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FAREED ZAKARIA GPS
A Look at Business Use of Artificial Intelligence; Trump Administration Explored in New Book. Aired 10-11a ET
Aired December 9, 2018 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[10:00:14] FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria.
On today's show, barricades, fires and riots in the heart of Paris. Are we witnessing a 21st century "Les Miserables"? And the Brits have a major Brexit milestone on Tuesday. Will parliament vote down the deal that Prime Minister May negotiated with the European Union? If so what happens? I have a terrific panel on it all.
Also, President Trump says he doesn't believe his own administration's report on climate change. How can that be? Michael Lewis tells us about the war on government agencies being waged by the men and women who lead them.
But first, here's my take. The death of George H.W. Bush has occasioned a fair amount of nostalgia for the old American establishment of which Bush was undoubtedly a prominent member. It's also provoked a heated debate among commentators about that establishment whose membership was determined largely by bloodlines and connections. You have to be a white Anglo-Saxon protestant to ascend to almost any position of power in America until the early 1960s.
Surely there is nothing good to say about a system that was so discriminatory toward everyone else. Actually there is. For all its faults and it had many, it was often horribly bigoted, in some places segregationist and almost always exclusionary, at its best the old WASP aristocracy did have a sense of modestly, humility and public spiritedness that seems largely absent in today's elite.
Many of Bush's greatest moments is handling of the fall of communism, his decision not to occupy Iraq after the First Gulf War, his acceptance of tax increases to close the deficit, were marked by restraint, an ability to do the right thing despite enormous pressure to pander to public opinion. But, and here's the problem, it is likely that these WASP virtues flowed from that nature of that old elite. The aristocracy was quite secure in its power and position so it could afford to think about the country's fate in broad terms and look out for the longer term, rising above self-interest because its own interest was assured.
Now if you think at this point I'm painting the fantasy of a world that never existed, let me give you one vivid example. On its maiden voyage the Titanic's first class cabins were filled with the Forbes' 400 of the age. As the ship began to sink and it became clear there were not enough life boats for everyone something striking took place.
As Wyn Wade recounts, the men in first class let women and children board the boats. About 95 percent of the women and children in first class were saved compared to only about 30 percent of the men in first class. Now while of course first class passengers probably had easier access to the boats, the point remains that some of the world's most powerful men followed an unwritten code of conduct even though it meant certain death for them.
Today's elites are chosen in a much more open democratic manner, largely through education. Those who do well on tests get into good colleges then good graduate schools, then they get the best jobs and so on. But their power flows from this treadmill of achievement so they are constantly moving, looking out for their own survival and success. Their perspective is narrower, their horizon shorter term. Their actions perhaps more self-interested.
Most damagingly, they believe their status is legitimate. They lack some of the sense of the old WASP establishment that they were accidently privileged from birth. So the old constraints have vanished. Today's CEOs and other elites pay themselves lavishly, jockey for personal advantage and focus on their own ascendancy.
At Donald Trump's rallies a common refrain is his attack on today's elites and their arrogance.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You're the smartest people. You know when they talk about -- they talk about the elite. The elite. Do you ever see the elite? They're not elite. You're the elite.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: Trump has found a genuine vein of disgust among many Americans at the way they are perceived and treated by their more successful countrymen. The violent protests that have been happening in France are similarly fueled by rural, poorer people who believed that the metropolitan elites ignore their plight. The 2016 Brexit vote reflected the same revolt against technocrats.
[10:05:06] Let me be clear. I of all people am not calling for a revival of the WASP establishment. I am asking, can we learn something from its virtues? Today's elites should be more aware of their privilege and at least live by one simple old-fashioned universal idea -- rich or poor, talented or not, educated or uneducated, every human being has equal moral worth.
For more go to CNN.com/fareed and read my "The Washington Post" column this week. And let's get started.
For weeks now France has been shaken by unrest. The "gilets jaunes" or yellow vests have been rioting, setting fires, scrawling graffiti and more on the streets of Paris. These actions are in protest of France's rising fuel prices. The protesters ask for fuel tax increases to be cancelled and President Macron has agreed not to raise those taxes any time soon. Among their other demands, however, are the resignation of Macron himself.
