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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.


Why Is Violent Crime Rising?

Featuring Jennifer Doleac

Is Italy returning to fascism? Are we closer to a cure for cancer? And why is the violent crime rate climbing in the US? Economist Jennifer Doleac talks us though her research on the economics of crime and discrimination.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

[Audio Clip]

Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are on season three of What Could Go Right?, our podcast that looks at the world from a different lens than much of the mainstream media looks at the world, a lens of what’s the more positive aspects of our societies, how are we constructively solving our problems, and speaking with individuals who are focused on those questions with that angle. And underlying all that is a sense that we are much more likely to create the future that we want to live in rather than the future we fear we are going to live in by believing in our collective possibility to create it than we are by focusing relentlessly, constantly, and continually on all the things that we know are going wrong. So, with that in mind, one of the things that we are concerned about, we collectively in the United States, and certainly to some degree around the world, is the spike in crime over the past few years, particularly as the world shut down during the pandemic, and as it messily opened up in 2021 into 2022, there has been a notable spike in violent crime in most major urban areas, and it’s not entirely clear why that’s happening, and it’s certainly not clear or agreed upon about what to do with it. And so we’re gonna speak to someone today who is an expert in studying these trends from a more dispassionate, pragmatic angle, and has been looking at ways to address crime, pre-pandemic, post pandemic, during pandemic, you name it. So we’re gonna speak with Jennifer Doleac, and afterwards, we’ll look, as we have been doing in this season, on some of the news of the day that’s more unheralded, news that probably hasn’t gotten the attention that it should or the attention that it could. We’re gonna talk a bit about Iran, Italy, and cancer. Two of those things don’t seem very optimistic, but we’re gonna look at them from a more constructive angle. But first, we’re gonna talk to Professor Jennifer Doleac, and Emma’s gonna tell us who she is.

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Jennifer Doleac is an economist. She’s an associate professor at Texas A&M Department of Economics, where she studies the economics of crime and discrimination. She’s also the director of the Justice Tech Lab, a non-resident fellow in economic studies at The Brookings Institution, a research affiliate at the University of Chicago Crime Lab, and a research fellow at IZA.

ZK: So let’s talk with Jennifer.

EV: All right.

ZK: Jennifer, thanks so much for joining us today. So as we approach midterm elections in the United States, certainly in any urban area, one thing that’s hugely on voter minds in addition to inflation is safety in cities and crime. And this has been kind of a rolling intensifying debate between people in various states, between people in various cities about what’s going on with cities post-pandemic, whether we’re post-pandemic or not. I don’t really want to get into it, the partisan issues around that, but certainly as we’re in a very different phase of whatever it was we were in, and post Black Lives Matter intensity in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, issues of policing and crime in cities have been really ever more intensifying, and in Congress as well.

Jennifer Doleac (JD): Mm-hmm.

ZK: So this is an area you’ve thought a lot about. The political dimension is clear, right? Meaning there’s a huge political debate about policing, about crime, about all these things. And I think a lot of your work is much more pragmatic, and some of it’s theoretical, some of it’s pragmatic, some of it’s applied. So when people ask you about these issues and want to know some sort of insight politically, how do you enter in those conversations?

JD: I do try to be very pragmatic in these conversations. Ultimately, most of my work is on, you know, what works to actually make communities safer. And I have a lot to say about that. But in this political conversation, I think what’s been interesting to me is, you know, violent crime, particularly homicide, is increasing in a lot of cities. That’s scaring a lot of people. And that is also in a context where we have been benefiting for a few decades now from falling violent crime rates that we don’t fully understand, right? So violent crimes spiked in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and then it just started declining, and we still don’t know why. And I think that now that we see violent crimes starting to increase, that uncertainty, that unknown is freaking people out, right? It’s like maybe, you know, we don’t really understand why we’ve been so safe for all these years, and so that means it could turn around at any moment, and maybe we’re at the beginning of another huge increase in violent crime. And so I think that’s sort of in the background of all these conversations. And what I try to remind people of and where I hope that this policy conversation goes, is that we’ve learned a lot over the last couple of decades about how to do this better this time. You know, in the ’90s basically, we decided to just lock everybody up and be really tough on crime. We’ve learned a lot since then that that can be quite counterproductive. It’s certainly not the best use of our public safety dollars. And so as we think about how to handle violent crime now, and as people are understandably worried about their own safety and the safety of their kids and their communities, I hope that everyone will sort of keep their heads on straight, at least most of the time, so that we can be thoughtful about the policies that we’re implementing and keep going in a positive direction rather than reverting based on fear.

