Ezra Klein on Media, Politics, and Models of the World (Ep. 13)
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Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox.com, joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on biases in digital media, the morality of meat-eating, how working for large organizations has changed his worldview, the psychographics of CEOs, what’s missing in public discourse, the most underrated member of the Obama administration, and why you should never follow his lead on what’s good culture.
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TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with Ezra Klein, media entrepreneur, blogger, health care thinker. Ezra is the creator of Vox.com, which is one of the most important up-and-coming, and indeed, now established media sites. Ezra himself runs a podcast series. He thinks broadly and deeply about everything. And I will stress, as I always do, this is the conversation I want to have with Ezra, not the conversation you want to have with Ezra.
EZRA KLEIN: I like this podcast disclaimer. I’m going to steal it.
On the bias of video and podcasts
COWEN: Let me start with some questions about media. We’ll get to politics, you, and everything else, but different formats in media. So you can do something in print, you’ve been a blogger, you’ve been involved with periodicals, now you do Vox. Vox, to me, seems to be doing more and more video, so let’s start with video.
When you use the medium of video, what is the bias in using video in terms of what kind of material, what kind of message? How does that slant what any site, but including Vox.com, is going to do and be?
KLEIN: It is much more different than I believed it was let’s say two years ago. Before I came to Vox, I used to do a lot of cable news. I was a guest host on MSNBC. I came pretty close to taking a show at some point. You and I spoke during that period.
One thing about cable news is it actually isn’t that different than writing. You are basically writing a script. There are elements, and there’s visual, but you are really writing a script, and you read it aloud. At least, I should say the way I did, it worked that way.
When I started Vox, I had the great fortune to hire a guy named Joe Posner who I met at a media conference and struck me from the second I met him as a real video genius. The reason Vox’s video is great, and I have no compunction saying it’s great because I don’t have all that much to do with it, is because Joe, and Joss Fong, and the rest of that team, they really think about video as its own form in a very different way than I had before.
We will be talking through stories, and I will come to them with something from the site that did really well. And I’ll say, “Hey, we should make a video out of this. Look how well it performed on the site.” They’ll say, “Nope. It’s not a visual topic.”
In terms of the bias you’re talking about, the overwhelming bias in doing really good video work is stories that are fundamentally visual. A story that is two people talking to each other is not that interesting. I’ll actually give an example from podcasting. What we are doing right now is not interesting video.
Early on in Vox, one of the first video series we launched was Vox Conversations. We had me interviewing people much as I do on my podcast, The Ezra Klein Show. We had me doing long-form interviews with people often for about an hour.
We put them up, and they never really performed that well. The reason was it just wasn’t fundamentally visual, what we were doing. The thing that I have learned to take much more seriously than I did a year ago, two years ago, is that you actually have to begin by asking the question, “Why is this a good thing to watch,” as opposed to in print, which is, “Why is this story simply interesting?”
COWEN: To make this concrete, let’s say news media uses much more video five years from now than it does today. Let’s say Vox as well. What would be, say, three issues that people will care more about that they don’t care as much about today?
KLEIN: [Pause] It’s funny, because I’m usually quick on a question like this. I am trying to think through, “Have we learned that there are topics that work for us in video?” Here’s the answer I think I’ll give you. International works better in video.
COWEN: Because of maps, you can show where something is happening?
KLEIN: Because international stories, it’s maps, it’s visual. Even when you’re showing something fairly mundane in another country, it looks different than it looks here. If you are showing man-on-the-street footage, but that man-on-the-street footage is in Saudi Arabia, it’s actually somewhat visually interesting.
It just is interesting to see what it looks like when people in Saudi Arabia are going about their daily lives if you’re from Southern California. I do think video has a bit more bias towards international than print.
I would say — and I’d be curious for your thoughts on this, because I do think underneath this question, you have a theory here — I have not seen a systematic difference yet that has influenced our coverage in the way that I did see it, say, when we moved to social being the distribution mechanism. Put much more of a focus on content that front-loaded identity.
I haven’t seen that yet in video. Doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I just haven’t found it.
COWEN: I tend to find video is good for explaining history to people. Vox had a great Syria video. I’m sure you had a lot to do with that.
KLEIN: I actually nothing to do with it. It was great.
COWEN: You had a lot to do with it, but the history of an event, it’s easier to get people to care about it. That’s partly because one makes history more emotional. I’m always torn a bit by this notion of making history more emotional.
You get more people to care about the history, but precisely because it has become emotional to them. Maybe what you have taught them, they don’t so easily budge from, because it is so vivid in some way.
KLEIN: Let me give a different spin on why I think history is working in Vox videos. One thing that is going to be very different is web video or streaming video, versus traditional, what is called — in one of the worst terms of art I’ve come across — linear video, so television.
I do think this is going to both subtly and importantly change editorial. When you’re creating a Netflix series, or you’re creating a YouTube channel, you are creating a kind of video that you expect to persist. People are going to come back to it, and they’re going to come back it, and they’re going to come back to it.
You brought up the Syria video that was a huge hit for Vox. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I want to say it was watched 50, 60 million times. Its major rise actually came a couple months after we first posted it, and not through anything we did, it just somehow got rediscovered during a secondary wave of fighting and news coverage of Syria, and it exploded.
The reason this is important is when you’re looking at cable news, or a lot of forbearer news content that disappeared as soon as it was put on, there the competition became about having the newest thing, the thing that other people didn’t have, much like traditional news does.
If you are trying to create things that are going to be continuously relevant three months from now, eight months from now, a year from now, five years from now, putting more emphasis on the history of a conflict like in Syria, is going to give you a better chance of having something that can be profitably rediscovered going forward.
COWEN: So in some strange way the original Vox vision of the card stack actually has been realized through video?
KLEIN: It’s been realized in a lot of places. It’s true in our text work too. One reason that our explainers focus on context is it makes them very easy to reuse going forward. If you were thinking editorially about how to make things persistent as opposed to accepting their ephemerality, you focus much more on more subterranean contextual information that you don’t believe will change quickly. And history is a good example of that.
COWEN: Let’s say there’s a bunch of different political views. There’s conservatives, modern liberals, progressives, libertarians, Trumpistas, however you draw that universe. If you had to think the medium of video overall, which of those views is A, helped the most, and B, hurt the most, and why? Not just by Vox video, but by video in general, the video way of thinking.
KLEIN: I just am not sure yet. I do not know. I don’t know. I could probably come up with a bad theory on the spot here, but I’m not sure. I want to see — I am not aware of sites with different ideological leanings showing dramatically different outcomes in video. I’d want to see that.
COWEN: But through some subtle way the video seems to matter. I was just in the Faroe Islands, which is a great trip by the way, but one thing they do in the Faroe Islands is they wade out in the water with their long boots, and they club a bunch of whales to death. The world didn’t pay any notice to this, but then at one point this was caught on video, and then it went viral, and now there are massive protests, online protests, over what happens in the Faroe Islands with the whales.
You wouldn’t quite call that a political ideology, but maybe known, identifiable victims get a larger voice in some way, even if those victims otherwise — literally, like the whales — have no voice whatsoever. I sometimes tend to think it’s a kind of progressivism which is favored, but there’s another part of me which thinks about libertarian arguments — the seen versus the unseen, the invisible opportunity cost.
That very easily gets lost in print, because you’ve got to cite some boring cost-benefit study, but there are ways to show secondary consequences in the narrative of a video that typically would fail on a newspaper page.
