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

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, 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

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, 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…

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

Transcript coming soon!

In The Moment: Episode 52

In this week’s interview, correspondent Elizabeth Ralston talks with Bob Redmond and Anne Biklé about the complexities of the microbiome. They highlight how microscopic organisms are essential to the health of its host—whether that’s our soil or our own bodies. Biklé likens the gut to a garden, encouraging us to recontextualize ourselves as part of an ecosystem and exploring ways to keep that system healthy. They dive into discussions of cancer, mental health, inflammation, and the steps we can take to cultivate a healthy microbiome. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall Seattle.

The event was co-produced by Survivor Bee and co-sponsored by Big Dipper WaxworksKing County LOOP® Biosolids,  the Center for Microbiome Sciences and Therapeutics at the University of WashingtonThe Common Acre and Rainbow Natural Remedies.

Episode Transcript

Transcription by Megan Castillo.

Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s podcast In the Moment where we talk with folks coming to our stages and give you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. 

Researchers are continuing to find out more about the link between our gut and brain, what’s in the soil and how this is directly related to bees and cancer. On Tuesday, February 4th a panel of experts are coming to our Forum stage to talk about our microbiome and the ways in which bacteria is essential to the health of our bodies, minds, and the environment. 

Our correspondent for this episode, Elizabeth Ralston, got her master of public health from the University of Michigan with an emphasis on health education. Elizabeth is the founder of the Seattle King County Cultural Accessibility Consortium, a grassroots effort to make the arts accessible for people with disabilities. The consortium is the first of its kind in the Seattle area to address inequities and accessing arts events, programs and spaces. Elizabeth sat down in our broadcast room at Town Hall to talk with moderator for this event Bob Redmond and panelist Anne Biklé. 

Bob Redmond found his ways to bees while living as writer in residence in a garden cottage surrounded by skyscrapers with 12 years experience tending honeybees, which at one time included 150 colonies. He has also been a leader in pollinator conservation, founder of the nonprofit, The Common Acre. Bob was also co-primary investigator on a four year USDA study led by WSU and instigated the Flight Path and Green Line projects with SeaTac Airport and Seattle City Light. Bob lives in South Seattle with his wife and son. 

Anne Biklé is a science writer and public speaker with over two decades of experience in field biology, natural history and environmental planning. Her work focuses on the connections between people, plants, food, health and the environment. Biklé is co-author of The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. And now a conversation about bees, guts, soil and cancer.

Elizabeth Ralston: Thank you for joining us for this fascinating topic. When I was asked to lead this podcast, titled Bees, Guts, Soil and Cancer the public health geek in me went, Whoa. So exciting. So thank you for your time here. So the main question you will be exploring in your event is how are the health of soil, plants, bees and people connected? Well, where are we going to start? Where would you like to start?

Bob Redmound: Well this is Bob speaking I guess. Um, yes, you’re right. That is the focus of the event. How all these things connected and it’s a health focus. This is, it’s not a “Oh my God, the sky is falling” conversation. It’s about good things. And, one of my backgrounds is as a professional beekeeper and after 12 years, the conclusions I was drawing about bee health drove me into the soil. So many people are talking about colony collapse disorder and um, you know, pathogens. Those are part of it, but it really all comes down to not even flowers but soil. And, there’s a small group of us beekeepers who are trying to teach ourselves soil science. So that was one thing. The second thing was that about three years ago I was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and it’s still active. And that’s a whole other story of what’s been going on, but completely related and similar path of, Oh, this thing is happening. Surgeries, radiation, all that stuff. But the more I dug in, and sometimes despite the care of my awesome doctors who aren’t trained in nutrition, I came to the same conclusions. It’s what is in the soil.

ER: Why don’t we start with this quote by Dr. Depolo. He says, “think of your gut as a garden.” You’re smiling Anne tell me more about that.

Anne Biklé: Wow. I don’t even know him. And he’s my kind of guy is what I can say about that. Part of what we’re learning about microbiomes wherever they may be, because one thing that’s very true about this whole new field of science is that this universe of microscopic organisms, it’s not just bacteria and fungi, it goes beyond that. But these communities of trillions of organisms are actually very fundamental to the health and wellbeing of humanity. And Bob had talked about the, alluded to the soil previously. And this idea of the gut being a garden is very apt because even if you’re not a gardener, even if you’ve never grown a plant in your life, when you hear the word garden, it implies several things. I think it implies stewardship, it implies cultivation. It implies something positive and good about this place when we talk about a garden. And so to think about the gut as this alive thing, you know, it has an ecosystem. The gut has an ecosystem just like the soil. And so when you start to sort of look at these parallel universes, if you will, the, the gut and soil, then you start asking things like, what is the diet of the soil and what is the diet of this inner ecosystem and what do those diets have to do with the functioning of these microbiomes? And what does the functioning of these microbiomes have to do with the health of their garden or their person? And you’ll often hear in microbiome science, people will say the host and the host is, you know, all of us here have our own microbiomes and hopefully they’re doing something positive in us right now. But we are their host. And, the host of the soil microbiome is the soil itself. And I would add to that what farmers and gardeners are doing to that soil. Right. Cause we can get up and we can walk around and so forth, but the soil is stuck in place like the plant. So there’s, I’m very excited to hear that someone’s already talking about the two G words, gardens and guts.

ER: Yes. And when you talk about global warming and the rising incidents of autoimmune diseases and cancer, I mean, this is all so relevant, but let’s back up a bit. And you have the hidden half of nature. You talk about, how you transformed the lousy soil in your garden into, healthy soil by feeding lots of organic matter, including coffee grounds and that supported the plant growing into a thriving garden. And then that garden took half a decade to create right? And I really loved your description about the transformation of this garden to accommodate plants. But first, of course, the microbiome, the micro-organisms, then the plant will grow. Then the tiny animals that come from that and then over time grow to attract bugs and worms. Then birds, then larger birds and predators and raccoons and eagles. I really loved your description of how when you transform that garden into something that attracted a living ecosystem. Can you say more about your journey with that because it’s so applicable?

AB: Yeah, I think people are awfully self-centered and it’s very hard for us to see ourselves as part of a system or as part of something larger. But indeed, when you start to look at microbiomes or a garden or you could even be out in the Amazon, you know, jungle in some other kind of ecosystem, what you see is that life is sort of nested within life. And that was pretty easy to see in the garden. Well, I mean, it helps that I have a background in biology and I have a very bad case of plant lust. And so I’m prone to thinking about these things, let’s say. Okay. But what really makes you sort of wake up and notice is when you start with something, that we started with, which was a completely barren lot. And by that I mean when we started the garden, I wanted a blank slate. I didn’t want to —well, first of all, we really, there really wasn’t anything there. There was some dead trees. There was this like, you know, old growth, lawn, I’m doing air quotes here, “lawn”. And I thought, let’s just, we’re gonna scrape all of this off, all of this existing vegetation and we’re going to get it down to a blank slate. It was sort of like taking you how when people talk about remodeling house and they say, we’re gonna take it down to the studs. We took everything outside of our house back to the studs. Okay. And that wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t really hopeful. Like when you take the house back to this studs and you can start to see the potential. And in our case it led to dead. It was dead dirt. It was — it sent me into an utter panic attack because, and embarrassment to here’s this biologist and her geologist husband and I’m like, Oh my God, we didn’t look at our soil before we like scraped all this vegetation off. How stupid is that? I said, well we need to stop blaming ourselves. We need to start doing things right now. And I had done enough gardening to know organic matter. You better go find a lot of organic matter as quickly as possible, as close to home as possible and cheap cause we have no money. Cause I spent it on all the plants and the scraping of everything off of the lot. There was no money to be buying organic matter. So I started collecting things and bringing them home. Everything from the neighbor’s fallen leaves to, you know, I’d hear an arborist truck in the neighborhood and go track them down and say I need your wood chips right now. Come over here, dump them in my driveway. And so I began mixing up these mulches and layering them on top of the soil. It had been my intent to dig all of this mulch in. And what I know now is that that was a really happy accident that I did not in fact get some rototiller or some piece of equipment or use my own hands to start digging this stuff in because all that would have done would be to further scramble what little bit of life was clinging on to whatever tiny, tiny pieces of organic matter were still not, you know, decomposed. So I layered it on top and I let the organisms in the life come to the food, so to speak. And that is what kicked off, Elizabeth, this whole thing that you just sort of read out of the book is that Dave and I realized later, it’s like, wow, we just sort of saw the whole way in which life on earth unfolded over millions and millions, billions of years, four and a half billion in fact. How that all unfolded in, just, you know, maybe a half, a decade to a decade. And I’m not saying it was precise and accurate. What I’m saying is that in general, we started with soil and the microbes in the soil and that drew in one thing after another. And that’s what I mean about life nested in life is that life sort of represents, you know, somebody is somebody else’s lunch. And so that’s what all life is doing. They are looking around for lunch, for places to rest and sleep, and for places to raise their young. And so that was what we had sorta started once we got the soil back up on its feet.

ER: Yes. And when you restore soil fertility you are going to combat chronic diseases and promote a healthy immune system. Right? So what are some examples of how microbes can really promote healthy immune systems?

AB: Yeah. Wow. See, that’s the question right there. Because we used to think that human health was predicated on the absence of microbes. That has consumed us since the days of Anthony van Laywin. Who was a Dutch guy who invented the microscope several hundred years ago. He didn’t know anything about microorganisms or pathogens, but in the centuries after him, we began to learn, wow, some of humanity’s most dread diseases. Let’s talk about the Corona virus that is emerging now in China and maybe coming around the world, that is pretty much how we have thought about the entire microbial world for all of human history. Everything is out there, a lurking Corona virus. I don’t want to downplay that because there is a duality to the microbial world and pathogens and especially disease causing pathogens are a reality. But they are a very, very small part of the microbial world. And so now what we know through not only plant microbiome research, but now emerging out of human microbiome research is that Oh, it’s the presence of microbes as well that is very influential on human health. And so this has caused a lot of people ranging from, you know, moms to researchers in labs to granting agencies to scientists all over the place, scrambling to do several things. You know, sort of in a, this is like a very big picture thing. What are they scrambling to do? Okay, how does the human microbiome work? How do we stop wrecking it? Where we’ve impaired it, how do we bring it back to life and how do we move forward with practices in medicine? And I would contend, I don’t think medical folks are so much thinking about this, although I wish they would think more about it, is how do we also make sure that we’re growing our food and treating our farmland and our animals in agriculture in ways that is producing healthy food. Because the quality of the food that we bring into our bodies, it’s not just our taste buds who like that, you know, heirloom tomato, um, fruits and vegetables are chock full of phytochemicals. So these are naturally occurring chemicals in plants and we know that growing practices affect their density. That is how much of what are the levels of lycopene, for example, in a tomato because the lycopene in a tomato that comes into the human gut represents food. It’s a portion of the food that the human microbiome is consuming. And so you want your microbiome to have in general a diverse diet. Plenty of different kinds of whole plant foods to ferment down, down in the gut. And this is where, this is no disrespect to any vegans or vegetarians out there, and I’ll probably get hate mail on this later, who knows? But all of this faux meat, the whole problem with that is that whether it’s a whole soybean or a whole pea plant that’s been pulled into some factory somewhere, it’s phytochemicals, its whole nutritional profile gets scrambled. And what we know about the human microbiome was that when we start scrambling our diet, simplifying it and taking away the fermentable carbohydrates, the human microbiome does not do so well. Part of what our health hinges on with the human microbiome are all of these molecules and compounds that they produce from the foods we eat and these compounds, they’re called metabolites. Also these compounds in metabolites. They are like our onboard medicine chest in many, many ways, but they can also be harmful to us. And so we want to always be feeding our microbiome. These things are going to fill up that medicine chest and we don’t want to eat a lot of the foods that are gonna allow them to turn our diet into things that harm us. So this whole thing about you are what you eat. We need to modify that to this. You are what your microbiome eats, right?

ER: Yes. And that brings me back to the question about the bees, right? Because we have to start with the bees. The bees are a critical factor in all of this. So I want to go back to Bob, what you were saying about being a beekeeper and your experience with bees, but, so I’ve read in an article that honeybees rely on the gut microbial community for a variety of functions, food processing, regulation of immune system, defense against pathogens, and the use of pesticides as you’re talking about food, growing food, apparently the swabs, the gut of the bee, which makes bees more susceptible to environmental stressers. And you brought up the colony collapse disorder. So can you say more about the importance of bees and bee health to all of what Ann has been saying.

BR: Sure. Um, there’s a lot of big questions that you’re asking. And I also recognize that it’s hard for people, our culture, the dominant culture who is so steeped in, and especially these days, in data and evidence. We’re approaching things in a certain way. And, well what’s the science behind that? Prove to me that this is, you know, carcinogenic or prove to me that this is hurting the bees. And I also want to step back, and one thing you said Anne reminded me that, yeah this is our history since van Laywin, and there’s a tradition of Western culture that has certain approaches and diagnostic procedures and stuff. But there’s other approaches, like the Native American cultures or even the witch cultures and plant medicine a completely different approaches. Right now we are taking a really long way around to correct some of, kind of the willful illiteracy that we have embraced around relationships between ourselves and the natural world. But we are educating ourselves and trying to reestablish or establish proper relationships between us and the ecology. It just, it’s been really difficult. So I don’t want to lose sight, I don’t want to make things too complicated when we say, Oh, bees, like what are the 15 reasons why bees are doing bad and what, how am I supposed to understand the complicated nature of the bee microbiome and what does that mean? It really does get simple though when you say that the bees eat nectar and pollen from flowers and also gather propolis, which is also very important to be health. But, and then water is the fourth thing that they gather. So they’re not only collecting four things and each of those is super important in maintaining the hive as an organism of itself when we’re talking honeybees here for a moment. But those things pollinate, especially in our industrial agriculture system. The bulk of what we eat that requires pollination. So, if we feed them sugar water and if we put them on trucks and cart them around the country and say, Oh, well you’re going to eat almonds for three weeks, now you’re going to eat blueberry nectar, now you’re going to eat apple nectar. It’s a terrible diet. It’s terrible. And pollen substitute that’s made from soybeans, they’re getting, gosh, imagine if we fed our kids peanut butter and jelly every day for weeks and weeks. And then we gave them, you know, delly turkey and then, you know, Snickers bars as candy and Capri Sun. Oh gosh, we actually do that. Really bad for their diet. So, yeah, long story short, what the bees eat helps them fight disease and also stimulates their immune system.They have the same thing and fights all these factors. Anyway, there’s some demystifying that I want to do and kind of bring things back to, care for not just honeybees, but all the pollinators and flowers. And, it’s not as simple as it’ll take care of itself, but it is simple that if we plant and tend soil in our yards and kind of bring everything as local as possible, we’re going to grow these invisible gardens and have really awesome relationships with these creatures. Cause there’s nothing like watching all this amazing bounty in your own yard.

ER: Yeah, you brought up such an excellent point, the care piece, like taking care of our environment and our ecosystem and ourselves and the complexity of that because we’re all so interrelated and interconnected with each other, right? This is becoming more and more fragmented. And so the work that you’re trying to do is to put the pieces back together so that we can continue to nurture ourselves. Which brings me back to something that you Anne said, we talk a lot about diet and about how you are, what you eat and you said that a third of all cancers are thought to be linked to diet, including breast cancer, in post-menopausal women, colon cancer and prostate cancer. And you brought this up, so that diet-cancer connection really resonated strongly with you. And if you can tell me a little bit more about your personal journey in this regard and how and what we can all learn from this.

AB: Yeah, I think whenever somebody is facing a health challenge, you’re either the kind of person who shuts down and doesn’t ask any questions or you’re a person like me. And in my case when I was diagnosed with cancer, it was, it was actually not a diet related cancer, but ironically enough it was a cancer associated with a virus. And so here is a sort of a thread, you know, a thread that I tugged on hard about the microbiome because I wanted to find out more about the human microbiome. What does that have to do with my health? And then hearing what you just said, Elizabeth, there’s a number of cancers that are linked to diet. And so this is a modifiable factor: what we eat. And so when it comes to diet in the soil or for a human being, you really, this is just sort of really common sense. Let’s think about this. So long ago when we were hunter gatherers, and even in the years after that we never had any pharmaceutical companies. We never had any agrichemical companies. All we had was our microbiome and what we ate. So that was the doctor. And now obviously like diet isn’t going to do something if you fall down out there in the Savannah and you sprained your ankle, right? That’s an acute thing and that, I’m not talking about that. But what we know about the diet cancer connection is that at least half of the battle with these diet related cancers is that you want to prevent the onset of any weirdnesses, any, you know, cell abnormalities. Anything that is the beginning of a cancer because this whole thing “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. That is why people say that. Because if we can prevent the onset of things, then you’re never going to deal with the being down here at the very downstream, you know, end of the cancer and doing, whether it’s surgeries or radiation or chemotherapy or whatever it is. Let’s not, let’s not get to that point. Let’s, let’s, let’s cut this off at the pass. And so the reason diet is so important, and this is Bob also said something. You had mentioned plant medicines, and do you know this, that you know, some of the very earliest doctors we know this from England, the Chelsea Physic Garden. It is the oldest, medicinal garden that we know about, although I would probably contend that they’re in the Western world—I should caveat that. And doctors at this time, this would be back in probably 1500-1600’s. They didn’t go inside a classroom and open up books solely. They were sent out to the garden to learn about the plants because plants are their own, this has to do with, just the plant lifestyle, right? They’re stuck in place. They can’t get up and run around and get away from predators. Aha. But what can they do? They can create chemicals. The genome of a plant is something I’m not sure that you know the human brain will ever totally understand because that genome is what is interacting with the microbiome and it’s spinning out all of these different chemicals, some of which if you were a doctor way back when you would need to know, you know this plant has this property. They didn’t know what the chemicals or the phytochemicals were at that time, but they knew this plant for this thing, this plant for this thing.. That was the medicine. And so because we also eat plants, we are voluntarily bringing some of this stuff into our bodies, you know, every day and so far I’m not aware of anybody who has died from over consumption of fruits and vegetables and I would say fruits and vegetables, you know, known to be, let’s say you know, free of pesticide residues and things like that. So far no one has died from over consumption of fruits and vegetables. What they are bringing into their body though is this whole pharmacopoeia of phytochemicals and, and what we know about plant foods is that all of these phytochemicals, they tend to work in combination with one another. That’s why, if you’re eating, just again back to Bob’s point about simplifying the diet. Oh, I’m so healthy. I eat carrots every single day, every single meal. No, that’s not what we want because the beta carotene in that carrot, it can interact with say the lycopene in a tomato or an anthocyanin in your blackberries that you had for breakfast. So it’s all about bringing in sort of an abundance and I don’t mean exclusively, but an abundance of plant foods in diverse combinations and that is doing things at the cellular level. It is triggering genes with anticancer activity.

