REBECCA TRAISTER Kirsten Gillibrand has been asked, Amy Klobuchar has been asked, Gretchen Whitmer has been asked, Elizabeth Warren has been asked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Women in the Democratic Party are in a bind as new witnesses emerge in the sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. The deep pocketed groups behind those anti-lockdown protests you've been seeing on TV news aren't trying to recruit you...
EMMA GREY ELLIS Their primary power is to elect officials, which is a technique that we saw with the Tea Party in particular. They know that they're not going to sway the majority of people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, the future of the American restaurant is pizza?
DEREK THOMPSON Pizza is already 60 percent of all delivery in the U.S. So I think that you could see foods that deliver well expanding their footprint of the American restaurant business.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, the media focused for a moment on tallies that didn't signify death, but are still, it seems consequential.
NEWS REPORT I mean, we're seeing some pretty striking numbers, particularly in Florida, a couple of Florida voters 65+ has Biden 52 over, Trump 42. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And with the poll, the spotlight shifted briefly from the president to his challenger.
NEWS REPORT Joe Biden is conducting a virtual campaign from his basement course because of the Coronavirus and facing his biggest decision yet, his choice of a running mate. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But not all the attention on Biden was about his rising prospects.
DON LEMON There is a sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden. The accuser name Tara Reade tells CNN that the alleged incident happened in 1993 while she was working as an aide in Biden's Senate office. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Don Lemon asking Stacey Abrams, a potential Biden running mate, about what she thinks of the allegations.
STACEY ABRAMS I believe that women deserve to be heard, and I believe that they need to be listened to. But I also believe that those allegations have to be investigated by credible sources. The New York Times did a deep investigation and they found that the accusation was not credible. I believe Joe Biden. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE New York Magazine writer at large Rebecca Traister laid out the bind that progressive, ambitious women like Abrams are in because the Tara Reade story has been gathering steam for a while.
REBECCA TRAISTER Tara Reade was actually one of the women who last year came forward in the wake of a story by Lucy Flores, a politician who wrote about her uncomfortable experience with Joe Biden, who came to an event for her and touched her hair and kissed the top of her head. It was a kind of touching that was proprietary and objectifying, it wasn't sexually aggressive. And a number of women came forward with their own versions of having had these experiences with Joe Biden over the years, including Tara Reade, who had worked in his office in 1992 and 93. The thing that is different now is that in March, she gave an interview where the version of what she said happened was much more violent.
TARA READE It happened all at once. The gym bag. I don't know where it went I handed it, it was gone and then his hands were on me and underneath my clothes and yeah and then… [END CLIP]
REBECCA TRAISTER Joe Biden digitally penetrated her against her will.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then in the second week of April, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the AP, all published investigations collectively, they interviewed more than three dozen people associated with Biden and several with Reade, family members, friends, of course, Reade herself. The journalists investigations were inconclusive. Right?
REBECCA TRAISTER One of the hallmarks of the sort of #MeToo era was that a lot of it was rooted in investigations that unfolded over months, done by reporters who interviewed hundreds of people before publishing their stories. The claims of digital penetration first came out, not via these long term investigations. Those have come in the wake of the story, trying to confirm claims that were already made public. Nobody came up with incontrovertible yay or nay, but there were details for example, in The Times investigation, one of the things Tara Reade had claimed is that she'd complained about the harassment and the treatment to Biden's staff, something Biden's former staffers deny and that she suffered retaliation within the office. And The Times actually talked to a couple of interns. One of her jobs had been managing interns. Who said that, yes, they remember in the spring of 93 that she was suddenly no longer managing them without explanation. So there were parts of her story that were confirmed by the investigation. But of course, her claim that there was actual assault is probably the hardest thing to confirm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Last weekend, there was audio of Reade's mother when she called into the Larry King show in 1993.
NEWS REPORT My daughter has just left there after working for a prominent senator and could not get through with her problems at all. And the only thing she could have done was go to the press and she chose not to do it out of respect for him. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Monday, Reade's former neighbor, Lynda LaCasse, told Rich McHugh, Ronan Farrow’s former producer, that Reade had confided in her in detail. So you talk about the bind that it puts progressive feminists in who seek to oust the current president, a self-incriminated pussy grabber who's been accused repeatedly of sexual assault, including rape.
