This transcript has been edited for length and readability.
Hohmann: Thanks everyone for being here. Thank you, Senator.
Sasse: Glad to be here. Sorry to be a little bit tardy.
Hohmann: It’s colder in here than it is outside. Thank you for joining us for this special evening edition of The 202. We have an interesting book that I want to talk a lot about but obviously, there’s sort of the elephant in the room. There’s a lot of news breaking. [LAUGHTER]
Sasse: There is? Who knew?
Hohmann: And before we get started, tonight’s conversation you can follow and live tweet with hashtag #202Live and we’ll take a few of your questions later on via tablet on stage.
Sasse: So we’re live? I thought we were off the record.
Hohmann: Exactly. [LAUGHTER] Just between us and our friends on Washingtonpostlive.com. So the news in the last few minutes, for those who haven’t seen, is that Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, has appointed Robert Muller to be a special prosecutor, the former FBI director for a decade. [APPLAUSE] What’s your initial reaction to that?
Sasse: So I’m also just hearing it seven minutes ago. That’s a little bit why we’re tardy coming in because I just wanted to put out a real quick two-sentence statement on it. I think the American people need to know who Bob Muller is because he’s a special guy. There are lots of really honorable public servants in American life but this is a guy whose career is unimpeachable. Bob Muller was a decorated marine. He has a longtime federal prosecutor who cleaned out some U.S. attorney’s offices that had had some trouble. He headed up the criminal division for a while at the Department of Justice. He was the acting attorney general and then I think he led the Bureau for 12 years and he’s been praised by Republican and Democrat alike for decades. So I think a lot of people will find lots of comfort in this announcement.
Hohmann: How does this impact what you’re doing in Congress? You’re the chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on oversight. How does the fact that we now have a special prosecutor in the mix change what you’re doing?
Sasse: Well, first of all, the founders were genius in creating three branches that are supposed to check and balance one another but we don’t function that way. The American people, by and large—we haven’t been doing basic civics together and we haven’t been celebrating why we have three branches, why we think that legislative, executive, and judicial functions should be divided and that ambitions should check ambition. So we have nothing to do on basic civics and then this town increasingly functions as if you’re party label is sort of a core part of your identity and that’s really not a good idea and I want to say that without some sort of hint that I’m apologizing for some mushy middle. I’m the third or fourth most conservative guy in the Senate by voting record.
But I actually just don’t think the things that we’re voting on are the most important things in American life. I think the continuum from conservative to progressive policy solutions about small issues should be subordinate to conservative and progressive debates about what do we do for the big policy challenges at 10 and 15 and 20 years in the future. And even that should be subordinate to, “What’s our shared American narrative? Why is the freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, protest—why is that the beating heart of American shared understanding of who we are as a people?” We’re not doing any of that stuff so big picture right now, this city doesn’t work and the Congress as an institution doesn’t work but when you drill down to what does it have to do with Russia; we need to have a retrospective and a prospective distinction. There’s a lot we need to understand about 2016 and again, I’m new.
I’m one of five people in the Senate I think who has never been a politician before. So I’ve only been here two-and-a-half years. I’ve only been on the Judiciary Committee four months. So I’m chair of this oversight subcommittee but I’m fortunate to be following a guy named Chuck Grassley, who years ago as a non-lawyer, Midwestern farm kid—
Hohmann: Neighboring Iowa?
Sasse: Yeah, so Grassley and I have a lot in common. Most importantly, we both like pushups. If you don’t follow Grassley on Twitter, you should. It’s sort of a mix of him challenging Iowa high school kids to pushup competitions or him hitting a deer or accidentally having his butt sit on his phone and just dial random 3’s and tweet that out. So Grassley is a pretty– The only time you want to get away from Grassley, if he’s talking about the History Channel, you want to stand back because he is angry every night when he tunes in and there’s no history on the History Channel. When you’re an octogenarian and you want your TV, everybody else needs to just get out of the way.
But anyway, the Oversight subcommittee of Judiciary does important work but Grassley has pulled a lot of that up to the full committee. I think that one of the things we’ve failed to distinguish very well is the retrospective look back at 2016. Lots that we should do there and we should do there faster. Important stuff. Oversight that should be done. But I’m losing sleep about 2018 and 2020 because the Russians are not going to stop doing this and there are lots of other nation-states who are trying to develop their cyber capabilities and where the technology goes next is going to do even more to exacerbate American’s distrust of Americans. The crisis of confidence that we have in our public institutions right now is only going to get worse because the stuff that will be hacked and leaked and fabricated is going to be a lot more plausible and it’s going to make everybody look more corrupt and duplicitous. And so I’m really worried about the fact that Putin is winning right now by having us replay the fight about 2016 as a shirts and skins exercise. “Which candidate were you for? Which candidate were you against?” That’s not the main way we should be processing this. We should be looking at what are the threats we’re going to face in the future?
