Matt Yglesias

Author

Slow Boring

October 27, 2021

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Ep 336: Matt Yglesias - Author, Slow Boring
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Bret Kugelmass
We're here today with Matt Yglesias, who is one of my favorite journalists of all time and recently wrote a piece on nuclear that grabbed our attention. Matt, welcome to Titans of Nuclear.

Matt Yglesias
I'm really excited to be here.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, this is awesome. Real honor getting to spend some time with you. So funny, because through the podcast I've picked up on little tidbits of your history, but I think this is just an awesome time for us to just hear who you are and where you came from.

Matt Yglesias
Sure. I guess, literally, I came from New York City.

Bret Kugelmass
Long Island boy here.

Matt Yglesias
There you go, right, so Greenwich Village. But you know, more metaphorically, I come from the internet. When I was in college- actually, yeah, when I was in college, I interned one summer in Chuck Schumer's office. And I was working for his communications director at the time - whose book I see you have on the shelf there, Bradley Tusk - and one of my jobs there was to get press clips about Senator Schumer. This was mostly analog at this point, the summer of 2000. I was cutting little things from Staten Island Advance, but I also searched on the internet. And that was where I found blogs. I found Andrew Sullivan's blog, John Marshall's blog. And my roommate was a computer science major, so he helped me- the software was very primitive and he helped me set up a blog of my own when I got back to campus. And the whole blog world was like, it was a really small pond at that time. But I was active in it. People who were there knew who I was. So when I graduated college, I got a job at a small magazine here in town called The American Prospect, because they had a guy there who was in charge of the website. It was really hard in 2003 to get people who wanted to write for the website, so I think he was really excited to have a potential hire who wanted to do web stuff, which was really low prestige at the time. And that was like just the right time. Like 2003, it was like the internet. But then by 2005, it was like we got to get on the internet and that's just what I had been doing, so I just kind of rode that here to the president.

Bret Kugelmass
Did you feel like a little bit of a community? So most people develop community with who, with like their friends, the people in their college classes. Did you get that sense of like a different type of community that maybe was just actually brand new at the time for anyone, anywhere, because of the internet itself? But was that part of it when you started blogging?

Matt Yglesias
Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I felt like I knew some of the other people who were there. A lot of the original friends I had in town when I moved here are other people who wrote blogs and were coming to Washington, DC in the kind of mid-2000s. Some of those people I don't see that much anymore, but some of them are like my very best friends now. And then it's an intellectual community. And I feel like- people, I think, dump on Twitter a lot, because there's a lot of crazy stuff happening there, but it is also a really great way to meet people, to get to know people, things like that. And I've always found those kind of online communities valuable. I'm also like an anti-social weirdo, but that's what it takes to be a "write up five columns a week" kind of guy.

Bret Kugelmass
Well, okay, but what topics interested you? Because, okay, you can write on anything. And I feel like people read stuff, or topics that interest you. Ae you a generalist? Or do you have certain areas that you focus on?

Matt Yglesias
I mean, I focus on different things at different times. But I mean, I have always been a generalist. I mean, I'm interested- I try to flatter myself that that's not just being totally shallow. But trying to think around how different things connect, right? I mean, how do we bring politics into thinking about a policy issue? How do we connect regulatory ideas across different spaces?

Bret Kugelmass
How do you do that? How do you- like what is your mental framework for connecting ideas? And do you have any physical manifestations, like you go for long walks, or like, how do you do it?

Matt Yglesias
I do actually go for long walks. I think- in college, I was a philosophy major, which is quintessentially useless. But the whole thing that you do in philosophy is you try to take areas of life, that you don't necessarily have really detailed empirical knowledge of and try to say something meaningful about them using logic, understanding how ideas work. My work, it's not philosophy. But I do think that it's in that spirit, trying to understand the logic of what people are saying. I try to dip in and out of debates. I mean, I do try to talk to a lot of people, whether that's on Twitter, or on email, or in texts and know things. I'm not really known as a reporter. I don't think I've ever- I think I once had a scoop. But that's not my thing. But part of that is that I think people feel open talking to me, because I'm not trying to get a story. I'm trying to understand what you're saying. So I'm a good person to talk to for people who are finding frustrations in different processes that are happening in government or different aspects of the political system and I try to understand where those sticking points are and where those joints are.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, but you're bridging- so if you're creating new ideas, essentially - I mean, that's like what you do - then almost by nature, there are going to be people who are resistant to the ideas that you create, right? Can you think maybe back to early career when you feel like you really put two ideas together that were truly unique and original and then maybe describe what the reception of that might have been from the outside world?

