In The Moment: Episode 50

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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

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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

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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.

In The Moment: Episode 48

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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.

In The Moment: Episode 46

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In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talked with Northwest Harvest CEO Thomas Reynolds about food security in WA. Reynolds outlines the complexities in approaching and unpacking issues of food justice in our region, breaking the issue down past policies and programs and asserting that solutions to food inequality aren’t technical alone. Scher and Reynolds look at the future of food in WA, exploring the growing efforts of local farmers, free community markets, and food pantries. Reynolds highlights food sustainability models at work around the globe, and encourages large action through small scale change in our region. 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, Welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast. In the moment, every episode, a local correspondent interview, somebody coming to our town hall stages and gives you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. Well, November is upon us and as we approach Thanksgiving and think about gathering around the table with family and friends, it behooves us to consider those that are food insecure. The United nations defines food insecurity as a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. Northwest harvest reports that one in 10 in the world and in Washington state struggle with hunger and are food insecure. The majority of working age Washingtonians living in poverty or working or actively looking for work and many work more than one job. Northwest harvest is a nonprofit operating statewide in Washington, distributing food to 375 food banks as well as meal programs and high needs schools. They provide nearly 2 million meals every month. At 7:30 PM on November 11th, Thomas Reynolds, the CEO of Northwest harvest, will be moderating a discussion on reducing hunger on our great hall stage. Just food. A conversation about food as a right in Washington state will also feature us representative Kim Schrier. Thomas Reynolds sat down within the moment, chief correspondent Steve Scher to talk about why hunger persists in the U S and worldwide and about creating grassroots systems to reduce it.

I’ve done a lot of work with FAO. I spent many years working in international setting with Karen and national and I’ve seen extreme poverty and extreme hunger in so many places. I think a lot of people think about Bangladesh in the seventies and eighties and Ethiopia people have of a certain age have images and blazoned upon them about what hunger might look like. I think here in the United States, hunger has a different type of face. People assume that hunger and homelessness or cinnamon synonymous hunger actually impacts most of us in our own neighborhoods. 94% of people who go to food banks and food pantries here in Washington state. Half homes are housed. And so I think we need to expand our notion of what it means to be food insecure and what it means to be hungry. Our policies falling short, or is it just that that’s a lot of people and so it takes time.

I think so much is done towards finding the technical fixes to the issues. In fact, in the United States, there’s this premise that there’s a lot of wasted food and there’s a lot of hungry people. So if we just give the wasted food to hungry people, the problems solved there in lies the problem. This is not a technical issue. There’s plenty of food in the world. There’s, there’s enough food and there’s enough production to feed every single person on the planet. And yet there are still so many hungry people. It’s because of the not the technical issues. It’s the institutional racism, the cultural racism, the injustices that people groups face that creates the symptoms of that sort of injustice. We see that here in Washington state. We see it in the United States, it seemed around the world. And so we’ve got to stop relying on technical fixes new programs new policies, new systems alone. I think we need to be addressing what’s at the heart of the issue. And that is the way that we as people see and tolerate hunger around the world.

A Trump administration, this is October force changes to slice 4.5 billion over the what used to be called food stamps snap now over five years, trimming as much as $75 for one in five. Struggling families on nutrition assistance, institutional blindness, institutional racism, or just dismissing of the concerns of anybody who’s, you know, not wealthy.

Perhaps it’s just a financial exercise on a spreadsheet and people haven’t considered the real impact of what the $75.

Do you really think that that’s all they do is, I mean, cause you just said it’s institutional racism, institutional inequity. You think that all they’re doing is just looking at a spreadsheet.

I think there’s almost no more analysis behind that for some of the people who propose these cuts. You know, it’s, it’s about you know, finding numbers that satisfy certain constituencies instead of realizing the real impact on the real people who needed that $75. There’s also these imaginary strategies that say let’s make government smaller and let’s have nonprofits pick up the pace. In fact, if the snap cuts went through, it would be a 20% reduction in the plan to snap spend over the next course of years impacting nonprofits as well. It would impact nonprofits, it would impact communities, but the idea is nonprofits would pick it up. We’ve done the analysis. If that 20% cut was done for government funds, every single food pantry across the country would immediately have to quadruple their output. That’s simply impossible.

You said there’s enough food, food pantries, just get all the guilty feeling people and all the noble people that step up.

Again, there’s,

There’s, you know, this is all couched in the idea of food waste, but instead we need new types of solutions. We need, we need to address this at the issues level. We need to understand the inherent, cultural and institutional racism of the fact that people, some people have more than enough and some people don’t have enough. You know, as I was talking to a friend of mine an Abdullah, him and Dan, he’s Sudanese, he said in Sudan, one of the worst insults that you can give someone is he eats by himself. And I said, I’m gonna unpack that for me. He said, it’s the idea that a family could sit down to a meal together knowing that their neighbors, you know, just down the street are not sitting down to a meal and being okay with it. I think at a fundamental level we need to Pierce the consciousness of every American household so that people no longer feel comfortable about sitting down at that meal when they know people in their own community or not. Alright. How come you focus on institutional racism? How many, let’s just say in King County, how many who are food insecure or people of color

In King County, in every County across Washington state people of color experience disproportionate amount of food insecurity. I don’t have the exact number for you, right?

The reason I’m harping to, yes they do. Right, but in raw numbers, what does it look like? I mean disproportionately, yes, it’s, it’s people of color, but in round numbers isn’t it white people who are experiencing food insecurity, why doesn’t that register with the very snap cutters we were just talking about

Also racism and institutional racism isn’t necessarily conscious or the United States has had three centuries and longer to perfect its racism. It is embedded into our culture, institutional practices and by these policies that could look equal, applied equally to each person cutting snap across the board for example. Is that what you mean by these policies? Educational opportunities job opportunities who, which resumes get screened in and get screened out based on the name. All of these things are aspects of cultural and institutional racism and not any one policy by itself can explain why there is this disparity. But the preponderance of all of these policies, all of these practices, all of this shared DNA of who we are in America contributes to this disparity.

How does that manifest for you when you go before, so you said you worked with FAO, you probably have testified before, some of the very people or their aunt, they’re the predecessors who were making changes, making calls. How does that manifest when you sit down and talk with them? What do you hear?

Again, it’s really focused on technical fixes. I mean literally down to how calories does each person need per day based on the temperature. You know, if it’s colder, people need more calories and to try to do the math by calculating the right number of calories that need to be distributed to the right number of communities on the right number of days based on the weather. We could do these calculations forever and never solved the promises, the conversation you have with them. These are the kinds of things that you talk about when you’re sitting down with them. You hear this and it’s published in reports. It’s, it is a very technical approach to a fundamental issue that will never be solved through technical approach. And when you bring that up and you bring up the fact of, well, if you do have institutional racism, when you confront them with it, their responses, I think there’s lament over the fact that things are so complicated and so challenging and so difficult to unpack.

And in fact in the morass of the complications and the complexities of the issues, maybe people take a breath and say it’s just too difficult to solve. That’s why I think it’s so important to focus on for justice. You know, Northwest harvest is focused on the equitable access to nutritious food for all here in Washington state. And that’s our contribution to food justice. We really think that the conversation can be had about what does that look like? What does that look like in South King County? What does that look like in rural parts of the state? States where still you have mostly white people who are elected to positions in which communities are, for instance, 75% Spanish speaking. You know, these are issues that we want to bring attention to. It’s not going to be about a solution set that says if grocery stores would simply identify things that are about to expire and give it away, we’re going to solve the problem.

That’s, that is a supply chain issue that probably has some level of importance, but it’s not problem solving. Northwest harvest has existed for more than 50 years and almost every single year of its existence we have distributed more food and I think better food, but we’ll be distributing more food and better food food for another 50 years if we just keep focusing on the supply chain issues. So what is food justice in South King County look like now? And three years from now and five years from now? You know, in the magic wand world, I have a lot of respect for local leaders and local community organizers. I think food justice in our food system means more people who are in their own community are making decisions, are representing the ideas and perspectives and desires of that local community block block by block, each neighborhood contributing to a solution set that makes sense for those families.

Literally you’re talking about you, you think we could have like that at block by block? I don’t know if the policy needs to describe a block by block approach, but our process needs to be, wow, give me, give me an example how, I mean, where do you live? What I would like to do, instead of starting with my block, I’d like to start with a high concentrations of Somali communities of Ethiopian communities, of African American communities of migrant farm worker communities and really understand their perspectives, their ideas, what who do they trust, what are the resources that they’re looking for? How would they describe the menu at home? And then begin to understand how would they construct a food system. I think those are the voices that are missing from a lot of the policy conversations. And if we could recenter the conversation on the people who experienced food insecurity, then we have the chance to start building back a better system.

Does Northwest harvest has some, have some, have some experience in doing that with those communities? I mean, what are they telling you when you sit down with them? I think we could be doing so much more. I feel like we are at the very beginning of a journey to be more focused on equity in our systems. We do focus for, you mean we, you mean your Northwest harvest? Northwest harvest is that organization. Yeah. I would not describe us as leaders. I’ve described us as learners. I would not describe us as pace setters. I’d describe us as people who are looking to join and participate in the ideas of other people who’ve been thinking about this a lot longer than we have. Who are the leaders that you’re looking at in those communities? We respect the indigenous people here.

I went and spent time with the [inaudible] people last year. Powerful, beautiful ideas about returning to using historical food practices. Lamenting the fact that the environmental degradation of the sound is reducing food supply. A deep respect for the foods that we eat in the meals that we prepare and the number of people who sit together at those meals. I think we have a lot to learn from the indigenous people of our area. I think we have a lot to learn from newly arrived immigrant communities. I think about living well, Kent in the Kent area who work with immigrant communities from lots of different communities. They are, you know, they are thinking about how do we grow more carrots? How do we grow more cabbage? How do we grow more onions? Why? Because SpaghettiOs worked for part of the community, but a carrot is utilized in almost every table that I have visited and I, you know, and I’ve been to more than 70 countries. So I think it’s the people who are challenged by the economics of our neighborhoods and our communities, especially in Western Washington and have already began to put solutions into place at the local level. I guess they’re the most exciting people that people that I want to hear from. With this work.

I want to hear about the solutions. So go, let’s go to the Lumey for a minute. [inaudible] And when you were there talking to them, do they have people that they say, yes, we have food insecurity in our, in our neighborhoods, in our, in our region. They, among the tribe, tremendous food insecurity. What, so they, they laid out the problems for you. What were their thoughts about solving some of those problems with, with your help or with the help of, you know, all the different leaders and conveners you’re talking about?

Yeah. First of all, I would not position us ourselves as the helpers. I think we’re joiners. We can offer connections to other parts of the state. I’d like to see us as helping to move places where there’s abundance to places where there’s food constraints. What do you think that means? What does that look like? It, it looks like, for instance, the Anaba farms and WAPA Wapato fourth generation Japanese farmers a farming family that was displaced a number of times because of racist policies, including internment during world war II. They are resilient. It’s a resilient family in a family that now farms more than a thousand acres and often finds that they’re a class B. Fruits and vegetables aren’t saleable in the market. So they distribute it through Northwest harvest more than a million pounds of fruits and vegetables every year. They do it because they believe in, in a, in a more equitable and better society. So Northwest harvest is in a position where we can work with farmers like that. We can work with growers, we can work with ranchers and we can utilize those fruits and vegetables to link with the groups in our network that do have retail fronts, if you will, food pantries or health clinics that have a convening that are convening people who experienced food insecurity.

So what do you guys offer them facilitating the actual movement through trucks, through trucking, through movement from Yakima Valley to the Lumey

Nation? Literally, yes, we do that as well. We also offer our voice in terms of policy, you know, identifying fundamentally unjust policy and identifying ways that policy can be implemented in a more equal sort of way. We, we also offer, you know, direct access to food. We just started the soda community market here in Seattle, which is not a food pantry. It’s a grocery store that you don’t pay a, it’s a, it’s an opportunity for people to come in, pick through our watermelons or our apples or our fresh milk and you know, have a shopping and take that home. So there’s a number of ways that we participate in the systems. Who comes to that? And what’s your hope for who comes? Like how big a popular population


The soda community market is open to anyone who is hungry or as concerned about being hungry. On any given day. There are no restrictions there. You don’t have to be from a certain zip code. You don’t have to be in a certain housing status. You don’t have to be any sort of label. If you identify for yourself that you need some fresh healthy food, you can come to the Soto community market and people have been coming, you know, we see more than 3000 people a week and those people are often taking food back to home, whatever home means at tent government supported housing or something else. And you know, I would say our impact probably is about 7,000 people a week that we’re providing food for. So is that a scalable solution? Do you guys see that as something you could do around the region?

I deeply believe in it. In fact, I think it’s scalable, but maybe not in a way that you were thinking one of the issues around food pantries are, it’s stigmatizing to go. It looks, it oftentimes looks and feels like an institution, right? There’s people lined up, they’re way down. Get a Brown bag. Yeah. That’s no discount on the love and care that people who run food pantries have and the Greek guard they have for the people who approach. But still there’s a stigma for, I’d like to flip that around. I’d like to introduce the idea to Washington state residents that it should be stigmatizing. If you go to a grocery store that doesn’t have a free option. And if we could get that to move, then it’s infinitely scalable. That’s a huge concept. How do you get that? That’s like that sound. I was giving you some waiver.

The one thing that sounds pretty pie in the sky, these are businesses that weren’t gonna do that, aren’t they? What happens when you sit down with them? I think it makes Safeway, I think it makes wonderful business sense for them to do it. In fact, most grocery stores do have food waste. They have things that don’t sell. They have they have the logistical issues of ridding themselves for the things that didn’t, didn’t work out. You know, the promotion didn’t work. They bought too much. You know, the inclement weather meant that less people bought less things.


Why not eliminate the whole supply chain headaches of moving food out that didn’t work and just simply offer it to people who need it for that day. I think it’s easier. I think it makes good business sense. Got it. Got anybody to go with you on that yet in the industry?

I think it’s just about starting the conversation right now. You know, we’re going to start on the other direction. You know, we’re looking at ideas about at our free grocery store. Maybe we’ll put a cash box and you can pay. You want to I wa what I think is incredibly important is that we don’t perpetuate this idea and this is not my idea, but I think it’s beautiful that there’s two different doors. Some people go through the grocery store door, some people go through the food bank door. I’d like to have just one wider door. So we’ll start on one end. You know, we, right now we have a free grocery store. Maybe eventually we’ll introduce the idea if that, if you want to pay, which could literally mean, you know, a couple of coins and some pocket lint or you know, a a hundred dollar bill because you believe in the concept that you could come through our free grocery store and participate on the other end.

I’d just like to invite a grocery stores and grocery chains to think about, you know, what if, what could be possible, what could be possible for our brand, what could be possible for enthusiasm for future consumers that are not currently frequenting our store? If we had a free option, what would that mean for our community living? Well, Kent, so you said that they were talking to you about more carrots. What are they doing now and what would be something that that could happen in the future? I love living well Kent Schempp. So Isaac is the executive director and they’re doing a couple of things. I think really smart things, things that I’ve seen done in other countries and I haven’t seen done so much here in the United States. One is they’re mapping unused or underused farmable land here in King County. Literally mapping it going acre by acre saying this is available, this is and designated for use at this point.

And they’re looking to create the opportunity for farmers, probably newly arrived immigrant farmers to farm that land. They are also doing what I think might be the only no cost to the farmer farmer’s market and East Hill Kent, which creates the opportunity for farmers to come and sell their product. Fresh vegetables, fresh fruits in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of fresh fruit and vegetable options at a, at a no cost for them to sell their goods, which means they can pass on the savings and the reduced risk of the free farm booth to the residents of that community. So people are literally taking home cabbage and radishes and, and zucchini and whatever’s a ripe and fresh at that period of time from late spring to early fall. I think that’s a wonderful idea. And, and it really accomplishes a number of things.

Better use of public lands, better opportunities for farmers who have tremendous skills but not, not necessarily the skills that for instance, technology companies are looking for right now. And then better, healthier fruits and vegetables for families need it in, in a location where there’s not a lot of options. So are there policies, state or County policies that keep that you earlier talked about unjust policy. So with that in mind, either policies that keeps something like that from happening there are land use issues but not insurmountable. In fact, I think this is a really ripe area for us to be looking at. How do we utilize public lands? We, again, we Northwest harvest, are we the people who are thinking about food justice? We, the residents of Washington state. I see, I see. When I think about unjust policy, I think about the lunch shaming that used to occur in this state, which literally was when families who were benefiting from reduced lunches, maybe a mom or dad or a caregiver hadn’t topped up their account.

And so the child goes to school and they’re stamped on their body with a stamp that says my account is delinquent that used to happen in the United States. I’m not talking about a hundred years ago. I’m talking about last year. That’s a policy that we changed last year. You know, there are fundamentally unjust policies that really are medieval in their construction that still exists in Washington state. And I think we need to address those issues too. Again, it’s not just the technical issue of how do we get the food to the people who need food. It’s the, it’s the it’s the intentional or unintentional stigmatizing of people who are experiencing challenges either economically or in terms of food security. If I’m not mistaken, the Trump administration’s plans do call for a little bit of re stigmatizing of the people who want to use lunches around the country if they go through by December after the public comment period.

Well, what are the other medieval practices that you, that you know next year, so you had a success last year. What’s next year? And this is again, back to the legislature or by County? By County, yeah. We’re still forming our policy agenda. There’s, there’s a number of areas that we’re interested in. I think most residents, Washington state recognized that we have the most regressive tax environment of just about any state in the country. We’d like to see better opportunities for people who are you know, at the, you know, the bottom fifth in terms of economic prowess here in Washington state. We’d like to find some ways for them to get some some more tax benefits. There are some things that are onerous for instance the deductability of medical benefits. Why not just have some sort of standard benefit that low income people could benefit from instead of having to keep track of all their medical receipts and turn those in and deduct them.

You know, there’s probably some easy wins that could be put into place that would just make things easier for people who are really struggling. But does that spell one, is that a state policy or is that gonna be a federal issue? It’s something that we can address within the state. It’s probably a, it’s a, it’s probably a federal environment, but each state has an ability to, to pass policy that can be difference making. So you could have a, this is what you’ve spent, this is your deduction. And that goes towards, it’s not an income tax of what’s it going towards. It could be something like in the form of a credit, a credit that could be turned into cash or turned into healthcare that could be turned into a, that could be turned into a, an offset for, for taxes out.

Trace your path for me. You said you worked with FAO, you’ve been in other countries. How’d you end up here? Yeah, I grew up in the Seattle area and I, after school I moved to San Francisco and I, I told my mom I would never move back cause it was your hometown or because, yeah, cause I was just excited to see other things. See the rest of the world. I had a, in San Francisco I participated in starting social enterprises. Even before social entrepreneurship was really a thing that was talked about. Like what? We started restaurants. We started a S a city of San Francisco surplus store for things like street signs and parking meters. We started a screen printing company all in support of getting jobs for formerly incarcerated, formerly homeless, formerly drug addicted youth. So why was that important to you?

How’d you end up doing that? Because you want to tell your mom, I’m leaving Seattle, I’m going here. What was important? I just fundamentally believed it was right. I wanted to, I wanted to participate. I mean, we had really grandiose ideas. We really, our, our little group believed we could actually disrupt the way capital worked in the United States where you’d like just college graduates to the college graduate. In fact, a book was written about our organization and as the author was writing the book, she continually asked me how old I was and I, I said, I don’t, I don’t want to answer. So in the book she writes, Thomas Reynolds, who is so young, he declines to answer the question of his age. Yeah, I just, I just really believed in that I thought business could be used for a better purpose and that instead of this idea of the ultimate and only purpose of business is to return shareholder value, felt that there was a social component that was essential to the health and really the vitality of humanity.

