting, but John Coffee, director of Columbia Law School’s Center on Corporate Governance, isn’t so sure he agrees with Angel.

“I don’t think you’re going to learn dramatically new information," he says. "You may hear snippets, emails anecdotes that support both sides." 

There are two opposing points of view on how the government handled AIG’s bailout, notes Coffee.

“One side said it was done to prevent financial contagion and panic. The other side says it was done to achieve a backdoor bailout of large banks you wouldn’t dare to fund directly and publicly,” he says. 

Coffee’s opinion: the court won’t decide to oversee or restrain financial regulators. Those new regulations, he says, already exist – thanks to Dodd-Frank. But Georgetown’s Angel takes a different view.

The numbers for October 7, 2014

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-07 08:13

The International Monetary fund is dialing back its predictions of global economic growth for 2015, revising its projection to 3.8 percent, down from 4 percent a few months ago. In its World Economic Outlook report, released Tuesday, the IMF blamed sluggish growth in part on the Eurozone, which it warns has a much higher probability of re-entering recession than it did earlier this year.

Tempering expectations further, the Wall Street Journal notes that the IMF's predictions are often "overly optimistic."

Here are some other numbers we're watching Tuesday:

300 lumens per watt

LEDs are able to give off far more light for the amount of energy they use — compare that figure to 70 lm/W for fluorescents and 16 lm/W for incandescent bulbs. That efficiency won the blue LEDs inventors the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday, CNET reported. It's a break from past years, which awarded much larger and abstract discoveries like universal expansion and the Higgs boson.

77

The number of travelers stopped by stepped-up exit screenings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in countries most affected by Ebola. President Barack Obama said Monday the U.S. will reexamine its practices here and abroad, the Washington Post reported, as several Republican lawmakers push for travel bans.

1984

The IBM Model M keyboard has been around 30 years, and for many tech writers, IT professionals, programmers and even the guy who created "Minecraft," it's still the standard to which all other keyboards are measured. The Verge has an extensive piece exploring the Model M's history and enduring popularity.

Inflation to a twenty-something

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-07 07:00

As Marketplace celebrates its 25th birthday this year, we are looking at the surprising, sometimes delightful and sometimes destructive ways that prices have changed during that quarter century.

And like many of the twenty-something variety, we decided to mark the occasion by taking a selfie...of our spending. Enter the Consumer Expenditure Survey.

Rather than looking at costs and pricing, the CE looks at how much consumers spent, on average, on any given item or service that year. It's compiled from two sources: the Interview Survey, and the Diary Survey. The former checks in with consumers on quarterly basis, monitoring larger expenditures (like rent and costs related to vehicles), while the latter asks people to keep a spending diary over a shorter period of time to catch smaller, day-to-day purchases.

Together, they create a picture of the spending habits of consumers during a given year. Among other things, the CE is used to revise the Consumer Price Index by looking at goods and their "relative importance." And as we've explored elsewhere, putting together that "basket of goods" that determines inflation is a tricky process that some feel hasn't been handled well in the past.

Regardless, looking at CEs from two years provides interesting comparisons of how much and where we spend our money.

So now that Marketplace is in its twenties, how does our spending compare to a twenty-something from 1989?

Adjusted for inflation (think 2013 dollars), here's how much income consumers 25 to 34 years of age made versus how much they spent on rent, food, alcohol, clothing, and shoes in 1989 and 2013.

It's worth noting that the CE gets incredibly specific. For example, this same age group spent $174 on "cereals and cereal products" in 2013, whereas their 1989 counterparts spent $233 in the same category. Amounts spent on health insurance are also available ($601 in 1989, $1,334 in 2013), which will be an especially interesting comparison to revisit when the CE for 2014 is released, as the Affordable Care Act will have been in effect for this demographic.