REBECCA TRAISTER Right, by dozens of women. In terms of the actual choice of who to vote for. There's no question you're looking at a president who is doing generations worth of damage to the court and to the economy and a Healthcare system all of which disproportionately harm women and especially women in vulnerable communities. The question I'm getting to in the piece is the degree to which those women who do wind up supporting Joe Biden and choose to do so vocally because they feel that it is the moral imperative to do so, that they themselves will then experience this thing that is very common to sexual harassment more broadly, which is getting blamed for being complicit. And that is especially fraught because Joe Biden has promised that he's going to pick a woman to be his vice president. First of all, he's only said a woman. Right. Which offers no specificity about what kind of woman she might be. But I just kept thinking, congrats, woman. You're going to have to answer for every ill deed that Joe Biden is alleged to have committed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you really have to, though?
REBECCA TRAISTER I hope not. But you can already see it in who is asked for comment. Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Gretchen Whitmer. Elizabeth Warren has been asked…. I should point out Bernie Sanders has been asked because he, too, endorsed Biden after Tara Reade’s allegations came out. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been asked. Tara Reade herself tweeted that silence is complicity with rape and specifically tagged Stacey Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren. Reporters are gonna ask the people, ironically, who've had the most robust responses to the ubiquity and impact of sexual harassment and assault. And it's also gonna be weaponized by a right wing press that's going to say, oh, you only care about sexual harassment and assault when it's a member of the opposition party. And that is exactly the dynamic that went into play around Al Franken in the fall of 2017.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. I wonder if you saw Christina Cauterucci’s article in Slate. She said that if you talk about who would you rather be opposing in the White House? Would it be someone like Trump or someone whose platform Obama has said has moved with the party and is far more progressive than Obama's was in 2008? It was only a couple of years after the Anita Hill hearings which Biden presided over and allowed her to be so abused where he actually had to fight to pass the Violence Against Women Act and obviously, at the beginning of the campaign, as you observed, he also moved away from his support of the antiabortion rights Hyde amendment.
REBECCA TRAISTER Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So can you simply say he's a better opponent?
REBECCA TRAISTER I've been a vocal critic of Biden for a long time. The best thing I can say about Biden from a progressive point of view is, as you say, he is open to change. He did change on abortion, on Hyde, on same sex marriage. The thing that I would say that he needs to get better at is talking about this very issue. This has been an issue for over a year that he's been on the campaign trail. A year ago, when Lucy Flores wrote her story and Tara Reade first told her story and five other women told their stories, there was an open conversation about the way that Biden has treated women's bodies, there are videos, there are photos of him sort of touching shoulders and leaning in too close and Biden continued to treat the subject sort of as a joke.
JOE BIDEN I want the press to know, she pulled me close. [END CLIP]
REBECCA TRAISTER In addition to the pressures that are on all of the women to figure out how to thread this needle, I would say the greater pressure should be on Joe Biden himself. He needs to think seriously about how to respond to that and the amount of freedom and authority I would like to see him give whichever woman winds up being his running mate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have observed whoever Biden selects will likely have fought for women to be heard and believed. And yet she will be used by the campaign to bolster someone who has been accused of assault and find herself constantly under the gun from the left and the right for hypocrisy.
REBECCA TRAISTER I am of the mind that it is still better to have an actual, real serious progressive. I just want to be clear that the piece that I wrote, I wrote because I think we have to grapple honestly with the complexities of what we're trying to move through to become better, right? The process I want to be engaged in is a process of getting closer to justice and equality, which feels really far off right now. I don't think we get there by turning blind eyes. I don't think we can pretend that this trap doesn't exist, but acknowledging it doesn't equate with opposition to Joe Biden. In fact, his history of what has been called evolution on some of these issues means. He might be particularly susceptible to influence from others within his administration. I would rather pack that administration with progressives than not. I don't know in my lifetime that I've watched a vice presidential pick that's likely to be more consequential than this one. When you have a 77, 78-year-old candidate. I write in the piece that I wish there were a way for those women to say what Tara Reade is alleging is horrifying and I'm really disturbed and chilled by her allegations. But I am not responsible for answering for them. My running mate is. And also one of the reasons that I want to run alongside Joe Biden is because I want to be a part of changing systems that have been broken and abusive. I wish there were room to say something that complex and nuanced.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Look, you just did it in under 30 seconds.
REBECCA TRAISTER Yeah but I'm also not vice president. I'm not a politician. My hope is that the political media can get better at reflecting complexity, talking about systemic power abuse rather than following up on something like that with, so do you think he shouldn't be president? Right? When it comes to a lot of these issues, blunt definitives aren't possible or appropriate. So I think that there's a big and hard task in front of all of us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rebecca, thank you very much.