Sure. The hard to sell, the hard to sell the businesses who say shareholder is the only thing that matters. So less hard to sell now than it used to be. I’m sure. I’m sure. So you did what? Then? I went to business school. I felt like I had understood the social dimensions, but I wanted to learn the language of business. So I went to business school and in business school it was an international program, spent time in Paris and Tokyo and in Philadelphia. And most of my business school cohort were from other countries. And one woman, an accountant who were worked for a consulting group from Kenya said, you shouldn’t do this social entrepreneurial stuff in the United States. You should do it internationally cause it’s needed elsewhere. I thought, Oh, that’s an interesting idea. I ended up going to work for care international and I spent 15 years with Karen and national and I worked in Asia, I worked in the middle East, I worked in the South Caucasus.

And then ultimately I moved back to the U S with care to run programming for the entire care world, which was 95 countries. The kind of programming that looked at entrepreneurship. We did a variety of things. But our cares, main focus is gender equality. And so we were interested in the economic development, education, health care water systems, but specifically as interventions that could enable greater gender equality between men and women and people of all genders. So early on before you were in charge, when you’re going into these countries, what were your, what were some successes? I think one of the most gratifying moments was in the South Caucasus when we were, I was living in the country of Georgia. And more than half the population were subsistence farmers and together, you know, I think it’s never one organization alone, but I think it’s people working together together with more than 50 other organizations.

We worked with the European union to change the national policy of Georgia. And this was Georgian led. It was not international led, but local people who are passionate about making change. We introduced new financing options for farmers to be able to cooperate and to build businesses that were the next step in the slow supply chain beyond production. We, we changed tax law to create an incentive for growing rural businesses. And then we then there was a financing facility to help capitalize new rural businesses to start. And that was incredibly gratifying. It was gratifying to see the development of the Georgian economy to see the numbers of Georgian farmers who are lifted out of poverty. The creation of the Georgian farmers association, which last time I checked had more than 20,000 members. And what I really took away from that experience was, it’s not technical fixes alone. It’s not projects alone. It’s not policy alone. It’s not one organization or the private sector or government working alone. It’s when we mix these things all together and we pursue an end and be agnostic about the ways to get there so that we could identify policy changes. We could then identify new resources and we could identify new relationships that could help pursue that end.

By the way, just on Georgia, what w what was changed fundamentally, what was it a top down system before and when it was a, it was a Soviet States, did they, is that what the issue was?

So many issues? Was there a fundamental change that you just had to come from the bottom instead of the top? That the fundamental difference was that the, the tech structure unintentionally prevented the development of small businesses beyond a certain point. Because if you are informal, you are untaxed and once you became formal, no matter how small you were, there was a pretty substantial tax that was both complicated to track. And then you know, significantly deterred farmers from becoming formal in participating in the economy.

Right. So is there a farmer or an entrepreneur in that beginning supply chain who jumps out at you as somebody who was

A leader at their level to make these sort of changes occur in Georgia? Are we talking about Georgia? Yes. Yes, absolutely. There were a number of them. Nino’s advocates at an extraordinary farmer from the [inaudible] area, her organization and care work together to start a cheese factory because there were a lot of cows and not a lot of cold storage. And if you can get seven liters of milk and a little bit of time, you can produce cheese that almost everyone in Georgia likes to eat. And so we started with the cheese production facility, but her ambitions were bigger. She wanted to see fundamental change and she recognized that the people around her, she was benefiting from the cheese factory. And the farmers who brought their milk were also benefiting, but she, she could only just impact this one little area.

And so it was with Nino and with another, a number of other farmers. And with the agricultural attache of the European union that the idea of the Georgian farmers association was created. There was a lot of research and, and respect for the cooperatives that are substantial, you know, powerfully substantial and economically substantial all across Europe. You know, in America generally. Our belief is that farming needs to be large scale farming and you know, single crop or you know, a couple of crops. And in Europe it’s a smaller groups of farmers who come together and cooperate to produce you know, just as much productivity, even more actually than just large scale farming. And so the country of Georgia had nothing like that. And the idea was to just take best practices from other parts of Western Europe to increase productivity per Hector and do it by cooperating based on the premise that if there’s more cooperation than the supply chain can be further developed, cold storage, transportation, marketing, export.

And that if the technical support could be identified and the skills could be built, that it would have an exponential effect, not only on Nino’s community but farming across the country. And that was probably seven years or so ago. And I’m amazed at the growth and I’m amazed at what’s happened since then. I was in Moscow three years ago and the people who took me around were most excited to take me to Georgian restaurants with the incredible Georgian cuisine and wines. Yes. Is that the sort of things that you think grew out of the ability to be agnostic about, about approaches? Well, I think the Georgian table has been established as it was, it was a Soviet favorite for decades upon decades. Sure. A Georgian wine has increased production and there’s you know, many multiples more being extorted now than there was before.

I think it’s difficult to tie the Georgia wine exports to those specific interventions. What I think about is the reemergence of some of the industries. For instance, like Hazel nuts the re there I think soon to be re-emergence of the tea industry. Georgian tea was something that was very much respected during Soviet times and then fell into almost complete disrepair. Almost no exports at all. And now some of those industries like the tea industry are being revived. Hmm, okay, I’m going to skip over the U then you start running all of care. Those, not health care, but yes. Programs. What was attractive about Northwest harvest that brought you back to a place you said, Hey, I’m out of here for six years. I was not in the same time zone for more than three weeks in a row.

I was traveling all the time and I was meeting with governments. I was raising money and I really missed that connection with people and ideas local people who are passionate about substantive change. I just felt disconnected to that. And what I recognized was I had, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars a year to allocate to different projects and different ideas. And I, and I began to recognize the pattern. And myself, I liked to find local people who are committed to longterm change, who are interested in doing something more than just a technical solution. And I found myself drawn to moving investments to people like that. And then I realized I wanted to do that myself. And so I want to do it in my own home community. And it just felt like the right time I had, I had done enough traveling. I had done enough, you know workshops in capitals and hotels.

I had done enough airport lounges and I wanted to come home and I wanted to see if I could make just a tiny bit of difference in my own home community. And so that’s why I moved to Northwest harvest. So you bring agnostic concepts to Northwest harvest. What are your, what do you see unfolding in the, in the short term with that in mind me, where, where do you take some of these ideas right away? Well, what’s exciting is when I started it was one in eight Washingtonians experience food insecurity, they’re not sure where their meal’s going to come at some point throughout the month or year. That number is now one in 10. And we attribute nothing to Northwest harvest work. We think the economy has been better. You know, maybe a little bit of work in terms of policy change, but we think the hard work is ahead.

We’d like to see hunger cut in half between now and 20, 28. And we’re agnostic at how that happens. But we have a set of beliefs. We think if a broad set of actors can be identified and mobilized and joined together to address the underlying causes of food insecurity, that’s gonna be difference-making. We believe that if we can create equitable access to nutritious food for people across Washington state, that’s going to be difference making. And we believe that if we can identify investments in scalable, effective hunger fighting initiatives, those three things together we think will transform the hunger landscape here in Washington state. And again, we don’t see this as our way work. We see this as the work that needs to be done by all of us. The underlying factors. What are some that you think can be addressed them? What’d you, what’d you say?

  1. 2028. 2028 so, okay. Nine years. Yeah. Yeah. Been used to reduce hunger by half a, there needs to be a more equitable access to jobs and employment across the state of Washington. There needs to be for those who are challenged by transportation, we need to identify ways that affordably food can reach households or hubs in which people can easily go and pick up food. I’d like to see food as a right codified into law here in Washington state and that we would identify practical ways to implement that policy so that government agencies you know, local County and state level are thinking about how do we enact that concept of food as a right for every individual. Many people in communities across the state still view food as a privilege that’s actually out of touch with the way the rest of the world is moving in terms of food. So I think those are some of the things that are truly we need to get there. We must get there in order to see substantive change. And virtually none of them are technical fixes. This is really about changing the perception of people in society so that people say it’s intolerable, that community members just down the street or in the next neighborhood aren’t doing well. I want people, each person here in Washington state to identify way that they can get involved, get engaged and be a difference maker in, in a more equitable state.

What’s that look like? All of us being involved. What does that look like other than telling our elected representatives? What does that look like? I do think that’s important. I wasn’t in a denigrating I’ve seen but, but you know, you know, just one very practical way.

Most all of us have at least a window sill, but we could have a window sale. We’re gonna have a backyard. We could have a suburban farm, we could have a, you know, a hundred acres and we could just grow something and share it with our local food pantry. I think that would be a tremendous difference for two reasons. One is it, it connects people to the the, the, the reality that we all need to be contributors because we are consumers in this state. The second is because it’ll help us think about and appreciate the role of food and that food is so much more than just fuel. Food is a connector. It brings people together. It tells stories it promotes hope in many ways. And then the third is it would enable us to be thinking about what’s the type of society that will want to live in and to recognize that next week, next year next decade, maybe it’s unimaginable that we could be hungry, but it is possible and that we could imagine that there’d be a society waiting for us in that future period when we were in need.

That’s going to welcome us and help us get the food that we need. All right.

Business school. So you know all about deliverables. What do you want to come out of this town hall event that’s a deliverable, not just to people living there, but to the policy leaders that you’re listening to.

I would like people to be leaning forward in their chairs thinking about why is it that it’s okay to go home and have a meal and not think about the people who aren’t. I would like a, the people who participate in the town hall too have a sense on what policies should they be supporting and helping advocate for going forward. And I would like people who attend the town hall to be thinking about what are the injustices that are sitting in plain view that they just haven’t been thinking about or have been tolerating because no one’s confronted them on it. So in your deliverables, okay, who are the people that are going to be that you’re relying on on the panel? I’m going to have the privilege to talk to wonderful set of powerful women. Representative Schrier, Melanie Cunningham from PLU and Taylor Wong, who’s a restaurant here here in the Seattle area.

What I like about the way the panel is constructed is we have a representative from government, a representative from business, and a representative from higher education who all bring their own perspectives to why food justice is important. I’m just excited about asking the questions and seeing what sort of ideas they have, what examples they bring. You’ve got you know, Taylor is a first generation immigrant to Washington state and she relied on food assistance when she was young and now runs a restaurant empire. Melanie Cunningham is a powerhouse in the areas of equity and diversity and inclusion. And I think she will provoke us all to think about what is happening in our communities. Why are we okay with it? And what could we be doing differently? And I think representative Schrier has brought fresh perspective to Congress and I think it’s because of her background as a pediatrician, as a business leader and as a person who truly cares about food justice issues here in Washington state. All right, sir. Thank you. Thanks Steve.

Thomas Reynolds, CEO of Northwest harvest will moderate a panel discussion on food justice, just food, a conversation about food as a right in Washington state. It’ll be November 11th at 7:30 PM on our great hall stage. There’s still tickets available, so get yourself a seat and join in the conversation.


Thank you for listening to our 46th episode 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 our town hall produced events on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, and watch a ton of great events on our Townhall Seattle YouTube channel to support town hall. See our calendar of events or access our media library head to our website at town hall, next week, our chief correspondent Steve share, we’ll be talking with HW brands about the history of the American West till then. Thanks for joining us right here in the moment. [inaudible].

In The Moment: Episode 45

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In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with Dan Hooper about particles, relativity, and the origins of our universe. Hooper outlines our growing understanding of the conditions in which our universe began, highlighting what we know about the first few seconds after the Big Bang and how several astronomers and mathematicians throughout history helped us determine that the universe was expanding. He discusses the limitations of language in explaining mathematical equations, and the value of explaining scientific research to people who don’t know much science, a practice which he says helps him better understand his work and can even lead to breakthroughs. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall.

Episode Transcript

This transcript was performed automatically. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email

Hello and welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast. In the moment, every episode, a local correspondent interview, somebody coming to our town hall stages and gives you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. It’s Halloween week and the air is crisp outside. The sun is out, leaves are falling and spooking out our stages this week or events about the battles against global disinformation and the future of food in Africa. We’ve got some advice from multi-disciplinary artist, Jenny Odell on Friday, November 1st about reclaiming our attention in the age of distraction and some great rental events from earshot, jazz to a veteran’s day. Open mic on Saturday, November 2nd but to prep us for what’s to come next week. On Friday, November 8th our chief correspondent Steve share talks with the head of the theoretical astrophysics group at the Fermi national accelerator laboratory and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the university of Chicago. Dan Hooper about our universes. First seconds,


Humanity knows more about the science of the origins of the universe than ever before. Thanks to Einstein and all the mathematicians, physicists and engineers who have followed. We have learned about the makeup and origins of energy matter, space and time. And yet many questions remain, especially about the very first microseconds of the big bang when according to physicist Dan Hooper, the laws of physics as we know them, did not apply. Hooper talked to chief correspondent, Steve share about his upcoming appearance at town hall and his book at the edge of time, exploring the mysteries of our universe’s first seconds.

Dan Hooper. Hey Steve, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me. My pleasure. You know whenever I read these books, I’ve read a few. I always struggle with them because I am not a scientist. And, and I was wondering when did you know, in your life that you understood the math?

Well, I mean, I, I was pretty good at math when I was young, but I wasn’t especially interested in it. You know, I didn’t go to college thinking I was going to be a, a scientist or a mathematician or anything remotely like that. You know, I, I grew up in a small town in Minnesota and I hadn’t learned about any of the exciting or adventurous forms of science or math. I really just learned about, you know, memorizing a bunch of names of chemicals and a bunch of procedures for doing math problems. It was pretty dull stuff. But about halfway through college I ended up taking a modern physics class as part of just as a general education sort of thing. And I learned about relativity and quantum mechanics and it blew my mind. And that was the only thing I, you know, thought was really interesting in the world. So for me it was an easy decision at that point. But I, you know, most of my colleagues like can tell you, Oh, when I was six I wanted to be a physicist. I had nothing like that in my experience. I was 20 or 21 when that occurred to me for the first time.

You’re, you’re in Oak park, huh?

Yeah. So you’re not at the moment, but I live in Oak park.

But that means you’re right near where the first of the real interesting stuff in physics is taking place. Right.

Are you’re talking about a Fermi lab, that’s where I am right now. Yeah. That’s for nets in Batavia, Illinois. That’s farther out West. Right, right. But yeah, I mean I’m, I’m the main high rise tower at Fermilab as we speak and I’m looking out the window and I can see you know, the, the, the campus where the Tevatron was the, a big particle accelerator we had here for a long time. That’s retired now. But but yeah, we, we’ve made a lot of great discoveries here. Back in the day.

I remember when we were little kids, we are not little kids, but when we were in high school, we got, took a tour out there just to see this is out here. This is the thing. I remember

You may still take tours here all the time. There’s a steady flow of science and enthusiasm coming through.

Now remind me, why did that get retired? What superseded that accelerator?

Well. So you know, for a long time the biggest accelerator in the world was the Tevatron. But in Europe at a, at the CERN laboratory, we built this thing called the large Hadron Collider, which is even bigger. In most respects is just a bigger, more modern version of the type of Tron. It’s a little different cause it collides protons with protons at the Tevatron we collided protons with antiprotons. So there’s some subtle difference differences. But basically the large Hadron Collider is a bigger, more modern version of the Tevatron. And once that was up and running and had been collecting data for a while, it made sense to retire the Tevatron and move on to other things.

And you write in your book about next steps in what we need to build and to get to the next steps. And in understanding all this, all these ideas, all these concepts. I’ll come to that though. For the first time, human beings have begun to understand the origins of the universe have begun. How far past have begun? Are we?

Well, there’s always going to be questions that we don’t have answers to. I think that’s just the nature of science. I think I talk about it in the last chapter that I just don’t think there could ever be an end of, of the [inaudible] progress or the, the quest we call science. But a hundred years ago we didn’t even have an inkling about how our universe might change or evolve or if you don’t know that it could change or evolve, you certainly can’t talk about how it might’ve begun that those were just questions you couldn’t even conceptualize much must much less try to answer. But now, I mean, we’ve got a pretty good picture of how our universe has changed over as 13.8 billion year history. We know what it was like a billion years ago. We know it is like 10 billion years ago, but we know what it was like.

A hundred thousand years after the big bang. We notice last a second after the big bang, that first second. There’s a lot of mystery. We don’t know what the we don’t have any direct way of observing what the universe was like a million or a billion or a trillionth of a second after the big bang. We can do some experiments that inform us as to what it might’ve been like, but we don’t really know. And in that tiny fraction of a second carries with it enormous implications for how the world got to be the way it is. And I think that’s, that’s the part that has a lot of nuts yet to be cracked. That that is really where the mysteries and cosmology lie.

What would be occurring? What’s thoughts or conjecture that’s occurring in the first, second of the big bang that could possibly be occurring?

Well, instead of thinking about it as an event, let’s just think for a second about how space expands. So it turns out that if you have a piece of space with a pretty uniform amount of energy or matter in it, the space will expand faster if there’s more stuff in it. So today the universe is pretty big and pretty dilute most of spaces pretty close to empty. And, and, and in this state, the universe is expanding pretty slowly about if you take two points in space a few million light years apart from each other, there’ll be moving away from each other because of the expansion of space at about like 70 kilometers a second. So pretty slow in the grand scheme of things. But when the universe was smaller, the density of all that energy was higher space was expanding faster and you’d go back farther and farther and farther in time, and you reach a point where the universe was really, really dense. It was really, really hot and it was expanding really, really fast. And that is how I think about the big bang, this sort of state of hyper rapid expansion, hyper high temperatures, incredibly high densities all evolving in the blink of an eye.

That’s, that’s just an, an amazing thing to try to contemplate. And you know, I was, I was a, I was talking to a friend who is, you know, a rational journalist and telling him I was, I was talking to you and he said, I have a friend who’s also a physicist and we talk about these things, but he gets to a point where he says, my friend says to his friend, you know, it’s just sounds like magical thinking to me. What, what do you tell us? What do you tell him in me about why it isn’t magical thinking? Why the calculations that that Freedman Alexander Friedman did a hundred years ago being confirmed today, tell us the math gives us these answers

If, okay, if, if in 1922 and Alexander Freeman was doing those calculations, if you asked me then, if I had been around then and, and I was, you know, a similar kind of businesses, but within 1922 sort of perspective and knowledge I would have told you, of course this won’t turn out to be right. The university will be more complicated than that. I’m sure it’s worth checking, but probably something else will show up when we do the observations. It’s quite remarkable that Alexander Freeman turned out to be right. So let me back up and say what Alexander Freeman worked out and, and, and, and, and what, how we found out that it was true. So in 1915, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, which says that space and time aren’t the sort of static, unchanging backdrops that we usually think of them as or, or at least before Einstein, we thought about them as instead space can warp and change and expand and contract and do all sorts of things.

And if it does those things depending on how much energy including matter there is in space and where it is in space. So Freeman was one of the first people to look at Einstein’s theory and say, well, okay, if we take the universe as a whole, we make certain simplifying assumptions. Like there’s the same amount of stuff everywhere on average. You can work out that the universe should either be expanding or contracting and then you can exactly work out how much it should be expanding or contracting. At the time, Einstein really rejected this idea. Einstein really thought the universe should be static and he said some pretty critical things, dismissive things, even about Friedman and others work. But in 1929 and when the huddle observed that our universe is in fact expanding and that suddenly put Friedman’s work and others on pretty high plane and people then took that and built upon it. And slowly over the course of decades or even a century, we’ve measured how our universe expanded, not just today but over it’s 13.8 billion year history. And we now have a really detailed picture of how that’s all played out. And if you take Freeman’s equations from 1922 and plot those curves right through what we’ve measured, man, it is spot on. So yeah, Friedman’s work turned out to be entirely valid to the best of our ability to measure it a hundred years later.

Do you ever feel trapped by the language you to use? In other words, the mathematics, mathematical equations, the work you do can prove it, but then when you have to explain it, you have to come up with metaphors, big bang Einsteins. I, you know, a car and Newtonian universe. There was a car in Einsteinian universe, that sort of thing.