Matt Yglesias
Do I have original ideas? No. You know, I mean, early in my career I actually wrote a fair amount about foreign policy and national security issues, because that was really hot in the mid aughts and there wwere just opportunities at the place I was working. A colleague of mine at the time - he's a political scientist now named Sam Rosenfeld - we wrote a piece and it was called- it was called "The Incompetence Dodge" and it was about this idea that the Iraq war was totally fine, but George W. Bush had somehow just like, screwed it up. And it was this kind of convenient line of argument, because it pulled all Democrats together. Political parties want to not fight, right? They want to fight the enemy. Yeah. So this idea that Bush had made all kinds of obvious blunders and if you've only listened to Eric Shinseki and sent more troops, we could have fixed it all. I think it was very tempting and convenient. But if you tried to kick the tires of those arguments, they didn't stand up that well. It really was true that either the anti-war people were right and this was a mistake and he was causing all this bloodshed, because that's what happens in wars, and there was no good reason to do it; or the Hawks were right and this was important and they were doing an okay job of it. And what started people up at the time, because people had invested a lot in these critiques and this intellectual project. I think if you look back, the Obama administration's approach in Afghanistan was really trying to put these incompetence ideas into practice. Like, well, we know how to do it, right. We're going to do a counter insurgency. And it didn't work. And also, if you look at Iraq now, I don't think the war was a good idea. I don't think it was worth it. There was no WMD program there. But it is true that after 17 years, or whatever, it actually has settled down there. It wasn't like this- it wasn't this technical thing. It really did hinge on this question of principle, like did it make sense for the United States to be invading countries for no real reason, because they were like bad guys? And I don't believe that it did and I don't, but it's continued to be the case that- I think that the national security community is this very kind of closed and insular environment and they wield- they have genuine expertise. Like they can tell you the names of different kinds of tanks and be like, No, that's not a tank, that's an armored personnel carrier. And they can really wield that jargon, that insider knowledge that I'm buddies with the general to kind of like shout people down. But their track record of results has not been very good, I think, over the last 20 years, and it needs scrutiny. And then I think you've seen comparable things to that in the public health response. People get very upset if you question decision-making at the FDA or at the CDC. But it's very questionable in a lot of ways, right? I mean, they don't deploy the kind of cost benefit analysis that you see. In most kinds of regulatory agencies, they will cite the need to create confidence in the process as the reason for the process itself, which gets very circular at times. I mean, I think we've had some very costly decisions, which is not to say, of course, their most over the top critics are also making really serious mistakes. But the world is sort of more complicated than the experts versus these morons.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. And I'm wondering- you jumped ahead, because that's exactly what I was going to ask you. I was going to ask you, okay, so earlier in your journalistic training, you kind of found this way to look at a situation, understand what the cognitive biases might be of the various actors, and then I was going to ask, Well, can you apply this to other spaces? And you got there. And now I wanted to ask you that question, just like doubled: do you have this as a permanent filter in your brain that you can now use to analyze all sorts of situations, all sorts of industries? Like, is this one of your journalistic features, seeing pattern matching across this domain?

Matt Yglesias
You know, that's what I try to go for. And I try to understand - particularly in the regulatory space, I mean - what are the different philosophies the different agencies use? And why do they use them? One of my uncles was - I mean, he is an economist, he used to be at the EduTrust division of the Justice Department - and I was curious- and antitrust policy wasn't like a hot topic, you see people at family meals. And he really explained to me how they do things there. And it's not the same as how they do things at other agencies. And they have their reasons and the other agencies have their reasons. But they're not always good reasons. Oftentimes, they're historical or institutional reasons. I mean, things happen. But it's something that I think a lot of people don't appreciate, that each regulatory agency has a process, it has values. Those are very fixed and stable. They're handed down throughout time. And they really do it adhere to it, like for better or worse. You're not just- so antitrust has become a hot subject now. And something I try to tell people is that, if you have different ideas for how they should do that enforcement, they need to be able to win cases in court, right? You can't just put somebody in and she's going to be like- I mean, they have, in fact, put Lina Khan who has a very different view from other people and I think it's making some difference. But she can't snap her fingers and change what the FTC does. And she certainly can't change how circuit courts are going to rule in litigation. I mean, it's embedded in a whole set of statutes and their case of incredibly vague statute, and then a century of case law. And that constrains what people do. And it might be good, it might be bad, but you have to try to think about that. And it's also good, I mean, to bring us, I guess, closer to nuclear, I always think it's really interesting to look at things in an international context, which I think people often don't do. And say, is it done the same way in other places and are the results strikingly different? When sometimes there are big problems, sometimes there are big advantages, sometimes it turns out to not make that much of a difference. Surprisingly, people can get their hair really up about things that don't hold up.

Matt Yglesias
It's almost like you're performing a scientific experiment using a control group, right? Like that's like how you're almost approaching this. You're seeing, can I test my thesis about "are things the way that they are" by bringing it into a different context and seeing if that still is the way it is.

Matt Yglesias
Exactly. And until even before I knew really anything about nuclear policy questions, just a stylized fact about the world is that the only really sustained decarbonisation that you have anywhere is France in the 1970s and 80s. And that's primarily because they built- all this nuclear power. That's just true. I mean, you can think whatever you want about that or about other forward looking policy questions, but if you want to see an example of a country radically decarbonizing, that's an example. There's no country that has ever adopted a de-growth strategy and lots of countries have added a lot of renewable power, but none of them have ever done it on a scale necessary to dramatically reduce emissions.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. I mean, so you just presented that case so perfectly clear. I see you as coming from, obviously, not the mainstream media, but you came from Vox. You came from a very- it was an upstart, right, but it was a very powerful and influential media company that's been built over these in so many years. But even so - and maybe this is a little bit of a critique and I'll give you a little personal interlude - I came out to DC four years ago with that exact same thesis that you had. And I had been a huge fan of yours and Vox, the explanatory journalism. And so literally, the first week that I came out here, I reached out to Eliza Barclay was the science editor. She invited me in and I met with Umair and I met with Dave Roberts and I tried to explain some of that. And then I kept pinging Vox like every few months, Hey, can we write an op-ed together? I'm starting to interview a ton of nuclear people, I'm forming my own these. And I'm like, where- what- why? If climate was obviously so important, if you just were able to articulate the nuclear thesis so crystal clear without having to get into so many different things, like why did I - and it wasn't just Vox I started pinging, I went to Brad Plumer at the New York Times - why did I have so much trouble trying to get that story out there trying to write op-eds?

