Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
On this week’s show, our guests sing to Obama; deep-dive the job market; get bossy with Tina Fey; and brace us for an AT&T world. Plus, Truthdig crashes the royal wedding.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio, bringing you the best interviews, criticism and commentary from Truthdig.com and KPFK. On today’s show our guests sing to Obama; deep-dive the job market; get bossy with Tina Fey; and brace us for an AT&T world. Plus, Truthdig crashes the royal wedding. Stay with us.
* * *
Josh Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio, and we’re sitting here with Robert Scheer and Heather Boushey from the Center for American Progress discussing the great recession, jobs and the economy. Thanks for being with us, Heather.
Heather Boushey: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
Robert Scheer: The reason we wanted to talk to you is because you had this terrific testimony, and then a joint article you wrote with someone on two, basically two points: that the job mess that we have, the loss of jobs, is a direct result of the banking meltdown, the recession we’re in; it’s not systemic; and the other was that there should be some caution that our dependence upon foreign suppliers and what we saw in Japan, interrupting supplies, and that maybe there’s an argument to be made for being more concerned about restoring or revitalizing the American manufacturing sector. So, can you say something about both of those things?
Heather Boushey: Certainly. You know, on the first issue, if I understood your question correctly—I mean, certainly the unemployment that we’re experiencing today is a direct result of the collapse of the housing bubble and the ensuing financial crisis. And what has been truly tragic over the past couple of years is to hear more and more people complain that there’s something wrong with workers, or that people just aren’t trying hard enough to find jobs, when in fact all of the empirical evidence really does point to the fact that there is a lack of demand that was caused by the collapse of the housing bubble and the financial crisis, you know, and just—firms now just not seeing enough customers to make them go out and start hiring. So that really is a challenge. Your second question …
Robert Scheer: Well, let me deal with the first one. I don’t mean to be rude, but that—I think that’s really provocative, because even from President Obama, we had in his speech, you know, his big speech, that—it’s education; we have all these problems with kids not learning enough, and so forth—all of which are true, and all of which have been with us for a long time. The biggest issues we’re facing right now are the collapse of the job market—as you point out, as a result of what happened on Wall Street—and secondly this debt crisis. I looked up the figures just before coming on the air. In 2007, before this thing hit, we had $9 trillion in debt, and now we’re at $14 trillion. And that’s a direct result of what happened on Wall Street. And so why are we blaming teachers, why are we blaming, you know, the educational system or anything, when in fact what we had was a mismanagement of the economy by bankers allowed to run wild by deregulation?
Heather Boushey: Well, you know, I—I appreciate your question as to why we’ve let it happen, and honestly I think that really is the six million dollar question. I don’t know that I can pin an answer on it, but I can completely agree with you that we’ve seen … I mean, let me start with the education piece first. I mean, it is of course the case that we want every kid in America to be able to go to school; those who want to go to college should be able to, and to be able to afford it; you know, college has become increasingly unaffordable for middle-class families, even over the recession, and kids are taking on more and more debt, burdening them when they graduate. And it’s also the case that there are a lot of folks—especially among men—who go to college, get that degree, but they still don’t outearn the typical high school graduate. And so it is not the case that a college degree is a panacea, and that’s going to solve everyone’s problems in the job market. So, I agree with you that it’s important, I agree with the president that it’s important, but I also just want to underscore … that’s a longstanding problem: getting every kid into school is not going to solve our short-term unemployment problem. Moreover, even if that could solve our unemployment problem in the long run, it’s a long-term solution. It takes a long time to get a lot of kids through community college or get that bachelor’s, and that’s not going to happen overnight, and yet we’ve got these, you know, millions of folks who are out of work and a lot more that have been out of work for a long time and have given up job-searching. So … so, yeah.
Robert Scheer: But let me ask you a little more personal question, in the sense that—you know, OK, you’re a well-educated person; you have a Ph.D.; and the president has stressed the meritocracy, stressed learning so much—but the fact is it wasn’t kids at some community college who were struggling with math who got us into this mess. It was some of the best mathematicians at MIT and Harvard and Yale who got us into this mess; some of the best economists who got us into the mess. They’re the ones, like Lawrence Summers, who justified collateralized debt obligations being unregulated; you know, the passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which Clinton signed off on. And so isn’t this kind of a weird scapegoating, to say if kids would just study harder, if teachers would just teach better, we wouldn’t be in this pickle, when we’re in this pickle because the so-called geniuses, the smart guys, the brilliant guys, said no, let Wall Street run wild, and Wall Street did, and they bankrupted us?
Heather Boushey: A hundred per cent. And in fact, going back to the earlier question you were asking, those same folks, highly educated folks, were going increasingly into those financial services jobs where they could make tons of money for doing things that we now know weren’t necessarily good, were not good for the economy, while we’ve seen a dearth of folks going into the kinds of hard sciences and engineering and high tech that could actually create the kind of investment that would move our economy forward. So you saw a lot of kids going into a sector that is financed but became too bloated, and has not propelled our economy forward in a positive direction. So there’s a number of things going on there. And you’re right—it was the deregulation of the financial sector that has played a huge role in the crisis and in the unemployment that we’re seeing for millions of everyday Americans right now. And that is the tragedy of it—that while we did see some reform that passed through Congress in the last congressional session for financial regulation, I think we still have a long ways to go before we’re going to be done with that. And unfortunately there does not seem to be a lot of appetite here in Washington right now to sort of dig in and do that hard work.
Robert Scheer: You know, another point you made in your article and your testimony was that we have to have demand in this country; people have to be making enough so they’ll buy things. And one of the things that’s happened, where you had these recent Commerce Department statistics that these big multinational corporations have shifted an enormous amount of jobs abroad. And good jobs. [General Electric CEO Jeffrey] Immelt—who, after all, Obama has appointed to be one of his top advisers, outside advisers—his company shifted an enormous number of jobs, GE, abroad. And he points out it’s not in pursuit of cheap labor anymore; they’re following their markets. And so we’re in this weird thing where our multinational corporations—so-called “our”—expect our government to protect them, expect our government to use diplomacy and military power to protect their interests; on the other hand, they’re shifting jobs and consumer power abroad. So the market moves abroad, and our workers are, to be crude about it, being screwed.
