The “Don’t Be a Tough Guy. Don’t Be a Fool! I Will Call You Later” Edition
S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.
S2: Hello and welcome to the Slate Political Gabfest for October 17 2019.
S3: Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool. I will call you later Ed.. I am David Plotz of Atlas Obscura in Washington D.C. John Dickerson of CBS 60 Minutes chuckling. DICKERSON Ian Lee in Manhattan Hello. John Dickerson Hello David. John has his first 60 Minutes piece coming up this weekend so gabfest listeners make sure you check out 60 Minutes on Sunday.
S4: They go on for that Tune In Tune In plug. And joining us of course is Emily Bazelon of the New York Times Magazine and Yale University Law School from New Haven. Hello Emily.
S4: So glad to be here with you both on today’s gabfest. President Trump’s shocking abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies in Syria and the incredible series of catastrophic events that have unfolded from that then who if anyone won the fourth democratic debate then we will discuss a fascinating new book about whether meritocracy is destroying the United States.
S6: Plus of course we will have a cocktail chatter. One more note gaffe festers. When we first released last week’s episode I referenced a tweet in which a banker. Trump was quoted allegedly quoted criticizing Hunter Biden for getting a position through nepotism that quote It turns out was fabricated. I was wrong to read it. We removed it from our episode that same night and many of you probably heard the nice clean corrected version. But for those of you who didn’t. I am sorry. Please note that that quote was fabricated and shouldn’t have been there to begin with President Trump who betrays as easily and as regularly as most people eat snacks has outdone himself in the Middle East. The president gave a free path to took US president one then withdrew U.S. forces stationed with Kurds in northern Syria allowing Turkey and some of its allies in Syria to invade the North to rouse Kurds emboldening Russia emboldening Bashar Assad emboldening Iran releasing a whole bunch of people being held ISIS people being held by the Kurds. It is a catastrophic turn of events fully predicted fully anticipated by everyone who had looked at it. So John why did this happen even though everyone knew what was going to happen if he did it.
S7: Why did it happen. I think the macro is that the president doesn’t like messy U.S. activity and things that are complicated and unpleasant and this is a complicated and unpleasant business. I think people have also speculated that he has business interests in Turkey and therefore has to kind of listen to Taiwan more than then just a regular old leader of a country. But I think that it fits into his foreign policy worldview which is closer to kind of Rand Paul than Lindsey Graham. And I think he’s very impulsive and so despite all of the guidance from the experts around him saying that what would happen what has happened would happen. He hasn’t listened to those advisers and experts on a whole host of things. And so in this instance he didn’t listen either and I would just add the second level of which is a particularly predictable second generation thing that happens in the impulsive presidency which is that the president does something impulsively and then in the second stage you know the vice president rushes out and said that he didn’t do the thing that he just did. So the Vice President Pence said that President didn’t give a green light to the term. Brett McGurk who ran ISIS policy under Obama under Trump and also worked on the surge for George W. Bush has been boiling lead critical of President Trump for whom he worked and and he knows this issue better than anyone in mocking the idea that he didn’t give a green light. But I think that’s also a part of the cascading disaster of these things which is that something happens and then there’s a whole effort to claim the thing that happened didn’t just happen. Emily
S4: The House voted on Wednesday to rebuke the president for withdrawing troops that included. Most Republicans voted with Democrats on this rebuke and yet it doesn’t feel as though President Trump is is a going to reverse his policy. Well he can’t reverse that. I suppose it’s the policy is dead it’s too late it’s too late to reverse it right. It’s out of his hands. The glass is shattered and is on the floor but it also doesn’t feel that Republicans are going to hold him too much to account for this.
S5: Yeah it’s pretty amazing to watch the Republicans you know vote against him and isolate him in that sense and some of them like Graham and Marco Rubio etc. have been critical but they’ve been careful to make that criticism less personal in the last few days and not to extend it into other domains right. I mean if you really want to condemn Trump over this Republicans have lots of other levers they can pull they don’t want to do that they don’t like the politics of that. I think given Trump’s high approval rating among Republicans and they don’t want to undermine their own domestic agenda or give any tools to the Democrats and so I think that we’re seeing one of the most striking and I would say shocking examples where partisan politics are outweighing any kind of institutional concerns about the foreign policy establishment the traditional views of the Republican Party on the Middle East and these kinds of interventions this particular intervention which had bipartisan support and then the prerogative of Congress right. That kind of idea that Congress would want to have a bigger say here and really try to impact events that seems to also be going effectively by the wayside.
S4: I think there’s a recognition implicit in what you’re saying Emily that that also this is not an issue on which Americans vote yes that Kurds. It is absolutely true. This is something that that people in the establishment people who care about America’s interests abroad people who care about the legitimacy of American diplomacy and the use of American military power from a kind of macro perspective care about a lot but American voters are not up at night worrying about the Kurds even though it’s a tremendous betrayal just a tremendous embarrassing shameful betrayal. But but the number of people who will who will stop Bain for President Trump because of it is in no small handfuls although why are we so sure.
S5: I mean I share your assumptions about that and yet why are we so sure of that when we have these stories and images of ISIS prisoners and their relatives escaping like I thought one thing Americans did care about with regards to foreign policy was preventing terrorism and this is the most direct threat I can see. Since 9/11. I mean it just seems like for an American president to have effectively created the conditions for all of this instability and for actually like freeing ISIS prisoners. That seems like it should be grabbing people by the throat.
S4: And John why do you think conservatives and voters are not losing their minds about this.
S8: Well I think they. There is some.
S9: Some people are losing their minds in part because you have some people who are not the usual suspects being critical.
S7: So Lindsey Graham is kind of in both camps but he’s been highly critical.
S9: And and so I think that.
S7: But but you know mostly everybody has stuck behind the president and I think one important thing is to separate means and ends here. Let’s imagine for a moment that we were that you agree with the idea of getting out of foreign intervention in foreign lands the way in which this was done has required U.S. forces to bomb their own ammunition dumps because it was done so hastily that the U.S. now is bombing its own ammunition dumps because they don’t have the trucks to remove the ammunition because the trucks are busy beating a hasty retreat. The the status of the fifty U.S. nuclear weapons which are at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey is now an open question and. And that should make everyone quite nervous. So and by the way though as David mentioned the betrayal of allies you know thinking we talked last week about the president’s quip that the Kurds weren’t with America at the landing in Normandy on D-Day in 1944. So a couple of things. They were with the U.S. much earlier which is to say they are the more recent allies than than Normandy which is the first thing and they are being betrayed after they were the solution. Remember in the previous world where the U.S. was tired of foreign engagement but knew as Emily mentioned that there are no walls anymore. The president this week said well that there 7000 miles away. But the point of 9/11 everybody was supposed to have learned was that oceans don’t protect America anymore. Nevertheless the president is back to that sort of as David Sanger wrote the kind of 1930s mindset of the way countries operate together. But there was a period when because America was war weary the Kurds were the answer. And everybody was all for basically having the Kurds do the work. But the idea of the Kurds doing the work and then being betrayed is is I think something people might not be excited about as a political matter. But I generally think that you guys have got it right that people are going to are more concerned about other or other matters. I would just make one other final point which is that if you are a believer in shrinking America’s footprint overseas and the necessity of doing that when it’s done in such a hasty and and disordered manner which leads to the death of former U.S. allies you include the ability to have an actual debate about where U.S. foreign policy should take place because it’s so calamitous it obscures your ability to to actually have the debate you should be having which is a perfectly fine and reasonable one to have. So even if you’re on the president’s side in terms of his ends his means of making a rational conversation about that almost impossible.