Matt Yglesias
I mean, I actually think - in defense of Vox - when Brad was at Vox, he actually wrote a couple of really good stories about nuclear, about South Korea's rollout, about the sort of death of nuclear in the United States. So it's there. But I also do think- when I was at box, we had different departments and different things like that. And the way Vox was structured was that climate was sort of its own B, right. So that existed and there was a foreign policy and national security team. And then there was this kind of politics and policy group. And we covered like everything else. And people there had specialties. Dara Lind mostly worried about immigration. Dylan Scott mostly worried about health care. But procedurally, we all reported to one editor, so you could move across those topics pretty fluidly. The moving into the topics that the other departments covered was more challenging. Not impossible - and I was a co-founder, I could be a jerk about it, of course, force my way - but bureaucratically it sort of wasn't done. And I think most media institutions have evolved in a similar way where climate is its own pillar. And it's one way people think, Well, we are going to demonstrate our commitment to the climate issue by creating this climate beat. But I think in practice that actually tends to marginalize the subjects that you think you're elevating, because it means that you're sort of ace reporters don't cover them. It's done by the climate people. But it also generates this kind of insularity and group thin. So if you are on the climate beat, you spend a lot of time talking to the climate activists. You spend a lot of time talking to the big environmental groups. You spend a lot of time talking to the renewables people who are at the heart of the climate coalition. And to the people on that beat, I think maybe, are aware that nuclear power has very little emissions, have probably done a story at some point about how the closure of plants in Japan lead to more fossil fuel emissions. But that's not like the world that they are in. It's not the one that they inhabit. And it's useful- I mean, something I have determined since I left Vox is to really, boldly be a generalist. These issues are too important to be left to the little communities that practice them and specialize in them.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, no, pretty amazing. Okay, so you just- you came out with this piece on nuclear. I'd love to hear the whole story. So first, when did you decide you wanted to write about it? How did it rank compared to other topics? What was the research you did? And then what's the reception of people to it as well?

Matt Yglesias
Sure. I've been trying to write more about climate change in general recently and that led to me getting invited to the Breakthrough Institute's Ecomodernism conference. I was going to speak there on some issues that were really mostly political, but also, you try to learn things from people. I think one of the big losses during the pandemic year has been that sort of conference chit chat kind of thing. Because you could put the panel on Zoom, in fact, you can see our panel discussion. It's up on YouTube, it's called - what is it called - "Is quiet climate policy enough?" You should go check it out. But the most valuable part of a conference is the part that you can't put Zoom. It's conversations in the hallway, it's things like that. One of the things that was on my agenda - because I know Breakthrough and I know sort of where they are on these issues - was like I wanted to understand what does being pro-nuclear mean in a more specific way? Because where I sit, that was my view, right, for reasons that I explained to you. I had sort of like heard, Oh, well, we're gonna have new designs, you know? That sounds good. Everybody likes new designs. They're gonna be small, you could put them on a truck. Okay, that's great. But what's the issue, right? Because people just argue on the internet. Somebody will say- this happened to me yesterday. The Biden administration announced an initiative to open much more of the coastline to offshore wind facilities. So I said on Twitter, This is great. We need to beat the scene in BS and achieve energy budgets. And then the second reply to me was like, well I don't see why this is necessary, we could just scale up nuclear. And that's like the kind of argument that people have.

Bret Kugelmass
On Twitter.

Matt Yglesias
I mean, this is a thing that happens, right? People fly in from left field, or then somebody will do the opposite. And they'll say, what we really need to do is like, have a revitalization of the nuclear industry and somebody will be like, No, we could just have solar and batteries, right? That's not a policy debate. Right? There are lots of things you could have. The question is, What is a policy initiative? Now, you can allow offshore wind projects in the coastline. I think that you should do that. You don't need to develop some elaborate view about nuclear power to see that what the Interior Department is doing will be beneficial to the country that the benefits exceed the costs. And so, at the conference, I was just able to speak to a number of people from your organization and from elsewhere who work more closely on nuclear policy in the regulatory arena, and trying to understand like, what do you want? What do we actually need to do? Not just have like good vibes or sniping between fanboys of different energy. And so there- I haven't yet done a piece about the regulation of geothermal power, but it's a similar thing. There's like a little community of nutty enthusiasts. I think there's a pretty basic regulatory policy issue. And if you give the enthusiast what they want, they might turn out to be full of shit and it doesn't pan out. I don't know, I mean, that's where I try to have appropriate, generous humility. I'm not going to tell you about what drill bits will or won't work at 1,000 meters. Who knows. But as a regulatory issue I can have a view on what kind of standards we should be applying and what kinds of areas.

Bret Kugelmass
Amazing. I want to double click on that, but first, just to clarify, are you telling me that you first started thinking about this nuclear issue at the Breakthrough event and that you were able to produce that piece so quickly? Because-

Matt Yglesias
Yeah, I mean, that was not like the first time I'd ever thought about climate change.

Bret Kugelmass
I understand. But your article was a remarkable synthesis of things that, A) I don't hear and, B) I agree with mostly, which is rare that I find that. And the fact that it came together so quickly is crazy to me.

Matt Yglesias
That's nice of you to say. I mean, I feel like it's better to write things when they're fresh. I mean, I had this idea, I had a question.

Bret Kugelmass
yeah, but who else did you talk to? You just talked to a few people.

Matt Yglesias
Yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, because I've been doing this podcast for four years now, interviewing nuclear people. I interviewed 865 people in the first year, and it took me all of those conversations to come to something pretty similar to what you did over a weekend.

