Chicken little forecast

Still Chugging Along

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.

S5. EPISODE 8

Progress Check: Politics and AI, Homeless Vets, and STDs

Featuring Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas

How much of a threat is AI to elections with new disclosure rules from big platforms in place? What’s going on with infant mortality trends? And why can’t we test for more illnesses at home? Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas are back to discuss the latest news stories we might have missed.

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 joined as always by my co-host, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And this is our weekly podcast, in case there was any doubt, called What Could Go Right?, which, in case there was any doubt, focuses on things that are going right as opposed to the daily diet of all the things that are going wrong. And we do this every week, not as a way of saying don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain, or don’t rubberneck as the accident is occurring on the other side, because that’s pretty much human nature.

And to be fair, much of what we pay attention to that is problematic, whether it’s the war in Gaza or what’s happening to the Rohingya or climate change or the continually dramatic weirdly dysfunction of Congress, all these things matter, and we’re never saying that they don’t matter or that one should not pay attention to them. So it’s not an either or, but it is an and if, and the reality of many things going on at any given time, many of which we don’t pay sufficient attention to, but may in fact impact our lives more profoundly in the years to come. Vaccination campaigns in Sub-Saharan Africa leading to an eradication of diseases that could be communicable, that could in fact create the next pandemic that we’re trying to avoid, will arguably affect millions of lives, if not billions of lives, in a more constructive way than many of the wars that we focus on, which however tragic, however terrible, and however much of a humanitarian disaster do not in fact affect the entire planet nearly as much.

So we try every week to draw attention to some of what’s going on, or to authors and voices animated more by a spirit of constructive, how do we build the future of our hopes and dreams and not the future of our fears, but not as a way of saying, hey, don’t pay attention to all the problems in the world.

So what are we gonna talk about this week? This week is, as we do every month or so, an episode where Emma and I will go over some of these things that are going on that may have been lost in the fray, and there’s always a fray. So this is a guestless episode, gasp, where we will discuss some of the things that we think we should be discussing, which may in fact be a truism, but there you go. So, Emma, what do you got for us?

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): All right, we’re gonna start with a real upper today, child mortality rates. [laughs]

ZK: Love it.

EV: Nothing like starting out a podcast with child mortality rates. Honestly, they’re kind of heartbreaking to talk about, but it’s one of those things that’s kind of going on “behind the scenes” for a lot of people who are in high-income countries, that there are a lot of middle and low-income countries struggling with this still. And a lot of people don’t know the long run story. So there’s also some new data out in the US that we’re gonna talk about towards the end. But first I wanna talk a little bit about this long run story. And I wrote about this a couple weeks ago in the newsletter. So if you read the newsletter, this is a little bit of a recap of that. So a lot of people don’t know that worldwide, the child mortality rate, in this case, meaning children who die before the age of 15, we’re gonna narrow that down a little bit further as we go along this data, has dropped dramatically. Even in 1950, globally, the rate was 27%. So one out of three, basically, kids would die before they reach 15. Now it’s a little bit over 4%, which is amazing.

ZK: That’s much higher in 1950 than I actually would’ve thought. Although I guess that’s a product of— I mean, it’s a global average, right? So it would’ve averaged really high mortality rates like parts of Africa and Southeast Asia with less high mortality rates.

EV: Exactly. It is a global average, so you do have some really high ones bringing it up and some really low ones bringing it down. But you might be fascinated by this as well, Zachary, which is that the mortality rates for kids in 1950 in Europe, the countries today with the highest mortality rates still, so it’s mostly Sub-Saharan Africa, other places like Pakistan, their rates are better than the European ones in 1950. So all over the place, we have been making progress.

ZK: This recalls the late great Hans Rosling’s inequality of various sorts within countries may be getting worse, but between countries is getting better, meaning there’s a convergence of positive outcomes globally between countries that you kind of don’t notice because we focus so much on some of the dynamics within countries.

EV: Yep, a hundred percent. And a lot of these technological breakthroughs and sort of infrastructure, or I shouldn’t say infrastructure, systems that work well in high-income countries do eventually get into the low-income countries as well. It’s a matter of speeding that process up. So I wanted to highlight that because Our World in Data did an update of their Child and Infant Mortality page. So that’s one reason.

