In The Moment: Episode 59

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In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin about the impact of viruses on our genetic makeup, and the hidden universes inside our DNA. Shubin unpacks the properties of viruses, and the ways they can disrupt our world while simultaneously setting the stage for evolutionary change. With examples of ancient viruses that attacked the human genome and were then repurposed, Shubin delves into the essential role that repurposing has played in our evolution and the story of life on Earth. He highlights how the dynamic nature of genetic mutation continues to confound and intrigue researchers today. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall Seattle.

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Episode Transcript

This transcription was performed automatically by a computer. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we introduce you to folks coming to our stages by getting you familiar with their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. The Corona virus hits even closer to home than you might have imagined. Did you know that our genome is made up of material from many viruses that merged with other cells over the millions of years that life evolved, or that 8% of our genome is composed of dead viruses. Evolution is a strange and wonderful process that allows for amazing twists and turns in the ongoing development of life. Neil Shubin takes us through this wild ride and his new book, some assembly required decoding 4 billion years of life from ancient fossils to DNA. Neil Shubin is a paleontologist evolutionary biologist at the university of Chicago and the author of two previous books about evolution and host of the PBS series, your inner fish. He is provost of the field museum of natural history in Chicago. Shubin was scheduled to come to town hall on March 25th to talk about how the scientific discoveries of the last few decades have confirmed many of Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution and help scientists understand the steps genes take that change species. That event has been canceled due to coven 19 measures to suspend public gatherings. But our chief correspondent Steve share talks with Shubin about his book over the phone.

Hey, see, hi Neil. How are you

surviving the social distancing world? We’re living in everything. Okay. On your end.

It is though. I, I have allergies and this is the big allergy season and I had just gotten off the plane from, uh, South Carolina when, when everything sorta started hitting here.

Yeah. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling too, so it’s very strange stuff. Yeah. Yes it is. I had to send, I sent a note out to my lab this morning. Just, I said, anxiety is normal. Uh, but you know, let’s, let’s look after each other cause I’m did the anxiety level is huge, you know, and uh, we could do the test in the lab. It’s not diagnostic rate, but it’d be good enough to test folks in the lab. So, you know, we have all that stuff going. But you know, it’s just, these are crazy times with the economy, with, uh, collectively with the coronavirus. It’s just so disruptive for, I feel, you know, my students, I feel, you know, I feel they just faced so many challenges, you know, it’s just hard enough to be a, a young person, you know, and then you layer all this other stuff on. It’s like, Oh my God,

I have a, I have a, I teach at the UDaB. I have a student who, uh, in January had come back from Wu Han, uh, to see his folks. And he came back and, and he said, are you taking, cause this is really, really dangerous. I mean, my folks back there are, they’re freaked out. They’re, you know, they’re not going on the streets. Of course, it got even worse since then. Right. And, and he wrote me the other day and said, I’m serious. Are you taking these precautions? Are you being careful? Because he’s very worried. The university of Washington, um, stopped teaching, uh, in person classes for the rest of the winter quarter. And then they say, but we hope to be up again for spring quarter, which is March 30th. And I’m thinking, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know how you can say that. So I’m already preparing my video lectures because I, I, uh, I wanted to start, it seems just completely appropriate to start with the Corona virus coven 19, but with viruses and how and how they relate cause in some assembly required, you go pretty deep into how we ended up with virus, Jeanette genetic materials from viruses and our genome.

Yeah. That’s one of the stunning things when you look at our, you know, what we’ve learned about evolution over the last decade or so, viruses and our relationship with viruses become this incredibly complex thing. You know, we think about what a virus is, you know, a virus and we don’t even know if they’re alive. I mean, I don’t even want to give a definition whether it’s living or a nerd, but the reality is they’re a piece of genetic material. Either the RNA or the DNA, but just genetic material, you know, surrounded by a, a shell, right? Um, and they lie and hurt until they contact a host. Uh, and you know, they, they can contact the host. And a lot of ways as we’re becoming increasingly familiar, um, you know, by insects can carry them, uh, droplets of air contacts, their surfaces, you name it. Anyway, as soon as they contact to a host, a chemical chain reaction goes off, right?

They attach to the host, they go inside the host cell, they go inside the nucleus, and then they commandeer the, the genetic material of the host to make more copies of themselves, you know, and that more copies can be 40 to 60,000, and then they burst out of that cell. And you know, when you think of that, we have 4 trillion cells in our body and that’s going in a lot of cells. I mean, that’s a lot of viral tissue, that strategy. I mean, they are the ultimate parasites because they take over and it’s enormously successful. The current estimate of the number of viruses on planet earth. If we can do it from like ocean water, you know, if you extrapolate from a cup of ocean water broadly is a huge number, 10 to the 31st, that’s a 10 with 31 zeros after it. When you look at that number, um, it’s larger than the stars in the known universe.

Okay. Wow. So this is like super successful. So these viruses, we’ve been living with viruses and our ancestors had been living with viruses for billions of years. So, so we have genome projects that have been done. Um, you know, obviously human genome project, genome project, Lily genome project, you know, thousands upon thousands of genome projects expanding every day. And here’s the surprise, when you look at our genome, the DNA that makes proteins, the things we call gene, 2%. Wow. Yeah, I think about that for a second. And so the rest, you know, there’s other stuff, all of that other stuff about, I mean, 8% of our total genome is actually bits of old viruses that invaded our genome and then got knocked out. So we have four times more viral bits in our own genome. Then our own genes. Okay. So we’re like walking virus, you know, that’s us. Okay.

We’re part virus. So researchers at the university of Utah, a few years back, uh, we’re, this is just tying it together. Another story to give you a different viewpoint on viruses cause we’re talking about evolution, our own evolution. Um, we’re working on this memory protein called arc arc, you know, and um, it’s a gene that makes a protein and it’s involved in memories. So mice that have a mutation in arc, uh, can solve a maze, but they don’t remember their solution the next day. So it’s clearly involved in memories. Uh, people who, um, have altered arc activity, um, have, uh, uh, increased rates of dementia, schizophrenia, memory problems and so forth. So art is a memory gene, right? So this researcher at Jason Shepherd at the university of Utah, I was looking at the arc protein. You know, I’m doing what every good biochemist does. Pops it under a high powered microscope, looks at its structure.

And he said, you know, I’ve seen this structure before. And so he goes back to his old infectious disease textbooks. He’s a young professor, but he went back to his graduate school days. Turns out that the structure he was seeing looked a lot like a protein structure, a, a capsule made by HIV. The virus that causes AIDS. Oh, Whoa. No, wait a minute. That’s weird. So he um, cause he’s in a medical school, Utah. He calls colleagues over, you know, in a different department and he makes a slide and he gives it to him. It doesn’t tell him what’s on the slide. And he says, here, why don’t you take a peek? You know, what are you, what am I, when I got on my slide, they thought it was the virus that causes AIDS. So then they sequenced this gene arc, this memory gene, and it turns out it’s a version of a virus similar to the kind that causes AIDS.

Think about that for a second. The gene is involved. So then he looks at it and says, well, you know, look, why was eight successful a, it’s a success. I mean the virus that causes HIV is successful because it has a capsule, a protein capsule around it that it makes that protects the V, the the G, the genetic material as it goes from cell to cell. So what helps HIV spread is its ability to go from cell to cell and you know, the individual and this protein capsule that it makes is a part of that success. Well, what makes arc so successful as a memory gene is the same thing. It’s ability to go from cell to cell with a protein capsule and it uses the version of the same capsule. So the more they look, they more they find that this, this memory gene is a version of a, a, of a virus.

And then they looked and they found that the hypothesis they came up with, which seems to be increasingly true there is that fish don’t have this, but all land living animals do that sometime in the very distant past, maybe about 375 billion years ago, an ancient virus attack the genome and maybe caused an infection of some kind, but got incorporated in the genome. Then got commandeered, got domesticated, got repurposed from doing its normal thing, which is infecting and you know, maybe killing or diminishing in some way, but to a new purpose got put to use, you know, so the hacker, the virus got hacked itself and got puts to Brittany, you use. And it turns out that we’re seeing this over and over again in evolution. We’re seeing some of the genes, I’m sorry, some of the proteins that are involved in, uh, the making the placenta and other structures in our bodies all have a viral history.

So it seems we have this really complicated interaction with viruses, the same properties that disrupt our world so much that wreak havoc with our world, that wreak havoc with our way of interacting with one another. Those properties are also make it useful as fuel for evolutionary change that they can be put to use in certain cases to make new structures. You know, and I can’t tell you just how, when you think about the complexity of our relationship to the natural world or the physical world as well, it’s really embedded in this story about viruses, right? So kinda, and we’re, we’re, we’re walking around part virus, right? And they are truly scary. You know, there’s no doubt about it. But they’re also been part of our history when they’ve been put to use to make new stops. So they’re also part of our humanity.

I love this sentence that’s, uh, in the, in the chapter our inner battlefield, the genome is the stuff of, well, few sentences. The genome is the stuff of B movies, like a zombie graveyard, bits and pieces of ancient viral fabrics. Fam fragments lie everywhere. By some estimates, 8% of our genome is composed of dead viruses, more than a hundred thousand of them at last count. Some of these viruses, fossil viruses kept a function, make a protein useful in pregnancy memory. Countless other activities others sit like corpses where they invaded only to be extinguished. So there’s this notion that we’re our genome. We talk about junk virus, junk, junk, junk stuff, and it’s not really, it is junk and that we aren’t using it, but it’s, it’s not completely garbage, right?

No, no, no, no. I mean, in fact, that whole is this very controversial notion calling the DNA junk, honestly. Um, because it means some of it, we know what it’s doing, but it’s not making you do that. Maybe some of these are switches that control proteins. Some of them are spacer regions. So you’re thinking about our genome as this incredibly dynamic thing. All right, let me give you a paint a word picture for you. Um, the, um, if you were to take our DNA, our genome in our, you know, it’s six foot long, we’re more or less think about that. That’s packed inside the nucleus of every single cell, uh, 4 trillion cells in our body. And it is not just a nerd, it’s sitting there opening and closing molecules are attaching to it. It’s just this, you know, this incredible concert of activity is going on to activate genes.

Well, for that to happen, you have our genes which make the protein, but then there’s all this other stuff which is involved in the actual activity of the DNA. Uh, and some of it, we actually have no idea what it’s, what it’s doing. Um, you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s a world is its whole universe inside our DNA. We know some of it are switches that control activity. Others are viruses that have been knocked out. But we also know that the three dimensional structure of DNA and the way that that structure changes, you know, opens and closes and twists and turns. It’s, it’s a, it’s an Acrobat rDNA all packed inside a tiny little nucleus, um, that controls the activity of genes during development as we go from embryo to adult, but also in health and disease and the normal functioning of our tissues. I mean, it’s just, um, you know, when you think about what we’ve learned about the genome in the last 20 years, it’s this dynamism, uh, it’s dynamism inside it, the dynamism in its act, in its relationship to the outside world. And that includes, you know, viruses, um, that, that dynamism is so incredibly important, uh, for our function of our own body, but also important for our evolutionary history.

So rather than junk, that phrases is not a good phrase in, in, um, an astronomy. And in a study of, of in astrophysics, we now have dark energy, dark matter, because we don’t really know what that is, but we know it’s there. So we call it dark cause it’s, it’s an, we’re uncertain of what it does. Is that a better way to think about all the stuff?

Oh, I love it. Yes. As infection on Carola, a good friend and colleague of mine who’s a leader in the, there’s two, there’s a physicist on Carolyn, a biologist on Carol. The biologist on Carol has been a leader in understanding how genes control development. And he, he actually refers to it as the dark matter of the genome, you know, which is, you know, that 90 X percent, which we don’t really know what it does. Uh, but we know what some of it does. And, um, you know, some of it’s controlling the activity of other genes, you know, um, and, you know, think about, it’s kind of mind blowing when you think that the DNA inside, you know, a tissue in the retina of the eye is virtually the same as the DNA inside. Uh, you know, cartilage in your knee, cartilage cell and your needs the same, right? More or less, you know, what’s different is the genes that are turned on and off the activity of those genes. So it’s not the genes per se that’s driving those differences of those tissues as much as it is the switches that control the activity of those genes in these, you know, in cartilage versus the retina or any of the other hundreds of tissues in our bodies. So really understanding those switches is what’s important for understanding what makes our body, you know, packed the way it is with the different of tissues and cells

and how it evolves. And that takes us back to the, sort of, the basic premise of this book. One of the premises of this book, uh, what Darwin said, the change in function is, is what begins what, what, uh, drives evolution.

Yeah, I was, yeah, exactly. And Lillian Hellman was put in another way. I was, um, when I was, when I was writing the book, I was reading a biography autobiography of Lillian Hellman. And she said, you know, she had a rough life and some of it self-imposed, but she, uh, uh, she said, uh, nothing of course, which she’s referring to our life. She says, nothing. Of course, effort begins when you think it does, you know? And I thought, wow, that’s kind of a motto for how we look at evolution now. You know, the antecedents we look for. And I’m a paleontologist as much as a molecular biologist. Um, the antecedents we look for always go deeper and time in different ways. And Darwin realized that, you know, he had no theory of genetics or development or anything and a very, you know, the fossil record wasn’t nearly as good back in 1859 as it is today.

But he knew that too. He said, look, these structures may have arisen for a different purpose, way back in the distant past, but it’s the change in function that is as important as anything else. Um, and to me, we see that at the level of genes we see that the level of the Oregon’s, sorry, I love to tell because it’s in my own field is most people think, you know, while lungs are related to the ability to live on land. So if you look at evolution and Eileen naively you’d suppose that the, you know, invasion of land by fish 370 million years ago, one of the big changes was the origin of lungs. And that’s manifestly not true. Lungs were around for zillions of millions of years before, you know, our ancestors ever took the first steps on land. You know, there are lung fish and being black lungs are air breathing and lungs, a very common thing.

And so the shift in much of the shift and transition from water to land didn’t as much involve new structures. It involved re-purposing or finding new functions for structures that already existed. You know, and, and so we can trace the histories, the history of these things as much deeper in time than we initially suppose, you know. And, um, and I think that story which you see in lungs is also, um, we see that at the genetic level and development and on and on and on and on. And I think it’s only been confirmed, um, hugely, uh, with, uh, with modern DNA technology. You know, so when you think, you know, feathers arose to help animals fly, lungs arose to help animals live on land, all that’s not true. The traits we associate with the great revolutions in the history of life are never associated with the great revolution. They always arose before and were rebar repurposed and they Rose for some other,

and it’s the repurposing that we’re coming to understand how important that is over time with the evolution of life.

That’s correct. And that repurposing often takes different forms, surprising forms that we would never would have predicted, you know, until we collect the data, you know, so the repurposing of feathers from structures involved in thermoregulation or sexual reproduction to flight, you know, that all that took knowledge of the fossil record that’s been coming increasingly refined over recent years. The knowledge of lungs coming out and fish, you know, that we’re living in water, breathing, air and water. You know, when, um, for a variety of reasons, um, that shifted likewise the genes originally involved in making swim bladders and fish actually they got repurposed to make lungs. You know, repurposing is the, uh, is the story of evolution of life on earth. Um, and by repurposing, copying, duplicating, modifying, merging things together. Uh, we come up with new stuff. You know, the recipe for life is sort of repurposed over billions of years and these are the switches that are jumping all over the genome.

The selfish gene as you, as you call it, Richard docking calls the Dawkins calls with, these are the switches that are showing all of the reproducing themselves. There are some of those. Yes. So there’s their switches. Some of them are some jump around, some don’t. And so, um, so think about this way. Our genome has, uh, parts that have the information to code proteins. Okay. Those are the genes. Those are that 2%. Then a lot of this other stuff is stuff that’s turning on and off those genes telling, telling the cells when and where to make the right proteins to make a, an eye, a bone, a piece of skin, hair and so forth. Um, and it’s those switches that are important, you know, and then, and we can study those switches, um, in evolution to compare tissues of say a bird to a reptile, to an amphibian, to a fish.

Uh, we can do that in many different ways. One of the things that’s really interesting and it w your question referred to is that there are other parts of our genome that are always roiling that are always making copies of themselves and inserting elsewhere. So, um, there, uh, one of the most famous discoveries, uh, was, was, uh, in genetics was the discovery that certain parts of the genome can make copies of themselves and then jump to go elsewhere in the genome. And if you look at our own genome, in fact, much of it is composed of these, um, of these ancient, um, jumping genes that, um, you know, that, that, uh, that they actually about 50% of our genome, think about that five zero, 50% or it’s unit is made up of these jumping genes that have taken over, right? Well, it turns out a colleague here at Chicago and others, some at Utah, some at Stanford, so forth, uh, Cornell have, um, have been looking at this and they find that some of these switches have gotten trained and have gotten carried around the genome by being part of these jumping genes.

You know, so you had a mutation arrive in one place and then, you know, that jumping gene brought new switches all over the genome and you can ask, well, why is that important? Well, if I was to ask, you know, how is a skin cell different from a, a car, uh, a cell that makes cartilage and, or one that makes a retina, it’s not just one protein, it’s hundreds of proteins that make them different. Well, one way to get that kind of change is to have a mutation appear in one gene, right? And then have switches, have the switches that control that gene carried by jumping genes across the genome. So the way you can have like a proliferation of changes appear in one tissue, in one protein at one place, but then get carried across the genome. So it’s a way to get relatively dramatic change in a fairly short period of time. They’re relatively simple mechanisms. Um, but all of this underscores just how dynamic the genome is that’s going on inside the, you know, the 4 trillion cells of our own bodies right now as we talk,

this raises so many other questions, but I have the language that you use and that you’re constrained by, perhaps you might say is a language that sort of, uh, you know, controls moves about, makes, creates, it’s a language of, of, um, an actor upon things. Right? And I’m not getting into the, I’m not talking about like the, you know, the a creator, right? Intelligent design, but I, but I, I wonder if, do you ever feel you’re constrained by the language? Cause your whole goal of course is to educate people about how science works and about how evolution works. So I just, yeah,

I wonder if I think about that’s actually conscious. Um, I do think a design is a fine word to use for things that even been produced by random, uh, um, uh, entities acting over time because what you have is something that is, appears to be incredibly and is incredibly structured at one way, incredibly, you know, with complex networks inside it that are interrelated. Um, and that’s that you can talk to that as a design, but the designer is a set of processes that include a substantial random as well as some non-random components. So yeah, makes and design are words you can use, but they are words that, um, uh, I use when I described, I have a process that is number one, historical, uh, and number two, that includes a substantial random, uh, component, um, which is obviously [inaudible].

Yeah. And now here’s my goofy question. The randomness of evolutionary, um, of components. Randomness, evolutionary change. Um, you could see how, I can imagine how comic book writers could see how you could end up with superheroes.

Right, exactly. I mean the spider bite to change the world or you know, something, some other mutation within the cell that all of a sudden gives somebody the ability to have stronger skin. Yeah.

Oh yeah. Look at the Hulk ride. He had a mutation with a gamma rays or whatever it was. And if we didn’t have the Hulk, look at what you think, how the world would be different, you know. Um, no, I mean contingencies. Uh, you know, contingency is a big part of evolution, but it’s not the only part. You know, there are parts of evolution that are highly contingent and then there are other parts of their kind of Nan non-random in very specific ways. So, you know, that’s, and that’s another thing I tried to deal with in the book a bit cause it’s, you know, obviously one of the big debates, you mean like physics, like the possibility of things.

I’m thinking as much as you will think of it in the biological reference of that, that is that, uh, you know, we wouldn’t be here today if an asteroid didn’t wipe out the dinosaurs 65 and change million years ago, that these continue these events, you know, these contingent events, uh, create opportunities, uh, for new, for species to evolve in new ways. Um, and that, you know, Stephen, Jay Gould, uh, used to say that if you replayed the tape of life, you know, you know, starting 550 million years ago, um, and say contingently remove certain species that are very different, you know, that we’re, we have all these different contingent events that make our world look the way it does today. Um, and you know, and if know, and when you look at evolution, it’s hard to escape the importance of those sorts of things, but it’s also hard to escape the fact that, you know, different creatures evolve the same structures independently over and over again.

Um, and we see that at the level of, you know, the, the anatomy we can see at the level of cells. We also have level of genes. So there’s, there is something that’s substantially non-random about it as well. So when I talk about evolution in the role of chance and evolution, I, it’s basically I talk about loaded dice that there’s a, you know, that there is a contingent or a random component, but there’s also a component that is, uh, that loads the dice, that tilts the odds and in certain ways, in certain terms, certain ends and outcomes.

Right, right, right. As you’ve first done your science and written your science, uh, your peer reviewed science papers and later written these books in Hurfeish

the university, then you’re inefficient. And then, and then this

book, some assembly required, has your, what has happened with your thinking because you’re writing these as the science is changing at the same time, right? So what has happened with your thinking over this time last 10 years?

Well, each of these books becomes a big part of me. Um, and then they, they, so, so when you, when you do a book like this, um, you are, um, you begin with a certain set of, uh, stories that you want to tell. I begin with scientific narratives and human narratives that I want to tell. Um, but then, you know, it changes, it evolves and it evolves as you learn as a scientist. It evolves as you learn as a storyteller. Um, so my thinking has changed quite a bit over the years. I mean, the whole notion of scientifically thinking about the dynamism of the genome, um, that’s something that really wasn’t on my radar screen 10 years ago. Um, and so that’s become a very big part of it. The me thinking about viruses in this way, that’s something I didn’t think about 10 years ago.

Um, but you know, what’s constant in this is that when I write, and when I think about the, you know, science is done by people and people, you know, work hard, get lucky, fail, improve, learn from failures. I mean, these are human narratives. Um, and, and those I’m always a much more, having written, I’m actually much more in tuned to other people’s narratives more than I was before in a funny way. Um, I think about they’re not because I’m writing about them, but I just think about their personal stories. When I hear somebody give a, even a scientific seminar, you know, I, I see the humanity in it in a way that I wouldn’t have seen before or wouldn’t have a pre, I would maybe would have seen it, but wouldn’t have appreciated it as much before. I don’t know if I’m making sense, but, um, you know, we all are a story.

We all have stories in our lives, you know, and, and, uh, and science is an outcome of that of, and it’s not, it’s never linear, you know, it’s never linear. It is always twists and turns and bends and go back and forth and all over. Um, and I’m much more in tuned to those than I was before. And also I’m much more attuned to how the science works that way. You know, that it doesn’t work in a linear narrative that it’s, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s has its own complex path, just like the history of life on earth.

Well, this book has full of those and it’s great. I mean, I love to learn about these scientists who were grappling with these ideas in many ways in the dark, right there in the dark about what’s actually going on. But they’re putting together these amazing ideas starting, I mean, not starting with, but you know, Darwin among them. But you all, you talk about, um, some of the women that have been a part of this and maybe we haven’t had their stories, now we’re hearing their stories more. Julia Platt, Barbara McClintock and then a woman that I got to interview and you know, Mary Claire King and the work that she’s done and she’s been recognized for it. But it’s amazing work.