Audio Clip: What we’re seeing is a very specific dramatic increase in murder and gun violence. There was about a 30% increase nationally in murder from 2019 to 2020. Year on year, it was by far the largest increase ever recorded. We’ve dated going back to the 1960s in terms of national murder trends. The largest previous increase was 12, 12.5% year on year. So a 30% increase was really dramatic.

Audio Clip: Gun violence has been consistent and as American as a apple pie.

Audio Clip: Unfortunately, the rise in violence has occurred just about everywhere in the United States without much difference regionally.

ZK: I guess one pushback to what you’re saying is it’s true that we really don’t know what led to that decrease. I mean, everybody wanted to point to a good mayor, but it was true in every city so it couldn’t have been that particular to the individual city. But it does seem to me that all this spike is after things had shut down in one form or another in almost every city in the United States and Europe, and then sort of opened up in a chaotic, incoherent, messy fashion. And in most of these, there’s, you know, a lot of homelessness. There’s also mental health issues. And it seems to me like the explanation now for the spike up is less perplexing than the decline starting in the mid to late ’80s. I mean, what would you say about that?

JD: Maybe. I mean, that had been my hunch initially when, you know, we saw violent crime, we saw homicide and shootings specifically increase when the COVID shutdowns began. At that time, I remember telling lots of people who were asking about this then, you know, my hunch is this is about the shutdown. There are fewer people out on the streets, fewer potential witnesses, fewer potential bystanders. And so, you know, if you, you know, are engaged in, you know, gang violence or drug-related violence or something like that, you know, it’s kind of a free for all in these empty streets now. And so we would expect then for all of that to go down once things started opening back up again and people are out again. And so, you know, maybe there’s a haphazardness to that, but for the most part, things are back to normal in most cities, and homicide is not dropping back to pre-pandemic levels. And so it seems to me at this point that we’ve kind of– you know, the best explanation I’ve heard is, you know, there are more guns out and available and on the streets now, and things have just sort of spiraled, right? So if more people are carrying guns, homicide’s up, then more people carry guns for their self-defense, and then you get even more violence. And so it’s getting back to that pre-pandemic equilibrium is gonna be harder. But that’s all frankly speculation, and we don’t really fully understand it yet. But I think the fact that things, you know, went up, but didn’t go right back down as soon as people started moving around again, suggests that it wasn’t– even if this was spurred by the pandemic shutdowns, it’s not gonna be as easy as just going back to normal and returning to those pre-pandemic levels.

EV: I actually was coming to your research, Jennifer, assuming that we did know why crime was going down. I didn’t realize that actually, we don’t know why.

JD: Yeah.

EV: And I love that you started out this whole conversation with you look at what works. So I’m dying to know, you know, what does work when it comes to reducing crime. I also wanna ask you about a couple other topics, but we can stay on crime for now.