KLEIN: I think you’re actually somewhat mistaken about the underlying mechanism. The big change from 10 years ago, 15 years ago, in the story you just gave wasn’t really video, it was the possibility of virality.
COWEN: OK, sure.
KLEIN: The kind of story you just described —
COWEN: But it has to be video for people to share it.
KLEIN: I think that one in particularly probably is better in video; it’s vivid to see somebody clubbing a whale to death, I assume — I haven’t seen this video. My guess is that in terms of making that matter, the distribution mechanism mattered much more there. When you’re talking about victims, you can find victims from any ideology.
There would have been a time on the Internet when you’d have said that Upworthy proved — potentially — that a certain kind of soft, cultural progressivism was going to be dominant online. Then I think we’ve seen sites like Breitbart and IJR, Independent Journal Review, were able to take a form of soft-to-hard cultural conservatism and using almost the exact same techniques send those super-viral as well.
If you look at these two kinds of content, you find different victims. With Upworthy it is a young LGBT kid who’s been bullied at school. With IJR you’ll see an elderly grandmother who is victimized for her Christianity.
COWEN: But that they’re both victims still to me seems striking.
KLEIN: I agree with that, but I think both those can be video or text, but what is mattering is you’re using outrage people have because of shared identity to send something viral through a sharing mechanism. That is the real mechanism there, much more so than video to text is the difference.
COWEN: Let’s say that virtual reality works or takes off, it doesn’t—
KLEIN: Oh, I think it’s definitely going to work. [laughs]
COWEN: I have no particular opinion, but how will that shape which ideas succeed in the news media and which do not? What will that slant or bias be?
KLEIN: I am a long ways from being a believer that virtual reality is going to upend the news media in the near term. In my view, VR and AR will clearly be how we consume content, and — more to the point — how we communicate 20, 30 years from now.
COWEN: Let’s talk about that time horizon. What’s your best guess? You’ve thought more about different media and worked in more different media than almost anyone right now.
KLEIN: So a couple things. One, by the way and I think this is true also for video, we haven’t talked really about this. One thing the move towards video being a big part of a successful media organization does, and VR will probably push us even further, is you’re seeing rising advantages to incumbency and capital again.
Blogs, which I was part of and a big beneficiary of, for a moment you really did flatten things out. It was really easy to publish at a pretty flat rate online. Doing good video: it just costs more money, it takes more time. Doing good animation: it costs more money, it takes more time.
We have substantially lowered the level of investment needed to do it well, but it is still very different than it is in text. VR and AR, from what I know of those — and again this will all get cheaper over time — my sense there too is you’re going to have a pretty big advantage for organizations able to afford what are increasingly real studios, which the New York Times did not have to have a studio in 1996.
And then when I was trying to in some way compete with a New York Times op-ed column as a blogger — which is not how I saw it, but I think in some way what was going on — everything was flattening there.
COWEN: Absolutely, sure.
KLEIN: I did not need much up-front investment, capital, to do it. That I think matters. In terms of how it will change coverage priorities — oof. We are so far from even having an idea of what will work in VR beyond gaming and porn — and I, by the way, don’t mean that in a dismissive way — that I just wouldn’t know how to speculate yet.
We are so far from even having an idea of what will work in VR beyond gaming and porn — and I, by the way, don’t mean that in a dismissive way — that I just wouldn’t know how to speculate yet.
COWEN: I wonder if the news won’t have to become much happier? Because right now, especially with TV news, there’s a kind of negative bias. No one has a story on the home that wasn’t broken into today, or that terror attacks didn’t happen at all. It has to get far enough to be covered, so good news is played down.
People think crime rates are higher than they are because it’s reported a lot, but if presentation becomes that vivid, it may just be people are so put off by the actual worst news, they may want a kind of soft-pedaled — almost like the kittens on the Internet — they’ll want everything to be gentle and pleasant.
KLEIN: I don’t buy it. I definitely don’t buy that it would make news happier. If it did anything, it would lead to more substitution against news. I could imagine that what a VR-AR world does, is it makes it much more attractive to play the successor to Call of Duty in the VR world, than to read Vox.com or the New York Times, or whatever else.
COWEN: But of the news we have, in percentage terms, don’t you think it has to become nicer? Like most people will not go see horror movies, and those are not even virtual reality. It’s too scary, I won’t see most horror movies.
KLEIN: I won’t see any horror movies. My wife has a “no chickens” movie club that is mostly a “no Ezras” movie club, where they see horror movies.[laughs]
COWEN: So if the news is in virtual reality, you won’t watch certain things if you won’t see a horror movie.
KLEIN: It’s funny, because my bias on this probably goes the other direction. When I watch most media, I am surprised by the discomfort people seem to seek out. I am a fan of the part of movies before anything goes wrong. I really enjoy that first 25 minutes before any kind of conflict emerges in the plot. And I continuously wish that movies would just sort of let me hang out in that happy universe for a longer period of time.
When I watch any show recommended by anyone I know, including you, even if the show is putatively a cheery, happy show, the level of discomfort that people seem to want to endure of awkwardness, of conflict, is much higher than where I am. Cable news is another good example. I do not have the constitution to wake up and watch people yell at each other about politics. I don’t know where people get that capability, but I very much don’t have it.
My lesson from this I think is in some ways the opposite of yours. People are attracted to a much higher level of conflict than I completely understand, and my sense is that will remain true in a VR-AR world. I don’t really see a reason to believe that would change. So now I could see something that would say there will be a bias against particularly gruesome stories, that there will not be a sharp uptick in people wanting to experience what things are like in Aleppo in a VR-AR world.
But I don’t think that moves towards kittens and feel-good stories of happy events. I think you probably have a lot of what I would think of as sort of where news is now — a lot of conflict but conflict in a space of discomfort, conflict in a space of safe outrage, conflict in a space of you think you’re right and the other person is wrong, not necessarily a move towards actual cheeriness. People seem to like cheeriness a lot less than I would think they would.
COWEN: Let’s take podcasts. In your talk with Malcolm Gladwell, you each discussed how it can be hard to use numbers in podcasts, and I agree with that. But in terms of which issues are favored, as podcasts become more and more important, what does this skew our attention towards?
KLEIN: It skews our attention towards speculation.
KLEIN: One of the things about podcasts that I really enjoy about it, is that it has a very rambling — at least at this point in the format’s evolution — there’s much more of a rambling, looping, bullshitting quality to it. You are able in a podcast to talk about something where you may not be right in a way that people are, I find, much harder on you in print for doing.
One of the things about podcasts that I really enjoy about it, is that it has a very rambling — at least at this point in the format’s evolution — there’s much more of a rambling, looping, bullshitting quality to it. You are able in a podcast to talk about something where you may not be right in a way that people are, I find, much harder on you in print for doing.
Something that I find is true in the discussions I hear on podcasts, is they are much more personal — including newsmakers, by the way. The conversation that I had with Malcolm Gladwell, or even the conversation I had with Cory Booker, ended up focusing quite heavily on the senator’s spirituality. Which I think if I had been creating that conversation for print, I would have felt embarrassed or strange ending up that personal, but podcasting, because of the way people listen to it as a secondary activity, almost as a conversation they are part of, without having to participate in while they’re doing something else.
I often think of podcasting as if you’re walking around with your friends, but you just don’t have any actual friends there. That is moving towards much more personal topics, a much more intimate set of ideas, and away from harder, crisper, more concrete presentations of what we already know.