Yeah, I think, I mean this is just a statement about language, right? I mean I would argue that if you want to talk about the feelings you have for the most important people in your life and you know, you, you would, even in that case, you’d have to rely on metaphor and, and the imperfect, a limitations of language. Or if I want to talk about how my favorite record makes me feel when I hear it or if I want to talk about you know, why I prefer a particular kind of scotch over another kind. Like all these things rely on, on language, which in, in any cases is, is imperfectly designed for the problem at hand. The science is the same way. And I, I find it actually helpful in my research to have to try to explain what I’m doing to people who aren’t scientists. Because if I can think about the problems I’m working on in my research in different, in different conceptual frameworks, and you’re using different language, for example, not just mathematics it means it helps me to understand it more deeply and sometimes that actually leads to breakthroughs. And if I can understand it more clearly or more deeply, it’s more, more likely that I’ll be able to come up with you know, well I’ll be able to advance the problem in ways that may be just manipulating equations won’t, won’t facilitate.

Hmm. Hey, any examples of that for you where you have advanced the the problem address? The problem is advanced advanced it by putting it into a language first.

Well, I don’t know if we’ve advanced it yet, but just this week some colleagues of mine here, Fermi lab and a couple of people in Oxford and I are, are thinking about what black holes in the early universe might have been like. And it turns out that the math says that if, if a black hole is spinning, it radiates away certain kinds of particles more than if it’s not spinning. And I’ve read the papers that show this as true and I think I understand the math, but I didn’t have any intuitive understanding for why these conclusions followed. So I sat down with my colleagues and I said, let’s try to explain to each other why this is true without using any map. And we put it in words in different ways and we’re like, well, is that really right in, does that really right or is there a better way to think about it?

And I think at the end of that conversation I had a different, or maybe even deeper understanding of why that happens to be true. You know, I wouldn’t, I probably wouldn’t put that in the paper. I’m going to write on this and I’m going to publish in a journal for other scientists. The, the math will be there, but I don’t, I don’t know that all this pontificating about metaphors will be, but it helps me think about the problem. And I think that’s at least as important as a, you know, making sure you get the factors of two right.

I thought it was interesting in your book how you talked about one of the, one of the problems that you run into in studying the universe is that we only had the one universe to study. Yeah. So we’re inside the box and trying to figure it out. It’d be a lot different if we could get outside the box. I mean we are trapped by our own cognition abilities, cognitive abilities, aren’t we?

Well not just our own cognitive abilities, but our own empirical limitations. So probably the single most important thing we have to observe about our universe in terms of cosmology is what we call the cosmic microwave background. This is the light that was released throughout all the space, about 380,000 years after the big bang when the first Adams were forming. And we have studied this over the last 50 years in quite amazing detail and we look up at the sky and we see this pattern of slightly hotter and slightly colder places in the sky. In terms of the radiation that’s from this background, but we basically, I’m gun pretty close to a extracting all the information we can get out of that. We’ve counted the number of hot spots and cold spots of different sizes and we’ve just kind of run out of sky. If we could instantly teleport somewhere else in the universe, you know, a, you know, a 1 billion light years away or something there, you’d have another pattern of hot and cold spots in the sky. You can measure those and you can know twice as much as we do. But we can’t do that. There’s no way to get a billion light years away except by traveling for a billion years and that’s not very practical. So yeah, we’ve kind of extracted everything. Well, almost everything. We’re approaching the point where we are gonna distract everything we can out of this cosmic microwave background. And we’re going to have to find new and different ways to learn how to learn about our universe from that.

What are people thinking about? What’s the new and different way that might be possible? What’s the conjecture?

Well, it totally depends on what time scale you’re thinking about. Like, so for the next decade, we’re just gonna keep squeezing the cousin micro background, keep getting more and more out of that. Beyond that we’re talking about using something we call 21 centimeter cosmology to, to kind of extract even more information out of the universe. The basic idea there is that all the hydrogen gas runs, but the universe gives up a particular kind of light. And by measuring that light at different frequencies, you measure the light that was admitted at different points in cosmic history. So you kind of get different slices at different points in time, so you can kind of have put together like a film strip of of the universe history with pictures at different frames. So that, that’s an exciting thing that we’re just starting to do now. We’re also just starting to be able to do what we call gravitational wave astronomy.


Where we detect the ripples in space and time that are created when it really dramatic things happen. Like black holes merging with one another, stuff like that. And it’s possible one day we’ll detect gravitational waves that were released are produced in the big bang itself. That would be pretty exciting. Even farther down the road I think we’ll be studying something called the cosmic neutrino background. So the universe we think or we’re pretty sure is a build with a bunch of particles we call neutrinos that were produced about a second or so after the big bang. Eventually we’re going to measure those and not just tell that they’re there, but we measure them in detail. I mean, this is probably a hundred years from now or something, but but yeah, we have a lot of steps that I’m excited about going forward. Even some of them that will be well after my time on earth has gone

Well. I just liked it. You use the phrase ripples in time and space because that just says what level that we’re operating at when we’re thinking about these things. [inaudible]

Well, let me tell you a little bit more about that. So, you know, like I said before, nine Stein’s theory of relativity space itself can change. So like for example,


If I take two points in space, the distance between those points in space can change without anything moving. This, the space itself can do the changing. So when things like black holes merge with each other, that’s so dramatic that it sends these waves through space, these ripples. And as those ripples pass through you, the distance between points in space kind of go back and forth. They oscillate back and forth getting farther and closer away from each other. Now it’s really subtle. It’s you, you need incredibly sensitive detectors to even notice this is happening. But for the first time we’re able to see these, these waves and they’re real phenomena. And you know, we see a bunch of these ’em every year now when a black holes merge.

Hmm. All right, two questions. Two callbacks. One do you have a preferred scotch?

It changes with time these days. I’m, I’ve been a bourbon guy lately. I know it’s not a scotch, but I, I, and I, I’m, I have a pretty serious hobby in a cocktail making. I’ve got a half of my kitchen is full of cocktail gear and kits and various bottles of, of things. If you’re ever in Chicago, look me up and I’ll fix you up with a, a nice drink.

I’ve, I’ve gravitated to bourbons as well in the last few years. I guess we’re part of a trend. Is there a all right. Yeah. I had a mezcal cocktail yesterday that I really loved. So WWE gimme one gimme one bourbon cocktail that you’ve been making that you really are enjoying making.

So I’ve been doing these smoked old fashioned actions lately. Oh what I mean by smoke, so it’s just like super classical fashion. There’s nothing fancy about it at all, except that I have of some pieces of wood that are planks from a bourbon barrel and I light them on fire and I take a cold glass and I catch the smoke on the surface of the glass and it turns out the cold glass smoke naturally adheres to. So I do that and I get the right amount smoking it, and then I pour the drink into the, into the glass. And it really, you know, just makes for a beautiful variants of an old fashioned.

Very nice. It’s nice to have those [inaudible]. I mean, I imagine it’s nice to have those hobbies when you come home from doing big brainwork. You can do something simpler.

I’ve been a hobby guy my whole life. You know, in the hobbies change with time, but I get pretty obsessed with whatever hobby I’m on at the moment.

I see. Okay. Here’s my other, just I cavalierly, and you kind of already explained this, but I cavalierly said a car and Einstein’s universe in the car and Newton’s universe you described, you know, driving in a square mile, both those things. Would you elaborate on what the difference is and what that tells us about the universe we live in?

So I use this metaphor in the book to try to convey the difference between the Newtonian view of space and time that the version that physicists adhere to before Einstein. And then Einstein’s view of space and time. So in, in the Newtonian view, I imagine somebody getting in a car, they drive a mile, they turn 90 degrees to the right, they drive a mile and then 90 degrees to the right again in nine degrees to right again. And you’ve gone a perfect square and you wind up exactly where you started because that of course is what, you know, your high school geometry says what happened, but then Einstein’s a car or an in a car being driven in Einstein’s sort of universe, which happens to be our kind of universe that geometry can change. So if you drive the car too fast, that will change the route you take through space.

And if there’s a bunch of energy in the form of mass or other stuff somewhere along your route that will warp or distort the geometry of space in such a way that after you’ve driven your, what you think is a perfect square, you’re not exactly where you started. So for example, take the solar system in the Newtonian view, we said that space was just this perfect static, rigid backdrop in the force of gravity pulled between the sun and earth in such a way to keep the earth on its elliptical orbit around the sun. What Einstein said is that the really deep down isn’t a force of gravity. Instead, the energy that’s stored in the mass of the sun changes the geometry of space throughout the solar system and the earth is simply moving on what is basically a straight line through that space. But that straight line happens to wrap around on itself and it seems to us like it’s elliptical orbit.

So instead of thinking about gravity is a force, Einstein said gravity is just the phenomena that follows from the way that mass and energy changed the geometry of space in a warp space. A bunch of this stuff you were taught in like 10th grade geometry turns out not to be true. Like we were taught that if you take two parallel lines and follow them, they stay parallel forever. But that’s only true and in flat space or non warped or non curved space. But it turns out those paralyze parallel lines can sometimes converge or diverge. And according to Einstein and we’ve measured them. That’s true. Also things like the, like a triangle in your high school geometry class that any three angles, the three angles of any triangle will always add up to 180 degrees. Not. So in curb stir workspace they can add up to either more or less than 180, depending on the geometry of that space. So, you know, Einstein’s view of space and time was, you know, really turned the whole Newtonian view on its head. It was probably the greatest paradigm shift in the history of physics.

We operate in Newtonian or Einsteinian space in our, when I walk around my house. Well, Newtonian space is a really good approximation of anything you’re going to find around here. Okay. Unless you’re like close to a black hole or something like that. The universe we live in is awfully close to Newtonian, but we can do really high precision tests that show that it’s not perfectly Newtonian and you’d really need Einstein’s theory to get the details right. For example, the GPS system, there’s satellites that tell your phone exactly where you are at any given moment. Those wouldn’t work if we didn’t put in the relativist of corrections. You know, and, and when we put satellites out in the solar system, we need to account for all of the relative as of corrections if we want to accurately predict where they’ll go in a and navigate them properly. So, yeah, I mean, the universe is in fact that we live in is in fact one described by general relativity. But you won’t, you know, screw yourself up too much by wandering around, you know, your, your neighborhood and with the Newtonian perspective in mind.

But given that the Einsteinian perspective has, has value. So just in the last, well, just recently we’ve had another announcement about quantum computing. How does quantum computing, if at all, relate to the notions and the quantum theories that you’re, you know, you’re looking at when you’re exploring a concept like the quantum gravity era?

Sure. So there are really two really important underlying theories that were developed in the 20th century and physics one, one’s relativity, which I already of talked about a bit. The other is quantum physics or quantum mechanics, or mean the same thing. So before the quantum revolution, people thought of objects as being, for example, in one place at one time and having a well-defined velocity and, and, and events that took place took place at one specific point in time and one specific place and stuff like this. But that’s not really how the universe turns out to work. Instead, instead of talking about an electron as like a point in space, you have to talk about it as a wave that describes a probability distribution of outcomes or, and can be in different places at one time and they can move and you have different velocities, different amounts of energy at the same time.

And events that take place can, can occur at multiple times at once. You may have heard of things like Schrodinger’s cat, which kind of is a thought experiment that illustrate some of this weirdness when it comes to quantum computing. Whereas in a non quantum computer, what we call a classical computer takes these kinds of you know, analogues steps where you know, you you, you kind of calculate things one bit at a time in quantum computing. You can, like, just like an electron can be a superposition of different places. A quantum computer combines things called cubits, which do calculations and superposition and for certain kinds of algorithm, algorithmic problems, you can do them much faster with a quantum computer than you can with a classical computer. I think the, the news you’re talking about is that Google has announced that it’s done some sort of quantum computation faster than you can with a classical computer for the first time. I’m not an expert on this, but I, you know, I’ve read the same articles that you have probably, if that’s true, that’s a really big step. And you know, it’s exciting to be living in the future.

Yeah. Does it, does this sort of work inform your work at all or is it very far removed?

Well, certainly quantum physics informs my work in almost every step. I’m, I was trained as a particle physicist and that’s still kind of my, my basic mindset as a, as a scientist and particle physics is a fundamentally quantum kind of physics. When I talk about particles, I’m talking about quantum objects behave in quantum sort of ways. And so yeah, when I, when I, when I do physics, I’m usually doing quantum physics. Now when it comes to quantum computing, I mean, that’s an application of quantum physics. I am, I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase quantum computing in a paper I’ve written. But you can certainly consider me an interested or even fascinated spectator.

But it’s another example, isn’t it, of the, of both the progress and the pro proof that’s evolved from when Einstein first proposed these concepts.

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, I mean, this, this stuff isn’t some sort of esoteric, philosophical you know, point. It’s something that enables us to build workable technologies that really work in the real world. You know, in the same way that you need general relativity to get GPS to work, right. And I need to know how quantum mechanics works to make the transistors and my cell phone work. You know? Yeah. These are, these are extremely real world theories that not have, not only been tested and have been shown to be correct, but enable us them and they manipulate our world in new and powerful ways.

You were talking about the Einstein was saying that gravity wasn’t a force itself, but but an outcome of other forces but you also wrote for gravity to be compatible with quantum theory, we need gravitons or gravity particles. Put that in context for me.

Yeah. So, so, okay, let instead of talking about gravity first, let’s just talk about electromagnetism, which is something we understand much better than we understand gravity. So on the one hand we have the idea of the of the electromagnetic force. We know a magnet’s work. We know electric fields work, things like this. We use these things called Maxwell’s equations to describe that stuff, but that’s the classical or non quantum version of electromagnetism. We also know that deep down what electromagnetism is, are a bunch of photons. These are individual particles or Quanta of the electromagnetic field, and these particles travel through space. And some sort of way that we now understand very, very well. And the sort of classical big picture of limit of those photons is the electromagnetic force that we understand. So in an analogy, we have a classical theory of gravity, general relativity, and that works really well.

It’s, it’s not that it’s wrong or something, but we know deep down there must be a quantum version of it. That underpins it all. And just like there’s a photon which is responsible for the electromagnetic force, we imagine there has to be a particle we use called the gravitron. And it is somehow responsible for the phenomena we call gravity or, or the, or the phenomenon associated with general relativity. We’ve never seen a graviton and it would be really, really hard to do. So it’s the sort of thing that it would be hard to imagine an experiment that would actually see these particles individually, but you know, in the distant future perhaps but we don’t know how this works. We don’t have a really a workable theory of quantum gravity yet people speculate about things like string theory and loop quantum gravity is ideas, but we just don’t know how gravity works at a quantum level. We snow. It has to, it’s, you know, deep down. But there are more open questions associated with quantum gravity than there are you know, real solutions at this time.

You have at the beginning of the book, this the big bang Erez and the era at, at 10 to the minus 43 to 10 to the minus 95, approximately, right? So this is right at the, I don’t how, what, but milliseconds, I don’t even know how to break it down smaller than that of the big bang is the quantum gravity era. What does that mean? There’s, there’s an unknown in there, but it has to, there’s something, it has to be,

Well, we don’t know what that era was like. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. But we do know that when the universe was that hot and that dense, that the laws of physics that we know of have to break down. We know that general relativity is not compatible with quantum mechanics at those extreme condition, under those extreme conditions. So there has to be some new theory that comes into play. A theory of quantum gravity. We don’t know what that’s like. We can speculate. But yeah, and when we, when we run our equations backward, we seem to think that roughly 10 to the minus 43 seconds after the big bang is, is where this era was, was kind of a completing itself. So there was this little tiny bit of time where the universe maybe can, consisted of more than three dimensions of space, we don’t know. And maybe space itself kind of existed in the superposition of different shapes and geometries. Maybe it was 11 dimensional or 26 dimensional. And who knows what kinds of forms of matter and energy existed at that time. All we can really say for sure is that our universe in that era looked nothing like the universe. What we see around us today.

You already touched on it, but you must, when you’re thinking about these things, you must, and I know everybody must ask you this cause it’s so perplexing. What’s the before? Do you speculate on it before or do you just or not?

Well, so I mean if you really just take general relativity and run it backwards, you find that 13 8.8 billion years ago, the universe gets hotter and hotter and hotter and denser and denser and denser and it’s at a spirit specific point in time at what we call times zero. Okay. The universe gets infinitely hot and infinitely dense and then time doesn’t go back any further than that. So they’re literally, according to that picture wasn’t any time prior to the big Bay. It’s like talking about what happened before the big bang. From that perspective, it’s kind of like talking about what’s North of the North pole. Like you just, there is no way to get to travel in any direction on the surface here is that we’ll get you farther North than that. That’s just the edge of of spacetime, which is where the title for my book at the edge of time comes from.

So all that being said I think we should be pretty open minded about how that really played out after all. We don’t have any way of observing the first fraction of a second after the big bang. And it’s entirely plausible in my opinion, that any number of weird unexpected things happened in that window. And maybe there were things that happened before that some very serious businesses talk about scenarios where a, the big bang kind of occurs in cycles where the universe expands for awhile and then it contracts and it kind of goes through a bounce and starts all over again. I, those theories have problems and none of them really work very well so far. But is it possible that one day we’ll work out a theory like that that does work and that turns out to be right. I think we should be open minded to that. On the other hand, it’s also possible that there really was a, an edge in terms of time and there just wasn’t anything that occurred before that and not only to know events happened, but there was no time in which those events may have happened. Before T equals zero.

We are back to the question of language again, aren’t we though? I like the analogy of you can’t go North of the North pole. That’s fascinating. Tell me something, what do you get like your, I, I’m sure you’re gonna this is at the edge of time is a great book and you’re going to have many, many great questions when you come to town hall. But what do you get


From I guess, yeah, spiritually if I may from top from talking about these ideas.

Not just from talking about these ideas, but just from thinking about these ideas and getting to think about it in a lot of different ways. I mean, I just invited deeply fascinating in a way that I don’t think I have language to convey or communicate. And I don’t know when would you use the word spiritual? So I’ll kind of go in that direction. I mean, when I hear Buddhist monks talk about the kind of transcendental or sublime experiences they have in meditation and you know, I’ve never had that experience myself. But you know, I have some some experiences thinking about the universe and having insights about it that I would describe as sublime. I don’t know about transcendental, but you know, the closest thing I’ve ever come and there’s, there’s some kind of way in which my brain gets rewarded for, for kind of wrapping its head around some of these hard ideas. And it, it feels good and it feels exciting and it feels kind of pure. I think a certain kinds of scientific experiences or intellectual experiences probably it doesn’t have to be science can, can be deeply satisfying in a way that very few things in my experience happen.

Great. Great answer that that in a in a good, good PD scotch. All right. Thank you sir. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

Oh, I’m excited about this and I can’t wait to come to Seattle, so.

Great. Great. All right. Enjoy the, I hope you have some decent weather. Enjoy the decent Midwestern Indian summer, if that’s what you’re having.

Yeah, I enjoy the fall. This is a good weather. I like Chicago in the fall.

Yeah. All right. Thanks a lot. All right. Cheers man. Take care. Bye.

Steve shares spoke with Dan Hooper, author of at the edge of time exploring the mysteries of our universe’s first seconds. He will be speaking on our forums stage at town hall on November 8th at 7:30 PM thank you for joining us for episode 45 of in the moment. Earthy music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. Listen to our town hall produced events on our earths and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, and you can watch a bunch of great events on our town hall, Seattle YouTube channel. So check that out as well to support town hall, see our lineup of, or to access our media library head to our website at town hall, next week, our chief correspondent Steve share, we’ll be in conversation with Northwest harvest CEO Thomas Reynolds about food as a right in Washington state. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 44

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In this week’s interview, Town Hall’s own Haley Fenton talks with Timothy Wise about agribusiness and the future of food. Wise outlines the control that corporations like Monsanto have over small-scale farms worldwide. He delves into the profit-motivated decisions that don’t coincide with the needs of farmers or consumers, and highlights the fact that foreign governments are attempting to partner with Monsanto due to funding, which has resulted in the company exerting control over their nation’s crops and production of fertilizers—a direction which Wise asserts is the wrong ecological choice on a global scale. Wise and Fenton examine agroecology and explore strategies for disrupting these harmful patterns.