JD: Yeah. It’s just easier [laughs] to answer these more specific questions. So if we’re talking about violent crimes, so crime can mean different things to different people. If we’re talking about violent crime specifically, the first thing that is clearest that comes out of all the research evidence is that putting more police on the streets reduces homicide. So increasing police presence does have a deterrent effect on violent crime, specifically homicide. You know, we have been having a national conversation about policing and what policing should look like going forward, but in my mind, the goal of that conversation should be figuring out how to capture the benefits of policing that we know exist in terms of crime reduction with fewer of the costs that come from over policing and all of the other stuff. So that’s kind of the policy and research conversation now, is how to reform policing in a way that maximizes the benefits, minimizes the costs. Aside from policing, we know that increasing the probability of getting caught for crime is much more effective than increasing the punishment for crime. So putting cameras everywhere, adding more people to law enforcement DNA databases, which I’ve studied, those are much more effective policies than increasing prison sentences, putting someone in prison for 10 years, if we wanted to deter crime on the front end. In terms of non-criminal justice interventions, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that people have studied. So summer jobs for teens, there have been really nice randomized controlled trials now in a number of cities like the gold standard of evidence there, and that reduces violent crime arrests and even mortality due to homicide. We know that air pollution increases criminal behavior and violent crime in particular. And so if you compare neighborhoods that are on like one side of a highway versus the other side, if the wind is blowing in this direction, violent crime over here goes up. If the wind is blowing over here, violent crime over here goes up, which is terrifying. And so, you know, putting things like air filters in classrooms like that, you know, that could be effective. Let’s see. There’s also more and more evidence every day that increasing access to mental healthcare is really important for reducing violent crime. And I could talk at length about that, but there’s lots of evidence just that that has big preventive effects as well as preventing, you know, your first interaction with the criminal justice system as well as helping you kind of get on a better path after you’ve cycled through the system a couple times. So yeah, there’s a whole bunch of stuff out there, an endless array of options for policymakers to choose from, which is a pretty cool place to be.

ZK: So how do you balance fact and fear? You know, most homicide levels in most American cities are back to around where they were in 2014, so, you know, it’s gotten worse, but from a very, very low base, right? So someone can say crime is up 100%, you know, but if it goes from 5 to 10, that’s 100%.

JD: Right, right.

ZK: That’s a radically different reality than if it goes from, you know, 500 to 1,000. And I guess I wonder how you deal with this, right? You’re in an inherently quantitative profession that has inherently qualitative applications, right? So how do you deal with these, the fact/fear problem?

JD: I don’t think I have a great answer for that.

ZK: [Laughs]

JD: Like, yeah, I mean, part of my– honestly, like as you’re talking about this, it’s like, well, I’m really lucky that’s not my job [laughs].

EV: [Laughs]

JD: You know, my job is to do the research and summarize for people what the research says. Luckily, you know, one thing I really like about working in criminal justice issues, is that there, at least for a while now, has been a really broad political consensus that the current system is not working very well, and we would all like a more fair and effective criminal justice system. And people come to that table for different reasons, but everyone winds up at the same table, right? So left, right, religious right, libertarian, like everyone is dissatisfied with the status quo. And so that means that people in general in this space have been much more open to what the research evidence says about how to reduce crime than I think in a lot of policy spaces. I think that’s still true. Like, I still get lots of calls from policy folks asking, you know, what do we know about what reduces violent crime? And so that suggests that they’re interested in doing more than just signaling to their local community that they care, right? I mean, the easy thing to do would be to just, you know, arrest everybody, throw ’em in prison for a really long time. I think it probably helps that that’s really expensive. And so not a great default [laughs] from the policy side in terms of, yeah, if you wanna signal that you’re trying, that there are big downsides to going down that road again. So, I mean, yeah, this is, I think certainly a question that elected representatives are really dealing with. I just try to say over and over again we know that increasing prison sentences does not reduce crime. We know that, you know, doing these other things does. If you’re serious about actually having an impact on crime, do these other things. But related to your question, which is is something else I think a lot about, is sort of the role of discretion among these various decision-makers and courts and, you know, police officers and all the rest. So seems like a big reason that we wind up overincarcerating or overdetaining people pre-trial and other things like that, is that like the individual judge who has to make that decision is punished severely if they decide to let somebody out who then happens to go on to commit another crime. But if they lock too many people up, if they err too much on the side of harshness, nobody notices, right? Like you’re locking too many people up and so you don’t notice that those people would not have actually committed more crime if you let them out. So whenever there’s an individual decision-maker who’s using their discretion in that way, it’s going to push us in a direction toward more punitiveness than is necessary. I think more and more places are experimenting with using algorithms or some sort of like standardized rules that say, you know, anyone who is rated low risk is automatic release pre-trial, or something like that, rather than having them go before a judge and having the judge decide. And so whenever you have a blanket policy like that that reduces the discretion from the decision-makers, that can help us push in a direction where we sort of know collectively that’s the right thing to do for public safety, but if we’re gonna put it on an individual judge, they’re always gonna take the safe route and just lock that person up just in case. So I think that’s one way in which we can push against and counter the way that fear affects what we’re doing on the ground.

