Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - June 23, 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

Contrary to popular opinion

Amid all this talk about borders, I am reminded that around 15 years ago, it was in vogue to talk about a post-national future -- where strengthening globe-spanning businesses and trans-national interest groups would affect more of our lives than our actual citizenship within weakening states. People wrote novels about it, academics published papers about it, and (tellingly) the New York Times printed "think pieces" about it.

Paradoxically, I suspect that the (many) ways in which that "post-national" vision of the future have indeed come true are stoking many of the hottest fires of the nationalist/populist movements worldwide.

Google says it won't let its AI technology be used for national defense. Facebook fights with India over providing free Internet access in a fight with parallels to the "net neutrality" debate in the US. The European Union's GDPR policy ends up choking access to American news outlets for European consumers.

In other words: The battles are on...just maybe not as expected.

I think the future is going to surprise us in some radical ways. For the last 25 years or so, it's been a non-stop barrage of changes taking the form of consumer technology. When I got an email address through Iowa State University back in 1995, I was on the cutting edge at a place that was on the cutting edge. Today, an email address is almost passe -- what people really want are your handles on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and everywhere else. (Fun fact: I just searched for the old email address, and now it belongs to a teaching program at the university.)

But while we've been bowled over by the pace of technological progress -- a new smartphone today would have been a supercomputer in the mid-1990s -- other things have been changing in tidal fashion: So slow, they're impossible to notice in real time, but so substantial they change everything.

1990 is a good marker because it was roughly the turning point for the close of the Cold War. What has changed in the (just over) 25 years since the Cold War ended? Much more than most of us probably realize.

One great example is urbanization: 43% of the world lived in urban settings in 1990. Now 54% of us do. (The US alone went from 75% to 82% in the same time frame.) Those aren't small numbers -- the world's population is 7.5 billion, so the difference between 43% and 54% is a swing of more than 820 million people.

Another great example is the dramatic shift upward in both education and material standards of living: The world's adult literacy rate jumped from 75% in 1990 to 86% today. Extreme poverty has fallen from 35.5% of the world in 1990 to 10.9% today. If you're not floored by those changes, read them again.

The question is: What's looming?

We'll never really be post-national, I'm sure, but are we close to a time when that identity is secondary to other things? Does a Google employee in Tokyo feel more in common with a Google employee at the data center in Council Bluffs than either might feel with a farmer living 50 miles away?

Without an organizing enemy like the Soviet Union, will we see more of the pond-jumping local politics that seemed novel not that long ago? Why was Nigel Farage here to campaign for Donald Trump? Are there Americans looking to copy the Emmanuel Macron playbook for politics without the regular political parties? How come money from abroad is showing up in local elections in the US? Why was a French nationalist a major speaker at CPAC?

A world with more young people, longer life expectancies, faster travel, more communication, and a great deal more urbanization is going to be a different one than what we're used to. And maybe in really big ways.

I'm still staking my bet that we will see a rebirth of the city-state in at least a few places around the world in the coming years, as urban areas detach themselves from the surrounding countryside. That will be especially likely if interests and priorities become unsustainably different from one another. Don't dismiss it -- everyone knows that even here in Iowa, there's a lot of tension just beneath the surface (and sometimes above it) between, say, Des Moines and parts of rural Iowa (it's a common phenomenon in the farm states). One can only imagine that the tensions are even greater in countries where the urban-rural gaps are even larger.

Don't forget: The United States had 3.9 million people in the first Census, in 1790. Our Founders declared independence when the population of the whole country was about the size of Iowa's today. A population center doesn't have to be huge to be big enough to be self-sustaining. Wealthy little Singapore has 5.6 million people. Hong Kong, while no longer free, could certainly survive on its own with its 7.4 million residents.

Booming cities in rapidly-growing countries (like Lagos, Nigeria) and disproportionately wealthy coastal or border cities in countries with political dysfunction may well decide to stake out on their own rather than remain tied to the lands around them. What, for example, does Milan think it gets from being part of Italy rather than cutting itself loose and standing on its own?

It may only take a few instances of success for the idea to catch on more broadly, and it just happened in Nicaragua, where a protest in one city has blown up into a declaration of independence.

We're living in strange times, and one of the key indicators is just how willing people are to abandon faith in old institutions. Some of them need to be jettisoned. Others -- like NATO -- still have a really important place, and we're going to miss them if they're gone.

I don't believe anything is predestined for us. I don't think any outcome is inevitable. I do think we make a mistake if we think things are going to continue invariably the way we're used to them going (they won't). I also think we're mistaken if we think the choices of the past won't have consequences, sooner or later (I'm looking at you, entitlement spending).

