Why Our Broken System Sends the Wrong People to Prison
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On this week’s episode of Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK, we investigate why so many innocent people end up in prison; find out how much various college majors really pay; look into the future of depression-chic food; and learn why Apple’s high profits threaten teachers. Plus, another special report from the cutting edge by Mr. Fish.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio, bringing you the best interviews and commentary from Truthdig.com and KPFK. I’m Peter Scheer. On this week’s show, we investigate why so many innocent people end up in prison; find out how much various college majors really pay; look into the future of depression-chic food; and learn why Apple’s high profits threaten teachers. Plus, another special report from the cutting edge by Mr. Fish.
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Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer, and I’m joined by Brandon Garrett, a professor of law at the University of Virginia and author of “Convicting the Innocent,” which The New York Times recently described as “a gripping contribution to the literature of [in]justice.” Welcome.
Brandon Garrett: Thanks for having me.
Peter Scheer: So just to set things up a bit, in your book you examine the cases of 250 people who were wrongly convicted since the late 1980s. They spent an average of 13 years in prison. Seventeen of them were sentenced to die, and 80 to spend the rest of their lives in prison. And it’s filled with lots of just really outrageous facts and statistics. So how did this happen? How did the system put all of these people in jail, some to die?
Brandon Garrett: So these people were all exonerated, only because DNA testing came along in the late ’80s, ’early 90s. Had it not been for DNA testing, they would have spent many more years in prison, and some of them likely would have been executed. So in some ways these people were the lucky ones, and it’s an optimistic story about errors getting corrected. But what’s so disturbing about these cases is that it wasn’t the criminal justice system, really, correcting these errors; it was the happenstance that DNA happened to be preserved in these cases.
There’ve now been more than 250 people freed by DNA in the U.S. And what I wanted to do is to go back and try to figure out what went wrong. We’ve all seen news reports about these exonerations; I wanted to go back and get the original trial records, the confession statements—police reports, if possible—to get a sense of, you know, why did jurors originally convict these innocent guys? What happened in these cases? And what I saw when I reviewed those records was that, you know, if I had been a juror on one of these cases, I think I would have convicted too. The evidence at the time that the jury saw—and almost all these cases did go to a trial—seemed powerful.
And that’s what makes these cases terrifying; the evidence was flawed, it was contaminated in all sorts of ways before trial. But what the jury saw was a case that seemed pretty open and shut, and I don’t think anyone really thought much about these cases at the time. And so it makes you wonder how many other run-of-the-mill criminal cases there are out there, since DNA testing can’t typically be done, where the same mistakes might have happened.
Peter Scheer: Well, I think that’s what’s so disturbing about—you said, was it, correct me if I’m wrong—was it 40 of these cases, the convicted had confessed to crimes that they didn’t commit, and were put away?
Brandon Garrett: Yes. And so in each chapter of my book, I talk about a different type of evidence that contributed to these convictions, and then I look back and look at the road to exoneration and what happened afterwards. But I talk right away in the book about confessions, because people just don’t think that anyone would lightly confess to a crime they didn’t commit, right. But confession evidence is incredibly powerful before a jury—for good reason. We all know that sometimes we may not tell the truth over little things, but to confess to a serious crime? A murder? And it’s typically in homicide cases where interrogations are conducted. It’s hard to imagine how that would happen.
We all understand, sure—if there’s, if police are torturing us, right, we might confess to something we didn’t do. If there was physical force at all, sure. But these cases typically don’t involve that; they use psychological techniques, and the suspect is asked all sorts of questions. And interrogations happen over many hours; they are long. Some of these people were juveniles and mentally retarded. Quite a few of them were. And maybe we could see how, OK, someone who is maybe more vulnerable might cave in to police pressure.
But even still, even given all of that, these cases are even more surprising. Because I think we might figure, OK—if we were on a jury and we saw someone who was a juvenile who’d been interrogated for 30 hours, we might wonder. Or if it was someone who was mentally retarded we might figure, OK—someone like that might cave in to the police; they may not really understand what’s going on. But what prosecutors told the jury in these cases was, look—even on the cases where there was a juvenile or someone who was mentally limited—they said: ‘You know this guy was telling the truth. Forget about the fact that he was disabled. Forget about the fact that he was a juvenile. Forget about the fact that this interrogation went on for days and days. This person gave facts that only the real killer could have known. Those details couldn’t have been known by anyone. The police kept them out of the public, and this guy could tell you what color the victim’s couch was, and how many cuts were made on the victim’s body, and how the victim was strangled—the kind of details that only the killer could have known.’ And so jurors thought, look, this is an easy case to convict; this is a true confession.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Brandon Garrett: And now we know that those details had to have come from the police, that these confessions were interrogated. But since there is no real record of what happened in the interrogation room—these were not recorded interrogations, or if they were, just the very end was recorded—there’s no way for the jury to know who said what, really. And so it’s just another example of how because we don’t document interrogations carefully in this country, except in a growing number of jurisdictions that have responded to these false-confession cases, there’s just no way for the jury to assess what happened, who said what. And “who said what” is the crucial thing when you have these claims that, oh, someone volunteered the facts that only the killer could have known. Well, did they really volunteer them? Or did the police feed those facts? And we can’t know unless there’s a recording.
Peter Scheer: Another instance of testimony that leads to sort of an open-and-shut case that you show is false, and is really disturbing, is bad forensics and bad forensics testimony. Can you jump into that?
Brandon Garrett: Sure. And I’m sure some of your listeners know there have been scandals around the country where different crime labs turn out to have poor quality control, or analysts that were misreporting results. And unfortunately, we don’t know today the scope of the problems at many of our crime labs, because they still don’t have quality control or good error-checking. And even in response to some of these wrongful convictions, there just haven’t been audits to check whether the analysts are getting it right. And most of these cases that I looked at involved forensics. And that sort of by definition—these are the cases where years later, when the forensics improved and DNA testing could be done, DNA testing was done. But at the time of their trials, basic forensics were done, often on rape kits in cases involving a sexual assault. And hairs were compared; bite prints were compared; fibers were compared; and basic A/B/O blood typing was done in these cases.
