Throwback: Adam Conover Doesn’t Ruin V’s 40th Birthday
This week, we revisit V’s birthday episode! As a gift to their listeners, V invited one of their favorite comedians, Adam Conover, on the show to talk about his Netflix special, “The G Word.” Adam went from ruining everything from weddings to airlines, to investigating the U.S. government. He’ll talk about getting access to some of the most guarded government buildings and taking viewers behind the scenes to build trust. We’ll hear about how the country regulates food and why we’re not subsidizing more fruits and vegetables. Plus, how the government has complete control over the money supply and why PPP loans benefited the wealthy instead of the small businesses they were intended for.
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V Spehar, Adam Conover
V Spehar 00:05
Friends, it is my 40th birthday and while you’re probably thinking like okay August Leo, we probably have a whole month of celebrations, we do not. For all of the things I love about myself and about this world I do not love my birthday. I am a rare August Leo and that it gives me incredible anxiety. I have never been a birthday person. So thankfully, the team here was super kind to me and said, okay, how can we make your birthday just the most specialist but least scary, intimidating worky type day. So, I said can you please get me one of my favorite comedians, someone who taught me so much about how to show up in the world and make information accessible. Adam Conover so we’re gonna chat with Adam about his new Netflix show the G word. It’s six episodes on all the things that you wanted to know about the government things that you thought you already knew about stuff that you’re not going to believe is still even happening? And just kind of like bro out and geek out about politics and how weird the government is. So, here it is my birthday conversation with Adam Conover from Adam Ruins Everything and the G Word. Adam, I’m so glad that you’re here. What a fun time.
Adam Conover 01:16
Hey, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
V Spehar 01:19
You might not know this. You probably don’t I’m not sure if cooking told you. But this is my birthday episode. It’s airing on my actual 40th birthday.
Adam Conover 01:26
Wow, happy birthday, I’ll turn 40 in a couple months as well.
V Spehar 01:30
I know. And they were like, who do you want for your birthday guest and I was like Adam Conover. Obviously, that would be like my dream. So I’m really, really appreciative. Extra special that you’re here.
Adam Conover 01:39
I’m very excited to be here. Thank you. And especially on such an auspicious day.
V Spehar 01:45
Yes. Well, folks love to see us together. They often compare our both physical looks the way we deliver information. We had the White House Correspondents Dinner whose hair is higher viral photos, so.
Adam Conover 01:58
And it went incredibly viral. And I was seeing it all over BuzzFeed all over Vox.com, people we’re doing it on TikTok, and it was the talk of the entire internet for a good 48 hours.
V Spehar 02:09
We’re gonna have to fact check that but yes, absolutely. I wanted to ask you before we get into talking about your new show, and just some of the things that you learned, but like you said, you’re also looking at hitting 40 this year. Are you feeling worried about it? How are you feeling?
Adam Conover 02:25
Well, I feel great. I feel great, and everything keeps getting better, you know, and I think that’ll just keep happening forever. Right? That like my physical, my physical fitness and my mental acuity and all of it just gonna keep increasing over time. I’m probably, my mom and she was like, you’re at your peak. And I was like, that’s true. But you know, that’s when people say it’s all downhill from here. And you know what I say downhill is the best part of every hike. Right?
V Spehar 02:53
I agree. I had that same conversation with my mom, I was like, is 40 over the hill? Because I couldn’t remember them having over the hill parties. And she’s like, no, it’s 50 now is over the hill.
Adam Conover 03:03
I think that’s correct. I think that’s correct. But I’m, you know, maybe I can tell you a little bit easier on the back half, and I can just lie down and roll the rest of the way. You know, that’s my thought.
V Spehar 03:12
I think so. But let’s get into it. So let’s, everyone knows you, of course, from Adam Ruins Everything, you now have a six episode Netflix series, the G Word about the government in which you acknowledge and the show might not be where something people want to plop down on their couch to watch. And we have a little bit of tape here. So, you’re saying, you know, no one wants to talk about the government. But what made you say, unless they hear it from me, I can make them listen, how did you finally decide like, do you have the right team in place? Where were you when you were like, I’m gonna be the guy, I can do it?
Adam Conover 03:54
Well, you know, my entire career is based on making things that are not on the surface funny or engaging, funny, or funny and engaging. And I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. But part of that is based on my foundational belief that people actually want to know these things. So when I talk about, I don’t want to know about the government, we don’t want to talk about it. That’s just my way of getting into the conversation. In reality, everybody does want to know these things. And so the next words out of my mouth after that clip, are, you know, don’t you think it’s a little weird that we spend, you know, two years, arguing our heads off over who’s going to run a government that most of us know nothing about? Don’t you think you should know a little bit about this thing? Aren’t you curious about what it does? And my belief is when I put it to that, when I put it to people that way, there isn’t a person in the country who’s not going to say yes, because people are smart. People are intellectually curious. They want to know things and learning things, in fact, is fun. It is simply fun to learn. Now, I think that learning in a lot of our lives is covered up by layers of un-fondness, I think that, you know, the public school system often really buries the fondness of learning. But I think all of us have had that one teacher who we loved, and we didn’t love them, because they like didn’t make us learn, we love them, because they actually made us learn, we actually learned from them, and therefore we love them. So I feel that if I, you know, am able to all I’m doing is taking the information, and putting it in an order where it actually goes into people’s heads in an engaging way. And by so doing they enjoy the material, they want to share it with other people, etc. And that’s the sort of the little niche I’ve created for myself in the media landscape. But a lot of it is based on making, making it look easy, when in fact, I think it actually is kind of easy.
