Reihan Salam
Fellow, New America Foundation

Big Think Interview With Reihan Salam

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A conversation with the writer and fellow at the New America Foundation.

Reihan Salam

Reihan Salam is a writer, journalist, and Schwarz Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy institute. His writing appears regularly in The National Review,, The Daily Beast, Slate, and other publications. His article "The Death of Macho," concerning the disruptive effects of the recession on men across the globe, appeared in Foreign Policy in 2009. He is the co-author, with Ross Douthat, of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" (Doubleday, 2008).


Question: What is your religious background, and how has it shaped you?

Reihan Salam: My parents come from Bangladesh and both of them are Muslims and we were raised somewhat informally in that tradition. For a variety of reasons I say informal. I mean we weren’t observant in the sense of going to some kind of a religious service on a very regular basis, although certainly identified with it in this broad way and I remember praying pretty regularly. There are surahs and you’re supposed to memorize them and I remember I was taking Arabic lessons very briefly, for maybe only a couple of weeks and that I had an argument with the tutor about whether androids have souls and I remember I didn’t feel as though I was getting a very satisfactory answer regarding the androids having souls question, so I kind of shirked my duties in that regard and then I suppose had a kind of broad interest in religion as a phenomena and I think that I identify with Muslim communities in some broad sense, but I’m not all that reflective about religion per se. I kind of recoil against people who sneer at religion in part because I have a lot of friends who are devoutly religious and relatives and what have you. At the same time I think that there is such a thing as a religious impulse that some people possess or don’t posses and I think that I far more possess the spaceman who is kind of visiting Earth impulse rather than the religious impulse. Although I also have a kind of boosterishness that I think that some religious people have, but it happens not to apply to religion per se, so that is not necessarily a very good answer to your question, but that is my…those are my kind of broad impressions of religion.

Question: If not religion, what activates your “boosterish” impulse?

Reihan Salam: Well I remember once overhearing a conversation in which a guy was asked, “Where are you from?” And he said, “New Orleans.” And then the interlocutors proceeded to ask, “What was that like?” And he said something to the effect of, “What do you think it was like? All these people saying ‘y’all’ all the time.” He had this contempt for it and that really turned my stomach. I just recoiled against it, and I thought to myself, if you have objections to where you’re from, you share them with your friends who are also from New Orleans. You don’t share them with outsiders and you certainly don’t express that kind of contempt. It just seemed really untoward. And them some years later, as you may recall, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and this same guy, he proceeded to write kind of moving, you know, pieces about the devastation of his native city, and I thought to myself, this person is beneath contempt, and I just at a very, very basic gut level think that this is just not a morally praiseworthy individual, and so I guess I think that when you’re engaged with something you should work to improve it to the extent possible, be constructive. Don’t allow your boosterishness to blind you to the kind of various foibles and downsides of whatever it is that you’re associated with, but I mean do your best. Act in good faith and you know consider yourself kind of a steward of this tradition that you’re a part of whether voluntarily or involuntarily. And in a way that is a little unfair because, you know, Shelby Steele talks about the totalitarianism of black identity, the idea that one is obligated to identify with a certain thing and there is a way in which I can see how that’s problematic and maybe if we could all be wraith-like beings who are free of those associations that would be nice, but that doesn’t strike me as the world and you’re embedded in a context, and being respectful of that strikes me as reasonable.

Question: How did high school debate shape your future career?

