• Show Notes
  • Transcript

On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned with Preet, “The Merit Trap,” Preet answers listener questions about whether state attorneys general can indict a sitting president, the status of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s long-standing “blue slip” policy, and the move by the Department of Justice to take over the defense of President Trump in a defamation suit filed by columnist E. Jean Carroll. 

Then, Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel joins Preet for a conversation about his new book, “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” where he explores the corrosive role of meritocracy in the politics of our current moment. 

To listen to Stay Tuned bonus material, try the CAFE Insider membership free for two weeks and get access to the full archive of exclusive content, including the CAFE Insider podcast co-hosted by Preet and Anne Milgram. 

Sign up to receive the CAFE Brief, a weekly newsletter featuring analysis by Elie Honig, a weekly roundup of politically charged legal news, and historical lookbacks that help inform our current political challenges. 

As always, tweet your questions to @PreetBharara with hashtag #askpreet, email us at [email protected], or call 669-247-7338 to leave a voicemail.

REFERENCES & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS

Q&A:

  • “Notice of Removal from the Supreme Court of the State of New York,” courts.state.ny, 9/8/2020
  • “A Sitting President’s Amenability to Indictment and Criminal Prosecution,” Justice.gov, 10/16/2000
  • “The History of the Blue Slip in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary,” CRS, 10/22/2003
  • David Lat, “Good Riddance to Blue Slips,” New York Times, 5/8/2018
  • “State-by-State Statutory Language on Double Voting,” NCSL, 9/3/2020
  • Stephanie Saul, “Voting Twice? Trump Creates a New Headache for Election Officials,” New York Times, 9/3/2020
  • Joyce Vance’s tweet about DOJ taking over Trump’s defense against E. Jean Carroll, 9/8/2020
  • Steve Vladeck’s tweet about DOJ taking over Trump’s defense against E. Jean Carroll, 9/8/2020
  • AG Bill Barr’s comments on DOJ taking over Trump’s defense against E. Jean Carroll, 9/9/2020

THE INTERVIEW:

  • Sandel’s appearance on the 100th episode of Stay Tuned, 8/22/2020
  • Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 9/15/2020
  • Michael Sandel, “The Tyranny of Merit,” TED2020, 5/2020

ROOTS OF MERITOCRACY 

  • Michael Young, “Down with Meritocracy,” The Guardian, 6/28/2001
  • “Michael Young, 86, Scholar; Coined, Mocked ‘Meritocracy,’” New York Times, 1/25/2002
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The myth of meritocracy: who really gets what they deserve?” The Guardian, 10/19/2018

EDUCATION

  • Michael Sandel, “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice,” New York Times, 9/2/2020
  • “Percentage of the U.S. population who have completed four years of college or more from 1940 to 2019, by gender,” Statista, 2020
  • “Governor Whitmer Announces “Futures for Frontliners,” a G.I. Bill Program for Essential Workers,” Michigan.gov, 4/29/2020

THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST

  • David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, Ballantine, 1972
  • Philip Bump, “Nearly everyone in Congress has a college degree. Most Americans don’t,” Washington Post, 2/2/2017
  • Jim Zarroli, “Fact Check: Did Glass-Steagall Cause the 2008 Financial Collapse” NPR, 10/14/2015
  • Bobby Allyn, “Fauci Estimates That 100,000 To 200,000 Americans Could Die From The Coronavirus,” NPR, 3/29/2020
  • Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Fighting Over Masks in Public Is the New American Pastime,” New York Times, 6/30/2020
  • Howard Bryant, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, Anchor, 2011

BUTTON:

  • The website tracking recommendations by the Bharara boys: Housework2020.org
  • Preet’s note to Insiders on Housework2020, cafe.com, 8/6/2020
  • Ted Cruz’s tweet responding to Housework2020, 8/3/20

Preet Bharara:

From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.

Michael Sandel:

People who have technocratic expertise, but who lack human judgment and experience, practical wisdom, sense of history, they’ve gotten us if you just look back at the last half century. They’ve gotten us into some pretty dangerous political circumstance.

Preet Bharara:

That’s Michael Sandel. He’s an esteemed philosophy professor at Harvard and I sat in his classroom many years ago to learn about justice. During his four decades at the school, he’s inspired thousands of others to explore thorny ethical issues. This week Professor Sandel is publishing a new book, The Tyranny of Merit; What’s Become of the Common Good. Sandel and I talked about the roots of America’s obsession with meritocracy and why we might need to retire the word, smart. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.

Preet Bharara:

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Preet Bharara:

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Preet Bharara:

Let’s get to your questions. This question comes in a tweet from Twitter user Darren KH who writes, “Don’t understand how actions prior to POTUS’s term can engage the resources to the DOJ to defend. #askpreet.”

Preet Bharara:

Thanks, Darren, for the question. I’ve gotten this question a lot over the last 24 hours. You’re obviously referring to the case of E. Jean Carroll against Donald Trump. E. Jean Carroll is a woman who claims that many years ago Donald Trump raped her and after she made those allegations, Donald Trump said in return that she was a liar and was making it up. She has since filed a defamation suit against the sitting president and the president’s lawyers, personal lawyers have been defending that in New York state court. What happened this week is that the Department of Justice itself, important department within the government, has essentially intervened and filed a notice of removal which means this is a motion to change the court from New York state court to the Southern District of New York, federal court.

Preet Bharara:

Lots of people have been asking the question, why is the President’s defense now suddenly going to be paid for by the taxpayer and be defended by the Department of Justice. The first thing I will say is, it is in the ordinary course of Department of Justice’s responsibility to defend suits against federal employees when they have acted within the scope of their official duties. So if they have engaged in conduct that is being attacked in some way in a civil lawsuit, it is the Department of Justice. After a certification is made that the conduct was within the scope of official duties, they take on the responsibility. That was true when [inaudible 00:03:45] in my office were sued by people, our civil division would take over the defense after a certification and there’s nothing abnormal about that.

Preet Bharara:

The question here, the reason people are raising their eyebrows, like this person in the tweet is, how can it be that this conduct by the President was part of his official duties? Let me just make one response to the tweet, which asks how can actions prior to POTUS’s term engage the resources to the DOJ. The alleged rape happened before the POTUS’s term, but the conduct that causes the suit to arise, the lawsuit to arise did happen while he was president and that was the defamation itself, the accusing of the accuser of being a liar. But that doesn’t answer the question of how that could possibly be within the official scope of the President’s duties. We have a simple declaratory statement by the government in moving the case to the Southern District of New York which states, “James G. Touhey, Jr., the Director of the Torts Branch within the Civil Division of the Department of Justice certified that the defendant employee, President Trump, was acting within the scope of his office or employment at the time of the incident out of which the claim arose.”

Preet Bharara:

He goes on to say, “The claim asserts defamation based on a written statement issued to the press and two statements the President made in interviews in June 2019 in which the President vehemently denied accusations made in plaintiff’s then forthcoming book.” Aside from the question of whether or not the President is in fact a “employee” of the government, which some academics have raised a question about, the mere fact that the utterance was made while Donald Trump was president, I think most legal experts will say it doesn’t qualify it as something done within the scope of official duties and employment. I am not an expert myself, I’m a federal tort claims ex, but there are a lot who have been posting on social media and I am finding little support based on the certification made for the proposition that we taxpayers should be paying for this defense.

