Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - January 20, 2018

Brian Gongol

Podcast: Updated weekly in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning. Subscribe on Stitcher, Spreaker, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or iHeartRadio

Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.

Segments 1 and 2:

BUT FIRST: The opening essay

Government shutdown

"My definition of 'win' is not binary. It is not a zero-sum game. Negotiation that leads to a winner and a loser rarely leads to a successful transaction, or another one down the road." - Sam Zell

Have any Federal agencies purchased permanent "government shutdown" signs yet? This is turning into a recurring event.

Two things ought to be no-brainers right now: Extending DACA protections to immigrants who didn't have any adult say in whether they came here in the first place, and getting off the treadmill of budgetary continuing resolutions instead of having a real budget.

Segment 3:

Have fun

The other day, I discovered an article from Fast Company magazine called "The Norwegian Secret to Enjoying a Long Winter". Since, like many of you, I've had it up to here with the stretches of below-zero weather we've had this winter, I thought I'd give it a look.

The article gives several lessons gleaned from a study on a far-northern town in Norway, but one in particular stood out: The village in question had "plenty of festivals and community activities creating the sense that everyone was in it together."

That got me to thinking: What Des Moines needs is a good late-January winter festival. Something big to look forward to during the coldest part of the year. Something almost exactly 6 months opposite on the calendar from the Iowa State Fair. An excuse to do something as a community that doesn't hinge on how well (or poorly) our local and college teams are doing in basketball or hockey.

Lots of Iowans (including me) have at least some Norwegian heritage -- this kind of thing should surely be in our blood. We may not be famed for having a hotdish culture like our neighbors in Minnesota, I have no doubt that the ingenuity of Iowans could be brought to bear on creating some kind of worthy culinary theme. (Don't worry; I still think the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival deserves its own weekend.) Who's with me on this?

Kickers: The Caucus Solstice

Iowa Midway between the caucuses

An event Iowans mark by lighting corn-scented candles and preparing the guest room for politicians starting their "listening tours".

Tin Foil Hat Award

Socialism Doesn't Work Toll roads in North Korea

With nothing better to offer on the world market, North Korea is turning to what is literally one of the oldest stunts in economics to raise hard currency: Toll roads.

Segment 4:

The week in technology

Computers and the Internet Does Instagram withhold "likes" to play on the insecurities of users?

Really quite sick, if true. Ordinary people are at risk of doing evil things when they only look at what technology can do, rather than pausing to reflect on what it should do.

Segment 5:

Mind your business

Amazon has released its list of the 20 semifinalist cities in the running for its new HQ2. The list is painfully predictable, when ordered by metro area size:

Five quick takeaways:

Lots of smaller communities got duped into showing their cards. In asking for cities to tell Amazon what they'd be willing to do to get "HQ2", cities were also tipping their hands as to what they would do to get lesser Amazon facilities. It's hard to walk back from promises you've already made -- that's a well-known tactic in social engineering. It's self-evident that Amazon wasn't interested in anything less than a top-50 metro, so any smaller communities that offered the sun, moon, and stars is now swimming naked when the tide rolls out.

Houston is the only top-ten metro not on the list. One wonders whether that has anything to do with Hurricane Harvey.

The odds are on something around Washington, DC. When three of the top 20 semifinalist candidates are in one area, you can bet that something about the area has what Amazon wants. In all probability, Amazon is wild about having access to a big workforce of highly-educated people -- and they probably like the idea of being so proximate to the center of government, since a lot of the company's future is going to depend on future regulations -- over everything from sales taxes to import tariffs to delivery via drones and self-driving vehicles.

Don't count out Nashville or Raleigh. If there's one lesson Amazon should have learned from being in Seattle, it's that there's nothing wrong with being a giant fish in your own pond. In Seattle, they implicitly have to compete for talent with Microsoft -- which is probably better than being in Silicon Valley and having to compete with everyone else, but it still means they're not the sole 800-lb. gorilla in town. If they're truly going to employ 50,000 people at this new facility, then Amazon would be by far the biggest employer in or around Raleigh, with access to a whole lot of talent to draw from the surrounding Research Triangle. And if one of the cities at the bottom of the list (in terms of population) thinks it's still in the running, it may be willing to sweeten the deal in ways that voluntarily turn itself into a classic "company town".

Urbanization is irreversible. Every one of the metro areas on the list has grown since 2010, except Pittsburgh. Miracle projects like this aren't going to land in smaller metros (clearly, Des Moines, Omaha/Council Bluffs, and Cedar Rapids weren't anywhere close to being in the running), and they're certainly not going to happen in places even smaller than what we have to offer here in Iowa. While we might have had a shot at the giant $1.6 billion Toyota/Mazda plant that's going to be built in Alabama, there's little reason to believe that we're going to land any giant needle-movers from outside sources -- unless and until we have much bigger cities to offer, and that's not likely to happen in this generation or even probably the next. Meanwhile, those top-50 cities that were real contenders for HQ2 are also probably going to be contenders for smaller (but still really large) projects for which we won't be in serious contention. But remember: Amazon is only a little over 20 years old. My advice to my fellow Iowans: Let's focus on laying the foundation for the next generation of startups to take root here, since it's pretty evident that we're unlikely to land the companies that are already big.

To be clear: I do think we have to put in our bids and show up to play, so to speak, when these rare projects come around. But I think we ought to be cautious about just how much we're willing to offer in order to land them. The offer really has to be measured on a cost/benefit basis -- and we have to consider whether the same incentives might do more good if channeled into homegrown projects rather than used to lure big outsiders.

Segment 6:

One year ago

"President Obama and the soggy egg roll": "The Obama administration did everything -- and I mean everything -- to make sure that everyone in America knew how to sign up for health care policies under the Affordable Care Act. The President sat through that ridiculous "Between Two Ferns" schtick with Zach Galifianakis, for crying out loud. Nothing, but nothing, stood in the way of telling everyone on Planet Earth how to type '' into a web browser. But let's ask a simple question: Suppose you, as an American, wanted to do something directly to relieve the suffering of children being attacked by terrorists and their own government in Syria, or starved by the civil war in Yemen, or on the run from the incubating genocide in South Sudan. Where is the movement for that?"

Have a little empathy

"Half of the world's refugees are children" - UNHCR

That's a fact that should appeal to our basic sense of empathy.

But if it doesn't, self-interest should tell us that helping them find peace and stability is preferable to leaving them hopeless and abandoned.

There was a lot of talk this past week over the whole "s-hole" controversy, but way too little of it acknowledged what we have a unique capacity to do as a country -- assimilate and transform. We are extraordinarily capable of drawing in new people and molding them into Americans. And we have an even more extraordinary capacity to transform low-value human capital into high-value human capital. That's a dry and aloof way of saying "We have ways of getting far more out of people than other places do", and "The American Dream really is something special".

I took some heat from Facebook commenters over my own reaction to the story of our policies aiming to kick out people from places like Haiti and El Salvador who are here because we were offering them humanitarian relief.

I think it's wrong to think that most any of us are descended from people who came from great places -- or to think that this instinct to resist newcomers is anything new. Most of my immigrant ancestors came from places that were either under some other country's control at the time (Norway was under Swedish control; Ireland was under British control) or from places experiencing trouble. Some of my ancestors came from countries that aren't even countries anymore. One was sent here as a poor girl from France on a government program specifically to help populate Quebec.

Part of this is the mistake Americans make in thinking we're all descended from long-lost aristocracy. Nonsense. Most of us are the offspring of poor exiles and outsiders.

Having a little empathy for today's poor and exiled isn't new -- it's our longstanding American way. American civilization isn't a genetic trait, and it never has been.

Segment 7:

Hyperbole is going to kill us all

It doesn't take much effort to start a political controversy anymore -- often, all that's needed is a Facebook group and just one mainstream media outlet willing to do a profile on it. This week's controversy-du-jour is "New California", a proposal to split off most of the inland part of the state from the urban coastal areas.

As with any controversy or attempt to start a "movement", it's worthwhile to apply a simple four-part test:

  1. Where is their written set of principles?
  2. Who's funding the action?
  3. Does it serve anyone's ulterior motives?
  4. Does anybody involved have a real reputation at stake?

These four tests are a fairly decent way to separate the legitimate movements from the fake ones -- and to separate the legitimate ones that have a real future from the ones that are destined to splinter and fizzle out.

Test #1: "New California" gets a grade of D-. "New California" does have a written set of principles -- their "Declaration of Independence", but it's so sloppy that it contains an "it's/its" error in the first sentence and contains a prominent reference to Breitbart in its opening section. This isn't a serious proposal built around a cogent philosophy of governing; it's just an effort to poke a hornet's nest of grievance politics.

Test #2: "New California" gets a grade of F. Though they claim on their website to be "a Registered 501c4 Corporation", no such organization is found in the IRS database. Without real transparency, there's no reason to believe that this is a legitimate project.