Matt Yglesias
Wow. I think that's probably not true. I mean, there's a question of how detailed you want to go on this. I mean, I think I wrote a piece that's at a pretty high level of abstraction, but it reflected parts of things. I've written a lot of pieces that were, frankly, critical of the FDA process and things like that. But one thing I tried to surface is that they do apply. They're a very technology agnostic standard. And everybody finds it very common sensical, that if you say, Okay, I want approval for my COVID treatment - not a vaccine, a treatment to alleviate symptoms. They don't tell you, We think that antivirals are the most promising or we've had this whole debate over the ivermectin, which turns out not to work. But the fact that it's an anti-parasite medication doesn't rule it out. If you think you have a case that this will work, you can do the trials, you can submit your evidence, and they could say, Hey, good luck. It turns out that medicine invented for one thing also does another thing. And that's an appropriate regulatory standard for what they're doing. It's different from the standard that we apply in some kinds of areas and sometimes there's good reasons for that and sometimes there aren't.

Bret Kugelmass
Well, this is what drives me a little crazy, because as it was explained to me early on in my investigation, the FDA has this dual mandate where they're meant to protect the public, but also to allow for commercialization of drugs, food, whatever else they do. The NRC, the nuclear regulatory body in the US actually does not have a dual mandate. They have a single mandate: protect the public. Which if you take that literally means no nuclear plant is the safest option, because they are actually- it's not just that they're not allowed to, they don't want to consider net effects on society. They just to protect from radiation, which in my understanding has led to this kind of stranglehold on the industry. And then I want to just highlight one more thing that you said - because I do have such in-depth knowledge of how the industry has actually functioned - something that you brought up was this cultural inertia within these regulatory bodies. And actually, when Trump came into office, he actually appointed some people at the top of the NRC that was like, This is ridiculous, we are over regulating things. Can we be a little bit more reasonable here? And I met these people and I interviewed them on this podcast. And I was like, Wow, these are good- these are smart, good people, really qualified, talented. But the NRC is a 3,000 person organization and they were not able to change the cultural inertia, even over the course of four years, to get the average person to be like, Hey, can we include a little bit more in our thinking about regulating nuclear to allow for context, maybe? Net benefit? Actual cost benefit analysis even within the radiation space, nuclear regulations.

Matt Yglesias
It's fascinating, right, versus the EPA, you would think of - and it is - an agency whose staffers have a very strong environmental protection. And they're really into the environment. But they are also well aware that you can't just say, Okay, nobody is allowed to drive a car. Even though obviously, if you banned cars, that would have really positive environmental impacts. But you can't do that. And they are aware that you can't do that. They are aware why you can't do that. And even if- I mean, when there's a Republican president, they stray against the political limits and they want stricter regulation than Republicans will allow, but they accept internally that it would not be appropriate to just demolish industrial capitalism for the sake of air quality. They want to improve air quality through feasible ways that have net benefits to society. And they do all this research on particulates, this and that and the other thing. They do all this work. The air has gotten a lot cleaner over the past 30, 40 years, thanks in large part to the stuff that they do. But it's much more sophisticated than setting stuff on fire. That's pretty bad. I was like, let's shut it down. And the NRC, its original mandate is not like that. The assumption there is that, just like evil Mr. Burns is going to try to get one over on us and we've got to stop him. And it doesn't matter what the costs of not approving the plants are. And it's challenging to turn a ship like that around. You can put different people on the top, Congress can tinker around at the edges. But I know from talking to people who work there in mid-level kind of roles, they don't fully think- they don't really believe Congress when they say, Well, we want to encourage this, that, or the other thing. I mean, they firmly believe that if anything goes wrong - ever - that they are going to get yelled at, versus nobody blames them for problems of inaction. It doesn't happen. They believe in this safety mandate. It's what they were given. The origin story is that the Atomic Energy Commission was bad and that we needed this different one that was going to be more skeptical. Nobody goes to work every day thinking the core foundational values of my agency are misguided. If that's what you think, you do something else with your life. It's a hard problem and I mean, I didn't get into really potential solutions.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, well that's what I wanted to ask you next. Have you seen anything anywhere else in the world that we could possibly like, pattern match and maybe kind of start generating a solution?

Matt Yglesias
I mean, I'm wondering what you think, because as I understand it, the Canadian regulatory agency on a formal level has applied the sort of right ideas and it doesn't seem to me to have generated any wildly different outcome.

Bret Kugelmass
I noticed this is what like a lot of the nuclear startups will say, Well, the Canadian system, Look, it's written in the law that it's fundamentally different. You just show the risk. Man, I went up there a couple years ago and I interviewed all the leadership. And one interviewer was like- and I like the people, I've met them at conferences and actually think they're very smart. But they come from this perspective that's been drilled into them for 20 years and I think the Canadians are just as bad as the US, culturally, when it comes to thinking about how do we look at a risk-graded approach. They say that they're risk-graded, but culturally- I mean, the guy said this one thing to me - recorded on the podcast - he's like, Yeah, if we see anything we don't like in a nuclear plant at any time, we will go in and we will shut that nuclear plant down immediately. I'm like, Okay, so what is an investor in the new nuclear plant to think when that's your position publicly? Who's gonna actually start putting the money in to build these- to test out these new ideas?

Matt Yglesias
Right. This is why these things do ultimately get more complicated than a sort of high level, what's the mandate kind of thing. You might need to well, do how the NRC came to exist and blow up an agency and say, We're creating a whole new thing about emissions, right? Or even say, Look, the regulation of this is going to be integrated with the EPA regulation of other fixed sources-

Bret Kugelmass
You're reading my mind.