Preet Bharara:

Former guest on Stay Tuned, Professor Steve Vladeck posted a tweet in which he said, “DOJ is allowed, indeed it is required to take over tort suits against federal officials for torts committed within the scope of their employment, but how is claiming that Carroll lied about a decades old rape allegation within the scope of Trump’s employment as President?!?” That’s a lot of punctuation for Steve. And our friend, Joyce Vance, former US Attorney from Alabama tweeted, “DOJ gives legal representation to federal employees sued for actions within the scope of their employment so we’re now footing the bill for Trump’s defense based on the ludicrous claim that he was acting as POTUS when he called E. Jean Carroll a liar. Trump also said she’s not my type. I don’t think that’s within the scope of his presidential duties either.” But just to be certain, I consulted with a former superstar from the civil division in NSNY, who I worked with very closely over the years. And just in case I was missing something because sometimes quick analysis on social media doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, I asked my former colleague, is this bonkers or arguably legit?

Preet Bharara:

My former civil division colleague replied, “I’d say outrageous. I see the argument that the Federal Tort Claims Act applies if the government official committed the alleged tort while acting within the scope of his official duties, and here he committed the alleged tort, defamation, while he was president, but that can’t have been within the scope of his official duties and the real alleged conduct happened way before he was president so I will stick with outrageous.” There you have it, very little support. I don’t understand exactly how they are making this argument in good faith. I’ve seen very little support of it. We’ll see how the case proceeds in the Southern District.

Preet Bharara:

This question comes in an email from David who writes, “With the possibility of DC statehood bubbling up in political conversations lately, I started to wonder about the effect it could have on blue slip procedures for the District of Columbia and DC circuit courts then I realized I didn’t know how the Senate handles those courts now and I haven’t found any answers. Does some version of the blue slip norm apply to these courts and what implications might statehood pose for judicial appointments? Thank you.”

Preet Bharara:

Thanks for the email, David. The blue slip policy and norm is something that I was familiar with during the time that I was working in the United States Senate on the Judiciary Committee. It’s not enshrined in any statute or regulation, it’s basically a Senate tradition of respect for home state senators so it has been, for a long time in the past, the practice of the Judiciary Committee led by a chairman, democrat or republican, that any appointment of a district court judge, an appeals court judge, a US attorney, or US marshal from a particular district must have the accent to go forward by the home state senators. And there’s a slip, it’s actually colored blue that the senator signs upon receiving a nomination of one of those types that I mentioned and the senator can either check a box that says I approve, check a box that says I don’t approve or just not submit the blue slip at all. For many, many years if both the US senators from a particular state did not check the approved box, the nomination wouldn’t go forward. There would be no hearing, there would be no vote.

Preet Bharara:

In recent years, during the Trump administration, that policy with respect to blue slips and the courtesy has not been accorded for circuit court nominees, appeals court nominees, that’s one level below the Supreme Court, that has been somewhat controversial, but they proceeded without necessarily requiring the consent of all the home state senators. And recall that all appeals court judges come from circuits that encompass more than one state so if you have an appeals court judge, there might be three or four or five states implicated and you would have to have blue slips from all those states and lately republicans have not been honoring the blue slip with respect to those seats. I believe there have been some exceptions to the honoring of blue slips for district court judges, but by and large, it’s my understanding after having consulted with a lawyer on the committee that in most cases they have continued to be honored with respect to district court judges and US Attorneys and US marshals.

Preet Bharara:

As for DC, you are absolutely correct. There is no blue slip process because there is no United States senator from DC because it’s not a state. There has been from time to time respect and courtesy accorded to Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate to the House. During the Obama administration and the Clinton administration she was allowed to put forth recommendations for the court, but there is no blue slip procedure for DC. I would presume if DC were to become a state, but we’re far from that point, that whatever the blue slip practice is for New York or California or Texas or Florida would also apply to DC.

Preet Bharara:

This question comes in an email from Max who writes, “Big fan of the show and book. You’ve spoken a lot about the DOJ memo on federally charging a sitting president with a crime. Does this also pertain to state AGs? For example, President Trump recently encouraged North Carolina voters to try and vote twice, which is a state crime in North Carolina. Could the North Carolina AG indict the president?”

Preet Bharara:

It’s an interesting question. With respect to whether or not the President committed a crime by encouraging voters to try to vote twice, I don’t think it’s quite there. I think you’d need a bit more. Not withstanding people eagerly suggesting that the President could be charged with a crime and I don’t think that, as a matter of substance, a prosecutor in North Carolina is going to take that step. As to the question about whether or not the DOJ memo applies or pertains to state AGs, well on its face, it does not. It only binds people in the Justice Department, the United States Attorneys and people who work at Headquarters in the Department of Justice and also special counsels like Robert Mueller. On its face it does not apply to State AGs. We have a system of federalism and policies and rules and statutes that apply to the federal government and federal prosecutors. Separate rules apply to each state. All 50 states have different rules and different procedures.

Preet Bharara:

A North Carolina prosecutor would be bound by the guidance of the Office of Legal Counsel memo, but, as I think I’ve said before, you would expect that the underpinning of that Office of Legal Counsel memo, whether you like it or not, would be the argument that would be made by the President and his lawyers if there was a charge filed against the President. In other words, that the presidency is too important to be interfered with while the President is sitting in office. Some people think that’s a weak claim, some people think that’s a strong claim. The memo doesn’t apply, but arguably the policy underlying the memo that’s been confirmed twice, first after Watergate and then after Bill Clinton was impeached. Some people find that principle to be persuasive and that would be the argument the President’s lawyers would make. But again, I don’t see an indictment happening with respect to that comment.

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Preet Bharara:

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Preet Bharara:

My guest this week is Harvard philosophy professor, Michael Sandel. He’s been shifting the conversation around justice for the last 40 years. Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit; What’s Become of the Common Good, is an intense indictment of America’s relationship with achievement. Sandel writes about the treatment of essential workers, the rhetoric of our politicians and how we valorize college. It’s a powerful assessment of our greatest challenges as we approach the pivotal November election and beyond. I think it’s a must-read for everyone.

Preet Bharara:

Professor Michael J. Sandel, welcome back to the show.

Michael Sandel:

Great to be with you, Preet.

Preet Bharara:

I’m going to get to your book. Congratulations on yet another book. But first, on a personal note, for those folks who may not remember, may not have listened to our special 100th episode where you were the special guest, I want to just remind folks that not only are you just a college professor, you were my professor.

Michael Sandel:

Yes.

Preet Bharara:

So 32 years ago in a highly regarded class called, Justice. I still remember the course title and the number, Moral Reasoning 22. And I know I’ve told you this before, but I want our various tens of millions of listeners to also know that you had a profound influence on me and were really important in my formation, one of, I think two teachers I’ve had in my life so, for good or ill, a lot of what I’ve done after was spurred on by you and so I thank you for that. It’s a real treat to have you.

