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 6
Featuring Isaac Saul
Are we as divided as we think we are? Is it possible to move out of our political and news silos? And is there a way to re-establish trust in the media? Isaac Saul, the founder of Tangle News, shares his effort to offer truly bipartisan journalism. Plus, what’s going on with Silicon Valley Bank, fentanyl test strips, and declassified Covid information?
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 for our fourth season of the podcast, What Could Go Right?, which is also the title and name of The Progress Network’s weekly newsletter, which we would encourage and love for you to subscribe to and digest weekly. It’s free and it is a traipse through things that have gone on that you probably haven’t noticed are going on because they’re not often central to any major media’s focus, and they’re not central to any major media’s focus because they tend to be stories of things that are happening that are movements forward, that are movements of the proverbial needle, whether it’s socially, whether it’s politically, whether it’s culturally, in a way that most of us think are a good thing.
You know, most human beings think less war is better than more war. Most human beings think less disease is better than more disease. Most of us think that expanding the arc of human expression and human rights is a good thing, but they’re not often news because they happen slowly and they happen in one small country at one point, and another larger country in another point. But they don’t tend to happen all at once. And they’re not usually immensely dramatic unless it’s the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was dramatic simply because it was so unusual. There’s a lot of unusual things that happen on a daily basis that we don’t notice. Plus, we don’t often talk about these things in a nonpartisan fashion. And by nonpartisan, I don’t mean without views, and I don’t mean without passion, and I don’t mean without perspective. I mean within the context of how we talk about things collectively, it’s often from a, are you on one side or another of an issue? Are you pro-life or are you pro-abortion? Are you, you know, for affirmative action? Are you not? Are you for federal intervention and voting rights? Are you for intervening in Ukraine to support Ukraine against Russia? These things end up being politically charged, passionately charged, almost dogmatically, religiously charged. We’re not refighting the Thirty Years’ War, but it often feels like that.
So places where that isn’t the case and where we’re looking at things from a more considered perspective, where we’re looking at things with less outrage, where we’re looking at things with more distance and willingness to take a breath and really look at them, and also just appreciating things as human developments, not Republican, Democrat, not American, European, not Russian, Chinese, just as human also is not usually part of the mix. So we’re gonna talk to somebody today who is, in many ways, totally in that wheelhouse, going about it a little bit differently than we are. But insofar as we also wanna draw attention not just to individuals, but to organizations that are themselves, embodying some of that sensibility and really trying to do the work to change our public climate, the climate of discussion, the climate of how we talk about climate, that without that change, we’re not gonna create the change that most of us want.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today, we’re gonna be talking to Isaac Saul, who’s the founder of Tangle News, which is an independent politics newsletter, website, and podcast where he shares the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day. In 2016, Yahoo News named him one of the 16 people who shaped the 2016 election. And in 2020, Forbes named him one of the entrepreneurs who are redefining the American dream. I am a voracious reader of Tangle, and I’m really looking forward to introducing his work to all of our listeners.
ZK: Cool. So let’s have our conversation with Isaac. Isaac Saul, thank you so much for joining us today for this conversation. And this is one of these preaching to the choir, amen, chorus conversations, given that we are doing things, or at least we’re trying to do things that are similar to what it appears to be you are doing with Tangle in your own organization, you know, trying to inject a different note and a different sensibility into the public conversation at a perspective that doesn’t really get a lot of purchase in the nature of media today. One thing that’s fascinating to me, and maybe you can reflect on it, is that the business model of a lot of media today is how do you get a lot attention? How do you grab eyeballs or earbuds in a noisy world? And one of the ways in which you do it is you ratchet up the fear and the outrage, right? Hot emotions grab attention more than cool emotions. But you have decided to create something, again, something similar to what we’re doing, except we’re doing it from a nonprofit perspective so we don’t need to justify a different sensibility commercially entirely. I mean, over time, the incentives are similar. You have to have people pay attention, otherwise there’s no point in doing it. But you have been finding that there is, I guess, for lack of a better word, an audience, an audience that’s willing to actually pay some money. So what’s your experience of that been, like people being willing to support an alternative tone, an alternative sensibility, alternative view?
Isaac Saul (IS): Yeah, for sure. I mean, first of all, I should just say, I mean, I have to confess, when I started this, I was not entirely sure that it was going to work. I would say my confidence was actually pretty low that it was going to work. I mean, the concept of Tangle was something that I cared about and felt passionately about, and also was very skeptical that I’d be able to bring people in. And I just started by sending a newsletter to a hundred friends and family and some old colleagues with a breakdown of a divisive issue with some views from the right and the left that were just very explicitly like this is what the right’s saying, this is what the left’s saying. And the response I got was, I love this. I would totally read this. I’m really curious what you think about the issue. Like, I read everybody’s– like all these opinions from the left and the right, but I didn’t get any kind of conclusion to it. And so I added this section that was my take that I think gives it a little bit of the personal connection with readers. And that formula, you know, just seems to have worked. It seems to resonate.
