Is Climate Change a Reason to Avoid Having Children? and Other Listener Questions Answered


ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein. This is the “Ezra Klein Show.”

So we’re here. We’re doing it, the long awaited Ask Me Anything episode. And I’m joined for it to answer a bunch of questions that have been sent in by you and curated by our team — by our great producer, Annie Galvin, who’s going to both ask them and hold my feet to the fire if I completely dodge them. So, Annie, always a pleasure.

annie galvin

Thank you, Ezra. Happy to be here. All right, so let’s start with a fun question. And then we’ll get to the deeper ones. So Matt is not alone in wanting you to talk about the aliens, especially in light of government U.F.O. reports. And just to give a little context, last month, officials told Congress that the UAP, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, database now contains about 400 reports. And apparently, there’s been less stigma around reporting them. So what is your read on aliens these days, Ezra?

ezra klein

So you called this a fun question. I don’t know that it is a fun question. I think this is very weird on a couple of different levels. So what I now understand to be the situation is that the U.S. federal government has come out and said, we have tracked, us personally, fundamentally impossible flying objects, right? Impossible by our understanding of the technology possible in the world right now. We have tracked these objects. We have tracked individual ones of these objects through various different sensors.

So the idea that it is simply one radar failing or one pilot seeing a light flare doesn’t hold up. And we have no idea what they are. And that’s really weird, OK? That’s a very strange situation to actually be in. There was a theory for a little while that maybe Russia or China have technology now that we didn’t expect. I think if you look at how the Russia-Ukraine war has gone, that does not seem plausible. So alien, something else, I don’t know.

But at the very least, for the federal government to come out and say, not only do we have unidentified flying objects, but they are fundamentally unidentifiable, that we have validated that they are there to the best of our abilities through multiple sensors catching them simultaneously, and we cannot explain them to you, I would have thought in some abstract way that would be a bigger story for longer.

But I would say here, you do see a dynamic of the news, where if there is no new news, there’s just not a lot we can do with it, right? We can’t create iterative information on this story. So there’s not a way to keep covering it. I always think of things like this, sometimes, as the chirons you see in the TVs running in the background at the beginning of a movie, right? When all the characters are going about their normal lives before everything goes straight to hell.

And it’s, like, another unidentified aerial object discovered that we can’t — it’s just a little bit weird. I don’t know what they are. And as somebody who generally likes mystery the unknowability of them at this point, I think this is a thing people haven’t fully grokked — that we have moved at this juncture from these being, we don’t know what people have seen, to, we are saying we know these things were seen. And we don’t have almost the technology to know what they are. And that’s really an interesting place to be left.

annie galvin

And just to be clear, because Matt asked about aliens specifically, for those of us who aren’t as up on the UAP beat, we’re not really talking about aliens, or maybe we’re talking about aliens. We’re just —

ezra klein

Who knows?

annie galvin

— talking about these flying objects. OK.

ezra klein

Who knows?

annie galvin

Who knows?

ezra klein

They could be — I don’t know what they are. I’m not telling you they’re aliens. Maybe they’re us from the future. Maybe they’re angels. I mean, we genuinely don’t know what they are. Maybe they are. Maybe China has technology we still don’t understand, right? There are things that could be true here. And I am open to them being much weirder. I’m always open to reality being weirder than anything we’ve come up with. So I’m not sitting here saying there are aliens. Maybe they’re drones from — who knows? But it’s very strange.

annie galvin

Ooh, maybe they’re the people who are running the simulation that we’re living in.

ezra klein

Exactly, right? Maybe that’s just what it looks like when you fix a bug in the simulation.

annie galvin

All right, well done. OK, so to pivot a bit, Ralph asks, what does Ezra think of the potential that Trump might go back on Twitter if the Musk deal were to go through and Musk had the power to readmit Trump to Twitter?

ezra klein

So Elon Musk has said very clearly that if he acquires Twitter — which he increasingly seems to not want to do, at least at the price he initially tried to do it at — but if he ends up acquiring Twitter that he thinks it was wrong to ban Donald Trump. And he will undo that ban. Trump, at different times, said he wouldn’t go back to Twitter. So focused is he on the wild generational success that is Truth Social, that he wouldn’t go back.

I’m of many minds on this. I fundamentally think having Trump back on Twitter would be like dumping toxins into the ecosystem. But at the same time, I don’t think it would be good for Trump or good for the right. I don’t think Donald Trump’s Twitter presence, after maybe powering his initial rise, I don’t think it was a net negative for them. In general, Trump did better in the polls and I think better as a politician when he wasn’t getting everybody worked up about things he said on Twitter. And I think he’s, in some ways, been stronger as a politician without the ability to constantly focus attention on his craziness. So maybe a way to think about it is this. Imagine that we’re going through the same period that we’ve been going through. Joe Biden is president, and inflation is high. And Russia has invaded Ukraine. And Covid is still a very difficult issue that increasingly is splitting the Democratic coalition. And Democrats are disillusioned. And the young people of — I mean, Biden is bleeding young people’s support. If Trump had been on Twitter during this period then every three days, a news cycle would have been about him. And he would be generating a kind of cohesive momentum for the Democratic side by continuously acting as this foil for Biden.

In many ways, I think Joe Biden’s signal problem at the moment, which is often a problem for presidents in this point in their cycle, is that there’s no other force, right? It’s just him out there. And whatever is going on, he’s sort of responsible for. And if people don’t like it, he’s responsible for that. So I kind of side with the people of the counterintuitive take, that Donald Trump being back on Twitter is probably bad for the Republican Party and Donald Trump. But it might also just be bad for democracy and the world and what people are spending their attention on, because I think Donald Trump is fundamentally a poisonous figure in the national debate.

So I don’t think it is an advantage to the right if Musk puts Trump back on Twitter. But that isn’t to say I think it’ll be a good thing for American life to have Trump back there. And then I think the question will be, is the media better at ignoring Donald Trump’s provocations now than they were, which I kind of think on the margin, we probably are, but it’ll be tested.

annie galvin

OK, so let’s move to some questions about a topic that we get a lot of questions about whenever we open things up for AMA questions. So what I’ll do is I’ll read a few of our specific listeners’ questions, just to give people a feel for this topic and why it’s interesting to people. And then, Ezra, you can dive in however you’d like to approach it. So first of all, Michelle says, just two days ago, I googled “Ezra Klein on having a baby climate change.” Maybe a popular Google.

ezra klein

Huge, huge in Google terms.

annie galvin

Yeah, from our inbox, it would seem so. So the timing of this AMA opportunity is perfect. What considerations did Ezra and his partner weigh in their decision to have biological children? Hossam asks, if your children one day ask why you chose to bring them into a world that you knew was going to be decimated by climate change, what would your answer be?

Jennifer says, as a father of young children, why did you and your wife decide to have children, given scientific predictions of how Earth will be impacted by the climate crisis over the next 100 years? And then finally, Kristof asks, how do you feel about the state of the world in general, and specifically with regards to climate change? And how did that play into your choosing to have children? So there’s a lot there, but Ezra, what are your thoughts on this topic?

ezra klein

So, as Annie says, every time we’ve opened up an AMA, for years, this has been the most popular question, this and what is your meditation regime. And I have dodged it for years. And I’ve dodged it in part because a lot of these questions, I’m happy freelancing on. But anything that might on the margin, even if I’m a little skeptical it would, help change whether or not people had children, I just — I don’t know. I’ve always found it weird I get asked, and I don’t want to be responsible for telling you.