ER: Yes. But the other stuff is causing inflammation. Which is the key word here “inflammation” and what foods cause inflammation?

AB: It’s the simplified carbohydrates. 

ER: Yeah. Bingo. 

AB: Okay, good. Whew. Those, are causing inflammation. And there’s all of these things that are not in food that we add to food. And I will just put that under the umbrella of additives. That could be preservatives, that could be stabilizers, that could be artificial this or that. We don’t really know. We don’t really know what those are doing. You know, there’s that category. It’s called grass, generally regarded as safe. I believe that’s the, the FDA lingo on that. So there’s all these grass products out there, you know, or ingredients to products.

BR: We should not be spraying everything with glyphosate with Roundup a carcinogen. They say, Oh, well if you apply it properly, it won’t harm humans. But then meanwhile you’ve got all these pollinators out there sprayed by a glyphosate and ingesting it really messes with them and their health. So anyway, random note. But I also wanted to say something about, things that cause inflammation and sort of disrupt, um, sugar! And, as a beekeeper, I have a complicated relationship and as a sugar lover, such a sweet tooth, but so do all of us humans. We’re wired that way and evolution isn’t quick enough to catch up with industrialization. And so we’ve figured out all these ways to create sugars. And a lot of it when — not 500 years ago, the way we got the sweet was to get it from bees and that practices as beekeeping rather than just hunting honey is only 4 – 4,500 years old. So it’s taken a while for and, industrial beekeeping is really only, like 150 years old. So it’s taken all this time to figure out how do we maximize getting sweet products. And then, it must be said, coincidental with slavery, we created mass plantations of sugarcane and figured out how to make a lot of sugar for really cheap. But all that is baked into our diets and our cultures. And now we eat ungodly amounts of sugar and we’re not, we can’t handle it. Our bodies can’t handle it. And how we use to use sugar kind of strategically, Oh God, to run from the tiger, you know we’re going to get sugar to now, Oh I’m just going to sit on on the couch and watch TV and eat a lot of sugar is not a good match for that, for that particular food.

AB: There’s the dietary aspect, but there’s also what we know is that because you want, because of the communication between gut microbiota and the immune system that the gut microbiota in a way and especially as they change and develop from birth through about age five, they’re constantly — that early, early microbiome is constantly interacting with the human immune system. And we know most of the immune system is engaged with the gut and so if you have insufficient scrambled, perturbed human microbiome, then what you have is an immune system that is firing way too much. And an immune system that fires way too much is an immune system that is constantly on inflammation mode. So that was the other thing. Sugar causes it, but also not having the properly functioning microbiome from birth onward because these immune cells, their whole job is “got to keep the person healthy, healthy gotta keep the person healthy”. And so the only thing the immune system can really do, it’s only a big, big hammer and it’s big, big tool is inflammation. And the other thing I meant about our immune system is if in doubt fire away, cause you never know. In the olden days, you know it was pathogens that were getting us. So there was a good chance there was a pathogen involved, there wasn’t a good chance that sugar was involved or that an insufficient microbiome was involved. So that’s probably why the immune system, you know, I ask no questions, I just embark on inflammation.

ER: I think this has been a great conversation and I think that it seems like your approach is to explain things in a way that the lay person can understand. Because so much of this is technical information about complex sugars and how the soil composition affects plant and all that. Anne, you do such a great job in your book of explaining some of these issues. You also mentioned something called the built environment and I really loved that concept and what this meant is the way the cities are laid out, influences the choices and opportunities that underlie a person’s health and well-being. And this is kind of, I feel like this is kind of a good summary of what we’ve been talking about. In that, how we live our lives, in a city or in a town or whatever influences the way that we live. And, I also have my accessibility hat on as well. Because I’m working on accessibility for people with disabilities in the arts and the built environment is such an important way of how people with disabilities and how everyone else can really access their environment in a way that makes them thrive and is healthy and genuine for them. So I really appreciate you bringing that up. Did you have anything else you would like to say about the built environment and how this applies to your work?

AB: You know we have this big brain sitting on top of our shoulders and that, that makes us unique among animals, and it’s also why the built environment I think is so important to think about for people. We know that more and more people are moving to urban and urbanized areas. And so the fabric of the built environment and I’m not sure I’ve seen this yet, but what, you know, but I think architects, landscape architects, planners and so on, all those in, you know, quote “in charge of the built environment”, should steep themselves in is, about how human beings perceive the environment around them. And when you think about how, you know, 99% of our evolution was about moving through natural environments. It was about, looking for food, you know, staying away from the predators and not falling into the water. But it was also about pausing maybe, and looking up to take note of a particularly beautiful color of light or a flower that had opened or the million shades of green that might surround a person or the million shades of tans and browns in that kind of an ecosystem. And so when we build built environments that don’t tap into or support how our brains and our bodies really work and what makes them healthy, we’re just doing ourselves a disservice. And I would also contend that probably if you dug deep enough, I mean there’s actually some research on this in the human microbiome and that is that, when a person is happy, when they are in a good mood that that is also good for their microbiome because we’re making, our bodies make compounds and molecules too. And our microbiome is affected by those. So that might be dopamine or it might be serotonin or these, any number of other neurotransmitters that get triggered when we’re out in a high quality, stimulating, safe, healthy environment. So I think, it sort of comes full circle that way.

ER: Yes. You just summed it up so beautifully and I want to invite you Anne over to my house to help me with my garden and you, Bob, to my house to help me start a beekeeping business. Thank you so much.

BR: Thank you, Elizabeth.

AB: Yeah. Thank you very much. It’s been great.

JP: Bob and Anne will be in conversation with Alyssa Arnheim, health and ecology caretaker, William DePaulo, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the university of Washington and Jenifer Walke, PhD, assistant professor of biology at Eastern Washington University. They will be at Town Hall on February 4th at 7:30 PM. There’s still tickets available for this event, so if you’re interested in hearing what is sure to be an enlightening conversation, click on the event link in the episode description and get yourself a seat. Thank you for listening to episode 52 of In the Moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, Hibou, and Seattle’s own Barsuk Records. To support Town Hall, become a member or see our calendar of events. Check out our website at next week, our chief correspondent Steve Scher will be talking with Dan Esty about big ideas for a sustainable future. Until then, thanks for joining us right here In The Moment.

In The Moment: Episode 51

In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with biologist Samuel Wasser about the illegal ivory trade and the threat it poses to the endangered elephant population. Wasser outlines scientific tools being developed to track poachers and determine the locations and regions where they’re getting their ivory. They discuss the tactics used for combating poachers, such as reducing demand for ivory and tracking the locations of ivory supplies before they’ve been confiscated or shipped. Wasser expresses his faith in the diversity of people’s interests, and the need for everyone to pursue those interests in order to combat the innumerable issues of the world—everything from ivory poaching to cancer to climate change.

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

Welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast in the moment 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. The last week of January, 2020 is quickly approaching and we’ve got some very interesting programs on our calendar about homelessness, American oligarchs and contemporary poetry followed by a youth speaks poetry slam on the 31st for more information about these events to get tickets or to see what else is on our calendar. Go to our website at town hall, elephants are smart, family oriented and relentlessly hunted by poachers, seemingly intent on wiping them out. The numbers are grim, but international and us law enforcement agencies, NGOs, governments, and committed scientists like the university of Washington Samuel Wasser are fighting to save wild elephants. Wasser is renowned for bringing remarkable tools to the field. He has pioneered noninvasive techniques, even training dogs to track elephants by their scat, allowing scientists to identify family groups and even individuals through their DNA. He has helped develop techniques that allow law enforcement to track poached ivory across continents and oceans. With these tools. He’s helping bring poachers to justice. The wildlife photographer, art Wolf and Samuel Wasser have produced a new coffee table sized book, wild elephants conservation in the age of extinction. They come to town hall on Wednesday, January 29th to talk about the work being done to save the remaining wild elephants. Our chief correspondent, Steve Cher, sat down with dr Wasser at his office on the UDaB campus.

What are those in the corner there? So those are

not real cus they’re casts of real tests. And um, I don’t know if my, uh, they were real Tufts at one point and one of my best friends who’s now actually port commissioner in Seattle was at a garage sale. You probably know. I’m Fred Feldman and he found them one day and he bought them for me. So they’re, they’re casts. Yeah, they’re amazing. I really lifelike. So I, um, I keep them there as, as a memory of how big cus have been historically.

Yeah. Well that’s something that, I mean, you’ll forget. I mean, I saw a picture from, was it 2018, I’m looking to very ours articles. I saw a picture of you standing in front of a pile of Tufts from was the 2018 or 2015 it was the, the uh, most recent large seizure.

Um, well there I suspect that was the burning of the ivory and Kenya. The a hundred tons of ivory. So in, in Nairobi, that might’ve been the picture you saw. I don’t know there, there’s lots of those pictures of me. Yeah. Cause there’s lots of seizures that we do.

Yeah. There was an article in Sierra club magazine and it said the will to save the elephants was the headline and it was about you and art Wolf. I thought it was an interesting way to be hopeful in the face of, you know, reasons not to be hopeful. So why? Because that seems so hard.

Well, you know, it, it’s kind of, it’s a funny thing. It’s a mixture of horror and eh, in, in what’s going on and believing that we’ve got a tool that can make a big difference and ultimately stop it. Um, you know, the hope, the hope is that elephants will recover, uh, if we can stop this illegal trade in and it, it just put it in perspective. I’m there. There’s 400,000 elephants left in Africa right now. Um, that’s down from 1.3 million in 1979. So there’s 400,000 elephants left and there’s 40,000 elephants still being killed each year. So it’s bad. And when you

productively, they’re not, they’re gonna fall behind ever further.

You betcha. And, and the, and you know, there’s two, there’s really two species of African elephants. So African elephants are the ones that are most heavily poach. Asian elephants, not, not so much, you know, being able to F to figure out, you know, why is this, why does this continue to happen? And, and, you know, where are the concentrations of poaching? Who’s the big guys moving this ivory? And can we really do something about it? Is, is really important? And, and, um, I feel like, you know, I was very lucky in that, um, in the late nineties, I, I was driven to develop these new methods. And, um, uh, not, not for elephants per se, but just in general to, um, I’m always been trying to, uh, get as much information from wildlife about their physiology and their genetics with, without touching them at all. Um, and so I focus on their scat, their feces.

And, um, in the mid eighties, I developed ways to get stress and reproductive nutrition hormones from feces. And then I realized, Oh, that’s the most accessible animal product there is. I’ve got this gold mine here. And then I thought if we could only get DNA out of the samples that would make all the difference in the world. And by 1997, we had cracked that nut. And, and essentially at that point, uh, you know, I had been working in doing my PhD work in Southern Tanzania starting in 1979 in the most poached area in Africa. And I worked there until 2000 through the, you know, two massive waves of poaching. And, um, it, you know, I kept thinking, you know, baboons are a really interesting animal to study, but they’re, they’re kind of ermine and I was very conservation oriented and working on foot and running across poachers and, and you know, carcasses all the time and seeing how amazing these elephants were.

And I just kept thinking that we’ve got to figure out a plan here. And, and when, you know, almost immediately when we got DNA from the dung, I thought, okay, I can map where ivory is being poached because you know, elephant dung sample weighs like 25 pounds. So it’s easy to spot. And we were able, and by that time I had been working for a long time in Africa, I had lots of connections and I just sent the word out and say, bring me your shit essentially. And, and essentially we were able to create a DNA map of elephants for across the whole continent of Africa. And we were able to then, since we knew where every sample came from, we could actually see, well how good are we at using this information to identify the origin of a, of an ivory tusk. And so, you know, you know, basically the way that this works is that, uh, you know, populations, even us, we’re always experiencing mutations and they accumulate over time and populations that are separated.

The farther part they’re separated, the, the less mixing between the, the populations and the more genetically unique those mutations, uh, make them, uh, once we had gotten this map, we could see, well how good are we at at using the DNA to tell where they came from. So we would take all the samples from a location, we’d take half of them out of our genetic map and then we would, you know, recreate the, the maps used to make gene frequencies for each population. And then we would take the other half and we would use those genotypes and put it into our statistical program. We developed and say, how close to the actual origin did we get? And we showed that we could get a sample from an elephant from anywhere in Africa to within 180 miles of where it came from. So when you consider you can put five United States and Africa, that’s pretty damn precise.

And so now we knew we had a great tool and uh, the other hitch was to be able to get DNA out of ivory. And it was just a couple of years later that we also crack that nut. And, and um, it was kind of fun because I love collaborating with people and that’s part of why I love being at the universities. There’s some buddy, you know, anything you need, there’s somebody here doing it. And I went to the dental school and I went to the social Dean and I said, Hey, do you know anybody getting DNA out of teeth? He goes, yeah, there’s this guy up in British Columbia. I was doing it and I wrote him and we were able to modify the method for ivory. Then we, we essentially could, uh, get the genotype from a test and compare it to our DNA map. And we could tell where the Tufts came from.

Why does that help in the end to try to save elephants? Poaching is going on all over Africa. And so if you’re just kind of spreading your resources thin, trying to figure it out, that’s a problem. If we could figure out how you know is, are there places that are more poached than others? That’s very important. And especially we want to know where do these major transnational criminals moving large volumes of ivory, where are they getting all their stuff from? So 70% of all ivory, that seized by government authorities is in shipments of a minimum of a half a ton of ivory between two to 500 toss. It depends on the size. Of course, as the tusk gets smaller, it’s more dust. But, but the point is is that is that they were moved in these big shipments and so we have always restricted our work to ivory seizures that are a minimum of a half a ton.

So these are seizures that are worth at least $1 million. They are massive. So it means they’re pulling out lots of Tufts doing lots of damage. And these are from traffickers who could afford to lose $1 million at a single pop. Who are the international cartel criminals at this point? Well, many of them are the same. Criminal cartels move in all kinds of other contraband people, narcotics, you know, people specialize, but they also dip into other forms of contraband. But they’re also investors. So if there is, um, um, conservative, the estimate that there’s, um, uh, 10% of the ivory that’s seized, uh, uh, 10% of the Ivy that’s smuggled gets seized and there’s 40 tons of ivory seized each year. So that means there’s 400 tons of ivory moving each year. So if you look at what’s ending up in the shops and the people buying these little necklaces and braces bracelets, that’s, that’s not 400 tons a year worth of ivory.

These investors are buying big Tufts and they’re stockpiling them, we believe, and they’re hoping for elephant extinction so that they can then sell this ivory as an investment like gold. It’s pathetic. There’s another element to this that that shows how difficult this is. So most of this ivory that I’m talking about in art is containerized. It’s moved on shipping containers and big ships. And there are 1 billion containers moving around the world each year right now. And so if you are a transnational criminal, all you gotta do is get your contraband into container, get it past customs. So you just got to pay off one, one or two people, and then you’re virtually assured that it’s going to make it to its final destination. Because even in the U S we can inspect about 2% of the containers that pass through at the most. I mean, you imagine a place like Singapore where 35 million containers pass through each year, how many of them, and they get lots of ivory seizures.

How many of you think they’re getting relative to what’s actually moving through there? So we wanted to develop a way to, to fix that problem. And then what we wanted to do was to figure, can we get the ivory before it gets into transit? Can we prevent it from getting into trans? So when we started looking at these big seizures and figuring out where were they coming from, we quickly had major breakthroughs. The first thing that we found was that, um, virtually all the ivory in these large seizures were coming from just two places. 78% of the ivory is coming from uh, Tanzania going from Northern Mozambique at its Southern border through Tanzania up into, uh, Southern Kenya. But really Tanzania was the focus. They had the biggest protected areas and the most elephants. So 78% of the elephants from that area. And then forest elephants, the other species of African elephants, a 22% of the remain of the seizures was forced elephants as opposed to 78 Savannah.

And that was all coming from an area we call the Triton, which is Northeast Gabon, Northwest Republican Congo, and Southeast Cameroon. That’s the last stronghold of forest elephants. The forest elephants had been virtually annihilated. They, 95% of the elephants have been killed in the last 50 years. There, their tests are more valuable because there are a lot denser. And the problem with the forest elephant also for their recovery is they don’t have their first birth until they’re 23 years old, whereas a Savanna often has it a 12. So it takes a long time to recover from that loss. So the first big finding was that people thought that when they were, when, when these traffickers were moving these big quantities of ivory, that they were cherry picking across Africa, pulling Irish from all these different places to get enough for a big Shipman and moving it out.

We showed that’s not what’s happening. They keep going back to the same place over and over again, poaching repeatedly. And, and we eventually show that there are these criteria that we, we call hotspots, poaching hotspots. So I mentioned there’s really two major ones in Africa and what makes a hotspot, it’s gotta be a very big protected area. Um, and, and, um, the, it’s got to have lots of elephants so you can go back and poach there repeatedly and it’s big enough so that the Rangers can’t find you. So having those kinds of features is really important. So Southern Tanzania, which was the largest protected area in Africa, SA the solu game reserve where, where hunt went population went from 100,000 elephants to 12,000 elephants in like a 10 year period. Um, is an example of that. And then, you know, these poachers are only have as much ivory as they can carry.