People are always going to look for identity and meaning and belonging, and that can't be changed because it's hard-wired into human nature. What interests me is the question of what will supply those things in a world of shifting allegiances and tidal-force changes that we almost never talk about. We don't talk about them because they move too slowly to make for catchy news reports -- but then again, most of us don't talk about why certain people are our best friends, either. Meaningful things don't always happen in high-impact events -- like close friendships, the really important things often evolve very slowly over a very long time.

Local bonds are going to matter more in the future, worldwide, even as communities change -- and the Constitutional federal system is uniquely robust for that, so true federalism is going to be one of America's advantages in the years ahead, as long as we're smart enough to stick with it.

Meanwhile, bonds of interest -- whether it's among global biotech researchers or insurance execs or drone enthusiasts or Catholics, really however you define yourself -- are all going to matter more in ways that could never have been expressed before our hyper-connected, globalized world came into being.

We're also going to encounter more challenges in turning away when things go wrong. Think of the videos that have emerged from Syria after poison-gas attacks. Pictures of stores being looted in Venezuela as food runs out. The global cooperative investigative effort into Russia's shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Never before has there been so little opportunity to turn away from what's happening anywhere on the planet.

This isn't to say that things are going to turn sour. Quite the opposite; opportunity has opened up like never before. And it raises a question: Did people in the Renaissance know they were living in it?

We truly are in the middle of a second renaissance, judging from the radical improvements in so many measures of human life. But if we treat this like another dark age (as some people want to do), that's our own fault, and it's to the detriment of our kids and grandkids. We can't be so blinkered, so narrow-minded, that we treat it like a dark age. We do have to grapple, though, with the radically unpredictable consequences of a renaissance. A new enlightenment age is possible -- but not guaranteed. Many material things will get better, as if on auto-pilot. But will we do our part to improve on human nature, too?

Segment 2: (8 min)

Live read: iHeartRadio app

iHeartRadio app

Tin Foil Hat Award

Threats and Hazards Who's the disingenuous party here?

China's ambassador to Australia accuses the Aussies of having a "cold war mentality". Nevermind that Australia has more than adequate reason for concern over Chinese influence campaigns (attempting to manipulate elections and even local-level governments) and abundant cause for concern over China's aggressive posture in the South China Sea. Look for this rhetorical tactic to show up again and again: A sort of geostrategic gaslighting.

Calendar events to highlight

Des Moines Arts Festival

Great Iowa Tractor Ride in the Quad Cities this Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday


Segment 3: (14 min)


Yesterday was the first day of spring!

Have fun

When it comes to political philosophy, I'm of the pretty strong belief that everybody should have one. I can't stand cults of personality (and we've now had two Presidents in a row elected almost entirely on that basis). I think political tribalism is toxic. And I think the way we live and govern our lives is too important not to put some thought into the process.

My own philosophy is shaped heavily by the writings of people like James Madison, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. In other words, I tend to have a very strong belief that people are free to do what they choose for themselves, as long as they don't hurt others -- and that the most important control relationship is not for the state to control the individual, but for individuals to limit the state.

So that should make me a pretty hard-core libertarian, right? Except that it doesn't. At least, not a capital-L Libertarian. And part of the reason is that Libertarians bug me when they take a good idea and carry it to an extreme. Gold-bug libertarians, "taxation-is-theft" anarcho-libertarians, and especially the smoke-'em-if-you-got-'em weed-lover libertarians all drive me nuts, because they tend to take one particular freedom choice and make it the end-all, be-all of their philosophy.

That doesn't even mean I disagree with them. I think a gold standard is a stupid and indefensible idea, but I do believe in a sound currency (I just agree with Milton Friedman that a gold standard is a rotten way to achieve it). I do not believe that "all taxation is theft", but I do think that it's theft for a government to tax any more than is necessary to pay for the things that it must provide and produce a balanced budget (after all, a persistent and large budget deficit is a form of inter-generational theft). So that puts me in line not with the anarcho-libertarians, but with Calvin Coolidge, who said, "The collection of any taxes which are not absolutely required, which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare, is only a species of legalized larceny."

And on the matter of marijuana legalization, you're never going to see me in a Bob Marley shirt getting baked at a Phish concert, but I've never been convinced that there's a compelling government interest in prohibiting its use among adults. Canada just legalized it, and frankly, I think it would be pretty sensible to decriminalize it on the national level. It's not that I particularly think marijuana is all that special, but rather that any harm it actually does can be limited much more effectively by subjecting it to light regulation and light taxation than by sending anyone to prison for it.

That's really my objection to its current treatment under the law: The consequences we make people pay for it. Sending someone to prison should be a very rare event, since it deprives the individual of their freedom. That's a really harsh penalty in a free society. I don't think the conditions of prisons even need to be harsh for this to be the case: You could turn a Ritz Carlton into a prison, but it should be the lack of freedom -- not the physical conditions of the experience -- that make it a deterrent. (If you truly take your Bill of Rights seriously, you should believe this, too: The Eighth Amendment says "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The amendment implies indisputably that the deprivation of liberty and freedom is meant to be the real punishment.)

Marijuana offenders are about 12% of the Federal drug-related prison population. It's not the largest group, by far, but it's still about 11,000 people. Some of them belong there -- but I suspect that most probably don't, and that it's just a deadweight on our society to have them locked up at our expense instead of living their lives on the outside.

So I'm not about to make it a litmus test for my voting in November, and I'm definitely not going to go around in a NORML t-shirt. But it's my basic indifference to its use that tells me that we ought to take a cue from our poutine-eating, Labatt's-drinking neighbors to the north and think about dropping the unnecessary charges. It's not that there's anything especially great about marijuana -- but without an overwhelming case to take it away, shouldn't our instinct be to simply leave adults to their own choices and freedoms?

Canadians are not the enemy

A French woman visiting her mother in British Columbia went jogging without an ID, crossed the US border without knowing it, and spent two weeks in jail as a result. Over-reaction, much?

Meanwhile, they're conducting checkpoint searches and demanding papers in Maine.

Live read: Smart speakers (hour 1)

Smart speakers

Segment 4: (5 min)

Clean up after yourself

Health Brett Favre wants no more youth tackle football


47 of 99 Iowa counties have naturally-declining populations. That's no small number. Many of them are also counties where wind farms have been going up. It's a great case study in correlation-vs.-causation. Wind farms don't cause population decline, they just happen to fit well in places with low population density, and urbanization trends mean there are more people...where there are already more people.

Iowa news

Iowa Train derailment in northwest Iowa spills crude oil into flooded river

Segment 5: (11 min)


The United States of America "He resumed the plough with industry"

Having won the war with violence, the newly independent Americans secured the peace with their productivity

Make money

Business and Finance Walgreen's replaces General Electric on the DJIA

Really taking the "industrial" out of the "Dow Jones Industrial Average", aren't we? Creative destruction is a cruel thing.

Business and Finance We don't have a lot of options in case the economy turns south

The demand for happy talk is endless, but economics requires grappling with cold, hard reality. We not only have a shortage of tools for stimulating an economy gone bad, we also have politicians bent on doing things that will actively make the economy worse. And with politicians engaging in a "lurch toward protectionism", the anxiety created by today's dumb behavior in a fair economy will linger even after we muster the will to turn back away from protectionism and re-embrace free trade. Much of the damage is done just by the threat. In the words of Milton and Rose Friedman, "Competition in masochism and sadism is hardly a prescription for sensible international economic policy!" Tit-for-tat tariffs are madness.

Mind your business I

Computers and the Internet SCOTUS opens door for states to collect Internet sales taxes

Hyperbole is going to kill us all

Agriculture "Two of the top three export destinations for U.S. pork have added a tariff in retaliation of United States tariffs"

Trade warring is very real

Business and Finance EU imposes counter-tariffs on American goods

Steel, clothing, makeup, bourbon, and more. What genius put it in the President's head that import taxes are a good idea at just the moment when the Baby Boomers (the largest generation) are moving en masse into their fixed-income retirement years? The President wants to slap 20% tariffs on European cars now, apparently ignorant of the fact that BMW and Mercedes build cars in the United States.

Segment 6: (8 min)

Live read: Smart speakers (hour 2)

Smart speakers

Curiosity, competence, and humility

Health Atul Gawande picked to head up Berkshire Hathaway/Amazon/JP Morgan health company

His book "The Checklist Manifesto" is one of the best books on cognition. He's tackling a giant project here, but possesses a well-qualified mindset for the job.

Segment 7: (14 min)


Humor and Good News "We're Generation X, and we've had it up to here with your attitude."

Emmanuel Macron castigates a punk kid who got a little too familiar

Life advice

The sincere answer to this question is to read. Ask everyone older than you to recommend one biography or autobiography. Read a bio on everyone you truly admire. Read all of them assuming that there's a little myth-making involved.

Or Spotify, sure.

Five books for a 22-year-old trying to figure out life:

By the numbers

Iowa Huge ranges in college attainment levels just miles apart

Iowa has some counties where about 60% of adults have at least an associate's degree. Not far away -- and sometimes immediately adjacent -- are counties where the rates are in the 20% range. The gap is most substantial for the most rural counties, and that could make it hard to hit a statewide goal of getting 70% of adults through some kind of post-secondary training or education by 2025. A four-year degree isn't for everyone, but the vast majority of people will need some kind of post-secondary education if they want a reasonable level of material economic comfort.

Mind your business II

Dream about first day of classes

Families. Students of all ages.

As a civilization, we need to step up our game on "lifelong learning" for everyone, both dramatically and rapidly. The world is too complex to take a haphazard and un-energetic approach to learning after ages 18-22.

The huge disruptions in many economic sectors, public and private alike, have me very close to advocating for compulsory adult education. The Nordic Council has already started down that road.

Segment 8: (5 min)

The week in technology

Science and Technology Brains in petri dishes

Scientists at UCSD are making Neanderthal mini-brains (organiods) out of stem cells and recovered Neanderthal DNA. The list of questions it raises is long. The research is aimed at studying the features of our brains that make us social animals, but these are proto-brains, after all. It's argued that the organoid brains can't think and have no sensory inputs, but studies (including some driven by biotechnologies like CRISPR) are pushing on the boundaries of what needs strict ethical scrutiny.

Quote of the Week

"Self-government requires decentralization and many checks and balances to safeguard liberty." - Herbert Hoover

Unsorted and leftovers:

21st Century conservatism

News Handing over the keys to the GOP

Absent a change like fusion voting or ranked-preference ballots, a two-party system is basically inevitable under America's first-past-the-post electoral system. So while it may be a respectable choice for people to resign from their parties in protest, whoever remains tends to get control of the infrastructure that's generally necessary to win elections. It's time for people who have historically been aligned with the Republican Party to think hard (and speak up) about what the party should stand for. The utter vacuity of the man in the Oval Office and the shapelessness of whatever Trumpism is conspire to make it insufficient to be just "Never Trump" or "Anti-Trump". Necessary, maybe. But insufficient. He is a void, so what follows must not also be a void.

Have a little empathy

News Colorized photo of a young Auschwitz prisoner

Stripping these photos of their colorlessness takes away the psychological distance that can allow us to let down our guard against present-day evil. Colorizing history isn't always a good idea, but sometimes it has merit.

Every child has a name, inalienable rights, and a claim to dignity. Adults have a solemn obligation to treat them that way, whoever they are and however they got here.

Dozens of separated children are in Maryland.

66 children caught up in the family-separation policy are in Chicagoland.

If the president can pardon Joe Arpaio (as he did in August 2017), he can find a way to reunite these children with their parents without delay. No excuses. Show leadership on the issue or resign and get out of the way of someone who can.

The United States of America Being serious about immigration doesn't require being cruel or indifferent

A lucid, temperate, and humane opinion on immigration from Jonah Goldberg that ought to occupy the mainstream of public opinion: "[S]o long as there are very poor countries, very poor people will understandably want to move here."

Threats and Hazards An 8-month-old baby taken from his parents

An utterly breathtaking account of what kind of stress the family-separation approach places on children. An 8-month-old infant is utterly helpless -- and anyone who would bend over backwards to defend a bad policy instead of defending the child is a scoundrel. As the Bloomberg editorial board opined, "The cause of better policy, and the reputation of the United States, aren't served by willful cruelty directed at innocent children. This deplorable strategy should end immediately. Trump started it, and Trump can stop it."

News World Refugee Day

Worthy causes on this day: Catholic Relief Services and the UN High Commission for Refugees

Threats and Hazards Separating children from their parents at the border isn't an immigration policy -- it's an act of cruelty

What is being done in our name as a country merits protests to Congress. As John Stuart Mill wrote: "A civilization that can thus succumb to its vanquished enemy [barbarism] must first have become so degenerate, that neither its appointed priests and teachers, nor anybody else, has the capacity, or will take the trouble, to stand up for it."

News The shame of a family-separation policy lingers well after its suspension

The Economist: "The history of America's moral corrections suggests that what they lack in spontaneity they make up for with momentum."

Yay Capitalism Prize

News Business can be a guardian of a free and open society

United Airlines says it won't fly separated children for the government

A matter of debate

News Charles Krauthammer passes away

He wasn't always right (who is?), but when he was right, he was quite usually spot-on.

The United States of America George Will memorializes Charles Krauthammer

Your role in cyberwar

Inbox zero

Stop the deliberate ignorance

Capitalist solution of the week

Totally Unnecessary Debate of the Day

One year ago

Five years ago

Ten years ago

Programming notes

Listen on-demand