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Ezra Klein on Why We’re Polarized (Ep. 86)

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Mercatus Center
Jan 29 · 59 min read

In his new book, Ezra Klein argues that polarization in America has become centered on partisan political identities, which has subsumed virtually every form of identity, be it where we live, what team we root for, the church we attend, or any other. This stacked form of polarization thus carries much more weight and is activated by a wider range of conflicts than before.

But is polarization really such a pressing concern? If it’s all merged into one form of identity politics then aren’t we just polarizing more efficiently? Over what percentage of GDP are we more polarized today versus in the past?

Tyler posed these questions to Ezra and more, including thoughts on Silicon Valley’s intellectual culture, his disagreement with Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, the limits of telecommuting, how becoming a father made him less conservative, his post-kid production function, why Manhattan is overrated, the “cosmic embarrassment” of California’s governance, why he loved Marriage Story, the future of the BBC and PBS, what he learned in Pakistan, and more.

In DC on Feb 17? Register for our next live show with John McWhorter here.

Listen to the full conversation

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Today, we are here with Ezra, which, of course, means Ezra Klein. Ezra is editor at large at Vox. He has a new book out, which I like very much, called Why We’re Polarized, and he, too, runs his own podcast called, believe it or not, The Ezra Klein Show. Ezra, welcome.

EZRA KLEIN: Pleasure to be here.

COWEN: Let’s start right in on polarization. Are American religions more polarized than they used to be?

KLEIN: Are American religions more polarized?

COWEN: Religions. Catholics hating the Protestants, vice versa.

KLEIN: I doubt it, certainly not than we used to be, right? Depends. One of the questions when you’re talking about polarization of any kind is how long your “used-to-be” implicitly is. I think a lot of people — and it’s true in my book — they implicitly baseline against mid-20th-century America, which is a time, across a lot of dimensions, of low polarization. It may or may not be true for religion. I’ll get to that in a moment. But compared to, say, 19th-century America, we are, in pretty important ways, a lot less polarized.

One thing to always be careful on is that history is long. Even American history, which is shorter than a lot of countries’ history, has been going on for some time. So we have had really, really high highs in enmity between different groups here, and reasonably low lows. And the 20th century, which is a part that is in memory for a lot of people, was oftentimes a more low low. I just want to note that.

In terms of whether or not the religions are more polarized, I don’t think so, though I’m not learned enough on that to be confident in my answer here. What I would say is that the fundamental form of polarization seems to me to be changing, that the polarization now that has a religious dimension is secular people versus religious people.

So there’s been a collapsing of, say, the political leanings of more devout Protestants and Catholics in a way where they might have used to be thought of as a division, but now they much more often are in coalition against the more left-leaning coalition, of which the single biggest religious group is people who don’t have a religious affiliation, and then you have people who are more spiritual, and Marianne Williamson, and liberal Christians, and so on.

COWEN: Are sports more polarized? In the old days, Celtic and Knicks fans maybe hated each other, or they hated each other’s teams. Is that gone? Does anyone even care?

KLEIN: I don’t know —

COWEN: Don’t we all just watch GIFs on Twitter?

KLEIN: [laughs] As I admit in the book, I am not now, and never have been, a sports fan. So anything I could say on that would be like talking out of my hat. It wouldn’t be worth you hearing the answer.

COWEN: But here’s what I’m getting at. It seems many parts of American life are not more polarized, but some parts of politics are more polarized. What makes for the difference?

KLEIN: The way I would think about this is that the story I’m telling in the book is in a collapsing of a lot of different forms of polarization into a single point. To me, the concept that was really helpful here is thinking about crosscutting forms of polarization versus unified forms of polarization.

Imagine, in some of the ways you’re talking about here, someone who’s mid-century. There might be a lot of polarization in, say, the Catholic-Protestant dimension, or maybe the Jew-Protestant dimension. They might be polarized on sports teams. They might be polarized in terms of they belong to a union and they’re angry at their bosses, or they’re angry at people who don’t belong to the union. They might be polarized regionally.

One of the things, though, that was happening, certainly — again, mid-century in America — is those forms of polarization tended to be noncorrelated with each other, or at least a lot less correlated than they are today. Maybe you’re Republican, but you also belong to a union, and you are also a Protestant, and you are also living in the city, and so on.

Now, if I know one of those things about you, I’m much more likely to know the others about you. When you have the forms of polarization stacking on top of each other, they exert a much greater weight, and they tend to be activated by a much broader range of conflicts.

One of the things, though, that was happening, certainly — again, mid-century in America — is those forms of polarization tended to be noncorrelated with each other, or at least a lot less correlated than they are today. Maybe you’re Republican, but you also belong to a union, and you are also a Protestant, and you are also living in the city, and so on.

Now, if I know one of those things about you, I’m much more likely to know the others about you. When you have the forms of polarization stacking on top of each other, they exert a much greater weight, and they tend to be activated by a much broader range of conflicts.

Sports, in this way, actually is an interesting example. I guess a couple of years ago, you had the period of time when you had Colin Kaepernick leading NFL players in kneeling during the national anthem. Donald Trump, of course, got involved. NFL is something that was actually quite nonpolarized. There was actually polling on this, somewhat randomly, that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supporters had about the same level of approval of the NFL.

Then, after that began happening, you just had a plummet among Donald Trump supporters and what they thought of the NFL, and a rise or a steadiness among Democrats and what they thought of the NFL. So, all of a sudden, instead of sports becoming crosscutting, it became one more thing, at least for that moment, that was pulled into this broader sense of polarization.

COWEN: But is NFL attendance down? I haven’t looked at the numbers, but that seems robust to me.

KLEIN: Yeah.

COWEN: Aren’t we, in a sense, polarizing more efficiently? There used to be seven things you had to worry about. Which sports team do I hate? What breed of dog is awful? And now there’s just one. It’s like left wing, right wing —

KLEIN: I think that’s right.

COWEN: You get it out of the way, and then you can enjoy all the sports or all the dogs you want. It’s actually a kind of advance.

KLEIN: I think that might be right, but like a lot of things in life, if you make them too efficient, they begin to develop other problems. I would say that inefficiency in human identity probably had a lot of good parts to it.

One of the stories and lines of research I’m going through in the book quite a bit is the idea that, if you look at Republicans whose policy preferences seem to place them in the Democratic Party, or Democrats whose policy preferences seem to place them in the Republican Party, they will be angrier at the other side. They will hate the other side more, even though they agree with them on policy, than if you look at people whose identities place them in crosscutting ways with the other party.

So, policy polarization — what we would think of as the most important kind of substantive polarization — ends up being a lot less powerful than these identity dimensions. And so, once you get those identities efficiently working together, you develop a kind of difference that is very hard for people to overcome and that our political system is pretty bad at handling. Again, I don’t think it’s necessarily a case that polarization is a problem.

One story I tell in the book is, number one, I think it probably makes sense that we’re polarized. Number two, I think that you, at the very least, have to give credit to polarization as something that happens in most systems. In most ways or reasons we weren’t polarized mid-century had a lot to do with race, and they were not great. We had a depolarized system built on segregation.

But we have a political system that requires high levels of consensus to operate. I think the question is not so much how do you get polarization down, but how do you change things around it so that this system can operate well amidst polarization?

COWEN: We would agree that what is called affective negative polarization is way up — professing a dislike of the other side, not wanting your Republican kid to marry a Democratic wife, and so on. But in terms of actual policy polarization, what if someone says, “Well, that’s down,” and they say this: “Well, the main issue in foreign policy today is China.” That’s actually fairly bipartisan. Or if people don’t agree, they don’t disagree by party.

Domestic spending, Social Security, Medicare — no one wants to cut those. That’s actually consensus. The other main issue is how we deal with or regulate tech. America has its own system. It’s happened through the regulators. It’s not really that partisan. One may or may not like it, but again, disagreement about it doesn’t fall along normal party lines.

So the main foreign policy issue, the main substantive social issue — we’re less polarized. And then, domestic spending, it seems, we all mostly agree. Why is that wrong?

KLEIN: I’m not sure it is wrong. Two things I would say about it. One, the word main is doing a lot of work in that argument. The question is, how do you decide what are the main issues? I wouldn’t say domestic regulation of tech is a main issue, for instance. I think it’s important, but compared to things like immigration and healthcare, at least in the way people experience that and think about that — or if you ask them what are their main issues, domestic regulation of tech doesn’t crack the top 10.

