Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - April 7, 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.

Segment 1: (11 min)

BUT FIRST: The opening essay

Is China just playing us? Their very clever use of politically-targeted tariffs (like the one on soybeans...which puts the pinch directly on Iowa) raises an old question: Are they better at long-run planning because of their single-party state? After all, China has 100-year plans while we Americans have notoriously short attention spans.

While we are certainly too short-term-focused for our own good, don't mistake shortcuts to consensus (which a single-party state will get you) for good planning and good rationale.

But let's not sacrifice this opportunity -- an opportunity elevated to the forefront because of tariffs -- to lay some appropriate groundwork just because we're busy doing the my-team-beats-your-team stuff of petty politics. Dwight Eisenhower wrote that "The doctrine of opportunism, so often applicable in tactics, is a dangerous one to pursue in strategy". So the tactical opportunity of the moment opens the door for us to think more strategically for the future.

If I had to pick four or five epochal issues ahead of us, I'd look at:

None of those issues are for government alone. But every one of those issues will require rulemaking and sound public policy.

Who's making the rules? Who's making the technology? Does everyone involved have both an appreciation for the technical aspects as well as the humane ones? Each of these issues (and many others) depends a great deal upon technology, both in the broad sense as well as in the particular.

Specific types of technology -- like social media -- are getting extra attention right now. They deserve the scrutiny -- but we shouldn't stop with some Congressional hearings about Facebook. I will continue to criticize Facebook leadership until they "get it" that technology doesn't by itself result in a utopia. Connections are pretty value-neutral; what matters is why people are connecting, and what they do as a result of those connections. If I could ship every hardened neo-Nazi bigot, every violent anarchist, and every remorseless child abuser off to a deserted island somewhere with no contact with the outside world, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Nobody really gains from connecting with them.

Better technology isn't a good thing without better people, too. But even with better people, we're going to need better rules.

The people who put their anti-government sentiment above all other things need to be reminded that government is a tool, and like any tool it can be used either skillfully or not. But the "burn it all down" approach to things is no way to ensure that the tool gets used well. If we can't orient ourselves towards some of those long-run goals in addition to the shorter-run stuff that's inevitably going to divide us (but hopefully not deeply), then we're looking at learning some tough and painful lessons ahead.

Segment 2: (8 min)

Submitted for your consideration:
Only about 10% of the people in any advanced democracy actually believe in limited government -- all of the time.
Not *just* when it comes to social issues.
Not *just* when it comes to fiscal issues.
Not *just* in the market.

That 10% is a smart crowd. But they can't win elections on their own. They have to win by leveraging coalition power, and then get what they want by setting long-standing rules.

The only hope of the true believers in limited-government-all-the-time lies in convincing *everyone else* that whatever particular limits they happen to want are only safe if they agree to protect the limits on government regarding *everything*.

Madison understood that the only way to truly limit government was to set interests in opposition to one another to keep them in check. Modern Madisonians have to find every means possible of reviving that same strategy. We're just 10%. We *have* to be strategic.

Segment 3: (14 min)

Make money: The real estate market is bonkers

A reporter at the Chicago Tribune tweeted a link to a story in their paper saying, "Landlord booting Chicago Tribune out of Tribune Tower to make way for condos now suing the paper to stop it from removing 'Chicago Tribune' sign on the building when we leave this spring. Sign is 'special' and they want to use it for marketing. Amazing." The Tribune's lease on the building expires at the end of June. Per the Tribune story, "CIM and Golub plan to redevelop the tower, which was completed in 1925, and build a skyscraper on a parking lot just east of it. The joint venture bought the property from broadcast company Tribune Media for $240 million in September 2016. The developers have not publicly disclosed their plans, which are expected to include a mix of residential, hotel and retail space just north of the Chicago River."

Mutual of Omaha has a hotel next to its headquarters in, well, Omaha. And the Omaha World-Herald reports that the insurance company put the hotel on the market a month ago, and "more than 100 potential buyers have signed agreements allowing them to look at the hotel's finances and consider bids".