Hohmann: And I guess there’s two sort of different issues that need to be viewed separately. There’s the Russia interference question obviously, and then now there’s the James Comey question, which is separate and distinct from that. Do you think Comey should testify before the Judiciary Committee? What should the Judiciary Committee do? You have said he should turn over the memos or any tapes.
Sasse: James Comey should be testifying before the Congress. I won’t argue here a lot about which committee but I—
Hohmann: You would like it to be Judiciary?
Sasse: I would like it to be Judiciary. I would like him to be testifying in public. I would like to have all of the Comey memos as pertained to anything related to this White House’s or the last White House’s, for that matter—any attempts to interfere with investigative decision-making. I’d like to have all of those memos and I’d like to have any and all tapes that might exist in the White House about the same conversations.
Hohmann: Do you think your committee will be willing to subpoena those records if they’re not turned over?
Sasse: So again, I’m a rookie. I don’t want to get over, out in front of my skies. The steps of how you get to why you would need to subpoena something and whether or not that slows the process down; frankly, I would like to have a long conversation with Chuck Grassley about that before I get to the particulars. But I think we want lots of information and the American people have a right to believe that the people who serve them in public office for a time want more transparency and want a rebuilding of public trust, not a further erosion of public trust.
Hohmann: So you said earlier today, “There’s a lot here that’s really scary.” What is it that scares you? Is it the public trust element that you’re talking about where there is this kind of doubt, this cloud that’s swirling around and—
Sasse: I think there’s a whole bunch and I’m not trying to pivot to the book yet but if you’re happy to, let’s go ahead. [LAUGHTER]
Hohmann: I want to. [LAUGHS]
Sasse: But I do want to say—if you just want to hold it up the whole time, fine with me. [LAUGHTER] You have long arms. It’s a reason, man. I do think that we are not distinguishing our moment in time very well. We act like a people that doesn’t have a history and a people that don’t have a future a lot of the time. We live in a time when local institutions, mediating institutions are being hollowed out and I’m sure we’ll touch on this a little bit because it sort of mirrors—the crisis of human capital in social networks mirror what’s happening in the hollowing out of the duration of jobs and therefore, people’s placelessness and their rootlessness and the angst and the anxiety and the loneliness that follows from that. And at the same time as we’re hollowing out local community, we’re taking our national conversations and we’re trying to increasingly politicize them. That’s not what most of life is about. Most of life is about stuff that’s about persuasion. It’s about volunteerism. It’s about entrepreneurship. It’s about dinner table. It’s about love and so politics exist to provide a framework for ordered liberty. But in the midst of a time when local communities are being hollowed out and the national community is being politicized, there is so little trust that you layer on top of that these two political parties that often act like they’re only game is to see who can be more short-termist in acting Manichean to the other party. As if just saying the other party is even more evil than we are is somehow winsome argument to anybody.
And so when you need to have three branches of government that are supposed to check and balance one another, we need to have a belief in the rule of law and we need to have an affirmation of the conventions that support and surround the belief in the rule of law. You don’t want to have a situation where the American public thinks every institution has already been politicized and is not recoverable. Because then, your only job is to play defense by attacking the other and I want the Bureau to be an institution that the American people can trust. I want the Bureau to be an institution that the men and women who are our public servants in that institution; they know they’re doing meaningful work for their neighbors and it needs to be protected from politicization. We have three branches, right? Not one, not a dozen. Legislative, executive, and judicial. You’re going to have to put your investigative powers to the Bureau and your prosecutorial decision-making, the Department of Justice; you’ve got to put them in the Executive Branch because they don’t make sense in either of the other two. But once you put them there, that doesn’t mean that they’re directly accountable by a chain of command to partisan politician decision-making in a White House. The FBI director has a 10-year term for a reason. We should be talking about why the FBI director has a 10-year term.
Hohmann: So do you feel like the next FBI director—do you have a preference? Do you feel like it should be someone who is not of one of these two political parties, like a Bob Muller type? Someone from in the Justice Department.
Sasse: Yes. I do. I think that we need to be asking more of our questions through the filter of five and 10 years from now, will what we did today contribute to the rebuilding of public trust or the further erosion of public trust? I think appointing a current politician of one of these two parties to head the FBI; I don’t think that’s a good idea.
Hohmann: Do you have a favorite?