And those techniques, you’d think, would be pretty straightforward. They don’t involve a lot of fancy computers or programming, or machines or equipment like in a DNA lab today. And the boundaries of some of those disciplines are clear; everyone knows what percentage of the population has an A type or a B type or an O type, or doesn’t secrete any blood type. And yet you have these forensic analysts on the stand in these cases—in case after case, more than half the cases had some problem with the forensics. Where the analyst misstated statistics, exaggerated the forensics, made the forensics that were totally inconclusive seem like they matched the criminal defendant; basically tailoring their case to the prosecution case, rather than just explaining the science in an accurate way.
And it makes you wonder—if these guys weren’t trying to frame innocent defendants, were these forensic analysts testifying this way all the time? And what did they say in their reports? What did they say in cases that haven’t had the kind of scrutiny that these cases have had, since we now know these guys were innocent? So it really calls into question the quality control in forensics. But still more disturbing, a lot of the techniques that were used were unreliable techniques, where there were just simply errors. And they said that, you know, a dozen hairs matched the defendant; we know now that in a dozen cases … a dozen comparisons, they were wrong. And so how accurate are these techniques, if they can mismatch evidence so easily based on their own subjective conclusion that two things look alike under a microscope?
Peter Scheer: Brandon Garrett is a professor of law at the University of Virginia and author of “Convicting the Innocent.” Can you talk about racial bias? How much is this a case of—how much does this present itself in these wrongful convictions?
Brandon Garrett: Well, we certainly see a big racial disparity in these cases. Many more minorities, mostly Africans and Hispanics, were among these 250 people exonerated by DNA than in the general population people convicted of rape and murder in this country—which is, itself, skewed racially. So there’s an even bigger racial skew in these cases. And what was also really interesting was that a lot of these cases involved minority, mostly African-American defendants and white victims, in rape cases. And I don’t know what explains that. It could be that … one explanation is simply just the way that rape cases get handled in this country. Maybe prosecutors took those cases more seriously, or thought they would play better before a jury; don’t know. Another possibility is that eyewitness memory doesn’t function as well when people are making cross-racial identifications. And there have been a lot of studies on this; some of these people even tried to bring that up in court, to bring in experts to explain to the jury that, look, eyewitness memory just … people have a harder time recognizing folks of the other race; judges won’t let them do that. But it’s very disturbing, obviously, and it raises more questions about accuracy of cases outside of these handful of DNA cases that we know about. And we just don’t know what’s causing this race problem among the innocent. But it’s yet another reason why these cases should really, really disturb us.
Peter Scheer: You know, the United States throws more people in jail than any other country. And there are these problems, as you’re describing, systemic problems that go to the core of evidence and testimony. And you point out in your book—you seem to have an issue with the courts. And you would think that the courts would want to address, as you say, these well-publicized problems. But you say the Supreme Court has chosen not to hear about these issues.
Brandon Garrett: Our criminal justice system is so fragmented. In any state, there are just maybe countless police departments, different local jurisdictions in which prosecutors are elected, local judges. And so with a system that’s divided into so many parts, it’s really hard for the system to improve itself, even in response to really serious, serious miscarriages of justice. And so some states have tried to pass legislation to improve the way that lineups are done. Sometimes police departments, on a police-department-by-police-department basis, have responded and decided to videotape interrogations. But there’s no way to get change across jurisdictions unless a state passes a law—and states are reluctant to tell police and prosecutors what to do—or unless the U.S. Supreme Court does it as a matter of constitutional law. And the Supreme Court doesn’t issue constitutional rulings very often, and it hasn’t revisited many of its criminal procedure rulings for decades. And in a lot of these areas, the Supreme Court sort of thinks of eyewitness evidence, confession evidence, forensics as evidentiary issues for the state courts to handle—not questions of federal importance.
And so you have these problems that fester for years and years and years, with no one really accepting responsibility for an ongoing problem. I do think there’s some grounds for optimism; you do see … I think last year, two dozen states introduced legislation to reform the way that lineups are done. A lot of the fixes to these problems are really inexpensive. It doesn’t cost very much to just do a lineup right, and have the person administering it be double-blind and not know who the suspect is, and tell the eyewitness that. It doesn’t cost very much to just turn on the video recorder and tape an interrogation. It doesn’t cost much to have quality control in a forensic lab; you just need to have some random blind auditing to check their case work, just like any other laboratory would do. And so when you have cheap solutions and really expensive problems, you’d expect there to be just some common-sense adoption of them. But just, things happen so slowly in criminal justice. And it’s starting to happen; I hope it happens more.
Peter Scheer: What is the argument … would some people say this makes it harder to convict people who are guilty, it puts criminals on the streets. Does that hold any water?
Brandon Garrett: There’s some areas where that might hold water, and where you’re really worried about a trade-off. But here, it’s hard to see what the trade-off is. In these cases, in more than 40 percent of these cases, the DNA tests not only freed the innocent but they identified the actual culprits. And so initially, you had courts being hostile to requests for DNA testing. And that made no sense at all, because those tests could identify the guilty person, as indeed they often did. And so finally, a decade or so later, you have more and more state laws granting access to DNA testing, and a growing recognition that, look: DNA testing is good for finding the guilty and freeing the innocent. But even that took some time.
And the same is true for forensics; you can have people who are freed—as indeed, in some of these cases, the guilty initially went free because forensic analysts made mistakes. And so accurate forensic work certainly helps to identify the guilty, and it can also free the innocent. The same with eyewitness IDs. You have bad lineups often—maybe in a third of the cases, from the few archivals today that have been done—where eyewitnesses identify fillers in the lineup. That’s a false identification; that doesn’t lead to wrongful conviction, usually—police know that that was a filler, a mistake was made—but that damages the credibility of the eyewitness, and the police may not want to go forward with that person if they can’t make an identification. And that’s the kind of situation where crimes may go unsolved because of poorly constructed lineups.