I think a lot of the people that I’m attracting are– it’s sort of a mix. I think the more conservative, more right-leaning folks are people who are just generally distrustful of the media and the traditional establishment press. And obviously, I’m somebody who thinks that the media has made some mistakes and there are some problems with it. And I created something that is intentionally meant to be a little alternative and independent. And then I think a lot of people who come from the left who are interested are more like– you know, in 2016 after Donald Trump got elected, a lot of liberals felt like they were in a bubble. Like, what am I missing? How did this guy who I despise end up becoming president with 70 million people voting for him? And so they sign up because they’re almost interested in hearing from that other side, from stepping outside of the bubble. That seems to be generally the feedback. It’s not a rule, but it’s kind of what I’ve seen from interacting with readers. And yeah, I mean, organically, we’ve grown to a mailing list of over 50,000 subscribers with people just spreading the word, just forwarding to friends and saying, I read this and I like it. And I think the biggest reason why people share it is because they feel like when they read our newsletter, turns the temperature down a little bit. And so many people are stressed out and so many people are anxious and angry and they don’t like feeling that way. I mean, you don’t feel good after watching an hour of MSNBC or Fox News usually. And I think people recognize that. And when it becomes apparent to them that there’s a different way to get the news that might also not drive them up the wall and they even feel better informed or more aware of all the opinions out there, that’s something that’s really attractive. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the market and the audience for it. And I think there’s probably way more than 50,000 people out there who want something like this.
EV: So Isaac, I mean, you just gave us, you know, the origin story of Tangle as it were. Can you gimme like the origin story of the origin story? Meaning the problems in the media that you were hoping to fix? And I ask in particular, ’cause I know you’ve written about this and I think that you’re really good at explaining the issues with the media without kind of defaulting into this knee jerk, like, the media sucks and you can’t trust them and they’re out for whatever they’re out for, which I feel like is the simplified narrative that people can pretty easily fall into.
IS: Yeah, no, I mean, first of all, I think one of the big problems is the incentive structure that Zach kind of referred to, which is, you know, clicks drive traffic, which drives revenue, and that’s been the model for a really long time. In order to satisfy advertisers, you need exposure. In order to get exposure, you need eyeballs or earballs. Doing that is not easy. The challenge is to stick out amidst a sea of other news organizations. So the way a lot of people do that is they make really clicky, sensational, eye-grabbing headlines that are meant to evoke emotion, hot emotion, and that works. We know that that works. That’s a fair model to get people to your website. I think it’s a particularly destructive one, but it’s certainly a proven model. And then the other way to sort of grow an audience is to tell them a lot of things that they want to hear. And that I don’t think is always an intentional thing that people in the press do, but I think the audience capture phenomenon where the audience starts to dictate what the press is covering is something that’s very real for news outlets from The New York Times to Fox News. And that basically looks like if The New York Times is covering the Trump Russia scandal and that news article they put on their homepage gets a million clicks, and then next to it there’s another news article about the Colorado River drying up and that gets 50,000 clicks, The New York Times just learn that their audience really wants to hear about Trump and Russia so they’re gonna start covering that story over and over and over again because it’s really good for business and it’s what their audience wants. And that sort of cycle starts and is really hard to get out of. And then the final thing I’ll just say is media bias is a real thing. You know, that’s something that a lot of conservatives I think for a long time were worried about and rightly worried about when they went out and consumed the press, which was that in a lot of the biggest newspapers, they didn’t feel like they were seeing their voices represented or their perspectives represented. And the simplest example I have to sort of, you know, suss that out is you can go read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times covering the exact same event, you know, like not even a political issue, just an event, a series of facts, a story about something that happened like the Canadian trucker protest, and despite the fact that they employ the best reporters in the world, they have the most money, the best editors, the most resources, the highest paid people writing their stories, they’re gonna look vastly different. I don’t think that’s because those people are, you know, evil. I think it’s just because individuals come forward with their own biases no matter how objective or fair they’re trying to be. And that could be the sources that they have that they go to that carry certain political biases, it could be the datasets that they know they can go back and reference really quickly in a news article, it could be their editors. So to me, the best way to sort of resolve that is to present news from multiple perspectives and multiple news outlets in the same place, which is what I try and do with Tangle. But I don’t do that with the underpinning of like all these journalists or evil hacks. I think there are a lot of hacks out there. They certainly exist, but I think much of it is a lot more subtle than we want to accept.
ZK: When you set out to construct your daily newsletter, what’s your mindset? What is your goal? What are you trying to do that you feel isn’t done and that you feel should be done more?
IS: Yeah, so this is really important. I am not trying to get people to moderate, change their views. I’m not trying to get the handholding, like I don’t believe everybody in the country agrees on everything and that, you know, we’re not as divided as we think. And I think there’s some evidence for some of those things. And I think there is a big messy purple center in the country that doesn’t get enough attention. But fundamentally, I think it’s even more basic than that. It’s that if you ask a conservative to tell you what most liberals believe about immigration, they can’t do, and vice versa. And so I want to just expose people to a wider range of perspectives out there than what they’re currently getting. I think that most liberals who are active voters and active politically are in really well-defined news bubbles where they’re being handed information and spoon-fed narratives that they already believe. And I think that’s also true of most active conservative voters, most politically engaged people. So my goal in the beginning was, I just want people who have left-leaning politics or super left politics or left of center politics, whatever it is, to get a healthier diet of conservative perspectives that I think are, you know, good arguments that are out there, compelling points. And if you’re on the right, I don’t want you to get the liberal perspective once it’s filtered through Fox News or The Wall Street Journal editorial opinion page. I want you to get it from actual liberals who can tell you what they really think and what their real arguments are. And what comes out of that is that people realize that there are actually pretty good arguments coming from the other side, the people that they disagree with, arguments that at least make them think or compel them to do a little bit more investigation or wonder about why they believe the thing that they believe without being very informed on it. And that happens all the time. I hear that from my readers all the time. I know that it works because they tell me that their opinions changed or they were surprised to read this thing, or they had read all these stories in The New York Times about something, but they never heard this fact that was presented in the newsletter by one of the right-leaning columnists. And that to me is really the fundamental issue, is we just, we just don’t know what the other side actually thinks about some of these really divisive issues. We get told by our side what the craziest people on that side think, what the loudest and most bombastic people on that side think, but we don’t hear the really good measured arguments that underpin a lot of those worldviews.
