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

The Progress Report: The EU Goes Right

Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas

In the first episode of our new weekly news podcast, Emma and Zachary look into the recent EU elections, school lunches in America, and how a YouTuber in Cyprus possibly won a seat in European Parliament by accident.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Zachary Karabell: What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the Executive Director of The Progress Network, and this is a new aspect of our weekly podcast, What Could Go Right? which is also an adjunct to our weekly newsletter. What Could Go Right? Which you can get for free every week in your email box by signing up at theprogressnetwork org.

And we’re doing something a little different. We’re adding some shorter episodes to our usual longer interview episodes, and Emma and I will discuss a few select, maybe not poignant, maybe sometimes poignant, but always precious morsels of news. You as well as us would likely miss if you were not actively seeking out some good news or some news of ways in which human beings collectively around the world are solving real problems.

And just as a reminder, none of The Progress Network and What Could Go Right is indifferent to or in spite of the problems in the world. It is in fact a way of looking at those problems and listening to people who want to solve them rather than wallow in them. Emma, who is the supreme leader of all good news in the world.

Emma Varvaloucas: Oh yeah! 

Zachary Karabell: Tell us what you have.

Emma Varvaloucas: Putting that on my resume. It’s gonna stick with me. Thank you for that title. I thought it’d be fun to start by talking about the European Parliament elections that were held last weekend. We’ve talked a lot on the podcast before that 2024 is the mother of all election years.

There’s just huge elections going on everywhere. A lot of people were predicting a pretty heavy surge to the far right.

Zachary Karabell: I thought there was a surge to the far right. He says, having only crucially paid attention to how the -what 730 seats in the European parliament went.

Emma Varvaloucas: So there was and there was not, that’s the thing.

It was concentrated. So there, the things that are getting the most news are, of course, the really big countries. And there was quite a surge in France, in Italy, in Austria, in Eastern Germany. So if you’ve been reading about the far right surge in those countries, it’s very much so true because those countries are so large, it does make up, you know, a bigger chunk of the parliament.

Overall, the far right. In Parliament, went from about 20 percent representation in 2019 to about 24 percent now. But I think this is also kind of papers over a little bit of the far rights failure in many other European countries. So, you know, they were pretty soundly beaten in Spain, Slovakia, Croatia, Portugal, Sweden, and Finland.

They underperformed in a lot of places like Romania and Bulgaria, and they had sort of small gains in places like Greece, the Netherlands, and Denmark. So, in some of the big countries, yes, there was a surge. In a lot of the other smaller countries, not so much.

Zachary Karabell: So, it’s interesting because it is definitely true as you say that things like the relative victory of Marine Le Pen’s National Front and how it did compared to Emmanuel Macron’s coalition, the collapse of the Green Party in Germany in conjunction with the rise of the AFD, which has been the traditional more far right party, and certainly Giorgia Meloni’s party’s success in Italy, although that’s less of an upset or a surprise than a continuation of what’s been going on.

It is also part and parcel of the collapse of other right wing parties in Italy. So I think their story is indeed more complicated. And maybe it’s more complicated with France too, in that the National Front, they only won 30%. Which was the most of any French party, but hardly as a, you know, it’s a majority.

It’s just a lot compared to. The Splintered and Fractious Other Parties in France. And as we know, the far right National Front has become less and less far right as they’ve become more and more electorally successful. So there’s the, I think part of the problem too is, many of these parties, Giorgio Malone being probably the best example in Italy, started out as more fringe ish or more extreme far right and have As they’ve gotten more and more popular and gained more electoral success, they’ve moved to the center, which is in contrast to, let’s say what’s going on in the United States, where whether you’re a partisan of the Republican party or an adversary of the Republican party, you’d probably argue the Republican party has gone further to the right.

So it may be also that we’re mistaking the victory of these parties for a victory of the far right, as opposed to the domestication of these parties as more like the center right.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, there’s that. And it’s also, as you say, like the story is more complicated in any individual country that can be easily, you know, put across in a little soundbite in France now, you know, Macron is calling this snap election and what happened immediately after it is that, you know, one of the leading conservatives of the conservative Republicans party, I believe it’s called, said that he’ll make a pact with the far right to defeat Macron.

And immediately people were like, get him out of there. So there’s, there’s a lot of reaction to the far right still, even if it has becoming a little domesticated as you put it. So, you know, I think Yascha Mounk, who’s a TPM member, put in a piece recently that the far right is here to stay in Europe. And I think he’s probably right about that, but I don’t think it’s going to be the existential risk.

That a lot of people were afraid of not too long ago.

Zachary Karabell: And one final factor in all this for all of you who are paying close attention to the allocation of the European Parliament seats. Because the powers of the European Parliament, while expansive and expanding, are still relatively limited compared to what any national government of the states of the European Union.

People have and continue to use the European elections, the Parliament elections as their own way of kind of registering. Discontent or protest with their own domestic political coalition, but it’s not necessarily predictive of how they’re then going to vote domestically. You can like vote for this very anti establishment or right wing candidate because they are harder on immigration or they seem to be speaking more about the need for economic gains to be widely shared.

But that doesn’t mean you’re then going to show up at the polls and vote the way you did in the European parliament, because it has much more consequences when you vote domestically. And that’ll be really interesting to see actually what happens in France. In a few, I guess at the end of June, early July.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. So one more, just really fun story about this before we move on. This was big news where I’m living right now in Greece, in Cyprus, the 24 year old YouTuber who was really made famous because he went viral because he was trying to dodge his bills in Japan recently. Tthere was sort of an international shaming movement against him.

He was just elected into parliament as an independent in Cyprus. And he was like, I really didn’t mean to win, but now that I have, you know, great. The fun thing about that, other than maybe the, you know, the solution of the parliament into the hands of Gen Z. Is that he actually had a single handedly drove voter turnout in Cyprus.