And so how does it get from the poacher to these guys that are moving multiple tons of ivory out? And one of the other things that we found very quickly, so not only did we find that they were, um, poaching the same areas over and over again, and that those areas are very, very slow to change because as I said, for the past decade, those hotspots didn’t change. Um, we also showed that in almost every case where the ivory was exported in multiple tons was always in a different country from where the ivory was poached. It was a neighboring country. They’d move it up to there as kind of a risk reduction strategy, consolidated it and move it out. So we were able to show that there’s kind of this loose pyramid that goes on where you’ve got the trafficker at the port that’s moving this stuff out, the big guy.

And then he’s got these people that he pays that essentially are going down and they’re collecting the ivory from these middlemen who are then going and buying the Ivy from the poacher, you know, and essentially moving it from this broad pyramid of all these different poachers and consolidating it to the neighboring country before they move it out of the country. What’s the most effective or hopeful strategy to break that chain? So here’s what happened, even though they’re storing this for their hope for extinction of the creatures. So that’s the great question. And that was our next finding. You know, when you’re analyzing these ivory seizures, um, it costs about $110 to genotype, fully genotype a tusk. So to do, um, a big seizure of 200, two of 2000 tests at 110 each, obviously you would go broke very quickly. So we had to develop a way to representatively sample those, the tests.

In a seizure. And one of the first things that we do was we is, I developed a way to visually identify the two tests from the same elephant. It’s a pretty straightforward method that we developed so that anyone could do it. And when we were analyzing, you know, pull sampling these tests, um, um, for these large ivory seizures, I noticed that over half of the tusks in these seizures did not have a pair. You know, the other tusk from the same elephant was gone. And I thought, well, where is that? I realized by this time we had about 45 large ivory seizures in our lab that were fully genotyped. And I thought, well, I wonder if they’re in any of the other seizures that we have. And bam, like within a couple of hours we had the result and we found lots of matches, you know, of the, you know, the two Tufts from the same elephant in separate seizures.

And every single case, those two shipments went out of the same port close in time. And when we looked at where the origin of those ivory came from, from our genotyping, we found that they always were coming from the same place. So that loose pyramid I was describing, you know, essentially this big guy is pulling this ivory out continuously and between the time the poachers get the ivory and it gets up to the export, the two tusks get separated very often. And because there’s this one big kingpin, they still end up in his coffer. It’s just they arrive at different times and he ships them out in separate shipments often. And so by linking those shipments together and then linking other shipments together, similarly like links in a chain, we were able to pull out the three biggest ivory cartels working in Africa. And the biggest one we got convicted to 20 years in prison.

This big guy who I’m talking about, his name was Faisal Mohammed Ali, and we connected them to over 11 ivory seizures. So he goes to prison. Yeah. And then two years later he gets acquitted by a, uh, um, presumably corrupt magistrate. But there were all these irregularities in the trial. So he’s one guy, there’s two, three others, big guys, and you got him in prison and then he gets out. Have you slowed the, the slaughter at all by, through these efforts? There’s somebody else just come in and take over. This slider has been slowed, but, but it’s kind of like a whack-a-mole. One of the big things that eventually has happened was, um, we definitely slowed the slaughter in East Africa where the lion’s share of poaching had been occurring. Um, and that’s only as of the last year or two. Um, you know, we’ve been doing this for over well over a decade now.

This slaughter in, uh, central Africa has not changed. Um, if anything, it’s increased. One of the things that our most recent work has shown is that the poaching is moving South into Botswana. The area of, uh, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia that, you know, connecting countries, um, has 230,000 elephants. There’s 400,000 left in Africa. Um, most of those places that had been fenced and they have artificial waterhole. So you had an artificial growth of those populations. And now we’ve shown for the first time that that hotspot is starting to shift South. What’s that telling you about the ability not to be playing? Why whack them all over time? The way this work goes, like any type of sciences that you know, you think you’re making a big difference and then you go, why didn’t it make a bigger difference than I expected? You know, when we first identified the poaching hotspots, I thought, Oh all the country now needs to do is just go to those areas and get them.

Well, you know, these are big areas. These poachers are hard to find. Um, you get one poacher out and when you catch a poacher, he’s only got at most 10 tests with them. Cause you know, that’s all the group with them can carry. I mean you can carry to Tufts if you’re a person, you know, maybe three or four but, but not many. Then there’s all these other poachers waiting to take their place and they often get their bail covered and then they split. So it’s just an endless game. Um, so that was one of the big problems. And then finding these guys and, and, and dealing with the corruption. Cause these are big powerful people. They’re, they’re multi-millionaires in places where there’s not a lot of money and it’s easy to pay people off. It doesn’t take much money to pay someone off. When we started to connect these networks, not only did we see that individual cartels were moving multiple shipments, we also showed that they were different cartels were connected.

And so who’s driving that? Is there some bigger guy yet that’s kind of getting them to work together? Well, yeah, and that’s where we are moving. Now I should mention that our primary collaborator in this work is the, uh, department of Homeland security. Oh really? So we work with, um, the, um, the environmental crime division of Homeland security, um, in their Homeland security investigations is the name of that network. We collaborate very, very closely. They’ve got over 250 agents, uh, around the world, 600 agents total. And those agents working around the world are very focused on transnational criminal organizations. And one of the things that, that when we develop these matching techniques to connecting these, these shipments to multiple, um, criminal networks that really got Homeland security excited because one of the most powerful tools that they have is, is financial crime investigations. And this is a really, really powerful tool in any of these countries.

It becomes a major crime and Homeland security has unique authority to, to um, go into bank records and to, to explore as long as their criminal can be suspect to a broken us law. Well, what does it take to break the U S law? You just have to operate in us currency one time and then you broke us loft to move an illegal shipment. It doesn’t matter where it happened and most criminals operate in us currency. So means that, that what, what are kind of marriage has done is that we taking advantage of these, this population differentiation and our ability to track it and, and, and we can look at how all this ivory is actually moving and where did it start? Where did it go through, where did it end up? And so that, and how many connections are there? All of those are roots to be explored by financial crime investigations.

And so we are going back and we’re building this this more, more carefully. There’s one more piece. Well, this individual sample matching was a very powerful tool and still is a very powerful tool because you, you, you know that those two tests were poached at the same time, the same animal, it came from the same protected area. One of the problems as I mentioned, because the stuff that work is very expensive. We are only sampling about 20 to 30% of the Tufts on average out of any shipment. So that means that the probability of my getting both tests from the same animal in two separate seizures is about 20% of 20% or 30% of 30% so where’s between four and 9% chance? So a lot of these matches I miss well, it then occurred to me, I started working, I, I work very closely with people in a department of bio statistics here and one of them, Bruce, where’s an expert in familial matching. So familial matching, you know, has recently been, um, they cut, well I think one of the mass murder or recently doing familial matching. Um, and we started developing these familial matching techniques for our ivory, realizing that very close relatives, females in particular, you know, stay in their family group for life. So now we’re matching tusks between parents and offspring, full siblings and half siblings that are found in separate shipments and it allows us many more opportunities to get a match. And the connectivity that we have shown in these networks is mind boggling.

There is one guy or a few guys at the top with lots of money who are controlling this. The idea being what? That at some point you can get those people break those cartels and maybe then the whole system crumbles. Yeah.

By financial crime investigations is going to be the most likely tool. And that’s really what we are. We’re putting all our eggs in that basket right now. But the science is driving, you know, because we’re getting all the networks sure. That there’s lots of forensic evidence. So you can see this poster on my wall and each one of those little post-its is some other forensic evidence. Oh, same shipper move this tusk, a same cell phone was used. What, what have you. Um, so there’s lots of those little post-its, but those are, um, kind of death by a thousand cuts kind of thing. When you get them genetic match, that’s a solid connection. And then all of those other forensic bits of evidence become much more

assured. Do you know who the top people are? Do you guys already have suspects or even individuals?

Yeah, absolutely. I, well this is getting beyond my area, but my colleagues absolutely do know who they are. I know them too, but I, I, um,

so the idea is that we break these, these cartels, we get these people in prison. Yeah. And, and so this is where we started. Is that what makes you have the will to hope that you’re on a path?

Exactly. That is exactly what does that, you know, and, and th there’s, um, a really interesting thing that, that, um, we’ve, we’ve just now found, um, is that so when Faisal was put in jail, um, not to, you know, around the same time there was another major ivory traffic or put away to her name was the queen of ivory. It was, she was all over the press. And um, she was kinda working in Tanzania getting the stuff up to Faisal and others. Um, and when both of them were put in jail around the same time, all of a sudden we started to see a new modus operandi happening. One of the things that started happening was we started to see ivory seizures that were in Howard out teak logs. The tusks were cut into sections, put in the logs and embedded in wax and then cover it up.

And you could not tell this at all and then shipped out. So we’re getting the entire ecology devastated at one time. Two fours and the elephants. Yeah. And a lot of people don’t realize, I mean, just to put this in perspective, transnational crimes right now are worth about a little over two and a half trillion dollars a year. The wildlife trade is worth about $20 billion a year. I’ve reached probably 4 billion of that, but then there is illegal, unregulated, unreported fisheries that’s $30 billion a year. And then there’s the illegal timber trade, which is 50 to $150 billion a year. All the habitat these animals are coming from. We’re talking $200 billion right there for, for living organisms that are part of this trade. This is, this is not small potatoes here. And not only that, you get convergence. So this guy Feisal, when we started making these connections, it turned out the DEA had been working to catch these major heroin and meth, um, traffickers operating in Mombasa.

They’re monitoring their cell phones and all of a sudden they start bragging about moving ivory too. And it turns out that Pfizer was part of their network and they actually went and they used all these connections that we made because you can’t track the heroin and meth, but you can track the ivory because it’s a natural population. And we essentially laid out a whole map for them and they use that as part of their evidence to IX. X did I the Akasha brothers that were driving this to the United States, they’re now in the same prison as El Chapo, right down the hall. And in fact, the way we knew figured out that that judge that got Feisal, um, acquitted was likely corrupt because the Akasha brothers, when they did a plea deal when they were in the United States to try to reduce their sentence and they listed all the magistrates they paid off to prevent them from getting extradited.

And one of them I noticed was that magistrate that acquitted Feisal. So what do you think about this work? This is energizing. Keeps you going, but that’s a huge tidal wave that you’re trying to push back at. It’s, yeah, it’s very exciting, very stressful. And, um, you know, and you know, to be honest, the, the hardest thing is keeping it funded. And the reason that I say this is that, you know, imagine, I mean, if you look on this map, so I’ve got, um, ivory seizures from Uganda, from United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Malawi, Malaysia, Hong Kong. I may have said that. Togo, um, and then others from South Sudan, we’ve done over 65 large seizures. I’ve never asked a country to pay a dime for those analyses because if you ask them, they won’t give it to you. So we have to raise the money to pay for these seizures before they happen, so that when a seizure is made, I can just go send it to me.

We’ll do it for free. Who, who are you raising money from? The other other international agencies that funded. So we’ve gotten money from a variety of sources over the years. Um, the us department of state has funded us. Um, we get, uh, we have gotten a lot of money from Paul Allen foundation in the past. Um, we have private donors here. Um, um, the Moritz family foundation has been a huge supporter of our work. Um, UN office on drugs and crime has supported us world bank, the global environment fund UMDP but you know, they’re all kind of, you know, a little bit here, a little bit there, sometimes a big bit here, but it’s, it’s always one year at a time. And so we are constantly trying to, to make sure that, that we have the money to do this work and the more successful we get, the more seizures we have.

So right now, just, just like, you know, as of today, I have 12 seizures in the next year that I’m going to go get, you know, next month I’m going to Vietnam and Singapore and Thailand and, and then we’ve got them in Mozambique and Kenya and, and so that’s, you know, these are materials that have already been seized. Now you’re going to do the forensics on it, we’re going to go get the samples and then do the analysis. And it’s each one of those is $25,000. So times 12, all of a sudden it’s a lot of money. Or you mentioned that these are financial crimes, department of Homeland security, the federal government puts some money into it. I mean, is the federal government helping to fund these? Absolutely. They help. But you know, things are complicated right now to say the least. And so, so for example, you know, nobody’s getting their budgets right now because they’re a little distracted.

Um, and, and even so the way these kinds of things work, they, you know, if you’re working with law enforcement agencies, they, they’re not, they don’t give you a bunch of money to do it. They’ve got a case, so they pay for that seizure. So the timing has to work right. So it’s not so good for us to have the money ahead of time when we get money from the us department of state. So, so the, um, it’s called INL, the Bureau of international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. They were a really important funder for us, you know, gave us assurances that we could have, you know, that, that we could do these shipments, um, as they came in. And, um, the Allen foundation similar, but there’s no guarantee funding will continue. And, and so, uh, you know, we’re always looking for who are your allies in Congress?

Who are, are your allies in the Trump administration that they’re trying to get some of this work done? You know, actually, we, we, we have allies that both sides of the Isles. Last year I got the Albert Schweitzer award presented by Maria Cantwell and, um, uh, Pramila J appall also gave me an award at that ceremony. Uh, Senator Chris Coons was there. Um, he’s been supportive, believe it or not. Uh, Don young from a representative from Alaska has been a major supporter of our work. Um, and norm Dixon when he was in office, um, uh, Susan Dell, Ben a, lots of them

still flabbergasted by the notion that, that the poaching is being done by people who want to see these animals disappear because then their ivory will be like gold. That’s sort of mind boggling and horrific. Does that also mean that they’re more than happy to see seized elephant tusks burned because it just gives the, what they have stockpiled higher value?

Um, I don’t know about the last part, but you know, I, I don’t think that they like seeing this ivory burn. They would much rather own it. And, and, and one of the things that also we are able to do is to see how often is ivory actual smuggled out of government stock PBIS. Cause that’s a whole other can of worms here. You know, when, when, um, you know, there’s all this debate, should we have legalized ivory sales too? Is that a way to save the elephants or should we ban all ivory sales in there? You know, that debate in itself has done more damage to our ability to police the IB trade than any other thing I can think of because it’s so polarized nations and, and you know, nongovernment organizations, you know, and, and, and, um, you know, there, there are two logical arguments, although I would say they’re, one is more logical than the other, but, but, but basically the argument being that the best way to save elephants is to flood the market with ivory and the price will go down and it’ll create less incentive for these guys to poach.

Well, that doesn’t make a lot of sense simply because when you start to get wind that that’s going to happen, that these guys are going to go out and they’re going to grab every last test they can and try to move it as fast as they can. So it’s gonna create a massacre. Um, and also we know that, you know, there’ve been all these statistical models showing you can’t, it can’t provide the demand. It can’t meet the demand that is there. So the better way is to have a complete ban across the board. But then you, it gets complicated. I mean, imagine a place like Botswana, so they’ve got 130,000 elephants and their previous president was very, very conservation oriented. They had a no kill policy. So, so you, you couldn’t, uh, for, for wildlife, you couldn’t, you know, no hunting in Botswana despite the biggest population.

Then in Africa, um, shoot to kill policy for poachers. And then they got a new president who completely shifted that all of a sudden wanted to open up the, the, the country to hunting. He was talking about using the carcass meat to make dog food and, and you would think, Oh, well this is a bad guy. Well, he’s not a bad guy. W what happened is he’s under so much pressure for human wildlife conflict that, you know, he thought, Oh, well this is another way. And, and you know, and then the, the former president, the current president, we’re really in strife about this. And that just kinda made everybody dig in more and get more polarized. And you know, now starting to kind of come together a little bit more and, and, and realizing the magnitude of the problem. But you know, these kinds of things, I mean, this happens all of the world. It’s the Democrats and the Republicans, you know, I mean, look at how stupid things are right now and, and how unbelievable Dugin people are and, and, and the things that they’re saying, you think they can’t possibly believe that, but it’s happening. And these are our senators and we’re talking about here,

these arguments just take our eye off the goal, which is to save these last wild creatures. I see, I see. Again, it seems like you have to be willful to be hopeful because there’s just so much, so many pressures, real human pressures.

You bet. And, and so you could ask the same thing about the drug trade. I mean, how long have you been policing that and here to look, we see these pharmaceutical companies that are now the major criminals. I mean, it’s crazy. It’s crazy. But we have to keep going because of the damage that this is causing. The what, what gives me the most hope about, about, you know, looking at the, um, the animal component of this illegal transnational crimes is that it’s for the first time we have something that is highly traceable and that it had, because of convergence with other crimes, it’s something that is a tool that can support other types of criminal investigations make raise the priority for this, give us more, um, support to, to address this problem. You know, these tools that I’ve been describing, these are all brand spanking new and we’re making big progress.

So yeah, we don’t solve this problem overnight, but I’m confident we’re going to nail it. Yeah, I am confident we’re going to nail it. And you know, we may not wipe the whole thing out, but we are going to get some really big guys. I mean these [inaudible], you know, these poachers could not be operating for so long if they did not have a buyer, especially the buyer. They’re not that well protected. I mean, these, they, they’re, they’re, they’re like, they could, these big traffickers could care less. They care about as much for the poachers, they care about an elephant. The fact that you can go and to the same area and poach it over and over again for over a decade is only gonna happen if you’ve got a reliable, consistent buyer. And that’s what we have here. Right?

So not a reliable and consistent market. Not somebody in China who wants to buy a small carved ivory pendant or in Alaska or in America. People say, well, we have to stop the, we have to stop the desire for the product and that’ll stop the market. No,

yes and no. You have to have the manned or, or it doesn’t work. Um, you know, but so, so first of all, there is no question you have to do both. You have to stop the man or you will be doing this forever. You can’t solve the problem immediate, the urgent problem by dealing with demand because it’s too slow. It’s just too slow. And so you really got to have law enforcement. And the problem is, is that some people get focused on all the, the demand side and they lose sight of the other side. And, and, you know, we’re trying to bring that back and say, no, no, we need to turn this around. You need to do both. It was a huge deal when the ivory ban happened in 1989 the international ivory band by Saudis. Um, it was a huge deal when president Obama banned ivory sales in the United States along with the president of China.