REBECCA TRAISTER Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rebecca Traister is writer at large at New York Magazine. Her latest article is called The Biden Trap. So what are the risks here for journalists? New York Times media columnist Ben Smith reckoned on Thursday that if we fail to keep our eye on the Tara Reade story, we further risk eroding our readers, our viewers, our listeners' trust. In retrospect, the media are seen as having dropped the ball in 1999 when they dismissed Juanita Broaddrick after she went public with her allegation that Bill Clinton had raped her 21 years earlier.
JUANITA BROADDRICK It's important to me to tell what happened. I don't know how people are going to take this. I don't know what they're going to think. After all these months and years, when I come forward. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was an initial round of reporting. NBC News taped an exclusive interview with Broaddrick in January 1999 and then sat on it for a month. So she went to The Wall Street Journal's editorial page to be interviewed after that first go round of reporting. Her story faded except in certain precincts of the right, because that was before #MeToo, began to push such charges out from under countless rugs where they'd been covered up for years. Tara Reade went public a month ago with her more serious allegation. As a Friday afternoon, CNN and MSNBC hadn't put her on the air, but Fox reportedly has her slated for the weekend. Friday morning, Biden was asked for the very first time publicly about the allegations on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
JOE BIDEN No, it is not true. I'm saying unequivocally it never, never happened. It didn't never happen. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And on Wednesday this week, MSNBC host Chris Hayes outlined the reporting thus far on Reade's claims Thursday morning #FireChrisHayes had begun to trend. We are stir crazy, anxious people. We were before the pandemic. But our whole relationship, the one between newspeople and what Jay Rosen calls the people formerly known as the audience, hinges on trust. You have to trust us to be as fair as we can while conceding that we may never know what happened. And we have to trust you not to hate us for it.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, the optics of the protests calling to liberate us from the slavery of lockdown.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked hundreds of protests in the United States, some led by health care workers.
NEWS REPORT In New York City today, nurses and doctors stepped outside their workplaces to protest their shortage of personal protective equipment PPE. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Non-medical workers demanding better pay and safer conditions.
NEWS REPORT Instacart and Amazon employees are going on strike right now, saying that they're not protected by these companies that are surging. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD A labor site called PayDay Report has tracked more than 150 strikes since the beginning of March. But the media's gaze has been captured by the spectacle of placard wielding citizens risking their health and yours to demand freedom from lockdown. Maybe you've seen the photos. An angry crowd pressed up against the window of the Ohio State House. A Phoenix nurse standing arms crossed in silent protest against the protesters calling to reopen Arizona. Demonstrators who opposed the lockdown with a traffic jam in Lansing, Michigan, holding Trump banners and signs calling to make Michigan great again.
PROTESTER 1: I’m here to say that it's not as deadly as they say it is.
PROTESTER 2: Prolonged lockdown, basically is slavery.
INTERVIEWER: Do you feel enslaved?
PROTESTER 2: I do.
NEWS REPORT Protesters in several states now have a powerful advocate, President Trump, who sent a series of tweets this morning to liberate Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD An organic bottom up revolt? Not exactly. Emma Grey Ellis is a staff writer for Wired who's following these protests. Emma, welcome to On the Media.
EMMA GREY ELLIS Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD When we see a crowd at the Michigan governor's mansion or wherever protesting quarantines, how did they come to be assembled there?
EMMA GREY ELLIS We know that there is a great deal of frustration. The COVID-19 outbreak. But we also know that there is the involvement of largely conservative, largely free market leaning organizations like FreedomWorks and a few linked to members of the Trump administration that have been helping fuel these protests and provide funding for them as well.
BOB GARFIELD Polling consistently shows that by a vast margin, the American public supports social distancing and other public health measures for the pandemic. On the other hand, Facebook has coalesced 1.4 million supporters so far, and that is not a trivial number. This seems to be exactly how the Tea Party movement got started 11 years ago.
EMMA GREY ELLIS Like the Tea Party, the anti quarantine protesters are agitated in part by the feeling that the government has overstepped its bounds. It's also true that both groups have seen funding and support from certain organizations within the conservative advocacy sphere, notably FreedomWorks, which has supported both movements. Where things start to break down is while the Tea Party movement wasn't necessarily reflective of the views of mainstream America, they were certainly voicing concerns that resonated with the Republican Party. In this case, with the anti quarantine protests, we're talking about a very small minority of people protesting an issue that the vast majority of Americans actually support.