Matt Yglesias
And to say, obviously, you'd need to build a new team. You would need different kinds of scientists. It could be some of the same people, the seismologists and other things, because that doesn't change, identifying where earthquake risks are and how bad they are. But to say, Look, we are going to genuinely integrate this into our analysis of gas and coal and everything else that's out there and say that we are trying to reduce health hazards on net. That way, that might work. It might be that some other country, frankly, is where you go. Canada is in some ways a poor candidate for innovation in this space, because they have so much hydro power and they have a huge oil extraction industry. There's not a lot of like motivation. Nuclear doesn't really solve a problem for Canada. If you get the utopian nuclear future, of course it solves a problem for everybody. But France's big nuclearization initiative came because this was a country that didn't have any fossil fuel resources. And in a time of oil scarcity was like, Well, we've got to do something. So you need a country that feels highly motivated to do something and to say, Look, we want to power through this. And if somebody has like a 10x windmill, that's amazing. We're not ruling this stuff out. But we are determined to go to the wall here. That can come about in different kinds of ways for different kinds of reasons. We don't quite know what will happen. Smaller countries, I think, tend to just piggyback on other people's regulatory decisions, which you can understand why they do that, but in some ways, could be more advantageous for smaller places to try to move on these kinds of things. The United States, though- Democrats really want to do something on climate change. They were actually quite committed to this. They have a lot of political stumbling blocks. Nuclear is something that I think environmentalists have traditionally gotten into thinking, Well, we don't want to share the pie with these other guys. But I think in practice - we saw in last year's energy bill, we see it if you've talked to Joe Manchin about anything - that in practical political terms, incorporating a nuclear element and incorporating direct air capture, carbon capture - there's a menu of things - it actually unlocks more political support for things that kind of give everybody's technology a sort of piece of the pie. You don't have an objective scarcity, and particularly when you're talking about regulatory issues, right? I mean, it doesn't come at the expense of anybody to really try to dig in on the regulatory front, if that can be part of what you say you're doing. I mean, I think that does become a more compelling package, at least on Capitol Hill, where a lot of people are at least kind of softly pro-nuclear. The other question that was the public, right? I mean, that's what I didn't get into in my piece. But there is a lot of grassroots skepticism of nuclear power in the United States. And for one thing to have a big change in regulatory agency- I mean, if you're gonna have people yelling and screaming and being like, Oh my god, they're burning the whole house down, people's baseline disposition has to be that the nuclear industry is innovative and interesting. And we would like to see new potential unleashed, because there's going to be an ugly fight. And who wins that fight is going to depend a little bit on what you what you come to the table with before you start hearing the argument.

Bret Kugelmass
Here's the problem, though, and this is something we've discovered which I'm going to add as a kind of a new insight so you can fit on your framework of the topic. I actually hypothesize that the nuclear industry is actually an inherently anti-nuclear contingent. Based on, if you track the history of nuclear regulations, once the NRC was installed, they essentially kind of gave up on building new reactors. And every half decade, every decade, it was the incumbents that started using regulatory capture. Here comes the nuclear industry to ratchet up the requirements until only a couple of-first they got rid of 18 competitors, and then they were down to four. Then they kept ratcheting it up and only two could satisfy all the requirements. Then it became only one. Okay, so it gets even worse, because that's the developer part of the industry. Then the rest of the industry as well - the people who sell services to, upgrades to existing plants - the entire industry has now been reconfigured - even decommissioning waste services - has been reconfigured around safety-ism. And it's the nuclear industry itself that is actually, in my perspective, spreading the misinformation to the public about how dangerous nuclear is. And then what is the public to say? If the environmentalists and the other industries are saying, No, no, nuclear is too dangerous, we can do this otherwise. And the nuclear industry is also saying, Yes, this is very dangerous, which is why you have to have all of these precautionary measures that bring us money, then there aren't two sides to the argument. There's nobody advocating to blow up the NRC.

Matt Yglesias
I mean, I think that's right. You get a very -once they gave up on really expanding, it becomes easy to just sort of conform and say, This is fine, we've blocked off competition, we're doing our thing. Particularly, the service providers and all that stuff is an excellent point, because it's an ongoing stream of revenue. It's a big industry, it has a lot of-

Bret Kugelmass
Look into that decommissioning, this is crazy. There's now a financial incentive for nuclear plant operators to close down nuclear plants instead of continue operating. They get a big pile of gold once they close them down. And they don't even realize it. When you talk to like Exelon or something, they've actually built it into their business model. Look at the all the cash we're gonna get once we close our nuclear plants down. And we don't get this type of money in certain markets in the US, so they're incentivized towards self-cannibalization.

Matt Yglesias
Yeah, it's a troubling dynamic, obviously. And I think that what's also true- I mean, because you see this across all kinds of areas, but people are more alarmed by spectacular risks than by routine risks. And that's not unique to power generation, right? It's a kind of a human cognitive whatever, that a one in a billion chance of a terrible explosion seems worse than just every day three people die. Even though the math doesn't add up on that at all. Having lots and lots and lots of small, predictable, routine health hazards is actually really bad, but it just becomes normalized. Obviously, if the whole world had always been powered by nuclear fission and somebody came around and said, Instead of this waste stored in caskets buried deep in mountains and stuff like that, we're just going to set shit on fire everywhere. People will be like, That's crazy. Like what about the smoke? What if it explodes? But you're accustomed to it, right? And before people started burning coal to power steam engines, they were burning wood to heat their houses. And that was incredibly dangerous. I mean, it was a step forward to create these dirty fossil fuel technologies compared to I guess you would call it biomass. But I mean-

Bret Kugelmass
And by the way, in many places on the planet, it still is that case, that employing fossil fuels is a better option than what they have right now. And I think we need to also be cognizant of this in caring about humans around the world context.

