rp daily: the muscle shoals manifesto

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rp daily has finished 50 episodes and 5,500 miles of a journey down the mississippi river. tom and rp discuss some of the guests on the show that have moved them the most: stacey woodland, laurie garrett, and vivek murthy, whose contributions aided in creating a conversation around the pandemic. as the 50th episode coincides with memorial day, tom and rp honor those who have served and lost their lives for their country—including pandemic front line workers. tom reflects on his trip down the mississippi: who he’s met, the conversations that he’s had, and what he’s learned the most from his deep dive into america’s heartland.

tom scott is chairman & co-founder of the nantucket project. rp eddy was the architect of the Clinton administration’s pandemic response framework and the United Nations response to the global AIDS epidemic & is CEO of global intelligence firm Ergo.  

rp is co-author of the best-selling award-winning book Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes with Richard A. Clarke, Former National Security Council counterterrorism adviser.

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transcript

Tom Scott [00:00:11] Memorial Day weekend started as a celebration to honor the dead who served in our wars and it started in the Civil War both in the north and the south. It was called Decoration Day, but really it was about decorating the graves of the soldiers who had perished. It was in states kind of forever, and it really became a more national thing in the early nineteen hundreds, particularly around World War One. But it was not made a national holiday until 1967. Today, we celebrate Memorial Day as a way to honor the foreign soldiers, and part of what we’ll do is we’ll honor the people who have suffered or unfortunately perished as a part of Covid. Those on the front line. Hi, everybody, I’m Tom Scott. With me, as always, R.P. Eddy. R.P., thanks for being here. You know, we’ve done about 50 shows now. One of the things we’re gonna do today is we’re gonna reflect and sort of talk about some of the lessons. RP, I don’t know if you just want to give us a quick, quick reflection. But thank you. And again, I’ve learned so much from you and you’ve you’ve given so much to this. And we all appreciate it.

R.P. Eddy [00:01:23] Tom, thank you. I really, really, really love doing this. It’s meant a lot to me to have a chance to every day just sit down and learn what’s going on the world. For me, it’s been a huge anchor to my day to sit down and sort of assess what’s going on and get my thoughts together and do it with you and the team. So thank you. And I also want to thank Katie Banks on our team has been critical to making this work. And there’s 20 young analysts at Ergo, all of whom have joined our firm to talk about geopolitics or economics, not not diseases. And every single one of them pivoted super hard into becoming immature virologists and build models. And so if you ever hear me say anything smart, it’s because they’re whispering in my ear and letting me know what’s going on in the world across the vaccines, the treatments and epidemiology and everything that’s happening. So that whole team and I won’t mention my name because there’s really 20 of them have been extraordinary and kept us on top of the news and looking around the corner. So thank you to them. And that’s necessary because, you know, if you think about what we’re trying to understand here, we’re all trying to we we feel like it’s in our our vital interests, like it’s a mortal interest to us to become somewhat expert in epidemiology, which is different than public health, which is different than sociology, which is different than the economy, which is different than sort of the psychology of why am I sitting around and butting my fingernails and eating sugar cereal 3:00 in the morning, which I’ve done a little too often. And all these things are happening to us at once. And if we can find a little bit of time in our day and a little bit of space to think about it with smart people like the guests we’ve had on and in with you. Then that makes all the difference. And if other people paying attention to this, you know, get any degree of clarity among the fog and uncertainty of where we are, then that’s a huge victory. So thank you for giving me the chance to be part of that. And that’s been a real privilege for me, too.