BOB GARFIELD All right. The show is called On the Media. So let's talk media. Obviously, Fox is playing this up like it was the French Revolution.
NEWS REPORT They don't get it. The American spirit is too strong and Americans are not going to take it. And what happened in Lansing today, God bless him. It's going to happen all over the country. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But are the mainstream media doing enough to contextualize what's afoot?
EMMA GREY ELLIS The Washington Post and The New York Times have both done an excellent job tracing these groups ties to organizations that are funding them and links to the Trump administration. I think that what sometimes happens, particularly on television, is that in images you run the risk of making the crowd seem far larger than it is simply because a matter of cropping.
BOB GARFIELD And then there have been cases where the media have been tricked into believing some of the images were real when they were the product of social media shenanigans.
EMMA GREY ELLIS Right. Snopes has already had to debunk a number of manipulative images, some of which have shown protesters holding signs that have been edited to say things like my virus, my choice or defund science, which in effect are just more extreme versions of these signs that they were already holding.
BOB GARFIELD The protesters all have their own individual reasons for wanting to be on the statehouse steps. But the people who are funding and organizing this stuff seem to have a very clear strategy that doesn't necessarily have to do with persuading the majority of Americans that COVID-19 is a vast conspiracy.
EMMA GREY ELLIS Yeah, you're absolutely right. Their focus is on reaching legislators, which is a technique that we saw with the Tea Party in particular and certainly that worked. Right. We have a bunch of elected officials now who are very sympathetic with Tea Party concerns.
BOB GARFIELD It's the very principle of minority rule that has brought, for example, the Republicans to control the Senate.
EMMA GREY ELLIS Absolutely. It's true of the sort of white resentment ethos that a lot of these people are coming from. Their primary power is to elect officials. They know that they're not going to sway the majority of people.
BOB GARFIELD On Friday, May 1st, the day this interview will be released, two very likely historic protests are planned. First there are the rent strikes. It's expected to be the largest rent protest in a century. And then there's a second protest of workers from Amazon and Instacart and Whole Foods and Target who are planning to walk out and ask customers of those companies to boycott the brands because they are putting frontline workers at such risk and financially exploiting them along the way. If you were a betting woman, would you wager that these massive demonstrations, because they are not also particularly photogenic, will get attention anywhere near what the anti quarantine activists have drawn?
EMMA GREY ELLIS I think if I know what you're getting at, I think you're right. There is something about a protest that strikes many people as slightly otra or crazy or kooky that is simply going to garner more media attention. Labor rights and rent policy are truly important, but they're also truly complicated. And I think that that makes them less appealing to people who are looking for a quick hit of interesting news. And I sincerely doubt that the same outlets that are pushing the anti quarantine protests as a sort of great American revolution will be giving the same attention to workers at Amazon who are trying to keep themselves safe.
BOB GARFIELD And to be clear, these protests are bona fide grassroots efforts.
EMMA GREY ELLIS Obviously, they have gotten support from high places and that matters. But I don't think that they have nearly the kind of push from advocacy organizations to target legislators in particular, that the anti quarantine protesters seem to be demonstrating. Their aims are mostly to sway the public, to boycott Amazon until they improve the working conditions for these people.
BOB GARFIELD So let's you and me just look inward for a moment. In you doing your piece and us doing this segment, are we ourselves giving oxygen to not just the bizarre but ultimately the trivial at the cost of coverage as something that probably matters more?
EMMA GREY ELLIS It's a question that I ask myself every day, including this one. I think that it's important to talk about these issues because ultimately this is a matter of public health. If we have hundreds of people going out into major streets every weekend and they're going to have to be people who are there to keep them safe, the police officers and other staff that may have to be around whoever is cleaning up, that puts those people and their families at risk. And I think that that shouldn't be taken lightly. There really are white nationalists at these protests and there really are people who think that coronavirus isn't real and isn't a threat to be taken seriously. It's important not to sweep them under the rug. But what I hope that we've done here is put that into the context of what a small group of people this ultimately is.
BOB GARFIELD Emma, thank you.
EMMA GREY ELLIS Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Emma Grey Ellis is a staff writer at Wired. You can read her story, The Anti Quarantine Protests Aren't About COVID-19 at Wired.com.
When Trump and some governors speak of opening up the economy, their meaning seems relatively narrow. They want to, quote, liberate the people so they can crank up commerce, reverse unemployment, bolster the stock market and save the government from the biggest relief and stimulus burden since the New Deal.