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PODCAST: LinkedIn goes to college

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-07 03:00

First up, we could hear a lot more about manipulation in the foreign currency markets as the year wears on. The U.S. Justice Department is reportedly preparing a new pile of charges against some of the biggest Wall Street firms and, significantly, individuals who work at the firms. One focus: possible collusion in the buying and selling of dollars, euros, pounds sterling, and beyond. We talk with Ben Protess who co-wrote the scoop for for the New York Times Deal Book section. And Linkedin is the social media network targeted at our professional lives. Now, Linkedin is entering the already-crowded "college rankings" field with an interesting algorithm: LinkedIn ran the numbers on its over 310 million members to see where they went to college and what they're doing now. Plus, in the U.S., it's fair to say that there's a long tradition of corporations embracing what originally was a religious observance: Christmas. In India, the calendar is packed with a kaleidoscope of religious festivals, many involving elaborate processions and decorations, which business are often pleased to underwrite. But some in India say corporate sponsorship of these events may be going too far.

In a robust labor market, more people say 'I Quit.'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-07 02:00

Update: The JOLTS numbers are in. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

"There were 4.8 million job openings on the last business day of August, up from 4.6 million in July... The hires rate (3.3 percent) was down and the separations rate (3.2 percent) was essentially unchanged in August. Within separations, the quits rate (1.8 percent) was unchanged and the layoffs and discharges rate (1.1 percent) was little changed.

See you again next month, quits rate.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics issues its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey—also known as JOLTS—for August on Tuesday. Back in July, the report showed 4.67 million job openings, and economists expect a healthy increase to 4.71 million job openings in August. That would be consistent with labor-market improvements reported in September’s employment report, with 248,000 jobs added to the economy, and the unemployment rate falling to 5.9 percent.

However, one data point in the JOLTS report has been consistently underperforming the rest of the labor market: the quits rate. This indicates how many people are leaving their jobs voluntarily—because they got a better offer, or think they can look around for a while without becoming long-term unemployed (People can also be classified as ‘voluntary quits’ if they leave a job to go back to school, to care for a family member, or to leave the workforce; retirement and disability are not counted as 'voluntary quits'). A higher quits rate is seen as a sign of job-market churn and flexibility for both employers and employees.

Since the recession, the quits rate has remained stubbornly low. In July, there were 2.5 million quits; the level of quits consistently topped 3 million in the years before the recession.

The quits and layoffs and discharges numbers starting from January, 2004.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

John Challenger, at outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas, thinks the quits rate will eventually catch up to other improvements in the labor market. But right now, he thinks many workers are still recession-scarred. “Even if I might get paid more money,” he said, characterizing the mindset of a typical worker, “safety is still of high value. Better to hold onto the job I have than to take something new.”

Elise Gould, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said workers don’t think they have much bargaining power with employers. So many are reluctant to risk quitting and looking for a new job. “The fact that we’ve seen sluggish wage growth, workers see that," she said. "They know they can’t bid up their wages because there are so many people waiting on line—on the unemployment rolls or out of the labor force.”

Gould said even as jobs become slowly more plentiful, workers fear that they’ll face stiff competition if they jump ship and go job-hunting right now.

Inside the work of Ebola 'Disease Detectives'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-07 02:00

Public health officials continue to track the well being of about 50 patients in Dallas who may have been exposed to the Ebola virus. As of Tuesday morning, there was no sign any of them was infected.

The labor-intensive surveillance operation is being run by local health officials and a pair of epidemiologists for the CDC. The two are officers in the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service.

With the Ebola outbreak growing, these so-called "disease detectives" are taking on an increasingly important role.

Let’s be honest, there’s something a little nuts about being in the Epidemic Intelligence Service—a job where you could get plopped into a communicable disease hotspot with little warning.

“What’s the type of person who wants to walk into an Ebola outbreak instead of walk away from it,” says Jennifer Hunter.

Hunter is one of the two EIS officers in Dallas who is keeping tabs on the several dozen people who came into contact with the Ebola patient, Thomas Duncan.