And finally, police departments that have adopted videotaping of interrogations have uniformly said, this is the best thing that ever happened to us, because you don’t get these frivolous challenges where people say that they were manhandled by the police, or they were coerced; you review the tape and find out that no, they volunteered the facts and the interrogation was done professionally. So all these changes are the kind of things that create more accurate evidence that everyone can benefit from. I think it’s just inertia and the fragmentation of our system, and basically just lack of attention to problems of criminal justice, that have let these problems fester for so long.
Peter Scheer: Let me just ask you before we run out of time: Is there a case in particular that really bothers you?
Brandon Garrett: There are so many cases that really bother me. A recent Supreme Court decision from this last term is just the latest, this Connick v. Thompson case that people may have seen reports of in the news, where the Supreme Court said that the prosecutor’s office shouldn’t be held responsible civilly for repeat violations of Brady, where evidence of innocence was kept from the defense. And there, one of the pieces of evidence was a forensic report showing that the defendant didn’t have the blood type of the evidence from the crime scene. Powerful evidence of innocence—the prosecutors knowingly withheld it from the defense. An unfair trial resulted, or an unfair conviction resulted. John Thompson, in that case, spent more than a dozen years in prison, including some on death row, for a crime he didn’t commit. And the Supreme Court says, well, but the office shouldn’t be held responsible for not training its prosecutors, because they’re lawyers; this stuff should be obvious to them. Which is just bizarre reasoning. How are you going to have accountability when mistakes do happen, and worse, when misconduct happens, if the office isn’t held accountable? And if prosecutors are individually immune? Where no one is held accountable later on, and where most violations never get detected? That’s an unusual case, where it came to light that they had hidden evidence of innocence. If evidence gets hidden, it may stay hidden and no one may ever know the prosecutorial misconduct occurred, but if there are no repercussions when it is detected, then how can we expect to have an accurate system? So someone needs to be held accountable. And that’s why that’s just the latest infuriating decision that has come down even since the book was published.
Peter Scheer: Brandon Garrett, thank you so much for joining us. Brandon Garrett is a professor of law at the University of Virginia and author of “Convicting the Innocent.”
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Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer with Josh Scheer, and we are speaking with Carl Gibson, co-founder of U.S. Uncut, a grass-roots organization that is currently targeting Apple for allegedly hiding its profits and asking for a $4 billion tax holiday. Carl, what’s the deal?
Carl Gibson: Hey, Peter. Thanks for having me on the show. Great to be on the program with you. Yeah, we’ve got a great day of action planned against Apple on Saturday. I think about 12 different cities, 12 different Apple stores so far; could be some more on that before the 4th. But yeah, really gearing up for an exciting, participatory, creative campaign against one of the most popular brands in the United States.
Peter Scheer: And why Apple?
Carl Gibson: Well, Apple is … they only paid about half the taxes they should have paid last year, about a 14 percent effective rate. But while that’s not as bad as companies like, say, Bank of America or Verizon or GE—which didn’t pay any taxes—Apple is leading a tax-cheats lobbying campaign called the Win America campaign, which would basically allow a lot of tech companies to basically bring their profits back from overseas to America and pay just a 5 percent tax rate. Which would cost the taxpayers—you and me—about $80 billion. So we’re basically calling on Apple to leave the campaign and hopefully that’ll call on others to do the same.
Peter Scheer: Is Apple an especially appealing target because they present themselves as kind of a, like, a pure, alternative kind of company?
Carl Gibson: Yeah. I mean, and Apple’s very brand-conscious. You know, they want to be seen as socially responsible, they want to be seen by their consumers as a corporation that cares about their customers. But really, with this lobbying campaign, Apple stands to gain $4 billion in tax breaks if the legislation they’re lobbying for goes through. It’s called the Freedom to Invest Act of 2011, I think. So they would gain about $4 billion in tax breaks, which you could break down the math—do it by median teacher income—you could instead create 90,000 teaching jobs. So the question we’re asking to Apple is, why should we give you $4 billion in tax breaks when we can hire 90,000 teachers?
Peter Scheer: Apple, by the way, being the most valued by stock price, the most valued technology company in the world. One of the biggest overall companies in the world, I believe.
Carl Gibson: Yeah, that’s right. And of course, I don’t want to leave out the other tech companies on the Win America campaign; there’s companies like Google, Qualcomm, Oracle, Microsoft, Kodak. A lot of these companies are on board, but Apple’s really the face of this lobbying campaign.
Peter Scheer: So are you at liberty to talk about some of the action that you’re planning?
Carl Gibson: Well, I can talk in general about it, sure. Really, at some of these Apple stores, we have a lot of different creative actions planned. We have a video that’s being circulated that some of our tech team made, just basically highlighting Apple’s tax-cheating, their lobbying efforts. So we’re going to incorporate that video in our protests. There’ll be some dancing, there’ll be some parties, basically, going on inside and outside of the Apple stores. So there’s a lot of different things planned. I don’t want to specify which city is doing which store, but you can find out all about our Apple actions at USUncut.org/apple.
Josh Scheer: So that’s where we go, we can go to USUncut.org, and you’ll have the videos after the protest, and if you want to get involved with the protest you can go to your website and find out more, right?
Carl Gibson: Yeah, feel free. Go to the website, they’re under our targets; and find out about our other targets as well. And, of course, our general message: If these corporate tax-dodgers paid their fair share, none of these budget cuts we’re facing would have to happen.
Josh Scheer: And, very quickly here, what are the other targets you’ve gone after?
Carl Gibson: In the past, we’ve gone after Bank of America, Verizon, GE, BP. You know we, of course, we’ve got Apple coming up, so. A lot of targets to be introduced in the future, as well.
Josh Scheer: Oh, cool. OK, great, we will look forward to it. Thank you for joining us, Carl.
Carl Gibson: Thank you …
Peter Scheer: We’ve been speaking with Carl Gibson, co-founder of US Uncut, a grass-roots organization that is targeting Apple for allegedly hiding its profits and asking for a $4 billion tax holiday.