Heather Boushey: Well, you know, two things. I mean, one, they certainly aren’t “our” multinationals; they’re global, and their interests do not appear to be aligned with the United States in many ways [laughs], so that is certainly a … a trend. But you know, we have seen—and I think what is so incredibly apparent now, if it wasn’t before—but we have seen that the hollowing out of America’s middle class that’s been happening for decades now has played an important role in the instability of our economy, and an important role in this crisis. While it is true that we have this housing bubble, and that financial deregulation played a role, another piece of the puzzle was that families were increasingly going into debt just to keep up with the living standards that they had before. We know over the 2000s, the typical family in America actually lost income over the economy recovery, the first time in the post-World War II period; families quite simply weren’t keeping up, and they were borrowing to make ends meet. And once you open that door to borrowing, you know, people got these bigger and bigger loans, and, well, you know, we saw what happened with that in terms of the housing bubble. So not having a solid middle class here in the United States was both a part of the problem and, as you’ve just pointed out, you know—if you don’t have a broad-based middle class in this country you don’t have a lot of consumer demand. And you’re not going to until you get those folks back to work and you commit to having productivity increases and wages actually moving at the same pace again, like we saw in the decades after World War II, but which has not happened since the end of the 1970s.
Robert Scheer: You know, treating this as more of a discussion than a [laughs], a straight interview, it has occurred to me that a book that John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote, called “The Affluent Society”—it’s quite relevant to the discussion. And what Galbraith argued was that America was in a uniquely affluent position regarding the rest of the world, and that the challenge was not to prevent other people in the world from making things or competing with us, but rather to make sure that the benefits within our own society were spread around. And so in terms of these multinational corporations, fine—go make money, do your thing, but as long as you spread it around in terms of paying taxes instead of hiding your profits abroad; keeping good jobs here; helping protect the social safety net, and so forth—we could have a stable society and a stable middle class. But in fact, the lobbyists for these companies have done their best to destroy that and to act in a very selfish way. Now, you worked on the Hill. To what degree does the public even get involved in writing these laws? Is there any consumer protection, or is it just basically written by the lobbyists?
Heather Boushey: Well, you know, I worked on the Hill but I worked for a nonlegislative committee, so I don’t have as much experience at that. But certainly, one of the things you see here in Washington is there are a lot of fantastic groups that focus on making sure that consumers get to have a voice here in Washington. But they are certainly outnumbered, outfunded, out-whatevered by the lobbyists for the corporations. And I think that you can certainly see the influence of money throughout a variety of legislation, of course, passed in the last Congress. And I would point again to the financial regulation legislation that, while good and certainly moved us forward, there were a lot of pieces where the banks got and Wall Street got what they wanted. And I think we should be concerned about what that means moving forward, and whether or not the U.S. taxpayer is going to have to bail them out again.
Robert Scheer: You know, I want before we end this to turn to the second part of my question—the other article you wrote about the need for a manufacturing center; the need for Americans to be able to make things that the rest of the world wants to buy, and the kind of support that the government should be putting into that. And you offer the example of the disruption of production in Japan as a reason for revisiting that issue; that supplies are cut off, and so forth. So do you want to say anything about that?
Heather Boushey: Yes, certainly. One of the things we saw after the tragedy in Japan, with the earthquake and the tsunami, and then nuclear disaster, was we saw, we got a glimpse of just how dependent our economy is on Japanese suppliers and global suppliers—you know, suppliers globally, more generally. And you heard of planned closures, or furloughs because they couldn’t get the parts they needed. Now that’s not—you know, it certainly is a great thing that companies can trade, and we certainly don’t want to clamp down on that wholeheartedly. But it does—it should open our eyes to the fact that we are vulnerable to these kinds of supply-chain interruptions, and that we might want to have a more concerted effort here in the United States to make sure that we still can make things here. You know, just in terms of the national security issues. The key issue here, when you’re thinking about U.S. manufacturing, is that manufacturing is connected to the kind of innovation economy that the president talks about wanting to have; you know, the interaction between the engineer and the folks on the shop floor who are actually making the goods that the engineer is creating. There’s a—there are real important processes used … if we want to continue to be a leader in technology, we’re going to have to continue to make stuff, or that technology’s going to go overseas, and we’re not going to be the kind of leading country that Americans want us to be.
Robert Scheer: Can you give me a sort of summary statement—bouncing off the publication that you co-authored, “The State of Working America: 2002-03”; how would you compare the state of working America now to what is almost a decade ago, when you did that study?
Heather Boushey: Well, I mean, I think that … there’s a word that I’ve—that has come into my vocabulary over the past year and a half, and that is nadir, which I think I am pronouncing correctly, which you know, when you think—when I think about the state of working America, I’m really glad that we are not seeing the hemorrhaging of jobs that we saw back in the winter of ’08/’09, where we were losing jobs to the pace of 20,000 a day. And it’s fantastic that we’ve seen job growth, that we’ve seen six quarters of GDP growth, and we’re going to get new numbers on that this week. That’s all good. But for families out there, we are still at a period where employment rates are close to their recession lows; for men, that has meant that they are close to their lows in terms of the number of men, the share of men in America who have a job being just a smidgen above their lows in the post-World War II era. That’s not a good thing for working America. And what we’re seeing is that—alongside this heightened unemployment, the increase in people working part time even though they want a full-time job, and so many folks are sitting at home because they’ve become so frustrated over their job search—you’ve seen a slowdown in wage growth that’s associated with that. There’s a lot of folks out there seeking every job available, and people aren’t, don’t have a lot of bargaining power right now to keep wages up, even though we’ve seen profits rise dramatically since the economic crisis. So I think that things out there right now are pretty tough for families, and I think we should all be focusing on making sure that we get people back to work so that we can start pushing our economy into the right direction.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you, Heather. That’s all the time we have, but—this is for Robert, for Josh and Heather: Thank you for listening to Truthdig.
* * *
Josh Scheer: We’re back with Truthdig Radio. This is Josh Scheer with Robert [Scheer] and Prabhat [Gautam] from Positive Television. And he was one of the members of the—the people that confronted Obama at the San Francisco fundraiser and sang him a song. So how’s it going, Prabhat?
Prabhat Gautam: Oh, doing well, doing well. How are you guys doing today?
Josh Scheer: We’re doing good.
Robert Scheer: You know, we’re calling from Truthdig, and we were so impressed we gave you [and the other singers] this award of Truthdiggers of the Week, for raising this issue. And then a number of people commenting on our site said, why are you giving them an award? They like Obama, they support him, they were giving money to him. And I personally think that made it all the more effective: that you were people who were raising a question with somebody you had supported, and do support.
Prabhat Gautam: Well, thank you—first, thank you guys for giving us an award. And you know, we’ve done tons and tons and tons of interviews, and I honestly think one of my favorite ones was a conservative talk show radio, and we said to them, we said—I said I really respect the conservative Republicans who spoke out against George Bush, and that he wasn’t fiscally conservative, and they disagreed with him. Because to have the other party speak up—well, that’s just expected. But to have people within a party who will support the candidate, who have supported the candidate, who will most likely support the candidate again—they’re the ones who should really speak up. Because in any real democracy, in any real society, you have to have dissenting voices that speak up, especially within that movement.
Josh Scheer: And you’re part of this …
Prabhat Gautam: … Fresh Juice Party.
Josh Scheer: Fresh Juice Party, and you can go to the website and see—the Bay Citizen is … and you have videos, not just of the event, but other—other videos, because I’ve seen you speak and other people from the group speak, right?
Prabhat Gautam: Right, yeah, definitely. And then the one thing we really try to push with people, at FreshJuiceParty.com—on the left side there’s a videos tab. Right underneath the video where Naomi Pitcairn and all the rest of us were involved in, you know, singing the song to President Obama, there’s a video of “Collateral Murder,” which is the video that Bradley Manning is purported to have leaked to WikiLeaks. So, essentially, what we want people to learn and look at is like, all right, this is a video where on the surface to all of us, he’s a whistle-blower. And you know, people can decide for themselves whether or not they think military people should be giving out information or not. But if he did give information, we think he’s a whistle-blower, and should not only not be incarcerated and thrown in solitary confinement, or what they’re doing now, moving him somewhere else [to a Kansas prison] after a lot of public outcry; he really should be seen as a whistle-blower. If there are war crimes, people need to speak up, and anyone who does … you know, I think we all say in society, oh, if something is wrong in the workplace you should speak up. But the reality is, people who speak up are often fired; they’re mistreated; they’re shunned by co-workers. And that’s not any different in the military as well; you know, a lot of people have had horrible experiences.
Robert Scheer: Well, you know, you actually have a legal obligation to speak up if you are witnessing a crime, if you have knowledge of a crime. And yet when it comes to government actions, we say, you know—in violation of the Nuremberg Principle, in violation of any standard of decency—we say you’re supposed to be silent. And the parallel I would draw—and did in a column on Truthdig today—is with the Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg. And Daniel Ellsberg actually was leaking documents that had a much more significant level of secrecy. He also had taken—made a commitment to the government, through the Rand Corp., and he’d been in the government, not to do that. And he argued, I think correctly, that this was information the public had a right to know, and it was kept from the public—exposing the basis of the Vietnam War. And I do think in the Manning case … you know, the fact that The New York Times—the Atlantic magazine pointed out that The New York Times this year, every other day, or half the days that they’ve published, they’ve had a major story based on WikiLeak information. And yet that’s information that we wouldn’t have if not for, allegedly, Manning; and that’s information that we only have because this happened.
Prabhat Gautam: Right. And I think if you look at this case, already—like, one of the people that I respect is P.J. Crowley, the [former] assistant secretary of state, who came out and said, this is stupid and this is ridiculous, in regards to our treatment of Bradley Manning. And it’s something where you just think—transparency is something that everybody says they want, transparency in government, but I think what frustrated a lot of us is, you know, we supported Obama; we like Obama; we were hoping for transparency from Obama. And for him to do things that we saw with Bush troubles us.
Robert Scheer: I want to point out, by the way—and it’s been pointed out by others—that he misspoke. Now, I—did he do that in your presence, or he did that after … ? But when the president said, you know—first of all, that he said that he [Manning] was guilty; that he broke the law, where you know, he’s the commander in chief—how is somebody supposed to get a fair trial within the military system when the commander in chief has already judged him guilty—but he also seems to misunderstand the whole classification system. He made it sound like it was something very clear and indelible, what is secret, what is not for foreign eyes, and so forth, and he indicated that even the president has to follow that; that’s simply untrue. These come from executive orders that the president can change on a moment’s notice. And what is secret is really determined by the convenience of the government, when it wants to leak or when it doesn’t. And I thought that was a great revelation from your action.
Prabhat Gautam: Well, thank you. And I think a lot of that—when you spoke about Daniel Ellsberg; like, he has spoken out in favor of Bradley Manning, and said this is very similar to what he did. But the thing, I think, that troubles a lot of us is when somebody gave information out in the ’60s …in hindsight we all think, oh, it’s wonderful, he’s a hero, it’s great. But at that time, you know, it wasn’t easy for Daniel Ellsberg to do that. I think now with Bradley Manning, are we at a time in society where we’re more open to people giving out information that’s going to reveal the truth? Or are there more … not just the media, but also are there more factions within the government that try to stifle any sort of public dissent? And I mean, you know, I think … for me, personally, I think about Russell Feingold, and when the Patriot Act [was] going in front of legislation, Russell Feingold was the sole courageous person who spoke out against it—I mean, there were others, I’m sure, in the House; but Russell Feingold as a senator spoke out. And you know, look at what happened to him this many years later [voted out of the Senate in 2010], where he’s not in politics anymore. And I’m troubled that the people who are speaking out are often isolated and aren’t supported by the bigger groups who want everyone to just sort of follow their agenda, and it’s … when anything’s hidden, and there’s secrecy in government, I think that’s troubling.
