podcasts


I always love a conversation with Blake Boles. We never fail to get into interesting territory. He recently interviewed me for his podcast, Off Trail Learning, and that episode is embedded below. The topic is the challenges of freedom in unschooling. Unschooling is a libertarian (meaning focused on, valuing, and providing freedom for the student) educational style which is at the center of my long-time second home and family, Not Back to School Camp. If you are interested in unschooling, Blake’s podcast is a good way to learn about it. Check out his interviews with Grace Llewellyn of NBTSC, Dev Carey of High Desert Center (“On the perils of goal setting”) and Liam Nilsson of Endor (“Who should unschool and who shouldn’t”). I aimed my interview at joining in on their conversations.

I get half of my political news and analysis from a great podcast called Left Right & Center. (The other half is from Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square.) LR&C is an ongoing conversation between three guys from different political perspectives on what’s happened this week, and has been very valuable for the development of my own political thinking.

The other day, I was listening to another great podcast, This Week in Microbiology, and it hit me that these two shows have the exact same format. TWiM is also an ongoing conversation between three guys about the news of the week. The superficial difference is that TWiM is about bacteria and LR&C is about US politics.

The more abstract difference between these two podcasts, though, is that Left, Right & Center is an excercise in outcome-irrelevant learning, while This Week in Microbiology is an exercise in outcome-relevant learning. That is to say, the empirical events of the week change the opinions of the TWiM guys but almost never change the opinions of the LR&C guys. This is a huge difference. On TWiM, when there is a disagreement, they look up what is known about the issue and almost immediately come to an agreement based on facts: either one person is right and the other wrong, or else we really don’t yet know the answer to that question.

On LR&C, when there is disagreement (which there is on every topic), each fact that comes into the conversation is either disputed or used to proove each person’s own point. In politics, the facts are basically irrelevant. Makes me wonder why it remains so interesting.

Matt Miller has started a new podcast called This Is Interesting. I just listened to the first one and it’s good. I’m a big fan of his political conversation podcast Left, Right and Center, where he moderates as the political centrist between a liberal and conservative pundit. I’ve listened to him do that show hundreds of times, so I am very familiar with where he’s coming from and interesting in his take on things. (I’ve written about LR&C here.)

I think this show will stand on its own, though. So far it’s a bit like a “deep read” episode of Planet Money, talking in some depth to authors about their topic. In the first This Is Interesting–“The Robots are Coming!”–Matt talks to Martin Ford of The Lights in the Tunnel and Erik Brynjolfsson of Race Against the Machine.

A couple of the ideas I’m left with:

Outsourcing jobs is just a stage in the direction of mechanizing them, so countries like China and India stand to be hit the hardest by the rise of robots.

What a job pays is not a great indicator of whether it is in danger of robot-takeover. Radiologists will be robots pretty soon, but housekeeping staff will not. Auto mechanics are safe for a while too, combining the physical dexterity and cognitive flexibility that is difficult for now to mechanize. (I’m guessing I’m safe as a therapist (though they’re working on it) for the time being. I hope we get some county-approved-paperwork robots, though.)

If education is about creating the ability to add value to the economy (i.e., have a paying job) then we need to be focusing education on what machines can’t yet do. This may be tough–a quickly receding horizon.

There is no reason to believe that market forces will create as many jobs as there are people, and this is likely to happen less and less. If we lose the massive wealth redistribution system that is jobs-with-mechanizable-routines, we will end up having to massively expand our welfare system.

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I’ve listened to 247 podcasts of Planet Money over the last several years–about 80 hours. This show is the best way I’ve found way to learn about economics in fun, thought-provoking, 20-minute bursts.

I just finished a show called “The No-Brainer Economic Platform,” about six economic reforms that apparently almost all economists agree on, regardless of ideology. The major point of the show was that even though there is agreement, political candidates will not consider running on them. And if they did, they would stand no chance of winning.

One of the major points (though probably unintended) of my 80-hour economics education has been that economists are much closer to political pundits than scientists. The “facts” vary widely depending on their political stance. That’s why this show was so exciting: There actually are six things that economists agree on across the political spectrum!

1) Eliminate the home mortgage interest deduction. It is extremely regressive and distorts the housing market in bad ways. They make it sound here like almost all economists are in favor of eliminating all tax loopholes and deductions, though the point is less clear. Read on, though, and you’ll see that loopholes and deductions would become mostly obsolete under this platform.

2) Eliminate the deduction for employer-provided health insurance. It’s one of the main reasons for high healthcare costs in the US.

