TikTok’s Money Guru Jack Corbett Searches New York for the Perfect Apple
A guy stands in the frame, arms hovering goonishly to the side. He stares deep into your eyes, unblinking. “I ate a bunch of rocks and I don’t have insurance.” Radiohead starts playing. Then he explains The No Surprises Act, a new healthcare bill that requires hospitals to give you a good faith estimate if you ask what a visit costs.
The creator and star of this video is Jack Corbett, the internet’s favorite economics hottie. The videos he makes for NPR’s Planet Money are a Kafkaesque mix of Bill Nye and Tim Burton. With deliberately bad animations and kitschy props, each TikTok has a narrative that repackages the most nebulous financial concepts, the kind I slept through in college, into something that’s legible in the TikTok ether. Jack is our unreliable narrator, constantly surprising the viewer with a new bit that winks at the absurdity of our financial structure with his signature deadpan. “It’s nice when you can explain something,” Corbett says about his approach to work as we dragged ourselves across New York City in pursuit of the perfect apple. “Things can be needlessly complicated.”
Aside from being a financial wizard, he’s also a writer, filmmaker, musician (he’s toured with Atlgrandma and The Crooks) and Twitter savant (there’s a whole account devoted just to his deleted tweets). Jack let me follow him around and see the rational and irrational ways he spends his money on a day out in New York. It was freezing but thankfully he brought us both sweaters his mom knit.
THE NEAREST MICHELIN STAR RESTAURANT | MILE END ($7.08)
Apparently, this was only a Michelin Bib Gourmand, a restaurant that, according to the Michelin guide, offers exceptionally good food for a more moderate price. “This demonstrates Transactional Utility,” Corbett explained. “The happiness a consumer gets from the perceived value of the deal. We really perceived this as a deal, as luxury. Maybe that was the special something that made the coffee taste all the better.”
CORBETT: Two Americanos. When in Rome… when Americano… does it taste like a Michelin Star? That’s what I want it to taste like. There’s this thing I’ve noticed with Starbucks that I don’t think has an economic term yet and I’d like to coin it “The Corbett Principle.” Basically, they over roast their beans so there’s conformity across their multinational legion of coffee shops, but it makes their product suck. I don’t mean to be a snob! Objectively, it’s not what you’re supposed to do with coffee. It burns my eyebrows off. But people have clung to this purposeful cheapening of Starbucks. They’re nostalgic for it. People love their Starbucks.
RIPS: I think people love Starbucks because they get the thing they’ve been drinking since high school; you know, the sweet, iced, venti whatever, they’re at a drive through with their friends, not the taste of the coffee itself. Though I do know people who drink Dunkin for the taste.
CORBETT: You’ve really thrown a wrench in The Corbett Principle. Okay, swap it out for Dunkin. An unnamed national coffee company, to create conformity, over roasts the beans. They taste the same everywhere and for some reason people have clung to this. It’s like the company is spitting in your face. Why?
RIPS: And The Corbett Principle is that it’s because of nostalgia?
CORBETT: The Corbett Principle is people do it and it’s crazy. Which is the whole of economics, saying people do this, what the heck. There are no answers. It’s a very soft science. A bunch of graphs.
RIPS: Were you always interested in economics?
CORBETT: Never. Didn’t take a course my entire life. I wasn’t interested until my second or third month making videos for Planet Money.
RIPS: What flipped?
CORBETT: That it’s so very weird. It’s all about irrational human behavior. It’s funny and sad and funny. It’s an albatross.
SUBWAY FARE ($2.75)
“The Pizza Principle,” Corbett says, “follows that the price of a slice of pizza and the price of a ticket on the subway were the same and went up together.”
RIPS: When you were a kid did you have any niche historical interests?
CORBETT: I was obsessed with Venice. I was like, “How did that city get on top of water?” What about you?
RIPS: Maybe the Titanic.
CORBETT: What about it? Were you like, “I could have fixed it?”
RIPS: If I had been there it would have gone down differently. Have you ever been to the gate the Titanic was supposed to arrive at? It’s on the West Side Highway, between the highway and a bike-lane. It’s so close to the piers that a lot of survivors ended up staying at the Chelsea Hotel. My next-door neighbor was convinced that her apartment was haunted by a child who survived the Titanic. And also a captain.
CORBETT: Wow. The Captain.
RIPS: Not the Captain. A Captain. What are you eating?
CORBETT: A loose granola bar. It has lint on it.
LOOSE GRANOLA BAR WITH LINT ($0)
RIPS: Have you had ghost encounters?
CORBETT: I’ve been haunted. Two years and one month ago to this day I woke up covered in blood. Had a giant gash and a bruise on my leg. I was like, “That’s weird.” I got up and went to the bathroom and there was my laundry detergent just sitting in the middle of my bathroom. I lived alone. No one else had a key to the place.
RIPS: So, you think a ghost did your laundry? And then hit you in the leg?
CORBETT: My theory is that it was mad at me. I had just made a TikTok about how astrology wasn’t real, that it was just confirmation bias. Like, if you believe something you’re going to go around seeing affirmations in the world confirming what you already believe. You’re going to remember all the times your horoscope was right, rather than when it was wrong. The astrology people got pissed off. Fair; I was out of line.Now I believe in astrology and ghosts.
RIPS: What’s your full natal chart?
CORBETT: Sun Scorpio. Moon Cancer. Virgo Rising. It was probably a carbon monoxide leak because my detector was going off. That’s the theory behind most ghost encounters. Carbon monoxide leaks caus you to do crazy stuff and then eventually die. I started sleeping with the window open and it never happened again. I haven’t talked bad about astrology since and there’ve been no ghosts. I did have a peeping Tom though. I used to keep the skateboard TikTok sent me by my bed. Last time I had a peeping Tom I chased him outside with it.