Josh Scheer: Well, one thing, I think, with Daniel Ellsberg—got lucky because the president of the United States committed a crime, you know, against him, and that helped him get off the charges.
Prabhat Gautam: Right.
Robert Scheer: Well, just to make it …
Josh Scheer: And then—but also, about Russ Feingold, though, I think—no, but I think it goes back to Obama …
Robert Scheer: Just to make it clear what you’re saying for our listeners. The matter of the rights of the whistle-blower, which was what Daniel Ellsberg was and which Manning is—although WikiLeaks is not, WikiLeaks should be in the same position as The New York Times, in that they’re publishing documents and should have the same free press protections to the degree that they publish in this country. But the issue in the Ellsberg case was never really taken to the Supreme Court. He faced a very lengthy sentence, and it was thrown out because [of], as Josh indicates, judicial misconduct, in that Nixon had offered the judge a job running the FBI. So the case got thrown out, and the government decided not to continue. But we have really not established, as a matter of law, whether somebody who reveals public crime—the crimes of the government, and informs the public—deserves any protection. And I would think a reading of the basic amendments of this country, the Bill of Rights, would suggest that they do. But that has not been established.
Josh Scheer: I just want to say though, about Russ Feingold, going back to that point—I mean, we have this Obama fundraiser; I mean, Obama failed kind of miserably, and there’s a backlash. And that’s why Russ Feingold’s out of politics—not because he stood up; it’s because he was part of a party that has kind of—didn’t do its job, just like the Republicans didn’t many years—well, not many years ago now. But you know, that’s why Obama was in the White House in the first place. So … he’s the unfortunate victim, as was almost Dennis Kucinich, as was a number of congressmen who kind of got stuck because they’re Democrats.
Prabhat Gautam: Right. And I agree with you, on the other side, Lincoln Chafee, who was one of the rare Republicans who stood up that was against the Iraq War. And he’s out of politics …
Josh Scheer: Yeah.
Prabhat Gautam: … or he’s out of, at least, the [Senate]—you know, like, you see that and you think, these few, rare people who speak up and speak against a party, lose support from the party. And in the end it’s like, we need those brave, few people in politics to have, I think, a functioning government. And I think as we’ve seen the two-party system become so gray we’re almost the same party, it’s troubling. And for a lot of us who believe in universal health care; who believe that the U.S. should be far, far, far less involved in war, if at all—and most of us believe they should hardly be involved—we’re troubled that under an Obama administration, where everything we voted for was not an extension of Bush, the U.S. is now in Libya. Like, the U.S. is still in Afghanistan, is still in Iraq. Like, there’s a lot of things that we thought would not be happening. And then when you see with Bradley Manning somebody who actually is speaking up and saying, OK, this—in the video, “Collateral Murder”—this is clearly an action where … and the thing that we’re troubled with, those are Reuters reporters that were killed. And for us, we look at it like, where is the media speaking out for other media? And it’s—it’s too often silent. And people just let it pass as oh, well, it’s what happens in war; but that’s not what’s supposed to happen in war.
Robert Scheer: Well, also, you have obligations in war to prevent war crimes. And I think you’re making a really significant point. The media has tried, in a way, to distance itself from Manning and from the WikiLeaks people; you know, we’re just printing this stuff. But the fact is they have an obligation to protect the whistle-blowers, the truth-seekers. And that particular incident, for people who aren’t—where this whole thing started, with the leaks, involved a war crime. It involved killing innocent people. And if not for Manning, that would not have been brought to light. And I want to ask you a final question, because we are going to run out of time. You know, as I said, some of the commenters on Truthdig, when we gave you this Truthdigger award, they said, hey, these guys are still with Obama and they don’t see the light, and so forth. And full disclosure, by the way: I contributed to Obama’s campaign hours before the polls closed [laughs], and was happy that he won, and so forth. But I do want to ask a basic question about style and speaking out. Surely you heard from people [saying] hey, don’t disrupt the meeting, hey, you know, there are other ways to do it. And what—the boldness of this action; you know, maybe people don’t realize it because they don’t go to these dinners. But you know, you weren’t—you didn’t get wild applause at the end. You got probably as many groans as you got congratulations. And you were willing to break with the style that accepts, OK, he’s our leader, he’s our Democrat, he’s our this, he’s our that. And you said no; there’s something more important at stake, and we do have to speak truth to power …
Josh Scheer: OK, very quickly …
Robert Scheer: … I want to get your response to that. What happened? Did they usher you out? You had bought tickets; did you get any response from the people around you?
