Over the last several months, Glenn has emphasized the importance of bringing together individuals who share the same goals and unifying principles so that we can learn from one another. GlennBeck.com is working to fulfill that goal by sitting down with some of the most interesting minds to give you an inside look at who they are and what they are working on.
Libertarian author and television personality John Stossel spoke with GlennBeck.com assistant editor Meg Storm about his personal transformation from liberal to libertarian, why he believes human beings naturally lean towards socialism, and why the federal flood insurance program is a “moral hazard.”
Below is a transcript of the interview:
Hi, John. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
Hello. Nice to talk to you.
So I wanted to start with your background. You graduated Princeton University with a degree in psychology, and yet you have had a very long career in journalism. How did you make that jump?
I hated college. I didn’t much like school. I was on the track to go to grad school, which I thought was necessary. I picked psychology because chemistry was too hard. I thought psychology would be easier, but I didn’t much like it because it had two answers for everything. I found it very soft.
So I took every job interview that came to Princeton just for the experience and some offered free plane trips. I took the longest trip and took that job, which was working as a researcher in a TV newsroom in Portland, Oregon. I had never planned on doing that. I barely watched TV news. But that is where I ended up.
So how did your career grow from there?
They said, ‘We would like you to write scripts for the anchor and do research for stories.’ I did that for a couple of years. And then a fire happened and no one else was around, so they said, ‘Go cover that,’ and I went out and covered it. Then they said, ‘Why don’t you read it on the air?’ And I said, ‘I can’t do that because I have a stutter.’ And they said, ‘We barely notice your stuttering.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s because we closet stutterers cover it up. We substitute synonyms or say ‘uhhh’ until we can get the word out. But that would be lousy for TV.’ But they said, ‘Do it anyway.’
So I started covering things and, in the edit room, snipping out my stutters. But then they said, ‘Go on the air.’ And I said, same story, ‘I can’t. I am a stutterer.’ In this case, they did have to cut me off the air once because I was stuttering so much we ran out of time. I was humiliated. But it seemed to horrify me more than it did others, and I gradually kept being on the air and got help for my stuttering.
How have you been able to overcome the stutter? Is it something that is still a work-in-progress every day?
Less so everyday.
Until I was 30, I had speech therapy. The University of Michigan had a stuttering camp called Shady Trails. When I was a kid, I went to a speech therapist at Northwestern [University].
Once I got into TV, all kinds of charlatans – ah, that’s not fair – people who were sure they could help came out of the closet with transcendental mediation and hypnotism and all kinds of stuff. I finally found a program called the Communications Reconstruction Center in Roanoke, Virginia, and they re-teach you how to speak – slow us way down per syllable. I came out of that much improved. I still have to practice a little, but it is pretty much under control.
I have also learned to just go ahead and stutter on the air. People won’t hate me for it.
The happiest stutterers are the ones who can stutter in front of other people. I once asked [former GE CEO] Jack Welch, ‘How can you run this enormous company and still have such a severe stutter?’ His is worse than mine. And he said, ‘I don’t give s**t. I just stutter.’
You mentioned you didn’t really like school; you weren’t the best student. Glenn talks a lot about how college wasn’t a good fit for him either. Do you believe in higher education? Do you think it is important? Or are there other ways to forge a career?
Unfortunately, I think it is important as a signaling device – it sends a message to an employer that you have a degree. I think maybe 10 or 20% of the students like that kind of learning. The idea of learning by sitting in class while a professor talks I would think would be laughed at today in that you absorb information three times as fast when you read.
I was bored stiff. I would start every semester saying, ‘I am going to read all the material. I am going to go to every class and take great notes.’ 15 minutes into the first lecture, I was daydreaming because my brain just doesn’t absorb information that way.
I think that helped me in TV though because I was motivated to find ways to appeal to brains like mine – using pictures, simpler sentences, speeding up and slowing down, using sound to break things up. Giving people both the visual and the audio information, I think, has helped me succeed.
Do you have any advice for young journalists?
Just try it. It used to be you had to go to college. I never went to journalism school or took a journalism course. Many of my colleagues did not. Now it’s even easier to just try something. If it’s video, you’ve got YouTube. If it’s radio, you’ve got podcasts. And you can decide if you are good at it – or your friends can tell you.
You will then have something you can show people and say, ‘Here are my YouTube videos. Watch one. It will only take you three minutes.’ You will have something much more concrete to offer an employer than a college degree.
Your career has spanned several decades, and you have worked all over the place. How has your career evolved?