Let us understand what is going on here and the broader implications and we will get to next week's big Brexit vote in a moment. Joining me now are Sophie Pedder, the "Economist's" Paris bureau chief, George Osborne, the former Finance minister of the United Kingdom, now the editor of the "London Evening Standard," and Nicholas Burns who has had a 27-year career in foreign service culminating in the role of undersecretary of state for political affairs. He's now professor at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Sophie, let me ask you to just rate for us how serious is this crisis for Emmanuel Macron?
SOPHIE PEDDER, PARIS BUREAU CHIEF, THE ECONOMIST: I think it's very serious. I think it's the first real political crisis he's faced. It's come from nowhere. It's proved incredibly difficult for him to handle and deal with the "gilets jaunes" protest. It's difficult on two levels. It's difficult as a security issue. We've seen scenes of violence, mob violence that have been not witnessed on the streets of central Paris really since the May '68 uprising. And then on the political level we have just got a movement that is structureless, leaderless, almost impossible to negotiate with.
There's no one who wants to talk to the government and it's emerged very fast and has the backing of public opinion. So it's very difficult for him. And I think so far the measures that have been announced haven't gone far enough to kind of take the heat out of that silence and out of the sense of revolts which is now directed at the president himself. Some of the commentary here is quite staggering so it is really the most serious political crisis in his 18 months in office.
ZAKARIA: George Osborne, what strikes me about this protest is it's very different from the kind of populism we've been hearing about for the most part, which tends to be motivated by a kind of anti- immigration or some of those kinds of cultural or identity issues.
This is about raw economic self-interest. This is about a group of rural French men and women who are on average poorer than the metropolitan elites and who feel as though they are being thrust -- you know, taxes are being thrust on them to achieve some kind of green goals, you know, that they don't believe in because they need to drive and they have to use fuel.
Does that mean that, you know, we now have this kind of populism from two sides or how to think about the politics of this?
GEORGE OSBORNE, FORMER UNITED KINGDOM CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER: Well, you know, Fareed, any finance minister will tell you increasing fuel taxes is really difficult. And people have tried it in Britain and failed. I didn't dare do it in the six years I was in the Treasury even though I was raising other taxes because it's so visible. It's very visible to people when they fill up their car. I think the question here is what happens next. If it's confined to
issues of taxation around energy then the government can deal with it. They can not go ahead with increases. They've already said that. They can even cut energy taxes. That's a way of taking this thing out of it.
I think the challenge for President Macron is going to be, is this going to spill over into broader opposition to his reform package of labor laws, of the things that have stopped foreign investment coming into France? It looks like it's beginning to do that, and that's when it does get dangerous for President Macron and for indeed the attractiveness of France, which has been a beacon of light over the last couple of years in Europe.
You know, I know President Macron reasonably well. I'm sure he will try and stick to his guns and indeed it's -- I think in the interest of the whole of Europe that he succeeds.
[10:10:02] ZAKARIA: Nick Burns, one of the things that Emmanuel Macron has been trying to do other than reforming France is really step into the role of the leader of the West, a role that Donald Trump has not that interested in playing and speak out on issues of democracy and liberty and freedom of press, and take on the Russians for meddling with elections and such.
Does this crisis he faces -- and, you know, what George and Sophia have been describing -- is really it seems to me that he's always have the right wing populists against him, the National Front. Now he has left-wing populists against him.
Does this mean he will not be able to function? And you've watched leaders who sometimes try to lead abroad while they are weakened at home. Can it work?
NICHOLAS BURNS, PROFESSOR, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL: It's going to be quite a challenge, Fareed. There's no question this is a consequential moment for President Macron. He doesn't have the traditional support of a traditional party. And he's tried to be at a time when Merkel has been weakening, when Prime Minister May is distracted obviously by the Brexit situation, where President Trump is refusing to play the role of Western leader, Macron's tried to step into that void.
Certainly in leading the European Union through its thicket of troubles, trying -- and this is ironic, to shore up NATO and the base of support for NATO and European defense, and very much the global leader in many ways in arguing for action on climate change. If Macron is weakened, there aren't a lot of candidates in the West to play this role.