TIMOTHY MITCHELL Everybody heard the story about how Jeff Bezos has made $24 billion while apparently the economy has been closed. So reopen the economy for whom would be the first question I'd want to know.
BOB GARFIELD Timothy Mitchell is a historian and political economist at Columbia University.
TIMOTHY MITCHELL The second question I'd ask is, wait a minute. What do we mean by the economy? We invented that term after the last crisis on this scale, the Great Depression, because we needed a new way to think about the world and the way its parts are connected.
BOB GARFIELD Mitchell says that before the economy was an object, it was more like a process to economize, to manage available resources, to be frugal. But from the depression onwards, the government became more concerned with how to quantify the country's financial health.
And the assembly lines of the automobile industry now become assembly lines of defense. [END CLIP]
TIMOTHY MITCHELL Those numbers could now be assembled together to try and make critical decisions, particularly during the war, about the resources the country had and how they could be allocated or reallocated without creating damage elsewhere.
BOB GARFIELD Those statistics were supposed to be closely held, but FDR just could not resist using the stats for documenting his New Deal successes.
PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT We hope that the national income will not be below 60 billion dollars, and that's a lot better than 38 billion dollar. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD So politicized nearly at creation.
TIMOTHY MITCHELL Yes, and there were many who opposed that within the economics profession and also the statisticians assembling these numbers. They felt that publishing these numbers gave a false sense of certainty, of no ability. There were also political objections in Congress and elsewhere, because as the government developed this ability to measure and think about the relationship between different sectors of economic life, it could develop something that would look like economic planning, like the kinds of things the Soviet Union had been demonstrating the use of.
BOB GARFIELD But the apparently positive metrics came to become an end in themselves, and so did the growth that they purported to document. You call that economentality?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL I use the word to draw attention to the way in which this idea of the economy has acquired a central place in our way of thinking about the question of government, how we should try to govern ourselves. The most important aspect of this new totality, the economy was it grew.
Now, I believe that this expansion we're having is largely due to the tax cuts that we implemented early in our administration. [END CLIP]
TIMOTHY MITCHELL Partly because of the very way it was measured and what was included and what was not included.
Next month, America will achieve the longest period of economic growth in our entire history. [END CLIP]
TIMOTHY MITCHELL Not only did it grow from year to year. That seemed to be a process that would go on forever.
We have built a new economy. [END CLIP]
TIMOTHY MITCHELL There were ways of thinking about increases and forms of growth before populations might grow. They might also decrease. Trade could expand, but it could also contract, as those were all separate measures of different kinds of activity that may or may not be related to each other. But now there was this single object in the economy that by definition, by the very way it's organized, appears to have this capacity of growth and that our life collectively has to be understood about nurturing and ensuring that growth and not doing anything, for example, workers demanding increased wages, a bigger share of the pie that might actually upset or make this goal of growth more difficult. But one of the things one has to think about is to what extent the very way we came to conceive of growth was the artifact of a certain way of including some things and leaving other things out.
BOB GARFIELD Blindspots. Then and now, for example, gross employment numbers are deemed the Godhead, but they are completely agnostic to things like labor conditions and wage equity and occupational safety and so on.
TIMOTHY MITCHELL The economy is not a measure of inequality. It actually makes the causes of inequality invisible, partly because it's a very simple picture of how things work. Businesses make things, individuals buy them. The value of everything produced by business equals the income that people have earned for producing it, with which they then buy those things. The consequence of that is that the amount people are paid by those businesses has to, by definition, correspond to the value of what they produce because otherwise things wouldn't add up. And you wouldn't have this calculation of the economy if you're not paid very well, it's because you're not contributing enough to the total production of the economy. If, on the other hand, you're earning millions, it's because somehow what you do creates wealth on that level. But the economy as an object is not just a simplification, it's a particular device for removing from view the causes of inequality.
BOB GARFIELD Sometimes we think of the economy as an intricate machine.
Fix the economy. If you fix the economy with the tax and reform. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Other times it's discussed as an organism.
Economy is sick and the natural question is what economic medicine will help. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And it's nomenclature--equilibrium, elasticity, inflation, expansion, contraction, friction-- that borrows heavily from Newtonian physics as if it were governed by natural law.
TIMOTHY MITCHELL The language of physics was suddenly the most important vocabulary on which economics drew in the late 19th and through the first half of the 20th century to establish its scientific credentials. In fact, in the 1950s, economists start teaching this new field of what came to be called macro economics. Some of the leading proponents would actually build hydraulic models which they'd use in the classroom, sort of large tanks with pumps and reservoirs and tubes through which water would flow and they would use those physical models to demonstrate an ability to control the way everything fit together in a very mechanical sense.