On attitudes towards business and leadership
COWEN: Let me ask you some questions about CEOs and leadership. When you look at the data on the corporate world, there’s a lot of evidence that CEOs today, they’re much more likely to be generalists, and to be able to switch from one sector to another.
They’re less likely to be people who came up through the ranks, like producing ball bearings, or running a coal mine, or an oil refinery. That’s pretty well established. Do you think that’s true in media, and also, what would you say is exactly your skill that makes you the CEO of the part of Vox you run?
KLEIN: I should say technically, I’m not the CEO of Vox. That is Jim Bankoff.
COWEN: Sure, but of Vox.com. You’re the editor-in-chief.
KLEIN: Why do I run Vox? To the question of what I’m good at versus — well, let me try to do the CEO question first, and then I’ll try to get into what I’m maybe good at or not good at. I think we are — and you’ve talked about this on your site before — we are becoming much more polarized and unequal along political as well as nonpolitical dimensions. We are getting much more effective, and to some degree, more discriminatory around the signaling around those things.
The idea of who a CEO is, and what a CEO is, is more sharply defined in a way that is probably not good, than it was 50 years ago. That’s a fair bit of it, we have professionalized the management class. There has become a set of signifiers that are more often, first, you learn as a CEO. It’s one reason you’re actually able to do that kind of lateral movement, because part of what is being selected for is this, “Do you seem like a CEO? Do you know how to work the CEO circuit? Do you know other CEOs?”
It has become a job unto itself. The signaling around it, a job and a set of skills unto themselves. Those things are not taught in the same way coming up the ranks. I’ve been very struck after I moved to running Vox, because now, particularly in my first year, I went to a bunch of these conferences, and I met more of these people.
I just got a bit more of a sense of this, and how much it’s a language, and how much it’s a culture, and how much it’s a social scene of these people who see each other at the same conferences. It’s a real circuit.
COWEN: That’s consistent with these generalist skills. You have to be a CEO, no matter how much you know about ball bearings or making shoe heels.
KLEIN: You can have a lot of subject-specific knowledge, but if you are not presenting a certain way, there is probably a widening penalty to that, in a way, again, that I think is probably negative. I am not persuaded it’s good that we have more generalist CEOs.
COWEN: It’s probably inevitable. You have to deal with government. You have to deal with the media, social media. You may need to raise funds in some way for your business.
KLEIN: Do you — ?
COWEN: Someone has to.
KLEIN: Somebody needs to deal with government, but I’m not sure that every company has so much government entanglement. I’m not sure that every CEO should be dealing that much with social media. I do know at the same time there are —
COWEN: The people who report to you are dealing with it. If you’re a CEO, you may not be doing it, but you need to digest their reports, and ask them the right questions. In that sense, there’s like seven or eight major areas that a CEO has to know really very well today.
KLEIN: I buy that. Probably the other piece of it is that, particularly when — we’re maybe using a bit of an idealized example, in terms of ball bearings — but now if you’re a CEO of an American firm that does a lot of ball-bearing manufacturing, the likelihood that your ball-bearing manufacturing is done in America is probably pretty low.
COWEN: You need to know the global economy. You need to know tech, right?
KLEIN: You need to know the global economy. I remember a piece from Justin Fox, who’s a writer at Bloomberg View now. I believe it was by him. If it’s not, I apologize. He talked about how he was told by a CEO that a key skill for a CEO of a multinational firm is actually the ability to get restful sleep on an international plane flight.
I had never thought of that, and you don’t think of that as a CEO skill, but it makes perfect sense. And it’s not something that would have been selected for before. I would want to see something more systematic about what skills CEOs really end up using, and what the bulk of companies need, before I totally bought into the thesis. I’m not saying it’s impossible, by any means.
COWEN: There’s a big debate on executive pay. Are CEOs underpaid, in your opinion? Not you, the other CEOs.
KLEIN: No, I don’t believe CEOs are underpaid.
COWEN: You don’t believe CEOs are underpaid?
KLEIN: I recognize that within the debate there is good evidence that, in a pure market way, that the returns on having a really high-quality CEO are positive, and that given where we are now, it is rational for individual firms to be paying more and more and more to try to get these star CEOs.
I am not saying that individual firms are overpaying. What I am saying is that it is, by the same token, pretty clear that the compensation game has become fundamentally point scoring, that it really isn’t about the money.
I don’t think anybody thinks that the kinds of pay increases we’re seeing amongst CEOs is coming from the cost of feeding a CEO’s family having risen really sharply in recent decades.
What you would want is something that begins to tamp down on the collective action issue of every CEO needing to be paid more than every other CEO simply in order to prove they’re a good CEO, because it’s become a status symbol.
There’s a story I love from Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs. He talks about how for years and years and years after he came back to Apple, Jobs took only a dollar a year. The board, for years, was saying to him, “Come on. Take a salary. You’re doing a great job. You’re building a great company. Take a salary.”
He wasn’t, and he wasn’t, and he wasn’t. One day, he did. He said, “Listen, I think we’ve done the turnaround. It’s time for me to begin taking a salary.” They said, “Great,” and they came to him with what they thought was a really generous package.
He told them to screw off and demanded something that was stratospheric. The point for him was not the money. He had been taking a dollar a year. The point for him was that if he was going to get paid, that pay was going to reflect that he was better than every other CEO in the world.
That’s a very good argument for highly graduated marginal tax rates that would make that kind of thing a lot less useful for anyone.
COWEN: Getting back to you, you haven’t told us, what’s your key skill that makes you well suited for a leadership position, as you understand it?
KLEIN: The set of things I’m good at doing — in terms of just coming up with ideas and creating content, I’ve been pretty good throughout my career, and hopefully continue to be, at seeing where the next thing is in media and what are the set of skills that you’re going to need to combine to get there.
From blogging, and I think I was reasonably early on in figuring out how to merge a lot of new blogging with traditional journalism skills at the American Prospect. Brought that to the Washington Post and was able to figure out a way to build something out of that there.
Saw some things in TV that you could probably do, taking some of the ethos of blogging, and what we were beginning to see, and what the audience was responding to, and taking that to cable news. I have been reasonably good at steering a course through a pretty rapidly changing media landscape.
COWEN: I don’t disagree, but it’s not somehow meta enough for what I’m asking. The Ezra Klein, what’s the thing about the Ezra Klein? I would say your key skill is self-learning. You’ve talked yourself about how as a student in school you were “at best, indifferent,” I think were your words.
You’ve learned all these things on your own. You’re a very good self-learner. Maybe that’s the key meta skill that makes this work in the leadership position, or no?
KLEIN: Maybe. Constant anxiety would be another possibility. It is a surprise to me that I turned out to be — and I guess you’d actually have to ask my team [laughs] if this is true — a pretty good manager of people.
That came reasonably naturally. The thing that I think I’m good at doing as a manager is understanding what the folks working with me are actually doing, and so getting a sense of what they actually need. The way I tend to work with people is by trying to figure out what the project is and what their broad project is.
I don’t mean literally what their task is right now, but what is their project at my organization? What are they trying to do over the course of a year? Then figuring out how to support in that. Compared to other people I know — and this is feedback I’ve gotten — I’m pretty good at figuring out how people understand the work they are doing, and then how I can support them in that.
The other thing that I think I’m not bad at is having a pretty clear idea that I’m able to communicate of where we’re going. I didn’t think this was going to be a huge issue. I didn’t think a lot about branding when we started Vox.