V Spehar 05:48
It gives people a sense of belonging, they can contribute to the conversation, they understand things, they feel confident voicing their point of view and adding to it. And that’s where we eventually end up with the truth. It was produced, in part by former President Obama to be factually accurate. Were you worried that folks would think it was propaganda having a former president involved?
Adam Conover 06:07
Oh, absolutely. I was. And, you know, my primary concern going into the project. So the way the project came about, I always like to tell the story is that, you know, I had read this book by Michael Lewis called The 5th Risk, Michael Lewis is one of our very best journalists and one of the best writers we have working in journalism. And he had written this book, it’s partially about the Trump transition. But he uses that as a way to sort of get into all of these weird and wild things that the government does, that turns out, he became fascinated by this topic, and started looking really deeply into them. I read the book in late 2018, and was just oh my god, this is a great book. So I read this book, about like, six months later, I get a call from my manager saying, hey, I don’t know if you’re gonna be interested in this. But the Obamas, their production company has optioned his book, The 5th Risk, and they want to know, if you want to pitch on what you would do with it as a TV show. And I said, ah, yeah, I would like to pitch on that. And I basically pitched, I’ll do it my way. I’ll do you know, a comedy investigation of how the government affects our lives in all these different ways, good and bad. It’ll be a sort of evolved, Adam Ruins Everything, when I’m playing less of a character and myself, and I go visit the government workers on the job. They, the people, who work for the people who work for Obama likes that pitch. So did the Obamas. Eventually, once they heard about it, so did Netflix, who they have a big deal with. But what I made very clear at the beginning, was that look, the only way this show is going to be credible to the audience, is if we make a really clear demarcation between, you know, our independent investigation and the Obama’s involvement. And they understood that and gave us that space to work. And that’s why we did a scene at the beginning where, you know, the opening scene is between me and Barack Obama. And I say to him, well, the show can’t be propaganda, and I need to be able to do my own investigation. He says, okay, go nuts. And, you know, I think the proof is in the pudding that we do a number of segments that are critical of the Obama administration, critical of trends in government, the Obama administration has perpetuated or store begun that were very harmful, including the neoliberal turn, the, you know, the fact that the Affordable Care Act was based on private enterprise rather than like a real faith and a muscular government’s ability to fix the healthcare system. We were very critical of the drone strike program, which was massively expanded under the Obama administration. And you know, those are things that the political people over there are not, they would have preferred if we hadn’t done those topics, but unfortunately, for them, that’s where our investigation led and, and, you know, I sort of take this approach, as a comedian, that part of my job is to pick the biggest fight that I can so on, Adam Ruins Everything, I would, you know, go after advertisers, that was a big part of the show. And when I had to, I would go toe to toe with the president of the network. And I won almost every single battle. I didn’t win every single one. There’s, there’s one or two where they said, No, unfortunately, you cannot do a topic about the NCAA because guess what we air every March on Tru TV, we are March Madness, so therefore, you cannot do that. And I said, well, I fought as hard as I can. You know, I lost one battle when some others. That’s how I sleep at night. And so this, and so this to me was the same approach was I’m gonna go to the mattresses for some of these topics. And in this case, we won every battle that we fought, and we were able to do those topics. And for that reason, I think the show I’m able to say that we did it with integrity. Reasonable people might disagree, but that’s the best that I can do as a communicator, because there’s no such thing in you know, if you’re working in media, again, you work for a profit media organization. There’s no such thing as a pure unsightly piece of media, you’re always making it under some constraints. And your job is to push back on those constraints as hard as you can and be transparent about them when you do. That’s my view.
V Spehar 09:57
Absolutely. And I want to add in here, not all propaganda isn’t necessarily bad propaganda either. It’s an art form. It’s not always bad. It’s the well, I guess it’s not always as bad as some is, sometimes the message is good enough that it’s like, okay, that’s really beautiful art, I’m gonna do it for climate change, I’m gonna do it for women’s rights.
Adam Conover 10:17
We need to be clear about what we mean by propaganda. And I think once we do, then we’ll be clear on what we feel is harmful versus what we feel is not you know, and there’s, it comes in many different flavors.
V Spehar 10:30
Well, we’re going to talk about a couple of presidents who use maybe a similar flavor of propaganda in just a minute stick around. We mentioned another president in the show, in the first episode, we talked about Teddy Roosevelt, who was a benefactor of propaganda, and certainly clever PR really set him up to be one of the most, most beloved historic figures that we have in the presidential lines similar to Obama, who was excellent at propaganda. And both were sort of like on this progressive vibe, or at least that’s, you know, what was being pushed to us. Do you think that there were some similarities between Obama and Teddy Roosevelt and the type of change and hope that they were selling?
Adam Conover 11:16
I mean, that’s a really good question. I’m not a scholar of Teddy Roosevelt. I mean, we did that brief segment on, you know, under Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, the, you know, they did the Meat Inspection Act and other regulations in the food industry that sanitize the food supply. That was like a, and that was part of what they would call the early progressive movement back then. And, you know, we have a little fun with Teddy Roosevelt, like shooting a gun and killing a bird in that segment. But yeah, similarities between Obama Teddy Roosevelt, I mean, there’s a in any president, I think there’s a need to do mythmaking. And I think those are, those are two very good mythmaking presidents. Beyond that, I wouldn’t want to hazard what the similarities? I mean, what do you think?