Michael Sandel:

Well it means a lot to me, Preet. It really does.

Preet Bharara:

You must get that a lot over the years.

Michael Sandel:

It’s something special coming from you.

Preet Bharara:

Your book, The Tyranny of Merit; What’s Become of the Common Good. It is a great read. It is eye-opening. I liked it so much that I offered a blurb for the back of the book and I think it’s something everyone should read in part because it makes some arguments and brings some perspectives that I think people don’t usually have. I think it will be surprising to a lot of folks and we’ll get into more of it in a moment, some of your theses in a moment, but as you point out in the book, almost every conversation debate discussion we have on the issue of merit and meritocracy is about how we make society or an organization or an institution more meritocratic. There’s very little second guessing about the concept and notion of meritocracy to begin with, which you spend a lot of time on. But before we get to that thesis, I wonder if you could explain to folks what you understand to be the traditional definition of meritocracy.

Preet Bharara:

When people talk about that, whether it’s a politician or a school principal or a CEO, what is it that they mean by it?

Michael Sandel:

What they mean is that people should be able to rise as far as their effort and talents will take them and if there’s a level playing field, if changes are equal, those who land on top will have deserved their success, can say to themselves, I earned it. My success was my own doing and therefore I deserve the benefits that go with landing on top. That’s the idea. And in many ways, it’s an attractive idea.

Preet Bharara:

It’s attractive why, because it gets to the heart of what people think justice is?

Michael Sandel:

It certainly gets to an aspect of justice. That aspect of justice that is about removing barriers to achievement so that people can rise unencumbered by prejudice or the disadvantage of the circumstance of their birth, that’s all a good thing. That’s all an important part of a just society. The dark side comes when people who are successful inhale too deeply of their success, when they forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. This induces what I call a kind of meritocratic hubris among the successful. This has become a growing feature of our public culture, especially among those who have flourished in the new economy over the past four decades, the age of globalization and of meritocracy. This is corrosive of the common good because the more the successful believe they did it on their own and deserve what they’ve won, the less often they are to identify with those less fortunate than themselves. That’s where the dark side comes in and that’s where meritocracy has fueled, I think, the resentment of those who feel that elites look down on them.

Preet Bharara:

Before we talk more about that dark side, what are the origins historically, and in particular in this country, of this aspiration toward meritocracy?

Michael Sandel:

The term meritocracy was coined relatively recently, only in the late 50s by a British sociologist named Michael Young who was affiliated with the Labor Party and what’s interesting is when he coined the term meritocracy, he saw it not as an ideal to aim at, not as the definition of a just society, but as a dystopia because he thought while it was a good thing that the class system and the hierarchy of birth was breaking down in Britain, he saw that once chances were truly equal or perceived to be equal, there would be a widening gulf between the winners and the losers that would generate resentment.

Michael Sandel:

What happened after he wrote and coined that term is that meritocracy came to be regarded as an ideal by politicians in public discourse precisely because, as we were just discussing, Preet, it seems to describe the project of bringing about a society with equal opportunity, where chances are equal, where everyone can rise regardless of the circumstances of their birth or their background, their race, or their ethnicity. And so this was an alluring part of the meritocratic project and people forgot or overlooked the dark side and so it almost became this idea of rising based on your effort and talents. It almost became a troupe, a slogan, a mantra of our politics across the political spectrum that the main political project was to create a society where everyone could rise based on his or her own talents and efforts and we lost sight of the dark side, which Michael Young, back in the late 1950s had been alive to when he coined the term.

Preet Bharara:

You write about the particular emphasis on the notion of meritocracy in the United States. Obviously the idea and the principle is not unique to the US, but I was startled to see you cite the following statistics. You write in your book, asked what factors are very important to getting ahead in life, Americans overwhelmingly by 73% put hard work first. And you go on to say, in Germany barely half consider hard work very important to getting ahead. In France, only one in four does. Maybe that’s why they have a lot of vacation in France. What accounts for this disparity among western countries?

Michael Sandel:

It is fascinating and a stark discrepancy. I think it has to do with the tradition of American individualism. The long standing faith and belief that freedom consists in individual mobility whereas the social democracies of Europe have always seen freedom as more a feature of a community of a certain kind. They’ve always conceived the individual as embedded or situated in a community that shapes our destiny. And this may explain, too, why the welfare states of Europe have generally been more generous than that of the United States because we are deeply wedded to this idea of individual initiative and individual responsibility and individual mobility. In fact, we’ve long said that we don’t really need to worry so much about inequalities of income and wealth because unlike those Europeans, in America it’s always possible to rise from the condition of your birth.

Michael Sandel:

We’ve always comforted ourselves with the thought that mobility, individual mobility, the chance to rise is our alternative to equality, but as things have turned out, we actually now in the US have less mobility one generation to the next than many European countries do. It’s harder to rise from being born into a poor family into affluence in the US than it is in Europe so today that comforting thought that we don’t need to worry inequality because people are not consigned to the fate of their parents or their family background, we may need now to think more directly, to contend more directly with inequality because actually having a more equal society creates a more mobile society rather than the other way around.

Preet Bharara:

So in part you’re saying meritocracy not only has a dark side, it’s also a myth.

Michael Sandel:

It is a myth in practice. It doesn’t fit the facts on the ground. It’s more likely that a child born into a poor family will rise to the top, say top 20% of income earners as an adult. That’s more likely to happen in Canada or Germany or Denmark than in the United States. So one might say that the American dream is alive and well and living in Copenhagen. There is a myth, there is a kind of a myth, this idea of rising doesn’t fit the facts on the ground and I think one of the reasons that we hear it, hear the slogan from politicians from both parties, everyone should have a chance to rise as far as their efforts and talents will take them. The rhetoric of rising as I call it. One of the reasons we’ve heard this so repeatedly, really just in the last four decades, that’s when it came into American public discourse, is that these were precisely the decades when it actually ceased to be the case that it was easy to rise in America by contrast with the condition in other democracies.

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Preet Bharara:

I’m going to ask you more questions about this rhetoric of rising. You have a whole chapter or section of the book dedicated to that and I’ve been thinking about, not only politicians use that terminology and that rhetoric, I’ve used it on a number of occasions when I talk about America being special, when I talk about the fact that my parents in their both special and also common immigrate story, came to the United States and by [inaudible 00:27:16] of hard work, my father who came here with nothing because a successful doctor, had two kids and it’s an inspiring story. Immigrants tell those stories all the time and not just immigrants, lots of folks, because there are lots of particular examples, not withstanding the overall statistics that you mentioned, there are a lot of particular, I still think, inspiring examples of people being mobile and going from the bottom rung to the top rung.

Preet Bharara:

How should those people talk about those things? In other words, with respect to particular stories, is it counterproductive to tell stories that may inspire some to rise?

Michael Sandel:

It depends on how the story is told and whether the story carries with it, and whether the experience encourages those who do rise, and these are deeply moving stories, especially the one that you’re describing, Preet, about immigrant families. Those are deeply moving stories, but looking at those stories more closely we often find and those who tell them, often recognize a sense of responsibility and obligation for those who didn’t make it up the rungs of the ladder. Immigrant communities very often have, in addition to a faith in rising, a persisting sense of solidarity with the members of their community that didn’t succeed in climbing the rungs of the ladder.