ZK: Just to emphasize that one of the only bipartisan pieces of legislation that came out of the Trump years was the First Step Act at the end of 2018, which reduced prison sentences and kind of was a move in the direction you’re talking about. And I think funding from both, you know, the Koch network and Soros, who would normally be seen as not working hand in hand, but this kind of consensus of the system not working and a bill that was, I think in many ways, very constructive.

Audio Clip: Thousands of former prisoners who thought they would spend Christmas behind bars are free thanks to the help of the First Step Act. President Trump signed the legislation into law last December. The act increases the number of good conduct time credits an inmate can earn per year. It also built on the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 signed by former President Obama, which reduced penalties for crack cocaine offenses. The US Sentencing Commission says those changes can help more than 140,000 people in prison.

JD: Yeah. I mean, in general, I’m pretty pessimistic about the role the federal government plays in [laughs], especially criminal justice policy. I mostly just want them to stay out of it because there’s so much action happening at the local and state levels. And so you get, you know, liberal states, conservative states have all made huge changes in criminal justice policy really trying to, you know, reduce incarceration rates, improve rehabilitation, all these other things on the ground where it actually is affecting communities. And, you know, governors need to balance their budgets and again, prison’s really expensive, so that helps. But yeah, but even in that context, we saw the federal government do something where you had a broad consensus.

EV: Speaking of the federal government doing things and not doing things, and-

JD: [Laughs]

EV: -you know, [laughs] consensus and not having consensus. The big mega table that we mostly can’t seem to get around is about shootings, right, in the US, and I know that you researched that as well. And what struck me when you were describing some of the things that worked around policing is that some of them were immediately like, ooh, we’re in, you know, political waters here, but some of them, like, no one’s gonna get mad probably about summer jobs programs for teens, like I can’t really imagine a lobby against that.

JD: Right.

EV: So I’m curious if there’s any kind of low hanging fruit like that around shootings that might kind of help people think about that there might be another way through our gun issues in the US.

JD: The interventions that affect shootings are gonna be similar to the interventions that affect homicide or other kinds of violent crimes. So we actually have much less research on like shooting specifically, ’cause it’s really hard to measure gunfire. You have to, for the most part, count on people calling 911, which they don’t necessarily do, but if the bullet hits someone, then it will definitely get counted, and those things are obviously correlated. So in general, I put shootings sort of in the same bucket as just other gun violence in general and homicide in general. You know, mental healthcare is really effective. I mean, again, so yeah, you’re right that, you know, putting more police on the streets can be more controversial, but it’s also something that I think when we’re kind of– There are a lot of interventions that one could put in place with police departments that perhaps are gonna be less hot button issues, like increasing investigative resources or something like that. But yeah, I think overall it’s gonna be a lot of the same stuff I mentioned before. As soon as guns come up, people sort of go to the default of well we have to implement stricter gun laws and we have to reduce, you know, the ability of people to carry guns around. And the reality is, you know, we’ve been talking about that for decades and we are not making a lot of progress on that issue. And so, you know, keeping in mind that if our goal is to reduce gun violence and our goal is to, you know, save lives, there are other ways to save lives that sort of ignore, for the most part, the gun piece of it and just treat it like violence, any other sort of violence, so cognitive behavioral therapy, mental healthcare, those kinds of things would probably be at the top of my list.

EV: It’s good to have the reminder that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, you know, when it comes to regulations and interventions like the ones that you’ve mentioned.