Reihan Salam: It was a wonderful experience for a lot of reasons. Partly because of the other kids who were involved, but actually one thing that is important is that I wasn’t so much a debate champ as a guy who did it and made a lot of friends, but I think that actually the more formative experience was losing and losing frequently and I remember that I felt at the time as though I had an agenda and whenever I would go into give some sort of an extemporaneous speech or something like that I remember I kind of had certain thoughts and I was like I want to convey these. I want to proselytize. I want to like challenge people and provoke people and winning is secondary and mainly it was just this thought I have this opportunity to have a captive audience and these people have to listen to me for seven minutes and I think that I didn’t necessarily takeaway entirely good lessons from that experience, but it was magical. It was just a group of really idiosyncratic kids and particularly the ones who didn’t go to my high school. I went to a public magnet high school, but there were these other kids from Catholic high school who had these really different backgrounds and I was struck by… I was someone who had never met someone who was a Republican, a conservative, someone who was pro-life, and through debate I met all these people and was just kind of dazzled by the range of opinions that really exist in the world and it had a huge, huge effect on me and just having respect for people who have different ways of engaging and just yeah, being around people for whom being quick and verbal, that was the way that you were valorized. You know what I mean? It was quite neat and more important to me than I… I don’t reflect on it as much as perhaps I should.

Question: Which pundits argue most rigorously, on either side of the aisle?

Reihan Salam: That’s a really good question. Lately I’ve been really drawn to thinkers like… I’ve been drawn to thinkers like Casey Mulligan. He is a good example. He is an economist at the University of Chicago who in some ways is accused of really radically oversimplifying things. You know he likes single, good models of the world. He really likes… Also he uses very arresting language. You know he has talked a lot in the context of the recent recession about work disincentives and what a powerful role they play and people are often times offended by this like are you saying that people have decided to go on a vacation and that is why they’re unemployed and the beauty of him is that he is so not embedded in a kind of social cultural context of the kind of niceties and the kind of obligatory things that one says that is just really arresting to read this kind of 200-proof version of kind of his particular style of argument. I love it.

I also think that Paul Krugman is a tremendously impressive voice coming from a kind of diametrically opposed worldview, and Krugman is someone that I find sometimes pretty tendentious, but that is part of what is so impressive about him. He is able to kind of construct this kind of coherent argument that, again, you could think wait a second, wait, I don’t buy that or I don’t buy this, but he… It’s like a freight train and you know, kind of once he leaves the station, you know it’s suddenly is that, well, if you disagree with him you’re clearly an unreasonable and perhaps even dangerous person, and that is admirable in a sense. That is certainly not my own style.

Question: What is the economic problem with men?

Reihan Salam: Yeah, I mean there is so many different ways to approach the problem with men. One is when you’re looking at labor force participation, if you’re looking at prime age males. You have a lot of folks who don’t have college educations who have basically seen the labor market, you know their labor market position deteriorate very, very fast and the reaction has been to withdraw from the conventional world of work. Now you know what’s the problem with that? Well the big problem is when you’re not attached to the labor force you also start losing your connection to a lot of these basic bourgeois norms and habits that are part of life as a citizen in a free society and then you’re more inclined to engage in pathological behaviors. You’re more inclined to kind of have these masculine impulses to provide and what have you kind of corrode and manifest themselves in these really ugly forms, so that I think is what I think is the biggest and most pressing problem that is particular pressing of the context of an economic downturn like the one we’re going through.

Question: Why do you believe this labor situation will be permanent?

Reihan Salam: Well I think that there are lots of big structural changes that have happened in the economy and they’ve been going on for decades, but now they’re accelerating by virtue of this downturn as happens in any downturn and you know in broadest sense it’s this idea that you’re moving from a world that relies on brawn to one that relies increasingly on brainpower, but beyond that it’s also a world that relies on certain kinds of social intelligence, on being able to kind of construct networks that can be of value to you. That can enhance your resilience in a rapidly changing economy and again, if you basically rely on your strength in order to earn you an income in a way that’s not terribly specialized in a way that requires you take direction, but not necessarily even have to take it very well. That’s just gone and it’s not only gone in the United States. It’s gone in societies like China and increasingly India, societies that we think of as you know nipping at our heels, but this kind of large scale dislocation is taking place almost everywhere and the societies in which it’s not taking place are being badly left behind in a lot of other important respects. I think of Iran as a really good example of this is a society in which men retain this kind of very dominant position, but at the cost of economic stagnation.

