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.
S4. EPISODE 9
The Boys Are Not All Right
Featuring Richard V. Reeves
Is the struggle of boys and men a partisan issue? And how have recent economic and social changes influenced the classroom, the workplace, and the family? Brookings Institution scholar Richard V. Reeves joins us to tackle the complex crisis of boyhood and manhood. Plus, we look at the US’s renewable power industry and discuss Malaysia’s death penalty change.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I am joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are continuing our series of weekly conversations with people who are animated by a sensibility of how do we solve our problems? And not purely by a sensibility of let’s get on the largest soapbox possible and scream endlessly about our problems. In many ways, this is a reaction to the news climate where screaming about problems or obsessively focusing on all that ails us is woven like DNA into the genetic mix of the news. And unfortunately, in some degree, into the genetic mix or the programming mix of social media and all of it. And by the way, we are totally supportive of social media. A large portion of what we do depends on social media as the channels of dissemination of an alternate sensibility. So this is not a knock on that. It’s simply an observation that left to its own devices. These areas of public conversation will emphasize the negative and deemphasize the positive, and will focus on all that’s wrong, on the hot emotions of anger and fear, outrage and extremism, and drown out more calm voices, will drown out perspectives of things that are working well and will frankly drown out news stories of things that are going well, which is why every week, after we do an interview with someone, we try to highlight some of the stories of what’s going on, not just in the United States, but around the world, that point in a more constructive direction of people not only solving problems, but really moving ahead in a small P progressive direction, in ways that I think most people, left, right, Republican, Democrat, you know, socialists, capitalists, all tend to agree on. So we do try to highlight those because those kinds of things get lost in the fray. If we’re recording this on April 4th, the past 24 hours of the news cycle has been dominated by what the position of former President Trump’s airplane was on the tarmac in New York City, and exactly how long the motorcade was down the FDR drive, almost like a recap of the OJ flight of 30 years ago, which captivated everyone as his, you know, car was being chased by the LAPD. So, you know, that’s what dominates the news. But that’s not really what fundamentally is shaping the world today, even though you wouldn’t know that if you watched the news. So today, we’re gonna talk with someone who has written a book on one of the major, I think, touchpoints of contemporary societal upheaval. You know, if you think about political partisanship, climate change, race, gender, class, the changing roles of men and women in contemporary society is clearly one of the more socially roiling, confusing, bewildering, exciting, enlivening aspects of societal change. Again, we’re focusing today on the United States, but you could say the same about much of the world. And that conversation too, particularly about the state of men and boys, is often dominated by anger and outrage. But our guest today has written a book that has really touched a chord and is everything but that, is much more a compassionate look at what these changes are doing and how young men and boys and older men are dealing with these changes.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Yeah. So today we’re gonna talk to Richard Reeves. He’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where his research focuses on social mobility, inequality, and family change. Prior to joining Brookings, he was director of strategy to the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister. And as Zachary mentioned, the book we’re gonna talk to him about today, as well as some other things is called Of Boys and Men.
ZK: So let’s speak with Richard Reeves. Richard Reeves, it’s a pleasure to have you on our podcast for this discussion. You have been a man much in the news. I’m curious, you know, this whole issue of like what ails men or what ails boys, and there’s a whole other literature of, you know, girls and women. So it’s not like this is a singular topic. You know, a lot of it’s been animated by a lot of anger, and I’m somewhat heartened by your work, which is not. Passion, yes. Anger, no, I think that’s fair to say. So I have a philosophical question. What’s your take on— ’cause we talk about this a lot at The Progress Network, about the challenge of cool emotions versus hot emotions in a time of clicks. So that anger, outrage, and fear tend to have more traction in the moment than, you know, hope or calm, or, hey, let’s take a moment and take a deep breath. You’re clearly animated by the let’s take a deep breath and look at this.
Richard Reeves (RR): Mm-hmm.
ZK: Any feelings, as you’ve looked at your past six months, of why that’s had somewhat more traction than one might have expected in the face of how much traction, the anger of, you know, Jordan Peterson or—
RR: Andrew Tate?
EV: Andrew Tate, is that who you’re thinking of?
ZK: Andrew Tate. I’m purposely forgetting Andrew Tate’s name.
EV: Well, he’s a full-on misogynist. I mean, whoof.
ZK: No, but he had millions and millions of followers, you know, particularly of young teens and boys around the world. So anyway, just some thoughts about that.
RR: Yeah. Well, thank you for having me on. My previous book, Dream Hoarders, I took quite polemical tone kind of aimed at the upper middle class and what I saw as their hypocrisy, frankly, around issues of inequality. So I didn’t really hold back. This is not an area that needs more polemics. This is an area that needs more thoughtful, deep breath, cool emotion analysis, which does a number of things. One is it has to be quite authoritative. Like, so what’s actually going on? What are the facts here? Let’s at least agree the facts, right? And then secondly, let’s not fall into zero-sum thinking. Let’s not allow that kind of culture war, zero-sum frame to infect what we’re doing here. So don’t say by definition, caring about boys and men and their specific challenges means stopping caring about women and girls and their specific problems, or vice versa. Don’t do that. Right? That’s like saying to a parent of a son and a daughter, you’re only allowed to care about one. Choose one, choose one. You know, son, daughter, son, daughter. Right? It’s completely insane. But I think thirdly, if there is an issue here facing that there are challenges for boys and men, there really are, it’s not just kind of frothy, alt-righty confection, but it’s real. If it’s framed in the right way and expressed in the right tone, then you should have a huge conversation about it, right? And I think to some extent, that was my goal, was to create permission, was to just say, look, if it’s true, let’s talk about this, but let’s talk about it in a safe way. Let’s talk about the way that doesn’t require you to hang up all your credentials at the door to turn to the right, to become a mouth frother, to start hating women, to become anti-feminist, to say the last 50 years have been a terrible mistake, or whatever, right? But actually say, no, no, no, let’s think two thoughts at once. It’s nuanced. It’s difficult. It’s complex. But yeah, I’m here for that conversation, and I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how many people actually want to have that conversation if you frame it in the right way.