But, but it’s not so simple because, you know, why then did Washington state have to do their own ivory band? Well, the reason this is that you’ve got an international band says you can’t move across, um, international borders. It’s illegal, but once it’s in the country, you can sell it. So, so then Obama did the ban against the United States to prevent it from coming into the United States. It made it illegal. But then once it’s in a state, if a state has illegal ivory, you can still sell it. So each state has to do their own law. Just to put it in perspective, it’s kind of ridiculous. And then it’s fueled by this polarization. Oh, what’s the best strategy? And so, so there’s not movement because you, you know, the city’s meeting, which is supposed to make these big decisions on what happens to this, to the wildlife trade and you know, is should we sell ivory or not and, and how are we going to attack this problem? And they spend, you know, it’s every three years is the major cities meeting and it’s two weeks long. And usually a week of it is just talking about ivory and what are we gonna do? And it’s all back and forth debating and nothing happens and nothing gets done. This is crazy.

Well, or it, it fits perfectly into the plans of those people who want to keep the trade operating. I mean, that’s the argument for why Russia does what it does in terms of politics. Chaos is helpful to those people who exploit chaos.

So you just kind of figured out ways around and, and you know, hopefully we’re, we’re onto something that’s gonna work. Um,

there must be people who say to you, this is all important in the short term, we got to do this, but climate change is going to change everything so much that, uh, we should be concentrating there, but let’s not do that debate. Cause that’s back to what you’re just talking about. But when you’re sitting, you

know, see the thing, you know, what about AIDS? What about all the things that we care about? People not climate, I don’t care. You know, I mean, the, the, the bittersweet part is there’s so many people in the world and that’s part of the problem. But there’s also so much diversity that there’s someone who, who will pick a mission of importance and follow it. And we got to let all of them chase their dreams so that, that, you know, we can address all of these problems concurrently, you know, to climate change is, is, you know, talk about something that’s slow to fix. You know, I mean, even, you know, a, you know, it’s just, it’s enough to get people to believe that there’s really a problem. But then the fixes and all the things that people have to give up to make that fix in their willingness, you know, it’s crazy.

Yeah. Coming back from Costa Rica was funny. I, you know, made me think of, think of the similar thing. So you know, we landed and they said, you know, there’s four people on the flight that to get go to Alaska, they’re going to miss their flight. Can you all please sit still so they can walk off? And they went back to playing. They stood up and then within like 30 seconds, the whole front of the plane stood up and started. They couldn’t get off. And I was like, Oh my God, you know, you can’t even make that sacrifice. And you know, no wonder we can’t solve climate change is anyways,

I know you’re going to tell me there’s room for everything and we need all these solutions. But I mean, you go to some of these foundations and some of these groups and they say, yeah, we’re going to contribute, but glad that you could trace their money back to some pretty interesting sources. I mean we are, it’s so convoluted. It’s so complex.

Yeah. I mean it is, but, but, but what are you going to do? Are we gonna stop fighting cancer because of climate change and we can stop fighting AIDS because of cancer? Or are we going to stop you? You know, I, uh, stop animal cruelty or racism or, you know, I mean, you know, there, there’s just, there’s just so many different things, but you know, the people thank God or, or whoever are, are working to, you know, th th th th they’re taking on each of those missions and they’re doing their their best. And that’s all we can do. I mean, the real thing we need to do is stop having so many damn babies and just, you know, re, you know, deal with our population size and how many resources we are each taking ourselves and shut off your lights and turn the water off when you brush your teeth and you know, and quit buying so much plastic.

And you know, these are all individual things that people can do. And, but yet, you know, you’re dealing with the problem of, Oh well let’s just me, I’m just one of the billions of people how I can stand up. It’ll be okay if I stand up in the airplane. Yeah, yeah. It’s just, and you know, that’s the problem. That’s like, you know, when I see that, that’s just what I think about it. It’s like, Oh my God, you can’t even let these people off the plane. How are we going to fix these big problems? And it’s because you need people with passion that, that really, you know, are willing to do what it takes.

You’ve been doing this a long time, I guess you’re going to keep doing it for a long time, but are there people that you’ve trained or people in other labs that are younger people that are picking up the mantle of these tools and this work

I’m working on that I’m training graduate students to do this work is quite stressful for them.

Talking about emotional stress, right? You’re talking about that this is painful work.

Yeah, hugely, hugely. Just, Hey, I’ll give you an example. I go in, I do a seizure. Um, I just did one in Singapore, that 1800 tests, 60% of the tusks were about as thick as my thumb. So young creatures, and I’m looking at that going, Oh my God, you know, they’re, they’re just, you know, these guys, there’s barely enough IB here for anything of value. Um, so that’s, there’s, that’s one element. Then you see, you know, you get this guy convicted and he gets off because of, you know, all these different, you know, irregularities that were, you know, things, evidence stolen and just, and then you get, you know, lots of good people working carpet, but it just takes, you know, a couple of people in the right place to pay off and you’ve lost everything. You know, the, the one thing I will say is that, um, I love working at this university because this university is so supportive of this work at all the way up to the president of the university. And I feel like I’m in a place where, where I can do what I need to do and I can escape from all the bullshit. And not only that, when I need a collaborator to help me with something, they’re are here cause this is a big, incredible university and it works. And so, so I think, you know, would I, you know, should I be in an NGO? Should I be income? This is, this is the place to do this work.

All right. Okay. So then in the end, still you get the pleasure and the passion from seeing these living creatures.

Yeah, I mean, I, I, I’ve been, I started working in Africa when I was 19 so I, you know, been going back there ever since. And I, I love it. I love animals, I love wildlife and I love figuring out how they came to be the way they are. So yeah. And it’s just really fun to be able to turn that on their head on its head and use that to solve these crimes that are killing them.

Well, that’s, that’s a cool thing. All right, sir. Thank you for taking the time. Dr Samuel Wasser is the director of the center for conservation biology and holds the endowed chair in conservation biology at the university of Washington. He and wildlife photographer art Wolf will discuss the fate of wild elephants and what we can all do to help preserve them in the wild on Wednesday, January 29th at 7:30 PM there are still some tickets available if you’d like to join in the conversation and we’ll also be filming the event so you can watch it on our town hall Seattle YouTube channel. Thank you for listening to episode 51 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 majority of the programs that happen on our town hall stages on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts. Just search town hall, Seattle, wherever you listen to your podcasts and subscribe to support town hall, become a member or see our calendar of events. Check out our website at town hall, next week on in the moment, our correspondent Elizabeth Ralston is talking with Bob Redmond and and the clay about the importance of our microbiome. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment. [inaudible].



In The Moment: Episode 50

In this week’s interview, former Town Hall Artist-In-Residence Erik Molano talks with Peggy Orenstein about the fraught emotional landscape and difficulties faced by modern adolescent boys. Orenstein outlines the harm our society does to teenage boys by pressuring them to suppress their emotions, cultivate aggression and dominance, and glorify sexual conquest. Molano and Orenstein delve into the complications of pornography, and how the images and narratives it presents are skewing young men’s understanding of sex and teaching them to model relationships that are unhealthy and emotionally toxic. Orenstein calls for a collective cultural shift to help young men break down these social constructs and reconnect with sensitivity, emotion, and healthy sexuality. 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

Hello and welcome to in the moment a Townhall Seattle podcast where we talk with folks coming to town hall and give you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. We’re already into our third week of January, 2020 and MLK day is around the corner. We have a few events in celebration of the holiday including an annual Martin Luther King jr celebration on the 16th and ascribe called ques talking with Nikkita Oliver about dismantling our colonial legacy on the 17th you can find out more about these events and many more on our calendar at town hall, how do we treat young boys differently than girls and how do these entrenched gender norms affect the landscape of men’s emotions and relationships? On January 23rd and New York times bestselling author Peggy Orenstein is talking to a sold out crowd in our forum about her new book, boys and sex, young men on hookups, love porn, consent, and navigating the new masculinity or correspondent for this episode. Eric Milano is the founder and creator of photon factory, a Seattle based design studio and community space. As a former town hall artist and resident, he curated an event about toxic masculinity back in 2018 and has been involved in organizing local male centered events with missions related to consent and supporting the rise of a new masculinity as wholehearted men. A warning that there is some strong language used during this interview.

In your book you mentioned how neurologically there really isn’t that much difference emotionally between infant boys and infant girls. But how do adults treat infant boys differently than they do, let’s say with infant girls?

Yeah, you’re absolutely right. There is no kind of innate, um, difference in capacity for empathy or any for emotion. There’s even some evidence that, um, infant boys are, uh, kind of the more emotional sex, but from the get go, um, boys grow up in an impoverished emotional landscape compared to girls. So there’s a classic study where, um, uh, adults are shown a video of an infant that’s surprised by a Jack in the box. And if they’re told beforehand that the child is male, they think that the child’s reaction is anger and not surprise, not frustration, not fear gotta be anchor. And mothers of young children have repeatedly in research been found to talk more to their daughters and to employ a broader, richer, emotional vocabulary, um, than they do with their sons. And again, with their sons, they focus primarily on one emotion, anger. So there’s this kind of immediate funnel of a whole bucket of emotions, of human emotions, um, that, that are funneled into this one. Um, emotional of anger for boys that they learned that that’s going to be their go to happiness. They also get happiness.

Yeah, that’s really fascinating. Sounds it sounds almost like the parents are projecting onto their children soon after they’re born.

Well, we socialize our babies from birth right. And our ideas about, um, gender and gender performance and um, what boys are, what girls are, how they should behave. You know, we, we all carry those two, um, and into our parenting and especially if we don’t, you know, do a lot of work to examine them. And even if we do do a lot of words or examine them, we still carry them into our parenting. So I really want him with boys and sex to be able to, um, you know, it’s mostly about teenage boys, but really kind of look at, uh, how the culture and parents and media and all these different forces peers, um, play into boys socialization and create this idea of masculinity as well as then, um, how that affects their personal relationships and the people that have those relationships with.

Yeah, definitely in boys and sex. You mentioned the man box, um, that they are, the boys are taught to disconnect from feelings, shun intimacy and become more hierarchical in their behavior. Can you talk more about the man box or this idea of what men are supposed to be?

Yeah, it was really interesting when I was talking to teenage boys, you know, on one hand they, you know, a lot of change for them. They saw girls as equals in the classroom or equals, you know, in leadership or um, in, you know, worthy of their place on the playing field. All of that. They have female friends, they had gay male friends. Um, they may have trans friends even, but, uh, but when I would ask them, what’s the ideal guy, you know, then it was like they were channeling 1955 and they would say, you know, athleticism, um, being dominant, being aggressive, uh, and sexual conquest. And the big one was stoicism, you know, emotional suppression and guys would talk to me about having learned to have built the learn to build a wall inside of them. Uh, taught them to train themselves, not to feel or train themselves, not to cry.

One boy said that he couldn’t cry. Um, so he had trained himself not to cry. So when his parents got divorced, he streamed three Holocaust movies back to back. And you know, that that did the trick. Um, but, uh, but, but what I felt was at the very heart of this book, at the very heart of boys and sex is boys wrestling with not just the parameters of the man box. Yes. Um, and that’s not my phrase, but, um, but also with vulnerability in this really fundamental and what it meant to be emotionally vulnerable and the temp brew against the vulnerability. And denying it and um, deflecting it and rejecting it and embracing it. And I could think of, you know, human emotional vulnerability is a fundamental aspect of being human. And even beyond that, no Bernay Brown calls it the secret sauce to attaining and sustaining relationships. So when we cut boys off from their ability to be vulnerable, when we tell them it’s not allowed to them, you know, we’re really hurting their ability to have the kind of mutually gratifying relationships that we want them to be able to have as adults. And that’s harmful to them and it’s harmful to the people that they partner with.

Yeah. I wonder how do you have a relationship without a strong sense of empathy or vulnerability? Um, so how does that play out in their relationships based on some of the interviews that you conducted?

Well, I think you really see that had kind of the heart of hookup called culture, um, which is pretty prevalent on college campuses and increase along high school. And you know, hookup itself is kind of a meaningless word. It can mean kissing. It can mean groping. It can mean intercourse. It can be in groups of here, no idea what somebody is saying when they say hookup. But hookup culture is the idea that um, physical contact, some kind of sexual contact is supposed to precede intimacy. Um, rather than be the product of emotional intimacy. And that culture prioritizes, you know, sort of disconnection and um, lack of communication and lack of connection. So as one guy said to me, you know, it’s weird and hookup because you feel like it’s two people having two very distinct experiences and you know, there’s not a lot of eye contact, there’s not a lot of um, communication. And he said, it’s like you’re acting vulnerable but you’re not supposed to be vulnerable, which is kind of odd and not really very fun.

Right? So now we’re going into high school. So, uh, in childhood boys start to learn, as you mentioned, um, sort of the gender performance, what it means to be a man. We hear things like boys don’t cry, uh, or man up, toughen up, suck it up. Uh, things that encourage us to push past feeling our emotions. Um, and so we move into high school, emotionally detached, and you start seeing hookup culture, uh, as you mentioned, which is a big part of this book. Um, one thing I found fascinating was, uh, sex, not so much for the pleasure or the emotional connection, but you mentioned more in boys and sex about a vehicle for social status. Can you talk more about that?

Yeah. I mean, so much of hookup culture is about not about the connection that you’re making with the person you’re with, but the invisible audience in the room, um, and real seat, you know, often see it this way too. This is not exclusive to boys, but it plays into the way boys are socialized and sort of entropy advantage in boys. Even though a lot of boys that I met, um, felt ambivalent about it or you’ll serve by it. There was that sense as boys is, as one boy said to me, you know, it’s, it’s competitive. It’s, um, an accomplishment. Um, it’s something, you know, you’re, you’re out to impress your guys. And as one boy said, you know, if you to do that, you’re going to be a little aggressive. You’re going to push because the girl is there as a vehicle for you to get off and to use to Brugge.

And when you kind of go into the locker room culture with boys that we’ve been talking about for the last few years, um, the language that they use around sex is kind of weaponized languages. You hammer, you bang, you pound, you now you hit that, you tap that you pipe, you know, whatever. But it sounds like they’d been to a construction site, you know, not like they’re engaging in an accurate intimacy. And I would find the boys, you know, as we were saying, there’s the wall, right? So there’s what they really feel a lot of times, which is not comfortable with that and what they think they’re supposed to feel, which is that everybody else is expecting that of them. And then then the reality of what happens when you try to push back against it. So one of the guys that I was talking to whose name was Cole, um, he and a friend, um, you know, said something when, when an older boy in high school boy, um, was saying something, you know, gross about some girl and they other boys made fun of them.

And so the next time somebody said something cool, said he stayed silent and the other boy kept saying something and he said as he watched his friend step up and as he stepped back, you know, he, he saw that this other board that guys weren’t listening to him, they didn’t really want to be friends with them anymore. That he was, you know, marginalize that he lost his social capital and Cole said, but I still had buckets of it and I wasn’t spending it. And you know, I don’t know what to do because I don’t want to have to choose between like dignity and these guys, but how do I make it so I don’t have to choose? And I really thought a lot about how that silence in the face of misogyny, sexism, homophobia, whatever it is, I’m in, that silence is really how boys learn to become men.

Yeah, that’s so true. And I find that challenging in myself as well. When I see that behavior. Um, there is this internal negotiation, especially when that person is your boss, uh, where there are these power dynamics. Where do I speak up against my boss? Do I challenge them? Will I lose my job if I speak up? Um,

personal safety issue. And for boys it can be a personal safety issue. They fear being targeted, they feel being, and everybody, you know, they’re teenagers. They want to belong. They want to be part of the group, you know, so, so working with boys, um, they’re, you know, there’s, there’s, I have a lot of resources on my website too, um, for people who are interested in this, but figuring out how to work with boys so that they can recognize that most of them really don’t want that kind of culture and what they can, how they can connect and push back against that. Or even think there’s, um, a sports culture, you know, is, is a place where that often takes place obviously. And sports can be great. You know, they, they can be fun. They build character, they can grow teamwork, all those kinds of things.

And they can be a smokescreen for the worst aspects of bro culture. Um, and so they can be a crucible of that, but they can also be a crucible of change. And there’s programs like, uh, and I think that this is, um, in Seattle coaching boys into men where they, um, mobilize and leverage the, the capital of coaches who are mentors and real role models in boys’ lives to do a very light intervention with young men. It’s like a weekly 10 minute intervention that has been shown in research to, um, reduce sexual violence, increased bystander intervention, and reduce that kind of weaponized language that boys use.

Yeah, that’s fantastic. I’ve been a part of a program here called wholehearted masculinity, uh, which I highly recommend for any men out there listening, um, as well as the consent Academy also here in Seattle. Um, but we really do need a new kind of role model that we didn’t have growing up. Um, and I feel like it’s never too late in adulthood to still sort of rewire the brain and unlearn some of those toxic behaviors.

Yeah. And I think it’s so important, you know, I’m so glad to be talking to you as a guy and you know, it’s fine talking to women too. I love talking to women, but, um, when then adult men can step up and, and model those things for boys or engage in the discussions with boys because one of the things that boys said to me was that they really wanted their fathers in particular, but I think any adult man that is, you know, um, a role model in their lines to talk to them about sex, about the emotional intimacy aspect of sex and about their own regrets. Um, and I know that that’s hard to do as a guy because it does, it goes against everything inside of you, right? You have your social and certainly your father probably didn’t do it with you. But I think for guys to know, you don’t have to be perfect, you know, you don’t have to know all the answers, you don’t have to know all the questions. You don’t have to have the perfect relationships yourselves, but just to start somewhere and engage in the conversation. And that’s really what I wanted boys and sex to do was to help not only parents but guys themselves to be able to, you know, get beyond that guy talk and, and maybe have and create a more meaningful dialogue with one another and inside their own heads.

Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I feel like being able to start from that place of, uh, elect this quote, uh, we’re all a work in progress. Um, this idea that we can constantly be growing, constantly changing and we’re not this fixed sort of static person. Um, but we can keep evolving at any time. Um, right. And

look how we’ve had this conversation where we’ve started with, you know, what goes on with and [inaudible] in infancy and move forward and, and you know, realize that as an adult man, you have the capacity to examine your life and interrogate your socialization and your choices and all of that and to make change and then to bring that change to the next generation.

That’s awesome. Yeah. I feel like being able to look at what we’ve learned in a more, in a more, um, explicit way. So like what did we learn about consent? What did we not learn about consent? What did we learn about bro culture, um, about sexual conquest as sort of a, a means to social status. Um, one of the things you mentioned earlier was this idea of pushing it, uh, or being aggressive, being overly assertive when trying to sort of reach these goals of conquest. Um, one of the things that I’ve read is the safety of asking permission from a woman is a sign of weakness. And not even just a woman, any partner, any sexual partner, you might have this like misguided idea that verbalized consent kills the mood. Uh, but there is someone in that you interviewed in boys and sex who thought that asking for consent was actually sexy. Uh, that hearing that yes was exciting or even thrilling. Uh, can you share a bit about his enthusiasm?

Yeah. That his feeling that, you know, when you, when a girl was really into it and she was saying, you know, yes, I want this. Yes, let’s do this. Like, what could be a bigger thrill? Um, you know, also it was really interesting because gay guys were a real model of negotiating consent and navigating the parameters of our sexual relationship and, um, you know, because they had to be right, because what was going to happen between them and what was going to do, who’s going to do homework, what and how. And you know, all of that cannot be assumed. Um, and so often in a heterosexual pairing, um, we make that assumption that we shouldn’t, um, about what’s going to happen. And so they had to learn how to talk about it. And you know, one guy said to me, you know, I don’t really understand this resistance of heterosexual men to talk about concerns of what’s going to happen because like if we’re talking about it, it means we’re going to have sex. Right? And that’s pretty great.


So what, what dance average Seattle guy talks about is the four magic words that gay guys use before in a counter, which are, what are you into? And I love that because it’s a really, it’s a classically open ended question. And so often when we talk about consent, we think of it as a prescribed series of questions. That one partner, usually the man is asking the other partner usually or the woman to solicit a yes or no. And this is a totally different way of thinking about it that said, um, Dan’s a gay guy who has sex with other gay guys. And, um, I worry that if you were to put a young heterosexual couple together and say, the guy said, what are you into that because of the way girls are socialized, the answer would be, I have no earthly idea. You know, because girls as I talked about and girls and sex get so cut off from their bodies and their desires. So that book shows the dynamic at play and the ways that you know that, that she’s kind of perfect storm socialization with men and women. Um, but also the possibility and the opportunity because what if we could raise our kids to ask that question and have that conversation?

Yeah, exactly. I thought those four, the four magic words are so powerful. What are you into? Cause it’s actually starting to give power back to your partner and allowing them to answer what they would like, what their preferences are, what their expectations are, um, what they find pleasurable, what they’re okay with.

It was very interesting because I recently, I was speaking about girls that are in an all girls school and her father raised his hand and said, um, I’m troubled about how we talk about consent because it always seems that it’s, that it’s framed as female response to male desire. They’re saying yes or no, the male desire, where is my daughter’s agency now? Where is her desire being expressed? And her question being asked, and that’s a lot. I’ve got the question for you do this is the question, what are you into?

That’s incredible. I love that. That apparent is challenging. Even just that paradigm where consent isn’t enough. Um, yeah, and I love how you broke that down further, which was really helpful. Like let’s get into more details about consent. Uh, you broke it down as consent is not just a yes or no, but consent must be affirmative. It must be knowing ongoing revokable freely given. Can you speak to, uh, some of these are why it’s why we need more detail or nuance with consent.

In the last chapter of boys and sex life, I really write very clearly. We’ll hold definition of concerns, um, as it is currently understood because I realized that CIM, any kind of adult people with children, um, don’t really know what it is. And so yes, it’s, it’s affirmative silences and consent. Um, it’s knowing you can’t consent when you’re asleep or involuntary restrained or incapacitated. It’s ongoing. And that’s the ongoing piece of very important because, um, one of the things that we know about young men, especially if they’ve been drinking, first of all, they tend to over perceive. Yes. So like any act of feminists on the part of a young woman and I am talking about heterosexuals here can be perceived as it’s on, right? They under perceived no and hesitation. Um, they also have a tendency to think more that than than young women would.

That, um, consenting to one act means consenting to everything. So, you know, kissing is consent to intercourse or going home with somebody means consent place, you know, that that space can mean consent. So, um, kind of recalibrating and helping young men really understand the gender dynamics that are at play at our heads that make us justify things that might not be consensual. Um, because you know, what happens then is that guys, it’s we really only think of sexual misconduct or sexual assault as something that monsters do, right? And only monsters assault and anybody will sell it as a monster. But the fact is that I talked to a lot of really good guys in this book. Really lovely boys, loved every single one of them. And a really good guy can do a really bad thing and we have to, and there’s a lot of reasons, you know, there’s some times that’s the analogy.

Sometimes that’s ignorance. Sometimes that’s just the socialization that makes you justify. Um, because we don’t want to believe that what we’re doing could possibly be misconduct cause we’re good guys. Therefore we can’t possibly be committing this conduct. You know, um, that kind of unraveling that not, and looking at the socialization, um, that boys undergo that can make them perhaps turn away from, um, their own behavior and not look, look at Brittany. I, it’s really important so they can have better interactions. Cause I think the upside of all of this was they wanted to, it wasn’t like they were all going around, you know, like saying I don’t care. You know, well they didn’t care that much in the hookup about female pleasure, but you know, do they, they, they care today certainly to the extent that they didn’t want to be assaulting people.

Right. At least not consciously or actively going out to hurt someone. Um, I think there’s very much a subconscious training that,

and so challenging that because we all, you know, the long game is that we want people, regardless of their body parts, you know, to be able to have mutually gratifying personally fulfilling relationships, whether those encounters are, you know, five minutes or whether they are inside of a 50 year marriage.

Right. Yeah. And that brings me to, uh, you started to state the differences between consent. Having consent and ethical sex and that you might have consent, but the sex falling after might not be ethical. And what did you mean by, what did you mean by that? What’s the importance of,

and it might not be good sex that’s consensual, that isn’t light. Um, or you know, you can, you can consent to something that you don’t really want, you know, to, it’s a much, it’s a more nuanced conversation. Ethical sets. So I [inaudible] is a looms, a health educator in the Bay area who wrote this fantastic book that I’m always recommending to everybody. Sex teens and everything in between. Um, she says sex should be, um, essential, ethical and good. And by ethical shame means you know, you, you taking into account not only the, um, people in the interaction, but who else might be involved. Like if you had an affair with your, um, your, with your best friend’s girlfriend, you know, that might be consensual but not so ethical. You know, there’s a lot of situations where something you can say yes to something, but that doesn’t mean, you know, it’s a really ugly, solid thing. And you can say yes to something and that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be good or feel good. So we have to, yes, consent. Yes, we have to talk about consent. Absolutely. And all of these dynamics. But that can’t be the only thing we talk about when we talk about sex. And I was going to say young people, but really with anybody. Um, we have to talk about these other aspects. And that includes talking about pleasure.

Um, when it comes to this idea of good guys versus monsters, uh, this idea of a few bad apples or as you mentioned, a quote versus, uh, a rotten orchard, the sort of systemic issue. Um, how do we start to sort of go beyond just good guys versus monsters? Um, the sort of extreme over-simplified characters.

Well, again, you know, I mean, what I want to do with boys and sex was, was have that complicated conversation to bring forth these voices of boys and the voices of, um, to, to, you know, to adults who, who raise boys as well as the boys themselves. Because it is a more complicated conversations in that. Um, so there’s a lot of, um, interest in that conversation. One place in the book that, uh, I really struggled with how to talk about how, what I could add to the conversation around sexual assault on college campuses for instance. And so I have a chapter in the book that looks at our, uh, at two people who have had a fairly typical interaction that he thinks is a bad hookup but is in fact assault. And there is, uh, it’s a, it’s a story that unfolds over four years and at the center of it is the idea of restorative justice, um, right. Where the idea is how do we repair the harm down here and how do we allow young men to take accountability for their actions, um, to make amends and how do we help them create that accountability to one another? So I wrestle a lot with that in that chapter.

Yeah. I’m so glad you brought up restorative justice. Cause that was something that I was able to be a part of with a different, a couple or a different situation where I was sort of called in as a mediator. And I was very grateful to see that process. And it was actually the only time in my lifetime where I’ve seen a sort of restored of justice process go from beginning to end, uh, with both voices involved. Um, yeah. Yeah,

it’s a, it’s a great tool and it’s not, you know, it’s not a magic bullet, but I don’t think that we can suspend or expel our way out of campus assault. And a lot of times people who’ve been harmed, um, and I’ve failed sexual situations don’t want that, but they, and they want to keep it a level of control too. And this allows the, the, the hope I think that the people have is that they can be heard, they can be understood by the person who harmed them and that that person won’t do it again. And this creates an alternative pathway to that, that, and, and the story of the boy in that chapter, it goes back and forth between his perspective and hers. Um, you know, he really starts out quite typical, you know, talks about learning about sex from, you know, van Wilder movies and porn and, and uncles who told them that I was successful a night out and successful unless he gets a girl’s phone number and was, you know, heavily into his frat culture and everything. And this allowed him to really take a look at what he had done, move through the phase of thinking, Oh my God, this makes me a monster too. Okay, what can I do to be accountable? How can I make amends to this person and moving forward? Maybe how can I be a better man and help other men do better men too.

Yeah. You mentioned a van Wilder and sort of those college frat comedy films you could call them. Um, so often those films are filled at so much misogyny and violence that it’s weird to even put them under the category of comedy. Uh, which is sort of something as boys we have to unlearn to see or be more critical of. Um, but I want to talk a bit about, uh, if parents aren’t doing the guidance, let’s say, of having those tough, uh, uncomfortable conversations, that the media would be the default educator. Uh, what did you mean by that?

Yeah, so the media and porn, mainstream media porn, and I actually want to talk about mainstream media first because one tends to get caught up in the porn conversation because, you know, I think we’ve done a much better job with girls on recognizing the harmful messages that they absorb from media consumption and whether it’s movies or TV or social media or YouTube or video games or you know, it goes on, whatever the thing is this week that they’re tick-tock talk, whatever. And we record, we’ve recognized, you know, that so often those messages are commodified [inaudible] transactional ideas about sex that she’ll nail into vital month of true female sexual availability that we do swim into their bodies. And we work with girls to be able to see that and resist it. But boys grow up in that same culture and more so, and nobody’s saying anything to them and they’re just sort of swimming in it.

So as one guy said to me, you know, I think music is a really plays a really big role in how, um, guys treat girls. You know, you’re driving around in the car with your friends and you hear, fuck that bitch and Twitter for five, six, 10 times in the space of a couple of hours. You know, it starts to affect your mindset. So there’s the whole piece of mainstream media that we, I think we tend to forget when we’re talking about porn, but that said, there has been a major change for anybody who can’t move. He went through puberty post 2007, um, particularly around porn. And I want to say that, you know, curiosity about sex, normal masturbation, yay. Really great way to get to know yourself. Um, and there’s all kinds of porn. There’s ethical porn, there’s queer porn, there’s feminist porn, but that is usually behind a paywall.

And what changed was that in 2007, PornHub went online and dropped the paywall. And after that you could see anything you wanted to. And you know, really a lot of things that nobody wants to right at your fingertips with your smartphone. And young men are looking at that from really, you know, sometimes when they’re very young, somebody will turn it around, you know, unwanted and show it to them. But they start to seek it out right around puberty and are learning to link, um, that cycle of desire, arousal and release with porn. So that, you know, one guy said to me that there was a boy in his crew team that said he wasn’t getting his point anymore. And they were, you know, they’re like, Whoa, how you do that? And he said, I used my imagination. And they’re like, Whoa, Whoa dude. That’s like, he’s like a legend.

I’m blown, mindblowing yet. So, but the issue was is that the porn that is, you know, that first line most easily accessible stuff tends to portray a really distorted idea of sex to people who have no actual experience in a world with other people. So there it’s, you know, if you’re an adult, you go do whatever you want to do. But for kids it’s showing them over and over and over and over and over that sex is something men do to women, not with them. That female pleasure is a performance for male satisfaction and also wildly inaccurate. Bodies are distorted. You know, there’s a whole lot of stuff even in vanilla slips that really wouldn’t feel that great to most people. And so if we’re not getting, we’re ignoring that and you know, just pretending it doesn’t exist or thinking like it’s like seventies porn, we’re doing a real disservice to boys because even though they say they know the difference between reality and fantasy, what research shows over and over is that they actually, uh, boys who watch porn regularly actually are more likely to believe that the images it depicts are accurate and they’re more likely to want to take those ideas and behaviors into the bedroom.

And they’re also less satisfied with their partnered encounters and with their own performance and with their partners bodies. And I always sort of think about one boy because it was such a poignant thing to say who said to me, you know, I think what corn has done for our generation is to just ruin that innocence of being able to explore sexuality without a preconceived notion of what it is. And that that whole organic process he said has just been fucked by porn.

Yeah. And I think you mentioned in the book about a young boys who are immersing themselves in porn and all kinds of porn, um, that haven’t even had their first kiss yet. Uh, maybe haven’t even gone on a date or held someone’s hand. Yeah,

exactly. So, exactly. So, and it gives, that’s what I’m saying, you know, if you’re an adult, you’ve, you know, you’ve, you, you understand the world a little better, do whatever you want to do. But, um, we don’t know the impact, the full impact. I mean, we can see that certain behaviors have changed. Certain be, you know, there’s more anal sex, there’s more choking, there’s more of, um, certain behaviors. But we don’t know the full impact of this great experiment that we’ve done on young people and particularly on young men. Um, we can see generational differences in how people use porn and a difference between fathers and sons, for instance, for mothers and daughters. Um, but we don’t really know yet what kind of impact that’s going to have. But we do know that even when we think it doesn’t, because that’s what everybody thinks, that the media we consume affects our thoughts, our feelings, our beliefs and our behaviors.

So, you know, that can give us some insight. And that whole chapter, I hope because it was one of the things that boys most wanted to talk to me about in fact, because it’s so new, this idea of like 24, seven access to, you know, massive amounts of commerce. Um, that whole chapter I wanted to, again, you know, for parent aged people to help them understand what the culture of their boys are in and that they need to talk about it even if they’d rather put themselves in the eye with a fork. Um, but also for boys themselves to sort of, you know, understand what’s going on and what research is real and what research is not real and maybe even think about differentiating between that which is highly arousing and that which is actually pleasurable and wanted

right in the end. That’s a really great difference between sort of the, the sort of subconscious cultural teachings of the media versus an intentional conversation with your child, um, as they’re growing up, having those difficult conversations. Um, when it comes to parenting or raising young boys or for people who are thinking about raising a boy, um, what would you say to them in terms of, um, sort of how to have this conversation?

First, I’d say it’s not one conversation. You know, it’s a series of small conversations over time about bodily autonomy, about sex, about consent, about pleasure, about media, about, you know, accountability. And in the chapter of the book, I did something that I’ve never actually really done before. Um, because I’m a writer and what you learn as a writer is that you’re supposed to show, not tell. And so I’ve always operated on that Maxim and taken readers into, you know, a school or classroom or, or profiled somebody or done something that would show, you know, the way forward through this story. Um, and I kept trying to do that, but it wasn’t working. And I realized that I had been writing about young people and sex for about nine years now and at this point that has some things to say. And so the whole last chapter, I can’t give you a script, but I can’t give you a bit of a template of the kinds of conversations that you need to start engaging with from the get go.

You know, as we started this conversation with helping boys name their feelings and expanding their emotional range beyond happiness and anchor, that in itself is a really important thing to do. And that’s not about sex per se, but yes, it is. Right. And I would really hope that in having discussions like the one we’re having today, um, in reading books like boys and sex and having parents, I’m starting to, to have these conversations that we create an environment, um, that allows men to be there, to have their full selves and to really, you know, be them on that. We know they can do.

Peggy will be coming to town hall on January 23rd at 7:30 PM to talk about her new book, boys and sex, young men on hookups, love porn, consent and navigating the new masculinity. This is a completely sold out event, but you can always try to get in our stand by line night of. We’re also planning to livestream the event unearned town hall, Seattle YouTube channel so you can watch it live or in perpetuity. Just go to YouTube, search town hall Seattle and subscribe for more information about some of the organizations that were referenced in this interview. Click the links in the episode description below. Thank you for listening to episode 50 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 town hall produced events on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, and to support town hall. See our calendar of events or to read our blog. Check out our website at town hall, next week, our chief correspondent Steve Cher. We’ll talk with Samuel Wasser about preserving elephants in the age of extinction. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment.


In The Moment: Episode 49

In this week’s interview, Robert Frank talks with Chief Correspondent Steve Scher about the power of peer pressure. Robert provides examples of how social influence effects our health, consumerism and our perception of government. Robert and Steve talk about the weight that high positions of power have on our cultural morality, as well as the impact that our neighbors and friends have on our decision-making and general well being. 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

Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we talk to folks coming to our town hall stages and give you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. It’s 2020 a new year, a new decade, and there are an assortment of new programs on our calendar. We’ve got some great concerts from our global rhythms and town music series, including African drumming and a South American themed classical quartet and a mix of rental and Townhall produced programs. If you don’t know the difference between a rental and town hall produced event, you can find that they are clearly labeled and color coded on our event calendar. Town hall not only produces our own programs with incredible speakers and artists, but it’s also a rental space for other organizations and community partners to bring their own shows and ideas to our stages.