In fact, I thought media brands were probably becoming less important as content disaggregated and moved around socially. It turned out they were getting more important, and that along the way, we were able to define a pretty clear one.
Something that I’m pretty good at doing is defining that, and hopefully holding to that, and communicating that. Definitely leadership and CEOing is something [laughs] that I am learning as I’m going along. It might be hard for me to get the perspective to say what I am good at or not good at from a meta level on that.
COWEN: What’s your best time management tip?
KLEIN: To-do listing. The thing that honestly decides whether or not I have a good, effective day, where I feel like I got things, or whether I just wasted a bunch of time, was whether in the morning, I wrote down what I thought I had to get done that day, and throughout the day, was rigorous about putting the little tasks that come up onto that same list and then checking them off.
I keep that list going, and I keep it updated, and I keep referring back to it, I am able to be pretty efficient. If I don’t, I get lost and overwhelmed and anxious. I don’t find the big tasks to be the hard thing there. The thing that is really hard to do is the tasks that take between 3 and 15 or 20 minutes. You keep in your head, when you probably have 30 minutes where you can knock out a couple of them. They don’t feel like a big enough deal. You don’t remember them. You didn’t write them down in a clear place.
They just sit there causing you, or at least me, endless anxiety. When I actually have them in front of me, I will stay on top of them. Actually staying on top of them is more important, certainly, than I gave it credit for a year ago.
COWEN: We all are looking for other talented people to work with, and you’ve had a whole bunch of great ones. Matt and Melissa, Dylan Matthews, a whole bunch of others, some of whom I don’t know. What’s your best talent-finding tip?
KLEIN: Look for people who are desperate to be doing the thing they’re doing. I have often found really great people by finding people who either seemed or were literally doing what they need to be doing for free because nobody was yet paying them for it.
That’s an ethos that comes out of — I did that as a blogger, and I found Dylan Matthews doing that kind of thing. You can teach a lot of skills, but you can’t teach obsession. There’s a real difference between somebody who is obsessed with the work they’re doing and someone who is simply skilled at the work they’re doing. I will take the obsession and teach the skills over getting the skills and having to teach the obsession.
You can teach a lot of skills, but you can’t teach obsession. There’s a real difference between somebody who is obsessed with the work they’re doing and someone who is simply skilled at the work they’re doing. I will take the obsession and teach the skills over getting the skills and having to teach the obsession.
COWEN: How has being an entrepreneur changed your political views? Do you have more sympathy with people starting businesses and the notion that business needs to be encouraged or liberated, or the opposite?
KLEIN: I don’t think I ever had what I would think of as an [laughs] anti-entrepreneur period. I do have sympathy with starting businesses, but I don’t think I didn’t before. Let me think on that for a minute. How has it changed my political views?
I don’t deal with a lot of government regulation myself, so it hasn’t had some big effect there. I’m sure —
COWEN: And you’re in a less regulated sector.
KLEIN: I’m in a less regulated sector so that isn’t a huge deal for me.
COWEN: But somehow your overall vision of human motivation and imperfections and what drives people that must have, if only subtly, been altered in some way that even if it doesn’t change your policy stances, your political vision must now be different.
KLEIN: Yeah, and I’m just thinking it through. Let me offer two. The big one I think is not since I started an organization, but since I went to the Washington Post.
COWEN: OK, and what’s that?
KLEIN: Being part of bigger organizations has given me a very different set of beliefs about the importance of firms, and firm dynamics, and organizational frictions, and how the economy works.
I am much, much, much more sympathetic and have a much better understanding of, say, why wages are sticky. Or you’ve been talking about Bryan Caplan’s idea about firing aversion. And then Matt Yglesias, my cofounder, had great set of tweets about hiring aversion.
COWEN: Absolutely. I laughed so hard at those. I got the feeling you’ve been tasking Matt with hiring people.
KLEIN: I have not.
KLEIN: Matt is not actually the one who primarily has to hire people, but in part because hiring people is really hard and unpleasant.
COWEN: Everyone does that in an organization. It’s about the personal contacts of your whole network, and Matt must know a lot of people or they know him.
KLEIN: Matt is very much a part of the whole thing.
KLEIN: I have a lot more sensitivity to that kind of thing. I have a lot more sensitivity to the ways in which firms have trouble turning themselves around.
Things that often seem mysterious to me about why a firm didn’t just swoop in and take this market opportunity seem a lot less mysterious to me now that I’ve been in a big one and been able to see that from a lot of different vantage points at the Washington Post, and that was a firm that I think has been very successful in changing and evolving and transforming.
But I also saw how hard and wrenching that was and how many ways it could have gone wrong and didn’t, I think in that case, due to some really strong and good leadership. Then at Vox this is a young firm, and Vox Media itself is more than 600 employees now, though, so it isn’t that small. Vox.com is more like 70.
Even there I have a sense of, my God, just the difficulty of growth, the organizational cost of growth, the dangers it puts you into, the overstretchedness, the lack of slack in any of the systems so that you can deal with things that are longer-range while you’re trying to deal with what’s going on today.
My sense of how the economy works on a micro level has changed a lot from just being inside larger firms. That I think has influenced me quite a bit.
I’d say the other thing is I am probably much more — and, again, I’m not sure this is a policy idea — I am much more skeptical of anything anybody says about how a firm or a government organization, or anything else, works.
One of my big takeaways from now having sat through a lot of meetings with consultants, a lot of meetings with people trying to sell ideas or companies to me, a lot of meetings where I was trying to sell an idea to someone else, is that there is just a lot of bullshit in the economy. There is a lot of bullshit in organizations, and there is in a way I don’t totally understand an accepted level of bullshit between everybody.
I seem to be at meetings all the time where everybody seems to know that only half of whatever idea is being pitched as a savior to everything is really being implemented or really going to work.
I constantly see in media now people touting some kind of great pilot project or some little innovation they came up with that is covered as if it will save media, but I can look at it and know there’s no way that will be spread through the workflow of even the host organization much less than any other organization.
I’ve become much more cynical about — I think of this a lot, by the way, with Snowden and the NSA. On the one hand a lot of those revelations are really, really, really important.
On the other hand, it’s a lot of consultant documents about what they were doing on behalf of the government, and I often think about how much of that is really getting effectively done, which in some ways makes it scarier. One way of reading those documents is the government has become this omniscient, all-seeing surveillance state. My guess is that their ability to use that data —
COWEN: Is very, very weak.
KLEIN: Is very, very, very weak. That might make your view of what’s going on much worse, actually.
COWEN: I agree.
KLEIN: I’m not saying that is exculpatory. I’m just saying that it’s a different way of looking at those documents.
COWEN: Take your view of government production. Now a lot of what governments do is pass around checks, and we more or less know how that works, and usually the checks show up, right?
The way that works is fairly well understood. But when government produces things are you now more cynical about that than you used to be?
KLEIN: Oh, yeah. I don’t think even though I am in a relative sense in America politics probably a fan of government producing things, I don’t have any particular belief that it is an efficient way of producing things. I wouldn’t want them to take on things that I thought were getting done well anywhere else. I’m not sure how much my view on that has changed.
I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.
That is something I probably take more seriously than I did before. Let me give you an example here, because this is the way Vox particularly has really changed my view on things.