S4: But but also John I would note that that there is not a consistency there in the sense that President Trump just this week or last week also put 2000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia correct. So there are a thousand who may get pulled out of northern Syria are more than made up for by the extra thousand the extra two thousand that are now in Saudi Arabia. So so there isn’t it. There isn’t a there’s not a principle here. There’s a series of impulsive decisions which I think I do think Emily you’re right that he doesn’t like the messiness and he doesn’t like to have to deal with decisions around death and and ugliness. But you’re actually I think he’s super guided by principle. One of the questions I have for either of you but Emily I’ll give it to you first. What is it that President Trump should have done. You had heard Juan who very much wanted to to clear out northern Syria to to push away what he perceived as a threat from Kurds and from Kurds who wanted to undermine his government and Turkey in northern Syria. And he was hankering to do it. Very eager to do it planning to do it. What should the U.S. have done to discourage that.
S5: I mean I think they could have we could have just continued to say it or Taiwan like no you don’t get to come into this territory and in some kind of indefinite way just like hold the status quo. I mean that would have meant using American troops as a kind of police force. But that’s what those thousand troops were doing there. And it seems like they were actually successful in creating quite a bit of stability in a very unstable situation with a small number of people. But if you decide you’re going to leave and there are reasons to leave and to think that over the long term this whole like that it was very shaky the dynamic between the Kurds Assad in Syria and Taiwan and Turkey. OK. Then have everyone sit down and do a planned withdrawal and give the Kurds a chance to make an alliance with Assad if that’s what they are going to do. In a way that’s in the interests of American policy as well as preserving stability and just make sure that like all these people don’t get killed and left holding the bag in a way that makes us look like we are just completely unreliable and disorganized and gives Russia this opportunity to fill this power vacuum. Trump has said that he’s completely untroubled by that. Like let Russia come into the neighborhood and fix these problems if it wants as he washes his hands and says it’s not our problem at all. But that just seems incredibly short sighted as a matter of protecting American interests in the medium to long term. And I’m struck as always by the choice of the kind of short term there won’t be a cost with Trump’s base. He gathers verses like any kind of sense that diplomacy and foreign affairs have medium to long term ripple effects and history is going to judge you based on those questions as well as what happens to your immediate political fortunes. It’s just like absent.
S7: Here’s one way I think that politically some things may be changing and this argument’s been out there for a while which is that some Republicans who are never tempers have said in an effort to convince their former comrades in arms. Okay let’s stop fighting over the last over the first Trump term because the trajectory of the presidency has been ever escalating towards new forms of chaos. Imagine what that would be like over eight years. So the argument is let’s stop it at four because it has only gotten crazier when John Kelly Rex Tillerson and Paul Ryan all say that the most important thing they did during the Trump era was keep the president from doing things. You now see in Syria and Turkey evidence of what happens when he is left to do what whatever he pleases and then also you can imagine that is true with Ukraine as we learn more and more how the president created essentially parallel foreign policy that was outsourced to Rudy Giuliani and an obsessive hunt for something that career officials say was a complete fantasy that that if this is the escalating pattern you don’t want four more years of that. I think that with daily evidence here and some charismatic dissenters could change the political picture that you described Emily. I don’t think it does anything to the people who are who are fully locked into President Trump. But I do think that those you know the suburban Republicans might be affected by that kind of argument.
S4: I want to make a couple of final points and actually ask one question here. So one of the things that I think this episode points to. It doesn’t explicitly reveal it but it points that is how effective lobbying and cronyism is with this administration that we’ve seen and we’ve seen this with M.B.A. and Jared Kushner around Saudi issues and now I think we see with Giuliani and Michael Flynn on Turkish issues where it looks sort of smells like Flynn was clearly a paid lobbyist for the Turks was working for the Turks and it feels like Giuliani when when we get deep in this we’re going to discover that Giuliani is either directly or indirectly working for Turkish interests that that one of the things that you seem to be able to do with this administration is if you pick the right person who is close to the president you can kind of get him to do the bidding of somebody particularly that someone is a strong man who is kind of a charismatic strong man.
S5: And if there are business interests involved there’s money to be made right. I mean that’s what we see also with these relationships.
S4: Right. Right. It is demoralizing to think that there is a that the first thing that’s being done is that these governments are putting money into that that the decisions are not being made in the greater interest of the United States. But in the interests of some sort of shadowy force and President Trump’s financial interests. And that’s depressing. And that’s just not how it’s supposed to be. That is one kind of obvious point the second is I did not realize till I was doing the reading about this that there were these huge camps for ISIS. Well obviously ISIS fighters who mostly men who who have been detained and are being held in really pretty dismal conditions but also the wives and children in particular. 70000 yes being held in a camp and I’m not saying that you know they didn’t make bad life choices that the wives didn’t make bad life choices that their husbands didn’t make bad life choices of course they probably did. But there are tens of thousands of children who were just among the many many millions of refugee victims in this world who are living in these terrible conditions in these camps and can’t go anywhere can’t do anything. Lives being ruined and it’s just a shame I don’t have a particular solution about it but it’s it’s just a shame.
S5: You know this is a slightly different topic but it’s related one of the other pressures that allowed her Taiwan to have domestic support for this invasion and Syria are 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey especially in border towns but also in Turkish cities and as Turkish. Turkey’s unemployment rate rises and I’m taking much of this from a really good column by Max Fisher in The New York Times. The rising unemployment rate has created domestic unrest about these refugees and that’s part of why Taiwan invaded. And you know this is this giant global problem of Refugee Resettlement in which western countries that are further away from conflicts like Syria don’t do their fair share and they rely on these poor border countries to absorb the cost. And the problem of mass refugee resettlement and then of course that’s going to affect domestic political conditions in Turkey. So I just feel like it’s important to think about that larger just unsolved problem that the international order does not cooperate about.
S7: I’m going to make one final very quick find I hope on just the scorecard here of of the president and how his impulsivity clashes with the presidency. First on your point David ProPublica did an analysis this week when I interviewed the president as a candidate I asked him if he would Doc he would not hire lobbyists as president. And he said that he would not hire lobbyists. He’s had 281 which I believe is a record for this period in a presidency. So that’s a ancillary point ancillary point to your point which is my Oh I won’t do that.
S10: Two hundred and eighty one hires later.