Michael Sandel:

That’s the concern. What makes those stories inspiring is that those who make it to the top not only take pride in their achievements and not only have gratitude to their parents and grandparents who may have endured hardship to enable that ascent, but who also recognize the good fortune associated with that ascent. The luck and good fortune, the support of family and community that helped them on their way and that therefore have a claim on them. What makes the story, the immigrant story of upward mobility, most resonate and satisfying morally is when it’s accompanied by an appreciation of what a gift this is.

Preet Bharara:

And also that the folks who did not necessarily make that journey should not be denigrated. I think you write of “smug conviction” of those who land on top, that they deserve their fate and those at the bottom deserve theirs also. It’s a failure of empathy as well, you think?

Michael Sandel:

Yes. And I think that this exactly the question, Preet. You’ve put your finger on it. Those individuals, those communities that rise with a sense of gratitude, with a sense of indebtedness intact are more likely to have a commitment to the community, a sense of responsibility that grows out of gratitude, even a kind of humility and appreciation. These moral sentiments are very different from what all to often accompanies the harsh meritocracy that we have today, which emphasizes the idea of individuals making it on their own, forgetting the communities, the fortune, the luck, the sense of indebtedness that made it possible for them to flourish, for them to succeed. That, I think, that sense of hubris among the successful, the tendency to look down on those less credentialed, less fortunate than themselves, this I think makes galling the divide between winners and losers in our society. That divide has deepened over the past four decades and it isn’t only a matter of economic inequality that has deepened, it’s also to do with harsher attitudes toward success that have accompanied that divide between winners and losers and this I think, over time, has poisoned our politics and driven us apart and it contributes to the polarization that we’re experiencing today.

Preet Bharara:

Because as you write, the more that people who win think that they have won because of their effort and virtue or any other positive quality, the more that they tend to think that people who haven’t, as we said before, deserve their fate and if you do that persistently decade after decade after decade, at some point those people who haven’t been able to be mobile and climb up the rungs of the ladder, they start to feel what, humiliation and what else.

Michael Sandel:

Yes. Humiliation, resentment, a sense that elites are looking down on them, a sense that society doesn’t value the contributions they make. There’s one other ingredient to this story which is the idea that the major political parties, mainstream politicians have encouraged and promoted in recent decades that the inequalities created by globalization can be addressed if only people will equip themselves to compete and win in the global economy by getting a college degree, preferably one from a brand name university.

Preet Bharara:

Do you know of any?

Michael Sandel:

I do and some of my best friends teach at Harvard. But this, as a political, now of course, I’m all in favor of encouraging people to go to college, making it possible for people who can’t afford it to be able to go, increasing access, those are good and noble and precious aspirations so of course I’m in favor of that, but what I’m critical of in the book is the tendency of politicians who have embraced a kind of market driven version of globalization to say, yes, it’s true the median worker has had stagnant wages for four decades, yes it’s true there is growing inequality of income and wealth, but the solution is for all workers to get the kind of college degree that will enable them to rise. That political project seems to me a kind of cop out because it really says, if you’re struggling in the new economy, it’s because of you. It’s because you haven’t pulled up your socks and gotten into a best interest college or university because if you had, then you too could rise. But what this misses is that the rungs on the ladder are growing further and further apart and politicians and political parties, especially ones that claim to be progressive, need to address that too not only to say if you get a prestigious college degree, then you will probably succeed in scrambling up the rungs of that ladder more successful than you otherwise would.

Michael Sandel:

What I’m against is using college as a kind of response to inequality. What that forgets, Preet, and this is something that is easy to forget for those of us who spend our days in the company of the well-credentialed, what it forgets is that most Americans don’t have a four-year college degree. Nearly two thirds don’t. So it’s folly to create an economy that sets as the precondition of dignified work and a decent life that you have a four year college degree. That leaves out the majority of Americans and I think progressive parties, the democratic party in the US and social democratic parties in Europe are paying the price that kind of tendency to ignore the importance of improving the lives of people who haven’t been to college, but who do make important contributions to our economy and to our society.

Preet Bharara:

You write in your book at one point, “One of the most galling features of meritocratic hubris is its credentialism.” And you talk about this issue of college versus not college as one of the last acceptable prejudices.

Michael Sandel:

Intuitively we sense, and many working people feel, that credentialed elites look down on those who lack a college degree and don’t value the work they do especially as more and more prestige, to say nothing of [inaudible 00:36:43], has devolved to those into elite professionals and those in the financial industry and so on. But from time to time, events bring us up short. Think of the pandemic in a way where suddenly applauding for essential workers, thanking essential workers, delivery people, people who work in grocery stores, truckers, home healthcare workers, people who are not well paid and who are not widely honored in our society, now we’re calling them essential workers and it’s an occasion to reflect on just how we value and how well we recognize the contributions that people make regardless of whether they do work that requires a college degree.

Michael Sandel:

I think we need to reorient our politics away from arming people from meritocratic combat or competition and putting instead at the center of our politics the question of the dignity of work and ask how we can make life better and accord greater dignity and respect to people from all walks of life regardless of their educational attainments who make valuable contributions through the work they do, families they raise and the communities they serve.

Preet Bharara:

I want to go back to this idea of whether or not meritocracy itself is a good idea or a bad idea. As I mentioned at the beginning, most of the debate, and as you say in the book, is about how do we get to a meritocracy. And you asked the question, and I’d like you to tell the listeners what your answer is and what the analysis is. You asked the question, would a perfect meritocracy be just. Would it?

Michael Sandel:

No, I don’t think it would and I’ll tell you why in a minute. But first, it’s important to recognize that we fall far short of the meritocratic principles that we profess. We’ve been talking about universities. To take one example, the highly competitive, selective universities, at the Ivy League universities, there are more students from the top one percent than there are from the entire bottom half of the country. And this is despite generous financial aid policies. So successful and affluent parents have figured out how to pass their advantages, their privileges onto their kids and it has to do with equipping them, often through a kind of stress strewn, strenuous adolescent period in high school years to compete effectively to get into these selective universities.

Michael Sandel:

Even if we could fix that, even if we could establish perfectly equal opportunity, would that make for a just society? It would be an improvement over a society where people were held back due to being born to poor families, who were held back due to racial and ethnic prejudice or gender-based prejudice. It would be an improvement over that, but it would not be enough to create a just society because think about who would win the race even in a perfect meritocracy.

Preet Bharara:

The fastest runner.

Michael Sandel:

The fastest runner. But is it really my doing, not that I am a fast runner, but is it really the doing of the fastest runner to have the gift, the endowment, the natural talent to run as fast as Usain Bolt or is that his or our good luck? So even a society where the winners won, having started at the same starting point, there are differences of talent and there’s a further thing. Let’s take a concrete example. LeBron James is a great basketball player and he works hard to cultivate his talents. Not only is he not himself solely responsible for being as gifted an athlete as he is, but is it really his doing that he happens to live in a society that loves basketball or is that his good luck. If he lived back in renaissance Italy, where they didn’t much care for basketball, they like fresco painters more than basketball stars, he wouldn’t be at the top of the earning scale as he is now.