If we had started Vox just bootstrapped — which is one of the things we pretty seriously considered, so just getting venture capital and doing it on our own — there are a lot of things we would have done that we did anyway, make things like card stacks, etc., but there are lot of things that Vox Media built capacities to do —
COWEN: Already, before you —
KLEIN: Already or contemporaneously with us being there that we never would have had the willingness to sit through and do. Particularly here there are a lot of partnerships or opportunities that have come through a lot of meetings, many of the meetings which went nowhere, which I just would never have done.
Vox Entertainment, which is part of Vox Media out in LA and is building collaborations basically with television — other things, too, but television primarily — that is just something that if we had bootstrapped this we never would have been considering, because the slog to get anywhere in television, the number of meetings that don’t go anywhere, I just absolutely would never have been able to do it.
Something I actually now see as an organizational advantage of certain kinds of organizations is a willingness to do things that aren’t fun and that may not turn out well, that may actually be pretty inefficient. Because when you’re running really lean things that maybe don’t have a very high payoff — even if that payoff if it comes is pretty good — often don’t look good, not because of expected value, but just because of literally what you can bear as a human being.
And I think that way with government, too. As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.”
But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something — now moving away from lessons learned from Vox — this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.
A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.
COWEN: You see this with Medicaid. A lot of people don’t sign up. They don’t have addresses. You can’t even get them, whatever.
KLEIN: They don’t like doctors. They’re afraid of doctors.
COWEN: This is me.
KLEIN: You’re afraid of doctors?
COWEN: “Afraid” isn’t the word.
KLEIN: Averse. [laughs]
COWEN: Maybe dislike. Averse. [laughs] They should be afraid of me, perhaps.
KLEIN: There you go. So that kind of thing — being willing to do that and being willing to go through the risk of doing that poorly — if you’re going to get there you’re going to have to have not just failure but a fair amount of inefficiency.
On social value and finding meaning in business
COWEN: Now this is a very difficult question I’m going to ask. If I think about the notion of fiduciary responsibility, which any executive has, if you imagine a conservative or libertarian in a position with fiduciary responsibility, I think it’s relatively easy for them to identify that personal responsibility with the overall good of the economy.
There’s a story about the invisible hand, and you know all of this. If you have someone who’s more left-wing or more progressive, or other points of view, I would think there’s more of a psychological dissonance between the fiduciary responsibility to a particular group and one’s political views, and that somehow is discordant.
It does get solved, but do you ever think about that clash, and what are your thoughts on that?
KLEIN: No, I don’t think about it in those terms. First I think it’d be good here — give me an industry and give me a group.
COWEN: Say you have a company, the manager, the executive is supposed to maximize profits, but this would involve some pollution, and the pollution may not be good for broader society, but once you sign on to be the manager you either do the pollution if you think you can get away with it, or at least you feel to obliged to lobby Congress so you could pollute if they would allow, and that’s part of the deal with being manager.
Now, people who are conservative, libertarian, maybe more to the right, they tend to see less of a conflict between fiduciary responsibility and the overall good of society.
In a sense them being a CEO is morally more of a seamless venture. That might even be the wrong view. There might be a real conflict there.
Say you own some factory farms and you answer to your shareholders. Correct? People who you would broadly call progressives, is there for them a greater psychological clash in principle between the CEO’s responsibility and what they think about politics?
KLEIN: I have a couple thoughts there. One, I think this actually is pretty industry-specific, and I think that taking that view resolves a fair amount of the clashing.
You used an example there that I think is a good example, but will cut very much towards the argument that this would be harder for somebody on the left, which is you’re talking about an industry where you have as a by-product high levels of pollution.
My guess is that kind of industry will select against people who have highly environmentalist views rising to the tops of those firms. I could be wrong about that, but that would be my assumption. Whereas I think there are also industries where it will cut a little bit the other way. Media might actually be one of those industries where in order to do the things that your shareholders want you to do it will imply pushing in leftward direction.
I just assume that people select into industries that they basically find morally aligned with their views, at least at that top level where you have a lot of selection power, if you’re going to be running one of these firms. As we talked about, CEOs can be more generalists now.
If you’re at that level on the market you probably have selected somewhere where you just don’t find it to be a problem.
I will say, though, that even as someone who I think in contemporary American politics falls more on the center-left side of the spectrum, I have always found the amount of corporate social responsibility stuff to be a little puzzling. I don’t find it intuitively appealing myself.
COWEN: A lot of it’s public relations.
KLEIN: Some of it is public relations, but I actually think that is somewhere where I have become a little less cynical, if anything, now that I know more of these folks.
As a human nature thing something that I’ve become more sensitized to is that you might ask how does somebody who becomes CEO of a widget factory see their life’s work as having meaning, because who cares about all these widgets? Why didn’t they go if they’re that talented into whatever?
One thing that that kind of analysis will miss, the question of why does it matter if you’re just creating stuff for kids, or whatever, toys, is how much people end up identifying with their firm as the larger whole. How much it’s the health of the firm, the health of the workers, the corporate culture that people are really proud of that bind them together. That’s their community. That’s their neighborhood. That’s where their status comes from.
It is within that kind of outlook that this sort of corporate social responsibility stuff becomes very appealing, that if the place you’re deriving your value is from the idea of what sort of firm did you create — not what did your firm create, but what sort of firm did you create — then the question of what is the moral character of your firm, how proud are the people in your firm with being there, that becomes a very important part of the way that you personally get satisfaction from your work.
I have definitely run into CEOs who seem more interested in the character of the firm they’re creating than anything that their firm is creating.
COWEN: They’re often more successful that way.
KLEIN: They often are.
COWEN: Because the people who work with them perceive that and respond in kind.
KLEIN: But the stuff they are creating it is almost the fuel to create the sort of firm they are interested in.
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: Now we have a segment in all of these chats in the middle. It’s called underrated versus overrated. I say a few things, and you tell me if you think they’re underrated or overrated. And of course, you’re free to pass.
The movie The Matrix. Overrated or underrated?
KLEIN: At this point underrated because its sequels were so bad.
COWEN: The Washington, DC, dining scene. And you live in Washington.
KLEIN: [sighs] I do.
COWEN: The listeners don’t know that.
KLEIN: It’s hard. It’s become probably overrated by the press but still underrated by people who live here.
COWEN: How about by people who live in New York?
KLEIN: I will say when I moved to DC in 2005 for years I could eat at every single good restaurant that opened up and a lot that weren’t good.
Now the list of restaurants that seem excellent that I have not been able to go to is longer than my arm. It’s almost hard for me to rate it highly enough given how pleased I am by the development.
COWEN: Bob Dylan. Overrated or underrated?
KLEIN: I’m trying to match this with my personal ignorance. He definitely seems overrated to me, but this is me not being very into classic rock.
COWEN: But that’s endogenous, right? You’ve heard some Bob Dylan.
KLEIN: I’ve heard quite a bit of Bob Dylan.
COWEN: And you weren’t that induced to go hear a lot more.
COWEN: What’s your objection?
KLEIN: I do not particularly have an objection.
COWEN: It’s not scratchy voice, or — ?
KLEIN: I really want to frame this as a subjective fact of me potentially having bad music taste as opposed to a normative claim about the worth of Bob Dylan. I do not think anybody should take my cultural viewpoints. I’m a deep fan, for instance, of the movie Wimbledon. I do not think people should follow my lead on what is good culture.
COWEN: William F. Buckley.
KLEIN: He built a tremendous institution, and I both mean that in terms of National Review and probably in terms of the American right for quite a while. It is hard now to appreciate because it feels so much with us of what an achievement fusionism really was. It is also — National Review has been an important, and to some degree played a pretty consistent role, on the American right for many, many, many decades. That’s a part of Buckley that is also easy to underrate.
