Podcasts of March 2017

In March I listened to:

534: A Not-So-Simple Majority
Holy crap this was a really frustrating podcast to watch. This was also my first This American Life podcast (recommended by Andy!). This podcast was about a NY district, East Ramopo, and the school system there. Because there is a large Hasidic ultra-orthodox Jewish community, many of these Jewish children don't go to public school and go to private yeshivas. However, because property tax pays for a lot of public schools, the Hasidic community was upset over having to pay taxes for schools their children would not use, and was able to vote a majority of their candidates onto the school board, even though their children would never go to a private school. As a result, they were able to vote to cut budgets, remove classes and extracurriculars, and even sell schools. The whole podcast goes from frustrating to infuriating and it is a crazy intense local political battle.

I found this not-so-simple majority especially alarming in a political climate where people in power make decisions about things that will never affect them (e.g. a bunch of white men signing bills about birth control for women).

Something else I found interesting was that I found myself automatically siding with the public school side, even though the Hasidic Jews had some good claims too, since many of them were lower middle class and paying for schools their families would never use. Perhaps this is because I can more easily identify with the regular school district kids...?

Paul Bloom on Empathy
This one suuuuucked. I liked the first part and the premise, but I didn't feel like there was much substance to this podcast. The primary idea is that empathy is sometimes harmful, and empathy is a poor tool for policy. Bloom highlights three main problems:

  1. It is biased. It's much easier to be empathetic to someone like you, even if intellectually those might not be the type of people that need your help.
  2. Empathy often extends mostly to individuals or small groups, so we get these interesting psychological findings where it is easier to care about 1 than about 10. This happens everyday; we watch a Facebook video and become tremendously concerned about someone in particular and yet have no trouble being indifferent to the suffering of thousands or millions.
  3. Empathy can also be "weaponized," and exploited by people to get us to support stuff that makes the world worse.

3) was interesting, a good example he brings up is child beggars. Bloom suggests that donating to disabled or injured child beggars is good in the short run, but in the long run, creates demand that results in more children being maimed intentionally (to exploit our empathy). A horrifying case of unintended consequences...

The rest of the podcast I found pretty boring, and they talk about things like parenting, IQ points, and anger.  When I started watching This American Life I realized one of the things I don't like about Econtalk is sometimes Russ and the guest go on kind of unrelated tangents. I skipped most of it, maybe you will find it more interesting.

550: Three Miles
Wow this was really really good!!! This was about two schools in the Bronx 3 miles away, one a public school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx and the other an expensive private school. The producer Chana follows two students from the public school, Melanie and Jonathan, after they graduate from high school. Melanie disappears before senior year ends, and Jonathan ends up getting a scholarship to Wheaton (I will not spoil the rest of the story).

This was both really eye opening and really sad. I thought it highlighted something that people from privileged positions often do not see, that you cannot imagine poverty by just taking money away from your bank account. Poverty is often pervasive, and one of the most insidious things about it is the effect it has on your attitude. It is heartbreaking to hear about the pressure Melanie was put under and to hear Jonathan say he never felt like he deserved to achieve anything.

513: 129 Cars
This was probably my favorite TAL podcast so far. If you watch any to see if you like them I would recommend this one. A bunch of producers follow a team of car salesmen trying to reach a monthly quota. If they reach their quota, 129 cars, then they get a big bonus from Chrysler, putting them in the black, otherwise they will be in red for the month (since they sell at a deficit to get to those numbers). 

My takeaways were:

  • After listening to them describe a few sales I kept thinking that this was basically psychological warfare, so I was pleasantly surprised when one of the car salesmen mentioned the most important text to learn to sell cars is Sun Tzu's The Art of War
  • I also always thought the manager and the salesmen work together to play the customer, but really the manager and the salesmen play the customer and the customer plays the dealership and the salesmen plays the manager and the dealership plays each other and the car company plays them all. Really really interesting stuff.
  • The best time to buy a car from a car dealership is on the last few days of the month when they're trying to meet their quota

360: Switched at Birth
Pretty weird story. This woman gets the wrong daughter from the hospital, realizes it early, but only tells the two daughters 42 years later. This obviously causes a lot of tension between the two mothers and the two daughters. I found two parts of the podcast interesting:

  • The first was that the women felt they belonged in the family that they were actually biologically born into, raising some interesting questions about nature vs nurture. Marti was outgoing in a serious family, and Sue was anxious and introverted in a generally extroverted family. 
  • The second was with myself, I found myself much more sympathetic to Mary Miller, the woman who raised Marti even though she knew Marti was not her daughter after she explained her story. A good... reminder to not draw early conclusions?