COWEN: But even healthcare — the party of repeal and replace is now the Democrats, and that’s shifted. So, at any second, it’s quite polarized.

KLEIN: Oh, well, not in the way repeal and replace actually is meant in American politics. Democrats do not believe you should repeal Obamacare and basically replace it with nothing. That’s what that is —

COWEN: No, with single payer — repeal and replace it with some other thing.

KLEIN: Right, but that’s the place where, actually, we’ve seen a sharp increase in polarization. You’ve seen people who are now much more structured around the poles of that argument. Look, when they started the Affordable Care Act, there was an idea that you could build on what Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts, which was, at least at that time, a Republican-endorsed plan, and Democrats could take some version of it, and both parties would come around the center.

Now what you have is a Republican Party that has much more truthfully admitted it does not want to have any form of a universal healthcare insurance scheme. And then, the Democratic Party that’s moving much more towards Medicare for All or a single-payer scheme, not even just universal healthcare, but actual single payer. So that’s a place where I think it’s pretty clear that the polarization has increased sharply.

COWEN: But again, at any point in time, if positions are shifting rapidly — as they are, say, on trade — if you took all of GDP, even healthcare — that’s what, maybe 18 percent of GDP? But a lot of the system, a lot of people in both parties agree on, even if they disagree on Obamacare. Obamacare is part of that 18 percent. Over what percent of GDP are we more polarized than we used to be, as compared to less polarized? What’s your estimate?

KLEIN: I like that question. Let me try to think about this. I don’t think I have a GDP answer for you, but let me try to give you more of what I think of as a mechanism.

I think a useful heuristic here — people don’t have nearly as strong views on policy qua policy as certainly people like you and I tend to assume they do. The way that Washington, DC, talks about politics is incredibly projection oriented. We talk about politics as if everybody is a political junkie with highly distinct ideologies.

Political scientists have done a lot of polling on this, going all the way back to the 1960s, and it seems something like 20 to 30 percent of the population has what we would think of as a coherent policy-oriented ideology, where things fit together, and they have everything lined up. Most people don’t hold policy positions all that strongly.

What happens is that they do hold — to the extent they’re involved in politics — identity strongly, political affiliations quite strongly. They know who is on their side and who isn’t.

The pattern that I see here, again and again, is that when things are out of the spotlight, when they are not being argued about, when they are not the thing that the parties are disagreeing about, they’re actually quite nonpolarized. You’ll sit there in rooms of experts. There’ll be a panel here, George Mason, whatever it might be, and everybody will have some good ideas about how you can make the system better for everyone.

Then what will happen is, the Eye of Sauron of the American political system will turn towards whatever the policy issue is. Maybe it’s Obamacare, maybe it’s climate change. Remember, climate change was not that polarized 15–20 years ago. John McCain had a big cap-and-trade plan in his 2008 platform —

COWEN: But it’s easy for things not to be polarized when we’re not about to do anything about that, right?

KLEIN: That’s exactly the point. I think it’s actually misleading to look at things where we are not really focusing on them in a popular way and say, “Hey, people aren’t that polarized.” Once they get into the political system, they collapse down to this unit of . . . Fundamentally, the zero-sum question in American politics is who will win the next election, or maybe even, to use more of a Tyler Cowen-ism, whose status should be raised or lowered in this debate.

COWEN: Sure.

KLEIN: And once things get jammed into that groove, then they become highly, highly polarized, almost no matter where they were before. Frances Lee and others have very good research on this. But you can just see it’s in the background of American politics, operating again and again.

Immigration, by the way, is a very good example. You go back to, say, Bill Clinton, and you read the Clinton 1996 Democratic National Committee platform. That sounds like Donald Trump’s immigration platform. It sounds so much more conservative than where Democrats are on immigration today. Today, as it’s become a much more core central issue, as the Democratic Party’s taken on a much larger Hispanic base inside of it, that issue is polarized dramatically.

If you were looking a couple of years ago, you might have said, “Hey, look, George W. Bush tried to do immigration reform. In 2013, you have the Gang of Eight doing immigration reform in the Senate. Immigration is a good example of something we’re not polarized.” That was true until it became the thing we’re actually doing, and then it became a central driver of polarization in the country.

COWEN: But maybe polarization is the opiate of the masses, and this gets back to it being efficient. Everyone’s all upset about this, that, and the other. You can check your Twitter feed and see what’s on that list. But if you take, say, gay marriage — not that long ago, Republicans went crazy about the idea. They tried to run elections on it. They totally lost, and now they’ve surrendered.

So, again, moment by moment, it looked super polarized, but what actually happened was, there was a big shift. It took, say, about a decade. It’s not a story of gridlock. It’s a story of radical change, where the masses are still consuming their opiate. And now maybe they’re arguing about threats to Ukraine rather than gay marriage. And now we change policy towards China and develop a tech sector. And the Supreme Court supports gay marriage, and progress moves on, including political progress. Is that wrong?

KLEIN: I think so. I think it is wrong, but not entirely. The way I’d think about it is, one, I think gay marriage is an idiosyncratic issue. The way public opinion flipped on that, and the way that flip has been durable is unusual in most issues. It’s something that political scientists study. I think gay marriage is something where . . . It’s not that you can’t think of anything else where there’s been public change, but the speed with which it happened.

You were saying Republicans didn’t win elections on it. But what’s amazing about that issue is right before it actually changed, they did. Do you remember after the 2004 election, there was a lot of talk — I think ultimately it didn’t turn out to be true — but that perhaps George W. Bush had won because of gay marriage ballot initiatives. So, I just want you to know that that was actually an issue that has its own unusual dynamics to it.

But to your broader point, I wouldn’t call it an opiate in the sense that I don’t believe that what is happening is that people are amusing themselves with polarization over here. Whereas a political system is being run — people cannot see me making hand motions at the moment — but over here on the other side, what is happening is actually the political system, when it runs into these issues, ends up being, for the most part, foiled, and that has tremendous implications for governance, climate change idea being a pretty good example of that.

So, I do think systems move on. I would not claim that what I’m describing here, that if somebody comes and writes a book about the American political system in 30 years, it will hold to the exact same dynamics I’m describing right now. Demographic change has a lot to do with this. I think generational change is a very underdiscussed force in politics. A lot less changes through persuasion than through cohort replacement, to put a nice euphemism on it, people aging out of the electorate.

COWEN: Sure. People die — the less euphemistic phrasing.

KLEIN: And so, things do change. But in terms of describing where we are right now, I think that polarization is driving political outcomes in a quite profound way. You’re not dealing with something where people are being distracted by polarization while the system works well in the background.

COWEN: Abortion aside, at the state level, is policy polarization going up? I know people vote more according to the national party’s reputation. But in terms of actual policy, doesn’t it just not matter that much? Again, abortion aside. I know there’s Medicaid extension. Most of those will probably happen. But for most of the budget, it seems it doesn’t matter.

KLEIN: My understanding is that policy polarization at the state level actually has gone up quite a bit, and certainly partisan polarization, I know, in state legislatures has gone up a lot.

One of the tricky things about this conversation — and people will kind of hear it going on — when you say the word “polarization,” you could be referring to a bunch of different things. Are we talking about how legislators vote in Congress? Are we talking about how people feel about the other side? Are we talking about issue outcomes? So, the question, a little bit, is what dimension of polarization we’d be looking at there. Different ones probably have different answers.

COWEN: But say what a state government does — again, abortion aside — but if 80 percent of the voters more or less support it, and then when a change of government comes, you don’t notice a change in the budget. I would say that’s not so polarized in terms of policy, though the opiate of the affective polarization clearly is going on. Yes, no?

KLEIN: I’m trying to think about it. I’m not sure. One question is about the budget here, and I take your point on asking this in terms of GDP. I would have to do a level of looking into that that I haven’t done. So I’m not sure I can give you a good answer on that.

I think it’s notable to say “abortion aside” because there’s clearly been a very strong level of polarization on the abortion issue. Let’s call it here, because I think what we’re talking about here is, basically, policy divergence. This is what you’re talking about.