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Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. Peter Scheer and Josh Scheer in studio talking to Scott Jaschik, the editor of Inside Higher Ed.
Josh Scheer: And we’re talking about a piece that Inside Higher Ed ran called “Major Decisions,” about the majors and which ones earn the most. It was from a Georgetown University study. So can we get into that a little bit, Scott?
Scott Jaschik: Sure. What Georgetown did is they tracked the earnings that people had over the course of their careers, so this isn’t immediately after graduation. And they looked at people who earned bachelor’s degrees but without graduate degrees. And they found that in certain—they found, one, which majors seemed to lead to the high salary; petroleum engineering, you did very well if you were in that field, or pharmaceutical sciences. But they also looked at other patterns in terms of majors that attract a lot of black and Latino students, and majors that attract a lot of women, and those majors on average were lower-paying majors.
Peter Scheer: I just want to throw, from your story, two numbers out here: Petroleum engineering, median income $120,000; counseling psychology, median income $29,000. That says a lot about our values, doesn’t it?
Scott Jaschik: It does, but a key factor here is the graduate education part of this. Many people in psychology who go on to, say, get a doctorate, quite likely have a higher median salary. But you’re right; certainly, if you look at this study, and there have been other—you know, there are always studies looking at average income, average job offers in new bachelor’s degrees, for instance. Not all fields are equal if you judge them by your immediate salary. Now, I think a lot of people would say that there are lots of reasons to make a decision based on your major; and even the people who are doing the study are not suggesting that everyone try to become a petroleum engineer.
Josh Scheer: That would probably shoot down the salary too if everybody in the country …
Scott Jaschik: [Laughs] It probably would. And I also think there’s much to be said for the idea that you’re going to be more successful in your career, whatever it is, if you have some passion for it. There also are a lot of people who can testify to success with traditional liberal arts degrees. I am very proud to be a history major, myself, and I’m not a professional historian; I think my education served me very well. People go to college for different reasons, get different kinds of college educations. I think this study is getting a lot of attention for putting out some information that is important for people to have, but it’s one part of a complicated picture.
Peter Scheer: I’m actually shocked to see that someone who majors in drama makes more … has a higher median income, on average, than someone who majors in social work.
Scott Jaschik: Well, that may have to do with, again, the factor of whether the better-paid social workers may be getting graduate degrees, or some of your best drama people may not. There are all sorts of things at play here. And drama—my guess is that of people who pursue careers in drama and theater arts, the very best do quite well. But we just did another story, actually, about people who get arts degrees. And the myth is that anyone who studies …
Peter Scheer: Starving artists.
Scott Jaschik:… the arts these days would end up being a barista or something.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Scott Jaschik: In fact, most people who study the arts end up employed, and many of them, a very large number, end up in the arts—not necessarily as the people who are, you know, on the red carpet, but they may be arts teachers; they may be in nonprofit organizations involved in the arts…
Peter Scheer: Graphic design.
Scott Jaschik: … they may be using the arts in all kinds of ways.
Peter Scheer: So … it’s no secret that the job market for college graduates right now is pretty lousy, and—for everyone in general, but for people with no work experience. And what kind of majors, in particular, have been punished by the lousy economy … ?
Scott Jaschik: Well, I mean, the lousy economy actually is really punishing everybody. If you look at, right now, say, Teach for America is, at many leading colleges and universities, the top institution to which people are applying for work. Now, I wish that that reflect—and also programs like Fulbright applications are way up. Now I wish TFA had all those applicants because many of our best and brightest had all decided they wanted to be teachers and were looking for a way to become teachers. I think the reality is part of the reason those numbers are way up is that there are not good jobs for a lot of people. And this is at top universities, at not-so-top universities. This is people majoring in so-called, in fields that you would think would be doing well. There is a debate right now in many law schools about whether law school employment rates are high enough. And people would have presumed years ago that if you go to law school, you’re going to have a job—not necessarily the case. This economy is brutal, frankly, to people who are just coming out and looking for jobs.
Peter Scheer: Scott Jaschik is the editor of Inside Higher Ed.
Josh Scheer: This could be a good question. What do you do … if we have listeners who have kids now, grandkids, brothers and sisters, what do you suggest? Like, should they get secondary degrees? Because we hear all the time about law school and how even as a law school graduate you don’t have really a shot at getting a job right now …
Scott Jaschik: Well, in terms of getting … many people are looking to go to graduate school. And there is a school of thought that the master’s degree today is what the bachelor’s degree used to be. And certainly there are fields in which a master’s degree prepares you well for a job. If you—but again, it’s field by field. Somebody with a master’s in nursing is going to be employable. Someone who gets a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree in nursing is going to be employable. There are jobs for that person as long as they pass their state boards when they graduate. Somebody who gets a master’s degree in journalism? Not so sure. And I say that as a journalist, although I never studied journalism. So you have to look at it program by program. The other thing I would say is, I am always worried when people say, ‘I don’t know what to do, so I’m going to graduate school.’ I think if you are independently wealthy, or somebody is giving you a full scholarship, that may be fine. But I would ask tough questions if you’re going to go into debt to get a degree that you’re not sure of why you’re getting it.
Josh Scheer: With teaching—you were talking about Teach for America—could these students … there’s a lot of teachers that are going to be retiring soon. Could they actually go around Teach for America and try to go into local school districts … ?
Scott Jaschik: Well, the teaching job market is very tricky, because on the one hand, there’s this wide consensus that we need more teachers, particularly in inner-city schools and in schools … in certain fields, like math and science education. Everyone seems to agree we need more, and yet because of the impact of budget cuts in states and municipalities, we’re getting a lot of reports that school districts are laying off teachers, including—and many of them are the idealistic young teachers who are just entering the workforce. So a field like teaching, depending on where you are, may or may not be a great job in the short term. A lot of this also has to do with geography, where you want to teach or do whatever you want to do. There are many fields that there’s good employment in some places and not others.
Josh Scheer: You know, I mean, that’s why I was talking about nursing—a lot of nurses do move, right? I mean, there’s also the traveling nurse …
Scott Jaschik: I mean, nurses move—nurses … generally, health professions are very employable right now. And if you look at community colleges, at four-year public universities that help sort of displaced workers, health professions are booming and the students are getting jobs. And it’s not just nursing; it’s nursing, it’s physicians’ assistants, it’s physical therapy programs; it’s a range of job titles. As you look at what’s sort of going on in American health care, the era of a[n] M.D. and an RN as the people providing most of the care, I think, is evolving to one where there are lots of different people. And many places have shortages for these. That’s a very employable area. At the same time, everyone’s not cut out to be a nurse or a doctor or a physician’s assistant. So I think it is important to look at these statistics, but to also look at other things. If you look, for instance—Berkeley just announced that they had some really good data that their philosophy majors were landing good jobs.
Peter Scheer: Really.
Scott Jaschik: Now, Berkeley’s philosophy majors are not all getting jobs as professional philosophers; I don’t think there are a lot of jobs like that. But if you look in lots of fields, people value those who are good critical thinkers; people who know how to write, how to communicate, how to come up with good ideas. Now, those jobs are not plentiful; but in fields like nonprofits, in the business world, in the government world, there are lots of people who value those with that skill set, not just people who are majors in whatever field we’re talking about.
Josh Scheer: I was going to say, with the medical thing, I guess we’re still living in the world where insurance companies price-gouge us and pharmaceutical gouges us, and so the jobs at least are profitable. Do you think we should just do what we love, and like if you’re into social work and you want to help people …
Peter Scheer: Of course we should do what we love.
Josh Scheer: No, but I mean—that’s not true. Some people go out and they go, ‘what’s the highest-paying job?’ I’ve met these people at universities.
Peter Scheer: All right, so are you asking Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed [Laughter], if he would advise young college graduates to go out and not do what they love? … Let’s ask the guest.
Josh Scheer: Let’s ask the guest.
Peter Scheer: Scott?
Scott Jaschik: OK. So I’m not going to tell everyone to ignore the statistics, because they would be foolish to. People are in very different situations. There are lots of people who go to college knowing … say you’re a first-generation college student. You’re going to college and it’s very important to you to come out with an employable—with a degree that’s going to help you get a job. There is no shame in that. American higher education has prospered with many people doing that. Many times it’s the … a field like engineering will always, has always attracted a lot of first-generation college students whose sons and daughters may be poets and philosophers. But people view higher education for a range of reasons, and one of them is to get a job and get ahead. And I think to the extent that that’s your interest, or it may be your financial need, you should absolutely know what these are. But again, everyone’s not going to be a petroleum engineer.
But if you’re picking between fields, and something is important to you, sure—check it out. You also have to have talent in that field. And people in different situations may decide that they have different risk levels to see what will happen with the economy. I would hope that people can try to find some balance between fields that they think are good for their careers and also some passion. At the same time, as well, many of the most successful people in a range of fields also have a good, broad education. And even picking among programs, to train you to be a petroleum engineer or a nurse, there are some programs that are very good about teaching you to write, teaching you to think, teaching you about the world. Teaching you about the diverse cultures and peoples with whom we interact. And others that are more just, here is a set of job skills. And so a lot of this isn’t either-or, but information that you can use to make a better-informed choice.
Peter Scheer: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed.
Scott Jaschik: Thank you. Good luck.
Peter Scheer: Take care.
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Peter Scheer: Only Mr. Fish, our resident cartooning genius, could find something wrong with a kid raising money for tsunami-ravaged Japan.
Mr. Fish: “Bleed, heart, bleed!”
I was called an a**hole today by an 11-year-old selling hot cocoa.
He was sitting behind a card table that teetered beneath the weight of an enormous plastic Gatorade cooler, one that was orange and battered and looked as if it had been pulled from the ass of a rhinoceros, the intestinal juices and fecal mucilage drying into horrendous smeared scabs of amber, black and brown. From the stubby incontinent spigot of the 5-gallon jug dribbled hot chocolate, which fed a wad of napkins on the sidewalk below, turning them into a great loogie of muddy paste. Beneath the cooler and suspended from the table with duct tape hung a handmade sign, lunatic writing on fluorescent green poster board, that read: HOT COCOA FOR JAPAN!!! No price was mentioned. It read like a ransom note.
Of course, the first thing I wondered was, who the hell is going to drink hot cocoa at 1 p.m. in the middle of May, when it’s 70 degrees outside? And second, hasn’t the charity boat for Japan already sailed? Sure, I don’t doubt that the damage caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami will require a steady flow of money and sympathy for years and years to come before anything even approaching normal life can be resumed by those poor people in the Pacific. Still, there was something unsettling about not knowing when to beg along with everybody else. It was like trick-or-treating in mid-April; or, more precisely, like having a tooth pulled after the Novocain has been allowed to wear off. In many ways, asking somebody to contribute money to a cause no longer foremost in the public mind is like asking them to pick a scab for the purpose of reopening a wound in their heart, and to set it bleeding again. It is literally asking somebody to self-mutilate, which can be problematic, particularly in a torture notorious for its celebration of comfort and joy above everything else.
I figured this kid had to be home-schooled, and I wondered why Common Sense 101 wasn’t part of his curriculum. Still, because I’m a deeply charitable person, I decided to wish him well. “I hope you’re getting everything that those who learn in a traditional institutional setting are getting, Mr. Homeschooling Boy,” I thought. “I hope the cat says ‘yes’ when you ask her to the prom and that the limitations placed upon the casting of your school play allows you, and not your dog, to win the lead in ‘The Vagina Monologues.’ ”
I kept walking toward him, unaware that others were crossing the street to avoid him.
With no money in my pockets, having left the house to walk around town for the simple purpose of shaking the computer tension out of my eyes, and to breathe the fresh air, I suddenly felt put upon, figuring that here was a kid, with hair in his face and the slouch of a cartoon character, who would most certainly take my inability to offer him money as proof somehow that I was cheap and heartless and beneath contempt, even though there was no real reason for me to believe that Japan would see a dime from the purchase.
The same thing happened whenever I found myself forced to walk penniless past a homeless person. I’ve given away gloves and half-eaten hoagies in place of money. I even let a guy who looked like he’d just left a methadone clinic, but only after he’d been set on fire and then doused with chicken broth and pummeled with brie, listen to The Kinks on my Walkman, just to avoid the shame that comes with doing nothing.
I waited until I was 10 feet away from the kid before I started tightening my jaw and twisting up my face and feeling around in my pockets, hoping that he’d see that at least I’d tried to free myself from the sorrow of having only lint to contribute to his campaign.
Then I shrugged and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.”
“HOT COCOA FOR JAPAN!” he shouted, looking right at me as I passed, his bark being delivered in a fake Cockney accent, like Bert from “Mary Poppins” or Michael Caine from “Jaws IV: The Revenge,” the reason for this being completely lost on me. Without breaking my stride, I turned and smiled back at him, figuring that I’d at least give him the satisfaction that I’d gotten his ungettable joke.
“A**hole,” he said, scowling through his bangs.
“F*** … you,” I mouthed, turning back around, suddenly wanting to see him and his dinky little setup consumed by an ocean wave as big as a goddamn mountain. What was great was that I no longer felt poor. And what was awful was how charitable I felt, and how motivated I was to share my mood with the whole world.
Peter Scheer: Dwayne “Mr. Fish” Booth has a new book coming out in August called “Go Fish.” Find out more at Clowncrack.com.
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Josh Scheer: Hi, this is Josh Scheer, and I’m here with Kasia Anderson. And we’re with our guest Heather Shouse, senior food and drink correspondent for Time Out Chicago, as well as Chicago reporter for Food & Wine magazine. She has contributed numerous articles for Chow, Rachael Ray, Men’s Journal, Playboy.com and Draft magazine. She’s joining us to talk about her book, “Food Trucks.”
Kasia Anderson: Why don’t you give us a taste, as it were, of what got your interest in this project going and the research process for this, which sounds like it could have been fun?
Heather Shouse: Sure. It was definitely—it was a lot of tough work, eating a lot of food, right? [Laughter] I can’t complain. Actually, I went to China—I took a trip to China and ate a lot of street food there maybe four or five years ago, and was just really amazed by the amount of street food there was, and also just the quality of the food. In some cases, it was better—in most cases it was better, and definitely more affordable, than the food I was eating in restaurants. So then I started kind of thinking about what was going on in our stateside street-food scene and how it was evolving. And I came back home to the States and I took a trip to Portland, hearing a lot of buzz about their food-cart scene there. Then went to L.A., spent some time there researching the old-school taco trucks and their evolution. And I was starting to notice that the genre of street food was being embraced more by what would be considered the traditional hot-stuff chefs that were previously looking to open up restaurants; now with the recession, and with the advent of social media, it seemed that they were really embracing this as a new avenue for their food. So I thought, this is definitely something, you know? It definitely has some length. So I put together the proposal and then sold the book and spent about a year traveling around the country, doing the actual interviews and photos and recipes and that kind of thing. So it took about a year from start to finish.
Kasia Anderson: When would you say—I mean, it seemed over here in L.A. that all of a sudden, food trucks were everywhere. But I’m sure there was kind of a germinating point a few years ago where it seemed to catch on. Would you—it’s probably different for different cities in the U.S., but when would you put the beginning of this current explosion of food trucks? You know, where did that happen in your mind?
Heather Shouse: 2009, probably, was a pretty big year. I think that once people—a lot of people I talked to … really of the newer concept-driven trucks—that’s what I tend to call them. It’s pretty easy to say high-end, low-end, but I don’t think that’s a really true way to split them up. So I think more of the concept-driven trucks, which would be Kogi and the people that followed; they started really coming on the scene in 2009. But I really wanted the book to show that that wasn’t the only aspect to food trucks. And that food trucks, as a model, have existed in this country for decades. So I really wanted, especially for L.A., to go into the taco trucks, because there are just 7,000 trucks and this is such a really unique—especially for L.A.—a really unique way for a lot of our immigrant population to make a living. And I didn’t want them to be overshadowed by the newer, again, the hot-stuff chefs like Roy Choi, or the gourmet, the gastropubs, and the gastropods. Those kind of guys, they definitely were getting a lot of the media attention. So I think it was important to show that before these guys happened, that there were a lot of guys paving the way; the 50-year-old immigrant from Oaxaca making moles in her truck for the last 20 years, that was really important. But for some reason, it took until about 2009 for it to be embraced as an acceptable form of culinary venture for the younger, hungry chefs.
Josh Scheer: It’s sad that those people probably will get pushed behind by, like, some corporate—right, you know, they have 17 trucks while the immigrant woman probably has to find a new avenue of making any kind of living, right?
Heather Shouse: Yeah. You know, I think that was really the thing, the gentrification of it, the co-opting of a way of living for these people has been really interesting to see. I think in no other city is it as obvious as L.A. So that was interesting, to talk to these loncherias, these guys who run these lunch trucks. And they’ve really had to form an alliance; they’ve formed an association, and they have lawyers working for them pro bono to represent them in court, to defend their right to park where they want to park, and to sort of organize against the different regulation changes. And as the brick-and-mortars are organizing, and getting stronger … against the trucks, these guys have to organize as well, and they don’t have the clout or the power. … So it’s really been interesting to see how they’ve banded together, and how they’re trying to survive in the new age of food trucks.
Josh Scheer: Well I was going to say, some cities like Montreal have banned them, because the restaurateurs kind of banded together, and they said this is kind of unfair, these trucks get to drive wherever they want, whereas we pay taxes; we pay for the brick and mortar, we pay for all this. I mean, you’ve been traveling the world; what do you think about that kind of argument?