600: Will I Know Anyone at This Party?
This episode is about how the Republican party has transformed over the years, especially given the recent political climate. This episode was really something else... There's a song sung by Neil Patrick Harris about Paul Ryan's private thoughts, pains, and feelings about embracing Donald Trump and feeling abandoned by his party. Here's my favorite line from the song:

Now the guy is calling me a wussy, I wish I could grab by the lapels and tell him...

The first part is also called Party in the USA. Which is great.

The episode opens up by talking about how three Reagan era Republicans, all hosts of a conservative show, feel like their party has transformed. They discuss their surprise at how the party has changed, and how values have shifted, changing what the party stands for.

A big ticket issue this election season was immigration. Party in the USA takes Zoe to St. Cloud Minnesota to understand why and how immigration became such a big deal, even the core issue, for Republican voters. 

Why is immigration such a central issue? Was it because they were directly affected in some way? Did they lose their job or been negatively impacted? Zoe found no. The concerns about immigration were rooted in fear of and discomfort with change coupled with feelings of lack of control. I found it interesting that no one interviewed thinks they are racist (I guess that is kind of obvious), and that even people who disagreed with those against immigration never used the r-word (racist). Instead, racism was more a side product of fear of change from the old ways in a very isolated town, and people pointed instead to money as the primary problem. How much are these immigrants costing us?

A big cause of this is just ignorance, "experts" citing "facts" and fear mongering. A lot of people Zoe spoke with were very concerned with immigrants being a big burden on tax payers, and imposing Sharia law in America, both of which are just not true. But the same message is being pushed over and over again, by many speakers who come in with similar information that reinforces these beliefs.

At one point, a young Somali immigrant said she understood how they felt, and she just thought that those against immigrants had learned bad information and just needed to learn good information. She said, "you can't argue with a feeling." I think that is really interesting. A lot of political discourse now begins and ends with insults, and a lot of what we believe we reinforce by selectively learning. To reach across the other aisle, to counter this stream of misinformation, we need to push a different message instead of isolating and insulting those across the political aisle.

Robert Whaples on the Economics of Pope Francis
This podcast is about the economics of Pope Francis, specifically in the encyclical that he recently wrote dealing with environmental and economic issues, such as capitalism, inequality, etc. His argument is that we have been addicted to excessive consumption for too long, which combined with environmental problems, puts us on an unsustainable path that could easily become a catastrophe.

This view is, of course, contrary to the ideas underpinning capitalism, since free markets are based on the idea that people will always want to consume more, driving competition and consumption. Robert discusses the idea that the pope has in relation to his background. Pope Francis is from Argentina, one of the countries where a capitalist system has failed, and so is skeptical of capitalism. On the contrary, his predecessor John Paul II, who spent most of his adult life in a communist society, was much more supportive of the benefits of free markets.

I found Robert and Russ's argument that in general poverty has been greatly improved in the 20th century, in part due to capitalism very interesting, and reminds me of some of the arguments made in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Taking up a pro-market perspective in contrary to Pope Francis, they argue that the problem with capitalism is not necessarily capitalism, but rather that capitalism gives us what we want. Capitalism does have its flaws and its externalities, but the way to make capitalism better is to change what we want.

Crafts, Garicano, and Zingales on the Economic Future of Europe
They had 3 guests on this podcast, each an economist from a different part of Europe. It was fun to hear three different views with three different accents discussing and debating the economic future of Europe and how they got there. Even though they have different views and perspectives, they all paint a grim picture of Europe's future and specifically the future of the European Union.

Some interesting things I learned from the podcast: 
The EU was never really well unified, with the Northern countries dominating the Southern countries (and with France believing they belong with Northern Europe but economically more similar to Southern Europe). There is also no real leader of the EU, and Angela Merkel, despite her position of power, is ultimately elected by the Germans to serve the Germans. There is a lot of mistrust between these countries, making it difficult for policies to be implemented affected countries by people not from those countries. A big cultural challenge.

