America Has Failed

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S1: The following podcast may be a little dirty, but forget about that, going to tell you to go to our Twitter feed at Slate, just dotcom and.

S2: It’s Monday, August 3rd, twenty twenty from Slate’s The Gist, I’m Mike Pesca. Greenfield Central Junior High School opened Junior Greenfield Central Junior High School closed the parents of a student whose test results were pending and thought it was a good idea for him to await those results in a classroom. Turns out it wasn’t. So the school shut down out of concerns for coronavirus.

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S3: They’re back open now and they’re hoping for the best. That student’s name, by the way, you win is suspicious. No, no, I’m joking. He was the New York Mets who quit without notice. Milwaukee brewer Lorenzo Cain did the same thing. These professional athletes, worth millions, have the ability to walk away because they are a little concerned with the official position of their employers. Let’s hope for the best, because that’s hoping for the best is not really working out. Now, I talk about baseball maybe too much on the show, but to me, it’s a useful insight as to what the lay person or the not particularly well-informed leader thinks of coronavirus. And the answer is not enough with pronouncements like I’m not a quitter, which was said by Major League Baseball’s Commissioner Rob Manfred. When you say things like that, you convinced me you don’t understand the outbreak. You don’t understand the pandemic. Now we have two teams with dozens and dozens of players who are infected with coronavirus. And in each case, the teams hope for the best and maintain that fighting spirit, motivated thinking, plus scientific ignorance leading to bad decisions. These aren’t Republican politicians or particularly partisan people who are making these bad decisions. They’re just generally not well informed. Americans falling back on what usually works, which is something like the ethic of toughing it out. It’s not the wrong ethic for all situations. It is wrong for this situation. Public schools everywhere cognizant that there is, of course, a great cost to not educating students are being optimistic, which is to say in many, many cases wrong. They’re being wrong because they want to open, but they really shouldn’t want that. And they really should know that. They shouldn’t want that. Some schools will be able to open without outbreaks, but it will not be possible in most of the nation’s largest cities. Here’s how it goes. We can’t fully open because we have not done the work. We have not done the work to open. And we need to accept that there is no point to thinking everything will work out with schools and the virus because everything does not work out with the virus. We have not done what we needed to do. One thing we needed to do was put in a proper contact tracing regime. We failed. We utterly failed. And we need to admit it. We failed because well, a big reason is that there is a huge lag between testing and results. And you can’t really contact trace with this huge gap in knowing who might be infected. Why is there this huge gap? Because there’s still a massive outbreak. Why is there still a massive outbreak? Well, things like because there were no masks, because there was complacency, because there was poor science from the top, bad luck, and also actually wraps around itself because there was a lack of a good contact tracing regime. We still think we can fail and fail and fail and fail on all these vital, important metrics. And then in the end say, don’t worry, we’ll figure it out. We’ll do something to overcome our stream of failures. What we are doing is we are relying on a stupid, unfounded hope. You can call it optimistic, but it’s not working. It’s optimistic. Now, if you want to say, OK, but what about the students who don’t have devices and don’t have Internet access, who don’t have parental resources, which free them up to learn? Yes, that is horrible. And that is a failure, too. We could have addressed at least some of the technological portions of these students, but we have not. And once again, we failed. We do need to admit we failed. It doesn’t mean the failure is permanent, but the failure is real and the failure is now. There’s no way massive school districts will reopen without causing more spread of the virus. We could have done something. We did it. Why do we always think that’s OK? Why do we think we could be stupidly hopeful that the virus will go away in April and then be stupidly hopeful that it won’t spread to hot states and then be stupidly hopeful that this or that drug will work or be stupidly hopeful that we could contact Trace and then be stupidly hopeful that we don’t need to do anything real and different by the time schools open and expect that to have no impact, we just do the next stupidly hopeful thing and convince ourselves they don’t dig us out of the last stupidly hopeful thing. Yeah, that’s just working great. So far, schooling doesn’t seem to have worked. I don’t mean our plans to open schools this fall aren’t working. I mean that our means of acquiring. Knowledge through experience, as a people, as a culture, we are also stupidly hopeful and we continue to be that way unabated. You know, maybe putting the young people in the schools run by the stupidly hopeful adults to inculcate them in the stupidly hopeful ideology isn’t the best idea. You may differ that, again, you may be stupid or hopeful or that horrible combination of the two. I am an optimistic person. I am, you might say, a hopeful person. But before I am optimistic or hopeful, you know what? I am primarily, fundamentally a not stupid person, a stupid pessimist, especially in an advanced society. That person can survive. It’s not a fun life, but it does tend to avoid calamity. But you can’t be both stupid and hopeful and expect to thrive not just within classrooms, but within cultures. On the show today, I spiel about the case of Pentagon appointee Anthony Tata. I can confirm that he won’t be confirmed. That is Trump’s end around on accountability. It earns half a star on the Tony Taito play Oradea. But first, Kurt Andersen is the founder of Spy magazine, the erstwhile host of Studio 360, the author of many best selling books, including Fantasy Land How America Went Haywire. His new book is Evil Geniuses The Unmaking of America Put All the works together and you have a thesis. America is a land of great delusions filled with people of great indifference to the actual schemes occurring under their noses because they are overly obsessed with the supposed schemes occurring beyond their site.