I thought what National Review did around Trump was very much — I don’t know that it would have happened at a place that didn’t have as clear an internal character as what Buckley gave that institution.
If it had been just a more normal magazine it just wouldn’t have tried to play that role. That role was something worth trying to play. What Buckley achieved, whatever you think of his politics, I think he’s definitely underrated at this point.
COWEN: The most underrated person in the Obama administration. They don’t have to be there now.
KLEIN: That’s a great question. I would have to think for a minute here. Let me give this some thought and come back to it. I don’t want to do it totally on the fly.
COWEN: We’ll come back to it. The name Ezra, overrated or underrated?
KLEIN: Oh my God, it’s gotten so popular.
COWEN: It has. It’s a name when I was a kid I would not have thought would have made a comeback.
KLEIN: No. I believe if I’ve read the site right that the name Ezra is now more popular than the name of my wife Anne, or Annie, which just blew my mind when I looked it up. So always underrated; it’s a great name.
COWEN: It’s a great name.
KLEIN: [laughs] Overrated.
KLEIN: One, they’re all too long. There is nothing I personally like less than watching a whole piece of professional sportsball.
COWEN: Isn’t there some other better way to consume it than to watch it all? You watch it in parts but it needs to be there for you to pick the right parts and then you talk to people about the rest. It’s like going to the theater, except you’re free to talk to your friends while it’s on.
KLEIN: It’s true. Even as I think professional sports is way overrated, sports journalism is continuously underrated. It is always some of the best journalism we’re doing in America and nearly always the best-written form of journalism that we do in America.
Even as I think professional sports is way overrated, sports journalism is continuously underrated. It is always some of the best journalism we’re doing in America and nearly always the best-written form of journalism that we do in America.
COWEN: Why is that? What about the structure of sports makes the journalism so good and the product so bad?
KLEIN: There is something about sports being a canvas for writing through which we are allowed with relatively low stakes to work out other core issues in American life that is really tremendous.
One of my favorite books is The Muhammad Ali Reader. It is the case that basically every great writer of the 20th century did their Muhammad Ali piece. You can just go through there and it is an amazing tour of particularly New Journalism, but there is a capacity to use sports to write about anything in the American experience. It is really tremendous.
On the flip I just somehow do not have the part of my brain, really just do not — and again, I want to continue to say this is not a normative claim, this is a claim about my own experience — I do not have the part of my brain that even allows me to empathetically access why someone would care what a bunch of people playing for a team that they went to because it paid them the most money —
COWEN: But we care about movies and novels, right? And that’s not even really happening.
KLEIN: I know, and I’m able to access that. They’re drawing me up in the storyline. I am just telling you again, I am not saying other people shouldn’t enjoy it, I am saying that this is a place where I have tried many, many times because I would like to be connected to American culture in this way, and it is like I am missing a part.
COWEN: Now let’s try some questions about politics, and we’ll come back to the most underrated in the Obama administration. Let’s take models of the world, so President Obama —
KLEIN: Oh, I think I have an Obama administration answer: Biden.
COWEN: Biden. Tell us why.
KLEIN: Joe Biden has been — as far as I can tell in my reporting, as far as anybody can tell — he has taken on a series of pretty important jobs for the administration going back to copping the stimulus, which actually did go out with a very, very low level of fraud.
Work he did on gun control didn’t really go anywhere, but in terms of the task force piece of the administration it was well conducted. He has been very, very important in pushing through a bunch of congressional deals.
And he’s played a role that I respect in organizations of often being the skunk at the party, particularly in Obama’s dealings with the military. Biden’s role in a lot of that was to act as the counterweight in a way that’s very socially uncomfortable and is related to Joe Biden’s very particular set of skills which may not have been — are not always adaptive, but I think are adaptive in that particular circumstance.
Yet, at the same time he’s been, by all accounts, a very successful vice president. People forget that his was actually the most highly rated convention speech at the 2012 convention, even more so, if I remember correctly, than Bill Clinton. He arguably really played a big role in the election by getting their debates back on track after Obama flubbed the first debate.
He is looked at in a way that I have looked into, and reported on, and tried to understand as sort of a joke. The gap between the esteem in his public reputation as Uncle Joe and the gravity of his career, and what he’s done, and the role he’s played with Obama I think is very, very, very wide.
On the Klein, Obama, and Clinton models of politics
COWEN: Some questions about politics. Let’s put aside policy conclusions. Just models of the world. You have a model of the world, and President Obama has a model of the world. Your knowledge of his model is highly, highly imperfect. But just from what you know, from whatever distance you observe what he does and says, what do you think is the main difference, in analytical terms, between your model and his?
COWEN: You have it or he has it?
KLEIN: He has it. The big difference between my model and his model — and I’ve interviewed him, and we’ve talked about this — at this point the models of how American politics works are pretty similar.
He has developed, over his time in office, much more so than when he ran in ’08, a pretty structuralist view of how Congress works, of how American politics works, of how automatic a lot of functions of public opinion and partisan opinion are.
These are things that the “Hope and Change Obama” didn’t believe in ’08. He thought that you could really bridge these divides. There was a lot more cynicism among members of the press, including myself. That cynicism was borne out. I think he shares it, now.
COWEN: That’s a similarity. What’s the difference?
KLEIN: This is where I’m coming to it. The system is, in very fundamental ways, at this point, flawed. I do not think the political system can, over a long period of time, absorb highly polarized political parties. Structural changes will need to be made if American governance is going to be high quality.
He believes — in ways I don’t fully understand and don’t think he’s really able to give a good account of — that there is an essential goodness of the American people, that they will rise up and demand better of their leaders, and maybe it just has to get to a bad enough point or something.
But I think he’s wrong about that. You actually need to change how the system works, not expect that at some point the American people are going to say enough is enough. Again, this is my best recounting of what the nature of his optimism is. He definitely pushes back quite strongly on what he calls the jaded easy cynicism, but I think it’s correct.
COWEN: There was a recent poll, you probably saw it, that American black males are much more optimistic about the future than American white males. Did you see that?
KLEIN: I did.
COWEN: Do you think that’s a good overall characterization? Are you and he —
KLEIN: Of the poll?
COWEN: No, of reality. It’s clear that’s what the poll said.
KLEIN: I don’t think that poll is shedding a lot of light on our specific disagreement about “does the American political system need structural reform.”
COWEN: OK, so going back to models. Your model of the world and Hillary Clinton’s model, what’s the main difference?
KLEIN: I do not understand her model as well as I think I understand Obama’s — so let me say that at the outset.
COWEN: You had a long interview with her which was very illuminating.
KLEIN: I did. Thank you. Her model of the world frames American politics much more as a process or a negotiation carried out by individual parties where I’m much more of a structuralist. Hillary Clinton believes that by reaching out enough and consistently enough, which is a funny thing to say because her overall politics as a campaign are quite partisan.
But when she’s in office, she has a real “I will work with you on anything no matter how small endlessly to build up trust.” That’s kind of her approach. She believes you can get more out of that than I believe you can. She believes there’s more that personal relationships can do to create grounds for bipartisan cooperation.
Her critique of Obama would be that he doesn’t spend that much time, and when he does spend the time, does not evince enough enjoyment of reaching out and spending time and building relationships with opposed members of Congress. If you got her late at night after she’s had a couple drinks, she would tell you that the difference between her and him is that she really will spend all that time with Mitch McConnell. Even when people treat her unfairly and treat her badly, she will continue reaching out with them.