ZK: And do you find that you get any pushback? I mean, are there people trying to write in and like, dude.
IS: Yeah, yeah. I get a lot of pushback. Look, it’s not a simple thing. You can’t just, you know, pluck people out of, I think, the comfort of a lot of the information silos that we’re living in and then start exposing them to people who really fundamentally see the world differently than they do and not have them have strong reactions sometimes. People write in pissed off about my take. They write in because they think I’m both sides seeing an issue that there is clearly only one argument, only one truth about. They write in because they think I shared an opinion from somebody who’s radically left or a right-wing conspiracy theorist or whatever. I mean, people find all sorts of stuff to get angry about. The only time I ever really put up a fight is if somebody unsubscribes because they read something that they don’t like. My big thing is the whole point is that you are here to experience and understand and, you know, be exposed to views that make you uncomfortable, that you don’t like. And it’s okay to get pissed, it’s okay to write me a nasty email, but don’t leave because you saw something you didn’t like. The point of the exercise is to become more comfortable engaging ideas that might be offensive to you, that might seem like they’re not bound in the same set of facts that you believe in. I’m asking for some level of trust because obviously, I’m not just gonna publish things that I think are fundamentally untrue or that there’s a very clear, obvious lie and an opinion piece or something like that. So I go seek out arguments that I think are really strong. That’s what our team does. It’s a big part of the work. Most of the work is that, that research. But hopefully, people will at least be able to just get it off their chest. I give them a response, I say, I understand why you feel this way, here’s my personal perspective, here’s why I included this piece, and see if we can have some kind of dialogue. But the only thing that really bothers me is if– you know, if people unsubscribe ’cause the newsletter’s too long or politics are stressing them out or whatever, that’s all fine. But when they unsubscribe because they’re like, I can’t believe you featured this argument, I hate this person, whatever, that’s when I’m like, this is the point. This is why we’re here, is to experience the– you know, I hope you reconsider.
EV: Considering, you know, what you just said about that kind of feedback and people potentially unsubscribing, and also what you were talking about previously with big news outlets serving audiences what they want, I saw a reader ask you the same question, I thought it was a great question, about the take that you do at the end. How do you check for yourself there that you’re not maybe altering your opinion because you’re worried how people will react or that they’ll unsubscribe or this, that, or the other thing? Like how do you keep yourself on the straight and narrow with that?
IS: Yeah, it’s a good question. I have two little sticky notes on my computer. One says keep the main thing the main thing, which is don’t get distracted by all the noise out there in my day-to-day work. And the other one just says, be straight with them. And that’s like my North Star, is I’m reading all these news articles, I consume an unbelievable amount of news, an unbelievable amount of, you know, opinion pieces about divisive issues, I’m listening to podcasts, I’m watching the primetime TV, I’m reading the opinion pages, and when I come out of that on the other end, I usually have some kind of feeling. Sometimes I’m like, I’m totally undecided. I don’t have to say one side’s right, one side’s wrong. My agreement with the readers is I’m gonna be really honest about how I feel and really transparent about how I got to that feeling. And sometimes I share my take and then I get a bunch of emails people tearing into me and realize like, oh, I was actually wrong, like, you know, I stepped out of bounds here, or I misread this argument, or I heard something that really changed my mind fundamentally about where I landed. And if that happens, I’ll follow up and I’ll say that or I’ll share the feedback or we’ll cover the issue again. But I just remind myself that the promise is that I’m being honest about my views, I’m being transparent about my views. And certainly, there are times when I type a sentence and I think to myself, this is really gonna piss off a lot of my liberal readers. This is really gonna piss off a lot of my conservative readers. And to me, that’s not a sign to delete the sentence and try and soften the language. It’s a sign that, like, I need to be really clear about my argument and how I got here and make sure, you know, it’s buttoned up and I can stand by this when the heat comes. And that’s just like, it’s not easy. And I’m sure there are days when, you know, consciously or subconsciously, I have softened language or I have tried to, you know, tiptoe in the middle on an issue that I was scared to really take a position on. But generally speaking, I think I’ve gotten good at that. And I think my readers tend to reward me when I’m honest with them. They like the honesty, they want that, and it makes them feel heard and makes them feel like they’re getting something that’s actually authentic, which is a big part of it.
ZK: So let’s say you’re the op-ed editor of The New York Times in the spring of 2020. This is a bit of a softball question, but it’s illustrative, right? So James Bennet, the then op-ed editor of The New York Times runs an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, arguing, I believe– it’s funny how much these things fade from visceral memory that we ought to invoke some version of not Posse Comitatus, but basically that we could, you know, use military force to create order in the streets-
ZK: -more or less, right? And for that he is reviled within The New York Times newsroom. There’s sort of a revolt on the left against the fact that he gave a platform to these views and that’s [inaudible] he’s forced to resign. Would you have run that piece?