Sasse: I don’t have anything that I’m saying at this point. [LAUGHS]
Hohmann: You actually worked in the Justice Department. You were in the office of legal policy.
Sasse: Yeah, I’m 45 so I’ve had, whatever, 23 years.
Hohmann: For a slacker, you’ve done a lot.
Sasse: My mom’s way of saying it is, “You’re intellectually promiscuous and can’t keep a job.” I like moments of crisis. Max Faber has the distinction between entrepreneurial and bureaucratic management. I’m a lot better at helping sort out crisis than the day-to-day management of a place that’s operating well. So I’m a historian by training but I’ve done a lot of crisis. And so I worked for the Boston Consulting Group, a Keynesian company, a little bit of private equity. And so two times, I came into government for President George W. Bush.
Sasse: HHS, I was assistant secretary of the policy shops at HHS for the last 18-ish months of the Bush Administration and not long after 9-11, I worked in the Justice Department with some intel sharing challenges. So I’ve worked with Bob Muller at the FBI back then in 2003.
Hohmann: I want to close the loop on Russia so we can kind of move on. But there’s a distinction to your point about public trust between what’s legal and what’s smart. So one of the things we’ve heard in the last couple of days is the president has what he calls “an absolute right to declassify information because he’s the president.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the smartest thing to do. In terms of the story we saw a couple of days ago, I know we don’t have all the details but the classified information that was shared with the Russians, was that a smart thing to do?
Sasse: Well, we and Russia don’t have aligned interests. Putin is a very bad guy. Putin is an enemy of free speech, free press, free religion, free assembly. And we should be trumpeting those values to the world and we shouldn’t be naïve to pretend that we and Russia might have aligned interests. Now, that doesn’t mean that a tactical level about a particular moment against ISIS in some narrow way, that we might end up with temporarily aligned interests and Putin’s is going to require taking advantage of those opportunities. This is a very different thing. So again, there’s a lot that we don’t know here so I do want to put an asterisk on this and I think that the president is to be commended for having someone like H.R. McMaster running a process. I think you see in the foreign policy space now something that we don’t really see in the domestic policymaking side of this White House, which is there is a decision-making process and there are a lot of really great folks that the president has put in place on his national security team and they deliberate well together and a lot of that is because of the job General McMaster is doing.
So there are things here that we want to affirm. At the same time, to your point about the distinction between imprudence and illegality, it is true that it’s very difficult for a president to violate laws related to classification because the president is the ultimate declassifier. That is factually accurate. It’s a really different thing than whether or not an action is prudent, and in this case, it isn’t—again, I’ve been in the skiff four times in the last 30 hours and so I want to pause and sound stuttering if I need to, to go slow to make sure I don’t get near any lines of things I shouldn’t be talking about in public. But it’s been widely reported in the media that the source of the specific intelligence that may have been discussed in the Oval Office. Again, asterisk all around that statement. But then that wasn’t U.S.-originated intel. We want the other freedom-loving nations of the world that we share intelligence with to know that they can trust us, that we’re going to guard those secrets well. Sources and methods are the lifeblood of an intelligence community.
We need spies in this dangerous world. It is a broken world and we need people to be doing the work that a lot of these men and women do and unlike men and women in the military, who are often sacrificing and suffering for our family, they get sendoff ceremonies and they get return home ceremonies. We have a whole bunch of spies whose families and they labor lonely and they’re doing really extraordinary things and I worry about the station chiefs for the CIA around the world. They need to be telling our folks when they go out and try to cultivate human intelligence in some of these countries. They need to be able to tell people, “It is worth risking your life for this because the kind of intel you’re gathering is going to get to decision-makers desks. It’s that critically important.” And we need to tell them we’re going to protect their lives. If you’re going to do that, the people that we’re sharing intel with need to know that we’re a reliable partner.
Hohmann: Let’s transition to Turkey because I think in any ordinary time, Recep Erdoğan’s visit to the White House yesterday would have been the biggest story that we all would have been talking about and would have dominated Washington. Obviously, we’ve seen a troubling drift away from democracy in Turkey over the last year but sort of the story out of the visit was that yesterday afternoon, there was a brief but violent altercation outside of the home of the Turkish ambassador. At least nine people were injured. The video, if you haven’t seen it, it’s pretty brutal. And what we now know and police say, authorities say that Erdoğan’s bodyguards were among those who attacked some of the protestors who were protesting peacefully across the street. This afternoon, the White House declined to comment on it, said it’s not an issue that they’re going to weigh in on. But what do you make of that and it’s not necessarily the White House not responding, but in general, the sort of display of brutality on American soil by these folks and what can the United States do to send a message that that’s not okay?