But we got it so much. And so I wanted to do a careful job of it. So this is the rare question that actually led to a column before I would answer it on the show. So we’ll put this in show notes, but I wrote, like, a 2,000-some word piece for “The Times” going through this. And so let me tell you where I’ve ended up working it through a little bit more carefully. So there are two versions of the question. One is, why bring children into a world that will be decimated by climate change? And the other is, it moral to bring children into the world, knowing that they will contribute to climate change, right? Those are the two. This is such a hard one because I don’t want to take away from the difficulty of this decision for people. I don’t want to take away from legitimate fears about the future. And I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing climate change. But I also, every time I get this, I think we’ve scared people beyond the point they should really be afraid. So one way I’ve thought about saying this is that I think this kind of thinking relies on an underestimation of how bad the entirety of human history has been and an overestimation of how bad our future is likely to be.

By that, I mean this. So if you’re saying that the kinds of outcomes that we think we’re going to have for the next, let’s call it 100 years, are so grievous, decimating, right, to use that language, that it would be immoral to bring a child into them, I think what you’re saying on some level, whether you know it or not, is that it would have been immoral for most people, most human beings, to bring children into the world any time before 1975 or something. If you go back into the deep human history — and there’s research on this — about a quarter of children died before their first birthday, about a quarter. About half of everybody died before puberty. 47 percent, I think, is the number. So that’s further back, but that’s most of human history, right? Just stark. By modern standards, most people have been poor on a level most human beings can’t even fathom today, right? It’s just like that was all of human history. People starved all the time. They died from a cut, right, that got infected. OK, so let’s say nobody’s really saying that climate change in the near future is going to make things worse than they were in 1500. But even if that’s what you’re saying, right, you’re saying, I mean, do we think it was immoral to bring children into the world before 1500? I think that would be a weird view on some level.

Then going forward, right, into things that are closer to modernity, people lived under much more subjugation. People have been much, much poorer. Much more of the globe has been enslaved. Gender rights were — they’re very modern, at least in the way we think of them now. The kinds of economic domination people have had over each other in the modern world, I mean, ongoing for many people in the world right now, but up until a couple of years ago.

I think to really grasp how bad life has been for most people forever, which is also to really grasp the remarkable nature of some of the progress we’ve seen over the past, let’s call it 100 years, it’s tough. So I don’t think it’s plausible to say that given the pathways we’re on, we’re looking at a level of normal human suffering that is even out of sample for what human beings have had before, to say nothing in the bottom half of the distribution. So I think you get a question of, what are we saying is going to happen? And this is a topic that is bigger than one show, but to say it quickly, I think that people have in their heads some of the really, really terrible projected possibilities for climate change. You’ll hear climate people talk about this is RCP 8.5, I think it is. But these are the scenarios where things really, really go bad. So we keep burning more and more coal. We get up to four or five six degrees of warming, that kind of thing.

And when you imagine an uninhabitable earth — that’s what we’re talking about — you get into fundamental feedback effects that break planetary systems in a way that might be irreversible. I mean, we don’t really know how this stuff would work out, but that’s really scary things. Even to go back a decade, very serious climate people thought we were on track for 3.5, 4, or 4.2 degrees of warming. Now, because a lot has actually gone well, much more than I think people realize, we’re on track for the current policy level, 2.6, something like that, over the next — 2.6 by 2100. And that assumes current policy, but if things keep getting better, which our policies have been getting better, and also, very importantly, our technology has been getting better and better and better, I mean, a huge amount of the reason why our scenario looks better now is that solar and wind and battery costs have come down so quickly, so quickly, so much quicker than was expected.

I was looking at this paper that was looking at, I think it was 2,900 predictions on how quickly solar would come down. And the average was something like 2 point something percentage points a year. And the high end predictions were 6 percent. But it was, like, 15 percent, year after year after year. And so things have gotten better, faster. And so now we’re kind of on a 2.6, 2.7 track. I think it is plausible to say that if you assume trends, something like a 2.2 track, if the Paris Climate Accord commitments are met, which that’s a big if, but maybe a 2, maybe even a little less than 2.

And then we’re in a scenario of things that are, I mean, bad, right? People will suffer. People will die. We will give back a lot of the insulation we have gotten from nature. And the worst of it, the worst of it is that it is unequal, that rich countries will have basically consumed all these fossil fuels and then made poor countries pay the price. It isn’t that rich people or rich countries can fully insulate themselves from climate change. But it is wrong to think they can’t insulate themselves quite a bit.

I say this in the piece, but I mean, I live in California. The condition of people in California breathing in a lot of wildfire smoke is not the condition of people in low lying areas of Bangladesh, whose homes and livelihoods are in the path of cyclones. And so, I think we’re in a position where what we’re doing is immoral or what we’re doing is going to make the world a lot worse than it could be. It’s going to create tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of refugees, going to increase civil war.

It’s bad. I mean, it is so bad that most of my columns, I would say, on some level or another, this whole thing I’m doing about how to build more, is basically motivated by climate change. But it is not bad in a way where bringing kids into it is somehow worse than what kids have endured before. I mean, most people are going to live better lives.

So then I think there’s another question. And this is more, I think, responsive to this issue of, what have rich countries visited upon poor countries, which are people visited upon poor people, which is, it is simply true that people use resources. Rich people use more than poor people. And so maybe you shouldn’t have kids. And there’s a logic to that. I don’t think the logic holds very far, though, or at least not as far as people think it does.

What it fundamentally does, in my view, is mistake a collective problem for an individual problem. And I’m not somebody who thinks you should never do that. I think I’ve said in past AMAs, actually, that I understand people’s nodes for social contagion from this perspective. So the idea that I don’t like it when people say, well, don’t worry about driving an electric car or not eating meat, because this is a collective problem. And no individual thing matters.

But I think you do have to imagine, when you’re thinking about individual action, is this an individual action that scales? Can you imagine this creating industries or creating politics where kind of everybody does it, where it changes everything? I don’t think any political movement that at its core is saying, you shouldn’t have a family, is going to scale. I just don’t. That’s a very fundamental thing for people.

And maybe if there was no other answer, we would just have to bite that bullet, right? You do the best you can, and you figure out what you end up with. But that’s not true either. The point of all of this is to decouple people from carbon emissions. And we can do that. In America, in the ‘70s, per person carbon emissions were over 20. I think now there’s something like 14. In Germany, they’re closer to 9 or 8 tons of carbon per person. In Sweden, they’re under 4.

We know, I mean, what we need to do here. It’s pretty straightforward. You need to electrify things. You need to make sure that the electrical grid is powering itself off of clean energy. And once you plug everything in correctly, and you work through the industrial processes, that basically makes it so people are not emitting a ton of carbon, really, at all. And as David Wallace-Wells says to me — I’m paraphrasing him here. But as he says to me in this piece, then we can end this mathematical calculation of weighing people as the problem.

And I think this is really important, because these things link up in my mind. It is a political problem to get this done. It is a political problem to build the infrastructure, to elect the politicians, to change society, such that we can have the net zero carbon emissions where all we want. We know it is a technical possibility. There is nothing about that role that is impossible. Maybe we’ll need to do some carbon negative technologies, right, like various forms of direct air capture, et cetera. I mean, we can talk through the details of it. They’re complicated, but it is doable stuff. We have invented it, and it is to be celebrated that it seems as possible as it does. But to do it, you need to win this political fight. You need to have a vision of the future that people can see themselves in that’s appealing, that’s thrilling, even. And that vision, then, needs to think well of people, right? I mean, there needs to be room for people in your vision.