JD: Right. I think a lot of times, you know, the gun conversation in particular, I feel like people get very quickly distracted by what their ideal policy would be and seeing that policy is the goal rather than keeping their eye on the ball of like, you know, presumably we all have the same goal of saving lives and people have different ideas about how to achieve that goal.

ZK: It sounds like you feel like even with the sort of mid to late 2020 to present increase, that overall there’s been a lot that’s been really constructive and creative at the local and state level over the past, I don’t know, X number of years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. So is that a correct– you feel pretty positive about the local trajectory of these things?

JD: Yeah, definitely. I’m definitely an optimist, not only in terms of seeing action on the ground and moving in the right direction, but also that we have answers at this point and are gonna continue to accumulate more answers. And so, I mean, I think, you know, just over the last couple decades– I mean, I’m a researcher, right? And I spend a lot of time looking at data and trying to find natural experiments that can help us understand that like split people and places into treatment and comparison groups to help us understand what the effect of some program was. And over the past couple decades, there’s just been huge progress just on data infrastructure and the availability of data from organizations like police departments or like prosecutors offices that are giving us a chance to actually dig in there and figure out if what those places, what those people are doing is working. And, you know, that’s just crucial. We just had no idea before, right? We’re just kind of going based on hunches. And then alongside that, there’s been slow but steady what I would call culture change in the criminal justice policy space where people really are focused more on testing whether what they’re doing is working and iterating on their approaches. So, you know, operating on hunches isn’t acceptable anymore, and that’s partly because there are more and more people doing the kind of work I’m doing, you know, writing these research papers and demonstrating that certain kinds of policies and interventions work, partly because more and more funders are requiring that kind of evidence when they give a grant to a place. But in general, I think that’s been really huge here. There are a lot of ways in which the criminal justice policy space is like 10 years behind the education policy space. So in terms of data, in terms of thinking about different types of reforms, accountability, all those kinds of things, so we’re behind, but we’re moving, and it’s going pretty quickly at this point. And yeah, I mean you know there are some downsides to our criminal justice system in the US being extremely disaggregated. I think depending on how you count, there are between 12,000 and 18,000 police departments across the US. That makes it difficult to like implement a blanket policy change if we know what we should be doing. But in the current moment, we don’t really know what we should be doing. And so it’s actually really awesome to have 12,000 to 18,000 places all trying different stuff, right? And then that gives us lots of– you know, it’s like the laboratory of democracy kind of idea, lots of of different little mini experiments that help us figure out what works and what we should be iterating on. It feels like a golden age of certainly criminal justice research and then people actually listen to us, which is even better.

Jennifer, I actually wanted to ask you a personal question, which is how you got into this because it might surprise people to know that you’re an economist then the jump from that title to I do this kind of research might not be obvious to a lot of us, including me. So I would love to hear how you entered into this.

JD: Yeah. Why am I here? [Laughs] How did I get into this space?

EV: How are you here? [laughs]

ZK: Who am I?

JD: Yeah. So I’m an economist by training, and basically what economists bring to the table is, one, a really strong empirical toolkit. We are more focused, I think it’s fair to say, than any other type of social science researcher on distinguishing correlation from causation. We look for like actual experiments, RCT, randomized control trials, or natural experiments where you have a policy change that very cleanly divides people into treatment and comparison groups. And that gives us something akin to the lab experiment we’d love to have, but we’ll never actually have in the real world. And so as a PhD student, I was hunting around for these natural experiments ’cause that’s what you do as an econ PhD student, and basically read a New York Times article about DNA database policy in the US and how every state has its own laws and own rules about which types of criminal offenders are required to provide DNA to the state DNA database. And the point of the article was like, isn’t this crazy and totally arbitrary that like if you live in Kansas and you commit robbery, you go on the database, but if you live in Iowa and commit the same crime, you don’t. And to someone like me, that’s a beautiful natural experiment [laughs]. And so we can compare the outcomes in these different states and look at database expansions and when they were implemented and compare people just before and after the expansion. And so that became my dissertation. And even at that point, it was still a pretty niche area within economics. I got my PhD in 2012. And so even at that point, I was like, I don’t know, I’m interested in crime, but I’m also interested in other things. We’ll see how this progresses. And then eventually I, you know, accepted that this is a super interesting policy area and we have a lot of work to do and we need people with that toolkit focusing on these questions. And so now I’m all in. The other thing economists bring to the table that’s a little different from other researchers is we’re very focused on how people respond to incentives. So we’re very focused on sort of how people make decisions, but this incentive piece and finding ways in which like incentives are not aligned with our policy goals is something we get very excited about, and the criminal justice space is full of misaligned incentives. And so thinking through like how could we be aligning incentives better to get better outcomes is something that someone like me can be helpful with.

ZK: Well, that’s a good pan to academic economics or economists in a way that I’m not sure makes me wanna be one, but it certainly-

JD: [Laughs]

ZK: -certainly is persuasive. Plus you’ve given us a little bit of practical knowledge. For those listening, if you’re considering committing a crime, it’s clearly better to do so in Iowa than it’s to do so-

JD: [Laughs]

EV: [Laughs]

ZK: – in Kansas.

JD: You might want to check current law, but yeah, yeah. [laughs]

ZK: So not only are you a theoretical researcher, there’s serious pragmatic applications for that, not always the ones that, you know, [inaudible]

JD: That’s right, that’s right. [laughs]

ZK: Anyway, I wanna thank you for joining us today. Obviously these are, you know, massive issues that are gonna continue to percolate throughout society, hopefully percolate in a less intensive way. We’ll see if this spike is really a pandemic hangover or a new normal that we obviously don’t wanna be a new normal, but it’s probably too soon to tell which of those two things it is. And it’ll be interesting to hear what your conclusions are when we circle back to this in a few years. And I wanna thank you for being part of The Progress Network and for all the work that you do.

JD: Well, thanks so much for having me. This was really fun.

EV: Thanks, Jennifer.

ZK: So that was another great conversation. I particularly like, by the way, that the expression laboratories of democracy came up, and that’s the second episode in a row that laboratories of democracy has entered into the What Could Go Right? podcast ’cause it came up as well when we talked to Senator Hertzberg. And we did not go over bail reform. I’m sure Jennifer has her own angle on that and has done research, but it just points to the fact that kind of the world of criminal justice reform and dealing with these issues is kind of a vast territory covering everything from, you know, education and as she mentioned, air quality, not just what tends to be focused on, which is guns and police, and that this is a kind of a social problem that has deep roots, and that if we’re gonna deal with any of this, we have to look at the complexity of it and the regional differences of it and learn from a lot of progress that’s been made. It’s great to hear someone talk about things are actually getting better, even if in the short term they are admittedly and unquestionably getting worse.

EV: And with all those factors at play and the use of, you know, laboratories of democracy, I feel like talking to somebody like Jennifer, you think a little bit more like scientists solving cancer and less like mad scientists, oh my God, what’s going on in the US is crazy, which I feel like is the normal mindset when people talk about American politics and something as politically tense as crime and policing.

ZK: And that you can bring data to bear on these questions. You know, it’s not just, oh, my God, it’s all– like, you don’t have to rely on newspaper headlines and popular sentiment and immediate emotions, that there’s actually people looking at this and studying it and thinking about it from, you know, a dispassionate perspective, but a passionate one about solving problems, you know, dispassionate about the data and seeing where it leads, but passionate about doing something constructive with. And I think, you know, Jennifer is absolutely Exhibit A for that, but there are many others within this universe who are as well. So let’s turn a bit to the unheralded or the things that happened that most people weren’t paying attention to.

EV: Yeah. So I would like to talk about the Italian elections first. I’m not sure how many people were paying attention to that, but I feel like we should look at it on this podcast as a little bit of a corrective to some of the hysteria that I saw around Giorgia Meloni’s election to be the future prime minister of Italy.

Audio Clip: Italians have chosen their first far right wing government since World War II. Giorgia Meloni is expected to become the first female prime minister to lead Europe’s third largest economy. Her party, Brothers of Italy, draws its roots from Italy’s fascist history. Today, she sounded a moderate tone, but as Nick Schifrin reports, her recent rhetoric has many in Italy and wider Europe concerned.

ZK: Everybody’s up in arms. Oh my God, Giorgia Meloni, you know, she emails with Steve Bannon, the right likes her. Is she just another version of Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán? Aren’t we going down that path? Explain please why that is not the case.

EV: Right. That’s exactly what I saw. Immediately after the results came in, there was a lot of like Italy’s backsliding into fascism.

ZK: Yeah, there was one headline about this that said the most right wing premier since Mussolini.

EV: Right. [Laughs].

ZK: You know, that headline was– and this, I know if it was in the New York Times, but it was like a major mainstream– I mean, that is hardly a subtle comparison.

EV: Yep. And the first sentence in a Associated Press article was like Giorgia Meloni, whose party has fascist roots, comma, and then rest of the article. And those things are true. But the problem for me about the hysteria on fascism is that there’s a lot of constraints of reality, and we talk about this on the podcast a lot, that don’t point to the fact that Italy’s backsliding towards fascism. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to support Giorgia Meloni as a future prime minister or her policies, which are to the right. You know, if you care about sexual minorities or immigrants and are kind of “progressive”, you know, about that stuff, it’s not like it’s something that we’re celebrating. But I do think that it’s worth detailing a concern about that versus a concern about fascism. And I just don’t see the signs there that Italy is gonna become as it was during Mussolini’s time. What do you think?

ZK: I mean, look, it is also true that she’s the head of a coalition government. Italy’s had 20 governments in 20 years. There’s absolutely no indication that her coalition is gonna gonna be any more tenable or long lived than any others. The only person who’s really kind of had a multi-year grip on Italian politics in the past 30 or 40 years is Berlusconi. And while there was a lot of buffoonery about Berlusconi, you know, he was a problematic and in many ways, you know, democratically corrosive figure in a way that maybe he got a pass from to some degree ’cause a lot of people just don’t care about politics and a lot of Italians shrugged it off. So I’m just trying to put that in the– I think her party get barely 25% of the vote. Her particular party, not the whole coalition, which is she’s gonna be the head of. But if you’re the head of a coalition government, unless that coalition were far to the right of her party, that’s a massive constraint. And kind of conservative nationalism does not translate into fascism. I mean, we’ve gotta be really careful. These headlines were sloppy. The assumptions of what it meant were sloppy. And, you know, Italian politics has been sloppy regardless. I do think it’s just really important not to leap to these assumptions, particularly without any real analysis, and a lot of that went on around Italy. You know, let’s see.

EV: You know, and just to restate, this doesn’t mean that you can’t have a party whose views you support and then there are bad outcomes, you know, with the policies that that party ends up implementing, and vice versa. You can have a party that you’re expecting all the bad things and there might be good outcomes. And we’re not naive, we’re not saying that we should forget our concerns, our issues, or our problems, but there’s room to be concerned or to not support people’s positions without that meaning that they’re fascist and there’s room for our fears about what may happen to turn out to be wrong. And it’s like what Congressman Swalwell was saying in the first episode of the season, that when you repeat stuff like that, it down the road makes people less and less skilled to discern when you actually have a fascist threat at hand. And, like I said, there’s sort of a poor assumption about people buried in all of this, which is that we can’t show concern for her particular policies that are real policies that she’s outlined, that we have to kind of go the extra mile to be like, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, you know, ring the bells, care about this. But I think that people would care, you know, anyway about some of the more conservative policies that she’s set to enact or would like to enact.

ZK: Turning to the next I.

EV: Yeah. So something that’s like, you know, pretty far down the road of authoritarian governments, Iran and everything that’s going on there with the hijab burning and the protests after Mahsa Amini was allegedly killed by the morality police while in custody because she had hair visible under her hijab. Iran’s going through an internet blackout now, but before that was in place, you know, there were incredible images all over the news and all over social media of this resistance against the government. That’s quite oppressive. And my little speech about hope in this one is that I’m seeing from various news coverage that it’s the first time that they’ve seen women out there protesting about the hijab with men and all of social media, right? Like the world is watching in a way that the world wasn’t watching in 2009 or 1979.

ZK: I mean, this whole dynamic which is unfamiliar in contemporary Iran, even with the democracy protests that have been violently put down over the past 10 years, you do have a government of aging male theocrats. That’s the most neutral way to describe the clerical regime in Iran, which is a very small group of people who are exercising a large amount of control and are fully aware that their control at this point rests on some combination of nationalism, corruption, and very thin acceptance of the theocratic framework that brought on the Iranian revolution in 1979. And if you have a lot of young women, and a lot of this is, you know, under 30 saying no, that’s much harder to deal with than angry young men. You know, older authoritarian men are much more comfortable– this may be sexist, but it’s still true, are much more comfortable violently suppressing angry young men in the streets than than they are used to doing so with angry young women. Now, I’m sure the regime is fully capable of equal acts of violence against a large number of women, but when that is then joined as a kind of societal thing, you know, that’s a real challenge and we’ll have to see how this plays out. But it was, I think, unexpected for the regime. I don’t think they were looking out for this. They were looking out for, you know, student cells plotting. They weren’t looking out for what usually brings down regimes like this, which is a sudden massive eruption of pent up– I don’t know, like, enough, enough.

EV: I wasn’t expecting that take at all. And I love it, you know, that like all of a sudden there’s these, you know, 25-year-old women being like, absolutely not, I’m done. And it makes total sense because these are modern women that are connected to TikTok. You know, I was on TikTok seeing these videos before the news coverage even started and, you know, it was like millions of views, millions of likes, and that’s the generation that they’re dealing with. So the question everyone asks around these things is like, is this time gonna be different? Like you said, we don’t, don’t know, but I like this framing that you did of like, this is a serious threat to deal with.

ZK: And also like one of the ironies of the Iranian regime over the past 40 years, it’s been really good at education. Now, some of that’s indoctrination, but in terms of like literacy and education and, you know, university attendance and this may be one of these cases of if you really wanna be a long lasting autocratic regime, you probably should study North Korea and try not to have so many people really well educated or at least educated with an awareness of what’s going on around the world. So fingers crossed for this one.

EV: Two very quick ones before we go that may lift people’s spirits. First of all, new numbers came out from those among us who count cancer survival rates and cancer deaths. And it’s all good news. We have far more cancer survivors these days than we used to, far fewer people are dying from cancer. That’s thanks to treatments, but also screenings, early screenings for cancer. So congratulations to everyone for being alive at a time that you’ll have less of a chance of die from cancer

ZK: And the treatments. I mean, look, you know, immunotherapies, which even 10 years ago were seen as sort of pie in the sky have proven to be remarkably effective. Now, it’s a certain type of cancer, it’s certain numbers, and it’s still not yet a huge number of people ’cause these are unbelievably costly treatments, but they are unbelievably effective. I mean, there are people who are living, you know, what is essentially cancer-free lives because of immunotherapies who would’ve perished 10 years ago.

EV: Last but not least, we can’t end without mentioning that after our conversation with Senator Hertzberg last week, and, you know, California being the state to copy, indeed, New York became the first state to copy the 2035 new combustion engine vehicle ban. So there you go.

ZK: It’s catching on. Although I wanna see those charging stations in New York City before we see the mandate. I’m a little more confident in California’s ability to get that done than New York’s. But it’s good to set markers, good to set benchmarks.

EV: More space in California, but we’ll see.

ZK: All right, so that’s our eclectic roundup of things that could have a more positive outcome between not so fast on the Italian elections, look at what’s going on Iran, thank God for cancer survival rates going up, and maybe we’re gonna have electric cars in New York. We’ll revisit all of this in the weeks to come and have yet another conversation with yet another compelling individual and some unexpected news of the week next week. Thanks, Emma.

EV: Thanks, Zachary. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Our editor is Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to sign up for the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas



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