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S1: It’s a pretty compelling point and a fairly disturbing one. Kurt Andersen up next. And Kurt Andersen’s last book, Fantasy Land, he pointed out that America, we’re taken in by wacky do theories. This is a flaw, but a characteristic of America. Now in his new book, Evil Geniuses. He points out that there is something in the American character that is susceptible to just that. We empower these evil geniuses to essentially run roughshod over the interests of most Americans. I smell trilogy. I don’t know what the third book is going to be, but here’s what Kurt’s doing book by book. He’s essentially defining American exceptionalism, because when people use the phrase, I think you might think it means what makes America better. But American exceptionalism is there are these weird things about America like this high violence rate unusual in the Western world. And Curtis put his finger on two phenomena that seemingly are applicable to America and also dragging its down. Kurt Anderson joins me once more. Thanks for coming on, Kurt.

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S4: Always my pleasure to talk to you in any format for any reason. Mike, I’m delighted to be here. And it’s funny you say that a trilogy. I don’t think so. I think this is it. A friend of mine said, oh, you’ve written this is a two volume history, the fucking of America between fantasy land and evil geniuses. So it did come out of thinking about and then talking endlessly to you and others about fantasy. And I realized that that was kind of half the story. That was the cultural and and crazy thinking, magical thinking, loving, exciting falsehood, part of America that has been around for hundreds of years and became an acute illness after being a chronic condition in the last few decades. And there was this other part, this very rational, highly irrational group of people who did what they wanted to do more or less simultaneously starting 50 years ago, to take over the economy and get richer and more powerful and try to keep it that way.

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S1: So, OK, so it’s not the case that the conditions laid out in fantasy land because it wasn’t so much about certain people, it was about the background condition, the culture of America. So it’s not necessarily case that fantasy land was the soil and these are the flowers. It was more to concomitant occurrences that you’re putting your finger on.

S4: Right. One one the other one was more or less spontaneous and in the bloodstream from the get go five hundred years ago, this one didn’t have to happen this way. You know, we were in my theory of the case, we were doing better and better and getting more and more fair along with the rest of the developed world or most of the last century until the 1970s and then the nineteen eighties when we went one way because these guys decided they wanted us to and the rest of the rich world went the other way. And so it is another version of American exceptionalism, which is to say we are exceptionally peculiar and more and more different from the rest of the rich world. This was done to us. We hoodwinked ourselves. We were hoodwinked, and the other one just happened. Alas, the fantasyland problem was, yes, out of the soil, whereas this was a very deliberate piece of agriculture by the rich and the right and big business.

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S1: How are the evil geniuses that you’re writing about different from just the general notion of plutocrats who want to attract power? What specifically about this specific group makes them set them apart?