IS: Absolutely, yeah. Vehemently disagree with the blowback to James Bennet. I think The New York Times opinion page has gotten worse since he’s left. Disagree strongly with Senator Cotton’s position, thought that it was [laughs]– you know, talk about illustrated. I thought it was a revealing look into his worldview and what he thought of the citizens that have put him into office. And I think it reflected really poorly on him. And I think that’s all the more reason to run it and be really clear with people about where a sitting senator sits on their rights to protest in the streets. But yeah, a hundred percent I think that, you know, he’s a well-known senator in a state where he’s pretty popular and he’s got a military background. And I thought his argument as bad as it was, was clearly well thought out and was well articulated and that that’s totally in bounds for stuff that The New York Times should be running and the public should be reading. And I think, you know, what I said at the time was we would’ve learned more about Senator Tom Cotton and it would’ve reflected poorly on him if that piece had just run without any fuss from The New York Times. And instead what it turned into was a story about the media censoring a sitting senator and, you know, the kind of like woke takeover of The New York Times opinion section, which I think was a way worse outcome than what would’ve happened if it just ran unencumbered.
EV: So, Isaac, let me ask you this. Where do you see us right now as far as like the arc of the polarization narrative in the US, right? Because you’re kind of unusual as just a person in the US that you talk to people. I mean, you get emails from your readers all the time, people from all sides of the political spectrum. And you’re unusual as a journalist in that you do that same thing, right? You actually interact with readers on an individual basis. I mean, do you see anything trending in the right direction there? You know, can we take the fact this is a successful business for you to be a sign that something is trending in the right direction or do you see, you know, all the same stuff still happening?
IS: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I mean, fundamentally, I think that we kind of hit rock bottom is the feeling that I’ve gotten. I think a lot of people are exhausted by the partisanship. They’re exhausted by what the four years of Trump were and the first two years of the Biden presidency, which included a lot of, you know, the kind of stop the steal stuff and whether Biden was, you know, a woke radical lefty and all this crap, in my opinion. And I think what’s happened now is things are sort of settling. We’re coming out of COVID. There’s tons of people who are turning toward alternative media outlets to get some more nuance or some heterodox perspective on the news. And I think there’s a lot more people who are just like, want to go back to normal. They want , like, a return to a little bit of, you know, decency, decorum, whatever. I know that like a lot of the big pundits in the space right now are sort of going in the opposite direction. I get tied up in, you know, little Twitter fights with people on the left and the right all the time who in my opinion are just degrading the public dialogue by being intentionally provocative and mean and nasty to people. But I think as a whole, the mood that I get is like the country is exhausted. And I think a big part of that, honestly, is like just looking at what just happened in the last two elections. I mean, Joe Biden’s not a particularly popular politician, but he won in 2020, and you know, Democrats cleaned up in the midterms. And I don’t think people were voting for a lot of the democratic policies that were on the ballot so much as they were just like voting for some normalcy and some calmness. And a lot of the big swing states where Republicans leaned into more firebrand candidates and Democrats leaned into more moderate candidates. And I live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I’m in a swing state. I grew up in Lower Bucks County, which is a bellwether county. And so I have a lot of friends and family who are, you know, Trump-loving republicans and Bernie-loving liberals and everybody– from talking to people like that on the ground in states like this, I can tell you that there is a real, honest to God general exhaustion with the fighting and it’s like nobody wants to put their arms down first, but I think both sides are not interested in turning the dial up any more than it is right now. And you know, maybe that’s rose-colored glasses, but that’s what I feel like I’m genuinely seeing.
ZK: Yeah, I mean I would agree with that, and I think some of the traction that we’ve had is reflective of that. I will say that I don’t think there– I think in many ways, you know, what you’re trying to do, what we’re trying to do, what, you know, a whole bunch of other organizations are trying to do is in many ways novel. You know, it is a movement beyond what has been done in the past. You’d be really hard pressed to find the past in any country like littered with what you’re trying to do in that most places either were highly partisan in the 19th century, that era of yellow journalism, or they were sort of highly elite consensus in the mid-20th. And most of what liberals look back at as the golden era of American media and journalism was really a golden era of an elite consensus, meaning it wasn’t highly partisan, but there’s a whole lot of stuff you just didn’t and couldn’t talk about that was off the table, right, that was just unacceptable. Unacceptable dinner party conversation, unacceptable broad sheet material. And I think the idea of sort of like a post-partisan or a more inclusive journalism, inclusive meaning nothing is off the table, back to the Tom Cotton, right? There was maybe a period of time where some op-ed pages really did embrace a wide variety of views. I remember there was a period of time where USA TODAY would do sort of the pro and con, you know, so they’d have someone who is on one side of an issue, someone on another and they’d run two pieces sort of juxtaposed having amounted to a non-interactive argument. But for the most part, right, that’s just not been the case. And I think what’s interesting in this case is the very willingness to open your eyes to other perspectives is not the most natural human tendency. And you know, maybe we’re trying to do something that actually is challenging because it’s not familiar.