Question: What problems could the surge in dislocated men cause?

Reihan Salam: Well I think on the global scale it’s more interesting because it’s a lot sharper. If you look at China for example where you have this large population of surplus males you’re talking about tens of millions of people who could theoretically contribute to chaotic violence, to networked violence, gang violence, etcetera if they don’t find some way of being stable, productive, contributing members of the broader society and I think that Iran similarly is a society in which the kind of taste for male dominance is such that it will lead to entrenched poverty for long periods of time. You see this across much of the world. It’s interesting the extent which female literacy predicts whether or not a society is going to experience and economic takeoff. There is almost… There is such a tight correlation between these two things it’s quite remarkable. Similarly, when you look at domestic violence within a society and how strongly that correlates with how externally aggressive that society is or the level of political instability that society experiences, it’s pretty interesting. And again, men tend to be the perpetrators of domestic violence. When you’re looking at the United States you have this different set of issues that we are already dealing with and are trying to contain through the instrument of the welfare state, so when we talk about prime-age males who are participating in the labor force, we’re talking about guys who are on disability benefits. We’re talking about guys who are incarcerated a lot of the time, and the social consequences of that are unfortunately pretty obvious in inner-city neighborhoods across the country and pretty dire.

And you have this issue… You know you see now in the African-American community, but it’s something that is becoming much broader in which women who have higher rates of educational obtainment have a very hard time finding spouses and again this complicates pretty much everything. It complicates the patterns of childrearing. It complicates whether or not children have two biological parents in the home and the **** consequences of that relate to educational obtainment for the next generation, so I think that it really is part and parcel of a lot of kind of big tangles of pathology that we’re dealing with, not only in inner cities, not only with this or that minority community, but increasingly across the entire American population.

Question: Will what you’ve called “the death of macho” set men free?

Reihan Salam: Michael Chabon just published this collection called “Manhood for Amateurs,” and in one essay he talks about how when you look at male culture post-70’s, post the sexual revolution it remains a "stultifying monoculture," and I thought that was a really, really good way of putting it. You know one thing I’ve always found is that a lot of men, particularly like straight men post-college, are very bad at making friends, and I’ve always felt like I’m an exception to this because I’m quite comfortable being weird. No, you know, I remember reading this essay. It must have been in one of these men’s magazines like GQ, and the idea was, you know, it’s weird for you to be like "Hey, you want to… stranger, you want to go watch football at my house later?" and it’s like, "Well, that’s odd," and so, you know, you just have the friends you made in high school or in college and you stick with them for life. And women in contrast seem really good at kind of reaching out to people, and that seems like something that’s incredibly counterproductive even in these narrow economic terms. If you can’t actually make these new kind of horizontal connections to people, even in this totally, like, horrible mercenary sense, let alone the way in which, you know, when you live a life in isolation or I think about men that I know who have been divorced and the common thread is, when you’re a guy and you’re dating women and your friends are like always, “How is that thing going?” Or, “How is it going with woman X or woman Y?” And you know, that’s great, and it’s like you’re able to kind of strategize and think and like this is, it’s this tremendously… you know, this tremendously strengthening kind of feeling, whereas when people get married it’s suddenly like, we can’t talk about that anymore because that suggests that it’s contingent. That suggests that it’s a process. That it’s continuing to be negotiated, and so you can’t talk about it. So the fact that men continue to have this kind of solitary, macho, “can’t acknowledge vulnerability or weakness” attitude I think is actually undermining in all kinds of ways. Leaving aside psychological health, also professional health, you need people that you can plot and scheme with, and when you don’t have that given the new environment, in which, again, resiliency is at a premium, you’re doomed, so if that’s what the death of macho means and I think that is what it means in part, that’s a really, really good thing.

Question: Is something important dying with the macho archetype?

