Episode 778: Robert And Kenny Go To The Fair

Tommy Harris demonstrates the OMG Peeler.

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Robert Smith/NPR

A state fair is a magical place. But for Planet Money, the true magic takes place in a massive warehouse where old-fashioned salesmen and women practice the ancient art of looking you in the eye and convincing you to buy something you do not need. It’s the art of pitching, and Planet Money’s Robert Smith has been obsessed with it since he was twelve years old.

Robert and his accomplice Kenny Malone head out to the Ohio State Fair, with a journalistic excuse. They embed with the pitchmen and pitchwomen—the true artisans of salesmanship—to learn the secrets of their trade.

This story is about these product mercenaries, and how they sell what they sell.

In an era where hyper-rational online shopping dominates commerce, state fairs can seem quaint. Still, some products can only mesmerize you when you see them, hold them, and develop a relationship with them. You can’t do that on a website, and the pitchmen and pitchwomen of America know that. They stake their careers on it.

Music: “City Sixties” “A Matter of Time” and “Burning In Me.” Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts or PocketCast.

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India Steps Up Alert Amid Heightened Tensions With China

Exiled Tibetans shout slogans during a protest to show support for India on the Doklam standoff in New Delhi, India, on Friday.

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Tsering Topgyal/AP

India has increased a military alert along its eastern border with China, moving troops and weapons into the region amid a weeks-long standoff between the two countries that shows no signs of resolution.

As NPR’s Julie McCarthy reported last month, New Delhi and Beijing have been at odds over a strategic region called the Doklam Plateau, which is claimed both by China and by India’s tiny ally, Bhutan.

In June, China began construction to extend a road there in an apparent effort to press its claim. In response, India sent troops as a show of force, sparking anger from China which says the affair is none of its business.

Beijing demanded that Indian forces withdrawal, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has refused.

India’s Defense Minister Arun Jaitley told parliament this week that the country’s armed forces are “fully prepared” in the event of conflict with China.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Indian troops in Sikkim, south of Doklam, have been put on heightened alert, although the news agency quoted an unnamed source as saying it was “out of caution.”

In 1962, India and China fought a bloody month-long border war. The neighbors also have a continuing dispute over the sovereignty Aksai Chin, a Himalayan region on their extreme western border.

Doklam is strategically close to a sliver of land called the “Chicken’s Neck” that is India’s only land corridor to its frequently restive northeast.

The two countries have also long been at odds over India’s hosting of Tibet’s government-in-exile and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, considered by China to be subversive.

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Black Journalists' Panel With Omarosa Manigault Ends In Anger

White House aide Omarosa Manigault speaks to a health care panel in June. On Friday she was part of a panel at a black journalists conference that ended with the audience protesting her participation.

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Alex Brandon/AP

A panel at the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists conference in New Orleans featuring White House aide Omarosa Manigault quickly went south after Manigault refused to answer questions about the administration in which she serves.

The panel made news before it even started, according to Page 6, which reported that Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times and Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker refused to take part in the panel after they were informed they’d be on stage with Manigault.

“Cobb told Page Six that the reason for pulling out ‘wasn’t simply the addition of Omarosa. It was that she was added at the eleventh hour and it was unclear whether we would be able to discuss substantive issues regarding the administration and its policing policies. Also, the panel was very disorganized, and basic things like format were not clear.'”

Moderator and broadcast journalist Ed Gordon stepped in at the last minute, but he sparred with Manigault, almost as soon as she stepped on stage.

“Shame on you,” Manigault told Gordon just minutes after coming on stage. At one point, Gordon and Manigault both stood and paced the stage, talking each other down face-to-face. “Let me tell my story,” Manigault told Gordon. “Ask me a question about me.”

When asked about President Trump’s recent comments that police should rough up people they are detaining, Manigault said his comments were wrong. She said issues of police brutality are important to the Trump White House. But said she could not elaborate on private conversations with the president.

“You don’t walk away from the table,” Manigault responded when asked why she’d take a job in an administration seen by many in the room as hostile to African Americans. “Because if you’re not on the table, you’re on the menu,” she said. When asked about her work with the Department of Justice on policing issues, Manigault responded, “Google me.”

The crowd became increasingly angered with Manigault’s seeming refusal to answer questions about the Trump administration. She claimed she was there to talk about her personal experience with violence, as some of her family members have been murdered. Several conference attendees in the audience stood with their backs turned to Manigault, while others just walked out.

Sarah Glover, president of NABJ, tried to take control of the panel after some 45 minutes of confrontation on the stage. But while she urged the audience to be calm and look at all sides of the issues and hear contrasting viewpoints, Manigault silently ducked off stage, to be whisked away by her security detail.

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Taylor Swift Groping Trial Ends Its First Week

Taylor Swift said of the former radio host whom she has accused of groping her: “I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions.”

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The trial between Taylor Swift and former radio host David Mueller, taking place in Denver federal court, has concluded its first week with Mueller’s team resting its case and Swift’s requesting both dismissal and summary judgment. Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday.

Mueller sued first, two years years after the incident — the fact of which is undisputed, even in Mueller’s initial filing — took place, maintaining Swift and her team misidentified him and then got him fired after misreporting the incident to his bosses. Swift quickly countersued, for sexual assault. The current trial covers both cases.

Mueller is seeking $3 million in damages and the chance to clear his name, while Swift is after a ceremonial $1 judgment and to “serve as an example to other women who may resist publicly reliving similar outrageous and humiliating acts,” as Swift’s attorney wrote in her countersuit, promising to donate any damages resulting in a favorable judgment for her to groups that support victims of assault.

Mueller was the first witness to testify in the case, according to the New York Times, admitting that it was “possible” he had inappropriately touched Swift by accident. He was also questioned about several devices that supposedly contained recordings of the phone call in which he was fired. All of the devices were accidentally broken, he said. “He destroyed the evidence,” Douglas Baldridge, Swift’s attorney said, as BuzzFeed reported. Mueller maintained their destruction were accidents.

Witnesses testifying this week at a Denver federal courthouse included the former radio host, a photographer, Taylor Swift’s mother and the pop star herself.

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Theo Stroomer/Getty Images

Mueller accused a former colleague, Hershel Coomer — known as “Eddie Haskell” — of being the one who groped Swift, which trailed Coomer in subsequent job interviews. “It’s an absolute lie, and in fact, it took him two years to make that story up,” the Denver Post quotes Coomer as saying.

The following day, Swift’s mother, Andrea Swift, took the stand, at times tearing up during her testimony. Asked why her daughter didn’t immediately pursue charges against Mueller, she replied that she “did not want this event to define her life.”

On Thursday, Taylor Swift herself took the stand, giving sharp responses to questioning from Mueller’s attorney. “I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions,” Swift was reported as saying.

Asked whether the grope could have been accidental, Swift responded: “He did not touch my arm. He did not touch my hand. He grabbed my bare a**.” Asked why no one else saw the incident, which reportedly took place while Swift’s back was against a wall, she responded: “The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone laying underneath my skirt, and we didn’t have anyone positioned there.”

Stephanie Simbeck, who took the photograph central to the case that was unearthed by TMZ, said the same day as Swift’s testimony that she “saw it happen. I saw his hand grab her a**.”

Friday brought testimony from Mueller’s ex-girlfriend, who along with Mueller’s former radio co-host says she didn’t notice any groping, and Swift’s bodyguard, who says he did and subsequently requested men to “keep their hands up high.”

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Woman charged with faking cancer, keeping donations from New York towns

(Reuters) – A 38-year-old Orlando woman who pretended to have terminal cancer and accepted donations when she lived in New York’s Westchester County several years ago was arrested on Friday and charged with fraud, U.S. prosecutors said.

Vedoutie Hoobraj, 38, used the name Shivonie Deokaran while perpetrating the scam from about October 2014 through at least March 2016, federal prosecutors said in a statement.

Hoobraj was charged with one count of wire fraud, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, after being arrested on Friday morning in Orlando, prosecutors said.

Social media posts from the period in question show Hoobraj posing with her two sons, her head hairless, prosecutors said.

Cancer patients often lose their hair during treatment.

Hoobraj claimed to have seen doctors at cancer hospitals, including New York City’s Sloan-Kettering Medical Center, but prosecutors said in court documents that she never actually underwent any cancer treatment.

She raised more than $50,000 from at least 300 people in Westchester County towns, prosecutors allege. Spaghetti dinners were organized to help raise money for Hoobraj, who claimed she had 18 months to live and was suffering from both leukemia and cancer of the liver, a federal complaint against her shows.