RIPS: Could you ever live outside of society?
CORBETT: I think that’s the dream. To have done it all and now you’re going to go live in the woods. To be so fed up.
RIPS: Did you ever want to be president?
CORBETT: My parents wanted me to, but I was too bad at AP government. My parents still think I’m going to, but after this interview it’s down the gutter. I do think our first TikToker president is gonna fix it all.
RIPS: Who’s our first TikToker president?
CORBETT: The guy who makes orbies in his bathtub.
CORBETT: God. We’re on different sides of Tikok. Ugh. Ok, it’s like a little pellet that you drop in water, and it expands. Or Jake or Logan Paul.
AN APPLE AT WHOLE FOODS ($1.19)
We steal a single cotton candy grape. “Tragedy of the commons,” Corbett explains. “If everyone started doing what we were doing with those grapes, unhampered and full of self-interest, there’d be so few grapes left.”
CORBETT: It’s the only thing that brings me happiness, buying an apple on my daily apple walk. That and Jerome Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve. I’ve tried all the apples at my local grocery store. Now, I just get a Granny Smith. I love a farmer’s market. I’m all about farmers. I grew up in a corn field. Recently, I was digging and found county commissioner papers that approved the fracking that happened in my backyard, 800 feet to my childhood bed basically, that went into the well water that we drank.
RIPS: How’s the apple?
CORBETT: Apple could be crisper. What do you think?
RIPS: Too tart. This is not an apple I would commit original sin for. Do you ever get Honey Crisp?
CORBETT: Honey Crisp is a little too good.
RIPS: Why would you deprive yourself of something that was good?
CORBETT: Catholic Guilt?
RIPS: How do you feel Catholic Guilt influences your shopping habits?
CORBETT: I don’t think I can be an influencer on behalf of Catholic Guilt.
RIPS: I know you’re a big Werner Herzog guy. What are your other creative influences?
CORBETT: Orson Welles. I like how over-the-top he is. He’s theatrical and romantic. I really love a romantic. Not in a lovey-dove way. In the cool way. In the nature, me standing in front of waves way. I’ve been really scrounging the bottom of the bins trying to find something inspiring. Have you seen the movie Bring Out The Dead? It’s a Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader movie with Nicholas Cage.
RIPS: I think the only good Nick Cage movie is…
RIPS: Moonstruck! Do you like Paul Schrader?
CORBETT: I go off and on. Some of his movies can be so insidious but then Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters is the most beautiful movie I’ve ever seen. People should talk about it the way they talk about Citizen Kane. It’s the first movie that Phillip Glass scored. I really go through life looking for things to impact me.
REGAL CINEMA UNION SQUARE ($0)
We didn’t see Shazam 2. Since I hadn’t seen Shazam 1, Corbett said it wouldn’t make sense.
RIPS: When are you moving to NYC?
CORBETT: I’m going to come back when everyone in LA hates me. I would like to move back but I’m in my self-love era. I do plan to live here again. It was my dream. When I was in college it was the only place that seemed real to me. The promise of being here, the art, everything was such heaven. I’m a New York kind of guy. I never thought I’d end up in LA. I do like LA though. My ancestors suffered in Maine not because they wanted to but because they didn’t know California existed!
RIPS: In those days, that was the whole point: getting to the other coast.
CORBETT: I had a great-great uncle that lived in New York, and he sold a car that had nothing inside of it. The cops followed him to his house in Maine. And he was like, “Alright, you guys got me, let me just go upstairs and wash up.” After a while they were like, he’s spent a lot of time in there. He had packed his suitcase full of guns and escaped! He moved to LA and became a motorcar driver. Ralph Leavitt.
RIPS: Would you name your kid Ralph?
CORBETT: Yeah, if the baby had bad vibes. What’s your secret place in New York?
RIPS: My dad’s storage unit. An assortment of the bizarre.
CORBETT: If aliens came down to earth and were like we’re going to destroy Earth if you don’t show us a good time…
RIPS: I’d take them to Royal Seafood in Chinatown. Best dim sum, but you have to get there before 11.
CORBETT: I love a place that only has limited supply. You wanna know why? It makes demand go up.
“You need to buy them with cash, I assume because you could just run out a credit card buying scratchers,” Corbett posited. “Another Jack Corbett theory.”
CORBETT: If we win $100,000 dollars…What’s stopping you from saying we won $100,000 dollars right now.
RIPS: Journalistic Integrity?
CORBETT: Doesn’t exist. No such thing.
RIPS: Economic integrity?
CORBETT: Doesn’t exist. Have you done your taxes this year? If you made less than $73,000, you can file your taxes for free on IRS.gov.
RIPS: Do you have any insider stock tips? I promise I won’t tell anyone.
CORBETT: You know I can’t do that.
RIPS: Just testing you.
BEDFORD CHEESE SHOP | CRACKERS AND POPCORN ($18.60)
“Marginal utility: the satisfaction or benefit derived by consuming a product,” says Corbett. “Like that first cracker, so worth the price. But as I get towards the bottom of the bin and the crackers/popcorn stop doing for me, I just wonder, was it really worth it?” A fan of his took a photo of us shoving popcorn into our mouths and posted it on TikTok. So, no.
RIPS: What are you excited for this year?
CORBETT: I’m really excited about this docuseries I got greenlit at NPR. Also, I went to a thing called Tomatomania and got a bunch of little tomato plants of heirloom varieties.