Reihan Salam: That’s a really, really good point. This is something I’ve talked to a lot of my friends about. You know, a friend of mine, Matt Crawford wrote a wonderful book called Shop Class as Soul Craft, and the argument is that men traditionally had opportunities to work with their hands and to cultivate a different kind of skill or intelligence in their daily life, a problem solving intelligence and that in the modern workplace we’re abstracted from this in a way that is you’re kind of deeply undermining of certain kind of masculine virtues and I do buy that. Although I do wonder also if you know I think that women also kind of have a need for this kind of problem solving intelligence so it’s not particular to men though I think it might be particularly impactful of men given that again this kind of emotional component is often absent or kind of not present in the same ways.

So yeah, I definitely… I think my dream is an economy in which people are really cultivating what is their true competence, a world in which you know we’re kind of we’re not all part of the same status hierarchies or everyone has a kind of decent enough living so that you don’t feel as though well I have to kind of compete to work this job that I hate so that I can live in a school district kind of where my children will not be kind of savagely beaten to death my hooligans. And then I can take chances. I can, like, make things. I can you know be truly entrepreneurial. I don’t have to feel like I have to kowtow to someone. This idea of American culture at its best being something about self-starting, that’s really appealing, and I do think though that it has something to do with a masculine ideal, so I buy that, but again, when you look at the guys kind of in this kind of blue-collar universe who are the kind of happiest people. I mean, they had incredibly fulfilling relationships with kind of other people doing their work. They were relationships built on collaboration, so I think that we could have a constructive mix.

Question: Should conservatism look back to a specific era, or a “best-of” of American history?

Reihan Salam: I like the best-of idea. That makes a lot of sense. Although I’d say that I think America’s great advantage is the society… is that it’s a society in which cheap failure and fast failure are possible, a society in which we don’t have really brittle institutions and that actually is a product to some degree of sloppiness. You know like our welfare state is not complete. It was not designed after military conquest and after we were occupied by some other country and then let’s design the perfect constitutional arrangements, let’s design the perfect tax code and the perfect healthcare system, etcetera. Rather we kind of have this kind of messy kludge set of solutions that can be really frustrating in some ways, but also because it’s so messy and because it’s so sloppy it always leaves room for people on the outside of it, on the edges of it to think you know let me do something different, let me come up with something totally different that people in Washington or people in New York aren’t going to notice and I’m going to create it out here in isolation, you know like kind of like a squirrel hiding away nuts, and then suddenly you have this huge flourishing thing that no one designed but then kind of came out of nowhere to take over the world.

This applies in so many ways. Like if you think about MP3’s. You know what I mean? If you think about the Internet, if you think about all these technologies they weren’t frontal attacks. They were flank attacks and I think that when it comes to solving social problems to me a lot of my friends were on the left. I think that they have this mentality and I kind of share it intellectually in a way is wouldn’t it be great if we could solve the immigration problem this way and solve the agriculture problem this, then we solve the obesity problem, then we solve the public health problem and it all works out brilliantly because we have this amazing plan.

I think that President Obama is a guy who is a really smart guy. He is surrounded by really smart guys and they think you know we know what we’re talking about. You know, we’ve got people who are, you know, John Bates Clark medalists. We’ve got people who are shortlisted for the Nobel Prize. We can figure out this whole American society thing. Let’s do it. And I mean, it’s so exciting, and I can see why people are so into it, and then you see the right-wingers who are like, “They’re trying to criticize us.” “How dare they?” “Clearly they’re fools or clearly they’re deeply dishonest or corrupt or they don’t want poor people to have healthcare.” And it’s like wow, no, but it’s like you are so smart, but it’s like actually kind of these dopey people, hippies, you know pot smokers. You know these guys on the edges who aren’t super awesome planners they often come up with rad stuff and when you have something that is really tightly planned then they can’t do their thing. You’re banning them. You’re not allowing them to do their kind of neat thing that could make everything cheaper and greater and awesome in a way that we can’t really anticipate, so I think that that’s what I want to preserve about this country because this is this countries great gift to the world. America is not richer, than lots of other you know awesome first world countries where you can get baguettes and you can ride a bicycle everywhere and it’s beautiful, yet folks from those countries come here and more would come here if they could and why is that? I mean again, it’s they’re not coming to like make you know kind of 20% more. Sometimes they are, but not always. They’re coming because you don’t have that stigma and you have that opportunity for business model innovation or cultural innovation and I really, really worry that this conceit that we’ll solve these particular problems that we recognize now because again our view is so blinkard and so narrow that we don’t see the other problems. So let’s do what those guys do. Let’s do what France does. Let’s do what Singapore does, kind of whether you’re from the left or right rather than let’s build on our tremendous strength, which is enabling weirdoes.