It was up almost 15 percent and analysts think that he had a good part to do with that. So there you go.

Zachary Karabell: There you go.

Emma Varvaloucas: Moving back into the U.S. I thought this was really neat. The New York Times has a great article. So apparently, no one needs to have any free meals in school. American school children were always paying for lunch, and in my day, breakfast wasn’t even an option.

But there has been a tenfold increase in free school meals since 2010, so that’s 21 million American kids now in schools that get not only free lunch, but free breakfast. And I thought this was so cute. The New York Times, you know, has this quote from a third grader at a school that gets free meals, and they told him, like, you know, other kids, They have to pay for their meals.

And he was like, well, that’s mean. So very cute. And also genuinely quite nice. You know, that there are quite a few American kids now being able to go to school and not having to worry about paying for their lunch.

Zachary Karabell: Well, there you go. I guess this proves that there is indeed free lunch.

Yeah, that was definitely one of these changes, I’d always surprised me that it took so long to institute these programs. I mean, yes, the money’s got to come from somewhere and it has to be allocated, but given that we’d had this whole lattice of other social programs meant to help people who were below the poverty line live, at least in some baseline satisfactory fashion, that there wasn’t that equivalent in schools.

I mean, I guess there were some target and occasional programs for this, but the fact that it’s becoming more ubiquitous, more prevalent. And just easier is it’s undoubtedly a good thing.

Emma Varvaloucas: Probably better for nutrition too because I remember in high school I would buy my lunch and I would buy a hot pretzel and three chocolate chip cookies.

So.

Zachary Karabell: Wow.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. Probably better.

Zachary Karabell: And here you are.

Emma Varvaloucas: So it’s a miracle I survived. Let’s do a little bit of environmental stuff. The world’s biggest solar farm has just come online and can power a small country. So it could power Luxembourg. Where do you think?

Zachary Karabell: Ooh, where is the world’s biggest solar farm?

If I could guess, I would say Texas.

Emma Varvaloucas: It’s in China.

Zachary Karabell: Ah, that was, that was option two. It’s always Texas or China.

Emma Varvaloucas: To every question. Yes, it is in China. And I thought this figure was really interesting as well, that China was responsible for 63 percent of all solar installation in the world in 2023. So they are building solar farms like crazy.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah, that’s a big farm.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. What do we want? We want economy or we want cute nature? How are we feeling today?

Zachary Karabell: Let’s do like a lightning round. We’ll do both.

Emma Varvaloucas: Okay, lightning round. New study, very popular on the internet right now, is showing that African wild elephants can actually call one another by their name.

This is going to be the sequel to Call Me By Your Name, African wild elephant style. So it’s not exactly like that’s Steve and that’s Bob. Um, it’s more like. Different elephants respond to certain sounds, but they’re different sounds based on who’s talking to them. So it’s a variety. It’s not like they just have one name, but they do like know when somebody is talking to them personally.

So, elephants might be a lot more intelligent and a lot more, you know, into social bonding than we previously thought.

Zachary Karabell: So it’s a little like the, Hey you, you know, and then you go, who me? And you go, yeah, you

Emma Varvaloucas: kind of, yeah. Or it’s kind of like, Hey guy with curly hair. And you’re like, yeah, that’s me. Like that’s I’m that one, you know, but they know it’s them last for the lightning round.

So the United Nations just released their mid 2024 report and they are forecasting stronger economic growth than previously expected. So that’s going to be 2.7 percent in 2024 and 2.8 percent in 2025. Overall, good story because we could have come out of the pandemic and really suffered, but I should note that a lot of that growth is due to really large economies, in particular, it’s the United States, and then also Brazil, India, and Russia.

That’s not so much being driven by the countries that really need it, you know, in Africa and Asia.

Zachary Karabell: It is certainly true that American, United States economic growth is coming in significantly stronger than had been anticipated by the World Bank, by the UN, by the IMF, by Americans own forecasting. Which again, is just adds one more element to this perplexing picture of widespread disenchantment amongst the American public with this thing we call the economy, juxtaposed to relatively robust statistics that make up this thing that we call the economy.

And It is also true that Russia has done a lot better than the regime, very rigorous regime of sanctions have, would have promised, you know, the idea in 2022 is we would do all these sanctions, Russia would be brought to its economic heels, which would then put pressure on Putin to stop his aggressive war of conquest in Ukraine.

And lo and behold, Russia being a resource power and a world of still teeming emerging middle class that needs the oil and minerals and food, food and fuel really, for Russia. Uh, it’s not about to stop buying that food and fuel from Russia just because the United States and Western Europe say that Putin’s an immoral autocrat who’s invading a country and violating sovereignty because their attitude is, I think, somewhat understandably, given a choice between upholding that principle and not eating and not having energy, we will pick food and energy over principle any day of the week.

And Russia has, lo and behold, done surprisingly well economically, which is unfortunate if what you want is to put pressure on Russia economically, but there you have it.

Emma Varvaloucas: But fortunate if you’re Russian, I suppose, so.

Zachary Karabell: As fortunate as you’re Russian, I suppose. And we will talk about India and the Indian elections and how the Indian economy is doing and is likely to fare in an episode in a few weeks with, uh, the editor of Foreign Policy, Ravi Agrawal.

Emma Varvaloucas: Mm hmm. And the elections there. So stay tuned for that one.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. Absolutely.

Emma Varvaloucas: All right. So that’s it for this week.

Zachary Karabell: That’s it for this week. Thank you for listening to this. It’s like a little sugar and bitter coffee. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a way of balancing out the daily dyspeptic diet of dour, dark, and dangerous news.

So that we will leave you with that alliterative thought, and please tune in to our next episode.

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Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas

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