S7: Yeah. And so that’s I know. And obviously this is the president talked about draining the swamp. So there’s that. But to to other related points on the president as a negotiator and a manager you know one of the arguments for his candidacy is he was from the business world. He knew how to negotiate as a manager what we see here in the disordered presidency is what happens is the president makes an impulsive move and then everybody has to stop what they’re doing and go manage it. And that’s not the way he as I understand it from talking to people who are actually in business. That’s not usually the best way to run a railroad. Secondly as a matter of negotiating the letter that you referred to in the title of the show this week is a letter the president wrote on the 9th of this month to Taiwan trying to basically keep him from doing what he then went ahead and did. And the president is often referred to his gut and his skill for negotiating with other powerful people. And in this instance it seems to me the president has left him one of two options either one he just opened the door to Taiwan and let him do what he wanted to do but now that he claims that’s not what he did then it seems to implicit in saying I didn’t know he was going to do this or I didn’t give him the green light to do that is that he was then ignorant of the fact that erm Taiwan was going to do what everybody clearly expected him to do including including everybody in his national security apparatus.
S11: So as a negotiator This is not one of the things that would be in the second volume of art of the deal and then we have to say Ah I feel like I have to say this is all taking place against the backdrop of quite extraordinary revelations from various people in the state department about all the Ukraine shenanigans that are the basis for the impeachment inquiry. And what we’re seeing from these officials I think is first of all a decision to defy the White House counsel’s order not to comply with these subpoenas. And I think what you see is this undercurrent of incredible frustration and concern from people who’ve served the country in our diplomatic corps and just feel like the like they don’t understand how the foreign affairs can be run the way Trump is running them and that they have no choice but to speak out.
S6: Hey listeners I want to remind you that our annual conundrum show our favorite live show is coming up on December 18th in Oakland California at the Fox Theater Tickets that showered Slate dot com slash life. And you can also send your conundrums to us by tweeting to us. That’s like Gap fest with hashtag conundrum or going to Slate dot com slash conundrum. To submit your conundrums we’ve already gotten some amazing conundrums submitted by our audience. So here’s one that we may maybe we’ll consider. Would you rather only be able to read books published before you were born or published during your lifetime. Good question. Resurrection or reincarnation which would you prefer. That is a hard one. That’s a really well we do not know that. Go ahead.
S8: I was about to respond but now I don’t want to leave it for the show.
S6: Yeah. Leave it for the show. Domesticated pets have now become the overlords of the earth. Would you rather be ruled by cats or by dogs or maybe by guinea pigs or snakes.
S12: Definitely not guinea pigs.
S6: I hate guinea pigs and we’ll get into it. We would we will get into it at the Fox Theater in Oakland December 18th. Slate dot.com flash live for tickets. Can’t wait to see you there.
S13: There was a big Democratic debate in Ohio on Tuesday by big I don’t mean that it mattered more than other debates.
S4: I just mean that there were a lot of people onstage that were ridiculous. Twelve candidates onstage which I think is the biggest number ever for a debate including Tom Steyer who should be ashamed of himself that he’s not putting his one point six billion dollars to better use than this self aggrandizement of his pseudo presidential campaign. But whatever he is that he’s entitled to it free country. JOHN DICKERSON Give me two takeaways from that debate. Who want it.
S8: It doesn’t have to be who wanted me to do well Elizabeth top to Dick persona and takeaways Elizabeth Warren got the front runner treatment and there is still nervousness about front runner Joe Biden.
S4: Emily Warren as John just hinted had a target on her back the whole night. Notably the target was. How are you going to pay for your Medicare for all. Senator Warren what’s your sense about how she handled it. Was it in a satisfactory way was she was she ducking. Was she deceptive. Was she OK.
S5: I think she handled it great because I do think she’s ducking and I don’t really understand this whole situation she’s created for herself like if she’s going to go all in with Bernie. Then I think she has to go all in and say yeah your taxes are going to go up which is what he is forthright about. But I don’t understand the politics of getting this far behind Medicare for All which is not plausible as something the Democrats are going to pass in any short term way. And it seems to me like both club and people to judge have a better handle on the politics and a really good way of talking about this issue. But she rejected that explicitly. And I have been thinking that she’s going to figure out some way to kind of walk back from Bernie’s version of Medicare for All which is you know in four years replacing our entire health care system as I understand it. But I feel like she’s leaving herself less and less wiggle room. And so then if you’re gonna do that like admit that it’s going to cost all this money. So that was my feeling about that part of the debate though I am also really tired of all the airtime. This issue is getting in debates when questions like climate change are just not getting asked at all right.
S4: No climate change no voting rights.
S8: Yeah although e what I mean. So you agree on that. And then secondarily that that even though they’ve spent so much time talking about it no one has very good answers. What are the things that she doesn’t. Do you feel like the rest of them do.
S14: Not rule it out.
S8: Yes I don’t fight. I don’t find them. I don’t I well let me let me clarify what I mean by not very good answers. First I think on what you said about Elizabeth Warren I got that I get the feeling it feels like the her position on Medicare for all is this is signaling as much as anything else so maximalist and not even allowing the possibility that there are going to be any costs puts her in a kind of special category as the most of the most details kind of schmoe tales in a way. But and and the vagueness. I’m all for a little vagueness in in campaigning because of course you need that in the presidency FDR and Lincoln in particular were irritatingly vague to their allies but also to their enemies. You need room to maneuver but if you’re going to be vague you then also have to be effective which is to your point Emily which is that if you’re going to Shelley Shelley and not answer as Bernie Sanders does which is to say yes your taxes will go up but because you’re not paying premiums your net outflows and expenditures on health care costs will actually go down. That’s a pretty fast sentence. And that’s essentially what Warren is saying.
S15: But she does some kind of sleights of hand which make it sound like she’s being even more I don’t want to say your taxes will go up even if she says in the next breath or the first breath that your costs will go down.
S8: But what would I. The reason I am focused on effectiveness is that if this is ever going to happen somebody has to make the case for how this is actually going to happen. Bernie Sanders argues that he’s going to create a revolution and that’ll put so much pressure on the political system that it’ll actually happen. OK. That’s a you know Barack Obama tried that. The Affordable Care Act had some some troubles because even when he was able to create a political movement it still couldn’t get through the process for a variety of reasons. But moving past that if Elizabeth Warren is going to create the kind of outside pressure to get this done she’s going to need to be it seems to me a more effective advocate for the idea of Medicare for all than merely just assertion politics and in a primary of course that’s what you’re trying to do. But this this these debates are a chance to get a look at whether she will be able to sell something to people who are not already in the Medicare for all camp.
S7: And I don’t. That’s why I. That’s why I say no matter how much they’ve talked about Medicare the pitch that would actually work in a way that would actually move politics in Washington hasn’t felt like to me to be strong enough that’s fair from her.
S5: But I still feel like Buddha judge and club star and actually Kamala Harris. You know I forget the details of their plan. The idea that you can have Medicare for all who want it and that you start with is letting people opt in so they can decide whether this works for them and whether they feel like if it goes well then like yeah you end up with Medicare for all because everybody opts in. But as Buddha does keep saying like you trust people to make choices and kind of respect the fact that it’s not crazy to fear that this isn’t going to go well and to want to see it play out.
S4: First let let me change the subject here for a second or maybe for more than a second because I don’t want us to in our discussion of this debate replicate the problems of the debate which was to discuss Medicare for all. Too much Joe Biden is the front runner by most or by many measures as the front runner in this race. But he is fading out from this campaign in such a weird way. I expected that he would fade out with a series of kind of really stupid gaffes that would be terribly embarrassing and would distract attention instead it just seems to be you know with with ice not with fire its meandering slow confused answers. It’s just a kind of unimpressive ness that is lack of dynamism that is going to take him down.