I am not sure that I think the right way to measure what polarization does, at any level, is policy divergence, and here’s why: To a first approximation, what I think polarization tends to do is make it harder to pass anything because most of the American political system, both at the state and the national level, is built on requiring reasonably high levels of compromise to work.

So, if what you assume polarization does in its first dimension is make it much harder to get compromise, what you’re going to do is simply reduce the ability to make very high levels of policy change at the state level.

I think what you’d want to do here is you’d want to look at states that have extended periods of unified governance, trifecta governance, and see whether or not they’ve diverged, and if so, how much. That would be an interesting thing, and I just haven’t done it. But my guess is that, for most states, what you’re seeing — just like you’re seeing at the national level — is probably a little bit less getting done, if anything, because what polarization does, again, make it harder to make anything happen, and make it harder for anything to stick.

COWEN: It’s a common view that white women have much more cultural influence today than they did 20 or 30 years ago. Is that possibly one reason why political polarization has gone up? Because if you think about women, unmarried women tend to vote strongly toward the left, and married women — again, white women — tend to be more conservative. That’s a big split. You don’t quite see the same split in the voting behavior of white men.

KLEIN: I’m not sure that I would cut it quite that way. I’m not sure it’s wrong. If the question is only white women, you’ve got —

COWEN: No, not only, but one factor out of seven.

KLEIN: “I don’t know” is the answer.

COWEN: How well does Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory explain polarization?

KLEIN: I like a lot of Jon’s work. He’s mentioned in the book a couple of times. He’s actually a blurber on the book, which I’m grateful to him for. I think the disagreement I have with Moral Foundations Theory is that . . . I learned a lot from Jon about motivated reasoning and about the ways in which human beings end up using their reasoning more, as he puts it, as a press secretary than a disinterested searcher for truth.

My concern with Moral Foundations Theory — which I know has also been under some academic challenge, although I don’t actually feel super qualified to adjudicate that debate — my concern with Moral Foundations Theory is that it is pretty easy to imagine how people, if they’re motivated by elite cues or motivated by partisan interests or something else, could argue their way into justifying a lot of different kinds of policy perspectives under different moral foundations.

My concern with Moral Foundations Theory is that it is pretty easy to imagine how people, if they’re motivated by elite cues or motivated by partisan interests or something else, could argue their way into justifying a lot of different kinds of policy perspectives under different moral foundations.

So, to the extent you do have — and I do buy this part of it — to the extent you do have different moral foundations for people who are on different sides of the debate, I talk a lot about, there’s a very clear in the data increase in polarization by political psychology, resounding down to open versus closed versions of psychology, where you’re an openist to experience versus conscientiousness.

That is polarizing, but because we are so good at arguing ourselves into the position we need to take, and because a lot of people’s policy perspectives are actually reasonably weak, I’m just not sure how much, in an abstract way, that actually tells you about where people are going to end up.

Maybe a very simple way of putting it is, given the stated views of both the Democrats and Republicans on questions like harm and sacredness and so on — where Jon would put them in moral foundations, or other people would put them just in terms of caring about government interference — it seems very plausible that you could’ve had the two parties reverse their position ultimately on abortion, that you could have had a Republican Party that was much more pro-choice because it was worried about government interference in people’s lives, a Democratic Party that had taken the other position for other reasons.

The fact that we didn’t always makes me wonder how much of positions are actually being explained by people’s underlying psychologies versus that their underlying psychologies end up helping them explain how they’re going to argue for the positions they’ve taken for other demographic and historical reasons.

COWEN: Let’s say we put aside the GDP metric and move to an influence-in-the-world metric, and let’s just say, I suppose, 85 percent of the import of what the US government does is foreign policy, or some pretty high percentage, right? This is America. We have a lot of impact on the world. If I look at foreign policy, things, to me, seem less polarized.

Now, I get on any moment, “Oh, we talked about Russia, Putin, Ukraine.” People go crazy being polarized. But they almost don’t even know what the places are they’re talking about, and it can fade in an instant. And when you ask, what does each party actually want to do when it’s in charge, I’m not sure I could even describe the differences. And the parties seem, in a way, incoherent on foreign policy — both of them — to me.

Do you think that’s a fair characterization, that in foreign policy, putting aside moment-by-moment, that polarization has gone down?

KLEIN: I don’t know if it’s gone down, but I agree that it is incoherent, and I’m not sure it’s gone up. I don’t think, in general, we are super polarized on foreign policy. But, again, I’m not sure it’s gone down.

For instance, something I note in the book is that opposition to Vietnam War — when opposition to Vietnam War was at its height, it was actually pretty evenly distributed between the Democratic and Republican parties. During that period, when he was running as Ford’s vice president, Bob Dole famously said, “The Democratic Party is a party of war.” People were very upset about that.

But there was a reason he said it. A lot of the wars have been launched by Democrats. So, while I agree with you that I don’t think foreign policy is highly polarized in a way that some other things are, I’m not sure it was more polarized in the past.

COWEN: As you probably know, our mutual friend Josh Barro once wrote a piece saying Rhode Island was the least polarized state. Is that something they should be proud of? Is it a problem? How do you view Rhode Island within the framework of your book?

KLEIN: Somehow the big Rhode Island chapter got cut.

[laughter]

This actually is an important point. I do not think that, abstractly, polarization is a problem. I think it’s really important to say this and be clear about it because, practically, in Washington and in a lot of contemporary political discourse, polarization or being polarized operates as a kind of epithet. To be polarized is bad. Polarized operates as a synonym for extreme, which it very much is not, and one of the arguments I make in the book is that the alternative to polarization is often suppression of disagreement.

So, what you tend to get in multiparty, or even more to the point, two-party political systems is that when disagreements are located within a political party, they are handled by an effort either to suppress the disagreement or to find compromise on the disagreement. When they are located between the political parties, they tend to lead towards escalation, as the parties sharpen the differences between them in an effort to beat the other party, to show who they are, to differentiate, etc.

A lot of what was de-polarized in the mid-20th century had to do with the Democratic Party being the home of a racist, southern Dixiecrat block, which ended up controlling a lot of the Democratic Party’s outcomes and approaches.

As part of that, the Republican Party, having this sort of liberal, northern, and to some degree even western dimension — that was built on an agreement that American politics was not going to do anything about the southern white supremacist hierarchy. That was bad. That was not a good thing. We had a more de-polarized and, you can argue in certain ways, what looked like a more functional politics, but is built on blood.

So, when things are polarized, on the one hand, they often don’t work that well in our political system due to the requirement for consensus, but you often are getting arguments and debates you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Immigration here is a good example. Immigration is something that has traditionally split the parties internally, trade being another one, and both parties, for their own reasons, have suppressed that internal debate.

So, Donald Trump, who for his own reasons, due to the kind of media coverage he could attract, due to the amount of money he had, due to his own personal celebrity — he came in on something where there was a large number of Americans who felt unrepresented by the two political parties on immigration and trade. And he was able to break through the suppression on that. He was able to polarize around those two issues, which — particularly immigration is a very, very powerful locus of polarization, not just in our country but in all of Western Europe and Canada and so on.

So, polarization is not, in and of itself, bad. Political systems can work well or poorly with it happening.

I have a little bit of familiarity with the Rhode Island political system, and —

COWEN: It seems like quite a working-class state, right?

KLEIN: I do not know its demographics well enough to say.

COWEN: Not many billionaires. It’s very small —

KLEIN: It’s very small. It does have some important universities in it, so I actually don’t know if it’s a working-class state. I just don’t want to say something wrong. [laughs]

COWEN: On what issue are you most polarized? And does it fit your own theory?

KLEIN: If you dig in, I’m polarized on a lot of issues. Probably the issue I’m most polarized on at this point is animal rights issues, where it probably doesn’t fit my theory in the sense that it operates a little bit outside normal political divisions. But I am emotionally and intellectually very, very polarized on healthcare, on immigration — particularly those two, I feel very strongly about.

I’m the son of an immigrant. I grew up in Southern California. I grew up in Irvine, where you taught for a while. It’s a very immigrant-heavy community. I feel — both on the empirical evidence of what it does for growth and what kind of communities it builds, and on the big-picture emotional questions — very, very deeply pro-immigration. So, that’s a place where I’m probably a lot more polarized than most people are.

