I’m here today with Evan Osnos, a staff writer at the New Yorker Magazine and the author of the Age of Ambition, a book about China, that won the National Book Award in 2014. We’re here to talk about a number of things, including the fact that each of us spent substantial time in our life in Greenwich, Connecticut.
And Evan has a new article in The New Yorker that talks about how Donald Trump, how did I say, inspired Greenwich, Connecticut to change from what we might call the noblesse oblige years that are associated with the Bush family to the present. Evan, thanks for joining me today.
My pleasure, Rob. It’s great to be with you. Thanks.
So, we’re talking here on the 20th of May 2020. And we’re talking in the context of a pandemic. We’re talking in the context where many people think that the distress we’re experiencing is something that none really could have foreseen. Though there may be a few scientists who would argue with that. But it’s a dreadful disorientation of society and the notion or comfort of legitimacy.
What I would say is the recipe book we had all been living with, got thrown out the window by these events. And I’m curious what you’re seeing? What gives you heartburn? What good actions and what prospect for change there are out there? And just your picture, where are we and where are we going?
Well, like so many people right now, I’ve been I think horrified and chasing and sort of humbled by how fast we went from a period of normalcy, the world that we all recognize and that we all inhabit every day, to something that feels to all of us everywhere, completely alien. And here we are confined to our houses, here I am at home.
But also, of course, feeling immensely fortunate. My family is for the moment, healthy and safe. And I think I am struck by how much this moment has been a moment that reveals. There is that phenomenon when you go through a crisis like this that this peeled away some of the covering, some of the kind of political bunting that sometimes covers up the weak points in our society, in our politics, in our relationships with each other.
And what we’ve seen is it’s become a cliché, but it is worth reminding ourselves. I mean the vulnerabilities of people in our society who don’t have the ways to fortify their livelihoods or to recede inside of kind of a cone of protection at a moment like this. Look, I’m a lucky guy. I can do my job from a lot of different places. And mercifully, there are people who still want to read what I have to write.
But the cushion of stability and comfort and the fragility surrounding it has become just immediately apparent, I think, to people. And I also find that and this may sound counterintuitive, I find that a source of hope, because in some ways, we were as a country, I think, in so many ways we were listing towards this state of greater inequality, of enormous protection instability for some people and tremendous vulnerability and instability for others.
And what this crisis has revealed is the depth of those disparities. But it is now front and center, frontpage news every day that there are demographic slices of the country, whether we’re talking about African Americans who are suffering from the virus at much higher rates than whites, or other segments of the population that are just hugely vulnerable.
And that is now an inescapable fact of the day-to-day commerce of politics and the economy. And that is progress because it actually means that this putting the issue where it needs to be, which is at the center of the action. So, I find that I think that can be a centering moment for our politics, even if it feels like a moment of such extremes.
Well, yeah, had a wonderful talk yesterday with the Former NBA Legend Isiah Thomas and he was talking about the inspiration of Muhammad Ali. And I will repeat what we discussed yesterday that in the Guinness Book of World Records, the shortest poem in history was articulated from the stage at Harvard by Muhammad Ali.
He was getting off the stage and somebody in the audience said, “Ali, what about a poem?” He got back up on stage, and he looked at the audience and he said, “Me, we.” Right now, we’re living in the awareness of we after a heck of a lot of focus on me. And I think you underscored exactly where the turning point in which I’m going to call defining success and defining purpose have to evolve, have to come from if we’re going to get things back together and on a healthy trajectory?
Yeah. Well, you and I are both in some ways aficionados of the Ali tradition. I mean, I just did both his capacity to summon the moment but also, that is exactly where we are. We are as a people, as a country, as a community, we are having an active discussion about the boundaries of our call it our moral universe, who are we connected to? Who are we obligated to? Who are we responsible for? And how do my actions impact your life.
And that kind of conversation, which is sometimes submerged within the daily cut and thrust of politics, that’s what the virus has shown us. And that is if we can summon the energy to make something productive of it, that’s useful to us because there is no disguising the fact that we are now all of us embedded in. I think King called it the fabric of mutuality, that we were all of us connected in this kind of interdependence. And this has reminded us of it.
Yeah, well, I’m seeing some very affluent people rising to this challenge. I watched a video of an interview with Mark Cuban the other day. I’ve seen some of the recent acts and they’re not surprising to me because he was my neighbor and close friend for many years, Ray Dalio in Greenwich, who I know was also part of the article that you wrote for the May 11th issue of The New Yorker.
