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6 Crises That Keep Economists Up At Night

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Thomas Carlyle once called economics "a dismal science." Indeed, economists tend to be cautious and pedestrian, but can you blame them? After all, in these troubled times, who could sleep easy knowing these scary stories?

1. The Irish Potato Famine

When you think of economics, think of food. Until the late 1800s economic crisis usually meant agricultural crisis, with famine a not-so-infrequent consequence. Before the advent of industrial agricultural methods, weather conditions and infestations of various kinds had the power to hold the economy hostage.

In 1845 a new fungus, Phytophthora infestans, struck the potato—the mainstay of Ireland's food supply. Although the blight lasted only a few years, its effects were far reaching. As many as 1.5 million died as a direct result of the famine, and many more emigrated in the second half of the 19th century. Even today, only half as many people live in Ireland as did before the famine.

2. German Hyperinflation

By November 1923 in Germany, $1 in the United States equaled 4.2 billion German marks, and even daily staples had to be purchased with wheelbarrows of cash. How did this happen? In 1918 Germany lost World War I, suffered a revolution, and became a republic when Emperor Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate. The Treaty of Versailles, signed a year later, saddled Germany with 6.6 billion British pounds' worth of reparations. With the German treasury empty, the government could pay—and conduct its ongoing business—only by printing lots of money: the quickest recipe for inflation. At the height of inflation in 1923, prices rose 40% per day. People rushed to the stores as soon as they were paid, before their money became worthless. The frightful experience of the early 1920s scarred the German national psyche and undermined faith in the Weimar Republic, which helped pave the way for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. In fact, Hitler's early grab for power—the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich—came on November 8, 1923.

3. The Great Depression


During the Roaring '20s in the United States, the wealthy spent a lot of money they had, and the not-so-wealthy spent a lot of money they didn't have. The Great Depression began soon after the stock market crashed in October 1929, but economists still argue whether the bursting of the 1920s financial bubble caused the Depression or merely foretold the coming economic slump. Either way, by 1932 the economy contracted by 31%, and some 13 million were left jobless—a quarter of the workforce. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1932, he started the New Deal, a set of policies to boost federal spending and create government-financed jobs. Although the economy began growing again in the mid-1930s, the effects of the Depression lingered on until Pearl Harbor. The number of unemployed fell to 7.6 million in 1936 but rose again to 10 million in 1938—the same number of men drafted into the armed forces during World War II.

4. The '70s Oil Crisis

oil-crisis.jpgThe price of oil tends to be slippery—something the economists forgot in the early 1970s when they confidently predicted that crude prices could fall as low as the cost of pumping oil out of the Saudi desert (estimated at less than $1 per barrel). Instead, following the Yom Kippur War between Israel and its Arab neighbors in October 1973, Arab oil producers declared an embargo. Oil prices tripled to more than $10 per barrel, and gasoline shortages ensued. By December President Nixon had to announce that because of the energy crisis, the White House Christmas tree would not be lighted. The 1979 Iranian revolution brought a second oil shock, and oil prices eventually peaked at around $35 per barrel. The oil crisis helped bring on a period of stagflation—meaning that even though the U.S. economy barely dragged along, inflation continued to rise.

5. The Asian Flu

The domino-like collapse of several Asian economies in the late 1990s seemed to come out of nowhere. The "tiger" economies of Southeast Asia had been booming for years, and the region widely expected to stay an economic powerhouse straight into the upcoming millennium. Yet in July 1997 things went spectacularly wrong. Thailand became the catalyst for the crisis, when severe pressure from speculators brought down its currency, the baht. The Philippine peso and the Malaysian ringgit fell next. Then the Indonesian rupiah was devalued in August, ushering in political and social turmoil. Finally, even South Korea, one of the strongest economies in east Asia, nearly went bankrupt and had to be bailed out. Economists were at a loss to fully explain the crisis. But as country after country succumbed to the financial bug, one lesson seemed clear: an interconnected global economy can transmit panic just as well as it can goods and services.

6. Argentina's Peso Crisis

During the 1990s Argentina was the star pupil of the International Monetary Fund. After two decades of runaway inflation and collapsing currencies, the Argentine government finally turned over a new economic leaf in 1992. Economy minister Domingo Cavallo helped set up a new currency, the peso, and firmly linked it to the U.S. dollar. The government decreed that one peso could always be exchanged for one dollar and that it would print only as many pesos as were backed by dollar reserves. The system functioned extremely well for a few years, but by late 1997 the overvalued peso and restrictive monetary policies helped bring on a prolonged recession, accompanied by turmoil in financial markets. Successive economy ministers and presidents could find no solution. In December 2001 the Argentine peso was devalued, and the government defaulted on some $140 billion in debt, the biggest default on record.

This article was excerpted from Condensed Knowledge: A Deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again. You can pick up a copy in the mental_floss store.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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