V Spehar 12:03
Well, I think it’s interesting the way that they both, uh, you know, lead with this, like, I’m very progressive, I’m kind of a big government guy, like, I want to have these big programs that oversee essentially safe food production health, we had the Affordable Care Act under Obama, these ideas that the government was, in fact responsible and in charge of these things that we consider should be everyday rights, but are very divisively discussed, some folks are like, no, you don’t have the right to health care. And the government should never be involved with people and the government is actually to support corporations and like, no, it’s not. And I often wonder if we will get a presidential candidate or a, you know, high political candidate that is like either one of them, that kind of came out on a platform of we, you know, need to lead with conservationist principles, we need to have the government we can’t afford to just say, okay, you know, fuck the government, fuck everything about it, and we’re never going to allow them in our lives. And, you know, for some parts, not now, you know what, I’m not gonna say that. I don’t think either one was actually anti-capitalist, but maybe not as capitalist as some other presidents.
Adam Conover 13:03
I mean, I think a lot of people might not agree with you. I mean, let’s say, again, I’m not a scholar of Teddy Roosevelt. I know, he called himself the trust buster. And I wouldn’t want to speculate on how true that was. Certainly, we had stronger antitrust enforcement back then than we do now. And that’s something that we could have back again, Obama often ran sort of optically in a way that was about faith in big government. But unfortunately, the, the proof is not there, that that’s the way he operated. I mean, so we did a segment in which we talked about how, since the Reagan years, and really the late Carter years, there’s been what has been called the neoliberal turn in American politics that we have this ideology developed among politicians of both parties, that core functions of our society should be delegated to private businesses, rather than to the government. And the government was bad, wasteful, needs to be downsized, we need to privatize everything. And you can see that as a trend through all these different administrations, and we make the case of the Obama administration was part of that. And I think it’s hard to see them as not, you know, and the example that we choose is the Affordable Care Act, the Affordable Care Act, in fact, did not have a public option in which the government was directly providing, you know, a health insurance system, or anything close to it, despite the fact that it is undeniable that that is the cheapest, most effective way to provide health care as practiced by so many countries around the world. Because it’s very fucking simple. You know, it’s like, the more people you have an insurance program, the lower the costs are for everybody because the risk is spread around more greatly. And if you mandate Hey, guess what everybody in the country is in the same insurance program, then guess what the prices are lowest for everyone. That’s simply like a fucking economic law that is taken advantage of by almost every other country on Earth other than United States, every country that has a functioning health care system. But instead of doing that, the Affordable Care Act said, well, we’ll keep the same private insurance system we have, we will have people separated into smaller for profit bubbles that have an incentive to not pay out that incentive try to make as much money for themselves as possible. And we will simply put government money into those programs by giving people a subsidy that allows them and in some cases requires them to purchase that health insurance. That is a health insurance program that is still based around private enterprise, period. That’s what it is. And we did that segment. And we did have a call with Barack Obama, where he, you know, had read our scripts, and he was like, let me give you my thoughts. You can take them or leave them, you know, and which was very kind of him to do, because he knew that he couldn’t dictate what we said. But he you know, he’s an executive producer on the show, he wants to share his thoughts. So he says, You know, I don’t think that’s what I was doing. He says to me on the phone, I don’t think that I was part of that neoliberal turn. I think I was pushing back against it. And I had to be like, I know you think that, I know you feel that way.
V Spehar 16:03
People even told you that was true.
Adam Conover 16:08
I understand why you say that publicly. But in this case, it’s not true, sir. Like, or at the very least, I disagree. And, you know, I think that if you look at the sweep of his administration, I think that that is the case. And you know, because I was talking to him on the phone, I said, well, I can grant your good intentions on that point. You know, other people might say, I don’t think they had good intentions at all, I think that they were actually captured by business and whatever. That’s a whole point that, you know, historians can get into or political science people. But if you look at the results, the results we’re not like, we’re not hey, the government is going you’re gonna go in and help people. The governments were let’s let private enterprise keep doing it and try to tweak the market a little bit here and there. And the results are, despite the fact that that big bill was passed. is health care in America great? No, we’re still have an open TikTok and you’ll still see people going, healthcare is so fucked up. I can’t get coverage. I can’t afford treatment. Like we’re not that was the signature achievement of the Obama administration. And it’s not like we’re sitting around here going, manche things are better than they were in, you know, 2007.
V Spehar 17:20
So I like that term. I’ll grant you the good intentions. I’m gonna keep that I think that that is a courtesy that we should extend more liberally to more people to end more conversations that will absolutely go nowhere.
Adam Conover 17:34
Yeah, you just say I understand your intentions were good. And by the way, you can say that to people, even if you don’t agree with their intentions, you can still say, but there’s plenty of people who don’t have good intentions, but everybody thinks that they’re a good person. You know, so yeah, sure. Why not? You can do justice to people’s emotional truths, and say, no, no, no, I know, I understand you’re nice. But what you did was bullshit.
V Spehar 17:58
Exactly, right? You know, folks sometimes think because the show is short, it was easier to do. And I actually think it’s much harder to do a short show, because you’re trying to get so much in and you have to really trust that the audience has like a baseline for the topic that you’re talking about, and is going to stay dedicated and focus to what you’re saying. So we can get it done like you have in these 30 minute episodes. Without feeling rushed. How long did it take you before you even started shooting to get this setup?
Adam Conover 18:26
Well, we were, this show was delayed because of Covid. Overall, it took us three years from our first pitch meeting to the show actually premiering I believe our first pitch meeting was June or July of 2019. It came out in May of this year 2022.
V Spehar 18:42
What an optimistic time that was.