Prabhat Gautam: That was the interesting thing, where the main person who spoke up, Naomi Pitcairn, ah, they came over to her—and I was seated right behind her—and they came over and asked her to leave. And then the rest of the group finished singing the song. There were other people that didn’t participate in the song, but still, you know, either videoed or just watched everything. Because we wanted to have people that would be there the entire time, because we wanted to see what the reaction would be. And so Naomi was asked to leave, and then another person followed her out just to, you know, see what would happen, whether she’d be arrested or not. She wasn’t arrested. The other 18 of us all stayed in. I actually spoke to President Obama at the end and said—you know, I did a fundraiser for him three years ago in Los Angeles, and I said you know, I understand being in this high-level office is really difficult, and you know, we all believe in you, and we all hope better from you. And you know, it’s so rushed, and I think the thing that people should understand is these are … that event had Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom—these are the, all the top people in the [California] Democratic Party. Regular people are not supposed to go to those events, and that’s why it’s $5,000 a ticket. It’s intended to be cost-prohibitive to regular activists. So I think that’s a lot of what I’ve gotten from everyone; they’ve said regular activists don’t get into those events. And I think that’s why we wanted to have that group of 20 that are there—those are almost all regular activists, you know? Even the people that put up the bulk of the money, those are activists. But there’s only a few people that have that kind of money to afford to get in. They wanted regular people to see how politics works firsthand, and they wanted us to participate in the Democratic action, and I think … there are people that came up to us afterwards that were really happy that we did it, and I think that was—well, we thought most people would boo us, we thought that we’d be asked to leave; in the end, it was much nicer than that, it didn’t happen that way. And you know, I think most people that are Democrats are probably going to think, what has this accomplished? … they’ll think later and say well, at least somebody stood up to our president and said we’re not in favor of repressing public discourse; we’re not in favor of a continuation of Bush policy.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you, Prabhat. For Truthdig, for Prabhat, for Bob, this is Truthdig Radio, and thank you for listening.
* * *
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer with Joshua Scheer. We are speaking with Sheerly Avni. Sheerly is a culture critic whose work has appeared in Mother Jones, Salon.com, and Truthdig. Welcome.
Sheerly Avni: Thank you. Hi.
Josh Scheer: Hi, Sheerly. We got you on because you were going to talk about Tina Fey’s “Bossypants,” which you’re a big fan of?
Sheerly Avni: Yes, of course—very much so.
Josh Scheer: What’s the thing that excites you the most?
Sheerly Avni: Well, first of all, like pretty much every woman in her 30s or 40s who was born on the East Coast and wears glasses, I think I am Tina Fey. [Laughter] So it was pretty much just an exercise in narcissistic wish-fulfillment. But also, she is a certain kind of model for both feminism and professionalism, and just explaining what it means to be working in a vibrant profession … that it’s kind of hard to resist. And the book is hysterical.
Peter Scheer: But … so how … she’s a model for feminists, but how intensely so? Is she—I mean, is it sort of like light, diet, digestible, palatable to mainstream America, or is she tough?
Sheerly Avni: I don’t know—I guess you’d have to turn to the ratings for “30 Rock” to ask how digestible she is for mainstream America. On the other hand, the book itself is a best-seller. So as far as tough, there’s definitely, for example, a lot of tough moments in “Bossypants,” as she describes her rise to power; as she describes how she handled a co-worker calling her the slimy C-word. And certainly, there’s sections in which she talks—pretty hysterically—about what it’s like being on a photo shoot; how hard it is for women to look good; all the stuff you would expect. But what’s different about her is that she’s not writing about the struggle of making it; she’s writing about making it, and then telling you how to do that. So I would say that it’s strong feminism, in the sense that it’s—it’s not about the struggle anymore; it’s about the success.
Josh Scheer: [Do you] think this is like a—a blueprint for other young girls to make it, and especially in that industry?
Sheerly Avni: I think it’s a blueprint for other young people to make it in general. She gives some stellar career advice, in terms of what to do when you’re working with an asshole; the answer is work around him if you can, and then don’t hire him when you’re the boss. She also models—and I think this is something that gets overlooked—but there’s … very often you’ll hear women in the media industry, any industry, say that women are really evil to women. And when you think about it, when I was coming up, most of the women I might seek out as mentors had blood streaming down their face from cracking the glass ceiling. They didn’t have time to hold my hand. And they were still trying to make it by sort of men’s rules. But now, one of the nicest things that you can see—both on the show “30 Rock” and in this book—is how much she emphasizes generosity. She talks about Amy Poehler and her generosity as a performer; she talks about generosity being a big part of what makes a good comedian; she talks about—with very, very strong, strong viewpoints—about how important it is for women not to … how much can I curse on this?
Josh Scheer: Not at all. [Laughter]
Sheerly Avni: Not at all! OK …
Josh Scheer: Well, just because it’s …
Sheerly Avni: And you want me to talk about Tina Fey? [Laughter]
Josh Scheer: Well, I mean, you can—yeah, just make up the fake words.
Sheerly Avni: Right. She basically speaks several times about the importance of not buying into the B.S. that women should be set up against each other. And some of the funniest episodes of “30 Rock” are about what happens to Liz Lemon when she tries to mentor younger women.
Josh Scheer: [Laughs] I remember the … one episode where the girl has the baby talk, right, and the comedian who’s like, I guess, Sarah Silverman. But …
Sheerly Avni: Yes. There is the woman who’s speaking like a baby girl, and it turns out that it’s mistaken identity. There’s also the scene in the first season when Liz Lemon tries to teach Cerie not to dress so provocatively, and instead of changing how Cerie dresses, she walks into the show trying to look cute.
Peter Scheer: How autobiographical is the show, now that you’ve read her autobiography?
Sheerly Avni: I would say autobiographical in the best sense of the word. When an artist uses the funniest—in her case, she would say funny—funniest parts of their personal experience in order to make a point—in her case, a comedic one. You know, her character doesn’t have a kid; her character doesn’t have a husband, but she obviously is writing from what she knows.
Josh Scheer: Well, it’s also—maybe it’s also before she kind of made it, maybe, right?
Sheerly Avni: Yes, except that—you know, I remember a long time ago reading in Stephen King’s “On Writing” that if you want to be successful, it’s really important to find a good wife. Something to that effect—I may be paraphrasing. And at the time I was offended, but there’s something to be said for having—being able to put all your energy into a successful career by being a part of a supportive partnership. And she’s been married for 17 years. It’s just that you can’t make as many jokes about a happy marriage as you can about a single woman living in New York.
Josh Scheer: Yeah. And also, Stephen King, it’s funny because I remember watching something about them—different, obviously, autobiography—but his wife and him working pretty dead-end jobs. And when Stephen King sold his first book, going in and saying, basically, we both don’t have to work, we both can be writers. Because she writes, too; she’s not as successful.