And the other reason was because the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has this report every year called the Goalkeepers Report, they keep track of the SDGs, which we’ve talked about before on this podcast, the Sustainable Development Goals that the UN set in 2015 to improve the world by a lot of different measures by 2030. And their report, the Gates Foundation report, I think came out over the summer and I didn’t mention it very much at the time, but it’s a good time to mention it now because of their focus on under-5 mortality rates and neonatal mortality rates insofar as their progress towards the SDG targets in 2030. So under-5 being the, the number of kids per 1,000 live births who die before they reach five, neonatal is within 28 days.

And the reason why I’m bringing this up and their report brought this up over the summer is that there are actually two targets, amidst many others that we’re not doing so great on. There are actually two targets where we are within shooting distance of reaching them by 2030. So the 2030 targets for the under-5 mortality rate, we wanna reach 25. So 25 kids for every 1,000 live births and neonatal is 12. The Goalkeepers Report says that if our current progress stays the same in 2030, we’ll end up at 29 for under-5 mortality and 14 for neonatal but that there is a possibility that this progress could accelerate.

ZK: I mean, look, the bigger picture behind the very specific numbers, of course, is we’re doing a better job of taking care of life, full stop. And that that has been part of the arc of the past 200 years. One of the really animating features of science and medicine for the past 200 years has been to end as much as possible early and promiscuous death. And that’s part of the reason why the population of the planet exploded from 1800 where it was a little less than a billion people to close to 8 billion people now. And yeah, that created all sorts of pressures, particularly in the middle of the 20th century as supply chains and food chains and all of that had to adjust to a massively different demographic globally. But if you look at the arc of medicine as founded on this principle of we should prevent as much as possible death that is preventable, we can have a whole other discussion about some of the problems of contemporary medicine in treating death, full stop, as a pathology, rather than allowing for the fact that as much death as we may prevent, we’re not gonna prevent death. Well, I mean, unless you talk to a few Silicon Valley billionaires who are actively engaged in that very pursuit.

EV: Or Walt Disney. [laughs]

ZK: Exactly. He’s hanging out somewhere in cryogenic bliss ready to be defrosted, at which point, he will go, wait a minute, this is not the world I thought I was gonna wake up into. Put me back. So yeah, we should celebrate that that has been a massive unequivocal success of a human endeavor that animated people from almost every culture around the world.

EV: A hundred percent. And if we could live in a world where infant mortality, under-5 mortality, neonatal mortality rates were the same as the world leaders, I mean, obviously we can never get to the point where we can make this number zero, it’s probably not gonna happen. But if we can get to the countries that have the best rates, it would be amazing. Just for comparison’s sake, the world leader as far as neonatal mortality is Singapore at 0.7. Amazing stuff. And the world leader for under-5 mortality is, I would never have guessed this, San Marino at 1.7.

ZK: No, I’m always wary of comparisons to micronations. No knock on micronations. Micronations are great. It’s just, it’d be like saying the neonatal mortality rate for the upper west side of Manhattan is X, which would be great if it was a low number, I just don’t know that that’s quite the right comparison set for India or Brazil or the United States. Singapore arguably has, has a lot to teach the world, although it too is essentially a large city state.

EV: All right, fair enough. All right, so we’re gonna impress you with the United States’s numbers and whether this is impressive or not, it depends on what you’re comparing the United States to. But United States for neonatal is 3.3, under-5 is 6.2.

ZK: Okay.

EV: So-

ZK: Getting there.

EV: -if we could get everybody down, yeah, down, down, down, closer to those kinds of numbers, we would be in a vastly different world again than we used to be in. Bringing up the United States’s numbers is a good seg into a news headline that has been making the rounds in the last couple of weeks, which is that the infant mortality rate in the US has increased for the first time in 20 years. And I know it’s a little confusing because we’ve been talking about different mortality rates and what exactly those definitions are. Infant mortality is within the first year.

Audio Clip: The United States is seeing an increase in infant deaths. That’s the headline from a new report from the CDC released today. It says there has been a year to year increase in the infant mortality rate, the first in about 20 years.

We had a few years of COVID separation, in getting back together, you’re seeing a lot more illnesses. So I would think that makes a lot of sense. What could have happened last year because of the two years of separation, kids’ immune systems went down, and they didn’t handle the illnesses as well.