“Hoobraj allegedly concocted an elaborate story about having cancer when she did not, using GoFundMe pages and accepting money raised by a local high school, all supposedly to fund her medical care,” Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said in the prosecutors’ statement.

Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York FBI office, William Sweeney, said the alleged crime was an injustice “to those who do truly need the support of their communities and may now be met with suspicion” because of her alleged behavior.

Hoobraj’s public defender in Orlando did not immediately return a call for comment.

She is due to appear in federal court in White Plains, New York, on August 16, according to court records.

Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Dan Grebler

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Following Recent Crashes, Marine Corps Orders Pause In Flight Operations

A U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey aircraft lands on the deck of the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship last June off the coast of Sydney, Australia. An MV-22 Osprey that had launched from the USS Bonhomme was conducting regularly scheduled operations when it crashed into the water off Australia’s east coast August 5.

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Jason Reed/AP

Marine Corps aviation units have been ordered to ground all aircraft for 24 hours to focus on safety.

Gen. Robert Neller, Marine Corps commandant, said unit commanders could schedule the pause at their discretion within a two-week period. A statement said the halt to flight operations will not affect operational commitments.

The order comes after two recent crashes of Marine Corps aircraft.

Last weekend, a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey crashed off the coast of Australia. Three Marines died in the crash.

July 10, a Marine Corps C-130 crashed in Mississippi. All 16 aboard were killed: 15 Marines and a Navy corpsman.

As yet, investigators have not announced a cause for either crash.

The Marine Corps statement said aviation units will use the 24-hour suspension:

“…to focus on the fundamentals of safe flight operations, standardization, and combat readiness. The intent is for flying squadrons to review selected incidents which occurred enterprise-wide and study historical examples of completed investigations in order to bring awareness and best practices to the fleet.

Pauses in operations are not uncommon and are viewed as a responsible step to refresh and review tbest practices and procedures so our units remain capable, safe, and ready.”

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As Rhetoric Escalates, What Do We Know About North Korea's Nuclear Arsenal?

This picture taken and released on July 4 by an official North Korea news agency shows leader Kim Jong-Un (second from right) inspecting the test firing of a Hwasong-14 ICBM at an undisclosed location.

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This week saw a dramatic escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. As North Korea promised to engulf the U.S. territory of Guam in “enveloping fire”, President Trump tweeted that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded” should North Korea “act unwisely”.

The North’s missile and nuclear programs have been shrouded in secrecy for years, but recent tests have shed more light on their capabilities. Here is what’s currently known.

North Korean missiles can reach the continental United States.

Any ambiguity about the range of the North’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles was cleared up in July, with two tests of the nation’s new Hwasong-14 ICBM. The missiles flew on a trajectory high into space before returning to Earth. Based on the flight time and altitude, it’s clear that this missile could reach points along the U.S. West Coast and possibly even farther into the country.

It has a lot of other missiles too.

Over the past two years, the North has conducted dozens of missile tests of various designs. Many are shorter range, such as the Hwasong-12 missiles which the North has threatened to fire toward Guam. The North has also been testing advanced solid-fuel missiles and submarine-launched missiles, with a mix of successes and failures.

Most experts agree that North Korea could have a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile.

A report that the North had “miniaturized” its warheads caused a public furor, but many experts already believed the North has a compact weapons design.

In 2016, the North Koreans released pictures of leader Kim Jong Un standing before a miniaturized nuclear device. Dubbed the “disco-ball of death” by some analysts, the device was probably just a mock-up. But it nonetheless showed the North had general knowledge of how to build a small nuclear weapon.

Also in 2016, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, which it claimed was of a “standardized” warhead that could fit on a rocket. Most experts agree that the North is using the tests to winnow down the size and weight of its nuclear weapons so that they can fit better onto missiles.

“What we have seen for over a decade, is the North Koreans making a dedicated effort to build smaller warheads that can fit on longer-range missiles, and testing the systems to make that possible,” says Jon Wolfsthal a former advisor to President Barack Obama who is now works with Global Zero, a group that seeks the elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide. “If I had ten dollars and I had to bet, I would bet they have it.”

Other nuclear-armed states have been able to build compact weapons using far fewer tests, notes Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif. In the 1960s, “the Chinese did it with two tests,” he says.

But its nukes are nowhere near as powerful, or as numerous, as those possessed by other nations.