Sasse: Yeah, well, the first thing we should do is we should condemn it. We should be unambiguous in affirming the fact that we believe in the right of assembly and the right speech, in the right of screaming. I’ve had the town halls where people stand in the back of the room with their middle finger and extend it high above their head and it’s not always fun, but love your passion. I’m for the 1st Amendment and we should be affirming the right of redress of grievances and the right of protests, whether these were American citizens or they’re folks in the United States who have the protections of U.S. persons; I think we should be really clear first of all, in just our hortatory statements about it. Second of all, there’s no diplomatic immunity for people to beat up peaceful protestors in the United States. So I’d like to understand more about who these bodyguards were.
I think one of the things we don’t do very well and it goes back to the basic civics that we’re not doing in common is we’ve decided to get partisan and political and divisive about the term “American exceptionalism.” I don’t think that’s a helpful thing for us. I think everybody—again, partisan continuum here, from Republican to Democrat, conservative to progressive; every America ought to want to raise high the flag of American exceptionalism because American exceptionalism is not an argument about foreign policy. American exceptionalism is not an argument about the level of intervention that you believe the U.S. should have around the world. American exceptionalism is not an argument about the superiority of Americans. It’s not an ethnic claim. American exceptionalism is first and foremost a historical claim that understands that at the American founding, our founders flipped on its head the relationship that most people had had historically between rights and government. The world is a broken place. Therefore, you need government. You need security. We need order. And because people knew that they needed order in the world, they tended to affirm whoever was strong and there was sort of a sense that might make it right. Now, there’s all sorts of caveats we should put on that historically.
But at the American founding, there was this big, bold, hubristic claim that most people throughout most places in human history had been wrong in thinking that government came first and government gives you rights. The American experiment is this huge, screaming argument about human dignity. We believe that 320 million Americans, then four million Americans will all sorts of really important side conversations we should have about how the original sin of American slavery, we were not living to the full promise of some of the things we proclaimed. But later, we would have heroes like MLK fulfilling the promise of the American founding. But those four million then; the 320 million Americans now and 7.2 billion people around the world. We believe that people are created with inherent dignity and government is just our shared project to secure those rights. Government is not the author or source of our rights. That’s what American exceptionalism means. Now, why we sometimes get confused about foreign policy is distinguishing between the seven billion and the 320 million.
I have an office where I serve the American people for six years and I have responsibilities to the 320 million. I don’t have defined, precise responsibilities to the remaining 6.5 billion, but the American truth claim, the American shouting in the best way to triumphalistically shout about dignity. It is that we believe all seven billion of God’s creatures on this earth are created with dignity and we believe that they have inherent inalienable rights and we affirm that for not just the protestors; whether they were or weren’t American citizens, they were on our soil yesterday. But when strong men around the world crack down on people and beat up non-violent protestors there; America has moral clarity about what we believe about that.
Then, we’ll get to prudential debates about whether or not we should actually go and do anything about it.
Hohmann: With our armed forces—[OVERLAPPING]
Sasse: Exactly, those kind of debates. But the truth claim about seven billion people having inalienable rights and dignity by nature, not because a government grants it to them; that’s what American exceptionalism means.
Hohmann: Let’s transition to start talking about the book. It’s not a political book. You don’t mention Donald Trump once.
Sasse: The president is nowhere in the book.
Hohmann: But you do show your—I think you have five academic degrees from like four different schools. There’s a lot of Aristotelian, intellectual—
Sasse: My mom again. Intellectually promiscuous, couldn’t keep a job. [LAUGHTER]
Hohmann: But you were a wrestler too. You have some jock in you.
Sasse: I went to Harvard. Not because I thought they had great academics but because they had crappy athletics. They were bad enough that they would let me play. If Nebraska would have let me play, I would have stayed home.
Hohmann: The book covers a lot of themes, especially for parents, who are grappling with how do you raise your kids to be productive members of society? You talk about this crisis of indefinite adolescence. A collective coming of age crisis without peril in our history and that’s really the bulk of the book. But one of the things that as a political reporter who is covering this unique moment in our history, what I was really interested in was talking about why that coming of age crisis is so problematic. You don’t just sort of say, “There are kids these days. This is really bad.” You say, “This is bad because we’re in this moment of tremendous disruption with the rise of the service economy and all of these problems. And so these problems that you outline are especially problematic. Can you kind of talk about that and I guess how do we fix it?
Sasse: Well, so thank you. So first of all, 100% not a political book, 99% not a policy book. Two-thirds of this book is a constructive argument about what should we do to think about habit formation for 13-year-old’s, 15-year-old’s, 17-year-old’s. the republic and our neighborhoods and our families depend on the cultivation of virtue. There is going to be order in the world and we believe in self-restraint, self-discipline, self-governance because we’d just assume not have it be other-driven restraint and discipline in governance. So first of all, it is an American challenge but it is not chiefly or primarily a governmental challenge. And so two-thirds of the book is trying to be constructive. The first third that is trying to set the stage really is against a historical backdrop of where did this concept of perpetual adolescence come from? And I think we have to grasp our moment in economic history to do that.
So first of all, I’m not beating up adolescence. I think adolescence is a gift. We’re pretty fortunate to live in a place where—by place, I mean macro. Our time in human history. We’re two millennia into the idea that most people believe in adolescence, which I define as kind of a greenhouse phase, for 18 months to four years right after you hit puberty. So you hit puberty; you become biologically an adult but we don’t assume that you have to become fully emotionally, morally economically in terms of educational school stoppage, in terms of household structure. You don’t have to become a fully independent adult just because your body became an adult. That’s pretty great. Childhood is a special time to be cherished and protected. Adulthood is to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful and the heights of human achievement. But adolescence is this protected transitional stage. But adolescence is only to be celebrated if we understand it as a means to an end.
If you start to think that adolescence is the destination, then it starts to become dystopian. Peter Pan is a hell. I think we forget that Neverland—before Disneyland—Disney remade Neverland. It’s not a good thing to be stuck in that state and we should be able to distinguish between 10-year-old’s, 15-year-old’s, 20-year-old’s, 25-year-old’s and it’s increasingly hard to distinguish among a bunch of those ages. And one of the most basic reasons is because of where we are in economics. We live at a time where as our kids come of age, they’re insulated from work. Again, this is not a socioeconomic argument. Basically, almost all of our kids are insulated from work as they’re coming of age because our homes are insulated from work. Work is a place that you go off to. Well, that isn’t normal in human history. There have been four kinds of economies: hunter-gathers, settled agrarian farmers, the rise of industrialization and the big tool economy, mass urbanization; I think 1870 to 1920. And whatever this thing is now.
The mobile economy, the digital economy, the service economy, the IT economy. Sociologists have thrown in the towel. They’ve just started to call it the post-industrial economy, which is another way of saying we don’t know how to call it, right? We don’t refer to industrialization as the de–agriculturalization economy, the post-agriculturalization economy. We call it industrialization because we came to understand what it was. We don’t know what this next thing is. Well, most of human history is nomadic hunter-gatherers and it’s agrarianism from 11,000 years ago until about 150 years ago. You didn’t have job choice in those two longest eras of human history. You just had becoming eight and 10 and 12 and 14 and doing more of what grandma and grandpa did. You just sort of earned more of your keep. You became an adult. Some people got called to the clergy, law kind of professionalized as a discipline 200 years ago. There were some traveling snake oil salesmen who were sort of early proto doctors. But by and large, you didn’t have job choice until industrialization.
So mass immigration across the seas and from the countryside to the city—I think we forget how recent this is; 86% of Americans lived and worked on the farm at the end of the Civil War. Think of that: 86% of Americans lived and worked on the farm just 170 years ago. By World War II, 60% of us lived and worked in the cities. That huge migration scared the crap out of people and as the father of teenage daughters, I get it, right? If you think about teenage males migrant across the land, it scares me. [LAUGHTER] And so you got to cities and progressivism was sort of the response to, “Oh, my goodness. How will you recreate the Tocquevillian, localist, dense social networks of the village?” People knew each other. There was a Lockean theory of the commons. There was accountability. There was transparency on your moral behavior and on your virtue. You get to cities and there was a belief that there will always be anonymity and it will be the war of all against all.
Prohibition was a terrible idea but it’s useful to try to understand how it happened. There really were lots of Irish 15-year-old kids drunk in the streets. There was a fear that we don’t know how to spend the time and occupy people’s sensibilities and affections as they got to the city. And all that these people feared and by these people, I mean the entire intellectual elite and political establishment. From Democrat Woodrow Wilson to Republican Teddy Roosevelt, everybody believed that you couldn’t recreate the old New England village anymore; an America as a republic of the sort of middle-class citizenry where they governed. That probably wasn’t going to work. We’re going to need the rule of the experts now was their theory. And a huge part of that was because of the anonymity of cities and because of the job disruption. Well, here was the good news: they were wrong. It turned out when you got to the cities; you recreated the social networks and the sense human capital in the urban ethnic neighborhood that you had known in the old village. And by the way, the fear people had about job change; it ended up being a one-time moment. You’re 15 and you migrate or you go from the country to the city or you graduate high school and you take your first job and you keep it until death or retirement. Everything that they were scared of back then where they sort of hyperventilated a little bit and were too afraid that America couldn’t continue; everything that they were afraid of then is actually the world we’re entering now. We are heading into a world where you’re going to have job change forever more.