Adam Conover 18:45
2019, oh, do we want to, incredible for that to be a healthy on day. You know, it’s funny […] works, right? Like lately, I’ve been thinking like, oh, man, I was so happy in 2009. I’m like, you know what’s going on 2009? The economic crisis, the housing crisis, the great recession, but now we’re looking back man that was like, let’s make a happy day sequel about 2009 about how carefree we all were. When now the last three years, we’ve had the worst news of our lives every two weeks. But so the show took three years to make. And we were writing it during that period. I mean, literally, we wrote the entire show. You know, we ended up throwing out an entire episode and rewriting a new episode around local government and criminal justice reform because we were sitting there, you know, watching you know, police beat protesters who were protesting George Floyd’s murder, saying oh my god, like it’s been 30 years since Rodney King and here I am in Los Angeles in the same shit is happening like why is changed so hard? Why is our government still hurting and killing people? We felt that was a topic that we had to tackle. But sorry, your question was a you know how we ended up spending about a year and a half just writing the show? And then another year of filming and editing it. Sorry, go on.
V Spehar 20:09
So, your show often includes behind the scenes, the making of the content, you even changing costumes, it shows you really throughout the entire thing. Is that just a character choice? Or does that help advance the story build rapport and trust?
Adam Conover 20:22
I would say build rapport and trust is the biggest part of the answer. You know, I like to make television shows that acknowledge that their television shows, I think that people you know, when they’re watching television, they know that they’re watching television. So let’s just like show them the beams and girders a little bit, Let’s expose the infrastructure. And of course, you know, a little bit of that is fake, like, I don’t you know, whenever in the show, someone comes up and powers my nose, that’s actually a background actor who is acting as a makeup person. But actually, you know, sometimes we do give the option to our literal hair and makeup. Hey, do you want to be on the show? And in this case, they said, No, thank you. And we had a background, I could do it instead. But, yeah, it’s to connect people with what it is that we’re doing, you know, we talked about, hey, it took us this long to write the show, what I always want to do is, what I aspire to do is to be reaching through the screen to people, you know, people are sitting and watching me in their living room, I want them to feel like I am in the living room with them or that they are in the place that I am taking them to. And so that is one of the methods by which I do that.
V Spehar 21:30
And you’ve said in the past, you’re the only person in your family without a PhD, although I would have to guess the most recognizably super smart guy, have everybody in the family, they’re like, Adam knows everything. You went to school for theater, though? Do you think that training helped you to take these complicated concepts and make them accessible to the average person?
Adam Conover 21:47
Well, I went to school for a lot of things. My degree is actually in philosophy, although I did do theater in high school and a little bit in college. But then I started doing sketch comedy. It’s really my, in college, my friend of mine started to sketch comedy group, which I was lucky enough to join. And I had this sense where I was studying philosophy. And I wanted to go to grad school and become a philosophy professor, I really loved it. And then, you know, I just nobody in my life at my liberal arts college was like, Yeah, you should do that. They’re all like, you could do that. And so I was taking a little bit of a time to figure out that’s what I really wanted to do. And then our sketch group started blowing up on the very early internet in like 2004, and 05′, we started this pre-YouTube, people started downloading our QuickTime videos. And I started putting all my time into comedy. And I realized, in the back of my mind, I was like, oh, well, comedy is a way to still do philosophy, to talk about ideas, to think about things deeply to question, what people think we know, I had that sense. And it took me about 10 years to figure out how to actually combine those two threads of my interest. But they were both there very early on.
V Spehar 23:00
Well, we’re gonna take one quick little break here. And then we’re gonna get into the meat of our conversation, literally, we’re gonna start by breaking down one of the episodes of the G Word, we’re going to be talking about food, so please stay with us. So Adam, you probably don’t know this about me. But my whole background prior to being in TikTok, in this whole world was in food, food supply, food security. And then super fine dining. I did the impact work for the James Beard Foundation, including consulting on some of the legislation that you focused on in the food episode, the Farm Bill, the subsidies, just all of that kind of stuff. Cuz folks often think when they think of the government, they’re not usually thinking about farmers, they think about politicians. And so it doesn’t occur to them. And the government spending on food and health is truly astronomical for how many people still experienced food insecurity in this nation, and for how poor the farmers are. In the first episode that you did here. You’re talking about subsidies and how they haven’t really been adjusted since like the 1940s. Can you just catch folks up on what you’ve learned? They might hear we’re giving out subsidies, but they might not know really what that mean.
Adam Conover 24:20
Yeah, I mean, so the short version is that, you know, the United States government started an enormous food subsidy program during the sort of Great Depression Dust Bowl era. And, you know, at that time, most Americans like lived on farms. So, it was actually a way of you know, supporting average Americans. But now, today, we are still handing out those subsidies but farms when someone says a farmer, what do they mean by farmer when I say farmer, you probably picture oh, yeah, there’s like a, you know, a little old man and a lady and they live on a farm and they get out of tractor, you know, etc. And that person largely does not exist unless you’re like literally going to a farmers market. You know, here in California, when I go to my local farmers market, you know, maybe a handful of people at the farmers market are actually small farms. But in general, when you go to grocery store, these are large agribusiness concerns. These are corporations, or gigantic family businesses that are just run by, you know, one person who’s overseeing like, you know, millions and millions of millions dollars in sales. And then the people actually doing the work are farm laborers, are people who are hired by that person. So, very few people live on farms today, and very few people work in farms. And the ones who do are divided between like the very, very wealthy people who own the businesses in the land, and the very poor people who actually work on the farms. The subsidies, by the way, are going to the very small number of rich people. And the subsidies, the we are subsidizing continue to be bulk grains, like wheat, rice and corn, which are you know, the grains that we were going back then however, those are the grains today that have been most easily processed into, you know, junk food, basically, you know, corn, wheat, rice, those are the junk food crops. Now there’s you can there’s lots of healthy ways to cook up those crops as well. I eat rice every day. But, you know, we put comparatively little into subsidizing, you know, fresh fruits and vegetables, things like that. Now, that’s not the only reason that junk food is cheaper. I don’t want to like imply that it is. But it is the case that like, you know, we’re subsidizing Doritos, and we’re not subsidizing broccoli. And that inevitably has an effect.