EV: I’m definitely gonna ask you about that, Richard, if there has been any pushback. But before we get there, I was really delighted to find your work because I feel like I’ve encountered the lostness of boys and men, particularly with dating and me and my f— this is hopefully the first and last time I bring up my dating life on the podcast, by the way. But apparently, you’ve heard this story before ’cause you said so in the acknowledgements that you’ve heard a lot of people kind of complain about this or have a story about this. And my friends and I sort of developed a pet theory around it, but I wasn’t able to prove anything until your book came out. And I was like, oh, actually, someone who studied this agrees. So I would love for you just to give us, first, you know, apart from the alt-right frothy confection, which you just said, which was such a great phrase, what are the actual challenges that are going on? Like, why are we seeing this kind of generation or two of men that— like I said, there’s this feeling of lostness about them?
RR: Well, I think one of the big changes has been just the huge change in education systems, such that now education is just an area, a domain where there’s just, you know, huge gender gaps disfavoring boys and men. So a sharp way to put this in data terms is there’s a bigger gender gap in US higher education today than there was when Title IX was passed to promote women and girls 50 years ago, but it’s the other way around. So when Title IX was passed, there’s about 13 percentage point gap in favor of men getting college degrees. There’s now about 15 percentage point gap in favor of women getting college degrees. So we have slightly more than Title IX-level inequality in higher education, but just the other way around. And that reflects what’s happening all the way through the school system. So, you know, two thirds of the highest GPAs going to girls, two thirds of the lowest GPAs going to boys. You know, the biggest predictor of being school ready at five is sex, controlling for everything else, and so on and so on. So there’s just been this— there’s no reasonable doubt that across the board and on average, there are now huge gender gaps disfavoring boys and men in school. So that means they hit higher education at a disadvantage. Even if they go, there’s a huge enrollment gap. And so they’re kind of just behind, right? That sense of being behind in education is huge. Then the labor market shops have disproportionately hit men, for obvious reasons, around free trade and automation. So we’ve seen this huge labor market shop. And then frankly, and this might get to your dating point, but just more generally, I don’t think that many young men have quite been able to figure out how to be in a world of radically transformed economic relations between men and women. There’s no doubt that we have just transformed the economic power relation between men and women, and thank god for that. But a world where 40% of women earn more than the average man, which is today’s world, is a very different world to even 1979 when it was only 13% of women who earned more than the average man. So it’s a basic proposition. Very recently, you know, in my lifetime, you could basically assume that men were gonna have more economic power than women. That’s not true anymore to anything like the same degree, not saying job done, mission— but no, so what does that mean? And actually, this whole point about not needing a man, it was the goal of that wave of the women’s movement, right? Gloria Steinem very clearly said, the goal is to make marriage a choice, not a necessity, is to make men a choice, not a necessity. We want a world where women don’t need men economically. We’re close to that world. What are the guys gonna do? And I honestly think they’re still figuring that out. They don’t what to do yet.
ZK: You know, it’s also a change in the absolute imperative of physicality, right? In that labor today is increasingly less physical, even traditional things that were primarily physical, you know, farming, manufacturing, you know, making, building, are machine enhanced, you know, so you don’t need— it doesn’t need to be differential in physical strength. And look, you can overplay that. I mean, women’s work was traditionally entirely physical. Bearing children, caring for them, making cloth, you know, making— all that’s physical labor. But there was a clear differential in this—
ZK: Just pure brute strength-
RR: It’s not strength.
ZK: -and that kind of different—
RR: It could be physical, but not strength-related. Yeah.
ZK: And so that changes— that also equalizes, right? Machines equalize certain biology. I mean, not yet to the point of childbirth, although, to some degree, actually to the point of childbirth. And that you don’t actually need to— doesn’t need to be your body, although it still needs to be someone’s body.
RR: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I haven’t thought of it quite that way before, but it’s right. I mean, it’s basically true now I think that men have no physical advantage in the labor market. I mean, almost none. I think there are still some jobs where physical strength is helpful, but they’re not generally very well-paid jobs. And there aren’t very many of them. Actually, I found if you go into the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there’s this kind of fantastic descriptions of like jobs requiring strength, and they’re things like, more than twice a day you have to lift more than 50 pounds, and once a week you have to lift 100 pounds or so. It’s just a fantastic— like, it sounds like something from like a Soviet era, like labor manual or something. And then it says how many jobs require that. And it’s dropped from like 30% to 10% or something like that. So strength, the value of strength has gone. And so that means that to the extent men did have an advantage, just through sheer physical strength, that’s essentially evaporated.
ZK: You know, it’s funny, I have a particular take on this. You know, Emma has the personal angle of the dating story. I have the personal angle of I went to an all boys school, one of the oldest traditional all-male schools, one of the few left in the United States, and my older son graduated from that school, my younger son left in 9th grade. And separate from, you know, the questions about whether or not single-sex education actually serves teen boys particularly well, I think the answer is no, but that’s probably debatable whether or not that’s the case. One thing that is in addition to that or convergent to what you’re talking about is I was probably there at the vestige of an elite mentality that you weren’t just training young men, you were training young men who were gonna be the leaders. And that was a clear kind of linear equation from 19th century British public schools that sort of continued in this, the equivalents in the United States. And sort of coincidental with all the trends you’re talking about is also a radical societal shift, particularly in the United States, but also true in other parts of the world, that’s— it’s not necessarily anti-elitist, but it is without elites or without the idea of there’s a class or a gender and a class that is self-consciously being framed as the leaders. I mean, obviously only a few people were the leaders, and it was always men, right? So there was kind of a hierarchy that led to leadership that organized society. And that clearly has broken down as well, no?
