So here's what I want you to do. Take a look a the video we embedded at the top of this post. It's a little old – last December or thereabouts, I think. But it'll do.
That's Jim Fallows in the left seat doing the flying, me in the right, along for the ride. We're in Jim's Cirrus SR-22, out of Portland, Maine, headed waaaaay down east to Eastport, Maine, which is, for the record, the eastern-most point in the continental United States.
I mention it because by the time this post is up I'll be back in Jim's plane, flying from Birmingham, Alabama, over to Columbus, Mississippi, for another installment of the project we've been working on with Jim, his wife Deb, and the Atlantic Magazine for the past 6 or 8 months, called 'American Futures.'
It's a pretty simple concept: Jim and Deb fly around the country, seeing what they can see from the air, landing at one of the thousands of small airports that're out there, with us tagging along from time to time. We hope that by the end of it we'll have a pretty good picture of what the American economy looks like right now.
Dispatches from Columbus coming soon to a radio show near you – ten days or so. Oh, and be sure to stick with the video 'til about 1:55 or so.
It's becoming harder and harder for consumers to get loans. So they're turning to another money source -- their retirement accounts.
During good times, we contribute to our retirement plans. In bad times, we raid them. The Great Recession threw the raiding into high gear. Many people used their retirement money to stave off disaster.
University of Michigan economist Frank P. Stafford says we spent on "layoffs, unexpected medical expenses." But, some retirement raids were for things like home makeovers:
"Converting your pension into a granite countertop," says Stafford.
The thing is, if you take money out of your retirement plan before age 59 and a half, you pay a 10 percent penalty.
Yet, Stafford says, 5 to 6 percent of us have done that over the past two years.
You can avoid the penalty by just borrowing against your retirement accounts. Plenty of us did so in 2012.
"Basically one out of five employees over the one year period take loans out of their 401k plan and have an outstanding balance," says Joe Ready, the head of institutional retirement at Wells Fargo.
Ready says there is a little good news. Those loans have plateaued, and more people are contributing to their retirement plans.
So, how long does it take you to watch all those programs you DVR?
You might not care if you wait a day or two, but you know who does? Network executives and advertisers.
That's because ad deals are based on what's known as C3, a measurement of commercial minutes seen live and over the following three days. Advertisers don't pay for your eyeballs if you watch "Scandal" on day four.
"From the networks' perspective, they're saying, 'Well hey, if someone didn't skip the commercial on day four, why are they worth nothing?'" says Brian Wieser, senior analyst at Pivotal Research Group.
But some ads do get stale. That ad for the Saturday-only sale? Doesn't do much good on Sunday.
So now tell us, how long does it take you to get to the shows you missed?How long do you typically wait to watch shows on your DVR?
Every day at a sprawling Arrowhead bottle plant in Los Angeles, a towering yellow robot nicknamed "Apollo" grabs empty 5 gallon water cooler jugs from trucks, and sends them to refill stations under the watchful eye of technicians.
Those large office water bottles get tons of re-use, but most individual plastic bottles are only used once. How do we reduce that waste? San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu wrote legislation to limit single-use bottle sales on public property.
"People can still purchase single use plastic water bottle at their local grocery store or their corner store," Chiu says. "But what we want to do is really ask residents in our city to think about changing their consumer behavior."
A New York entrepreneur named Nan Harris hopes to change our water drinking habits with a vending machine called WaterStop Carts. After noticing the wastefulness of single-use bottles, she sold her co-op to finance a company to develop a more efficient technology.
"Bottled water is just easier to find, that's all there is to it," says Harris. "So we developed the concept of accessibility through mobility."
Harris' sleek metal vending machine connects to municipal tap water, then runs it through filters like those at the giant bottled water plants. It also sells reusable bottles that collapse when not in use. Future versions will dispense another life-saving resource: wifi hotspots.
MIT students invented a similar machine called Refresh. It sells new bottles for $1.50, but refills are just 50 cents if you bring your own bottle.
Over in Los Angeles' Koreatown, Richard Chin and his fiancee opened a water store called Alkasource. In a back room that looks like a science lab, they filter regular Los Angeles tap water into a bottle of your choice: plastic, glass, or metal.
"Once we started doing research about how water is sold, how water is produced and purified, we found that there weren't that many resources for great quality water," says Chin. "And so we decided to get into this business to provide the community with a source for very clean water."
The International Bottled Water Association's Chris Hogan acknowledges that lots of new eco-friendly options have popped up lately. "We have no problem with tap water, filtered water, using a reusable water bottle," Hogan says. "The important thing is to drink water."
The end result for consumers is more choice -- from a bottling plant full of robots, to little machines that filter water right in front of you.