It is amazing work. And her, her life story is amazing. And I had the huge privilege of being able to talk to her when I was writing the book for about half hour, 45 minutes about her life story. And, and the life story that had a huge size antic footprint to it. And, um, you know, it just, it’s such a privilege to be able to talk to these people and learn about these people, but also tell their stories. Um, and you mentioned Julia Platt, there’s one who very few people know. Um, she was a woman working in the mid 18 hundreds in, um, uh, originally at the university of Vermont and later at Harvard and she was really off the charts intelligent and really off the charts passionate about biology in particular, embryology, obviously going, you know, understanding how Oregon’s and bodies are built from egg to adult and she couldn’t get a PhD in the United States.

So she went to Germany to get a PhD. Um, you know, against all odds came back and it’s 18 hundreds, by the way. It came back, ended up working, um, in woods hole, the Marine biological laboratory in a laboratory that, you know, valued women’s work. And she found something really remarkable that ran counter to the time people thought that all organs in the body came from one of three sort of tissues that in early embryonic development. And she found that some bones in the skull don’t obey that easy rule. And so she published a paper on that and the main leaders in the field, basically, I mean, I don’t know how to say it other than like they dumped on her. They just like said no. And eventually one of the big leaders, uh, confirmed her results, um, and backed her up, but not until she was chased out of the field.

So she ended up writing a letter to David star Jordan, who was president of Stanford university at the time, literally begging for a job. She ended up having to leave science. And, uh, she ended up becoming, after leaving science, she moved to Pacific Grove, California, became mayor of Pacific Grove, California, and ended up in the 1920s saving Monterey Bay. You know, so science is losses, the world’s gain, I guess. And her scientific discovery was later confirmed and it was shown that a, that what she’d had discovered wasn’t big agents of our own development and our own evolutionary change. She was one of the people who led to the discovery of a tissue type called the neural crest, which is this huge tissue type, which is so very important for evolution and our own development. So, you know, you know, to tell those kinds of stories, it changes you when I, you know, changes, you mean the author, me, I, I had, you know, w I had, I known of her work, but when I read her life story that has now, pardon me, you know, it’s like, eh, likewise, Mary Claire King, likewise, you know, Lindmar Gulas likewise, you know, Barbara McClintock and others, you know, they, the story of these people who often work against all odds and in the process changed the way we think of the world.

You know, that’s, um, that’s powerful stuff. And just be able to be able to have the privilege of getting those stories out there as I did, as I tried to do in this book. Um, you know, it was just a great feeling. So just, I hope they gain traction.

Are you finding that, um, as more women are in science, uh, and as that, um, that patriarchy falls away, that different a shift in focus looking at, you know, estrogen rather than testosterone? Is movers looking at female bodies rather than just as male bodies? Is it changing the perception? Is it changing the ability of science to learn more and take a deeper, deeper understanding of what’s happening in evolution in this case?

Well, yeah, and in fact, where we really feel it most is in clinical studies, right? Cause in so much, you know, clinical biology is based on the male, right? Um, that, uh, you know, the having the other 50 and change percent, uh, represented is a, is, is, is not only, um, uh, interesting, but it’s incredibly important. Um, and so, and it’s been just a major gap in our knowledge. There’s no doubt that as we get more diverse as a, you know, as a community in science, um, that the kinds of questions that people ask, uh, get broader. You know, and you know, we all profit because of that. Uh, and we all have our blind spots, right? Every one of us, we walk around with blind spots. And the first as a scientist, the blind spots are often in the kinds of questions you ask, you know, and I’m loaded with those, right? As is everybody else in different ways. And so the more we can have a community that helps us get beyond our own blind spots, um, the more traction we can get, the more the broader our work becomes, you know? Um, and so we’re, we see it left and right, or there’s just no doubt about that. Well, that’s why I love telling these different kinds of stories in the book. Honestly,

you’re, I’m in this book and in your work, you’re explaining what we know and what we are discovering and how much we’re discovering as we understand ways to unpack the genome and, and get right down to the microscopic level and molecular level with DNA. What don’t we know? What are still some of the big black holes that you’re thinking about?

Well what we, you know, we still, there’s just so much we don’t know. I mean, you know, we really don’t know how a Oregon is built from genetic information. You know, I can give you a list of genes that are involved in bill and making an Oregon right in its development, um, and its evolution. But how all those genes and proteins work together to make a heart. Uh, we’re a long way from that. You know, we’re a long way from connecting the dots. We’re good at making lists right now. We have technologies that can show us, you know, every protein that’s made in a cell, every protein and gene that’s active in a tissue, we can really do. I can give you those lists, right? But how you go from a list to a body question marks, right? We are still struggling in the dark on these things.

Although we’re getting better, you have to begin with the list, right? So we’re privileged to have those lists, but we are not, we’re still a long way from going from a list to a blueprint to, you know, a recipe to a body. I mean it’s just, it’s that, it’s that much. Um, so I think that’s what the coming decades are going to be. And I think, you know, we’re going to find, you know, DNA is filled with mysteries. There’s still is all kinds of regions in, in our own genome. We don’t know what it’s doing, what they’re doing, why they’re there, why they vary in the way they do, um, in the ways that they do. So, you know, we’re just loaded with mysteries. Likewise in evolution. I can show you all kinds of areas in evolution where, you know, we should, we need to target understanding the origin of vertebrates, creatures with backbones and skulls.

You know, we have some fossils that show us, um, likely candidates of the kinds of ancestors that existed then. But really the devil’s in the details. We can use a whole lot more information there. Have you go ahead. Oh, no, no. So there’s, you know, the reason why I love being a scientist is because every time you find something new, you give yourself answers. But some of those answers include much more precise and broader questions. And that’s kind of the phase we’re seeing ourselves in now. And knowing all these fields, fossils and genes. Hmm. Hey, when you’re not doing this, do you do other things to keep your brain active? Like what are your hobbies? I love, um, my dad was a mystery thriller writer, so I love reading stories. Um, you know, I’m, I’m not a workout nut, but, um, but hiking, moving my body is very important to me.

So for my own ability to work as a scientist or a writer, teacher and so forth, I need to do some exercise. So I am, I’m pretty, uh, pretty religious about that. The, um, um, uh, you know, working in the field, I work in Antarctica and the Arctic. It is a very physical thing. So I do have to stay, you know, get in shape before we go a field expedition. So that, that actually helps me cognitively. I, I find, uh, I love cooking. I love eating, so it’s good. Like to work out cause I like to eat a lot and I was a cook. Uh, I’m not a very good dishes, doers, so I just, I’ll call, I’ll call out that right now. I like shopping, but I hate doing the dishes. Hey, where do you hike around Chicago. I have flats. Okay. So like, you know, I mean the staircases are our mountains, but I, um, uh, I used to run this Derrick and before we went to Antarctica last time at, you know, I used to, I live on the 16th floor of a high rise, so I would run up and down.

Um, that was my workout. But, um, we have a light like Lakeshore pats. There’s a really beautiful, and it goes on for 26 miles. It’s just gorgeous wood look goons. And the Lake is like an ocean though, you know, like an inland sea almost. Um, so that can be beautiful. And, and what’s nice about it is given where we are, the bird population changes and then it’s a great place to do birdwatching. So that’s also a nice way to do it. Get a little nature inside the city for me. Yeah, you can go up to the, uh, to the Arboretum. That’s in Highland park. Uh, that exactly. Exactly. Great Japanese garden up there. But now, you know, like birding too. I like, I like to connecting to the natural world. Even living in a city, it’s fun seeing, I saw [inaudible] Falcon the other day in the city, you know, that was like a high point of my week.

I’m sorry, I saw a snowy owl and then not this winter we had a mild winter, but last winter I saw snow out and that was fun. So yeah, things like that. What do you, what is it, I’ll end with this. What is your work? What is your work in Antarctica? I read a little bit about it, but also what, what are you learning about all this stuff? Evolution, the climate change, all these things. What are you learning when you go to Antarctica? So Antarctica, we’re specifically interested in the fossils there. So we’re going there because Antarctica is, you know, is sliced by mountain range called the trans in Arctic mountains. And those mountains, uh, have all kinds of rocks of different geological ages. It turns out one slice of those rocks, one layer is from a period of time period in which was called the middle Devonian, about 385 million years ago.

Those rocks were formed in ancient rivers in ancient, um, ponds and lakes 380 million years ago. Antarctica was a tropical rainforest. And that’s then that’s what those rocks were reflect. So what we’re after is that period of time understanding what did the world look like 385, 380 million years ago. Um, and this, these rocks in Antarctica are giving us a unique window to that. Um, we’re finding fossil fish, early sharks, uh, uh, relatives of, of limbed creatures. I mean, it’s, we’re basically looking at using that as a window into understanding how did life shift from water to land plants and vertebrates, uh, you know, our relatives, the relatives of fish and so forth. So that’s where we’re learning and it’s, um, you know, it’s a fairly grueling place to work, um, for the kind of work we do. Yeah. Because what you have is the ice plateau, which where we are is at about five or 6,000 feet.

And then a mountain range has poked through that. So we work on the mountaintops that are poking through the ice. So we snowmobile from mountain the mountain, set up camp, uh, climb all over the mountains looking for fossils. Yeah. How do you keep your fingers warm enough to be able to do the work you’re doing? You’ve got to be, yeah, you’ve got to be careful about that. Um, yeah, so I mean, I’ll get, you’ll get really cold as you can imagine. Um, yeah, wear gloves. Uh, you learn to, you learn to work with gloves, you learn to work with, uh, mittens. Um, you, you know, you could, you kind of, we’re a very adaptable species, I gotta say. And so, you know, you bring the right gear and you learn to use it. Um, just, uh, try not to leave your exposed, uh, your flesh exposed to the elements for too long.

Um, it’s, I mean, it’s sort of a problem because when I have a fossil, like when I’m, you know, removing a fossil from the rock, my preferred position is to lie down on the rock with my face, like three or four inches from the rocks. Right. You know, so I can really see what’s in there. That strategy doesn’t work very well in Antarctica unless I have like a big old pen. So I’ll bring a sleeping pad, you know, lay it down so I can use my strategy. But, um, you know, it’s things like that you have to adjust and accommodate.

That’s remarkable. Science is remarkable. You know, um, you, uh, you’re at the, the field museum, one of the greatest, if not the greatest of natural history museums. And I’ve been, I’ve been taking some time to go to different natural history museums and thinking about the, the lineage of those museums and the importance that they actually have to our understanding of the world. And yet for a while it seemed like we were abandoning those museums and the collections of eggs and the, the, the stuffed varieties of the varieties of birds that are stuffed or even the skeletal structures. And, and so you go to some of them you go, Oh, this is 19th century. I, I see the science of the 19th century here. But yet it’s, it’s actually very, it seems to me very powerful stuff that they were doing back then that connects to what we’re doing today. And I, I guess I just wonder how you think about the natural history museums of the world.

Oh, I think that theme is extraordinarily important. You know, resources, hubs of research, each museum, whether it’s the field museum, the American museum, the Smithsonian and so forth. Burke museum in Seattle museums are incredibly important. Number one, they are repositories of diversity and we’re losing diversity on this planet. And we have these institutions where we can understand diversity over time because people have been making these collections. And so you know, if we want to understand diversity and whether it’s genetic or anatomical cultural or what have you, museums are our real window to that. The other thing about museums, this is incredibly important and this has been a big part of my own life as well as many others in my field is the Kindle excitement. That is, there’s something about the power of objects when you see a dinosaur or a bird or you know, or an archeological artifact, there’s something so resonant and powerful about seeing those objects that can be captivating.

The high points of my school year when I was young were like the field, the museum trips, you know, and not only cause I got out of class for the day, well maybe largely for that, who knows. But I also loved the being in museums and seeing the mummies and the and the dinosaurs and so forth. And you know, and a lot of the, one of the reasons why I went into natural history was because of the passion for museums, that passion that museums kindled. So museums are also huge hubs for research and education. So it’s so many levels. You know, the, the museums that pepper our cities and universities and so forth, uh, have had incredible importance, but also continuing and likely increasing importance in the years ahead.

I was at the museum at the university of Iowa and, um, they have a nice little natural history museum there. And I was sitting there in a little girl with her dad walked up to this display of eggs. They have all these eggs from the smallest eggs to the largest eggs. And she just, she was, yeah, she didn’t say anything. She was just standing there staring at it. And, and this was seven maybe, and she just was enthralled by it. And I just thought this, this is the best argument, not just for museums, but the best argument for looking at the truths that science can bring us.

Yeah. And it’s the objects that have such power, right? I mean, it’s, um, you know, I mean, well, the first thing people ask when I, you know, would walk people through the dinosaur exhibits that ask, is it real? And when you could say to them, yeah, that’s a real dinosaur bone. Um, you know, there’s something magical about that, that emotional connection that they develop. You know, when people would come into my lab, uh, and I’d give him a tour of my laboratory and, you know, I have some fossils we work on here and we used to have a Tiktaalik RESILIA, which is the, uh, one of the creatures that is a great window into how life fall to walk on land. Um, I used to, you know, I used to have the humerus in my office before we returned it to Canada and I’d pull it out and say, here’s the original humorous of Tiktaalik. And you could just see the goosebumps appear in their, you know, on their boat, on their body. And then, and on mine too, you know, cause there’s something very powerful about objects, you know, and, um, and that’s what drove me to paleontology is that, you know, you, you can find objects that change the way we think about the natural world and our relationship to it, you know, doesn’t get better than that. Yeah. And the Burke has been remodeled and rebuilt and then very much, and you can watch the, uh, you can watch the scientists at work and talk to them as they’re working. And it’s, it’s just a wonderful experience to be able to be so close to that. Yeah, you’re lucky to have that in Seattle. All right, sir. I appreciate you taking the time.

My pleasure. Thank you. Thank you very much. Right. Take care. Thank you, sir. Bye. To learn more, get yourself a copy of Neil Shubin’s book some assembly required decoding the 4 billion years of life from ancient fossils to DNA. Thank you for listening to episode 59 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle bass band, EBU, and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. The recent coven 19 mandates to cancel events and public gatherings throughout Seattle has put a significant strain on the nonprofit community, including town hall. We know that it’s important to keep programming and creating engagement and educational opportunities for you, and we hope that you will consider extending your support. We need you now more than ever. So please make a donation online by clicking the link in the episode description below by texting town hall to four four three two one or by joining town hall as a member. And while we’re on heinous from public events, remember that we’re still programming events via live stream. Just go to our town hall, Seattle, YouTube channel, or visit us at town hall, seattle.org thank you for your support and thank you for joining us right here in the moment.

Connecting Across the Social Distance with Eric Liu

At a time when quarantines are keeping us isolated from our neighbors, it’s more important than ever to help us maintain connections with our community and stay engaged as citizens. Eric Liu, co-founder of Citizen University, hosts regular Civic Saturday gatherings in Seattle to help us reflect, connect, and cultivate the kind of healthy civic traditions we need during this difficult time.

Town Hall and Citizen University are presenting a Virtual Civic Saturday on 3/28 to give civic-minded Seattleites a place to gather—even if it’s not in person. To preface this livestreamed event, Liu sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby for a conversation about community health.

AE: During this time of social distancing, what are some ways we can maintain engagement with our community and feel that we’re still contributing to our society, even if we can’t do it in person?

EL: There are so many ways! Create a contact sheet for you and your neighbors—it’s a good chance to check on elders and introduce yourself (from an appropriate distance) to folks you don’t know yet. Read and subscribe to the Seattle Times—we in this area are unlucky to be an epicenter of the virus but we are exceedingly lucky to have an independent daily newspaper with such talented and dedicated staff. Circulate your time, talent, and treasure at any scale using any platform available.

AE: When health concerns are making people feel alienated from their neighbors, it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together. Right now, in what ways is Seattle (and our nation) most united?

EL: We are all realizing that when it comes to a pandemic there is no such thing as someone else’s problem. Our community is only as healthy as its least healthy members. That’s always true but most of the time society forgets it. There is no avoiding that truth now.

AE: What agencies and sectors would you encourage people to support right now? Who should we donate to? Who should we patronize?

EL: We should first make sure we help those who help us: health care workers, grocery workers, delivery workers. We can help them by pushing our policymakers and big employers to do right by all of them: living wages, paid sick leave, safer workplaces. Second, we should all get better at asking for help. Epidemiologically and economically, things are going to get worse before they get better. So it’s not so much “who should we donate to” as it is a matter of practicing mutual aid and figuring out how we can help each other.

AE: Many people are finding themselves stuck in their homes with an abundance of free time—the perfect opportunity to buff up our civic education! What are some texts at the top of your “civics required reading” list that you recommend people read during this time? Why do they resonate with you?

EL: Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is about how people come together in times of disaster and form the kind of communities that we all yearn for—and she argues that the yearning means that we shouldn’t let that feeling evaporate after the worst passes. We need to pay close attention now, during the crisis, to how we practice kindness and civic love and civic responsibility so that we can keep up those practices after the crisis.

AE: What’s a message you would want all of Seattle to hear and meditate on in the coming weeks?

EL: Society becomes how you behave.

Join Eric Liu online on 3/28 for a Virtual Civic Saturday, or check out Citizen University to explore Civic Sermons from past gatherings

Getting Animated with Gustafer Yellowgold

A pancake smackdown, gravy bats, a little yellow man from the sun who loves to go on adventures—Morgan Taylor’s creations have been delighting kids and parents alike since 2005. With colorful animations and lively music that The New York Times has called “A cross between ‘Yellow Submarine’ and Dr. Seuss,” Taylor is a fan favorite on Town Hall’s stages. 

Taylor recently sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss the origins of his beloved character Gustafer Yellowgold, sources of musical inspiration, and ideas for having fun while stuck inside.

AE: Can you tell me a bit about Gustafer? What inspired the character?

MT: What eventually became Gustafer started out as a doodle on a Dayton, Ohio record store marker board in the 90’s. I would draw this yellow, pointy-headed cat-faced creature on the new releases board each week. I put him in absurd situations, like frying up a box of turtles and frogs on the stovetop. He existed mostly on bar napkins until years later when I’d moved to New York City and started a children’s book and music project. I had some fictional short story-songs sung in first person, so when I first drew them out, I used the yellow guy. Coincidentally I already had a song called “I’m From The Sun,” and realized—hey, this is this guy’s story! It was a happy accident really. I put the Sun concept with this character and the whole world sprang forth.

AE: Why choose Minnesota as the setting to introduce an alien to Earth?

MT: Kind of in the same way that Stan Lee put Spider-Man/Peter Parker (and all his fictional heroes) in New York. The fantastic superhero premise has a more grounded, tangible quality when it’s in an actual geographic location. (As opposed to Metropolis or Gotham).

I have a list of Minneapolis bands that inspired me growing up, so I guess that had something to do with it. When I first was conceiving the fictional premise I had Gustafer land on Earth and living in a town called Butterburg. Having him in Minnesota is funnier and gets a good reaction.

AE: Why do kids connect so well with your music? What about parents? 

MT: I’ve always seen it as a “nobody excluded” rather than saying it’s specifically for children. Children are easier to entertain. It’s getting the folks to equally enjoy it that I find the most fun. I think the visual has always played a vital role in how the songs are conveyed. There’s a little magic in the silliness/emotionality combination that seems to work on all ages. 

AE: Which came first for you, the music or the animation? What gave you the idea to combine them?

MT: Always music first. Sometimes a concept will inspire the music, but I always have to have the song before I can start to make the visual. Like, I knew I wanted to write a song called “I Jump On Cake” and the general image the title itself conjures, helped me know what the lyrics should be.

AE: Lots of listeners have said they enjoy the mellow energy of your songs. Why choose to keep the pace slow?

MT: I don’t know. It wasn’t on purpose. Maybe growing up listening to so much soft rock has something to do with it. My live shows are 85% uptempo. And when the songs are mellow, they have the funniest visuals. So they don’t have a sleepy slowness. If your love ballad is sung by an eel or a pterodactyl it almost is better that it’s tender musically.

AE: Which of your songs would you recommend for first time listeners? Do you have any favorites?

MT: It never hurts to start from the beginning. “Wide Wild World” from 2007. That one has a scrappy charm and the songs are each unique to each other. I’m proud of it all. My albums are all short. My first few I barely cracked 30 minutes. 

AE: What are some of your favorite bands? How have they influenced your music?

MT: Beatles are kings of songwriting. Bread are the kings of soft rock style. But, my inner 9-year-old still lives in a room plastered with Kiss posters. After pre-teen years with Van Halen, Journey and Pat Benatar, I grew musically with R.E.M., The Replacements, and especially Minneapolis’ Trip Shakespeare.

In the 90’s it was T. Rex and Guided By Voices (my hometown Dayton, OH buds) and my adult Kiss resurgence. After I moved to New York City I finally found my love of Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Nick Drake and all the solo songwriter legends like that. As far as influence, I just strive to have my own voice like they all did. The Kiss thing; I had a chance meeting with Gene Simmons a couple of years ago and told him it was no coincidence that I ended up combining pop-rock and fantasy characters.

AE: Lots of kids and parents are cooped up at home right now—what would you suggest for ways to keep from getting bored indoors?

MT: Go outside and run around in the fresh air. Read. Get into new music. Find fun podcasts. Listen to audiobooks! Don’t spend all your time looking at screens. And most of all—create!

Morgan Taylor makes regular stops at Town Hall as part of our Saturday Family Concerts series. Check out all the catchy Gustafer Yellowgold songs on his YouTube page or listen to his latest audiobook.

 

In The Moment: Episode 58

In this week’s interview, former WA Governor Gary Locke spoke with correspondent Rick Smith about the history and importance of the US Census. He traces the origins of the Census back to 1790, to the Constitution itself, and identifies ways the Census affects our nation—such as granting Washington a new congressional seat in 2010, as well as impacting distribution of federal funds. Smith addresses modern factors discouraging Americans from participating in the Census and underscores the protections and privacy measures in place to keep respondents safe.


Episode Transcript

This transcription was performed automatically by a computer. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we introduce you to folks coming to our stages by getting you familiar with their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. Every 10 years our nation gets one chance to count its population. The data that’s collected determines the number of seats each state has in the house of representatives and is also used to allocate billions of federal tax dollars to local communities. There are several defining differences between the last census in 2010 and the 2020 census, including online forms and phone calls. Not to mention the current Corona virus outbreak and how that’s affecting the census. Bureau’s attempts to accurately gather that information. On March 16th town hall was scheduled to host an event with former governor Gary Locke, the honorary chair of the King County complete count committee, who is going to talk with a panel of experts about the critical role of the census and how it impacts us.

However, in lieu of the recent Corona virus outbreak in Seattle and mandatory measures taken by state officials, we’ve canceled this event, but not before our correspondent rich Smith, a staff writer at the stranger who focuses on local politics, books and performance. Sat down with Gary to talk about the census 2020 and what it means for all of us. All right, so governor lock. Before we talk about your important role in the census count, can you just tell me why the government needs to count everybody in the first place and what impact that has on our daily lives?

