01/24/2023 - Mars Is Lovely in the Summer

Mark Blyth, political economist at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and Carrie Nordlund, political scientist and Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Programs at Brown University, share their take on the news.

On this episode:

  • Is there any way to reduce mass shootings in the US?
  • ‘Atmospheric rivers’ and California’s weather woes
  • The debt ceiling showdown in Congress, Kevin McCarthy’s shameful job hunt: life with a divided Congress is back. 
  • Mark’s invite to Davos was clearly lost in the mail. 
  • Can the UK’s political leadership go a week without a bone-headed scandal? (No.) 
  • Understanding Germany’s reluctance to send tanks to Ukraine. 
  • New currencies: the ‘bike lanes’ of international economic policy. 
  • The Royal Family is weird. 

Learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts.



CARRIE NORDLUND: Hello, and welcome to Mark and Carrie, a podcast presented by the Watson Institute for International Public Affairs at Brown University. Hello, Blyth, happy Twenty Twenty-Three.

MARK BLYTH: And happy Twenty Twenty-Three to you as well. I see we now have to put the corporate sponsor on the front.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yes, we do. And we'll be pausing for our commercial breaks as well.

MARK BLYTH: Excellent, excellent. So we start a new year. And guess what, familiar tragedy.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yes. Yeah, I think over the last four days, there's been consistent public shootings, something that was happening throughout the fall and the winter. The most recent was this morning in Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, and then the one that was in Southern California, in Monterey Park, which is an Asian-American community in Los Angeles, as they were celebrating the Lunar New Year.

MARK BLYTH: So is there any sense in trying to draw individual lessons from each of these and aggregate them up, as social scientists like to do? Or is it just simply the case that we have a sick culture and people have access to weapons and really bad things happen in lots of different communities?

CARRIE NORDLUND: I would like that there'd be some rational reason for this. But I think it's what you just described. And this ties into, of course, what we'll talk about later, which is Congress. But there's just no political will. The more this keeps happening-- of course, you get thoughts and prayers. And this is so horrible.

But the Congress is just unwilling to move on this. There was some movement in the fall around background checks but nothing that even comes close to the Assault Weapons bill.

MARK BLYTH: Right. But the guy in the first one was, what, 72 years old?


MARK BLYTH: I'm sure he would have passed any background check that you wanted.


MARK BLYTH: So my question is-- not to exculpate or to say that the status quo is acceptable. It's not. But really, beyond sort of shouting at Congress to do more, what specifically could they do? I'm trying to imagine like the United Kingdom after they had a gun tragedy called Dunblane in the nineteen-eighties or whether it was New Zealand or Australia when they had their Port Arthur massacre. There was just a sort of, right, no more guns.


MARK BLYTH: And in smaller countries where gun ownership is actually a lot less common, I can imagine you can kind of get away with that when the vast majority of public opinion is with you. But it's not just kind of electoral politics. There are more guns than people.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah. I guess the frame has changed over the years from gun control, that is a gun problem, to now mental health, which I believe-- I mean, but mental health is such a broadly defined term as well. What does that actually mean? it's so many of the same things that we've talked about in the past. It's usually men.

It's usually men that are living by themselves aren't necessarily connected to all of the various things that a person might be connected to. And I don't know. As long as the Second Amendment is still here, there's just-- I don't-- you don't see any sort of big policy measure.

MARK BLYTH: Yeah, but not to belabor the point, imagine you had a magic wand and you could basically do the policy measure. What would it be? What would actually really try and put a cream in this?

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah, I know, right? Because if you do an assault weapons ban, there's still the presence of guns that will be--

MARK BLYTH: Yeah, absolutely.

CARRIE NORDLUND: --out and available. And then--

MARK BLYTH: I believe in both of these recent killings that it was pistols.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah. And then you do the sort of individual level behavioral stuff of trying to build more community for people, whatever that means, and that sort of-- that's like a whole-- the social capital sort of thing.

I guess I always think we've become so angry. And now, that anger is really outpouring into our public lives. And we talk about how other countries are so violent and dangerous. We're just as violent and dangerous as other places.

MARK BLYTH: Oh, no, we're way off the scale. If you look at any of these graphs in terms of homicides, attempted homicide, whatever, it's like, wow, we are number one with by a factor of 10, if not more.

CARRIE NORDLUND: What's your take on this in terms of the magic wand policy?

MARK BLYTH: Well, I just-- after the school shootings, and now these things, and it's just, what, one mass shooting a month nightclubs, everything's been hit. I don't think there's a tipping point anymore. I think we've become suddenly inured to it. And it's also such a sort of an endemic part of what American culture has become.

