John Metaxas speaks with Paul Glastris, editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, along with two of the publication’s editors, Daniel Block and Eric Cortellessa, about their quest to elevate journalism in this stressful time.
Labelling his point of view, “grumpily liberal,” Paul says the Washington Monthly, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, remains devoted to the ethos of its founder, Charles Peters — to report, uncover, explain and offer new ideas about government policy and politics in America, all while treating the reader and people with different points of view with respect.
Recent stories have looked at what the editors see as an underreported but major development in society — that large numbers of Americans are not benefiting from America’s economic system.
While Paul says his magazine is contributing to the broader effort by journalists to understand and in many ways fight against the nonsense and lying coming out of the White House, he is not obsessed with Trump coverage. Rather, he says, “We’re focused on the future. We’re focused on issues like antitrust, like reforming the higher education system, like Congress rebuilding its capacity to think and do oversight, reforms that aren’t getting enough attention and we think are the most important things the American people should be discussing.”
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Podcasting with John Metaxas
These “Grumpy Liberals” are Elevating Journalism in the Time of Trump
Recorded: Tuesday March 19, 2019
John Metaxas: [00:00:00] Hi this is John. Today we’re podcasting from the offices of The Washington Monthly in Washington, D.C.
COLD OPEN: [00:00:09] We don’t write about the news. We write about what ought to be the news.
[00:00:13] Since Ronald Reagan came into power and even starting under Jimmy Carter we’ve had an economic system that concentrates wealth in a small subset of places.
[00:00:24] There was this substantive area where a number of candidates had an idea about what to do to for the American economy that wasn’t getting any coverage. And so we decided to start writing about that.
[00:00:36] What’s the most important thing you learned working for President Clinton?
[00:00:39] That average people can be made to understand sophisticated arguments and policies, if you say it right.
Announcer: [00:00:51] This is Podcasting with John Metaxas.
John Metaxas: [00:00:54] Hello, and welcome to the podcast. It is Tuesday, March 19th. And it’s my pleasure to have with me today my old friend Paul Glastris, editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, along with two rising stars at the magazine, Daniel Bloch, an editor at the magazine and Eric Cortellessa who’s the digital editor. Gentlemen, great to be with you.
Paul Glastris: [00:01:14] Thanks for having us.
John Metaxas: [00:01:16] Paul, this is the 50th anniversary of your esteemed magazine. Why don’t we begin by talking about what the Washington Monthly is. It’s a different kind of publication. What in your opinion does it offer readers that might be unique from other publications?
Paul Glastris: [00:01:33] Well, thanks for the question. You know the Monthly has been around for 50 years. It’s always been a small magazine with a very elite audience, elite in the sense of people who read The New York Times every day very carefully, read their local paper and come away thinking “I’m not getting the full story” and they’re eager to read a couple of 5,000 word deep-dive pieces on policy, politics and government. So that’s what we are. We’re a magazine devoted to reporting, uncovering, explaining and offering new ideas about government policy and politics in America.
John Metaxas: [00:02:09] Do you believe in labels?
Paul Glastris: [00:02:09] You know, depends on the label.
John Metaxas: [00:02:13] So what label would we give your magazine?
Paul Glastris: [00:02:15] I would say ‘Grumpily Liberal.’
John Metaxas: [00:02:18] OK. All right. I can, I can, I can …
Paul Glastris: [00:02:20] Grumpily, in the sense that we, we get, you know, we’re definitely a magazine of the left, we always have been. But, you know, we try to point out where liberals go wrong in their thinking and their actions and their policies and are constantly challenging both liberals and conservatives to rethink and do better.
John Metaxas: [00:02:45] You obviously owe a lot to the founder of the magazine, Charles Peters, who went to my alma mater, Columbia University. Tell us about him and how he may still be influencing what this magazine is.
Paul Glastris: [00:02:56] So, all of us who worked for Charlie in the 30 plus years he was the founding editor, got kind of implanted into us his worldview and his style of thinking and editing, which is extremely rigorous but also anti-elite in the sense of, don’t use fancy words, treat the reader with respect. Treat your opponents with respect and write in a way that is entertaining as well as enlightening. And he, you know, he is still a presence at the magazine. We just celebrated the 50th anniversary, had a party for him and, you know, his values and his way of looking at the world is very much alive.
John Metaxas: [00:03:43] So you’ve had quite a run. You started here, you went on to great things, worked for President Clinton and now are back as editor in chief. Tell us about, a little bit about your career, for those who are not familiar with it.
Paul Glastris: [00:03:55] So yeah, you’re right. I actually started as an intern here in the 80s and then worked my way into an editorship, then spent ten years with U.S. News and World Report mostly as a correspondent and then spent two and a half years as a speechwriter for President Clinton. And when I finished that I was trying to decide what I wanted to do in life, didn’t want to go back newsmagazines and Charlie wanted to retire, so I said I’ll give that a try. And another friend of ours, Markos Kounalakis, the journalist and investor, became my partner and we for about 6, 7 years with Marcos and then more independently we have been running the magazine as a nonprofit.
John Metaxas: [00:04:35] I’m curious, what’s the most important thing you learned working for President Clinton?
Paul Glastris: [00:04:41] That average people can be made to understand sophisticated arguments and policies, if you say it right. That nothing is beyond the grasp of the average person and that the country is actually hungry for substance. Because the way we would write his States of the Union address, all the journalists made fun of us because they were laundry lists and they went on for an hour and a half. And the funny thing is, when they measured the audience numbers there were more people listening at the end than the beginning. So people love that. They love hearing what the president had to say on a substantive basis about the country. And you know there’s a kind of line of argument based on a lot of evidence but it’s still an argument by political scientists that the public doesn’t care about policy. And it’s probably true they don’t make their voting decisions based on policy but they really do care about it and they take it seriously and so do we.
John Metaxas: [00:05:47] Well speaking of policy, Daniel, you’ve just written a piece for the magazine about antitrust policy. Tell us about your thesis.
Daniel Block: [00:05:55] So the thesis, in short, is that if Democrats want to win elections in the future they need to have better competition policy. And it’s framed kind of in this very practical, utilitarian way. But there’s underlying it, I think, this kind of moral argument. So the practical side of it is, right now wealth, opportunity are concentrated in a very small subset of cities.
John Metaxas: [00:06:23] And when you say better competition policy you mean antitrust, monopoly?
Daniel Block: [00:06:27] Antitrust policy, monopoly, but also talk about airline regulation and policies that make it easy to transport goods and people to different parts of the country rather than just from say, New York to San Francisco or L.A. to D.C. The reality is since Ronald Reagan came into power and even starting kind of under Jimmy Carter we’ve had an economic system that concentrates wealth in a small subset of places mostly along the coasts. And as a result vast swaths of the interior of the country have been completely left behind. And this is bad for obvious ethical reasons. It means that large numbers of Americans are not benefiting from America’s economic system. And it creates this huge degree of regional inequality. But for the Democratic Party it’s been pretty politically disastrous because, in short, Democrats do best in cities, they do best in urban areas. And if you look at the map in 2016 part of the reason why Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College but won the popular vote is because she ran up vote margins in large successful, successful in a kind of economic sense, coastal megacities. But those places were already blue. And so she carried California by an immense margin. But because these kind of nodes of Democratic support in the heartland, in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, weren’t thriving she simply wasn’t able to win enough votes there to flip those states.
John Metaxas: [00:08:00] So in your view what’s the prescription that a potential candidate should be putting out there?
Daniel Block: [00:08:07] Well, the good news is we can look back and see what we used to do that created for a long time a convergence of equality across the country and it was a strong regime of competition policy. So the government for a while prevented very large firms from merging with one another to create these kind of mega entities that could dominate sales or creation across the United States. So, for example in the 1960s, the Supreme Court actually blocked a merger between two shoe producers, that combined they would have only controlled about 2 percent of the U.S. shoe market. But the idea was look, the government wants to be serious about making sure that one region can’t dominate the market across the country for a particular product like footwear. That’s obviously not the case today. Amazon controls something like 50 percent of America’s e-commerce market. So part of it involves rolling back those kinds of megamergers, breaking up large companies like Amazon that are sucking the wealth out of different parts of the country and channeling it all to the places where they’re headquartered, which is Seattle and now soon also the Washington D.C. region. And then another piece of it, I was talking about airline deregulation earlier, is reregulating the airline industry. The reality is for decades we regulated our major forms of transportation to make sure it costs the same more or less on a per mile basis to get from one city to another regardless of where that city was. So when railroads were the main form of transportation back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries we had these commissions that made sure railroads couldn’t price gouge people who lived in smaller parts of the country and offer huge discounts to people traveling from one large city to another. And when air transport became big we kept that basic framework in place until the late 1970s when we got rid of the body that made sure that the price of traveling from different places to another was roughly equal. And since then the cost of flying to heartland cities has just skyrocketed.
John Metaxas: [00:10:12] So I presume, Paul, this kind of story is furthering your mission to put ideas out there, in this case is it fair to say, to challenge the orthodoxy that’s taken hold in this country the last 30 years that regulation is bad?
Paul Glastris: [00:10:26] Absolutely. And you know, I want to point out that the story that Daniel did, no one else has come close to writing that story. In fact we have been writing about the deleterious effects of industry concentration, and how it has depressed jobs, depressed wages, depressed innovation and led to you know this whole swaths of the country falling behind. We’ve been doing this for over a decade and only in the last few years have other, have major economists come in and validated the kind of stuff we were writing and have journalists been jumping on it. It’s still at a nascent phase. But that’s what we do at the Washington Monthly. We try to get ahead of the news. We don’t write about the news. We write about what ought to be the news and we just keep repeating it over and over til people get it.
John Metaxas: [00:11:23] We’re podcasting from the offices of The Washington Monthly. We’re speaking with Editor in Chief Paul Glastris along with two editors at the magazine, Daniel Block and Eric Cortellessa. Eric, you too are working on a story along similar lines. Tell us about what you’re working on.
Eric Cortellessa: [00:11:40] Well, you know, as Paul just said, the Washington Monthly has been covering the deleterious impacts of concentration for over a decade now. And so, as we were watching the election unfold it became clear that more and more candidates who are entering the Democratic fold were the very people who have actually been championing renewing antitrust for the last couple of years and that included people like Elizabeth Warren, senator from Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar, senator from Minnesota and the ranking member of the Senate Antitrust Committee, and even Cory Booker who has taken a really strong stance on preventing big ag mergers. And it just became clear that this was sort of a pattern, a trend that was bubbling beneath the surface and that there was this substantive area where a number of candidates had an idea about what to do for the American economy that wasn’t getting any coverage. And so we decided to start writing about that.
John Metaxas: [00:12:34] So very quickly, summarize what some of those ideas are.
Eric Cortellessa: [00:12:38] So the most prominent idea would be Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up big tech like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google. But you’ve also seen actual legislation come from Cory Booker who proposed placing a moratorium on all ag mergers for 18 months. You’ve seen bills that have been proposed by Amy K lobuchar to ramp up antitrust enforcement, make it, give the tools to the already existing monopoly fighting agencies to be able to determine when a merger and acquisition makes a market uncompetitive. And so you already see some of these ideas bubbling with these candidates who have been thinking about it really before it became fashionable to even do so.
John Metaxas: [00:13:20] All right, I’ll throw this question out to the three of you. Do you really think these ideas will catch on especially when the opposite point of view is vilifying the left for being socialist — not that regulation is necessarily equivalent with socialism — but how much do you believe these ideas can catch on?
Paul Glastris: [00:13:41] That’s a really good question. We’re finally going to have a test because as Eric pointed out you finally have serious candidates on the Democratic side beginning to make these arguments to voters, to real voters. I’m not sure the voters are ready to hear it because this has not been part of the discussion in this country for decades. But part of me thinks it will catch on. Let me tell you why. For a hundred years from the late 1880s into the 1960s and even the 70s the issue of monopoly in capitalism was front and center in political debates. Political campaigns were run on it, major landmark legislation was made. Both parties competed to see who can bring more competition or less monopoly into different marketplaces. It was front of mind for entrepreneurs, company owners, average people, store owners for decades. This is something that grew out of the American experience. We’ve done this before. Unlike socialism, which has never quite caught on the United States, at least not in any systematic way. You know, these competition policies that we’re talking about, really do reflect the American spirit and American ways of handling the sort of excesses of capitalism. And somewhere under the surface we all understand that markets are terrific in many ways but that like any system, with the wrong rules they get out of control.
John Metaxas: [00:15:25] All right, let’s shift gears to another idea that you’ve written about. I learned about this only a couple of years ago when my son came home from college and informed me that I was the beneficiary of white male privilege which I had never heard of til he brought it back from current academia to me, because, Paul, it did not exist, that idea, when we went to college. You’ve now written an interesting piece that takes off on that and takes it further. Tell us about it.
Paul Glastris: [00:15:49] Well, it really is a story that links to this issue we’ve been talking about which is monopoly, and especially Daniel’s story on regional inequality and how monopoly capitalism is leaving much of the country behind economically. And the basic concept — like you, the privilege dialogue was not happening when we were in college — but fortunately, my daughter knows all about it and some of the young people here know about it. So it’s something I had to learn. The basic idea is that we are, we tend to be blind to the advantages we have by not being in an oppressed minority. And we find it very difficult to understand what it’s like to, what the conditions are that we don’t face and that in fact we get advantage of because we don’t face. And you know, there’s white privilege, male privilege, cis gender privilege and you know, whatever you think about the dialogue about privilege, there’s certainly something to it. And what what I suggested in the article is, we need to apply it to another realm and that is what I call coastal urban privilege. And coastal urban privilege is basically the advantages that you get from living in a place like Washington D.C., New York City, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, where the jobs are growing, the wages are going up, the salaries are already high. You have tremendous opportunity, but that opportunity is a little bit ill gotten. And it isn’t necessarily the result of the population’s, you know liberalism or innovation or whatever. It’s monopoly, right, the monopoly firms like Amazon are buying up companies from my hometown of St. Louis. But when I was going away to college in 1977, St. Louis had 22 Fortune 500 companies. Today it has nine. Right? St. Louis has been stripped of its economic wealth. And where do those companies reside now? They reside in New York and Chicago and Seattle. So, basically I’m saying that those in the big metro areas should wake up to what monopoly’s doing to their other citizens.
John Metaxas: [00:18:19] All right, there’s a lot more to your argument than that but we do want people to go to your website, because I understand you don’t have a firewall, is that correct?
Paul Glastris: [00:18:26] Yeah, no, everything that we publish is online and free and available, there’s no payment for it. It’s WashingtonMonthly-dot-com.
John Metaxas: [00:18:35] All right. Before we wrap up there’s one word we haven’t uttered in this interview and that word is Trump. I hesitate to say it but, what do you see as your role in the era of Trump?
Paul Glastris: [00:18:49] That’s a really good question. If you go to our web site you’ll see that we’re putting out a lot of stories every day analyzing the news. A lot of it is about the Mueller investigation. You know, the breaking news of the day. So, if you know, I feel like we’re contributing to the broader effort by journalists to understand and in many ways fight against the nonsense and lying coming out of the White House –again we’re a magazine of the left and you won’t be that surprised that we have the stands that we do. In the magazine, however, we kind of ignore Trump. If the rest of the press corps were ignoring Trump, we would be all over him. We were all over George W. Bush because we thought that back then in the early 2000s the press corps was going way too light on him. Now, I don’t feel that Trump lacks aggressive pushback from the print media. We’re focused on the future. We’re focused on issues like antitrust, like reforming the higher education system, like Congress rebuilding its capacity to think and do oversight, reforms that aren’t getting enough attention and we think are the most important things that Congress and the American people should be discussing. So we’re looking to the future.
John Metaxas: [00:20:15] All right, well, Paul Glastris editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, along with his editors Daniel Bloch and Eric Cortellessa. Gentlemen, you’re fighting the grumpy liberal fight. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
Paul Glastris: [00:20:29] Thank you so much.
Announcer: [00:20:32] To listen to more podcasts with John Metaxas go to JohnMetaxas-dot-com.