The other existential question that we're facing is really a battle of ideas between the democratic world and the authoritarian world, and you can see the self-confidence that Xi Jinping has, that Putin has. You don't see that self-confidence in Europe or North America. You certainly don't see it in Donald Trump who's siding with a lot of the anti-democratic populist in Europe such as the Hungarians and Poles. So I think this has major repercussions if Macron is weakened for at least in the short term the solidity of the West.
ZAKARIA: Well, we will be back in a moment to talk about the next crucial issue that comes up. Next week's vote in the British parliament. Will the MP's vote against the prime minister and her Brexit deal? If so what in the world happens, when we come back.
[10:16:25] ZAKARIA: On Tuesday the British parliament will vote on the deal that Prime Minister Theresa May's government negotiated with the European Union. Whether it passes or not is the big question mark.
Let's dig into that with today's panel. Sophie Pedder, George Osborne and Nick Burns.
George Osborne, this was the moment you worried about when you and Prime Minister Cameron were thinking about this issue of a referendum. Prime Minister May has negotiated a deal that for the hard Brexiteers is not enough, and yet it does essentially take the United Kingdom out of its current position in the European Union.
Is it going to be enough? Will it work? And will Theresa may be able to stay on as prime minister?
OSBORNE: Well, this main one was always coming, which is confronting those who wanted to leave the EU with the reality that you can't have the benefits of E.U. membership such as access to the single market and the security arrangements of E.U. membership without paying the costs. And that means accepting that other people sometimes ride the rules and you have to pay money. And the deal that Theresa May has done really exposes that price.
Indeed in some ways it's much worse than an E.U. membership because we're going to be following rules that we ourselves don't have any influence over. And that has come to a crunch in a key parliamentary vote which is expected very shortly. At the moment no one in Britain thinks that that vote is going to pass because the traditional opposition, the Labour Party are against it but also 100 conservative MPs are against it. So the math is just completely out.
What happens next is very unclear. It seems to me that there isn't a majority of parliament to take Britain out of the E.U. without a deal. It seems to me also that there's not yet a majority to revisit the whole question of Brexit. But at the same time there's not a majority for a deal, and that's why everyone here in Britain is asking the question, what happens next because they don't know starting with Mrs. May.
ZAKARIA: Sophie Pedder, does this hurt the European Union as well? Because Britain was the kind of champion of, you know, free market reform. A lot of things that people like Emmanuel Macron and even Angela Merkel used to think were very valuable. Indeed Britain was a valuable voice to have in a European Union that could sometimes get overly bureaucratized and statist. PEDDER: Well, you know, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has
said several times that he regrets the choice made by the British people but since he also respects that. But where I think President Macron very seriously regrets the U.K.'s departure is in defense and security issues. For France and Britain have cooperated very closely, they continue to do so. And I think that his concern is to find mechanisms that bind Britain post-Brexit into those sort of substantive security arrangements is very strong. But it will be that much more difficult with the U.K. outside the European Union. So I think that is where he probably regrets Britain's departure most.
ZAKARIA: Nick Burns, let me come back to the point you were making about a crisis in the West. And it does seem to me that the French example of what's going on now is part of this larger struggle which is that in the West you really have these deep divisions between, you know, kind of to put it very simply the sort of metropolitan educated elites and people in rural areas, perhaps less educated who are less -- participating less in the knowledge economy.
[10:20:12] And this is tearing the West apart. If you think about the United States, if you think about Britain where that was the dynamic around Brexit, if you think about France right now. Does -- it suggests a kind of dark future for the West where there's this kind of internal civil war that continues.
BURNS: Well, I think -- Fareed, I think there's solidity in the West and eventually the West will gather itself and move forward. But right now I think you're right that we have a crisis now of leadership. If the big existential issue is, can we defeat the anti- democratic populist in Europe and in the United States, we have the president of the United States siding with them, not with the established governments.
I interviewed Federica Mogherini, the E.U. Foreign Policy chief here at Harvard in a public session this past week, and she said she felt that the European people, the European Union had lost its self- confidence. Ironically I interviewed Condi Rice a year ago, she said the same thing about the United States. We've lost our self- confidence.
What a striking thing for two senior leaders on either side of the Atlantic to say but I think they're accurate. And we need a Thatcher or a Reagan to emerge in this generation of Western leaders to say that this battle for human freedom, for democracy, for the rule of law very much different from what the authoritarian leaders are saying in Europe and Asia.
This is a battle for our future and right now there isn't a prominent spokesman. And I must say, Fareed, boy, it's going to damage the United States if Britain leaves the E.U. because Britain's been our channel, almost our interpreter to the Europeans. And it interprets the Europeans back to the United States. Second largest economy in the European Union has been Britain. The largest and strongest military is Britain. The most globally minded country in the E.U. has been Britain. And so I think all of us will lose if the British people -- if Britain does go out. Europe will lose. I fear that Britain will be weakened and fractured,
and certainly we in the United States will lose. So it's a consequential time.
PEDDER: Fareed, can I just jump --
ZAKARIA: Sure. Sure, Sophie.
PEDDER: And just wanted to follow up on what Nick Burns just said in a sense that there is no spokesman in the West for the sort of, you know, liberal democratic position. I mean, this is exactly what Emmanuel Macron has tried to be and indeed has succeeded in being. If you think back to the centenary commemoration of the end of the First World War when he gathered all those heads of states to Paris, right here, under the -- you know, it was a moment when he was precisely making that case. And I suppose that's why it feels like such a very dangerous moment for France. Because if the spokesman who has emerged to defend those sorts of values is under such threat then you have to wonder, you know, where is the defender of the liberalautic going to come from?
ZAKARIA: Boy, fascinating panel. Thank you all very much.
[10:27:23] ZAKARIA: Silicon Valley used to be viewed as the untouchable frontrunner in tech innovation. But no longer. Take a look at this graphic. The U.S. still has the top five most valuable tech companies today. But broaden that list out to the top 20 and you see China has nine of them.
So who will win this war?
Well, I had a conversation recently with a man who has one foot in Asia and another in America. Taiwan born Kai Fu Lee was educated at Columbia and Carnegie Melon then worked at Apple, Microsoft China and headed Google China. He's now a venture capitalist to invest heavily in artificial intelligence.
So I wanted to begin by explaining to us how America and the world in a way has not quite caught up to the reality of China. I mean, in your book you describe a China that is so innovative, so advanced. And so give me a couple of examples of Chinese businesses operating in ways that we need to learn from?
KAI FU LEE, AUTHOR, "A.I. SUPERPOWERS": Sure. A friend, Max Tegmark, recently came to visit me in China and he's a professor at MIT, and he said this is the future. So that's an example the kinds of things that we use in China, includes basically completely mobile payments. So no cash --
ZAKARIA: No cash, no credit cards.
LEE: No cash, no credit cards.
ZAKARIA: All done with phones. LEE: Right. You even see, you know, beggars hold up signs that say
scan and give me some money. Because no one has change in the pockets anymore. And this happened just in about three years. That shows you how the tech companies can come in so quickly. Also the payment isn't just to pay a merchant. Anyone can pay anyone and you can pay somebody 15 cents and the best thing is there's almost no charge.
ZAKARIA: So when you look at this core issue of financial transaction, almost the lifeblood of an economy.
ZAKARIA: And you look at Europe and the United States, from China.
LEE: Yes. Yes.
ZAKARIA: We look very backward.
LEE: Yes. Yes. And it's a result of having had the last most advanced structure which was the credit card system and now it's kind of hard to overcome that. China actually has no baggage. The credit card never really had much penetration so now it just jumped right over and leapfrog.
ZAKARIA: Give me an example of the Chinese version of Yelp. Explain what it does.
ZAKARIA: And why it's so innovative.
LEE: Yes. The Chinese version of Yelp kind of integrates Yelp, Open Table, Groupon and actually delivers the food to your home in 30 minutes and the food is still hot and is almost free delivery. It's about 70 cents. And the ability to do that is not a brilliant innovation, but it's a tenacity on solving a very hard problem, how do you deliver food to 700 million, 800 million Chinese within 30 minutes and the food is hot and delivery is almost free?
The entrepreneur developed a system that essentially had a Uber-like system for people to use their electrical mopeds to do the delivery, and then there would be the reverse surge pricing. So if there weren't enough delivery people, they'd get a message saying "You get double pay; will you now deliver some food?"