S15: Yeah it’s dispiriting to watch right.
S4: And it’s it’s like I mean I’m sorry just I just to finish the point. I mean I feel like it’s it’s so Sanders had the heart attack but almost like Biden had the heart attack and it’s weird how poorly and how slowly and weakly he has campaigned well and in the debate I noticed it on two fronts that seemed like he should have been armed to the teeth with exactly the answer and the delivery.
S15: The first was the question about his son Hunter Biden like of course they’re going to ask that and he answered it was OK. But not like a home run by any means. And then the same on Syria. He just seems so weak kneed in that moment. But he is the one who knows all about this and like he’s right that he has sat down with the players and was on the inside of thinking about this and the Obama administration. And so do you hear him give some kind of like waffling answer that I like. Well I’d go talk to Assad and like I don’t know it just felt so ineffectual and that surprised me.
S8: Yeah. You know one of the ways in which deals with Warren is powerful and people seem to think that she didn’t have a great night defending against all the incoming that she was getting. But I. But her argument that basically Democrats succeed when they you know put grit and determination behind what they believe you know that’s the kind of religion you want to sell in a primary. And the Biden rebuttal which we saw break out into the open and in and you know kind of curious exchange where she was talking about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And Biden said I got you those votes was a little microcosm of the larger fight which is Warren basically saying if you have the grit and determination and belief of your convictions you’ll get it to happen. And Biden saying basically you got to work in the system and know how to get the votes. If his argument is work in the system and get the votes the first problem is a that system doesn’t really exist anymore in the in the level of partisanship we have now. And in a sense it doesn’t. It seems to me that that he’s on the incrementalist side with bitter judge and Klobuchar. And and so if you’re going to be the incrementalist it seems to me you’ve got to kind of make a somehow make a case. And then of course the other thing is you know against Donald Trump. I don’t think that that the the Biden responses have it would be you know it’s just not in the same category as what.
S4: What would you would face in the general election. Emily do you think booted edge or Klobuchar is positioned himself well enough to to be the viable moderate alternative to Warren that Biden is so clearly on the outs. I’m just presuming that probably not true. I’m always wrong about these things. But the Biden is so clearly on the outs that one of them will emerge as a sort of reasonable more centrist alternative.
S15: It would be better if they could be smushed into one person. Right. Like if you had someone who had the experience of cloture and the track record of winning bipartisan support in you know purple Midwestern state and then you had like Buddha judges military record and his sharpness on the debate stage and kind of youthful exciting bright shiny object qualities like that would be a good candidate. But separately they both have weaknesses. I mean Buddha judges raised a lot of money and he’s obviously doing better than club star in the polls.
S5: So I guess he seems like the more viable alternative but I just wonder whether Democrats are really going to get behind someone who is the mayor of a pretty small city in the end.
S7: Now I’m going to make the Pro Joe Biden case that has nothing to do with debates. And I think it goes something long.
S10: Wow. As you say most most controversial thing John will ever say on the show saying it.
S8: So it goes I think it goes something like this why I’ve been thinking obviously a hard about the you know the changes in presidencies whoever if the president is not re-elected whoever comes in next it comes into a different kind of presidency than previous presidents would have come into. And so there is going to be a lot of repair and a lot of Norm resetting and alliances are going to have to be handled and dealt with. There’s just going to be more reclamation work because this president has gleefully and self-proclaimed oddly run a disruptive chaotic presidency perhaps the person who knows where the family heirlooms go when you walk back through after the hurricane has been through who knows that the face goes up on the shelf and who knows how to turn on the boiler using the you know funny switch in the back is what you want and that a big full turducken of change in and reorienting the entire capitalist system may be more than people are on for. And I would also argue that was one of the lessons of the Affordable Care Act is that the president talked about a lot of different tried to sell in a lot of different ways. But people liked the idea of helping those without health insurance. But when it came to potentially hurting what they had they changed their political views. And so the just offering people another big dose of change may not be what people are on for I color me super skeptical of that.
S4: I I think a number of the Democratic candidates would come in and run very tight ship administrations that would restore a lot of the order and would put really smart capable institutional people in place.
S5: I think Warren is doing again. I think that he’s saying that people’s impression of big structural change may be like oh wait a second can we just like go back to all.
S6: Thank you Emily. Yeah.
S8: Thank you. I always have to be on the watch for when I try to speak in someone else’s voice that I end up being the advocate of that argument.
S4: All right. Last last question on this. Emily to you so let let us for the sake of argument assume that Warren is the front runner. What should a non-aligned Democrat a Democrat who really just wants to defeat Trump. What should that non-aligned Democrat wish Warren to be doing in the next few months in what kind of testing should one wish her to have.
S15: The important thing is to continue to seem like she’s not standing for the status quo despite what John just said.
S5: She is someone who is going to take seriously the concerns of the American people about how government works. And she’s going to fix things. And I think she has positioned herself effectively as that person. Now I would like her to stick to the popular proposals from Democrats that would have great impact like Medicare for all who want it to begin with and move away from the things that are more are just less popular like do they stand for the things that you could actually accomplish that are not going to frighten voters away and continue to present yourself as like a beacon for change which it seems to me pretty clear that she would be Slate Plus members get bonus segments on the gab fest other Slate podcasts just 35 dollars a year for your first year.
S4: Slate accomplished gab fest plus to become a member today and let us discuss in Slate Plus did a succession the TV show succession the politics of succession what you can learn from succession. Great show will be fun discussion so go to Slate dot com slash gabfest plus become a member.
S1: Today so it’s usually enough to have one representative of Yale Law School on the gab fest but this week this week you get. We’ve got a second one. We’re joined by Daniel Markovich who’s a Yale University Law School professor.
S10: Unlike Emily who’s merely a kind of instructor or adjunct or so good of you to make that clear and it’s all true and correct. I think you have the higher rank though in his my right.
S1: Well both of you. Both of you clearly have qualify in Daniel’s new book as being members of the meritocracy. His new book is The meritocracy trap how America’s foundational myth feeds inequality dismantles the middle class and devours the elite. Daniel don’t devour us. Welcome to the gabfest.
S16: Thank you for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be here.
S17: So I get to ask the first question you’ve written this book which is an attack on the meritocracy and of and really a kind of create occur about its grave injustices and the ways in which it is hurting people even as it tries to help them. So are you calling for a system that could be made more fair or do you think we have to just blow up the whole thing is it unsalvageable.
S16: I think what we have to do is focus on the distinction between what maybe we can call excellence on the one hand and superiority on the other. Excellence is skill. Doing something well that’s worth doing. And superiority is being better than other people at things whether they’re worth doing or not. And we have a kind of competitive meritocracy in which superiority is what counts getting better grades working longer hours being more highly paid or more productive jobs that are maybe not very socially useful rather than one where excellence is what counts. That is to say figuring out what’s worth doing and then give people the training that they need to do it well and create the job opportunities for them to do it in actually before we get further.