The euro was created under the assumption that there would be institutions created later to support it, but currently none of these institutions exist. Instead, at a time of crisis, countries are turning to more nationalistic agendas, making it even more difficult to create pan-Europe institutions necessary to revitalize the EU. This connects to a discussion on Brexit, specifically its short term and long term impacts. In the short term, Brexit doesn't seem to have caused that significant of an impact, which Crafts argues is because short term is macroeconomic forecasting, which economists are bad at. Long term, disintegration of trade and greater trade costs means trade goes down, which is unequivocally a negative effect. 

One of the other big things they discuss is productivity in Europe. Perhaps due to regulations, creative destruction in Europe is very difficult, making innovation costly. The job market is also relatively stagnant. Crafts draws a comparison between America and Europe in that the former tends to protect the worker, while the latter tends to protect the jobs. Another big problem for productivity is corruption. In Italy for example, the elite employs the EU to stay in power, driving down innovation and competition at the cost of growth and productivity.

All in all they describe a very pessimistic view of Europe where the EU is a burning building without a fire escape. There is a great amount of anxiety in Europe, a large populist movement anxious about the future and antagonistic towards immigration and globalism. One thing 

611: Vague and Confused
I am really liking This American Life! I think I prefer them to Econtalk. They are better produced and more interesting, plus sometimes Russ goes off topic which bothers me a little.

This podcast is about rules that are vague and confusing, and the aftereffects of that. The first case that they examine is immigration. The recent laws on immigration/deportation, and the uncertainty regarding the policies of our new president has caused a lot of fear and confusion amongst undocumented immigrants. Ira Glass and Lilly Sullivan go to Chicago, and meet with a family trying to navigate the situation. I found their personal account very powerful, with their concerns over whether their oldest sister would have to go back, how their financials would be if their father was deported, if they would split up their family or all move back to Mexico, etc. It was particularly sad when their youngest daughter started to cry, worried about whether her sister would be able to stay in America. It really puts a human real side to the problem, instead of demonizing "undocumented immigrants" or "aliens," and helping us see them as real people.

The second case was wildly interesting; I had no idea this island existed or even ever heard about it. Producers Sean and Adia head to the Hawaiian island of Niihau, where a rich American family, the Robinsons, purchased an island from the Haiwaiian king. When they bought the island in the 1860s, they promised the king that they would help the people living on the island. They interpreted this as keeping the island the way it is, and so Niihau still has no running water, speaks an older form of Haiwaiian, and still live according to the rules of the Robinsons. Some of these rules are vague, such as not being able to have long hair or tattoos, or staying off the island for too long. They interview many people, some who cannot return to the island and some who run the island (Leiana, the matriach). These rules are vague and confusing, but at the same time, people who live on Niihau love their life, and in particular one guy moves back because he likes the simple day to day better. Pretty interesting stuff.

On the other side, part three looks at when laws are applied perhaps too consistently? Producer David goes into a courtroom to defend himself from a traffic ticket, and observes judge Clarence Barry-Austin exact the law in the courtroom. This is a super boring municipal court, the lowest law in the land, but the story telling is actually fascinating. The law applied this way seems kind of esoteric, and David ultimately gets a ticket because he says too much and dings himself on (what I think is) a technicality. 

609: It's Working Out Very Nicely
The title of this podcast is from Donald Trump's comment regarding the recent travel ban, "it's working out very nicely." This podcast is about the way the travel ban was implemented, and the chaotic results it had on people when it was put into effect.

The prologue begins by introducing Somali refugees who were supposed to come to America from their camps but were denied entrance because of the travel ban. These people have waited years to be able to enter America, and were told that America would happily accept them, and that America was a land of equality. They even gave up their jobs and lives and took on debt to buy winter clothes for America, and were ultimately told that they were not welcome. It is just an awful awful situation. 

Part 1 is equally awful, and moves to the people who were mid-air when the travel ban went into effect. In particular, this Iraqi guy flying from Canada to join his family was detained by immigration for several hours, and told he would be sent back to Iraq, where he would be executed because his wife had worked with an American contractor in Baghdad. This was so horrifying, to imagine being him thinking he was going to be sent back to be killed or to imagine being his wife, waiting in limbo to hear news about her husband. These policies and their implementation are not just bureaucratic details, but deeply affect many people.

Part 2 brings us to those responsible for vetting immigrants, showing their emphasis is on security, and that our vetting process is already extremely detailed.
Part 3 discusses the purpose of the travel ban. Nancy Updike, a producer of the show, looks to understand how the visa process was related to 9/11. I found most interesting that pre 9/11, there was a much smaller focus on immigration, and Saudi Arabians at the time weren't seen as security threats but rather as rich tourists. The real security system does not rely on visas and immigration checks, since the majority of terrorist attacks are done by citizens, either born in America or naturalized. Instead of alienating the Muslim community, "our borders and immigration system, including law enforcement, ought to send the message of welcome, tolerance, and justice to members of immigrant communities in the United States and in the countries of origin." 
Part 4 discusses the ban as a "Muslim ban." Benjamin Wittes, editor of a website devoted to national security law, sees the law's real purpose as keeping out Muslims. The law is poorly written, with plenty of vague points and loopholes, and was created and passed without consulting any of the nation's major agencies, such as Homeland Security, DoD, State Department, etc. Wittes argues that the goal is not real security objectives, but rather a symbolic bashing of Islam. 
Part 5 ends the show by talking to Abdi Nor, a Somali green card holder, who refuses to leave the country now out of fear of Trump's extreme vetting.

Ultimately, I think this podcast, along with Will I Know Anyone at This Party, brings an important human aspect to the problem. The people that are affected by these things are not abstract concepts, they are real people who are affected by these policies!!! It is important to always remember that those who are denied entry into the US or those who lose healthcare are not just numbers, but real people with real worries and real fears. 

I also love how each podcast looks at the topic from a ton of different perspectives.

Tina Rosenberg on the Kidney Market in Iran
So apparently in Iran kidneys are available to buy, and there is a market type thing going on matching kidney donors with kidney buyers. This is a big problem in the US (and actually in most countries) where the list of recipients for kidneys is super high, and many people are stuck on dialysis and die waiting for a kidney. 

The initial response to a market for organs is probably negative, since it evokes black market connotations of the poor being exploited by the rich to give away their kidneys for a cheap price. Actually, in Iran, the system works quite well. Only people of the same nationality can buy or sell kidneys from each other, so there is no risk of a wealthy foreigner coming to buy a kidney from a poor Iranian. There is extensive medical and psychological testing, as well as financial consulting, before a donor is allowed to give a kidney, and in fact the line for donating kidneys is longer than the line for receiving kidneys. The government pays the donor about $3500 for his kidney, with some regional differences. Generally the system is a success, but in some regions due to financial difficulty the program works much less well. 

I was annoyed by Russ's discussion of the motivation of doctors in the US, and how the system doesn't exist in the US possibly because doctors have a financial incentive to keep dialysis. I like the economic discussion on Econtalk, but sometimes I find Russ brings up stuff that isn't very supported. In particular I think (would hope, at least) and believe that doctors often have the best interest of the patient, and would be hesitant to put people on dialysis just to make money. 

Something unrelated I found interesting was that with bike helmets becoming more prevalent there are apparently fewer transplants in the US, since organs can be only be donated from the dead under specific circumstances (brain death w/o organ damage, something frequently caused by catastrophic traffic accidents).

I like the idea of market based solutions and would be interested in seeing how it would be implemented in a different society and a more robust economy. Any misgivings about this program I think would be offset by the benefits it would give (namely, save a bunch of lives)!

605: Kid Logic 2016
This one is about kid logic being applying rationally in normal situations and arriving at completely wrong conclusions. It is really fun, and there was actually a really heartwarming story called "Werewolves in Their Youth." 

Also kids are mean. :-(

603: Once More, With Feeling
This is a podcast about people trying new approaches to things they've been doing. The first one is really interesting; it's about a woman who responds to cat calls trying to convince men to stop. She speaks to one dude who likes to slap one woman's ass in a group of women, referring to himself as a "one ass one group" man. This is interesting to me because none of these men think that the women don't like the attention, and it doesn't cross their minds that it might be scary or uncomfortable for these women. In particular, they think that because they would like the attention (mostly) other people should too. It takes Eleanor 2 hours to convince Zack to literally stop assaulting women on the street.

The second part is about a soldier finding ways to tell honest stories from his deployments in Iraq. He initially used a "veneer of chill" only telling funny stories, but eventually told his friend Isaac a real story about the war. My biggest takeaway was Isaac's response, when he just looked Michael (the vet) in the eye instead of looking away or being uncomfortable or changing the subject, making him feel like he wasn't a "monster."