IS: Yeah, no, I don’t think it is at all the natural human tendency. I mean, we have a lot of writers and social scientists, you know, people like Jonathan Haidt and stuff, who have written about, you know, the emotional centers that really drive our logic and reason, especially when it comes to politics. And it’s pretty clear to me that most people make up their minds about certain political issues, you know, in a matter of seconds hearing about them or observing the person who’s delivering it to them, and that in order to override that initial instinct and that initial response, it takes actual time and investment. And it’s almost like a way to train your brain or retrain your brain by regularly exposing yourself to views or content that you might not like. And, you know, about the op-ed section and just like the general– this era of journalism where we’re sort of allowing all the questions to be on the table more and more, which I think is a really keen observation, I think that is happening and I think it’s a really good thing. It reminds me of an opinion piece I just read recently about all the UFO stuff, and I think it was Holman Jenkins in The Wall Street Journal. He basically made the argument that what’s really happening is because the government is, you know, kind of covering up the truth, which is our airspaces aren’t that protected and we probably have a bunch of foreign drones and things flying around that we don’t totally understand spying on us and all this stuff, because they won’t be straight with Americans about that, the result is that it turns in hysteria about whether there’s aliens here and like all the stuff that has gone, you know, over the edge. And I think that’s a really good analogy for sort of the current state of the political discussions or what we just lived through, which was there’s sort of this insulation that happens where because we’re unwilling to have like the really hard conversations and we protect, you know, these certain truths, these certain things that we’re not supposed to talk about that aren’t appropriate, whatever, people kind of leapfrog what the actual reality is and they move on to something that’s even way far out there and more conspiratorial and scarier and whatever. And then we end up having the debate on those terms instead of kind of like this harder potential truth that’s happening there. I see it all the time. I think, you know, there are certain issues right now where it’s really palpable to me, things like trans issues or, you know, critical race theory or whatever, where the conversation is happening in these really, really extreme terms where it’s like either these people are pedophiles who are grooming your kids or they’re like, you know, the best people in the world and they can never be criticized and whatever, you know, or they’re like, there are teachers indoctrinating your five-year-old white kid to think that, you know, they’re racist or they’re teaching them that, you know, slavery didn’t exist. And it’s like, no, those aren’t the two things that are happening. It’s like much more in the center and it’s because we don’t have kind of tough conversations around that stuff in my opinion.
EV: We had a recent episode with Peniel Joseph that we were briefly talking about CRT and Zachary was kind of pushing him on some of that stuff. And what Peniel rejoined with was like, you have to read the source material. And it comes up for me around this because it strikes me that, like, what we’re asking people to do when it comes to the news and getting outta their filter bubbles and all of this is actually really difficult and it requires a lot of time. You know, I read your piece on the Trump and Russia stuff. I read the original 23,000-word one in the Columbia Journalism Review and then I read another piece about it on Vox, and after all those words, I was like, I don’t even know.
EV: And like, how long did that take me, right? You know, and I’m in this world so I had the time, right? Even then I didn’t really have the time. Like how can we expect people to really, you know, go through all of that? But it is true, like you do have to go back to the source material to really actually be an engaged, informed citizen. So I’m not sure what to tell people to do.
IS: Yeah. Look, one of the weird kind of conundrums of all this is we, being, you know, us in the media or people who are in the politics space or whatever, we’re talking to an audience that largely has, you know, 9-to-5 jobs and kids and things that are totally unrelated to what we spend our entire day doing, which, you know, I think both makes the responsibility that we have that much more important and profound and also makes what we’re trying to do that much harder and more difficult ’cause we are asking for that kind of investment. One of the things I try and do with Tangle is, you know, we cover one big debate a day and we try and go deep on that debate a little bit. It’s like, it’s not a two-and-a-half-minute newsletter. It’s like a 10 to 15-minute read and you have to put a little bit of time in, and I think saying like, everybody’s got 15 minutes to understand this issue is something that resonates with enough people that we have pretty good readership and open rate and all that stuff. But yeah, there’s a big gap between, you know, us and the readers, and that’s a gap that’s not always easy to close.
ZK: So where do you go from here? I mean, do you think this just grows as a set of sensibilities and movements? Do you think these become their own platforms? I mean, look, we think about this too. So there’s just a kind of ongoing question of what’s the nature of shifting the dialogue? I continue to believe that things will begin to change long before it’s apparent that they’re changing, that the real time of noise and cultural moments tend not to be clear when you’re living through them. It’s like trying to process a dream while you’re having it. And that whatever movement there is won’t really be apparent until you look back and you go, oh, huh, look at that, things began to shift. I remain probably more captive to the idea of central influence rather than completely atomized disaggregated influence, meaning I still read The New York Times. I grew up reading The New York Times. I read The Wall Street Journal. I pay attention to platforms that have some degree of brand and marquee. I write for them. I look to write for them. I’m more interested in writing them than I am posting my stuff on Medium, right? Because I still believe in some degree of whether it’s elite influence or centralized– not centralized, but collective town hall area where we come together and we talk about issues. But maybe that’s also just a vestige of my upbringing and the past and that the real future is places like Tangle and hopefully places like The Progress Network and places like Freethink and you know, just the endless multiplicity of platforms and people, some of which will last a year, some of which will last five years, they’ll ebb, they’ll flow, and that we’re just in a decentralized time of a lot of noise and eventually these things will coalesce with some sort of meaning but it ain’t gonna be redounding to any one of our narcissistic benefit.
IS: Yeah, I mean look, first of all, I can’t do what I do without the existence of The New York Times and Fox News and The Wall Street Journal and CNN and all those, you know, source material kind of news outlets. I mean, fundamentally, I think 70%, 80% of the news content that’s out there relies entirely on them and Reuters and The Associated Press, and most of them are just kind of recycling what those news outlets are publishing and putting their own slant on them or introducing their own sources to them. So I don’t really see that changing anytime soon. I mean, I think the biggest difference is gonna be the delivery mechanism. You know, I know with newsletters, that’s the platform I know, that’s where Tangle was in– or initially a newsletter, we’re a newsletter first, but, you know, like 30% of our audience is over the age of 60 and less than 1% is under the age of 18. I don’t think that’s because there are no 18-year-olds out there who care about politics. I think it’s ’cause they don’t get their news via email. They’re not interested in that. So we’re gonna have to get out there and really put ourselves on different platforms, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook– or not Facebook. TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, those kinds of places we can meet younger readers and and bring them in. And that’s gonna be that’s gonna be a big challenge. It’s something that we’re planning to do in the near future, but I think all those traditional media outlets are gonna do that as well.