S1: Daniel I. Emily unlike a lot of our listeners has has read your book but you should explain to two gabfest listeners what is the meritocracy trap. What is exactly is happening that is so dangerous.
S16: Yeah good. It seems like it’s just common sense that people should get ahead based on their own accomplishments rather than say their parents social class. But what’s happened as a result of a system in which people get ahead based on their own accomplishments is that certain people in particular rich people invest enormous amounts of money in training their children and buying educations for their children that nobody else can afford. And so then rich kids get ahead whereas everybody else can’t keep up. And at the same time because you get ahead based on your own accomplishments once you have this fancy education the only way to get income out of it is constantly to work yourself at jobs that you may not choose but that are very high paying. And so even the elite gets kind of exploited by this system. So what the system does is it excludes everybody else who can’t keep up with the training that rich families buy for their children and then it requires the elite to work in a kind of a sort of unending pitiless competition and nobody thrives. That’s the devouring part that’s the devouring part OK.
S17: So then you want to replace that system with one that values excellence instead of superiority. And that sounds great. But how does it translate into the real world of college admissions or people getting chosen for certain jobs. Is there a way that we can widen the pool or think differently about how we evaluate people that avoids ranking that avoids excluding some people and not other people especially when we’re talking about selective college admissions.
S16: Right. Sure. So let’s take a field we both know well law and let’s compare American lot of German law. So here are two big differences between American law and German law. One big difference is that Germany has no really no private law schools it has one now there’s no elite law schools all the law schools are the same as each other. It has no private universities it has no private schools. What it has is a state system in which each institution is really pretty good and none is totally great. And so it trains large numbers of excellent lawyers but no really superior lawyers who get anything like what the training is given by Stanford or Harvard or Yale. So that’s on the school side if you look on the law side German law is structured in such a way that the difference between a competent lawyer and a superstar lawyer for the client is almost zero. And that has to do with the way in which the German legal system is built and we can talk about the details if you want but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have a system in which once you’re competent you can do everything for your client that your client needs being superstar does very little good. And the education system trains competent but not superstar lawyers. You have much more equality in the system and the legal system in Germany provides justice much more cheaply and much more accurately than ours does. So there is a concrete case in which what you have is excellence but not superiority.
S18: Daniela was there a period in American in American history where people where where we did figure out what was worth doing and then train people to do that. And is it remotely possible that we could ever get back to such a time because it seems like it would require collective action of a kind that we can’t do you know get together it even tie or shoe laces.
S16: Well the second part of your question applies to almost any policy reform that might improve matters. And I think actually the kind of inequality that we have and the role of meritocracy in producing it is part of the reason why we can’t get ourselves together to collective action. But on the first part of your question the period between the end of the Second World War and 1975 or so is a period in which the country massively increased the share of its population who went to college massively opened up college to groups that in previously excluded working and middle class people women and people of color massively improve the quality of college education without making it much more exclusive in fact while making it less exclusive and supplemented college with an elaborate system of workplace training that meant that even people who didn’t go to college could get systematic training on the job that would enable them to advance and to end up doing jobs that paid well and gave them substantial independence and dignity at work. So that was a period of real economic justice from the middle to the top of the income distribution. It was also a period of a lot of poverty which is a separate issue and we’re focusing on and it’s worth not ignoring that there was a lot of poverty then. But once you were out of poverty life was pretty good in America. Between 1950 and 1975.
S1: Given what you’ve just described there Daniel it occurs to me that if I were thinking about the major public policy responses I would not necessarily focus on the elite institutions which are after all private. I think the chances that you can get the U.S. government to force them to change their structure to force them to disgorge there and get down ments or force them to increase their class size by 100 percent. That seems like a real longshot but where there’s been huge degradation is in the public higher education system and public secondary education too. But public higher education which has been significantly defunded relative to GDP relative to state government budgets over the past generation and that if you want to increase the number of people who have excellence and not superiority it seems to me like that that making Penn State more affordable making the Cal university system as good as it was 40 years ago relative to overall universities. That seems to me the best way you could spend money. Yet I feel like you’re focusing more on the elite institutions than on the public institutions.
S19: Well I’m not against doing those things funding up those institutions but I think the focus on private institutions is important for two reasons. One is a political reason or the other is a policy reason. The political reason is that the grounds that the cause of the defunding of the state institutions is that the elites having been trained up in this way and now working all the time believe that they deserve their advantage and because they believe they deserve their advantage. They’re much less inclined politically to be willing to pay taxes to fund non elites in their own educations. And so until you break the elite grip on advantage and on the idea of desert the politics of redistribution is to be very hard on the policy front. If you focus not just on the Ivy League but on all private institutions doubling enrollments in these institutions would immediately increase the expenditure per student in state institutions which could now survive with fewer students teaching them more intensively first of all and second of all. Politically I think it is possible to do you know the Trump tax reform for the first time putting endowment tax on the richest universities.
S20: These universities are so wealthy that the status quo cannot endure. If American university endowments keep growing at the same pace they’ve been growing out for the past 30 years and household wealth keeps growing at the same pace it’s been growing out for the past 30 years. Sometime around 20 150 20 160 something like that the 10 richest universities in America will own the entire country. That’s not going to happen. And they can be made to understand that it’s not going to happen. And so what they need to do is start spending more of their endowment on educating students and they need to start educating a much broader array of students not just rich kids. I think that’s politically feasible in the current environment and I think even university leadership if it sees what’s going to happen to it if it doesn’t agree to this kind of reform can be made to buy in so you have such good answers I think for the systemic problems that we’re seeing.
S17: They’re also not achievable immediately or at least they’re hard to achieve now. Maybe the answer for that is that we need to start making them a real part of the political agenda in this country. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the period of time you know from 50 to 75 or maybe 48 to 80 that there was the most equality is also the time that Elizabeth Warren and her Canarsie kind of harks back to as a better deal for Americans. So do you see operationalizing your ideas as a matter of like pushing the Elizabeth Warren campaign to think more about how it addresses private institutions or are we supposed to be doing things individually ourselves in the meantime. You and I are leading for you. This kind of unacceptable life of teaching these elite students at an elite school do we just like keep going. And what what’s the answer.
S19: Yeah I mean on the second point you know none of us is innocent and none of us is pure. And people do the things they do for a thousand reasons. In all walks of life if we got what we deserve none of us would escape whipping. And that’s I mean that seriously. So in that sense we’re all complicit and we’re guilty at the same time. Your question points out correctly that an effective change has to be systemic rather than individual and you start seeing in the Democratic Party in Elizabeth Warren’s campaign I actually think Pete Bridge has some parts of his campaign that see this Bernie Sanders sees this but at the moment too much of the political energy is still focused on identifying villains. This connects back to the first thing I said and I’m trying to find places at which elites are in one way or another cheating to stay ahead and damage everyone else. And while it’s true that there is a lot of elite cheating there’s rent seeking there’s fraud there’s self dealing there are all sorts of forms of misconduct. If I’m right that the biggest part of the inequality that we see comes from structural forces and from the rules themselves and in particular from the meritocratic aspect of the rules then the policies that will be needed to undo it are very different from tightening up anti fraud laws trying to produce a fairer competition to get into elite institutions and they’re gonna have to look in a way that that actually dismantles the elite the liberal response to this kind of inequality is to hitch your wagon to equality of opportunity and to say if we can just have the right mechanism for sorting people we can make inequality of outcomes OK because there’s equality of opportunity. And the lesson of the book in a sentence is that when inequalities of outcome get big enough equality of opportunity is impossible. And so you have to go after the outcomes directly.