COWEN: You’ve written a lot on healthcare and been influential on healthcare, right? So, taking n=1, Ezra Klein, for n=1, biography really matters for polarization for you, I would say, right? Now, do you think —

KLEIN: Oh, interesting, but that wouldn’t explain healthcare for me.

COWEN: How generally true is that? It would explain healthcare and immigration?

KLEIN: No, it wouldn’t explain healthcare.

COWEN: You’ve done so much on healthcare.

KLEIN: But it’s not very related to my own biography.

COWEN: Well, not as early as being the son of an immigrant, but in your earlier years, you made your name writing on healthcare and had a big impact on Obamacare.

KLEIN: So, that’s interesting. I —

COWEN: So, if people oppose that, they’re opposing your work.

KLEIN: Maybe I don’t understand the question. Are you asking what I am polarizing on, or what I am personally polarized about? Is this a question about my views or about the views I’ve made —

COWEN: The question’s about your views, where you react most negatively to people disagreeing with you.

KLEIN: Actually healthcare is probably not a good example because I’m so deep in that issue, and I’ve spent so long covering it, that I’m pretty used to the disagreements there. Let me think about this. It’s a good question. I need to reflect on it for a minute.

I think, certainly, immigration. If I feel that people are dehumanizing immigrants or speaking about people who risk everything to come here, as if they’re somehow just criminals who should be dismissed, I have a very, very negative reaction to that. I mentioned animal rights issues — I have a very strong emotional reaction to the way people talk about those issues and think about them and act on them.

And then, around a bunch of the economic issues — one thing that has been interesting to me more recently is that, as economics has become more polarized, I think that debate has become more polarized, and I have found myself in a slightly weird position in it, where I think I still operate in a pretty . . .

I am a pretty big fan of markets as a policy mechanism, but have become a lot more convinced by the arguments against neoliberalism as a form of, not policy agenda, but as a kind of ideological water we swim in, that we don’t notice how often we talk about those. So I think I’m probably becoming personally a little more polarized on that and quite a bit more sympathetic to the much more polarized critique of just the way we approach issues of how to weight who deserves what.

I am a pretty big fan of markets as a policy mechanism, but have become a lot more convinced by the arguments against neoliberalism as a form of, not policy agenda, but as a kind of ideological water we swim in, that we don’t notice how often we talk about those. So I think I’m probably becoming personally a little more polarized on that and quite a bit more sympathetic to the much more polarized critique of just the way we approach issues of how to weight who deserves what.

COWEN: Many conservatives, and I don’t mean Trumpian conservatives but actual, literal conservatives — Mike Oakeshott, some phases of Andrew Sullivan, some phases of Hayek — they will claim they are epistemically more moderate than are those on the left or progressives.

But that’s a contentious claim. I’m not saying do you agree with the views of those conservatives, but do you agree with their self-description that they’re epistemically more moderate because they don’t want these big, quick, radical changes?

KLEIN: It would depend who we’re talking about. In theory, that I think is an epistemically somewhat more moderate claim. I just find that a lot of people who claim to hold that temperament don’t actually hold it in practice.

COWEN: But should we aspire to be more like those people? They’re a vanishing breed, right? We could make ourselves more like them.

KLEIN: If they were ever that real in the beginning, right?

COWEN: There’s a few I’ve known about.

KLEIN: Yeah, yeah, 100 percent.

COWEN: They’re stodgy, right?

KLEIN: Yes.

COWEN: In Praise of Stodginess — is that your next book?

[laughter]

KLEIN: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I’ve been thinking about it in a sense of understanding temperament as a separate axis in politics from ideology, this being something that is particularly hard for us to keep an eye on because we use the same words to describe different things.

We use the word conservative to describe both an ideology in terms of lower taxes, smaller government, etc., and this conservative temperament that you’re discussing, with Michael Oakeshott, some phases of Andrew Sullivan: “Let’s just move slowly here. Let’s think about what we’ve built, and let’s be careful about what we’re tearing down.”

We are often talking about people of a conservative ideology, but not a conservative temperament, in a confusing way. Paul Ryan, I would say, is somebody with, in many ways, what we would understand as a conservative ideology, but if anything, he has a very progressive temperament. He wants to make big changes, reconstruct the budget, go in a whole different direction. Medicare is working fine — let’s change it entirely. So, he’s somebody who, I think, you would understand as conservative in ideology, progressive, if anything, in temperament.

Someone like Joe Biden is almost the reverse. I think he’s between moderate and progressive in his ideology. I think he’s somewhat conservative in temperament. Then there are people who don’t have much ideology but are almost reactionary in temperament, where I’d put, say, a Donald Trump.

Bernie Sanders, I think, is confusing on this, too. He’s obviously relatively socialist, or at least democratic socialist, in ideology. He is not that revolutionary in temperament. I’ve covered him as a legislator for a very long time. He’s not one of the people who’s always trying to blow up the chamber. There are people like that. He’s not calling general strikes. He’s not using every parliamentary maneuver he can to stop anything he doesn’t like.

So, it is worthwhile to think very hard about the temperament people bring to politics. I think that the number of people who end up having strong ideologies and hewing to a genuinely conservative temperament is quite small.

COWEN: If you could engineer your own political temperament, would you change it from how it is? Mostly, we’re stuck with what we’ve got, I would say, but if you could press the button — more passionate, less passionate, something else? Goldilocks?

KLEIN: I think I like my political temperament. Probably for the era of politics we’re moving into, and for my job, it would almost be better to be of a more conflict-oriented temperament than I am. I think that we are moving into something that, at least in the short term, is rewarding or is going to reward those who really like getting in fights all the time, and I don’t like that.

I’m more consensus oriented. I like hearing people out. I probably have a little bit more of a moderate temperament in that way. But I wouldn’t really change that about myself. I think it’s a shame that so much of politics happens on Twitter now, but that’s the way it is. I wouldn’t change me to operate to that.

COWEN: I’m fascinated by something called Conquest’s Second Law, which actually comes from a guy named O’Sullivan, but it’s known as Conquest’s Second Law. It says something like, “Those institutions that are not explicitly right wing will become more left wing over time.” And you see this with the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation. You see it with universities.

A lot of conservatives believe very strongly in Conquest’s Second Law, and they see it more and more as a kind of curse. I think they would claim it polarizes them, like, “My goodness, we’ve got to do something or we’re going to lose.” Is that one of the seven or x number of factors behind polarization, the perception that my side is losing?

KLEIN: Left or right in what dimension?

COWEN: Culturally, most of all.

KLEIN: I think that’s actually an important distinction here. I think it really is the case that a lot of big institutions, over time, are moving left culturally, in part because the demographics tend to move left culturally, and institutions are both very worried about young audiences and tend to be very captured by young employees.

COWEN: But we’re aging now, so —

KLEIN: I know. [laughs] We are definitely aging.

COWEN: But society as a whole is aging.

KLEIN: Sure, but I still think that part is true. It’s aging, but it keeps replacing itself. We’ve not run out of people here.

COWEN: But if it’s age, you would think the younger eras would be more left wing, whereas now, we have an older America, and there’s a claim — it could be a false claim — that institutions are becoming less right wing, more —

KLEIN: I see it more as a kind of historical, not arc in the sense of it being deterministic. But I don’t think it would be the case that the way you would rate this is that, if a society had an average age of 32, it would be more left wing than a society with an average age of 46. I think things like economic growth and average wealth and so forth have a very big impact here.

But the thing I wanted to say on this — because I’ve been thinking about it since we were chatting about it the other day — is it seems to me that we rate how left or right an institution is by where it is on some of these cultural questions, like how do you feel about gay marriage? I’d almost call it a cosmopolitan divide, like how cosmopolitan are you on your fundamental orientation?

But then, a lot of these institutions that people think of as left wing are also growing at the same time, as they get older, more conservative on other dimensions. So, they become more conservative in how things work.

There tends to be, with Bernie Sanders being an interesting counterexample of this — although, given how he feels about the filibuster and so on, maybe not, actually — there tends to be a conservatism that emerges on how things get done in complicated systems, be they legislatures or bureaucracies, that happen after people have been in those systems a very long time. They begin to be very used to how the thing works, and it’d [be] hard for them to imagine it working another way.