When the new Hilton attached to the Iowa Events Center opened a couple of weeks ago, the Des Moines Register did a story about a building boom in hotel rooms downtown -- noting that in addition to the new Hilton and other recent projects, another four big hotel projects are underway.

I hope for the best when it comes to real estate. I really do.

But I have my concerns. Borrowing has been super-cheap for a decade. The stock market is short on attractive opportunities. There's epic uncertainty about the short-term economic future, with tariffs and trade wars and a President who likes to pick fights with individual companies like Amazon.

Real estate might have been benefitting from environmental factors that aren't guaranteed to last forever.

But consider this: It's really easy to spend $100 or $150 on a night in a hotel, even if it's not the fanciest luxury suite or the busiest travel time of year.

The regular rate for a room at the new Hilton with two queen beds for the first weekend of the Iowa State Fair is almost $250 a night before taxes.

What else can you buy with $150 to $250? A laptop computer.

When the same amount of money buys either a place to put your head for one night -- or a powerful device that could be all you need to start a business -- something seems instinctively out of whack.

When a single property in a town a lot like ours attracts more than 100 interested buyers in a month? That seems artificially hot.

When a newspaper's name is valuable enough as a marketing tool for a developer to start a court fight to keep the sign even after it boots out the newspaper itself, something's not fully rational.

This isn't investment advice, and it's not a recommendation that you do anything...other than take a step back and look at the big picture, and ask whether what's going on really makes sense.

Things could be just fine for years to come. I'm not saying there's a definitive bubble out there, nor that it's about to pop if there is one. And I know that the one thing real estate always has going for it is that they aren't making any more of it. But something seems out of balance about this bonanza, and I wouldn't feel right if I didn't make public note of it.

Segment 4: (5 min)

Have a little empathy

The New York Times has a story about a judge who sentenced some juvenile offenders to read specific books as part of their sentence in a case of vandalism that included painting swastikas on a historic black schoolhouse.

An interesting part to this is that at least one of the authors of one of the assigned books was unhappy that her book was being used as punishment. But I would take a different tack: It seems like the judge was trying to *correct* the teens rather than simply to *punish* them. And that seems laudable.

Tin Foil Hat Award

This isn't just creepy (though it is super-creepy), it's daffy in its own right: Do they really think that ideology and values are heritable traits?


The BBC reports that an everything-must-go sale is happening to dispose of every last item that used to be in Terminal 1 at Heathrow Airport. Along with artwork and signs, they're also selling "Fifteen escalators, 110 check-in desks and 2,000 security cameras".

Art? Signs? Yeah, I totally get it. Chairs? Maybe. But who on Earth buys a used escalator?

Segment 5: (11 min)

21st Century conservatism

As so many of us do, I was catching up on my friends with the help of social media yesterday. Scrolling through Instagram, two entries appeared in succession with one another and they told a story.

The first was from a high school classmate who posted from the 9/11 Museum in New York. 9/11 was the first dramatic event of my true, post-college adulthood. It was the one truly landmark event of the last 20 years -- if you don't remember where you were when you first heard about the attacks that day, you simply weren't old enough to know what was happening.

I haven't been to the 9/11 Museum, but I've seen the memorial. It's a solemn, sober marker of a dreadful day. From that visit, I specifically remember just how wide the scope of experiences was: Some people were stunned into silence. Others didn't appreciate the gravity or the solemnity of the place and were taking selfies.

The difference reveals a lot about who remembers that event as an adult, probably feeling truly threatened at an existential level for the first time in decades, and who was too young to grasp what was happening.

* * *

The second social-media post was from a friend named Nikki, who shared some photos from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis -- at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered 50 years ago this past week.

That 50th anniversary brought out a flood of reflections this week. Quite naturally, anyone who thinks they have anything to say tried to say it. The amount of time that has passed and the broad consensus about the need for the Dr. King's movement together make for a recipe that stir a lot of people to try to amplify their reflections.

But I think I like Nikki's words best:

"Shout out to my grandparents, my friends' grandparents, aunties and uncles who were brave enough to risk life and limb to call a spade a spade, march, Freedom ride, boycott, protest, sit-in, and register themselves and other people of color to vote so I don't ever have to worry about using the Green Book or eating a shoe box lunch when I travel"

See, Nikki is black, and she's from the Deep South. When she talks about family risking life and limb, she means it literally. She's thanking people whose hands she can actually shake.