Sheerly Avni: Right.
Josh Scheer: So, no, this seems like a really cool book. I remember you talking to me about “30 Rock,” since we can … devolve a little bit on—from Tina Fey to “30 Rock.” Is this…
Sheerly Avni: Oh, sure.
Josh Scheer: I know you were saying something about the death nail, or …
Sheerly Avni: Well, you know … think of me, if I’m a cultural critic, that means I’m also … you know, cultural critics are basically Jewish mothers, right? We only hate on you because we love you. [Laughter] So all of my criticism of “30 Rock” is based on how much I love the show. I do think that it was at its best in Seasons 1 and 2, and that—when you look, for example—one of the best publications to read on “30 Rock” is New York Magazine’s Culture Vulture section, I think it’s called. And they just put together a list of a hundred great lines from “30 Rock.” At least 70 of them were from the first two seasons. And even in—speaking of generosity in Fey’s book, she has a section in which she just tells you about some of her top writers and what some of their top jokes were. The top jokes were all from the first two seasons. And television is an interesting industry, in which the commercial life of a series can outlive its creative life. And you see it not just in this show, but in many. A lot of people will disagree with me; true fans will say that this has been a great season.
Josh Scheer: And did she bring that up in the book, about the creative versus the …. I mean, or that, that’s also from you being the culture critic that you are?
Sheerly Avni: No, that’s me.
Josh Scheer: OK.
Sheerly Avni: She mentions several times that as a show runner, she’s responsible for the lives of 200 people.
Josh Scheer: Yeah. So just making it work.
Sheerly Avni: Mm-hmm.
Josh Scheer: Whatever it takes.
Sheerly Avni: Yeah. But when you look at—the first two seasons of “30 Rock.” … I’m sure there’s some wonderful, overpriced women’s college in New England running a course on it right now called “Ungendering Power: The First Two Seasons of ‘30 Rock.’ ” The first two seasons of it were a show in which Fey’s character—Liz Lemon was discovering what it’s like to be in power, and discovering how much power: a) gets you laid; b) makes it hard to get laid; c) makes you friends; d) makes it hard to keep your friends. And she was learning all sorts of things about what it means to be a person in power. That made the show interesting because every show is better when its characters are discovering something. Afterwards, it becomes what it’s been for the past couple seasons: lots of really funny jokes.
Josh Scheer: Which is not bad for a show. [Laughs]
Sheerly Avni: No, again: I only criticize you because I love you, honey. [Laughter]
Peter Scheer: Well, we’ll have to leave it there. Sheerly, thanks for talking with us.
Sheerly Avni: Sure thing. Thanks for having me.
Peter Scheer: Sheerly Avni is a culture critic whose work has appeared in Mother Jones, Salon.com and, of course, Truthdig.
* * *
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer in studio with Robert Scheer, and we are speaking with Chris Ziegler, the former mobile editor of Engadget, who can be read on ThisIsMyNext.com while we wait for his next venture to launch. Thanks for joining us.
Chris Ziegler: Thanks for having me.
Peter Scheer: So, Chris, the reason we have you on is because—some people may not even realize, but AT&T is buying, or trying to buy T-Mobile, which would make it the No. 1 carrier in the country, would leapfrog it ahead of Verizon and make it this—this juggernaut. And you argued recently on ThiIsMyNext.com that that’s bad for consumers. Can you explain that?
Chris Ziegler: Yeah. Well, basically this would create just a massive, overwhelming duopoly in the market. You look right now, you have pretty, a pretty even distribution of subscribers among Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, and when you combine T-Mobile and AT&T, that effectively takes Sprint out of the running. They become a second-tier carrier, instead of creating this pretty well distributed four-way tie. Granted, AT&T and Verizon have quite a few more subscribers than either T-Mobile or Sprint, but they’re still able to compete. And this is going to create a very different landscape.
Peter Scheer: How would the numbers shift after this merger?
Chris Ziegler: Well, I—off the top of my head, I think that AT&T and T-Mobile combined would have something over 130 million subscribers, which compares to about 95 million to Verizon. Which sounds like a big difference, until you realize that Sprint is down below 50 million. So that’s a huge, huge jump. And then below that, you have a bunch of regional players like US Cellular; you have Cricket; you have Metro PCS. And those guys just have a few million each, so it really isn’t in the same ballgame. But Sprint, obviously, as a national carrier, it’s going to have a very difficult time competing with two carriers that are basically twice the size or larger, each.
Robert Scheer: Can I just jump in here—this is Robert Scheer—what does this do for freedom, for control of content, for the power …? I mean, as long as these people were just delivering water or electricity or the old AT&T, the trunk lines, and they were heavily regulated, you didn’t worry. But these guys can now control the ballgame, can’t they?
Chris Ziegler: Absolutely. And I think that—you know, technically, the FCC—part of their job, a big part of their job, is regulating these players. But there’s been a lot of unanswered questions, regulatory questions over the past several years, and I point some of those out in my piece. The fact that we’ve gone several years without answers on policies on SIM locking, which is the fact that you can’t put any SIM you want and use the device on any carrier; those questions are unanswered. There’s questions about device exclusivity, which is where carriers can effectively lock out other, smaller regional carriers from carrying the same devices within a certain amount of time. And you have this—which I think, you know, this merger is really going to be a witness test for the FCC’s ability to show its regulatory hand. And I’m just hoping that they do that here.
Robert Scheer: Why would you expect them to do that when these lobbyists are so powerful? I mean, I’ve covered the FCC when I was working for the L.A. Times, and it was a joke. I mean, you had a few well-intentioned people trying to raise concerns, but in the main, the lobbyists get to write the rules, don’t they?