Uh, this is a practice, a account that has gone on ever since, uh, 1790, when George Washington was president. It’s built into our constitution where the government is required to do a count of all the people in the United States every 10 years. And actually the, the number of questions is very, very, uh, few, uh, this year. And in some ways almost the same number of questions as in 1790. Um, but, uh, it’s, it’s important for to two basic reasons. We count the population of America so that we can figure out how many States or how many members of Congress in each state and where. And as you divide up to state, uh, making sure that communities are accurately represented, accurately counted so they can be fully represented in the United States Congress. Based on the 2010 census, the state of Washington actually gained a new seat in the United States Congress.

Um, and because the number of members of Congress’s fixed, uh, 435 as our population in grows, each congressional district will have more members, more more residents. But in state Senate where the population has actually stayed flat or has decreased, that may mean that some of those States will actually lose a seat in Congress and some of them more faster. And the faster growing States will actually gain seats. So if we want full political empowerment, if either because we deserve our community is let’s say the state of Washington deserve extra representation. We want to make sure that we are entitled to our full political clout regardless of party, whether you’re Democrat, Republican, or independent. We want our voices to be counted, uh, in the halls of Congress on the issues we care about. At the same time, we want to make sure that we protect our voices.

And so, uh, we, we don’t want to be in an area where we might lose a seat in Congress. Um, and the census is also used by the state of Washington in determining the boundaries of the state legislature or the state legislature. We have 49 districts in the state of Washington. And if the Puget sound area is growing much faster than let’s say Eastern Washington, the Puget sound area might actually gain a new district in the state legislature. Um, and therefore the people of the Puget sound area will have even stronger voices in Olympia. Conversely, rural areas want to make sure they’re accurately counted so that they possibly, so they can avoid possibly losing a seat in the state legislature. And the second reason we want to be counted accurately is because so many federal and state dollars flow out to communities based on population. Um, the state of Washington receives currently about 2000, $300 per person per year based on population. Uh, whether it’s programs for seniors, uh, assistance for low income housing, uh, transportation dollars for highway repairs, road construction. A lot of that money going out to all of America is distributed on a population basis. So it’s important that we are fully and accurately counted so that we get our fair share of our taxpayer dollars going to the federal government and having it returned.

Uh, so this is the foundation of our representative government at the federal, state, and local levels. And it also determines, uh, how much, uh, money the federal government will allocate to vital services that we all need. Uh, you oversaw the census count in 2010. Uh, I, what are some major differences between filling out that census and filling out this one?

Well, the big, big difference, uh, for the 2010 census is that, uh, people will be able to go online, uh, to respond and not have to do it on paper. Uh, and you can also respond over the telephone. So we’ll starting next week, uh, and for the next week and a half, but starting next week, uh, households, residences, uh, we’ll start, we’ll get, start getting a postcard which will inform people of that toll free number to call to respond to the census or, uh, an online, an email address with, um, and each households, each Rez beach address will have a unique identifier. Uh, obviously we don’t want people, uh, you know, responding five times or each household, let’s say mom, dad, or daughter, resident, uh, um, family member each, each responding and saying, this is our home address and we’re filling out the census. So, you know, each, each residence will have one number or identifier and, um, they’ll use that, uh, to when they respond.

All right, well, so, um, they can fill it out online now. Seems to be the, the big change. Uh, what, uh, are there any protections that the government has implemented to make sure that those forms don’t get hacked or to, uh, provide some kind of a security or privacy in that way? Do you know?

Well, first of all, uh, there, there are enormous privacy protections, uh, over, uh, around the census. Um, census workers are not allowed, uh, are, are, you know, there are criminal penalties for census workers to reveal the information. Uh, the information is not shared under us law with any other agency. Um, everything is kept confidential. Um, and, uh, individual responses cannot be accessed I think for like 75 or 80 years. Um, but, uh, but in between, before then, everything is just an aggregate numbers, uh, without any type of personal identifiers. Uh, you know, there are X number of people living in Rainier Valley, uh, on this particular block there. The age, their age, they can make up their ethic. Ethnicity is, is, is such and such. Uh, gender, uh, breakout is such and such. Um, and, and that’s it. Um, these are in the most aggregate generalized terms. Um, but, uh, you cannot go and see what, how my dad filled out his census form in 1964, another 60 years.

Wow. Okay. Well, what happens if you don’t respond to the census? Is there a legal penalty? You

don’t respond to the census that technically legal penalties, but it’s never enforced. Um, um, and, uh, the census Bureau will hound residents and addresses several times sending out postcards, uh, several mailings, um, to urge people to fill out the census. Uh, now some households will get a written form, um, and they can fill it out on paper. Um, but, um, the census form the census will keep hounding you for the next several months. Um, and then after a while, uh, uh, starting around the end of April, 1st of May, we will actually, the census Bureau will actually send out people to go door to door, uh, to those addresses that have not yet responded either by telephone or by email or by written form.

Uh, I remember, uh, just sort of speaking of trying to get everybody included in this count, that the scent, the goal of the census is to count every head in the country. Right. And I remember earlier in the year, or maybe it was last year, there being some talk of adding a citizenship question on the census and some people were nervous that that would, um, uh, prevent or, uh, undocumented immigrants from, uh, filling out the census for fear that they might be, uh, found out. Uh, is that citizenship a question on the, on the census?

Nope. That citizenship question is not on the census.

And you’re saying that, um, the information in the census won’t be shared with other agencies and that might offer some more protections to, um, people who fear that the information might be shared with, uh, eyesore, the border patrol or any of those kinds of, uh, agencies.

Yes. And then that of course, was the big fear among many groups. Uh, when the, uh, Trump administration was proposing to include the citizenship question, even though even though, uh, the information still could not be shared with other law enforcement agencies, whether FBI or ice or a border patrol, et cetera, et cetera, um, nonetheless, the, the prospect of that question put a lot of fear and trepidation into many group, um, groups that are already hard to count, uh, reluctant to and suspicious, suspicious of government are not used to being, not used to having these types of participating in a census. And so, um, uh, the fear of that citizenship question, even according to the census Bureau was going to result in a lower participation, uh, lower responses, uh, fewer responses to the census form or to the census, uh, effort. And that’s why the tech, the, the career professionals within the census Bureau were adamantly opposed to the inclusion of that citizenship question. Ultimately, the U S Supreme court blocked, uh, the inclusion, uh, any type of citizenship question. And, and, uh, basically, uh, uh, saying that the administration’s justifications for that were all fabricated and politically motivated.

So those residents should, um, should have no fear. And, uh, respond to the postcard accordingly.

Uh, that’s correct. Uh, there’s absolutely, uh, there’s, uh, um, all their information is confidential. Uh, and, uh, there is no citizenship question, uh, on the, uh, census, uh, form, uh, and um, uh, but nonetheless, we still know that there are many communities that are still suspicious of the census, which is why so much of the effort, um, on the complete count committee, whether it’s for the entire state of Washington King County or even city of Seattle, is to really work with community based organizations and faith based leaders, uh, trusted voices within the community. Uh, because no matter how much, um, a Senator or a mayor, um, uh, an administration official, whether it was president Obama or myself as commerce secretary in 2010, um, we’re urging people to fill out the census. We were still government officials. Uh, but when you have the minister of your church saying, no, this is important, your information is confidential. Uh, these are the benefits to our community in terms of receiving our fair share of, of tax dollars coming back to our community or empowering our communities. Um, uh, with our, with representation in the halls of Congress or in the state legislature, those have much more impact. Just why all of our efforts have really been focusing on, uh, working with community based groups, uh, to get the word out about the importance of, of the responding to the census.

So that’s your role as a honorary chair of that King County complete count committee to help organize some of those local groups to get the word app. Which group in your experience has been the hardest to reach and what strategies have you used to reach them?

Well, a lot of immigrant groups, uh, who are unfamiliar with English language, uh, uh, where English is not the primary language, which recent immigrant groups, um, uh, ethnic groups, uh, who have feel, felt perhaps disenfranchised and from government, uh, for, for a period of time. Um, um, even senior citizens, uh, uh, are sometimes hard to count because they might be, let’s say in a nursing home or in a group home, a retirement home, and, uh, they may not get actual form in their mail box. Um, it’s really up to these group living or, uh, facilities to actually do the count. And so, um, we’re always worried that they may be missed. Um, and even sometimes students, um, uh, parents may not include them. Technically the parents are not supposed to include them on the survey and the colleges or universities are supposed to be conducting the counts, uh, because it’s, where are you primarily living? Um, April one, uh, what is, what is your main residence on April one? So,

so do they send like an Intrepid, uh, census Bureau workers out to these groups to, uh, and to those organizations to remind them on a monthly basis to fill out these forms? Or how do, what does that process look like?

Well, the, the, the census Bureau, um, hires people, uh, to, uh, get the word out and to meet with community groups. Um, and they, they, they try to locate all these, for instance, uh, adult living homes or retirement homes or nursing homes, uh, and, uh, they’re trying to work with this, the staffs, uh, of all these different facilities so that the facilities are actually doing the count. Not that we have a census taker that goes out to the retirement or to the nursing home. Um, but it’s that getting that we’re out, that, uh, that these larger facilities are supposed to be doing the count, uh, and then the colleges so that each dormitory is counting. Um, and that’s, that’s a tough undertaking.

Yeah, it must be,

but in the end, but in the end, if people don’t fill out the online survey, if they don’t call it in, and if they don’t fill out a form for those who receive the form in the mail. And after repeated reminders, a starting around may one, uh, the census Bureau will send people door to door. And these are people who are, um, you know, several hundred thousand people will be hired on a part time basis to go, uh, knocking door to door.

Wow. Okay. That’s, do they wear special census clothes so that you can distinguish them from [inaudible]

special badges? They’ll have special badges and uh, ID and, uh, uh, folks, uh, if there, if someone, uh, folks who are answering the door, if there’s a somewhat suspicious or want verification, they should not hesitate to, uh, see and, and ask or should not hesitate to ask, uh, to see the ID.

The West coast, many West coast cities and cities across the country are dealing with a, a homelessness crisis, a thousand sleeping on the streets, sleeping in their cars and trailers. They might be hard to identify. Does the census Bureau have a plan for reaching those people?

Yes, they do. Um, uh, there is a, there will be a very specific date, um, in which, uh, on which, uh, uh, homeless population will be counted. Um, and the census takers are actually working with the cities and towns and the, and the various nonprofit organizations that work with the homeless, uh, to coordinate that because obviously, um, as, as the homeless move around, let’s say in the Seattle area, let’s say they might be in a tent, um, under the freeway one night and the next night they might be in a shelter. Um, so if you spread this out over several days, you may actually double count of people. Uh, and so, um, there, there’s a lot of effort working with nonprofit organizations, uh, homeless advocates, uh, and local governments to identify, uh, where the homeless might be living, uh, on a particular set of days. And then, um, they go out on one particular day to really try to get it as complete account as possible.

We’re, I’m in the middle of a Corona virus outbreak, uh, as we’re talking. Is that making your life harder? Is that, is that making your life harder and making these efforts harder in some way?

Well, in fact, uh, we have a, uh, a meeting that was scheduled for this coming Tuesday. Uh, uh, Washington state complete count committee, which I actually chair and we’ve been holding these meetings, uh, about once every, a month and a half. Um, working with, for instance, uh, business groups, Hispanic groups, native American groups, NAACP, refugee groups, representatives, the colleges, universities, superintendent, public instruction. Um, my gosh, uh, I think, uh, the association of counties association of cities, um, and a small business Bureau, uh, you know, small chambers, uh, things like that. And just figuring out how we can coordinate, share best practices, um, share flyers, give out templates so that people don’t have to reinvent things, suggested letters that can be put into, uh, the news, uh, suggested language that can be put into the newsletters of organizations so that people just don’t have to reinvent this and can actually build off of the, the collective efforts and wisdom of, of so many other, so many of these groups that are involved in it as well as information, uh, uh, disseminated by the census Bureau itself.

So we’ve been having these meetings. In fact, we were about to have a meeting this Tuesday and just before you called, I was on the conference call with the, uh, with the state, uh, coordinator for the census and we decided that given the Corona virus and what the governor and County officials are recommending, we’re not going to hold our big meeting. Uh, we’re not sure that the press would’ve shown up anyway. We wanted to highlight the purpose was to actually highlight, uh, some of the efforts and the unique efforts of the different community based organizations. Um, and also because given the, the admonition to avoid being in large groups, we felt that, uh, it would be, um, somewhat inconsistent for us to be holding a meeting. So we’re actually going to do it online and what we’re going to do by Skype or zoom or zoom or whatever, uh, video conferencing. Uh, but, uh, the topic that we are going to focus on this coming Tuesday instead of showcasing the displays and the efforts of different community groups and organizations, um, is what are the challenges to a complete count given the Corona virus, um, over the next month and a half?

Yeah, I can imagine a strategy centered on people going into nursing homes, people going into churches, um, uh, and, and, and being in contact with a lot of, uh, people might present, uh, challenges. I imagine you’ll talk about some kind of safety measures for census workers who do that? Or do you have any idea what,

no, we’re actually, actually, we’re going to be focusing on how, how can a community organization, which was, let’s say, planning on having, let’s say, a census fair or a census booth at a fair or at a community gathering or in the church. Uh, how can you still get your message out to your community members or to the members of the community if people aren’t attending these public events or going to these public gatherings, whether it’s church, uh, or whether it’s, um, you know, uh, uh, um, the street fair, um, whether it’s a street fair and Rainer Valley, uh, or a street fair in the international, uh, Chinatown district. Um, so what strategies should these community organizations be devising or implementing? Just still get the word out to the members of their community. Um, do they switch from having a little fair street fairs and booths to advertisements in their newspapers, uh, that are delivered community newspapers? Do we need to redeploy resources into that and we need to, um, rely on email, you know, contacts and messages out to everybody. Um, um, so all the members of their organization and followers, contributors, supporters of their organization, you know, just mass flooding, uh, you know, everyone’s email addresses or mailing lists, you know, email lists. Um, so that’s what the meeting on Tuesday is gonna is going to turn into.

I see. Well, speaking of things

that make your life much more difficult or make the lives of census takers much more difficult, there’s often a lot of census scams that, uh, come come out around this time. And especially switching to a, uh, or offering in addition to the, uh, IRL formats. There’s all, you know, an, uh, a digital format. Uh, I can imagine fishing expeditions, I could imagine ads that look like a census form but really aren’t a census form. What can people do? What should people be looking for to make sure they’re actually filling out a census? Um, rely on the postcard that comes from the census Bureau, uh, that, uh, gives you a unique identifier and, um, and go onto that website and respond. And if the, if, if in any way, if, if the website, any website, any, um, mail that you get, uh, whether it’s, you know, snail mail or email that says, uh, uh, make a contribution or we need your social security number or we need your income, uh, information, then that’s automatically a scam. The census form a question does not ask anything about, so does not ask for social security number, does not ask for income. Uh, information does not ask, uh, you to donate. Uh, uh, uh, and so anything that, that wants additional, any type of financial information, uh, social security information, bank information, um, request a donation, all that scams, that’s a scam.

Since, uh, you know, some, some organizations right now, I mean, there’s, I think there’s something in the newspaper or in the news today about, uh, a political organization saying, uh, you know, help us with the census and, uh, respond to this. Um, and they’re asking actually inviting you to make a donation to a political campaign that is not part of the census.

Yeah, I saw that and I’m concerningly that was related to, um, I think a political campaign, um, that helps the president’s reelection. And so even though it’s a political ad, um, it might not have anything to do with the census at all. The ad in question is one that a ad in question had the word or asked users to take a census, but really it was just, uh, uh, an ad. Yep. All right. So we’ve got to look, be on the lookout for that. Uh, let’s say that we are an engaged, uh, population who wants our voice to be represented accurately in the halls of Congress and in the state houses. What else can we do to make your job easier?

Uh, talk to your friends and neighbors and, and, uh, ask them whether or not they filled out the census and let them know, uh, talk to them about how it’s important, uh, to have our voices heard. Um, because, um, if people don’t accurately, if we don’t have an accurate count, um, let’s say parts of Seattle are undercounted than parts of Seattle may actually lose a, uh, a seat in the state legislature or the boundaries will be made so large that your community’s voices are diluted.

So you would suggest maybe if you’re at church or something, looking around, you’ve got a few minutes before the sermon, uh, turn to your neighbor and say something like, wow, I really have you filled out the census.

It’s only, it’s only like seven or eight questions. It’s so easy,

right? Fast to fill out. Or if you’re in line at the grocery store and people are bored, you could turn to your neighbor and say, man, you hear about the census going around as in, it’s so great to take a short, easy to use census. Yeah. All right. Great. Well thank you so much for your time, governor lock. Oh my appreciate. I appreciate it.

Thank you. To find out more information about your rights and the census in Seattle, go to census seattle.org. Thank you for listening to episode 58 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU, and Seattle’s own Barsac records. You can listen to our full town hall produced programs and speakers on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, and you can also watch a whole library of content on our YouTube channel. Just search Townhall Seattle and subscribe to support town hall. Become a member or see our updated calendar of events. Check out our website at town hall, seattle.org until next time, thank you for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 56

In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with Dr. Nathan Price of the Institute for Systems Biology. They outline the science behind systems biology, exploring it as an attempt to quantify the components that make up a biological system and then work together in concert to achieve life. Price delves into “P4” medication—medicine that is predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory—as a way to encourage wellness and prevent disease before it starts. Price speaks to genomics as a key to understanding our health, and highlights the possibility of expanding and redefining human senses. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall Seattle.


Episode Transcript

This transcription was performed automatically by a computer. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we get you excited about people coming to our stages by getting you familiar with our topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. Caring for the health of the individual may be helped by discovering biological patterns in sets of big data, our genome or DNA, the cells in our body and the skin we slough off. These all contain vital information about our bodies that we could provide healthcare professionals and this information can help guide individual therapies and treating our individual conditions from disease to blindness to how the brain creates new pathways to move paralyzed limbs and prosthetics. The Institute for systems biology is at the nexus of individual health and big data in 20 years since its inception by dr Leroy hood and a team of scientists, ISB has been studying ways to integrate biological data from individuals so as to explore global dynamics and discover useful patterns.

Dr. Nathan Price is professor and associate director of the Institute for systems biology. He co-directs the hood price integrated lab for systems biomedicine. He’s also affiliate faculty at the university of Washington and the departments of bioengineering, computer science and engineering and molecular and cellular biology. On March 5th Dr. Price will be moderating a panel at town hall in honor of the institutes 20th anniversary. The question before the panel will be, can we create new senses for humans and will feature Dr. David Eagleman who studies sensory substitution, brain plasticity and synesthesia. Together they will explore a new knowledge about the brain and innovations and seeing patterns through biological data that can bring about better individual outcomes. They will also talk about Eagleman his new book Livewired the inside story of the ever-changing brain. Our chief correspondent, Steve Cher, sat down with Nathan Price at his office in Seattle’s South Lake union neighborhood to talk about big data biology and human health.

Thank you for talking to me first of all, I appreciate that. My pleasure. Happy to be here and I like your office. We’re in your offices. Let’s see. Of all the things that stand out for me in this office of of the many cool things that are on the wall, pictures, posters is what I expect to see all over every new scientist office, which is just one wall that is a whiteboard. Are you always working on that? The whole wall is just painted so it’s all a whiteboard and so we could just brainstorm and come up with whatever we want to up there. So that’s fine. And, and I’m like are like there, there’s a of what is that a protein or something that’s going to be working as a protein? Is that the level you’re working at? Cellular. Biological.

It’s more, yeah, cellular, biological. In this case it’s looking at trying to build models of metabolites and proteins and construction that’s coming out of a, an organism. And one of the things we’re really excited about on the metabolic modeling is looking at pregnancy in particular because there you actually have to recreate an entire person. And so we’re, we’re launching this, it’s not the subject what we’re talking about today, but we are going to lodge next year, a huge project around this, uh, around, uh, pregnancy. Uh, but basically it is the biggest single, you know, perturbation that anyone goes through, you know, during a normal life and it grows in these spurts. And so you have to have these, uh, uh, kind of nutrient requirements that have to come together in order for you to do the next spurt and so forth. And so that, that drawing is, is kind of aimed at a, a model of that. But that’s a little off topic.

No, I like it. It’s just, it was so, cause one of the things I was struck by and doing a little reading and looking at work is you seem to have a lot of joy for this work. Is that fair to say? I know I’m ascribing something, but you seem to have that. Do you know why, where that comes from?

It’s a good question. It’s, uh, I find what we do every day to be fascinating and it is, uh, it’s the kind of job where you can, you can kind of dream about whatever you want to do and then you can go try to do it. You have to figure out how to raise the money forward. You have to get other people interested in it. You have to convince people in your lab that it’s a worthwhile endeavor. They don’t, I can’t just like dictate like, Hey, we’re doing this. Like they will tell me, you know, I’ve got to convince them it’s worthwhile.

Okay. Because in a sense, science doesn’t work that way. Dictation, you have to get people engaged.

Science doesn’t work that way because you, you need to have a passion for diving into problems because they’re very complicated. It’s very hard. And we could get into a long discussion on lots of reasons for that. And so you’ve got to love what you’re doing and you have to have a passion for it because if you don’t, there’s just no way that you’ll put in the hours and the time and the, the, you know, months and years of thought that and work and, and, and, uh, sticktuitiveness that it takes to like make progress on a problem. And so it can’t just be me. So whoever’s working with me on a team and we’re going to go on this problem, they have to be passionate about it too. So if they’re not passionate, it won’t actually happen either.

Yeah. You seem like you’d be fun to work with because you hold that passion. Do you hold that in your head? I’m going to try to be fun to work with.

I think I’m fun to work with. I’ve been told that sometimes not uniformly, you know, not everyone shares that opinion. Uh, you sometimes get the opposite, but uh, in general, uh, in general, yeah, it’s, it’s really a fun place. And you know, I co-run a research group here now with Lee hood who, you know, I know you’ve, you’ve met before who’s also got this of infectious spirit, which was partly what brought me here and what I was excited about. So I think ISB is a place where you can, yeah, you can dream big, you can be flexible. There’s not a lot of bureaucracy so you’re not, uh, you’re not blocked too terribly often from, you know, pursuing something. Reality may block you and does all the time, but you’re not artificially.

Let me touch on reality a little bit because you said science is hard. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about why we in this society today. Don’t think we’re in a fact based culture and sciences can, can remind us of that. That science is about the hard work. Even if it’s not perfect. You know, you think about climate change, Oh, it’s a, it’s a theory, right? But these are, these are people studying things and trying to come up based on hard data, hard numbers and hard and hard actual, you know, this means this, this means, this doesn’t mean this. Do you ever, um, I dunno, despair of living in a society where we’re not quite focusing on the fact that there are some basic truths.

Yeah. I think science is something that forces you to deal with, uh, with evidence in a serious way. And the culture of science. And it was interesting a couple of years ago I gave a, I gave a talk to a, let’s say a more broad kind of audience and I would say a sentence and all of a sudden people would cheer and you’d say another sentence, people would cheer. And it was so weird for me as a scientist because we never do that in science. Like the whole mindset of an audience at science. It’s not, Oh, I’m excited about what you’re saying. It is. Let me think about all the reasons why I do not believe what you’re telling me. You know, like you have to sort of prove it to the scientists. And I, and I love that about science and scientists and so it is frustrating I would say when we get into, you know, if you’re in discussions or if you’re in society and we say, Oh, you know, every opinion on this is valid and there’s, there’s a place of goodness that that comes from in the sense of inclusion and respect for other people.

And there is definitely a truth to truth is complicated and multifaceted. So there’s always different, different views, right? That can be very disparate, but from the standpoint of a scientist, certainly you have to at least agree on certain levels of evidence or the way that we’re going to, uh, accept or reject an argument. And that sort of just basic respect for, for truth, even though it’s complicated and can be seen from multi-facets, we still are trying to describe something that in, in some senses there’s a real, I think it’s really important. 

Yeah. The concept of evidence as you, as you put it, is critical. Um, uh, all right. I want to read this sentence that you said and then I want you to unpack it a little bit. It’s just about what you do. Systems biology is beneficially transforming critical aspects of human wellbeing, including health, energy, and the environment, the science of systems biology, and the opportunity to drive it forward with such brilliant, engaging colleagues here at ISB excites me every day, which we talked about. But how about that first part, beneficially transforming critical aspects of human wellbeing, including health, energy in the environment. Um, let’s start with that. Help define that for me. What is this? What is the science of systems biology? 

So systems biology is an attempt to first quantify all of the different components that make up a biological system and then understand how they work in concert to achieve a life basically. And so insists. So traditionally in biology for many, many years, the focus of a single person’s career could really dive in on a particular molecule, a particular phenomenon, because they’re so complicated. And we tried to store this wisdom about really tiny pieces of biology around, you know, sort of these scientific gurus who knew everything about it and had done decades of experiments and so forth. Uh, one of the real genius elements of, uh, you know, behind ISP. So, uh, founder, you know, Lee hood, who was one of the very early pioneers in this was to say, if we’re really gonna push out at scale and understand how these biological systems function, we have to get much broader than that.

And the beginnings of that are being able to measure a lot of pieces about biology. So Lee’s, you know, history, you know, here’s the founder of the Institute is famous in that he invented the automated DNA sequencer that made the human genome project possible. That was the first example, right? So we say, all right, we’re not going to study a gene, right? That used to be used to win a Nobel prize for figuring out the gene associated with a disease. Now we can, we can sequence the entire genome in a day for 1000 bucks or something like that right now. And you can do it a little cheaper at scale, but you know, look in that aside, but you can do it pretty easily. And now the notion of just being able to look at all that information, it’s kind of unthinkable. The first thing, at least in our minds, if you start studying any new organisms, the first thing you do is sequence its genome.

Cause if you don’t even have its genome, like what are we even talking about? Like you don’t have a map for anything. And so you can start doing that. And then you do the same thing with proteomics and Metabolon. You know all the proteins that you can measure, metabolites, all the small molecules and now you start having a sense for at least what is the component space in biology. Then you get into the really hard problem of systems biology is once you see all that information, how do you make sense of it? How do you put it together? And that’s what leads us more into trying to do the next step of that is network. So you’re looking at relationships between all of these different measures and on and on as you get up. So it gets very complicated in that sense.

So I told you, I went and pulled the, of a few of the papers that you’ve been a part of. And for example, one of them, a community driven global reconstruction of human metabolism. And then following that one is P four medicine has systems, medicine will transform the healthcare sector in society. Well those, those are examples of the kind of networking you’re talking about.

Yes. So those are, um, uh, pretty different examples. So I’ll start with the first one. So the first one, which we were a part of, uh, which was, uh, led by Bernard Paulson at, uh, UCS D along with an S T Lee, um, who is now out in Ireland. Uh, and burner Paulson was my thesis advisor when I was in grad school. So this was, you know, kind of a full circle coming back to some of the stuff I did 15 years ago. And so that study was bringing together an international consortium to build out the most comprehensive model we have today of metabolism in humans. So it pulls in together, you know, so you have thousands of reactions and metabolites and how they’re all interconnected. We’ve taken that subsequently and developed algorithms so that we’ve built models for 126 different tissues and cell types in the human body, uh, what they metabolize and so forth.

That’s the Genesis. That’s the basis by the way, of what we’re going to do in the project. I mentioned the very beginning with pregnancy is to use that as a, as a means to try to understand the metabolic demands placed on a woman as she’s going through pregnancy and uh, and how that relates to disease. So the second element there is P four medicine, right? And so P four medicine refers to medicine that is predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory. And so what we’re looking at there is trying to understand the signals, right? That are in all these complex networks so that we can predict disease before it starts prevention. We want to stop it so that it doesn’t, it doesn’t actually progress. This is a huge element. So Leah and I have initiated this field, we call scientific wellness, which is an essence. They try and understand from a quantitative state what wellness is or what, you know, how it, how it appears and what deviations from it look like so that we can intervene really early and stop a disease from progressing to where it becomes a, it’s really hard to, to treat.

And we could talk more about that. The personalized is, I think, self-explanatory every, it’s one of the real challenges in biology today with reproducibility and so forth is because every biological system is actually unique. Right? You and I are not exactly the same. We have, you know, we have our different life histories. Our genomes are very similar but somewhat but unique. And you know, there’s all those elements. And then participatory as a part of P four medicine means empowering individuals with information so that they can control their own health. And that’s another huge element that we’re really behind. And so those things come into play then, you know, and if we come, I keep bringing this up. You’ve got at the beginning of the, like the pregnancy study, as I mentioned, we’re doing all that with the metabolic networks, but it’s really to enable P four medicine because we see it as a situation where we can actually predict and prevent disease and prototype new approaches to that in a way that is, uh, that we can do quickly. And Alzheimer’s is another, you know, which we’ll get into is going to be, uh, another, uh, we’ll test another aspect of that.

So let’s, let’s talk about that specifically for a little bit. Cause aren’t you doing, uh, is it with the Providence, which is the, it’s Providence hospitals that you’re working with? Yes. And, and so how is that, how does, how does these quantitative ideas play out, you know, in a hospital? I know now we’re at the experimental stage, but how do they play out in a hospital setting?

Yeah, so this is an area that, uh, we’re really excited about. So a couple of years ago, ISB was, and for the first 18 years of our existence, we were a private, standalone nonprofit research Institute. Uh, and a couple of years ago, uh, Providence Saint Joseph health, uh, approached us and in particular, uh, Lee hood has become now the chief science officer for the Providence Saint Joseph health system. And ISB has become, uh, an affiliate of that system so that we are in part one of the research arms of, of Providence. Uh, we still, you know, mostly do independent research of various kinds, but, but we are, we have a mission as part of our mission now to, uh, translate into medicine. That was the big thing that brought our new president in. Uh, Jim Heath, why he moved up from Cal tech and came here. I was in part for that translational potential. So a lot of what we’re talking about, you know, certainly at the beginning was very theoretical and you’ve got to build out a lot behind it.

Uh, Lee and I became really interested in translating that out to society. Uh, we had, uh, about five years ago started a company called Arivale, which, uh, unfortunately now out of business. But, uh, what it did for about, uh, four years was to take individuals through a program where we generated for them, you know, genomics and a lot of clinical lab data and microbiome data. And, and we also did discovery work on proteomics and metabolomics and things of that nature. And it let us build up, uh, well it proved out a couple things. One was, uh, we were able to show that the data had a big impact on people’s health. Uh, and we have, um, you know, papers to that effect now. And it was a program that once people were doing it really made a difference. And the second was that by generating these data clouds, it was starting to give us all the information that you need in order to identify the early warning signs for the major human diseases so you can predict them and prevent them.

And that was the whole goal of what we were doing. We took about 5,000 people through that program. Now with Providence, uh, what we’re doing is with Providence Saint Joseph health, uh, is we’re going to be doing a pilot. Uh, we’ll, we’ll do 5,000 individuals in the coming year. But the big vision for that that’s being pushed forward, especially by Lee, is to get a million person, genome phenom project where we actually take and move into the clinic. What are the kinds of things that you can say that are actionable for people on their genomes? You know, a reason to do that, a reason that that matters are, and there’s a, there’s a lot in society happening on that front, coupled with the phenotype side because it’s really how the genome manifests, what’s happening in your environment, what’s happening in your lifestyle. And those things together we think will be totally transformative to health. And we’re, we’re pushing really hard with Providence to make that reality.

What do you mean by that? There’s a lot of things happening in society that can lead to that.

Oh, what I was alluding to is that genomics has hit a little bit of a wall recently. Uh, and it’s pretty fascinating. So, and I mean that from the commercial side. So a number of genomics companies, you know, have sort of arisen and, uh, have, uh, or fall in yellow certainly are, you know, ours was not ultimately successful. It wasn’t just genomics, but even 23 and me and ancestry, which are the most successful consumer genomics companies, uh, had major layoffs in the last a month. And what the phenomenon seems to happen at the moment is that genomics Rose, especially with those two pretty rapidly through your early adopters, the people that really wanted to know something about their genomics and they did that. And, but it has not yet translated to everybody wanting to do it. And there haven’t been as compelling of reasons for people to come back to it over and over again.

And we think those reasons actually exist. Health reasons. Yeah. Uh, but they, but you don’t actually get to them unless you do this next step of what we call, um, w under scientific wellness. But the manifestation of that genetic risk in the body, like what does it do and, and how, and what does it tell you that’s really meaningful. So genomics has pushed forward into the commercial space and into the community and had an had an impact. But the deliverables so far haven’t been of a quality that it has not yet convinced everybody out there that this is something that I need and that I need to go back to over and over again. So that’s what, why genomics has hit a little bit of a snack. I don’t think it is a permanent snack, but it is a huge, a challenge right now to then convey here are aspects that really matter about your genome, that that would motivate a, it’s incorporation. Now healthcare systems are starting to bring it in in a big way. Um, and that’s the other side of it.

Well, I mean one of the papers, a few of the papers that you were part of talk about big data. So is that how healthcare systems are bringing in and, and in other words, they can take some number of people and extrapolate some truths from that. 

Yeah. Yeah. So I can give a, so healthcare systems are getting involved in this. There was a big partnership between Amgen and inner mountain, for example, where they’re now, which is a big healthcare system in Utah and they’re now recruiting 500,000 of their patients was a quarter of their, I think it’s a quarter of their system, uh, where they’re doing genomics. Uh, the genome has proven really important for the development of new therapies. Uh, it actually, uh, helps, uh, pharma companies and so forth with target identification or prioritization, uh, very strongly. Uh, so that’s, you know, that is one, uh, one big element a second, and I’ll just share this partly from our own work and partly from others that I, I think, you know, indicates some of the kinds of things that you can think about it having meaning. So one element that’s interesting is if you look at something like LDL or HDL cholesterol white, which everyone measures, it turns out that the level of, um, we’ll just take one of them at the moment.

Let’s say the level of LDL cholesterol is pretty pro. You could predict it pretty well from your genome. So knowing nothing about your lifestyle or anything else, just a genomics signature alone predicts it pretty well. Now, what we did in a study, which was really fascinating, so this was people that were going through the Arivale program. And what we saw was that if your genome predicted that you would have high LDL cholesterol, Oh, I’m sorry, let me, let me back up briefly right now, right? There’s 2 billion in these blood tests, not just this one, but you know, broadly, uh, run across, uh, the healthcare system, United States, and we treat them all basically the same, right? So we say, here you are, here’s our, our, you know, normal distribution across the population. And you’re either high or you’re low. And that’s kind of what there is.

So with LDL, that’s what we do. We take people that have the same level of cholesterol right there, they have high cholesterol, and at the moment we don’t use anything about genomics. So if you have 150 LDL, then you have 150. All the alums just treated the same. So what we saw in our study is if we took people that had exactly the same LDL level, but we looked at people who are there because their genome predicted they’d be there, or people were who were there when their genome predicted that in fact they’d be much lower. It turned out that by lifestyle intervention, the people whose genome predicted they would be high, we saw no statistically significant difference in them being able to lower their LDL cholesterol by going through this wellness program for the top 40%. However, for the bottom 40% for the ones that were predicted that they, their genomes predicted they could go low.

We saw very significant reductions in the amount of LDL cholesterol that they, you know, the amount they were able to reduce it. So what that showed us, and it was the same for HDL, and so what that showed us was that you could predict the outcome of a lifestyle intervention from the genome. And so you could tell people in advance, you know, and you know, this is the kind of thing that will likely work for you. So one of the things that we’re going to be developing, which I’m very excited about, is we can then take everyone’s genetic prediction for all of these blood marchers. And we can say, here are the five or 10 or you know, whatever the right number is that you should be able to modify pretty easily in the following ways with last night eventually because your genome is going to be working with you rather than against you.

If you don’t have your genome, you can’t do any of that. You’re totally blind to that. Uh, and so we just think there’s a ton of that kind of thing. And then once it gets integrated into healthcare and you can see, Oh, actually makes a difference to you, you know, it makes a difference in how you feel it makes a difference in, uh, in your weight. You know, we’ve, we’ve seen some other really interesting signals for BMI and so forth like that we think we’ll have, we’ll have an effect. It gives people a reason to believe or reason to care how, how will that make healthcare? Um, sounds like I can see how it makes healthcare more efficient. How does it make healthcare also less expensive? So for one, consider the, the number of individuals, let’s just stay with LDL, HDL, the number of people who are on Statens.

Right. So, uh, there’s a, there’s a lot of over-prescription and I don’t want to get, you know, I’m not a doctor, I don’t want to get into the specifics of any particular case on this. But Nick Shork at, um, uh, down in San Diego who was actually by coincidence, Terry yesterday, but he, uh, he had a paper in nature where they went through and, and just reported on the number of people who benefit from taking the top 10 selling drugs in the United States and the top 10 selling drugs in the United States. One out of either the best of them, one out of four people that take it benefit and the worst one out of 25 people who take advantage of it. Right. So that’s big. So let’s take Statens. So if you could, if you could take a number of individuals and say, look, you’re the kind of person who could reduce, you know, this, uh, using lifestyle intervention more successfully than, you know, maybe we could get some of the people, you know, not on the Staton.

Right. And people can argue, you know, some people argue that everyone should take a stat and or whatever and you know, we can leave those debates. But as an example, you know, that’s the kind of thing that you could do. And all these drugs, by the way, they always, you know, they, you know, there’s benefit to them or we wouldn’t do them, but they also have downsides to them. People on Statens there’s a 9% increase in incidents of diabetes. So one of the other things that I recommend for, you know, just from a personalization standpoint or that I would sort of look at for myself is, you know, you go on one of these things, well I’d probably measure your, you know, the diet, the various diabetes markers that are out there, your hemoglobin a one C your fasting glucose, you know, your home IRR, that kind of stuff to see if that is triggering. Cause that’s it’s just known from epidemiology and in our studies when we looked at people on stats and not, yeah, we saw an elevation in a subset of people on those markers and then zone.

Does the science allow you at some point then to actually by looking at their genomes know which of those people may be susceptible to when taking sentence get that’d be susceptible to diabetes?

Yeah, I think that’s a real interesting question. We can’t say, you know, maybe someone out there knows it and I haven’t seen it, but I, I’m not aware of an ability to predict that yet from genomics. But you can definitely see the movement that direction from the blood markers. That I think is is pretty straight forward. The genomic prediction and we do have a clinical trial that we’re running right now on using genomics for the interpretation of hemoglobin a one C for people who are pre-diabetic because at least in preliminary data, you know, we won’t know the answer to this really until you know, that’s why we did the trial. But I noticed in the data set that we had generated from Arivale that for people who had a high genetic predict a risk for high hemoglobin a one C that if we looked at people who had, you know, the same hemoglobin a one C where we might say they’re in the prediabetic range, that it was a lower fraction for individuals that converted into diabetes for those that were at the really high risk.

So in other words, if you were pushed there by genetics, it wasn’t, it didn’t look to be as big a deal as if you were at the same level but not push there by genetics. And there’s, and there’s pretty good mechanistic reason for that because you can have variants that mean that the, uh, the residents’ time of your red blood cells is a little bit longer. So, you know, so if my red blood cells last 120 days and years last 125 days, well your hemoglobin a one C would be naturally a little higher than mine because your cells have a little longer time to accumulate this, the sugar residues on them. And so you just adjust. You just adjust the measure for that. And there’s, there’s a million of these things I see, which is why you’re excited because you are working in data, but at the same time, at the cellular level on individuals. So you can, you can make the connections with, with, through the science.

Yeah. And that’s what was amazing to us as we started putting together these data clouds. And what was interesting was, you know, we had so much opposition to this at the beginning, you know, there were so many people including in the building, you know, that just really didn’t think we should go about doing this. And it was a waste of time and money to, you know, to generate, you know, this much density of data around individuals. And we have just found it to be unbelievably informative. And you know, it’s just one of the things that we, we push and we actually are, I’ve set up infrastructure here to add this as an add on to multiple clinical trials. Uh, because if you take, you know, if you have this sort of core set of data that you’re going to generate and you apply it on every clinical trial.

And we built an infrastructure here now so we can do the data reproducibly. There’s a whole infrastructure across the country and with lab Corp, you know, there’s bank blood samples that gets spiked in so that we can normalize all the things that are done in, you know, one part of the country at one month against another part of the country at another month that, you know, all those kinds of things. And you put it all together and all of a sudden you start having a system where you start learning from every trial and you, your data from your cancer trial is relevant to the data in your multiple sclerosis trial, which is relevant to the data in your, uh, Alzheimer’s trial, which is, you know, and so all of which we’ve got going right now. And so you can, you can take those. And it’s one of the things I’ve been arguing to a pharmacist when I go around and speak to pharma companies, which is, you know, the five most valuable companies in the world are data companies and pharma, in my mind, waste an incredible amount of data that would be so useful to the future of human health because they do not build basically exactly what we’ve built, which I wish they would do a and just say, you know, here is a set of measures that you can do that’s deep on every single trial and you integrate it into a system or you can do machine learning across it and you just start learning.

And then every single trial you just get exponentially more information about how the human body is interconnected, how it works. Uh, you get increased predictive ability. You know, what’s really unusual when you see it and on and on. So, well, I wouldn’t be, I’m going to shift topics to, to what you’re going to talk about at town hall, but I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence without asking. So are there concerns from some people about misuse of the data or a misapplication of information in a way that targets, you know, people unjustly? Is that some of the concerns you can see?

Yeah, you certainly run into those concerns. Uh, and there are examples, you know, there are, there are examples of, of misuse of this kind of data. I do want to say that they are very rare compared to the number of positive uses. I mean, the vast majority of what people want to do with these kinds of data is to, is to solve disease and, and so there are very careful safeguards that are put on for privacy. Uh, and there are, genomics has its own issues with that because the genome is ultimately, you know, the code of view. Uh, and so there, there are those issues like that. Uh, of course just visiting my office today, you will have left 30 million copies of your genome on the chair. And so, you know, in the far future, the far future, it is something we’re sort of shedding all the time, which we never had to care about before.

But, uh, it is, and that’s why I think laws in the future are going to have to be very focused around the use of these data. It’s going to be very hard, you know, to put the genie back in the bottle in the sense that you know, that we’re not going to have an ability to do genomic. And for the simple reason that I just mentioned, like it’s, you know, it’s ubiquitous out there and, and there are, you know, genome sequencers now that are small enough, you can carry them around in your front pocket. I had one in my pocket the other day. And you know, they’re not quite accurate enough yet, but they’re, they’re not these behemoth machines. They used to be let’s not all of them. And so you, you can actually, yeah, it’s like it’s people on the podcast can see my fingers, but it’s, you know, it’s like the length of, it’s like the length of your finger sort of smaller than a smartphone, smaller than a smaller phone, thicker.

But um, and so, uh, so you can do that kind of thing. So, so privacy issues are very important. Uh, how we use this data is really important. One of the things that, that, that strikes me often and I, and I think about a lot though, is we often get into these dichotomies or these, these situations where we have on one hand, this gets back to our evidence in like reality from earlier. We have on one hand a reality which is unless we integrate a lot of genomic information with a lot of health information, we will never learn how, why and how we are susceptible to so many of the chronic diseases that we are dying and suffering from now and we won’t actually ever be able to know how to solve them if we don’t do that. That’s just the physical reality because you just can’t understand the data at this scale if you don’t have a lot of observations of it.

On the other side is something that is not a reality but is created by us, which is can we do this in a way where we don’t hurt each other by bad laws and bad uses and bad actors and and all of this in terms of what we actually do with the data and just philosophically, and I think those are all really, really important issues. But philosophically I would like us to try to center ourselves around the things that in reality have to happen for us to achieve that, to try to solve that while minimizing the issues that we actually do control ourselves, which is how do we treat each other? How do we set up our social contracts? How do we set up laws and so forth.

All right, let me just, let me ask you this just because when I, when we were looking at the, when I was looking at the town hall descriptions, here’s this descriptions of what dr Eagleman is coming to talk about. And then you are going to be, you’re going to moderate this panel with him and with the Mary Kay Ross. And this was the question that, that was put on the, on the Townhall calendar. Can we create new senses for humans? Uh, the Eagleman delivers an exploration of sensory substitution, time perception, brain plasticity, synesthesia and neuro law. Unless this is a, a science fiction movie, right?

Well, what are we talking about here? Yeah. So first of all, we’re super excited to have dr Eagleman come in and keynote the, the event, uh, and, and super excited also to have, uh, Dr. Ross, uh, uh, who has a good partnership with us. So in terms of what, um, uh, what David’s going to talk about, you know, and I won’t, you know, still has thought of, he’s going to bring a lot of really cool new things, but this whole notion of sensory extension is really a fascinating one. So if you look at the world around you, if you look at everything that you’ve ever experienced, everything that you’ve ever experienced has happened in your brain, and your brain is actually blind to the outside world in a sense, right? All it gets are these signals that come in, right? And so if you take your eyes right, we see a tiny sliver of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that’s out there.

Uh, and as we look at that spectrum of, you know, what we have, what we have is light. There’s no reason that what we actually perceive. It’s not special in any particular way. It’s special to us because it’s our lived experience. Uh, but there’s no reason that you couldn’t actually augment or see more of that. And in fact, we take advantage of that in ways that our senses don’t perceive. And we turn it into what our senses can perceive, right? The internet radio, um, you know, all these signals, you know, the wifi that’s in this room, right? We don’t see it, we don’t perceive it. But as soon as, but we, we have, we have receptors, right? We have our phones. It does it. And it turns it into something that we can see in a light spectrum so it can get into our brain, right?

And so there’s this whole notion of reality like that. And some of what I imagined that a David Eagleman will share are around the notion that with people who are deaf with people who have had their limbs amputated, there are means now that are actually already happened, that you can connect devices into the brain. So these signals can go into the brain and it can come through any sense, right? You can turn it into an audio sense. You could turn it into a feel sense, but your brain gets these signals and it can figure out what to do with them. You know, I saw there was a really moving, uh, event at the NIH a few years ago, you know, and they had, you know, a guy there and he was, um, you know, he was without arms, you hadn’t had arms, you know, for a long, long time.