RR: Yeah. Largely, yeah. This is some of my more previous work, but I think the good thing about meritocracy—
ZK: You’re allowed to bring in your previous work.
ZK: It’s okay. Well—
RR: I mean, the good— there are bad things about meritocracy and it’s getting a bit of bad rap recently, but one of the good things about meritocracy is it has taken away that sense of like knowing your place and your place being somewhat allocated to you by virtue of circumstances of birth. And so in that sense, a meritocratic labor market, I’ve been quite careful about which terms I use here, has actually been pretty good, I think overall pretty progressive. The idea of the best person for the job actually was quite a big progressive move. Certainly, it was helpful for a lot of women and people of color and people from different social class backgrounds. So I think that’s largely been a progressive thing. And you’re right, that that has changed, that sense of just falling into it. And that might be one thing, a bit to to Emma’s question, like one of the things might be the— you know, men didn’t have to think very hard previously about what their roles were gonna be. And to some extent, they didn’t have to worry too much about what their status was gonna be because their role was pretty well determined and their status was pretty well guaranteed. And neither of those things are true to anything like the same extent they were before. For all the discussion of male privilege, the idea that like the male privilege is stronger today than it was 50 years ago, I think is just bonkers. It’s obviously true now that it’s more earned, that it’s a more difficult task to succeed. I mean, you don’t get it— it’s not automatic, right? So back to your point, Zachary, about like, it was—there’s a sort of automatic presumption of status, which was a realistic one. I don’t think that’s true anymore. And if you add sex to the mix, you know, and Emma, you talked about dating— and the chapter that didn’t make it into the book is the one on sex. And thank god for that.
EV: Oh, really? That got cut?
RR: Right. Oh, my god.
EV: Oh, that’s interesting.
RR: But I mean, the reason it’s not in is because my publisher said, look, if you have a chapter on sex, no one’s gonna ask you about technical high schools. And it turns out that no one’s asked me about technical high schools anyway. So—
RR: I’ve answered many more questions about Tinder than I have about technical high schools, even though there wasn’t a chapter about sex. And there’s various reasons for that. But it is also just ’cause it’s obviously very fraught issues, very difficult to get into, especially from a male perspective. And so I’m very glad I left it out. But I do think that the renegotiation of romantic relationships and what sex means and how sex is handled is a big part of the story as well and a big part of the disorientation that a lot of people are feeling in this current world. I think that there’s a— my sense around that is it’s a bit like, you know, a kaleidoscope when you shake it and it takes a while for the patterns to settle. I feel like that’s the stage we’re in, especially around— like for young adults, especially, the economics, the family formation, the fertility, the sex, the, just the relationship forming there, I think it’s just a hot mess right now for all kinds of reasons, technologically, economically. And so, you know, and I see that— all my sons are in their 20s and so I experience it kind of, you know, secondhand, and I do think it’s just a really, really complex and a time of great flux and great opportunity, but also great challenge in in those things. One of the interesting things I saw recently was that there’s been a rise in interest in romantic fiction among young women. The publishing world has seen this real trend among young women who are reading more, and it’s quite traditional romantic fiction too. And I think that’s really— again, one data point, one issue, but it’s like, what’s going on there? Why are young women reading quite traditional romance novels again all of a sudden? And there’s something going on there, I think, but Emma, you’re gonna be more expert on this than certainly me and probably Zachary as well [laughs].
EV: I have a lot of personal experience with this. So this is how I see the renegotiation. I think it’s absolutely on point, and this was my little pet theory that, you know, women have had 50 years plus to kind of move into the realm that was traditionally male, right? And we’ve done very well at that. Maybe not at the tip, tip, tip top part of society where the leaders are, like Zachary was talking about, but I kind of see that may be more so of a class issue. I think it will become more of a class issue as time goes on than a gender issue. But men have not done the equivalent like “work”, right? There hasn’t really been like an explosion of male interest in moving into the realms that are traditionally female. And I think that there’s a bit of— I can say for myself and for my female friends, there’s a weird dichotomy of frustration around that. Like, we’re like, come on, guys, like [laughs] come on— you know, like, listen, like, we’re out here making the money. Like, can you figure out how to have emotional intelligence? You know, or whatever the case may be. But there’s an also interesting thing that goes on, and I think there was this stat in your book that was really striking, is that I think it was something like 80% of women, and please correct me if I’m wrong, still want a partner that makes more money than them. So it’s actually— the renegotiation is not completely happening on both sides. And I’m not sure if women are also really doing as much renegotiation as they think that they’re doing.
RR: Yeah. Well, it’s really interesting— so a couple of things on that. I think one is that the— and I see this in that data, but also just, you know, anecdotally as well, that women want to keep open the options set. They want various options available to them. And that makes perfect sense. And so even if they’re doing quite well economically, so they’ve got economic independence, right? They’ve achieved that. They don’t actually prefer to have to go on their own. And here, I’m gonna refer to Claudia Goldin’s work on like Harvard MBAs, Chicago MBAs, and so on, to where she shows quite convincingly that those incredibly highly educated women are much more likely to take time out of the labor market to care for young children, very young children if their partner is earning well. And so, you know, I think this idea of having the option to, like, care for kids for a while without a plummeting economic situation, of course you’d want that. You don’t wanna be forced into that. You want the option to not do that, but you would like the option to do that. And in fact, I remember having this argument at Brookings once and talking about how women still wanted men who were earning well and so on. And a lot of the— it was the liberal white women that were like, yeah, it’s still a problem. [inaudible] And actually, there was a young black colleague woman, a young female black colleague, who suddenly burst out and said, black women would love it if we had guys who could look after us for a bit while we raised our babies. Right? And it was just like the silence among the white liberal women that followed that statement was really quite something to behold. ‘Cause they’re like, uh, hold on. I thought we were all feminists. What’s going on?
EV: Processing. Yeah.