So, I can see wonderful people. Paul Tudor Jones has done some amazing things and he was another neighbor of mine in Connecticut. So, I’m not trying to demonize people. But I read your story and I’m looking at the kind of way of believing and I’m always reminded by my theological friends, money is not the root of all evil. But the love of money might well be.
And I thought Bob Dylan captured this beautifully in his song Masters of War, where the second to last verse he says, “Let me ask you one question, is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could? I think you will find when your death takes its toll. All the money you made will never buy back your soul.” Well, in the world of we, I’m curious how you think that lyric would go down in Greenwich, Connecticut right now?
Yeah, so I’ll tell people where I come from on this question and how I think about money and places like Greenwich. To announce my priors here, I am a proud son of Greenwich, Connecticut. My great-grandparents moved to Greenwich in 1937. They were Midwesterners from Chicago and they bought a house there and it kind of passed down through the generations. And then we moved there in the mid-’80s.
And I was a kid and I had, I just grew up in this place of extraordinary almost kind of uncountable advantages. I went to a public school that had everything I could possibly ever want. It’s just a tremendous place to be a kid. And it was to win a kind of cosmic lottery.
And part of growing up in Greenwich was this awareness of a certain, obviously a sense of abundance. I mean, to put it in numerical terms, this is a, as a metropolitan area, that Southern Connecticut is the richest metropolitan area in the country in 2016. It was ahead of San Francisco, Midland Texas, you name it.
And for a long time, that abundance, that money was situated in a, call it a kind of set of interlocking ideas about citizenship and responsibility. And that when you had those resources that that came with a sense of commitment to helping people who didn’t have those resources. I mean, it’s this baked into the old idea of noblesse oblige. And there was a lot of problems with that. I mean, let’s state the obvious here. That part of the reason why people turned ultimately against the WASP ascendancy was because the WASPs were exclusionary. They were keeping out minorities and people from outside that community from controlling powerful institutions in America. So, nobody is mourning the end of that age by any means.
And that’s important to point very clearly that this is … Yeah, and I should say, our own personal terms. My family was a kind of mix, right? We had the WASPs on my mom’s side and then my father’s family is Jewish. And in some ways, the father’s side of the family wouldn’t have been all that welcomed granted for a long time. And those conditions have changed over the years. It’s a place that is, in many ways, much more … Those kinds of discriminations are not as apparent. They’re not there in quite the same degree. Nobody pretends that they’ve disappeared, but they’re just not there the way they were.
And yet something has fundamentally changed in the way that money fits into our understandings of ourselves as citizens. What are we actually meeting? What do we owe others? And I was struck as I went back and looked at the history of taking one thread, looking at the way that the Republican Party in town talks about these kinds of questions.
And to give you just one example. The town is very closely associated with the Bush family, as you mentioned, and the Bush family, going back to the grandfather of George W. Bush, Prescott Bush. He was the guy who ran the local, he was the moderator in the local town council, the representative town meeting. He then went on became a US Senator, and he was always to the left of his party. He was a classic country club Republican, Rockefeller Republican. He believed in being the fiscal conservative, but he believed that you should spend money when you need to, to invest in things like science, education, defense.
And as he said once famously on the floor of the Senate, he sort of besieged his fellow Senators. He said, “We need to spend money even if it means raising taxes in order to make sure that we’re fortifying the essential services that make this country what it is.” I’m paraphrasing. Now, that idea really was at the heart of what made Greenwich tick politically for all of my growing up. And I think for a lot of people, that’s how we still imagined that country club republican character a cliché. And something has changed.
And today, in Greenwich, just to round out this point, the reason why I got interested in this subject at all is that when Donald Trump emerged as a political candidate in 2015, he was not an obvious fit for Greenwich. In fact, people made fun of him. They said, “Look, we remember when he owned a house in town, and he has nothing to do with us here.” And they would piece in the local paper where somebody said he’s vulgar, and he’s ill-mannered, and he’s not our kind of guy.
And then when the primary was held in 2016, Donald Trump won the Republican primary in Greenwich, and not just in Greenwich. He won in 20 out of 23 of the towns and cities in Fairfield County. And I realize something profound had evolved, something had changed in the nature of the republican idea in my part of the country and I needed to understand what had happened.
And that was the beginning of this search, this inquiry. And it led me down a long road talking to a lot of people to try to understand what changed, but something profound did change in how people think about the role of money in their lives and in their sense of their commitments to others.
I had done some work teaching at the Union Theological Seminary, where I co-taught a course for a couple of years with Serene Jones, who’s the director. And we had a wonderful guest. We used to do panels and we bring in economists to talk with theologians and philosophers in a series of seminars that INET sponsored. We call them economics and theology. I used to call it means and ends in my own kind of shorthand.