Matt Yglesias
Yes, yes, but we just have become accustomed for a very long time to dealing with dangerous forms of combustion as a routine aspect of human life. And so the idea of moving to something else feels alarming to people in novelty, scares people, spectacular events. You can make the Chernobyl miniseries, whereas you wouldn't have much of a story if it was like, Ah, some fine particulates come out in a steady stream from this plant and nothing breaks, nothing goes wrong. It's just that operating as intended. There's like all this soot around.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, maybe, but- okay, well, we can come back to that. But I think the one thing that I'm still, that also still just drives me absolutely nuts, because you say these spectacular events - okay, you just cited Chernobyl - but in terms of normalization, we had an opportunity with both Three Mile Island and Fukushima where the freaking cores melted down - okay, like worst case scenario-

Matt Yglesias
That's what I thought about Fukushima. Fukushima, to me, was a turning point in this, because we had Fukushima and it seemed it seemed bad. Things were going really wrong, but then you look at it - and well, I don't want to say it was fine-

Bret Kugelmass
I'll say it was fine.

Matt Yglesias
Ultimately, nobody died.

Bret Kugelmass
I'll say it was fine. And this is why I'm just so sure that the nuclear industry is its own worst enemy, because once again, they used the Fukushima event- instead of saying, well, this is our normalization opportunity. We had the worst case possible scenario for a water-based reactor - okay, Chernobyl is a graphite-based reactor, we can draw those distinctions later - but for water-based reactor, which is most of the reactors around the world, which is like what we could just build, just scale up tenfold and literally just end the climate change thing now. We had a perfect example. Three full gigawatt-scale cores melted down. Every single safety system failed, including the roof. Okay, so there's no roof, you've got the cores melted down, what could be worse? And you know what happened? One teaspoon of iodine-131 was spread out across 100 million acres.

Matt Yglesias
I thought it was remarkable that people did not take that opportunity to say, Look, this shows it works.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, except do you know what happened? And I can trace this back. If that happened, the nuclear industry went in and they said, Never again, this was their never again moment. So they never even took the opportunity to say, Look, let's deregulate, let's build tenfold as many power plants, because they went the other way instead.

Matt Yglesias
Yeah, it's bad. I mean, it was a really- I do think that people will probably look back on that as a really unfortunate turning point. We are- I think we will keep reducing emissions in different ways. I hope we will do better than we are on track to doing, but we're clearly not going to hit these IPCC targets. Bad things are going to happen as a result of global warming. And at a really important moment when that conversation was getting pretty involved. People all around the world were interested in climate, they were caring about climate. This thing happened that put light water reactors really on the radar in a big way and there were different ways that you could look at it. But the world's governments - and apparently industry- they chose to look at it as, Ah, this shows that all our worst fears about nuclear are true, even though you look at it and it's like, Well, what was the fear, exactly? And then again, if you pretend that other sources of energy have no downsides or no trade-offs, that's fine. They obviously do and you'd see that anytime you discuss anything. So to not consider the pros and cons in an integrated way, it's just- I mean, it's scandalous. And you see what's happened in Japan, what's happened in Germany. We've had some accelerated decommissioning in the United States since then. And it's quite bad. I don't know exactly why the developing world is so "follow the leader" around this kind of thing. I mean, that's just like- I have never spoken to an Argentinian energy regulator, but you might think that that would be the release valve for this, that countries like Vietnam that are just so clearly growing their energy consumption might think a little bit more outside the box on these kind of subjects. But they don't seem to. Although in part, that does come from the other governments around the world. Japan very aggressively exports high speed rail technology through its economic development type things. If they had confidence in their own nuclear industry in a way that they don't, that could be part of the same kind of package. But it isn't. It isn't something that they tried to export. France, I mentioned them, they're like the nuclear success story, but they're backing off of it, right? I mean-

Bret Kugelmass
Victim of their own success. They built so many, now they kind of lost that drive to build, because it was so many years ago. But I love your example with the developing world. I look at Eastern Europe and I say, Okay, they've got nuclear, they've got brilliant nuclear scientists - I've been out there many times across different countries, met them, super sophisticated - and they've also got this energy security issue with Russia and everything. To me it's like- and they're developing, so they can afford to think outside the box. I don't know why any of them haven't fully broken away from the influence of the US nuclear regulator.

Matt Yglesias
But even the European construction - Areva, is that the French?

Bret Kugelmass
Areva, Framatome, EDF.

Matt Yglesias
They did one fairly recently in Finland and just incredible cost overruns. It seems like the whole thing has run aground and that nobody is interested in trying to standardize of what a reactor construction process- and even, in my piece, even when I talk to people who are like nuclear enthusiasts, they're all past that anyway, to small reactors-

Bret Kugelmass
That's the problem, because I actually think they're doing the same thing that the incumbents are doing. Whenever- and you call it the non-nuclear bro, and I kind of see a little, I want to come back to that, but I want to explore where that comes from a little bit- because a lot of the nuclear bros I guess, are like, they picked their favorite new technology and this is going to solve all the problems. But what they don't realize is that they're playing into that same safety-ism culture that the incumbents use to essentially strangle the industry to begin with. They're saying my new core reactor is safer. So for one, what they're doing is they're throwing the entire category of technology in the box, because the minute you tell the public something is safer, you implant the idea of danger in their head. And then, but also for what? Safer than what? Safer than something that would melt down and kill zero people? How do you get safer for that?