So an environmentalism that becomes very fundamentally aesthetic, very fundamentally about sacrifice, very fundamentally skeptical of people, is, among other things, almost going to be by definition a politically powerless environmentalism, right? I mean, if it’s all the environmentalists who don’t have kids, I think that has a pretty obvious logic about where that’s going. And meanwhile, it’s young people who are the engines of social change and political change and young people leading these movements that have moved us as far and as quickly towards better climate outcomes.

So I don’t want to say that it’s a completely crazy thing to say, I don’t know. I feel like we use a lot of resources, and I don’t want to do that. But I think that I would, at the very least, say that if that’s your view on it, there are a lot of things I would ask if you’re doing first. Are you a vegan? Have you moved into a dense city? What kinds of climate activism and climate donations are you making?

Rather than not having kids, should you go and try to work for a hedge fund, and in an earning to give kind of way, give all your money to carbon offsets or what you think to be effective political programs? Should you just be buying carbon offsets? I mean, there are a lot of ways that you can try to involve yourself and make decisions before you say, I’m going to deny myself a family, because I don’t think the politics of that ladder up to a climate solution. In fact, they might cut against it.

So it’s really fundamentally an individual choice. If you want to make that choice, great, right? I don’t think anybody should feel forced to have children. To other things going on in our politics, I don’t think anybody should be forced to have children. But nevertheless, I don’t think people should mistake not having children for something that is mandated by climate science. The way I end the piece is say, look, I can’t tell you whether or not to have a kid. But nor can any climate model. That’s not what they do.

And so I think that the choice of whether or not to have a child is an intense one and a difficult one. I sometimes refer to it as, it’s a human event horizon. Nothing about your life is really the same after that. I often think of this conversation as suggesting that we’ve either scared people to a point on climate that has become paralytic. It seems like there’s almost no answer, except not being human anymore, which I truly don’t believe is true. Or it’s sort of moved a political problem into a question of personal sacrifice in a way that neither solves a political problem nor through sacrifice can solve the substantive one. And so it’s probably not the best place for people to put their energies or their worries.

And I guess I’ll end this on something Leah Stokes said to me, which she’s at UC Santa Barbara. She’s been on the show before. She’s a brilliant, wonderfully effective political scientist and researcher and climate expert and climate activist. And she said to me that the way she and a dear friend of hers, who works on these issues, too, thought about this was not how bad would her children’s life be. It wasn’t, was it moral to have children, given climate change? It was, would having children, because of the time commitment, keep her from doing everything she could to politically try to avert the worst climate outcomes?

And she came to the decision in her own life that, no, that she could still do this work. And that’s, frankly, the decision that most climate people I know have come to. But I think that’s a reasonable way to think about it. I mean, if that’s the issue, right, then I think the fundamental question of a child is actually time. I think the political acts you can take that are really consequential are not whether or not to have a child. And so I think that’s a much more personal decision. And that’s one where my reasoning on it is not for the audience. And their reasoning on it is not for me to dictate to them.

annie galvin

Fair enough.


So let’s follow up with some more questions on the plane of politics and policy. So we’ve gotten a few versions of this next one. But I’ll just ask one. Is wokeness killing the Democratic Party? You’ve written a lot on the debate over messaging within the Democratic Party. Where do you come down on the question of wokeness?

ezra klein

I do not believe wokeness is killing the Democratic Party. I don’t believe the Democratic Party is dying either. I mean, I will note at the moment they control the House, the Senate and the White House. So, whew. I think a lot of people hold the view that for liberals or for Democrats or something, wokeness is the problem, and things like Twitter are fine. And I hold the opposite view.

I think for the most part, the set of views that people call wokeness are fine, and things like Twitter are the problem, which is to say that I think a lot of the bad dynamics people have identified in these areas, these sort of cancellation behaviors that are disproportionate to offense, these sort of mobbing behaviors, this sort of endless one upsmanship on purity, I think this reflects the dynamics of social media more than anything, at least in the way it’s being worried about right now, right?

We’ve also had these dynamics in communities and other ways of organizing humans before. But recently, the rise of algorithmic social media, the rise of internal chat systems like Slack, all that created a situation where I think the people who ran institutions or administrated them didn’t know what to do and made a bunch of bad decisions when they came under fire.

Nevertheless, I think that most of the things people are worried about here — like can trans people have basic human rights and equality? Do we need to think more seriously about how to pursue equality in this country? Are there still fundamental things about this country that are structurally quite racist? All that, to me, is true. Do we need to think more seriously about representation and how people are referred to and spoken about, but going way beyond speech, actually, how policy treats them? I mean, if people listen to the Ibram X. Kendi episode, the part of antiracism I find very appealing is the actual focus on racial inequality as the right thing to be targeting. So I actually find myself in alignment with most of the ideas. And then the behaviors people don’t like, I see almost equally in all directions. I wrote a column for the Times about this last year sometime. But I really make a distinction between what people call cancel culture and what I would call cancel behavior. And people behave in all directions at all times in ways that would get people canceled if they had the power to cancel them.

And I see it coming from all the different ideological movements simultaneously. And I mean, really seriously. Take two seconds and look at where the right wing has gone on this, to actual speech codes, book bans, laws. So the idea that the right is somehow a bunch of free speech warriors, it’s risible at this point. So I don’t have the same view, I think, of the wokeness debate that a bunch of other people have.

I then think there’s a separate set of issues of, is what gets called wokeness — again, this is all very imprecise in the language. I think it’s good for people to specify what they’re talking about. But is this kind of miasma of issues bad for the Democratic Party or bad for liberalism or progressivism or something? And that, I think, is probably, on the margin, true. Not as bad as people seem to think it is because, actually, a lot of Democrats who have to run in key elections have perfectly good political antenna and have run around this perfectly well. So take an Eric Adams in New York as a more extreme example.

But Democrats nominated Joe Biden in 2020, who was not the most woke candidate by any means and was very explicit that he was not going to defund the police or abolish the police. And they won the election by quite a bit. And I can give you a bunch of individual examples in different places. It has not seemed to me the Democratic politicians are having to struggle with their extremism in a way Republican politicians aren’t. I do think there’s a dynamic in politics — broadly, some of it’s social media driven, as I was mentioning a minute ago — that does give the edges of all the coalitions much more power and weight in the public conversation. And so you have a lot more difficult issues where politicians have to decide which parts of their coalition to distance from. But I don’t think it’s distinctive to Democrats or even distinctive to wokeness.

The final thing I’ll say here is that I don’t think wokeness is a good cleavage for Democrats. I think that on any kind of polling analysis you want to run, economic populism is probably better. That’s just clear. And this is because it doesn’t split the Democrats within their own coalition, right? These issues really do split Democrats inside the Democratic Party, and they unite Republicans. What you want is for the main cleavages of American politics to be the things that split the other party and give you the power, then, to make good policies and, say, reduce racial inequality.

Now, I don’t think it’s easy, actually, or at least, not as easy as other people think it is, to refocus American politics on simply the issues you wish you could. Like, Medicare prescription drug negotiations poll very well, but in part because they’re not that divisive. They don’t attain that much media attention. What can you actually get people talking about is a really important part of all of this.

I would say, one, I don’t think the Biden administration right now has a theory of, really, what they’re going to get people talking about. I think I’ve said this before, but in a lot of ways, I think Republicans have theories of attention. Certainly, Trumpist Republicans have a theory of attention, but not a theory of strategy, right? He knows how to get attention, but doesn’t know how to act strategically.

The Democrats are very strategic, their leadership, not at every individual action, but in general. But they have no theory of attention. They’re just being drifted around on the winds of public events and random controversies. And I think it would be smart for Democrats to think more seriously about what they want to split the electorate over.