BOB GARFIELD As early as 1995, you wrote a monograph saying that the metrics are just plain wrong, that the accuracy rate was only 30 percent. I'm going to take a wild guess that that hasn't improved.
TIMOTHY MITCHELL I was actually quoting the president of the American Economic Association, echoing concerns about the way numbers were used by economists when the economy was first conceived and measured. It was about manufacturing or agriculture or commerce, things like automobiles or refrigerators or tanks, airplanes and so on. But today, manufacturing industry is a tiny part of this totality that we call the economy. It's probably barely 10, 12 percent. About 80 percent of what we measure and call the economy is something that back in that earlier period was just a residual category called services: finance, entertainment, recreation. Possibly the biggest single category today is healthcare, but also legal services, because all those things are now 80 percent. It's much harder to count things that are not physical objects, and particularly when you need to measure differences from one year to the next. So you're trying to compare, for example, the value of this year's software to the value of the same software next year when it's been tweaked. And that becomes even more a process of guesswork.
BOB GARFIELD Let's talk about Trump's Godheads.
PRESIDENT TRUMP Today, the stock market hit a new all time high.
Well, I think the stock market is gonna be great. The stock market's way up.
We had NASDAQ, we had S&P, we had Dow. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD How do they further distort the picture?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL That's very interesting because the economy, for all the faults, it at least tried to include everyone. The stock market is something very different. I think it's about half the population owns no shares in the stock market. The other half also do, but mostly relatively small holdings. A very large proportion of the stock market is owned by the 1 percent. So the Trump administration shift in the sort of defining economic metric from the economy and its growth to the stock market and its growth is shifting our attention to how the 1 percent is doing. And of course, we've just seen and read and know how the economy is tanking. GDP is collapsing, but the stock market is growing. And that's because they're measuring very different things.
BOB GARFIELD Tim we started this conversation with the Great Depression that created the object of the economy in the first place. Do you think that the pandemic will trigger any broad reevaluation of what an economy really is?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL I think we're going to have to not only because people are going to want a fairer life as they cope with the enormous increase in inequality and poverty going forward. But because the way we've been hoping to get out of this crisis made no sense. Here's the Fed creating money on the scale of trillions in order to get us through it. Now, it's an extremely good thing it's happened, but it's happening in context where for the last generation we've been told, oh, the government can't do that. That would be living beyond our means. So even if people wanted just to carry on as normal, they wouldn't be able to because things are already being done to get us out of this crisis. That can't be understood in terms of conventional conceptions of the economy. There's this closed circular flow of funds between individuals and businesses. We need a kind of work of imagination now and rethinking the way the different parts of our collective world are assembled and related to each other and recompensed or not for what they do and the costs associated with the way we do things and which of those are counted and which are not.
BOB GARFIELD Tim, thank you so much.
TIMOTHY MITCHELL It's been great talking with you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Timothy Mitchell is a professor at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently of Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, the city of the future. That is to say, in the time after.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Timothy Mitchell says that calls to reopen the economy obscure the reality that we don't all live in the same one. But there's another problem with expecting the government to flip a switch. As Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic this week, what economy will we see when the lights come back on? And wait, can the government even do that?
DEREK THOMPSON Sometimes we get the framing wrong because we assume that it's the government alone that can open and close an economy. Economies are co opened and co closed by both the government and the public. So look, for example, at restaurants. OpenTable has some really good data about the number of people who are making bookings on their restaurants. Right now, it's exactly zero across most of the United States. But what's really interesting is if you look at March, you'll see that before a lot of cities shut down their restaurants, restaurant bookings on OpenTable already declined by 70 percent. So that door had been closed by the public before the government came in and said, OK, everything is closed officially.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A lot of the debate about restarting the economy suggests that there's a choice between saving the economy and saving lives. But that isn't what economists have told you, right?
DEREK THOMPSON Every economist I spoke to has said the exact same thing. Listen to the public health experts. There is near absolute unity among an enormous swath of the economic community and the epidemiology community, which is saying we need to do better, to test, to trace, to isolate, to treat before we “open up this economy full-bore.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote that Denmark has frozen their economy in place, kind of like a patient who's struggling for life, being put into a temporary medically induced coma.
DEREK THOMPSON They essentially said, well, we need to do is freeze the economy. We need workers to stop working. We need companies to stop buying companies. And it is a bit like, as you said, putting a patient under a medically induced coma. The patient is still getting necessary life support. So what they would do is pay every company's payroll and utility for essentially two and a half to three months and open things up a little bit more slowly. The U.S. has taken a bit more of a patchwork approach. We've said, all right, people can be laid off and we'll have unemployment insurance waiting for them. We'll also have these checks that will mail out for twelve hundred dollars to adults and an extra $500 to some kids. And then what will also do is roll out this small business loan package, PPP, the payroll protection plan, which is paying companies to not fire their workers per saying if you fire your workers, they'll get money, but also don't fire your workers will give you money to not do that. I think it's clearer to do what Denmark has done to make a very clear announcement to the entire economy that says we don't want people to be fired. We want to freeze them where they are right now in their jobs so that they aren't going on unemployment, that they aren't being sort of dislodged from employers who then have to hire them back in the summer. I do think that the Danish plan was a little bit more sensible in that regard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When the people and the government reopened the economy. It'll be a very different one from what we had in February. And I really want you to take us through the steps that you think will land us at your vision of what the future holds. But first, walk with us down a typical retail street that you're reporting suggests will exist in the after time.
DEREK THOMPSON When you walk in the streets right now, what you tend to see is a long line of dark windows. And I'll give you sort of three quick predictions that I made after talking to a number of experts, academics and business owners. The first prediction is that the big are going to get bigger. You're going to see a lot of mom and pops that just can't hold their breath through the next few months. They're going to go out of business and a lot of that business is going to flow to chains. That's prediction number one. Prediction number two is in the restaurant business. This year will be the first year on record where so-called off premise spending in restaurants will exceed the dine in business. And that's going to last. Food that can be delivered is essentially the future of the business. And there's a handful of really interesting and sometimes dark implications of that. Like, for example, really complex haute cuisine might not do very well if it sits in the back of a car for 35 minutes. But what we already know does very well in the back of the car for 35 minutes is pizza. Pizza is already 60 percent of all delivery in the U.S. So I think that you could see foods that deliver well, expanding their footprint of the American restaurant business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And from the unintended consequences file, you made a fascinating point in that piece about what happened to America's diet as a consequence of prohibition.
DEREK THOMPSON Right. So it was exactly 100 years ago that the 18th Amendment was passed, which banned the production and sale of alcohol. And prohibition only lasted about a decade, but it casts a really long shadow over the restaurant landscape and it changed the taste of American food. The literal taste. A lot of fine dining restaurants closed because their profit was dependent upon their ability to sell alcohol. As a result, a lot of restaurants shifted from the fine dining world that had taken off in the early 20th century to the rise of lunch cart diners and lunch cart diners specialized in what diners specialize in now. It was food that kids could enjoy with sober parents. You know, hotdogs and hamburgers and milkshakes. That kind of American menu took over the U.S. restaurant industry in the middle of the 20th century, such that by the time you had a bunch of fast food companies getting started like McDonald's, it was the same palate. Every meal was fit for a kid. You could argue that this period sort of infantilized the American palate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But if you liked a certain kind of food--food that was hot, unexpected, combined different ingredients, vinegary, whatever it is kids don't like that--that desire, does it just go away?
DEREK THOMPSON More likely, cooking at home becomes more interesting and dining out becomes less interesting. We have the ability to make all sorts of fascinating foods in our own kitchens. The size American kitchens has increased, the number of cookbooks have increased. But that same kind of sophisticated food that people might be experimenting with at home doesn't hold up in the back of a car for 45 minutes coming from that great restaurant we used to love.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the sterile fast food places that some of us love to hate wouldn't succeed if the public didn't think they were safer. And so businesses who are most sensitive and adaptable to keeping people healthy will do the best.
DEREK THOMPSON I do think that you're going to see a lot of consumers make decisions about which restaurants seem to give the most attention to public health. I think you could see more temperature checks at doors, more hand sanitizer within the restaurant, much more space between the tables, maybe even separators between tables. Menus are less likely to be fine paper and more likely to be laminated so they can be wiped down. You're going to see a lot of elements of the restaurant experience and really just the public retail experience tinged with it, with this sense of hygiene to make people trust that they can be out in public again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE JetBlue just announced that it will require masks on their flights. That's another illustration of what you're talking about. But I know you focused on restaurants because they are in the front line for expressing the character of a city.