And so they put these prosthetic devices and he was able, you know, he would train with his thoughts to be able to reach out and hold the hand of his daughter for the first time ever. And I, I’m about to cry again. I was just, it was so beautiful, uh, to see that because it was, um, just the emotion in it. And it was, and again, his, he’s controlling it with his mind because his mind over time was able to learn, you know, how to, you know, how this device was measured. And so it, it responds to the electrical signals and it does this and you know, so there’s ways to think about, you know, I mean, he, you know, hailing the blind [inaudible] and healing the lame and like all that kind of stuff through science, which is a very remarkable. And so I’m sure David’s going to talk about a number of those kind of issues about how do we actually extend, you know, what our perceptions are.

You know, how does that relate back to what you’re doing here? I mean, you invite him in part because there’s some connections. Yes. So, so we’re very interested in it because David Eagleman is been, you know, he did this, uh, you know, his special on the brain and he has, uh, his neuroscientists. And what we’re doing here is we do a lot in this realm of scientific wellness and, um, and before medicine that we’ve talked about, one of the big areas we’re interested in is brain health. And, uh, you know, and you know, our lab, you know, probably about a third of the founding of the lab is on Alzheimer’s disease. We’re working on that a lot. And basically what we’re excited about is the notion of trying to move upstream in Alzheimer’s. And what I mean, you know, I mean early on and have an effect on what it can, what’s happening downstream.

So we, uh, dr Mary Kay Ross who’s coming, she started the brain, uh, health and research Institute here jointly with us in Seattle, moved up from Savannah, Georgia. And what we have there is you have, uh, uh, what we, what we’ve got so far in Alzheimer’s diseases were about, Oh, for 400 on clinical trials with drugs of having an effect. There are a few trials where an effect has been shown, one of which is the finger study and it’s not a drug, but it’s various lifestyle interventions and lifestyle interventions early on seemed to have an effect. In fact, I went to Genentech a while ago to give a talk at their, you know, their neuro, uh, neurological division. And I remember the head of it, you know, as I walked in and said, don’t, she says, well, drugs have never worked. Lifestyle interventions. I think I’ve ever worked at Alzheimer’s.

I’m like, Oh, I thought I was going to fight you on that. Okay, we’re on the, we’re on the same page. Um, you know, people still keep working on the drugs like we need them. But what we’re excited about with Mary Kay and others is that they have these patients that have gone through these, these very personalized, multimodal therapy programs. And, and what they see is that, you know, in, in some, you know, in some of the individuals seem to have a pretty strong, um, uh, benefit from going through these programs, but they’re highly, um, multi-modal. They’re highly personalized or not as reproducible. And so there hasn’t been as much like really hard, you know, kind of clinical trial style evidence behind them. And so we saw that as really an opportunity, uh, to do two things. So first is to take and get access to all the information from into patients who consent and the identified information to track progress along with what’s being done so that we can start to establish an evidence base behind this whole space to say, okay, when we take a thousand patients that go through this, all right, what fraction benefit, how much quantify it.

So we’re, we’re very interested in trying to understand that from people that come in with mild cognitive impairment. Uh, you know, do we see real effects? So that’s a big element. And the second thing we want to do is to add on this, these data clouds we talked about. So we get this really rich depth of information so that for any individuals that go through there where we see an unusually large effect or you know, someone that really responds to something, who is able to cause there, there are these dramatic stories of the, of some of these individuals who, you know, talk about, you know, they’re having, you know, lost really key aspects of their memory and getting it back. You know, and so they’re, you know, and so you hear these things and so you want to establish a scientific credibility behind it, understand, you know, to what frequency is that happening, quantify the degree to which you know, which that happens in any individuals and then have an ability to dive in in a deep molecular way and say, okay, when we see these, you know, sort of outlier events, which you know, people see sporadically, you know, here and there, can we learn something from those so that we can develop therapies that are in fact much more efficacious if they’re applied early enough.

And all timers I think is a PR and dementia, I should say Alzheimer’s and dementia, sometimes it’s a dementia that’s not Alzheimer’s. But once you’re really far down that path and your brain is degraded, you can imagine some scifi kind of things to try. But it’s pretty impossible today to think about how you put that back together. But if you can intervene early and understand the processes that are driving it and as the finger study showed that these are at least to some degree modifiable, can you in fact make a difference if you find people early enough and had come up with good strategies. So that’s what we’re trying to do.

That’s wild. That’s wild to see how data works to that. That’s very cool. Um, all right, last just sort of question. You already touched on it. You’re here, Seattle children’s, here you dub Mary Ross’s Institute, the Allen Institute. Um, is there some value in being in a neighborhood where all this physical, where all this is happening? I mean, in a world of data and you know, and, and people can talk to each other across the world. Is there some value being all clustered like this?

A huge value actually. Uh, there are, you know, the university of Washington is a fantastic [inaudible] research Institute. I was actually just there this morning because, you know, I got an invitation to go, you know, to meet with the white house science advisor who is here in town visiting UDaB. And they were kind enough to let us have a representative from ISP come. And so, you know, I did that, uh, this morning. So, uh, the Hutch, uh, which is one of the greatest cancer research institutes, uh, that there are, you know, that there is in the, in the world. Uh, and I, I’m on the board of advisors for the American cancer society here in the area. So we do a lot of, uh, events and, and, uh, outreach with the Hutch. Uh, they’ve actually been really important to, uh, you know, major, uh, cancer grant that we’ve been working on.

You know, getting some bank samples from them has been really important. Uh, the, uh, Seattle children’s of course, which, uh, we have worked with, uh, on pregnancy and they funded one of the people in my group, Alison Paquette, you know, has a grant, uh, you know, uh, with, uh, some of the people there, which has been a terrific Sage Bionetworks here in town is one of the great, uh, uh, aspects of centering, of, of uh, open data. And we have multiple things we do with Alara mangrove VT. The presidents are just fantastic. Uh, the Allen institutes, uh, are here, right? And that’s an incredible, uh, resource of knowledge in artificial intelligence and the brain and cell engineering. And so it’s, it’s really, it’s a huge advantage and that’s why we tell people, come to Seattle.

It’s fun. It’s wild to think of that though, that it’s, you know, knock knocking on doors. Being able to meet people on the street is as much the connection. The networking is, you know, the networking you’re doing with the data. That’s very cool. All right. I appreciate your time. Thank you. Right. Thank you.

You can join Dr. Nathan Price. David Eagleman and Mary Kay Ross, founder and CEO of the Seattle based brain health and research Institute for wide ranging discussion of human health and biological innovations on March 5th at 7:30 PM and town halls. Great hall. Thank you for listening to episode 56 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle band, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. You can listen to our town hall produced programs and speakers on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts. You can also watch a whole library of content on our YouTube channel. Just search Townhall Seattle and subscribe to support town hall. Become a member or see our calendar of events. Check out a website, a town hall, seattle.org next week or correspondent Tom teacher will talk with Justin feral about wealth concentration and the environment. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 55


In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with Conor Dougherty about the fight for housing in America. Dougherty outlines why developers aren’t building homes for millennials the way they did for baby boomers, and explains the factors that led to this decline. He discusses the rise of Nimbys (“not in my backyard”) and the growing movement against gentrification. Dougherty encourages us to ask ourselves which outcomes we want when it comes to housing, and encourages us to petition for big-picture solutions like rehabilitating affordable housing, increased density, and lower cost housing production.


Episode Transcript

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Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we talk with folks coming to our stages and give you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Janine Palmer. We need more housing in America. Every presidential candidate is talking about the need for more affordable housing. In the meantime, people are being priced out of the opportunity for a stable home in cities across the country. How will more affordable housing get built? Will existing homes be torn down or preserved? Will the federal government build housing for the millions of millennials who are locked out of the market? The cost of housing is a national story. Groups are fighting towards the same goal, but with different strategies. NIMBYs not in my backyard. [inaudible] yes, in my backyard. Anti gentrification groups, developers, low income housing and nonprofits, tenants rights groups all speak to the need for a diverse response. Are we getting the diversity of policies we need to create diversity of houses? Connor Doherty is an economics reporter for the New York times. He has covered housing issues for more than a decade. His new book, golden Gates, fighting for housing and America delves into the affordable housing crisis in one city, San Francisco. And what it means for the rest of the country. Dowdy is coming to town hall. Tuesday, February 25th at 7:30 PM he spoke to chief correspondent, Steve share about the crisis and the response from many of the democratic presidential candidates

half the time the plan wants to talk about housing as a, as a route for asset building, you know, for making families better off but then half the time it wants to sort of penalize private developers and sort of act as if profit making is bad. And um, I’m not saying it’s hypocritical or inconsistent, I think would it, would it genuinely does it sort of capture these dual roles of housing? People like it when a home is stable and it increases in value and people can use it semis their retirement plan but they don’t like it when it seems like some developer is raising rent exorbitantly cause they’re trying to make a return. But I think what we’re starting to acknowledge and what those plans are starting to acknowledge is that these are the same thing. If you’re going to enrich a bunch of people who have, you know, planted themselves on land in single family homes many years ago and purely by accident of timing, they have built substantially more assets than other people.

Uh, the, the same forces that are creating not at the same forces that are, uh, forcing developers to or that are inspiring, I should say, developers to, you know, really, you know, increase to build luxury and to go rent. If there was a, a really great business in building middle-class housing, which there used to be, people would be doing it. And what I think is significant about it, just to reiterate, I think what is significant about all of these plants is that it does every single one of them in some fashion or form says we need a higher intensity of land use.

When you looked at the different, um, histories that evolved, did you find any moment that said, Oh, this is where it shifted from being a good deal to build middle-class housing, lower middle class people could afford to, where it just was not penciling out for developers? And would, would you point to any particular regulation, zoning or shift in values that brought that about?

Yeah, I would say. Okay. So let’s just start by saying spacious. Affordable housing was in the post war period that he seems killer symbol of American affluence. When we thought about what does it mean to live in a rich society, not a society with a lot of rich people, but a society with a whole society seems richer than in other countries. What does it mean to have a solid middle class? Housing was always the symbol of that. And for decades and decades and decades, observers from Europe and other countries would always note that. So then look at where we are today, where housing is the singular symbol of inequality. It is absolutely, uh, our, our most vivid example of how the economy has gone wrong. And when people from other countries, Europe and elsewhere visit, they see destitution on the streets and don’t understand how this could possibly be happening.

So clearly over a very long period, something went very, very wrong. I guess what I would say is that it seems to me that somewhere around the 70s, the economy broke in a multitude of ways. Uh, this is the same period in which you’re going to see, cause there’s a lot tied up in this, right? This is the same period in which you’re going to start seeing union membership plunge. It’s the same period in which financialization of the economy starts to take off. It’s the same period in which, uh, wages start to sag stagnate. But somewhere around the late 1970s, uh, nimbyism really took hold, uh, at the same time, inflation caused people to see their homes much more as a, as an asset. And it’s not like anybody ever thought they’d lose money on their home, but I do not. But it is, it was not true pre the late seventies that people thought about it as an investment that they would profit pretty substantially from.

So I think that, uh, the, the, the land use, um, restrictions, uh, were a huge, huge, huge piece of this. Um, but you know, a lot of other things were happening in the economy. Um, and, and you know, all of them kind of tied up together. One thing I would also note is that, um, I think that’s, uh, I think there’s these generational ebbs and flows to the kind of play into this. Like there’s this just like surge of millennials and we’ve never built for them the way we built for the baby boomers. I mean, you read stories about, you know, I think that paid a piece of home-building grew by like 10 times in like five or eight years after 1945. So we never, uh, I mean we never did that for this generation and I think that it’s kind of left us in this hole for most of our history. Uh, we have solved housing problems by solving transportation problems. We had, you know, horse drawn wagons and then coaches and buses and trains and then freeways and we just sort of linearly than geometric. We just added more and more and more land for development. That system has basically broken. You cannot just like drive somewhere 300 miles an hour. Now the way, you know from say 1900 to 1950 how much land was accessible in a short trip was, you know, radically altered.

Your point about I’m never building for the millennials is really profound because that’s, I mean it was a national effort after world war II to give folks housing and access to housing and that has not happened. Who kind of caught people by surprise that there were so many millennials though it shouldn’t have. Of course there’s a lot of demographers, you know, you looked at this writing as an economics reporter and one of the things I was, I was curious about was how you do think about the anti-gentrification movement. So for example, in Seattle, the central district was the, was the central cultural node for African Americans. And it was many, many single family homes, apartments too. But it was many, many single family homes. And of course they’ve, they’ve been pushed out by gentrification. They’ve sold by gentrification and moved to other places, made some money on their houses, or they were renters, they didn’t want to leave. That’s repeated itself in many neighborhoods. Right. Including South of mission in San Francisco. What solutions work for those people who say, look, I want to stay in my neighborhood around my culture?

It’s an absolutely crucial question. And one of the things I try to Telegraph with the book is just having both sides of this equation work together. Uh, you know, the reason redevelopment went so poorly in the, you know, postwar period, the reason it was, you know, became a vehicle to clear black neighborhoods and commit some of the like worst sins we’ve ever committed. Was it, nobody from those neighborhoods had any kind of power or influence whatsoever? Uh, so I guess I think w I don’t, I don’t, I don’t really want to start prescribing solutions. I just want to say those neighborhoods need to be present, prescribing their own solutions. Uh, I think so, but you know, I’ll tell you that some of the ones I’ve heard are a lot social housing, um, a lot more. Um, you know, using community land trusts, uh, these are all very good ideas that can be scaled and it can and do not have to be in conflict with new building, uh, as they currently are.

One of the great anecdotes I have in the book, or at least one of my favorites was this nun who, uh, lives who, who, who works across the street from this building. Uh, it’s a 50 unit apartment building and this investor came in, bought it, evicted everyone, kind of, you know, gave it fast wifi and a coat of paint, uh, raise the rent substantially. And then nun was so outraged by this. She got together with a bunch of investors. Um, she really worked hard to, to hustle and bought it back, uh, and has now turned it into permanently affordable housing. I think that you can do a lot of that type of stuff. Uh, there’s no reason why affordable housing funds that are currently going to build affordable housing. Some of it could go to preserving. I mean, they do that in San Francisco, in Oakland and other places. Rent control is another. Uh, I think rent control should be done gently, or at least the evidence suggests it should be. But, um, but I mean it’s certainly part of the policy solution.

You have looked at rent control. What’s good about rent control? Where has it worked well and what are still the, the problems that rent control might cause?

Let’s just get away from rent control for one minute and ask this question and start with this. America has in a multitude of ways decided that it wants people to have stable homes. Um, the mortgage interest deduction, which, um, you know, the entire apparatus of Fannie and Freddie that essentially exist to create the 30 year fixed mortgage. We have, uh, let’s see about the mortgage intersection, but the 30 year fixed mortgage, you cannot go America’s like the only country that has a 30 year fixed mortgage. And we’d go through all this effort because we basically have decided we don’t want P we want to insulate people from rapid increases in their cost of living. So rent control philosophically is just saying people should, people who are venting, we play a very vital role in their local economies. Should a have the same kind of protection that homeowners get at substantial federal costs?

It is not, it is not cheap to create a whole apparatus to create 30 year fixed mortgages. So let’s just start with that as the framework. The problem sometimes is that, um, rent control can, uh, it can a, uh, remove the profit motive, which nobody wants to hear. But that’s, that can be a problem. Yeah. Private in a market where we still, most of our housing is still built by private builders. That’s a problem. And then B, it can, um, encourage landlords to exit the rental business. If you’re going to get way more money by selling it off as ownership housing, you will do that. If you look at the mission in San Francisco, which has been an intense battlefield, although most of the most intense gentrification happened 20 years ago, um, that neighborhood has a ton of old, I grew up right next to the mission and noway Valley.

So I have a pretty clear sense of how it’s changed. Uh, it’s become a lot of, you know, these condos that used to just be like affordable flats. So everything that economists predict, rent control will do is happening there. A lot of people will say, Oh, well if you just change these laws that make it impossible to convert condos and all that. I, I guess I, I, you know, those are all things you should do probably in an emergency. But I think that one of the things rent control does is it kind of, it, it insulates people. It’s like, I dunno how to put this without sounding a heartless. It’s like you want to insulate people, but you don’t want to insulate them too much. And, and I, I guess what I’m saying is you want to insulate people, but you don’t want to insulate like society.

If our rents are increasing by insane amounts, we should take that as a cue to start building. And sometimes what rent control does is it, it just, it removes political support for this thing we need to be doing. Uh, so what, what does rent control do? That’s good. It gives people stable homes. It gives them a predictable budget that they can start saving for their kids’ colleges. They can, you know, I mean, people can just, just imagine how much you can plan when you know what your living costs are and imagine how much a life is thrown into chaos, uh, if, if, uh, if you don’t, so that’s an important societal goal. Um, the question is, uh, is rent control always the best way to achieve it? Um, some economists have talked about, uh, you know, doing, um, a giant renter’s tax credit. So like you’d still be insulated from large, uh, rent increases, but it wouldn’t change the price.

Um, it would change the price for you, but it wouldn’t change the price. Um, and therefore developers would keep building, by the way, I should also say, and um, rent control essentially does work as designed. Um, you know, there is numerous studies show that the people we want to benefit from rent control do benefit who are in shore. Now, of course the thing studies also showed that people who are quite wealthy also benefit from rent control. Some people are okay with that, other people think it’s a giveaway. I’ll flip them, hash that out. But it clearly has some bad effects as well. I mean, I guess this is probably true of most policies though, right? You know? But anyway, as you can tell, I’m sort of conflicted about this because the goal of rent control is pretty much, it’s an important goal and it’s one that we’ve codified into various other aspects of our housing market, but we never talk about it.

You know, again, notably that the 30 year fixed mortgage, I would say one of the things I’m really happy about right now is that it seems like people are like experimenting with rent control. I mean the distortions of if you talk to economists, they, they, there are gradations of rent control and a lot of them are not nearly as disruptive as others are. So I think the fact that we’re running this policy experiment and passing lots of different kinds of rent control in different places, some with varying levels of intensity. I think that’s like ultimately a good thing. I also think though philosophically people should also ask themselves what works like, I mean this is the thing I feel, I mean is this nimbyism thing working out for us? It really doesn’t seem to be. So I think that when people, you know, if, if, if we pass super hard rent control and you know, w and nothing happens, well we shouldn’t be so ideological about it.

We should just be like, wow, that worked great. Turn out the economists were all wrong, which they frequently are all the flip side. What if we pass something and you know, all the worst things happen and you know, we have to ask ourselves, well is this, I mean this is one of the things that frustrates me about policy generally is it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of, I feel like rather than being dogmatic about which policy we want, we should sort of ask ourselves. I mean I’m being a little bit Pollyannish here. I realize, but which outcomes we’ve won and what gets us there, I don’t think we should be so rigid about which policy. I think that all of these policies have to be part of the solution. If this, if you and I were talking 40 years ago, I feel like we would have a totally different set of solutions. I think if this was 40 years ago, I would probably tell you we should just be building more and that the private market probably could take care of a lot of this, but we’re not there now. We have dug ourselves into a 40 year hole and we’re not going to just get out of it by unleashing the private market or by just passing rent control on the existing housing stock.

Well, can we do something by, uh, you know, returning to a more vigorous and robust federal housing support and federal housing construction program?

Absolutely has to be proud of this because I mean, particularly in California, I mean, we’re looking at problems that have a lot. Omar acknowledged this with her housing plan. We’re looking at problems that have trillion in the dollar figures. We’re not looking at a problem that has billions or even hundreds of billions, this a multi trillion dollar problem. And I also think one thing we don’t think about enough is how costly inaction is. I mean, homelessness consumes all sorts of local resources that are never Kaleed. Um, police action, emergency room visits, you know, all this costs from homelessness. But we, we, we, you know, obviously beyond the moral cost to that we just don’t have to incur if we built housing, um, you know, and, and, and, and supportive affordable housing. I think also, uh, you know, one of the, uh, you know, in the book I followed a family as they were displaced, the daughter and the family, you know, lost like a month of school. God knows what kind of, uh, what happened to her homework, uh, during, um, the chaos of the three months not knowing where she was going to live. I just think that the cost of that is quite hot. Uh, so as costly as it will be to solve this problem. I truly think, and multiple studies have shown versions of this, that the cost of inaction is substantially higher. We just don’t see it as obviously,

well Omar, Omar talks about, uh, 80 billion for public housing agencies, 200 billion over 10 years for Obama’s housing trust fund. Just as a way to get people into housing. You know, as you said, $1 trillion, 12 million new homes over 10 years. But the problem we seem to face is that can people build affordable homes and buy affordable, I mean like affordable for somebody who’s making 40,000 a year in this country. Even that’s high. I mean, can, is there the ability to do that without either, you know, what the argument is not just changing zoning laws but changing rules and regulations so that may make for less safe and less efficient and less, um, substantial housing stock.

Well, I mean if you do it like Alon Omar claimed to do it, which is, um, you know, subsidizing it. Yes, of course you can build it that way. You know what I mean? When housing was a portable, effective median income was, was much higher. Right? I mean, if the question is why can’t people afford homes? Part of the reason is the homes are two insects. If this a fair, large part of the reason, but it’s also that they don’t make enough money. Um, so, okay. So one of the things I started to kind of foreshadow a little bit in the book is there’s this developer who’d been building affordable housing his whole career. He, I actually kinda liked him as a character who beat into the book when he’s 10 years old, moving to California, just, you know, full of optimism and, um, maybe became an affordable housing developer in the 70s. Now he’s 65 and he’s trying to build supportive homeless housing. Uh, and, and he’s using a modular housing factory to do it.

What was his name? What was his name?

His name is Rick holiday. He is the founder of bridge housing. The other guy was Don Turner, who, who was a, um, kind of a lion of the housing world. He was, he was part of the Bronx co-ops, which has been a very successful model for rehabilitating affordable housing. So what they are, what would, I’m sorry Don, turn this in dead for many years. But what Rick is now doing is, uh, is something a lot of people doing, which is trying to build housing indoors and do it on a production line so that the cost becomes much lower. I am not here to say that this is the best idea in the world or that, um, you know, that this is the savior or any of that others. But I am here to say that tinkering with new technologies and asking the question, how do we actually build a house for far less money is going to be an important piece of this.

Um, I think that, you know, when you unleash whether or not anyone likes it, when you unleash the private market in America in, in ways that are generally productive, it tends to evolve at a scale that the government just simply can’t compete with. I think new technologies are going to be a piece of this. You know, in California right now, uh, just despite how high it is, despite the fact that, um, you know, people can sell 3 million condos and $4,000 a month, one bedroom, uh, housing production is fallen. And one of the reasons it’s falling is that developers simply can’t build, the construction costs are rising so fast that they cannot build PR profitably, even with 3000 to $4,000 a month. I don’t want to also be like, Oh, technology is going to rescue us because this is a public problem. This is a policy problem. It’s going to take tons of money from the government. It’s going to take, you know, tons of political will, but, but technology should be a piece of that.