My colleague Matt Yglesias sometimes makes a point that everybody calls Hollywood very left wing, but if you actually think about Hollywood’s veneration of soldiers, police, other kinds of government authority figures, there are dimensions where it’s actually quite right wing.

Economics — I’m more used to this one from being in newsrooms, but newsrooms don’t, in my experience — they are left wing in the sense of some of their cosmopolitan orientations, but they have a sort of Morning Joe approach on economics. They tend to be quite biased towards deficit reduction, towards a Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget view of the world.

I think there is something very interesting and important — I actually tried to talk about it in the book — in the way we actually key left or right increasingly to this cultural dimension. But it is very far from the only dimension operating, and I think that one of the destabilizing tensions of American politics right now is that the Right feels like they are losing on culture, which is what they care about most, and the Left feels like it is losing on economics, which is what it cares about most.

So, everybody simultaneously, both in this and some other respects, feels like they are losing power, even as the other side sees an endlessly winning power, and that feeling of nobody being quite sure who is winning and who is losing is quite disorienting.

COWEN: It’s time for a round of overrated versus underrated. Are you game?

KLEIN: I’m game. Let’s do it.

COWEN: Manhattan?

KLEIN: Oh, overrated.

COWEN: Why?

KLEIN: Because it’s not a livable city. It’s just —

COWEN: What’s the main problem? Subway? Garbage pickup?

KLEIN: Yeah, some of that. It’s hard to ever get natural light in there. I have spent a lot of time in Manhattan over the years, and I want to admit that I think some of my dislike of New York City is based on the fact that I end up being in midtown a lot just because I’m there for work.

But I have just never felt a connection to Manhattan. I don’t like the subway. I don’t like the level of density. It just doesn’t work for me. I wish I had a better and more thought-through answer, but I think in some ways my feelings towards Manhattan have always been so deeply visceral that I’ve never had to create —

COWEN: Polarizing. [laughs]

KLEIN: Very polarizing on this, and I’ve never created another argument for it. I think the other way, by the way, and this gets to identity polarization. As somebody who’s from outside of Los Angeles, I have always had a kind of competitive and annoyed reaction to Manhattan, where I feel like Los Angeles is one of the great American cities. It drives our culture. California, in general, drives so much of both our culture and our economy. But the endless feeling of superiority that Manhattan has . . .

Also, look how much it ends up controlling politics. We’ve had no fewer than three former New York mayors involved in this year’s presidential campaign, and a number of Southern District prosecutors — drives me crazy. And then, when I lived in DC for a long time, DC has a lot of people who grew up in New York, and they’re just endlessly shitting on DC, and I like DC. So I have a somewhat reflexive dislike of Manhattan that is built in response to people from Manhattan always talking about how great Manhattan is.

COWEN: Visiting Pakistan — overrated or underrated?

KLEIN: Oh, it’s underrated.

COWEN: Why?

KLEIN: It’s just an amazing, fascinating place. As this question implies, I was there recently, and I had a distinct experience there. I was there for a friend’s wedding, so I got to see a part of it that I would not in any way call representative. I was in Lahore for a lot of it, and the level of air pollution there — recognizing what people are living through in a daily way is, I think, a very sobering moment. Everything we know . . . Sorry, this is probably not where you were trying to go with this question, but —

COWEN: No, no, great, great.

KLEIN: Everything we know about air pollution as our science gets better on this is just — year after year, we do more science on it, and year after year, what we find is it is worse for you in more ways —

COWEN: Absolutely. I agree completely.

KLEIN: — at smaller levels in particulate matter than people thought. Air pollution is a much bigger problem than we give credit to, both in American and in global politics. Being there and recognizing what children are growing up in there is genuinely horrifying.

Beyond that, I think Pakistan is a very interesting political system. You’ve recommended this book on your blog, but I’ll recommend it too. Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country is just a really wonderful book. And then, there’s a book of short stories, called In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, that I think is a really beautiful evocation of what it’s like to live in a functionally feudal society. The kind of mixture of advanced parts of Pakistan and more developing parts of Pakistan is interesting and disorienting.

But I want to say that I spent my time in Lahore there. It’s a very different country outside of these areas, so I would love to do more traveling there. It’s just an amazing place to be.

COWEN: Writing a book. I don’t mean publishing a book. That’s clearly a wondrous thing, right? But writing a book.

KLEIN: Oh, I suspect publishing a book is going to be the overrated part.

COWEN: [laughs] Okay, how about writing a book?

KLEIN: I don’t know how to rate whether or not writing a book is overrated or underrated because I don’t exactly know how people rate it. It was underrated for me. I signed on to do a book with Simon & Schuster, probably six years ago now. I put it down to launch Vox.

The book I ended up writing is very different than the book I intended to write. It was one of the most generative, intellectual experiences I’ve ever had. It forced me . . . It is me pulling the deep model and rebuilding the deep model I have of how American politics works and functions. And one of the humbling things about that is recognizing how much in my model that I thought was there actually wasn’t. Or it was working off of intuition, but it wasn’t strong enough, or it wasn’t built on good evidence there.

A really sobering thing for me in doing this book was, I had to do a chapter on asymmetric polarization because that’s a big part of this. If you’re talking about polarization, you have to talk about why the Republican Party has become a very different institution from the Democratic Party. And it was really to my surprise to find that, for all that political science had a strong view that there was asymmetric polarization going on, they did not have a good story for why it was happening.

The causal mechanism is extremely underdeveloped. I had to go through a lot of different drafts, and a lot of reporting, and a lot of reading on that chapter to come up with something that I found convincing, but asymmetric polarization was a very big part of my story of American politics, and recognizing how undertheorized it was in my head was striking.

So, I think that writing a book — it forces you to pull forward things that you might assume are pretty settled because some level of intuition, or value, or just hearing other people talk about it has made you think it is more sure than it is. Then when you actually have to put it in a coherent framework, you find out that there’s a lot of blank space in there.

COWEN: Telecommuting — how far can we extend the principle?

KLEIN: Telecommuting’s clearly overrated. I am struck by what a failure it is of Silicon Valley.

COWEN: And what goes wrong with it?

KLEIN: That I am not as sure I understand. Why the tech revolution has concentrated wealth and location so much is one of the — I don’t exactly want to call it underexplored because definitely some people have explored it, and it’s well talked about, but I’ve not seen a very convincing explanation for it. And it is, I think, an increasingly large problem, as more and more wealth and income concentrate in a smaller number of places.

COWEN: But why doesn’t it just work? You pay people by performance, right? Set them loose. Is it that they feed the dog all day? Weakness of will? Something else?

KLEIN: I am not sure it doesn’t just work. This is one of the things I wonder about. I think that it may fail more at the level of the people managing the organization, who maybe don’t feel like it’s working, or want to be able to exert more control, than whether or not it’s not working.

Look, my experience is in media. My organization has a lot of people working in different places. We have offices in New York and Austin and DC and California and a number of other places. We have a lot of people who just work from home in different areas of the country, and a lot of those people are really, really excellent performers.

Now, that is individual, right? Some people work well in that context, some don’t. I’m now basically telecommuting. I’m in the SF office for Vox, but my team is primarily in DC, with a number of them in New York. And I think that my work has remained, hopefully, quite good in most ways, although there’s certainly things I’m worse at than I was before.

I think that the two things that are hard about it — one is one, it is pretty difficult to run an organization that is 70/30. I think that running an organization that is entirely telecommuting is probably — I don’t want to call it easy, but it’s a lot easier than running an organization where most people are in one place, and then some significant, but not near majority percentage of them are not, because what you end up having then is dual processes, where a lot of things are built for everybody being around each other, and then the people who are not around everyone else are at somewhat of a disadvantage.

So, I think that’s one issue, that oftentimes what people want to do is not create a telecommuting equilibrium, but they want to create a 70/30 equilibrium, and that one doesn’t work that well. And it certainly doesn’t work that well if you’re ambitious and want to advance within the company, particularly within its bureaucratic hierarchy.

But then, the other piece of it that I think is very real is that you just lose a lot of information, even in the very best telecommuting software. And this isn’t even just a question of it being buggy. It’s a question of . . . Do you ever do this podcast remote?

COWEN: Never. We refuse.

KLEIN: Why is that?