“I think there is nothing more you can do to help be part of something as large as this is and as important,” she says.

EIS alum Tracy Creek describes most EIS folks as “passionate, geeky, problem solvers” dedicated to public service. Every year, the CDC hires 70 to 80 people to spend two years tackling everything from smoking cessation to H1N1 outbreaks.

Creek says the EIS logo sums up their work: “It’s a sole of a shoe with a hole worn in it; you’re supposed to be the feet on the ground of our public health infrastructure,” she says.

Yep, a logo that could of been dreamed up by Dashiell Hammett.

Certainly EIS officers in Dallas earned their disease detective badge this past week as they tracked down doctors and nurses; lab techs and custodial staff; anyone who may have handled the patient’s fluids. But that’s just one part of the job.

EIS officers must solve problems and be a kind of fixer; a challenge in some corners of West Africa.  

“We are not fully meeting demand and it’s a very challenging situation,” says Peter Kilmarx, who for nearly the past month has been running CDC’s operations in Sierra Leone.

One problem Kilmarx’s got is lining up enough burial teams to pick up the highly infectious bodies. Handle them wrong and the disease spreads.

“There’ve been deaths among burial team drivers and staff. At times when there is a call about a cadaver in the community, we’re not able to have a quick response,” he says.

In some sense, the solution is straight forward. Kilmarx needs more money—for protective gear, staff, ambulances. But with the number of people dying nearly doubling every month, Kilmarx says resources are stretched. 

“We’re barely keeping up with what we’ve got, and thinking ahead to twice as many 30 days from now is daunting,” he says.

In the past, when Kilmarx needed three laptops, or three motorcycles, he just tapped the non-profit CDC Foundation—which cuts checks quicker than the agency.

The speed of this epidemic means there’s more going out the Foundation’s door than is coming in. And now, Kilmarx has another problem to solve.

Being human in the age of automation

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-07 02:00

In Nicholas Carr’s new book, "The Glass Cage – Automation and Us," he describes an academic study in which researchers discover a key difference between how we feel at work versus at home. At work, people can’t wait to clock out, whereas at home, they dread returning to work.

But surprisingly, the study also found that by many metrics, people are actually happier on the job. And in a world where the main goal of technology seems to be to reduce the work we do, Carr thinks maybe we should take a different tack:

“I think most of us, if we really thought about it, know that it’s really when we’re being challenged and when we’re really immersed in a task or a job…that’s when we feel like we are experiencing life in some better, more fulfilling way.”

In the book, Carr offers one example of how the video game, Red Dead Redemption, helped him realize that games can be a good model for software designed to engage and challenge us in an activity. Carr argues that if we are simply more mindful of how technology influences our experience of life, we can make better decisions about the things we buy, even if it’s as small as a video game.

Click the media player above to hear Nicholas Carr in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

Reviewing The Four Gay Marriage Cases The High Court Tacitly Endorsed

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-06 16:39

All four cases relied on the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause to invalidate state bans on gay marriage. For now, the Supreme Court gave a tacit nod to the legal reasoning.

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Win two tickets to see Marketplace live in New York!

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-10-06 15:55

How to enter:

1) Follow @Marketplace on Twitter.

2) Spot a Marketplace Road Show bus ad and tweet your photo of it to @Marketplace with the hashtag #numberslove.

3) That’s it! Check your direct messages on Monday, October 13, 2014, to see if you are a winner. 

Marketplace NYC Road Show Twitter Giveaway Official Rules

NO CONTRIBUTION OR PURCHASE IS NECESSARY - MAKING A CONTRIBUTION WILL NOT INCREASE YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING THIS GIVEAWAY

HOW TO ENTER THE ABOVE GIVEAWAY: No contribution or purchase is necessary to enter the Marketplace NYC Road Show Twitter Giveaway (the "Giveaway"). To enter, a) become a follower of @Marketplace on if you aren't already, then b) tweet @Marketplace a photo of one of the city bus ads promoting the Marketplace Roadshow with the hashtag #numberslove BETWEEN between 5:00 p.m. ET October 6, 2014 and 11:59 p.m. ET October 12, 2014 (the "Entry Period").