S4: The fact that they did what they did when they did it, that I been in my being a young man in my 20s in nineteen eighty thought, oh look, while Reagan’s been elected. Wow, that’s surprising and interesting. I hadn’t realized that 10 years before that they had built this set of institutions to do what needed doing to create this paradigm shift to convince the American chattering class and Americans in general that greed was good and market values are the only values the matter and all the rest. So they had such a long game. I mean, they are geniuses, they are brilliant. And I think there’s a lot that the left can look at that happened in the last 50 years as chronicled in this book, and say, wow, they really knew what they wanted, kept their eye on the ball and played for the long run. So that’s how their evil genius was. And wasn’t just business guys. It wasn’t just University of Chicago intellectuals. It was all of them doing what they did best. It was like different schools, like the Air Force, Army and Navy in this whole class war that they came together. I’m not suggesting a crude conspiracy that they got in 1970 and said, OK, let’s do this. This is what we’re doing. And there did it. However, during the 70s and into the 80s, it amounted to some more of a conspiracy than I ever imagined was possible, because as you know, as you know, in fantasy, I spent a lot of time saying conspiracy theorists are nuts, that. Part of our part of our downfall, well, they were evil geniuses because they really had a practical vision and stuck to it and stuck to it and stuck to it in a way that I mean, they didn’t even have the crisis that the Great Depression was to say, OK, now we’re going to take advantage of this. They had the kind of half baked, you know, bad times, crazy inflation, oil crisis, all that in the 70s that they used. It wasn’t one of those cases where, well, yes, they took advantage of this existential national crisis and then took over and hijacked the economy. So that also makes them more genius and more evil.

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S1: So who are they? Who is chief among the architects of the economy? We live the society we live in now.

S4: Well, Milton Friedman is certainly one of them. He and his libertarian cohort were really on the outs until the 1960s and 70s. So he was one of them. The the otherwise unmemorable Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote this extraordinary memo laying out the plan in nineteen seventy one. He’s one of them, certainly Charles Koch, his brother, late brother as well. Several other of the billionaires are among them. There are lesser known people like the two guys who started the Heritage Foundation, Robert Bork, again, who I only knew as. Oh, yeah, he was that he was the guy who got dinged when the right put him up to be a Supreme Court justice in nineteen eighty seven. He was far more of one of the evil geniuses and far more influential in all kinds of ways than I knew until I did my research about antitrust, about as we know about the reading of the Constitution that gives the writer everything they want called originalism and textualism. He was one Robert Bartley, who was the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal starting in the early 70s, was definitely one of them. Irving Kristol, the former socialist turned right winger. Bill Kristol, his father is one of them. The young people who started the Federalist Society, definitely Alan Greenspan, Mike Milken, Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist, Rupert Murdoch. I could go on.

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S1: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I’m fascinated by the power memorandum, the year nineteen seventy one. And this guy is about to join the Supreme Court, but not in a particularly distinguished way, writes this memorandum. And it really does lay out the blueprint for what the economy is to become and what the memo does and lays out. It sets the foundation or at least describes presently describes the era we’re in now. Some call it late capitalism, some call it hyper capitalism. There’s usually a lot of pejorative names. But the fascinating thing about it is it was commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce. It was the most mainstream institutions that were articulating what would be this extreme form of capitalism that we’re suffering now. I wonder what that means.

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S4: You’re absolutely right. And of course, it was also the most mainstream corporate figures, the CEOs of the very biggest corporations who got together at that same moment and said the Chamber of Commerce, they’re not really doing the job. We’ve got to get together and and have a cabal, just the two hundred of us, to get this thing right and be politically militant. So I think in a funny way, as I write about this, is one of the things they did was take what had become the spirit of the 60s and early 70s, the militants, the the confrontational ism, all of that and decided, wait, we don’t need to be this boring, quiet CEOs and intellectuals and business guys anymore. We can get out there and go wild in the streets. So I think it’s hard to overstate how freaked out a lot of them were as the EPA was suddenly created and OSHA was suddenly created and business was bad and gigantic. Majorities of Americans thought business was bad and unfair. And I didn’t think they thought necessarily you won’t believe where we’re going to get by. Nineteen ninety, maybe some of them did, but I think they really thought like, oh my God, this is the fight of our life and this is an existential battle. And then then they just kept winning and they won beyond their wildest dreams. So I think that’s why it was so extreme and it was extreme in a way that they hadn’t been. I mean, the labor movement back in the thirties and forties obviously had been organized in a class based organization to get wealth shared more for the workers. And and so they just finally, in so many ways took up. They look backward and said, oh, look at the labor movement, that, oh, look what civil libertarians have done. Oh, look at what these left wing law firms and consumer welfare things. Let’s do that. So they did it because they’re corporate guys and organized. They did it really well and really rapidly and kept at it.

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S1: So how do we go back? How do we had people seize the power or how does the culture you know, you write so much about how the. Culture is on this one track that both parallels and ignores the economic realities, but what is the prescription since we still live in a more or less functional democracy, maybe a little less, the more what is the prescription for the people saying this sucks? We’re going to we’re going to go back to what America should be and what it was for decades and decades?

S4: Well, one of the reasons I wrote genius’s was to show that in living memory, as of nineteen seventy six, let’s say the bicentennial year, things were pretty good. We had an antitrust system that worked pretty well. We had a judiciary that had not been taken over by ideologues. We had taxes that were reasonable rather than crazily low on rich people and business. So in living memory it was working. OK, so it’s not like, oh, we have to become Denmark tomorrow. Now we ought to look to become one of the Nordics tomorrow, in my view. But it was working pretty well. So. So how do we do that? I leave that to the masses. Well, I think that she probably won’t be vice president or president. But Elizabeth Warren, whatever her weaknesses or strengths as a candidate, were or are, in my view, had it right and what was wrong and done as though it’s always been like this. And because we started growing less fast, came in a ditch, we were steered into a ditch, and the drivers hopped out and got in their limo and drove off. I’m an elder telling you young people that it wasn’t always this way. And what looks radical now was the way I mean, in terms of tax rates and antitrust aggression and all the rest was the way it was until 40 years ago. That’s one way to get there. And I think, God knows, you look at the polling numbers on certainly among young people, but even not just young people when they poll about universal basic income or what the ideal fairness of wealth distribution should be, this country on economics is a lot more left than it knows.

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S1: So many of the evil geniuses you write about had tactics and strategy, and they saw themselves as part of a movement and they probably defined themselves not as evil, but as people who are huge cheerleaders for capitalism and certainly conservative and maybe Republican. Now we have the new strain of evil geniuses, the tech geniuses who there are exceptions, Peter Thiel among them, and wherever Elon Musk is on the sanity political spectrum. But now a lot of these tech pros see themselves as like good liberal people. Does that change anything much if the inheritors of the evil genius Mantlo want to at least see themselves and literally put in their mission statement, don’t be evil? Can that have any effect?

S4: I’m not hopeful on that front because, you know, Facebook and Google are now the largest company and Apple, for that matter, the largest companies that have ever existed in real terms, inflation adjusted. So and they are benefiting as no company has benefited in this country since the 19th century from being monopolies, effectively monopolies. So they don’t be evil. And we’re nice liberals here in Silicon Valley. No, that doesn’t give me much hope for changing, because this term that started being used in the 70s, I’m I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative, which meant like keep my taxes super low and let me have as much power in my business as possible. But if you want to be gay, you want to smoke weed. Sure. Well, that isn’t what we need. And that was part of the buyoff for the last fifty years, is is allowance for personal liberty up the wazoo from guns to weed. But no, I’m not hopeful, really. When people like Mark Zuckerberg, as awful as he is in so many ways, do suggest that, well, we’re going to need something like universal basic income because we’re going to eliminate all the jobs that there are. Those aren’t his exact words, but at least those guys, because they face facts and are engineers and can run the numbers, they see that we are not going to be creating enough jobs that are economically makes sense to pay people decent incomes. They understand that at least they’re happy to go to the next phase of digital feudalism, but they’re at least willing to entertain the idea of paying the serfs. Well, you know, yeah.

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S1: Kurt Anderson is the author of the non-fiction works The Real Thing Reset Fantasy Land, the purported nonfiction work You Can’t Spell America Without Me with Alec Baldwin. And now Evil Geniuses also found it spy in the Studio 360 don’t they don’t even make it in his bio. Thank you so much.