COWEN: There’s something about picking up the vibes from a person, from their body language, from how they look at you, from the dynamic in the room, which is hard to pin down, that’s important. And I feel I’m better live, and probably they are too.

KLEIN: I do my podcast probably 70/30 remote, something like that. Most of the time, I’m remote with somebody, but I try to have people in when I can. I don’t think that, to the audience, the podcasts that are happening where somebody isn’t in the room are, on average, worse. But there’s absolutely no doubt that I feel worse while doing them.

COWEN: Same here.

KLEIN: Part of that is that I find it much harder to concentrate. If you don’t believe meetings have a very high marginal product in general, the fact that maybe you’re having trouble concentrating on them when you’re far away is maybe not a huge problem. But in terms of how it feels to be in a meeting on telecommuting software versus how it feels to be in a meeting in person, it’s a hundred times different.

So, I think that this may not be a marginally-economic-product question so much as it may be the preferences-people-ultimately-feel question. There’s just a preference for being in person. We’re human animals. A lot is lost. Maybe what is lost is not that important, but in terms of how it feels on the other side of it, it matters quite a bit.

COWEN: Working for McKinsey — overrated or underrated?

KLEIN: Oh, I think it’s overrated and always has been. The level of backlash right now is pretty high, so it is possible that if you are in the top echelons of that backlash, it’s become — I don’t exactly want to call it underrated, but the level of vitriol is going up.

I was writing on this years ago, before the current Pete Buttigieg backlash was in gear. What seems to me to be happening there — and this was what I found when I was reporting with kids on college campuses about it — is that, basically, McKinsey has arbitraged — as have some Wall Street firms, other consulting firms — the ways in which a lot of particularly liberal arts majors feel like they’re graduating college without usable skills.

And I don’t think it, number one, is that true that they are graduating without usable skills. But McKinsey has the money to have very, very sophisticated recruiting infrastructures that are hiring people at good salaries very early in the senior year. So, if you’re somebody who is there, you feel anxious about what’s going to come next. McKinsey swoops in. It’s like fall, you get a great job that you know your parents are going to be happy with —

COWEN: It sounds pretty good, no?

KLEIN: I think it’s bad.

COWEN: Why is it bad?

KLEIN: Well, you’re a big fan of people being weird, right?

COWEN: Okay.

KLEIN: And I think people going out and actually finding jobs that fit them well, and they are not just delaying the question of how do you find a job that fits you, where you’re making a distinct contribution, and —

COWEN: But maybe these people aren’t weird. We’ve got to put them somewhere, and that’s McKinsey.

KLEIN: I don’t think that is McKinsey.

COWEN: It’s like the nonweird closet.

KLEIN: I think that the arbitrage here is a bad one. People need to sit with their anxiety and find a better job. If you are able to get hired by McKinsey, you’re able to get hired somewhere else. I think to a first approximation, there’s zero people who . . . it’s like, you’re a Yale English lit grad, but you’ve won your thesis prize or whatever, and you don’t really know what you’re going to do, and McKinsey is willing to make you a great offer. If you waited, you would get another job. You’re a great communicator, you’re a smart person, don’t go to McKinsey.

COWEN: The Noah Baumbach Netflix movie Marriage Story.

KLEIN: Oh, I loved it.

COWEN: Why?

KLEIN: I don’t know that I can say that it’s underrated because I think it’s probably the most highly rated movie of the year. But why did I love it? I actually wrote this about it: that it felt more like a great novel than a great film. That might say something about where film has gone, but it felt like it was an access to the interiority of something that was quite profound and that people really go through.

And I’ll just say, as somebody who’s a new father — my son is 10 months old — having to live in that idea of what it would be like to be divorcing and feeling your kid falling further away from you, I could feel that agony in such an intense way that my emotional reaction to that movie was probably much more specific than — I don’t want to say than it was for other people — but than it would have been at another time in my own life. So, the way in which that movie spoke to me emotionally was very, very intense.

COWEN: Has being a parent made you more conservative in the small-c literal sense?

KLEIN: No, I think it’s actually made me a lot more liberal.

COWEN: Why? How?

KLEIN: Two things — let me think about the order I want to do. One, which I think is maybe a little less obvious to people, is it made me more pro-choice, which I wasn’t actually expecting. We had a dangerous pregnancy. My wife had both very, very intense health reactions to the pregnancy, including some that were just unbelievably, horribly painful for the whole time, for almost the whole time — let’s call it six months of it — and then some that were life-threatening towards the end, both for her and for our child.

The idea that you would force anyone to go through that is now, to me, so barbaric. Having seen it like that, it’s not somebody else’s right. Almost whatever you think about it, the idea that you would demand that of somebody is just too much for me.

And then, the other thing is that I adore my son to the ends of the earth. There’s nothing I can say that is as important to me as how I feel about him. Also, when you’re going through pregnancy, you realize that in that first 6, 12, 10, even 20 weeks, miscarriages are very common. Things go wrong. I don’t believe you’re dealing with a person until relatively later in that game.

So the combination of those two experiences . . . It’s a developing embryo. But then, also, you’re dealing with a full human being who you’re putting through something both medically dangerous and very, very, very emotionally and physically difficult. It just made me a lot more pro-choice.

The other piece of it is, this is a way in which it just affirms something in me. It’s made me much more egalitarian in my politics. I think that’s actually the wrong way to say it. I don’t think it’s changed them except it’s affirmed them.

I don’t mean to say that being a parent has confirmed everything I thought about life, but when I see what I am willing to do for my son — the amount of time I’m willing to give him, the environment I’m going to try to create for him, the fact that both of his parents have, say, flexible schedules so we can be there for him, take him to the pediatrician if he needs that, pick him up from something if he needs to be picked up, make sure he’s got great childcare, on and on and on and on — that we have family networks that will help, friend networks that will help, our transportation is not bad, so we’re able to get to him and get him where he needs to go.

The idea that this is in any way a fair race is so ridiculous when you just look at that around you, when you see what is happening to people from the moment they come out of the womb and even before that, that the amount of redistribution we do on the back end just seems ridiculously small to me.

COWEN: Some politics questions. Let’s say that we managed to settle Mars. What country’s system of government would be best for Mars, at least in the early days? Or it doesn’t have to be a country. It could be a corporate charter. How should we do it?

KLEIN: Whoo, that’s such an interesting question. I think it would depend, for me, on the question of how we settled Mars. Are you saying that we had —

COWEN: Commercially. Everyone’s a volunteer, nothing too weird.

KLEIN: But what level are we talking about? Because I think different structures —

COWEN: Ten thousand people.

KLEIN: Ten thousand. Oh, I think you want to deal with something . . . Let me think about how to answer this. I almost wouldn’t think about that as a form of government in the sense that America or even New Zealand has a form of government, with 10,000 people. I think you are dealing with something there at 10,000 people that is a lot more like how a corporation is governed. You’d want it to be democratic, so maybe it’s more like how a co-op is governed.

COWEN: Why democratic? Cruise ships can have thousands of people — maybe not 10,000 — and those are run in a dictatorial but somewhat market-friendly way.

KLEIN: Because even if it’s going to be a little bit less efficient at some level, assuming you had a wise, benevolent dictator there, if you have high levels of unrest or dissension among 10,000 people living on Mars, with somewhat difficult supply chains, etc., the cost of that could be quite catastrophic. You really don’t want to be living in the aftermath of the revolt on Mars.

COWEN: The recent election in the United Kingdom — there are clearly many particular reasons why Labour did so badly. But many of those are endogenous to the broader situation. What’s the ultimate reason why Labour did badly, and social democratic parties in most of continental Europe are in retreat, often hovering at 20–22 percent, not obviously making big comebacks? What’s your theory?

KLEIN: I have a couple theories. One, it is just one of the lessons of the period that the theory that having a more pure form of social democratic politics as an answer to right-wing, nationalistic populism — that that is going to work, that this sort of right-wing populism is an answer to people’s economic concerns that is countering the neoliberalism that is making them worse — that’s wrong. It’s just flatly wrong. I think we can say that at this point. It may be good to have a social democratic set of policies, but it does not somehow inoculate you from the power of that right-wing populism.

I remember when Corbyn was being hailed as showing a politics that could truly work, that this is what Americans had to do, too. And I think that you have to take that with almost as much force in the other direction. He is in some ways, maybe, a uniquely bad politician. The fact that he didn’t have a clear position on Brexit was quite bad.