You’re going to have 40 and 45 and 50 and 55-year-olds who are going to have to become lifelong learners because they’re going to be disintermediated out of their job and their firm and their industry. No civilization has ever built a community of lifelong learners, and at exactly the same time that we need to build more resilience into our kids—
Hohmann: We’re getting less.
Sasse: They’re coming into a moment where they’re raised with less of that celebration of scar tissue in their teen years.
Hohmann: You mention in the book that you originally got the idea—you were president of a liberal arts college, Midland University in Nebraska, and there were students who were supposed to set up a Christmas tree and they set up the first six feet of a Christmas tree and they decorated it and then they didn’t have a ladder or anything so they just gave up and didn’t decorate the top of the tree and just walked away. And you said these were perfectly smart kids but this sort of represented to you this problem, this passivity, this—
Sasse: It scared the heck out of me. These are sort of good kids. They’re vital and vibrant, impressive people, and frankly, to get to work in the athletic department or in the development office, those are good jobs on campus. So it wasn’t just that we had good kids in general. These were some of the cream of the crop of our good kids and our athletic arena has a pretty big atrium and this tree was 20 foot tall, a Christmas tree, and it was their job to decorate it and literally, they decorated the part that they could reach and they just spent all of the decorations on the six or seven or eight feet and the top 12 feet are totally naked. I mean, it looks totally ridiculous.
Hohmann: That’s where this book grew up.
Sasse: Exactly. This is my diatribe against the naked Christmas tree. And this vice president for development, she happens by and she says, “Hey, what are you all doing? Why are you leaving?” And they said, “We don’t know. We used all of the decorations and we couldn’t reach any higher. And she said, “So maintenance refused to bring you a ladder?” And nobody thought to ask. Nobody thought to look. And it’s an odd thing. I want to be clear. This book is not an old man screaming, “Get off my lawn.” That is not the point of this book. It is a constructive project but I’ve had this experience now—I was 37 when I became a college president and I didn’t think of myself as that different than the students coming into our college until I started interviewing them and I realized that when I went off to college in the fall of 1990, everybody that I knew, from my high school who went to college or didn’t go to college—I’m from a pretty working-class town. Everybody that I got to college with, everyone had done some work before they were 18. It was just sort of a normal thing and the students coming into our college—and we were not a socioeconomically rich school. The kids coming into our college by and large had never really done any work before and I realized they didn’t have an intuitive, in the gut feeling of the distinction between production and consumption, which is a pretty basic thing to understand if you’re going to be happy. Because consumerism doesn’t actually make people happy.
The data is pretty clear on this. Feeling like you have meaningful work and that you’re needed and that you’re serving your community, that’s the most basic touchstone of human happiness.
Hohmann: You mentioned we’re in this moment of fear that we also saw in the Gilded Age too, the industrialization period. One of the ways that’s manifested itself is this protectionist impulse that obviously, Donald Trump was able to successfully capitalize on in the Republican primaries. You’re an unapologetic free trader. How worried are you that this fear because of all of this change that’s happening is going to end up leading to really negative policy outcomes that end up making it even harder to fix these problems that you’re outlining?
Sasse: Very fearful of that. I’m fearful of bad policy and I’m also fearful of scapegoating politics that just lie a lot, right? The reality is that free trade is not just theoretically but demonstrably good for both trading partners. You have, when there’s more free trade between two nations, you have consumers winning on both sides of the border. These are voluntary transactions that people are engaging in. Of course, there are ways people can cheat on trade. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about trade done right. So consumers on both sides win and producers on both sides of a border win on that. This is sort of comparative advantage 101 and it isn’t just theory. It’s born out in practice.
Now, what we should be debating is production subsectors have winners and losers and so we need better trade mitigation policies. We need better mid-career job retraining policies. There’s a lot that we should do because trade isn’t an unmitigated, good for every individual in every case. It’s good for both peoples. So then we need to talk about how you deal with some of the distribution of facts. It isn’t the case that the main thing leading to the shortening of duration of people’s jobs right now, which is fundamentally a scary and unsettling thing. We should feel that ache and pain for our neighbors. People should read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and other books that look at what it feels like to be in communities that are deindustrializing and there’s not new opportunities back flowing that space. There’s a lot of human empathy that’s required and there’s a lot of policy creativity that’s going to be required.
