#AskTIME Subscriber Q and A: Michael Grunwald

15 minute read

Welcome to TIME subscriber Q&A, with senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald.

We will start posting questions and responses at 1 p.m. EST and stay online for about 30 minutes. We have been gathering reader questions all week but will also take questions in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #askTIME.

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MementoMori asks, Wall Street, including many of the same organizations that crashed the economy, continues to find ways to rip off the tax-payers. These are often very complicated schemes that even those with a passing familiarity with finance can have a hard time understanding, but these are important issues often involving billions of taxpayer dollars. My question: How can the media do a better job of both surfacing these stories and presenting them in a way lay people can understand?

Thank you all for your excellent questions, and for subscribing to TIME. Some media outlets do try to cover the predations of Wall Street; in fact, TIME ran a cover story last year titled “How Wall Street Won.” But as I wrote at TIME.com yesterday, I think the premise of that story was wrong. And I’m afraid I think the premise of your question is mostly wrong, too. The federal government provided extraordinary support to Wall Street during the financial crisis, but Wall Street paid back the money and then some; taxpayers will make more than $100 billion in profits on their investments. Many of the organizations that crashed the economy collapsed into oblivion (Lehman Brothers), collapsed into the arms of stronger firms (Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, Merrill Lynch, Countrywide, Wachovia) or collapsed into the arms of the government (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG). Their shareholders absorbed brutal losses.

And because the Obama administration and its allies in Congress—along with a handful of Republicans—passed some sweeping financial reforms in 2010, the surviving firms are much better regulated than they were before the crisis. They’re holding much more capital and relying much less on precarious short-term funding. There’s also a powerful new Consumer Financial Protection Agency – inspired by an article by then-professor Elizabeth Warren—to protect us from the kind of ripoffs you mentioned. Financial institutions serve an important function in a capitalist society; what’s important is minimizing the likelihood that their failures could lead to government bailouts or global meltdowns. That’s still a risk – it will always be a risk – but it’s much, much less of a risk than it was before reform.

Sue_N asks, Michael, I know climate change and infrastructure are high among your interests, and as a resident of Texas (historically water-poor state, now running out of water state), both are very important to me as well. So many of the states most vulnerable to climate change are also red states and thus most resistant to the very notion that something must be done (for example, North Carolina basically outlawing the notion of climate change and Texas happily wasting water we do not have on fracking). There’s also the fact that one of our two major governing parties is growing increasingly hostile to science in general, and climate science in particular. What will it take to turn this tide? What can media do raise public consciousness, and political consciousness? Why is it so much easier to gin up fear over something like Ebola, which is basically a non-existent threat here, than over the effects of climate change, which people here are already dealing with?

I’ve written about how my Miami Beach neighborhood is basically Ground Zero for global warming, so I share your concern about the climate denial of the Republican Party as well as the apathy of the public. Certainly the dramatic increase in droughts and wildfires ought to be ringing alarm bells. The future looks very scary. But if we’re honest—an occupational hazard of journalism—we’ve got to admit that most Americans aren’t really feeling the effects of climate change in any particularly painful way, not yet. Even those droughts and fires are not just about climate; they’re mostly about bad water policy and bad development policy, exacerbated by climate. The Guardian recently visited my neighborhood—well, actually, I’m not sure the reporter ever left his hotel room—to do a scare story about how Miami was basically Atlantis, facing “catastrophic” floods that “paralyze” the entire city. It was BS, and I wrote about how it was BS. I don’t think ginning up Ebola-style hysteria is all that productive; if we tell people that climate change is going to be a disaster, and then we tell people that the puddles in the parking lot at my Whole Foods are a disaster, they’re going to logically conclude that climate disasters aren’t so disastrous.

deconstructiva asks, Thanks for your 7/14 article about electric cars and solar panels for our homes. Do you think our cultural mindset about alternative energy is finally crossing the point of no return for going back to oil-reliant energy? There are technical advances / barriers to deal with, like more efficient batteries, but I suspect our mindset about energy is the biggest obstacle of all. (So might corporate structures to maintaining an oil-based energy system too, but I digress.) Cars are the best example here. In the early 20th century, we had gasoline, steam, and electric cars competing to dominate the market, but Charles Kettering’s self-starter for internal combustion engines changed everything, literally. Imagine if Kettering had devoted his work at GM to electric or steam engines instead. Also, if we succeeded in generating our own power at home with solar panels, how do you think the electric utility companies will best adapt to this – sell / install the panels, become more market traders of power (reselling OUR excess electricity from home, etc.), or other ideas? It’s ironic that if utilities trade and move more power around that we help create, it sort of mirrors Enron’s vision of a electricity trading market that they wanted to build and dominate. Of course, they failed but maybe we can succeed.

Thanks for your kind words, and your great questions. Here’s that piece about how electric cars can change the way we use energy. This is the flip side to the previous question; climate change is scary, but exciting things are happening that are making it much less inevitable. Here’s a broader piece on the green revolution. But to answer your first question, no, I don’t think the biggest problem is mindset; I think the biggest problem is price. For a long time, solar panels were way too expensive; now they’re getting cheap, and they’re taking off. Electric vehicles aren’t quite cost-competitive with internal combustion engines yet, but they’re getting a lot cheaper, and that article suggested that their ability to double as mobile storage units for the grid can make their economics work even better. In general, the more this stuff spreads, the cheaper it gets.

Your next question is one of the big questions for the future of electricity. Some utilities—including my own utility, Florida Power & Light—are trying to hold back the tide, trying to block their customers from installing solar panels so that we don’t become mini-utilities. But there are other utilities—NRG Energy CEO David Crane talks about this—that see distributed generation as the wave of the future, and are trying to get into the business themselves. As that story about electric cars and solar suggested, a lot of the big energy battles over the next decade are going to be obscure public utility commission fights over pricing and incentives. Dorky but important!

MrObvious1 asks, Do you get the sense from GOP that they realize they’re toast in the long run even if they can take back the Senate in 2014? Or is the current intra party struggle for their future identity, between the tea party fringe and the establishment drowning out a larger picture long term policy framing?

Well, I wrote a cover story suggesting the GOP was toast in the long run back in 2009, which didn’t look so smart in 2010. But I actually think that piece holds up pretty well! The Republicans do not look like the future; the country is getting less white, less rural, less evangelical. I’m skeptical that opposing gay marriage and denying climate science and raging against working people getting health care is a winning long-term strategy. I’ve written that they’re increasingly united in their defiance of reality. But politically, they’ve been pretty sharp. I wrote about this in my book. I’m not sure the Establishment vs Tea Party stuff matters that much –Washington Republicans are all mostly on board with Tea Party principles – but on policy, if a visionary somehow gets the Republican presidential nomination and decides to try to change the party, it can probably happen.

nflfoghorn1 asks, MG (and MS), what do you think are the chances of survival for traditional print media (newspapers and mags)? You’ve seen media companies make the split in favor of electronic media (21st Century Fox, Gannett, and your own former employer). From an outsider’s POV it doesn’t look like you’re in a position to be a revenue generator – with the exception of the SI swimsuit issue. How can you win back readers in the modern age?

I’m kind of gloomy about this stuff, too. I don’t like the clickbait model but I can’t say I have a lot of better ideas for making journalism profitable online. I spent the first 15 years of my career at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, which were just sold for peanuts; it’s hard to make money selling a product that people expect for free. Here’s some of my elegiac whining about the changes in the industry: But I’m a 43-year-old dinosaur; I recently gave a talk to some of the young people at TIME, and I regaled them with stories about how we had two gigantic “cellular phones” for the entire newsroom when I started at the Globe. We had to sign them out when news broke. I will say I’m hopeful that the business side will figure this stuff out. Take that article I did about solar panels and electric vehicles. Presumably soon we’ll be able to send it to everyone with a solar panel or an electric vehicle—or anyone who’s ever Googled “solar panel” or “electric vehicle.” Hopefully that will make our product a lot more valuable.

PaulDirks52 asks, I see today on twitter that this subject has come up again. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/07/arrested-for-letting-a-9-year-old-play-at-the-park-alone/374436/ You strike me as someone not given to irrational fear. How do you feel about children being allowed to play outside alone?

We are definitely not helicopter parents. We’re from the Blessings of a Skinned Knee school, and I hate it when people slag parents for giving their kids too much independence. We get some nasty looks on the street because our kids (4 and 6) ride their scooters without helmets – and Max can be a frigging nut out there – so we’re probably poster children for neglect. That said, we live in an urban environment, so I’ve got to admit that we don’t let our kids too far out of sight. Maybe when they’re older.

deconstructiva asks, We know that banking and trading practices and abuses (like derivatives) helped fuel the explosion that blew up our economy and started the recession. Directly put, why aren’t the people responsible for these in jail already? (Several commenters have asked this out loud.) Only now are major fines, etc. being levied against the banks, but where are the filled prison cells? We know that white collar crimes are tough to prosecute, there are statutes of limitations, and previous lax regulation adds to the mess. Still, people need to be held accountable for their actions, and this isn’t happening. Thoughts?

This is another financial question where I’ll have to challenge the premise: The abuses of Wall Street, while real, were not really what blew up the system. What blew up the system was too much leverage—a gigantic credit boom—financed by short-term liabilities that could run in a panic, with too much of the leverage and liabilities outside the traditional banking system. There was a lot of terrible behavior, but that’s not what created the panic—and quite a bit of that terrible behavior wasn’t illegal. Remember, there are a ton of state and federal prosecutors looking at this stuff, and they have every incentive to make themselves famous by hauling jerks in suits off to jail. Apparently they didn’t think there were a lot of good cases to make.

fifty_three asks, How do you see financial reform’s course in the future? Getting away from the memes flying around, do you see simplification of laws, greater regulation, or greater freedom fir financial institutions playing the biggest role?

Great question. I think the Dodd-Frank reforms, while imperfect, have already made the financial system a lot safer for failure, which is the main goal. They’ll continue to roll out over the next few years, along with the Basel 3 process internationally, and I think you’ll continue to see tougher and broader regulations—especially on capital, which is the most important thing. As for the longer term, if Republicans take over Washington, the reforms will be rolled back dramatically. And even if they don’t, I expect there will be a natural cat-and-mouse game where the financial industry comes up with new ways to evade the rules to take on more risk, and regulators fight back or don’t fight back according to the politics of the moment. It’s a long game. I think Washington won this round, but Wall Street (and the community banks, which have even more clout than the behemoths, because they’re in every congressional district) is not going to stop fighting. They’ll certainly have the resources!

PaulDirks asks, I think people still underestimate the degree that joblessness is caused by our willful loss of manufacturing capacity. What to you think is the best prescription to turn that around?

Again, I disagree! The US is actually doing much better on the manufacturing front, but we’re not doing much better on the manufacturing jobs front, because the US advantage is in cutting-edge highly automated factories with very few people in them, not labor-intensive T-shirt factories with huge low-cost workforces. Unemployment is still too high, but it’s down from 10% to 6%, which is way better than Europe’s 12%. My prescription for improving that further, perhaps predictably, would be another round of boring Keynesian stimulus – repairing bridges, weatherizing homes, and cutting taxes for the working poor.

MrObvious22 asks, What role should Media take, in an age where we have a considerable access to information but still seem so flat out ignorant about common subject matters?

I just wrote an essay for the magazine about the information age; it hasn’t run yet. In general, yes, I think the media should do a much better job of educating our audience about important stuff. As I said, I’m not the guy to explain how to make that profitable, but we do too much stupid stuff. But the problem isn’t just on the supply side! It often feels like our audience is more interested in ammunition than information; too often, readers want to read stuff that confirms their biases. Needless to say, I’m not referring to anyone reading this chat; you guys are all awesome.

@Utilitarianland asks, Hi Mike. What is the topic of your next book and when can we expect it on the shelves?

Thanks for the opportunity to plug! I helped Secretary Geithner with Stress Test, which is on shelves now. I don’t have a book project at the moment; I’ve been reintroducing myself to my kids. But I’m probably going to do a new afterword for the 10th anniversary of The Swamp. And I’m kicking around some ideas about the clean-energy revolution. We’ll see.


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