You say I worked all over the place, but compared to many of my peers, who would go from this station to that one, I have only worked for three – well, four now. Portland, Oregon, a local station in New York, ABC, and now Fox [News]. With the exception of the first job for four years, I have been around for quite awhile on each job.
I was just surprised to be in this job where I could do interesting work and was well paid, so why give it up? I just kept doing it. Once I discovered the benefits of free markets and realized that almost no one of the air was explaining this to people, I felt I had a moral duty to cover it. That has been my motivator since then.
Can you talk about your personal philosophical transformation from liberalism to libertarianism - how that came about?
I was raised slightly liberal, but not that political. At Princeton, they explained the ideas behind liberalism – though they didn’t say it that way – were the only reasonable ones: The state planned people’s lives. We had experts now that could teach poor people not to be poor, and food stamps would help lift them out of poverty. I just believed all that. I believed it for a long time.
In Portland, I quickly saw how the War on Poverty had unintended consequences. But I was a consumer reporter, so that was mostly what I was covering. I was getting rewarded for bashing business. I won 19 Emmy Awards criticizing business, and there was plenty to criticize, lots of cheaters. But I noticed when I got to ABC that there were fewer national scams to expose. While there were lots of local cheaters in New York and Portland, they didn’t get very big nationally. The businesses that went national were the ones that served their customers pretty well.
I kept reading the conservative and liberal press, and it didn’t really resonate with me. Then I discovered Reason – a libertarian magazine – and it was an epiphany: Oh my God. This made so much sense.
These people were thinking about it a lot longer than I, and they really understand these concepts. I realized I was a libertarian, and, as I read more about it, realized markets have an amazing, underrated power to make our lives better, and yet they are vilified almost everywhere.
What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions when it comes to the free market and competition?
That business wins at the expense of the customer, and that the rich win at the expense of the poor. It is intuitive to think that way. I wrote No, They Can’t: Why Governments Fail – But Individuals Succeed to address our natural intuition, which is socialist.
We are raised by parents who take care of us. Our instinct is: We want the government – the experts – to take care of things because we have lives. We can’t pay attention to everything. It is also instinctive to think of life as a zero sum game – if I win, you lose. Politicians think that way because that’s how their world works. And lawyers who sue people think that way – you either win or you lose.
But in business, you only win if you give your customers something they want. If you make a big profit, it doesn’t mean you took it from the customer. They customer voluntarily gave you his money. He felt he gained something too. It is why you get the weird double thank you moment when you buy anything.
If you bought a cup of coffee this morning, you gave the cashier a buck, and she said, ‘Thank you.’
She gave you the coffee, and you said, ‘Thank you.’
‘Thank you.’ ‘Thank you.’
Why both? Because you both felt you won.
But that’s just not intuitive. It’s intuitive to think Bill Gates made $50 million because he took $50 million from other people. If that’s the case, how come there is so much more wealth in the world now with all these billionaires? They didn’t take a big piece of the pie. They baked lots of new pies and then took a big piece.
Do you think our education system does economics a disservice in terms of how it is taught?
Yes, but it is hard not to because most people don’t get this.
You have a program – Stossel in the Classroom – that seeks to educate high school students on economics.
I do. We reach about 10 million high school kids every year.
How did that program come to be? Did you see a need?
Yes, I noticed when I was at 20/20 I would meet a teacher and he would say, ‘Oh, I wish I taped that program so I could play it for my students,’ or ‘I did tape that show and played it for my students, and we had a great debate in class that really got them thinking about these things. It was much more interesting than the textbook or my lecture.’
I thought: Gosh, this stuff costs a quarter of a million dollars for ABC to produce. It airs once, and then it is gone into the ether. It would be nice if we could sell this to high school teachers.
So I found a libertarian who was interested in starting that business, and we, with great difficulty, got ABC’s permission to buy it and offer it to teachers. Almost nobody bought it. And then I started a charity and offered it free to teachers. I thought it would just take off. But things happen more slowly in markets than I understood. Very gradually word spread, and now I am seen by more kids in high school than I am on Fox or would have been if I stayed at ABC.
Fox, kindly, once they air, let’s us have the episodes of Stossel for free.
Editor’s Note: You can learn more about Stossel in the Classroom HERE.
What a great resource. Speaking of your Fox show, you have a weekly program on Fox Business. How do you prepare? How do you decide what topics to cover?
I didn’t intend to do my own show. I have always done edited documentaries. I am really the opposite of Glenn Beck in that I am not that verbal. I don’t like to just talk about things. I am not that good at it. I want to write a script and re-write it and re-write it.