I think you can understand some of my work right now as saying that I think a more productive cleavage — and I’m not saying here politically for Democrats; I just think more productive — would be trying to really build some division over this question that I think actually splits both parties internally over whether or not in American politics, it should be easier or harder to build things.

I think there’s a lot of —it’d get a lot of attention if Joe Biden, in addition to proposing $500 billion in climate investments, was actually taking on a bunch of parts of his own coalition, environmentalists and others, who are standing in the way of that, who have made it very, very hard to build, who sue everything under the National Environmental Policy Act, despite even when those things are good for the environment. I think that, oftentimes, what gets attention are things that are divisive within an individual coalition.

And it would be healthier to try to generate controversy by taking on something that would be good to take on, like, why can’t Democrats build things effectively, as opposed to some of these cleavages over race and sexuality and gender. But that doesn’t mean not doing that is killing the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is kind of in a relatively banal space, given how bad inflation is. I mean, if you look at how they’re trending in the midterms, they’re going to get hammered. But they’re going to get hammered in a pretty normal way.

And then the secondary problem is that the structure of American political geography is against them. But there isn’t something that’s killing the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is limping along competitively, neither dominant nor minoritian. And it has some pretty serious geographic disadvantages that it needs to think about how it wants to approach. But I don’t think the way to approach them would somehow be to throw racial justice overboard.

annie galvin

Yeah, it’s interesting to think about wokeness as a content of beliefs and also kind of a mode of expression. So that’s helpful. Speaking of our not super woke president, Jean asks, should Biden run again in 2024?

ezra klein

Ooh, all the hard Democratic questions here. Look, I mean, it depends where he is in 2024. I think the plan is for Joe Biden to run again. I think they’ve been very clear about that. I think he’s been very clear about that. Since you asked, let me tell you the thing I worry about, which I’m not saying is where we are.

And I want to say, before I say anything here, I am very confident in this judgment. Joe Biden is not senile. There’s no dementia. He’s not sick. He’s fine. I know people working with him every day. I do a lot of reporting on this. He’s fine. But he is a much older person. And that does slow you down. I think there’s simply an energy level question in the long-term.

I a lot of people in their late 70s and in their 80s. It’s tough. I’m amazed at the energy Biden has. I think he’s done a really remarkable job on a couple of hard things recently. I think his performance on Russia-Ukraine, particularly in holding together Europe and the coalition here, has been really, really underrated in how well he’s done it.

But let’s say Joe Biden came to the view that he shouldn’t run again. He would be in his 80s. It’s kind of nuts. He’s a transitionary figure. The problem is that the vice presidency with Kamala Harris hasn’t worked out that well. From everything I can tell as a reporter, they’re not that close. Her polling is not good. The way her staff has been run, I mean, there’s been a lot of reporting on this, a lot of turnover. It just hasn’t looked good. They gave her some pretty impossible tasks, like the refugee crisis —

annie galvin

Go to the border, yeah.

ezra klein

— on the border, democracy reform when they didn’t have the votes for democracy reform. So I’m not sure I think she was set up for success here. But nor has, politically, she played that hand incredibly well. And so the problem is that they don’t kind of trust, I think, that she could take over smoothly and kind of run in Joe Biden’s stead and win. But to have a primary, like a bruising primary, where maybe she comes out the other end or maybe somebody beats her, that would also split the Democratic Party in a very dangerous way, particularly if you imagine Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis running.

So if Joe Biden is doing great and runs great, anything beneath that scenario, Democrats are in some trouble right now. If Harris had really consolidated Bidenism, that would work out just fine. But I guess maybe one place to end this kind of long answer is to say that it should really be a central, central, central project of the Biden administration right now to strengthen Kamala Harris. I don’t really see them doing that effectively.

But she probably will be the candidate, if not in 2024, then in 2028. And they need to figure out much better than they have how to put her in a great position for that — both to make sure that if Joe Biden doesn’t think he should run again, he has the ability to say no to running again, right? He should, as a human being, not feel like he’s got the entire weight of the country on his shoulders, but also because the vice president tends to become the nominee at some point or another. And they need her to be stronger with the public than she is right now.

And that is something that is possible to do by giving her kind of some of the right roles. But I feel like they keep handing her some of the toughest jobs in politics on the most controversial issues. You need her to be handing out prizes to people, not always be in the center of the toughest thing. And so, I don’t know. I think they need a better strategy for succession right now than they have.

annie galvin

Yeah, that’s a good point. OK, so moving from electoral politics to actually governing, Ryan asks, what should we do to overcome the kludgeocracy and restore faith in local government, rise above partisan politics, and save our communities for future generations? I loved your episode with Alex Tabarrok and have passed it around YIMBY and activist circles to much acclaim. But how do we fix things? I get the sense you’re working on something around this problem. And can we help?

ezra klein

Yes, so I love this question. Thank you. Maybe you can help, actually. So let me define some terms here. Kludgeocracy is a term that comes from Steve Teles at Johns Hopkins, a very, very smart political scientist, to, he’s sort of talking about the way a somewhat paralyzed and captured political system will start coming up with ever more Baroque workarounds to get things done. And over time, things just become kludgy and inefficient and weird. And you got to know how to go to the floor 14 and talk to the person in suboffice B to get a workaround on regulations nobody can handle. YIMBY, by the way, is Yes, In My Backyard people.

It’s true I am working on something along these lines. I am pretty focused right now on what I have called in some episodes and columns supply-side progressivism, what I’ve been thinking of more recently more like a liberalism that builds. And my basic view is that it is a central problem for liberals that in places where liberals can govern, they cannot govern better. They do not govern better.

And when I have looked into that and have tried to focus in on it, it’s not as easy as they don’t believe all the things I believe. And if they did, then they would govern great. It is that the way governance is built in blue areas, and nationally for that matter, often by Democrats and liberals, has made it really, really hard to wield power. There’s different versions of this. Paul Sabin talks about it in “Public Citizen.” Marc Dunkleman, who’s a researcher on some of these issues had this great piece in Politico a while back on why it’s been so difficult to upgrade Penn Station. But the basic shape of the river here is that there’s a strain of liberalism that is very comfortable and excited to wield power, and then a strain of liberalism that rose in reaction to that and in reaction to sort of the New Deal liberals and progressives wielding power in often heedless, reckless, terrible, racist ways.

Think Robert Moses building highways through Black communities. Think of corporations or governments dumping toxic waste into rivers. And they created, among other things, a very legalized system in which it was very easy to sue the government, stop it from doing things, try to make it do more environmental analysis. That’s all for the good. And it did a lot of good. And then over time, it got kind of crustier and crustier.

So I mean, environmental impact reports went from pretty swift, relatively thin things to these multiyear behemoths now that they are. So things just don’t get done. They just don’t happen. It’s incredibly expensive to build infrastructure in America. It comes in, if at all, very late and over budget. There’s no high-speed rail in California. In 2019, New York tries to do congestion pricing. To do it, they need the feds to give them license to do it, because some of the roads are built with federal money.

So Trump just says no — or doesn’t say no. They just don’t act. Then the Biden administration comes in and says, of course, we’d love to work with you on this congestion pricing. It’s good for the climate, good for mass transit. But then they agree on an environmental assessment, which is less intense in an impact report. And then when that comes in, the feds come back with another 430 technical questions and comments. And that’s — congestion, you’re just hanging cameras on light posts. And that’s a negotiation between Democrats.