Preet Bharara:

The other example that you give, which I like when you mentioned LeBron James, is you’re sure there is someone who can arm wrestle as well as LeBron James plays basketball, but that poor fellow is not making hundreds of millions of dollars because the market is not configured for the arm wrestler.

Michael Sandel:

Right. We’re not wild about arm wrestling, we don’t flock to see it and buy the sneakers and the running shoes of the people who are good at it. Even if you put aside the contingency of having certain gifts to arm wrestle well or to be great at basketball, or at science or at whatever, the fact that we happen to live in a society that prizes the qualities we happen to have, that too is not own doing. It’s a matter of our good luck and we should be a little bit humble in recognizing that, especially those of us who flourish, whose talents are, for whatever reason, in high demand. We should have a little humility in the face of that good fortune.

Michael Sandel:

These are the reasons why, even in principle, Preet, a perfect meritocracy understood is one where there were level playing fields, then the race began and then the winners got their winnings, these questions would still have to be asked about how we distribute those winnings and to what end.

Preet Bharara:

In part, the idea of meritocracy, I think, is the elimination of not just prejudice and bias and things that hold you back, but the elimination of luck.

Michael Sandel:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

Where everyone has equal opportunity and because of the nature of talent and how that’s given to us, not because we’ve done anything to deserve it, we don’t deserve our talents. In a perfect meritocracy by definition still rewards luck.

Michael Sandel:

Right. And not only rewards it economically in material terms with income and wealth, but also rewards it in terms of honor and recognition and prestige and social esteem. This is the most fatal aspect of the anger that arises against meritocratic elites. People may consider that a system that doesn’t pay them all that well compared to others who don’t seem to be making a far greater contribution to the economy, people may consider that unfair and may protest against it, but if you also look around, you find that those who reap millions, even billions, by making contributions that aren’t obviously connected to contributing to the common good and if you feel that society looks down on your contribution, it doesn’t really accord dignity to the kind of work that’s less honored. That generates more than a sense of unfairness, it can generate a sense of humiliation and of resentment and anger and I think that’s the kind of resentment that’s animated the populous backlash against elites that we’ve seen, certainly since 2016.

Preet Bharara:

I want to complicate it a little bit more, and as you do in the book, it’s not so simple as we don’t deserve our talents, there’s also this other thing called effort. And people tend to think, I get it that I was born tall and I was maybe endowed with certain athletic ability, but that didn’t automatically cinch me a spot in the NBA so I worked. I applied a lot of effort and I trained and I trained and I trained, the same as you point out for musicians before they can get to Carnegie Hall. I will never get to Carnegie Hall, I will never get to the NBA no matter how much I work, no matter how much I practice, but it still is the case that for people who achieve the most success there’s a pretty considerable amount of effort. Does effort make people worthy and how do you analyze that in connection with meritocracy?

Michael Sandel:

I think effort, striving are admirable up to a point. We don’t admire and shouldn’t admire people who are indolent or fail to cultivate their talents or who don’t care about contributing to the economy or to their family or their community so up to a point, initiative, drive, hard work, effort are admirable human traits. They are virtues. But it’s quite another thing to suggest that those who land on top of the society and reap enormous rewards through the market system that we have, it’s quite another thing to say that they deserve the full measure of those winnings because they worked so hard. Lots of people work hard and some people who work hard reap enormous rewards, the way our economy is configured, and lots of people who work hard don’t. So I think it’s a mistake to, it’s not a mistake to admire people who work hard and strive and have initiative, those are good qualities, but I think it’s a mistake to say that this is the basis of superior moral dessert.

Preet Bharara:

You trace in the book something fascinating about the increased use of a particular word and that word is smart. And I found that to be fascinating that over the last number of decades, the frequency of the use of smart by politicians and in magazines as a positive and is something that denotes worth beyond just a latent attribute that someone is born with. Why is that happening and why is that good or bad?

Michael Sandel:

It is a fascinating thing and I did word counts.

Preet Bharara:

I was thinking how you did that. Did you have research assistants help you with that, sir?

Michael Sandel:

I had a little bit of help, but I also-

Preet Bharara:

Because it was pretty rigorous accounting of the use of the word smart over years.

Michael Sandel:

Yes, and it’s now possible, given the search engines that are available, to actually scan the archives of public discourse including for example, presidential discourse as well as looking at the incidence and the use of terms like smart and dumb in newspapers over time or in books and it is striking that during the last four decades, which have been decades of the deepening inequality and the greater emphasis on meritocracy, the use of the term smart and of the contrast, smart versus dumb, has skyrocketed over the past four decades in general public discourse, in political discourse, and even in newspapers. There are lots of evaluative categories that we use especially when we’re talking about politics and the economy and public policy.

Michael Sandel:

We might say that this or that policy is just rather than unjust, that it’s right rather than wrong, that it serves the common good rather than individual interests. These are explicitly moral normative categories, but increasingly politicians have been relying and invoking less those explicit normative categories, moral categories and instead arguing for their policy on the grounds that this a smart policy rather than a dumb one. In a way this reflects a certain kind of technocratic orientation. Smart rather than dumb. It seems non-partisan. It seems value neutral. It seems just a matter of efficiency, but it actually reflects a shift in the public culture. It seems to me, taken together with other tendencies I document in the book toward valorizing the smart, not only smart policies, but smart people indenigrating the so-called dumb, those who often are referred to as those who lack the kind of credentials that are prized in a meritocratic society.

Preet Bharara:

You make the point further on this college non-college divide that unlike in prior times, in today’s US Congress for example, also true in the UK in their Parliament, but in today’s Congress, 100% of senators have a college degree and I think something like 95% of House members and you suggest that maybe that’s not the greatest thing in the world. My question is, with respect to other kinds of representation, whether it’s black or brown members or women, we’d like to say we’d like Congress to look like America and for people to have proportional representation. By that analysis then should Congress be made up of two thirds of members without college degrees?

Michael Sandel:

I think there should certainly be far more than there currently are. I wouldn’t say there needs to be an exact proportion, but I think it is a dimension of political representation that is remarkably skewed and that we don’t even reflect on and of course it’s closely correlated with representation of people from working class or modest middle class backgrounds who are largely effectively excluded from governance, from Congress, from state legislatures. There are only a tiny fraction of members of Congress or of Parliament in Britain or of state legislatures in the US who come from working class backgrounds.

Preet Bharara:

I get your point, but in other areas, and maybe that we just don’t think too highly of the difficulty of being a member of Congress, but I want the pilot of my airliner to have the proper credentials and that’s not valorizing credentialism, that’s wanting to make sure, and I want my president to be educated. Is it so bad to demand certain kinds of credentials and backgrounds for people who have a lot of authority and power in the country?