EV: Isaac, I think my best advice for you if you want people under 18 is definitely TikTok ’cause only people our age are on Instagram [laughs].
IS: [Laughs] yeah, yeah, I guess that’s true.
EV: But I am a legitimate fan of Tangle. I read it nearly every day. And the days that I don’t are only because I too am overwhelmed by the, you know, fire hose of information. So really genuinely recommended to all of our listeners. It’s really nice to have your insightful eye on the media and we really appreciate you coming onto the podcast.
ZK: Yes, thank you so much for the conversation and for what you do, Isaac.
IS: Yeah, thank you guys. It was a pleasure being here. I’m obviously super supportive of the work you’re doing in the space, so I appreciate it.
ZK: And for those of you listening, go check out the Tangle, subscribe to it. It’ll be worth your time and probably worth your money. So we’ve had a few conversations, Emma, with people who I guess we consider like-minded and one of the goals this year for The Progress Network is to create a network of networks and not just a network of individuals, so it’s actually to find organizations that are doing similar endeavors, similar work, and build that collectively as opposed to simply building on individual work, right? ‘Cause there are all these other networks now of individuals, and Isaac is absolutely part of that. The Tangle is a fascinating title, a fascinating moniker for what he’s trying to do. I keep thinking of like, oh, what a tangle web we weave as my idea of tangle as a way of recognizing the tangle. Of course a lot of what he’s trying to do is untangle the tangle or make the tangle less tangled, but it’s also identifying part of the problem in the first place, you know, that everything is in fact kind of jumbled and complicated and hard to disentangle. Still, I do find these endeavors both incredibly uplifting and we’ve, from the get get-go, had a non-zero-sum view of how all these things work, right? It’s not let’s capture enough eyeballs for progress or capture enough eyeballs for moderation and we don’t want that other people capturing all that because there’s a zero sum. There’s only so many people who care to be even-keeled and sensible and we want them all to come here and we don’t want them to go there. I think that’s absolutely wrong when it comes to what’s going on, that this is all building out a much larger cultural sensibility where the funnel is radically opening out, and that more is more and more begets more. You know, it’s easier for us to do that ’cause it’s a non-profit model. It’s a little harder to do that when you’re for-profit, right? ‘Cause you start feeling like you are in fact competing for someone’s wallet share, and that is also a challenge ’cause that is finite. It may not be so finite at a mass, mass level, but it’s certainly finite at an individual level.
EV: As Isaac was saying, there is that trust and authenticity and closeness and sort of intimacy with the newsletter that he has that we don’t have with other news outlets. And I definitely appreciate that he’s making a hard road easier because the disentangling, as you were saying, like it’s actually kind of difficult. It’s actually emotionally a little bit difficult. And I’ve spent the last five plus years trying to do it myself and then realized recently that there’s still a lot [laughs], that I’m still absolutely in my filter bubble. So I really feel for people out there who are genuinely trying to do that and become disentangled.
ZK: Absolutely. So we’d encourage everyone to check out his work, check out that newsletter in addition to continuing to support and follow us. So let’s talk about the news.
Audio Clip: Four decades after its creation, Silicon Valley Bank was the 16th largest bank in the US. It took just a day and a half for it to fall apart.
This is the second biggest bank failure that’s ever happened in the United States.
Once seen as a major tech banking player, SVB’s stunning collapse spurred other bank closures, rattled global markets, and threatened the livelihoods of startups across the country.
ZK: So as we turn to the news, for those of you who are watching this as clips and have watched the rest, you will notice that I am now wearing a different shirt and I’m in a completely different background, as is Emma. That’s not because we are quick-change artists. We’re recording the news segment of this closer to the news. We recorded the interview closer to the interview, so please do not be overly disconcerted. And for those of you listening, the audio’s different. That’s why. So Emma, what should we be looking at, thinking about, talking about that we haven’t been thinking about, looking about, and talking about this week?
EV: So today, we’re gonna do a TPN special first, which is we’re gonna talk about a much talked about news item, but hopefully with a constructive take on it. And that’s Silicon Valley Bank. It’s been all over the news right now. Definitely a panic item in that as soon as Silicon Valley Bank went down, there was a lot of 2008 trauma that quickly arose, right? A lot of panic on Twitter and in real life. I certainly felt it personally. I’ve been hearing it from friends and people who work in finance and tech. And so Zachary, since you are our expert on these matters, matters economic, we’re hoping you have something constructive to say about this.
ZK: Well, I mean, on this one, first of all, a lot of people have opinions. No one really knows entirely what went down. I did a piece for Time Magazine where I was probably more harshly critical of the Federal Reserve than I have been in the past. So my general take has been there are a few government agencies in every country that are staffed by people who really are not motivated by power and venality and, you know, political gain, but really do take the public service mandate seriously. And I think for the most part, the officials of the Federal Reserve have been a technocratic bunch who take their mandate of guardians of economic stability seriously, and that’s what they’re motivated by. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they can’t make absolutely colossal mistakes, even if well-intentioned one. So everything I’m saying is kind of within the context of I respect the desire to do well. And at least in this case, I excoriate the actions of doing poorly. And in many ways, this sort of policy of fighting inflation with really, really, really intensely aggressive interest rate hikes, which may or may not be the right thing in terms of inflation, at some point was pursued so monomaniacally that they lost sight of if the medicine is so intense and so powerful, it can also do harm. It’s like the chemotherapy analogy. It clearly could cure cancer, but in excessive doses, it can also kill or harm the patient. And I think in many ways, if you look at what happened with Silicon Valley Bank, what’s extraordinary is they weren’t– you know, they had the money to meet their deposits. This wasn’t like Lehman Brothers in 2008. They didn’t lever up, they didn’t borrow 10:1 against their consumer deposits and then lend it out or speculate. You know, that really did go on in 2008. They had a couple hundred billion dollars in assets and a couple hundred billion dollars in deposits, and they were holding their deposits in very safe treasury notes. They just were mismatched in terms of their pricing. So I think what’s sort of “good” about this is that the most of these banks, compared to what was true 15 years ago, have been run much more conservatively, even “the worst” of them, relative to the last financial crisis. And that’s something we should take some degree of comfort from. And if you’re worried about moral hazard, like the federal government came in and it guaranteed those deposits, at the same time, the people who own the bank, the equity holders of the bank and its executives lost everything. So it’s not like there was moral hazard and people just– you know, they got their [inaudible]. There was consequence. But I think the most constructive thing that has been revealed from this is either by choice or just by regulation or by the change in mores, you know, most of these banks are more conservatively run and we live in a more stable financial system. Now, by the time you’re listening to this, the stock market could have gone down 15%, there could be cracks in “the economy”. So I’m not certainly precluding negative things happening, but there’s a difference between those things and like the brink of financial collapse and clearly, that’s not in the cards.
EV: Right. Something that really helped me when this was coming out was a podcast that Scott Galloway did, who’s one of our members and has come on the podcast with us, and he made the distinction of this isn’t a proper bailout, right? Like he just said, taxpayers aren’t paying for it and we’re not bailing out the manager. So it’s a little bit of a different thing. The risk of contagion seems to be low. But I was wondering just for, you know, people listening, including myself that aren’t monetary experts, I can back up first of all that you’ve been critical of the Fed raising interest rates ’cause I’ve been reading it in your work for months now. Can you just draw the line for us about why that led to the SVB collapse and why you are being critical about that?
ZK: Right. So there’s two different points. One is I’ve been critical about the Fed raising interest rates to the degree that they are given that I think a lot of the causes of inflation, as do a lot of other people, was largely all the money that was pumped in to our economies in March of 2020 through mid-2021 because of COVID. So it’s like if I give you $1,000 and you then spend $1,000 really quickly and everybody does that simultaneously, you’d expect there to be some inflation, right? ‘Cause everybody’s suddenly spending a lot of money. But if I know that that’s the only $1,000 that you have extra to spend, it’s a one-time thing, maybe I shouldn’t be so worried about that spending leading to chronic inflation, right? Because you spend it, it’s gone. And in many ways the stimulus from March of 2020 through, you know, mid to late ’21 was that, right? It was a one-time weird, massive amount of money. And so I think that should have been more awareness of that, that inflation wasn’t some confusing I don’t know where this came from. Then there’s should the Fed have raised interest rates to keep that in check? ‘Cause that’s why you raise interest rates, to try to dampen spending. Then there’s– this was the only time there’s been wage growth for a lot of the middle and lower middle class for decades. So a policy that’s designed to dampen that I think is politically and socially problematic and designed to cool off a hot labor market. Like what’s a hot labor market? It’s a market where people are getting jobs. What are wages increases? It’s a market where people are getting paid more to get jobs. Those should be societally good things, not things that we should treat as, oh, shit. So that’s one thing. Then there’s, okay, maybe you think inflation is systemically problematic, which is a fair argument. You can only do so much so quickly without the chemotherapy problem, i.e., let’s say it is a problem and you need to fight it. You still shouldn’t overdosed [laughs] in your medicine. And raising rates, the Fed raised rates more quickly from the spring of ’22 to the present than it had ever done proportionally, even in the 1980s proportionally. And the idea that you could do that without consequence or only with mildly negative consequence and then say you’ve won the fight against inflation, I think is just was misguided. So that’s my two cents, or I guess if it’s the Fed, it’s like one and three-quarter cents.
EV: Okay, so you’re giving the Fed bad marks for the lead-up into this. It’s not gonna be like a system-wide failure the way that there was that, you know, in 2008, big fear of that. I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing now, but there are marks of how they’ve come in and rescued the situation. Is it fair to say that we can give them relatively high marks for that?
ZK: I think the Fed in a crisis, like so the Fed in March of 2020 when it looked like, you know, we were on the verge of some sort of economic, let alone epidemiological Armageddon, the Fed in late 2008 into 2009, even the Fed in after 2001, right? You know, after the terrorist attacks. The Fed’s great in a crisis, or at least the modern central banks are essential in crisis. And I would say, you know, absent them, the story of our past 20 years would’ve been much darker ’cause they can act quickly. They don’t need to do it through politics. They can just like do what it takes to make sure the system is stable. And I think that’s imperative, you know, and hosanna, hosanna, round of applause, right? But I think absent those crisis times, there should be more like an economic Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. And that would mean do less, be more modest about what you think you can do, and don’t try to micromanage.
EV: So next, we’re gonna talk about drugs again. It’s a topic that comes up a lot for us. But this is a slightly different aspect of the drug conversation. We’ve been talking a lot about legalization of marijuana in particular, a little bit about the criminal justice system reforming, and this is in that territory but a little bit different. It’s about the rise of the harm reduction approach for drug users.
Audio Clip: There’s still another bill sitting on the governor’s desk and advocates say this one could save lives. New data from the Georgia Department of Public Health says it’s seeing increased cases of fentanyl overdoses since the start of the pandemic.
People who want to use drugs are going to use drugs. There’s no need for someone to get sick or to die because of their substance use.