V Spehar 26:35
Right, and with these subsidies, folks might be like, well, how come we can’t just like take them away from the big farms and like force them into healthy feeding? And it’s like, have you ever heard of the dairy lobby or the corn lobby, these people are formidable, they are dangerous and difficult to negotiate with folks they’ve been used to their entire business models are based on this. Much of the stock market is based on these subsidies coming in folks having access to this kind of funding. And the farm bill while it gets revisited, like every couple years, the language in there will freak people out. And the average American doesn’t really know. Like you said, they’re thinking of farms, I think a farmers market, but farms are crazy places where fires and crop rot, seed failure, drought, all kinds of things go wrong. And that’s why there’s stuff like the agriculture risk coverage and Price Loss Coverage, which you touched on a little bit, that folks right now are falsely claiming, is the government paying for farmers to destroy the food supply? Did you learn a lot about that while you’re out in the fields?
Adam Conover 27:32
We didn’t get that deep into the farm bill itself, although, you know, I’m aware that the farm bill is where the subsidies come from largely. And by the way, it’s, you know, these forces that you’re talking about have so much power, that the farm bill is one of the few bills that is like, you know, still routinely passed bipartisanly. It’s one of those things where, you know, Congress can’t agree on anything except for funding the military, except for, you know, certain other things. And the farm bill is one of those because, you know, farms are such powerful interests in every state or not every single state but you know, like the senators from California, right have a lot more common, a lot more in common with the senators from Montana, Wyoming, etc, on the farm bill than they do on everything else, because you know, all of them have these very powerful farming interests in their states. But yes, at the same time, it’s an incredibly, you know, an incredibly complex sector of the economy where you’re absolutely right, a lot can go wrong. And there’s a very important government interest in regulating it, because food is an essential, it’s an asset, it’s one of the essential things you need to live, right?
V Spehar 28:43
It’s also one of the best political promises, I’m going to end hunger, I’m going to make you healthier, we’re gonna have vibrant communities. And a lot of that is wrapped up in this idea of the Farm Bill. And like the average farmer being like the true American vote and the way that people like to, again, propaganda comes up. And it’s not always exactly the way it seems.
Adam Conover 29:01
Yeah, there’s a lot of weird political dynamics. For instance, one of the reasons that food stamps food assistance are still very widespread is one of the most, one of the most widespread forms of government support for, you know, folks who are less well off or folks in poverty. And the reason is, because it’s very popular among the agriculture sector, because it’s a guaranteed buyer. It is the government buying the product, not just subsidizing the product, but buying it for the end users at the end. And so as a result, there’s a lot of support for it among, you know, Republicans who are very against welfare, but are very for, you know, food stamp type programs because they support the businesses that are writing those politicians, you know, big, big checks. But one of the things that we also draw attention to in the show is, you know, all these subsidies all this incredible government support for the food supply has been very successful in some ways. Because the price of food has cratered in America, we pay aid, we pay so much for so many other things. But per income, we have the lowest price of food in the world for the average, you know, for the amount of money that people make, on average, in America, food is extremely cheap. If you look at the share of the average person’s income that they devote to food, it is very, very low. But there’s two problems. One, the food that we are actually making that people can buy, that’s affordable is crap. Right? We have a system where, okay, the food is very cheap, but look at the results of what the food is that we actually have access to. We don’t have equitable distribution of healthy food. And we also have not wiped out hunger as a result of doing so many, many people still go hungry in the United States, because they either, you know, still can’t get enough food or the food isn’t nutritious. That’s probably number one. Problem number two is share we’ve made the price of food low. What about the price of housing? What about the price of health care? What about the price of transportation, these are all public needs that are right up there next to food and water. Water is also very cheap, thankfully. But food and water, we’ve done a great job of making those cheap housing, medical care, transportation, child care, education, those or other I just listed five other human needs, I don’t even think you need to say they’re human rights, I think you can just say they’re human fucking needs, you need them to survive and live in, you need them for the economy to function. If people can’t get around. If you want to have a place to live, it’s bad for everybody. These are human needs that the government has done a very bad job of making sure that they’re affordable and accessible to the average person.
V Spehar 31:39
There’s not really a lot of money to be made on that right. There’s no more money that can be funneled into a corporate interest that provides housing to unhoused people or that provides health care to sick people. There’s not like there’s not a lot of cash to be made on that. Whereas on the opposite side, you have folks like the dairy lobby. Let’s take for example, who is one of the most powerful influencers of legislation out there. And despite the dairy farmers who are living a Halloween themselves, and a lot of money coming towards dairy, we’re facing a fluid milk shortage in schools, the military and other institutional feeding places. At the same time, like you say in the show, we’re gonna play a clip from it. It’s essentially also one of the ways that they put more cheese on everything.
V Spehar 32:18
Is this for real Adam? The dairy lobby invented the stuffed crust pizza.
Adam Conover 32:42
Not just the dairy lobby, but with the help of the United States government. So yes, the slightly deeper story is that the United States government’s USDA created a marketing arm called dairy management, which was, you know, at least partially taxpayer funded, worked with the USDA. And it’s goal was to figure out more ways to put milk and cheese products in to the American diet. And that organization worked with fast food companies to figure out hey, how can you get more cheese in your products? And one of the things they came up with was stuffed crust pizza, stuffed crust pizza is essentially a government program. There’s like two or three more steps, but like it comes out of the USDA. And that is, yes, very real.
