Monthly Archives: March 2021

EP 434 America is Unraveling Before Our Eyes

While the Trump era is over, there looms a great question as to whether America is in any position to resume a leadership role in the world.  As past plagues and pandemics have revealed, the weaknesses of empires often is recognized well after their influence has peaked.  Wade Davis, an anthropologist from the University of British Columbia, who holds citizenship in both the U.S. and Canada sat down to pen a piece on the fissures and vulnerabilties of America’s collective being only to see it become an on-line sensation when released on the ‘Rolling Stone’ website.  He believes that the COVID pandemic will be remembered as a moment in history, as he calls it, ‘a seminal event whose significance will unfold only in the wake of the crisis’.  What he sees, in his perceptive and clear eyed way, is an America unmoored by a social contract which anchors so many other democracies, causing great divisions and inequality within that will continue to challenge the place America has among nations.  I asked my first question and then this brilliant professor took it from there.  You may want to imagine yourself in one of the great classes you’ve ever taken and take notes.

EP 433 Can Government Solve Big Problems Anymore?

On the heels of the pandemic, we see that government has issues responding to a major, largely unseen, crisis.  As trust in public institutions crumbles, the question is whether we can restore faith in our system by bold actions that jolt the public into a new belief in what’s possible.  It’s a big job.  Decades ago, when government challenged us to dream big, we found our way to the moon.  Will it require the new Administration to ‘go big’ to re-instill confidence?  It will be necessary given the challenges we face: climate change, crumbling infrastructure, yawning income inequality and racial injustice, among others.  Mitchell Weiss, a Harvard Business School professor and author of ‘We the Possibility’, believes the entrepreneurial spirit and savvy can be applied in the public sector.  He was a leader in one of the first big city innovation offices in the country in Boston some years back.  He sees encouraging signs in many of our laboratories of democracy, like cities and states, that we can reclaim the ambition to try new things and be bold.  Let’s catch some of his enthusiasm on this podcast.

EP 432 Megaregions Emerge in America

 As the US population grows-potentially by over 110 million people by 2050-cities and suburbs will continue expanding, meeting the suburbs of neighboring cities and forming continuous urban megaregions.  The United States now has at least a dozen such megaregions, including one extending from Richmond, Virginia to Portland, Maine and another running from Santa Barbara, California to the US-Mexico border.  In his book ‘Designing the Megaregion:  Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale’, Jonathan Barnett, an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses how this growth will be hastened by balanced transit alternatives and cooperative agreements among various governmental agencies and necessitated by climate changes issues which do not respect our town and state borders. Without cooperation and planning these megaregions will result in near continuous gridlock on highways by 2040.  While megaregions may represent a new concept, they are developing.  The question is whether they will grow purposefully or randomly.  The answer to that question may well determine the quality of life for most Americans in the decades to come.

EP 431 Do the Suburbs Need Retrofitting?

 More Americans live in suburban settings than any other. Suburbs are not a monolith.  Depending on factors like proximity to an urban center, they take on various forms. Sprawl is often noted as one of the worst aspects of suburban growth. As we continue to build more highways to satisfy the desire for many to get away from the urban core, we find issues of sustainability, walkability and receptivity to the needs of lower income families and the elderly of growing concern. Other changes are now impinging on these spaces often defined by shopping centers, garden apartment complexes and highway strip corridors, as well as the often venerated single family home. Many are being re-envisioned just as demographic shifts occur as a result of the pandemic.  To help us understand the impact of these shifts we turn to June Williamson of the City College of New York.  Her latest book, along with Ellen Dunham-Jones, is titled ‘Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia:  Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges’.  She often many strategies for change and will provoke your thinking about the built environments in which most of us live.  

EP 430 Are You Prepared to Die?

 Our podcast is about looking down the road a bit.  If we’re all honest with ourselves, we know how our personal story ends.  The truth is few of us want to plan for it in the way we do for the arrival of our first child, purchasing our first home or our retirement.  And that certainty, of course, is death.  If we pretend we cannot see the end, we risk leaving those we love, our children in most cases, with a real mess.  And now that we leave behind a physical and a digital footprint, the considerations are many.  Abby Schneiderman, our guest, and Adam Seifer with Gene Newman, have put together the most practical book we have ever featured.  It’s called ‘In Case You Get Hit by a Bus’.  If you have elderly parents or young children, or just want to be prepared, you must first listen to this podcast and then read this book.

EP 429 Is Anybody Normal in Our Society?

 ‘People are nuts’.  That was a maxim of my dear mother.  She was the kindest, most loving person I know.  She meant no ill will by that designation. In fact, there was wisdom in it.  In his new book, ‘Nobody’s Normal’, Roy Richard Grinker, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University, reveals the progress and setbacks in the struggle against mental-illness stigma. What might help is the realization that we all have emotional and psychological issues, some more severe than others.  Perhaps then we can provide more resources to unlock the complexities of the brain, which dwarf any other organ.  In the process, let’s work to make treatment more  available and assure comparability with physical diseases of the body.  Listen in to this important discussion. 

EP 428 Honor in a Country That Has Gone Off the Ethical Guardrails

What shocked us in the past has somehow become the the new normal in our politics, workplaces and overwrought interest in a celebrity culture.  In fact, through social media, we aspire to join that culture, at least for fifteen minutes, by some reckless, attention-seeking behavior.  The reward structure for living life out loud, in a less than virtuous way, seems to place value on all the wrong things.  The presidency of Donald Trump, an out of control personality, all tangled up in his own whims and ambition, is a striking example of this formula working on an individual level.  If that’s the nation’s chief executive, just imagine what Big Pharma does in doling out opioids like candy, banks issuing credit cards no one ordered and religious institutions covering up the misdeeds of men of the clergy.  All of this speaks to America’s need for ‘The New Honor Code’, offered up by cultural anthropologist, Grant McCracken, in his new book.  In this podcast, we explore whether our moral compass, as a society, can ever point true north, in the wake of such a torrent of bad behavior or as a popular series on Showtime suggests, we are ‘shameless’.

EP 427 Is Iran as Bad an Actor as America Says It Is?

Once America declares you part of the axis of evil or decides that your behavior require heavy economic sanctions, it’s tough to escape the impact our actions can bring.  That’s why the notion of the Iran nuclear deal pursued by the Obama Administration was such a risky political move.  Yet, by the strict reporting requirements of the deal, struck with America and its European allies, the Iranians were in compliance with the deal when the Trump Administration pulled America out and imposed sanctions that clearly have had an impact on the lives of the Iranian people.  Ironically, Iranians, generally younger or more well educated than others in the Middle East, have a fondness for America and our culture.  Now we can go back to the 1950’s and our overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran in order to prop up the Shah or we can go back to the Ayotollah Khomeini and the taking American hostages in 1979, but either way we have had flashpoints with the Iranians for decades now.  So where do current relations stand at the early stages of the Biden Administration?  David Barsamian has edited a collection of thinking on the topic in the new book, ‘Retargeting Iran’.  The history is complicated and news accounts will not unpack the issues we do on this podcast.

EP 426 Is Sugar the Next Tobacco?

If we’re honest, most of us love sweets.  And while talking about my love of chocolate on a radio program, my guest, a nutritionist, admonished me by saying ‘no you love sugar’.  Indeed, I do.  What surprised me is how much of it we consume in a day without knowing or thinking about it.  The fact is that it is added to virtually ever manufactured food product we consume, even those we consider good for us.  And that’s aside from the candy, sugary beverages and the number of teaspoonful we put in our coffee ever day.  Recently, a federal committee recommended that Americans limit our consumption of added sugars to 6 percent of our daily calories, down from the current guideline of 10 percent.  News flash: most of us cannot hit the 10 percent mark, let alone the new, lower standard.  Given the impact on our health that processed and sugary foods have on us, it is surprising that they have not come in for more regulation than they have.  Even fuzzy children’s ad limits are often circumvented using different marketing slogans.  We know what happens when government, at any level, attempts to limit the size of colas.  Yet, type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart conditions are prevalent in our society.  According to our guest, Lindsey Smith Taillie, a nutrition epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, perhaps, we can learn from what some other countries are doing to affect behavior.  It seems to me if we ever hope to get health care costs down in this country, we are going to have a better national diet.  Sugar is at the heart of this issue.

EP 425 Are We Ready for Future Twenty First Century MegaDisasters?

The twenty first century has been nothing, if not, eventful.  From man-made disasters like 9-11 to an economic collapse affecting the United States and Europe to a pandemic traveling the superhighway of viruses and touching nearly all quarters of the globe.  If you imagine that the world will now settle in to a more gentle, less tumultuous period, then call yourself an optimist.  It’s more likely that given biothreats, climate change, infrastructure deterioration, cyberthreats and the nuclear cloud still hovering overhead, there is a long and challenging road for us ahead.  In his book, ‘Rethinking Readiness’, Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Diasaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute walks us through various threats and vulnerabilities and the growing science of disaster research.  Planning to fight the last war, such as the pandemic, may well leave us vulnerable to realities we cannot begin to imagine today.  Hang on. It could be a bumpy ride.