I just don't-- actually, I'm not sure there's actually a solution other than literally you need to take all the guns away from people. And that's never going to happen. So unfortunately, it just becomes this kind of awful thing that we live with because that's who we are.

One of the things that stuck with me after Twenty Sixteen and the Trump election was lots of liberals saying, this is not who we are. And I just kept thinking to myself, no, this really is who you are.


MARK BLYTH: Right? We need to stop pretending. The first step is recognition. This is who you are. So sticking with California, it's-- it went from a summer of intense drought on top of the longest drought in history to atmospheric rivers. Have you ever heard of these things?

CARRIE NORDLUND: No, I haven't. I'm laughing only because-- I'm laughing at the gallows humor. California has just-- it really has been like the Ark and every other biblical theme that we can-- that I can think of.

And I read an article that San Francisco has become such a city where no one wants to live because of the floods. There was raw sewage then in the streets. And just thinking about this town that has so much money, and blah, blah, blah, and they can't even control their-- the sewers.

I had not heard of that. And it just looked like rain on top of rain, on top of rain, and the people walking through the hip wastewater. You just-- there's no-- they're still in a drought stage.

MARK BLYTH: Because it falls down so fast on Earth that is so dry and compacted, it doesn't really absorb it. I saw one interesting piece on this, that basically some people in the wine country are very happy about this because they actually-- they are actually going to have a fantastic vintage because of all of this-- all this water.

Production was down to 1/3 of what it was before. And now, we're going to have a bumper year. So at least some of these get in the upside. But the problem with this is, to actually deal with it, you need all those really difficult things that we're not very good at, like public investment to build things like new aquifer supplies and reservoirs and all those things that you could do that would catch it.

But of course, that would require long-term planning and actually not having a chronic aversion to debt because debt is how you do investment. But we've been there before. Maybe if this continues year after year, though, there could be an upside, in that the only way to deal with it is to adequately infrastructure the hell out of it. So maybe there's an upside to this.

CARRIE NORDLUND: All the money that came from Biden's Infrastructure Bill, you think rebuilding of old dams, all the stuff that needs to be done. But California really feels like it's at the-- it's at-- experiencing all this stuff that the rest of the country, or at least big parts of it, hasn't-- haven't yet hit-- though, there are tornado-- random tornadoes all the time and all these other random weather. So I don't know that what I have just said is actually accurate or anything.

But to your-- what you just said about debt led me to think about where we are right now. And actually, I don't know where we are with the debt ceiling negotiations because I don't know if the-- Janet Yellen came out and was like, we're on the verge. Everybody, get ready to boil their water and just eat that for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I don't know where they are, where the White House is in this-- in this game with Congress.

MARK BLYTH: As I understand it-- and I try not to understand it because it's just one of those brilliant self-inflicted wounds that we do to ourselves every single time-- this is the result of basically McCarthy's-- I mean, we'll have to talk about McCarthy's sort of like, do you like me? Will you date me? Was it 11 times, 12 times, 15 times?


MARK BLYTH: Oh my god. So he's basically promised all the UFO files, all the Kennedy files, and the location of the Raiders of the Lost Ark to the loonies in exchange for doing this. This is the payoff that you actually get those.

So I think the White House strategy is basically let them do it because it just makes them look like loonies. And ultimately, they'll fold. Now, will they ultimately fold? See, I don't watch the day-to-day on this because I don't think it's interesting.

Ultimately, it's a binary. You're either going to increase the debt ceiling, which is just a stupid way of saying, do you have the resources to pay your bills? Yes. Are you going to do it? You probably should, right? So are they going to pay the bills or are they going to start defaulting on the bills?

If they do, that's an act of self-harm. And I can imagine there are many members of the Republican caucus who really are just like, come on, let's just burn it all down. Will they get that far? Maybe, maybe. I think there's a few of them that want to try and do that.

Then if the White House isn't monitoring the situation, as you actually go into default, It's interesting. We know this from other countries. You don't just go straight to default. You go into a technical default. Then the technical default is adjudicated upon whether it's still really a technical default or a real default.

So there'll be lots of shenanigans around this. But at the end of the day, we can pay our bills. And they're-- it's so bonkers. It's bills we owe it to ourselves, by and large. It's absurd. So there is no fiscal crisis. There is simply a refusal to pay your bills.

