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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Is America Ascendant or on the Decline?; How to Fix America's Schools; Steps to Better Democracy; The Mystery of Time; Aired 10-11a ET

Aired September 02, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:17] FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: This is GPS, the GOBLE PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria.


ZAKARIA: Today on the show, the state of America. It's a nation divided, a nation in tumult. But is it a nation in decline? A nation whose glory days are behind it? Or is America as strong and innovative as ever?

I'll talk to three authors who set out to explore the real America, beyond the beltway and beyond the headlines. Jim and Deborah Fallows and Steven Brill join me to discuss this.

And reading, writing, and arithmetic from around the world. Global lessons from the man who has spent his career studying the best education systems around the globe. What the U.S. can learn from others.

Also tick-tock, tick-tock. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years. Just what is the nature of time? And are our days truly numbered? I will talk with the brilliant physicist Carlo Rovelli.


CARLO ROVELLI, THEORETICAL PHYSICIST: Time really goes at a different speed defending how you move and where you are.


ZAKARIA: But first, here's my take. In September, Google will celebrate its 20th birthday. When it was founded in 1998, it was one of many search engines. But it quickly became the chief gateway to the Internet and is now one of a handful of tech companies that dominate not just the American economy but also increasingly American life.

It recently received a birthday present from the European Union, a record $5 billion fine for violating antitrust laws. That came just a week after the UK slapped Facebook with a fine for allowing Cambridge Analytica to mine personal data from as many as 87 million Facebook users. The penalty was much smaller, $660,000, but it was the maximum allowed under British law. These punishments are one sign that the era of unbridled faith and

optimism in the technology industry is coming to an end.

As the information revolution took off in the 1990s, we all got caught up in the excitement of the age, along with the novelty of the products and their transformative power. And yet as these revolutionary technologies created new industries, destroyed others and reshape communities and cities, we simply assumed that this was the way of the world and nothing could be done to change it or shape it.

That would have been socialist-style interference with the free market. But the result does not seem to be one that a libertarian would celebrate. We now have a tech economy dominated by just a few mammoth companies that effectively create a barrier to entry for newcomers.

The other noticeable consequences has been the erosion of privacy highlighted by the Cambridge Analytics-Facebook scandal. Because technology companies now deal with billions of consumers, any individual is a speck, a tiny data point. And since for most technology companies, the individual consumer is also a product whose information is sold to others for a profit, he or she is doubly disempowered.

Change is likely to come from two directions, regulatory action in the West will force companies to play by the rules as the recent finds show and will create new rules that give more control to the individual. In May, the European Union instituted the General Data Protection Regulation, which makes it much easier for people to know how their data is being used and to limit that use. Violators can be fined up to 4 percent of their global annual sales.

Importantly, these rules apply to any company working with Europeans' data. So American tech companies have had to change their policies, too.

The second direction is even more intriguing and comes from the East. Until recently, as the Indian entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani pointed out to me, there were just a handful of companies with more than less than a half million companies with one billion users on their platforms, all companies based in the United States or China -- Google, Facebook, Tencent. But now India has its own billion-person digital platform, the extraordinary Aadhaar biometric I.D. system whose creation Nilekani oversaw.

It is the only one of these massive platforms that is publicly owned. That means it does not need to make money off user data. It's possible to imagine that in India it will become normal to think of data as personal property that individuals can keep, or rent, or sell as they wish, in a very open and democratic free market.

[10:05:13] Add innovations in blockchain technology, and we are likely to see even more challenges to the current gatekeepers of the Internet in the near future. Change is coming to transform the world of technology. Properly

handled it can produce freer markets, lower barriers for new entrepreneurs, and fresh technologies combined with greater individual empowerment. Now that's something even the technologists in Silicon Valley should be celebrating.

For more, go to and read my "Washington Post" column. And let's get started.

OK. I want to step away from the fray of day-to-day, minute-to- minute, second-to-second news for a moment and talk about the big picture of America, the 30,000-foot view. Let's forget about the partisan rancor for a bit and look at what is really going on in the country outside Washington, outside the beltway. And I suppose the big question is, is America in decline? Is it headed for trouble? Is it in a nationwide depression of sorts? Or is it vibrant as ever, thriving, growing, innovating?