Heather Shouse: I think that a city can figure out a way to embrace it and make it a viable source of local income and local industry. I think Portland is a very good example of how they’ve done that very well. And they have taken lots that otherwise would be underused or developed into, for lack of a better word, crappy condos that nobody wants and that can’t sell right now in the current economic climate. So they’ve taken these lots, and rather than, again, developing them for real estate or something, they’ve looked at a way to turn it into what they call “pods” in Portland. So they rent out little spaces around the pods, and they have maybe 10 to 12, up to 15 different food carts there. And there’s someone who actually curates it, makes sure that they’re offering the public a diverse spectrum of food. And they’re charging rent; they pay taxes; the cart owners go through health inspections, licensing, business licensing … I mean, they’re doing the whole thing that a brick-and-mortar restaurant would do. They don’t have the overhead, obviously, of … dishwashing staff and all this stuff; they’re usually really small operations, maybe two-person operations. But then, what they’re allowed to bring in, their profit and their losses, is also different.
So it’s worked really well for Portland, and I think it’s created community atmospheres. They have picnic tables, and they’ve strung up lights, and they play music. And sometimes there’s a brick-and-mortar that’s sort of the anchor of the parking lot, and they have a liquor license, so you can grab a beer and go try a bunch of different food carts and make a night of it. And it’s really become the social scene in Portland; it’s become a really huge part of their infrastructure. So it’s worked really well. I think the city can choose to either embrace it in that way; they can still make it a positive thing and make money off of it by taxing the vendors; or they can do what Montreal’s done and what Chicago’s done, and just say no, and then have a lot of frustrated would-be truck chefs on their hands who just want a shot at putting their food out there, but they might not have $500,000 to open a restaurant.
Josh Scheer: And then … if somebody doesn’t accept the Portland model, and they continue with the L.A. model where you have multiple food trucks, and so wherever you go you’ll have six, seven, and they do get better and the chefs get more and more famous—what is the future, maybe, of a restaurant in a big city like that, that does accept it?
Heather Shouse: I think just working together, working with the trucks, doing what L.A. has done with constantly evolving their regulations, being open to the idea that these trucks are here to stay, so what’s a good solution? You know, they have the rule around that a truck has to have bathroom access. Like in Silver Lake, for instance, if the Dosa truck pulls up in front of Intelligentsia, she has to have documentation on board her truck saying that Intelligentsia is giving her right of access to their restroom so that she can use the restroom for bathroom breaks, take … whatever, have access to warm hot water; she has to show that she has clean water disposal service in place. I mean, there are lots of different rules that they have to go through; it’s not like they’re just renegade trucks running around like these brick-and-mortars think, just making all this money. I’ve met very few truck chefs that are actually making a good, good living. It’s a tough way to make a living, by any means. But you know, it’s definitely a different type of person strategied toward this business. You do have to deal with the prejudice of, oh, I don’t want you parking here, you got to move, you got to do this.
So they’re dealing with a lot of issues too; it’s not just easy as pie. And it’s a bubble; it’s a trend. It still stands to see who’s going to be around in a year or two years when everyone’s gone from being obsessed with food trucks to pop-up restaurants to underground food markets to whatever the next trend is going to be. And the ones that are going to survive are the ones that are playing by the rules and working with their local communities and their local businesses, and trying to say ‘OK, we’ll stay 200 yards from the entrance of any food establishment, and we’re not going to break that rule.’ I mean, Kogi has been really on the forefront of doing that and being adamant about working with businesses, and not upsetting their neighbors, and looking for places that don’t already have food parking in the back or the front of the brig, or going to bars that don’t serve food. That’s a really good way to get started … in the late-night foodie community as well.
Kasia Anderson: Heather, I’ve got a question for you along the lines of the darker sides of food trucks. And that is, whenever I drive by a cluster of them, it looks like they all are running—you know, their engines, while they’re sitting in parking lots and at festivals and everything. Is that true…?
Heather Shouse: They’re running generators …
Kasia Anderson: They run generators. Is this an eco-disaster sort of thing … ?
Heather Shouse: I mean, that generator that they’re running to pull all their energy—that doesn’t pull as much energy as running an actual restaurant, or the water waste you have at an actual restaurant. Running—washing … a restaurant of a mid-skill range does 200 covers a night. The amount of water that they use to wash those dishes, the electricity that they use to power their restaurant, the propane that they use in their gas-fired stoves … I mean, you know, the off-put that they use doing—carcinogens that they would put off doing the, you know, charcoal-fired grill. There’s a lot of waste involved in restaurants. So if you look at it comparatively, it’s a really different model. So I think, obviously, if you see those guys running the generators for six hours, it seems, wow, that’s really loud and obnoxious and it seems like a waste of energy—but you know, they’re running a restaurant. So you can’t just run a kitchen on solar power. There are a couple that have tried and you know, they’re doing OK with it. But … there’s a company in Portland—of course, again, Portland, they’re really progressive in leading the pack on new and genius options for food trucks—but they’ve come up with, they have a Solar Waffle Works truck there. And it’s—I think they’re up to about 75 percent solar power.
So there are options out there; obviously it’s more expensive to go that route, but in the end, it’s up to you; it’s up to the person if they want to do green. A lot of these trucks also get flak for the waste of the actual little boats, the paper boats that they hand their food over in. So I think it’s up to the individual truck if they want to try to be green, if they want to pass that 3- or 5-cent markup of using biodegradable plates, and how they want to use that model. It’s the same with any restaurant. If a restaurant wants to be green and use biodegradable take-away containers, or if they want to use green products, green cleaning products throughout the restaurant. So it’s really not immune from any of the other criticisms in the restaurant industry as a whole.
Josh Scheer: Now, maybe this is a two-part question, and we’re on a political show, so I want to ask one political question. If these food trucks go away, right—if the trend goes away, as you said, then it will be back probably to the immigrants and the people trying to make a living, and making a living off of that. So politically, shouldn’t we kind of not want to go to food trucks? I mean, maybe …
Kasia Anderson: The trendy ones.