Episode Transcript

Transcribed by Jini Palmer. Please email typos or corrections to

Jini Palmer: Hello and welcome to In The Moment a Town Hall Seattle podcast where every episode we talk to someone coming to our Town Hall stages. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. It’s mid-October here in Seattle and our rental partners have been hosting some incredible events, Earshot Jazz, Seattle Arts and Lectures, and the Moth Seattle are filling our stages with music and stories. And we’ve got a few fun programs next week with Seattle Radio Theater Halloween edition and our own chief correspondent Steve Scher will be onstage with Anand Giridharadas on October 28th to talk about society’s economic elite and how they’re doing everything in their power to preserve their position on top. Two days later on October 30th Timothy Wise will be gracing our Forum stage to talk about the Battle for the Future of Food, which is our highlight for this episode of In The Moment.

The world of agribusiness has a deeply penetrating control on policy, not only in the U.S. but in small countries in Subsaharan Africa like Malawi. As Tim Wise puts it, agribusiness spends more on lobbying in Washington than the entire defense industry. But shifting the future of agriculture to an agroecology model, even against said goliath forces is a feat worth pursuing for the farmers, consumers, the environment and climate change. Timothy A. Wise is a senior researcher at Small Planet Institute and Tufts University’s Global Development and Environmental Institute and is coming to Town Hall to talk about his new book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family, Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. Our correspondent for this episode, Hailey Fenton is our Donor Relations Manager here at Town Hall Seattle. She comes from a commercial fishing family, was the head baker of a farm to table restaurant, provided resources on an urban youth farm, organized communities for local food distribution startup and work to get her own hometown food co-op off the ground. So it goes without saying the sustainable food is a passion that both Haley and Timothy share. 


Haley Fenton: My first question for you, I kind of wanted to go back to the beginning. I was really curious, what was your relationship to food like growing up in, in your family?

Timothy A. Wise: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I mean, I grew up in a classic suburban family in a very kind of traditional North American household where food was kind of the food of the fifties and sixties, which was kind of the beginning of the processed food world and, and wasn’t actually featured very prominently in our cultural lives. So I feel like my deep appreciation for what it takes to produce food and to enjoy it and to have food embedded in a culture really came from my international travels.

HF: Mm. So it sounds like growing up there wasn’t a lot of questioning around food and where it came from and what you were eating.

TW: No, when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties and there sure wasn’t much attention to that at that point. It’s, it’s amazing to see how much that interest has grown.

HF: So you said that a lot of your appreciation came from your international travels, but do you kind of remember what your first awakening was to our industrial food system?

TW: Well, I know that my first awakening to the injustices that hardworking farmers suffer came in Peru when I was studying as an exchange student. And, and I was just struck by the dramatic landscapes of the Andes. Highland agriculture and steep slopes beautifully tended by very hardworking farmers who were living in desperate poverty because the range of policies that were in place really had them working as in kind of a feudal environment. And, and so that’s what really awakened me to the to just how desperate lives can be for people who work incredibly hard growing food for all of us. I think my appreciation for what industrial agriculture is kind of doing to our, to the larger food world came through a lot of work on United States agricultural policies, but also on the impacts that those policies and our trading agreements and arrangements have on Mexican farmers.

HF: Hmm. Yeah. I think that your work, not only this book but previous works of yours, do a really amazing job of showing what food really is in the context of human lives, which is also economics and public health and politics and gender. And I think that it stresses the importance of it because it, food does touch all of those worlds that I think is highly, highly underappreciated.

TW: Yeah, no, I think, right.

HF: And so you’re obviously well steeped in this world and have so much experience, but in the process of researching and writing this book, were there any surprises or revelations that you had?

TW: Oh, all the time. All the time. I mean one of the most striking conclusions that I draw out in the book is that is just what a deeply penetrating control agribusiness firms have over policy in the US and really even more so in a small country in sub Saharan Africa like Malawi. They just are dedicated to shaping policies in ways that are going to increase their sales and their profits. And that that doesn’t often or usually coincide with what small scale farmers most need or what consumers most want to eat. And so it’s a, I was, I was shocked at the extent to which those companies were really kind of right there in the government’s writing policy. I tell the story in the book of discovering that the seed policy in Malawi and of course of an interview, I was doing that the seed policy in Malawi, which threatened to make it illegal for farmers to save exchange and sell their seeds, which is really where 80% of the food in Africa comes from is from farmers saving their own seeds and sharing them with other farmers that they were threatened to make that make that illegal because the seeds wouldn’t be certified by the government and only crop breeders, commercial crop readers would get that certification. They even went so far as to say that such seeds saved by farmers should no longer be called seeds. They should be called grain worthy of eating, but not planting, you know, in an outrage. Farmers said to me, holding up a kernel of corn, how can we’ve been planning this for generations? How can this not be a seed? But talking to in the course of this interview, I said, I got flustered and said, this policy is so bad. It could have been written by Monsanto. And the guy I was talking to looks down at issues and pauses and looks up and says, well, actually four months into official is one of the authors of the policy. And of course Monsanto’s stands to gain because if all farmers have to start buying seeds every year, they control 50% of the corn seed market in Malawi.

HF: Oh, that is, that’s a lot to take in for sure.

TW: Yeah. But they were, that was not uncommon. That was not uncommon at all. And another, also in Malawi, I, I learned that I was perplexed because one of the most popular corn seeds that had been bred by Malawian farmers been very productive and it was no longer anywhere on the market. And I kept asking why? And someone finally said, Oh, don’t, you know, and I was like, no, what? He said, Oh, the, when the government had to privatized because of international monetary fund austerity program, they sold off the national seed company and Monsanto bought it. And Monsanto properly, promptly shelved the seeds that it didn’t have patents on and substituted seeds. It did have patents on, even though those seeds were far less productive than the ones that that the Malawians had bred for their particular climatic conditions and, and tastes.

HF: And so why are governments so eager to partner with Monsanto?

TW: Well they want foreign investment. And they’ve bought the argument that they need a green revolution for Africa. That’s the big push by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. And they created the Alliance for Green Revolution for Africa in 2006. And the premise is that Africa was bypassed in the first Green Revolution, which brought commercial seeds and fertilizers and other technologies to farmers in India and Latin America, but it didn’t reach Africa. And now African needed its own green revolution. So there’s big money enticing governments to adopt policies that promote just those kinds of inputs as the paths to modernizing their agriculture.

HF: So encouraging these new seeds, encouraging these technologic quote technologically advanced fertilizers and such.

TW: That’s right. And the governments are, many governments are actually subsidizing the purchase by small scale farmers of those inputs at great cost to themselves. And Malawi in one year had spent 60% of its entire agricultural budget on fertilizer and seed subsidies. And, and the tragedy is that they, it’s, there’s very little evidence that it’s working. I did some background research but I was just presenting in Rome at the committee on world food security meetings that shows that, that they’re not getting the kind of productivity increases that they promise that when they do, that’s not translating into reductions in hunger in rural areas. So it’s really a failing strategy. And, and in the current context where we’re all worried about climate change, it’s enticing farmers really paying farmers to give up what are far more climate resilient agricultural practices and substitute for those commercial seeds, monoculture crops. Just corn crops everywhere you look and fed by inorganic fertilizers that are produced using fossil fuels. So  it’s a fossil fuel intensive process that they’re trying to introduce. Really kind of the, the wrong way to go as we think about the changing climate.

HF: So why did corn become the crop of the world? It seems.

TW: Well, it’s not the crop of the world. I think our people would argue probably that rice is the crop of the world. And if you look at Asia and how many people subsist on it, but corn is is particularly amenable to crop breeding and it can be it was developed in Iowa to be so-called high yield by doing a process called hybridization where they created as a different wet form of crop breeding. And it has the great advantage for seed sellers that the yield advantages that you get from this, from these seeds only last one year. So when you sell someone a hybrid corn seed, it will not remain highly productive if you save seeds from that crop and plant them the next year. So you need to buy seeds every year. And that’s really the trap of the green revolution project for Africa, is that farmers are really on the edge financially. And the last thing they need is to be trapped into a system in which they have to buy seeds every year and they have to buy fertilizers or those seeds won’t be highly productive.

HF: Essentially creating demand for forever.

TW: That’s right. That’s the, that’s the trap.

HF: Yeah. So you said that you just returned from Rome where you were presenting your research on Agora and the green revolution to the committee in world food security. Is that right?

TW: That’s right. The annual meetings of the committee on grow on world food security, which take place in Rome every October. And since the food price crisis that’s been, that was designated the kind of lead coordinating body for actions on food security and nutrition in the world.

HF: Can you tell us a little more about what that committee does and what the goal is of that community as far as action goes, as a result of these meetings?

TW: Well, it’s housed at the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations meetings take place there in Rome. Government representatives are there. So it’s a UN body with governments represented often by their agriculture ministers or, or ambassadors to the food and agricultural organization itself. And every year they are taking on kind of important issues that are on a long term agenda, trying to shape a more sustainable path to improve food security and nutrition, particularly in the poorest countries in the world. This year was particularly interesting because the hot button issue on the table was a new expert report that was strongly recommending ecological agriculture as the paths forward. And the dangers of continuing to follow that Green Revolution path. So it was an interesting and an important meeting.

HF: And what was the response to the presentation of that report?

TW: Oh, well, the response in the plenary was very encouraging with all of the different, in a lot of different country representative speaking up. I mean, I’ve been going and attending these things since 2012. I think the narrative has changed dramatically. It’s really, I think climate change has really woken people up to the fact that what we’re currently doing, our current agricultural development model isn’t working. People have noted the F the food and agriculture organization annual hunger report has shown that three straight years hunger, global hunger has increased the number of people and chronically and severely in hunger has increased across the world to over 800 million people with another out with some 2 billion people considered malnourished suffering some form of food insecurity. And that’s happened at a time when actually there’s a global overproduction of, of those commodity grain crops, rice, wheat, corn. So, you know, there you go again. Hunger, amid plenty. What’s, you know, what’s wrong with this picture? And I think there was, you really heard a lot more appreciation from many more government representatives. That business as usual is not an option anymore with change. Making farmers lives much more difficult all over the world, not just in Africa but in Iowa. Right. And so there was a lot more interest in support for, you know, approaches like agroecology, which tries to minimize the use of commercial inputs and maximize the regenerative forms of agriculture that can help rebuild soil fertility. Which is really the foundation for for long term food security. As I argue in the book. That’s how we need to eat. If we’re going to eat tomorrow, it’s going to be because we have adopted practices that rebuild the natural resource space on which our food production depends. Soil, water, climate, seeds.

HF: So it sounds like you left feeling a little hopeful.

TW: I, I did. I am. I’m very hopeful about that change in approach though, the acceptance of that approach. What’s less, what’s more worrying is that as well all of the recent climate change reporting from international institutions as highlighted. We don’t, we don’t have any time to wait to make these changes. Agriculture is contributing some 23% of greenhouse gas emissions by itself. So and the food system as a whole, when you count transportation, everything else, it could well be over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions are related to our food system. So, so it’s urgent that we make those changes. Farmers in sub Saharan Africa who I spent a lot of time with are suffering. You know, it’s not a future looming threat for them. Climate change is upon them and has been for years and it’s, it’s devastating. So they need help adapting their farms to changing climates so they can by growing or wider variety of crops, not just one, which if it fails, you have nothing. I’m doing it in a way that makes their soils healthier. I’m not depleted, which monocultures said by synthetic fertilizers don’t really rebuild soils. They deplete them. I wish I heard the urgency at these, at these gatherings. What you do, what you hear from representatives like the US government representative there is that they don’t want to see anything that impedes the spread of industrial agriculture. The way they put it is we’re going to need all the tools in the toolbox to fight climate change and the tools that they want to promote a new genetically modified drought tolerant varieties of crops. And other commercial innovations that you know, may or may not contribute to helping our, in the long run helping are helping small scale farmers adapt to climate change, but that it’s not what they need now.

HF: And do you think that’s because of a belief that technology and Western intervention is the path to success or because it’s tied to business or both?

TW: I think those are, those are completely intertwined. You know, I in my book I spend a couple chapters looking at the United States one just looking at the Iowa agriculture where I’m essentially asking the question. I mean I title the section, the roots of our problems and ask the question, you know, why are we exporting this maladaptive model to Africa when it really doesn’t seem to be working well for Iowa? But agribusiness reigns Supreme in Iowa for sure and it’s very hard to see much, see many openings for changes because of that. But they truly also believe that they are feeding the world. They’re not, but that’s deeply embedded in the culture of the United States and of USA agriculture that are highly productive. Industrial model of agriculture is feeding the world.

HF: And elaborating on what you said about Iowa and how the United States itself obviously has plenty of issues with industrial agriculture, what are things that folks in the United States can do to participate in this global issue of food sustainability?

TW: Well, we, there’s an interesting new debate. I mean, I can also say that I came out of a book tour in March through Iowa. I spent a week there giving talks about the book. And I came out actually hopeful there too because I think the flooding in the Midwest which has persisted for pretty much the whole summer in some on and off in some parts of the Midwest has awakened to people, to the fact that climate change is coming for them to and that maybe this model isn’t working so well. They have really low crop prices because we’re over-producing almost everything. Farmers are struggling, debt levels are rising. It’s very hard to argue with that. The current model is working very well either for Iowa’s farmers or its consumers. Their waters are very polluted from the chemical runoff and the seepage of chemicals into the groundwater.

They’re losing topsoil. They’ve lost half their top soil in Iowa. Probably the richest agricultural land in the world has lost half of its topsoil to erosion from over-farming and bad farming practices. So there’s, there is an emerging, I think, consciousness that that needs to change and that government policy is where that change is going to happen. So the democratic presidential candidates many of them have very interesting ambitious plans for reshaping the farm bill and other types of farm legislation to essentially they’re proposing to make it encourage what they, some people call carbon farming. Others just call regenerative agriculture where farmers are paid incentivized with subsidies to to adopt more climate friendly and, and environment environmentally sustainable practices. Everything from planting cover crops during the winter to planning patches of one large patches of land and grasslands, which can sequester carbon over the long term and can, can slow the runoff. It’s coming off of agricultural fields.

HF: It sounds hopeful.

TW: No, I, I’m, I was very encouraged by the shift and then again, it’s the shift in the narrative and, and the battle is to translate that into concrete actions when you know that that agribusiness firms and their political allies are going to fight every step of the way if it impedes their profits. I mean, agribusiness, people don’t realize that, that the agribusiness lobby, which is somewhat unfortunately called the farm lobby, like it’s lobbying for farmers spends more on lobbying in Washington than the entire defense industry. So this is a huge lobby that has very clear marching orders from its corporate sponsors and those marching orders are to expand markets for, for, for commercial products here and abroad. That’s why you get this aggressive push to export the industrial model of agriculture to places like Malawi.

TW: You mentioned the shift in the narrative and how important that is. What was the narrative previously and how was it ineffective?

HF: The narrative was driven by again, this sort of modernization, a trope where, you know, small scale farmers using limited technology were backward in developing countries. They needed to modernize, basically, agriculture needed to be recreated in developing countries in the image of the agriculture that we got in the United States with heavily mechanized, very few people working on the farms. Highly chemical intensive and capital intensive, not labor intensive. And that, that would allow developing countries to become high yield producers of food crops and be more food selves, food secure. And you know, that’s not how it’s played out. For most developing countries some sectors within developing countries have become higher oil producers. Like in Mexico. There’s parts of Mexican corn production that are on farms that look every bit like farms in Iowa and have productivity levels as high as well, but that hasn’t made Mexico a food secure country. Mexico now imports something like a third to 40% of it’s corn every year from the United States. It’s not self sufficient in corn. And the quality of that corn is, has gone down Hill as those industrial seeds have replaced native seeds, which corn was domesticated and in Mexico. So it has the richest diversity of corn varieties in the world. A recent survey, nobody believes me when I say this, but a recent survey by the, by the biodiversity Institute in the ministry of agriculture, ministry of environment in Mexico identified 22,000 different unique varieties of corn adapted to their local culinary desires ecological conditions, et cetera. So displacing all of those with one or two strains of hybrid if not genetically modified corn is as a real loss.

TW: And so what would you say is the you’ve been touching on what the new narrative is now, but what would you say is kind of the elevator pitch for the new narrative of the future of agriculture?

HF: Business as usual isn’t an option. We’re growing more commodity crops of food, but we’re not feeding more people. It’s not translating into improved poverty, and reductions in poverty and improved livelihoods for poor people in developing countries. And with climate change, it is both a major contributor. That industrial model of agriculture is a major contributor to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and a very poor model for farmers in developing countries to adapt to climate change. So that’s, that’s the narrative that came out of this committee on world food security meeting. We need to change course the food and agriculture organization of the UN, which has really been one of the main promoters of that green revolution model for years. Now has a program called scaling up agroecology that basically recognizes that fossil fuel intensive agriculture is, is not the future.

TW: And are these the messages that you hope folks walk away with from reading your book?

HF: Yeah, they are. And I hope they walk away hopeful because the, because one of the striking things about researching the book was that everywhere I went, I saw small scale farmers, usually in some sort of farmer associations doing it right. They know that they have a better sense of what works. And they saw often with the help of agricultural scientists ecologists are reshaping their traditional practices to be more highly productive, more resilient to climate change and and less chemical intensive. And it’s working and I’m, I saw community after community where those kinds of projects are really giving farmers and farm families a much more diverse diet, much healthier and, and, and stronger soils and a much more stable income and food source



JP: Timothy Wise is coming to Town Hall to talk about his new book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family, Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food and will be in conversation with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty and Africa Coordinator Million Belay on Wednesday, October 30th in our Forum. So come down early, hang out in our library or Otto bar, ask some questions during Q&A, get your book signed and chat with them.

Thank you for listening to episode 44 of In The Moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, Hibou and Seattle’s own Barsuk records. If you can’t make it to an event, you can always hear them on our Arts and Culture, Civics and Science series podcasts. And if you’d like to support Town Hall, consider becoming a member. Head to our website at for more information. Next week, our Chief Correspondent, Steve Scher, will be talking with Dan Hooper about our universe’s first seconds. Until then. Thanks for joining us right here, In The Moment.

In The Moment: Episode 43

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Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email

Jini Palmer: Hello and welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast. In the moment, I’m your host, Jini Palmer. It’s the second week of October, 2019 and the temperatures have plummeted. The leaves are turning bright oranges and reds and people have been cozying up to our auto bar and the library that’s in the forum before and after events. So come on down, grab a book, a drink, and bring your friends. In the coming week, we’ve got programs about mushrooms, science, and the economy and music to fill your mind and senses. And next Wednesday, professor and author of Melanie Mitchell is coming to our forum stage to talk about AI. She chats with our chief correspondent, Steve share on this episode of in the moment to give you a glimpse into a human thinking about AI.

Facial recognition programs are the latest technology to be touted as the breakthrough in the human quest to create artificial intelligence. But it turns out the software doesn’t work like it does on TV, where high-speed computers magically find just the person being sought. Facial recognition software can be fooled by something as common as a blurred image according to computer scientists, Melanie Mitchell that can make plans to put AI into positions of decision making from self driving cars and security to financial decision making. Ill-Considered they just aren’t that smart. Mitchell has written a book artificial intelligence, a guide for thinking humans. She says her goal is to help readers get a sense of what the field has accomplished and how much further it needs to go before these machines can actually take part in the conversation about their own intelligence. That is to be conscious. Mitchell will be coming to our forum stage at 7:30 PM on October 16th to unravel the promises and pitfalls of artificial intelligence. Our chief correspondent Steve shares spoke with the Portland state university professor of computer science.


Steve Scher: Thank you for talking to me. I appreciate it. 

Melanie Mitchell: Oh well thanks for the opportunity. 

SS: I’ll just jump in cause I was wondering and you know even after reading all this, I’m still, I still sometimes get a little vague. Is there anything artificially intelligent about this Skype technology we’re using? 

MM: Well, I guess it depends on your definition of intelligence, I would say. No, but it certainly, it does some very useful things like it probably does some signal processing of our audio and makes, you know, takes out noise and all of that stuff. It’s, you know, people have different definitions of intelligence. 

SS: I know. That’s why I asked. Yeah. So for you know, your, your definition, no? 

MM: No. Yeah, I would say absolutely not.

SS: Yeah. Imagine a, a system that did have intelligence that was doing this, what would be, what would be more sophisticated about it? If sophisticated is even the right word?

MM: Well it would be able to join in our conversation, make some comments, tell you that you’re not speaking loud enough or you’re not speaking clearly enough or maybe you have, I, I didn’t see this, but maybe you have some like a egg on your tie or something I could tell you that

SS: I see that would be intelligent. I mean, Alexa doesn’t do that most of the time. Alexa says, Hmm, I don’t know that one.

MM: Right, exactly. I mean, I don’t think intelligence is a yes or no question. It’s, there are certainly degrees of intelligence. It’s a continuum. There’s also different dimensions of intelligence. So it’s a little hard to say that something is or isn’t intelligent, especially since we don’t have a good definition, but it certainly isn’t intelligent enough to, to join in our conversation. 

SS: Is that one of the issues with trying to write a book about where we stand with artificial intelligence that the definition of intelligence is still under examination?

MM: Yeah. That makes it a little more challenging. But it’s not that unusual. I mean, in science, people use terms all the time in every science that don’t have a very rigorous definition. So, you know, one example is I know that people in genetics are still debating the definition of the word gene. And for a long time, like in physics, the word force, that was just something ill defined. It was kind of a placeholder for something that we didn’t understand yet. And so I think of intelligence is that it’s kind of a placeholder until we understand better what we’re talking about. Consciousness is the same. You know, all these words that just stand in for things we don’t understand yet.

SS: I find it always fascinated to think that there is, there are still all these black boxes and yet scientists or what would you say? Are they, are they scratching around the, on the outsides of these black boxes trying to get in? I mean, what’s the, what’s a good metaphor?

MM: Yeah, that’s that. I think that’s, that’s pretty good. Are there, you know, there if you ever read the book Flatland, you know, something’s in a true dimensional world trying to imagine a three dimensional world. So we’re in our two dimensional world of understanding intelligence and there’s a third dimension, maybe even a fourth that we haven’t even conceptualized yet.

SS: I see, I see. Yeah. We’re working at it though, right? That’s part of what everybody’s trying to do, right? Working at that. 

MM: Absolutely. Yeah. 

SS: So I, I want to know how you started thinking about this and I’m going to take a kind of a geeky roundabout way. There, you know, there’s a, there’s a Star Trek Enterprise episode where where Picard encounters a group of people, Tamarians who communicate in metaphor or story or allegory. It’s always unclear. I mean, what actually is going on. But I always thought it was a remarkable way to think about how we communicate because though we, they had Language they had words that matched. They had no way of actually communicating because it was all in metaphor. And I noticed that one of the first things that you write about that kinda got you thinking about all this was this book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who were pretty amazing writers write about about metaphors. What was it about, about that idea that sort of begin began the spark for you in thinking about artificial intelligence?

MM: So in a sense, we all communicate via metaphors and that is something we’re quite unconscious of. That metaphor has really permeated our language. You know, if we say, Oh, she gave me a very warm welcome. That’s a metaphor, right? It’s a temperature, it’s a physical temperature and it’s not, you know, it’s, it’s not literally a warm in the sense of the temperature didn’t literally go up, but we, that’s the way we think about most concepts. And that was just a real revelation for me. You know, that’s not something I’d ever thought about before I read that book. But then once you see it, you see it everywhere in language and it’s, it, it really gives an insight into the way we think into the way we conceptualize. So that got me really interested in this, this whole question of like, what are our concepts? How do we use concepts in such a flexible way where computers are so rigid and literal? You know, they, they would have a hard time understanding that kind of metaphor. So it seemed like an incredible challenge to be able to get computers to understand things in the same way we do. And a lot of people think that’s impossible. I think it’s possible, but I think we don’t know how to do it yet. So really interesting. Kind of open question

SS: Just on a side note or maybe it’s part of it. I teach at the UW now and I’m teaching a communications class and many of my students are communications majors which is about language and not language and nonverbal interactions and all the ways we humans interact. And sometimes I have a half or three quarters of the students are Chinese speaking students. And I often find myself using a metaphor or an idiom and then looking up and realizing that makes no sense to them. That has no meaning for them because their like, their command of English is like my command of Cantonese or Mandarin doesn’t take us that far. It’s so sophisticated, isn’t it? These concepts, these metaphors that we live by.

MM: Yeah. and you know, each language has its own, it, it, it’s, it’s interesting too, if you try and learn a foreign language to kind of learn what their metaphors are and how, how they differ. One, one example I remember from French was in English we say, we say I had a dream, right? It’s kind of this, this notion that you, you possessed it, right? Or it possessed you. Whereas in French you say, I made a dream and I wonder if they really conceptualize it differently or they, they just have a different way of saying it and there’s a lot of controversy on that. So I think it’s really interesting this kind of cross cultural study of metaphors. 

SS: Have we seen people doing work in AI that are having any breakthroughs by comparing metaphors across different languages?

MM: You know, I haven’t seen that. One of the things I talk about in my book is, is translation programs like Google translate and kind of where they stand. They, and it’s a good question of whether they could deal with translating metaphors. You know, they, they learn, they use statistics, they learn from lots of paired sentences where you have a sentence in English and a sentence in French. And they learned from statistics of associations like that, how to translate phrases and they do it well in some cases and they do it very poorly in others. So I guess the answer is no, we haven’t seen a breakthrough in that yet.

SS: All right. I want to come back to Google translate and all those systems, but let me come back to how you went through. Why was it that this notion of language and metaphor, these ideas of the physical hot, cold warmth and how it translates into language and metaphor. How did that translate for you into wanting to study it through computer technology and computing?

MM: Well, what really got me into the field of AI was Douglas Hofstadter’s book Godel Escher, Bach. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but it was a book written back in the 70s that really tackled the question of how is it that something like consciousness or understanding could emerge from something like the brain where you have neurons, which are like little machines. They don’t understand anything individually, but collectively we get the phenomenon of human cognition sort of how does that happen? And you know, I don’t think the book completely answered that question, but it approached it in a really novel and interesting way. And when I read it, it just spoke to me as the most interesting question out there. And so that’s really what got me into the field of AI. And I even ended up studying with Douglas Hofstadter who was my PhD advisor.

SS: But it was, but, but you wanted, why was it through like, you could have studied linguistics, you could have studied cognition. What was it about unwrapping that question of consciousness through looking at how computers function that intrigued you?

MM: That’s a really good question. I guess my background kind of primed me to become a computer scientist. I focused a lot on math and physics as an undergraduate and did a lot of, did a lot of things with computers and kind of grew up with computers. So it just struck me that computers computation as a, as kind of a phenomenon was broader than just in computers. Computation was a way to understand how we think. That was kind of my view back then at least. And so AI was a way, not only to make computers smart but to use computers to understand ourselves.

SS: I see, I see. All right, so I’m gonna let me ask one more thing about this. Let me ask you about this experiment as a way to understand how this stuff gets applied and, and I don’t think you, you are, you’re reporting on this experiment, but this test, but explain it a little bit. One group of researchers, a group of researchers was, was trying to test how the physical, something is warm relates then to how somebody perceived somebody eat with these metaphors. Somebody warm, somebody cold. Do you remember that experiment that you wrote about?

MM: Yeah, I do.

SS: What, what was, can you describe the experiment and what was being studied.

MM: Yeah. So I guess the, the, the thing that was being studied was, are these metaphors just things that we say or are they, do we actually have any sort of literal, physical grounding of these metaphors in our bodies? 

So here’s the experiment. You have the subject come in to the lab and while the subjects being sort of checked in by experimenter, the experimenter says, could you hold this cup for me? And it’s sort of framed as being part of the sort of check in rather than part of the experiment in the cup is either hot coffee, the cup is hot coffee or cold water, let’s say. And then the experiment, the subject reads about someone and they’re asked to describe that person’s personality. And it turned out that if the person had been asked to hold a cup of hot coffee, they used metaphors like she’s very warm, or she’s very cold if they held a glass of cold water. That the actual physical temperature that they had recently experienced influenced the way that they communicated metaphorically. So there was evidence that these metaphors are actually, we actually conceptualize them in terms of physical, bodily states. And this has been replicated a lot of times in different ways.

And so the theory is that all of our abstract concepts really relate back to our bodies and the way our bodies sense temperatures, sense space, sense time. That our thinking is fundamentally rooted in our bodies. So that was, that was a discussion that was a part of the book where I was talking about how it is that humans understand the world and kind of focusing on the question, well computers, they don’t have bodies, right? Could they ever understand the world in the same way we do without a body or does it even matter? Do they need to in order to attain human level intelligence? 

SS: And where are you at now in your thoughts about that? 

MM: I’m kind of coming around to the embodied cognition ideas that we, that we can’t get computers to understand our language or our world without some kind of body that can experience the same things we do. Now that brings up another question. Why would we want them to understand our world in the way we do? Well, I think it’s, it’s an open question of whether they can actually do the things we want them to do, like drive on their own or make decisions about people or, you know, war or any kind of social thing that involves humans. Can we trust them to make those decisions without actually understanding things in the same way we do? And that’s a very big question. And I think it’s an open question. A lot of people in AI say, we don’t have to have, we don’t have to mimic human intelligence. Computers don’t have to have the same kind of intelligence we have, but then there’s the question, how can we trust them? So that’s kind of what that whole section was about.

SS: Well, it also raises a question of what would their intelligence be if it wasn’t grounded in the human intelligence? Of course, that’s the, that’s the bugaboo, right? Oh, AI will be this, the, the singularity that takes over the whole world. And you touch on that, you write about that. But is there a way to think about an interactive intelligence? You know the Skype that is commenting on the egg, on my tie that is outside our way of conceptualizing intelligence? 

MM: I don’t know. I think that’s a very good question. You know, we, we certainly have other kinds of intelligences in the world. We have animals that don’t have exactly the same kind of intelligence we have. And perhaps they think in different kinds of metaphors depending on how advanced they are. And we have trouble communicating with them, but we want computers that can communicate with us and can assist us and that can in some sense share our values. So I’m not sure that we want to have computers that have a different kind of intelligence

SS: That’s a wild notion. Computers that share our values. Has anybody been working on that aspect of artificial intelligence?

MM: There’s a lot of talk about it. So there’s a lot of talk about imbuing computers with morality, the kind of moral value systems that we humans care about. And how one could do that. There’s several, actually several books that are just coming out on that very topic. And there’s even research centers that look at that kind of question. But it’s very hard because in order to have moral values, you really need to have concepts. You need to understand something about the world. And that’s exactly what computers aren’t able to do yet. So I think it all goes together. You know, intelligence, morality, having values, it’s hard to imagine separating them out.

SS: Well, and you know, you talk about in the book you talk about the famous one that has come off of propagated the fundamental rules of robotics or robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders conflict with the first law. And then a robot must protect its own existence as long as the protection does not conflict with the first or second law. And you talk about how Asimov was a visionary. But you mentioned that he postulated a story where a robot got stuck because it couldn’t make a decision between those. But between those laws, it was very much in a feedback loop, not able to be, I guess, intelligent.

MM: Right. I think his purpose in stating those laws was really to show it’s in some sense, ironically, that any fixed law is going to lead to a behavior, you know, a suboptimal behavior. You have to be flexible about it. You know, computers are too literal. And the robot in those stories was trying to literally apply the law without having any flexibility. And it couldn’t, it got stuck in a loop. So that really was the point. And that the problem is that, and people have seen this throughout the history of AI. It’s impossible to write down rules for behavior, because behavior just doesn’t fit into a set of fixed rules. We can’t engineer knowledge into computers because knowledge doesn’t fit into a set of fixed logical rules. And that’s why AI has had so much trouble over the years and people have turned to this, you know, learning from big data rather than trying to program rules into computers. But each approach kind of has its own limitations.

SS: All right, so let’s look at that. I mean, this book, Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans is an assessment of where we are now with AI. So let’s pick a few things. Where are we now? And all right, let’s go back to Google translate. Is Google translate a sophisticated AI?

MM: I would say it’s a very sophisticated program. It works very well, a lot of the time. It can have pretty spectacular failures, which I think if anyone’s tried to use it to translate anything beyond sort of relatively simple texts, they can see that. And it’s interesting because it’s able to do these, these translations sometimes very well without really understanding anything about the text that it’s processing. And that’s this kind of the state of AI in general that we have these systems that can do very well in many domains, except they occasionally fail. And the reason they fail is because they really don’t understand the data that they’re processing. No context. The context, the sort of the models of the world that we humans have, these systems don’t have. Some people like to call it common sense, you know, they are missing common sense, which really means that they don’t have the knowledge about the world and the ability to apply that knowledge in new kinds of situations.

SS: Well, who has been successful in even limited ways in bringing common sense to AI?

MM: That’s a good question. Really no one.

SS: They’ve tried though right, there are people who were trying, right? 

MM: This is a bit, you know, this goes back to the beginning of the field itself. Tried to give computers common sense. You know, and there’s been different approaches. One is program at all in, tell computers, every single fact about the world. Well, we can’t do that because there’s just too many facts about the world that we don’t even consciously think of ourselves. So the new approaches, let the systems learn, let them learn from data. But how do we, how do they learn? So far this kind of learning approach hasn’t resulted in breakthroughs in common sense. And in fact, there’s this new government program to fund AI researchers called Foundations of Common Sense. It’s funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

And the goal of it, it’s kind of a grand challenge. And the goal is to create a program with the common sense of an 18 month old baby and to kind of have it go through all the developmental stages of an 18 month old baby. So to me it’s a really interesting contrast because we have these computers that can beat any human at chess or go, that can drive on their own in many situations that can translate between languages, that can do all these incredible tasks, but it’s still a grand challenge to have a program that has anything like the knowledge or common sense of an 18 month old who really can’t do much at all. Like have all those really fancy kinds of intelligence. And yet that’s sort of the horizon that everyone’s looking at now and saying that’s our goal. And it comes back to this this famous statement by Marvin Minsky where he said what he’s learned about AI is that easy things are hard, namely the things that are easiest for us, like the things that an 18 month old baby can do are in fact the hardest things for AI.

MM: Talk about IBO and what was the process by which you were able to do an experiment to train one of those little robot dogs to kick a soccer ball, but what the process by which this action, which on the outside, only with little robot dog can walk up to a soccer ball and kick it and then wait for me to kick it back. What was the, what was entailed in that? 

SS: So first I’ll say that I didn’t actually train a real IBO dog. I trained a simulation. And I trained it via a process that’s called reinforcement learning. It kind of mimics early psychology experiments where people used to train like rats to, to running mazes and so on where you give them rewards if they do the right thing. And that’s all you do is you let them take actions. And if they ever do the right thing, you give them a reward. But those rewards they can learn from those rewards and they can learn kind of by looking a little bit back in time. So if the dog, the robot dog actually manages to kick the ball, you give it a reward. Now in a computer, of course, it’s not like a real dog that, you know, gets pleasure from getting a dog treat. It’s kind of a simulated reward. But it can then learn that the things that it did to lead up to kicking the ball were actually good too, even though it didn’t get a reward for those. And reinforcement learning allows the system to figure out back in time what it did right to lead up to the part that gave it a reward. This was an extremely simple reinforcement learning system that I used, but a version of it, much more complicated was exactly what was used to train machines to play chess and go better than any human. So it’s a very powerful learning technique.

SS: Is it intelligence? 

MM: As I said, I don’t think you can say yes or no. It has, I would say it has some intelligent behavior but very limited. And one problem is that unlike humans, if something changes about the way I present the problem, like let’s say I give it a, a much bigger ball. It might have problems adapting its knowledge or its intelligent behavior to this new situation, or if there’s some obstacle in front of the ball, it wouldn’t know what to do. And similarly, you know, these systems that play chess or go better than any human, they’re incredibly intelligent at that task. But if you change the task a little bit, like you changed the shape of the go board or you you do something like that, it’s unable to adapt. So I think a big part of intelligence is that ability to adapt your knowledge to new kinds of situations, to changes in your environment. And that’s something that AI really struggles with.

SS: So in your book, you talk about a series of puzzles that are Russian researcher had done, I’m trying to find that you probably know more than me. Is that we’re, where different shapes and sizes are trying to be compared. Is that, is that sort of what you’re working on then?

MM: It’s related to what I’m working on. Yeah. So that, those are a set of visual puzzles where you’re, you’re asked to see abstract similarities. They’re very difficult, not for machines in particular, but also for people. Some of them are quite difficult. They’re kind of like an IQ test in a way. But what makes them most difficult for machines is that there’s very few examples. You have to sort of abstract from very few examples. And right now what computers are best at is when they have millions of examples. And that’s something they’re quite different from humans. Humans don’t need that many examples to learn something or to abstract the concept. So I’m interested in how we can do that kind of abstraction as people do with very few examples.

SS: How do you feel about it? I mean, I know you like doing it and it’s fun. How do you feel about, in terms of what you’ve been talking about and you know, in terms of the evolution of AI?

MM: I’m excited about it. I think it’s a very hard problem. And I don’t think we have all the ideas yet that are needed to get it to work. But it’s always exciting to work on open problems that don’t have solutions yet. And that’s one of the reasons I like AI is it’s all the problems are still open.

SS: I love, I hope you don’t mind. I love the last paragraph of your book. “The impacts of AI will continue to grow for all of us. I hope that this book has helped you as a thinking human to get a sense of the current state of this burgeoning discipline, including its many unsolved problems, potential risks and benefits of technologies, and the scientific and philosophical questions it raises for understanding our own human intelligence. And if any computers are reading this, tell me what ‘it’ refers to in the previous sentence, and you’re welcome to join in the discussion.” I mean that’s very much, it’s encapsulates everything you’re talking about. It’s, it’s the understanding of self in its relation to the world that we are still waiting to see emerge from the machines we’re building.

MM: That’s exactly right. Yeah.

SS: And I guess we’re still waiting, but in the meantime we have these, these dumb machines that are sort of taking over various aspects of our world. 

MM: It’s not necessarily all bad. We all rely on them and they can do a lot of useful things, but I guess we should really think hard before we turn over all of our decision making to these machines.

SS: Alright, professor, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. 

MM: Thanks. I enjoyed it very much. 


JP: Get yourself a signed copy of Melanie’s book, Artificial Intelligence: A Guide For Thinking Humans and be part of the conversation next Wednesday, October 16th at Town Hall Seattle. The program starts at 7:30 PM but you can come early and hang out in our downstairs library or Otto bar and be part of our Town Hall community.

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In The Moment: Episode 42

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Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email

Hello and welcome to in the moment. I’m your host, Jenny Palmer. Well that’s it folks. Our homecoming festival is officially over and the stats have come rolling in. During our festival we had 52 main stage programs with more than 100 presenters. There were over 12,700 tickets sold across 4,500 households and 1077 of those tickets were claimed by a new 22 and under audience, which if you didn’t know Townhall is offering free tickets for youth. That’s right. Anyone that’s 22 and under can attend any of our town hall produced events for free and with a month long extravaganza of spectacular events in the bag. We can now turn to our regularly scheduled programming. We might be done with our festival, but we still have a packed calendar in October. Our rental partners are filling these autumn days with earshot, jazz, and sandbox radio performances and the moth will be packing our great hall with new stories for the grand slam champion. On October 25th ambassador Susan Rice will be coming to speak with former us secretary of the interior. Sally jewel. On October 14th and we have more than a few events to satiate that curious mind of yours. Basically we have another full month ahead and you can check it all out on our website at town hall, but for now, let’s bring it back to this moment.
What does freshman calculus have to do with college admittance? Research has proven that higher education is an equitable and Paul tough a writer and journalist has written about that research and the landscape of higher education and his new book, the years the matter most how college makes or breaks us. Our correspondent for this episode, Sally James is a science writer based in Seattle who sat down to talk with Paul about the time he spent on college campuses with students and teachers and what he learned about higher education.
I I really enjoyed the book and I I read it with a couple of different perspectives. Both a parent who has sent three children to college and a former college student who was low income and going to a kind of pretend Ivy. So I found a lot of things in here that I think a lot of parents are going to be wondering about. I feel like we have to unpack a little bit. One of my favorite sections, which is on page 138 I’m going to set up something you said lacrosse bros really do run the world. It really is who you know and not what, you know, by the time you reached the last page of pedigree, you either want to go firebomb a bank or enroll your kid in squash lessons or both. Can you just talk a little bit about the D moralizing numbers on how inequitable higher education is?
Yeah, they’re really striking. So that I was writing in that particular chapter about this, this research by this sociologist named Lauren Rivera. That is not even about college. It’s about what happens after college and the way that all of the inequities in college admissions replicate themselves. And in some ways there are, are expanded on when college graduates or college seniors are applying to jobs at investment banks and law firms and consulting companies. But I feel like it is a,
It’s just an amped up version of what’s happening throughout the college process. And there has been over the last few decades this increasing stratification of higher education so that the most prestigious, most well-resourced, most selective institutions are now admitting students with a smaller and smaller range of test scores and are admitting more and more well off students and fewer and fewer low income students. And that is often not the way we think about it. I feel like there is this, this idea in the public sphere that in fact those most selective institutions are a real bastions of equity and diversity. And they certainly often talk that way, but when you look at the numbers and a study came out a couple of years ago that maybe for the first time really a lot easier to look at those numbers. It’s clear that there are very few low income students at those most selective institutions and the institutions that are at a, at educating a lot of low income students are the ones that we have been defunding and pulling resources back from over the past couple of decades.
And I, and that state schools for the most part, wouldn’t you?
Yeah. Pub public universities in general. So everything from community colleges to flagship institutions we’ve been cutting their funding for for decades, but especially since 2000, 2001. And even more, especially since the recession 10 years ago you know, we just slashed our funding in the recession and then never never restored it. And so all of the, like all these stories about rising tuitions and rising debt, at least on the public side, that all just has one, one main cause, which is that, that those institutions used to be something that we funded publicly and we have just switched the funding source from the public, the individual students and higher education doesn’t function well that way. And it certainly doesn’t function equitably that way.
I think we can segue because another one of my favorite parts of this is the entire chapter on freshman calculus. And just for the people listening, a very idealistic calculus professor at the university of Texas used some of his own history as someone who had what I’d call imposter syndrome during part of his education. And his success made him interested in rescuing other people from that. And I think students who have come from what you call less than gold plated high schools fall into a kind of trap where they aren’t in the same place as the other students on that first day of college calculus because the majority of other students probably took it already in high school. And I was gonna say, if you wouldn’t mind just saying a little bit about why freshman calculus represents an enormous obstacle to STEM careers.
Sure, sure. I’d be happy to. Yeah. So I’m so happy to hear that you like that chapter. My favorite chapter in the book as well. And I find that that calculus professor already tries them to be an amazing character and getting to hang out with him for a few months was a great opportunity. So so I’m always happy to talk about it. So one of the many sort of unusual facts that inform that chapter are the fact that calculus is role in the culture and in higher education has changed drastically. So when, when this professor 40 years ago was in college, only about 7,000 students from the whole country took AP calculus and now it’s, it’s hundreds of thousands each year. Something like one in five high school seniors takes AP calculus and, and the best math educators actually say like, we shouldn’t be teaching calculus in high school at all.
That if you really want to be a great mathematician, you need more grounding in high school in geometry and algebra and, and the sort of building blocks of calculus before you take it on. But it seems to be the case that that calculus has taken on this role in the culture and in college admissions of sort of this generic signifier of eliteness the same way that that taking Latin was a few general a couple of generations ago. And you know, like high prestigious colleges don’t really care if, you know Latin and they don’t really care if, you know, calculus, they just see AP calculus on your transcript and they’re like, okay, it’s that kind of kid. Right? they’re, one of the statistics that I still can’t quite believe though it’s totally true is that 93% of Harvard’s freshman has taken AP calculus or, or something even higher.
And that’s not just 93% of the math students, that’s 93% of the French majors and the music majors and the basketball players and everybody else. It just, it’s very difficult or very unusual at least to get into Harvard without having taken AP calculus. And that then has the additional problem that AP calculus is not offered in more than 50% of high schools in the country. And it’s not surprising to note that it’s not evenly distributed. So, so low resource, low income high schools are less likely to offer AP calculus or calculus of any kind. And schools that educate a lot of rich kids are much more likely to have AP calculus. So it’s become this gatekeeper that makes it very difficult to get into a prestigious universities without having, and it’s, you know, for more than 50% of high school students, they can’t take it no matter what they do. So it’s one more one more gatekeeper that makes it harder for low income students to succeed.
Well, and I think, I think just to help podcast listeners, I also think that, so let’s say you’re lucky enough you’ve been admitted to college and now you have to take calculus and get a good grade in order to be a biologist, a physicist and astronomer, a geologist, a doctor the student you introduce us to, Yvonne has so many things going for her and yet you give us a wonderful emotional play by play of her believing that she isn’t good enough. Even during the, as the, the weeks go by and week by week, midterm by midterm, she remains very on edge about whether she belongs. And I think what’s interesting is education has this image as something objective, mathematical, you know, GRA like gravity. If you have the education then you are, society is saying you are smart enough and yet she can’t get that message without an awful lot of kind of hands on encouragement from, from people. If we can’t reproduce Yuri, if there can’t be a URI at every, you know, big kind of flagship university, what other ways could we make calculous less of an obstacle?
It’s a great question. And so one of the things that I find really, really striking about that chapter is that, yeah, so like she’s learning, Ivana is learning math, which we think of as the, as, as you said, as this very sort of empirical, rational thing. You either like do the math right or you don’t, but so much of what is going on with her and I think she would agree with this and or either the professor would agree with this, with psychological. And she was in this, this sort of moment of great turmoil about her ability and about her ability to belong at UT and in Austin and you know, in this very elite worlds you want it to be a math major. And so she was constantly questioning whether she could do it or not. And so she was getting all of these messages.
And one of the things that is really striking to me is that, is that I think, I feel like early the messages she was getting from early men weren’t necessarily the most helpful for her because she was hearing from him that she was going to be fine. Everything was going to come together, just give it a few more weeks and suddenly everything was magically going to happen. She was hearing from her sister who was another, you know, high performing student, a UT student, but also from a, obviously from the same, you know, very low income background. She was hearing from her sister that actually she wasn’t going to succeed in calculus, that low-income Latinas from the West side of San Antonio just couldn’t pull this sort of thing off, which didn’t seem very reassuring but somehow felt comforting to her. And then it wasn’t until she, she had this one conversation with the, with her TA, this woman named Erica winter, that she found I kind of synthesis of those two arguments that really made sense to her.
This idea that you really are behind, like you really have had disadvantages and they’re not just imaginary, they have created these, these obstacles that are going to be very difficult to surmount, but those don’t define you. Those are not actually part of your, your essential character and who you really are as a mathematician and you’re going to be a great one. And if you want to close the gap between yourself and the students who have more preparation, you can, you’re just going to have to work really hard and really strategically. But you can do it. And, and, and I, and we can help you do that. And that I think was, that was the message that really worked for her. And I think it’s a complicated message to get right. But I think there are lots of lots of teachers who are working on how to convey that and how to convey that not only through words, but through the kind of math problems you assign and the way that you help students complete.
Well, my question has to do, again, I’m very, I’m very taken with how a parent can be both giving my child the appropriate skepticism. So for example, about standardized tests, how do you communicate the skepticism at the same time that you want to encourage and challenge? And I’m curious, when you think of, you know, three years from now, your son, three, four years, your son may begin setting down this sort of record that we’re all saying, you know, shouldn’t matter, but it does. And if he reads your book, what, what do you think he will, how will he put into action? The combination of skepticism and, and wanting to believe?
I mean, what I really hope that, that he and other young people take away from the book is amend might be a little bit counterintuitive, but it’s to, it’s to think about college admissions beyond their own specific case, right? Which is not how it, like we, we, we put so much pressure on our kids and they put so much pressure on themselves and the system puts so much pressure on them to just like get it right for themselves. And I want them to think not just about themselves, but about everyone in our community and in our culture who, especially those who had a few or fewer advantages than they do. And I feel like this is this generation that does think so systematically about inequities in this way that, you know, I don’t think previous generations did, whether it’s gun violence or racial discrimination or climate change.
I think they are, you know, really thoughtful about what, how advantage works and how disadvantage works and, and what kind of changes they need to make in order to make systems fair. But I don’t think that we encourage them to think that way about college and he, and so, you know, 15 or 16 or 17, we, we suddenly compel them to dive into this system that is inequitable and and, and perpetuates inequities. And instead of asking them to sort of critique it and, and, you know, have, have a, a skeptical view toward it, we just tell them like, this is the most important thing for you to win in this system. And so, so that’s, that’s my hope is that is that young people can sort of use this book to take a broader vision of, of what’s going on in that system.
And, and my hope is that not only will that make them, you know, more active and more concerned with reform, but it will also, I think change the pressure that they feel about their own, their own outcomes. It’s like once you start caring about climate change, you no longer want to have the fastest car, right? Because you know that the fastest car is actually also destroying the planet. And so my hope is that the same thing can be true. Once you start caring about the, the big picture inequities in higher education admissions, you realize that simply pulling for your own advantage and not caring about anybody else’s is just not living up to your own values.
I’m, I’m interested in again, how is this imaginary future college student who reads your book and the kind of attitude that he or she takes when sitting down to take an sat or an act knowing that knowing that there’s a way in which it shouldn’t matter and yet we have to take it seriously. So, so I’m imagining a high school senior or high school seniors parents right in the thick of essay writing. It’s September, I’m thinking about next year and what, what is the piece they make between the knowledge you’re giving them about inequity and the kind of, but I still want my child or I am a child and I still want a college education. And I understand, you know what you said about maybe there’ll be the reformers but before they’re the reformers they have to, you know, get those letters in April.
Yup. Yup. I know it’s, I mean I feel like it’s a real dilemma that I don’t, I don’t yet know the answer to. And every time I talk to talk to parents, students, I, I think about it. I mean I feel like they’re, one of the things that comes through to me in, in the book and in my reporting is that there are these different approaches that low income and high income students are taught when it comes to higher education. And in example, after example, a higher educated higher income students are taught to think of education as a bit of a game. So this sat tutor who I write about, it encourages them not to take the sat seriously and to think like it’s just a game. It’s kind of a scam. You, you know, don’t think that this is really a sign of your, your value or your, or your worth as an individual.
It’s just like your, your ability to do well on this test. It’s just an ability to outsmart these test makers. Right? And then the same thing happens in class in, in, in college itself where low income students are, have this very, you know sort of philosophical idea about how important the actual work is and how important grades are. And I think hiring income students are, are taught to be a little bit cynical about it and to think really big, you know, it doesn’t matter who you know and not what you know. And so I think that that the fact that high income students are taught that sort of cynical approach to school is on the one hand sort of smart and strategic because, you know, a lot of those things are true. That is sort of the way the world works, but it also has the effect of making them cynical which I don’t think is the way we want our teenagers to be.
And so that, that’s why I feel like I keep pushing back toward this idea of encouraging teenagers, high school students to look at the big picture of the system and ask themselves the role that they want to play in it. And to be more yeah, to look more at the system and not just at themselves. And so I don’t, I don’t know what, what decision that leads do in any individual students. You know, I think some of them, it will steer them away from college. Some of them it will make, make them, you know, apply to the same kind of colleges, but with them more a more strict, clear purpose in mind. But I think, I think not doing that, encouraging them just to think of it as a system in which they’re their only goal is to get the best thing for themselves.
He both leads to an unfair system, but it’s also unfair to them. Because it, it pushes them toward a kind of world cynical worldview that I don’t think is what we want for our kids. I don’t think that’s a, that’s, you know, an answer that is completely a gift, a clear picture of what, what each parents should do, where you should apply and how you should apply and how you should study. But I think that, I think it’s true. I think, I think we do have to complicate the system for our kids rather than just simply,
Right. Well, this is this just, this book just gives, like you said, it gives a parent so much pause and reason to wonder about where our child is going to get the kind of confidence that we want them to have. I mean, you want them to have confidence. I don’t mean confidence just because somebody wants to go to Princeton. I just mean enough confidence to pursue what they really want and not let the institution kind of tell them you’re not good enough. One of the things that’s been said by a lot of different analysts of our college system is that it may be we’re sending too many people and as you just said about your chapter seven, there should be somehow an alternative to the four year liberal arts model. Do you want to talk about the school in the book that you it starts with an a and it’s in Chicago, I want to say,
Yeah. A roof, pay a roof, pay college,
What they’re doing that’s completely different.
Yeah. So I, so to answer the question that was sort of embedded in that question, like do I think too many people are going to college? I, I don’t, I don’t, I mean, I think, I think there are a lot of people who we have not properly prepared for colleges and, and for college and a lot of colleges that aren’t properly prepared for the sort of students who are coming who are coming in and you need more education. But I am, I really remain convinced by all the data and, and economics literature that in fact a college degree is more valuable now than it has been at any other time in American economic history. And that there, there is no question that a college degree is on the whole a good investment. That said, there’s a lot we can do to improve the system, but I don’t think that the problem is, you know, too many students getting too much higher education.
That is not the case. But yeah, I think a [inaudible] is an amazing model for one of the ways that we could change higher education is a two year, a pretty new two year college in Chicago that is associated with a four year university Loyola, which is a prestigious Catholic private institution with a mostly well-off high achieving, high scoring student population. And that’s not the kids who are to a repair route. A is mostly educating pretty low income. Chicago public school graduates with relatively low test scores and yet they are not trying to push them all in a vocational direction. They’re giving them this sort of Jesuit based liberal arts education for two years that is designed to prepare them to go on to four year colleges and they take a very different approach than most community colleges do.
They focus a lot on, on low cost and making sure students don’t have to pay too much, but they also have this very what, what the Jesuit priest father through Rose who runs it, calls a, a very intrusive culture. Meaning that the educators, he and the other educators who run the school really take an interest in their students’ lives and not just their academic lives, but everything else. And they do their best to, to help their students in whatever way they need to. So it’s a really thorough going kind of approach
In the sciences. A lot of, I follow a lot of people that are in graduate education and they in order to be encouraging of future PhDs, they will post, I got a C in calculus or I got a 2.8 when I was this age or you know, all trying to support the notion that there’s nobody born to be a PhD and, and it isn’t easy. And and, and also that the self doubt is completely part of the road. Your road will include self-doubt.
Right. I think that’s so youthful. I mean I think, I think, you know, you, you mentioned posting it and which makes me think about social media and I think that that, I think there is a lot more of sort of sensible understanding of how to convey those messages to people. The, the messages of, of, you know, struggle and failure being part of the process. I think working in the other direction in social media, there’s so many students that I talked to who would say like that they are, especially in freshman year that they’re, they’re watching their students who graduated from high school with them who are off at other institutions. They’re watching them on Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and everything else and feeling like everyone else is so much happier and like, because that’s the way we do our social media. We, we emphasize the good times. And so I feel like so many college freshmen now are having that experience of feel of the, the sort of social media. The grass is greener on the other side feeling and, and if anything, I think that makes it harder.
I think the social isolation is a theme that appears in some, several different stories of people we meet in your book that they feel as if sometimes it’s economic, sometimes it’s cultural that, that their, the in an extreme minority of whatever class they’re in. And I think it’s interesting that, do you ever question whether by trying to have diverse populations of students, we are somehow forcing some of those students to be the only representative of their culture. And so they’re they might have an emotionally better four year college experience somewhere that was less prestigious, but where they felt like they belong.
Yeah, I think about that a lot about that a lot. There’s one student in particular, Matthew Rivera, a student at Trinity college in Hartford, who I wrote about who you know, within this, both very academically prestigious but also very wealthy and white institution. And he was the low income Puerto Rican student from the Bronx. And so he just felt culturally completely out of place. I felt like the students didn’t want them there and it felt a very little sense of belonging. And one of the ways that he described thinking in his freshman year was, should I transfer it to, I think it was the state university of New York and Albany, where some friends of his were. And he was like, I know that it’s not gonna be as good an education, but I’ll be happy. I won’t feel miserable every day. And so I think, but I think obviously the fact that we, we would force or even incline any student to have to make that choice is completely wrong.
And it’s just, it’s just an a factor of admissions. Like if, if those institutions continue to admit just a tiny number of students like Matthew Rivera, then those students are going to continue to struggle emotionally and psychologically, even when they’re succeeding academically as he was. And so, but if he’s part of a group of, you know, 20% or 30% of the freshman class rather than eight or 10% of the freshman class, it’s gonna feel very different for him. And I think, you know, the, the institution itself as Trinity was beginning to do when he, when he got there the institution itself can also just do some very basic things to make students feel more connected to them and more of a sense of belonging. So I think, I think it’s a solvable problem. I don’t think the solution is that the students like Matthew should always go to the state university of New York and Albany. I think it’s great for them to have academic experiences that challenged them and push them and provide them with opportunities. But I think there’s lots of the institutions can do to make them feel more welcomed.
By the time you’ve finished the process, I think you might have in your mind, Oh, I wish I could write a book that was just about chapter six because that was actually, do you have it? Do you have the next, do you have any ideas about what your next really long article by be about there,
There is a section of the book that I do feel like yeah, this is what I’d like to explore more and it’s chapter seven the chapter about students who came out of high school without a particular love of school and wanting to find some other kind of pathway. And the students who are, I wrote about one ends up doing factory work, one ends up doing office work. Women ends up in fast food, but all of them feel this, this pressure to get more credentials in order to succeed. And they try different options to try community colleges. They try a sort of apprenticeship programs and they have different degrees of sort of success and failure. But what that chapter really exposed me to was the fact that we just have a terrible system in place for those students. Like, you know, even for students like yogurt though when I wrote about at Princeton it’s rough enough being a low income student, a even at a highly resourced institution like that. But being a low income student at a community college or sort of anywhere in, in are very sort of slapdash and haphazard system of higher education is so difficult. And it’s those students who, who really we need to help them most are. We just, we like if they, if we aren’t able to get them some kind of credential, they are going to have a life of stuff, low wage service or manufacturing jobs and we’d need to do a lot better by them.
Hmm. So the kind of anti college anti college success or [inaudible]
Yeah, I mean I think it does involve college. I mean, I think, I think a big part of the solution is community colleges. And right now we just don’t, you know, we have cut our funding for community colleges by such a incredible degree that they just don’t function as well as they need to. In fact, you know, but those are the students who need more help rather than less help and we just keep giving them less and less help. So I don’t think the, I don’t think there is a great path that doesn’t involve college for those students. It, they certainly don’t all need four year degrees, but we need to provide a lot better options for them and fund those options a lot better.
Paul tough will be coming to our forum stage on Friday, October 4th, 2019 to talk about his new book, the years that matter most. If you’d like to ask Paul a few questions or get a signed copy of his book, make your way to the forum stage a town hall, Paul’s event will start at 7:30 PM and we still have seats available so you can purchase tickets at the door or on our website at town hall,
Thank you for listening to in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle baseband, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. If you can’t make it to a town hall event, you can always listen to our series, podcasts, arts and culture, civics and science, or if you’re more of a visual learner. We have a whole library of live streams and videos on our YouTube channel. Just search town hall Seattle and subscribe. Next week, our chief correspondent Steve, we’ll be in conversation with Melanie Mitchell about the successes, hopes and fears of artificial intelligence. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 41