Chris Ziegler: Yeah, I totally agree, and that was sort of the conclusion I drew in my piece, which is that I think that despite all the obvious reasons why this merger should be … under heavy scrutiny, and have a really big spotlight cast on it, and—ultimately I think that the logical conclusion is that you don’t want these two guys to merge. I think that the immense amount of lobbying power that AT&T has—and Deutsche Telekom, through T-Mobile USA—I think that they’re going to be able to jam this through. I’m not particularly happy about it, and I’m really concerned about the competitive landscape once this goes through. But to be very honest with you, I would be shocked if it didn’t go through. The only hope that I have is that the FCC is going to undoubtedly require some level of divestiture on AT&T’s part post-merger, just as they did with Verizon after they acquired Alltel. And I’m guessing that Sprint will be looking to pick up a lot of those divestitures so they can sort of bone up, but we’ll see how that plays out.
Peter Scheer: Well, beyond just the choices presented to consumers, they’ve also had diverging philosophies, to at least some degree, right? I mean, isn’t T-Mobile—isn’t their approach to what their subscribers are allowed to do with their devices, for instance, or how they treat … I mean, I think of the Bush wiretapping scandal, where some of the telecoms just immediately handed over their users’ data to the NSA. Are there differing political philosophies of the corporate heads of these companies that maybe now we lose because we lose T-Mobile?
Chris Ziegler: There are, and I think that if you look at—I published a chart that shows the monthly price for the same level of service on all four of the major carriers, and T-Mobile and Sprint are significantly cheaper. And I think that that’s because they have to be. They’re struggling to compete already, as it is, more than Verizon and AT&T are. So that they’re—they end up being more aggressive on pricing; they are more lax, more lenient on their policies; they have lower early termination fees. They’re just generally more consumer-friendly carriers. And I think that’s—like I just said, I think that’s a function of the fact that they have to be. That’s the position they play in the market. And you’re absolutely right, when T-Mobile comes under AT&T’s stewardship, that impetus to be consumer-friendly goes away. And I don’t see any reason why AT&T would continue the lion’s share of T-Mobile’s consumer-friendly policies. As they say in their filing, in their public-interest filing with the FCC, regarding this merger, they say that they’re going to [Laughs] learn from T-Mobile’s superior customer service policies, but obviously I’m very skeptical that that’s going to happen.
Robert Scheer: Well, you know, my view is that we should just keep them broke apart. You know, I mean, God …
Peter Scheer: Yeah, but that won’t happen, he said.
Robert Scheer:… Well, but we should be pressuring it. And that was my next question: Are there any groups out there that we can rally around, or look to for clarity or support, that represent the public interest? Is there any kind of Nader group, or anything else that listeners should be checking out, any websites they should be going to, other than Truthdig, to get some information about this? Who speaks for us?
Chris Ziegler: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. The Rural Cellular Association is the industry association that mostly comprises the nation’s rural carriers. And a lot of people don’t realize it, but there are literally dozens of smaller network operators around the country that have anywhere from a few million to a few thousand customers. And they all belong to this RCA. They are trying their darndest to get this thing stopped. AT&T is also looking to acquire a large block of some of their neighborhood spectrum from Qualcomm that it used to use for a mobile television service. So that just adds more to AT&T’s spectrum holdings than they would already have by way of this merger, so the RCA is trying to get that stopped as well. Sprint is also, obviously, very much opposed to this. They have actually joined the RCA as an affiliate member—even though they’re a very, very large carrier, and aren’t rural by any stretch of the imagination—they’ve joined to sort of, like, gang up and try and fight this thing together. And Sprint is actually—I mean, they’re being, I think, very—very, very open, very candid about the fact that they don’t see a clear way for them to compete should this merger go through. Their CEO, Dan Hesse, is a very outspoken guy, and I think that folks should pay attention to what he has to say over the next few months, and pay attention to the RCA, because they’re going to be fighting this very hard in Washington.
Peter Scheer: Just to be fair, there is an alternative view here, which your colleague Nilay Patel argues, which is that this is good for consumers, right?
Chris Ziegler: That’s right. And his viewpoint is that by harmonizing the spectrum that AT&T is using for its … deployments with Verizon’s, and creating this duopoly, he thinks that these two guys can keep each other in check, in combination with sufficient FCC regulations. And I do agree with the principle of his viewpoint, which is that given sufficient FCC regulation this could actually work out very well for consumers. My fundamental viewpoint, however, is that you can’t trust the FCC to apply appropriate regulation to these guys, particularly in light of the lobbying they do. And even if they did appropriately regulate them, that varies from administration to administration to administration. And you can’t rely on it to be consistent. So I just don’t think that that’s possible.
Peter Scheer: So—so, given that we’re sort of disheartened by how much we can actually do to overcome these very big conglomerates and their lobbying power, what—can you project this out for us? What do you think the cellular world looks like in this country five, 10 years from now?
Chris Ziegler: I think—I think what’s going to end up happening is this is going to go through. I think that Sprint does still have a fighting chance to create sort of a three-way wireless picture here in the U.S., but what they’re going to need to do is aggressively acquire smaller companies like those I mentioned before—U.S. Cellular, Leap, Metro PCS; Leap, which owns Cricket—and pick up some of these divestitures that AT&T will undoubtedly be required to spin off. And that won’t get them to the same level of subscriber base, but it will get them within spitting distance, and I think that that is the best hope we have, is to get sort of a three-way balancing act going on. And there’s also a very closely related concern that doesn’t have to do directly with this merger, which is the fact that this country is running out of spectrum. You know, consumers are getting very, very data-hungry, as everybody starts to buy smartphones and realize everything what they can do. And control of that spectrum is kind of almost the No. 1 economic issue facing this country right now, and it’s only going to grow. And that’s …
Peter Scheer: Can you just …
Chris Ziegler: … doing everything that it can to free up spectrum. But that is a very, very big issue over the next five to 10 years.
Peter Scheer: I’m getting the light, so we have to go. But I’m pleased to be joined by Chris Ziegler, formerly of Engadget, who now can be read on ThisIsMyNext.com. Thanks for speaking with us.