But one of the guests was a lady named Kathryn Tanner, who I believe, I think she’s now at University of Chicago, but I think she was at Yale in those days. And she wrote a book that was called the Economy of Grace. And it really shook me when I heard her on stage and I had a copy of this book. Because she told the story of how, what I would call the era of noblesse oblige, or what I think you refer to as the Rockefeller Republicans, were in a place where they viewed their good fortune as a responsibility and their good fortune required of them to be stewards of a society.
And what Kathryn described in this book was something that was quite eerie and she spoke up on stage was how, which I’m going to call, the arrows of causality and action got reversed. Instead of saying, “God has given me good fortune and I have a responsibility to humanity, nature and mankind.” They said, “I got rich. I’m one of the chosen ones. And God has picked me and I am legitimate and could do whatever I want.” And I found that kind of haunting.
Because myself living in Belle Haven, but having grown up in Detroit, I found a sense of, and I always tell the story, when Robert McNamara lived in my community and was the head of Ford Motor Company. They asked him, “Why do you make 14 times as much as your average worker?” And he said, “Anything more would be obscene.” And I sat around the pool in the Newt Gingrich era of ‘94, ‘95. And everybody acted like if you didn’t … Now this time, CEOs were making 280 to 350 times what their average worker made.
And sitting around that pool, there are a lot of CEOs or people on the way to being CEOs there in the neighborhood. And the kind of ethic was, you’re weak, you’re a sissy if you don’t go for it and get that kind of money for yourself. So, I think you probably grew up in Greenwich and saw a little more of the noblesse oblige baseline that became transformed. When I entered there in early 1993. I think it was already accelerating.
But it is interesting what you do in your article, which is, Donald Trump would have been considered an outcast, kind of unsavory in the Greenwich that I lived in, even though it was getting rawer. Then you’re talking about them coming around, which is, how would I say? That’s ominous, I think.
And it’s a reflection of these of this broader cultural change. And that’s really one of the things that comes through so clearly in what you’re describing, Rob, and I think what I sensed and have watched since over the last 30 years or so growing up there and until today is a change in the norms, in the cultural expectations that one has of each other and I’ll give you an example.
So, go back in the ’80s and the ’90s and earlier really, in the ’70s and ’60s, the richest people in town, as one of my friends put it, used to dress like gardeners. You kept things submerged. And there’s a bit of artifice in that. It was a bit of an affected sense of threadbare nobility, but it was at least a reflection of an idea that one should not be ostentatious in the way that they think about your money.
And there was an old story people always have told. It’s true. Talked to a friend yesterday who remembers this that, Morgan Stanley senior executive used to compete to see who could wear the cheapest wristwatch. And then you began to see that the polarities on how we think about money and the reflection of it and the manifestations of it just began to change. And I saw this in a very subtle way, but in many ways telling way in the kinds of the kinds of stonewalls that people used to have in Greenwich.
We all remember these old New England farmers walls that run all over. These are the Robert Frost lines of gray that run from Maine down to the southern tip of Connecticut. And what you began to see over the course of the late ’90s, really when we were beginning to, it was a much greater wealth was coming into Greenwich at the time. In some ways it was an echo, obviously of a booming stock market.
But you began to see it show up physically on the terrain because instead of building these small farmers walls, people started building these tall mortared six-foot walls and they became known actually in the trade and the stonemasons around the area started to call them the Greenwich Walls, because they began in Greenwich. And you begin to see the towns in the area of Westchester County and some of the surrounding municipalities started to pass these rules and rewrite their zoning laws to prevent these walls from coming into the community. So, they sort of treated them like an invasive species.
And it’s because in many ways, those walls were the reflection of an idea. And I think that idea, that sense that it was both a reflection of power and status, but also and this turned out to be hugely accretion, it was also a reflection of a kind of seclusion, a desire to receive, to retreat within ourselves and within the confines of a space we can control. That was, I think, a precursor of a political moment that we now have.
I mean to draw the metaphor to its most obvious sort of obvious conclusion, we have a president who got to the White House on the promise of building a wall as a physical construction that would, as he imagined it, wall off the United States from its connections to the rest of the world and from the threats that he perceived originating abroad.
That’s the ultimate reflection, the ultimate outgrowth and the sort of destination of this phenomenon that we began to see on the most local level 20 years ago in the birth of Greenwich walls. And that’s where I see the connection between that local culture, the local political ecosystem we’re looking at now.
Well, you can see there’s a lot of work then INET has funded, some of it kind of resonates with the work of Anne Case and Angus Deaton on the diseases of despair.
But where we’ve gone at INET is people like Shannon Monnat and others have done research which correlates the geography of the diseases of despair with the places that were disrupted by, for instance, austere state and local budgets, the influx of globalization, automation and machine learning. And what you see is where, what I’ll call the disruptors, have been violent. You see the despair and you see in the United States, the places where Donald Trump was most successful say, relative to Mitt Romney against Obama or the last time there were two challengers, it was George W. Bush versus Al Gore in 2000.
And then if you look, by the way, around the world, the Leave campaign in Brexit had an awful lot to do with the austere budgets outside of London and the fortification of London with all the public resources, or the role of automation and job displacement in Germany and the rise of the AfD or the rise of Marine Le Pen.
So, this, what I’ll call nationalistic wall building, defensive, despairing kind of politics is very highly correlated with economic outcomes and perhaps correlated with the kind of work like the philosopher Michael Sandel is doing right now on the what he calls the tyranny of meritocracy, whereby elites in service of the concentrated wealth and power are justifying that concentration of wealth and power.
And because they are considered the most educated, at the top of the meritocracy, this is somehow which would be called so correlated with wisdom or truth. And I sense this kind of despairing is intermixed with this unmindfulness or the intoxication, what I refer to as the love of money. And how we break out of that cycle, I don’t know. Maybe this pandemic has a silver lining in that it shapes up that kind of mindset, though I’ll cite your journalistic peer, Jesse Eisinger, at ProPublica, who produced a very ominous article. I think it was about a week ago, May 10th. The bailout is working for the rich.
So, we may have some more despondency. We may have some more distrust in governance about the distributional kind of outcomes once they’re diagnosed, like we had after 2008, where Joe Stiglitz said the polluters got paid, where state and local communities couldn’t get the Federal Reserve to buy their bonds.
So, they had to close police department schools, not repair infrastructure, while the toxic financial instruments will be added to the Fed’s balance sheet. And the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker used to say, the Federal Reserve cannot be in the business of picking winners or it will become publicly controversial and it will lose its independence. Well, I think we’re in that conflict now.
Yeah. And you raised such an important point. The depths of despair, which is on a lot of our minds these days because of the book that Deaton and Case published, I am very fortunate in a way to have lived in a few different places in the country that have very, very different experiences of the last 30 or 40 years, one of them being Greenwich.
My very first job out of college in 1999 was in a little town in West Virginia, Clarksburg, West Virginia, worked as a newspaper photographer in town at the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram. And what is so striking about it from my perspective, West Virginia, as we all know is in some ways the epicenter of the kinds of phenomena we’re talking about, the economic dislocation of automation and globalization and the impact of dying industries, like coal.
And at the same time, one of the things that doesn’t show up in the data that begins to, I think, explain some of how we got is and I’ve been spending a lot of time in West Virginia over the last few years in some ways in Greenwich is that part of the feeling of loss in West Virginia was very much a sense of the loss of that upward trajectory because it was once there.
I mean in Clarksburg, there are banners that hang around town that hung around for years, which were a memory of the fact that in 1955, I think, it had been voted one of America’s best run cities and that memory of being an object of admiration, of being a place that was on the trajectory towards success means that then the absence of it comes that much more strong.
And I mean, just to put it in very clear political terms, we all remember, West Virginia was Democratic stronghold for years and years and years. It was a central to John F. Kennedy’s getting of the nomination in 1960. And in 2000, West Virginia by 2000, it had flipped, and West Virginia went with George W. Bush. And it’s sometimes lost to the details of history, but it’s worth remembering. If Al Gore had won West Virginia in 2000, he would have won the presidency. So, the change that we see today in our politics is apparent if you look in the right places and you began to see those changes in places like West Virginia and Clarksburg 20 years ago.
And if I can, I’ll add one other note, which I think is quite encouraging actually, quite a hopeful note in some ways about the moment we’re in these days, which is that we’re talking you mentioned a moment ago exactly the COVID, the crisis, the virus has forced this political moment to a crisis point, an urgency. And right now, there’s a fascinating case unfolding in the local politics.
This happens to have coincided just around the time this article came out, basically, in the couple of weeks since then, that the local government in Greenwich has taken a look at the economic projections, and they’ve said, “Well, we’re going to take a big hit on our local tax revenue and therefore, we need to make a big cut to the education budget.” They proposed a $3 million dollar cut to the Board of Education. And this is huge. The superintendent of schools described it as scary what the effect would be on teaching in the public schools.
And instead of people kind of shrugging along and saying, “Okay, well, I guess that’s going to be the effect. We’re in an economic recession of the highest order. We’re going to have to just accept it.” People actually have risen up and said, “No, that’s not okay. Here we are. We’re in one of the most fortunate pieces of geography on the planet. We need to be able to keep investing in our public schools in a way that keeps them vibrant, attractive, and that is looking out for people who don’t have another alternative.”
And so, you’ve seen this really robust political response. So, I think of that as it in some ways, it’s the bookend to what I described in this piece, which was the drift into Trumpism. The drift towards that seduction that he would promise has been also now met with a response where people say enough is enough. This is not okay. We’re not going to keep cutting to the point that it undermines the quality of OUR basic commitments to the kids in our public schools. And that’s quite encouraging. And I think it does show the way in which this crisis has perhaps begun to point the light towards to whatever it is that will follow.
Well, I think your article helped me in part because I had lived in Greenwich. And I had come there as what you might call an employee and example of the power that of financialization. Years before I’d worked as the chief economist to the Senate Banking Committee, time of the ‘87 stock market crash and savings and loan bailout, which looks like a minor warm up game compared to what we’ve seen since then.
But the even as I worked in the hedge fund industry, my skepticism, and George Soros and Stanley Druckenmiller’s skepticism about these complex package derivatives and so forth was it was quite daunting to feel like the world was going that way. And there was a kind of recklessness that I guess people started to count on the Central Bank and the public authorities to underpin what we used to use Iraq analogy, we used to call the mother of all moral hazards.
That the more they promise to bail you out, the more risk and the more the financier is understood they had a one-sided bet. And in part, Wall Street was extremely aggressive compared to other sectors in the economy in its financial contributions and lobbying for who should be appointed and what kind of regulations and enforcement and laws should be put in place?
So, I think that we’ve developed something that was kind of operational, what economists call rent seeking in the political economy. But people then kind of got drunk on the money flows. The financial sector was not a means to growth. It was an end in itself. And many people refer to it in these days as a predator, rather than as a form of efficient capital allocation and what have you.
Well, I guess, I kind of think about what you described in almost like religious analogy, which is, it feels like we’ve deified the individual. It feels like we’ve deified the market, like it’s some divine creation that brings us good. And it doesn’t feel like the results warrant such sacred deference.
And so, I’m wondering how this kind of comes unglued. I’ve read a book recently called The Enchantments of Mammon by a scholar at Villanova, Eugene, I don’t know how to pronounce his last name perfectly, McCarraher. And he talked about how there is always a yearning that we might call religious impulse. The question is a little bit what do you fasten it to.
And I think this pressure now brings us to a point where we may have shattered those religious ideals because the human consequences are now so profound, visible, evident and severe. And I wonder, and this a long-winded entry to a question. But I’m very fond of how the music and arts together influence how people perceive things and how they think.
And I remember very clearly how John F. Kennedy spoke, I think it was an Amherst College commencement, about Robert Frost. It was a tribute to Robert Frost, but he essentially spoke as though the infusion into the heart and soul of the arts was essential for business leaders, government leaders and society as a whole to maintain the sensitivity and balance that is needed, to what you might call correct our course and stay on course.
I am struck by … There’s two points in what you mentioned that really are connected to each other and resonate. One is part of the reason why the arts redeems us in a sense and draws us together as a community is because it situates us in a larger context. In a sense, what is the function of literature, right? The function of literature is to tell you that you are part of a larger experience, that what you are going through, your ambitions, your desperate desires for things, your sense of longing, your anxieties, your status, anxiety, your competence, all of those things go back to the ancients.
And when you begin to leave that piece of our society, whether it’s literature or the arts or a sense of the larger scope of our experience, well, then it’s very easy to begin to focus on ourselves to kind of engage in a form of call it a sort of social narcissism, where we begin to say, “Well, my experience is paramount. My experience is unique. And my experience deserves to be above other people’s experiences.”
And this then sort of leads you to this point that you mentioned a moment ago. I thought a lot about greed in the course of the last few years thinking about how we got into the moment [inaudible 00:38:35]. And look, to state the obvious greed is as old as time. It’s one of the original sins. It’s always been a problem and what’s changed and what’s made it such a dramatically potent factor in contemporary life is that we’ve optimized the instruments for the expression. That’s in some ways one of the things that changed.
If I was a banker in 1955 in Greenwich and I was a member of a partnership in investment bank and which my job was basically to service clients and then eventually to sell my piece of the partnership on to the next generation and retire happy in town. Now, that’s one level of a possibility for acquisition.
But if you change the rules of the game, as we did quite dramatically over the course of from the sort of late ’60s all the way into the ’80s, and then all the way up until the advent of financial crisis, where we made it possible for a person, an individual to take these dramatic bets and gain these windfall returns, well, it really changes the optimizing potential for how much you can do with that desire for money.
And I think that’s one of the things that changed was that it became, and this gets to … I have Michael Sandel’s book, the Tyranny of Merit is sitting on my desk in galleys and he gets to the heart of the question, which is back with that, which is, in some ways we created an apparatus, an intellectual infrastructure and then a technical infrastructure in the economy that allows us to justify the boundless pursuit of the thing we want to pursue.
And what we lose in that is a sense of the reminder of our mutuality, a sense of our interdependence and a sense that what I do in my life, even if I’m pursuing it to my maximalist desire has a tremendous impact on the life of people who I may never even meet.
And that fact that, in some ways, the sort of blind interdependence of our time has become for me a real organizing principle for how I think about our vulnerabilities and how we got into this moment.
One of the people I’ve gotten to know over the years who’s been very curious about where ideas come from and how they say resonate across different areas of times is Bill Moyers. And Bill as you know has done some serious documentary work on the life and thoughts of Joseph Campbell.
And Campbell when talking about heroism and what I’m thinking here is who are the people are going to rise to the occasion and help societies to turn the corner into a healthy and constructive next dimension or next trajectory. Because it’s often the case as one of my favorite philosopher, Stephen Toulmin often says, “When people see the fault lines in the system is usually in the midst of a crisis and the fear causes them to lurch back to the familiar rather than forward to a healthier place.”
So, the heroic lines that I excavated from thinking and looking at Campbell were two or three little passages that I’d like to share with you. The first he says is the cold that you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek. A hero is someone who’s given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.
But when I think about your work, and I think about the ways in which you and I’ve interacted including, we’ve had a very vivid discussion a few years ago about how elites were thinking about how to evacuate the country in the event of an emergency or getting a private airstrip in a piece of land in New Zealand or something like that. And at one level, I didn’t view that at the time because I’ve got a lot of very affluent friends. I didn’t view that as shortsighted or greedy. Because I viewed that is really frightening. Because those people with all those resources and all that power didn’t think they could change the system.
And my friend, Ray Dalio, and neighbor and I talked about this at some length both before and after you and I work together in relation to your article where you quoted me, but the idea of how do you rise to the occasion now? It reminds me of the third thing that I read this morning about Campbell when I was thinking of talking with you.
And he said the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche, where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties eradicate them in their effect on his own case, i.e. give a battle to the nursery demons of his local culture and then break through to the undistorted direct experience and assimilation of what Carl Jung called the archetypal images.
And that journey, that piercing through things, that going to the core of your own upbringing and the discord between that noblesse oblige Greenwich and the Trump attack Greenwich that you portray made me think you were on Campbell’s nomination lists for the light you’re shedding at this junction.
Well, I am struck by the fact these days that writing is about the farthest thing a person can do from being helpful in this world. But we all try to do our own way of making sense of it. But I think this crisis, this moment has in some ways done us a great service by reminding us of what genuine heroism looks like. And it is a real mercy that we look out our windows these days and we cheer for people who are putting themselves at risk to help others.
We weren’t doing that 365 of the previous days. And that is something that lingers with us. And it takes work though. It’s not something that we’ll do just naturally. And I’m thinking a lot these days about we all remember after 9/11 that we carried with us for a brief period some of that sense of unity and togetherness, that felt redeeming. And then it somehow leaps away in its more malevolent form, it actually took on elements of fearmongering, and we became a more fearful place of the outside world as a result of 9/11.
And I think one of the challenges before us in the years to come after this is how do we take that tremendous sense of pride we have in the best among us, the doctors and the nurses and the people who are delivering our groceries and how do we translate that into action and into something of self-sacrifice, because otherwise it just becomes a memory and it doesn’t become a reflection of who we are.
And that’s where leadership matters. And I think we’re coming up on a moment in a few months, in fact, this fall, when we’re all going to be looking to say, who are the leaders who can articulate that energy for us and put it into action, into go. And that’s going to be the measure of this moment. That’s the test of how we actually did as a society and how we came through.
Yeah. Where will trust and faith in leadership reside? And I think many people talk about the COVID pandemic something like an alien invasion and that we’re in an era that somewhat like war preparation. They hark back to Roosevelt preparing for World War II. But one of the daunting elements of that vision is that Roosevelt through the New Deal had gained credibility in representing a broader base of society, not perfect, but African Americans were left behind the door, most certainly. But compared to the depression that he inherited in 1932, things started to turn for the better. And he, which you might call, earned the license to lead.
In the aftermath of 2008 when we’ve had the house changed to republican leadership, then the Senate, then Donald Trump elected, all kinds of cynicism related to that bailout, Tea Party occupied, both left and right, and now the bailout we have going on before us. It’s sometimes hard to imagine who people are going to put their faith into. But how would I say, there’s a bit of a call to action now.
That I think it’s necessary and it’s not just within countries. It’s across countries. Because looming on the horizon is climate change.
And I’m curious, in kind of your sense, you’ve written a wonderful book, Age of Ambition on China. You’re very sensitive in many of the articles you’ve written subsequent to that book. And I do a lot of work in China. But you’re right at the top of the awareness that I see. How are we going to reverse the course of the deterioration in US-China relations, the blame game going on right now or if you listen to the administration, somehow the complicity of the Obama Administration and their interest in multilateral cooperation, plus the Chinese that’s what produced this pandemic, they’re selling that kind of fear.
I don’t know where elements of truth are. I’m not making an argument. But we and China and India have to collaborate vis-a-vis climate change in the next 20 years.
How do we get to that place? How do you how do you see US-China relations evolving?
Well, it is worth acknowledging where we are at the moment, which is at a very, very dangerous moment. I mean, we are at the worst point in the relationship between the United States and China that we’ve seen since Nixon went to Beijing in 1972. Things are at the lowest point in terms of trust and in a sense of a shared future.
And it’s quite dramatic to people who are in the China analysis business as I am, to see how things have changed. I mean, you take your mind back just for a moment to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Here we were right about … The financial crisis had not yet fully descended upon us. And here we’re seeing the emergence of a culture, of a country that had been in 1979, one of the poorest places on earth, poorer than North Korea. And here it is now putting on this extravaganza that in a sense, kind of signaled its arrival as a country.
And then you had this period and this kind of period resonated up until about 2016, in which we were kind of living in denial. And some of that was we were living in denial of the fact that the reality was, China was breaking in serious ways. I mean, it was breaking rules on its own turf when it came to its treatment of dissidents or of minorities in Xinjiang or eventually, its treatment of territory like Hong Kong. And it was breaking international rules. It was stealing intellectual property. It was also not adhering to the kind of trade agreements that it had agreed to under the WTO.
So, there was this long-delayed sense of, well, we sort of were waiting for the day when China would wake up and say, “Okay, now it’s rich enough that it’s going to start following these rules.” And that didn’t happen. And as a result, and I’m quoting a friend of mine, a US diplomat who works on these issues, he said, “We were too late in recognizing China’s full strength and then we overreacted to it.”
And that’s where we are today, which is that there was pressure on both the right and the left to be tougher on China, but in some ways, the Trump Administration, which is really operating from a pretty hobbled capacity, when it comes to dealing with these issues, it just simply doesn’t have the expertise and the personnel to be able to negotiate a hard problem like the US-China relationship. It has resorted to these very blunt instruments. That’s why we saw the trade war, which ended up costing American households about $1300 per household. It’s to remind ourselves as terrorists were being paid by American consumers. And ultimately, you now have the tension stretching all the way through matters of public health, like coronavirus.
But here’s the reason why I am fundamentally optimistic is that China, as tempting as it is these days to see China as just the natural successor to the Soviet Union, it’s the new Cold War. We see that on half the magazine covers that come out every week. It is not the Cold War in the simplest sense. This is not the Soviet Union, which was, let’s remember ideologically determined to see the destruction of the United States. It was baked into its existentialist idea was that in order for the Soviet model to prevail, the United States had to fail.
Nobody who knows China seriously, studies and even in sort of the most hawkish ends of the American analysis community believes that the Chinese Communist Party believes that in order for it to succeed, the United States has to fail. Now, what it does believe is that the United States will seek to contain it. That’s a difference. Contain does not mean vanquish.
And what we have to figure out and what we have to accommodate ourselves to is the idea that we are not in any way going to blandly allow the Chinese authoritarian model to become the new modus operandi of the world. That’s just not what’s going to happen. We are going to contest it. We must contest it.
But for us to pretend that we are going to somehow push China into the past is a delusion. And it is also not a way for us to address the biggest problem. And that’s climate change. Let’s be blunt. And the reason why China is actually making a substantive contribution to addressing climate change is not out of the goodness of its heart. It’s not because it thinks that this going to make the Europeans treat them nicely.