Test #3: "New California" gets a grade of F. It's well-established that Russians have backed previous similar efforts on behalf of a California breakup plan. Similar projects for secession elsewhere -- including Brexit -- have also been influenced by Russian operations, since the Putin government finds it advantageous to break up Western alliances wherever possible. It's a classic use of the principle of "confusion to our enemies": The more infighting and disorganization that they can spark in Western countries, the weaker our resolve to stand for the things that matter.

Test #4: "New California" gets a grade of F. Most of the links on the "county committees" page for the group identify "Paul Preston" as the vice-chair of the organization and the point of contact. Paul Preston's other presence on the Internet is as a conspiracy theorist with a podcast called "Agenda 21 Radio" (a reference to the United Nations development plan called "Agenda 21"). This isn't an organization composed of or led by credible people.

There's widespread agreement that California's state government has challenges, both fiscal and operational, and there may be an entirely credible argument for changing how the state is governed. But this one isn't it: "New California" fails three of the four tests for a legitimate movement. It does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Whether the "New California" thing is just a quixotic project by a handful of conspiracy theorists, a publicity stunt, or an attempt by (or supported by) foreign adversaries to upset the American political system, we can't assume it will be the last such project. And, regrettably, we need to assume the worst -- even if we prefer to hope for the best. We cannot permit the urgent drive for attention (in the form of website clicks and social-media buzz) to displace the need to put every movement through a filter to separate the true from the fake.

Even if this project is nothing but a misguided fever dream, it serves interests contrary to those of the people of California and the people of the United States. We shouldn't give it credence, and we should be on the alert for similar projects elsewhere.

Segment 8:

21st Century conservatism

The President was inaugurated a year ago

Positive achievements:

Falling short:

Quote of the Week 1

"[The Founders] had little fear of the courts and were inclined to regard legislative bodies as the natural champions of their liberties. They were very apprehensive that the executive might seek to exercise arbitrary powers." - Calvin Coolidge

Quote of the Week 2

"Human beings are not perfect. Their institutions are not perfect, but they have to keep trying. And America has to help people keep trying." - Condoleezza Rice

Unsorted and leftovers:

Five years ago

"A slow period for big companies could make this a really good time to buy stocks, if you're in it for the long term. Some early earnings reports make it sound like the last quarter wasn't a real boom time for business, so if you have the patience to buy and hold for the long term, this could be a good opportunity to buy into a slow market."

Ten years ago

"[J]ust enough time to talk about the incredible size of the President's proposed economic stimulus package. It's bigger than the entire gross state product of Iowa. And that's a huge amount for the Federal government to borrow at a time when we're already $9.1 trillion in the hole. There has to be a point at which we say 'No more spending.'"

Dolores O'Riordan, gone too soon

I remember the first time I heard the song "Salvation" by the Cranberries. It sticks in my mind more than 20 years later because it was a Sunday morning and, uncharacteristically, I wasn't in church (don't judge, fellow Catholics -- I was planning to attend the 4:30 Mass at St. Theresa's that afternoon). Yet on this particular Sunday morning, over the ordinary commercial radio, came an energetic song preaching about the evils of drug use with a refrain about how "Salvation is real".

I recognized the sound of The Cranberries instantly -- and of course, it was the vocal effects of Dolores O'Riordan that stood out most.

The Cranberries don't rank as one of the core acts in alternative rock, at least not like Nirvana or the Red Hot Chili Peppers or the Stone Temple Pilots. But they do qualify as a band that was essential to making the genre. A true genre, as I think of it, needs a foundational set of performers who set the definitions -- but it also needs artists who push out the boundaries, testing how far the genre can bend before it breaks.

The Cranberries might not have reached the outer envelope of "alternative", but when O'Riordan brought the power of a chant (as in "Dreams") or took it right up to the line of a screech (as when she howled "What's in your head?" in "Zombie"), you knew you weren't just dealing with the Seattle Sound. And that wasn't just rock -- it was art. And, to borrow a line from "Dreams", it was impossible to ignore.

It is untimely that Dolores O'Riordan has departed this life. Another artist gone too soon. May she rest in peace.

Make money

News While the United States dithers

The European Union is getting the signals: If the United States is going to hollow out its international presence under the Trump Administration, they're going to have to address a rearranged global power structure. French President Emmanuel Macron is in China, saying "I want us to define together the rules of a balanced relationship in which everyone will win." Europe naturally needs to maintain its own relations with China, but in the long term, we may be witnessing the slow erosion of American hegemony in the world.


Having trouble reconciling my economics-friendly model of people acting rationally in their own enlightened self-interest...with the thought of people eating laundry pods on a dare.

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