Tom Scott [00:03:08] Well, yeah. And look. In many ways, RP, you were an obvious choice. That didn’t mean, by the way you’d be available or have the desire to do it. But, you know, you may know RP’s book Warnings. He you know, he talks about Cassandras, which are people who outline challenges that are ahead. Among them was this exact thing that we’re in now, a pandemic. This was a book that was put together three years ago and it couldn’t have been more prophetic anyway. So. So as a partner again. You know, what a gift. You know, our business was hit hard. You know, we’re in the live events business. We’re in the gathering business. We’re about focusing on matters of the head, the heart, putting both of those things together, trying to keep politics and platitudes out of our work. And we had to adjust. You know, two weeks ago today, we left New York City. We went to the northern tip of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca, right to the source. We traveled all the way to New Orleans. Blue highways the whole way. We do not go on interstates. We feel like it gets more granular, more analog. That’s where you discover that Twitter is a lie. I mean, you see it. You feel it. You talk to people. We talk to people everywhere we go. And Mississippi is going to be the place I remember the most. Mississippi as an analogy for the United States. We got our problems. I think the assumptions we make in some of the prejudices that we on the coast and certainly we in the northeast have towards a place like Mississippi. The people were so friendly and we talked about all kinds of issues from the national struggles to issues of race, et cetera. And I’m mentioning that obviously because of the legacy of the South and Mississippi Burning and those kinds of things. But in the end their, their positive attitude, their friendliness, you know, and their focus on the local. I think there’s something too, we talked about how everything’s national, national, national. You know, love is local. There’s so much you can do locally. And there’s something just so impressive about getting to know those people. The time I spent yesterday, I guess it was the day before. And Muscle Shoals, Alabama, like, again, another gift, you know, RP, one of the other gifts we’ve had or the guests we’ve had on the show. I mean, not only am I learning from from, you know, your team, my team, all the people I’m meeting on the road. But some of the guests we had on the show, we’re gonna look at three of them, Stacy Woodland, you may recall, from the YWCA in the Philadelphia area. Of course, you know Obama’s surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, and then the other one, Laurie Garrett, who is your Cassandra. So we’re going to look at we’re going to look at clips from those three and just get an opportunity to respond to them. But they’ve been a really important part of our discovery. But let’s take you back and look at these.

Stacy Woodland [00:05:43] It was the last week of April when I realized school had it started and and no virtual school had started in Pottstown School District. It was the last.

R.P. Eddy [00:05:53] Unbelievable. Unbelievable.

Tom Scott [00:05:56] So schools were effectively closed for two months?

Stacy Woodland [00:05:59] Yeah.

R.P. Eddy [00:05:59] Even virtually.

Stacy Woodland [00:06:00] Even virtually. Right. The school district wasn’t equipped to do distance learning at all.

R.P. Eddy [00:06:08] Two months of no education?

Stacy Woodland [00:06:10] None.

R.P. Eddy [00:06:11] Two months of parents being not even able to put their kids in front of computer for one or two hours a day. Two months of them all of a sudden having to not only be home confined, but try to school their children.

Tom Scott [00:06:24] You know, in some ways, RP, that’s hard to listen to because, I mean, one, it’s it’s sad. It’s bad news. And and two, it caught me blind. You know, I didn’t know. I didn’t know.

R.P. Eddy [00:06:40] We. Yeah. I mean, you know, I tell you, it’s funny, I look at it now and I. Yes, I was surprised by it as well. But I’m a little embarrassed I was surprised.

Tom Scott [00:06:50] Like me, too.

R.P. Eddy [00:06:51] How did I, of course, there’s there’s… And again, this gets back to we’ve talked about before about the Hillbilly Elegy story. Right. The story to me of Hillbilly Elegy, the very popular book that every person, the ivory tower had to read after Trump won. The story of that book isn’t what’s written in the book. It’s that the Ivory Tower had to read the book to remember that there’s millions and millions Americans who live in crisis. And that’s what Stacy was telling us. And somehow I was surprised by that notion of them.

Tom Scott [00:07:19] Well, you know, it’s funny because I was going to mention I’m like 20 minutes away from where Hillbilly Elegy took place where he’s from. C.D. Vance. I get that right? J.D. Vance, J.D. Vance.

R.P. Eddy [00:07:33] I saw a photo montage or whatever you call it, a meme and a fancy way of calling a meme, a photo montage. And it was one picture was an African-American girl sitting in Flint, Michigan, with a sign that said we haven’t had clean water in my town since 2016. Right. And then there was a woman who looks like she’s from my neighborhood holding a sign with her kid that said. You know, let us out. We need a haircut. And it just reminded me of what we’re fighting over and where the stakes are for different people.

Tom Scott [00:08:10] Yeah. I mean, the other part of it for me, you know, I keep saying we have a more of a cultural problem than we do, as you know… Everyone says the system is broken. It may be. I think the culture is kind of broken. I think our ability to see and hear and actually care for each other has been disrupted on a whole variety of fronts. I do think technology is something we have to overcome as a way to see more clearly who we are and our needs of of that each other have. And that’s been, you know, a lot of what I’ve been able to experience on the trip. So, RP, let’s take a look at some of the comments Laurie Garrett had from the other day. That was a heavy upset.