3) Eliminate taxes on corporations. If you want to tax rich people, do it directly. The idea is that tax rates serve as incentives/disincentives. Don’t tax things we like. We like American businesses making money.

4) Eliminate the individual income tax and payroll tax. We also like individuals making money and we like businesses creating jobs. Make up for the loss by taxing consumption, I think especially on luxury items–make it progressive in some way.

5) Tax things we don’t like. Use taxes as disincentives for things like cigarettes and pollution.

6) Legalize drugs, or at least marijuana. The war on drugs is basically a massive waste of money that makes drug cartels rich. Without it, we’d have another kind of consumption that we don’t like to tax.

Again, the major point of this show was that these ideas are political non-starters, but I wonder if that is true. Each plank on its own would have entrenched detractors, but as a system of reforms it’s more appealing. Pay more for your mortgage and gasoline, but pay no income tax. You would have to show people a model of it working.

Here’s a challenge for any math-oriented readers: Give us some examples. How much would we need to charge for cigarettes, pot, gambling, fossil fuels, yachts, and mansions to make up for the loss of all income taxes?

My regular podcasts* have not been able to fill all my listening needs during this trailer-renovation project, so I’ve been trying out some new ones. The two that I am most excited about are After Words from booktv.org and This Week in Microbiology from microbeworld.org. They are both at least an hour per episode and have a considerable back-catalog, so I should have plenty of excellent listening and learning for the rest of my project.

In each After Words episode, the author of a recent scholarly book is interviewed by another expert in/about their field. For example, Jack Abramoff was interviewed by CQ Roll Call’s lobbying reporter Eliza Newlin Carney about his book Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist. Sam Donaldson from ABC interviewed Chris Matthews about his book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero. Yale psychiatrist Sally Satel interviewed cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga about Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. I’ve listened to 13 episodes so far, biographies, histories, ethics, law, science, and every one has been excellent. After each one I’m spinning on new ideas and new depth of understanding. If you are a nerdy eclectic, I think you will like it.

In This Week in Microbiology, Vincent RacanielloMichael Schmidt, and Elio Schaechter present and discuss new articles and ideas from the world of microbe scholarship. Now you might think that pretty boring way to spend an hour and twenty minutes each week, but you’d be wrong. Did you know that the more variety of microbes that live on your skin the less mosquitos are attracted to you? That hydrogen sulphide (the gas farts are made of) is toxic to the skin of your intestines? That there is evidence of a significant difference in the bacteria in the guts of autistic vs. neurotypical children with gastrointestinal distress? That many bacteria navigate by sensing the earth’s magnetic field? With my strictly-200-level organic chemistry and biology education, I do get lost in some of the discussions of specific substrates and protein types, but the hosts consistently bring the conversation back to the bigger ideas: What could this mean for us? For science? What do we still not know? What are the next steps? It’s fascinating. They also produce podcasts called This Week in Virology and This Week in Parasitism (and are threatening great-sounding shows like This Week in Micology (fungus) and This Week in Immunology), which is a problem–the problem of every modern-aspiring renaissance man: You can’t keep up with science anymore. Oh well, it’s still fun to try!

*In alphabetical order: Freakonomics, Left Right and Center, Planet Money, Radiolab, Seminars About Long-Term Thinking, Sound Opinions, This American Life.

I am aware that Tony Blankley worked for Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, but for me, Tony Blankley was the conservative voice on KCRW’s political show “Left, Right, and Center.” I discovered the show in the late 90s and have listened religiously for the last several years. After he died recently, they did a show in his memory and I was surprised at how emotional I became. I tended to agree more with the liberal and center voices on the show, but in retrospect, I really appreciate how Blankley approached their ongoing conversation. It wasn’t just that he was extremely intelligent and likeable. It was that he engaged the liberal and centrist positions with seriousness and respect, every week for years and years.

It’s a rare opportunity to get to listen in on that kind of conversation. It’s easy to find professional idealogs (and amateurs too, of course) mocking their enemies from a safe distance. On all sides it’s a straw-man game: shoot down a caricature of your opponent. I hope I am not an idealog, but I find myself doing the same thing. Listening to Blankley over the years has helped. In most cases, I can now see conservative positions not as differences in accuracy or integrity, but differences in values. He just had some different ideas about what was important than I do. And that is OK. We each get to say what is important to us.

A good lesson to learn. Thank you, Tony Blankley.

The cast of Left, Right & Center: Matt Miller, Arianna Huffington, Tony Blankley, Robert Scheer (photo by Marc Goldstein)