According to the recent press report, which remains unverified by NPR, North Korea could have up to 60 nuclear weapons. Other estimates put that number anywhere from 10 to 30. Regardless of the precise number (which is depends on the speed at which the North can build these weapons) the arsenal is far smaller than those of the U.S. and Russia, which each hold around 4,500 weapons.

The weapon designs that North Korea has tested so far are in the tens of kilotons of explosive yield. That a tenth the power of many warheads in the U.S. arsenal, which depend on nuclear fusion to create a far larger thermonuclear explosion. In fact, North Korea’s weapons are in many ways more closely related to the nuclear weapons dropped by America at the end of World War II than they are to modern nuclear warheads.

Of course, those weapons were still vastly more powerful than any conventional bomb.

And how reliable all these weapons are remains unclear.

North Korea’s rockets have a spotty track record. The Hwasong-12 it has threatened to lob toward Guam has failed three out of four tests. And it’s unclear whether its compact nuclear warheads are able to withstand the forces and vibrations associated with traveling atop a missile.

It’s also unclear whether the North has successfully tested a so-called “re-entry vehicle” that could carry a warhead down from the upper atmosphere.

“I do not believe that North Korea has a nuclear warhead small, light and robust enough to fit on an ICBM to reach the U.S. mainland,” says Siegfried Hecker, a former nuclear weapons scientist now at Stanford University. “I think it will take more missile tests and more nuclear tests to have any confidence in such a design.”

But others disagree. Jeffrey Lewis says that despite some uncertainties, he believes the North’s missiles are reliable enough to be taken seriously as a threat. “I think they probably have 60 missiles with nuclear weapons on them,” he says. “Some number of which can reach the United States.”

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Train Crash In Egypt Kills More Than 40 People

Passengers gather beside the tracks after a train crash that killed more than 40 people outside Alexandria. Officials say it’s Egypt’s deadliest rail accident in years.

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A passenger train smashed into the back of another train outside the Egyptian city of Alexandria on Friday afternoon. More than 40 people died and about 120 others were injured, according to news reports citing Egypt’s health ministry.

It was not immediately clear what caused the crash. Egypt’s top prosecutor, Nabil Sadek, has summoned railway officials for questioning, and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has ordered the formation of a task force to investigate the incident.

Egyptian media, citing the country’s Railways Authority, report that a train headed from the capital, Cairo, rear-ended another train that had been sitting near a station east of Alexandria.

“They rose in the air forming a pyramid when they collided,” one witness told Reuters. “I started to scream from the rooftops for people to grab some sheets and run.”

تصادم قطارين فى منطقة خورشيد بالإسكندرية
20 متوفى و50 مصابا حتى الآن
لا تخلطو بين القضاء والقدر وبين اهمال البشر..!! 😢
يارب سلم..#الاسكندريةpic.twitter.com/hWthqwRyuL

— Jasmeen Fawzy~چاسمين (@JoJo_Fawzy) August 11, 2017

The Guardian notes it has been nearly four years since Egypt has seen a train accident as deadly as the one that occurred Friday: Not since November 2013, when a collision between a bus and a train killed 27 people, has the notoriously dangerous railway system experienced a tragedy of this magnitude.

But The Associated Press reports accidents are far from uncommon, noting that 1,249 accidents happened last year alone:

“Earlier, in 2002, a massive fire engulfed a train filled with local holiday travelers. The train sped for miles, with flames engulfing one carriage after another, killing more than 370 people.

“In November 2012, a speeding train crashed into a bus carrying Egyptian children to their kindergarten in the country’s south, killing more than 50 — mostly children between the ages of four and six. Two months later, at least 19 people died and more than 100 were injured in a train derailment south of Cairo.”

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North Korea Has Markets Nervous But Not Panicked

Traders and financial professionals work the floor of the New York Stock Exchange ahead of the opening bell on Friday.

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Global stock markets ended their worst week in months amid rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, though U.S. stock indexes steadied on Friday to close up slightly.

Nervous investors drove shares lower earlier in the week, after President Trump declared Tuesday that the U.S. would react with “fire and fury” to further nuclear provocations from North Korea. North Korea responded with threats to launch missiles into the Pacific Ocean near Guam, a U.S. territory.

Amid the hot rhetoric, U.S. stocks sold off sharply on Thursday, with the S&P 500 falling more than 1 percent. By the end of the day nearly $1 trillion in equity had been lost globally. Asian and European stocks continued the sharp decline Friday.

But U.S. stocks regained some lost ground, despite Trump’s comments Friday that U.S. weapons are “locked and loaded,” ready to respond if North Korea acts “unwisely.”

The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 14 points, a gain of 0.07 percent, the Nasdaq composite rose nearly 40 points or 0.64 percent and the S&P 500 gained 3 points or 0.13 percent. But for the week the S&P 500 lost 1.3 percent, its worst weekly showing since March.

The North Korea situation isn’t the only thing weighing on stocks. Major U.S. indices had posted record highs in recent weeks. Those highs were supported by strong corporate earnings, but lofty market valuations and a prolonged period without a significant market pullback had some analysts predicting a sell-off.

While stocks have declined this week, the sell-off has not been dramatic. BNY Mellon FX strategist Neil Mellor told Reuters that in recent years, “the market hasn’t really reacted to things on the Korean Peninsula” because in the past “it [has been] largely North Korean sabre-rattling.” But Mellor notes the rhetoric has reached a “different level.”

The Wells Fargo Investment Institute describes the market response, so far, as “tepid.” In a note to investors, Paul Christopher, head global market strategist, and Tracie McMillion, head of global asset allocation, suggest, “the threat of a nuclear weapon is certainly more serious than previous threats, but that threat also may increase the probability of a diplomatic solution.” They suggest the U.S. and China, a North Korean ally, could work together to de-escalate the situation.

So far the measured decline in global stocks suggests investors buy that scenario.

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From Alaska To Florida, States Respond To Opioid Crisis With Emergency Declarations

Overdoses from heroin and other opioids have led six states to declare public health emergencies.

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Public health officials and others concerned about the nation’s opioid crisis are hailing President Trump’s decision to declare it a national emergency. A Presidential commission on opioids said in its interim report that an emergency declaration would allow the administration to take immediate action and send a message to Congress that more funding is needed.

But while the Trump administration prepares the presidential order, governors in six states have already declared emergencies to deal with opioids. They range from Alaska and Arizona in the West to Florida, Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts in the East.

In Maryland, where 550 overdose deaths were reported in just the first three months of this year, Gov. Larry Hogan declared opioids a public health emergency in March.

“It’s a call to order and a call to action,” says Clay Stamp, head of Maryland’s Opioid Operational Command Center. Stamp comes to the job with a background as an emergency manager and compares this effort to the state’s response to a hurricane.

“We need all the right people in the room to make sure we can make a decision in time to move people out of harm’s way, shelter them and everything else,” he says. “This is no different.”

Since declaring an emergency, Maryland has tightened practices for those prescribing opioids and received a waiver to allow Medicaid to pay for residential drug treatment.

Massachusetts was the first state to declare opioids a public health emergency in 2014. Then-Gov. Deval Patrick acted on the recommendations of a special task force, says Michael Barnett, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The recommendations were “to open up funding for the Department of Public Health — for instance, to open up more treatment beds, to create funding and make it easier for … first responders to use naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses in the field,” he says.

Making naloxone freely available and putting it in the hands of more people has helped save lives. That has been one of the most immediate impacts of emergency declarations in states that have issued them.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared a public health emergency in June. Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association says with that declaration, the state began gathering badly needed data on the crisis.

“Who it’s hitting, where it’s hitting, who is doing the prescribing, what portion of it are fentanyl and heroin and what portion are prescribed pills,” he says. “And, as you get that more complete information, it allows you to craft better public policy.”

In Florida, the emergency declaration issued in May enabled Gov. Rick Scott to quickly allocate some $27 million in federal funds for drug treatment and prevention.

Palm Beach County, Fla., saw nearly 600 fatal overdoses last year, mostly related to opioids. Alton Taylor, executive director of the county’s Drug Abuse Foundation says although the emergency declaration was welcome, Palm Beach County and the rest of the state still don’t have enough publicly-funded beds available to treat people with opioid addictions.

“Today as I’m talking to you, we have over 200 people on a waiting list,” he says. “These are people where we’ve done a clinical assessment of them and determined them to be in need of that service.”

Despite the emergency declaration, Florida, unlike some other states, hasn’t tapped Medicaid to help pay for drug treatment. Taylor says he’s hopeful President Trump’s emergency declaration, when finalized, will free up more money to treat people in recovery from opioid addictions.

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