Question: Where does choosing hippies over technocratic liberals leave conservatives?

Reihan Salam: This is an extremely hard problem, because when you look at the Republican Party and how they’ve conducted themselves during the health reform debate, it makes perfect sense, so you have a lot of these rock-ribbed conservatives who say we’re against big government and these kind of Republicans who are kind of squishes. You know what I mean? They want to compromise. You know we’re against that. These are the same conservatives who are saying Obama is trying to slash your Medicare. You know what I mean? It’s incredible and then it seems are they hypocrites? They’re not hypocrites. They represent districts that have a lot of older white people. They want to get reelected and in their zeal to get reelected they’re forgetting that there are districts in suburban Long Island, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Los Angeles where people have a different mentality. They think about things in different ways. So it’s this kind of crazy dilemma where again you’re focused very narrowly on your own goals rather than on the goals of this broader political movement and so it all makes a lot of sense. It’s hard to be that upset of disappointed by it because it’s the world we live in.

So I think that for conservative intellectuals, for conservative thinkers what you want to do is keep beating the drum of how our goal is to preserve this economic space, this cultural space for innovation and the Republican Party is going to do its thing and sometimes they’re going to be right, sometimes they’re going to be wrong. When they are opposing Democrats who are trying to kind of impose brittle structures on this tremendously kind of creative and potentially very fruitful, exciting set of institutions then we can be for them. We can be rooting for them.

And one thing that I’ve always wanted is, if only Republicans could offer the perfect health reform package as an alternative. I’ve always felt that way and now I’m starting to think maybe that’s not the right way to think about it. Maybe that’s not really possible because it’s not a matter of your perfectly planned solution versus my perfectly planned solution, but rather your perfectly planned solution versus my let’s try to do things that can be wound down, let’s try to create institutions that when they stop working can cease to exist and that should basically be our goal.

Question: Which politicians best embody your political philosophy?

Reihan Salam: Like a lot of conservative nerds, I really like Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, and Mitch Daniels is not a terribly charismatic figure, but what I really like about him is that he is honest. He has a lot of integrity, and by honest I don’t mean in this kind of trivial way. I mean that he highlights the kind of tradeoffs that we’re going to have to go through during this period of wrenching economic change. Over the last ten years state governments across the country have grown by about 6% a year. Now when you think about any of those discrete debates you could frame it this way: "Well, we want to raise educational spending and these guys don’t because they hate children," and that’s actually really compelling, but of course if spending more means you don’t hate children, then of course it’s unlimited, right? I mean we could spend literally trillions of dollars and if you oppose that then you necessarily hate children. And the thing is that that is not how the world works. You have to actually balance your different goals. These goals are always intention. And I think someone like Daniels he became incredibly unpopular when he first came into office because he was like, “This is not sustainable.” “This is a disaster.” “We’re not funding transportation enough.” “We need to start thinking creatively about how to raise revenue and how to plan for frankly a rocky future in which we’re not educating our children adequately and we don’t have the tools that we need to flourish.”