And so I think it is a very fundamental issue, a fundamental issue if you care about things that I care about, like, say, decarbonization. Can you actually, even if you pass that bill, even if Biden got Build Back Better done, can you actually build that stuff at the speed you need to build it? It’s a real reversal, I think, of a lot of the ways that people think about it, which is to be conservative with our climate, to try to conserve the climate we’ve had, requires you to be very aggressive about building new infrastructure right now. And we’re not set up to do it.

I think it is a mistake liberals make that they see a problem, and they’re like, we should pass a bill. And then if the bill passes, people think the problem is solved. But it isn’t. The stimulus of ‘09, it was supposed to build a high speed rail, electronic health records, and a smart grid where it’s marquee projects. We don’t have high speed rail. We don’t have a strong national system of electronic health records. And we don’t have a great smart grid. So there’s a real problem here.

And I’m doing a lot of work on this and trying to look at a lot of different case studies. And what I would say is a way I appreciate being asked. I could really use help. A lot of you all work in government or interface with government and see this stuff. And I could use insight. And I could use leads. And I worked on this project, and I saw it this way. And we always say our email. It’s [email protected] And I won’t be able to reply to everything.

But I’m somebody who has, I think if you listen to the show, pretty liberal goals. And I do this kind of critique not in the spirit of just critique, but in the spirit of wanting to achieve those goals. I want liberalism to work. And then to the points about Trump and other things, I think one thing that opens the door for populist outsiders and demagogues and just the right more generally, is when liberalism just kind of fails. It fails to deliver.

Like, California is a hotbed of Democratic talent. But I think it’s going to be very hard for executives from California to run nationally because California has become unaffordable for people. And particularly in the major cities, you really have to explain away, how come you have this huge homelessness problem? How come you have this huge housing problem? Liberalism’s failure to build enough has both made its goals often unachievable, has worsened inequality, and has made the right wing stronger.

So I really think trying to understand what has gone wrong in the way liberals run government and trying to think about what lessons and what kind of lenses can be taken out of it, such that people can begin to fix that and begin to turn the dials in the other direction, my basic view is that it’s a bias against getting things done, a bias towards inaction over action, operating in a million different levels and decision making vectors and nodes.

And you kind of just got to figure out how to create a perspective that turns it back on all of those simultaneously because people start looking at the problem to be solved as, can government deliver the things it says it will deliver, right? State capacity. The way Brink Lindsey at the Niskanen Institute defines it is, can government execute the policies it promises? So, yeah, I’d love feedback. I’d love help. I’d love leads on things I should be looking at. I know about this congestion pricing thing because somebody sent it to me.

And I’m trying to think about productively, constructively, how can governance actually give people the things that it promises? And there’ll be a project you’ll hear a lot of on the show in the coming year. And hopefully some good will come out of it.

annie galvin

To hold your feet to the fire a bit because of Ryan’s question, you diagnosed the problem really well. And I know it’s a massive problem and a kind of ongoing project. But he did ask, how do we fix things? If you could wave a wand, change something in the way either, let’s say, California’s government or the federal government works, can you think of a small fix?

ezra klein

It’s really hard because I don’t think there’s any one problem. This is what I mean that I think it’s kind of like a bias that got set in society over time. One, I don’t know how to solve it. I do think part of it is being able to give people a lens through which to see the problem correctly. And then people at many different levels can begin to ask that question. There is a fair amount of discretion in this stuff — not entirely, but with some.

So a government that understood its main problem as things aren’t getting done might just say, hey, we’re willing to move this program forward faster. And we will experiment and change it on the fly, as opposed to trying to model everything out in advance or thinking you can model everything out in an impact assessment. So some of the stuff can be done by decision makers. A lot of it can’t be, though. And it is going to require new laws or new approaches to laws. We do something that a lot of other countries don’t.

I mean, it would be easy, I think, listening to this to say, for somebody on the right to say, oh, yeah, the problem is, government shouldn’t build things. But, one, it’s not viable because a lot of things need to be built by government. But number two, it’s just not true. You can look at Canada. You can look at a bunch of governments in Europe. The Transit Cost Project has done this.

And you’ll see that we just spend a lot more per kilometer of rail than they do. I mean, we just spend a lot more than other countries do if you compare us to a Canada, a Germany, a Spain. They’re getting a lot more bang for the buck. They got government. They got unions. They’ve got a relatively wealthy post materialist culture. It isn’t something intrinsic to government, but one thing that is a little bit unusual here is how much we try to check government through the legal system.

In a lot of other places, there’s obviously a comment period, and there’s a bunch of negotiations on the front end with unions and communities and so on. But once it’s done, it’s done. And here, we really make it easy for anybody to sue the government and for them to sue the government endlessly, which also, then, creates a huge amount of effort to try to make yourself bulletproof to lawsuit before you ever break ground on a project, which takes a long, long, long, long time.

And so I think we’re going to have to think about things, like the way our administrative law works, the way a bunch of the environmental policies we’ve passed over the years, like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act and the California Environmental Quality Act, and there are a lot of these acts at different levels. The way they work is probably not — at this point, they’re not having the intended effects among other things. Or they’re slowing a lot of things down that are good for the environment. Everybody knows what I think about the filibuster. I think you actually need to be able to pass laws more smoothly. Majorities need to be able to pass laws more effectively so they can also just revisit them. The cost of any individual piece of legislating is so high now that people don’t want to revisit things and make them work better. So that’s a problem. The number of civilian employees in the government has actually stayed much more steady than people realize.

So what we’ve actually done is outsource a lot of needed expertise. It seems to have been a particular problem on California High Speed Rail. We need really well-paid public servants, civil servants, who are also able to do their jobs because they’re not so hobbled by weird rules and regulations.

I’m very intimidated by this project, in part because I know there is not one solution. But I really do think there’s a lot of value to being able to see a problem and begin to see how the problem has operated in different domains, and then try to think about how it operates in your domain.

So my hope is to be one of many people here who is doing generative work. And I’m sure I will come up with over time a list of things that I think could be better on the margin. But there are going to be so many operating in so many different ways. I’m almost trying to create a lens on a particular problem that people can then take and look at the problem through their particular expertise.

It’s never going to be me who solves it, but I’m hoping to be able to focus attention on it and give people some kind of analytical tools for recognizing it and why it might have happened for many well-meaning reasons and things you want to be careful about undoing, but nevertheless, need to think about their downsides in the modern situation.


annie galvin

OK, I’m going to pivot to what strikes me as sort of a spicy question. And this is from Will. Who is the public intellectual you disagree with on at least 50 percent of the big issues you care about, but whom you respect the most?

ezra klein

Ooh, that’s interesting. One, I think the question of disagreement here is kind of a fascinating one because it fully depends on where you set the boundaries. So there are a lot of people I disagree with on a lot of issues in American politics, which is I think what this question is actually about. But I mean, we agree on very fundamental things about liberal democracy. And I don’t know. I think probably the answer I’d give on this is Tyler Cowen over —

annie galvin

I knew it.

ezra klein

— Marginal Revolution. Yeah, I mean —

annie galvin

I would have put money on that.

ezra klein

Yeah, and the reason is very specific. I think that something that’s a bit underappreciated about Tyler is that whatever you think of his politics — and I know many people on the show do not agree with his politics, do not like his politics. Much of parts of his politics, I don’t agree with — is that I think he does a very good job of exhibiting a number of intellectual virtues, in both the way he kind of tries to understand the world and the way that he comports himself within it.