EV: From 2021 to 2022, says the CDC, the infant mortality rate in the US went from 5.44 to 5.6. About 20,000 babies die per year in the US. So that’s an increase of about 600, just so people understand what the absolute numbers are. And this is from a long run story of the US of, again, progress from 2002 to 2021, and this is where the first time in 20 years comes from, the infant mortality rate declined 22%. So I went into the CDC report because I had a lot of questions about this. I think the first one, Zachary, is your favorite one, like this was the pandemic. So that’s number one, right?

ZK: Right. So a lot of people may have been going to the hospital late or not at all, or we’re wary of exposure.

EV: Exactly. Number two, if this is provisional data, they’re comparing provisional data against final data from the year prior. So not all of the data is quite in and they haven’t done their final data quality review. I mean, that might mean that they might do that and these numbers are all basically the same. But just to say that as caveat. And the other interesting thing that I feel like a lot of reports that I’ve seen about this did not go over adequately in my view, is that the increases in infant mortality were statistically significant in only four states, which were Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, and Texas. The rest, there were increases but they’re not statistically significant, and one state saw declines, which is Nevada. So, for me, it kind of turns the story into, so we’re in the pandemic and then what was going on particularly in Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, and Texas?

ZK: I imagine Texas was the lion’s share of that given population. We can check that later. But just in terms of the size, it almost certainly is a large percentage of the cause of that.

EV: The other thing to note is that the rates increased for two causes only. Those were maternal complications and bacterial sepsis and also rates increased for American Indians and whites who are non-Hispanic. Black babies on the whole have the, the biggest mortality rate, but year to year, there is not a statistically significant change. And I only just bring this up because I have a little bugaboo with media coverage with a lot of this stuff that when you really actually go into the data, the story that people pull from it in the news is often quite different than just the bare facts on the ground. I am not sure after looking at this, as I said before, if this is a long run story of United States is going backwards with infant mortality in ways that they are going backwards with other stuff, like the maternal mortality question is a lot different for the United States versus like, hey, can we talk about what was going on for American Indian and white mothers in Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, and Texas during the pandemic, right?

ZK: And look, these are vital questions. So statistics are stories we tell about data, and that’s a problem already. Problem insofar as if we all did what you just did with one very specific data point and a statistic that comes out of it, the statistic is X percentage is the infant mortality rate in Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, and Texas. And then there’s the percentage of the nation, and then there’s the percentage of the world. Those are statistics about a lot of raw data. When you then go into the raw data, the story gets more complicated. Statistics are the way in which we simplify data, and we need to. We all need to have some sort of baseline generalization to help us assess what’s going on and also what kind of policies we should adopt to do something about it. Unfortunately, because of the way in which we all disseminate information, and whether that’s the media or our own storytelling, our urge to simplify and the reality of complexity often distort or create stories that fall apart when you look at the raw data.

And this is a problem with economic statistics, right? National unemployment rates often vastly allied just how much difference there is state by state or class by class or race by race or profession by profession. But we create this one simple number, this one simple statistic, to envelop a lot of very different realities. And it’s not just the difference between mean and median. And we do this all the time, problem of averages versus medians. It’s that we start formulating policy and assumptions about what’s going on societally based on a simplified statistic and lose sight of the underlying complexity of the underlying data.

And I don’t know a way around this. We don’t all have the time to do what you just did about everything that matters. We need to rely a little bit on generalizable stories, but we should recognize that it— there should always be a little bit of doubt about whether the story we’re telling is true. We should be asking is it true? Is that number representative? And we do that a little bit. We’ve talked about on the show some of the problem of statistics and the way in which people in the United States in particular are responding to economic data and going, wait a minute, that doesn’t line up with my lived experience so maybe the data’s wrong or maybe the statistic is wrong. And it is certainly true that often the statistic doesn’t line up with one’s individual experience because it’s a large aggregate of a lot of different experiences. But we should probably, in general, ask the question of, is that number that we’re being told about and is the story we’re being told about that number true or accurate or right or are we drawing the right conclusions from it? And you’ve just done that in a very specific way. We should probably do that about everything. The question is, do we have the time to do that?