Josh Scheer: The trendy ones. Or any of them, you know, to try to get back to the immigrant population, to give them a way of making a living. And then, two, what is the next food trend? So maybe we can push the food trucks to that trend? [Laughter]
Heather Shouse: So the first part of that, I think, is a lot of people need a porthole. You know? A lot of people need an entry point. They need the Kogis, or the Nom-Noms … to convince them that this is a safe food model and that it’s opening their eyes to something. For me it was a trip to China; for someone else, it could be eating off a Kogi truck and seeing that this is, OK, a mashup of Korean and Mexican, and it’s delicious. And it might change their mind the next time they’re in East L.A. or wherever they go, and they see a traditional taco truck. And they might think ‘Oh, I’m really—I want to try, like, the real deal. I want to see what a real-deal al pastor taco is, I want to go try goat tacos. …’
Josh Scheer: It’s better!
Heather Shouse: ‘… I want to go try Oaxacan mole.’ I think just opening your mind to that. I think the more people travel, the more they’re exposed to street food in other countries, particularly in Asia, and the more they eat it and don’t get sick, and they see that it’s delicious and that it’s safe to ingest and that they’re going to have a really interesting food experience, and perhaps an interesting interaction with the vendor, and they’re going to be supporting a small, local vendor, wherever they may be—I think it can’t be a bad thing. So having these concept trucks, these trendy trucks that might be over it and the chefs close up and they get burned out in a couple of years … it’s definitely opening up people’s minds to exploring and digging a little bit deeper, and going to Roosevelt Avenue in Queens and hitting up all the old-school Ecuadorian trucks, or the Colombian arepa lady, or whatever the case is. So I hope the book does that as well; I hope that people look at it as OK, yeah, this is a cool trend; and oh yeah, here’s Kogi and whatever. But I hope they dig a little deeper and they look a little further and they might go and try the 30-year-old shrimp truck next time they’re in Oahu, or whatever the case may be.
Josh Scheer: We’re here with Heather Shouse, who wrote the book “Food Trucks.” She’s also the senior food and drink correspondent for Time Out Chicago, as well as the travel reporter for Food & Wine magazine. And then I also would agree—I think Kasia would agree, since we’ve been in L.A. a long time, that the Mexican food trucks, the Oaxacan food trucks, are much better than even the Korean-Mexican fusion.
Kasia Anderson: You’re just saying that because you’re about to marry one. [Laughter] A Oaxacan, not a food truck.
Heather Shouse: Tackling the taco trucks is a huge task. I spent quite a bit of my time in L.A., made multiple trips, worked with a guy there who acted as a translator because I’m not fluent; I speak kitchen Spanish at best. So I really spent a lot of time hoping to narrow down the 10 … sort of a taco truck starter guide is what I wanted to give people, just the range of stuff out there, the regional differences. The Mariscos trucks with the awesome fresh ceviche, and the birria trucks selling the goat tacos. And I just wanted to really give people a little bit of an entry point, because again, it’s a daunting task. I mean, if you show up in L.A. as a tourist and you want to try those authentic trucks, it’s—you know, where to start? And not all of them are great, just like any other concept truck. So I really hope that people use that as a starting point and then find their own trucks and be a little bit experimental. At most, you’re going to be out two bucks, right, for a taco. [Laughs] I mean, it’s not like biting off a $150 meal at …Charlie Trotter’s or something.
So I think it’s a really accessible thing once you just dive right in and do it. So to circle back to point two, question two that you asked me about the upcoming food trends, I think traveling as much as I do—and I’m just finishing up the book tour, and having all of my travel be focused on food—and food tourism being such a huge thing right now, I think that street food in a way is not going to go away. I think that perhaps we will jump the shark on the higher-end trucks, and people paying $12 for a gourmet grass-fed burger from a truck, that might wane. But I think that street food is going to sort of shift and change form, maybe something like San Francisco is doing with the underground markets. … The pop-up restaurants are not showing any sign of slowing; they’re actually trickling down. Like a lot of trends, you know, they start in bigger cities—New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago—and then start to trickle down, and I’m seeing them in Kansas City and Madison and Milwaukee and, you know, Austin and sort of the second-tier, for lack of a better word, cities. They’re really embracing this underground food movement, these artisan producers banding together and setting up a little market and doing it at night and bringing people in and doing a pop-up stall where they’re sending out meals to people on their lists. And saying ‘Hey guys, we’re going to take over this building tonight, and we’ve got this guy doing hand-pulled noodles, and he’s going to do ramen…with it, and then we have this girl and she makes this awesome ice cream out of raw milk.’
And of course there are tons of issues; people are freaking out about the health issues here, and who’s regulating this, and all that. But it’s like any new, vibrant form of art; there’s going to be a little bit of a risk in the beginning, it’s going to be dangerous, and that’s part of the appeal. So it’s up to you if you want to take the risk and you want to go to, essentially, a food rave. And you want to take that risk, that’s up to you. You’re probably going to have some decent, at best, crappy curry along the way, by a guy who’s just making curry out of his house or whatever. You might also find the next big thing; you might find the next big chef before they end up landing in a restaurant. And that’s really cool, I think the excitement of it is really interesting.
Josh Scheer: OK, I think that’s all the time we have for, but thank you very much. And also we bring you back on to talk about underground food markets. But again, we were discussing with Heather Shouse food markets, food trucks, underground markets. And again, you can go check out her book “Food Trucks,” it’s available on Amazon and she’s the senior food and drink correspondent for Time Out Chicago. Thank you for listening.
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That’s it for this week’s show. Find us next Wednesday at 2 on KPFK or anytime online at Truthdig.com. Thanks to our guests, Brandon Garrett, Carl Gibson, Scott Jaschik and Heather Shouse. Thanks also to our board op Jee, engineer Stan Misraje and Alan Minsky. For Josh Scheer, Kasia Anderson, Mr. Fish and myself, Peter Scheer, thanks for listening to Truthdig Radio.