So go ahead and check out what’s up on our calendar. Peer pressure is real. At one time, most of us have done something under pressure from our peers. We might think that this falls mostly into the category of the dumb things we’ve done, but not all peer pressure could help us quit smoking, exercise, go to college, and just maybe it can help us save the planet from the galloping consequences of climate change and his new book under the influence putting peer pressure to work. Economist Robert Frank argues that power of contagion could be put to good use addressing climate change and social justice in one integrated March towards a more optimistic future for the planet. Robert H. Frank is the H J Lewis, professor of management and professor of economics at Cornell university’s Johnson graduate school of management. He has been an economic view columnist for the New York times for more than a decade and his many books include the winner take all society, the economic naturalist and success and luck. Frank is coming to town hall on January 20th at 7:30 PM to talk about harnessing this contagion. He talked to our senior correspondent, Steve, share over Skype.

Thank you for talking to me. You’re very welcome. I have often thought of a contagion that that would save our planet. Would be some terrific virus that will, we’ll, you know, wipe out enough of the people that the life on earth will, will continue. But that’s a horrible scenario. Yeah.

Yeah. That’s one way to do it, but not [inaudible]

The best way maybe no, a better way is to, is to, is to create a, a modeling behavior as you write about that people can see what others are doing as the first step perhaps in, in getting people to change their minds.

Yeah. And I think the, the main point is that the traditional policy instruments we have the, the estimates, the effects of those are, are based on direct responses. So when we put a tax on gasoline, how much less does an individual buy gasoline in response to the fact that it’s now a little bit more expensive. And, and those numbers are fairly small, but what, what they miss is the indirect effects. You know, so the price of gas goes up. I go from a six cylinder to a four cylinder or to a hybrid or to an electric and neighbors see that. I’ve done that. And, and some of them do it too, and then others see them doing it. So you get a huge multiplier. And I don’t think that’s in any of the numbers that people talk about when they consider would it be a good idea to have a carbon tax or some other measure like that?

Well, as an economist, as an environmental economist, why hasn’t that been a more obvious step towards analysis?

That’s a question that I’m just so puzzled by. You know there, there’s really nothing remotely controversial in my book, so, so nobody would blink an eye if you claim that the most important determinant of what someone will do in any given situation is what others like him or her are doing. So you, you’re worried your daughter’s going to smoke. Doesn’t matter if she’s a science fiction buff, it doesn’t matter whether she got A’s in English, you know, none of that counts for anything. What you really need to know is what fraction of her friends smoke. If that fraction goes up, that’s the surest prediction of whether she’ll smoke when the time comes. And so that’s a clear relationship. Nobody disputes how important it is. Much less attention goes to the fact that the social environment itself is a consequence of our own individual choices in the aggregate.

That’s true. But nobody who’s thinking about whether to become a smoker would stop for a moment. We’re all, if I become a smoker, I’ll make others more likely to smoke. That’s the effect I have on the environment. So small that if I were self interested in rational the best bet would be just to not even pay attention to that. But since the social environment has such a strong influence on us, it would be better. That’s for both good and ill. In specific cases, it would be better if we did act as if our effect on the social environment mattered. And, and sure enough, there are very simple noninvasive steps that policymakers can take that would get us to act as if we cared about that. And yet, as far as I can tell there’s been almost no attention at all. And given to that question and why that is. That was your original question. I just have to say, I don’t know. I’m, I’m not the smartest economist out there. How is it that there’s all this low hanging fruit to be picked that smarter economists never picked before? I don’t know the answer to that question.

Well, the only reason I ask is because the, in part, your epigraph example, whether it be good or bad as a powerful influence, this is George Washington in 1780 saying this. And, and I was wondering if for this idea of contagion to, to take hold a positive contagion rather than a negative one, like conspicuous consumption or building bigger houses or building, buying bigger cars, but instead being reducing our footprint because others are doing it and we want to feel a part of that. Do we need honest actors for the concept to work? I mean, do we need the, and I’m being political, do we need the main actor who in, in our country, you know, the George Washington who sits in that chair today to be modeling that behavior for it all to work? Or can we ignore when dishonest people seem to hold sway?

Well, I think it’s very important to be able to discriminate between different role models to be, to be able to make intelligent judgments about who’s example is worth following and who is his best to avoid. And I think you know, it’s very, it’s quite interesting. The, the current president is modeling behaviors that a pretty large majority of the country seems to have indicated a judgment or not worth following. And so you know, the, the fact that he is calling attention to those behaviors and people are talking about why their example is not worth following may have some indirect beneficial effects, but, but much better than that would be to have somebody in the office who is modeling behaviors that we have at all observe and say, yeah, I want to be like that.

Well do you think that nations, nations now can be shifted one way or the other by the modeling behavior of of the people in charge or, or is it, or is this a more is this a more grassroots idea? It at the neighborhood level. I put up a solar panel. My neighbors think, Oh, that looks cool. I’ll do that too.

It works at any scale. It’s, it’s a fractal phenomenon. The physicist would say we take cues for all around, I think a one, one theme in my own work is, is that the local environment has special salience. The, the, the Bertrand Russell quote Springs to mind beggars don’t envy millionaires. They envy other beggars who have a little bit more than they do. We’re, we’re in competition, not with the whole universe, but a very small subset of the universe. And the people who matter most or the people who are most like us. And so I think the example of friends, family, neighbors really does have special force, but, but we know that that other people whose behavior we become aware of matters too.

Well, you write about in this book how the, the contagion of a change in behaviors towards smoking has spread. Did it also spread in the same way? As you write about when when same sex marriage was evolving so quickly in this past, well, in this previous decade? Yeah.

Well, those are two vivid examples of change that happened way more rapidly than anyone would have predicted based on conventional models of behavior. So in the smoking cane what, what we know, and it’s still true, is that quitting smoking is really, really hard. About half of all people who do smoke try to quit in a given year, only about 5% succeed at that. It’s, it’s one of the most addictive substances known to humankind. And so the fact that smoking rates went down over the last several decades, by almost 70%, nobody would have predicted that. And, and it’s true that the policy measures we adopted toward that end were, were critical in making that happen. So unless we attack cigarettes heavily, unless we had told people you couldn’t smoke in buildings, and even in some places in public spaces that wouldn’t have happened anywhere near as quickly as it did.

But what we know too is that the, the process that really mattered was that as some people responded to those incentives, other people became less likely to take up smoking or, or to remain a smoker as a result of having fewer smokers in their peer groups. The, the rationale we gave for those smoking measures was sort of the traditional victims who can avoid harm argument that John Stuart mill would have a favorite. He said, you had, the government shouldn’t tell you you can’t do it. You want to do, unless it’s to prevent harm to others, undue harm to others, he must’ve been. And, and so what we did was we evoked secondhand smoke is the reason we needed to curb smoking. You, you, you’re in the vicinity. Somebody’s smoking, you breathe in the sidestream smoke, you’re injured by that. That’s a classic externalities example.

But the injury from sidestream smoke is incredibly minor. It’s real, but it’s incredibly minor compared to the injury from actually being a smoker. So if you want to want to know what harm I, cause if I become a smoker, it’s not from sidestream smoke, it’s by making others in my circle more likely to smoke. So the best estimate we have on that is if, if your daughters friendship group, if they go from 20% smokers to 30% smokers, she will become about 25% more likely to become or remain a smoker. It’s a huge effect. And except for that, we wouldn’t have seen the, the big change that we did. See the S the second pattern do you asked about? Yes. Was same sex marriage, same sex marriage of course was, was an even more rapid change. Every state, there was a majority of people against it.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a, a very impassioned article in the late eighties, arguing that allowing same sex marriage would achieve many positive goals and wouldn’t cause any harm to anybody. It got people talking. But the, the, the dialogue proceeded fairly slowly after that. It was an important start, but as more and more people began to acknowledge being gay as more and more people knew somebody who was gay, as more and more people said, yeah, I guess it wouldn’t be a problem if people were allowed to marry whomever they chose. And each time somebody flipped on that, that opinion, it made it safer for others to voice the same opinion. The, the thing that keeps people from speaking out often is that they’re a Fe afraid of being marginalized. If all, if I say I approve that people will think ill of me and, and how strong that motive is depends on, on how many people are speaking out. And, and, and we really saw a snowball effect once, once things got going in 2008 2009 during, during the California referendum on same sex marriage, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were on record as being opposed to that. Then six years later comes the Supreme court decision in 2015. Now more than two Americans in three says, without hesitation, same sex marriage should be approved. And it’s just a, it’s a classic case of behavioral contagion.

Well, of course, as you know, it goes both ways. Do you think that the charge that the, the right wing and Donald Trump are, are normalizing racism, selfishness turning away from open dialogue and the attempt to understand things through facts rather than gut? Do you think this is the same process in reverse? This is a social contagion that could easily sweep us another way?

Yes, and it’s particularly pernicious because there is an asymmetry to some of these influence. So if, if you’re thinking, Oh, I really ought to start jogging or oughta eat less meat, or I ought to do one or another beneficial behavior that I don’t do enough now you, you don’t need license from others to do that you, you, you can do that without fear of being criticized for doing it. It’s true that if you’re amongst people who exercise regularly and who eat prudently, you’ll be more likely to do that. But, but you don’t need social approval in order to take that step if you want to do something that is socially disapproved. It really makes a difference if you can see influential others doing it. It gives you license to, to, to do something that you, you’re worried about whether it’s okay to do.

And so I think the, the hate crime incidents that we’ve seen skyrocket in the last couple of years, the scrawling of swastikas on synagogues, the, the anti gay rhetoric it’s all directly tied to influential commentary coming from high place people in our government. Isn’t it possible that people can be brainwashed, deflected from their own interests to do the right thing? We’ve seen it happen again and again. And, and that’s why the public policy arena is so important. If, if we want to be able to pass the laws that serve the common interests, we’ve got to somehow diminish the role of money in our political process. The, the carbon tax the fact that that could be voted down is, is just the most contradictory fact about the American political system. It’s in everybody’s interest to have a stiff carbon tax. If you wanted to get one enacted I think the most important step to take is to make it revenue neutral.

You know what that means. It means to take all the money that’s collected from the carbon tax and then give it back to the people who paid the carbon tax. Not just revenue neutral, but give it back in a way that favors middle and low income families. The, the only argument against the carbon tax that’s been offered is that it would be a difficult burden for low and middle income households who’ve been struggling under the best of circumstances. We don’t want to put yet another burden on them. If you adopted a revenue neutral carbon tax, where would the revenue revenue come from? What we know is that worldwide, the top 10% of the income distribution consumes half of all the energy. That’s probably not as extreme a split in the U S but the, the wealthy Duke consume disproportionately more energy than others.

So most of the revenue would come from the high end. And if we gave it back in, in monthly rebate checks to low and middle income families a substantial majority of the public would end up getting a check each month that’s bigger than the amount extra they had paid in carbon taxes. The rich people who were, who would be net payers under a scheme like that would be getting the lion’s share of the benefits from cleaning up the environment. So they come out ahead to there’s no issue that they won’t have enough money to buy. Not only everything they need, but everything they might reasonably be said to want. There’s just no argument against implementing a tax like that. So I think the fact that, that we haven’t been able to sell voters on that is an indictment first of the, of the role of money in campaigns, but also of the, of the impoverishment of the political discourse. How, how good of a politician would you have to be to be able to explain to voters that if you vote for this, you’re going to come out ahead.

Well, good enough to overcome the lack of trust in government that has been inculcated in the American culture since Ronald Reagan started talking about.

Yeah, that’s, that’s a hurdle. That’s a hurdle to be sure. But you know, the, the governments around the world, there’s a survey every year that’s done and asked citizens. How do you feel about your government? How do you feel about the level of corruption among officials? How do you feel about the value you get for your tax dollars? And the same eight or 10 countries come out at the very top of the list every year. They’ve got good, honest governments. The citizens seem to recognize that they’re supportive of them. We’re, we’re the lowest on the list of any wealthy country. And, and we’ve created that environment for ourselves by bashing the government. The government’s the problem, not the solution. There are lots of things the government can do that other institutions can’t do nearly as well. And we have been shooting ourselves in the foot by scaring intelligent, hardworking people out of the government arena.

You know, I know some environmental economists who have put their work and faith in getting corporations to honestly tackle the questions around climate change. Not greenwashing it, they hope, but actually real policies that will have real impact. And these are folks from California where there are some laws in place that sort of demand they act much more quickly. But as you say, California goes, so goes the nation, the DS. Do you think that corporate efforts can do the same kind of virtuous signaling that we’re talking about an individuals?

Sure. That can help. Yeah. And I think the fossil fuel industry has been one of the biggest culprits in our failure to enact the kinds of laws we need for dealing with these problems. In Washington state, I believe it was the fossil fuel industry that supplied most of the funds that enabled the anti carbon tax messaging to, to be about twice as well funded as the Protex messaging. So, yeah, and you know, I think the, the, the fossil fuel companies will change when we require them to change. I think we don’t see a whole lot of movement spontaneously coming from that sector, but, but there’s a reason we shouldn’t be passing laws requiring them to behave differently.

Yes. But again, you’re talking about money and politics. I guess I always turned back to pessimism. I mean, your, one of your arguments that you’re making for example, is that let’s get the wealthiest people to see that a little more tax they pay doesn’t really impact their their desires to have the most biggest fastest because what, what do you call it, that that as the demand for that goes down, the price will go down, right?

Yeah, yeah. In the book I, I call the belief held mostly by a well-to-do voters that paying higher taxes will make it harder for them to get what they want. I call that belief. It sounds reasonable, but I call it the mother of all cognitive illusions. It’s a, it’s a manifestly false belief. The, the idea is pretty simple actually. The, the wealthy themselves would be the first to admit that there is no tax proposal on the table that would threaten their ability to buy what they need or what any person might reasonably be said to need. That’s just not one of the possibilities. What are they worried about then? Well, it’s, it’s the, it’s the possibility that if they had to pay more in tax, they wouldn’t be able to buy what they want. The special extras of life, the apartment with a 360 degree view of the, the city in, in, in the sound.

The, the thing they don’t see clearly is that their ability to bid for such things as special, accurate extras. They’re all things that are in short supply. There are never enough of them to go around. In order to get them, you have to outbid other people. Usually people like you who also want them. And to do that to succeed at that the only thing that matters is your relative bidding power and that’s completely unaffected when you and the other people like you all pay more in taxes. You can’t think about it that way. I mean the natural way to think about how higher taxes might affect you would be to try to remember how you felt the last time taxes went up for you. But in the current environment, that doesn’t work because taxes have been going, especially on the top, incomes have been going steadily downward since world war II.

They were 92% during the war, then they fell to two 70% then 50 a they’re 37% is the top tax rate now and and so you can’t think how would higher taxes affect me by remembering the last time they did that too. Cause they haven’t done that to you if you’re alive today. So the plan B that everybody goes to is, well I know higher taxes are going to make me have less income to spend. So I’ll try to think of examples like that. And, and no matter how charmed your life, is there more always be examples in your memory bank of that sort. So you had a bad business year, maybe a health crisis, a home fire, maybe your kid got arrested, you had to hire an expensive lawyer to, to, to handle his case. There, there are things that happen to everyone where income goes down and those, those cases almost always leave very bitter negative memory traces. But there are different from the event that happens when your taxes go up. Those, those other events are events where you’re in. M goes down, but the income of everybody else stays the same and when, when that happens, you really are less successful at being able to bid for those extras that you want. But that’s completely not the case when everybody’s income goes down because you paid a little bit more in taxes.

All right. Let me end with two concepts that you talk about. One, the power of talk and a good conversation you write about in your book. You know I, I’ve spent the last 10 years teaching interviewing at the university of Washington and one of the things we try to do is to talk to people who don’t agree with us but in a way that doesn’t brow beat them but does get them to, to think about what they believe. And you, your quote was experimental evidence in the book also shows clearly that conversation structured in a certain way, have the power to produce large and durable changes in both beliefs and attitudes. What are the structures that need to be in place for that to occur?

What the research consistently shows is that if, if your conversation partner thinks you’re just trying to, to, to get him or her to change his mind about something people dig in and resist when, when Al Gore would describe a new piece of pessimistic climate research that just been published, the people who didn’t believe in climate change would become less likely to believe that it was a problem after hearing that. So, so that’s not a productive conversation obviously, but the one consistent finding that researchers have come up with is that asking the right question seems to open the door to people considering their views. I’ve, I’ve discovered this quite by accident in a couple of issues I, I’ve been very, very concerned about. One was the affordable care act. There were many people who were just deeply angry about one feature of the affordable care act.

And that was the mandate, the, the, the feature of the law that you had to buy insurance. So that was just an overreach of government. They thought the whole act should be repealed, that was so offensive, offensive to them. And you could try to explain using a sophisticated statistical insurance model about why if you didn’t have a mandate that the insurance system wouldn’t be workable that approach was very unlikely to succeed. What, what finally made progress for me in, in those conversations was to have stumbled upon a particular question. And it was, what do you think would happen if the government required fire insurance companies to sell fire insurance at affordable rates to people whose homes had already burned down?

Like about that question doesn’t, it doesn’t take very long to think about that question before. No matter what your beliefs about anything else in the world might be you say quickly, Oh, insurance got these would go bankrupt in short order if the government required that because nobody would buy insurance until his home had burned down. Why would you buy it before that if you could buy it at affordable rates after that had happened? Yes, that’s true. They would go bankrupt. But then you don’t even need to point out that the patient who has a preexisting condition is exactly that guy whose house is already burned down as far as the health insurance industry is concerned. If you can sell insurance at added, at affordable rates to a cancer patient or a a seriously diabetic patient you’re not going to be able to keep your head above water because you know, the services you’re going to have to provide are going to vastly achieve, exceed what you take in in premiums. And so only if everybody has to be in the pool, only a flood that’s a healthy people in the pool. Can you hope to cover the people with preexisting conditions? And, and for someone to discover that on his own makes a huge difference in, in the level at which the idea of will affect him going forward.