But it isn’t the case that the shortening of average duration of a job, as unsettling as that is, is primarily driven by trade. It is primarily driven by technology, and in the future, that’s going to accelerate. We’re not anywhere near the levels of disruption that artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to bring. And so I really hate the idea that our politics will take real fears people have and try to figure out how we can scapegoat people in bad and fake policy solutions.
Hohmann: You just mentioned technology there at the end. That’s another big theme in the book that I think is interesting. Obviously, parents all the time grapple with how much screen time do you let your kids have, you try to spend an hour together with the family, all three kids and your wife. You home school.
Sasse: We do hybrid stuff.
Hohmann: But keeping them not on the screen.
Hohmann: One of the points you make in the book is technology cuts both ways. That obviously, there are these advantages, but there are a lot of disadvantages and you attribute some of the polarization and all of these problems that you’re talking about with Washington being broken too this technology, to the kind of pick-your-own-adventure news. How do you break through that? Obviously, there’s not an easy policy solution to that. How do we fix that problem?
Sasse: So why don’t I just throw up on the whiteboard two or three of the themes you said at the beginning but I won’t unpack them because I’ll go to your disintermediation of the media question because that’s really fundamental too. But I want to be clear. I’m no luddite. I believe that technology is going to deliver unbelievable exponential growth on the curve of total global output. I’m an Uber driver on the side. Besides being a U.S. senator, I like to do work tours with Nebraskans so I drive Uber occasionally. And by the way, if you don’t know—fun fact. If you throw up in an Uber, you get charged an extra $150 and the driver gets that $150. [LAUGHTER] Now, why does that matter? It matters a lot because it’s a great market mechanism to draw drivers into a bar district at night at a time when Uber can add a lot of value, right? We don’t want people drunk driving.
But yet if you’ve been an Uber driver and somebody’s decorated your back seat, you’ve got a disincentive to go do that again; unless I get $150. Sorry, side point. I got a little bit distracted. [LAUGHTER] I’m thinking about going out and driving some Uber later tonight. I believe that technology has unbelievable potential and opportunity for us. I also think we should grapple more with the fact that the benefits of technological growth and development are not necessarily going to redound to the median worker and the median household and we need to think about that in a lot more intentional and creative ways. So let’s just bracket that.
Then the next one, which heads toward media, is the digital addiction’s question. I like Twitter. At Ben Sasse on Twitter is actually me. It’s not some staff-run account. I’m a commuting dad. I’ve got three little kids. They smell badly all the time. I think it’s hilarious that children smell. We have a lot of animals.
Hohmann: Bo Crystal called you “boy tweeter of the plat.”
Sasse: I don’t know if that’s good or ill. [LAUGHTER] But the digital world has lots of potential for us but it requires even more intentionality about the short-term dopamine hits that we get out of things like video games and the sort of narcissistic activities that can develop from spending too much of your time online. And so my wife and I try hard to have digital fasts, where we and the kids try to gather in the living room and we’ve got a whole bunch of old style books and the piano and a guitar and a violin and we’re here hostage for awhile together. And so daughters—again, my kids: 13 and 15-year-old girls, six-year-old boy. The girls, 13 and 15-year-old’s, they’re not going to make music on their own together when they’re at each other’s throats until they realize we’re really serious. We’re never turning on screens tonight and if the screens are never going to come, all of a sudden, they end up at the piano together. And that’s a pretty special thing but it requires intentionality, right? Most of the book is about this.
Again, our family is no model. We stumble and fall every day. But we have a shared theory of what we’re trying to accomplish as we help our kids transition from 13 to 15 to 17: media. I’ve worked in a lot of sectors that were disintermediating. You’ve got travel agencies, stock brokerage, music publishing, book publishing. A whole bunch of these are really, really interesting. The fact that we can get $6 and $7.00 stock transactions in an odd lot numbers and it’s not just if you’re rich and powerful and the broker returns your call in 1985 and it’s a $175.00 transaction. There’s just lots of good stuff that came from that disintermediation of all of the middlemen, right?
Travel agency: I’m really glad that Orbitz and Travelocity and Expedia exist and I can see into the inventory. I don’t’ want to wait on the phone with somebody and they have all of this special knowledge in their saber terminal about whether or not American flies the city pairs on the dates and times that I want. The disintermediation of that sector is an unmitigated good. Disintermediation in journalism is a mixed blessing because one of the things that’s happening is we’re cutting out not just the middlemen that kept us having to wait until tomorrow morning to get a physical paper. We’re also cutting out a lot of editing. And that’s dangerous because editing is an important function. We just don’t know how to price for it. And so I think we need to understand that when you disintermediate these channels, a whole bunch of different things happen, some good and some bad. But one of the things I think we don’t talk about enough in public is that almost all media is, in a way, moving towards being niche media. And one of the dangers of that is we can silo ourselves inside echo chambers where we only listen to people who already agree with us and that scares the heck out of me for a republic because we need shared facts.