But there is a very deep potency to this form of politics that is being played with around Brexit, also in America, also in a bunch of other places, that I think needs to be taken seriously.

I will say that Fintan O’Toole just wrote a book called The Politics of Pain that I thought was really remarkably sharp on this, and as an analysis of the British psyche was one of the most convincing things I’ve read, making an argument, going way back in Britain’s history, that there’s a deep, unresolved set of psychic questions around Britain won WWII, and then somehow feels like it lost the piece that it deserved to, if not own Europe, then be understood as a savior of Europe in an ongoing way.

Instead, here you have the European Union emerge. In many ways, the European Union is dominated by Germany, the aggressor in World War II. There was some interesting stuff about colonialism in the British psyche. He does a lot of very deep analysis of popular British television and literature that I think shows this in an interesting way. I recognize that gets at some endogenous dimensions of the Brexit question, but I think it’s a recommendation worth following for readers.

The other thing that I will say is that, in terms of things that I think are broad based — and this gets to sort of Martin Gurri Revolt of the Public theses — is that Boris Johnson clearly shares quite a bit — as does Brexit — with Donald Trump.

A lot of the national populist politicians seem to me to share certain dimensions with each other. And one of the core things they share is, one, that I think we’re in an age, technologically and for other reasons, where extremely strong, outrageous, conflictual forms of politics are at least somewhat advantaged, certainly on the right. They’re very good at practically dominating agendas.

I think that the media has not in any way effectively adapted to the social media age. So, the way in which we’ve been overturned is that, among other things, we think that our primary power as an institution is that we can cover things positively or negatively, that the thing we’re covering doesn’t much matter so much as how we are covering it.

So, we’re covering somebody’s lies, right? Boris Johnson said lies a lot. We’re fact-checking that all over, and, “Well, that’s really going to show him.” Instead, what we’re actually doing is amplifying the lie. What a lot of these players have understood is that — to actually use something that Mike Cernovich, the right-wing civic nationalist, I guess, guy, says — “Conflict is attention, and attention is influence.” So highly conflictual politicians seem to me to be advantaged.

Politicians who lie a lot — they’re able to use that level of very brazen lying as a way to hijack the media narrative because the media will cover somebody who has said something incredibly untrue over someone who said something kind of benignly true.

You could think about this in America as a difficulty for an Amy Klobuchar going up against a Donald Trump. A politician like Amy Klobuchar is very popular. She highly overperforms in Minnesota. She is a very effective politician in the Senate.

But if you go back a couple of years, she wasn’t getting very much coverage, whereas the people who are more provocateurs were. So, that way in which the coverage dimensions were shifting, away from “What does a consensus of party elites tell you about who to pay attention to?” versus “Who goes most viral on social media?” That has really changed who is succeeding in politics, and the kind of people willing to play that game tend to be either highly ideological or highly conflictual.

COWEN: Why isn’t California a better-run state than it is?

KLEIN: I think that’s actually a pretty deep question, and this is a question I would like to have a better answer to, and hope over the next year — now that my book is done — to find a better answer to.

But I will say in a big level that I think the failures of governance in California are much more profound failures for the Left and for progressivism than people give them credit for. The fact that California cannot figure out how to make it affordable to live in its major cities, or usable to get around as a state, not just inside the cities, where transportation in LA and San Francisco are really bad.

The failure of high-speed rail in California is such a cosmic embarrassment for the Left that I think it really needs to be taken a bit more seriously. It’s something that the Left needs to figure out how to change. If they can’t build high-speed rail with the billions and billions and billions of dollars earmarked for that project, why should people trust them on the Green New Deal, etc.? It’s not like it’s going to be easier outside of California. California had very big Democratic majorities.

So, the failures of government in California — I can tell you about them at some levels, right? You have very powerful NIMBY-istic politics there. Prop 13 has certainly made taxation hard. California, for a very long time, had extremely sharp strictures to the proposition process and, through some other constitutional changes, on what you could do even in the legislatures.

So, not only is a lot of the money already earmarked through propositions, but you had for a long time — and I might get these numbers a little bit wrong from memory — but I think you needed a two-thirds vote to raise taxes in the legislature. I think you needed something similar to do budgets. I haven’t looked at these rules for a little while, and I think at least they’ve been partially, though not in any way fully, repealed. But California actually had a kind of super filibuster operating that made it much harder to govern.

The way power is distributed between the governor, sort of the state level and the local level, is a little bit unusual in California. There are a bunch of reasons, but I think that those reasons do not fully explain the level of the failure here.

And then, I think that there might be some interesting things in actual liberal psychology that are operating. So, to a little bit go back to a Jon Haidt Moral Foundations Theory of Californians, it is true that California is quite liberal, and when I say “California liberal,” something is going to come to mind for people. There’s a certain stereotype there that’s maybe a little bit different than a New York liberal, maybe a little bit different than what you would imagine, say, a Colorado liberal, even, to be in.

But that kind of preservationist, a little bit skeptical — for all that Silicon Valley has taken over a lot of the economy — a little bit skeptical of certain kinds of progress. I think those are pretty strong undercurrents in California that oriented against certain kinds of change, oriented towards protecting people who are already there.

And the status quo is somehow more natural, oriented against a lot of important housing and building structural reforms that we need to do. So you may be seeing things that are not just at the legislative-social-political-dynamics level, but also a little bit in the psychology of liberalism that creates real problems for the progressive agenda writ large.

COWEN: I have a few questions about media, all of them super simple. In the age of the internet, not to mention Boris Johnson, what’s the future of publicly funded broadcasting? PBS, BBC — are they still relevant? What will they do for us? Should we be worried?

KLEIN: Worry depends on whether you think they’re overrated or underrated.

[laughter]

COWEN: Do they even matter?

KLEIN: I think they matter a lot less than they used to. Look, in America, it’s been true for a very long time. PBS was never as powerful as the BBC is, and PBS has been just shrinking in influence, as every single individual channel has been in America forever, right? You’ve read the media chapter of my book, and so you know that a lot of what I’m talking about there is the effect of incredibly intense forms of competition on the broader media sphere.

So, PBS, NPR, all public media is undergoing some of the same dynamics there as everybody else, which is, they’re just war for attention. In some ways it might be good for them and their trust in the long run. They’re also a little bit less able to fight that war because they need to hold their political sponsors in place. So, you can’t become quite as outrageous on PBS. I think, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post have made more moves to be viral than PBS has.

And I’m not saying that’s a wrong thing for PBS to do. I like PBS a lot. I admire what they do greatly. But I think a problem for PBS is that they’re widely admired, and sometimes they’re not as widely shared. Long term, it’s probably good for their trust. Short term, that’s probably quite bad for their influence.

In England, I’m a little less sure of what the future of the BBC is. I know Boris Johnson is not a fan. So I could imagine it weakening in terms of its power and its influence. I also know, at the same time, that the way that Johnson was covered on the BBC has created incredible levels of anger on the UK left, which is probably weakening the BBC’s hold on that constituency as well.

So I suspect that the BBC is both subject to the same competitive dynamics as you’re seeing here — although it starts from a place of more power in centralization and funding than PBS does here, than NPR does here — and then secondarily, is in a more intense form of its political vise than those players are here, in part because it’s more important, and so there’s more margin for different political players in attacking or weakening it.

COWEN: They’ll never cover Brexit well, perhaps, right?

KLEIN: I think that’s probably right.

COWEN: Now, Facebook has a plan, as you know, to set up a kind of supreme court, it’s called, that would issue judgments on what should be allowed on Facebook or not. What do you think of this idea?

KLEIN: I think it’s interesting. Zuckerburg actually, I believe, floated the idea the first time on a podcast I did with him. So I’ll take a little plug there. But I don’t think it’s going to solve the underlying problem, in part because I don’t think that is the underlying problem.

I think that social media and the way we deal with it — and this is true in a lot of places — we end up focusing on, one, the easy cases rather than the hard cases, like fake news as opposed to real news. Everybody agrees that fake news is bad, and you shouldn’t have it. Real news can also be very bad in terms of what it emphasizes, or the quality of the work, and so on. But the question of how to handle it is much, much harder, and it’s not going to be something that a Facebook supreme court handles.