She talked in our interview about her husband — people impeaching him at 4 p.m. and him having them over for a drink at 9 p.m. She really sees that as something that can really work in changing outcomes. I don’t really agree. To a first approximation, knowing which party people belong to is basically how to predict the way they’ll vote.
That is even truer since she was last involved in legislative politics, and I don’t think there’s going to be that much margin in a more attentive personal relationship to being the legislator in chief.
[Clinton] talked in our interview about her husband — people impeaching him at 4 p.m. and him having them over for a drink at 9 p.m. She really sees that as something that can really work in changing outcomes. I don’t really agree. To a first approximation, knowing which party people belong to is basically how to predict the way they’ll vote.
COWEN: The most striking part of your talk with her I found was when you asked her about books, and she named two communitarian books from the 1990s. That’s when I felt I really learned something about Hillary Clinton.
KLEIN: And, by the way, a book from a modern communitarian. She also named the new Putnam book.
On diversity, demographic anxiety, and what’s missing in public discourse
COWEN: Absolutely. Now Putman, let me ask you about Putnam, and how Putnam relates to Donald Trump. As you know, Robert Putnam at Harvard, he has some work showing that when ethnic diversity goes up that there’s less trust, less cooperation, less social capital.
If you think of yourself in the role of an editor, so you have an American society, diversity has gone up, and a lot of people have reacted to this I would say rather badly — and I think you would agree with me they’ve reacted rather badly — but there’s still a way in which the issue could be framed that while diversity is actually a problem, we can’t handle diversity.
Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?
KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”
COWEN: A bit, but not mainly, I agree.
KLEIN: That said, I think that the way it’s presented is a choice between economic anxiety and racism. And one I don’t think that’s quite right, and two I don’t think that’s a productive way of having that conversation.
COWEN: Why don’t we have that language? Where did it go, or did we ever have it?
KLEIN: I don’t know if we ever had it. We probably did have it. We have properly been working very, very hard in this society to make racism socially intolerable. We have a society that continues to have a lot of racism, a lot of sexism, a lot of bigotry of different kinds. But I do think that as a by-product of that debate and that effort, there isn’t a good way to have people discuss slightly more inchoate feelings of losing power that aren’t necessarily in their view, about taking it away from other people. It’s more about losing it themselves. I think that’s a big difference in this.
Arlie Hochschild, who I’ve had on my show —
COWEN: Which I’ve heard; it was a very good episode.
KLEIN: Thank you. Something she talks about in there is this kind of deep story that she found among — she’s a sociologist who spent five years with tea party folks in Louisiana — she talks about this deep story of feeling like they’ve been waiting in line, and now other people are getting in front. It’s not so much that they don’t want those other people to get ahead, it’s that they want to get ahead themselves. They are feeling a loss in a zero-sum competition, and they may actually be correct about that.
There are probably types of advancement in society that is zero-sum, particularly when you begin really trying to open up the floodgates. So I think that’s correct, and I think that we don’t have a good language for it. I don’t know what it would mean to get one, but one thing that has annoyed me this year is I really dislike the use of political correctness as a language for it.
One, it doesn’t explain very much. But two, I think that something that has happened a lot of the time here is people have somewhat either unconsciously — or I think at times cynically — mixed up an elite debate and a nonelite debate.
There is a debate about political correctness on college campuses, and with very sort of cutting-edge issues like transgender rights, or safe spaces, or trigger warnings, that a lot of people who graduated from Ivy League schools particularly are very invested in — in the media. Particularly people who what they like to do is write about things in a very free and untrampled way, and they see this as an attack on them.
They don’t like what they see in their Twitter mentions, a whole range of why people get upset. I’m not even questioning the validity of that anger, I’m just saying that is a very different set of issues than somebody who wants to be able to say, “Mexican immigrants are criminals too often, and they shouldn’t be in this country.”
The things that Trump is keying into are things like Jon Chait is a big critic of contemporary academic political correctness, but does not believe the things that Trump is saying about Muslims being allowed to travel to the US are viable at all. There are a bunch of things that are settled among elites about what is an acceptable thing to say or not that Trump is reopening.
Then there are a bunch of things that are unsettled among elites that Trump doesn’t care about. There’s been a sort of conflation of those issues around political correctness that has been unhelpful to understanding his coalition and why there’s real power there.
COWEN: This language of talking about diversity in a smarter way that would recognize costs of diversity without being racist or other bad things — two other cultures we’ve talked about, and you have some connections to, one is Brazil, the other is Singapore. Your father is from Brazil, correct?
COWEN: Do those places in some ways have a better language than we do, or are they much worse? Or when you think about Brazil and Singapore, what they’ve done, how it’s worked, how does that all come together with the language you think we need?
KLEIN: I have genuinely no idea how those two societies actually do talk about these problems. I do not, unfortunately, speak Portuguese, and as much as I enjoyed going to Singapore for a couple days on my honeymoon, my sense is not that that is a free and open discourse. But I don’t think I know enough about them to answer that confidently.
COWEN: What about the role of shame in our culture, and also as it relates to media? Right now, I think I read estimates 40 percent of children are born into single-parent families. Some of those the father is actually around, but a lot of cases it’s not. A lot of social conservatives, they somehow want to shame this arrangement, but from a media point of view, it’s very hard to shame those who are your readers.
There’s maybe a tendency for stories to evolve into a language without shame. Does that ever worry you about media, and what is the role of shame in politics, and what should we be shaming more often?
KLEIN: I do think there’s a lot of shaming in media. I don’t think it’s there, nor would I want it to be there, but I think an interesting thing about Trumpism and the particular way in which I think the media really has been — we can argue about whether the media has done a good job with Trump, but the media’s clearly very anti-Trump.
The particular ideology he has, there are these long things, debates about whether the media is liberal or it’s conservative, and I tend to think they miss a lot of nuance on it, but what the media really is, is not committed to single-payer, but committed to diversity, to pluralism, to tolerance, to things that I think of as more cosmopolitan values than particularly liberal values, or at least liberal in the contemporary political sense of values.
Trumpism is a lot less conservative than it is traditionalist, restrictionist; it collides with that set of cosmopolitan, urban values. One place where I think people have a lot of upset about this — there is a lot of shaming in the media. We talked about it a couple minutes ago, around racial resentment.
COWEN: Say Trump voters.
KLEIN: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of shaming in the media about what opinions you can and cannot hold about whether Muslims should be able to come to the US, or what you can and can’t say about Mexican immigrants, or African Americans, or for that matter, by the way, white people. There’s a lot of shaming in the media against anybody who is seen as looking down on the “legitimate grievances” of Trump voters.
There’s a lot of, “No, you need empathy for this set of ideas, but this other set of ideas you can confidently attack.” So I don’t think the media operates without shame, I just don’t think it shames single mothers, nor do I think it should.
COWEN: Why shouldn’t we worry more about single motherhood? It seems to be a social problem.
KLEIN: You might want to worry about single motherhood —
COWEN: Though we’re not going to penalize them financially; we don’t want to do that.
KLEIN: I don’t think that shaming them would make any sense either. There is a —
COWEN: You don’t think the shame of single motherhood in earlier eras discouraged the practice?
KLEIN: It’s funny first that we go quickly to single motherhood, because in theory you want to be talking here about shaming the father, but I think that there is a view — and I should say I’m a child of divorced parents, and I think it’s good that my parents were able to get divorced — there is a view that there are a large number of compensatory freedoms and types of happiness that have come from having more liberal views about marriage.