ELIGIBILITY: To be considered an entry in this Giveaway (hereinafter individually as "Entry" and collectively as "Entries"), the Entry tweet must include both @Marketplace tweet to account, and include #numberslove, the official hashtag for the Giveaway in the tweet. The Entry must comply with APM's User Submission Terms of Use. The Entry must not contain material that is unlawful, in violation of or contrary to the laws or regulations in any state where Entry is created. There is no limit to the number of times a follower may tweet a response; however, only one (1) tweet per person will count as an eligible Entry in the Giveaway.

Open only to legal residents of any one of the 50 United States or the District of Columbia who are 18 years of age or older at time of entry. THIS GIVEAWAY IS INTENDED FOR PLAY IN THE UNITED STATES ONLY. DO NOT ENTER THIS GIVEAWAY UNLESS YOU ARE LOCATED IN THE UNITED STATES AT THE TIME OF ENTRY. The following persons are not eligible: Persons who on or after February 1, 2014, were or are employees of Sponsor or its related organizations, including American Public Media, their immediate family, or persons living in the same household. Void where prohibited by law.

PRIZE: One (1) winner will each receive one (1) pair of passes (two admissions) to see Marketplace 25th Anniversary National Tour: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Numbers Hosted by Kai Ryssdal on October 16, 2014. Prize retail value is $60.00.

Winners are responsible for any costs associated with using the prize, including but not limited to transportation. Prize is nontransferable, is not good for cash, and cannot be exchanged for other merchandise. Winners will receive delivery of the prize as arranged by APM. Passes must be used in compliance with venue's policies. APM is not responsible for any event cancellations or changes. Every eligible Entry will be included in the drawing. On October 13, 2014,  one (1) winner will be randomly drawn from all eligible Entries. Winner will be notified by Twitter direct message on or about 4:00 p.m. CT October 13, 2014. Winner will be required to respond to the Twitter direct message from Sponsor with a reply e-mail within 24 hours of direct message send as a Winner. If a Winner (i) does not respond to the Twitter direct message as described above, (ii) is found to be ineligible, or (iii) the prize notification or prize is returned as undeliverable, then that unawarded prize will go to the first available back up thereof until the prize is awarded. The rules detailing giveaway eligibility and method of selecting winners are on file at American Public Media. The chances of winning are dependent upon the number of eligible entries.

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Sponsor is not responsible for computer system, phone line, technical, hardware, software or program failures of any kind, lost or unavailable network connections, incomplete, garbled or delayed computer transmission or network connections that are human or technical in nature. Use of automated devices is not valid for Entry. Sponsor is not responsible for incorrect or inaccurate Entry information, whether caused by Internet users or by any of the equipment or programming associated with or utilized in this Giveaway or by any technical or human error which may occur in the processing of the Entries in this Giveaway. Incomplete, unreadable, inaccurate, unintelligible or late Entries or Entries which otherwise do not comply with these Official Rules will be disqualified. All Entries, upon submission, become the sole property of the Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned and the Sponsor has the right to dispose of the Entries at Sponsor's discretion. Sponsor reserves the right to, in its sole discretion, cancel, modify or suspend the online portion of this Giveaway (or the entire Giveaway) should any computer virus, bugs or other technical difficulty or other causes beyond the control of the Sponsor corrupt the administration, security or proper play of the Giveaway, at which time, the selection of the Winners will be determined in a random drawing from among all eligible Entries received at the time of Giveaway termination.