V Spehar 33:24
And the USDA, though I mean, you spent a good amount of time with them, you did find them to be one of the more efficient and important government departments. Can you talk a little bit about just your time with USDA?
Adam Conover 33:34
Well, I would say USDA is actually one of the departments we were hardest on over the course of the show.
V Spehar 33:40
I thought you were hard but fair, you were firm but fair, recognizing there was a need for meat inspection and that when they’re not there things do go poorly.
Adam Conover 33:47
Yeah, so we went to in the first episode, we visit a Cargill beef processing facility. This is a factory where you know, cows go in one end and packaged meat comes out the other end, we were the first camera crew to be allowed into one of these places in decades because, you know, they’d been on media lockdown for countless years because of you know, animal rights activist sneaking in to get recorded. So they’re very, very media shy. But because we were going into with the USDA to see their work we were able to get in but it took about a year of work to get into this place. And our goal was to see what the USDA Meat inspectors do. I mean they are on the job every single day inspecting your meat to make sure that it is safe, they literally stand on the line. They’re mandated by law to be there at every meat factory in America inspecting every single piece of meat and if they see something wrong, they see a diseased organs anything like that, you know, I mean, these are animals right? So they can get sick in any of the countless ways that humans do. They hit the, they have a gigantic red button they can stop the entire line and you know, make everybody stop work until they figure out what’s wrong. Now, that is like bite it A standard is a pretty strong government intervention. If you were to propose that today, at, you know, Tesla cars are killing people, with their self-driving their shitty self-driving car technology, and they’re causing crashes. Let’s send inspectors that have to be there. And the factory, the Tesla factory cannot run without them being there making sure that there aren’t, you know, deadly flaws in these cars. You’d have every capitalist America, saying this was on America and we can’t do this blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, right? Except that we instituted it back in Teddy Roosevelt’s day. And it worked wonders. Foodborne illness from meat is not entirely a thing of the past. But it is like so infamous, infinitesimal as a risk compared to what it was back in Upton Sinclair’s day when you know, tainted meat was everywhere. And as a result, it wasn’t just good for you know, the consumer who was now not now not getting sick. It was also good for the industry itself, because it made consumers believe, oh, okay, this, here’s the USDA stamp, someone has inspected this, this is safe to eat. And so it increased confidence in the food supply. It was an immensely successful program. Now, where we were very critical, the USDA is that there are now plans to try to replace those food inspectors with the company’s self-inspecting themselves at pork plants around America, where you know, the USDA inspectors show up once a week, and the rest of the time the pork plant self-inspects, because if you’re a student of history, you can guess why that might be a very bad idea. And we were very critical of that program. And as a result, I’m not sure the USDA is super happy with the segments because we did get into some criticism as well as we did of the subsidy program and the nutritional guidelines that they gave us in the 90s and et cetera. But it’s you know, this is a, the point is the government affects our lives in these really deep ways good and bad. And we have to look at all of them together so that we know what we want to say, hey, more of this, more meat inspection, less subsidies to unhealthy foods we don’t need.
V Spehar 36:57
Exactly right. And outside of the regulations and everything I used to run the chef action boot camps where you bring in chefs from around the world teach them about the impact of food. And that training involves no waste butchery. And it started with the proper technique for humane slaughter of a lamb and I am going to tell you, after you experience, something like that you are truly never the same. You just see food and you see the process of how food is brought to your table so differently. You were a part of some of these intense, you know, but necessary processes. In how we get meat on the table. Did the episode affect your eating habits?
Adam Conover 37:31
I mean, I already avoid eating meat. I’m not a strict vegetarian or vegan. But, you know, I read Mark Bittman wrote a book 10 years ago now called Vegan before six, where he was like, this is his sort of suggestion, you know, eat vegan most of the time, and then once in a while, have some meat. And that’s basically the way that I’ve lived where I only eat meat, if it’s avoidable, or if it’s really worth it. You know what I mean? If I’m having something special, but you know, if I’m getting a salad for lunch in the office, I can get chickpeas, I don’t eat chicken on my salad. That’s my approach. After shooting this segment, I did not eat beef for a couple months, because it was you know, you really see the process. And you know, there’s a, on my own podcast, factually, I talked with some animal rights scholars who put us in a really great way recently, which is that our meat processing facilities are something that are invisible to us by design, you know, we don’t, there are certain things that society doesn’t want us to see. It doesn’t wants to see prisons that wants those to be, you know, invisible to us. And it doesn’t want us to see how our meat is made. Because these are things that would upset us if we saw them. And I think to that end, like, you know, our segment, we didn’t go to the most grizzly parts, we didn’t see where the captive bolt gun is held up to the cow’s head and the Cow dies, right? But you can imagine where it’s happening, and you see the carcass, you see the cows go and you see the carcass come out the other side, you see the huge mechanization of this process. And I think that, you know, you can’t help but be affected by it, you see me be affected by it on the show. And, you know, our approach was say, hey, let’s let the audience see it as well and let them draw their own conclusions about how it might change their behavior.
V Spehar 39:14
Absolutely. All right, we’re gonna take one quick break, and we’re gonna come back and talk about something that we all love, money. Okay, so Adam, on this episode, you talked a lot about money, and you actually opened up the entire series with Obama while he’s doing his taxes. So often, we think I don’t want to pay taxes, right? Why do we have to pay them? I don’t know is the price of taxes high enough? Maybe it’s too high for civility either way, the government tends to like act poor, and then they come back and they get these big checks out to corporations. What happened to the money? Is it as corrupt as we think it is?