Michael Sandel:

We certainly want merit broadly understood, but that’s not equivalent to credentials as we’ve been discussing. So in principle, we would like the people governing us to be people of good and sound judgment. Aristotle, way back in ancient Greece spoke of practical wisdom. We want people, and this also goes all the way back Aristotle and the republican tradition, people who have civic virtue, which means they identify with and care about people from all walks of life in their society. They care about the common good. These are the qualities-

Preet Bharara:

How about smart?

Michael Sandel:

It depends how we define smart. If smart means technocratic expertise, well we do want technocratic expertise in certain domains but it has always to be tethered to moral judgment and to the ability to exercise good judgment about the common good and so I think it’s a mistake … Here’s another way of putting it, maybe even more startling, Preet. Ideally we should be governed by the best, so you could say that’s a ringing affirmation of merit in governing.

Preet Bharara:

And the brightest?

Michael Sandel:

Well, there’s a distinction. This is exactly the distinction that I-

Preet Bharara:

You mention that book in your book as well.

Michael Sandel:

Right. The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam, pointed out that LBJ who came to Sam Rayburn, his mentor from Texas and described the brilliant background of all of these people in the Kennedy cabinet and Sam Rayburn said to him, “They may be all as smart as you say, Lyndon, but I’d feel a little bit better if a few of them had run for sheriff.” Rayburn’s skeptical comment was pointing to the importance of people who are connected to ordinary citizens and their predicaments and who cultivate the kind of judgment that comes from mixing it up with people from various walks of life. And it was a [inaudible 00:55:22] observation because the best and the brightest, in Halberstam’s wonderfully ironic book title, got us into the folly of Vietnam. That was their achievement.

Michael Sandel:

And as I point out in the book, the best and the brightest, the economists in this case, many of them with Wall Street experience, during the Obama years, well first in the Clinton and then in the Obama years, were among those who favored the deregulation of the financial industry, getting rid of Glass-Steagall, deciding not to ban or restrain derivatives, all of those high-powered financial engineering techniques and who, when it all went wrong in the 2008 financial crisis, encouraged a Wall Street friendly bailout that did very little to help people who had actually lost their homes and that did not hold those who had brought about the crisis to democratic account. These were the best and the brightest among the economists assembled by democratic as well as republican administrations during the 2000s, late 90s and 2000s. And so they created their own disaster, not as lethal as the Vietnam War, but in a way it cast a cloud over the promise of the Obama presidency, generated resentment the way the bailout was handled, and actually I think it can be argued, paved the way to Donald Trump.

Michael Sandel:

People who have technocratic expertise, but who lack human judgment and experience, practical wisdom, sense of history, they’ve gotten us, if you just look back at the last half century, they’ve gotten us into some pretty dangerous political circumstance.

Preet Bharara:

One of the most fascinating parts of the book that made me think about certain things differently is related to what you just said and that is, I’m in the group of folks who have been concerned that there is an attack on expertise. You get that in lots of different areas, climate change and other issues as well and certainly during this time of the pandemic and we say things like, believe in science and science should govern. But you make the point and I won’t make it as well as you, but to introduce it, I want to hear more about what you have to say about it.

Preet Bharara:

The persistent day after day banging of the drum of people who say, no, no, no, no, the only people who have the ability to deal with the issue and who should be listened to are people with very, very deep, you might say technocratic expertise, but that has an off-putting effect on lots and lots of folks who used to believe and were told it was okay to believe that if you were a person of common sense and good judgment in America whether you were credentialed or not, you can follow the debates of the day. You can follow the issues of the day and you can participate in the debate at home or at the water cooler or with your neighbors or whatever and this emphasis on technical knowledge, which I have always thought to be 100% good thing, has alienated those folks, disenfranchised them and made them now deeply suspicious of the thing that you think is good, expertise.

Michael Sandel:

I think that’s exactly right. Let me say at the outset, Preet, I believe in Fauci. I trust Fauci, not Trump, but the reason I trust Fauci is partly, it’s not because he’s smart in some abstract intellectual sense or in terms of IQ or cognitive superiority. He has the relevant knowledge, the medical and public health knowledge about infectious diseases and he’s honest. He brings together a kind of technical expertise of the desperately relevant kind with a human quality to do with judgment and trustworthiness, honesty that shows how the best sources of political judgment intermingle technical knowledge or scientific knowledge in this case, medical knowledge, with civic virtues, honesty, trustworthiness.

Michael Sandel:

In fact, when some in the Trump administration, including some public health experts other than Fauci were relying solely on models, quantitative models that they were interpreting overly optimistically, Fauci, according to reporting, he was skeptical of these models. He understood them, of course, he was skeptical and he was actually on the phone every evening calling people in the various cities to ask what they were seeing on the ground. The equivalent, I suppose, in a way going back to Haberstam’s LBJ’s Sam Rayburn story, he was talking to the sheriffs, talking to the people on the ground about what actually was playing out in these communities.

Michael Sandel:

What we admire about Fauci and I take this because the pandemic and the debate about science is right before us, he combines knowledge, medical knowledge with honesty and trustworthiness that are moral and political virtues and so I think it’s important not to lose sight of that. But to go back to the other aspect of your point about this, Preet, I think that critics of Trump, and I’m certainly among them, make a mistake simply to say we must follow the science. When Joe Biden is asked, should we close down the economy or keep it open and he says, I’ll just decide based on what the science tells me. I think that’s not a great answer. He could say any judgment about that, it’s a fateful judgment, it has to be informed by the best medical and public health knowledge we have, recognizing that public health and medical experts disagree so we have to hear out those disagreements and exercise some judgment about how to weigh their accounts.

Michael Sandel:

These are political judgments and so I think that some progressives are, because of Trump’s obvious hostility and refusal to accept even the most basic advice from medical and public health experts, there is a tendency for democrats and progressives to say, the problem here is, he’s against science and we’re for it and we will be guided by science. I think that overstates it in a way that misses the importance of political judgment and trustworthiness and honesty.

Preet Bharara:

I think there is some truth in that. It seems to me that people like Joe Biden and others, as you mentioned, are using that rhetoric because it’s politically useful because they have as an adversary, someone who so seems to disdain expertise and science, but that people like Biden do appreciate that they are the leaders and they are not using that rhetoric advocating, and it’s looking the same way if you think about the Cuban missile crisis in retrospect and maybe even at the time, we wanted a president who would say, I will listen to the generals and I will take their views into account, the military leaders, but I’m the president and I’ll make the call.

Preet Bharara:

We don’t want a leader, which I think is part of your point, who will say, I’ll do whatever the scientists say, I’ll do whatever the generals say.

Michael Sandel:

Exactly.

Preet Bharara:

There’s a reason why you have a leader. That’s the reason why the general [crosstalk 01:03:50]. It’s the reason a scientist is not the president and I think the rhetorical flourish is there now and maybe is being taken to an extreme because of who the adversary in the White House is.