Not to say he doesn’t have his moments of slipping up, as I do, as we all do. But I think there’s an ecumenism to him, right? He really does read and learn from and try to highlight a lot of different kinds of people. Even if he’s more conservative than you are, he’s very interested in liberals. And he seems very able to absorb from a lot of different folks, which is actually something most people can’t do that well in politics and in punditry. And I think that he’s able to maintain a lot of restraint and a cool temperature that allows him to be heard by a lot of different kinds of people.

And I could kind of keep going from there. But as I’ve kept going in my own career, I’ve come to think a lot more about the role that people in these jobs have in modeling different kinds of agreement and disagreement and ways of moving in the world. Just the role of virtues, right? I think that there’s the layer of, are people right? And then the layers of, are they comporting themselves in a generative and generous way? It’s a little bit like the old line, when I was young, I admired smart people. And now that I’m old, I admire kind people. I do feel that way pretty deeply. And there are other people I would note on this. I’ve always thought that James Fallows, the journalist, exhibits a lot of really profound virtues in his work. So yeah, so I would say Tyler. And I would say Tyler because I think that the way he — even if you don’t agree with him on a lot of things — and again, I don’t — I think there’s a lot to learn from the way he moves through the intellectual world, sort of no matter where you’re coming from.

annie galvin

Yes, and we can link our episode with him in the show notes. All right, on a topic that comes up on the show sometimes, Matt asks, I feel like you’ve been dancing around this idea of trust in institutions for a while and mentioning that trust is declining, it’s low, it’s a big problem, et cetera.

But what I want to ask, is aren’t our institutions themselves untrustworthy? And if so, isn’t it, in some sense, better that people don’t trust them? Were they more trustworthy in the past, or do we just have a better understanding of how bad they always were? And finally, how do we make our institutions worthy of our trust again, perhaps, and then start trusting them more?

ezra klein

Well, I’m not going to answer the last part because I don’t know. But I will say, I don’t think there is reason to believe our institutions are worse now, except for possibly because we are able to see their failures more clearly. And that maybe paradoxically makes them worse, rather than better. And what I mean by that is that, look, elites have always gotten a ton wrong. Their knowledge of the world has always been very limited. They’ve always been self-dealing and captured and corrupt. I mean, none of that is new.

And in fact, if anything, there might be ways in which it’s less prevalent, at least in America, now than it has been in the past. I mean, I don’t think you can even read documentation or histories of early America without being kind of stunned by how much corruption there was. Go read Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson. People talk about Johnson as this great master of the Senate. Guys, so unbelievably corrupt.

But we didn’t have the kind of media we have now, which has this very fundamental value, this oppositional antagonistic coverage. Even media organizations that people think of as liberal, they are so excited if they can unearth a scandal in liberal politicians, right? I mean, there is no mainstream media organization that if they got their hands on a scandal that could lead to the impeachment of Joe Biden, they would not report it tomorrow. Because they’d win Pulitzers, right? We’ve actually set up the whole industry in this way.

So as a result, there’s a tremendous amount of reporting artillery focused on what is going wrong in institutions. Then add in now social media, right? So these things get passed around. They get amplified. Oftentimes, nothing was wrong, and these things get amplified because they’re taken out of context, or there’s an edited video or whatever it might be. And then, which I think also creates, actually, a problem, the institutions know they’re under this kind of constant scrutiny, right?

They know that everybody can see them in the way they’re working. Members of Congress know that their testimonies are live on C-SPAN, and then people are going to clip out a 45-second piece and then put it on the internet. And so they’re very cautious and careful. And I think if anything, that’s probably the thing here making them worse than they’ve been in the past. I suspect they’re less corrupt than they’ve been in the past, but they’re somewhat less efficient because they can’t negotiate internally well, because they’re more risk averse, et cetera.

And so I think that we’re in a little bit of a puzzling moment on all this, where institutions are more transparent. We have more voice in them. And we don’t like how they work. In fact, if anything, we like how they work less and less and less. And that’s not because they are worse than ever. It’s actually because a lot of the things we apply to them to try to keep them in check have made their failures and flaws so visible that they’re now unignorable. And so having lost their mystique and then because of that, in part, having lost their authority, they also lose their capability to act well.

So we don’t live in a time of particularly bad institutions necessarily, but we live in a time where it is very hard for institutions to act institutionally. And that has created, I think, a cycle of mistrust, bad outcomes and frustration. And I truly don’t have an answer to it.

annie galvin

Here’s a question from Sean. What is something you realized was a significant problem that you previously discounted?

ezra klein

Oh, it’s a good one. I think that to everything I was saying earlier about a liberalism to build and supply-side progressivism, my estimation of the problems that can be caused by outdated or overly expansive regulations, and then a kind of adversarial legal system built on top of them, is much higher. So that’s something where I’ve been resistant because I do think a lot of regulations do a lot of good. I’m not anti-regulation in some abstract way.

But I think, in part, because it often seems to me that what corporations are doing around regulations is just trying to get freedom to do many things that I think are bad, that I discounted some reasonable critiques there. And I now take them a little bit more seriously. So I was more dismissive of regulatory burden and litigation cost in the past than I am now.

annie galvin

Sam has a question about policy and politics over time. So you have blogged about and covered American politics and the policymaking process for nearly two decades, not to make you feel old. [LAUGHS]

ezra klein

I feel old for a lot of reasons these days.

annie galvin

But given that fact, what has been the most significant change in the political environment that you’ve observed over that time?

ezra klein

Hmm. I think the most significant change right now is that the Republican Party has become a fundamentally anti-institutional party. You go back 10 years, 15 years, something like that. In many ways, Republicans were as or more institutionalist as Democrats, right? I mean, if you think about a George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush, a Mitt Romney, it’s different institutions, right? But they’re the party of big business. And they’re the party of, in certain ways, social — I don’t know what I want to call this exactly. But they tend to be more defensive of existing social arrangements, which tended to be institutions.

And the party, practically under and then post-Trump, has become very different than that. At this point, Republicans are almost at war with all institutions. They think business is woke. Culture is completely against them. Government is totally against them. Maybe not the Supreme Court, like, is like the only one. And so they’ve become very skeptical of elections and the sort of machinery and institutions that safeguard our elections. The Republican Party becoming fundamentally hostile to institutions and to a lot of the connective tissue that composes the fabric of American life and functioning is a really, really profound change. Now, again, I want to say, there’s always some of these dimensions to the party. You can go listen to our episode with Matt Continetti. It’s not like the John Birch Society wasn’t skeptical of American institutions. But it was a more suppressed tendency, and that tendency completely winning out and then kind of creating a feedback loop, right, where because the Republican Party is more anti-institutionalist, more conspiratorial, people who are more anti-institutionalist and more conspiratorial join it so it becomes even more that way.

And let’s say you get a Republican Party that’s highly anti-mask, highly anti-vaccine, at the same time, hates Disney, right? There’s a lot going on here that it’s almost like towards all institutions simultaneously and has made it then the one of the two political parties that holds power in this country at any given moment, is — I don’t know — it’s in a much more fundamentally radical place, and, in many ways, I think in a much more dangerous place.

I think the Republican Party is a much more destructive than constructive institution right now. I think it knows much better what it wants to pull down than what it wants to build, in ways that I think are very worrying. But it’s a really profound change. And I always say that the amount of change we have in American politics is often hard to see. It is obscured by the fact that the parties which host and adapt to that change maintain the same names.

So over time, on the internet, you say, oh, well, it used to be that people thought AOL would own everything. But now you have Google, right? So everything changes because the incumbent players, their names changed. The Republican and Democratic parties really do change. They just keep the same name. And so people don’t — I think it can be hard for people to track, actually, how different what has happened is.

It’s like we had a multiparty system where the part of the Republican Party that is now dominant had started out as the radical Tea Party Patriots party. And they went from 4 percent of the popular vote in 2010 to winning the presidency in 2016 or whatever. People would really grok that, but I think we often don’t. So that would be my answer.

annie galvin

Yeah, I mean, I think something that those institutions that you listed have in common, too, is that there’s at least a perception that they’re run by liberals. So it kind of dovetails with this own the libs fervor that’s so powerful right now on the right.

All right, so Daniel asks, as a longtime practitioner in the strategy consulting industry, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern of disdain that you’ve expressed toward these organizations. I’m curious if you can expand on your opinion of these firms, the work they do, and whether/why you feel it’s a net positive or negative for society as a whole. And I think there’s a little shout-out to Rogé, our former consultant —

ezra klein

Our former McKinseyite.

annie galvin

— as well.

ezra klein

So a couple of things here. He’s right. I do sometimes poke management consulting in the ribs. But I don’t have a huge abstract problem with management consulting or strategic consulting. I mean, I have problems with some of the individual projects that a McKinsey, et cetera, will take on. But that’s not really my issue here. I think my issue here is that I think that there are a certain set of industries that, in my view, don’t add that much social value. And I would hear particularly call it finance and management consulting. Not that they should be abolished, but they’re not, to me, things that are fundamentally transforming the world for the better. At best, they make things on the margin a little bit more efficient. They’re very middleman-y, right? They’re mediators in an advanced economy. And a lot of what a McKinsey does is sort of like wander around, get paid by one organization to see what they’re doing, and then get paid by another organization so that organization can know what the first one is doing. It’s just kind of crazy business model.

But because they actually have so much excess profits, they’re able to snap up or Hoover up a tremendous amount of young talent. The percentage over the past 20 years of Ivy League graduates who go into consulting or finance is really high, I mean high double digits in a way that I just think is bad, right? It’s just bad.

And so the thing that I have a stronger view on is that we’ve gotten into a place where young people who, their whole life have been on a kind of achievement track and are used to the next thing being well set up for them, and we’ve gone into a place where these organizations come in to good schools and go to the brightest people and are able to say, hey, look, sign with us early in the year, and you’ll have something that you can tell your family is great and is going to pay you well.

And they have this whole pitch. If you can come here and you’ll really learn business analysis, then you can go off and do whatever you want. And you can go to public service after you do this. And it’s like, no, that’s bad. You should just go do some public service. Go learn things on the job.

And again, I’m not saying that everything that McKinsey or Boston Consulting or Bain or any of them do is bad. And I’m not saying there’s no use for finance or any of it. It’s just, I don’t think we’re allocating talent well. I mean, if every one of those kids went and became a public school teacher, wouldn’t that be better? I think it would. But the problem is you make a ton of money at McKinsey and crap teaching in a public school. It’s not really McKinsey’s fault. But it’s still kind of a bad situation.

Or climate, it would be better if more people were getting into climate tech. And I mean, I think there is some amount of boom industry in that now, but — and you could say something like this about a lot of what ends up happening in law school, which doesn’t read exactly the same way when you look at these graduates. But I think a lot of people who graduate out of college and want to go save the world get talked into going to law school. I almost did. And most of them end up in corporate firms or firms that are doing things that are, again, to me, kind of middle man-y in the economy.

So beneath this critique is not really a critique of any of these individual industries. It’s much more a sense that we are using the most important thing we have, which is people and talent, poorly. And we sold a lot of people who want to do a lot of good a bill of goods that is a bad bill of goods. The best way to get into public service is not to go to McKinsey. It is probably not even go to law school. To something I was saying earlier in the show, I think we’ve over-legalized our political system. It’s a particular problem on the Democratic side. I mean, isn’t it just a little bit weird that Joe Biden and also Kamala Harris and also Hillary Clinton and also Tim Kaine and also Barack Obama and also Bill Clinton, all had law degrees, and Al Gore started a law degree that he didn’t finish? I mean, I’ve gone back and counted this up. It’s very few Democratic nominees — Ron Klain also has a law degree. The Democratic Party is really lawyer-fied, in a weird way.

And again, nothing wrong with lawyers, but I think we’ve told people, that’s the way to learn about public service. And that works for a small number of people. And a lot of people end up with crippling debt. And they end up doing corporate law. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with corporate law either. Corporations do need lawyers. I just — I don’t think we’re allocating talent effectively.

So that’s kind of what that’s getting at. I’m not saying I know how to fix it, or I know where everybody should go. And everybody can — it’s easy to get a little starry-eyed about things like STEM. But I also sort of think that it reflects a society where actually building things become really hard. And so a lot of people are focused on the rules and on efficiencies and on mediating between different institutions in a way that is not what you would see if we were sort of optimizing for more fundamental and more important forms of progress. So that’s my concern there.

annie galvin

Yeah, I mean, it reminds me of something you talked about with Agnes Callard about just the way that we allocate sort of status and prestige and, certainly, salary in our economy and society. It just massively favors industries like that if you’re looking for a high salary and high prestige. But it would be great if we could do that for teaching once again and other professions.

ezra klein

Totally, or nursing. Nursing is a great thing to do. And status is very connected to money. I mean, I think fundamentally — Agnes and I kind of disagreed on this, but I think I’m right about it. I think fundamentally, in our society, status follows money. And I think if you look at the jobs that get read as high status, they are the jobs that pay a lot of money. But on the margin, status is also about what people socially think.

And so part of when I jab these things in the ribs a little bit, that’s part of that view of mine, that I think probably a lot of smart young people listen to the show, and I don’t think that should just kind of automatically go into things like management consulting because it seems high status and is a next step that seems to retain optionality. I think that that should be seen as kind of a weird fallback that people end up in.

And instead, people should go work for our local governments, and they should go into teaching. And that there’s a lot of things we really need and we really need great people doing. And we’ve made those things seem almost weird compared to a bunch of, in my view, actually, weird things that we’ve overly normalized. I think people should look at you a little weird if you have gotten a great education. Like, I’m going to go work at a bank and try to make as much money as humanly possible. And I think they should applaud you if you go and teach eighth graders. And I think we’ve gotten that backwards.

annie galvin

Yeah. I’ve heard that their offices are really nice, and their office snacks are really good, so. [LAUGHS]

ezra klein

I’m sure they’re great. I’m sure it’s all great. I mean, that’s the thing. When you have an industry that throws off a lot of excess profit, you can do a lot with that excess profit. I’ll say something about Wall Street that they’re able to do. And I mean, this is why sometimes people make these choices, a very compelling argument. I’ve done a lot of reporting on this over the years, actually. I’ve written pieces about this.

A compelling argument that the Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan will make to young graduates is, look, here you are with your degree in English, but you don’t actually want to teach English. So come to us and we will actually train you to do the things business needs. And you’ll learn how to use spreadsheets and make models and whatever. They’re actually acting in a way as a kind of graduate school, because they have the money that other industries don’t to train people.

So I mean, maybe that’s — but we’re getting people to make kind of bad decisions at university or even before it. But also, I think it reflects a misallocation of resources and things like taxation could be used to manage. I mean, you could put a transaction tax on the financial industry and use that money for a lot of good things that would — I will say, as a kind of on the margin thing, you did a transaction tax.