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Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email

Hello and welcome to in the moment. I’m your host, Jenny Palmer. We’re nearing the end of our month long September homecoming festival here at town hall Seattle. This past week, art, music and panel discussions filled our building. We hosted a live comedy podcast. Craft your hours in the forum post event and a vital conversation took place in our great hall about our climate crisis between Naomi Klein and Teresa mosquito and even though these events have passed, you can watch the live streams or listen to these events on our media library page at town hall, we’ve got one more week left of the festival and a few more music and educational programs to add to your agenda tonight. We’re hosting the city council debates for districts three and seven, so swing by and educate yourself about how you’re going to fill out that ballot. Our global rhythms music series is having their first concert of the season, this Friday night, which we’ll be bringing the history and soul of Garifuna culture to life, Garifuna collective and how Gucci Garin AGU will be playing their traditional rhythms in the great hall. At 7:30 PM if you’ve got kids swing by Saturday morning at 11:00 AM for a Saturday family concert with Ricardo beauty and how good shag Aaron AGU. That same day, Alexandra Horowitz, our subject for this episode of in the moment we’ll be talking with science writer James C who about our dogs ourselves. We’ve got a whole slew of great events to come, so do yourself a favor. Check out our calendar, get yourself a seat and join our townhome community,
Who we are with dogs is who we are as people rights. Alexandra Horowitz, the head of the dog cognition lab at Barnard college and our town hall guests September 28th in her previous books about dog behavior and intelligence, the writer and researcher focused on the dog’s perception of their world. In this conversation with chief correspondent, Steve share, Alexandra turns to the relationship between humans and dogs. It is a relationship that has changed both species and depending on how we decide to proceed could change our relationship even more. Our dogs ourselves explores the laws and cultural choices that currently dictate the dog human relationship. Cognition, scientists like Cora widths are uncovering facts about the bond that could’ve been end parts of that relationship. As Horowitz told Steve share in the last few years, the amount of research into the dog’s understanding of the world has gone from a trickle to a flood.
Well, there was a trickle. So, you know, address both ends of that. Natural formation. There was a trickle first because the dogs I think weren’t considered cognitively interesting too. The comparative psychologists and animal behavior researchers who studied all manner of species, especially comparative psychologists who were really keen on animals who were more like humans because we were interested in seeing, you know, how much they matched us or reflected us or how much better we were at skin tasks than nonhuman animals, I would say. And so dogs were considered maybe not likely to show interesting cognitive abilities. And also they’re, they’re so familiar, they’re so well known that I think people thought, well, why do you need to study this? You know, familiar dog. But then when some of the early research came out and showed that in particular dogs have these excellent social cognition skills where in, they can use others to solve problems.
You know, they can understand a little bit of other minds, something that we value in human cognition. Then people got very excited about dogs as a potential study subject. And of course, they’re much easier to study than some of the animals who had been studied. So if you’re studying chimpanzees, you know, you have to keep chimpanzees, which is logistically quite difficult. And you know, if you know a lot of chimpy chimpanzees, you might say morally hard to justify keeping them in small cages or small enclosures, or you have to find them in the wild, which is also really difficult, you know, because they’re just living their life. So dogs were easy to, to study. They were looking like interesting subjects all of a sudden. And that accounts for the river of research that we now find ourselves waiting in.
What do you think about the research that you’re seeing? What, what most inspires you perhaps, or what most does it inspire you about what you’re finding?
Okay. Well, you know, the research I do is I’m a little eccentric. I think it’s not kind of the standard line dog cognition research where you’re asking the same cognitive questions of dogs that you’re asking of humans or other non-humans, you know, how do they solve these tasks? Can they imitate things like that. But there are other people doing, you know, slightly odd research you asking questions about you know, whether our anthropomorphism is that we make of dogs that attributions to their abilities or emotions or our skillset are, are correct. I love that type of work. I like the work that’s been done about olfaction and I try to do olfactory research where we’re trying, you know, we’re really getting a handle on how little we know of what their abilities are and what their experiences via smell, which is their primary sensory modality. So those things to me are the most exciting types of research in the field.
You do two things that are very interesting to me. One is the to well you talk about uhm, well right. And [inaudible] talks about wound wealth like this. How does the animal, how does the creature itself see their place in the world, which is a very different way of viewing a very dumb way of viewing science, right, than it has in the past, which is used it as utility. And so you’ve done that just by walking in, observing with your dog and what that w with your dogs and other dogs, what they see and what they experience and, and trying to, is it fair to say, trying to get inside their minds, is that fair to say when you’re on a walk with your dogs?
Sure. Yeah. I mean, my research or my just casual observations are, are really pointed in that direction as you say, to the, what it’s like to be that animal.
And what about the work you do with when people come to your when they come to your lab, you are looking at them as paired with their humans. Correct. Not the dog in and of itself sometimes, but their interactions with their, with their humans, isn’t that right?
It’s both. It’s both the dog human relationship, depending on the study. You know, we’ve studied document play for instance. But it’s also what the dog how the dog performs on some task. I, I give them because I’m interested in you know, can they smell different size quantities of different quantities of food for instance. And the, and the owner comes along when the dogs come to the lab. But I asked the owner not to really participate in any way. They’re there just for a sort of moral support. But I don’t want them cuing the dog. So the owner is significant in those studies because the dog really does want to get a cue of how to behave from the owners. But I, but I’m trying to leave the owner out of it as much as possible.
The dog wants the cue from the owner and the owner wants to give a cue to the dog. So they’ll perform in the in the way that they feel better, best about them, right?
Yeah. Just like in psychological studies that we participate in ourselves, people often want to succeed at the study, right? So they form some notion about what the study is about and then try to succeed at it. Even though it, they’re probably wrong about what the study is about. And it’s not obvious what counts as success really. You know, psychologists are just studying how we behave. So the dog people come in and want their dogs to, you know, be great, [inaudible] perform well and it’s really never about that. And as much as I can keep the owner’s in the dark, frankly, when they’re there about what the study is, the better because that way they don’t, there’s, there’s no way for them to helpfully cue their dog to perform in a certain way.
What about the dog? Does the dog also have that desire, want to perform to be great?
I would say that all appearances are no, they do not because they don’t seem to want to perform to a level. They’re just interested or they aren’t interested. They notice a difference between stimuli or they don’t notice a difference. Right. Or they’re motivated to participate and find the next thing or they’re really not motivated. So they don’t seem to have performance anxiety.
Yeah. Does, what does that, if anything, what does that tell you about the dog mind? The theory of mind of a dog?
I mean, I think that tells me that they haven’t taken on all our, of our bad anxieties and habits for them.
Yeah. Good for them. Do you have a, is there a recent experiment you’ve done or your lab has done that you were particularly just found fun and joyful?
You know, this, while it might seem odd to you or, or your listeners, but the one that I did recently, it was actually about two years ago that I loved, was this thing called the, what I call the old factory mirror test. And I was modeling this after a really interesting tests that Gordon Gallup will primatologist developed many years ago. Wherein he asked, you know, do chimpanzees have an understanding of themselves, self-awareness. And he represented that if a Chimp could look in the mirror and see that, you know, there’s something that there was something on their forehead, for instance, a little red Mark and move to touch the red Mark on themselves, you know, through, through the mediation of the mirror just as we would if we looked in the mirror that it showed that they might have this kind of self awareness. This is me with the Mark in my head, just as we do when we look in a mirror, you know, by age two or something, you look and you say, you know, that’s not another kid.
That’s me. And I can use the mirror to, you know, change my, to try to look differently. And self-awareness is one of these things we’re really interested in another, whether other animals have, and this is a flawed test, but really the only test we have to try to study it. And dogs don’t pass this test. Typically they, you know, if they, they seem to use mirrors maybe to find out about the world. So they, so they see them and can see things in them and maybe understand that things are behind them in that they see approaching them in the mirror, but they don’t seem to look in the mirror and see something different about themselves and then move to change. And I reasoned, well that’s because they don’t really care. You know, what they look like so much. I’m a, they’re not like a grooming species like primates, but also, you know, they’re smelters primarily.
So what if they kind of smelled themselves and noticed that they had a different smell? Would they be more interested in that than what they typically smell like? And so I created a little study where the, I presented them with their own scent and then their own scent, which was modified by another smell. And I also presented other little odors to them, like the son of another dog that they didn’t know or the son of a dog they lived with at home. And I was looking at how long they investigated all the samples. And what I found was that they were way more interested in their own scent when it was modified with another scent. In other words, just like looking in the mirror, somewhat like looking in the mirror and seeing a Mark on your forehead noticing that’s you. And it’s more interesting than just you because there’s something different there.
And there were more interested in that than their own image or then just the scent by itself. Right. It wasn’t just that, that’s a really exciting sense that’s been added to my smell. Mmm. I want to smell that it was that it’s me, but different. And that’s weird, you know, and I want to investigate that longer. So to me this was a very cool experiment because it’s all about trying to understand that infect like what is the olfactory experience of the dog, how do they, how do we get it? How you might think with olfaction. And it was an attempt, you know, albeit I think the flawed one and at first pass effort, but an attempt to start to get at that.
It’s also, isn’t it the the reason why the trickle has turned into a river because so many scientists like yourself are envisioning investigating the world in new ways, in ways that show us the animals or show the animal’s thinking rather than our thinking about the way the animals think culturally. What do you think is prompting that?
The availability of these dogs allows us to be a little inventive and come up with new things. But the field itself really is always evolving new methods to try to get at the minds of animals. So, and humans for that matter, you know, and so like brain imaging is a field that’s really exploded and one reason we’re excited about it is just another way in to the mind, you know, the another way into find out things about ourselves or others that are, it’s hard to find out otherwise. So, I mean, I think we have a natural curiosity and the field re reflects the curiosity that we as a society feel about ourselves and about our relationship with the in our culture.
Yeah. It’s also, isn’t it interesting that it’s a, it’s the dogs that we do that with because we’re so familiar with them and yet we’ve, and we ascribed so much to them and yet we seem to also want to actually know if what we’re ascribing is real, it seems important to us that it is this real
Want confirmation. Right. You know, is it, people ask me a lot if, if their dogs loved them, you know, if that’s fair to say. And I, and I say, you know, I haven’t spoken to your dog, but but they, but they want, they want some confirmation, scientific confirmation. And yet, you know, if I told them no, I think a lot of people, and you’re talking to Scott, which is not what I believe, but if I had said that, I think a lot of people would still go away and say, you know, but, but my dog, I know, I just know my dog does. So we use science and the results of science as, as part of our fact finding. But I think people also rely on their own intuition as well.
You somewhat tongue in cheek in your biography say that you know, you are, you are owned. She’s owned by canines, Finnegan and Upton and been tolerated by the feline Edsel. What’s unpack that, that that joke you’re making that, that you are owned by those dogs?
Yeah. It’s always inadvisable to unpack your own jokes, but I’ll do it for you Steven. The you know, while I’m playing with the fact that it’s odd that we talk about owning our animals and we do legally own dogs because, so the law, they’re considered personal property. They are objects that persons like us and own and do with more or less as we choose. But I feel like that’s in that right. And it doesn’t match how we feel about dogs, the familial feelings we have about dogs, they’re members of our families. So it’s weird to say and we own them, right? I was responsible for my son when he was little, but I didn’t own him. He was his own person. But I really, he needed me to get around and to grow up. I didn’t own him. So I feel like if we’re going to talk about ownership, I’d rather talk about it as a two way street that we’re mutually owned by each other.
You write about the evolution of, of a dog well, of animal rights laws or animal laws and then the, we come to the time of animal rights and the idea of what rights animals have and what rights dogs have. When you say that, you know, as property, they have the rights of chairs, the same, same rights as chairs have in many ways. What what, what do you think would be at, would the world look like if it were different and how, what would it be to make it different?
A lot of thinkers, legal thinkers are puzzling over that very issue. And one who I, I think has intriguing ideas named David favor suggests that for instance, just as we’re responsible for children but they are their own persons. Maybe dogs could be a slightly different status. Maybe something like living property instead of just property where we’d actually have to take into account their wellbeing in a serious way more than the absence of cruelty as, as mandated by animal cruelty laws requires of us. If we did that, I think, you know, there might be some circumscription on owning dogs. If you weren’t a good owner of this living property, then maybe you wouldn’t get to own them. You know, think about how our society is decided over the last 40 years. Mostly because of Jane Goodall and the people who followed her and studying chimpanzees that we shouldn’t keep, except in extreme situations.
We should not keep chimpanzees for medical experimentation. You can’t just keep chimpanzees for behavioral research anymore. Captive. It’s inappropriate. We’ve decided as a culture to these kind of magnificent animals who are us. And so we’ve had to limit the types of things we can do with chimps. And I think that’s okay. You know, but it is a change and there might be a time when we’d say, well we have, we can still live with dogs. We made dogs. We kind of have to, we owe something to them because they are dependent on us. But maybe we can change for their benefits as a species and individually the things we can do with dogs, the ways we can own dogs.
One of your examples is the way breeders work, right? What are, what, what would breeders do differently if, if we had a little more attention to that aspect of the dog?
Yeah, there are a lot of interesting aspects of breeding ducks. Obviously, you know, you have to have, you have to make more dogs. We want to continue to have a dog population and breeders might be acquired that forever. But pure breeding is right now for matching of breed standard, which is which is largely about appearance and a little bit about temperament. And it’s led to some really serious health problems with lots of breeds because inbreeding as we know biologically is not a sound practice. So what if instead breed standards required that the dog be particularly healthy? You know, what if we were bred for health instead of for looks, that would be an improvement. And the very fact that we can as property sell dogs, I think if that were altered in some way or if, let’s say the dog got to have the benefit, some of the monetary benefit of work that they do for us, then our relationship with the species would change. But we’d still be living with the dogs. You know, they don’t have to, they don’t have to be full persons in order for us to give them a little bit more than we give them now.
Well what do you mean by that? Like what
I think people are concerned that if you treat animals that it’s anything but property that then suddenly, you know, you’re pretending that they well first of all that they would have responsibilities that they can’t live up to and then that you there’s kind of taking over, you know, that they take over your life. And I think that there’s a way that we could live with dogs and do more things to their wellbeing for their benefits rather than for our interests. And still have a dog human relationship. I think it’s, you know, a lot of the sciences pointed in this direction and a lot of animal welfare science, which is really blossomed in the last couple of decades, is about saying like, all right, we live around these other animals. You know, how can we treat them best if we’re going to look at the food industry and how that’s changed and our interests in finding food from more humanely raised food, right?
It’s that kind of thing. Can we more humanely deal with dogs given our knowledge of what they need in their life? They need social companionship for instance, like it’s, it’s actually cool to leave them alone most of the days as we often do. If we have a job that keeps us out of the house for 12 hours. What if you just couldn’t do that? You had to figure out something else to do with them during that time. Because we know that it’s a real stressor. This type of thing I think is, is the type of thing I have, we should have a conversation about as a society.
Well, one of the other things is one that you mentioned in your book is a spaying and neutering and that we have deliberately desexed dogs because it’s messy and it causes problems for us. What, well, we’ll give your thoughts on mandatory spaying and neutering that occurs at a shelters. For example,
The policy to spay neuter dogs has come about because we have a huge overpopulation of dots. That’s why mandatory spay-neuter grew in the, from the seventies to today to be a much bigger deal. And it’s entirely understandable that that happened. You know, people were having to euthanize millions of animals, dogs and cats every year. And it’s hard. Horrible. It’s horrible. Now we still have the policy, but we, I think it’s worth looking at it again whether that’s going to bring us to the place with, with domestic animals where we want to be. It doesn’t eliminate mandatory spending or it doesn’t eliminate the problem of two Benny overpopulations or too many dogs. I’m on a dogs. We still use an EIS, million some dogs and many more cats every year in this country. So, and we see other countries that don’t have spay neuter laws, in fact, where it’s illegal, where they don’t have a stray dog problem.
And so you have to say, well, this is the solution we took to try to solve this problem and understandable, but are there other choices? What would it be like to do other things, right? For instance, to discourage or make people aware of, of like the responsibilities of living with a dog who is intent to could impregnate another dog or become pregnant. What, what would you need to be able to take on if you’re going to be a breeder of dogs and create new puppies? You know, I think that we’ve put off onto this one policy. You know, we sort of treated as the solution to this big problem that we created of millions of dogs every year being euthanized because they don’t have homes.
Got one solution. It’s, it’s just not a simple solution. It’s not solving the problem. And it also, you know, kinds of lets us off the hook when we shouldn’t be let off the hook. We need to be more responsible dog owners and all the other ways, you know, [inaudible] spay neuter is is, is asking the dog to bear the problem. That’s our problem. You dog the path of surgery because we humans have created too many other dogs and we don’t want more.
And yet we have more and more and more and more. Because there seems so many people want to have dogs. Sweden and Norway are two countries. You mentioned have tried some other approaches. What were their approaches? And do you have enough science to say, Oh, cause it, there’s some causality here. This actually is getting us towards a different solution that’s successful.
They’ve just taken a different approach the whole time. You know Switzerland has an animal protection act, which, which, which requires legally that you honor the dignity of an animal and that means no unnecessary surgeries and Spaniard or would be considered unnecessary because it’s harmful. It’s harmful, it’s a harm to the animal. The surgery is painful and unless you need the reproductive organs removed for some other reason, but cancer for instance it affects the whole body effects an animal’s growth. Deleteriously and their solution has been to put, prioritize the animal in that relationship and they have to spend a little more time making sure, a little more care, making sure that, you know, their dog and heat does not get out. Or if they’re gonna have puppies, they have to have places for those puppies. But it doesn’t appear to have gotten them at a worst plate is not gotten them the middle worse place than the U S or the U S is at a much worse place.
So that’s just, I’m not saying we should all be like Norway. I don’t know. I feel that that’s it. It should reflect though that what we feel is the only solution to this problem is not the only solution to this problem. So let’s find one that works for both humans and dogs because this one is not a dog friendly solution. This is in the book, this argument, this was also in the New York times recently. Did you look at the comments? Did you see what kind of reactions you got? I did not look at the comments. Because I wasn’t interested in, I wasn’t interested in engaging with two and a half
Responders. I mean, I feel like I’m proposing that we look closely at something, but I’m not mandating anything and I’m not requiring anything. I’m suggesting something. I’m saying, here’s some facts and that I’ve put together. And here’s some other ways to think about this beside the way that we’ve been handed, and if people are gonna yell at me about that, then I don’t need to be yelled at about that. You know, we’re on the same side. We’re both in favor of dogs. We’re both pro dog, so I feel like we should focus on that as opposed to arguing about the policy. So I’m glad that it was widely read as it appears to have been because that’s the idea is to say, Hey, this is something that we’re not supposed to talk about. So let’s just talk about it. I don’t believe that there’s anything which we shouldn’t be talking about. I mean, heaven forbid that that we have something we can’t be talking about that. That’s not what our society is about.
Alexandra Horowitz talking within the moment, chief correspondent Steve share for an extended interview between the two. Listen to Steve’s podcast at length, wherever you find your podcasts. Alexander Horowitz comes to town hall to talk about her new book. Our dog’s ourselves. The story of a singular bond on September 28th at 7:30 PM now go take that best friend of yours out on a long walk.
Thank you for listening to in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU, and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. Don’t forget to subscribe to our arts and culture, civics and science series podcasts. If you haven’t already, you can listen to the majority of Townhall produced events in their full form. On our next episode of correspondence, Sally James will talk to Paul tough about who needs college till then. Thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 40

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Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email