And the weird thing about this, this is the party of fiscal probity. If you said to them, should you repay your debts and should you pay your bills? Absolutely. That's the one thing you should always do. OK. So why are you then doing this? It's weird.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Back to your dating analogy, it really is then-- the technical default is just we're on a break. Then we're slowly-- we're working our way towards something much larger. But I think the far-right-- the Lauren Boebert have said and then Marjorie Taylor Greene have said, we-- well, let's just do this and see what happens. Because it's never happened before, so it can't be that bad.

MARK BLYTH: Well, lots of people haven't had cancer before. But that's not an argument for getting cancer, is it? Yeah, ultimately, though, they may be right in a perverse way, which is to say, if people think the United States can't pay its bills, then maybe there's a problem. But given that they can, you could probably default for a couple of weeks. And people will freak out.

And of course, the rating agencies will rate you from AA to A. And everyone will go, ooh. And your bond prices will spike a little bit. But will it be a permanent state? Will it be constantly like this? Maybe. We've got standoffs now over everything. So maybe we just-- maybe we just never pay bills anymore.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Well, I think that's-- the bigger question I have is, why does this always come around every-- it feels like every other month? But why can't there just be a long-term thing?

MARK BLYTH: Because they don't want a long-term thing. They want to be-- if the Democrats win, it's very useful to have this thing because then you can just say, they're spending like drunken sailors again. And then you beat your chest and all the rest of it. Oh, we have to draw a line in the sand.

And you go, all right. But if that's true, then really the yield on our debt should be like Argentina levels because we've spent more than we've got and we're totally bankrupt. So then why is it still a global safe asset? Why are rates basically a response directly of the Fed's desire to do whatever it wants on inflation rather than being driven by random desires of out of control bond markets? It's just, at the end of the day, rubbish.

CARRIE NORDLUND: So you're saying, interestingly enough, that it's all politics.

MARK BLYTH: What an absolute shocker.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Right, right. For me, the minutia was really interesting to read about. But I think the big thing, which is, of course, no surprise to anybody, is that it's just a preview of what's to come, which is to say that nothing is-- very little will get done. He's always going to have to be negotiating with that part-- with that part of his party.

There were interesting things in the negotiations that I think the far left, the squad, was really interested in-- take term limits for committee chairs, really remove some of the power from the leadership and give it to committees, all that sort of stuff. I think on the real detailed side of things, I thought it was most interesting that there are three hard right people on the Rules Committee.

The Rules Committee in the House dictates everything. And so we'll see what actually gets to the floor for real votes because they're going to be the real sticklers to make sure that they get what they want to the floor.

MARK BLYTH: So does that enable or disable them? If they're sticklers about rules, that implies even less happens. Can they make more happen by being on the Rules Committee? Or is it just a bluff?

CARRIE NORDLUND: Well, right, they can make more happen that they want to see happen. The other thing that I think the squishy Lib-Dems are hoping is that the hard right, the left come together to stop whatever the majority of the committee wants to do. I don't think that's probably will happen.

But it gives them a lot of power. An old Congress-- a long-term serving congressman from southeastern Michigan, John Dingell, he had this famous quote that said-- he sat on the Rules Committee. And he said, you control substance and I control the rules. And I'll screw you every time. And that's true. The Rules Committee, they really are the gatekeepers, as you just described.

MARK BLYTH: Interesting. So let's switch to some Democrat bashing now.


MARK BLYTH: So after outrage, and outrage, and faux outrage about the fact that Donald Trump may or may not have had some files about Macron lying around Mar-a-Lago. It turns out that Joe keeps top secret stuff in his car. Is that all right?

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah, right next to it. But then what's even more interesting is that he didn't they were there. This is stuff left over from the Obama presidency.

MARK BLYTH: How can stuff be left over from the Obama presidency in his car?

CARRIE NORDLUND: I don't know. This is the point, like Donald Trump is a clown. He doesn't know what he's doing. I'm a pro. I've been doing this for a long time. And yet you still have-- it's still in your glove box, what?

MARK BLYTH: Yeah. This whole thing strikes me as about weird. If it's Obama level stuff in his car that he's had in storage and he completely forgot about, well, we're all human.

But isn't that-- not [INAUDIBLE] in here. But isn't the whole thing just an example of how pathetic politics has become? OK, Trump has some files that he's kept. He used to be president. Some people used to take the ashtrays home when they left the hotel. Some people take souvenirs. Some people take-- who knows what Harry Truman smuggled out the White House.

But we just didn't care. Now, it's like, oh my god, Trump has done something terrible because he's a terrible man. [MUMBLES] So then of course, when you set up that as the standard, it turns out that people who handle sense of government documents, like The Government, end up maybe taking them home for the weekend. And then you've got a problem. Isn't this just all kind of pathetic?

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yes, it is. A new low for pathetic-ness-- I don't know if that's a word-- is then-- this just opens the door to all the investigations that the Kevin McCarthy-led Congress is going to do. And so is the confidential documents found in the garage but also, clearly, Hunter Biden's laptop is there, along with his gigantic stash of cocaine that is sold out of his dad's garage.

So you just-- it's like-- you're just like, what are you guys doing? How did the White House not know about this?

MARK BLYTH: Yeah, it strikes me as one salient difference might be the person with the sense of files is the current sitting president rather than the person who used to be president. But let's not split hairs on this one. The whole thing seems to be a bit mad.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Well, I know you've been traveling. Have you been to Davos with your fellow peers?

MARK BLYTH: No. Once again, I think the advert just got lot the advert. I think the invitation just got lost in the post somewhere. No, they had a sort of a face-off between left and right, I believe, in the form of Niall Ferguson-- my countryman, representing the right and freedom and all good things-- and then Adam Tooze, that noted communist arguing for actually taxing people with billions.

I know, the entire thing is just beyond farcical at this point. I did a tweet a couple of years ago when I went back through World Economic Forum reports about what was going to happen next year. And apparently, by this point in time, the world in Twenty Twenty-Three, we should all have cyber connectivity in our brains directly into the 5G metaverse.

It's completely-- it's just rich people talking bollocks to each other and then going skiing. It's not even interesting. Move on, move on. Tell you what is interesting, though-- the UK.

CARRIE NORDLUND: No, but tell me more. [CHUCKLES]

MARK BLYTH: Well, I don't know if you-- I don't know if you've been following this but just when you think you're just going to get a week without a scandal, then you get another scandal. So the latest one-- and I'm trying to get this right because the details are, of course, murky and subject to parliamentary investigation. And in no way am I impugning the characters of anyone involved.

But it seems there's a connection between the person who arranged an 800,000 loan for Boris Johnson. A man who needs 800,000 just to basically pay off his family members, by the way, and the guy who became the head of the BBC. I'm not sure what the connection is.

And then it turns out the chair of the Tory Party, who's the guy who set up the YouGov polling organization, may or may not-- I have heard-- be non-compliant with certain tax matters.


MARK BLYTH: So really, again, it's just phenomenally rich people, who should know better, who spend most of their time telling everyone else that we don't have any money and we can't pay for anything, just spend all their time not paying their taxes.


MARK BLYTH: And then they fly to Davos to talk about how clever they are. It's just like, oh, god.

CARRIE NORDLUND: And actually, then what I'm going to do to help the world with all my gigantic sums of money that I worked so hard for and let me--

MARK BLYTH: Right, exactly. Once we all have cybernetic interfaces and we can directly top through 5G into the wild world and into the meta, then we don't have to worry about poverty or health care.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Although, have you tried chatGPT at all?

MARK BLYTH: I can't comment. I think I'm going to plagiarize myself.

CARRIE NORDLUND: [CHUCKLES] Well, this is one of the questions I had is, that I've had-- I just was playing around with it. It can give you a sonnet, and so it's really impressive in that way. But I also am convinced that there are little people on my computer that are actually doing this as opposed to the-- as opposed to the actual intelligence.

But maybe they were-- that'll be implanted into our brains as well. And that'll make us even smarter than we are.

MARK BLYTH: This actually-- this, we need to have a conversation about this. "We," meaning us in higher education. So if this thing can basically do the following, I'm about to do a class on sort of global money. And let's say that I say that the most cited authors on this are A, B, and C.

And I say, write me 1,500 words on the end of the Bretton Woods regime with a focus on the works of A, B, and C. And it can do that. Then what do I do in terms of signing assets?

CARRIE NORDLUND: I know, right? Yeah.

MARK BLYTH: Right? If we need an AI bought to snuff out writing by an AI ball, we're done. So I think we're-- by that, if we go down this line, I've got this terrible feeling that we're going to be back to-- and the assessment for this class, rather than being continuous assessment based upon projects and particularly papers, is going to have to be basically quizzes.

It's going to have to be back to blue book midterms because how else are you going to figure out if people actually have been doing the course or whether an AI assistant is doing all the work for them?

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah, I did think about this. If I could get it to write a paper, an academic paper for me, who actually wrote the paper-- yeah, who wrote the paper? It's like a ghostwriter.

MARK BLYTH: There was a piece in Nature about this. They've just adjudicated, at some level of authority, that AI assistants can't be listed as authors because they can't give consent.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Oh, that's super interesting.

MARK BLYTH: So even if you use it, then you're using it more than a tool if it generates it's an author. But it can't be an author because they can't give consent. We're already in sort of like Asimov's paradox of robotic life at this point.


MARK BLYTH: Fun times.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah. It can't give consent, wow. OK, that, I haven't--

MARK BLYTH: I know, isn't that interesting? Exactly.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah. In a similar vein but very different-- but just thinking about the tech world-- Microsoft just announced this week that they're laying off another 10,000 people. There are all the round of layoffs just before the holidays-- Amazon, Meta, Salesforce, Twitter, et cetera.

It seems, to me, that this is a very small percentage of the population and that these are probably the people that can be rehired the most quickly out of anybody who gets laid off. But does this signal to you anything about the larger economy? Or is it just one of those things that the lamestream media is focused on and it's just a Headline

MARK BLYTH: I think-- you're absolutely right. The total number of people at the whole labor force that work directly for the funds or for-funds type companies is, I think, about 4% of the labor market. So it's not that big.

Secondly, if they are the ones that are skilled, they can get hired back, et cetera. But a really simple way to think about this, is an analogy with the stock market. Go back to the pandemic. Remember when the stock market basically went up 60%?


MARK BLYTH: And anybody at all who had decided to short hotels and airlines and go long tech was an investment genius? So the index goes up 60%. And then the next year, it goes down by 30%. So you're still up half of difference that you got. You're still up half on boost. But it feels like a loss.

Now, let's think about what happened to all these firms. They are all the people that basically made hay during the pandemic. They are the people that are the delivery drivers. They are the people that invested all that money into the metaverse that nobody wants, whatever. And eventually, it turns out that when things normalize, you kind of have to get rid of all those people you've over-hired.


MARK BLYTH: That's it. Nothing to see. Move along. It's called mean reversion. It happens all the time. That's it. There's one way that this is getting interesting. There are these firms that are activist hedge funds, that get 2%, 3%, 4% of a company's shares, which gives them a controlling stake because the shares are so diverse-- so diversely held, if that's a phrase. But you know what I mean.

And then they can start basically telling the board what to do. So a couple of these funds are now basically getting into tech lines. And that's new for them because they've never done that before. When tech was on the up, you're not going to try and get in there with a minority position and tell the board what to do.

Now, that they're a little bit weaker, some of that's beginning to happen, which just suggests that tech is just becoming more of an ordinary sector rather than the extraordinary sector. But then again, to go back to our AI bot stuff, if that really-- Microsoft has just decided to invest billions in this chat bot thing. So maybe that is the thing that opens up and transforms the next wave of tech. We don't know.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah. But I get your point, that they hired so much during the pandemic. And so in some ways, they're just back to zero. They hired so much than they laid off. And so they're just back to where they were pre-pandemic hiring.

MARK BLYTH: All right. So anyway, enough of this sort of floating around in the UK, in the US. Let's go somewhere else. And of course, the bleeding sore of humanity is, of course, Ukraine.


MARK BLYTH: And so now the Ukrainians are saying, the Russians are getting ready for a big offensive. We need to go on the offensive. You need to give us these tanks. There's been this big stramash. And the Germans, who basically, at the end of the day, care more about that economic model and selling exports than they do about anything else, are a bit hesitant to just do that because that means the end of any future relationship with Russia.

And then they have this feeling-- at least, German industry-- that unless they have access to cheap Russian inputs, they will never be competitive against the Chinese. So this becomes an existential question for German industry, in a sense. That's one interpretation. It's vaguely possible.

The other one is that we're just not thinking this through. So you know that you're up against a regime that has a win-at-all-cost mentality. Putin has staked his credibility, if not his life, on winning this thing. So every time that you provide a new technology that gives the Ukrainians an advantage, which you should, then what happens is they need to doubledown on their efforts. And it makes the conflict perhaps more intense, more destructive even than it will be.

Now, at the end of the day, if you've decided that Putin is bluffing-- he will never use nukes. Nobody will ever use nukes-- and we need to defeat this guy, then you have to supply the tanks because otherwise, the Ukrainians can't do what they need to do. But if you do supply the tanks and you really change the impetus on the battlefield, who's to say that he doesn't start using battlefield nuclear weapons against those tanks?