EV: As we know, we have a big crisis where people can easily overdose on fentanyl that appears in drugs they don’t know that it’s there. And there are these little test strips where you can use these strips to see if what you’re about to take has fentanyl in it. But they’re illegal in all states except for Alaska because they fall under drug paraphernalia laws, meaning it’s drug paraphernalia. It’s, you know, something that we don’t want states to sell, except for Alaska. First state to make a change to that, to allow fentanyl strips to be sold so that people can be more safe and avoid overdosing was Ohio. They legalized them in January. And then in February, South Dakota followed in their footsteps. And now Hawaii, Kansas, New Hampshire, Montana, and Texas are all considering the same thing. So there’s this interesting momentum going on in the early parts of 2023 here. And I should say, you know, just to give credit that I saw this on the Cato Institute. So I’m very intrigued by this. Again, it’s, like I said, along those legalization conversations, but a little bit different in that it used to be the conversation was drug users are bad people, it’s a moral failing, it’s a personal failing. Now we’re moving a little bit towards the harm reduction approach and in a bipartisan way.
ZK: Yeah, I mean, this is one of these cases that’s even more egregiously absurd than the, we’re not gonna give out clean free needles to heroin users in order to cut down on hepatitis and/or AIDS transmission because doing so, you know, validates or somehow supports drug use. This is one where we don’t want people dying of fentanyl, but we’re gonna prevent them from actually taking measures to prevent themselves from dying of fentanyl. So like this is one of these give me a break. Are you kidding? And there’s moments or indications of rectifying the absurdity. And then there’s a whole series of things, and maybe we should talk to someone like Maia Szalavitz sometimes, who writes occasionally for The New York Times. And she’s been really, really coherent about the way in which American society in particular oscillates from draconian extremes to sort of blithe indifference and doesn’t stop in the middle to even the complete demonization of opioids because of the Sacklers, because of the way in which things like OxyContin, you know, was prescribed misses the fact that there are people who are in chronic pain who need these drugs, and doctors are now scared to prescribe them because they’re worried that if they do, they’re gonna have their licenses revoked for prescribing controlled substances. And you know, I do take, and we’ve talked about this as you’ve said, some degree of heart in that there seems to be a sort of a messy walk toward some degree of balance and rationality about these things. But messy is probably the keyword in that walk.
EV: Messy indeed. And you know, I just did say that there’s some momentum around this and listed maybe almost 10 states, but the fact of the matter is that we only have three so far where it’s legal. I’m very curious to see where this goes in 2023, if it stops at this handful or continues on. And certainly the harm reduction conversation has been around for many years and hasn’t really had a real feat. So this is one where we might emphasize the messy more so than we usually would for TPN, but there is something
EV: So moving on, wanted to do a quick follow-up to our conversation that we had with Matthew Connelly a couple weeks ago around all of the absurd classification of government documents because we had this very interesting small move, and this in no way [laughs] solves the wider problem that we were talking to Connelly about, but the House voted unanimously to declassify US intelligence on the information of the origins of COVID-19. And what’s really striking about this vote is that is 419 to 0. So more bipartisan you do not get. Remains to be seen if Joe Biden is going to sign the measure into law. Of course there is a China nervousness skittishness around this that is not particularly great. But in terms of the declassification conversation, in terms of the conversation of right versus left, saying that the left was trying to censor information over COVID and that, you know, it was not okay to talk about the fact that it might be coming from a lab at a certain point in the pandemic, I think it would be helpful to have more of these documents available.
ZK: Right. And it takes a political firestorm. You’ve had this periodically, you had it a little bit because of the 9/11 commission, sort of more transparency about what intelligence agencies knew and when they knew it, you have it about the origins of COVID. The problem, as we talked about with Matt, is these are one-off, very selective. You know, we will declassify stuff on this topic in this way now as opposed to a more broad set of reforms. But in the [inaudible] full perspective, any opening that demonstrates that, hey, wow, you can reveal a lot of information without imperiling whatever, national security, lives, sources, you name it, is a further proof point saying we just don’t need to be keeping the level of secrets that we have. And in fact, we know we want accountability, we want transparency of officials, of ourselves, of other countries. All that’s a good thing.
EV: And I’m kind of hoping it’ll bring it into awareness a little bit more.
ZK: Keep hoping.
EV: Yeah. [Laughs]. That’s my job. Literally paid to do this.
ZK: [Laughs], you’re literally, it is literally my job to hope. I will keep doing it.
EV: Someone’s gotta do it [laughs].
ZK: I will certainly do it on the clock. Most of you don’t know about Emma that when she gets off these recordings or isn’t in her, like, What Could Go Right?, Progress Network hat is like a deeply cynical, very bitter, chain-smoking, cursing. It’s really, it’s an extraordinary transformation, but it just shows you what a good job can do.
EV: Just shows that you can’t trust how people appear in the media. No, I’m just joking. Actually, I am like this off the clock too. It’s a little pathetic. So yeah.
ZK: [Laughs] it’s not pathetic. It’s absolutely delightful.
EV: [Laughs] anyway, on this last comedic note, we’re gonna end with that. So thanks so much again, Zachary, especially for sharing your expertise around the Silicon Valley Bank issue.
ZK: Thank you, Emma. And for all of you, you know, please sign up for our newsletter. You can go to theprogressnetwork.org. It’s free, shows up weekly in your inbox. And you can read it, you can not read it, but it is a somewhat longer continuation of these news segments. So check it out. And we will be with you again next week for another episode of What Could Go Right?
EV: 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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