Nikki and I were both born about a decade after Dr. King was assassinated. That seemed infinitely long ago when I read about it in history textbooks, but 9/11 was more than 16 years ago -- so that event, which I remember so vividly, is already even farther in the rear-view mirror for my own young kids than 1968 ever was for me.

Part of me is shocked by just how bad things were just that close to my own arrival on this planet. How could people have been so cruel so shortly before the world I entered?

Part of me is proud of just how far we can go in a generation or two to make our world a better place to live. It's a testament to the power of justice and the moral sense of our people.

Part of me fears that we don't often appreciate just how much things can change, whether we're trying to make them change or not. The course of history isn't static; it is shaped by those who choose to direct it.

Part of me wonders what improvements we're setting into motion right now that will have a landmark effect 50 years from now.

* * *

What we marked was the anniversary of a man's death, but it's a wayfinding marker on the path from the country we were before the era of people demanding their rights be protected regardless of the color of their skin. History can be really uncomfortable sometimes, especially when we insist on honesty -- on acknowledging the good and the bad alike.

Admitting that we have been an imperfect country isn't disloyal or traitorous. Admitting that we have been an imperfect country (and that we remain imperfect) is the only thing we can do if we want to be better.

We're humans, and humans make mistakes and bad choices. (A tiny sliver of our fellow people are even psychopaths, like the kind of person who would murder a civil-rights leader.) But most people at least aspire to be good by their nature, and to do the right thing when they think they can.

But doing the right thing is a constructive process. It takes steps that build on one another. And it doesn't happen without one generation conferring all of the lessons they've learned onto the next generation. That's why we build museums and teach history. But it's a much bigger challenge than that.

Lately, some people in some prominent places have tried to make "being an American" into an issue of birth and blood. I defy anyone to show where loyalty to the Constitution, to limited government, or to individual liberty under the rule of law can be found in the human genome.

Those things aren't passed along in your genes, and anyone who says otherwise is being un-American.

Being "American" is something that only passes along when we consciously practice handing it off -- including warning the next generation where we and our predecessors went wrong, so that they don't make the same unforced errors. This isn't a perfect country, and it isn't about to become one. But it's one that can make fewer and fewer mistakes with each passing generation, as long as we don't fall for the lie that it's found in our genes, but instead face the facts (including our imperfections) and actually try to hand off something better to our kids, while teaching them how to improve on our own shortcomings.

We've come a long way as a country since Dr. King took a stand that got him killed. But that past is still within physical reach -- as real as the grandparents, aunts, and uncles whom my friend Nikki talked about. And it's just as real as the experience I had reliving 9/11 through my old classmate's photos.

What matters now is what we're doing that will make a difference 10 years from now, or even 50. Anyone who thinks a better world will be passed along just because some people are having children doesn't really appreciate what we have. Civilization takes work, and it takes humility, too.

Segment 6: (8 min)

Have fun

An organization called Orion Span says it's taking deposits now for stays in the first "luxury space hotel", which they claim will be open for guests in 2022. That seems ambitious, but so does their price tag: $9.5 million or more for a trip. Reserve your spot now if you want to, but I'll only say this: If you go, then for $800,000 a night, I think you can steal the bathrobe without guilt.

Segment 7: (14 min)

Tariffs with Clark Packard

Segment 8: (5 min)

Tariffs with Clark Packard

Unsorted and leftovers:

This week

By the numbers

Clean up after yourself

Mind your business

Quote of the Week

The week in technology

Your role in cyberwar

Iowa news

Contrary to popular opinion

Hyperbole is going to kill us all

Curiosity, competence, and humility

Inbox zero

Stop the deliberate ignorance

Yay Capitalism Prize

Capitalist solution of the week

Totally Unnecessary Debate of the Day

One year ago

Five years ago

Ten years ago

Programming notes

Live reads

iHeartRadio app

Calendar events to highlight


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