And they controlled the flow of the people perfectly. And it cost billions of dollars to experiment and figure out and build out this infrastructure for electrical mopeds, delivery people, as well as their battery replacement stations. And A.I. algorithms is very complex, but the Chinese entrepreneurs are hungry; they work extremely hard; they're very fast; and they're willing to do whatever it takes to create value for consumers and also to erect a barrier so that other companies cannot attack their business. So it develops a more resilient business model.
ZAKARIA: Everybody believes that the next great technology of the future in a sense (inaudible) technology is artificial intelligence.
ZAKARIA: And you argue that China is probably going to be ahead in this -- in this absolutely critical front. Why?
LEE: Well, in the implementation -- I think the U.S. has been and is and will be ahead in the research. But A.I. is actually a set of algorithms that take a large amount of data and then make very smart decisions about a single domain, such as speech recognition or ad targeting or things -- or giving out a loan, determining to give or not to give.
And the Chinese entrepreneurial approach is just stronger at very quickly iterating and developing such algorithms and trying every which way to find ways to make money and satisfy users.
And also, the other huge advantage is A.I. is hungry for data. So the more data you have, the more accurate the A.I. becomes. So in the age of A.I., data is the new oil and China is the new Saudi Arabia, so...
ZAKARIA: Just to explain, if data is the new oil, Chine has four times as many people as the United States, right? And so it's going to have a lot of data?
LEE: Even more than that because, now, if you think about Chinese users are using mobile payment, mobile bicycle sharing, mobile delivery of food, they use their phones more; more data gets captured, so it's four times as many people times maybe two or three times more data. So it's actually more like a 10-time advantage.
ZAKARIA: You have roots in China and roots in the United States.
LEE: I do.
ZAKARIA: What do you think of what is going on now with this talk of trade war, seemingly rising hostility? What's your reaction?
LEE: I think, on a government-to-government basis, I think there is more to be gained by figuring out some compromise so that we can all move on. I wish that would happen, but I'm not at an expert at that. But as someone who has roots in both China and the U.S., I feel kind of saddened because I think the sentiment in the U.S. is growing to be anti-China. even in the -- in the civilian space. And that's very sad to me because the two countries, at least people-to-people, have had good relations for over 100 years.
ZAKARIA: Kai-Fu Lee, pleasure to have you on.
LEE: Thank you.
ZAKARIA: Next on "GPS," Michael Lewis has written huge New York Times bestsellers about all-American issues like baseball and football and Wall Street. Now he's taking on the Trump administration in his new book "The Fifth Risk." You don't want to miss Lewis's fascinating insights into the dangerous waters he says the administration is leading us, when we come back.
ZAKARIA: Climate change is real. It is already being felt in America and around the world. It will surely get worse. It is and will continue to be bad for health, agriculture, infrastructure and much more. And it will cost America hundreds of billions of dollars a year by the end of the century if unchecked. Those are the findings of a damning new report from the federal government released quietly the day after Thanksgiving.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP: I don't believe it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: President Trump, the head of the federal government, scoffed at the report, telling The Washington Post, "A lot of people like myself -- we have very high levels of intelligence, but we're not necessarily such believers."
Such a response does not surprise my next guest, the bestselling author Michael Lewis, who spent more than two years reporting on first the Trump transition, then the Trump administration. "The Fifth Risk" outlines the potentially catastrophic consequences when the federal government is led by people who don't believe or care for what it actually does."
Michael, you begin the story with the transition itself, the Trump transition team. Tell that story.
LEWIS: Right. So -- so Trump, by law, was strongly encouraged to prepare to be president before the election, as was Hillary Clinton. They built this transition team basically over Trump's objections. Chris Christie does it for him.
Trump is basically saying to Christie all along, "Don't spend any money on it." And I think it's because he thought he wasn't going to win. He wins, and he has in place, thanks to Chris Christie, what is, by independent observers' judgment, actually a fairly competent transition, hundreds of people who are ready to go into the federal government and receive the government from the Obama administration.
Trump fires this entire operation right after the election. So he has nobody. The -- the kind of briefings that go on, where you learn the basic functioning of the government, like -- this isn't an ideological question. It's, sort of, like you go into the Center for Disease Control and you learn how they manage the Zika virus.
ZAKARIA: You have a -- you have an interview with the deputy, I think, director at the Department of Energy who says, "The election happened and then we just sat around waiting and we heard nothing from the Trump administration."