Adam Conover 40:23
What happened to which money, you mean?
V Spehar 40:25
The tax money, I suppose? We’ll start with taxes, and then we’re gonna get to PPP. Because I know folks are curious about that.
Adam Conover 40:31
Yeah, I mean, well, one of the things we talked about very generally, in the show in our episode on money is that the government has, you know, it has total power over the money supply, it decides how much money there actually is in the economy. It decides how much we pay in taxes. And it decides how that tax money is distributed, or how the money it creates is distributed. A lot of times when the money is when the government is, you know, distributing money to individuals or to different organizations, it’s not doing it from tax money, it’s literally just creating the money out of thin air and distributing it. But unfortunately, because of how our political system works, it tends to give money to the people who already have the most power and resources in our society. And we do talk about in the PPP loan section, that so much of the PPP money went to, you know, large, for instance, restaurant chains with many, many locations. And, you know, it’s not that they didn’t need that money. But we also talked to, you know, small business owners, we talked to two women named Sandra and Claudia, who ran a small daycare in Los Angeles, that gave, you know, gave care to the children of essential workers, you know, they did infant care, they did daycare, this is a, this is a service that people need in order to do their jobs, they need a place to leave their kids because their kids not yet school age, and their daycare got a total of I think they said $6,000 In PPP loans, which wasn’t even a month salary for them. And, you know, I take my own example, my production company got a larger PPP loan than that, because we have a fancier accountant and a bigger bank. And that is fundamentally unfair. And the government’s job is to be the one organization that is able to counteract that trend, the rich get richer is kind of a law of the universe, right? If you have more resources, then you have more resources you can use to get more resources towards yourself, right, I have more money, and I can spend that money in order to make more money. If I have less money, I have less resources, the government’s job is to say, No, we’re going to be a countervailing force against that trend. And we’re going to make sure that those who have less are able to get what they need to survive. And unfortunately, there are many, many areas in which the government has not fulfilled that duty. There’s many where it has, there’s many where it hasn’t as well. And that, you know, in terms of how we distribute, you know, federal bailout money, that is one of the big ones.
V Spehar 42:47
I know, we saw Jeff Bezos get a dick shape rocket, and folks like Sandra lose their business or a lot of my friends in the restaurant industry closed their cafes, and no doubt that program was overall in the end for, you know, affording that they had good intentions, it ended up being quite rife with fraud. But on the backside, the folks we’re seeing get arrested or punished, or have the money have to be paid back for lying about PPP. It’s oftentimes like one shady individual or small businesses that just did the paperwork kind of wrong. Is there anything on the horizon about big businesses that got insanely rich having to pay it back? Oh, God.
Adam Conover 43:21
I mean, I don’t think so. I think we’re kind of past top, I think, you know, the government has moved on to focusing on other topics.
V Spehar 43:31
Speaking of other topics that people get high and hot about hemp. It’s not necessarily in the series that you’re doing. But it is a big government check lately, both from farm subsidies investment to encourage growers, SBA loans for dispensaries and licensing, government and politicians alike are weighing into the weed game. Why do you think that is having a moment right now?
Adam Conover 43:52
Oh, that’s a really good question. I’d be speculating. But look, I think that there has been an alliance between, you know, weed growers and governments who want the tax revenues. And unfortunately, though, it has been still a bit of a rich get richer situation where you have, you know, folks who were able to get a lot of investment income towards themselves are able to, you know, start these dispensaries and these, you know, CBD or THC generating companies, whereas, you know, the communities that were, you know, penalized the most that had the most people sent to jail for having, you know, ate the weed in their pocket are, you know, have been cut out of that emerging business. But yeah, it’s certainly been. It’s interesting how as soon as the laws get a little bit liberalized, everybody jumps at the chance to like, you know, jump into this new market.
V Spehar 44:40
Exactly. I know I remember the episode of Adam Ruins prisons, where you were talking about how money in the private sector makes incarcerating folks profitable. And we’re seeing that exactly now with this hemp legislation where these folks who you know, are getting rich on this product. It’s disproportionately leaving out black and Hispanic people who are the gross majority of people sitting in prison for low level […]
Adam Conover 45:03
And still going to prison. So many in many states.
V Spehar 45:06
Yeah, the decriminalization is coming. not nearly fast enough for how hot this is on the stock market now. One more question. I just want to ask quick that also doesn’t really have to do with the show. But I’m curious your thoughts on it? Will you be doing an episode of Adam Ruins the January 6th hearings? Do you think that there’s room to help explain what they’re doing for us, how it’s affecting the DOJ?
Adam Conover 45:31
I’ll be honest, there’s plenty of people doing that content already. You know, I mean, you can turn on Stephen Colbert show every night, every night, he does an hour about it. And so I don’t feel that it is, my I don’t think there’s a need out there for me to do it. Because there’s just it. As far as you know, our political coverage goes, it’s all that anybody is talking about wall to wall, I think, to the exclusion of other issues. I mean, certainly very important that there was this, you know, insurrection, that was an attempt to overthrow our democracy. But, you know, to me, it’s, it’s like, Hey, enough, enough, people are talking about this. And there’s other things we need to talk about as well,
V Spehar 46:11
Right, like the potential for voter restrictions, which I know you’re also passionate, and I’ve talked a lot about, can you tell us what’s worrying you about voting rights right now?