S18: Daniel what stories do we tell each other. Going all the way back maybe even some of the stories that came out of that golden period before 1975 that because when you were describing that you’re talking about reframing a way of looking at something to make sure that the diagnosis is correct said that the prescription can be effective. So one of the stories that are told about America and American you know whether it’s Horatio Alger or anything else that that that locks into the wrong worldview and therefore therefore the wrong diagnosis and is there a better story that America should tell itself.
S19: I mean I think that the key story is one of social mobility which of course the data suggests we don’t have compared to other rich countries. Social mobility in this country is maybe a third what it is in a country like Denmark and also the idea that people who work hard and are incredibly productive deserve to get paid a lot.
S20: So that if one wants to argue that someone shouldn’t get paid as much as she gets paid that a CEO who gets paid more than she should be paid then has to argue that somehow they’re not being productive and one has to undermine the idea that they’re hardworking and productive people whereas I think a better account is there are all kinds of skills in the world that are incredibly productive in our world. But the only reason they’re so productive is that our world is very unequal. So if you want to a concrete example I have a friend who was once in a field with her she was throwing a boomerang and there was another guy with us who was a socio biologist and he looked at her and he said in a society of hunter gatherers you would be a gatherer and the reason he said that is that it was terrible throwing boomerangs. It in our society she has a set of skills that makes her an incredibly highly paid incredibly high status person.
S19: But those skills are valuable only because we lead lives in a very unequal society. She has the ability to hedge risks. She has the ability to manage lots of other people. If we are an equal society those skills wouldn’t be so valuable. And so the point is it’s not true that she’s committing fraud to get her high pay but it is true that she doesn’t deserve her pay because the structure that makes her productive is a structure we should reject which is a hierarchical and unequal structure. I think that’s an argument that’s important to try to drive home as much as possible.
S1: Daniel actually can you talk for a second. And I’m not sure if you addressed this in the book or not about CEO pay which is a kind of for me a paradigmatic example of of where this has gone so cockeyed where whereby CEOs now get these enormous multiples of what average workers get and in part they get it because they’re measured against that that way. Compensation committees structure are structured at most big companies as you look at what comparable CEOs are paid. And then you have to pay your CEO to match that and therefore it’s a constant escalator up because one person gets a little bit more. And so now that the bar that matches needs to be higher and and yet all these people are replaceable you could bring in somebody who is a vice president who is making a tenth of what the CEO is doing and that person would do a pretty good job. Would do 90 percent as good a job and and maybe 98 percent as good a job but yet that that compensation keeps going up and up.
S20: Yeah let me. That’s a great example because I have a slightly different view actually about the CEO pay. I think it illustrates very well the difference in the kind of view I’m arguing in a more traditional left view. So the traditional view is exactly when you give which is the CEOs are are overpaid in the technical sense that they’re paid more than they’re worth and that the reason they’re overpaid is they control compensation committees and effectively set their own salary. There’s a problem with that view which is that when private equity firms take companies private CEO pay does not go down and the people who run private equity firms are not altruists. They don’t pay a penny more than it’s worth it to them to pay. And that suggests that they believe that the CEO is in fact worth more than she is being paid. So how could that be possible. Well the story the book tells is that management has been fundamentally restructured in American corporations. Fifty years ago management was dispersed across all of a company’s employees. There were layers and layers of middle managers and even line production workers were in effect managers because they were lifetime employees and they were charged as it were with managing their own human capital and skills for the good of the firm. And when the management function is dispersed across the firm what that means is that all of the workers get a share of the economic returns to management and everybody gets paid more because everyone’s partly a manager. And the super manager at the top is not that valuable to the firm because on the one hand the firm will run itself without him. And on the other hand he can’t shift the firm very much because there are all these other managers who are controlling it in his place from about 1980 onwards. The management function has been stripped from everybody except elite executives who now run the firm effectively like a dictatorship. And that means that they capture all the returns to management and also that if they’re good managers they’re incredibly valuable. So there’s a sense in which their returns are matched by their value to the firm. Now I can talk about why that happened and how that happened. But the important thing to see is we don’t need a story about CEO fraud or rent seeking to explain why the old view when management is spread across the firm. Employees are better paid employees have more control over their work in their firm is a better fairer way of running things than the current system. And that’s the kind of argument that I think is really important to understand that pattern has happened all across the economy. And that’s the pattern that needs to be unwound.
S18: In politics we’ve had the same thing. Basically everything used to have dispersed management throughout all branch through at least Congress and the presidency and now it basically all just goes to the presidency except the way they define the job. You can’t be a good manager but so. So how did that happen real quickly and then the second thing is just to hit on another point. You’ve said before but it seems like what you’re saying is we don’t need to demonize the people who have succeeded in this particular structure in the moment. They’re not necessarily bad people which is the way stuff gets framed in politics of the moment. It’s that a structure exists and then in fact to demonize them is to stay blind to the larger structural shift that you’re talking about making.
S19: So the second point is really important which is that when you demonize the people at the top it’s not just that you blame the people at the top which may be deserving in some in some cases it’s also that you disguise you close your eyes to the structure. And if I’m right that the structure is much more important than the wrongdoing you then close your eyes to what’s really important. Now how did this happen in management. Well there were two kinds of developments. One development was elite education an elite business school education really got going and created a new class of managerial workers. The managers at mid century were largely lazy and not particularly well educated and they couldn’t do what say Jamie Diamond does at at JP Morgan today. They also wouldn’t of been willing to work the hours that the managers are willing to work today. So you created a class of labor that could run the firm in this way. And then at the same time a series of managerial technologies were invented that gave stockholders and others an incentive to replace the old style of management with the new style. So the market for corporate control which was invented by elite lawyers the leveraged buyout which was invented by elite lawyers made it possible for shareholders to give incentives to elite managers and make them into profit drivers for the firm but not possible for them to incentivize any other workers. So suddenly there was a big incentive for owners to come in kick out old managers put in place new managers who wanted to manage on the new style who were then eliminate middle management from the firm management consultants had a big role to play in this too. If you look at the sort of internal history of McKinsey and BCG you can see that they sold this style of management. And of course the attack on unions had a big part to play in this because the union was basically a way of making production workers into management. And that was very important for union wages. So all those things happened and transformed the management of the firm to get what we have now to move from an update from an equal to an unequal structure. And again we could tell the same story in retail we could tell the same story manufacturing. We could tell the same story in finance. This is true pervasively across the economy. And that’s the biggest driver of inequality today.
S4: Go get the meritocracy Trap How America’s foundational myth feeds inequality dismantle the middle class and devours the elite by Daniel Markowitz and then feel really bad about your place in the meritocracy.