EV: Yeah, that is always what I come down to as a question with this stuff because it does take time. I mean, it took at least a few hours out my life, not out of my life, I’m paid to do this. I shouldn’t say it like that. It would have taken a few hours out of someone else’s life who doesn’t do this for a living. And no one has time to do that. I mean, unless you happen to not be dating, not have any friends, to be sitting around on the internet wanting to look at CDC datasets. And I don’t know what to tell people other than just be patient and wait and, as much as you can, focus on the long run numbers because I feel like when I start to talk about this stuff, it ends up sounding very cynical about what you read in the news. I guess the other point that I have about that is that be careful about journalism that does give you a narrative, whatever that narrative would be, whether you agree with it or you don’t agree with it, versus I think there are places like Reuters and Associated Press and other places that are a little bit more like just the facts, ma’am, which are helpful.

ZK: Right. And then there’s always that problem of timing and duration. So where your start point and your end point is if it’s picked in order to justify a narrative, right? This is a huge issue with crime. You can show crime rising dramatically and problematically from the end of 2020 into 2022, and then you can tell a story about how crime is out of control. If you change the focus from 2000 to 2022, it’s a very different story, just like you’ve done with the infant mortality. Are the spikes a trend or are they anomalies buried in a larger trend? And the answer to that question is, what’s your start point? And the even larger answer to that question is, what’s your normative expectation? How do you think this should be going? What do you think is optimal? What do you think is morally right?

And maybe with infant mortality, we all believe that it is morally right for as few infants to die as possible, except perhaps if their health outlook for life is a chronic genetic disease for which there is no cure for which keeping them alive would be a life of just pain and struggle. Although even then people debate every life is worth living, full stop, regardless of what the circumstances of that life are. So even that morality is not set in stone clearly, but in general, it matters greatly what your timeframe is when you begin. And we all want stories that make sense. Stories tend to have a beginning, a middle, and end, unless you’re totally postmodernist and you’ve broken that down, which we’ve found doesn’t really work for most people as a narrative. So how these stories are framed in the media as a human thing is often problematic, but not from a cynical or pernicious perspective. Just from we wanna tell a story and that story requires a beginning point and a set point and then a comparative.

So, ugh, I know this may sound like a, well, forget it, we’re just in a sea of meaningless data points that we tell equally problematic stories with statistics that we then write equally problematic simplistic stories in politics and media. But we’re not saying that entirely. I guess we are saying that a little bit. We are saying one should have a skeptical eye and an awareness that as much as this is presented as The Truth, capital T, capital T, it may actually be papering over a lot of things that tell very different stories that it probably would be a good idea that we knew.

EV: Yeah, a hundred percent. And the last thing I’m gonna say about this before we move on to something else is that this is precisely why I haven’t brought up the maternal mortality story in the US right now ’cause that’s the other thing that’s gotten a lot of headlines over the past couple of months. And that for me is very fascinating because you’ll see if you look at the data that the rise in maternal deaths in the US started exactly when they implemented a system to surveil it. So you’re like, hmm.

ZK: Huh.

EV: Maybe we are getting worse. I’m not saying that that story is wrong. It could totally be the case that we are getting worse. It could also totally be the case, or maybe part of the story is that we just started counting them better.

ZK: A whole other problem that you’ve just pointed to.

EV: Yeah.

ZK: When did we even start measuring these things? So how do we know how bad it was before we measured it? We’ve talked about this a lot in terms of-

EV: Exactly.

ZK: -teenage depression, right? No one measured teenage depression in 1872. It may have been non-existent or it may have been wildly prevalent, but we’ll never know because it didn’t even occur to anyone— it wasn’t even a category that anyone thought to ask about.

EV: We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

Let’s talk about AI and whether AI is gonna ruin humanity.

ZK: Let’s talk about AI. No one else is talking about AI so we have to.

EV: I know. Under-reported, right? Under-reported.

ZK: Yes. You heard it here first on What Could Go Right? There’s this thing called AI.