Okay. And then therefore translate that into a conversation with people who understand climate change may even by this point be willing to who aren’t denying it and may even see some dangers in their own lives around them, but are still well either, you know, given to pessimism as you write about, or simply are going to be saying, I don’t care because you know, too late, too slow going to cost me money. I can think of a million reasons why people don’t want to act. How do, what’s, what’s the conversation we have with them along these lines? I mean, you quote the woman who says, you know, isn’t this a magnificent thing to be alive in a moment where so much matters, therefore you could argue that Lino, let’s get involved. Let’s pull it together. Let’s build, let’s, let’s build that barn and put on that show like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland used to say, but what’s gonna, what’s gonna get us there in this very polarized era?

Yeah, that’s a great question. And, and I think the w we had our earlier exchange about the carbon tax. I think that’s, that’s a, a nice place to start. You know, a lot of people climate deniers heavily concentrated among them who think all taxation is theft. You shouldn’t tax anything. You, you, you can, I think just write those people off. People who believe that aren’t serious participants in the discussion. You have to tack something. How would you convince somebody that you have to attack something? We all let someone say that all taxes should be voluntary. Then maybe some people would pay them, but, but in short order people would look around and see that their neighbors weren’t paying them and were living better than they were. As a result of that, they’d quit paying and pretty soon there’d be no tax revenue.

You couldn’t have a government. Well, many of these people say good, no government that I’d like that world. But then if you had no government, you’d have no army. And then what would happen? You’d be invaded by a country that had an army and conquered and then you’d end up writing mandatory tax checks to the government that conquered your country. So it’s just a nonstarter to say that you shouldn’t tax anything. The only questions that even makes sense to consider are what should we tax and how much should we tax them. And the, the second question is harder because people can disagree about the scope of the public sector. And, and, and, and we could have a real argument about that, but there shouldn’t be any argument at all about the claim that if you have to tack something far better to techs activities that cause undue harm to others than to tax anything else.

And right now we’re taxing beneficial activities. We tax we tax payrolls at 12 and a half percent that makes corporations less likely to hire people. Why do we want to discourage corporations from doing that? If we had a carbon tax with a suitable rebate scheme, most people would end up as net beneficiaries under it. And every dollar we raise from some other tax on a harmful activity would be $1 less we’d need to raise from the payroll tax or from a tax on savings, which we currently levy. Why should we discourage people from saving, which we do now.

Okay. You are a wrote this book under the influence, putting peer pressure to work in part to not succumb to pessimism. You also say in the book that you know, maybe this might be your last book you got, you got another decade or two or three, but but project for me, if you are not being succumbing to pessimism project for me what you see 10 or even 20 years from now

W we’re at a pivotal moment. I think more, more people are aware now than even six months ago that there really is a serious climate emergency underway. I think the images filtering back to us from Australia have, have, have moved the needle quite a bit on that, on that score. But, but basically we’re at the point now where we, we don’t really need a lot of additional information to get a majority of the people to believe that things are really bad. Most people believe that I’ll read. What I think is missing in the climate conversation is a plausible narrative about how we move forward. Is there anything we can do about this that we’re willing to willing to do or that enough people would be willing to do to offer any reasonable prospect of succeeding? That’s the missing element in the conversation.

With, with this book, I’m trying to persuade people that behavioral contagion will make many of the measures that we could take dramatically more effective than they’re commonly believed to be. That, that the, the investments will need to be, make, could be, will, will, will be, need, needing to make, could be financed with tax measures that wouldn’t require any painful sacrifices at all from the upper income citizens who would be called on to do most of the financing. And so it’s, it’s not as big a a nut to crack as many people seem to think it is. So the behavioral contagion part of the story is an important missing part of the conversation. But I think another, another missing part is, is the, is the set of engineering possibilities that are open to us. If, if you, if you haven’t had solid Griffith out to the town hall yet I strongly urge you to consider inviting him to speak.

He, he outlines a vision of a decarbonized economy that is not hair shirt. It, it, it’s it’s an economy that gets the same activities that we now in done with about half of the net energy expenditure, all almost all renewable energy and a life that actually would look attractive to people if they compare it with a life that most people are leading leading right now. So I think that that part of the narrative needs to be filled in and yeah, I, I, I hope people will take an interest in it. I’m, I’m eager to participate in that conversation and I’m optimistic that we can make some progress.

All right, sir. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Many thanks Steven. Frank will be coming to our forum stage on January 20th at 7:30 PM to talk about his new book under the influence, putting peer pressure to work. If you’d like to hear more from him, check out his Twitter at econ naturalist. Thank you for listening to episode 49 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle band, EBU, and Seattle’s own Souk records. If you can’t make it to a show, you can always listen to our town hall produced events on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts to support town hall. See our calendar of events, or to read our blog. Check out our website at town hall, on our next episode, our correspondent Eric Milano, we’ll be talking with Peggy Orenstein about boys sex and the new masculinity. Till then. Thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

Can Peer Pressure Save The Planet? A Conversation with Robert Frank

We’ve long known that our choices are heavily influenced by our social environment. Town Hall’s Alexander Eby sat down with Cornell University Professor Robert Frank to explore his new book’s message about how peer pressure can help combat climate change. Frank will be at Town Hall on 1/20. Tickets are only $5 (and free for anyone under the age of 22).

AE: At the core of your research is the idea of “behavioral contagion”—people adopting behaviors modeled by those around them. What are some ways this phenomenon can create problems for us?

RF: Here’s a simple example: We often cite secondhand smoke as the reason for our many taxes and regulations on smoking. But what we don’t acknowledge is that the far greater harm that arises when someone takes up smoking is to make others more likely to smoke. Behavioral contagion can act to our detriment, as with smoking, but also to our benefit, such as when installing solar panels or buying electric cars makes others much more likely to do so.

AE: Critics are skeptical of individual action to combat climate change, such as eating less meat, turning off lights, or buying more energy-efficient appliances. If we really want to solve the problem, they say, we need robust changes in public policy. You say that you once embraced those criticisms, but that your study of behavioral contagion has led you to a more nuanced view. Can you explain?

RF: Critics are right that without strong collective action, our efforts to combat warming will fail. After all, there’s not much tangible benefit for the planet if I recycle but nobody else does. But changing personal behavior has broader effects than many of us realized. Most importantly, it deepens our identities as climate advocates and increases the likelihood that we will prioritize acting on those values—voting for policies to fund green energy and knocking on doors to help elect politicians who will support those policies. 

AE: Do you see a generational component connecting social influence and action based on environmental values?

RF: One clear split is the divide between younger and older voters. The former are far more committed to decisive action on climate change, and are more burdened by the practical consequences of inequality. Older voters are more prosperous, on average, and better positioned to oppose the large tax increases required for any serious effort to combat climate change and inequality.

AE: You say that opposition to more progressive taxation is rooted in a cognitive illusion—that, contrary to what most prosperous voters seem to believe, paying higher taxes wouldn’t require any painful sacrifices from them at all. Can you explain?

RF: No tax proposal on the horizon would threaten prosperous voters’ ability to buy what they need. But since higher taxes leave these people with less money to spend, it’s totally natural for them to worry about whether they could still afford the special extras they want. But because such things are inherently in short supply, the way you get them is to outbid others who also want them. And your ability to do that depends only on your relative bidding power, which is completely unaffected when you and your peers all pay more in taxes. The same penthouse apartments with 360° views end up in exactly the same hands as before. If enough people understood why higher taxes wouldn’t require painful sacrifices, progress in securing funding to face environmental challenges would suddenly become possible.

Join us on 1/20 to hear more from Robert Frank on harnessing the power of social influence to help build support for environmental policies. Tickets are on sale now

In The Moment: Episode 48

In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández about the problems with our nation’s immigration prison system. Hernández outlines the financial incentives for private prisons to keep their cells filled in order to receive money from the government, and identifies similarities between immigration prisons and the mass incarceration of the 1980’s Reagan-era war on drugs. Hernández and Scher discuss the stigmas migrants face, as well as the factors perpetuating this prison system and what it would take to dismantle the immigration prison system. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall.

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

Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we talk with folks coming to our town hall stages and give you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. It’s the beginning of December and as 2019 winds down so to our town hall programs, but don’t let the light listings on the calendar fool you. We’ve got some hard hitting events about racial and social justice and assortment of art and music programs to satiate your holiday spirit and with that same holiday spirit in mind, many of us look to help those around us in need. There are the obvious choices, food banks and homeless shelters, but there are also the places hidden from sight or behind fences and bricks like the immigrant detention centers that housed thousands of immigrants from across the globe. The U S imprisoned Chinese immigrants on angel Island in San Francisco Bay in the 1850s immigrants were detained to Ellis Island before they were allowed into the U S but for many decades of the nation’s existence, the Southern border with Mexico was more fluid.

People living on both sides could cross to be with family members or seek work, but that is all changed today. The U S puts around 400,000 people annually into detention to await some form of civil or criminal determination or their feet. Often their crime is the very fact that they crossed the border without the proper documents and who benefits from this harsh treatment of people fleeing their home countries in search of asylum or a better life lawyer says our quality Moke Garcia Hernandez was born on the U S side of the Texas Mexico border. He is a law professor at the university of Denver and is coming to town hall on December 9th to talk about his new book migrating to prison. America’s obsession with locking up immigrants are in the moment. Chief correspondent, Steve Cher spoke with CSR over the phone.

I just met with some folks yesterday, told him I was reading your book and they said, Oh, I have to read this book because we’re going down to the Northwest immigration detention center in Tacoma on a regular basis to try to help some of the people there. And talk to some people there and that’s their, that’s their reality right now. Yeah.
Those folks who are advocating at the Northwest detention center are really at the forefront of activism focused on, on the shutting down this, this practice that’s grown up over the last four decades or so. So those are good people to to, to learn from.

How much access do people actually get to the folks who are in these prisons?

It’s very hard to get inside these immigration prisons. The, the sad reality is that even lawyers tend to not to, to go into these facilities. Many of them are located far from large urban centers where you have substantial immigrant rights communities, social service communities, clergy, the kinds of folks who take take tend to take an an interest in the struggles of people who are, who are going through one, one prison system or, or another. And so what that, what that means on the ground is that when you go walk into, into immigration court hearings involving detained individuals, you’ll see that most of them are showing up there by themselves. That’s true of the adults. That’s true. The families. And that’s true of, of kids who as well,
What’s the justification for that? When you ask a immigrate you know, a, a person on the other side who’s representing the government Cost? It would, it would obviously come at a finance a substantial financial cost to the government to, to provide publicly funded immigration attorneys for, for everyone who’s going through the process.

But again, it’s costs or cost. How much do these systems cost the American taxpayer when people are, what is it, 400,000 annually to these prisons?

I think the number fluctuates between four and 500,000. But we’re talking regardless, we’re talking about a large number of, of individuals, most of whom are going to be going through the process without the assistance of, of, of lawyers. And, and, and not only is that, is it expensive to run these facilities, but it’s also expensive on the court system itself. The, the, the reality is that judges don’t really, immigration judges don’t really like seeing immigrants show up in their courtrooms standing alone either because they don’t know what’s going on. They, they you know, the, the judges then have the responsibility of trying to help out this person just so that they can raise some claim that maybe is good and maybe it’s not good, you know? And, and and, and lawyers actually are efficient.

They, they help identify when, when somebody’s got a good legal claim, when they don’t have a good legal claim. And, you know, sometimes the thing that a lawyer does is have that hard conversation with a client that says, look, you know, the reality is the way immigration law is currently structured, you’re out of luck. And that gives that, that gives an immigrant the information that they need to make a decision about how to, how to move forward. And, and, and, and from the perspective of the court system itself, you know, that, that’s actually quite helpful.
Well, that makes sense.

But somebody must benefit. Who do you think benefits from this privatized system of imprisoning? There’s, there’s, there’s lots of value that comes from locking up immigrants to begin with. The private prison corporations that run facilities around the United States core civic and the geo group are the two largest private prison operators in the United States, both of which have a heavy footprint in the immigration prison prison practice. But local officials are equally invested. Many times County governments either own or operate the immigration prisons that contract with ice. In other instances, the County will own the facility and contract with a private prison corporation that then goes out and gets the contract with the federal government. But regardless of how it’s structured County County governments quite frequently have a, have a financial interest at stake in keeping their prison beds filled. And then when the federal government is, is the is the party that’s paying for this incarceration, then it essentially then it’s essentially free money because the, the folks who are going to be hired are going to be local people who are going to be spending their income in local community, boosting the local economy.

And and those jobs are selling points that politicians across the country use when they want to get elected or when they, when they want to get reelected. And so on one hand you’ve got the private prison corporations that are profiting from this practice. On the other hand, you’ve got the politicians that are using immigration prisoners as a way of, of, of, of wooing votes.
Well, you call your book, your book is titled migrating to prison, America’s obsession with locking up immigrants, but it is under the umbrella it seems, and you draw some connections with America’s obsession with mass incarceration more broadly.

The, the immigration prison system that we have today was born in the very same circums out of the very same circumstances that the drug war mass incarceration system. That’s much more commonly known was, was, was born in the, in starting in the middle of the 1980s. And the, and the Reagan years when people of color were being, were being pinned as the, as the folks who were bringing drugs into our communities. And the very same legislative debates in Congress and the white house and the very same pieces of legislation that were adopted by Congress. We see not only that, the, the legal infrastructure that gave rise to the drug war mass incarceration was built. But at the very same time, the immigration prison system that we have today started it started to develop. And so these two things, these two things are our, our, our two, two ends of the very same phenomenon and willingness to lock up people, primarily people of color for, for committing sins that many of us commit and, and have the good fortune of not getting caught.

Well, people express shock and outrage. Some people express shock and outrage when Donald Trump, the candidate, talked about the kinds of people who were coming from Mexico. But your book documents that same kind of language all the way back to, well, I’m sure we can go even further back, but we’ll stop with the Chinese and how they were treated and viewed on the West coast. And the 18 hundreds History of, of demonizing migrants had, has been a part of the history of the United States for, for, for, for generations. It’s not new. It takes a different form. And, and one of the things that Donald Trump does is, is that he’s, he’s returned to that abrasive, explicit racism of the late 19th century. But, but, but, and, and that’s that, that’s lamentable too, to be sure, but I think it’s, it’s not okay to, to, to imagine Donald Trump as being, as being the, the unique human being, the, he imagines himself to be. The reality is that that the groundwork for the Trump administration was laid long before Donald Trump walked down. The, it came down the escalator in Trump tower to announces his, his presence, his candidacy for president of the United States.

Well, as we all know, except for the indigenous people who were, were here for 10 to 14,000 years before Europeans started coming. We’re all immigrants. I was thinking about my grandparents story. They came through Ellis Island. They were, they were held up for a little bit. They were central Europeans and they were Jews. I think about my, my mother-in-law’s story who came fleeing the Nazis. Also Jewish, couldn’t get into the U S ended up in in the Dominican Republic for four years. But her husband who was already her, her father rather, who was already here and had an established business, eventually got his family in. So in some ways, similar stories can be told except when it seems we come to the question of race. I mean, those, those Jews and those central Europeans were not considered white for a long time, but eventually they became white. Not the same case for the Chinese or for the Mexicans who lived along the Mexico us border. That’s  that certainly is right. And I think that’s one of the thing w w the, the, the, the racial dynamics of immigration imprisonment, especially in the late 20th century and moving forward into, into today is what makes me worry that unless we have a radical, a re-imagining of migration, that will, will not only continue to see immigration and prison meant on a large scale, but that it will actually continue to increase rather than rather than, than, than, than shut down. One of the, one of the pieces of of, of history that I find most fascinating about this about this book that I learned while writing what putting together the book is, is in 1954 when Dwight Eisenhower, the war hero who had only recently been elected president decides that we should actually shut down the immigration prisons that remained Ellis Island being the most famous of, of those because it was situated within, within view of the statue of Liberty. You can have an ironic view of the statue of Liberty. And, and, and, and that came about because we stopped viewing these individuals as who, who were primarily from Europe, we stopped being them as, as, as a threat. And, and, and until we stopped seeing people of color in the United States as as dangerous, they don’t think we will ever get to a point where we get to revisit a period like we, like 1954 when the Eisenhower administration decided to shut down the immigration prison system that existed then.
But how successful was he in shutting it down over time?

Well, he, he, he shut down the largest immigration prisons that existed on the East coast and, and on the West coast. And so certainly it wasn’t, it he didn’t get to the point of absolutely abolishing the entire prison system. There were some folks, especially along the Southwest Mexicans who were still being detained on a short term basis. But we got as close as we ever have been. And I think I think in that history there’s something to be learned, something that is that, that we can use as as inspiration for, for crafting a a new path into the interference.
Well, I was struck by the facts that of the numbers of Hispanics, Mexicans and Americans of Hispanic descent who were lynched during the, you know, during the run up to the, to that era very much the same numbers you write as the number of African Americans that were lynched

On the, on a per capita basis. These were certainly different sized populations. But yeah, the, this was a, this was unfortunately, lynching fortunately was a, was a known phenomenon in the South West of, of the United States at the time in places like South Texas where I was, I was born and raised. And so the, the, the history of, of violence inflicted upon Latinos, Mexicans and others. In the United States, a, certainly not a new one. I think the immigration prison system that we have these days is just the latest, the latest of that state inflicted violence. But equally problematic. And, and, and, and it’s important too, to think of it not as be as occurring in a vacuum out of isolation, but as being only the latest version of this, that this, this preexisting pattern that goes back generations.