S12: If you have a place in meritocracy no and then feel armed to address it right. That’s what I meant no harm to address it. RFE RL.
S16: Now we address people Well well thank you in either in either case and I would say then feel like you see things the way they actually are.
S10: Thanks very much. There we go. That’s the Rada. Thank you so much for coming. Thank you. I’m really grateful. Thanks a lot Daniel.
S13: Let’s go to cocktail chatter when you. Emily Bazelon Ah in a elegant new haven pub the thought that you only have a new haven the bright lights of New Haven with your beautiful wood wooden pubs.
S10: What will you be chattering about. I don’t even know what I’m planning. This just. I just started and didn’t to finish it.
S5: We do have excellent health here. I am so struck this week by a story in The New York Times about the state of Ohio and its efforts to purge 235 voters. Even though 40000 of those people were on this list as false positives. In other words they should not have been on the list so to back up a step last year. I feel like I talked a lot on the god fest about a Supreme Court decision 5 to 4 that allowed for this purge to take place. Basically Ohio wants to kick people off the voting rolls if they haven’t voted in six years and they don’t respond to one postcard from the state saying hey you need to go renew your voter registration. That’s not a whole lot of notice. It looked really questionable about whether it was in line with federal law. The Supreme Court said no worries Ohio go ahead.
S14: The state puts this list together apparently doesn’t itself do a whole lot of checking for false positives but does take one positive step which is to release the list so that voting groups could start checking it and then some volunteers including this one guy Steve Dingley Haq who runs a watchdog group out of his lake house with almost no money.
S11: It’s called the Ohio Voter Project. He seems to personally have been responsible for finding thousands of people who are on these voter rolls even though they had voted very recently. This is just crazy like it just suggests that the state is much more prone to kicking people off the rolls than to worrying about disenfranchising disenfranchising people and I guess the larger point I want to make about this is that purges of voter rolls are so important to watch out for they’ve been shown to have a greater impact on participation in voting than voter I.D. laws but they’ve gotten much less attention. And what Ohio is doing. Other states are starting to talk about or actually do this as well. States like Florida in the past have accidentally or wrongly purged thousands of people and those states have not opened up their purge list for groups to double check. So I you know I think what we’re seeing here is like one more effort of disenfranchisement and then to realize how many people are getting kicked off the rolls without cause is really amazing.
S21: John Dickerson what’s your chatter. My chatter is about I think this is how you pronounce his name.
S7: L.A. keep Shoji and he broke the record for a two hour marathon so that’s twenty six point two miles in an average pace of four minutes and thirty five seconds a mile.
S8: It’s unbelievable. And so this is basically I think the equivalent or maybe even more than an equivalent of Roger Bannister is breaking the four minute mile. But when what fascinated me about it is all of the science and work that had to go into pulling off this epic achievement I mean first of all obviously he has a physical body and training regimen that is that is exceptional. But since June the various people working on this project have been in Vienna which they picked because of its weather and its flat topography. But they then worked on it for you know there were. I think they came up with 15 different routes that he might possibly go depending on the weather. They had these runners go along with him who were setting his pace but also then they were in kind of an inverted inverted V so that they would break the wind and then water was delivered to him on bicycle which apparently is for some reason. It puts an asterisk by his achievement because somehow for it to be fully amazing he would have had to have gone to go get the water himself from like a little table on the side of the route. But anyway it’s just this amazing achievement has been accomplished and Wired has a good piece about it and there are few other really good articles about it and how it was how it was done and all of the people who worked on it. You should go check him out.
S5: Can I just add that Kenya’s Brigid Kosky from saying her name correctly also shattered the women’s marathon world record by more than a minute last weekend by winning the Chicago.
S4: And yes there is. I strongly recommend there’s a great hang up and listen segment about both of the these incredible achievements. I would note that Kip choking is not a world record though because it was done with all these artificial benefits. It is not and does not in any sense diminish the extraordinary extraordinary achievement of it but it doesn’t count officially whereas the women’s record was smashed and in a spectacular fashion the hang up and listen segment is really really great. If you get a chance to listen my chatter is about a story I saw on the American Prospect by Amanda Frost who is a law professor at American University and it’s about the war on naturalized citizens. So among the many abominations that Stephen Miller and the president are committing towards immigrants and legal immigrants we now add an attack on people who were once immigrants who have now become Americans. The administration is now spending two hundred million dollars. They’ve hired 300 agents to investigate people who are naturalized and to open up 700000 cases. The case of seven hundred thousand people who’ve been naturalized in recent years to seeks to search for errors or other reasons why they might not have been naturalized and in a perfectly i’s dotted t’s crossed way so that they can d naturalized them. Turns out there’s no statute of limitation on naturalize in someone so someone may have been naturalized decades ago. And the administration now plans to go after them and try to D naturalized them by the thousands to get a sense of what the scale of this is normally like in a typical year. Over the past 20 years we have d naturalized 11 people a year and now they want to do this to thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of people. And it’s almost always for something. It’s not that it’s not that these people were you know hadn’t done something wrong in the process of being naturalized some of them entered the United States under a false name or they got you know there is something that they did at some point in the process but had gone through a naturalization process and that had all been cleared and accepted and now the Trump administration wants to go out and root out mistakes that were made in the process and drive these people out of the country where they’ve made a home. It’s absolutely disgusting and wrong and brings terror to people who have made themselves American and it’s disgusting. It’s absolutely disgusting anyway. Amanda Frost’s piece in The American Prospect listeners you have been sending us great chatters this week as an every week you’ve been tweeting them to us at Slate gabfest and this week from at spoke smoko or Socko Socko not sure how you pronounce that spoke with spoke or spoken polka spoke of smoko refers us to another podcast which is reply all which is a wonderful wonderful podcast did an episode about feral hogs and it came out of the there was a of Twitter feed for some months ago about feral hogs and people talking about feral hogs overrunning their garden and reply all went and dug into what the deal with feral hogs in rural America and spoke I spoke to says it’s a crazy amazing story and it’s and I’m going to go listen to it right after the show. My next that will be my next podcast. That’s our show for today.
S3: The episode is produced by Joslyn Frank. Joplin is with me here in Washington which is so nice Joplin now waving at me from outside the studio and a researcher is Brigitte Dunlap who is not with me here in Washington but she’s in Chicago somewhere I think. Hi Brigitte. Melissa Kaplan helped engineer here in D.C. Ryan McAvoy I assume helped you in New Haven and Alan Pang helped John in New York. You should follow us on Twitter at like at best we chat to us and please come to our conundrum live show in Oakland California on Wednesday December 18th go to Slate dot com flashlight for tickets to that and also please tweet conundrums to us at Slate gab fest using hashtag conundrum or go to Slate dot com slash conundrum to give us a conundrum.
S22: There are for Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson and David Plotz. Thanks for listening. We will talk to you next week.
S4: Hello Slate Plus Slate Plus I know you you spent Sunday evening watching the succession finale or maybe you watched on Monday because you are busy on Sunday night but you made sure to watch it.
S5: Can we just say big SPOILER ALERT right. Yeah I’ll turn this off if you have not watched the finale and don’t want to happen.