EV: [laughs] Not sure people have heard because this is kind of the news where it’s sort of like not that interesting, but I kind of think it’s important to highlight anyway. The big platforms are making some changes to people disclosing that they’re using AI to alter images or video or text. So this is what’s happened so far. Let me run this through and then we can talk about it. AI generated election ads on YouTube and other Google platforms must have a clear disclaimer. This was announced in September and actually started mid-November. And now YouTube is also ruling out new rules for content that’s not political or social issue ads, it’s just creators. They also need to have a disclaimer if they’ve used what they call generative artificial intelligence to make realistic looking videos. And if they don’t disclose that, they may have their content removed or they might be suspended. And also as of next year, 2024, Meta, nay, Facebook, also Instagram, actually, Meta is both Facebook and Instagram, will also require advertisers to disclose when a political or social issue ad has been digitally altered, including using AI. One massive thing to note about that is those systems are gonna rely on the advertisers themselves to make the disclaimer. And if the system finds out that you didn’t do it, then there’s a penalty, but there’s no process on the front end, which is not ideal. So baby steps.

ZK: Interesting.

Audio Clip: How is this gonna work exactly, this change which was announced on Wednesday right on the heels of election day?

The key thing to remember here is that Meta is basically explicitly telling political campaigns, politicians that they are welcome to use generative AI in their ads. It’s not like that for you and I. As far as I know, you’re not running for office. When we post something to Facebook or Instagram, we aren’t allowed to use generative AI in a way that really manipulates someone’s words, puts words into someone’s mouth, or creates sort of a false depiction of a real event. But Meta is saying that politicians can do that. They just have to hit a button when they’re buying the ad that says I’m doing this so that users, when they see the ad, can sort of click on a button and see that AI was used to really manipulate the ad in a significant way.

Right, and this goes into effect next year, obviously a big election year for us here in the US but also a number of big elections happening all around the world.

ZK: Regulatory agencies are beginning to do the same thing in both the European Union and the United States. The SEC, for instance, recently did a request for information for all asset managers about whether they were using AI tools to assess investments. Now, some of these questions are kind of silly, right? Meaning using an AI tool for a variety of things, research for a paper, did you ask ChatGPT about the causes of the War of 1812 is not fundamentally different than whether or not you used Wikipedia or whether you went to an encyclopedia before there was a Wikipedia. And it’s certainly true that in many schools you’re not allowed to use Wikipedia as a source. So there’s that question of we want people to do their own thinking for certain things that we’ve decided that demonstrating your own thinking is important. Problem solving and learning math equations or critical thinking when looking at historical causation rather than simply relying on someone’s pre-digested answer set.

That being said, using tools that are just integrated into the tool set of how we find knowledge, AI is just a different version of that. Meaning we use the web to search out information. AI tools will actually just make it much easier to find that information. What you then do with it and whether you disclose it I guess is a question for the areas that I’ve just talked about and probably for some of the areas that you’re saying that the tech companies are now saying have to be disclosed so that you know whether or not this is a human or a bot. Although some of it doesn’t matter, like I don’t care if I’m being served up an ad for shoes, I don’t really care whether a human being created a program to serve that ad up to me or whether an AI program created a program to serve up that ad to me.

EV: Well, no, not so much shoes. I don’t think people really care about shoes unless they’re altering the shoes to look completely different than they actually are. Anyway, all of these changes have to do with political and social issue ads so they’re just specifically targeting things that are gonna like put Joe Biden’s face on something and say that he’s like, let’s shoot all the veterans, or like Trump doing something, or Kamala Harris or whatever. So I think for those things, we do really care to know if something’s been altered.

I guess what I’m wondering is it’s kind of the same question that’s been coming up with Community Notes on Twitter with the Israel-Palestine conflict is that depending on how you look at it, Community Notes has been doing an amazing job or a terrible job. A lot of this misinformation goes around and around and around and eventually a Community Notes is appended to it, saying this isn’t real. And so anyone who sees it after that point will know it’s not real, but there’s also like millions of people who saw it before then. So I kind of think that this is Facebook and Instagram’s and YouTube’s version of that and how prominent the disclaimer is gonna be and how far something gets before it’s flagged by the system I think are important and not answered questions.

ZK: Yes. And these companies have been thinking about this well before the past months in terms of the generative capacity of AI to create both false imagery and false information is massive and needs to somehow be flagged and policed before people lose any distinction between fake imagery and real imagery or fake information and real information. And to some degree, it’s gonna come down to individuals being skeptical of what they see and hear and doing some of what you just did with statistics of infant mortality but doing that with, if I see someone, a public figure saying something, are they actually saying it or was that generated? And that puts an extra burden on all of us and kind of creates a, I suppose, less desirable world of constant skepticism of everything we see and hear.

But I think other than that, we would be lost. Like we do actually now have to be skeptical of anything we see and hear. And I don’t mean skeptical, cynical, I just mean skeptical as in back to that question we were talking about before, always asking, is it true? And that muscle has to just be part of the way in which we digest and integrate information going forward. And once that muscle is natural and automatic, I don’t think it’s any more problematic than the instinct to breathe, right? We just breathe. We don’t have to think about breathing. We have to question what we see and hear, full stop. And that doesn’t need to be a burden, although it may be a burden initially, particularly if you’re habituated to accepting what you see and hear.

EV: Yeah, I mean, what I was thinking about as you were talking was that maybe they really should be putting this across all of their ads and across all of their content because when you start the like, how do I know if this is real question and you’re like, okay, well at least I know if it’s a political ad that it’s definitely real ’cause there would’ve been a disclaimer on it, but I don’t know if these shoes that I’m about to buy or whatever it may be, right? If you don’t give people the tools to approach that with the skepticism that you were just saying, that’s not going to leak really quickly [inaudible] I think you’re gonna have a pretty lost population.

ZK: Arguably, most populations are in those terms lost and always have been, and that it’s very easy to mislead and most people don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to challenge it anyway, whether that’s a pamphlet in the 1790s or a bot in the 2020s. But that doesn’t mean— I know you’re saying this anyway, but of course we can do better with that than we have done historically about the way in which information is easily disseminated and easily misleading.

EV: Yeah, no, that’s an interesting question of like, are we more lost than ever before because of our tech world, or are we less so, or is it the same? And how would you even measure that? That’s interesting. I’m gonna chew on that. [laughs]

ZK: To be continued.

EV: So to be continued. Before we end, I have three kind of like quick things that were sort of good news and I also just thought were interesting. This first one caught my eye because I didn’t realize that this was actually still happening. The ruling party of the South Korean government announced that they will introduce a bill to ban the eating of dogs. They expect there will be bipartisan support for this to pass when it’s eventually introduced. This is also in part because young people in South Korea are really just not into the eating of dogs.

Reuters reported that a Gallup Korea poll last year showed that 64% opposed dog meat consumption. The survey found, the article says, only 8% of respondents had eaten dog within the past year, down from 27% in 2015. That’s a fast drop. It’s a very fast drop. And they expect the bill is going to have a three year transitional period for the breeding farms, slaughterhouses, distribution companies, restaurants that are in this business so that they can have some time to fade out. So this is a good one for dog lovers everywhere. I think everyone loves to hear good news about animals and we don’t do it a lot on the podcast or in the newsletter, so here is one for the dog lovers.

ZK: Okay, I did not know this was a thing in Korea per se. I guess I did know it was a thing in some cultures, but I didn’t know it was a thing such that you needed a law to stop the thing, that there was an actual dog meat industry in Korea, which apparently there is and apparently is going to be phased out.

I suppose my only caveat to what is otherwise a good story is for those who believe that the entire meat-eating culture of humanity that has evolved is immoral because we are consuming sentient beings, even if we can’t fully figure out what the consciousness is of those beings, I think there’s a lot of people in that camp who would say, why are we making an exception for dogs and not for every other animal that we’re consuming? And it does raise that question of are we drawing arbitrary lines in that maybe we should just accept that meat eating as a thing has moral complications if you believe in sentience and you believe in conscience and you believe in the sanctity of life, and that drawing the line in one place doesn’t get you off the hook for the rest of it, which is what I think a lot of people who are in the camp of it’s immoral to eat animals would argue, right?

EV: So yeah, certainly from a logically consistent point of view, if we’re gonna ban dogs then we should pro— not ban dogs, ban the eating of dogs, we should probably also ban the eating of cows or sheep or pigs because they’re all in this sort of similar realm of consciousness, right? You’re not getting to the point where you’re arguing about the sentience level of a shellfish versus a cow. But also, we all know that humans have the soft spot for dogs. They are man’s best friend. They live inside our homes in the way that most sheep and cows do not, unless you happen to live on a farm. Maybe you could view it or vegetarians or vegans that are passionate about this can view it as a sort of gateway drug, like it’s like a gateway ban. First you start with dogs-

ZK: [laughs] A gateway ban.

EV: -then you start with sheep and then you go something like that. So yeah, I think you’re right from a logical point of view, but I still think that we can say fewer people wanting to eat dog is probably a good thing overall.

ZK: All right. Well, for those of you listening who are avid connoisseurs of canine cuisine, I guess the lesson of this particular news story is you should go to South Korea now. Get it while you can.

EV: Oh, geez. [laughs]

ZK: Because it’s going away. If I’ve offended any dog lovers with that particularly dark bit of humor, you have my apologies. But regardless, it’s coming to an end in South Korea. So what do we have next? What’s next on the menu?

EV: Next on the menu? Oh, you’re gonna love what’s next given that transition. The Food and Drug Administration has granted marketing approval for a home test for chlamydia and gonorrhea. The first one for STDs. I really dig this. I feel like it’s like a pandemic era thing where we all got used to doing at-home tests for COVID and there’s no real reason why we can’t do at-home tests for, let’s say the flu. There’s no real reason why we can do an at-home pregnancy test and not one for STDs as long as the test exists. I guess from a convenience perspective, if someone wants to go to the doctor and have that test be done for them and blah, blah, blah, I get that. But I kind of like the idea, like if I’m worried that I have gonorrhea or chlamydia, that I can just see for myself in the privacy of my own home [laughs] and hear back from the lab when those are ready rather than like— anyone who’s done an STD panel knows waiting for the phone call if they’re gonna call or not. So I thought this was kind of nice.

ZK: I mean, at home testing in general, as you just said, unless it’s a radiology test, unless it’s a test where there is some risk in taking the test, right? So blood work, you’re sticking a needle somewhere, there’s a chance that that could damage. There are tests that we do that carry risks, but most of the infectious disease, viral and bacterial tests do not. They just test whether or not you have these pathogens in your body. And as you just said, one of the things about the pandemic was most of these things could be done in the privacy of your own home. And not just that, but a hell of a lot cheaper without intermediation and labs and all the things that come with it. So more, more, more, absolutely. And we should commercialize all this. We should remove whatever regulatory framework stands in the way of it. Anything that you can do at home that does not carry significant risk of damaging yourself while doing them should be done at home.

EV: Yep. And I should say too that these tests are done— I mean, probably people kind of get how this is done, but it’s a vaginal swab or a urine sample, so it’s definitely low risk. I’m sure there’s someone somewhere that will do [laughs] something to harm themselves with these, but—

ZK: Everything can have some theoretical risk. Let’s just accept that.

EV: Yeah.

ZK: But it’s different than like blasting yourself with radiation or jabbing yourself with a needle.

EV: A hundred percent, yes. And the results are delivered online and there is follow-up care if the diagnosis is positive or ambiguous. So in case people are worried, like you send in your sample, someone’s like, yeah, you have gonorrhea, and then it’s just like, bye, good luck. No, it’s not like that. There’s gonna be further stuff.

ZK: Right. So here’s to at-home testing for everything.

EV: Yes. Why not? Why not?

We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

Last but not least, good news about homelessness amongst US veterans. This is from AP, I believe, Associated Press. Since January 2020, the numbers of homeless veterans have fallen 11%, and they’ve gone down 55% over the past 13 years, that’s according to government data. Interesting because as we know, homelessness generally is on the rise in the US so it is a contrast to the general population. And there’s still about a little over 30,000 homeless vets in the US, but getting that down by half the past 13 years is not too shabby.

They say in the article that the credit goes to the Obama administration’s work to make housing veterans a top priority, the 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which gave a bunch of money to the Department of Veteran Affairs homeless program. And there’s also a lot of really interesting collaborations between government agencies, nonprofits, and corporate foundations. The one that the article highlights in particular is Home Depot that gives actually massive amounts of money to this, which I did not know.

Audio Clip: Covering Colorado First in Longmont for you, where an affordable housing development has become a national model.

Sadly, thousands of those who serve our country are homeless. But as Shaun Boyd shows us, this development is giving one veteran a home and hope.

Located on 80 acres of land overlooking the Front Range, the Mountain Brook community in Longmont has all the amenities new home buyers expect, and one that developer Kevin Mulshine admits he not only didn’t expect but had never seen until a few years ago. He volunteered to help the city of Longmont build transitional housing for homeless veterans but kept running into resistance from neighbors.

It changed our opinion to say instead of this being a negative or a stigma that could impact negatively on sales in a community, we thought, you know what, maybe Longmont, Boulder, Colorado is ready for an amenity called compassion.

ZK: Yeah, I mean, clearly amongst the pandemic hangovers that are affecting particularly cities and public policy and shaping elections, people’s concerns about public safety writ large or public order, which includes crime and includes homelessness and includes quality of life, social services, public services, et cetera, has been very high on the agenda of most people who live in most cities in the United States. And then you add to that in a place like New York or other places with the migrant challenge, which can segue with homelessness depending on how much the city is able to manage that. So any decrease in that is absolutely a positive. And one of the advantages of veterans and homelessness is it’s a category that can be targeted. It’s a category that you can define and address.

The thing we’re not doing a very good job about, of course, is the overlap between mental health issues and homelessness, which is massive. And there is some, if not causation, then clearly correlation between the collapse of public mental health services from the ’90s and aughts and the rise of homelessness of people who would otherwise have been in institutions, granted, many of those institutions were not great places to be.

So the point is not to go back to crappy state mental institutions, but to go forward to how do we care for people who really, genuinely cannot care for themselves, right? This is not a question of just go get a job or provide housing. If someone is really unable to care for themselves in that way, we have to create an infrastructure to do so that is not just, we’ll just let them live on the streets. And so a certain amount of public disorder that has all sorts of ripple effects that are quite negative. So this is one very particular way of addressing a problem that is just a problem. I don’t think anybody of any political spectrum would argue that these things are not issues that should be dealt with. So we’ll do kind of a check mark, as in that’s a good thing in terms of the veteran problem. And we probably should now turn to the mental health challenges.

EV: Yeah, it is interesting to me. I mean, first of all, I like to pick out, well, I try to pick out stuff that are bipartisan both by politics and by listenership. Homelessness kind of gets into— it’s more difficult to tackle as far as how we’re gonna do it. Homeless veterans is one that everyone kind of feels more aligned around supporting, in my view, as far as the political parties go. And this one in particular is interesting because there are a lot of problems that some— we’ve talked about this on the podcast, that sometimes the position on the left is like, let’s throw money at the problem. And sometimes that works and sometimes that does not work. And this one is interesting because we threw some money at the problem and it actually worked. So thumbs up for that.

ZK: Lo and behold. Exactly.

EV: So that is all I have for today.

ZK: So we had a panoply of positive stuff today. We went from the problem of statistics and infant mortality to the proliferation of at-home testing, or at least our call for the proliferation of at-home testing, to canines and a longer, more peaceful life in Korea for dogs. So that’s been a good panoply of things. And of course homelessness and veterans and addressing that.

So I hope today that you have enjoyed the conversation. We try to do these every month or so to focus a bit on these things that are kind of happening all around us. Again, not as an either or, like only pay attention to this. I don’t think either of us are saying, nor would we say at The Progress Network, that one should focus entirely on how much progress we’ve made in veteran housing as opposed to not paying attention to wars, diseases, and other sorts of problems. But we should keep in mind that at any given moment, human reality is a rather messy mix of uplifting and downtrending. And if we spend too much time focusing on the down and not enough time looking at the up, we’re likely to lose hope in our ability to create the world that we want to live in. And that hope, as Pandora’s box reminded us of, is an absolutely essential ingredient in the human capacity to create constructive change. I’m not sure I can prove that. There have been some attempts of economists and others. In fact, there’s a whole section on the site Our World in Data that tries to show things like the causation between high levels of collective trust or feeling positive and societies actually doing things that we all think society should do. But we’ll leave that for I guess another discussion, whether or not you can prove the connection between hope and trust and positive outcomes versus despair and angst and fear. That at least is the thesis.

And we will be back next week with a conversation with Jigar Shah who is in what had been an obscure role in the federal government, but in his hands has become one of the most potent sources of funding and power charging our transition to a carbon-free economy at the Department of Energy. So I’m looking forward to that conversation, Emma.

EV: Me too. So hope to see you guys all back here next week. Thank you so much for listening.

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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