Hello and welcome to [inaudible]
In the moment. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. It’s the third week of September, 2019 and the moments are flying by quickly here at town hall, Seattle or homecoming festival. Momentum is in full swing with events this past week from award-winning novelist Marilyn Robinson to diplomat, Samantha power to Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan. And as we approach our fourth week of the festival, we have some even more hip exciting events to add to the roster, including tough art, collective takeover. On Saturday, September 21st you had me at cello at cello concert on Sunday, September 22nd and hot takes with hot dykes, a live podcast with standup comedians, Clara Pluton and Val Negro on Tuesday the 24th and in the midst of all that entertainment, don’t overlook the critically important discussions filling our space. Naomi Klein talks about the green new deal with three Somos SCADA. Jonathan Safran Ford talks about how what we eat impacts climate change. With our in the moment, chief correspondent Steve share on the great hall stage and on this episode we get to know Timothy Faust, who will be discussing a single payer health care in the forum and if you happen to be in districts three or seven in the Seattle area, Townhall is hosting the city council debates next Thursday, September 26th if you’d like to see a full lineup of all of our events.
Check out our calendar at town hall, single payer healthcare is a health insurance system financed by taxes that is managed and run by one entity such as the government providing essential healthcare to all citizens. There are many approaches and ideas for how this healthcare system could work in the United States, but healthcare, data scientists and activists, Timothy Faust, got on the ground to talk to people throughout the U S about health inequalities in their neighborhoods and how a single payer system could benefit all our correspondent Venice. [inaudible] Has been a journalist, reporter and editor in Seattle for over a decade. Most recently as editorial director at the Seattle globalist Venice sat down to talk with Timothy about why he’s passionate about healthcare, what he’s learned while working with the affordable care act and his new book health justice now single-payer and what comes next. So yeah, thanks for talking with me. I guess first can you talk about you know, what, what was the emphasis for writing this book? I mean, what was the need that you saw for having a book about this topic?
Sure. So I spent much of the past two years driving around talking to folks about single payer and health and equity and health justice. And one of the things that I realized is a, there’s, there’s wasn’t a good book out there and for a lay person, and I’m a consummate lay person, I’m talking about well healthcare, talking about what it is, how it operates, what insurances, why these things work the way that they do or don’t work the way that they don’t. At that single payer policy was understood. Generally it’s on the complicated, but then it was understood generally or the specific contours of, well, this thing is and how it works and how it operates or quite as fluently understood as I’m, as I might one of them to be so Polish your ass the rest of the book. And I thought this would be a good fit for it. And we’re not really much of a writer, but managed to excrutiatingly pull the words out of my head, like yanking my own teeth. I know what it was, a little book for them. And now here we go. We got a little 220 page ish bad boy that I’m rather proud of that seeks to answer Phil. Three questions. One, what do we have to, what do we want instead? And then three, what lies beyond.
Mm, okay. Yeah. So maybe can we back up a little bit and talk about like how did you come about like driving around to folks about talking about health care and the health justice system, I mean, or health justice. How did you, how did that come about for you?
Sure. I’m pretty haphazardly to be honest. I know quite a bit. I wouldn’t say no quite a bit, but I know a little bit about health policy. From my prior experience helped enroll full under ACA plans and Florida, Georgia and Texas. And then I work at an insurance company. I’m originally a true believer in ICA. I thought all this can solve all problems with Atlanta. You know, we may give given a chance to work the right way. I recall I once got into a shouting match, I’ll set a bottle with somebody. But whether or not the a snake work and I was wrong. I was super wrong. My, my goal and the time, my longterm plan was to this was back in 2015, 16. You get a job working for a state Medicaid program and do this for a few years cause I love Medicaid, especially in New York.
And then maybe you got a job then [inaudible] under a Clinton presidency and then hopefully work on single pattern in pass. And then of course, so that didn’t work out for it. Right. Intervene. And I reckon, Oh shit. Like we got a big problem here. Here’s the thing I’m really care about. I should go out and talk about it. And so I had some friends that had a podcast called Chapo trap house, really popular broadcasts. I played D and D Dungeons and dragons with one of the guys for about a year and a half. And I got them. There’ll be come on and just talk about single payer. And that was pretty popular. The same time I’m a member of the democratic socialists of America. So I happened to have a lot of folks from, from branches across the us say, Hey, would you be interested in coming to speak to us?
So I’ve got DSA locals across the U S to help put together events. I’d come and speak. And then more importantly, I’d get a chance to learn well, healthcare on the ground because healthcare is very different. And you know, Boise and Boston and Houston and Dallas and all these towns, I mean, Seattle, Seattle, and Eastern Seattle and Spokane have different healthcare needs. So I got a chance to learn more about health care in different, different parts of the U S and the specificities and contours of how health and manifests and then we’ve got a chance to put that all into a book.
Hmm. Yeah. I guess, are you finding, you know, you’ve been traveling around a lot or have you been finding kind of different reactions to the idea of a single payer in different parts of the country, like different resistance to, you know, different aspects of it and or skepticism of the idea in general?
I think there’s a lot of folks who understand they are afraid of their own bodies now. They are afraid of leaving their kids behind or they are afraid that they will be punished with a mountain of medical debt for a thing which is virtually beyond their control. But a lot of folks in just in a kind of in the middle they don’t quite know what this thing is. They’ve been told a lot of misinformation by people who profit from that misinformation. And so I’ll talk to a good number of those folks. And always eager to talk to more like listening to folks and but yeah, that’s been, I think that real that’s the real productive ground for them. Single-Payer question.
Hmm. Okay. So I guess, can you maybe describe what some of the misinformation that you’re hearing from people, like maybe some of the most common misconceptions about it and, and what do you tell them?
Sure. Well, the biggest one that gets swung around with a little hammer, you got a single pair, simply can’t afford it. That’s going to cost so much extra incremental money that we could never finance. And I have two responses to that. One of which is that, I mean, frankly, I don’t myself necessarily care about the economic arguments. I think this is a civil service, civil rights. People are, I think people want them to settle the people that live freely in their bodies. We can provide one, it’s what a government is there to do to, it’s economically proven to invest in American as hell. Every dollar spent on healthcare or the federal government typically for experts return compared to two way. And you’d have one central terminal or things like war crimes, but to, we fundamentally can afford single payer because we’re already affording it.
Right now or this year, we’re going to spend three point $9 trillion on national healthcare expenditures. You’ve got a whole bunch of steps or whole bunch of arguments. Single-Payer costs significant in the lesson, right? One single payer three year national health monitors have increased much faster than inflation once because of healthcare costs while they of control and the increased just kind of one line it’s profitable to do so. So a health go off year over year, over year we still spend four point $7 trillion eight years from now. What a single payer does is at the very least, keeps that cost flat. So there’s a large quantity of money that it saves efforts. You are not getting up left foot. Bug’s $7 trillion line two of that three point $9 trillion going right now. A full third of that is it’s considered waste either outright fraud or it adequacy of the contemporary American insurance.
Oh, half of that of that 30% is provider’s sideways. Things like unnecessary services being our price Mark. Other half of that is pay or sideways things like admin costs and efficiencies and pricing and this kind of the general and competence of the insurance industry bring prices down. So where we have this big chunk of change, we’re already hammering all contrast that to go single payer, the political economy research Institute, that’s a, our estimates are both single payer plans in Congress will cost a 10% less per year. Well Carl been now, so a 10% less to cover all people at full versus a bloated massive private carve outs and fraud waste. A pretty easy comparison for me. And what are you talking through with folks? You know, they, they tend to understand it. Some folks are concerned that their taxes will go up. I’m not to easy to fucking right now spending a lot of money, private facts to insurance companies that premiums, deductibles, copays, all that is life away.
So I think the nurse campaign’s estimate is that under their plan, a average, and I think this was docked out, if you look at the tax proposal, family of four making $40,000 a year right now spends about five to $6,000 on a health care in a given year, which is, I’m seeing them on the money. And that’s a combination of insurance, premiums, deductibles and copays. And the, under the Sanders plan, they’d spend $420 a year be a tax. But that tax is more offset by a marked reduction and their family. And on top of that you’ve got like your employer in spending, you know, 6,000 or warm $10,000 a year on insuring you cause retired employment to insurance. In theory provides the room for them to pass on that savings in the, for my higher wages and a better benefits.
Okay. And so that tax is essentially part of their income tax, right? Is that, is that kind of what the, the argument is
The actual financing models contingent upon the policy pass? Right. and like there’s a bunch of different ways one can fund the program but are still like determined upon how the policy is written. The most common one right now is an income tax, a progressive income tax that expands the higher counts of it. So people who make a hell of a lot more money. But I’ve more into the pot. But there are certainly alternative ways to finance lists or a compliment in your finances.
Okay, cool. Thank you. When I was reading the book, I did find it interesting that the last section of the book, I’m kind of focused on other social justice issues, connected to health justice, such as racism, affordable housing and gender issues. I, I was wondering do you, do you find when you’re talking to, you know, just the general public to lay people, do they, you know, intuitively find that connection between, Oh, you know, like, you know, I’ve gotten a lot of mold in my house or in my apartment, so that’s what’s making me sick, I guess. Are you finding that they, that they intuitively make that connection? You know, topics that I think a lot of people tend to shy away like intersectional topics that I think people tend to shy away from like gender issues or can’t get certain types of health care because they’re female. Yeah.
Yeah. I mean folks who got like just got mold in the walls and do get sick and see their kids get sick. They’re saying the causes of why they’re getting sicker while their kids are getting started. People on, I’m surprised to learn that they’re unsafe. Home conditions are causing illness and it’s often feel powerless or can’t do anything about it. And frankly that’s not long. A lot of them can’t do anything. I probably gotta organize where I talked about, so I kind of put a delay between social determinants of health and structural determinants of health, social determinants of health or things like housing and food and education, income and struck. But these things offer as we understand on evenly apportioned, cross the public, right? Some folks have adequate housing, some folks do not. Some folks are adequately safe at home or in their own bodies.
And some folks are not. Some folks had access to the healthcare they need and some folks don’t. Some folks have income and other people don’t. I mean I, I posited that the method of portion and these social determinants is through along the lines of things like structural racism, structural poverty, structural Pega, Patrick alcoholism like Mike McConnell wants to call it. Examples is a natal mortality. Black infants die twice. The rate of white infants. How there’s no inherent like quality of black people that mix infants die twice as often. Clearly something else is at play here. There was no racial components to County. You can take it up a few degrees less abstract. We know that for example, black man in a white man with the same symptoms of chest pain when we were in the same ability to pay or needed the same hospital will receive different kinds of care. This has been measured by it. See downstate did a study on this, a really brilliant study looking about how black men both receive worse care and receive more bad care. Little difference there. Then then wiped my arms. Like racism plays a pretty big role in how he received, how you like even literally receive help or even before you take out the intersections of inequality these things do affect how we behave in healthcare, get sick, die, et cetera.
You talked a little bit about the affordable care act, the ACA and you know, in the book also you mentioned that you were a big fan of it and actually started working in it and I was wondering, can you describe what you liked about it and kinda the reasons why you kind of left that industry?
Oh so actually still work in the industry. I gotta get, I have about $2,000 of medical costs a month, and frankly I needed the insurance. So I’m kinda, there’s a certain hiring to that. I’ve made my own [inaudible] and bargain. Honestly, nothing I say reflects my employer and certainly not vice versa. No, I mean, I, I I thought the thing would good be good. I thought the government would be a, a good actor here that like the, they had like you could channel a corporation and they could do nice lens and I don’t think insurance companies are malevolent. I think they’re just incompetent. I think they’re a inadequate to handle the task we put before them. They can’t do the right things. We, if they wanted to, they are unable to invest in the things that make a difference and all they can do is they can’t manage costs.
All they can do is scrape off their profit and pass the costs back to you. The the consumer. I mean the idea that healthcare as a commodity, that you are a consumer instead of a person I find pretty abhorrent. And I find that the justification for maintaining the insurance industry to sustain this model pretty flimsy at best. They’ve had 40 years to do the right thing. And even with the ACA, they have failed to do it time and time and time again. So there was large swats and population who just, you know, we couldn’t have targeted or shouldn’t have targeted because they weren’t eligible for the ACA. I’m not going to book my brain. I didn’t really understand why. Hey, government would actively deny care to people if it was free. Which kinda had a, a catalyzing effect in my understanding of how government works and how, you know, certain bad actors can ruin things for the bunch.
Okay. How, how do you feel about the ACA now?
Oh, it was a mass government subsidization in private industry in an attempt to coerce it completely. It’s a big part. It’s a big pint of whale. Please, please, please. How many billions of dollars we’ve got to give you. You stop being sick people off their insurance plans. That’s how I see it now. That’s not how I thought at the time. No, I mean like it’s, there’s, there’s no, like Paul on the road to Damascus conversion story. I just looked around at what I’ve been doing for a year and said, huh, have things gotten better? And the answer was no. And I couldn’t blame it on like a, you know, GOP interference or whatever. I had to say this whole thing is not working the way it ought to. What does kind of settled upon single payer is the thing that I thought a the model which made sense to me.
Okay, cool. And, and I guess, can you kind of describe your your, your ideal scenario and what would have to happen in the next you know, you can give me what the timeline is. I’m thinking five, 10 years for your plan to come about. What would have to happen?
My ideal scenario is full single-payer. Full stop. No question. That can be a transition plan or we have a couple of years where people kind of get ramped into a ramp out of the plan. We’re going to be overnight. I don’t really care. We can either make it illegal to sell insurance and compete to get single pair or we can nationalize the insurance industries and fill their mouth’s with old. I don’t really care either way. I think the latter probably makes more sense as far as what we needed to get there. I mean, we need a massive popular movement. Health reform and the has been tried in the U S many times and it’s failed every single time. Even when my well-meaning Sanders or well-meaning policy leaders or other woman people. All right, the helm, the only time health perform succeeds as when there is a large popular movement behind it.
Doesn’t need to be that large. Like think of like a, a act up act up as the HIV AIDS advocacy program that was sprung out in the 80s and they were facing a lot. There was a sitting president who said that HIV was a plague brought by God to kill gay people and that this was good. And even in the face of that, they organized, they allied with homeless people and people using drugs and people of color and poor single mothers and put together massive of mass, the top of popular movement. And they won. They won and they won and they won. They won. And I won a, I think we need similar popular movements. And I think the nice thing about health justice is it shows that you can be working on housing and so we are working with part of that, the health care movement at the same time.
Right? Not, I don’t think you want to build a singular monolithic popular movement. I think you build a, you, you win whatever you can, wherever you can. Right. You’re in Seattle. I can’t tell you what to fight for in Seattle cause I don’t know, I don’t want to be covered back. I don’t, I don’t, I want to fight over. I try to call the shots if I can say it as if there is something you think you can go forward and women because small material gains you get larger material games. This kind of like snowballing of a a victory. We will build the quilts that can win single payer and so much more beyond it.
Okay, cool. Yeah. Thank you for answering that. Like, you know, is there like an example that’s particularly egregious that you know, you don’t that you’re, that you wish people would know about?
One of the things I talked about mentioned earlier was that prices in the U S are fundamentally fake. And that sounds like a joke, but it’s not. Often prices are determined as a function of costs, right? It takes me $5 to build a gizmo. I want to pay my employees and myself, I cost $2. So at a total of seven there’s other competing giggles in the market and they’ll go for $9. So I will sell mine for eight 50 or whatever that’s I use to use costs to set a price. That’s how it works in healthcare and not at all. And so I got a couple of a couple of comparisons. I like. One is inpatient care in the U S costs 40% more than the same procedures performed in the same patients when performed in France or you’ve got a MRIs. Mris are a great example because MRIs are pretty consistent that as big tubes of printed money and one MRI is virtually indistinguishable from the, another MRI made by the same company.
So in the U S and MRI scan costs five times the same machine doing the same procedure costs in Australia. There’s no difference there. The MRIs aren’t more expensive to produce. It’s the same machine coming. It’s coming the same person that’s that they can afford to to charge five times more. So they do, I think it’s dumb or even not domestically. The, in a given a given hospital and like the literal same hospital, the literal same MRI machine who perform scans that have a seven fold cost variance, that is to say one scan might cost $200 and another scan might cost $1,400 even though it’s literally the same button being pressed to perform the literal same kind of scan. I simply, because [inaudible] prices are set as a function of who’s paying for it. If a hospital has a more powerful or dominant relationship with an insurance company, they can demand that the insurance company pays more for a given procedure.
Or if the insurance company has a particular scheme or a particular policy in which certain procedures cost more or cost less or whatever. But there was no real, like there’s no sensible approach to how a thing lets us standardize as an MRI on this cost. And if you add more competitors in the market, if you add a new hospital to a city or if you had a new facility to a region, costs go up, not down. There’s no, like this is not a market good. It doesn’t behave like a market good. In general it is, it’s a big gold rush. Big land grab. Everybody’s going for it and it doesn’t behave in the ways that we’re told to believe. Markets should behave, costs go up, prices go up, prices are invented. The, at the insulin for example now costs $400 a vial.
It costs fractions of, of honey produce costs go up simply because they can. Most famous case of that is Martin Shkreli on the pharma bro who took Dera prim, which is a, an antifungal, I forgot what it is. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a drug used to treat infections in people that have autoimmune diseases like HIV AIDS and increase the price. Something like 17000% overnight suddenly because he could and he didn’t go to jail for it. We only went to tell because he ended the fraud in some rich people. The EpiPen now costs $500 with insurance, even though it used to cost a think 150 a couple of years ago. Like these costs increased simply because they can, not because of any kind of like sound business logic or anything. And so that’s where, that’s where the real like bankrupt in, of, of Medicare or whatever is coming from. It’s coming from bad actors in the provider side. And in the face of all this, insurance companies can’t do anything. They have no leverage. They have no tools, they have no nothing. They can’t handle these rising costs. All they can do is make you pay for more of it. The hopes that that will prevent you from seeking care, but then they have to pay for.
Okay, great. And, and I was also, I was wondering, do you feel that you go around talking to people who already kind of are sold on single payer health care? I was, I guess my, my main question is, you know, you know, for whom did you write the book, you know, D do you feel like you’re preaching to the choir when you kind of lay out your arguments here or are you, are you actually, are you reaching people who kind of, you know, are curious, want to learn more?
I wrote the book from my dad mostly. So I imagined my father as a reader and then wrote a book for him cause he’s a, he’s a nice guy who wants the best but it doesn’t know a lot about healthcare policy and doesn’t quite know how the whole kitten caboodle operates. So, okay, let’s, let’s, let’s put together a thing that he can read and understand and hopefully enjoy. And so far it’s getting the dad’s seal of approval. Five out of five dads stars with is all I can ever help for. As to, as far as like like the, the hope is that my hope is that the book of the toolkit for folks who want to talk about single payer but don’t know how folks who wants to know what this thing is, to what degree that’s successful, I don’t know yet.
The book only came out last month. So my hope is that people that come to this book talks will take the book, you can read it and carry that forward. And talking to other folks that that they talked to about and self care is a thing people do discuss. I’m sure I have a pretty skewed index on how often people discuss healthcare. But I do believe people discuss healthcare pretty frequently. So I hope people can use, they learn in this book to talk to people that they know about healthcare health office,
Timothy Faust. We’ll be talking in our forum on Wednesday, September 25th. There are still some tickets available. So if you’d like to get involved in the conversation, head to our website at town hall, Thank you for listening to in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU, and Seattle’s own Barsac records. We filmed and live stream two events this past Monday, September 16th so if you’d like to watch Caitlin Dowdy discussing death or Samantha power talking about her career as a U S diplomat, check out our YouTube channel. Just type in town hall Seattle and you can access our whole library of videos and live streams. But if you prefer the medium of audio, which I suspect you might, our events will also be published on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts. Just subscribe, listen, and learn. Next week on in the moment, our chief correspondent Steve share talks with author and dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz about the odd, surprising and contradictory ways we live with dogs. Until then, thank you for joining us right here in the moment.

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