Chris Ziegler: Thanks for having me, guys.
Peter Scheer: Take care.
Chris Ziegler: Bye-bye.
* * *
Kasia Anderson: This is Kasia Anderson, associate editor at Truthdig. And we’re here, ostensibly, to talk about the royal wedding, but given that this is KPFK and Truthdig, we’re obviously not going to go all “Kate and Wills” crazy on our listeners. Rather, we’re going to situate Friday’s big spectacle in the broader context of what’s going on now and what’s been going on in the U.K. in recent months. Here to tell us about the political and cultural climate in the U.K. is Truthdig special correspondent Celine Kuklowsky, who is not only a master’s student in social policy at the London School of Economics, but she also blogs at DrPop.org, and she’s a member of a local anti-cuts group in her neighborhood of Brixton. Celine, why don’t you give us a quick sketch of the big picture over there, as a backdrop for the hoopla about the royal wedding?
Celine Kuklowsky: Sure. So, the royal wedding is coming at an extremely volatile time here politically. Last October the newly elected coalition government—which is made up of conservatives who are led by David Cameron, and the liberal democrats led by Nick Clegg—announced public expenditure cuts of 83 billion pounds, in order to cut the deficit over the next four years. So these austerity measures represent the biggest public funding cuts in Britain since World War II. I mean, this is …
Kasia Anderson: Wow.
Celine Kuklowsky:… And concretely, we’re looking at—I mean, conservative estimates are that half a million people are going to lose their jobs in the next three to four years, starting now. And there’s going to be devastating impacts on local communities, who are going to see their services disappear. So, you know, to give a few examples: The National Health Service, for example, is going to lose over 50,000 jobs. Entire [components] are going to disappear; some chunks are going to be privatized, which is of course, you know, we’re not talking about—I mean, the government isn’t talking about privatization, but that’s what’s happening. Local councils have to cut their budgets by a third over the next three years, which means that front-line services are going to go. Some libraries are being shut down; children’s services, day cares; old people’s homes; police; I mean, pretty much anything you can think of that is in the public sector is cut or, you know, completely scaled back, basically. And just as a third example—I mean, I could go on—the government is cutting public-housing spending by 50 percent. And they’re changing housing benefits which are given to lower- and middle-income families which, you know, allows them to live in places like London, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world. So, as a result of the changes that they’re doing with benefits, hundreds of thousands of people are going to be displaced from cities. In London alone, we’re talking about 200,000 people that are going to have to leave the city in the next three to four years, because they won’t be able to live here anymore. So it’s—terrifying. And these cuts are, of course, going to hit the poorest and the most vulnerable hardest. I mean, old people, people on disability … it’s also going to disproportionately affect women, and black and ethnic minorities. So that’s kind of the background.
Kasia Anderson: Well, let me ask you this: I’ve been aware of some of the non-mainstream press buzz around the wedding, and it seems to me there are some who think that it’s happening at this moment not by mistake. I mean, conspiracy theories aside, do you have anything to say about the timing with the backdrop you just sketched out?
Celine Kuklowsky: Yeah, the timing is interesting. I mean—you know, yeah, without going into a crazy lefty rant… [Laughter], the fact of the matter is that—so, the justification that is used for these funding cuts is that we’re supposedly in the throes of a historical debt crisis in this country. Which isn’t true. Historically speaking, we’re at one of this country’s lowest points of debt. And right now on an international scale—I mean, the U.S., France, Japan, Germany—they’re at much greater debt than we are. So it’s clear that these cuts would be illogical. And at this moment in time, it’s like in the U.S.: The crisis, and the lack of any real reaction from policymakers or from the streets, are being used by people in power to shift the conversation and blame away from those who got us here in the first place, toward the poor and the more vulnerable. I mean, David Cameron is talking as if welfare recipients are responsible for the national debt. So this conversation justifies privatizing whole slots of the public sector, and essentially decimating the welfare state. So the timing is interesting, only in that it is kind of yet another giant national distraction away from the economic realities of what the country is facing right now.
Kasia Anderson: The sideshow becomes sort of the main act, from what I’m gathering. But what’s your sense of the attitudes of the Brits right now about the wedding, you know, positive and negative?
Celine Kuklowsky: I think, generally speaking, the Brits don’t really care that much [Laughs] about the royal family. I mean, the wedding is … I think people are happy because we all get a day off of work, and there’s going to be a lot of street parties, and I think most people just kind of drink beer. And I get the sense that the royal wedding is more of a background thing for most people. Of course, there are going to be the kind of crazies—well, not the crazies, but the more intense people who will be there in central London wearing their Union Jack shirts and stuff. So …
Kasia Anderson: But there will be others, also, who are having some alternative activities, from what I understand, on the day itself. Maybe some anti-royal action?
Celine Kuklowsky: There’s talk of that, particularly because there are sections in which it’s completely illegal to protest on the … royal wedding day, which is sort of reason enough, I think, to go out and protest. But I can’t confirm anything. I …
Kasia Anderson:…Can neither confirm nor deny…
Celine Kuklowsky: Yeah, exactly.
Kasia Anderson:… But that’s unfortunately all we have time for. And I’ve been talking with Celine Kuklowsky, and she’s an LSE master’s student and rabble rouser around town [Laughter], and she’s been taking the pulse on the royal wedding in London. Thank you, Celine.
Celine Kuklowsky: Thanks.
* * *
Peter Scheer: That’s also it for this week’s show. Catch us next Wednesday at 2 on KPFK, or anytime online at Truthdig.com. Thanks to our guests, Heather Boushey, Prabhat Gautam, Sheerly Avni and Chris Ziegler. Thanks also to our board-ops, engineer Stan Mizrahi, and recovering Dodger fan Alan Minsky. For Robert Scheer, Kasia Anderson, Josh Scheer, Celine Kuklowsky and myself, this is Truthdig.