And you know, part of my thinking is that people expected that from Barack Obama. When Barack Obama came into office I think they thought he is a truth-teller who is going to kind of break with this kind of sunny morning American spirit of everything is hunky-dory and we don’t need to belt-tighten and we don’t need to sacrifice in any way. And then he came into office and offered a health reform plan that was like, we’re just going to cut wasteful spending and use that to kind of solve everyone’s problems. We’re going to raise taxes on some secretive people that you don’t know, but not you and everything is going to work out. And then suddenly people were distrustful and it created this huge opportunity for folks to say all kinds of nonsense that wasn’t true because again there was so much distrust that people didn’t know who to believe. And Daniels is someone who when he came into office he said, “We’re going to raise taxes in the top 1% of earners.” That didn’t actually go through, and Republicans fought him tooth and nail on it, but he said, “Let’s do that because we’re also going to cut programs for other people and if we’re going to do that we need to share the burden across the whole population.” That strikes me as the politics that people would really respond to, a kind of politics of honest tradeoffs.

Question: What threatens the American Dream?

Reihan Salam: Well we had a fairly broad conversation in the book about that, about family structure in particular, and when you look at the changing family structure, the most interesting thing is that it’s changed unevenly, so you have this huge explosion in divorce in the 60’s and 70’s, but that explosion really stopped and then reversed for folks who are college educated, folks who are middle-class and upper middle-class, but then for people who aren’t, for people who have a high school education or less, actually, the divorce rate remained persistently stubbornly high or the rate of folks who were having children outside the context of marriage remains quite, quite high, and that has all kinds of implications for reinforcing class divides and I think of that as a really big problem, but of course there is another problem of this kind of radically changed set of economic circumstances that has led to wage stagnation, not only for the bottom half of the population, but actually for most of the population.

During the Bush years workers with a college education saw their wages stagnate. It’s quite extraordinary, and we always hope that innovation will save us, but well, what if innovation doesn’t actually save us in the sense of creating tens of millions of well-paying middle-class jobs, particularly given that we’re living in a world in which you have this so called global labor glut? We’re living in very different circumstances, yet again our institutions haven’t evolved quickly enough to accommodate that, and that I think of as a real threat to the American working class.

Question: Can the interests of business and the working class ever truly mesh?

Reihan Salam: I definitely think that the interests of business and the working class could be aligned, but it’s very complicated because for example you’re looking at an environment in which when you look at corporate profits, they were oftentimes flourishing by virtue of investments made in other countries where there are lots of attractive investment opportunities, whereas when you’re looking at the American workforce there are a lot of liabilities. There are a lot of liabilities in all First-World workforces given that you have an older age profile. You have a skill profile that oftentimes isn’t quite as resilient, so I think that that is a way in which it appears as though those two interests have diverged to some degree. At the same time I think that it’s useful to think of these things as not entirely separate because, again, members of the American working class start businesses and I think would start more businesses if you had an environment that was more conducive to grassroots entrepreneurship.

When you look at China, they have this kind of interesting dilemma where in the 80’s they had very rapid economic growth, just as they did post the 80’s, yet then it was very broad based. You saw a lot of rural areas and it was fueled by grassroots entrepreneurship, whereas since then it’s been fueled by state-owned enterprises and foreign direct investment. In America we have a similar thing where if you don’t create an environment that’s conducive to people kind of trying things and failing, starting new businesses, kind of large employers, and you don’t have the level of innovation that could theoretically create those dramatic wage and productivity gains that we actually need, so in a weird way what I want to see is more a culture in which business and the working class are not these two kind of separate entities, but rather they kind of interweave, in which more people who kind of come from a working-class, modest background feel as though, you know, I could actually start something that’s going to make a contribution to the world. So that is sort of a different way of looking at it, but I think it’s the right way of looking at it.

Question: Will the promised nanotechnology boom ever come?