LEWIS: So, from the other side of things, the Obama administration had prepared what amounted to the best course ever prepared on how the federal government works because they had been encouraged to do such a thing. And so places like the Energy Department, which is the department of nuclear weapons. I mean, it's where the nuclear weapons are tested, are managed, where loose nuclear material is cleaned up. I mean, it's like -- it's a mission-critical kind of thing, expected the next day that dozens of people would come in to start to learn about what they were managing.
And they, you know, the sort of thing like they had set aside the parking spots and the conference rooms and they wait and wait and wait and no one shows up the next day or the next week or the next month.
I mean, it was -- so my interest in this was, like, what don't they know that they need to know? And I wandered around the government and I got the briefings they didn't get, is basically what I did.
ZAKARIA: And let's take Energy, because you tell this fascinating story of what these, you know, actually incredibly dedicated bureaucrats in the Department of Energy are actually doing.
LEWIS: Well, I mean, it's -- you could do this with any of the departments in the government. But there are -- I mean, as I say, they're managing the nuclear stockpile. They are managing extremely complicated cleanup operations from -- in the places where nuclear weapons were produced for World War II. I mean, there's a -- there's a project in eastern Washington that is estimated to cost $100 billion and will take 100 years to get the tailings from the plutonium production out of the soil before it gets to the Columbia River and pollutes the whole Pacific Northwest.
And so, I mean, you have people who were chasing down what remains of the loosened nuclear material left in -- in Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed. I mean, that -- if that gets into the wrong hands, it's terrible.
ZAKARIA: And then you have this -- this image of the guy who is actually now secretary of energy, Rick Perry, who, when he was running for president, said this was one of the three departments he was going to eliminate, except he couldn't remember which it was. Now he's heading it. And what does he do as secretary of energy?
LEWIS: Well, it's a great question, right? Because, I mean, if you think about the depths of the ignorance. This man was governor of Texas, and nuclear weapons are assembled in the panhandle of Texas. I mean, there's, like, serious nuclear risk managed by the Department of Energy in the state he ran, and he calls for the elimination of this department. He clearly admits, when he gets to the job, he has no idea what was going on there.
And what he's been doing since is tweeting and making these sort of public appearances. But he never went in and got the briefings. I mean, so far as we know, he's never actually bothered to fully understand the department he's running. And so there's a -- so there's a premise here. And the premise is a kind of de-professionalization of the civil service. The premise in the Trump administration is you actually don't need to know anything to do any of these jobs. And it's a degradation of the sense of the importance of the jobs.
And I think Trump actually -- he has to think, given who he's put in the various jobs, and, you know, preposterous people, he has to assume that it really doesn't matter who's running the government.
ZAKARIA: Tell the story about predicting the weather. I mean, this is something we think of as something simple, but it's actually incredibly complicated.
LEWIS: This is a really good example. You know, weather prediction has gotten much, much better over the last few decades. Your fifth-day forecast out is as good now as your one-day forecast was 25 years ago. And hurricane track warnings -- you know, you're less likely to be killed by a hurricane because the National Weather Service is telling you what's coming at you in ways they didn't used to be able to do.
Why? The government collects billions of dollars a year of weather data and they -- and looks for patterns in that data. And this involves satellites and radar installations and weather buoys, and it's expensive. No private company is going to do this.
The -- the weather program functions with, in a kind of informal partnership with the private sector, making its data available so that smart geeks with computers can go into the weather data and look for patterns and improve the weather forecasting. This is going to save lives, property; it's a big deal. Into the job of running the Weather Service, Trump appointed the CEO of Accuweather, who has been, for the last 20 years, on a mission to prevent the National Weather Service from communicating with the American people and -- and also to prevent the data from being easily accessible to many other people but Accuweather.
I mean, it's -- it's -- and to appreciate -- you know, you hear, "Oh, CEO of Accuweather is made head of the Weather Service, or head of the organization that oversees the Weather Service," you say, "Well, he knows about the weather." But -- but he's deeply conflicted. Accuweather does better if the Weather Service does worse, right? You degrade the public service and the private sector all of a sudden can charge for things that used to be free and should be free. Everybody should be able to get the weather forecast for free.