And if he does, what do you do next? Once that's-- once the genie is out of the bottle, where do you go with this one? And this seems to me the bet-- if you make a bet that he's never going to use them, then everything you do makes sense. If you make a bet that it is highly possible he will use them, it's not clear that this is-- this is the-- the strategy is going to lead to anything other than that.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Your interpretation about the relationship between Russia and China is vastly different than what you've-- reading just the headline news, that the reluctance of Germany to give the Panthers-- they could come up with great names for these things, too. Based on World War II, and they demilitarized.

MARK BLYTH: No, it's bull. It has nothing to do with that.

CARRIE NORDLUND: They blah, blah, blah. So I think that's--


CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah. That's so much more interesting, the chessboard, the political chessboard that's being played right now.

MARK BLYTH: So it's political economy, follow the money.


MARK BLYTH: At the end of the day, if they torch the relationship with Russia, what happens to the big German chemical manufacturers who need tons of gas for their operations? Are they going to get that from American LNG that's been beat up in price all the time?

CARRIE NORDLUND: You're right.

MARK BLYTH: If you have a look-- this is-- this is interesting. It takes us into another direction. But I got an email from an analyst this morning, checking this out. If you look at-- I think it was West Texas's crude, there seems to be a floor price of about 70. It's just not dropping below that.

And even though gasoline consumption in the United States has flattened and has actually declined a little bit since the pandemic, China's opening up again. So once China goes full pelt on this stuff, then basically the oil price is going to go back up. Gas prices are going to go back up. And then inflation is going to go back up.

We're not out of the woods on this one yet. There's this feeling that inflation has turned. And if we just supply tanks to Ukraine, all will be well. I'm not convinced that that's really following through.

CARRIE NORDLUND: On that note, it has been interesting looking at just the view of the American press over the last few weeks about the sort of China is much more vulnerable than it has in the past, the switching COVID policy. The declining population thing, I just shrugged my shoulders. Didn't demographers predict this 50 years ago?

And now, the Washington Post is like, there's no more people left in China. Then they show a picture of a really busy street. And you're like, this doesn't quite-- anyway.

MARK BLYTH: It doesn't-- no. No, it's funny. If you're old enough, like me, I remember the last time this was done. It was done with Japan.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Oh, yeah, right.

MARK BLYTH: They're exactly the same stories. It was like, yes, but they're an old society. So the technological advancement would really mar. And at the end of the day, USA will win against the terrible Japanese. And it was just-- honestly, what? For what?

It's funny. There's people in DC who kind of-- they're like cicadas. They come out of the ground every 17 years. And the last time they were visible was they were banging on about Japan and trade deficits or whatever. And now, the same people are barking. It's all about China. And it's like, oh, for god-- it's like a cottage industry.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah, oh, that's really funny. Just switch out Japan and put it in China. They have--

MARK BLYTH: The one who does have a problem with this, the Japanese said this yesterday, in fact, is they really do have a problem because they just can't do immigration. And they are astonishingly old. So they are actually, I think, now 25%, 26% of the population is over 65.

And you can automate a lot of stuff. But at the end of the day, an economy is nothing more than a number of people, the number of hours worked, and the capital you work with. They've got good capital. But their own people, QED, the place shrinks. That's it.

Look at it this way. One of the major problems that we have with climate change is trying to square-- trying to square energy production and consumption with GDP growth. So maybe if we all just shrink a little--


MARK BLYTH: Maybe that helps. That's the de-growth argument. You just do it by not having any kids.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Well, and Japan is interesting because, of course, trying to increase their population and giving financial incentives to women to have more babies, which has really gone nowhere, too. So--

MARK BLYTH: Yeah, it doesn't work anywhere.


MARK BLYTH: One of the fascinating things with that, apparently-- Leon Seabrooke told me this one ages ago. Sorry for invoking you there, Leon. But your name popped up-- that when you look at immigrant populations, the first generation maintains the fertility of the home country. The second one basically closes the gap to the host country by about 2/3. And then by the third generation, they're completely normalized to whatever they do in that country.


MARK BLYTH: So given that you move from poor to rich, and rich has less kids, it's just a machine for generating less growth. Then there's my favorite one, which I talk about all the time, which is the total collapse of male sperm counts around the world as well. So throw that into the mix and it's like, we won't be like-- if it wasn't for immigration-- and it's been historically low for the past two years-- the American population growth has come to a halt. We're all in the same boat here.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah, yeah. Well, maybe this is then the solution to climate change. This is exactly what you just said, the de-growth, population stops growing. [INAUDIBLE]

MARK BLYTH: Yeah, just don't have any kids. Literally, after two generations, problem solved except there's no more human civilization. But what can you do?

CARRIE NORDLUND: It's OK. We're in-- we're in some spaceship in the sky with our AI and then--

MARK BLYTH: With our millionaires from-- who have been to Davos.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yes, exactly.

MARK BLYTH: They all take their personal spaceships, and we'll colonize Mars because it's such a nice place.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah, it's so nice in the summer.

MARK BLYTH: So we're winding up now, just a couple of things to finish with. You've heard of this thing called the euro, right?

CARRIE NORDLUND: I have, yeah, way back.

MARK BLYTH: Have you heard of the sur?


MARK BLYTH: The sur, I think I'm getting this right, which is really weird because in English it sounds like the thing that you pump poop through.


MARK BLYTH: The sur is the proposed joint currency between Argentina and Brazil, which really begs the question, why would the Brazilians want to do this?


I suppose they're going to pull out all the same arguments that you did for Europe about lower transactions costs. And maybe they'll have a digital currency but maintain their own currencies, whatever. But it's funny. I can't help think that sort of currency is now one of the things that politicians turn to like bike lanes.

So here's the awful truth about bike lanes in dense cities. New York's a classic example. When you put in bike lanes, you reduce the available space for traffic to flow. So you end up with more congestion because you don't reduce the number of cars or trucks. And you end up with more pollution.

So you end up with a small number of bikers breathing in toxicity while no one gets anywhere fast. But everybody does it because it's one of those things you can be seen to do. And then you've got a result you can point to in four years.

I can't help but think but sort of-- talking about money and currencies and these types of projects has become the equivalent of that for politicians. Fixing Argentina's long-run productivity problem-- mm, really hard. Fixing Brazil's totally weird stratified culture and polarized politics-- mm, really hard. Maybe you could just have a joint currency and celebrate that instead.

CARRIE NORDLUND: And I think the name, when you said it, it sounded kind of cool, too.

MARK BLYTH: That's it? How many sur is it to the dollar?

CARRIE NORDLUND: Well, yeah, and problem solved. OK. We can-- you check that off the list of things to do.

MARK BLYTH: You got any closers? What did you find that was weird this--

CARRIE NORDLUND: I do. Well, this is much lighter than a unified currency in South America. And this goes back to Davos and what are the world's richest men doing with their money that they work so hard to get.

And this is Peter Thiel. So he, in the fall, launched a conservative dating app called The Right Stuff. And at first, there were a number of downloads, I think 44,000 downloads in November when it first appeared. But now, it's 11,000. And just as a point of comparison, Tinder gets about a million, about 900,000 a month. So these are pretty low numbers.

So it looks like The Right Stuff is not going in the right direction. I think it has like a 2.1 rating on the Apple Store as well. And I guess it just made me laugh that, first of all, I don't know why Peter Thiel is backing a dating app. But also, that it joins a number of sort of right-leaning, just like there are left-leaning dating apps.

And one of the remarks in the report-- because I was doing a deep dive into hard news-- was that The Right Stuff was just all Mitch McConnell staffers trying to find looking for--


CARRIE NORDLUND: So I just thought that was-- I just thought that was funny. And--

MARK BLYTH: It's a kind of a weird-- when people are rich enough to obsess about politics, I guess this is what you do with your time, when you're staring mortality down the face, when the blood transfusions no longer work. But it does beg a question.

Thankfully, I don't do Tinder and these things. I'm far too old. And everything's good at home. We're fine. But if I did, would politics be the first thing I think of?

CARRIE NORDLUND: Exactly, yeah.

MARK BLYTH: Is it really just like, well, most important to me is that someone has got a working knowledge of Marxism and is sort of an ecofeminist. That's my two main criteria right there. And maybe for some people, it is. But I just don't think-- I think this way or most people really think this way. It's a vanity project that's stupid.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah. [LAUGHS] That's really all that needs to be said. On the other side of-- or not other side. But one last thing that we have to talk about is Prince Harry's book, Spare.

MARK BLYTH: Didn't we talk about it last time?

CARRIE NORDLUND: No, it hadn't been released yet. It had--

MARK BLYTH: But we said everything that we possibly could say, didn't we?

CARRIE NORDLUND: No, Blyth. There's so much more to say. So get ready--

MARK BLYTH: All right, go.

CARRIE NORDLUND: We got an hour.

MARK BLYTH: All right. You've got 2 minutes, go.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Here's what I had to say. There's lots of revelations in it. And he's really mad at his family as well. And so he's written like--

MARK BLYTH: And quite right. They're a mad family.

CARRIE NORDLUND: --400-page book about it. I think the stuff that-- he comes across, I think, as a sympathetic human/someone who just can't let go of anything at all. I think the thing that's most fascinating to me is that he has said that there was enough for two books.