Adam Conover 46:19
I mean, it looks as though on a broader level, that we are moving towards a situation of having, you know, one party minority rule of this country where, you know, the Republican Party has become so intent on changing the election rules in order to ensure that they stay in power. That, you know, if they’re able to do so successfully, and enough states, it’s gonna be almost impossible to undo, because they’re changing the mechanisms by which you would undo it. You know, unfortunately, democracy rests on having these sort of like institutional infrastructural processes that allow public participation. And if you, you know, that’s why it took decades to end Jim Crow in the south like America had, frankly, not just in the south, for most of American history, America was an apartheid state, where only White people were allowed to politically participate. And it took a very long time to change that, because guess what, when you can’t politically participate, it’s really hard to change the systems that stop you from politically participating. And, you know, we appear to be living in a world in which in many, many states, there are officials who are trying once again, to pick their voters, rather than allowing the voters to pick the politicians. And they’re doing that via gerrymandering. They’re doing that via voter restrictions by trying to restrict mail in voting, by trying to create mechanisms by which the legislatures can overturn the votes at cetera, et cetera, et cetera, it’s not one thing, it is a full court press by one group to make sure that they’re able to stay in power indefinitely. And, you know, the Democrats have so far responded by trying to do the same thing, but less effectively, by trying to gerrymander themselves. And they’re doing less of a good job of it, which I think is, you know, neither not a solution, either. We need to end practices like this and put in place like, you know, reforms that actually ensure as much voter participation as possible. And unfortunately, we don’t seem to be moving in that direction. And I find it really worrisome. And I find that to be the larger concern for me, than, you know, what Donald Trump did it 345 On January 6, you know, I mean, that stuff is, yes, we need a full accounting of it. But it’s not like what I am watching with rapt attention. Personally.
V Spehar 48:42
I agree. I, I agree. That’s it. We’re on the same page. Before you go. Just tell us was there anything about the government that was pleasant? That surprised you in a happy way?
Adam Conover 48:53
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I did not know, before we started researching the show, you know, what I was looking for are topics that are going to surprise and delight me. Because that’s how I know they’re gonna surprise and delight the audience. So I did not know until one of my researchers brought it into the room, that the government was responsible for inventing and running the GPS system to this day, that’s a little unsettling that it’s run by the US military, I think, you know, it’s honestly used massively by civilians. And so that’s very odd. And I have a lot of concerns about the military’s place in our government and the way in which it’s able to drive our priorities, which I talked about on the show, but I think that’s it only can put awe into you, the government’s been 50 years, developing this technology and implementing it and finally opening it to the public. And it transformed society around the world in only positive ways, right? GPS is only positive. Sure, there are companies that are using it to track people in unsavory ways. But that’s not look, the GPS is just a lighthouse, right? That tells you where you are anywhere on Earth. That’s incredibly powerful and positive. Also, you know, our episode on weather is one of my very favorites because we got to meet all these folks who have devoted their lives to just making sure that we can predict the weather. Well, you know, just studying the weather, so we know what it does, to flying planes through hurricanes in order to make sure that by the way, I joined them on that as..
V Spehar 50:12
I loved watching you honestly, you have to if you tune in for one episode make it the weather episode where Adams in the helicopter or the plane with the jumpsuit, just flying into the eye of a hurricane. This man is working hard for you.
Adam Conover 50:24
Thank you. It was very nauseating. I almost threw up I did not luckily for camera. It was incredible turbulence until we broke into the eye. And then it was gorgeous. You know, it was incredible. And so meaning the folks who do that work, I mean, they are actually there, they could be making more money in commercial aviation. The folks the FDIC, you keep your money you safe in the bank could be making more money working for a bank, but they are they’re partially because they just love the mission. They are excited about it. They love keeping people safe. They’re devoted to it. And that made me feel incredibly uncynical and positive about our government and what it can do. It’s not to say it’s good overall. But it’s to say if we look at the big things that we have done that are wonderful. We can say you know what, maybe we can do those things again, and not be so cynical about our own ability to band together and make change in our society. Is that a good ending note?
V Spehar 51:19
That’s a good ending note, Adam, what’s next for you? Where can people find you?
Adam Conover 51:22
Oh, I am on tour doing stand-up right now. I am going my next stops are Washington DC, Nashville, Spokane, Washington, Tacoma, Washington and New York City. And I just added a date in San Diego as well. So if you want to come see me live, go to AdamConover.net/tourdates. I have an hour of new standup I have on the road. And I do a podcast called Factually where every week I talked to a different incredible experts from around the world right before talking to you. I was just talking with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, which I interview with him is going to come out in a couple weeks. So look out for that.
V Spehar 51:56
I cannot wait. Cannot wait to tune in and of course you can find him on TikTok and all the social medias. And I’m thank you so much for spending my birthday morning with me. I appreciate it.
Adam Conover 52:04
Thank you so much, V. Thanks for having me. And happy birthday once again.
V Spehar 52:10
Thank you so much for being here. Adam. It was such a delight. What a great kickoff to the birthday weekend. I mean, my mom’s gonna try but I don’t know how she’s gonna top this. What you can do to celebrate my birthday is subscribe to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts. Follow me on Instagram and TikTok at @underthedesknews. And as always, we are back on Tuesday with the headlines you care most about. Thank you so much.
V INTERESTING is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Rachel Neel, Xorje Olivares, Martín Macías, Jr. And Dani Matias. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mixing and Scoring is by Brian Castillo, Johnny Evans and Ivan Kuraev. music is by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar and @UnderTheDeskNews, also, @LemonadaMedia. If you want more be interesting, subscribe to Lemonada premium only on Apple podcasts.