And you basically just used the money to increase the value of a lot of jobs that we think of as socially worthwhile, ranging from teachers to sanitation workers to city government employees. I think that would be better. Now, frankly, a transaction tax would make so much money if you did it well that you could probably use it for a lot more than that. But yeah, I am saying that we should have a reallocation of status and money to other parts of society.

annie galvin

Yeah, it’s a proportionality thing. OK, so I’m kind of curious about this. This might be opening up another Pandora’s box, but Peter wants to know, Ezra, do humans have free will? Just a casual —

ezra klein

I’m a general free will skeptic. And the way I would say that is twofold. Not that in any given moment, there isn’t some choice, right? I’m sitting here. I’m looking at a can of Diet Coke and a bottle of water. And I do think, to a large extent, I have free will over which of those I choose. And I was just talking about people having decisions to make about what they go into. But I think that a lot of what we think of as free will is not really under our control. It has to do with predilections and resources and capabilities that come from well beyond us.

So, one, a lot of just what choices we can make have to do with where we’re born in society and how we’re born, right? Do you have developmental disabilities, right? Are you tall? All kinds of things matter here. But even beyond that, I think that a lot of the decisions I make get me a nice social claim, right? I work really hard. And people think that’s great. But I don’t really even feel like I have control over that.

Whatever kind of willpower I have or intense kind of energy for my work, I have, one, I have a great job that I really enjoy. But two, it’s somewhere behind me. I can’t stop. If I could stop, sometimes I would. But I don’t know if I deserve a ton of acclaim for that. Or my love of reading is somehow — it’s subconscious. But even, it’s like sub-willpower. I read to calm myself down. If it doesn’t feel like that to you, of course, you’re going to read less than I do.

And so, there’s just a lot in us that even the things that we still think of as sort of will that we still think of as part of our decision-making, like impulse control, I’m very, very highly impulse control. But that’s just kind of how I am. And I’m using myself as an example here because I feel more comfortable taking away my own agency than taking away somebody else’s. But impulse, I mean, we know that different things matter for impulse control. Like, if you have more adverse childhood experiences, if you have more childhood trauma, you’re going to have, on average, much lower impulse control as an adult because of the constant fight or flight response in your psyche, because of the way your executive functions did or didn’t develop.

And so, at some point, you and somebody who had a really cosseted upbringing are both going to be adults and will applaud the person who had the easy upbringing for making all these good pro-social decisions and maybe throw you in jail for getting into a fight at a bar or something. But was that really your fault versus the other person’s fault? I mean, I’m not saying that it’s easy to know what to do about the situation once you’re in it because we want to incentivize good behavior and, to some degree, punish bad behavior. But was that understood as will? I don’t really think so.

And so, I just think what is properly understood as somebody’s free will and what is properly understood as them making decisions that they deserve both moral and distributive acclaim or punishment for it, it’s just a lot smaller than other people do. And to some degree, my views on everything from taxation to prison policy follow from that. If you want to hear somebody who’s got very, very interesting views on this, I had him on the show back in the Fox days, and you can find a lot from him on this on YouTube. But he probably goes a little further than I would, but Robert Sapolsky, the Stanford behavioral and neuroscientist, I think is very compelling for a socially contrary view on this point.

annie galvin

Great, we can link that, too. OK, so let’s ask one more question before we get to our final question, as it is somewhat related. And Brian has a question about ergonomics and reading. And he wants to know, Ezra, do you have a special reading chair?

ezra klein

Oh, no, I don’t have a reading chair. I actually —

annie galvin

Where do you read? Yeah.

ezra klein

It’s not a good scene, actually. I’ve wanted to find a special reading chair. Special reading chair makes it sound so like a blankie or something. But I have all kinds of weird back and shoulder and chest issues. And so I need something that doesn’t hunch my shoulders forward. I need something that’s very ergonomic. And I haven’t found it. So if people have reading chairs they really like, I’m certainly taking possibilities and suggestions.

annie galvin

I think there’s a lot to be said for old school recliners because you can really get your whole body in the position that you want and —

ezra klein

No, they hunch my shoulders forward. And then —

annie galvin

Oh, no.

ezra klein

— my sternum begins to pop. It’s like the craziest thing if you saw this. So when I’m reading in any of these chairs, I’ll read for a little while. And then I’ll kind of get up as if to stretch out my back. And you’ll hear this deep resonant pop in my chest as my sternum pops in — it’s a total horror show. People turn around in coffee shops and look at me. It’s gross. Bodies are gross. I’m gross and old and broken down. But yeah, I’ve been looking for something that would simultaneously be comfortable and keep me from hunching. And I’ve not exactly found it. So maybe somebody out there knows the answer.

Weirdly, due to a recommendation from somebody else at the Times, I do my work in this little weird ergonomic rocking chair, almost, that can kind of rock forward. It’s this Dutch thing. And it can kind of be forward. And — I don’t know. My ergonomics have gotten better over the past year, but it’s because things got so bad that I actually had to get ergonomic help. And I’m trying to continue taking care of my body now that I’ve gotten that wake-up call.

annie galvin

OK, so always our final question, but with a bit of a twist — Ezra, can you give us a couple of books and a couple music recommendations that you’ve been enjoying lately?

ezra klein

So I guess I’ll begin with books. I’ve been rereading some Neil Postman for a personal project I’m doing, but partially because I think he’s so unbelievably brilliant and prescient. The place to begin there is “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” And if you just haven’t read it, it is not just a classic, but it is much more relevant to our world today than almost anything being written today is relevant to our world today. So Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” you should actually just read this book and not file this away as a neat recommendation in the back of your head.

Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature,” and I think people are not going to like that title for a bunch of different reasons, but it’s a great biography of Alexander von Humboldt, who was a naturalist, discovered a million things, had really, really fascinating theories of nature, structured a lot of how the West understands nature today.

And now I think a lot of people would say that there are a lot of Indigenous perspectives that he ends up borrowing from or kind of taking credit for, whether or not he came up with it similarly. And I think that critique is reasonable, but it is a fantastic biography, just a really beautifully structured and thought through book. And I’ve really been enjoying it. And I’m only about half done, but it’s great.

I guess I’ll do a fiction one. I recently read “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” by Sally Rooney. And I’ve found all of her work kind of very depressing, in a way, because just to the extent she is the voice of a generation, the level of anxiety and self-loathing and self questioning that her book reveals really worries me about people’s psyche. But to go back to something — we mentioned Tyler Cowen earlier in the episode. He described this Sally Rooney book as almost written by Ross Douthat, and I think that’s right. It’s a very, very unusual book. And it’s kind of mixtures of young leftism and almost social conservatism. And I don’t know. I don’t even know what I think about it. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it.

And I’ll do some music. So I really love and have listened to a lot over the past year Max Richter’s, particularly his song, “Spring No. 1,” on — I think it’s like “Vivaldi Remixed” or “Reconsidered” or something. It’s a beautiful, beautiful album, but “Spring No. 1” by Max Richter.

And I’ve been listening recently to a lot of sets by a DJ named Christian Löffler. You can find albums from him on Spotify or Apple Music or Tidal or whatever you use. But I’ve been listening to a bunch of sets he’s done on YouTube, which are worth checking out that you can find by searching his name.

annie galvin

Very cool. Thank you. So Ezra Klein, your podcast is “The Ezra Klein Show.” Your book is “Why We’re Polarized.” And your column is at The New York Times. Thank you for doing this.

ezra klein

No, thank you, Annie.


“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion, and it is made by an amazing team of people. It is produced by Rogé Karma, Annie Galvin, and Jeff Geld; original music by Isaac Jones and Jeff Geld. This episode is fact-checked by Michelle Harris. Mixing and engineering by Jeff Geld. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristina Samulewski and Kristin Lin.


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