RR: Yeah. And so I think the option to that is— but the other thing that came out in a similar conversation is, and reflecting what you’ve just said before, there are all these survey questions that are around what’s important in a partner, like earnings potential, et cetera. And again, there’s a female colleague of mine, a much younger female colleague of mine, I said, well, why is it that women are still ranking this so high in their partners? And she said, it’s a proxy question for you’ve got your act together.
EV: Oh, yeah.
RR: Right? Right? There isn’t a question in a Gallup survey or anything else which is like, have you got your act together?
EV: Yeah [laughs].
RR: But, actually, earning potential is actually a very good proxy for you’ve got your act together, right? You’ve got yourself decently educated, you’ve got some skills, you’ve got competence. And actually, what she said that I felt that struck me with a force of an absolute truth is just that what women are saying is, I want someone who’s with me. I want someone who’s shoulder to shoulder. I want a partner. And a good proxy question for that is, can you make it in the labor market? Now, it might not be that you’ll be in the labor market, but— and I’ll be very anecdotal here, right? So when I was at home caring for the kids while my wife was doing quite a high powered job, I was good at it, right? I was doing— it was a job— I took the kids to school, I’d do play dates, I’d volunteered, I was on the PTA, like, I had my act together. She could safely go to work knowing that she had a competent partner raising the kids and vice versa, right? I wasn’t earning a penny. So I would’ve completely failed against that kind of level. But that wasn’t what the question was about. I think it’s just like, are you with me in this or are you just gonna be floating around? Right? It’s that sense of, like— so I see you’re nodding, so I think you are agreeing, but it’s just more of a sense of get your shit together, [laughs], right? Have you got your shit together? Yes or no?
EV: I think that’s so absolutely correct, that it doesn’t— just thinking about the friends that I have, like, they don’t really care if someone’s a stay-at-home dad or if they make less money than they do. It’s exactly that. They just wanna have their shit together. And it seems like that’s kind of hard to find [laughs].
RR: Yeah, I think that’s right. There’s a sense of drift and passivity and uncertainty and indecision and just like agency.
EV: Who am I? Mm-hmm.
RR: Yeah, this agency thing. So I keep coming back to this word agency in the work I was doing. It’s just this kind of sense of agency and kind of just, you know, under your own steam, basically.
ZK: And it’s interesting, Scott Galloway, who’s also— you know, we’ve talked to, has made a point about one of the really negatives of the convergence of these trends about, you know, male identity and equalizing and social media and dating, is that because, you know, the dynamic, whether it’s Tinder or other things, is massive amount of, you know, sort of male attention goes to women, women respond to a very small percentage of that attention. And then because of the dynamics, it’s all visual, sort of end up “optimizing” for certain really basic physical characteristics. And so you’ve ended up, at least in the social media sphere, huge numbers of men are disadvantaged, and the ones that are tend to have certain, you know, physical characteristics, which is ironic given that that’s exactly the situation women essentially faced forever, right? Which is being judged on almost entirely on their physical characteristics. I mean, that’s— you know, again, these are rank generalizations. Women were also— you married into families and there were sort of, you know, material assets that came with marriage that came witha woman’s family. But, you know, it’s sort of added a particular kind of pathology to men and self-image and physicality that was not nearly as dramatically in place when it was more about status and economics.
RR: Yeah. And it’s one of the things that colleges worry about too, is that, like, if your college campuses become two-thirds female, then they start to worry about the dating dynamics kind of on colleges as well, because if you have a kind of minority of men, then it can quite significantly reshape it. But there’s all this evidence, you’re right, from dating apps and so on, does— you know, when you look at these sort of “winner takes all” dynamics, right? Where you see a minority of the men kind of getting most of the dates, et cetera, and being able to really kind of exploit, I think I’ll use that word, those dating sites. In some ways, that’s of course a return to the norm of human history rather than a break from it because 95% of human societies have been polygamous, and that means polygynous, in other words, men with multiple female partners. And across human history, men have only had about a 50% chance of reproducing, whereas women have almost all reproduced. That’s one reason, by the way, we have twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors. It’s a great dinner party thing. Just say at a dinner party, did you know that we have twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors? And everyone goes, wait, wait. How does that work? We all need a mom, right? And we all need a mom and a dad, right? That’s true. But you actually don’t need that many men to produce kids. And that has all kinds of— that’s one of the reasons the evolutionary psychologists say that men are much more risk-taking than women, because in a world where it’s a 50-50 shot, it’s worth taking a risk to try and get yourself on the right side of that. But typically, what’s happened is that you’ve had men with multiple partners or wives, and then lots of other men who don’t have anybody and who die without reproducing at all. And so that sense of what Joe Henrich, the evolutionary psychologist, calls the math problem of surplus men. Surplus men have been historically been very dangerous. And this is what Scott Galloway talks about. You know, he talks about this. I actually think what’s really interesting is that even as we’ve seen more and more of these surplus men, not just in the romantic sense, but economically, actually, crime rates have gone down significantly. We’ve become a much more peaceful society, even as men have found themselves increasingly dislocated.
ZK: Well, I think, I mean, I do think actually-
RR: And then why is that?
ZK: -internet life-
RR: Yeah, it’s the screens.
ZK: -is a massive channel of those emotions.
ZK: Right? It’s rare to have millions of people on the street, but it’s certainly common to have, you know, millions of voices screaming into the void online.
RR: So they retreat into the basement. Yeah. And so one of my more controversial opinions is that screens have sort of saved us. And the counterfactual is men— we have a world where we have as many men as we do right now who are dislocated, disoriented, and uncertain, but a world without porn and video games.
ZK: I mean, it’s true. It’s a funny way-
ZK: -of looking at it, right? Which is the thing that we rail against as an incredible societal downside in the greater scheme of things may be a massive societal upside, meaning it’s way better to have millions of frustrated young men in their basements railing, you know, on alt message boards and watching porn than to just have them angrily in the streets overthrowing governments and fomenting revolution.