Michael Sandel:

Yes. I think that’s right and we see in the debate over masks. There are some who say, this is just irrational, wearing a mask is what’s medically and scientifically mandated and how can anybody possibly be against wearing a mask. Well, the debate about masks has become a moment in the culture wars precisely because over roughly four decades a great many people have become resentful of credentialed meritocratic elites who have condescended to them, who have said, we’ll figure this out. It’s a matter of technical expertise, especially vis-a-vis the economy because remember, this whole condition, this divide between winners and losers, this growing gap, the deepening inequality arose when experts assured us, economic experts, assured us that deregulating the financial industry and pursuing the neoliberal version of globalization, the market-driven version of globalization may create some temporary job losses and imbalances, but the overall gain to GDP will be significant enough so that the winners can compensate the losers. That was the premise of all of this.

Michael Sandel:

That turned out to not to happen. It didn’t happen and instead the median wage of working people was stagnant for 40 to 50 years so it’s not surprising that there’s a backlash against the confident, smug assurances of credentialed elites that, trust us, we’re the experts. You may think that the manufacturing towns of the midwest are being hollowed out and jobs are being lost and wages are stagnant, but it’s all part of a bigger economic picture that we have fully in mind and furthermore, the economy will also help generate a kind of economic growth in the end and everyone will benefit.

Michael Sandel:

That wasn’t true and people know that and so-

Preet Bharara:

But there are other examples of that also. Part of the problem is that these experts or technocrats or whoever they are, they happen to be among other things, people and this extreme valorization of experts and technical ability in so far as it starts to border on a belief in their infallibility, allows critics to weaponize every single mistake that they make. You mentioned the pandemic. I’m old enough to remember, as the phrase goes, that there were experts who said, don’t wear a mask.

Michael Sandel:

Exactly.

Preet Bharara:

I get where people are coming from when we said, listen to the experts, let the science govern. Well at one point, the experts said, don’t wear a mask and now they are saying you must wear a mask and they are laughing at you and mocking you if you question that directive. Now, I wear a mask, everyone in my family does because I think the weight of evidence is in favor of wearing a mask, but I get, maybe a small example of lots of other larger things like the economy that you’re talking about. If you over-emphasis the experts, they can take on an arrogance and their supporters can take on an arrogance on their behalf that causes anytime they make an error, it causes people to just walk away all together so it’s counterproductive.

Michael Sandel:

And the mask, just to follow up on this point, which is a really important one, Preet. The fact that the experts first told us one thing about masks and now tell us another is an example of how we need to bring judgment to bear, lay judgment to bear on the advice of experts but more than that, let’s just take as given the importance of wearing a mask. When it comes to deciding how to balance risks to oneself and to public health against other aims, that involves certain judgments about the public health but it also involves political judgments and choices.

Michael Sandel:

When my son wanted to go out wearing a mask and participate in Black Lives Matter marches, he knew that he was undertaking a certain risk because these were not socially distanced marches, they couldn’t be. And yet he was wearing a mask and exercising precautions. He made a judgment, we had some discussion in the family, but the march, the cause was important enough so that in balancing the various risks, taking into account medical judgment, political judgment, civic commitment, he made a choice to march even though it meant he then isolated himself for 14 days from us because he knew he had not socially distanced.

Michael Sandel:

These are civic choices, these are moral choices, these are political judgments that intermingle with and overlap with the questions of expertise but that can’t be decided by science.

Preet Bharara:

There are so many things that fascinating about the book and your observations. One in particular as we are running out of time is the particular architecture and embrace of meritocracy in this country leads you to observe that it maybe helps to cause a willingness to accept inequality, not just on the part of the people who have, but on the part of the people that don’t have. Explain what you mean by that and what you think about that.

Michael Sandel:

What’s fascinating is how the idea that people deserve where they land, whether it’s on the top or on the bottom has so entered into our public culture that not only has it led the successful, credentialed elite to look down on those who haven’t flourished, but it has also been absorbed to some extent by those who struggle in the new economy and who may partly believe they are struggling because the system is unfair, they haven’t really had an equal chance, the system is rigged. That’s one way of interpreting one’s struggles. But this may be intermingled, seems to be intermingled with the sense that among some of those who struggle that, well maybe I don’t have the talent, maybe I haven’t worked as hard to deserve the success that others have and that’s deeply demoralizing. And it’s a demoralizing thought that a meritocratic society can induce and so that’s where the hubris of the successful goes along with a certain gnawing sense of doubt, even humiliation among those who struggle in this economy. Because if they too, believe that you can make it if you try, then there is the tendency to believe that if they don’t rise, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Michael Sandel:

And this is a message, this is a hard message that meritocratic society, even a perfect meritocratic society delivers to those who don’t rise, who don’t flourish, who struggle to make ends meet and it’s demoralizing and we should be aware of it because we live in a time when politics, elites were stunned, shocked by the election of Trump in the US, by the Brexit vote in Britain. But what they missed was the growing anger and resentment of those who haven’t won out in a meritocratic society. I don’t think progressive politics will be able to renew itself and to recover from this backlash unless progressives begin to address the inequalities and the attitudes towards success that have in a way legitimated those inequalities.

Preet Bharara:

It’s not just policy, it’s rhetoric too.

Michael Sandel:

Rhetoric and the way we understand ourselves and who deserves what and why and what we owe to our fellow citizens, including those who are less fortunate than we.

Preet Bharara:

You and your book, among other things, a reference to Hank Aaron, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history and you quote from his biographer, Howard Brian who writes, “Hitting, it could be argued, represented the first meritocracy in Hank Aaron’s life.” And some people talk about sports this way. It’s a meritocracy because the ball either goes over the fence or it doesn’t go over the fence. It is what it is based on your ability. And you say, look, this thinking is a mistake. “The moral of Henry Aaron’s story is not that we should love meritocracy, but that we should despise a system of racial injustice that can only be escaped by hitting home runs. Equality of opportunity is a morally necessary corrective to injustice, but it is a remedial principle, not an adequate ideal for a good society.”

Preet Bharara:

What did you mean by that?

Michael Sandel:

That we do need equality of opportunity so that no one is held back by prejudice or this advantage of conditions of birth. But that isn’t enough to make for a just society. What makes for a just society is one, and what makes for a good society, Preet, is creating circumstances where we really say and believe that we are all in this together and where we recognize our mutual dependence, where we ask ourselves as an active part of our political debate, what do we owe one another as citizens. And if we think that those questions are answered or put to rest simply by saying, everyone had an equal chance, everyone got to the same starting point and then had a chance to run the race, to clammer up the rungs of the ladder, that’s all justice requires, we’re missing something important.

Michael Sandel:

We’re missing the whole idea of the common good, of a sense that even those of us who succeed should be able to look upon everyone in our society, including the less fortunate and recognize there, but for the luck of the draw, or the grace of God, or the accident of fortune, go I. And that sentiment, that appreciation of the role of luck in life can prompt a certain humility. And humility, it seems to me, is the civic virtue we need now. And that a thorough growing meritocratic society militates against. That kind of humility can point us beyond the tyranny of merit, toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.

Preet Bharara:

Thank you for your time. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your participation in the discussion. The book, The Tyranny of Merit; What’s Become of the Common Good is excellent and thoughtful. I’ll quote from myself, advocating for the book. You will catch yourself wondering again and again, why have I never thought of it that way? And I believe this to be true also, no good faith reader will come away from this book unchanged. It made me think about things in many different ways that I had not expected and I think it’s a very fruitful contribution to the discussion.

Preet Bharara:

Professor, thank you again.

Michael Sandel:

Thank you, Preet, for this conversation and for your very generous words about the book and for really helping bring these questions and this debate to public attention. It really is such a pleasure and an honor to be with you, Preet.

Preet Bharara:

My conversation with Michael Sandel continues for members of the Café Insider community. In this special bonus, Sandel and I discuss the role of meritocracy in the COVID-19 pandemic and how politicians use their fancy alma maters as excuses for bad behavior. Try out the membership free for two weeks at Café.com/insider. You’ll get access to the full archive of exclusive content including the weekly podcast I cohost with Anne Milgram, the Cyber Space podcast with John Carlin, the United Security podcast co-hosted by Lisa Monaco and Ken Wainstein. Audio Essays by Elie Honig and me and more. Again, that’s café.com/insider.

Preet Bharara:

I want to close the show this week by giving you all an update on a project I started with my two teenage sons at the beginning of August. You may recall as we were getting into the late part of the summer and thinking about the upcoming election, I made a proposal to my boys, 17 and 15, that maybe we could make some recommendations of who to support in the House, especially in battleground districts to increase the majority of democrats in the House. My sons, on their own, independent thinkers, happen also to be democrats. The idea would be that the boys, on their own research everyday in August, would recommend that I tweet about a particular candidate and I would also put up $500 of my own money in donation and encourage people to give whatever they can or at least follow the candidate or learn more about the candidate or if they lived in the district, to support the candidate.

Preet Bharara:

Midway through the month I suggested to the boys that maybe they create a website so that people would be able to see who all their picks were and they did. They created a website that you can find at housework2020.org. They even created a mission statement in which they write, “As we’re sure you all know by now, our dad likes to tweet, a lot. So much so that people often miss our housework2020 endorsements in the mix of the rest of his feed. This website houses all of our housework candidates under one roof so you can find and donate to any of them.”

Preet Bharara:

Every day in August around dinner time or a little bit before dinner time the boys and I would huddle, they would make a proposal for a candidate to support. I would ask them a bunch of questions about the candidate. I would ask them a bunch of questions about the opponent. And if they were making a claim in support of the candidate or in opposition to the opponent, I would ask for proof. Sometimes I would look at articles and other things that they had relied upon. As they announced in their mission statement, the criteria they relied upon to pick candidates were these, “We made our choices based on the competitive of the race, the merit of the democratic candidate, the fitness of the republican candidate and the importance of the seat.”

Preet Bharara:

I will say that overall, over the 31 days, they were pretty pragmatic. They didn’t pick long shots and they didn’t pick sure things. They picked people who they thought a little bit more money in the race could move the needle. What was the tally over the 31 days? They selected 22 women versus nine men. 17 were challengers, nine were running for open seats, five were incumbents and the candidates they chose came from 20 different states. As you may have seen, once in a while a heavy hitter noticed the boys work. On one occasion when they recommended Wendy Davis who is running to flip a seat in Texas, guess who noticed, Senator Ted Cruz, who responded to the tweet with a reference to the name of the US Attorney character in a television show, Billions. Cruz tweeted, Chuck Rhodes trying to mess with Texas. They thought that was kind of funny.

Preet Bharara:

As we started to near the end of August, we got a lot of input suggesting that we also pay some attention, the boys pay some attention to Senate races as well. We discussed it and even though it was a lot of work over the course of August, we decided that we would extend #housework2020 to the Senate and have a special Senate edition for the first seven days of September. And so through Labor Day the boys sat down again every day and made a recommendation for who people might support in battleground Senate races. So what was the impact of our little family project on the races that they supported? It’s hard to tell, some candidates actually got in touch and said it was very helpful. Thousands and thousands of dollars were raised, awareness was raised, attention was paid to those races that may not have been paid before in certain areas given my Twitter following.

Preet Bharara:

All in all because so many people gave small amounts of money in alignment of what the boys recommended, and I could see their responses on Twitter as the boys could also. I think we likely raised all together in all 38 races that were recommended a few hundred thousand dollars, which is not bad for just sending out a few tweets. What was the impact of the project on the boys? You’ll have to ask them, but at least I think it was educational for them and I think they learned more things than they expected to. Not just how to research candidates, not just about what polling means, but also how difficult it is to run a campaign and to compete in the campaign. And even though the project was focused just for sake of ease on donating money to candidates, I think they have understood, actually, how terrible it is that money occupies such a primary role in who gets elected and who doesn’t and whether incumbents have an advantage or whether they don’t. Maybe that’s the reason they recommended so many challengers to support.

Preet Bharara:

Even though the project was centered around helping candidates, many of them underdogs, financially, I think it really made an impression on my sons, that so much money was required and maybe there is a better way to elect people in this country, [inaudible 01:22:04] to have folks grovel for money and cash to compete in race after race after race. What was the impact of the family project on me? A couple of things. One, and this is the only negative from the whole 38 day enterprise. It turns out that when you donate money on Act Blue, your email, and I think in some cases even your home address are released to the campaign so I am now awash in spam and email from 38 campaigns, so it clutters my inbox a bit and also our actual physical mailbox is receiving a lot more incoming than it has before.

Preet Bharara:

But more importantly, the impact it had on me was, first, I got to spend a lot more time with my boys, they were kind of required to spend an hour or two every day with me for 38 days, which I enjoyed even though we were talking about substance. And then more broadly, it really reaffirmed my hope that change can be made by young people. I think more than ever before, young people are focused, young people are excited about making change. Young people are spending the time and the energy and the work to learn what the issues are. Young people are at the forefront of protests around this country, not just my boys, but hundreds of thousands, millions of young people in high school and college and in their early 20s are sick and tired of the mess that some of us older people have made of the world. I think that today’s young people are more sophisticated than we think. I think they are more smart, more savvy, at the same time, more idealistic and also more pragmatic than we may think and that gives me a lot of hope too.

Preet Bharara:

One final point, when I first sent that tweet with the #housework2020 and made clear I wasn’t talking about chores but I was talking about the House of Representatives, some people responded saying housework, actual housework chores are good too, so rest assured my boys do that also and they will continue and we’re going to find other ways to try to promote voting and voter turnout and access to the ballot as a family and as individuals and hopefully as a community.

Preet Bharara:

If you’re curious to learn more about the project, you can go to housework2020.org.

Preet Bharara:

That’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Michael Sandel.

Preet Bharara:

If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics and justice. Tweet them to me at Preet Bharara with the hashtag, Ask Preet. Or you can call and leave me a message at 669-247-7338. That’s 669-24 PREET or you can send an email to [email protected] Stay Tuned is presented by Café. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Adam Waller. The senior audio producer is David Tatasciore. And the CAFE team is Matthew Billy, Nat Weiner, Sam Ozer-Staton, David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, Jake Kaplan, Calvin Lord, Geoff Isenman, Chris Boylan, Sean Walsh, and Margot Maley. Our music is by Andrew Dost.

Preet Bharara:

I’m Preet Bharara. Stay tuned.

Preet Bharara:

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