And cities in general, you suggest, will become far less appealing. Right? If they're no longer vital or varied or interesting, if they're not those things, then why not move to the cheaper suburbs or exurbs?
DEREK THOMPSON Yeah, I have a short term and long term prediction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well start with the short term. What happens to cities overall after the pandemic?
DEREK THOMPSON This plague is a perfect storm for destroying what many people love most about cities. People move to cities because of their crowds, because of their variety and their capacity to surprise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what gives them that?
DEREK THOMPSON Well, immigrants give them that density of people, the sense of public safety. You know, New York in 2019 was safer than almost any city in American history on a per person basis. And so I do think that cities will change. They will feel more desolate. They'll feel more empty. They'll feel less alive and less exciting. And a lot of people will leave and a lot of people who might have come to cities will choose not to go there. But I also think that ecosystems change in response to change. If New York becomes a little bit quieter and a little more desolate and a little bit less desirable and not just New York, but a lot of other cities around the country, rents will come down, which means that the middle class will be able to move back into cities. And that could potentially make cities even more interesting than they were in 2019.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Not just the middle class, the marginalized people, the artists, the quirky people that give the city its richness.
DEREK THOMPSON Yes, they might have this window to move back into cities and they could make them interesting and exciting again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When do you see that happening?
DEREK THOMPSON I think of it happening in the next few years. I think that the next year, say the next 12 to 18 months are going to be really tough for the character of American cities. And that after that, we might see a bit of a rebirth or regrowth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This pandemic has exposed so many of our society's fault lines. And it's also given new life to some long debated potential solutions like universal basic income or banning evictions. Perspectives, you can read them, they range from the apocalyptic. We're doomed to the upbeat. We can rise from these ashes as a better, wiser people. Your piece paints a picture where, at least initially, only the strong survive, the biggest businesses swallowing up the small. It's pretty grim because it, the pandemic seems to be metastasizing this American disease of inequality that's eating away at us.
DEREK THOMPSON To employ a metaphor, this will be a bit like a forest fire. It leaves ruin. It leaves devastation. But then after a forest fire, sunlight reaches the floor of the forest and new species grow, sometimes more diverse and more resilient and the forest fills out again. And I think that the same could happen to a lot of American cities that after the fire of the pandemic burns through them and they lose a lot of their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities in their character and some people move out and a lot of people feel like a lot of American cities have been ruined, there will be an opportunity for new people to move into them. For the artists and the counter culturists and the weirdos and people who are more eccentric for immigrants to move back as well. Middle class immigrants will be able to afford more in cities maybe than they can afford today and the cities will be remade. You know, you look at the history of American cities and it is a history of calamity, its earthquakes and fires and its floods and they keep coming back. And so any prediction that says that this is the end of American cities is an ahistorical prediction. It's literally predicting the end of history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I was just wondering about the journalistic exercise of writing this kind of informed projection. Your piece is well-reported, you've spoken to experts, you've scrutinized current trends, historical precedent. But what do you think the role is of this kind of detailed imagining of speculation at a time when our future is already so uncertain?
DEREK THOMPSON I think that people need concrete visions of the future. We're living through such a strange and awful purgatory that we need to be offered options for a path out. And I do think that it falls to not just our political and business leaders, but also to journalists to begin to sketch possible paths out of this purgatory. I think that our leaders need help. They need to be able to say, OK, well, what are different futures we can nudge our people toward? And here I'm taking a lot of things that are already happening. You already see the acceleration of big business. You already see the decimation to dine in restaurants. I'm suggesting plausible ways that that could shake out to change the American city, but then I'm trying to suggest a positive vision for how we can make cities better. It begins with, you know, allowing rents to fall a little bit, liberalizing immigration law to allow more immigrants to come into cities to start new companies, whether there restaurants or dry cleaners or high tech companies. That's the beginning of the future that I imagine for us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this forest fire of which you speak, do you think it was already underway?
DEREK THOMPSON You could say extending the metaphor that some of the sparks were already in existence. There were little smolderings everywhere throughout the forest. The reason the forest fire metaphor stuck with me is that it doesn't force me to make a determination about whether this is good or bad. It is good and bad side by side. It is burning and it is regrowth and rebirth. It's sadness and the possibility of a better future juxtaposed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Derek, thank you very much.
DEREK THOMPSON Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Derek Thompson covers economics and technology for The Atlantic.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin and Eloise Blondiau. This week, we bid a social distance farewell to our intern, Anthony Bansie. Anthony, thank you for all your help and good luck with everything. And our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer, and she’s back! On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield.