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Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

May 24, 2019

We keep trying to reform our political system to make it more “democratic.” Grassroots organizations across the world are pushing reforms, trying to bring politics closer to the people. Parties have turned to primaries and local caucuses to select candidates. Ballot initiatives and referenda allow citizens to enact laws directly.

Many democracies now use proportional representation, encouraging smaller, more issue-focussed parties, rather than two dominant,“big tent” ones. At the same time, voters keep getting angrier.

It appears that popular democracy has paradoxically eroded trust in political systems worldwide. What if we are going in the totally wrong direction?

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk to Ian Shapiro, a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center at Yale University. He is the co-author of Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself.

Shapiro argues that the devolving power of political parties — and the evolving power of grassroots — is at the core of the problem. To revive confidence in governance, he says, we must restore power to the core institution of representative democracy: the political party.

Shapiro explains that when voters have too much control, it often sets the system up for failure and disappointment. Instead, we should look at political parties as teams that bundle lots of issues and put many programs in front of voters that are not based on single-issue constituencies.

Voters need to understand, Shapiro tells Jeff Schechtman, that there is an opportunity-cost to everything, and that we have to approach all issues with moderation.  

Comparing the political process to “last best offer arbitration,” he explains why moderation is even more important than compromise, which often leads to extreme positions as a starting point.

In the end, Shapiro shows how and why political parties have gotten weaker — and that many of our problems of governance stem from exactly that.

May 17, 2019

Martin Sheil, a former IRS investigator, walks us through what we know about Trump’s taxes.

May 10, 2019

It seems that every time we experience a “gilded age,” the rich, perhaps worried that the pitchforks will soon be at the gates, increase their giving.

According to David Callahan, our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast and the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, political polarization has divided the world of large-scale giving as never before.

Each side looks askance at the philanthropists on the other side. For those on the left, the Koch brothers are evil in their giving. For those on the right, George Soros is a symbol of all that is wrong with giving.

Callahan, also the author of The Cheating Culture, explains how the billionaire class, which, over the past 40 years has led the charge to shrink the size of government, now seeks to privatize public good. The super-rich aim to mobilize their wealth and their “I alone can fix it” philosophy to determine where dollars are needed in the public sphere.

Callahan reminds us that this has led to the delusion that the wealthy, no matter how that wealth is acquired, wield some special powers to determine what’s best. The delusion has been amplified by the current occupant of the White House.

All of this, Callahan says, has led to the virtual institutionalization of the wealth gap. What we need now, he argues, is less accumulated wealth dispensed by private individuals, and more redistribution of wealth under public auspices allowing people to democratically select what goals and values they want to advance.  

May 3, 2019

Given the ongoing standoff between Congress and the White House, it’s becoming clearer each day that the “tiebreaker” will be the 2020 election.

So it’s encouraging to learn that the prospects for voting reform are not as bleak as some stories might lead us to believe. Amid voter apathy and voter suppression efforts, there are leaders and activists in some states and local communities across the country who are successfully working to bring more people to the polls.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Joshua Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law and an expert on state constitutions and election law procedure. He is also the co-author of an election-law case book and co-editor of Election Law Stories.  

Douglas argues that change best happens locality by locality and that, in spite of all the bad news, he is seeing many new efforts at voter expansion. Promising local experiments, mostly in blue states but some bipartisan efforts as well, include felon re-enfranchisement and lowering the voting age.

Douglas views voting reform as a two-pronged approach. Herculean efforts are necessary to fight back against the harsh tactics of voter suppression. At the same time, uncompromising resistance has to go hand-in-hand with proactive efforts to extend the franchise. If we are only engaged in the fight against suppression, he says “we are only doing half of what’s possible.”

Some examples: lowering the voting age to 16 coupled with different kinds of civics education and the availability of modern voting systems that still provide paper back-up. Citing the positive results of automatic and same-day voter registration, he shows why these efforts are increasing turnout.

Douglas points out that even in Kentucky and Iowa, two of the states aggressively engaged in voter suppression, some progress is being made. He details some inspiring stories of voting reforms that give hope for the future of democracy in the US.

Apr 30, 2019

French Canadian journalist Hugo Meunier specializes in “immersion reporting.” He spent three months working at a Walmart store and offers an insider’s account of the plight of low-paid worker bees who stock the shelves and endure abuse from bargain-hunting shoppers.

In this WhoWhatWhy podcast interview, Meunier explains the training and indoctrination he received, as well as the company’s attempts to motivate workers with daily reports on store sales and repeated dangling of a $2,000 annual performance bonus. Employees are required to watch training videos and attend morning meetings that include a ritual Walmart cheer.

Meunier offers some amusing stories from his Walmart experience, and details the sinister side of the world’s biggest retailer. For instance, during the peak sales month of December, he and his fellow “associates” saw their hours cut in an effort to improve the corporate bottom line. The workers’ loss of income was especially painful during the holidays.

Hugo Meunier’s book, Walmart: Diary of an Associate (Fernwood Publishing), has just been released in English.

Apr 26, 2019

A preeminent scholar of Rome examines the parallels to what we are experiencing today.

Apr 19, 2019

A conversation with author and activist Sarah Kendzior about just how bad things are.

Apr 16, 2019

Starting in 2007, Ecuador reformed its police and decriminalized gang membership. A study in 2017 showed the murder rate dropped by over 400 percent.

Apr 12, 2019

Bowe Bergdahl’s story exemplifies government dysfunction, political posturing, and a failed American policy.

Apr 5, 2019

Contrary to popular and long held assumptions, global population is declining. The environmental consequences are good, the economic consequences are bad, says this podcast guest.

Mar 29, 2019

The controversial Keystone XL pipeline is not dead yet.

On March 15 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court injunction that blocks construction of the proposed pipeline. This important decision, which has received little media coverage, is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Our podcast guest today is Stephan Volker, the veteran environmental lawyer who represents the lead plaintiffs in the case: the North Coast Rivers Alliance and the Indigenous Environmental Network. The injunction was issued by a federal judge in Montana last November, and the appeals court found that TransCanada is “not likely to prevail on the merits.”

At this stage, construction of the pipeline is completely halted. Volker expects TransCanada, in its appeal to the Supreme Court, to argue that the “presidential permit” issued by Donald Trump is not reviewable by the courts, effectively placing an act of the president above the law.

Volker, based in Berkeley, CA, served for many years at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and EarthJustice. He’s litigated over 300 environmental cases in his career.

Mar 22, 2019

The FAA’s decision allowing Boeing to do its own safety assessments — while the company president told President Trump that all was fine with the 737 Max — raises serious questions about the effectiveness of regulatory agencies charged with protecting our health and safety.

In another critical public health area, the government has virtually partnered with the pharmaceutical industry to deal with the opioid crisis. It’s a lot like asking the arsonist to help put out the fire he started.

According to Jonathan Marks, a bioethicist at the Penn State University, and our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, this is a troubling and dangerous trend that’s become more pronounced in recent years.

He reminds us of how and why the government was so slow to respond to the faulty ignition switches in many GM cars, why exploding gas tanks went unrepaired, why tobacco deaths went unchecked for so long, and why government fails to take climate change seriously.

The reason in each case: The government’s regulatory agencies felt the need to work with business in public-private partnerships. This has cost the lives of thousands.

Marks says much of this was based on the misguided idea that we needed less conflict between the public and private sectors, and that by working together, more could be accomplished. Marks contends nothing could be further from the truth.

He argues that, even in the face of campaign donations and lobbying efforts, conflict between government and corporations needs to be maximized, and that only when companies are profoundly unhappy with the regulators, is it clear that regulators are doing their job. It’s something to think about before getting on a plane, or taking that next prescription.

Mar 15, 2019

Victor Wallis is a professor at the Berklee College of Music and was for 20 years the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy. Several months ago he joined us to talk about the radical intervention he saw as necessary to deal with the threat from climate change. He outlined this in his book Red-Green Revolution.

Now Victor Wallis returns to WhoWhatWhy to talk about his broad alternative framework of America, which he lays out in his new work, Democracy Denied.

This project began as a series of lectures he was to give in China, to an audience that didn’t understand America. As he worked on it, he realized that many of the ideas he was presenting were also not known by most Americans.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, he talks first about what he sees as the flawed notion of “American exceptionalism:” the supposed moral authority by which we proselytize for freedom while having the highest incarceration rate in the world and increasing levels of inequality.

He explains how our moralizing leads to and perpetuates the kind of police state necessary to take on a war on drugs, encourage law and order, and plan for potential rebellion.

Wallis talks about US imperialism— 800 bases around the world, the projection of American power directly on to the regimes of other countries, and our constant need to pass judgment on those regimes. This is one of the hallmarks of imperialism, as he sees it.

He combines all of this with a sharp critique of the long history of racism in America and shows how it has, from our very beginnings, defined how we see, judge, and sometimes look down upon, people around the world who are not just like us.

Wallis provides us with his alternative view of the world in a kind of economic and geopolitical tour de force.

Mar 8, 2019

Some have decried the Green New Deal because it touches on numerous areas outside of climate change, including universal health care, a universal basic income, job guarantees and worker rights. The assumption has been that climate change exists in some kind of a vacuum.

Mike Berners-Lee, an English researcher, writer on greenhouse gases, professor at Lancaster University, and our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, argues that the critics have it all wrong — because everything is connected.

We cannot even begin to address climate change without also looking at food, biodiversity, income inequality, population, plastics, and more.

Berners-Lee says that the challenges facing humanity today are inescapably global and interconnected. It no longer works, he tells Jeff Schechtman, to tackle environmental issues one at a time or to keep science, economics, sociology, politics, and psychology separate from one another. All parts of our complex global system must be addressed simultaneously if we are to have any positive impact.

Despite all our individual and collective efforts with alternative energy and conservation, we have not made even the slightest improvement in the global “carbon curve,” Berners-Lee says. Moreover, in a kind of environmental Catch-22, it turns out that greater energy efficiency can sometimes increase carbon output.

Nevertheless, Berners-Lee is slightly optimistic that we can solve some of these problems and improve our global quality of life.  

After all, he reminds us, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos notwithstanding, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to find another planet to move to anytime soon. As Berners-Lee says, “there is no planet B.”

Mar 1, 2019

A headline in the Economist shouted recently that “socialism is storming back.” Certainly, with the wealth gap, declining social mobility, and climate change, it’s easy to see why some are losing faith in a capitalist society.

But should the debate really be about capitalism vs. socialism or is it a question of too much of a good thing that needs rebalancing?. After all, we once couldn’t get enough of the cars, antibiotics, and entertainment technology that capitalism produced in abundance. Today, that very abundance threatens to overwhelm us.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, journalist and Fast Company founder Bill Taylor talks to Jeff Schechtman about the language of our current political debate, and why rebuilding the public square is so essential to the survival of capitalism.

Taylor talks about the commodification of just about everything these days, arguing that we have “drifted from a “market economy” to a “market society.” The resulting lack of a common civic life, he says, works against the common good.

Schechtman and Taylor examine why it’s so essential for business, and leaders in the “commanding heights” of the economy, to take heed before the social, political, and economic consequences become dire.

Rather than getting caught up in the polarized debate of the moment, this is a conversation that looks at the things we can actually do to make a change for the better.

Feb 27, 2019

A great deal remains to be discovered about the disgraced lawyer’s Russia ties and the nature of his nearly two-decade dalliance with Trump. Will Congress ask?

Feb 22, 2019

Spoiler Alert! This podcast features a detailed discussion of the story portrayed in the film Green Book. If you haven’t seen it yet, and plan to, please save this podcast for later.

The movie Green Book has earned accolades and attacks since it was released in December. The controversies are sure to be rekindled by 91st Academy Awards Sunday, Feb. 24   Green Book received five Oscar nominations, including “best picture.”  Earlier it garnered three Golden Globe awards, including “best supporting actor” for Mahershala Ali for his portrayal of acclaimed classical and jazz pianist Dr. Donald Shirley. And as a Hollywood biopic that’s “based on a true story,” it has drawn sharp criticism from Shirley’s family members, who say the film distorts and fabricates key elements of the musician’s “true story,” while ignoring powerful parts of his real story.

Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III is an author and national radio host who interviewed Shirley’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece before the film was released. They say they were not contacted or consulted by producer/director Peter Farrelly or his screenplay co-writer, Nick Vallelonga.

The story, fictionalized but inspired by actual characters, is based on the perspective of Vallelonga’s father, also known as “Tony Lip,” portrayed as a racist, Italian-American nightclub bouncer who was Shirley’s driver on a 1962 concert tour that took them deep into the Jim Crow south.

In this podcast interview, Leon details a long list of what he thinks are inaccuracies in the film, from Shirley’s early life to his family relationships to the film’s insinuations that he was gay, a boozer, and a black man who’d never had fried chicken or listened to the music of Little Richard.

While we don’t expect Hollywood versions of people’s lives to be accurate or literal portrayals, Leon feels that the wholesale changes to Shirley’s story while purporting to tell his story using his name are remarkable.

Leon and, he argues, other African American observers see this as part of an all-too-familiar Hollywood pattern: using racial stereotypes to entertain white audiences with feel-good stories at the expense of black narratives. As Leon puts it, “There are all these tropes and stereotypes that they play to in the film, which make their story so much more plausible and acceptable to an audience, but just go against some of the fundamental elements and premises of who the guy really was.”

Wilmer Leon is the host of Inside the Issues with Leon on Sirius/XM channel 126. You can read his commentary on Green Book here. The detailed critique we refer to, written by Brooke C. Obie, is here.  

Feb 18, 2019

The number of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination next year could smash all records. But such a large field also means that most voters will likely end up disappointed because their preferred candidate is eliminated. Is an election where most people’s preferred candidate loses a good thing?

Ranked choice voting (RCV) could help fix that problem.

San Francisco has used RCV — also known as instant runoff voting — in local elections since 2006, and the system decided a 2018 congressional election in Maine. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig’s group, Equal Citizens, is proposing the use of RCV in presidential primaries in 2020.

Adam Eichen, a self-described democracy wonk, is a communications strategist for Equal Citizens. In this podcast, Eichen and Peter B. Collins discuss the strengths and weaknesses of RCV, and the steps required to implement it starting in New Hampshire, traditionally the first primary state.  

With a roster featuring as many as 20 candidates, voters whose first-choice candidate is eliminated would still influence the outcome with their second and third selections.

One benefit of RCV is that it encourages candidates  aware that they might need second- and third-choice votes to refrain from using negative ads or personal attacks against their opponents.

Deciding the winner of an RCV election can take weeks, a reality that might frustrate TV watchers, online influencers, and media executives eager for conclusive results on election night. Eichen and Collins also discuss the pros and cons of eliminating one-on-one runoffs, which usually attract lower voter turnout.

Adam Eichen is co-author, with Frances Moore Lappé, of Daring Democracy. You can read the opinion piece about RCV that he co-wrote here. A crowded 2020 presidential primary field calls for ranked choice voting.

Feb 15, 2019

The recent charges of “anti-Semitism” leveled against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) have reignited the debate about the power and influence of AIPAC and the Israel lobby.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk with Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. They have been looking at this issue for years and co-authored the book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.  

In this week’s conversation, Mearsheimer and Walt examine the efforts of AIPAC, one of the most powerful political lobbies in the United States, and those of other Israeli interest groups. The duo note that even though these groups claim their advocacy is based not on religion but rather on what they characterize as a shared “strategic interest,” any disagreement with them is immediately met with accusations of anti-Semitism.

Mearsheimer and Walt talk about the difference between US interests and those promoted by right-wing Israeli elements and their backers.

It’s an unfiltered look into one of today’s most controversial issues.


Feb 13, 2019

By scouring the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report and some declassified CIA documents, reporter Jeff Kaye has confirmed that there were two separate rendition, detention and interrogation programs run by separate branches of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center.

The first, which we refer to as “Program A” in this podcast, is already known. Consultants James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were paid over $80 million , we are told, to reverse-engineer torture techniques from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program  designed to train troops and spies to resist torture.

Kaye builds a strong case that this effort amounted to human experimentation — for the purpose of designed to  identifying the most effective torture techniques.

“Program B” relied on “standard” interrogation tactics that included some forms of coercive interrogation, and it was not subject to the management and monitoring systems of the first one.

Kaye says the separate programs were “stovepiped” so that front-line personnel assigned to one program didn’t know about the other. But top CIA management, —including current director Gina Haspel, former director George Tenet, and top lieutenants Cofer Black and Jose Rodriguez  —, had to have known about both programs., Kaye argues.

 

Dr. Jeff Kaye is a retired psychologist who has been practicing journalism for 15 years. His report on the two programs is here, and the article on Gina Haspel’s role at three CIA“black” sites is here.

Feb 8, 2019

This week, the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing in over eight years on any kind of gun legislation. In that intervening period, names like Newtown, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, and Parkland have been seared into our collective consciousness.

However, the hearings this week focused only on HR 8, a piece of legislation that would institute universal background checks. We learn in this week's WhoWhatWhy podcast with Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), the chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, that while this particular legislation may have a chance of becoming law, it seems to be the beginning and the end of what’s possible.

In response to questions about legislation banning assault weapons and bump stocks, the congressman feels the chances for passage are slight, at best. Although a lot of gun-control bills may be proposed in the coming year, and there may be public support for many of them, this week’s podcast makes clear that very little beyond background checks can be expected to become law.  

Related: What Gun Background Checks Can’t Detect: Stupidity

Feb 1, 2019

No matter how unseasonably cold or hot it gets or how powerful the storms are, there will be those who still don’t accept the urgency of climate change. For the rest of us, who believe we humans are destroying life as know it on earth, the group Extinction Rebellion (XR) has a message: We must change our behavior now, or die.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Rory Varrato, a US spokesperson for the group, explains that XR was formed last fall amid one of the the biggest acts of peaceful civil disobedience in the UK in decades. He notes that, unlike other climate-change activist groups, XR seeks not just to bring attention to the issue but to force action on several non-negotiable demands.

At the top of the list, according to Varrato, are: 1) getting government, corporations, and the media to address the emergency of global climate change head-on; 2) bringing about nothing short of net-zero carbon output by 2025; and 3) reorganizing society to include direct democracy, citizen assemblies, and “climate justice.”

Varrato takes direct aim at global capitalism as we know it. He lays out a radical agenda that includes a slower, more sustainable way of life for all and a more local approach to even the most complex issues.

While acknowledging that there is not always a straight line between policy reform and civil disobedience, he and his colleagues see the latter as a starting point.

Jan 24, 2019

A penetrating look into the transformative influence of black feminist political strategy and principles in mainstream US politics, especially since the 2016 election.

Jan 22, 2019

Sixty prominent Americans have signed a letter calling on Congress to reopen the investigations into the 1960s assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

The letter, signed by historians, journalists, lawyers, and other experts on the four political murders, is an effort to create a national truth and reconciliation commission to begin a reversal of disastrous social and cultural divisions fueled by decades of government sanctioned lies.

Longtime journalist and author David Talbot, who's written several books about the assassinations and the deep state, is a leader of this effort. He talks to Jeff Schechtman about what he hopes this effort will accomplish, about the corrosive impact that the lack of truth about these killings has had on the fragile US democracy, and why now is the ideal time for the nation to handle the truth.  

Related: JFK Assassination Triggered More Than Kennedy’s Death

Related: A Close Look at Allen Dulles — a Father of the Deep State

Jan 18, 2019

Everyday we look at unfolding news and events through the lens of politics. Suppose we tried to understand it all instead through the lens of psychology? Suppose we got beyond the zero-sum political construct, and into how we have been and are still being manipulated.

What if we realized that President Donald Trump is just a symptom of the deeper crumbling psychological infrastructure of our country? One that makes us so vulnerable to divisive political tactics?  

Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast is psychologist and attorney, Dr. Bryant Welch. In his book State of Confusion, he argues that these are questions not of politics, but about the health of the American mind.

Welch talks to Jeff Schechtman about the long-term impact of today’s sophisticated forms of political manipulation, all of which undercut our ability to seriously deal with modern problems. In an era of change and the onslaught of technology, Welch explains how we are particularly susceptible to paranoia, sexual perplexity, and envy and how they can easily be used to undermine our ability to function rationally.

In Welch’s theories, we can see the root cause of the power of religious groups, and why long-accepted rational scientific ideas are suddenly now under siege. According to Welch, half of Americans today are “suggestive and regressed,” and he says that we are now also suffering from a kind of collective trauma.

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