It’s because from the Chinese Communist Party’s perspective, climate change is a political risk. China has more people at risk of being displaced by rising sea levels than Bangladesh. It is the single largest potential call it a victim of climate change impact on sheer numerical scale of anywhere on the planet because it has one quarter of humanity in its control.
So, as we think about life after, we’ll call it life after this political moment, whether that is starting in 2021 or four years after that, it’s going to be up to the United States to figure out how do you take what China needs to do, what’s China’s own interest is telling, which is to continue to address climate change. And how do you also say, we’re able to hold two thoughts in our head at the same time. We can fight them on issues when it matters, like intellectual property theft, like protecting the rights of its own citizens.
And at the same time, we can collaborate on issues like climate change, and of course now, what we all know so urgently necessary, which is matters of public health. Those two ideas can inhabit our heads at the same time. And that’s going to be the task for political future.
I think what you say is very, how I say, sober and necessary and I hope that you will be inspired to write and provide that guiding light at a time when so many people are using current events to miss the point. And in the case of climate change, I think the problem is the gestation period for getting it right is probably measured in like 12 to 20 years.
And if you wait 11 of those years and then get started, you’re not going to get there. So, it’s not as if we have the kind of all hands on deck alert like the pandemic to force a drastic change in action. We have to foresee that and we have to overcome those kind of suspicions and resistances. You probably know Orville Schell, who’s written a lot about China, but his book Wealth and Power was written with a coauthor, I think it was John Delury, I think was his name.
John Delury, yeah.
Yeah. And he talked in that book about how the Chinese had suffered humiliation from the Opium War and the Japanese invasion and how the Americans are terrified of being displaced as the world’s number one and leader not just in size of economy, but as what you might call the fulcrum of the world system.
And how this pretended a very difficult time because the reinvigoration of dignity, the erasing of the wounds in China and the, how would I say, defensiveness or fearfulness of the United States presented very, very profound psychological challenges for the leaders and throughout the body politic in both countries.
And now we’re at this place that the clock is running and demands cooperation. And I just hope, I hope we can see it how they can compel us.
In so many ways, at this moment, we’re not doing that. What we’re doing is kind of short-term political gain. We’re banging each other up on both sides. The Chinese, if you watch Chinese news or read what they’re writing, they’re going after the United States and we’re going after them obviously. Donald Trump sees a pathway to reelection leading up on Beijing.
That’s a luxury that we really don’t have. And I think one of the things that we’re beginning to see, I’m not spending time looking, I’m writing about the November election. When you start looking into the data on how people, particularly young people are voting, it’s a reason for some encouraging, because they’ve already begun to look over the horizon to say who are the kinds of leaders that are going to be able to recognize these challenges and not operate entirely in the shortest possible political time.
So, that is going to be what’s necessary because at the moment we’re caught up in a cycle of responding to our own domestic political anxieties and that doesn’t lead us to a solution.
Well, Evan, I must say, I’ve often been inspired by our conversations and I’ve been inspired by your writing, both in the books and I know you’re working on a new one about the wild world in which we live. And I look forward to seeing that.
But as kind of we’ve drawn to a close here, as I was listening to you, came back into my mind a passage from a Leonard Cohen song. And the name of the song is Anthem. But the passage that reminds me of you and the powerful work you do and you know your father’s a friend of mine, and he and I share a certain joy in talking about you and all that you are striving to do and achieving.
So, in honor of you and your father, I’ll cite Leonard Cohen. “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
You are such a promising and vital and accomplished mind as a young person. When I think about what constitutes faith in the future and I asked myself what’s going to help the light get in, I see your image and I see the cover of your books in that view.
Rob, I really am humbled by it. I appreciate it. And I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the chance to chat today. And I will tell you one thing, which is your reference to Leonard Cohen couldn’t be more perfect. And I will add that when I look for that kind of inspiration, for that moment where I say we’re sort of at the bottom of the well here is that, it happens to be that my four-year-old son, who is a guitar fanatic, the first thing he has decided to learn at the age of four is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
And so, when I hear him up there banging away on his guitar, he’s still working on the details. He doesn’t know his chords yet. But he heard something in there that sang them and when I look at his face, and I think about the world that he’s going to inherit from all of us, that’s what forces me back to the work and said, “We have so much work, hard work to do before we give a world that our children deserve.” And that’s the project before us. And thank you for the chance today to be able to talk about.
Well, I hope I can inspire you to come and join me for another episode a little bit further down the track as things unfold. Obviously, as your book comes to fruition, as the November election approaches, and as we need to reinspire US-China cooperation. But for now, just want to thank you for today and we’ll see you again soon.