GENERAL: By participating in this Giveaway, participants agree to be bound by the Official Rules and that American Public Media and related organizations, their agents and employees have no liability whatsoever for any injuries, losses, or damages of any kind which result from use of the prize, or by participation in the giveaway. American Public Media or its related organizations may use winner's name and likeness for advertising, fundraising, promotional or publicity purposes without further compensation. Expenses as a result of winning this prize are the responsibility of the winner. By submitting an Entry, each Entrant consents to receive from the Sponsor a reply Twitter message and, if applicable, a Twitter direct message, email, and/or phone call notifying such Entrant that he/she is a potential Winner.

RESTRICTIONS: By participating in this Giveaway, a participant agrees to be bound by these Official Rules, and by all decisions of the giveaway sponsor.

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Did The Supreme Court Just Legalize Gay Marriage?

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-06 14:54

As thousands more same-sex couples marry all over the country, this legal climate change becomes a kind of fait accompli.

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5 Questions About The Supreme Court And Gay Marriage In The U.S.

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-06 14:27

The Supreme Court surprised many by refusing to weigh in on gay marriage Monday. And it prompted a question: What does this mean for same-sex couples in 20 states that still have a ban?

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Female Heads Of Household (And Hair) Reveal Afghanistan's Drug Use

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-06 13:58

A new study of drug use in Afghanistan, relying on information from female heads of households and confirmed by lab tests, shows that 1 in 20 Afghans are using prescription or illicit drugs.

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USA Swimming Suspends Michael Phelps Over DUI Arrest

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-06 13:40

The 18-time gold medalist said that he was going to attend a program to "better understand myself." USA Swimming said Phelps will be excluded from 2015 FINA World Championships.

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Some Americans Boosted Charitable Giving In Recession; The Rich Did Not

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-06 13:39

As times got tough, America's less-wealthy citizens grew more generous, according to a new study. But people making at least $200,000 a year cut the portion of their incomes they gave to charity.

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Americans don't know who runs the Federal Reserve

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-10-06 13:35

A news quiz for you from the Pew Research Center:

Of the following four people, which one runs the Federal Reserve?

The answer choices were:

a) Janet Yellen... correctly picked by 24 percent of people.

b) John Roberts... 5 percent.

c) Sonia Sotomayor... 6 percent.

d) And this one, the troubling part: Alan Greenspan... 17 percent.

Those who admitted to not knowing? Forty-eight percent.

Who's in charge of the @federalreserve? Don't bank on public knowing the answer http://t.co/2XF7CwRMRX pic.twitter.com/NQdBOT9W9I

— PewResearch FactTank (@FactTank) October 6, 2014

A New Understanding Of Arson Spurs A Retrial In A Fatal Texas Fire

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-06 13:26

Much of the evidence used against Ed Graf, in prison since 1986 for setting a fire that killed his stepsons, is now considered junk science. His is one of many old arson cases Texas is re-examining.

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Should Short Beards Be Allowed Behind Bars?

NPR News - Mon, 2014-10-06 12:26

Arkansas prisoner Gregory Holt hand-wrote a 15-page petition without the help of lawyers, arguing that he be permitted to wear a beard as part of his religion. The Supreme Court will hear the case.

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A hard look at corn economics — and world hunger

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-10-06 12:05

The corn harvest is coming in, and great weather has produced a record crop. This is terrible news for farmers: Oversupply means cratering prices.

If that sounds like a paradox, consider this: Corn, the biggest crop in our agricultural powerhouse of a nation, is not a foodstuff. It’s a highly refined industrial material—more like aluminum than apples. And a hard look at corn economics puts world hunger in a different light. 

Let's start at an ethanol plant: Lincolnway Energy, in Nevada, Iowa. CEO and President Erik Hakmiller is our guide.

The plant includes several big buildings, lots of loud noises... and some unexpected smells. One is hard to place at first. "What you smell is residual carbon dioxide, and a cooking— very much like a bakery smell," says Hakmiller.

Then Hakmiller opens the door to a giant building with a corrugated metal roof.  

It’s a barn. Inside are these golden mountains—piled-up flakes of grain.

Mountains of grain at Lincolnway Energy in Nevada, Iowa, from Dan Weissmann on Vimeo.

For every bushel of corn that comes to Lincolnway Energy, only a third comes out as ethanol. Another third comes out as carbon dioxide, which goes into soda pop.

The rest—the fat, fiber and protein—ends up on one of these piles. "Each pile being about a thousand tons," says Hakmiller.

That’s one day’s worth of this stuff, called distillers grains.

"It’s good food for cows, chickens and pigs," Hakmiller says. Just as important, it’s cheap.

"For animal feeding, you feed the lowest cost to get the most growth out of the animal," he says. "So, everything has to price itself into the ration. Because a cow doesn’t say, ‘I’m eating Italian tonight.’ He’s got to eat whatever he gets fed."

If he’s in a feedlot—where most cows gain half their body weight—he’s probably eating corn, either distillers grains or the whole kernel.

And we are not. We wouldn’t recognize it.

Chris Edgington has been growing corn for decades. Here’s what his corn isn’t: "It is not the corn you eat off the cob," he says. "It is not what’s in the can. It is not what’s in the freezer, in the bag. It is not that product."

That product, sweet corn, is a different crop. And a lot smaller. Last year, for every pound of sweet corn, U.S. farmers grew more than 260 pounds of field corn.

Sweet corn-- the stuff on the cob-- is not the corn that's grown on 90 million acres. | Create Infographics

Which goes to farm animals. If you are what you eat, they are, more than anything else, corn.

So, when we eat a ham-and-cheese omelette, that’s mostly corn.

"It’s a very small component of other foods," says Joseph Glauber, chief economist of the United States Department of Agriculture. "People talk about high-fructose corn syrup, but..."

Want to guess how much of the corn crop goes to corn syrup?

Three-and-a-half percent. A little less than that goes to other sugars, plus alcohol for vodka.

Actual corn-type food—Doritos, Jiffy cornbread mix, cornflakes—represents 1.5 percent of the corn crop.

For stuff we eat and drink, that’s about it.

Other than as a low-cost ration for animals, the big use for corn is ethanol.

Ethanol has been booming since 2000; there’s eight times as much now.

That’s been great for corn farmers because they have so much corn to get rid of.  

"The joke in farm country has always been, if you give a farmer a market, he’ll overproduce it," says Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, the state’s ethanol lobby. "And quite frankly, for over 200 years, that’s been pretty true, except for these last eight years, when ethanol sucked up all that extra corn production."

Extra production is not one year’s bumper crop, and it is not just the extra acres that got planted after the ethanol boom.

It’s a long-term constant. Productivity—the yield from one acre of cornfield—has been ratcheting up for decades and decades.

Even in 2012—a terrible drought year, with the worst yields in more than 15 years—productivity was more than twice as high as any year before 1960.

Which puts the whole food-versus-fuel question in a new light.

We plant more than 90 million acres of corn, and it’s in huge surplus. And it’s not even food. What if we planted actual food instead?

I put that question to Bruce Babcock, an economics professor at Iowa State University who studies corn, ethanol and renewable fuels.

"Our ability to supply the world with vegetables is practically unlimited," Babcock said.

Take corn, and add in other giant crops that basically just feed animals—crops like soybeans, barley, hay, sorghum—and two-thirds of U.S. farmland goes to animal feed.

"Such a small portion of our land goes to grow actual food that people consume," said Babcock, "that if we really wanted to increase that supply, it would be pretty easy."

The trick would be convincing the country—and other countries that import animal feed from the U.S.—to go vegan.

"There would be such a surplus of farmland to grow kumquats and pecans that we would be awash in those, in a heartbeat," says Babcock.

Would it be enough to feed the 10 billion people the United Nations projects as global population by 2100

"We would have more land available for the 10 billion than they would know what to do with," says Babcock.  

But we don’t. Thank markets.

"That’s not what consumers want," says Babcock. "As they get more money, they want to eat meat."

So farmers plant corn.

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