The flip of that is that a lot of — at least people in the media believe — that it has been more or less an unalloyed good that is has been harder to express antigay sentiments in public.
That’s the kind of calculation people are making. Broadly people like a lot of the trends and a lot of the policy decisions that have led to the possibility of more single motherhood, and they are very, very, very uncomfortable with the kinds of things that you would have to do and say to try to turn that back. Whereas a lot of the other kinds of shame, people are just making a different calculation.
On the biggest moral blight of today
COWEN: Which of our current practices or views will in the more distant future seem crazy, or just outright wrong? To ask the Chuck Klosterman question.
KLEIN: Sure. How we treat animals. I think that how we treat animals, particularly around factory farming, and factory dairy production, etc., will be a genuine moral blight on this era. And particularly on this era, because we’re at this point now where we’re beginning to get very, very good at creating plant-based meats, and increasingly we’re moving towards lab-grown meats. We’re about to have a bunch of technological changes that will make eating very little meat or no meat, at least no factory-farmed meat, pretty easy and pretty affordable.
That tends to be something that comes along with big changes in morality. One of the ways I think about this is that I remember reading Ron Chernow’s Washington, the biography of Washington which is great. I remember being surprised by the way the Founding Fathers talked about slavery in their letters to each other. It was very much the in-vogue thing to be against slavery.
They all in their letters talked about it as a moral blight, and may it be gone from the Earth in 50 years, and the stain on this great nation, but they all just also had slaves, with the exception obviously of Hamilton. There was something in that, in that they knew it was wrong, they knew they wanted it to stop, but it was just really hard to stop it at the time. It’s how the economy worked: they already had them, and they not just kept them but added more.
Looking back, it’s unconscionable, but when I talk to virtually anyone I know, I don’t know anybody that defends factory farming as a moral part of our society. I don’t know anybody. You might hear it in reference to much poorer countries, but not to this one. So we are running around knowing that we’re causing immense, tremendous suffering to sentient beings, and I don’t know, it’s a pain in the ass to eat less meat. I think it’s going to look really bad.
COWEN: You’re a pessimist about politics in some ways, or American politics. Why not then be a pessimist about food politics? Say you’re a Darwinian. Human beings clearly evolved to eat animal meat, right?
KLEIN: Sure. People argue, but yeah.
COWEN: But that’s not really up for grabs — and to enjoy it and to kill animals. And we’ve evolved so our intuitions don’t make us so squeamish about doing that. Now that may, in some very long timeframe, change.
Given that that’s one of the core things that we are, much as we’re evolved to, say, enjoy sex or have friends, why think that’s the one thing that’s going to change? It seems to me that’s one of the least likely to change.
KLEIN: I don’t see it that way. I’m not sure it’s the only thing that will change, but I’m using it as the thing here. Because I’m a technological optimist, in a lot of ways. I’m not a political optimist, I don’t think we’re going to pass a bunch of laws that are going to change this, but I think that we will see technologies change it.
There are things like this before. Child labor, I would actually put a little bit in this category, where, for a very long time, you would say, “Well, we’ve always put kids to work.”
In fact, that’s why you have kids, so you have all this extra labor laying around when you need it. Then we got better at automating things, and workers became much, much, much more productive.
COWEN: And families want to educate their kids.
KLEIN: And families want to educate their kids.
COWEN: But there’s no selfish sacrifice, then.
KLEIN: Exactly. That’s why I’m saying that a crucial part of this story, a crucial part of my optimism on this, is that we are very much on the cusp of lab-grown meat.
COWEN: So artificial meat will become so good, it will be better?
KLEIN: Artificial meat is becoming so good that it will make it much, much easier to hold these opinions.
COWEN: On that, I’m a pessimist. Maybe not forever, but for at least for a few hundred years, any time horizon we can foresee.
KLEIN: You should try the Impossible Foods burger.
COWEN: I’ve talked to some of these people. I’m like, “What does your hamburger cost?” “$400,” they say.
KLEIN: No, it doesn’t cost $400.
COWEN: To actually do it?
KLEIN: Not the lab-grown; the plant-based stuff is the stuff that is moving more towards affordable. The lab-grown, we’re still quite far from.
COWEN: But people don’t enjoy it as much.
KLEIN: There are the two new ones. The Beyond Meat and the Impossible Foods burgers are both pretty good. I agree with you, they’re not there, as somebody who, when I eat meat, a burger is literally one of my couple favorite foods.
So I am not somebody who doubts the incredible deliciousness. Now we’re getting pretty close. Again, I don’t want to say we’re there. It’s not as good as the best burger. Is it as good as a McDonald’s burger? Definitely, it is.
COWEN: Well that I think will disappear.
KLEIN: If that kind of stuff began to disappear, that’s a big amount of meat.
COWEN: Well people will eat better burgers. McDonald’s will disappear. Not the burger.
Let’s say I were to defend the eating of meat, and I would say something like this. If you eat vegetables, you still need to plow the proverbial field. You kill mice. It may be a larger number, smaller number. Let’s say it’s even a smaller number, but you’re always doing something morally unconscionable with respect to animals. Therefore, trying to apply human-to-human morality to relations with animals can’t work. We’re not sure what the right morality is. We can perform some acts of mercy and grace, but the very existence of a planet with so many billions of humans means there’s some ongoing, just massively cruel slaughter of animals.
Yes or no?
COWEN: Say more.
KLEIN: I don’t buy that the morality here is so complex. I am not saying that there aren’t better and worse things that we do, and I’m not saying that there’s any world in which we’re not going to be running over field mice as we plow fields.
But we are torturing animals right now. I don’t mean to get too much on the horse here, but what we do to egg-laying chickens, it’s just fucking crazy. Not only is it fucking crazy, but we know it is because it is illegal now to tape it. [laughs] And it is so grotesque to watch it.
I think that we can do better than that. There are a lot of places in life, and in living a moral life — environmentalism is a big one of these — where, given how complex human actions are, it is very hard to know with certainty that you’re making the right decisions.
That’s true constantly in politics. That’s true constantly in everything we do. Nevertheless, we somehow stumble forward and try to do the best we can. Eating more plants and keeping fewer animals in conditions so terrible that we can’t actually bear to watch them and have had to pass laws so people stop trying to make us see them, I think that lends a fair bet.
COWEN: Last question, cheerier. You’ve traveled to a bunch of different countries, a lot of different parts of the United States. What’s the one thing you know about travel that you feel other people underrate as a way to do it?
KLEIN: I do not think I’m actually particularly good at travel. I envy your facility here very much. The one thing I really love about it, that maybe is a little bit weird, is I think that a lot of what is great about travel is focusing your attention on a place in a way that is not necessarily related, actually all the time, to being there.
Often times, when I’m traveling somewhere, part of why I learn so much about the place I’m going is that I’m thinking about it, I’m reading about it as I’m there watching it. A lot of it is the mustering of other kinds of attentional resources, watching movies, or documentaries, or consuming other kinds of culture from it before.
There is more than just the seeing. Sometimes people feel like the learning about a place is just going and seeing it. For me, I find that a lot of the benefits of travel are actually about things that I could have done even if I haven’t been there, but I would have never focused on in the same way, and with the same intensity, for the same period of time.
COWEN: Ezra, thank you very much, and thank you for taking the other side of the mic.
KLEIN: Thank you.