Matt Yglesias
I mean, it's an interesting question, what the standard is, and it does seem to invite this kind of- well, you don't say, Okay, well we're going to be technology agnostic, but we're going to demand higher and higher levels of safety, when you ought to be asking for parody with how other people are regulated. Now, what you get out of the process, I mean, who knows. It's politics. But the ask ought to be that you were treated on a par with other things. I mean, solar panels could fall off somebody's roof and slide down and kill somebody. Now, there are rules about how you construct it to try to make that not happen, but they don't attempt to make it inconceivable that, well, if a tornado came - I have solar panels on, could some weather event cause shards of them to come flying off? I'm assuming it could, yeah. But there's a level at which you have to say, Look, this is negligible compared to the benefit of generating electricity that doesn't cause pollution. And everybody should ask for that kind of treatment. There are a lot of critics of the cost benefit analysis process and they've raised some points that make a certain amount of sense to me. But then whenever you look at a different regulatory standard that's applied elsewhere, the results are much worse than cost benefit. It's- energy is very valuable. All of these technologies are in some sense dangerous or consumptive of open space or hazardous to nature, but we use them because it's really important to have electricity. So if you just start looking at one particular technology and pretend not to see the value of generating the electricity, but you're gonna say, Well, this is terrible, right? We're covering up all this desert land with solar panels. Why? Birds died in this windmill. We're choked with smoke, right? These are all bads, I guess. But we want to have the electricity. And once you accept that into your heart, then you ask yourself, Look, is this more dangerous than the alternative? And with nuclear, it really isn't. And if you can build things that are simpler and more modular and more replicable, that's very valuable. But if they're safer too, good I guess. But we- I don't need to convince you, but the nuclear plants we have are very safe. The problem is they're very expensive, so people don't want to do them. I mean, with good reason. Nobody wants to spend a billion dollars and take 17 years to get extra electricity.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, well, here's the problem: it's not a billion, it's 10 billion. But this is my exact point I'm about to make. A gigawatt-scale coal plant and a gigawatt-scale nuclear plant are roughly the same amount of steel, concrete, turbine- I mean, they're pretty much the exact same thing with a different way to boil water. But the gigawatt-scale coal plant, even with a ton of regulations and monitors costs a billion dollars. The gigawatt-scale nuclear plant costs $10 billion. Now, if you were to go to this idea of parody, where you say, Listen, the worst thing that can happen to a light water reactor is Fukushima where nobody dies. So let's get rid of those extra $9 billion of regulation. Because the fuel cost of nuclear is negligible, you'd have power, baseload power, at $15 a megawatt-hour if you had parody with no new technology. That's enough to put every fossil plant out of business just with market dynamics with technology that we've had since the 1960s using empirical evidence that everyone can look at Fukushima killed nobody. How does this not make you a nuclear bro?

Matt Yglesias
Nobody wants to be a bro. Because here's one point. I am a realist about politics and I don't think that we are going to make progress on America's energy problems by just insisting what we need to do is deregulate the construction of large light water reactor designs. The industry is not pushing for that.

Bret Kugelmass
So it's pretty much a lost cause, is what you're saying.

Matt Yglesias
There are a lot of people who are opposed to that. There's a lot of public prejudice right now. And no other country is doing it. This is the other thing, is that if this was happening in Mexico and they were showing it, they were rolling off these plants, I would feel more optimistic about saying, Hey, look-

Bret Kugelmass
Here's an example.

Matt Yglesias
-we should go do what it is there.

Bret Kugelmass
Can point to the Netherlands or something, say look-

Matt Yglesias
Yeah, Canada, this is a real thing, right? Whereas to me, it just, it sounds a little fantastical to go up to Capitol Hill and say, Well, my solution is just purely a radical deregulation of this existing industry, that the industry itself says would be unsafe and unsound, that every other country is stepping away from-

Bret Kugelmass
In the US political context, you're saying that's probably untenable?

Matt Yglesias
I don't see it here. And nobody seems to see it in any other- I mean, I don't know these other countries. I mean, godspeed. In all honesty, if there is some way through to do this in Poland, or wherever it is, I would love to see it, because I think that would change the politics. Right? And it's important to do that. There is some momentum in the United States - lobbying momentum, congressional momentum - around these new reactor designs. There have been a number of policy changes made recently that were intended to facilitate their deployment. It hasn't really worked, but it shows that is something that you can tell people you are trying to do and they will listen. There is a root there that I can see happening, whereas I don't quite see it in the other space. I'm open to it if you got some ideas.

Bret Kugelmass
Well, my big idea is exactly what you said: Let's prove it in another country first. And this is why I never got- so Bill Gates, a big fan of nuclear, whatever. He went to China. I still for the life of me, I just don't get it why he chose China. Even forget, okay, maybe he couldn't have foreseen the geopolitical climate. But even so it's like, Okay, so you're sitting on $100 billion and what you want to do is you want to go to another culture and regulatory culture that is hard to communicate with? Just buy the island of Haiti and do whatever you want. Could you not literally write your own set of rules for Haiti for under $50 million and then build your full-scale nuclear plant for another billion And by the way, that doesn't cost you any more than one month's worth of interest on the capital that you've approved.

Matt Yglesias
I think if I was Bill Gates, yeah, I would find the Bahamas or just someplace where people speak English and that they've heard of and that they are favorably disposed. Because the other thing is, if something happens in China, that's not necessarily going to impress anyone in the United States. They'll be like, Well of course, in China they have slave labor. If anything, whereas if you could sell South Africa- South Africa is a poor country. They could use some new ideas. They could use some progress, but also, all of their government media people speak English. They are thought of in the United States as like good guys.

Bret Kugelmass
That's brilliant.

Matt Yglesias
They had a nuclear program.

Bret Kugelmass
They still do.

Matt Yglesias
They still do, so if you can make something happen there, then people in Ethiopia and Kenya, they're looking at it. And then we're saying in the United States, Well wait, if Africa can use the power source of the future, why can't we?