Reihan Salam: I think that it’s interesting. There are a lot of smart people who have argued that we’re actually living in an era of innovation stagnation. A friend of mine humorously was pointing out that whereas during the second industrial revolution you had trains and you had all this kind of really dramatic stuff, the telegraph, things that changed the world. Now okay, we had telephones, then we had computers, then we plugged telephones together with computers and then it was easier to buy airline tickets and stuff like that, and that was awesome, but I mean it’s not obvious how that has really changed the texture of our lives, whereas when you’re looking at nanotechnology, this idea of kind of manufacturing materials at the molecular level, well then we can do pretty much anything. I mean then you could build enormous numbers of nuclear power plants at radically low cost, which would mean that all electrical power would essentially be free, which means that I could surround myself with neon all the time and who knows what kind of effects it would have on my productivity, or a world in which we have machines that are comparable to humans in intelligence and could also be self-improving so that they could again lead all humans to live this tremendous life of luxury in which you could read machine-produced novels or organic novels written by actual people and that would be the job done by half of the population because, again, there is no other economically needful activity. I think that this would be a time of tremendous cultural chaos, but it would also be pretty exciting and neat to see because you would see human ingenuity manifest itself in all kinds of totally unpredictable, unfamiliar ways. So yeah, I think that actually the frustrating thing is that we’re always on the cusp of all of this stuff. I mean there are all these technologies that are like ten years away, pebble-bed nuclear reactors are ten years away.

You know you have nano-pants now, so I spill orange juice on my pants and they won’t stain. That’s pretty cool, but that’s not building nuclear power plants for $5. But I actually am kind of optimistic about this stuff if only because my basic view is that if we don’t have these radical technological advances we’ll all be doomed in the next 50, 60 years, and given that I don’t think we’re going to be doomed I kind of think that there is going to be some deus ex machina kind of thing that will rescue us all, and also when you look at the kind of climate change landscape, I mean you know people talk about cap and trade and it’s like, this is absurd. I mean we’re way past 350 parts per million. You need some kind of radical technological breakthrough to solve this problem, and again, unless Earth turns into a soupy mass in which we’re all dead and a volcano kind of swallows us all in molten lava, we need it. So it’s not really a negotiable thing.

Question: Can technological innovation make nuclear power safer?

Reihan Salam: I think that you’re already seeing lots of new designs for reactors, modular designs, et cetera that seem very attractive, seem radically safer than previous generations of nuclear power plants and when you’re looking at modular designs they solve a lot of different problems. They help solve a problem of cost. They also kind of might spur kind of manufacturing employment. They might spur kind of a new export market for the United States. But more broadly I mean it’s all embedded in this wider regulatory context, so when you’re looking at the NRC they probably don’t have enough staff to evaluate all of the kind of new designs that are coming out to feel kind of really secure about that and so I think that that’s one that’s really kind of holding us back whereas the Chinese, the South Africans, a variety of other places… In India there is a huge amount of work on thorium based nuclear power and creating an export industry around that, so I think that there are a lot of promising developments. It’s not obvious to me that the United States is going to be the pioneer in this regard again, because like a lot of first world countries we have this kind of tough regulatory process that will slow it down, but I do think that the kind of capital expenditures required to create nuclear power plants are going to decline and I think that if we move in this modular direction, we see nuclear power solve kind of smaller scale problems then I think it’s going to again be a flank attack on this big problem. So rather than have this centralize solution of let’s mimic France let’s allow people to kind of use a tiny nuclear power plant to operate a neighborhood or to operate some kind of like large-scale manufacturing facility.

The other thing, and this relates to a lot of the talk about the smart grid, the idea of a national electrical grid. This is a very attractive idea to a lot of people, but to me, modular nuclear power feeds in with district heating and a variety of other ideas for making our energy system more resilient rather than less resilient, so I wonder, rather than creating a kind of super centralized system perhaps it makes more sense for us to actually distribute the way that we distribute power… rather distribute power creation across the country in a way that is going to make us less vulnerable to kind of supply disruptions.

Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen