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Fareed Zakaria GPS
Fareed's Take: America Torn Asunder; The U.S. Has Served Dark Times Before, Can It Do It Again?; The All-Powerful Presidency; Left Behind: American Students Bested By Those In Asia; To Err Is Human. Aired 10-11a ET
Aired December 01, 2019 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: This is GPS, the Global Public Square. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria. Today on the show, the impeachment inquiry.
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DONALD J. TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want no quid pro quo.
ZAKARIA: If Trump is impeached, he will only be the third President in history to meet that fate after Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I'm profoundly sorry.
ZAKARIA: This is then a historic moment so how do historians look at it. I'll talk to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Rick Perlstein and David Rubinstein. Then Donald Trump claims we are winning the trade war with China.
TRUMP: Thanks to my tariffs, we're taking in billion and billions of dollars from a country that never gave us ten cents, China.
ZAKARIA: But we are losing the more important battle, the education race against Asia in general. What can we learn from the East about education. I'll bring you the answer. And why did this ship end up crashing into rocks in broad daylight? Why was this Oscar announcement so screwed up?
Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist has been looking at how things can go very wrong very quickly and he'll tell us how we can avoid a catastrophe. But first, here's my take. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It's a secular celebration of America and as an immigrant, I feel I've much to be grateful for.
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ZAKARIA: Plus I'm an optimist who tends to see the story of this country as one of making progress over the long run. Lately, it's been tough to maintain that sunny outlook. America's greatest asset, it's constitutional Republic and its democratic character seem to be in danger of break down.
Listen to the language of the President.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: Words like treason and coup are now casually tossed around in normal political discourse. Some may imagine that the impeachment inquiry might provide evidence and facts that would cut through the spin and fantasies but in fact the opposite has happened.
Can America survive through such poisonous times? Well, in the past it has. It has survived the battles between slave owners and abolitionist, the first red scare and McCarthyism, Vietnam and Watergate.
Could this time be different? Alas yes, says Yoni Appelbaum in a thought provoking essay in the Atlantic titled, 'How America ends.' Appelbaum argues that the United States is undergoing a transition, perhaps no rich and stable democracy has ever experienced.
It's historically dominant group is on its way to becoming a political minority and its minority groups are asserting their co-equal rights and interests. He acknowledges that there have been smaller versions of this transition before but those moments have been wrenching, often stretching America to the breaking point.
It took a civil war to end slavery and then almost 100 years of struggle to end Jim Crow. The United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and in turn 120,000 Japanese-Americans before opening its gates to immigrants from all over the world.
Coupled with demographics is one more worrying trend that threatens America's constitutional character. The ever expanding power of the presidency. Whatever you think of the charges against Donald Trump on Russia or Ukraine, his position of resolute and non- cooperation with Congress in the impeachment enquiring should trouble you deeply.
If Congress cannot exercise its core constitutional oversight capacity, the presidency would have become an elected dictatorship. We've been going down this road for a while. Author Schlesinger wrote about the Imperial Presidency in 1973.
The legislation and culture after Watergate led many to believe that matters were under control. In fact, as Schlesinger noted in a 2004 re-issue of his book, in recent years the presidency has become stronger than ever.
The fear after 911 proved to be the gateway for an out of control executive branch. The President gained the ability to snoop on private Americans, use military force at whim, torture prisoners and detain people indefinitely.
The President of the United States can now order the execution of American citizens who are deemed by him to be terrorists without due process. Attorney General Bill Barr believes that despite all this history that the great problem in America is the presidency is too weak.
He has enabled the policy of stonewalling and silence in which top administration officials behave almost as if Congress does not exist. People often ask what the founders would think of America today? It seems to me that the greatest shock to them would be the incredible growth of Presidential power, profound demographic change, fierce political backlash and a presidency that refuses to be checked.
My optimism is wearing thin this Thanksgiving. For more go to CNN.com/Fareed and read my Washington Post column this week and let's get started.
Extraordinary is an overused word in the modern vernacular but I don't think it's hyperbole to say we are living in extraordinary times in the United States. I often wonder how historians, 20 or 30 or 50 years from now will view this moment. Well, that's unknowable for now but what is noble is how historians are looking at it.
As it happens joining me are Doris Kearns Goodwin, a foremost historian of the American presidency. Her latest book is leadership in turbulent times. She has a master class available on Presidential history and leadership available on masterclass.com
Rick Perlstein is a historian of the American conservative movement and in particular, a chronicler of the presidency and resignation of Richard Nixon and you may know David Rubenstein as a billionaire businessman.
He is the co-founder of the Carlyle group but one of his great passions is American history and he's just published a book called, 'The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians.'
Before we begin to David, I want you to explain what your book is and how it's really came out of it an act of educating American congressman about the country's history?
DAVID RUBENSTEIN, CO-FOUNDER & CO-EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN, THE CARLYLE GROUP: I have a concern that people don't know as much about our history as they should. Recently in a survey, three quarters of Americans could not name the three branches of government and only one third could name even one branch of government.
So it's a sad situation. We don't teach history as much as we used to or civics and members of Congress are in the same category.
They know more than the average citizen but they should know more than probably they do and they want to know more so I started a series about six years ago at the library of Congress to interview our great historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin in front of members of Congress.
Now, I've done about 50 of them and I've taken about 18 of them, put them in a book, distilled the interviews a bit, edit them little bit and it's really designed to just give people - I look at American history through the eyes of the greatest historians we have, talking about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, FDR and so forth.
Rick Perlstein, let's get to the substance. You wrote this great book about the end of the Nixon presidency, 'The Invisible Bridge' and you point out you know, when we think about the impeachment hearings, there was a lot more going on with Nixon than just the impeachment hearings described the you know, the kind of breath of the investigation.
RICK PERLSTEIN, AUTHOR, THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE: Well, by the time Nixon resigned, what the public referred to when they said Watergate was this panoply of sins that really went back to the beginning of his presidency. It was 1969 when he did his first phone-tappings of his own staff because he was so terrified of about leaks.
And you know in 1970, one of the things the investigation in 1973 found out was that he approved a memo recommending break-ins of his opponents, right? He unapproved it but obviously there were break-ins of his opponents. Watergate, the burglary was followed by payoffs with secret funds to the burglars.
But even as they were investigating all this, they would turn over rocks and turn over rocks and turn over rocks and each rock would reveal you know another thing. You know, Nixon using public funds for his private residences.
ZAKARIA: And all this was - was discovered through not just one impeachment inquiry, right?
PERLSTEIN: It was of course, the media and Seymour Hersh and - and - and Woodward and Bernstein but it was also in 1973, the Senate voted with only two votes in opposition to have a special committee that would investigate Nixon and have public televised hearings.
And they were galvanizing and one of the reasons only two people voted against it was they were approved at a time when no one could have imagined that the White House was involved.
ZAKARIA: You lived through that period and what is your sense when you look at that impeachment and this one. What are the differences? What are the similarities?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, HISTORIAN, AMERICAN PRESIDENCY & AUTHOR, LEADERSHIP IN TURBULENT TIMES: Well, I think you know, the main difference when you think about it is that when those impeachment hearings started, only 19 percent of the country thought he should be impeached and then you watch that process unfold and they educated public sentiments on both the events and the hearings and the discoveries.
By the end 57 percent thought he should be impeached.
And then that great moment that you know so well about, you both do when finally the day before he resigns, Barry Goldwater and a couple of other Republicans come to tell him what the situation is and he's wondering, can I get 34? Maybe I'll get 20 and Goldwater says there's only four and I'm not one of them, right?
It was an incredible moment.
PERLSTEIN: It wasn't this small compartmentalized thing. Now they're going after just one bad thing he did, not this is how Trump does bad things.
RUBENSTEIN: The key at that time I think was that the Republicans decided in the House Judiciary Committee to vote in favor of an impeachment article and right now it seems as if it's very split by party lines.
So Nixon was unable to hold the Republican Party in the House and that ultimately unable to do so in the in the Senate. Today it appears that the President's able to hold his Republican party.
GOODWIN: And which shows that the big challenge I think is that they have to educate public sentiment about what is an abuse of power. What does it mean to violate the rule of law? What is bribery? What is it impeachment hearing?
Why are we impeaching him now versus waiting for the election? All those kinds of public - that's what Lincoln said, with public sentiment anything is possible. Without it, nothing is and I think that country was educated under Nixon and it came out fine in the end.
Ford said our national nightmare is over and it was a consensus in the country.
ZAKARIA: Why is that happening? Presumably the reason the Republicans are doing this is because they recognize that Trump has the base of the party, has the entire party with him, that if they were to break with Trump, they would lose their primaries, there would be primary, they would lose election.
So is it, that the country is so much more polarized that there's simply no prospect of 50-50?
PERLSTEIN: Polarization is a very poor metaphor. You hear it all the time. The Democratic Party you know loves bipartisanship. You know we nominate a guy, I'm going to say we, I'm sorry, maybe a little too partisan who says there is no red America, there is no blue America or a guy in 1988 who says this election is not about ideology, it's about confidence.
In these four books I've written, I'm writing about the surrender of a party to almost authoritarianism turn by turn by turn. I can tell that story if you're interested but the fact is we are at a point now which basically the things that would get a Republican - there was something called the John Birch society, you guys will
GOODWIN: I'm afraid, we are old enough to remember that.
PERLSTEIN: And they said you know Eisenhower's a conscious agent of the communist conspiracy. Back in the early sixties, you had to disavow the John Birch society in order to be taken seriously in the party.
Now people are saying things like that. The idea that Ukraine sabotaged the election in the leadership of the Republican.
RUBENSTEIN: The Congress is a pretty good barometer of the American people. If the American people were dead set against President Trump then the Congress would reflect that. Right now, the Republican Party is very intensely in favor of supporting him and until that changes, I don't think you're going to see Republican votes go against him.
Now if that changes, that will be different but right now, I think President Trump has a much greater hold on the party than Nixon did and the comparable--
GOODWIN: But don't you think there's also - the media is so different. I mean you're hearing two different narratives now. When you saw the hearings last week, it was one narrative on MSNBC of these professional people who had come forward to tell the truth and risk their reputations and created fact-based evidence.
And then you listen to the other channels, maybe perhaps Fox and you'll hear a totally different narrative so it's much harder to bring a consensus in the country when you've got that split in the cable networks right now.
PERLSTEIN: The Congress isn't a reflection because 10% of the Congress you know, represents you know, 75% of your - 75% of Congress can represent 10% of the public.
ZAKARIA: Stay with me. When we come back, I'll ask the panel what history tells us about the other side of the aisle, the Democrats and their multitude of presidential wannabes.
ZAKARIA: And we are back with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Rick Perlstein and David Rubenstein. You're a Democrat.
RUBENSTEIN: I'm ready to say as an independent.
ZAKARIA: But you worked for Jimmy Carter. RUBENSTEIN: I worked for Jimmy Carter.
ZAKARIA: So I want to ask you looking at it as a historian when you look at the Democratic primary, the thing I'm struck by is when the Democrats nominate somebody who is a kind of fresh face from the outside, who kind of captures the imagination of the country, Carter, Clinton Obama, they win.
RUBENSTEIN: That's correct.
ZAKARIA: When they nominate the kind of stalwart standard bearer of the party, Mondale, Kerry, Biden, they don't do so well. Respond to that pattern.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, history is good to know because if you look at history, it tells you what likely - what likely will happen in the future so if you look at history here, it looks as if a fresh face is more likely to win a general election but the party is obviously - I take please with some of the people who have been around for a while.
Biden is clearly the front runner, I would say right now so it's hard to know and remember, when people vote, they don't look at history patterns as much as what they feel today so I can't say it's easy to pick who's going to be the nominee.
There are many candidates there. Right now, four years ago you wouldn't have predicted probably that President Trump would become President. It's just too early to say. In fact if you go back, the last 10 Presidential elections, a year in advance of that election, I don't think you would have predicted the person who would have won each of those elections.
You wouldn't have predicted Barack Obama a year in advance, President Trump, a year in advance--
ZAKARIA: Because they were all trailing in the polls.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, they were trailing then and Barack Obama, when he got the nomination, he was trailing behind Hillary Clinton the first time way behind the Iowa caucus actually happened and then he obviously won the Iowa caucus and went on to win the nomination.
But my point is, a year in advance is too early to say.
ZAKARIA: When you look at the primaries, people say so many people, Bloomberg coming in, is this more chaotic, is this - what does it look like?
GOODWIN: I mean, the terrible thing I'll have to admit, every now and then when I look at the craziness of the primaries, I wish we could go back to the old convention system. I mean just think about it, we wouldn't start the election until the summer. The conventions would choose somebody. Then in September, a Labor Day would begin and it would be over in November and we'd have lives in between all these elections. Of course, it was Teddy Roosevelt who wanted the primary system in
order to beat Taft in 1912 and we were talking about this last night, the New York Times printed an editorial because the campaign between Teddy and Taft, the first primary system was so awful that the New York Times said if this is the first presidential primary as an experiment, we hope it's the last.
This is embarrassing. Foreigners must be laughing at us. This is not a rational procedure, it's a mob. There is a problem with the way the primary system is set up. Of course, we're not going to go back.
It's democratic that more people vote but how are we judging the candidates who are in these primaries? How they do in a debate? Who zings - so that's nuts, they're not going to be doing that when they're president. How much have they got a public opinion poll of them?
How much money have they raised? We should be looking at what kind of leaders they've been in the past. They've all come from somewhere, governors, mayors, senators, congressmen.
We don't need a magazines article, we should be talking constantly what kind of team do they have around them? Do they share credit? Do they shoulder blame? Do they have humility? Do they have empathy? Do they have resilience? Can they - are they accessible?
All of these do - what's their ambition like? We should know these things. It's what we should be asking them in the debates. You know, have you failed and have you done that one question was asked but I'd love to see those leadership things as an index for judging them.
ZAKARIA: Rick, let me ask you about - about the question of how to win for Democrats. So there are essentially two theories it seems to me. One is you need to bring out the base. All those people who voted for Obama but didn't vote for Hillary. The other is you need to get to all those persuadables in the middle in these - these states.
It feels like those are two somewhat - obviously ideally you do both but Elizabeth Warren brings out the base. Joe Biden reaches those people in the middle. What do you think - what does history tell you is the way to go?
PERLSTEIN: Well, I think the answer is political science actually which is very clear that there are very, very few people who are persuadable. We have people that are called independents but we actually - we actually kind of drill down and say what do these independents actually believe? How do they vote?
They tend either to vote always for one party and call themselves independent because it sounds more independent which - present company excluded or maybe they say they're not Democrats because they're to the left of the Democrat.
So they're not Republicans because there are libertarians. RUBENSTEIN: It's not a perfect process but it's a process that I think
is the envy of the world in some respects. We actually have a lot of votes, lot of primaries, lot of caucuses and I think a lot of people around the world would like to have a system where they actually get to vote and vote many different times.
So I don't think it's a perfect system, all of us could invent a better system but for right now, I think it's as good a system as I think we can possibly get.
ZAKARIA: All right, let me ask you as a billionaire, what do you think of Elizabeth Warren's desire to tax the hell out of you?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, I am - I don't make the laws. Whatever the laws are, I'm going to comply with. So I whatever taxes I'm supposed to pay and I pay a lot of taxes and I'm happy to do so as an American who came from very modest circumstances.
My parents didn't graduate from high school or college and I got lucky in business so I'm happy to pay the taxes that the law requires me to pay. If the Ways and Means Committee which initiates legislation and the Finance Committee goes along with it and they pass a bill, I'll comply with it.
I don't know that there's a lot of support for what she's doing right now but if the law is the law, I'll comply with it of course.
ZAKARIA: All right, on that note of fealty to our nation's laws, thank you all for a very, very interesting conversation. Next on GPS, many on Wall Street would have you believe that Elizabeth Warren is cut from the same cloth as Karl Marx.
She's not of course but in a moment, I will introduce you to a politician whose platform would pull his nation towards something that can fairly be described as socialism. It's not Bernie Sanders. Stay with us and find out.
ZAKARIA: Now for our 'What in the world' segment. Little has terrified the titans of Wall Street more in recent years than the prospect of an Elizabeth Warren presidency. They say she vilifies the rich and they know she plans to levy taxes on their wealth.
They're worried that she would alter America's free market. For all the fears about her and some are legitimate, Warren is not really a socialist, not in the sense the word is usually used but there is a politician facing national elections who is a self-described socialist and I'm not talking about Bernie Sanders.
This one is across the pond, it's Jeremy Corbyn whose Labour party has released a manifesto for Britain's general elections later this month, that marks the party's biggest shift to the left in a generation. A Labour government would drive taxes up on corporations and the rich to pay for a significant increase in day to day public spending.
Public investment as a proportion of the economy would rise from 2.6 percent to 4.5 percent, on par with Sweden's. Perhaps most radical of all Corbyn wants to go on a nationalization Drive. He would reverse decades of privatisation began by Margaret Thatcher and bring the railways, water, energy, supplies and the Royal Mail under direct government ownership and control.
Now the record of government-run industries has been pretty bad in most countries including Britain where it was tried for decades after 1945. The Corbyn wants to bring part of the British telecoms giant BT under public ownership so that his government could roll out free high-speed broadband for every citizen, he says.
Boris Johnson called this a "crazed communist scheme." Now keep in mind that these are the kinds of promises that often play well with many voters. However Labour is polling behind Johnson's Conservative Party. Still British industry leaders are panicking.
One telecoms executive told the FT that Corbyn's internet plan which was announced two weeks ago was "lunacy." The paper reports that others have already started freezing investment in broadband networks until after the election. They have a reason to be concerned.
The FT reports that companies would likely be compensated for their assets at far below market rates. There's more, Labour is planning a National Investment Bank, a four-day work week and taking action toward ending the gender pay gap by 2030.
If fully implemented, Labour's plans could be fairly described as democratic socialism.
Last month, Boris Johnson wrote in The Telegraph that Corbyn's labor party was going after the wealthy the way Stalin persecuted the kulaks, a tasteless and wildly inappropriate analogy.
But in September, Katie Martin of the F.T. wrote that something in Congress seem to be happening. Markets appear to be warning to the idea of a label government. That's because there is something that Corbyn has to offer business. He has ruled out a no-deal Brexit and said he would offer voters a second referendum.
Think of the consequences of Boris Johnson's hard Brexit. According to The Economist, estimates suggest that it would shrink British incomes by six percent in the long run. A no-deal Brexit would be an even bigger catastrophe with a higher economic toll and the added chance of food and medicine shortages.
If one of these two leading parties ends up forming the next government, a fair assumption, then the choice appears to be between a government that would lunge Britain to the hard left ore one that will delivers a hard Brexit. Here's hoping that American voters will have a better choice in 2020.
Next on GPS, speaking of 2020, Democratic presidential candidates continue to lay out their plans for fixing American education, but my next guest says we should actually look across the Pacific for solutions. Teru Clavel and what the U.S. can learn from Asian education when we come back.
ZAKARIA: Educators around the world have been waiting with baited breath for three years, and they will be able to exhale on Tuesday. That's when the latest round of PISA scores come out. Those are the global tests of 15-year-olds conducted by the OECD. They tell countries where their kids rank against others. And Asian nations have consistently outranked the United States in secondary education, math, science, and reading.
So what is the special sauce? What can we learn from nations that consistently excel in education? Well, Teru Clavel knows firsthand. She's an American. But when work brought her family to Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai, she put the kids in local public schools there.
Now, they're back in New York and Teru has written a terrific book about what she learned from watching her kids learn. The book is called World Class, One Mother's Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for her Children. A pleasure to have you on.
TERU CLAVEL, AUTHOR, WORLD CLASS: Thank you so much, Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Why is it that these schools and -- these are public schools in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Why are they teaching so well?
CLAVEL: I see the level of learning expectation is so much higher. Everybody has a can-do mindset. And, yes, learning is challenging. But through overcoming those challenges, you gain that resiliency and the motivation to continue to learn and push yourself. So that's a very, very big difference.
ZAKARIA: You also talk about really important thing. Again, these are public schools. And you came to the states and you were so struck by the wide disparities in funding.
ZAKARIA: The best suburban schools might do very well. But the places where the poorest kids are which need more attention actually get less funding here because, of course, funding through schools is through property taxes, and you never see any of that in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan. All teachers were paid the same, they all have the same resources.
CLAVEL: They really do everything they can to fight any kind of inequity. So there are examples where we talk about in the United States, we want the best teachers, the most experienced teachers to go to those schools that may be weaker or underperforming. But in effect, it's usually the opposite where, well, I have tenure, I'm going to teach fifth grade in this school the next 10 or 20 years.
Where I can say one example is in Japan when we were in Tokyo, for example. Teachers are moved around within the district on every two to three years, basically. So you could go back to school and a teacher is not other and she was moved to another teacher. So you're not going to have this is a good school in the district, this is the bad school because the teachers are constantly moving around.
And there are financial transfers to make sure that the inequity doesn't exist. In the United States, on average, only 10 percent of a school's budget comes from the federal budget. So it's really up to districts and states to stem that inequity.
And another thing that they do really well in Shanghai, for example, is they have kind of sister programs, so the higher performing schools take on a lesser performing school and take over its management to elevate it.
ZAKARIA: You also talk about the respect the teachers had in these societies. Now, that's something the government, I suppose, can't really do. Teachers could be paid more, which I think is one of the tragedies in America. We think we pay teachers well. We don't. We pay them badly.
ZAKARIA: What could one do about that? Because there really is this difference, I think.
CLAVEL: So the reverence for teachers is really something that really smacks you kind of in the face when you're in Shanghai and in Japan. And on average, again, in Japan, for example, there are 200,000 applicants for 38,000 spots to become teachers. And it's as difficult to pass the bar, if not, more difficult in Japan to become a teacher. So the credentialing, the licensing is really, really difficult.
And what you also see is the teachers will do anything to help this next generation of students. So I tell many stories in the book where it will be 7:00 P.M. at night, and whenever the house phone rang, we knew it was a teacher who was teaching from -- who was actually, I would just say, calling from the teacher collaboration room that all the teachers went to, because so much of their time isn't spent necessarily in the classroom but it's working together collaborating through professional development and lesson planning.
And in the United States, teachers spend 27 hours a week on average in the classroom, whereas the average for OECD nations is 19 hours. So that's something that we have to address as well.
ZAKARIA: So they're teaching too much and they're not spending enough time getting professionally enriched and developed? CLAVEL: Yes. And the other thing that happens both in Shanghai and Japan is you have to be re-credentialed every five to ten years, and that requires hours and hours of professional development, observations, even medical tests.
So it's like becoming a doctor or a lawyer, really, where you can't just pass an exam once, you have to keep up your professional development.
ZAKARIA: Teru Clavel, a pleasure to have you on.
CLAVEL: Thank you so very much.
ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, bad stuff happens to good people, it's just a fact of life. But how can we do our best to avoid the pitfalls? Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist, has done the digging and he has the answers.
Back in a moment.
ZAKARIA: I'm hoping our viewers that the United States don't have any cautionary tales to share after Thanksgiving dinner, no fights with crazy uncles, no turkeys burned to a crisp, no busted belt buckles from eating too much food. But life is filled with cautionary tales, events that were expected to go one way and then swiftly go awry. Why does this happen? How do nuclear power plant accidents happen amid so many safeguards and how did this oil tanker end up in broad daylight on rocks its officers knew were there?
My next guest tells these stories and more in a new podcast. Tim Harford is known as The Undercover Economist. He's an author, a columnist for the F.T., and his new podcast is called simply enough, Cautionary Tales.
TIM HARFORD, HOST, CAUTIONARY TALES: Thank you.
ZAKARIA: I'm fascinated by the oil tanker one, because what you describe is -- why don't you describe what happens.
HARFORD: It was 1967. The oil tanker was one of the largest ships in the world, a great ship. And its captain took her between the Scilly Isles and the Coast of Cornwall, this just off the southwest tip of Great Britain. It's about ten miles to get through. But it is narrow for an oil tanker.
And as the captain took the ship along this course, little by little, small pieces of information came to light that should have made him think, hang on, we need to go a safer route. Some fishing boats appeared. There was a small navigation error. They realized the tanker wasn't quite where they thought. But rather than stop and go around, he kept thinking I can make it, I can make it, I can make it.
And then there was one small final error, and there was no margin left and the ship went on to the rocks, and it was an ecological disaster and also the largest insurance claim in history up to that point.
ZAKARIA: And, to you, the lesson you draw is very interesting. Once you set a course, often, what people do is little bits of information that disconfirm your initial strategy plan never derail it. You just don't let it get into your head that way.
HARFORD: Yes. And accident experts call this plan continuation bias. You see it with airline pilots. You see it in the operating theater. You see it -- I see it in my own life. I'm trying to make some complicated set of pickups and all the children from their different clubs, and information comes in that should make me think, hang on, this is impossible. I need to call in some help. I need to change the plan. And I don't.
And you see it in politics as well. The Brexit seems the most here. As a Brit, Brexit seems to be behind everything at the moment. But we had a previous prime minister, Theresa May had a plan to deliver Brexit. And it just became clearer and clearer and clearer that that plan wasn't going to work, and yet, she found it completely unable to -- she found herself unable to change what she was doing. It felt just like that oil tanker.
ZAKARIA: I think of the Iraq War that way. The plan was set in motion and then all kinds of information comes in. The inspectors come back and say, actually, we don't find weapons of mass destruction. The Turks come back and say, you can't go through our country. So what was planned as a two-front invasion, now, you have one front that you can't do it, but the plan continues.
HARFORD: And some of these things are absolutely catastrophic. But it's a very simple piece of human nature. If the new information is just dripping in slowly, it's hard very to have the presence of mind, especially when you're under pressure, to say, hang on, maybe we need to rethink this from scratch.
ZAKARIA: You have another episode which is about Galileo's rule. Explain what Galileo's rule is.
HARFORD: So, Galileo, the great astronomer, in his final book, tells a story about, weirdly enough, storing columns, these big marble columns, how do you store them in a correct way. And he tells a story about how a storage mechanism that was supposed to keep the columns safe would break them. Time after time, they would snap in storage.
And the point here is, often when we introduce safety systems, we're also introducing complexity. We're introducing a new way for things to fail. nd my favorite example, not a tragic one, just slightly amusing one is, you remember when they gave the Oscar to the wrong movie, they gave the Oscar La La Land rather than to Moonlight. How did that happen? Basically because, as a safety measure, they had a set of duplicate envelopes, they had two copies of every envelope with every award card, and that seemed like a sensible way of being safe.
ZAKARIA: With every possible movie nominated?
HARFORD: There were two for best actress. There were two best picture. There were two -- they were the same. But if we lose one, if we lose the best actress nomination, which, by the way, says Emma Stone, La La Land, which is the thing that caused the problem, if we use the card with the best actress prize on, we have another card, we have another envelope.
But that meant that when Emma Stone won best actress for her role in La La Land, somebody had to get rid of the duplicate envelope, and they didn't. And that duplicate envelope ended up in the hands of Warren Beatty, and that's what caused the problem. So if you never had the safety system, if you only had one copy of these envelopes, you would never have had the problem.
And funnily enough, they've decided the Oscars have -- they've decided, we're going to fix this problem. Now, we're going to have three sets of envelopes. I wonder how that's going to work out.
ZAKARIA: Is there a larger overall point to the podcast or a kind of lesson?
HARFORD: Well, stories of disaster, stories of mistakes are interesting, they're memorable.
So I like these stories. But there's always a lesson to learn from mistakes. I would rather learn lessons from other people's mistakes than learn lessons from my own mistakes. So that's what I'm trying to do.
ZAKARIA: That is the goal. Watch -- listen to this podcast so you can learn from other people's mistakes.
ZAKARIA: Tim Harford, a pleasure to have you on.
HARFORD: Thank you.
ZAKARIA: And we will be back.
ZAKARIA: Tomorrow, the Supreme Court is set to review its first case in around a decade that is centered around the right to bear arms. That brings me to my question this week. According to an August poll from Quinnipiac, which of the following gun policies is supported by over 50 percent of American voters? Universal background checks, red flag laws, requiring a license to purchase a gun, banning assault weapons?
Stay tuned and we'll tell you the correct answer.
My book of the week is David Rubenstein's The American Story. As you heard earlier, Rubenstein has interviewed some of America's greatest historians and put the conversations together in this book.
It is superbly done, making for a rich wide-ranging discussion of American history. But because of the format, a very engaging one that is very easy to read and reread.
The answer to my GPS challenge this week is all of the above. In fact, all these policy proposals have support from between 60 and 93 percent of American voters. Over 90 percent of Americans support requiring background checks for all gun buyers, including nearly 90 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of gun owners. 80 percent support a red flag law allowing judges to revoke guns from individuals deemed at risk. And 82 percent are in favor of requiring individuals to obtain a license before owning a gun.
And this support is not new. Quinnipiac's report suggests that the majority of Americans have favored decisive policy changes for several years.
So why has progress been so slow? The answer can be reduced to the tyranny of the minority, congressional Republicans vote in line with the interest of the few rather than the many.
But it's worth noting that Americans have not gone unheard. Earlier this year, two major retailers cracked down on accessibility to weapons and ammunition. And courts from California to Massachusetts have upheld assault weapons bans.
Reaching a resolution on effective gun policies might prove to be one of the greatest challenges of this era in American history. It's a responsibility that rests both with the private and the public sphere. It will be our collective effort that lands us on the right side of history.
Thanks for being part of our program this week. I will see you next week.