S4: Oh and before we get to play plus I should mention that Jon had to step away to go finalize his for 60 Minutes piece. So it’s just gonna be me and Emily and Slate Plus today. So if you watched succession you almost certainly have watched the finale because it was too exciting to hold back. So you’ve probably watched it by now if you were a succession watcher and if you don’t watch succession you probably don’t care if you’re probably not listening anyway but if you are a succession watcher who somehow has not seen it definitely turn this off because we’re going to spoil the hell out of it just save it. Yeah and listen to us later or listen to other Slate podcasts about succession. There’s
S10: a great succession we already know they should listen to us.
S4: Okay listen that’s fine whatever. So Emily totally addicting show really fun to watch. It has been one of the high points of my my late summer and fall has been watching succession. Why why did you Why are you so excited for us to talk about it. What does it have to do with what we know about it and what we’re expert in.
S15: Well honestly I’ve had this weird feeling since this show started but especially this season that there is some cosmic connection between all the things going wrong in American politics and media and all the things going wrong on this show. So I have some feeling that maybe now it’s over like the disorder and chaos will. It’s like a fever will break in America though obviously this week is like the opposite of that. So I have the opposite of evidence for my notion. I think there is a many many like surface level ways in which the show is telling us something about Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and about you know kind of elite control over American viewing habits and who’s behind them and the kind of lack of principle. It feels real to me whether exactly it is or not. And then you know you have these moments like this week in which there was news that one of the Murdochs bought an interest in Vice Media which was an idea that that succession had spoofed earlier in the season and it really does feel like reality imitating art.
S4: Yeah I think those are really good points. The world in succession is a world without love or kindness or trust there’s only cruelty there’s only betrayal. There’s only narcissism. No but no one there’s no joy in anything. No one ever has sex. No one ever eats anything with pleasure. No one takes pleasure in anything it is it is it is a purely it’s the world of all against all. It’s like the of the Hobbesian Hobbesian state of nature right.
S15: They feel momentary glee at humiliating and mocking each other.
S4: Right. And that is that is extremely evocative of how you imagine Trump lives. And it has elements of how the world is what the world is like today. And it’s and it’s interesting to kind of see this picture of what what is it like to live in a world without love or kindness or trust and it is in no sense the world that I want to live in. It’s no sense the world that I feel I do live in. And but I don’t know why that’s so why is it so pleasurable to watch people be so cruel and so here’s my theory about this because I normally hate any kind of entertainment in which there’s no one to love or root for.
S11: I think there’s something liberating in this show about how there is no one whose fate you care a great deal about. And so I feel so little emotional investment in what is going to happen to the characters. Normally that’s a bad thing. But I think first of all in this political moment it’s kind of a relief to just feel like you’re watching people and not having some deep sense of like Oh my God something terrible is happening. And the second thing is it’s very funny. I mean it is just mordant Leigh funny and the dialogue is written in this like way over the top cleverness set of lines that just like gives you like you have to pay attention the whole time just for those moments and I think that also has a kind of delectable quality to it.
S4: Right. Well so it comes out of that this is sort of family tree of in in the loop. This British show Armando Iannucci show and then I think veep spins off of that. I believe I am right when I said that the succession should show runner Jesse Armstrong comes out of that universe.
S5: So it also is an Adam McKay production to writer reminds me a little bit of his of the big short.
S4: Right. But but these this each of these has gotten successively more and more and more vicious and dark. I mean it’s not unlike it is not unlike the world of Veep but it is much darker and less. I mean it’s funny.
S12: It says you’re not sick. You’re right. So it has like that additional layer.
S4: One of the things I think that’s quite brilliant about it and I don’t know how to I don’t know why it does this is that it produces archetypes really well that you start to think of people as oh that person to share that person’s aroma that person to Kendall that person is a corner that that although you really don’t want to meet any of those people in real life except maybe Greg and not even cousin Greg.
S10: Yeah yeah no.
S15: I mean he is my favorite character partly just because he’s such a shambolic mess but also because if there is any sense of not morality but just like reality check on the show it comes from him in the most bumbling way and a little bit from Schiff’s husband Tom right. And to me now to talk about the finale before we talk about the larger actual succession drama of the finale to me the most interesting and moving even scene I don’t know moving is the wrong word.
S11: But I’m still thinking about it is the scene between Tom and Shep about their marriage in which you do see shifts have some misgivings about the degree to which she has just been like shoving various daggers between Tom’s ribs and some sense that there is a limit whether it’s just that she doesn’t want her new husband to walk out the door several months presumably into their marriage or that she feels some emotional remorse.
S15: He actually like succeeds in embarrassing her. And finally you feel some sense of the tables turning between them which I found very satisfying hmm mm hmm.
S4: No I mean slightly satisfying but who cares. I mean they’re terrible people. He’s Thomas an appalling person.
S14: He’s slightly less appalling but I still want cup for himself.
S5: I mean he’s totally appalling. But I was like tired of her just sort of brutal dominance game.
S4: Mm hmm. I didn’t care. Why would I care. Why would I care that their marriage be restored or that that he stopped being humiliated.
S15: Yeah I don’t I don’t care about their marriage being restored. I wanted her to be taken down a peg I think because I was tired of and also like one thing I have trouble understanding is why she married him in the first place. He seems like not an asset and she seems like someone who’d be out there hunting for an asset. So then my theory was like OK well actually she loves being so dominant and having him to kick around and gets off on that and like that’s what’s explaining this relationship.
S5: And so I liked the idea that in some way he was saying like there is a limit here and that she actually went to bat for him with her all powerful malevolent father.
S4: One of the things that I find weird about the show or compelling about it is it invents new forms awfulness that I didn’t even know existed. So there are all these different ways that people are terrible to each other. And I I honestly didn’t recognize it. So they visit some point during the season they visit their British mother the children visit their British mother who’s this undermine or of the highest order. Or just. Just. She’s actually worse than their terrible father. And it seemed impossible seemed impossible. Who knew how her ability to make her children feel terrible was so profound. That was a whole new form of awfulness that I just didn’t even see coming.
S15: Well and she displays it. Kendall wants to confide in her something that’s eating away at him and she refuses to talk to him.
S13: Right. Right.
S15: It’s chilly. British social mores taken to some like incredibly frightening extreme.
S11: Yeah. You know here’s another theme of the show that resonates with me right now is the struggle with lack of accountability. So there is very little accountability for all kinds of wrongdoing on this show. You know this like incredible set of payoffs for sexual harassment and rape and like death that’s gone on in their cruise business. And then there’s also Kendall the older son his lack of accountability for the death of a waiter at ship’s wedding who died when their car went off the road.
S15: And I it’s so you see people getting away with murder effectively. Kendall in murder that guy but like there’s just some feeling that you can get away with anything if you’re this wealthy and then there are these small moments where Kendall seems to actually feel guilty and shame and the father is like amazing at feeling none of those emotions which is such a great strength of his. I find watching all that right now like watching people work that out on television again to be a kind of useful alternative lens for thinking about our era and RPI no real person involved.
S5: Yes exactly. No real person involved because who knows if people really are people.
S23: All right. That’s it Slate Plus go watch succession if you haven’t. So good bye by.