Hohmann: And I smiled when I opened your book because you have blurbs from both Tim Kaine, obviously, the Democratic nominee for vice president then right next to it, the president of Focus on the Family. So you have a range of people who kind of I think appreciate that message.
Sasse: I like both of those guys and I’m glad they did it but here’s what I’m proud of stuff. Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs fame of CNN and Larry the Cable Guy, the best blue-collar comedian in American life. Those two guys are right next to Cory Booker on the blurbs and never before have those three people been in conversation together. [LAUGHTER]
Hohmann: We kind of have to wrap up unfortunately, because we could talk about the book all night. But there is all of this division and the reality is people do put in the red and blue jerseys when they show up to work in the Senate. Obviously, there’s all these questions swirling. The special prosecutor now. Looking ahead just short-term to the next year, two years, what do you think actually can get done in Congress? As you note, it’s broken but what do you see happening or are you sort of pessimistic about that? I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note.
Sasse: Yeah, I’m worried that we might end on a pessimistic note there so can I just pass on this one. We’ll go onto the next one. Let’s do one more question but I’ll be honest. I think there is a Groundhog Day element to Washington that’s existed for a long time and I think some people need to shout the “the emperor has no clothes.” And by that, I mean D.C. has been dysfunctional for a long time and yet, there is a sort of lobbying insulation around the town that makes it seem like, “Well, this year, if we get these three process steps right, it will probably work.” And it’s probably not true. Five of the seven richest counties in America now are the suburbs of Washington, D.C. the counties in Maryland and Virginia that ring D.C. Manhattan, San Francisco, and five counties that ring D.C. Why is that? A fiver of money flows to this place and that isn’t the way America is supposed to work.
George Washington’s farewell address, Eisenhower’s call up to every American to be a part-time politician. Every American should regard their community as the center of the world and Washington should be a place for servant leadership to maintain that framework for ordered liberty, but recognize that the real centers of the world are where people work and worship and where they’re raising their kids and working, volunteering at the Little League. And so I think we should be straighter about the fact that our systems right now aren’t working. I’ll name one fact as an example of why I don’t think a lot will get done in the next year-and-a-half.
Nixon impounded—let’s talk about budget for a minute. Nixon impounded a bunch of funds at the end of Watergate so we kind of forget that history. But the Budget Control Act was passed in 1974. It created a new budget process. We have a three-step budget process. There is no company in the world and there is no other government at the state and local level or any other nation on Earth that has a three-step budget process. Most have two, some have one, and the migration is from two-step to one-step. We have a three-step process: budgeting, authorizing, appropriating. And it never actually happens. It happened for four years from ‘74 to ‘77 and in the 39 years since then, only four times have we spent at least 30% of the federal funds via the process. What we do is we wait until 48 hours before the government shuts down every September 30th, we scream, “We’ve got a crisis. We’ve got two choices. We should do 0% or 102%. Let’s do everything we did last year with no prioritization and just grow the government a little bit and let entitlements run on autopilot off a cliff and bankrupt our kids, or let’s say we’re going to shut down the government.”
If you had any not-for-profit or small business or big business in America and the board had to deal with executives that came to them and said, “Your choice is shut down the company or grow it 2% next year with no prioritization and evaluation of what we did last year”, every not-for-profit board and company in America would say, “You’re all fired. You’re a bunch of bozos.” And we live in a place where we don’t do any of that prioritization and yet, we’re acting like, “Well, maybe this year the appropriations process will work.” It’s not going to work. I mean, there’s a 10% chance it will work a little bit and we still won’t tell the truth about entitlements but it’s worked four times in 39 years and yet we go through the same Groundhog Day steps. We need to rethink a lot of this stuff at a very fundamental level.
Hohmann: Well, with that—senator, unfortunately, that is all the time we have. Thank you so much to our audience. [APPLAUSE]
Sasse: Thanks for the time.
Hohmann: Before we wrap up, I just wanted to announce to everyone that our next Daily 202 live will be next Tuesday morning with John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. So there will be an RSVP link in tomorrow morning’s Daily 202. But with that, thank you again, Senator Sasse. I really appreciate the conversation. [APPLAUSE]