Joining me now are James and Deborah Fallows, the husband and wife authors of "Our Towns: A Hundred Thousand Mile Journey Into the Heart of America," and Steven Brill, a journalist, entrepreneur and the author of "Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America's 50-Year Fall and Those Fighting to Reverse It."

So, Steve, let's start with you because I think you paint a very important picture that I think people don't adequately understand, which is that a core element of what made -- has made America great, the kind of upward mobility, the social mobility, the ability for bright, hard-working poor people to move up, has kind of been arrested or stagnated in various ways and for various reasons. So lay out what that problem is.

STEVEN BRILL, AUTHOR, "TAILSPIN": Well, what I decided to do when I set out to write this book was try to understand why it seemed that the core values, the core qualities that make America great seemed to be in decline, whether it's the ability of Washington to get anything done, the kind of, you know, bipartisanship we used to enjoy on big issues, or whether it's the income mobility that you just mentioned, whether it's the monetization of our democracy, the inability of people without money to have anything that approaches an equal voice.

And what I found was that our core values in many ways had been hijacked. The First Amendment had been used by corporate interests to dominate our politics. And meritocracy itself had some unintended and not good results.

ZAKARIA: So when you hear this, Jim Fallows, I know you and Deborah went out into the country and you saw some surprisingly optimistic things. But you've lived, both of you, in Washington on and off. You know this world that Steven Brill is talking about. How do you make sense of that piece of it?

JAMES FALLOWS, CO-AUTHOR, "OUR TOWN": So I think over the years we've talked about China, where Deb and I used to do live, and made the point that in China everything is simultaneously true someplace in the country. And I think that's the case with the U.S. The U.S. is not quite as chaotic as China, but it's a similar thing where we agree with all the pressures Steve is talking about are sort of distorting the U.S. distribution of income, of opportunity, of the corruption of politics in the past generation.

And what's interesting to us and we feel that is -- you know, it's becoming better and better understood. It's an obvious part of politics. Steve has laid it out in his book. We're talking about a part we think is not as well understood or realized, which is this contrary renewal, reform, dispersed effort across the country of people saying we can find ways to create different opportunities for people whose parents might have worked in giant factories, these factories aren't there anymore, but these people can have jobs in the wind turbine industry, they can them in robotics industry or whatever, of the amazing role of immigrants and refugees which despite the national rhetoric which is so poisonous on this topic, city by city, places that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, immigrants and refugees are stimulating the economy, they're running city government, they're very important civic leaders.

And so our sense is there are two Americas, but in a different way from what we usually -- there's the American of national politics which is so dispiriting and near historic low point.

[10:10:08] And there's this other America not fully recognized of people inventing new ways to get things done at the local level.

ZAKARIA: Deborah, describe the journey. I mean, what exactly did you guys do?

DEBORAH FALLOWS, CO-AUTHOR, "OUR TOWN": It wasn't 35,000 feet, it was actually 2500 feet across the country. We were in our small plane for four to five years, not nonstop, but going from --

ZAKARIA: This is a tiny single prop plane.

D. FALLOWS: Single engine.

J. FALLOWS: A little propeller plane.

D. FALLOWS: This is not net jet, so exec jet. It's a little propeller plane where we would hop from town to town and stay in these towns for one or two or three weeks at a time. And coming in at very low altitude, a soft entry to the town to get a sense of what it was like. And then staying at the Motel 6, going around to see a lot of the -- all kinds of people in the town. We spent times in classrooms in schools, with the mayor, with people who ran the YMCA, at Brew Pubs, in the hospitals, in the clinics with the doctors, to get a sense of, as much as we could, the variety of things, and a sense of the energy or lack thereof that was going on in the communities.

ZAKARIA: And when you looked at it, what did you think was the tell- tale sign of vitality? Was there one -- was there sort of something that you could look at and say, this place is going to -- you know, this is going to be a better story than we might have thought?

J. FALLOWS: We have at the end of the book 10 1/2 signs of civics success, the half being whether it has a crafted brew industry, being a proxy for certain kind of entrepreneurs, certain kind of urban expansion. But more -- in one way or another, all the various signs come down to, are there people who view the welfare of that town, that region, that state, as something that matters to them in the long run.

They're not just consuming what is there, they're not just living in their own household and maximizing their own wealth but they're saying, it matters to make plans for 20 years from now to build a community college in central Oregon where they can have --

ZAKARIA: So kind of long-term proprietary interest in the society.


ZAKARIA: But what -- why would people have that. Everyone is so short term oriented now.

D. FALLOWS: But not really, because --

BRILL: Let's not generalize.


D. FALLOWS: Yes. The older people in the town are looking to the young people who they want to come to the town to save it, to move it forward.

ZAKARIA: All right. When we come back, I'm going to ask Steve Brill how these bottom-up forces are going to solve the big top-down problems that we face when we come back.


[10:17:02] ZAKARIA: And we are back with Jim and Deborah Fallows and Steve Brill, talking about nothing less than the future of America.

So you heard this -- the Fallows perspective characterizes the Tom Friedman one from a recent column, which is, if you want to be optimistic about the country, stand on your head because everything looks better from the bottom up. But the kind of problems you outline, you know, that the government is deeply partisan, it can't get anything done, we haven't built any serious infrastructure for 30 or 40 years, you have, you know, a deadlock, you can't get scientific research done, you have money capturing politics.

These are all big problems that, I mean, I hate to say it, but, you know, the fact that the mayor of Sioux Falls is doing a good job, or that some community is -- you know, has a good public library, it isn't going to solve these huge problems.

BRILL: I don't agree. I think it will, because I think the solutions come from the bottom up, especially when the up is totally paralyzed. And people who see those solutions and are disgusted about the macro picture will start to support political leaders who want to spread those solutions. You know, you don't have to go far from this studio. You know, I don't have a prop plane even -- to find examples of that. There's a converted zipper factory in Queens that I write about where

a veteran of the Iraq war, who went to Harvard, a Harvard graduate, decided to start a job training program where he takes people who are sales clerks or they're out of work baristas, people with average incomes of $18,000 a year, if they have incomes. And he has a job training program for them where they learn to be coders, computer coders. And 11 months later, it's a free program, they graduate into jobs averaging $85,000 a year in the tech industry. Now that can be done.

ZAKARIA: All right. I still remain somewhat skeptical that with all these micro efforts, the estimates are we need to spend something in the range of $3 trillion to rebuild American infrastructure to make the economy competitive.

J. FALLOWS: Actually a little more.

ZAKARIA: More. So where is the money going to come from?

J. FALLOWS: So here's first exactly what Steve is describing around New York is what we've seen in Mississippi, in South Carolina, in Fresno, and all of the other places. So our experience is exactly the same on that. I can imagine two futures.

Here is the future I hope for, which is that the accumulation of real world, real time experiments happening in thousands of places right now, will produce both ideas and sort of identify problems and produce leaders who could say, I've done this in Brooklyn, I've done this in Fresno, I've done this in Minnesota, and these people will have more and more influence on national politics. That's one future I hope is the case, that national politics will be leavened in a positive way by this constructive effort from the bottom up.

[10:20:06] The other possibility is that national politics remains in crisis and then at least it's better if we have this healthy local fabric than if we don't. So one way or the other, it's worth paying attention to this part of America that generally has been missed in the national media, which I think in different ways we're all trying to do.

BRILL: The one thing I'd add is that if you look at the 2016 election, what is crystal clear is that people were frustrated and disheartened with government. Now they decided to choose, you know, the same person who convinced people that they should enroll in Trump University to solve their problems. But I think that the country is learning that lesson, that you really need people, you know, who are qualified, who are prepared, and who have the kinds of answers to the problems that plague America that we need.


ZAKARIA: And the 40 percent who still support Trump?

BRILL: Well, actually, you know, 40 percent means that there's 60 percent. So, you know, I don't think you can thread the needle with, you know, 70 votes in the electoral college with 70,000 votes scattered among three states every time.

The other thing I will add is, you know, you ask where's the money. We are under taxed in this country. I mean, the tax burden to wealthy people in this country, and even for the middle class, is way below what it is in any other developed country.

ZAKARIA: But there isn't the political will to do that.

BRILL: Well, you know, if enough water mains break at the same time and enough bridges collapse at the same time and enough of the power grid, you know, goes out at the same time, we will understand that it's an emergency. We have a slow-moving emergency with infrastructure that is fast accelerating. And people will get disgusted.

ZAKARIA: Deborah, let me ask you, when you talk to these people, you know, at the local level, what did they -- what was their feeling about national politics? Were they sort of hoping that they could then go on and run it? Were they deeply frustrated?

D. FALLOWS: When we went into the towns that we visited, we never asked people about national politics. We went in asking about, what's your town like, what's going on here, what drives you, what do you need, what are your problems, how you fix them. And national politics did not come up, either from -- certainly not from us or from the people we talked to except for a very few times.

We started this in 2013, and it was really about 2016, at the time of the conventions, that people started talking about national politics. And it really felt to us like there was a distinct disconnect. The energy, the drive, the thoughtfulness, was about what can we do locally, how can I have an impact on my town. And then there was this other thing that was national politics, which if you ask that question, you'll get an answer like you can hear on any cable news show.

But it wasn't what was driving the energy of the people and it felt more like when you go to make your national vote, are you Republican or Democrat. You're what you've always been, or it's --

ZAKARIA: So no matter what you're doing day-to-day on the ground, when it came time to vote, you were tribal and you just voted for your tribe?

D. FALLOWS: Exactly, yes.

J. FALLOWS: Which has become more and more bitter. And you were mentioning earlier the taxes. We saw -- I mean, you're right about places, very conservative areas in Charleston, West Virginia, in Dodge City, Kansas, and in Columbus City, Ohio, people voted themselves tax increases to improve the library, to improve downtown infrastructure, to keep city services going so if people can have confidence in their leaders, and see, you know, the output from them there is a willingness to say, yes, we should do our part.

ZAKARIA: We have to close it on that. And one thing I can say is that the hopeful note is that these books in very different ways illuminate America so much more interestingly than the kind of focus on Washington politics. So thank you for writing these terrific books.

Next on GPS, the United States has an education problem. If you don't believe me, just listen to my next guest. He's been studying education systems around the world for decades and he says the U.S. has a lot of learning to do. That story when we come back.


[10:28:17] ZAKARIA: Some American primary and secondary school students are already back in school. The rest will go back in coming weeks. Many of those in America's public schools will be attending institutions that are underfunded and overwhelmed. And therefore the students are likely to underperform.

The solutions to America's problems and the problems of other nations with struggling schools can be found simply taking lessons from the nations that get education right.

My next guest, Andreas Schleicher, has been schooling himself on education for decades. He works for the OECD and is the mastermind behind the PISA test which compares school systems around the world. And he has written a fascinating book about the lessons he's learned. It's called "World Class: Building a 21st Century School System."

Welcome, Andreas. First, explain the PISA test, which I think is very important people understand. The United States does not do very well on this test. But -- I think what people need to understand is, it is a test that measures problem solving, intelligence, creativity. It is not just cramming of facts, right?

ANDREAS SCHLEICHER, DIRECTOR OF OECD DIRECTORATE OF EDUCATION AND SKILLS: Absolutely. They put less weight on content knowledge and more on your capacity to think like a scientist, to think like a mathematician, to solve complex problems, to work together with teams. Those are really essential skills for success tomorrow. And we combine those data on the outcomes of this, you know, information on the context of schools, of teachers, so that we can actually not only see where our countries come out but also what drives success.

ZAKARIA: The United States, being one of the richest countries in the world, does pretty badly. And is it fair to say -- first, unpack that for us because the thing that strikes me about it is that American averages are often low because there's a wide variety within America.

[10:30:07] The top performing schools do pretty well but it's the bottom performing ones that do really, really badly.

SCHLEICHER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the American school system succeeds in preparing some students really well. But there are also many other students falling behind. And much of it has to do with the social context from which students come in which schools operate. And so that's basically the largest disparity in the outcomes. Particularly the greatest challenge are mathematics, where the United States ranks 30s amongst 35 OECD countries. So there's a lot of room for improvement.

ZAKARIA: What do you -- you know, you've heard the American debate about education going on. There's people who say the schools need more funding, the teachers need better pay. And then there are people who say no, the structure of the school system is what the problem is, you have this, you know, government monopoly, you need more choice, you need more variety. What do you think the answer is?

SCHLEICHER: Well, the first thing it has to do with the value you place on education. You know, Chinese parents and grandparents are going to invest their last dime, their last effort, their last money into the future, and that is the education of their children. In the United States and in Europe, too, we've already spent that money for our children for our consumption. So basically getting that right is important.

But money only gets you that far. In fact a lot more is about how you spend that money. It's about prioritizing the quality of teachers and teaching over things like the size of classes. You know, in the United States, only every second dollar actually arrives in the classroom. So making sure that the money really squarely relates to how students learn, where students learn.

ZAKARIA: And in America, as I recall from one of your reports, America is almost unique in the rich countries in the world in that it spends less money on poorer school districts and more money on rich ones. Everywhere else, it's the other way around, you assume that the poorer districts need more money. But because in America we fund education through local property taxes, you actually have the opposite.

SCHLEICHER: Yes, that's actually an outlier. Now most countries have, you know, put more money into disadvantaged. But more importantly, they also try to get the better resources. It's not so much in the number of teachers, it's do you really make sure that every student benefits from excellent learning.

ZAKARIA: The places that do really well, I mean, in China, as you say, is extraordinary because it's still a middle income country, in many places a poor country, and its educational outcomes have shot up. Singapore has done fantastically, South Korea. What I'm struck by is, they all have some version of what we would do in America, called the common core. There are national standards, you have to meet them. Does that strike you as important?

SCHLEICHER: It is very important that we have a clear vision of what good performance really looks like in a way that students understand what they are studying for, the teachers have an idea of what could student learning really looks like. And that's very hard to do at a very local level. So most countries have a clear vision of what good performance. There is sort of the real belief that every student can learn even if it takes students different paths to get there.

And that's what we see in the outcomes. And actually in the highest performing education systems, neither social background nor context makes much of a difference. ZAKARIA: The poor kids can move very quickly.

SCHLEICHER: Think about it this way. The 10 percent most disadvantaged children in Shanghai, China, do as well as the 10 percent wealthiest Americans at age 15 in mathematics.

ZAKARIA: Looking at these schools, one of the things that strikes me in your book, so many countries have moved so far, so fast. This is not impossible, to improve education outcomes.

SCHLEICHER: You know, your school system today is your economy tomorrow. I think most countries have understood it. My own country, Germany, used to be where the United States was in the year 2000. It's now at the high end of the performance spectrum. So in Europe too we've seen some rapid progress, not everywhere. Vietnam. You know, nobody would have had Vietnam on their radar screen, us included. And it's now a very successful school system.

ZAKARIA: But America has to catch up.

SCHLEICHER: I think it has a lot to catch up. And I think international comparisons show that rapid progress is really possible.

ZAKARIA: Andreas, a pleasure to have you on.

SCHLEICHER: Thank you very much.

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, infrastructure, debt, and deficits, oh, my. Politicians can never seem to think beyond the next election. And that's why they can't solve the truly difficult long term problems we face.

My next guest has some very smart ideas to tackle this problem, when we come back.


[10:39:09] ZAKARIA: Democracy is under siege. It is not very difficult to pinpoint countries all over the world where those words have never been more true. There are questions over electoral legitimacy in places like the United States and then there's the problem of short-termism, where politicians push through policies that will get them reelected, not ones that will solve current or future problems.

Take a look at what's happened in America, where national debt is now at the highest level since the post World War II years. This under a president who said he would eliminate the national debt over eight years. Well, in another 10 years, the debt is expected to be nearly the size of the entire U.S. economy. Mr. Trump's grandchildren and mine will be paying for that. So what to do?

My next guest, Dambisa Moyo, has solutions. They're all to be found in her new book, "Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth."

[10:40:05] Dambisa, a pleasure to have you on.

DAMBISA MOYO, AUTHOR, "EDGE OF CHAOS": Thank you. Happy to be here.

ZAKARIA: To me it was interesting because you're an economist and you looked at this problem and decided there isn't an economic fix because sort of everyone knows the common sense economic solutions is, the problem is you can't get politicians to do those things that they know you need to do. And so you've proposed reforming the political system as the answer to solving some of these problems.

MOYO: That's exactly right. I mean, essentially my book is born out of frustration. As an economist, I'd love to focus on economic issues but we keep getting usurped by the political process. In fact Jean- Claude Juncker, who's the sitting president of the European Commission, has explicitly come out and said we all know what we need to do, but we don't know how to get reelected after we've done it. And so I think that's a very corrosive and at the center problem of the political process today.

ZAKARIA: So you come up with a bunch of solutions. What are your solutions to this problem?

MOYO: So I offered 10 proposals, potential solutions. All of them have precedents in the global economy, somewhere somebody is already using these proposals. Six of them are targeting politicians and four of them are targeting the voter. For example, I talk about potentially increasing the salaries and the compensation to politicians, but forcing them to justify their compensation.

In Singapore, for example, politicians, members of the Cabinet, get 30 percent to 40 percent bonuses every year based on long-term outcomes like infrastructure, GDP, improvements in life expectancy. So I think that that was great.

ZAKARIA: Their salaries are tied in some way to private sector salaries.


MOYO: That's exactly right.

ZAKARIA: So (INAUDIBLE) what will make -- you know, will do quite well.

MOYO: Yes. The head of state makes $1.4 million a year, highest paid in the world.

ZAKARIA: And by the way, Singapore has I think the best rating on corruption. I know they're the lowest corruption levels in the world.

MOYO: That's exactly right. And I think that there is something to learn there. I mean, we've seen so much reform in compensation in private sector. So why not think about that for the public sector?

ZAKARIA: But you have some for voters as well. You say, why don't we ask voters to be a little bit more aware and informed about issues. MOYO: Yes, I mean, I would hope that civic responsibility, people

should want to be engaged in the process. And we've seen voter participation rates plummet. There are real questions about how much knowledge the voters have and just about their own rights but also about the political system. So, you know, I do consider mandatory voting, 27 countries around the world including Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Greece, they have mandatory voting where voters are actually required to go and vote.

I think that's something worth considering. At the extreme we might also consider increasing or weighting, more or less, voters based on their engagement. So this is not about adjectives such as wealth, or race, or gender. It's much about ascribing votes based on those areas. It's about increasing the vote based on people's engagement, how interested are they, how engaged are they on some of the big prevailing public policy issues.

ZAKARIA: So if you're aware, engaged, and informed, or passionate, you could almost -- your vote could count a little more, you get, like, a 20 percent boost or something like that.

MOYO: Yes, and this is being considered around the world right now. I mean, there are lots of variations. And frankly I think it could work -- potentially it could work in a referenda. I think it's much harder to implement in a general election. But you could see how weights could matter more or less based on certain public policy issues. So maybe doctors and nurses get a higher weight on issues around health care, for example.

ZAKARIA: What will you do for this problem of short-termism, which is it's very hard to impose short-term pain for long-term gain?

MOYO: Yes, you're absolutely right. And so one of the proposals I have is extending the political terms of the politicians. So that seems a little bit odd because we don't want to be authoritarian and have them sit in office for as long as possible, but places like Mexico have a six-year term for the presidency and they're only allowed to serve for one year -- excuse me, for one term.

In Brazil, they have eight to nine-year terms for their senators. And I think that that actually helps to focus their mind. They're not interested in fighting the next election, they're there essentially to focus on the immediate public policy problems. So I think there's something quite interesting to explore there.

ZAKARIA: A lot of people hearing this might say, but this is all pie in the sky. You're not going to get -- I mean, in today's world, are people going to pay politicians like the private sector? Are they going to -- you know, will they have mandatory voting? What do you say to that?

MOYO: Well, I say, first of all, I'm an eternal optimist. You know, over 150 years ago, people said blacks couldn't vote, women couldn't vote, only landowners could vote. We changed the system. It's clearly -- something is fundamentally wrong with the political process where money has seeped into the political process. As you know, 158 families in the United States are responsible for 50 percent of the political contributions. Voter participation rates are at historical lows. I just think that there's something quite corrosive.

ZAKARIA: What do you do about the money?

MOYO: Well, I think with money, of course campaign finance has been at the top of the agenda. Issues around -- I think it's been a big setback to have Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court. I think that there's still scope to have much more curbs on lobbying. I think that that's an area which we could put more binds around as well.

[10:45:08] ZAKARIA: Fascinating set of proposals.

MOYO: Thank you.

ZAKARIA: Thank you so much.

MOYO: Thank you.

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, we're all so busy these days everyone is complaining they don't have time for this, they don't have time for that. Well, we are all in luck. My next guest says time is sort of meaningless.

What in the world does that mean? A brilliant physicist on time, when we come back.


[10:49:42] ZAKARIA: My next guest is a brilliant scientist and an excellent writer. Those are two things that rarely go together. You may have read the physicist Carlo Rovelli's last book, it was called "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics." I recommended it to you here on GPS, saying it was insightful and intelligent. Rovelli writes with elegance and clarity.

[10:50:00] Now he's outdone himself. His new book takes on a crucial subject. It's called "The Order of Time." Ready to have your mind blown? Listen in.

Carlo Rovelli, a pleasure to have you on.


ZAKARIA: To me, the most fascinating point you make is that medieval peasants probably had a more accurate understanding of time than, say, a 19th economist or a rational scientist. Explain why.

ROVELLI: In the early Middle Ages, in many parts of the world, the time was divided in day and day was divided in hours. But 12 hours was between sunrise and sunset, which means that one hour is longer in summer and shorter in winter, right? So hours are flexible.

And then in Europe, people started putting clocks on bell towers, so there was a common time clock measured for the village. But the next village would have a different time because the 12:00 was set when the sun is at the utmost position. And of course the sun doesn't get me to the same utmost position in different places. When you move toward west, the sun comes up later.

ZAKARIA: And this would have been thought to be accurate.

ROVELLI: Absolutely.

ZAKARIA: That is, there was of course every village would have a different time.

ROVELLI: Has its own time, right?

ZAKARIA: But now you say that's actually the correct understanding.

ROVELLI: That's the correct understanding of time. So people got together somehow and said well -- and it was mostly because of trains, because it's hard to set a train timetable if every town has its own different time. So there was this agreement, it's late 19th century, the Americans started it. And the first proposal was a single time for all around the planet, so now it's 4:00 all around the planet.

But people didn't like that because then 4:00 is day somewhere and night somewhere else. So there was this arrangement of dividing the planet in regions, And all with the same time. So all of England, all of Britain has the same time. This is artificial, obviously, because -- and remarkably, a few years later, there was a guy in Switzerland who was checking the patent for synchronizing clocks in different train stations.

His name was Albert Einstein. And he realized that if you study carefully time, it's not possible to synchronize clocks. Time really goes at a different speed depending on how you move and where you are.

ZAKARIA: And that you can never say there is a specific time. It is always a specific time in a specific place.

ROVELLI: In a specific place.

ZAKARIA: But time -- that is what the time-space continuum means.

ROVELLI: That's right. And let me make concrete, I take two clocks, OK, which indicate the same time. I move one up a little bit. I wait. I come down. And if this were much more accurate clocks than what they are, the one up would have measured more time. There's more time up here than down there.

ZAKARIA: So there's more time at your head than at your feet.

ROVELLI: That's right. And --

ZAKARIA: And you can see this, of course, because the time is different in mountains compared to valleys.

ROVELLI: Time is different in mountains compared to valleys.

ZAKARIA: Why is that? Explain that.

ROVELLI: It's because of gravity. But the real question is, why not? I mean, time goes different -- the name of your show is GPS, right? The GPS is this thing we have in our machines, the global positioning system, which works with satellites that have clocks up there. In our car there's a radio receiver that receives a message from the satellite, and it uses it to locate itself.

Well, when this was put up by the Americans, the physicist told the engineering in the army, be careful because time up there, there's more time than down here, it passes faster. And, you know, the army in general didn't believe it, to start with. But it did not work without taking this into account. So there is actually more time when you go away from the earth. The earth is a big mass and slows down time.

ZAKARIA: What do you mean the time is passing? Are we always mourning the loss of time?

ROVELLI: I think time for us is a source of openness, of possibilities. But it's also very much tied to everything that makes us suffer. We suffer the loss of something, we have a finite life which ends. I guess Buddhism asks us to think that the source of our suffering is the difficulty in accepting impermanence. And I think there is something that touches everybody in this truth. So time is not neutral for us. It's something that has to do with our deep emotions.

[10:55:06] So it has to do with our sense of identities because we know who we are because we remember our past. We identity ourselves with ourselves in the past. Our very identify is built by these memories and the expectation. Our brain keeps using memory and try to anticipate the future. And this process is what makes us.

ZAKARIA: Carlo Rovelli, a pleasure to have you on.

ROVELLI: Thank you very much.

ZAKARIA: And we will be back.


ZAKARIA: Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.

JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm John Avlon, in for Brian Stelter, and it's time for RELIABLE SOURCES.