And you go into the Weather Service, you think, who's doing that? I mean, people have done this. The most wonderful people are inside the National Weather Service. They all have a story, and the story is all "When I was six years old, a thunderstorm came through our town and a tree fell on our house, and I thought we were going to die. And ever since then, I thought, I want to save people from the weather."
I mean, these people, who could make a lot more money doing something other than working in the National Weather Service, who were attracted to that job for a reason and are dedicating themselves to making this society a better place, and we mistreat them. And now Trump -- we've allowed Trump to come in and really insult them. And it's -- we're going to pay -- the premise of this whole story is we don't even know what price we're going to pay for this, because we've taken something for granted that is actually -- that are, kind of existential -- they're managing existential risks.
ZAKARIA: Tell the story about the Department of Agriculture?
LEWIS: Like the Department of Energy, it's, sort of, misnamed. It really is. It's the Department of Food, or Nutrition. I mean, the vast majority of the budget goes to feeding people, food stamps programs, school lunch programs, and so on and so forth.
The -- the -- it's also a giant science operation. And it distributes $3 billion a year in grants to academics to basically -- basically prepare for preserving the food supply in the face of climate change, much of the research. This project is usually overseen by a scientist and someone who really knows agricultural research.
Trump appoints to run this whole program a right-wing talk show radio host from Iowa who has no science whatsoever in his background, who just happened to be a loyalist. And again, you can tease out from the way they have treated the administration, the themes in Trumpism. And one of the themes is that you've got to be -- it doesn't matter what you know, you have to be -- "as long as you're loyal to me, I'll put you in these positions."
ZAKARIA: And when you looked at the Department of Agriculture, for example, were you surprised of the scope and the breadth of what they did?
LEWIS: Oh, it's incredible. Yes. I mean, you know, I didn't know much about what these enterprises do. That was -- I was provoked by my own curiosity and ignorance as much as anything. The Department of Agriculture has a drinking game played by employees of the Department of Agriculture, and it's called "Does the Department of Agriculture do it?"
And someone names a task, a function of government, and you have to guess whether in fact your department does it, and if you're wrong, you have to drink. And it's crazy stuff. I mean, they manage the National Forest Service, for example, inside there. But there's stuff like the -- who keeps the geese out of airport -- off of airport runways so they don't fly into jet engines and crash planes? The Department of Agriculture.
There are people running around with shotguns at La Guardia Airport stopping Canadian geese from flying into airplanes. It's a -- the range of stuff that's been jammed into the department is extraordinary. And it's -- and it's the Trump sons -- one of the Trump sons, when it was after the election, turned, apparently, to his father and said, "Oh, there's a Department of Agriculture? I didn't know we still had that."
I mean, I think that -- I think that what Trump has done by approaching the government with this radical ignorance is essentially awaken the society to the need for a civics lesson -- like, none of us really know what these places do. We've sort of -- we've been afforded the luxury of ignoring them for a long time, and we've basically just, kind of, kicked them for a long time. We've used them as a whipping boy. They can't promote themselves. They can't market themselves. All they get -- all they get is slandered and abused. And yet we expect them to perform these critical missions in the society.
And I think that once you -- he's taken it to such a point that I think people are starting to sense that we better figure out what these places do because soon they might not do them.
ZAKARIA: Michael Lewis, a pleasure. I read the book in one sitting. It is completely fantastic, like everything you write.
LEWIS: Thank you.
ZAKARIA: We will be right back.
ZAKARIA: Political divisiveness feels like it's never been higher, but a new poll reveals that most Americans agree on what makes a real American. And it brings me to my question. What is the trait most widely held to be very important to being considered a real American, A, the ability to speak English; B, belief in treating people equally; C, support of the U.S. Constitution; or D, belief in democracy over other forms of government? Stay tuned and we'll tell you the correct answer.
My book of the week is Yuval Harari's book, "21 Lessons." If you liked "Sapiens" or "Homo Deus," you will enjoy this wide-ranging, speculative look at the world today and where it is going -- fascinating big think.
The correct answer to the challenge question is B. According to a new Grinnell College national poll, a full 90 percent of people think a belief in treating people equally is very important to being a real American. The next most important trait, taking personal responsibility for one's actions, followed by accepting people of different racial backgrounds, and then, finally, supporting the U.S. Constitution.
Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.