I think the underlying and very deep problem with Facebook, with Twitter, with a bunch of them, is building the future of our communication commons atop a business model that is about engagement mediated through the intensity of the viewers’ or audiences’ emotional reaction. I don’t think that’s something the Facebook supreme court can solve, and I also don’t think it is a good thing for the future. But nobody really seems to want to fight it.

The questions about privacy — I think they’re important. The questions about fake news are important. All the questions people bring up in these cases are important. But I think all of them are also less important than the question of, is the future of how we will communicate with each other, of how politicians will communicate with the public, of how, basically, all important communication will be structured and incentivized — is it what gives you the strongest emotional countercharge?

If so, I think that we are in for this period where a lot of energy is going to go towards the most outrageous and most offensive players because they both get the energy of the people they inspire and the people who hate them. And it’s the combination of the energy and counter-energy that gives them so much control of the conversation.

COWEN: Twitter also kicks people off its site, and you and I both know that they’re not going to get it exactly right. Would you rather live in a world where there are too many or too few people on Twitter?

KLEIN: I have said this before: I think we would be better off if there was no Twitter.

COWEN: Sure, but there is Twitter.

KLEIN: Right. So you’re asking just on the margin —

COWEN: You want them to kick everyone off.

[laughter]

COWEN: At the margin.

KLEIN: Let me think about this for a moment. I don’t think it matters hugely, is the answer.

COWEN: Then why shut it down?

KLEIN: Oh, because I think that in terms of . . . if we’re just asking should the edge cases be decided a little bit more towards censoriousness or a little bit more towards permissiveness. I just don’t think it hugely matters. I don’t think the world is very different.

COWEN: If the edge cases don’t matter, and they let you and I continue, then it seems you should be —

KLEIN: I think you and I are worse on Twitter.

COWEN: Worse than what?

KLEIN: Worse than we would be if we just weren’t on it.

COWEN: But we both benefit from being on Twitter.

KLEIN: I know. I don’t think all the things you benefit from are great. Look, I have a lot of Twitter followers, so I’m speaking against an interest here. In some ways, with Twitter, I have an early-mover advantage. I have watched this, and look, I am very influenced by my role being politics in the media. So, that’s more what I’m talking about than anything else.

I think virtually every politician and media figure who goes on Twitter is a worse version of themselves on it than off of it, and that we are in a collective action problem, where it is individually rational for everybody to be on it, and it is collectively bad for all of these institutions to be on it.

Among other things, again, in a slightly Martin Gurri way, I think that one of the things Twitter is doing, particularly for the media, is making it extremely clear some of our . . . If somebody is not a big fan of “objective media,” I think it’s even a bad version of this. It’s making extremely clear our biases, the ways in which we’re cliquish, the ways in which we are reactive.

I think for politicians, it incentivizes a lot of their worst behavior. Again, it is good for individuals, and that’s one reason that I still am on it. But I feel like there are things in society that are not good for society, but in order for me to play my role in society, I still have to participate in, and that’s one of them.

COWEN: You’re now out in the Bay Area. How has living amongst the so-called world of tech changed your nonpolitical views?

KLEIN: It’s a good question. I don’t feel I live too much in the world of tech because over the last year, I’ve mostly just become a parent and haven’t gone out that much. So, my belief that I was going to spend . . . and with the election and impeachment, everything, I’ve not dug into some of the tech questions as much as I would like to.

It has definitely changed some of my views on California governance. We were talking about that earlier, and just watching it up close . . . I’ve gone to planning meetings and stuff, and that’s been an education in its own way. I think the view that has changed more than any other is, it is a really interesting intellectual culture to see up close. And in a lot of ways, for all that it gets lionized, I actually think I prefer the way DC thinks about problems.

The tech conversations that I’m part of, when you go to these dinners and so on — it’s interesting. It’s like an intellectual culture that is very venture capitalist in its approach. So, it’s like, “Here are 20 ideas. They’re all very interesting. Nineteen of them are probably quite wrong, not even a little wrong, like very wrong. But that last one might be great, really important, and if you could just figure out which one it is . . .”

Now, that works really well when the question is money, and it works less well when the question is, you’re trying to rebuild society in the image of your own ideas.

I have heard you on Eric Weinstein’s podcast recently, and the word you used for Eric was generative, and I think that’s actually a good word for what is prized out there. There’s a kind of generative thinking. Like, here’s a bunch of ideas, and they’re all kind of cool, kind of interesting, and they all may be very ungrounded in the bureaucratic or emotional or human or social realities of the thing they’re talking about.

They’re very smart people, puzzling about how a system works from the outside. On the one hand, that sometimes lets you cut away a lot of the BS and see what is going on, but oftentimes, it just makes you miss why the system works the way it does. It makes you miss the Chesterton’s fence dimensions of a system. I have been struck by the way I instinctually recoil from that way of thinking, even as I find a lot of what it comes up with interesting.

I think that the thing it has probably changed the most is, I have a little bit more appreciation, even than I did before, for the work that people do when they’re actually doing the hard work to understand bureaucratic and human and social complexity because that is something that, when you’re trying to build things, it will scale, or build ideas that really sound great when you say them at a party or something, you tend to underrate.

Again, I want to note that you really can go too far in the other direction and get trapped in the realities of how things exist now, and so be unable to imagine how they could exist in another dimension, or another reality, or in a future that you have built by creating Uber, or whatever it might be. But what is great as a way of thinking about ideas for new businesses, or even great as a way of thinking about investments, is not always great as a way of doing big-picture political and social analysis.

COWEN: Very last question comes from a reader, and I quote, “As a researcher with kids, I want to know about the post-kid Ezra Klein production function.”

KLEIN: The post-kid Ezra Klein production function has been to feel really bad about how much I am underserving anything that I’m not currently working on. So, let me answer this two ways. Over the last year, I’ve just kind of been in a scramble. We had our son. I’ve been finishing this book. I’ve also been working on Vox. I had the impeachment podcast and so on.

The actual number of hours I work has become shorter. There just is no doubt that I cannot work weekends and nights in the same way I did, and to the degree I can, I’ve had to do it on the book. It’s this kind of endless thing of doing the book for four hours. Then when I’d normally, or in my past, I’d rest, I go on to childcare for four hours, and then I’d do the book for four hours, and then I’d . . . It’s not been good, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.

I think the thing that I have heard from other parents, and it is proven to be true in my own life, is that I just have to pare down my number of projects. There is a ruthlessness to the way that you have to make choices between time, which is ultimately quite zero-sum, and I’m starting to have to make those choices.

So, where before, I would get involved in an almost unlimited number of things, now I’m having to ask myself, truly, the question, “Can I sustain an involvement in this project if I get involved in it? If I say yes to this, am I really going to be able to handle it at the back end, knowing that I can’t just accordion my time out, and tell my partner I’m not going to see her for a couple of days because I have to work around the clock?”

So, that’s probably a healthy thing for me in the long run, but there are genuine tradeoffs here. I found it personally good. I have had trouble turning down the part of myself that always wants to do more, even when I know it’s not the best thing for me.

So, the way in which, now, I emotionally am more in alignment with that part of myself that knows it needs to do a little bit less — that feels good. The degree to which I still have to work through the projects I have already in the system has been really hard. I’m a little bit dreading the book tour I’m about to go on. All of that just feels tough to me.

So, ask me in a year, and maybe things will be settled into a new equilibrium. But currently, I have a lot of good ideas about how to do less, and I’ve not quite been able to put them into play yet.

The only other thing I would say on this is, boy, does it teach you the value of sleep. And I don’t just mean in the sense of, with a kid you sleep less. I more mean in the sense of, spending a lot of time being truly under-rested just really forces you to confront how different you are when you’re deeply underslept, and that isn’t just in terms of what you can get done. I actually don’t find what I can get done is the key change there. It is how I am with the people in my life. It is how short I am with people. It is how I react to adversity. It is how I feel when I’m doing things.

I used to have a very sleep-is-a-cousin-of-death approach to my life. I really did not want to sleep, and I resented the time I had to sleep, and it has really cured me of that particular emotional or psychological disease.

COWEN: Ezra, thank you very much. Again, the book, Why We’re Polarized — I’m very happy to have read it twice — by Ezra Klein. And see you all next episode.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages…

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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