And so is there a second book waiting out there for us? And what will it be called? Did you listen to any of the excerpts from it or pay any attention?

MARK BLYTH: Nothing, no. Everything gets sort of excerpted and distilled down in here's the main points and all that sort of stuff. There was a kind of brilliant, tragic mini review in The Guardian, which I posted on Twitter because I thought it was quite funny-- although people thought it was really kind of harsh.

But no, ultimately, it's just-- he's a sad character trapped in a sad family drama with the weirdest family in Britain. That's-- that's pretty much it. They're just crazy things to think about. They're not from the book but just sort of has happened to them as a couple.

So imagine-- imagine you're Meghan Markle. You're a self-made bootstrapper. You were pulling in 78,000 an episode on a long-running series. Everything's fine. Your world is good. And you meet this guy, and you're like, all right, whatever. We'll go for it.

And one of the first things to say is, please hand over your passport. You're no longer in control over your travel. And please hand over your driver's license because you'll never drive yourself again. And that's just a glimpse into what is normality for this, quote, unquote, "family."

And there's a bit in the book apparently-- and this is the only bit that I find any resonance with from Harry's point really, was he imagines apparently at one point what's it like to be able to meet your own friends.


MARK BLYTH: Because-- it's a bit like that's the curse of the rich, right?


MARK BLYTH: When you're rich and your friends are normal, you tend to no longer be normal, tend to no longer be friends with them because what happens is, at some point, you'll do them a favor because you got all that money. And to you, it's nothing. But to them, it's an enormous amount of money. And what it does is, it creates a debt obligation.

Even if you never have to pay it back, you're indebted to this person. So the relationship becomes one of sort of servitude and keeping you happy. And then you hate that. And the thing it brings, it's all crap. Now, just substitute money for royal.

And yes, people will always be friendly to you. But in a sense, it's kind of all preprogrammed as to who your friend is, what your social circles are, et cetera. And people always relate to you as this thing rather than actually just as a normal person.

So I can relate to sort of the sadness of never being normal. But at the same time, that's what enables you to write a book like this and basically [INAUDIBLE] for 150 million in Netflix. So I'm not that sympathetic at the end of the day.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yeah. No, but I think your point about that they're just a weird family in general, like yeah. And I think that probably comes through pretty clearly.

MARK BLYTH: I love the image of the current king of England wandering around a palace in his slippers and dressing gown, holding a teddy bear.

CARRIE NORDLUND: [CHUCKLES] Or doing headstands in his underpants, yeah.

MARK BLYTH: Yeah, there's-- could you think of anything more dysfunctional in British? It's just brilliant.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Oh, jeez. Well, this seems like a good place to maybe end but start Twenty Twenty-Three.

MARK BLYTH: Well, exactly. Let's think about all the fabulous fun things that we've spoken about. We opened with the tragedy of gun violence, our inability to do anything useful with 75 trillion tons of water, why we are having trouble paying our bills when we don't have trouble paying our bills, why Kevin tried 15 times to get a job nobody with the right mind would want.

Why Joe leaves things in his car, why the Tory Party manages to get more corrupt every single week, why tech layoffs don't matter, Ukraine may be much more dangerous than we think, and why Brazil would possibly want to get into bed with Argentina for a currency.


MARK BLYTH: Oh, and The Right Stuff.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Yes, right. And we end with Prince Charles walking around-- or King-- with a teddy bear.

MARK BLYTH: King, King Charles and-- King Charles and the teddy bear. Yeah, I think all I can say, having summed all that up, is a great quote from a series from Britain called Dad's Army, which was about these pensioner volunteers and the Home Guard in Nineteen Forty, in the age of the Germans' invasion.

And there was a Scottish character in there, who was one of the old soldiers. And he only ever said one thing-- we're doomed, doomed!


MARK BLYTH: Outlook-- bleak, forecast-- doomed.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Great to see you.

MARK BLYTH: I'll keep smiling, though--


MARK BLYTH: --so whole year.


MARK BLYTH: All right. See you in a few weeks.

CARRIE NORDLUND: Bye. Thank you for listening. Talk to you soon.



About the Podcast

Show artwork for Mark and Carrie
Mark and Carrie
Mark Blyth, political economist at The Watson Ins…

About your hosts

Profile picture for Mark Blyth

Mark Blyth

Host, Rhodes Center Podcast
Profile picture for Carrie Nordlund

Carrie Nordlund

Co-Host, Mark and Carrie