But at Fox they said, ‘We want you to come here and do something for all three of our platforms’ – meaning Bill O’Reilly, the regular news outlets, and Fox Business. I had enjoyed, and I still enjoy, speaking to student audiences. When people invite me to speak, it’s nice to hear the laughter or the pushback. So I thought I would do that with a studio audience on Fox. We would discuss libertarian ideas with an audience. And then I discovered it really wasn’t enough to just talk and get pushback --
So we prepared segments. I just look for what’s libertarian of interest, what’s not being covered by other people from an economic perspective. You have a million people covering crime, politics, and war, and not a lot of people covering markets.
I have a staff of about six people, and we all offer ideas. On Wednesday, we sit down and write the show that we will then do on Thursday. I am one of the rare shows on Fox that over shoots by about 20 minutes, and I edit. I just think it is such a sensible idea because a lot of people say things twice or say things that are in the weeds and unclear.
I don’t know how Glenn and Bill O’Reilly do stuff live and hold a much bigger audience than I have. They are amazing. I can’t do that.
Editor’s Note: Stossel airs Thursdays at 9pm ET on Fox Business.
Switching topics a little bit: What do you see as the main differences between conservatism and libertarianism?
That many conservatives want to police the world. I think we should be involved in the world, but I don’t think we should run it. Many conservatives want to police individual behavior, police the bedroom, ban gambling, ban intoxicants. Libertarians say government can’t police morality, and individuals should be allowed to do anything that is peaceful.
You came under fire last year for not taking a strong stance against the NSA surveillance techniques, and you made a list of 100 things government does that you find more frustrating. One that stood out to me was ‘federal flood insurance for rich people.’ Why does that make you more frustrated than the NSA?
Because I am clear there is no good reason and only destructive reasons to have the flood insurance program.
I am well aware that the NSA is a much bigger deal than any of my 100 things on the list. But with the NSA, I can at least understand the government’s argument that people are trying to kill us. This is a very broad, anonymous form of spying, in which they don’t listen to the content of the calls – as far as we know. They do see patterns, which they say have prevented terrorism 54 times. It is possible they are lying. Government does lie to us. But it does make sense to me that you can find patterns in big data that could keep us safer. There is enormous potential for abuse. I don’t trust my government. But I can see both sides.
With flood insurance, they are subsidizing people to live in dangerous places and then taking money from taxpayers when there is a flood or a hurricane to pay them. Then we build again on the edge of an ocean, and the program goes deeper into debt.
The government claims, ‘Oh, we’ll price it properly. But we have to do this because the free market isn’t doing it.’ Well, the free market isn’t doing it because the government is doing it dirt-cheap. Sure enough, the program was $16 billion in debt before Sandy – I forget what the number is now. The government proposed reforms, finally, that would not turn it over to the private sector – the private sector, through competition, would figure out what the prices should be – but the government proposed raising the prices at least. Riverfront and beachfront homeowners complained to Republicans and Democrats, and they wimped out and postponed the price rises.
It is just a disgusting program that screws poor people, gives money to rich people, hurts the taxpayer, and encourages people to build in dangerous places. It is a moral hazard.
Editor’s Note: See Stossel’s list of ‘100 Things I Hate About Government’ HERE.
What do you see as the future of the libertarian movement? Rand Paul is getting a lot of attention ahead of 2016. Do you think the American people are ready to embrace libertarianism?
I want to believe it. I hope so. But I have no clue. I am not an expert judger of what Americans believe. I only speak to maybe 1,000 people a year, and there are more than 300 million people in the country. They surprise me all the time. But I am delighted Rand Paul is doing well, and I share many of his beliefs.
What do you see as the biggest problems facing this country right now?
The growth of the state. Thomas Jefferson said it is the natural progress of things for government to grow and liberty to yield, and I fear that is what will happen because we are already $17 trillion in debt and we are promising to pay my generation Social Security and Medicare. There is just no way there is enough money – especially to pay for Medicare. So we are going to have to stiff somebody. My generation votes, so I doubt they’ll stiff us. They can’t raise taxes enough to pay for it. If they do, there will be riots.
So they will probably inflate the currency in a horrible way, and then there will be social unrest and terrible things. People, I fear, will blame on the capitalists and call for more government. It’s a nasty spiral of ignorance.
Well, on that uplifting note…
It was so great to talk to you. Thanks, John.
This transcript has been edited and condensed.