Let’s let’s talk about some of the people, the individuals. So as an immigration lawyer as well as a law professor, you, you come in contact with, with people on a regular basis. Who are some of the clients that that I don’t know either, either you can be specific or you can, you know, protect their names. But who are some of the people that you are thinking about these days and their, and their stock? Their lot?
That’s just a few weeks ago we celebrated veteran’s day in the United States. And, and like on that day, I can’t help but think of a gentleman named Jerry at AMECO who was born and raised in, in South Texas. Not very far from, from where I was. And our community was, is a fairly poor community, a heavily Mexican community. And when I graduated from college, I went off to, I mean when I graduated from high school, rather, I went off to college in new England and when he graduated from, from high school, he joined the U S army. And then, so he got deployed to Iraq where his job was to lead a, a group of, of tanks that patrolled through, through what was dangerous a territory. And while I was trying to acclimate to a new environment and the or, or Ivy league university that I was attending, he was getting attacked by people who were interested in repelling the, the U S army.

And one day his tank went over an IED and it blew the thing, the tank apart. And he was injured and he got sent back home. And unfortunately he didn’t get the care that he, he needed. And so he turned to drugs and as he was going through the criminal justice system, one day he just disappeared because ice had gotten ahold of him. And the reason I just got ahold of him was because he was not born in Texas. He was born in Mexico and he was, he has a green card. He’s been a lawful permanent resident for, for decades. And, and that’s what allowed him to be as American and, and in every way possible as in me, if not more so. But the sad reality is that when it comes to immigration law, what matters isn’t that he decided to put his life on the line for the United States.

What matters is that he was born just a few miles South of the magical line that we called the U S Mexico border. And that means that to immigration law and ice. He’s not one of us. He’s one of them. He’s in South Texas. He, his or the law firm that I’m a part of was able to get him out of, out of the immigration prison and and help him go through the we’re still helping him go through the immigration court process to try to fend off the, the government’s effort to, to the board him,
You know, you start this book also with the Diego Rivera Osorio a child,
A child who came to the United States. When his mother Wendy decided that life in [inaudible] was too dangerous for them to stay. And when they arrived in the United States, they immediately went up to a a border patrol officer and requested asylum. And within a few days they found themselves locked up in a Pennsylvania immigration prison. And the days went by. Eventually giggle won his case to stay in the United States. But it took 650 days of being confined in that Pennsylvania facility. A judge years later, a judge wrote that Diego had gone from diapers to this detention inside this facility. This is how we treat babies, infants. And not only that, infants who are going through the legal process exactly as Congress set it out. This, this is, this is truly troubling. And unless we have an enormous, the powerful reason to do this, I don’t think it’s defensible in any by any stretch of the imagination.
And, and just because we should note this the Trump administration has maybe increased the numbers of people who are detained this way, but the Obama administration pursued very similar policies
Live in the Obama administration operated the largest immigration prison system in the history of the United States until the Trump administration. That’s an important difference to be sure, but I don’t think it’s one that lets the Obama administration off the hook. The, the, what, what president Trump is doing these days is to ramp up. But w the, the, the foundation that president Obama set for him. And, and, and to be sure president Bush before Obama and president Clinton before, before Bush, that this is not, this is a not, not a, a policy that, that, that Donald Trump invented out of whole cloth. Certainly it is one that he has, he is exploiting two to wreak greater or greater havoc on, on more human lives.
All right, so what the people that end up in prison let’s talk about like who they are and, and then what they’ve done and where they go. Because you argue in the book that we can call these different things detention centers, but they’re all prisons and, and because people can’t leave. So what is the justification in current American law for locking up people who cross the borders without authorization?
The, the, the, the luggage. Two reasons. One is that you won’t show up for your court dates. And the second is you might endanger the public or the real, the, the reality is that we know how to, how to help people show up for court dates. We can first off start, we can start off by providing them with lawyers. Eh, we have, we, we’ve, we’ve piloted various projects. I’m going back to the Reagan years in which we have provided immigrants who are going through the, through the court process would access to lawyers. Right now there is no right to appointed counsel in immigration court, which is why most of the folks who are going through that process while detained are doing it by themselves. They’re doing it without the benefit of, of legal counsel. We give people lawyers the, the lawyer, one of the things lawyers do is obviously to identify claims that can be made to, to a judge, to, to find a way for this person to stay in the United States.
But there are also advisors, there are counselors. They, they help people understand the process and the more that people understand them process, the more they buy into the process. You pair the lawyers with social workers was other support services that makes sure that they have bus fare to get there. That they know and know where they’re supposed to be going and that they know what things that they need to bring an ID in order to walk in the door. That if if, if, if, if the car breaks down, their child gets sick, that they, that they have an ability to communicate with the relevant people so that they can change that court date and, and make sure that they are able to to, to abide by the process as, as, as Congress. Set it out for them. On the other hand, have the dangerousness factor is something that president Obama would wave around.

He said, my, my let me, I’ll paraphrase the speech he gave in and outside the white house in November, 2014 when he said, my administration’s immigration enforcement priorities, there’s to go after felons, not families as felons aren’t part of families, as a families don’t include felons. The reality is that we’re all mixed bag and some of us get caught and send them. Some of us don’t get caught. But, but if we want, we want to target people because of criminal activity, that’s what the police are for. That’s having, having ice, they’ll do the same thing. Is, is, is redundant at best. It’s disingenuous at worst because all we’re doing is, is, is targeting folks through two different law enforcement agencies for, for having the bad luck of, of, of, of of, of being somebody who’s not a us citizen.

But I also understand from your book that the, the felony, some people are committing or the aggravated felony, I think you said it’s called, is the act of crossing the border. Has that always been a felony in the U S
Crossing the border once is, is, is, is a, is a federal crime. It’s a, it’s a misdemeanor. Not, not a, not a felony. It’s been true since 1929. If you, if you in the United States, you get deported from the United States and then you cross back the United States without permission. That’s a felony. That’s a punishable by up to two years in prison, mint in the federal, in the federal prison. That’s also been a federal crime since 1929. But the reality is that we haven’t really prosecuted those prosecutors have gone after other activity that they think of as more serious. But that’s sort of the change in the in the late years of the Bush administration, George W. Bush administration when his administration decided that we ought to prioritize, so we should dust off these federal crimes and, and start to use them. And, and, and that remained true. And there president Obama, and it remains true now under president Trump where we are first the first criminally prosecuting people who are just coming to the United States without the government’s permission. And then we put them through the deeper, the immigration prison and deportation process too, for a second after the government to have a second bite at the Apple.
Some of those people staying in prison,
Most of those folks are, are getting in going in and out of the prison system fairly, fairly quickly. As they’re, they’re often sentenced to, to what judges will call time served better if the amount of time that it takes for them to go through the, through the conviction process. But we’re, we’re seeing averages [inaudible] that are hovering well above that as much as about 18 months. For, for some individuals it’s, it’s possible to get sentenced to many, many, many years, but, but the reality is most people don’t get Sentis to many, many years. They instead do a few months in federal prison and then they’re handed over to ice to be imprisoned while they’re going through the process of deportation. How long can that take? Well for Mexicans and, and it tends to, to be really fairly quick process, but for folks who have the strongest ties to the United States is a, and who or or that is, who have families here have been here.
And then it may take longer because they have an incentive to fight. And sometimes they may even have resources to hire a lawyer through family members who are, are working in the community and can pay for a lawyer. It also can take a long time for, for folks who are from countries that don’t have particularly good relationships with the United States. The the, in order to deport somebody, we actually actually get travel documents from, from the country that we’re sending somebody to. And there some countries that are pretty, pretty slow. I’m at to do that. And then, so it can, it can, it can even, it can take years in some, in some of the more egregious instances.
And and just just to bring us up to date, what’s the status of, or the numbers of separated children in detention right now? Do you have a sense of that? And also I guess families in detention right now?

Yeah. Right now we have three facilities. The, the, the federal government run three facilities that detain families together. Two of them are in Texas and one of those is in in Pennsylvania. That facility where Diego and his mother, Wendy were, were, were locked up. And, and, and I don’t know off the top of my head what the latest figures are on the number of, of, of families that are, are being detained.

That’s still happening. Oh, that’s still, that happens. It happens on a, on a, on a daily basis. Right.
All right. I want to, I want to take a step back, just one step back cause you were talking about how race plays into this and also how economics plays into this. So the Chinese that were on the West coast came over here to work on railroads and in mines and they were inevitably underpaid and then ended up at some point incarcerated on angel Island, some of them and being seen as the undesirable and illegal immigrants. And there’s also the history of the [inaudible] program, which directly affects the West coast of course, which recruited young men from Mexico to come pick the crops and then they were supposed to go back down when the seasons were over. Those people were also sort of a [inaudible]. They were exploited and they were also denigrated. And the same time they were necessary to the economies of the of the businesses that hired them. Right.
But that certainly is true. So we’re, so we’re the, the, the, the Chinese of course. So who were, who were key key in, in developing the, the, the railroads and, and there had been urban life and and, and culture along the West coast. But I think, I, I think it, it, it’s one of the frequent criticisms that we see of immigration prisons is that they, they, they, they remove people from, from the, the, the labor market when, when the labor market is what’s what is in many ways helping to, to bring folks to the United States. That’s certainly true. But I think one of the things that the that the immigration prison does it, that it could actually commodifies the human life inside the facility. Just, just like w we, we can do in, in other contexts as well.
That is if for every person who locked up the federal government is paying a daily rate to a private prison company or to local government and, and, and with that money people are being employed. Food is being bought. And and, and local economies, our, our, our become dependent on that, on that money. And, and, and so there is, there is not only profit to be made, but that economic dependency to be had by locking up migrants and and, and so, so that helps to explain it is that these, these facilities not only pop up throughout the country, but why it is that they are so difficult to, to shut down.
Well, well, well let’s talk, give me a minute to talk about the trends because we know that there’s xenophobia involved, nativism, racism, but early nineties, I was looking at some Pew numbers. I think it said that in the early nineties, there were about 3 million in the 80s, early nineties, about three and a half million unauthorized immigrants living in the U S by the middle of the odds was, or actually 2010, it was 12 million. Now it’s down to about 10 million. Do you think, if you agree with those numbers, do you think that the, the, the issue of immigration is also the fear people have of immigration is directly tied to the change in the numbers in the population increase?
I think it’s, it’s, it’s direct. It is so, so tied so much to the number of, of people as it is to the way that politicians in PR in particular use the, the, the the specter of immigrants as a tool for, for fanning latent fears and turning that, that, that fear into, into into votes. I think politicians have been incredibly adept at exploiting the, the, the history of racism in the United States to whoo voters who are already discomforted by the presence of newcomers or the thoughts of that newcomers might show up in, in, in their communities. And, and that is an unfortunate at is unfortunately a time honored tradition in the United States.
Well, but we will have a 440 million people in America by a, I forget that by when, but about 85 million will be foreign born. Now I’m making up. No, I’m think those are the right numbers, but I, I just looked at him and now I’m, I’m not sure, but I think that’s right. Or first or second generation. Does that matter? Does it matter if America has 400 million or 500 million or a billion over the next century?
People, I mean, in, in living in the U S
Yeah, I mean, cause that’s part of the argument people make, right? Well, I’m not racist. I’m not opposed to immigration. I just don’t want to see America. Have so many people that I won’t have the kind of lifestyle I want. I wanted the environment. I want you’ve heard, I’m sure you’ve heard all the, are you live in Colorado? I’m sure you’re that argument. Yes.
Colorado. And but of course I’ve only lived in Colorado six years, so I am one of those
False, right. You don’t count on us, right? Hey, I’m one of the people who’s targeted by that kind of language. I think it’s important to disclose
Personal stake and in that kind of a conversation do I think it matters? Certainly there’s a, this is an, this is, there’s a certain duplicity to, to those arguments when we welcome people from Western Europe and Canada and other wealthy countries, but, but tried to shut the door. Folks who are, who are coming from the global South people, people who look like me, Brown skin people, black skin people, poor people, people who are fleeing for their lives from, from political violence and gang violence from, from economic catastrophe. And I certainly also don’t, don’t, don’t take the, the, the, the, the, the, the point that I’m, I’m more morally upright simply because my mother happened to be in the United States when, when, when I was born. And somebody like Jerry [inaudible] his mother happened to be about about 10 miles South of where I was, where I was born.
If, if, if, if, if, if, if I merit living in the United States, it’s because I’ve committed myself to making a life here. I’ve committed myself to, to, to, to making a community of friends or family of, of, of I dedicate myself to, to helping my students become, become young professionals and, and citizens of our, of our democracy. And it’s not because I, my, my, my mother happened to be in Texas just like, it shouldn’t be it shouldn’t expose Jerry Amico to, to deportation simply because he, he he, he decided to join the U S military and got injured in the process and then we didn’t help him get this get the medical care that he needed. And so he turned to to, he made some bad decisions as a result.
So what are solutions in the long run? Because you know that there are candidates who say right now, candidates in the presidential election who say, we shouldn’t criminalize anybody who’s moving across borders, we should have open borders. Would it, would you support the concept of open borders, not just in the U S right, but around the world? Is that a feasible solution?
I think that’s something that we need to be talking about. I think it has to be part of the conversation. Look, I’ve, I’ve lived in, in, in, in parts of world where at one point there have been borders that have been heavily policed, if not by, by, by military, at least by local law enforcement agents. And, and yes, we can look at Europe where, where I lived in well I lived in the former Yugoslavia where at one point there were literally tanks and and, and snipers. And now there’s not even a stop sign. But we don’t have to look that far. We can look to Colorado and New Mexico at one point in the midst of the great depression as, as people were heading West from Texas and New Mexico and, and, and Oklahoma. The governor of, of, of Colorado actually sent the, the national guard down to the to the border with New Mexico and the border with Oklahoma to try to keep out people who, who they thought were coming here to, to work, coming here to, to take the jobs of, of Coloradans from places like New Mexico and Oklahoma.
We, we, we don’t do that anymore. That [inaudible] now still to our contemporary years, it sounds like like, like, like a like, like fiction. But the reality is we can build up borders just about anywhere and we can also choose not to build up a borders. And, and I’m hopeful that the conversation, the political conversation now will, will expand sufficiently broadly in the, in the era of Trump to, to, to ha give serious thoughts, serious consideration to the possibility of a radical departure. Because we know where we get when we do what we’ve been doing for decades. And, and, and that’s that’s profiting from, from human misery and, and, and, and that’s unacceptable.
What, if anything, should the United States do for the people who are fleeing for their lives or for better economic opportunity from El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala?
I think we should do exactly what, what in our best moments we’ve given people the right to do that is to come here and ask for protection. Come here and ask for, for, for us to make a little bit of room and into, allow them to, to try to make a, a life just like we’ve been trying to make our lives for ourselves. We have in his eye O asylum system that’s in place. Lou, we should, we should pour resources into that asylum system to help the folks who are making those critical decisions to do so. Do so under the best circumstances. And we should we should help the folks who are, who are coming here fleeing for their lives, asking for asylum by, by giving them lawyers, by letting, letting them be working while they’re going through the process so that they can, they can support themselves, their kids can be in school and for starters they can be in the United States. So this process that we have right now where the Trump administration is basically shut down the border and force people to stay in the Mexican border towns that even though the U S state department this says are too dangerous for us citizens to travel to that, that’s, that’s absent, that’s unconscionable.
But what about the nations that those people are fleeing the cause? Those are also by the state department zone account unsafe. And we, you know, we, we we know that they are unsafe for many, many people who can’t leave. Is there some responsibility the U S has overall for those countries too?
Certainly the U S does have a, does have a role to play in, in, in helping to support economic development and helping to support the, the, and maturation of political democracies. And, and I would, I would be happy for, for the United States to, to do that. Unfortunately, the, the standard practice and us foreign policy has not been particularly rich when it comes to supporting young democracies. On the contrary, w w w w we, we are, we have a solid track record of supporting anti-democratic processes and most, most, most recently, the, the, the, the crew and, and, and believe, yeah, that we, that we have been supportive of just a few years ago, we sort of boarded a coup in Honduras. And and so I’m not particularly hopeful on that front. And instead I focus my attention on what I know best, which is how it is that the U S immigration system, including this Island system, can help the folks who do have the, the means and the, and the willingness to, to, to get to the United States, to get to our doorstep.
What, what a possibility do you think there is of actually dismantling this migration to prison system that’s in place now?
Look, when I was, when I was born, we, we hardly locked up anyone. Today I’m not yet 40 years old and we lock up almost half a million people. If we can, if we can build this system and in my lifetime, I’m hopeful that in my lifetime we can, we can tear it down.
Do you hear from any of people at the federal level who are with you on that and have proposed or even picked up some ideas along the lines that you’ve proposed?
If we’re going to start moving in that direction, we can’t rely on Congress who can’t rely on members of people who are currently elected officials to, to be carrying this banner. This is a, this is a long road. This is a difficult road is a road where I don’t know all the twist or the turns. And and which I certainly can do by myself and no member of Congress can do by, by herself or by himself. Cause I think this is, this is a conversation that needs to start at the community level. And, and then move up from, from there to the, the hallways of Congress.
So we’re back where we started with the citizen activists who are going down to those detention centers and protesting.
That’s right. That’s where, that’s where the true power lies.
CSR, our quality Moke Garcia Hernandez will be coming to our forum stage next Monday, December 9th at 7:30 PM if you’d like to join in the conversation or get a signed copy of [inaudible] book migrating to prison, America’s obsession with locking up immigrants, get yourself a seat. There is a link to the event in the podcast description below and if you can’t make it out but you’d still like to hear his talk, it will be posted on our civics podcast series. Well thank you for listening to episode 48 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 full Townhall produced events on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts. We also film and live stream select events on our Townhall Seattle YouTube channel. Just search Townhall Seattle and subscribe to support town hall. See our calendar of events or read our blog. Check out our website at town hall, we’ll be taking a holiday break, but we’ll be back with more exclusive town hall interviews in January. Enjoy your holiday season ahead and thanks for joining us right here.

Send this to a friend