S3: And now the spiel. Have you heard the case of Anthony today? I’ll tell you now there’ll be no time. So today was Trump’s pick to be the undersecretary of defense for policy, the third highest ranking official at the Pentagon, and therefore requiring Senate confirmation. But Tate, his name was withdrawn before his hearing for reasons we’ll get into. And what’s happened to today is notable, which we will also get into. But before we go any further with Taito data, I think it’s important to announce that his name is Anthony today. I looked into it was kind of hoping it would be Tony Tata because then we could look at him as a political pinata, who the Trump administration tried to give its imprimatur to try to elevate him beyond persona non grata. But it’s not it’s not Tony Tata. It’s Anthony Tata. Anthony Tata, a former brigadier general, mounted a fairly successful career as an author, kind of a cut rate. Tom Clancy, military novels. He also served as the superintendent of a North Carolina school district, somewhat contentiously. But then he became North Carolina’s secretary of transportation, by most accounts, fairly successfully. It was a pretty good career for today. He showed leadership. He showed the ability to work within bureaucracies. And compared to many, if not most, of the Trump administration’s appointees, it indicated at least some qualification for the position that he was up for. However, within the last two years, Tatta embarrassed himself by claiming on Twitter that radical Islam was, quote, the most oppressive, violent religion I know of, that Barack Obama was, quote, a terrorist leader who did more to harm the US and help Islamic countries than any president in history, said that California Representative Maxine Waters was, quote, a vicious race baiting racist. And he said that Don Lemon was working on CNN’s, quote, liberal plantation. He’s also a deep state theorist, complicated as to how. Let me just relay to you CNN’s headline and continue to push conspiracy theories that former CIA director tried to overthrow Trump and even have him assassinated today, branded himself as a Trump style populist through Fox appearances, which amplified his forays into ugliness and insensitivity all over social media. Now, I say and you heard me say that he embarrassed himself. But those words, those phrases that acting out, those were the exact words and sentiments that endeared him to the president and therefore, it was decided today was such a vital commentator, which Trump gleaned as a Fox spectator, that no one could be greater than this right wing Islamophobic instigator. Just one problem with the nomination of today, getting him past the odd Democratic legislator and not just Democrats. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, by some accounts the most conservative member of the Senate, delayed today’s hearing a half hour before it began. Additionally, several generals who endorsed Tato withdrew their endorsements when his comments came to light and all the Democrats on the military committee were outraged by his nomination, writing, quote, No one with a record of repeated, repugnant statements like yours should be nominated to serve in a senior position of public trust at the Pentagon. Your views are wholly incompatible with the U.S. military’s values. So the Trump administration, sensing some headwinds, withdrew today as the undersecretary of defense for policy. He instead will be named the official performing the duties of the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. Sounds like quite a similar position, does it not? Still defense, still under secretary, still policies. In both cases, those jobs will be filled by today. He’s the common denominator. This is a Trump tactic, by the way, such as it is. The president has said he loves temporary appointments because they don’t require Senate confirmation. This new made up job, the guy doing the job that required confirmation does not need confirmation. Guess what? All these positions also don’t require scrutiny, accountability or maybe qualifications. We increasingly have an administration staffed by a country of castoffs and replacement players. A year and a half ago when this phenomenon was already in full flower or peak Putri, since Trump was asked about making some of his temporary appointees permanent and he remarked, I’m in no hurry. Quote, I have acting and my acting’s are doing really great. He specifically praised acting White House Chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, saying, quote, I sort of like acting. It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that I like acting? Yeah. Mulvaney is now out and I guess today is in and Trump is delighted that the system allows him to tap in. Anthony Tata, another instigator, and for he is president to bypass the checks and balance systems of the Constitution. The fate of Tata will be decided later. His temporary gig will end two days before the election, the results of which Trump could accept or try to become a. Dictator.

S2: And that’s it for today’s show, the gist is produced by tenderhearted Daniel Trada. It’s also produced by Margaret Kelly, making her trade a collaborator, the acting temporary undersecretary of executive producer of Slate podcasts, Alicia Montgomery, Va.. Just with this helpful hand to anyone trying to spot an evil genius, crack a joke, and if they laugh more, you go to Peru. And thanks for listening.

S3: Talk fast today, did Anni.