What does San Francisco, let’s say inner and outer Richmond, you know, that area where it’s just a house after house, after house while sharing walls in San Francisco. What would that look like if the, if it was unleashed, if the zoning changed and if the demand for housing was met by some kind of ability to provide supply, I mean, would those neighborhoods be substantially changed?

Let’s remember that. That’s what they did look like. Regeneration. Uh, everyone who’s listening to this interview should go Google painted ladies San Francisco and then hit a Google image. Uh, have you, have you been to the painted ladies? Have you ever seen the painted ladies in person?

Yes. Yes.

Okay. So what did you remember about them? Tell me what you remember.

I remember they’re tall. I remember they have big porches.

So the one thing you probably don’t remember, and the thing that is always cropped out of the picture in the beginning of the show full house, which is what made so extra special, iconic, uh, is that there is like a seven story apartment building butting up the last of one of them. It is right there is, there was a step, I don’t know if it’s seven stories, but there was a at least five story apartment building right on that block right next to them. Right? That is what that neighborhood looked like. And neighborhood was built. Like if you go out to the, to the Richmond, to the sunset, there were apartment buildings, three, four or five stories. Um, all over those neighborhoods. Uh, they, they, they existed in harmony with single family homes for decades and decades and decades. And I think that, um, one of the things I talk about in the book is, you know, in America a lot of this has to do almost like with listen with like our mindsets, you know, like what we think should look good.

You know what I mean? If you go to other countries, you know, they might dress and you know, their fashion might be different, right? I mean, to some extent, uh, our, our, we have this notion of what we think a neighborhood should look like. And we’ve got this mindset that, Oh my God, why could you never put a apartment building next to a single family house? Well, why can’t you? There’s no rule that says you can’t do that. There’s no, um, it works plenty fine in places, in other places. In fact, the hilarious thing is in other places, it does not affect the property values though it will here. And the reason it doesn’t affect the property values in other places if they don’t care. So part of the problem is we just like care. We’ve got it in our heads that this is some, you know, you know, wild nature that we can’t violate, but it’s nothing of the sort.

And I guess what I’m what, so a lot of this is just basically cultural. Uh, and so we created a new kind of culture where we decided that it was just like, didn’t look right unless they had all of one type of building. Uh, and that’s, that was essentially a cultural decision. And we now, I mean that’s kinda what I meant when we were talking earlier in the, um, in the, uh, in the interview about how is this going to hold, really can be, you know, keep this ethic for their whole life. And I think if they start to live in a world where they think it, it looks cool, it looks neat, it looks, you know, interesting. When an apartment is next to a single family home, I mean, that alone can be a pretty significant shift. You know, I mean, I, I just, I think that kind of it, so this is all just a, a, a passionate way of saying that there’s, if you go out to neighborhoods that are, um, you know, inner urban neighborhoods with a lot of single family homes, most of them will have in Seattle, in San Francisco, in a million other places.

We’ll have apartment buildings sprinkled in. No, I’m not talking like 30 story towers. Um, but I’m talking, you know, three, four stories. Some of them are even only just two, two, but they’re, but they’re kind of blocky and inefficiently laid out.

The problem is in Seattle, those are the ones that are getting knocked down and replaced by either large apartment buildings or replaced by large one or two or three townhomes. So we’re losing, we’re losing housing stock that was affordable, uh, in those, because those very small apartment units are getting torn down and you know, but it’s like a monoculture, right? We built a monoculture of these. San Francisco’s like that, Seattle’s like that and spreads for a long ways and now we’re starting to see the need for diversity. I was, I was struck by that you have these three tribes that, you know, these two groups that you talk about and there’s many more, but the anti gentrification folks, the NIMBYs yes. In my backyard. Let’s build up and let’s, let’s get dense. And the NIMBYs who say, no, not in my backyard. Did you find any place it were, those individually, you write about these individuals and the races they run for politics, for political office. Did you find any place where they were um, starting to come together to work together?

Yeah, Oregon, right next door to you. Um, uh, in Oregon they had a very success, they, the um, the, um, in Oregon last year they passed, uh, at statewide rent control. It’s a very wide rent cap. Some people like to call it, but you know, it, it, it’s uh, it’s a pretty, or cap, I think it was like 7% or something like that. Um, then, um, and, and they also essentially banned single family zoning at the same time. So that is an example of a mixed solution. They probably could have, you know, I’m sure people could quibble with the details, but I mean this spirit of that have to, uh, have a preservation solution and a production solution coming together and perhaps more importantly the constituencies kind of getting to know each other and realizing that you don’t have to be each other’s enemy. I will say, I hate saying this, but it is true.

Uh, San Francisco has like a particularly toxic political environment and a lot of times that toxicity is its own kind of its own impediment to things. You know, people just playful contact here and they decide their enemies are their enemies and that’s just how they go about it. Um, I think, you know, it’s kind of funny in, you know, in the whole UMB world, they can be in San Francisco, I’ve gotten kind of like a bad reputation, but having grown up in San Francisco, I’m just like, no, that’s just how San Francisco is. Uh, but in, in other places where the political culture is not so, you know, kill or be killed, um, the, you’ve seen all sorts of things in San Diego. I mean, to a lesser extent, I don’t know how it is in Seattle, but I know in Portland and in Oregon there’s been a lot of um, you know, a lot of forward momentum.

And, and also by the way, I’m not in any way saying that the different sides of this fight has to become like best friends and everyone hold hands and say kumbaya. You know, maybe it’s completely fine if, you know, uh, one year we passed a housing production bill and the other side is mad and then the next year we passed the big rent control bill. Um, but by the way, I will say I’ve never seen the housing production people, at least the younger ones be anti rent control. I’ve seen them, you know. Anyways, so I guess what I’m saying is, is that there’s all sorts of great examples. Um, I don’t know that Minneapolis is the best example cause they haven’t done much on tenants just yet, but they certainly essentially ended single family zoning and the in the city.

That’s right. We do have that whole question of tenants rights and we’re tenants and this large rental pool. And ever expanding rental pool, what impact or political impact they might have as they get organized?

Yeah, and I mean, look, I don’t want to be, I don’t want to be like silly about this. There are lovely, wonderful places like Seattle and San Francisco. They’re going to be expensive. They pretty much have always been expensive. The question is how expensive do they need to be and are they so expensive that working people cannot even get a hold there. You know, even when San Francisco was, I mean, San Francisco has been pretty expensive since the 70s. A lot of people locally will say, Oh, that’s not really true because I got an apartment for 100 bucks. But, but that’s relative to the rest of the nation. The Bay areas, housing costs went from being roughly the same to about 50% more between 1960 and 1970 and a lot more people move there for mentioned 50 to 1960. So the main thing that changed was they stopped building house. But, um, and, but, but even when, when things were that bad, there were still neighborhoods people could live in.

There were people who bought home, have lives, you know, I used to think of Potrero Hill, it’s like the affordable place. Uh, and now, you know, you see you’ve mentioned or not mentioned, but you know, like the kind of glass modernist homes with the songs to respond. Yeah. So, um, so I guess, uh, I think that it’s all kind of quietly happening. Hey, you and I are talking about this, the presidential candidates are talking about this. Um, even in the Sims, the school board of supervisors, people who have kind of essentially been NIMBYs in the past or are talking about their housing production solution. And it’s much different than the, and be one who cares. It’s it, everything is congealing a particular direction right now. It was not even close to that direction, even just like two or three years ago. So I think we should take a moment to also acknowledge like the fact that we’re all talking about this and the fact that there have been some pretty big things, Oregon state wide rankings, you know, in just a few years, um, is, is, is starting to look like progress.

Uh, you know, given that it took us 40 years to, um, dig ourselves into this problem, that’s a pretty good start for two years of acknowledging we need to dig out. I will leave you with this. If there’s one thing that really became clear to me as I wrote this book, it’s that the policy, what we think a particular policy is going to do and what it ends up doing is like, it’s very hard to see that, uh, you know, it’s very hard to predict that. I mean there’s so many times in the 80s, California was passing housing goals cause they had a housing crisis even back then. And people, you know, LA times is writing editorials, Oh this is the end of it. And we’ve, you know, the state of California is going to stop the NIMBY. I mean, people were writing that kind of stuff in like 1982. Clearly that never happened. So I kinda, like I said before, I mean, I think that I, I, my, my Pollyannish wishes that we could have policies that, that were designed around an outcome and would change if that outcome changed. You know what I mean? Like meaning if we passed a bunch of policies and they clearly did not work, we would have the political capital and will to just get rid of them or alter them, uh, pretty, you know, pretty quickly.

Um, I digress a little bit. You sort of see this Obamacare where it’s even Democrats will tell you, Oh, it needs some editing. Um, but, but you know, there’s no, now it’s entrenched and people either hate it or they, you know, it’s just like this, you see this all over the place where once something gets kind of locked in, it’s hard for people to tinker with it. So anyway.

Yeah. Well, it’ll be interesting to see what we’re talking about when you write the write the sequel, the golden Gates fighting for housing in America. I mean, fighting for housing the America in and of itself tells us that it’s a long way from being concluded, doesn’t it?

Yeah. And I think, um, I truly believe this book will have captured unimportant inflection points. So even though the story isn’t over, uh, I think this book captures definitely a beginning. The fact that these presidential candidates are all talking about this, the fact that there’s a huge resurgence tenants’ rights movement that has been like basically dormant since the 70s. The fact that we have this, you know, [inaudible] thing that has all these 25 year olds going into like planning meetings, I mean, whoever thought that would happen, you know, they all, do you want to go to the planning meeting Wednesday what, 25 year old. Yep. He says that. So I think that it’s pretty clear that something is brewing and I think this book takes you deep inside how that happened, who these characters are and you know, ultimately we know where their conflicts are, but, but you know, little with sub where they’re finding common cause and you know, like I said as a gen X or I’m sort of relegated to, uh, observing the world. Maybe that’s why I became a reporter because I’m sandwiched between these gigantic generations. Um, that just, you know, they sneeze and everyone else has to deal with it. Um, whereas mine, it’s like I just, you know, we just had to fit in. So I, you know, sometimes it feels like a good place to be in the middle of these two.

All right. I appreciate you talking to me. I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

Yes. I hope you [inaudible] thank you so much for having me and um, I felt like we had a lot of fun. So maybe all, maybe I’ll find our way through this thing cause it’s kind of on all of us. Thank you so much.

Thanks. Bye. New York times economics reporter Connor Dougherty comes to our forum stage on February 25th at 7:30 PM to talk about his book, golden Gates fighting for housing in America. Thank you for listening to episode 55 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. You can listen to the full town hall produced programs and speakers on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, or if you prefer to watch instead of listen, there’s a whole library of content on our town hall, Seattle YouTube channel to support town hall. Read our blog or see our calendar of events. Check out our website at town hall, seattle.org next week. Steve, share. We’ll talk with Dr. David Eagleman about if we can create new senses for humans. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 54


In this week’s interview, correspondent Venice Buhain talks with Thom Hartmann about the war on voting. Hartman compares voting systems in other countries to those in the United States, and discusses exit polling as a method of determining the winner of an election, both in the US and abroad. Buhain and Hartman reveal the mechanisms and justifications behind voter suppression, and the possibilities for changing our voting process or implementing policies to counteract voter suppression strategies. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall Seattle.


Episode Transcript

This transcription was performed automatically by a computer. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we talk with folks coming to our stages and give you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. There has been a surge of interest regarding the voter rights, fraud and suppression. Perhaps because it’s an election year, perhaps because of the foreign interference in our last presidential election or maybe it’s a greater understanding of the tactics and strategies the conservative elites use to prevent the quote wrong people from voting, American radio personality and New York times bestselling author Tom Hartman is coming to town hall on February 19th to talk about his new book, the hidden history of the war on voting, who stole your vote and how to get it back. Our correspondent that is behind is a Seattle area journalist, formerly the editorial director at the Seattle globalist. Her work has also appeared on TVW news, AOL KPCs FM, the Olympian, and more. Venice was a longtime board member, including past president of the Seattle chapter of the Asian American journalists association. She came to our media room at town hall to talk with Hartman. Over the phone. So, um, first question I want to ask you is, how did you come up with that title, the war on voting? Like how’d you come to decide to call it a war?

Well, it actually has been, I mean there’s, there’s strategy and tactics and, and, uh, you know, individual communities being targeted, States being targeted. The, uh, I’d originally suggested to, my publisher would be titled the Republican war on voting and they said, well, that sounds off of partisan and, but you know, at that point we had been doing a fair amount of research on and since 1965, uh, when the democratic party embraced, uh, you know, everybody voting with the voting rights act and the civil rights act over the loud objections of the Republicans. It was, uh, basically it’s been a one sided war. That’s really what’s going on is there’s, there’s one party that is very, very committed to preventing people from voting or suppressing the vote and reducing the phones and, uh, another party that has been working very hard to get as many people to the polls as possible.

Hmm. Okay. So, you know, is there anything in particular that spurred you to choose this topic in this series at this time? Or, um, you know, this is part of your, your series on hidden, his called hidden history.

Yeah, well it’s, you know, it’s an election year, but the thing that really got me started thinking about this, I lived in Germany back in the eighties. Um, uh, in Germany, they, the, the elections are, are uh, they take three to four days to count the vote. In fact, it’s like jury duty. You actually get a notice from the government saying that you have been selected, uh, to come in and be one of the vote counters and, uh, your employer has to give you time off work and all that kind of thing. And, but they call the elections the night of the election. Uh, 99% of the time. And the reason why is because they conduct exit polls all over the country. So by the time the vote is has, by the time the last vote has been cast, they pretty much know who won because the exit polls are always typically within a 10th or two tenths of a percent.

And so unless the election is really, really tight, they a unhesitatingly call them. We saw this with the U K, uh, with Boris Johnson’s election just a few weeks ago or a few months ago, um, where they pretty much called the election that night. And then, you know, it took three days for the, uh, for the entire boat to be tabulated. Um, exit polls are used by the United nations and by the Carter center that the gold standard, our federal government, when, um, I’m forgetting which Ukrainian president it was, but, uh, when the pro Russia Ukrainian president was elected and, and it was determined that, uh, the exit poll showed that the pro democracy guy won, but the pro Russia guy took office that sparked re we released that our government released the fact that there was a five or six point discrepancy between the exit polls and the actual election results where the election results are reported by the governor.

And that provoked the orange revolution that took down the government. So exit polls have always been the gold standard and we started using them in the nights night of six in the 1950s that became very scientific in the 1970s and throughout the 70s, 80s, and nineties, exit polls across the United States were always typically within, you know, at the very most, a half a point off. And then the 2000 election things went nuts. The, in particularly in Florida, but in several other States as well. But the main one was in Florida. The, the Florida exit polls show George W. Bush losing the election by tens of thousands of votes. And yet the actual count from the state came out that Al Gore lost and George W. Bush won. And this provoked to Florida Supreme court order, a statewide recount. And then of course, George were sued, uh, in Bush V Gore saying that if the recount continued, then complainant George W. Bush would be quite irreparably harmed.

And the Supreme court stopped. The us Supreme court stopped the Florida Supreme court. So that kind of perked me up. You know, what’s, what’s the deal here with these exit polls? And in 2002, uh, there were a number of other States where we saw this, it’s called red shift generally, but people in the election business, because it almost never happens in blue States, but in States that are controlled by Republican secretaries of state, you see these shifts where the exit poll says that, um, you know, person a one but the actual election results say that no, it was person B who won. And so, uh, the other thing that happened in the 2000, um, two, uh, this is the help America vote act that was passed, that, that made this possible. The other thing that happened in the help America vote act was that, um, they, we added a new kind of vowel to the national scene in addition to putting $5 billion in the voting machines nationwide.

This thing called the provisional ballot came out. So if you show up to vote, but for whatever reason, you’re not on the voting roles as a registered voter, they will still give you a ballot and you vote and you think you voted. And the problem is that in virtually all the States, uh, if you cast a provisional ballot, it never gets counted. And the election is contested. And even when the elections can test it, if you haven’t gone down to the local secretary of state’s already, your state secretary of state’s office, and, um, proven to them that you actually are who you are and that you’re a citizen and you’re legal and all that kind of stuff, then, um, you know, your, your vote literally will never get counted. And so, um, in 2004, we saw the same thing in Ohio and I big way, uh, again, 2004 showed John Kerry the exit poll, sir John Kerry winning the state easily by, by hundreds of thousands of votes, but the actual vote itself by a slim margin through the vote to through the state to George W. Bush.

Um, and we’ve been seeing this ever since. It’s, it’s become a regular feature of the American landscape. For example, in the 2016 election, the exit polls now around these even numbers, the exit polls showed Hillary Kent carried Florida by 48%, and the Trump got 46%. But the, uh, actual account, according to the estate, the official count was the Trump had 49%. And Hillary had 48% somehow Trump gained two and a half points. That’s the red shift in North Carolina. The exit poll showed Clinton winning 48 to 46% but the official result was Trump 49 Clinton 46 and 5.9% red shift. And Pennsylvania, the exit polls showed that Hillary Clinton won 50 to 46% for Trump. But when the official numbers from the state where the Trump beat Clinton by 48% so 47.6% red shift of 5.6% and in Wisconsin and Clinton beat Trump and the exit polls 48 to 44% but the actual count, according to the state of Wisconsin, there’s Trump beat her by 48.8% the 47.6% or Redshift or 5.1% now that’s the kind of red shift that we brought down the election and cranium.

And if the exit polls are accurate in those four States, or even in any two of those four States, Hillary Clinton easily won the election. So what accounts for that turns out, uh, the Republican has been since since 2000 when we did it right. A brute force in 2000. And that worked really, really well. And so got a little more sophisticated in 2004 has been systematically removing voters from the voting roles. And those people show up and they vote and they think that their vote was counted, but it wasn’t. But when they walk out, they tell the exit pollster, Oh yeah, I just voted for Hillary Clinton. I supposed to write it down and it gets tabulated. And this accounts, I believe accounts for the red shift. For a long time we thought it was, you know, problems with voting machines and whatnot. But it, it seems to only be happening in the States where these aggressive voter purges are happening, are being done by Republican secretaries of state.

And in some of them, they’re pretty, pretty, uh, strange. So we saying in the 2000 election, and this is, you know, well known now, um, uh, George W. Bush who was the governor of Texas, provided Jeb Bush who was the governor of Florida with a list of all the felons in Texas. About 60% of the phones in Texas are black or Hispanic, black and Hispanic. Name pools are relatively small. Most African-American names are derived from Anglo Saxon loans cause mostly holders were scotch, Irish or English. And uh, Hispanic names are almost entirely derived from Spanish, only two languages, whereas Caucasians have names from Slavic languages, Cyrillic languages, Scandinavian languages, Greek. I mean, you know, it’s just good. It’s all, one of the places is huge diversity of white names. So when George w Bush’s, excuse me, when Jeb Bush’s secretary of state, Katherine Harris compared to Texas felon list with the Florida voter list on the theory that some of those Texas felons might’ve moved to Florida to vote, uh, and in Florida fallen, can’t vote.

Um, they found, depending on whose lawsuit you’re looking at, between 30 and 80,000, largely African Americans and they didn’t compare the middle initials. So if it was James Q. Johnson and the Texas and Jimmy Johnson and Florida, it was the same person according to Jeb Bush. And they knocked all those people off the voting rolls and see, all you will recall was out marching in the streets about this one when it was figured out and all kinds of lawsuits and things. So that appears to be how and that accounts for the Redshift in Florida perfectly. And that appears to be how how George W. Bush won Florida. And then then in 2004 with the provisional ballots in Ohio, what they did was they started doing the same thing only instead of comparing as felony as they’re comparing one state against another. So the Georgia voting list would be comparative with the Ohio voting lists. And any overlap was deleted from both. And the overlap of course, was massively skewed towards black and Hispanic names.

Yeah. So you go over this in your book and it’s actually, you’ve got a good chapter where you’re going into this into detail. And so a lot of the mainstream analysis and the mainstream mainstream writers look at this and they came to the conclusion that the exit polling was flawed and you came to the opposite conclusion that it’s the official tally that’s flood. Is that, is that correct?

Uh, mr mr Matuski, I’m forgetting his first name. I think it might be Alan, but in any case, he’s the guy who really in the 1970s fine tuned exit polling into a science, he’s not passed away. And, um, he was confounded by the 2000 results in Florida and then the 2002 results in four or five States and then the 2004 results, particularly in Ohio, he didn’t know what to do about it because his company was finding these anomalous results. And the only answer, but he could come up with and, and he’s rather famous for this kind of sadly, was that, uh, for some reason in only some States and depending on the election, somewhere between 10 and 15 States, um, Republicans were embarrassed to admit that they had voted for Republican. It was called the shy Republican voter theory. And therefore these Republicans, when they walked out of the exit poll wide to the exit pollsters, it was the only answer that he could come up with.

I don’t think that, uh, they knew frankly about the provisional ballot and voter purges. I mean, this has only become widespread knowledge in the last five years or so. And it became really highlighted in the election of 2018 and in Georgia where the Brian camp, the secretary of state, threw a million people off the voting rolls in Georgia in the four years before the election, 200,000 year of the election and then ran himself for governor against Stacey Abrams and won by 50,000 votes. And, uh, and apparently there were hundreds of thousands provisional votes that were never counted in Georgia. So, uh, nobody ever demonstrated that there was anything wrong with the exit polling results. Exit polls are still used in Canada. They’re still used in every European country. The United nation still uses exit polls to certify elections in South America and Africa, Southeast Asia. Um, the Carter center still uses them. Nothing has changed except rappers, this handful of States that are controlled by Republican secretaries of state where thoroughly, reliably the vote will, will show that a Democrat won. But the actual official count for the exit polls will show the Democrat one. But the official results show that a Republican one

[inaudible]. So, um, for those of us who don’t know, can you describe how exit polling is done?

Sure. Yeah. Somebody stands outside the polling place for the voting station. And as people come out, they say, you know, would you please be willing on an exit pollster with Matuski Edison over the associated press or with NBC or whatever, and would you please be willing to tell me how you bought it? And we have this to be anonymous and I’m not going to ask her name or anything. And then they just basically go through the ballot and tick off what that person, and then they say, thank you very much from off the person goes. It’s a very straightforward process.

Okay. So just like it sounds, so, yeah. Okay. Yeah. All right. And, um, yeah. And I guess, uh, so what was the, so I guess is your argument that like, it seems to be accurate and other places, but you know, there seems to be a nominal, I, I’m just trying to make sure I understand.

Yeah. The exit polls, uh, on occasion there’ll be variations in blue States and States controlled by democratic, uh, secretaries of state. Um, but they tend to be random. You know, you’ll see a seven tenths of a point shift toward the Republicans or an eight tenths of a point shift toward Democrats in a variation between the exit poll and the actual results that might be accounted for by sample bias or by, you know, having a two smallest sample or something like that. But this consistent red shift running from two to as many as seven points, which is just unheard of actually pulling it literally any other developed democracy in the world. Um, this is a unique characteristic of Republican controlled States in the United States.

So do you think the issue of a voting integrity is being sort of ignored or slept on a side? You know, being shunted aside for other issues or,

yes, I do. And that’s why I wrote the book. I think it’s outrageous. I mean, the, the vote is like, you know, this is how we determine who is going to run our country is, you know, in our country, uh, our national government is what determines how we, how we regulate and protect our commons. So the vote is arguably the most important of all the commons. And it shouldn’t be screwed with like this or messed with this.

So why don’t people recognize this as an issue that’s relevant to everybody? Is there are the other things [inaudible]

most people don’t know about it. There’s been, you know, there’s been some reporting on this, but it tends to be in, you know, places like Politico or in the political pages of the New York times. Um, none of the stuff that I just shared with you is a secret. It’s all easily find-able. But if this is not something that is in the media on a regular basis, um, I, you know, I have theories about why, but I don’t have any evidence of exactly why the media doesn’t like distressing. So I suppose just leave those theories. They’re not in the book.

Oh, okay. So you don’t want to discuss what your, what your theories might be, why people learn it.

You know, I, I’ll just tell you that up front just kind of wanders into the realm of conspiracy theory as a word. But, but I’m in the media. I’ve, I’ve been doing this radio show for 15 years. I started in radio back in the late 1960s and, um, if your show is one that depends on guests showing up and a whole category of guests, like all Republicans start refusing to show up on your show, you lose your job. We no longer have a show. And so if the Sunday shows, for example, if the news shows were to start reporting aggressively on this Republican votes, voting suppression and you know, how it works and why it works and how it was organized and everything, um, I suspect that the Republicans to start a blackout in the shows and we don’t want that to happen. That’s just my theory. I, you know, I haven’t asked, you know, Chuck Todd, why he doesn’t talk about this or you know, George Stephanopoulos, I don’t actually know.

Hmm. I mean that’s interesting cause I mean you’d think that um, integrity of the vote would be nonpartisan or you know, interesting to everybody. Okay. Yeah. Hmm. Okay. So I guess what, what do you think are, can you name like three really important changes that would have to happen to increase trust and integrity in the vote and um, you can rank them in terms of most achievable or maybe most important? I’ll let you decide.

We need to have an absolute right to vote. So there was never a right to vote written into the constitution because the framers of the constitution were purposely excluding enslaved people. And women, um, after the civil war, you know, and, and Jim Crow kicked back in after the failure of reconstruction. Again, it was, you know, women were excluded from voting and people, men of color were excluded from voting right up until 1965. Um, and, and, and women didn’t get the vote in United States until 1920, as we all know. So because of this kind of male, white male, um, oligarchy essentially, or aristocracy or patriarchy or whatever you want to call it, you know, power structure in the United States. I mean, there’s a lot of legacies to that. You know, they’re mostly white male judiciary, the mostly white and not legislature. Um, and a largely white male electric. And, uh, so we’ve never really had a national discussion about building an absolute right to vote into the constitution or even into our law.

There is a 1993 laws, sometimes referred to as the motor voter law that allowed a federal law that allowed individual secretaries of state to, uh, to set it up so that when people read, uh, getting a driver’s license that they can check a box and be automatically registered to vote. Um, this was bill. This law says both in its preamble and in the body of the law, voting is a right in the United States, that exact phrase, but it’s never been subject to judicial review. It’s never been reviewed by the Supreme court. And so, uh, by and large it is ignored. Um, we don’t have an actual right to vote. In fact, in the Bush legal case, when you know, when judge re-encode and when William Rehnquist ruled in favor of George Bush, uh, part of the ruling said, and I quote, there is no constitutional right to vote for president of the ounce States and quote, and we need to have a right to vote.

If we had a right to vote, then before Brian Kemp can take your name off the voting rolls, you would have to meet some burden approved. Right now if you want to vote and he’s taken your name off the list, you have to make the burden of proof. I think that’s backwards. So number one, right to vote. Number two, I think we need to publicize what’s going on and then the stuff that we’ve already talked about here. And number three, we need to make voting a lot easier. Um, right now if you work on an hourly basis, you have to actually lose part of your salary, part of your income to go about. Um, you might even, you know, cause your job to go vote taking a day off to go vote. Um, you know, so it’s skewed. Voting is skewed in most States toward people who are on salaries rather than hourly.

And that tends to be the more upper income and largely more white population. And so, you know, there’s these structural things that make it harder for people who, who, uh, people who are economically challenged to vote. Uh, I live in Oregon where the entire state now votes by mail. And we’ve seen, you know, our voter, uh, compliance go up into the mid 60 range, uh, you know, much higher than pretty much any other state. And it works really, really well. My wife and I get the ballot three weeks before the election. We sit down, you know, go through it. If we’ve got questions, we can Google it people. Um, so without dropping the mail and that’s it. And it’s all on paper. There’s no questions about it. There’s no doubt about it. It’s solid, it’s secure, it’s safe. And uh, Washington state just to dr [inaudible] a couple of years ago also, and it’s spreading around the country, uh, in democratic States, but it is being fiercely resisted in Republican controlled States.

Hmm. Yeah. So, um, yeah, actually that does bring me to another question. You know, it’s interesting, I had a conversation with some folks from North Carolina about, uh, the system that we have in Washington state where people vote all by mail. And they were really surprised that people that we weren’t concerned about picture ID or that didn’t seem to be a concern in this state. And I was wondering, you know, like, have you heard about this concern elsewhere?

Well, this is, this is one of the, you know, when, when the Republican party decided to, to make a voter suppression the principle way that they were going to guarantee a continuation of their power or their electoral power, um, they had to come up with an excuse, you know, rationalization for the reasons for it. And so in the early two thousands, after George Bush won Florida, the way he did as I described, um, he concluded that any place, a Democrat one or some of the places where Democrats won, it must’ve been because quote illegal aliens and the Hispanic slightly, uh, who aren’t us citizens were voting in the elections. And so he ordered his all 100 of his federal prosecutors to, uh, allocate a certain amount of the resources of their office in certain amount numbers of staff members to look for people who had voted illegally in their, and seven of his prosecutors.

So this is crazy. There’s this, it literally is not happening. I mean, what illegal alien is going to risk two to five years in prison to vote. Nobody is that crazy. Um, I’m not going to do it. Then he fired seven people. It was a huge scandal. And then over the next two years, he spent, uh, I believe it was 70, $70 million in this huge campaign to find these people. And they found 13 people who had voted illegally, nationwide. And uh, more than half of them were Europeans who were here on green cards who thought that they could vote cause they had a green card. And the majority of them, I voted for Republicans. So this idea that we have to check everybody’s ID is crazy. Then there’s no, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than the voting illegal number one. Number two, we did have an actually more effective, more, more secure system than photo ID before the photo ID was.

And that was a biometric system. When you registered to vote, you signed a card and the, and the voting people would keep that card with your signature on it. It’s a lot easier to buy a phony ID than it is to, while you’re in front of somebody signing the paper, fake a signature. That’s very difficult to do actually. And so we had a system that worked really effectively, and you know, it’s been replaced by this, by this photo ID thing. And still we’re not finding these so-called illegal voters. They just literally don’t exist. But what does exist is the fact that in our big cities where you don’t need a car, my, my best friend lives in New York city has his whole entire life. He hasn’t, he’s never, literally never owned a car. I was not a driver’s license in 20 years. Um, you don’t need a driver’s license and poor people in big cities can’t afford a driver’s license, but can’t afford a car.

So he had a driver’s license. Um, uh, so, uh, what the ID laws do is they disadvantage poor people. They disadvantaged people over 65 who have stopped driving on their driver’s licenses, have expired, is in almost every case. They don’t just require an ID that required a current and valid ID. So, uh, and, and then also you find that, uh, they, the severely disadvantaged students, we were seeing this for the first time in New Hampshire this year cause New Hampshire just passed an ID law that doesn’t allow most types of college ID even for people who are living in state. I’m going to college and they will have had to go through the additional step or getting a New Hampshire driver’s license when they, you know, maybe their home state is, you know, California and Georgia, whatever. And so you’re going to see, I suspect a real fall off in student voting in New Hampshire in this primary today. We’ll see tonight. I mean, we’ll know in a few hours, but um, so what the idea was do is nothing more than make it harder for people of color. People who are poor, young people and old people, which is the democratic constituency by and large to vote.

Hmm. Yeah. And so I guess along that same vein, do you think that there are security measures or ideas that are kind of gaining traction that are in fact ways or things that people should be wary of in terms of, um, you know, things that would actually suppress the vote?

Yeah. Voter ID laws are explicitly a form of voter suppression. You know, we’ve had half a dozen Republican politicians say this out loud, um, over the last couple of years. Um, the, uh, you know, of course the voter purges in the name of we’re cleaning up the rolls to get rid of people who’ve moved out of state or people who are felons and shouldn’t be voting here, or people who’ve died. Uh, this massive voter purchase, you know, over 200,000 people in Wisconsin just before the 2016 election, over 190,000 people in Michigan, which just before that election, uh, almost 300,000 in Ohio, just before that election. These are permissions. And this went before the Supreme court last year. Um, Ohio, they’re gonna win. John Casick wanted oppression of a couple of hundred thousand people are the voting roles in Ohio, almost exclusively. And in cities that had large black populations. Um, UCLU in a group of, uh, another group of people took it to the Supreme court and the Supreme court in a five to four decision that was just ripped by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And, um, Elena Kagan, the five conservative justice of the Supreme court. So this is really a state’s matter. It’s not a federal matter. Uh, there’s no federal right to vote. We’re not grandchild, you know, so we’re going to let Ohio do this. And, and within a month of that, other Republican controlled state started aggressively compiling, you know, lists of different States, voters that they could compare with their state’s orders to purge, you know, common names.

Hmm. Okay. I noticed you didn’t, you didn’t even mention like electronic, you know, electronic voting or anything like that, I guess. Is that something also

know we thought for in the early two thousands, when the anomalous results were coming out, particularly in the 2004 election in Ohio. Um, and, and particularly after, uh, uh, Wally Odell, the president of Debold had written a letter, uh, saying that he was also the chairman of the George W. Bush campaign in Ohio, uh, saying that, you know, we’re going to bring in Ohio for George W. Bush. There were a lot of people who thought, Oh, it’s the D D Bolton machines or the S and S machines. They were the most widely used in United States. We, uh, two brothers who started the SNS are both Christian fundamentalists, uh, the time guys who believed that, you know, within the next 10 years, the world’s going to end. And, um, so there was a lot of suspicion about he’s like, try to buddy machines and you know, some of them obviously were insecure. I mean, you know, at the desk con hackers conventions.

So they regularly feature 11 year olds, you know, hacking the machines at 15 year olds doing it. 11 minutes, I guess. But, um, and, and I think that it’s frankly wrong. The, we have privatized our vote and we have for profit corporations telling us how we voted, but not telling us any of the details of it. They will not give us the [inaudible] even the code for how the machines work. And this should be fairly simple stuff. I mean it’s addition and subtraction. Um, and that’s offensive. I think it’s offensive to democracy. You know, Thomas Paine referred to the vote as the beating heart of democracy. It’s, it’s the, it’s the core of democracy. It should never have been privatized as it was in 2002 without the America vote act, which legalize this and providing the States of five point $6 billion to buy body missions from, for profit companies.

And, and I, I’d love to see them all go away, you know, and, and have us do the same thing that Canada does and the eye kingdom does, and France and Germany and every other developed country in the world. And that is vote on paper and have that average people ballots counted by hand or even countered by a scanning machine like we do in Washington and Oregon. Um, that’s, that’s important. But I don’t think that’s as urgent as stopping the purchase of the registered voting roles and, um, and informing people that if they’re handling provisional ballot, it almost certainly won’t be carded and they should protest loudly.

Yeah. And do you think that, uh, like the voter suppression is kind of baked into the process of voting, I mean, is it, is it like impossible to make any changes? Is it too late to change things?

It is right now in 20 some odd States, you know, the States that have passed these model laws that have to do with voter ID and cleaning the rolls and stuff that we’re promoting by the American legislative exchange council. You know, the Koch brothers kind of a group that proposes legislation for the States. Those laws are in place. Your sector, state’s offices are regularly doing this. Uh, it has, um, standard operating practice. Um, this is not happening in the democratic controlled States pretty much at all. And, uh, so I think that mostly we need to blow the whistle on it.

Mm Hmm. Okay. And I’m wondering, um, do you think that the idea of what it means to, um, influence the vote or undermine the integrity of the vote or, you know, what is, what that means, uh, has changed like in the past 20 years from kind of one idea to another or tactics changed or kind of what’s your, what’s your view on that?

Yeah. You know, we know, we know, for example, in the 2016 elections, uh, Russia and apparently several other nations, Seth Abramson wrote a book about this called proof of conspiracy, you know, in which he talks about how, uh, apparently Saudi Arabia was insider election systems and a couple of other countries, uh, China may have penetrated than North Korea and there, but we know that Russia did. In fact, we know, you know, we’ve got the fingerprints all over the state of Florida for example, where they were actually inside body systems. And so, you know, most voting machines are not online, but there are some that are, but most of the tabulating machines, the computers that actually count the vote are online or at least many of them are. Uh, none of that should be happening. It should not be possible to access our voting infrastructure that needs to be fixed right away.

And, um, I guess I was also wondering why do you think that this is not like an issue that has gained a lot of traction or like I just don’t hear a whole lot of noise on it. I, I will say like, I remember back in like, um, like 1994 when, you know, and I was getting ready to register to vote as a teenager. I mean, when I was a teenager and I was hearing all these things about like how important it was to vote, how important it was to register, I know know, like, are you hearing, I mean, I’m not seeing that kind of push. I mean, you know, I’m like, of course that, that was a long time ago, so I’m not seeing, you know, necessarily what teenagers see. But I, I was wondering, Yana do you think, yeah, I feel like it was a bigger issue. Listen, was

the big change point. I mean, yeah, 2000 was the point at which it really, really changed. And this, and by 2004 this, because of the help America vote act and the invention of provisional ballots, this would become institutionalized. Um, but frankly, everything that we’ve discussed here is relatively common knowledge in the black community in the United States. And we tune into some of the urban stations, the black stations, and you’ll hear these conversations literally every day right now. Um, it just hasn’t broken through into the, so called mainstream media into the largely white controlled white dominated media. You know, for whatever reason you’ve heard my theory. Um, and uh, the other thing is I remember back, this was like in 2005 when I was on air America and myself and Randy Rhodes and again in a couple of other of the, uh, like a host went to Washington D C and we met with a half a dozen or so of democratic Saturdays.

And at that time, you know, we were all jazzed up about the red shift and you know, Ohio in the 2004 election. And we were like, and it wasn’t just Ohio, there was like a half a dozen States where there was substantial shift, but Ohio was prolonged, the election turned on. And, and so we said to them, you know, we think this is these electronic voting machines being rigged or hacked or something. And why don’t you guys raise, how about this? And one of the senators, uh, said to, uh, I don’t recall if it was me or Randy was there anything said to us, um, we are concerned, we have concerns about this and we’re going to look into it. But our biggest concern is that if the American people think that their vote is not, doesn’t have integrity that, but it won’t be counted. They may lose faith in the system.

And if they lose faith in the system, they’ll stop showing up to vote. And if they stopped showing up to vote, then we’re in even deeper trouble than we are right now. And that was the kind of official policy of the democratic party up until 2016, you know, evils, you know, we will say no evil. That’s, and you’ve got democratic politicians. Now see, Stacey Abrams down in Georgia has started an organization called fair fight. Um, who is just taking on this voter suppression is this giant purchase, um, front, you know, front and center. You’ll hear a conversation about this pretty much every Saturday or Sunday. Andre reads program on MSNBC. She talks about it every single week. Um, you know, again, it’s, she’s a black horse and then there’s no, as I said, the, the black community, he knows what’s going on. Um, and I, I think that the democratic party is, is waking up and waking up the rapid and then you’re going to see more and more, uh, outrage around its issue.

Hmm. Okay, great. And, um, as we’re doing this interview, it’s been a week since the Iowa caucuses and, and the delays at the democratic party was having with tabulating the delegates and all that. I mean, it’s, you know, I know caucusing is not 100% the same as voting, but is this, do you think that there’s anything related here in terms of, um, trust or integrity or, you know, kind of what’s the, you know, I, I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on that.

I think the Iowa democratic party was a lot of credibility and trust. Um, you know, trying to roll out an app, um, doesn’t seem to have been a particularly good idea. Uh, but I’m quite willing to chalk this up to incompetence rather than criminality.

Hmm. Okay. You know, is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you hope people in Seattle know?

Yeah, you’ve been quite comprehensive. You know, you become an evangelist for voting by mail. It works really well and it is biometric by the way you sign the back of that envelope. So you’ve got something that’s actually harder to fake than voter ID, you know, and a good safe, secure system that produces high quality results the rest of the country she lived up.

Tom Hartman will be on our great hall stage on February 19th at 7:30 PM to talk about his book, the hidden history of the war on voting, who stole your vote and how to get it back. The tickets are selling quickly, so if you’d like to be part of the conversation or get a signed copy of Tom’s book, get yourself a ticket. Thank you for listening to episode 54 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle baseband EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records to hear the events that happened on her stages. Subscribe to our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, and to watch many of our hottest events, check out our town hall, Seattle, YouTube channel. Just search Townhall Seattle and subscribe to support town hall. Become a member or see your calendar of events. Go to our website, a town hall, seattle.org next week, our chief correspondent, Steve Cher. We’ll talk with Connor Dougherty about the fight for housing in America. Until then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

Oud Intentions

What happens when you merge fluid improvisation and subtle noise with traditional Arabic music—then add the talent of a guitar master? The Vancouver-based band Haram aims to find out. Led by award-winning oud virtuoso Gordon Grdina, Haram will be joining us at Town Hall on 3/1 in a Global Rhythms performance alongside legendary guitarist Marc Ribot.

Town Hall’s Alexander Eby sat down with Gordon Grdina for a conversation about ouds, band history, and the spirit of collaboration.

AE: Initially, what got Haram together? What factors steered the band towards including elements of traditional Arabic music?

GG: The band came together in 2008 from two main ideas. First, I wanted a band that could play the traditional Arabic music I was studying but in an unorthodox way. This was the Iraqi folk music I was learning from my teacher Serwan Yamolky and the traditional radio music from Egypt in the 50-60’s by musicians like Oum Khalsoum Farid Al Atrache, Abdel Wahab etc. We’ve since expanded to include Sudanese and Persian music from the same period. 

Secondly, aside from my trio I wasn’t playing regularly with a lot of the incredible musicians in Vancouver and wanted to have a larger ensemble where we could all play together and get a chance to hang out. Some of the musicians were already versed in this music but most weren’t. I knew their incredible sensitivities would bring out new aspects of this ancient music and the repertoire would bring out aspects of their own playing we hadn’t heard before. It ended up being a great idea and we’ve enjoyed many great nights of music since then.

AE: Why are you drawn to the oud as an instrument? What’s it like to try to merge that sound with the rock/jazz/indie/improv sensibilities of the band at large?

GG: I had a very good guitar teacher when I was young who always brought new interesting music to each lesson, and left it with me so that I would get inspired. At 13 I was into a lot of blues and slide guitar, and my teacher Marko Ferenc brought me a Vishwa Mohan Bhatt record with Simon Shaheen. He wanted me to check out Vishaw’s slide playing, but as soon as I heard the Oud for the first time I was blown away. I couldn’t understand how the sound was being made but it grabbed me and I fell in love with it instantly. Simon Shaheen is also one of the greatest Oud players in the world so that didn’t really hurt either. I then got interested in other Oud players like Hamza El Din and Rabih Abou Khalili and later Munir Bachir and others. 

I didn’t get an Oud and start playing the music until I graduated from Jazz School. I got one off of Ebay and instantly started a band called Sangha with my friends Hidayat Honari Neelamjit Dhillon and Hamin Honari. We play original music based in Arabic Persian and Indian concepts. So my understanding of the instrument and practice of it has always been within a blending of tradition. I’ve since studied traditional Arabic music more in-depth, but using the traditional alongside all of the other aspects of my musical understanding is intrinsic to how I make music. I knew that this band would bring out different aspects of the musicians and I could see how their unique voices could add a different dimension to these timeless melodies. 

AE: What interests you most about working with Marc Ribot? What do you think the result will be of blending his musical style with Haram’s?

GG: Everyone in the band and myself are huge fans of Marc. He is one of the icons of the instrument because he transcends the guitar and creates music that immediately touches you. He is soulful, always interesting and intriguing no matter what he does. His sound isn’t based in flawless technique—even though he has that too. It’s based on creating the most direct and honest music in the moment. The most exciting part of this band is that everyone thrives on freely creating in the moment with a sense of abandon.

I think that Marc will meet this abandon and take us all to the next level. I’m expecting excitement, surprise, a fair amount of ripping and the unknown!

Haram and Ribot join forces onstage on 3/1 for an energetic and intuitive concert in a unique exploration of Arabic musical traditions. Get your tickets here!

In The Moment: Episode 53


In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with Dan Esty about solutions to big problems like climate change. Esty outlines ways to bridge political perspectives in order to approach climate change as a serious issue while maintaining flexibility when it comes to policy. He advocates for a structure of environmental protection policymaking that is more careful about balancing costs against benefits and adjusting the nature of the burdens placed upon businesses. Citing America as a nation that promotes innovation, Esty contends that we should overcome partisan hangups and present big ideas to combat climate change long-term.


Episode Transcript

This transcription was performed automatically by a computer. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we talk with folks coming to our stages and give you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. Will people be able to build a future that is fair to all living creatures on the planet, just to all people and environmentally sustainable in the face of water scarcity, deforestation, mass extinction, pollution, and climate change? Do we have the political will? These are big and complex issues. Do we tackle them with big ideas? Daniel SD is a professor of environmental law and policy in a better planet, 40 big ideas for a sustainable future. He has collected essays from top environmental, economic and political thinkers in order to reimagine the response to these pressing environmental issues. SD brings his call for challenging conventional approaches to environmental policy to town hall at 7:30 PM on Thursday, February 13th, 2020 he spoke within the moment. Chief correspondent Steve, share over the phone.

Thank you for talking to me. First of all, my pleasure. I want to ask about big ideas, but I want to start with a small one that sort of is touched on in your introduction. I had an electrician here yesterday working on my a sump pump, and he was using tools and doing his math to make sure that he wasn’t going to electrocute himself and set everything up the right way. So we understood the value of science and facts. But at one point he said in our talk, well, I don’t believe in any of those theories. It’s all theories. And I knew what he was talking about. So I said, you’re talking about climate change, right? And he said, yeah, that’s right. It’s all theories. They don’t know what they’re talking about. And, and it just raises the problem of whenever you have a big idea or a small idea, you’re still confronted with people’s unwillingness to grapple with those ideas. And you talk right in the beginning about, part of the problem comes from the nature of environmental policy debate itself. Green groups, political allies have been many too many cases not taken seriously. The concerns voiced about the economic burdens, et cetera of environmental policy. But that sort of implies good faith on both sides. So how do you, what do you respond to when you have people of, you know, of the people you’re trying to convince who just aren’t going to be convinced? Yeah.

I think the reality is that environmental policy and environmental debates have become highly polarized and very partisan in recent years. And that is a big problem because when you’ve got that kind of, people aren’t interested in hearing about what the other side might say and, and aren’t really even interested in what the facts are. And I think one of the challenges of climate change, and I think it goes to the core of your question, is that the problem that is out there with those that are doubtful about the need to address the issue of climate change is not so much the science. I think actually, you know, as you point out in your story about the plumber visiting your house, it’s not that he’s ignorant of science to the contrary, makes use of it every day. And I think that most climate change skeptics are not really focused on the science.

What they’re concerned about is the policy response that might be required to the science. And I think in this regard, the, the issues fall on both sides. A good bit of what the environmental community has historically asked for what I might call their 20th century approach to problem solving seemed very heavy handed. It seemed very top down with a lot of government mandates, a lot of requirements that people do things in certain ways that for a significant part of the American political spectrum seems like a loss of choice, a loss of freedom. And frankly if there were to be a choice of having to do things in very specified ways that a big government agency was going to tell them or suffers from climate change, a fair number of people have, I think, come to the conclusion they’d rather suffer some climate change. And that reflects a need on the right to be more open to the issue as a serious one. And on the left to be more flexible as to what the policy responses might need to be.

You know, through this book and through a lot of the discussions about climate change, there is the phrase, this is an existential crisis which I take to mean that this is a crisis for our human existence, or at least the existence of our human culture as we live it. Now, why isn’t that enough for some money? Who has some thinking but says, Oh, it’s just a theory.

So I think the eye, so I think the idea that climate change represents an existential crisis is not a sufficient argument for someone who thinks that threat to existence maybe in the distant future, a 50 or a hundred or 200 years from now. And for many of those folks, they’re focused on the here and now. They face a real challenges in their lives, challenges about putting food on the table and meeting basic needs for their families. And I think a lot of those folks would say I’m, you know, worried about an existential threat in the future, but I have to worry more about what my family needs this week, next month and so on. And I do again think that one of the challenges of environmental policy and one of the reasons it needs to be fundamentally rethought in the next few years is that there’s been an inattention to the basic tradeoffs that are very real when it comes to how we advance environmental protections. It does require good policy does require care in what burdens are imposed on everyday people and frankly on business beyond that. And there is a cost to doing things environmentally sound ways and we want to make sure that it’s fully justified. And I think the existing structure of environmental law and the policy that flows from it has been sometimes inattentive to those burdens on everyday people and inattentive to the cumulative cost on society.

Give me an example from your own experience where it has been.

Sure. You know, I think we as a society have made enormous progress in addressing air pollution. And we have done a lot to clean the air in many places, but our clean air act says that there shall be actions taken to protect public health without regard to cost. And that then leads to a policy process that means that some things get done that makes sense and other things that are imposing costs way in excess of what might otherwise be thought to be reasonable or sensible in the circumstances. And I think we need us a structure of environmental protection that is much more careful about balancing costs against benefits. And we can’t assume that the maximum environmental answer to every question is the right answer for a society that also needs to provide jobs and economic growth and ensure that people can live good lives on their own terms not simply from an environmental point of view.

So, so again, is there a specific policy you can think of? Is there something in the automotive you’d go ahead.

We should rewrite our clean air act that says people should pay for the harm they cause. And it shouldn’t try to dictate the, each industry across the society specific pieces of pollution control equipment that they need to put on their smokestacks.

So in other words, except the externalities, but how you get there is to the contrary,

Reject the externalities, say that we are going to going forward have an end to externalities, at least unpaid for pollution harms that spill over onto society more broadly. And I think what we should say to every factory and to every source of pollution is that you can no longer simply get a permit and be allowed to pull it. We’re going to make you pay for every nontrivial increment of harm that you send up a smoke stack or out an affluent pipeline. And for the same, by the same token, we should say any business that has its business model, depending on extracting public resources, whether that’s water or the use of public land or the polluting of the atmosphere, all of that should be paid for too. So that anything that is an externality should be paid for

By the, by the polluter,

By the polluter or the user of the resource

By the user of the resource. So that’s what I meant by, except, I mean they have to accept the externalities. They need to accept the costs.

Absolutely. No society should not accept that. There will be extra analogies to the contrary. We should say that going forward there will be no extra analyses, at least not any ex finalities that aren’t fully paid for.

If that were possible, those costs would then end up somewhere down the line in affecting the consumer. Of course, right?

Well, it would affect the consumer, but it would mostly require businesses to be much more careful about how they produce. And it would ensure that when certain things that we now take for granted as low cost have their prices rise, it would be because there was a hidden cost to that seeming low cost. So when we buy a pound of hamburger and there is a, a, a hidden cost of the greenhouse gases associated with raising the cattle that produced that pound of hamburger it would not be right from a societal point of view to have us eat that hamburger without paying for the burden we’re causing to ourselves and to the planet.

Let me take you back to my electrician one more time. You know, we voted, we voted on a carbon tax, whether to put, impose a carbon tax in Washington state and it failed. It failed again. And when I asked him about that, I also said, well, what if the carbon tax [inaudible] you paid it, you as the consumer and so did everyone else up the line of production. But to make it cost neutral, which is the argument that we have, you get some rebate, you get some money back into your pocket. And that made some sense to him, but I wasn’t sure if it actually makes sense as a policy. So two questions. What do you think? And secondly is that the kind of discussions that need to head take place with the, with the skeptics, with the people who are feeling the brunt of anything that goes to reduce climate change impacts.

Yeah. So I think we absolutely need to have the conversation about what is the right policy path to take climate change seriously. And I think it’s a fair question for the skeptics to say can you construct a policy that allows me some freedom of choice that doesn’t dictate to me all the details of my life because you have a climate change agenda that needs to be advanced. And I think that’s a fair pushback from those on the side who are skeptical about action on climate change. Having said that, I think one can’t be both skeptical and then deny the underlying and real science of this. And my argument would be if we put a, a proper price on the causing of harm, which by the way is an age old concept. You know, we have an Anglo American tradition of law that says if you cause harm to your neighbor, you’re subject to legal action to compensate for that harm.

This is a 500 year old tradition of protecting in effect property rights. And I think what we would do by making people pay for the harm from their greenhouse gas emissions is simply a say. This is part of a longstanding structure of society that underpins what we know of and what we understand as modern America. And I would argue that in that regard we should make people pay for the harm. But I would as you were suggesting, rebate that money back to people in the form of other taxes being lowered. And I think that gives us the best possible chance to convince people that this is not a a, again, in the partisan world, we live in a hole set up, people are convinced this is really just an opportunity of government either accrue more power or take more money away from the public and to raise charges, raise taxes. And I think we want to make sure that the answer to climate change doesn’t seem to be falling into those kind of myths about what might be going on here.

Oh, my electrician friend was thoroughly convinced that all the science of climate change is being done by scientists who just want to increase their funding. And so make up statistics and studies and facts in order to prove that climate change is really happening.

That’s a mighty conspiracy that he has to spin up to have that be true. The diversity of scientists across not only the country, but the world is so great and the way want to achieve success in the academic world broadly in science in particular is by saying that what everyone else thought was wrong or by refining what everyone else thought. And so there would be enormous incentives for people to say, no, no, that prevailing wisdom is not correct. If it were true that were not correct. But the reality is that the overwhelming base of scientists come to understand this as a scientific reality. There are, of course, significant uncertainties that continue to be worked on and refined. And we know some things for certainty with a high degree of certainty about climate change. You know, the fact that we have a greenhouse effect is in dispute, indisputably true in fact, otherwise our planet would be uninhabitable cold.

The idea that the level of greenhouse gas emissions has risen substantially from preindustrial times has been measured a hundred different ways and again, is indisputably true. The projections about how fast climate change might occur, what the magnitude might be, what the regional distribution harms might be, all subject to some uncertainty. And therefore we have to be somewhat cautious. And of course, there significant uncertainties about the role of clouds, the role of oceans, and some other fundamental dimensions of the problem. So it would be wrong to say, and frankly, as some people in the climate change advocacy world do say that the science of climate change is is done. We know it all. That’s just not right. Science is of course, an ongoing process of discovery and refinement. But here’s what I would say. We know enough to know that we have a problem that needs to be responded to.

These are 40 big ideas for a sustainable future. You said that, you know, we have in the past tackle big problems with big ideas. What’s your, I guess, evidence that you see that we are able to tackle big ideas in this polarized climate?

So, you know, I think you’ve asked two questions that I want to pull apart a little bit if I can. One is do we have the capacity to bring big ideas forward to respond to big challenges? And I think that’s what America has done better than any country in the history of the world ever. We’re a society that promotes fresh thinking, contrarian views, innovation. And so my belief is that we as a society have stepped up to challenges, whether it’s civil rights or landing a man on the moon or creating the information technologies on which modern life now builds. We’ve done remarkable things when we endorse and and support and foster a spirit of innovation and fresh thinking. And that is at the heart of a number of these essays and the better planet book. And I do think we see evidence of that across many, many domains and it’s now time to turn some of those same forces of, of fresh thinking and creativity to our environmental challenges to the need for a sustainable future and most directly to the problem of climate change.

Now you added to your question, this idea that we’re in a politically divided moment and that is undeniably true and I think it does make the challenge of getting action on climate change and of unleashing these forces of innovation and creating the policy frameworks that structure incentives to engage the business community in helping find solutions. Quite a bit harder, but I think we’re moving towards a moment, probably not in 2020 but I hope in 2021 where there is a recognition that these are not democratic problems or Republican problems, but they’re American problems and they’re frankly planetary problems. And we really do need to bring people together. And one of the things that I would find and tell you that I am finding most heartening is the number of Republicans who I now see working on climate change programs and policies. And here at Yale got a number of students from the right side of the political spectrum who are deeply committed to conservative views on things like economic policy, but are working hard on a new structure of Republican environmentalism broadly and on climate change policy in particular. So I think there is a, a moment coming for people to get back together, to come across the partisan divide and to work together on a serious and thoughtful climate change strategy that can, a rally a strong majority of Democrats and some number of Republicans and move forward not at the left flank that some might want from the democratic side but up the middle with a broad base of support across party lines.

What are some of the thoughtful Republican concepts that those students are exploring?

Well very much I’m wanting to think about using market mechanisms and price signals to change behavior as opposed to government mandates and required investments in certain kinds of pollution control devices. So there would be a much greater enthusiasm, for example, for a an emissions charge on vehicles rather than a mandate as to what kind of cars or trucks people can drive. And I think that is the kind of thing that the Democrats could rally to that if we’re really making people pay for the harms, that becomes an enormous incentive to the auto industry to produce cars that pollute less and have fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And I think likewise, a similar structure of charges to industry would really provide an incentive not only for each company to think about its own practices, its own production process, and try to find ways to reduce the harm. It’s creating lower its greenhouse gas emissions profile, but frankly a big incentive to figure out how to do that, not only within your own business, but how to solve your customer’s environmental challenges, your customer’s greenhouse gas emissions problem, and therefore a big incentive for innovation in terms of the products and services that companies all across the country are providing.

What’s the government’s role in PR in an approach like that we’ve had in the past caps that shrink? That’s been the argument is that, is that the idea that government is there to continually ratchet down the amount that can be admitted?

Well, I think the you know, one of the fundamental policy questions is whether we go back to a cap and trade approach or whether we use straight out price signals, which would be a charge on emissions. I’m with those who favor the direct charge on emissions. I think it’s more transparent. It’s simpler. And frankly what it then requires of the government is narrower. The government needs to identify where there are harms and put some kind of a price on them. And frankly, with something like climate change where we’ve lived so long without a price on fossil fuel emissions and fossil fuel burning, my sense is that the key to success here is not just getting a price on the emissions, but probably to have it escalate slowly over time so that it’s not jarring to those that have made choices, including big investments in and buildings and infrastructure in factories and transportation strategies that depended on a certain set of assumptions about fossil fuels being at the center of our energy economy and of there not being a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

So I would favor, for example, a slowly escalating carbon charge that might begin at $5 per ton and then rise by $5 per ton per year for 20 years. Meaning that we’d end up with $100 per ton price on fossil fuel burning and the greenhouse gas emissions that come from that. But the initial years would be low cost, low burden, but it was standard sent a very strong signal all across the economy to anyone that’s building a new factory. Or thinking about a power plant or even buying a new vehicle that the time has come to think about how to get a low emitting a choice so as not to have to pay these rising carbon charges over time.

The costs the people who have sight, who, who look at this as well, the, they look at the prices being as high or even higher than that. Is there enough time? I mean, you’re talking about 20 years, is there enough time to do that and not a problem?

One of the interesting things about the escalating a charge is that it’s not jarring to people in the short run such that they fight to the death against the policy, but it does provide a very sharp signal. So if you’re building a new a factory, you’re thinking not about the initial charge of five or 10 or $15 per ton of carbon, you’re focused on the a hundred dollars per char ton charge that will be in place 20 years out, which is just the midpoint of your new facilities life. So it changes behavior dramatically from the very first year in terms of all choices going forward. And it’s really the choices going forward that we’re in a strong position to shape with this kind of incentive. And that is what I think is really critical is to get people off the dime into action and a breakthrough. What has been this political logjam where we’re not doing anything. And I think that’s what’s critical. Getting something done that in a reasonably quick timeframe sets up incentives for change behavior that begin to move people immediately towards the decarbonized future. We know as essential.

Let me ask you about some of the essays just in just touching on them and let me start with the ones that look at nature and wildlife and a resource extraction. Cause you have some folks towards the beginning of the book we talk about how we need rather than a siloed approach like protect a species, protect a tree, allow for drilling here but not there. And instead of an ecosystem approach that the authors argue could perhaps bring in extraction resources, road building control and the preservation of wild lands for the creatures that live on it. That’s a very, it’s a very proactive and a very organized approach. Is there, have we seen anything like that on the ground anywhere in, in Canada or America or the rest of the world that it tells you that this could work?

Sure. I think what we know is that the 20th century approach to environmental protection broadly and to land conservation and reach species management in particular was very fragmented. Environmental laws were siloed and that you’d have air laws in one area, water laws and another chemical management and yet a third and all of that wasn’t woven together into a coherent whole. So I think we do know that there are opportunities to be much more systems minded in how we construct our policy frameworks and how we construct our programs on the ground out across the country. And I think just to pick one example our regulation of pesticides has been done crop by crop and a product by product. And the end result is we’ve paid far too little attention to the cumulative impacts of all of the products that might be used out in in the food chain.

So I think we now know that it’s critical for us to having a healthy and safe food supply that we look cumulatively in a systems way across all of the exposures that someone eating food would face. And that leads to a different strategy about how we manage our land and how we encourage our farmers and ranchers to produce the food we eat. And I do think you’ve see a, a number of places moving in that direction. I think you’ve seen more of this cumulative approach in Europe. And I think we’re in America starting to realize there would be great benefits by being more a comprehensive in our approach to environmental problems. I think. And by the way, in the same regard we have to understand that our food supply is a, and the work of our farmers and ranchers is not simply a source of a problem, but it could be the source of solutions.

One of the critical things for success on climate change will be to think about the problem not only as a matter of emissions, but also as a matter of possibilities around enhancing carbon sinks. And green plants of course trees in particular are what is the greatest capacity for carbon capture carbon sequestration. And I think we’re now coming to realize that nature based solutions are essential to our success on climate change. So again, thinking comprehensively in a systems way about both emissions and the ability to absorb emissions through carbon sinks, it gives us a whole new perspective on how we’re going to address climate change and a, a very much a new perspective on the role of farmers and ranchers in being critical to success and not just a source of the problem.

There’s so many vested interests. It’s so difficult. I mean, yes, Europe is ahead in terms of systems, I’m looking at it through systems, but they are also facing the same but the New York times that called the insect apocalypse as the as the States are the insect apocalypse, the disappearance of so many insects, which we know we need for you know, the very farmers work to succeed in the end. So how do you, how do you get the good faith of the petrochemical industry or the, or the or the you know, the herbicide industry when they’re middle and short term goals go against these changes

You asked earlier about the role of government. I think the critical role of government will be going forward and this can be a redirection of substantial resources within organizations like the environmental protection agency, a focus on identifying harms of bringing the best science to bear epidemiological science, ecological science, to really map out with clarity in a way that we haven’t in, in our historical approach has been able to do, but increasingly can given the application of big data to our environmental challenges where harms are coming from. What the fate and transport of pollutants are, how they have impacts on both people and plants and animals. And then really use that to map out who needs to be held accountable and where there are severe impacts. We are gonna have the government still needing to set limits and prohibit certain kinds of emissions or certain chemicals being used and then really make people pay beyond that for the harms they’re causing.

And I think once those price signals are in place where people are really having to pay for the harm, they’re causing behavior will change. And there will be great incentives for technological innovation. And we have good examples of this already. The 1992 clean air act began to put a price on the chemicals that were damaging the ozone layer, the chlorofluorocarbons and that price was escalating year on year. As a result of that 1992 law. And within just a few years, all the industries that were using chlorofluorocarbons got out of them. They found substitutes, they created new alternatives. So I think that’s one example. The way we got a real attention to the acid rain problem that plagued our country in the 1980s was again, a price signal making people making power plants pay for their sulfur dioxide emissions. And setting a price on that cause those power plants to think hard about how to reduce emissions. In this case it was not so much technological innovation what fuels switching. They all realized there was an opportunity to burn low sulfur coal and that allowed us to cut in half acid rain precursors, the sulfur dioxide and, and NOx emissions that were causing harm to the lakes and forests across Eastern half of America and the Eastern part of Canada. So we do have good examples of where this kind of approach can make big change happen. At least out over time.

You have a couple of SAS who talk about, yes, big ideas are important and big change needs to take place, but we have to take care that we’re looking at the little changes and the incremental impacts. These have, they were talking about social justice in particular, they were talking about making sure that all groups are sitting at the table. How important are the little changes that they are talking about to the big ideas in your estimation?

Well, I think one of the things that really comes through clearly in this book is that you can’t focus on just the environment and not understand that there will be social impacts from changes in environmental policy, economic impacts. And we really have to think about this as a matter of environmental justice. We have several essays that are raising that question. How do we make sure that as we’re driving change, as we are addressing the pollution impacts that we know we have to take care of? How do we make sure that it’s not poor people or disadvantaged communities that end up bearing the brunt of that transition. And I do think one of the areas of climate change policy that has been least well developed over the last couple of decades is what’s required for a transition that doesn’t leave significant communities or industries or individuals behind. And we as a society have the capacity to invest in helping those communities reposition themselves, helping industries reimagine themselves, and helping individual workers move in new directions in new careers that will thrive in the decades ahead as rather than being under challenged because they’re linked to the burning of fossil fuels.

So I think that’s a critical set of essays in this book, a critical set of issues for our political community to grapple with. And you may also be making reference to the final essay of our, of our 40 in this regard. It’s in the spirit of an academic exercise, but one that I think represents a spirit that our society would benefit from, that we while advancing big ideas to try to create a pathway to a sustainable future, raise the prospect that big ideas may often fail. And so we’re being quite self critical at the very moment that we’re advancing these ideas and we’re saying to the world, big ideas and big solutions need to be understood in context. And if you launch a big idea but haven’t thought about the secondary effects of the unintended consequences, it may not get where you want to go. And so I think by being self critical, accepting that we have to be you know, with our approach to these problems with a degree of humility if they weren’t hard challenges, they probably would have been solved sometime ago. And I think that is one of the spirits of this book is to say, yes, there are pathways forward, but let’s think hard about what it’s going to take to succeed on those pathways and make sure we’re not leaving people behind.

Well, I guess what I got thinking about was the, the argument that there are many people in those communities that they’re being impacted who say, look, you want to make a change really fast. Let’s cite these polluting industries in wealthy neighborhoods. Let’s cite these these ideas, these impacts where they’re going to hurt the wealthy, not where they hurt the poor. And I mean that of course is a politically untenable idea, but only because who has the power? I mean it really isn’t in the end these big ideas don’t they depend on a kind of sharing of power that people are just not going to do.

Well. I think there are a number of essays that highlight that our current structure of the economy and of the kind of energy underpinnings of the economy are a reflection of past political choices, which are themselves are a reflection of the distribution of power, particularly political power. But I think we’ve also come to a point in society and this is one of the interesting kind of new lines of activity in the 21st century where there is a, a, a lot of focus on that distribution of power on disadvantaged communities, on concepts like environmental justice. And I think one of the things this book does is to say we need to take that whole line of inquiry very seriously and we are not going to be able to proceed with solutions that burden poor communities or individuals because it’s not right. And because we know that over time it would be inappropriate for our society to advance at the expense of those communities. So I think the, you know, I’m not saying that this book offers solutions to all of these hard challenges, but I think we grapple with them in a serious way and I hope it will provide a model for our society taking up these issues, debating them and taking seriously some of the new lines of thinking that I think have become part of our political dialogue in recent decades.

Well, your essay, red lights to green lights is all about innovation and incentivization. What’s your most when you look around, what do you see most hopeful about that aspect of grappling with these issues?

So I look around and I see a society that has just moved so quickly in a number of areas with the benefit of, for example, information technology. You know, there’s not a baseball team today that doesn’t pick players with a, a a, of statistics and data to underpin their choices. That’s very different than the, you know, world of 25 or 30 years ago where it was a tobacco chewing Scouts that told the general manager which players to pick. I don’t see a business across America today, particularly of any scale that doesn’t try to micro target its marketing efforts using data analytics to help drive that process. And I think what’s interesting is how untouched in general the environmental arena is by all of the information technologies that have transformed so many other parts of society. So I’m very excited about the marriage of information technology broadly and about a whole range of specific technologies from monitoring and metering to using metrics and using communications technologies and allowing for much more precision in how we take activities forward to give us a whole new world of approaches for environmental protection.

And I think that marriage of technology and innovation to environmental challenges offers a lot to be optimistic about it.

Daniel SD, professor of environmental law and policy and editor of a better planet, 40 big ideas for a sustainable future. We’ll be speaking at town hall on Thursday, February 13th at 7:30 PM. If you’d like to join in the conversation, get yourself a ticket. Thank you for listening to episode 53 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle baseband EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. You can listen to our full town hall produced programs and speakers on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts. Or if you prefer to watch instead of listen, there’s a whole library of content on our YouTube channel. Just search Townhall Seattle and subscribe to support town hall. Read our blog or see our calendar of events. Check out our website at town hall, seattle.org next week, our correspondent Venice behind. We’ll be talking with Tom Hartman about the hidden war on voting till then. Thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 47


In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with H.W. Brands about the American West. Brands outlines what we think of today as the West, and highlights the dreams of wealth that inspired American settlers. He discusses the struggles between the white settlers and indigenous peoples and widens our perspective to 30,000 years ago when settlers from Asia came across the Bering Strait. Brands and Scher delve into the iconography of the West and the way these images have shaped our society—the cowboy as the American knight, the association of gold digging with luck as a metaphor for wealth and success in America, and the irony of a “lawless” West depending on the government and being widely comprised of federal land. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know…


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