Bret Kugelmass
God, this is perfect, because I didn't like where you were going with the whole, okay, we're making some political progress here in the US, advanced reactors, because what I see them doing is what they've always been doing. It's like, they were able to effectively lobby to get R&D dollars to not build anything for the next 10 years, because it's not like- they don't have like the real business drive. Literally, you can look at the leadership of these companies. It's just academics who are used to writing government grant proposals and just kind of tinkering around in R&D mode, literally forever. And that's been the history of advanced nuclear in the US for the last 20 years and it will be the future for the next 20 years. To me, that is not a tenable climate solution, but what you just proposed, one or two wealthy people could just go to South Africa, hire the McKinseys and the lobbyists to say, Let's paint the picture that we need to do to convince the government that this is the right way. They can become future leaders in this technology. Build a bunch in South Africa, build a bunch in Africa, build a bunch in Southeast Asia, and then by 2030, come back to the US and say, Listen, if you're not on the nuclear train, if you don't see the progress that they've made, then you're just an ostrich.

Matt Yglesias
Yeah, but I do think that it's typically not going to be the case in the future that the United States is necessarily the leader in regulatory issues. The United States, for better or worse, is a pretty rich and self-satisfied country. You can say the politics is broken. There are different ways- you could be more downbeat about it. But the fact is - and I've been looking at a lot of surveys about this on a lot of topics - people are pretty comfortable and change averse here. Not only are the institutions kind of loaded against change, but the public basically is. And that's not just on this topic, it's on a lot of things. Other countries that are poorer, frankly, want to do more. They have been much more willing to take huge health risks with fossil fuels in recent years, because they are so hungry for energy. But there is a better way to take risks, right? I mean, if you are willing to say, Look, this is what I'm doing- The United States, our per capita energy consumption has been going down. Our aggregate energy consumption has been flat. Renewables are growing. And none of that is really happening on the timetable that it should or that we need. I don't really think it's a great idea, frankly, to be on this energy diet that we're on, but it's something we've been doing for decades that we are pretty much okay with, and where the trajectory is toward decarbonisation and cleaner sources. Most of the world is not like that. Their energy consumption is going up, their pollution trends are bad, but the electricity is incredibly valuable. So presenting to them ways to really break out of that mind, I think is potentially much more locally compelling. At the same time, I don't know- what do I know about South African politics? I'm just kind of making stuff up here.

Bret Kugelmass
No, that's great. Okay, so now let's look towards the future and you for a second. First of all, your blog- can you just talk about- promote something.

Matt Yglesias
Sure, I have a Substack. It's called "Slow Boring" which is not because it's boring. It is named after famous said Max Wever essay on politics as a vocation. He says the politics is the slow and steady boring of strong “boreds,” which I think this is what we're talking about here. It's hard to find your way to solutions of things. I come out five times a week, usually one or two free additions. The others are for paid subscribers, some more new stuff. It's gonna be happening in the future as I get into the into the second year.

Bret Kugelmass
And are just by yourself? Do you have friends who help you write? What's the-

Matt Yglesias
I do the writing. I've got a copy editor, I've got an editor, I've got a researcher intern guy. It's a small but vibrant team. And this is the kind of thing that I am really interested in, which is just how do we integrate political and policy considerations? How do we improve understanding of policy problems? Because that helps, but also how do we identify strategies that make sense? Ways for people who want to change the world for the better to apply themselves in a way that is useful. I think most people know, it's like a little unsatisfying to go vote every two or four years and try to pick the better of the two candidates. I mean, it's good, it's important to vote. And I think it's important to vote for the better candidate than the worst one. But people find that unsatisfying. And so to a lot of people, though, the only other things I can come up with is like, maybe I should go to a march sometimes. Or I can tweet about how I'm frustrated with bad guys. And I support both of those things, too. But a lot of change happens in the world through other means than that. Elite actors are very important, like Bill Gates. I mean, we've been talking about Bill Gates and I think he's trying to do the right thing here. I'm very aligned with his ideas in a big picture sense. But I don't think that what he's done hasn't necessarily worked. And so, improving the thinking of people who are in a position to deploy resources and come up with ideas is just really important.

Bret Kugelmass
Amazing. And then just kind of, as we wrap up here, I want to give you the final word, and just maybe kind of end on- we always like to end on a note of optimism. I'm going to force you to be optimistic. Where do you see the world going 10 years from now, and just your positive vision of the future.

Matt Yglesias
My positive vision of the future is that we have a lot of countries in the world. There are actually a lot of bites of the apple on these kinds of things. And we normally see that when good technology is developed and used at scale, that other people want it. It is really rare to see something amazing, but it only exists in Korea. If it is, it's like a weird food thing. Uber spread around the world like wildfire, even though there was a lot of regulatory opposition, because in the places where it was allowed, people really liked it. And people heard about that elsewhere and they wanted it and when regulators would take it away in certain places, people will be like, Oh, this is sad. It was better when we had the cars like that. Regulatory issues in nuclear and in a lot of spaces are real, but I always do try to remind my more libertarian friends that it's rarely the case that some foible of like one agency in one place is the whole reason you're failing. If this was going gangbusters anywhere, more places would go do it. You have more opportunities to try to find answers and to try to find ways through. And I think that that is how we have had progress historically. It's a big world. There are a lot of countries. There's a lot of people in it. We're coming up with a lot of ideas all the time. One shouldn't give up hope. Look for more opportunities. Look for more places where you can play the game.

Bret Kugelmass
Matt Yglesias, everybody. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Matt Yglesias
Thank you. Thank you.

Bret Kugelmass
It was awesome talking with you.

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