RR: Exactly. Exactly the point. And so we just don’t know the counterfactual, right? But run the same economic without— you can’t do it. But, you know, throughout human history, you’ve really worried about these kind of detached men. They tended to be violent and a criminal. I said it’s a Mad Max style scenario where they’re going around burning stuff and it’s violent. And so the opposite has happened. And I think it’s really— I agree with you. I think that’s probably because of the screens. I’m not saying those are good things, but I’m saying that they are better, they’re better than the alternative maybe, right? At least, you know, better have the men in the basement than on the barricades.
ZK: I mean, it’s a depressingly great point. It’s certainly true historically. Like, I mean, I remember [inaudible]—
RR: That’s what I’m here for. Best summary of my work I’ve ever had. That’s going straight on the next [inaudible]
ZK: He makes depressingly great points. I mean, back to the all male, all boys school thing, right? And one of the reasons for the invention of modern sports in the English playing fields was to channel young men’s aggression.
ZK: Like, they weren’t all gonna go to war and they couldn’t all serve in the British Navy ’cause there was only so many people you needed, right? You didn’t need a massive land army if you were the British empire. But you had to do something with those kind of antinomian aggressive impulses. So you, you know, get them to play rugby, get them to play whatever on the sporting field because it’s better than them just running amok. Same thing in the Middle East, there was always this issue with the Shabaab. What do you do about the young men? What do you do about the young men? Yeah.
ZK: Can we shift gears for a moment? ‘Cause I wanna push you on one thing somewhat provocatively. You said that your earlier book about the way in which the elitist upper middle class of the United States is disproportionately grabbing available goods, public goods, right? And you said you wanted to be more polemical about that and you wanted to be more measured about this.
ZK: So I wanna push you about that and say, well, why not be more measured about that as well? Meaning, ’cause one of my question marks, right? And one of the things that kind of animates this whole endeavor of The Progress Network is the utility of polemics, the utility of rage. I mean, I recognize— and this segues a little bit with the better in the basement than the barricades.
ZK: The barricades and revolution and physical violent change of preexisting status quos to give way to what people hope is a utopian future, but usually leads to a replication of the very thing that they were trying to change has been the one of the motive forces of history. Full stop. Right? Anger, outrage, you know, people on the streets changes history, changes the trajectory of human life. But there’s also an [inaudible] destroys a lot as well.
ZK: And, you know, maybe polemics, while they do have their place, like, what’s the risk/reward there? And you’ve gone from one book, which was more standing up going, hey, this is wrong, to another, which is, hey, let’s try to understand the nuances.
RR: Well, the different rhetorical strategies, I think, reflect, first of all, just my sense of what would be most useful to the debate at that moment. And, you know, as I said earlier, I don’t think a polemic— first of all, there’ve been lots of polemics written on behalf of boys and men. And they only appeal to a certain group. And I don’t feel polemical about it. I mean, this doesn’t feel like I’m needing to kind of puncture some bubble of kind of hypocrisy in the same way that I did with the previous one. I think I’m trying to just, you know, raise attention to these issues in a much more straightforward way. The last book, Dream Hoarders, really was more— sort of was more polemical. And because I felt I did need to try and puncture the self-satisfied nature of so many of my neighbors. I mean, this was really just like— I was living in Bethesda at the time. I’d moved to America. I couldn’t figure out how the hell these people could look themselves in the mirror as they railed about inequality [laughs]. I just— it was kind of sense of— and so I wrote the book and the thing that it led to was a viral New York Times op-ed with the title Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich, where I basically said, can you people stop pretending you’re not— that it’s only the 1% or the top 1%. Are you kidding me with this? Right? And so the goal there was to really try and puncture something, and it was to try and puncture this, what I thought was quite, I’ll say smug self-satisfaction of these people, rich by any definition, right? 90th percentile, upper middle class people taking all their tax breaks furious when Obama tried to take away their 529 college savings accounts, these tax-subsidized elite fueling— which is just unconscionable. The mortgage interest deduction. They clinging to the mortgage interest deduction, like drowning men to a life raft. It’s unconscionable part of our tax code. And yet they’re able to convince themselves that they’re progressives and they’re against inequality. So you can tell, even the way I’m talking about it now is just I felt like, okay, this is a specific bubble that I’m gonna try and pierce, and to do that, I’m gonna need to be very, very, very sharp. I don’t think [inaudible]—
ZK: So you took a sort of John Stuart Mill utilitarian approach to how you wrote your books? Because you began your answer saying it’s a rhetorical choice about what’s most-
ZK: -effective to have that message be heard.
RR: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s right. So look, when you write a book, you know, what are you trying to achieve for the book? What’s the goal of the book? What’s the rhetorical strategy for the book? Right? And, you know, looking back, would I write the polemical book again now? You know, maybe not because I agree with a lot of what you’ve just said, which is that just overused— polemics generally are not a good thing. So maybe I wouldn’t do it again. but I do think that in that case, in order to move the needle a bit, and I can still see it, it still has its effect, just saying it’s not just the top 1%, it’s you as well, was I thought, necessary politically. You know, so if I’d written a nuanced class differences, it’s this group as well, I just don’t think it would’ve gotten the same cut through. I needed people arguing about it over their brunch tables, right? As they had Sunday brunch. Can you believe it? This guy says you’re rich. I’m not rich. You know, do you think you’re— it needed to have that, or I needed people arguing about it. I thought, well, I don’t want people arguing about this. But yeah, it was a bit of a cry of frustration and aspiration and a little bit of a kind of foreign eye as well coming in, just kinda like, wait, what’s happening here? [Laughs], so.
ZK: I’m not rich. Please pass the béarnaise.
RR: Yeah. [Laughs] I’m not rich. I need my 529 and mortgage interest deduction. And by the way, let’s keep zoning those poor people out. That was the thing that really kind of drove me insane, was these people that are just like hoarding these zoning things whilst putting Black Lives Matter things in their bloody front lawn.
EV: You know, we talked about how the book about— Of Boys and Men is more measured. I actually wouldn’t even use the term measured. I got the sense when I was reading the book that you were expecting a lot of pushback and kind of maybe some controversy, and it sounds like that maybe didn’t happen. Were you surprised by that?
RR: It’s a little bit of a circular thing though, isn’t it? Because maybe one of the reasons I didn’t get quite the same— you know, get a backlash was because I was very careful to try and land it in a way and try and anticipate the sort of what about thing, right?
RR: So whenever I talk about this or write about it, I’m kind of constantly aware of people saying, yeah, but what about, what about what’s happening to women in this area? What about, you know— and I think that sense of discomfort that people feel in even raising this subject is not only appropriate, it’s quite honorable in a way, given how recently these changes have happened, given the recent— basically it’s taken a long time for us to have this conversation, you know, to even— and of course in most of the world, we still couldn’t— that when particularly women, but more generally, people, are like, really, are you kidding me? Like, what about— I don’t find that a frustrating response. I have some of that response myself.
RR: And so I think, like, just getting that in the room, giving that room to breathe, acknowledging that before moving through it. Now what that means is, of course, my conservative critics have criticized me for that and just said like it’s [inaudible] Bryan Caplan’s described the book as twice as much woke boilerplate as common sense solution, right? So he says it’s woke boilerplate, right? Well, okay, maybe it’s the “woke boilerplateness” of it, which obviously, I disagree with that. I don’t think many people would agree with that assessment of the book, but maybe that’s what got an audience among progressives, right?
RR: If I want— and of course, to conservatives, that feels contorted and horrible. And why does he use the word cis? You know, I got attacked for that. But on the other hand, I’m just saying this is— it’s true, the this is hard conversation to have given everything that women and girls have endured and continue to endure, right? It is hard. It should be hard, and we should tread carefully around this. And so that sense of me treading carefully through this terrain, which I hope does come across, I think that that’s entirely appropriate to the nature of the subject at hand. I did not feel the need to tread carefully around the fragile egos of the American upper middle class. But I do feel the need to tread very carefully in a debate where there are quite rightly huge sensitivities and to be sensitive to those sensitivities, if you like. I don’t think that— you know, it makes maybe for a less sharp book, et cetera, but I hope that it would make for a more impactful one by broadening the audience and come back where we started. Take a deep breath. Okay, yeah, there’s a lot going on here. This is difficult. Let’s just lower the temperature. Let’s try and talk about this. Let’s acknowledge each other’s points of view. Just have this more earnest, more straightforward. But you can’t do that without acknowledging all of those correct sensitivities and sensibilities around even having the conversation. So that was my goal.
EV: Yeah. I think that’s right ’cause it’s certainly not the dominant discourse that, you know, kind of women are on top or women are winning or women are doing well. So there’s this weird sense, as I was reading the book, I think because you made a lot of effort to acknowledge the sensitivities, that I read it being like, oh my God, thank God someone’s actually studied this. And I’m not just crazy, looking, you know, at my experience, but also like, hey, we did pretty good, you know, as women [laughs] and, like, now maybe I can take in what we need to do with men with a little bit less frustration. ‘Cause, like, personally, I feel a lot of frustration around— especially when the #MeToo movement was really big. There was this like genre of thought and articles that was like, the world has changed around us really fast and the men haven’t caught up. And it’s kind of like, well, what do they need to catch up? And how much time do they need? So I think the way that you put it made it easier to listen that, like, there really is some struggle going on here and there are— you do offer actually a lot of practical solutions like technical schools, which we didn’t get into. I’m sorry.
RR: Yes. But you mentioned it so people can follow up. And I wrote a thing for Compass all about that. And I think that’s right to have a bit of grace to each other, a bit of generosity of spirit. This is difficult stuff on both sides. And I’ve been really incredibly encouraged by the number of people that have said something similar to what you’ve said, as well as a lot of young boys and, you know, boys and young men emailing especially, I did this Big Think video, which went kind of viral, just saying, thank you for doing this because I feel like you’ve seen that I’m struggling and understand my struggles and haven’t said, as a result, I need to start marching against the feminists, right? Which is what I’m getting from a lot of other people. Let’s go back. You know, one of my lines around this is, and kind of I feel this probably more strongly than anything else, which is that, you know, there is this danger. You create a vacuum. If there are real problems and you don’t address them and you’re not seen to be addressing them, it creates a massive vacuum in our politics and in our culture. And that’s a vacuum— I’m paraphrasing Richard Rohr, the Franciscan writer, here from a Substack I just wrote, but into the vacuum demons pour. And in this case, the demons are the reactionaries who would just take the real problems and say, look, they don’t care about you. They’re the establishment. They, the OECD. They, the White House. They don’t care about you. And by the way, they do enough to make that plausible. So I care about you. I’m listening to you, so I’m gonna empathize with you. A big part of what Peterson and others do is just empathize, is just say, I hear you. I see you. Yeah, you’re really struggling. I get that. And if we don’t acknowledge that, it’s very bad for our politics, and ultimately for our democracy because that vacuum is the breeding ground for reaction. And so I do think there’s a big political element to this too, which is just having the conversation, I think, just takes the wind out of the sails of a lot of the reactionaries.
ZK: Amen to that. Thank you so much, Richard, for having the-
RR: Well, thank you.
ZK: -conversation with us, and obviously, this is the beginning of a long series of conversations, not the end of one, but I encourage you to keep having them and we certainly will. So thanks for your time today.
RR: Thank you to both of you. I really enjoyed it.
EV: Thank you, Richard.
ZK: I know we say this about most of our conversations, Emma, but I really did love that one. You know, both there’s the meta part of it, right? Which is just what’s the sensibility you bring to a really difficult issue, which obviously, we believe is absolutely vital separate from any of the specificity, right? It’s just how do you enter a crucial public collective question, debate, challenge? And he’s sort of Exhibit A of that’s how you do it, right? Although, you know, again, it’s an interesting question where he sort of made a rhetorical choice, as he described it, to engage a very heated issue about what’s the nature of men and boys and gender in contemporary society, and to do so with some equipoise, as opposed to an earlier book where he obviously made a rhetorical choice not to do that. Obviously, my own inclination is probably to make the rhetorical choice to do that in all circumstances, although I recognize that my choices of doing that in my own particular writing and speaking career may have actually been suboptimal in getting attention [laughs], like it would’ve been a better rhetorical. And I’ve had lots of friends tell me over the years, why aren’t you taking more of a stance? Why aren’t you getting on the soapbox and, you know, making a firm unequivocal sort of black and white thing? And I suppose I am by saying, I don’t necessarily think a black and white firm position is merited in this moment or isn’t gonna do us any good, even if I happen to have my own strong personal moral beliefs.
EV: Like I said in the interview, I think he read the room right with this issue because the issue is already so hot. He’s kinda like the only voice in this conversation right now that’s not like, wants to take us back to the 1950s Andrew Tate style and is on the other end, like, screw men. You know, women still have far to go in some areas, which is true. And men have done, you know, untold harm towards women, which is also true, you know, depending on what topic you’re talking about. I don’t know a lot of other voices like Richard’s that are like, okay, let’s examine this situation and what we can do about it.
ZK: Maybe Peggy Orenstein, who’s written both about girls, and, you know— I mean, she sort of takes her own sociology approach to-
ZK: -girls and boys in a similar way.
EV: Yeah. There’s a handful of people that Richard cites in the book, previous work, but it’s not many, nothing that I think that has been released in the last couple years, although I could be wrong about that. And like I said, I think he read the room right, because honestly, like when I think about my friends and who wants to hear this conversation, it really is divided between like this irritation of, okay, so now we have to offer grace and empathy [laughs] on top of everything else. Like, really? But it’s also like, listen, like, you know, these are the cards that are being dealt right now and like, yeah. So you’re gonna have to offer grace and empathy and can you now see yourself in a little bit of a different way that you’re like offering grace and empathy from on top? That’s the narrative I’m not used to hearing. That makes it a little easier for me [laughs].
ZK: Yeah. And I think that’s one of the great utilities of it. I mean, look, it is a bitter pill that social change, while it may bend toward justice, doesn’t mean that it feels particularly just at any given moment. And in order for it to be lasting and permanent— you know, marginalized groups have had to deal with this for years of— it would be great to feel triumphalist, but being triumphalist actually just recreates the same problem that you were fighting for generations to ameliorate and it may be a bitter pill that you have to be better than those whom you are pushing against or fighting against, but if you want something to be lasting, that’s just the way it goes, right? And I think, you know, this is one of these things of there’s unlikely to be a perfect equilibrium of the pendulum swinging between like who’s on top, men or women.
ZK: And the same thing about class and the same thing about race. But the only way for the pendulum not to oscillate eternally and in a way that is completely disorienting and ultimately unsatisfying, is someone has to say, okay, stop. We’re done. You know, meaning we’re not gonna fight eternally.
EV: I’m sure there are people listening to this conversation that are like, these people are taking something like women are not on top. And I would say, you know, take a look at the data that Richard presents, and he is pretty, I think, honest and thorough about the places where women are still not reaching equality with men. But there are more places than you would think where, as we’ve been talking about, men are struggling.
ZK: Yeah. And look, I mean, the last— I mean, this is true for any major social change. The last vestige is usually the very top, right? I mean, this is gonna seem as an odd analogy, but we did talk about this in an earlier show. You know, the last group of people who were aware that the Iranian royal regime was about to crumble in 1979 were the people who were in the regime. So,-
ZK: -you know, it’s often true that the last place you see the proof of the change is that very top layer.
ZK: So while it’s certainly true that everywhere you look in society, Fortune 500 companies, politics, wealth, it is absolutely men and usually white men who remain unbelievably disproportionately on top. But part of what Richard and others are pointing out is that once you get beneath that top layer, things have changed radically. Even if it’s true that the structures remain, you know, if you didn’t know that, you’d still look at those structures and go, nothing has changed.
EV: Yeah. And I find that persuasive. I really do, especially when I just look around at the men I know that are my age and the women I know that are my age and evaluating on that metric of do you have your shit together? It’s definitely for the women, I’m sorry to say [laughs].
ZK: All right. On that note, we’re gonna turn to the news. Maybe we will create an Emma Varvaloucas Do You Have Your Shit Together Progress Network Chart or running barometer. I’m sure we’ve now entered like the R-rated podcast zone, but you know, so be it. We can do the you know, sh** or something like that. I think that that is potentially something you should trademark and develop, but we’ll leave that for another time.
EV: I’ll think about it. Thanks. No, thanks for the idea. [Laughs]. All right. So we have a lot of fun things to get through this week. The first one that I thought was so interesting, and I’m hearkening back now, I even forget which season this was, but we had a discussion with Parag Khanna and then later his wife, Ayesha Khanna about Singapore and how Singapore really supports people working in the government. They’re well-paid, people are interested, and you know, we don’t see that kind of fervor in the US about wanting to be involved in government. Here comes Gen Z, I just saw this on Axios so I thought it was so interesting. The top three places that Gen Z wants to work. Number one is Google at 16% from the survey respondents. Number three is Apple at 5%. And number two was the federal government. And I thought that was fascinating that Gen Z wants to work at those numbers in the federal government.
ZK: Well, that’s a good thing if there’s some belief that you could actually make a difference. I mean, it’d be nice to know whether that’s based on the belief that it’s a stable job that’s hard to get fired from with good benefits or based on the belief that you can make meaningful change and do something for society.
EV: I mean, I feel like it’s not— okay, you’re correct. We don’t have the data around this. We don’t know if it’s because it’s a stable job, but I feel like it’s not that. Like the only news I’ve seen around the federal government being like a great place to work is really a Washington Post article from last week that the IRS employees are much happier now that they [laughs] have much more money funneled into the office. But other than that, I don’t feel like there’s a general feeling of, like, the federal government is a good place to work, but I could be wrong about that.
ZK: All right. We’re gonna take the motivated by public service and change the world as option at least A or B.
EV: And we’ll see. So going from there to a sharp turn to Nigeria, this is a little bit of a preview of a conversation that we’re gonna have soon about Nigerian politics and African politics. This is not politics-related. This is public health-related, because these numbers are really incredible. This also hearkens back to the conversation we had last week around what some of these big public health endeavors have been doing quietly in the background when people aren’t paying attention. So in Nigeria, AIDS-related deaths in the country went from 264,463 in 2015, in 2022, only 51,000 people died from AIDS. In seven short years, that’s an incredible cut. And it’s not from anything particularly like “sexy”. It’s really just from better access to treatment for AIDS. That’s it.
ZK: And I think that those numbers are in general true of most infectious diseases in Africa and around the world. There’s probably gonna be some messiness in those trends, sort of late 2020 through 2022 because one of the sort of negative effects of COVID shutdowns was a lot of the money that went into vaccinations and inoculations in Africa kinda disappeared in the drive to just deal with COVID. So you’ll probably have some uptick in infectious diseases, and it’ll make it seem as if there’s a step back, which, frankly, there was, but it was sort of a particular one for a specific reason. So, you know, this is just one more way in which people’s perceptions, certainly clouded by the pandemic, of health deteriorating globally is just not true statistically.
Audio Clip: But we still have more to be done because especially around the young children, the children who are innocent, who are born by us, especially when are having HIV and we pass on the HIV to them, they are not able to suppress the HIV and it is still a challenge.
EV: Now we’re doing several quick sharp turns here, so I’m gonna give you another one now. We’re going into Malaysia. Malaysia has just ended the death penalty, latest country to do so, definitely a global trend, less so in the area of Malaysia, in that neighborhood. They’ve been debating it for at least a decade, and pretty seriously for the last year. They’ve had a moratorium on execution since 2018, but now it has been completely removed for 11 serious crimes.
Audio Clip: Malaysia’s Parliament voted to remove the mandatory death penalty for serious crimes, including murder and terrorism. Those crimes will carry life imprisonment sentences of up to 40 years. Judges will still possess discretion to impose capital punishment such as caning in extreme circumstances.
EV: I really do think it’s a step forward for that area of the world. And now, you know, rights groups are looking at the countries around Singapore, which has notoriously harsh, like drug sentences. For instance, they have death penalty for drug trafficking. They’re looking around and saying maybe the trend is gonna keep, keep spreading.
ZK: Yeah, maybe it’ll spread to the United States, which it had for a little while.
EV: Maybe it’ll spread all the way to the United States. And the United States is where we’re going next. We’re gonna talk about climate change. So we hit a interesting little goal. I think hitting goals and talking about goals are important in the climate change discussion since we often just talk about not hitting our larger goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. So 2022 was the first time that renewables combined produced more power for electricity than coal. So hydro, wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal all put together were 21% of the power production, and coal was 20%.
Audio Clip: Last year, more US electricity came from renewable energy sources than from coal. That is the first time that has happened. But so far this year, solar is likely a bit more sluggish. Since January 1st, only about half of our days in Sacramento have had mostly clear skies as compared to 84% last year. But where we lack in sun, we certainly make up for in water. Hydropower will likely be very productive this spring and summer. Andrew Campbell, who is the executive director for the Energy Institute at Haas at UC Berkeley says that these kinds of season-to-season and even day-to-day weather changes are why things like natural gas generation and energy storage technology will be key to furthering clean energy availability in the US.
EV: So this is good. Not moving fast enough still, but just moving in the right direction. Most of that was driven by wind and solar increases. And what I find interesting about the wind and solar news is that the big states that have wind and solar are not necessarily the ones that you would expect. California’s the leader for solar, that one you would expect. The leader for wind is Texas,-
EV: -Iowa— yes. Oh, you got it. You got it. You got it. Let the record show that Zachary got that in [laughs]. Yeah. Texas, Iowa, and Oklahoma. Right, in the one hand, it makes sense, like it’s where there’s room to put these, you know, windmills— to put these wind turbines in. But I think it’s an interesting point in the climate discussion, just to bring up, for instance, the most amount of money from the Inflation Reduction Act is not going to blue states. It’s going to mostly red states that are-
EV: -putting in these massive wind and solar projects because there’s space. So regardless of what happens in federal politics in the next couple of years, like on a state level, we are certainly moving in a better direction than we once were.
ZK: Yeah. And it is a good reminder that energy production and transition to a cleaner energy future, it follows geography but not demography. So it doesn’t matter,-
ZK: -the red states or blue states. It matters where the resources are and where the need is. And, you know, people living in those states and doing business in those states are just as willing to move to a different energy future, particularly with federal subsidies, but also, you know, there’s good economic reasons for them to do so anyway. So-
EV: That’s right.
ZK: -that’s our news of the week.
EV: The one thing I will mention before we sign off is that Kentucky has legalized marijuana. And that’s all, folks.
ZK: Well, we got wind in Texas and Oklahoma and it can blow those Kentucky cannabis vapes into other states where it’s still not legal.
EV: [Laughs] something like that.
ZK: Talk about a contact high [laughs]. All right. On that frivolous note, thank you for listening to What Could Go Right? this week. Please send us your thoughts, sign up for the newsletter at theprogressnetwork.org. And if there are things you want us to cover that we haven’t covered, please let us know and we will try to accommodate.
EV: Thanks, Zachary. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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