Laurie Garrett [00:08:47] You can only begin to imagine what a nightmare it must have been to be in 1351 Florence, which took 80 percent of the population, got the plague, 80 percent. It had the highest death toll on the planet. They had no comprehension of what was going on around them. And I found one set of documents that were meant to be sort of economic tallies kept by a man whose job was that he would go round from winery to winery all around Tuscany, collecting casks of wine, and then he would bottle them and sell them to shops in the cities and to aristocrats to their homes. And this so he was sort of a you could think of as a wine dealer. And as I read his documents, he’s very frustrated. He’s trying to understand I mean, I went to this winery and nobody even answered. I was ringing the bell and nobody came. What the heck is going on? I went to another winery and nobody was taking care of the crops. The wine, the grapes were just sitting there. Where were those darn workers? And it’s everybody’s dead. It’s the plague. And he’s just like in some weird space time continuum where he’s ignoring that as he’s going down the road. There’s wagons full of bring out the dead going on all around him. And all he can do is complain, I’m not getting wine to sell. My business is hurting. I think we’re in that Tuscan wine merchant moment right now where a huge percentage of Wall Street players, a huge percentage of big corporate actors with really smart, deep benches of economists and financial wizards and artificial intelligence and all of that behind them are day by day gauging their future and their corporate profits and everything based on craziness, just insanity. It’s like, again, they’re ignoring the bring out the dead and the wagons of the bodies and they’re focusing on Oh Remdesivir. There’s a good positive result out of NIAID. Let’s all buy stocks and the market will go up today because somebody said something good about one drug.

Tom Scott [00:11:00] RP, you know, first I I saw her your book in there in the background, and she’s been very important. You mean she was your Cassandra for for this? Right. And but at the same time, I watch it and I. You know, I have a different take on what’s next, and that doesn’t mean I don’t share some of the frustration with perhaps some of the values with which we approach this. And I can’t speak specifically to that because we’re all different. But on the other hand, as I said the other day, I think there’s, you know, the way out is different than understanding what was going to happen on the way in and. And I hope I’m right. I hope I’m right.

R.P. Eddy [00:11:41] There’s so. So you notice the book. Did you see that? Yes. I can see the there’s so much to unpack about Laurie and I’ll try to do it quickly. So first, she’s a two time Pulitzer Prize winner. So she knows how to tell stories. And she did. Told the story of the Italian wine merchant. I think we all got drawn into that. I thought that was a amazing sort of way to bring us along. She is a deep technical expert. She was a PhD candidate in microbiology at Stanford. You actually did the work before she became a journalist. And she’s also the only person I know who is a two time Cassandra. She has the genius in the curse of being a Cassandra, of seeing horrible things in the future and being ignored. Remember, Cassandra, the story of our book here is a story of being cursed. Cassandra was cursed by the gods to be able to foretell disaster. Ignored. And Laurie is cursed to see these things. And if you look at her, she’s pained. This is that brings her no joy to share this information. And I work with her 20 years. And of course, it doesn’t bring her joy. Right. So. So that’s who she is. And then you have this. Then once she starts talking about very quickly, one is this, again, she puts it in like three sentences, understanding the stock markets. And we spend a lot of time, the beginning of the show talking at the beginning of the early episodes, talking about where the stock market is, where it isn’t, and we without discussing it. You and I have stopped doing that. I think it’s the right thing. Probably because it’s partly driven by algo, algorithmic trading in a heavy way right now. And the second way is it’s really no indicator where the world’s going. And I know that, I have enough insight into where the disease is going. We have enough insight in our epidemiological curves to know the market just doesn’t get it right. The third thing first thing about her is this concept that she kind of raises about the desensitization. We all are having in one way or the other about the death that’s around us. Right. So ninety three thousand people have died. And if you go back to our first episode, Tom, we talked about how every one of us before this is over, we’ll know somebody who’s going to either die or someone who’s going to lose a loved one. And at this point, I’m sure all of us on this call have either had that happen. So when we know has died or someone we love has had someone die. Right. And so we’ve been desensitized. And yet we also are being desensitized. And if you look at who is the most desensitized, who is arguing for the biggest sort of let’s get out there and open up business full throated and don’t wear a mask. It’s folks who haven’t had that proximity to the death or who have the most to lose. It’s a very linear it’s it’s it’s it’s very obvious who’s fighting one side or the other. And in the end, back in our book, we talk about that. So the critics there’s an old category of folks who are critics of Cassandra’s often have self-interest in their criticism. So if you are a, you know, huge real estate owner with lots of empty hotel rooms and lots of empty retail space, and you are a debtor because you have huge mortgages to pay. And no, no great real estate empire doesn’t have huge mortgages to pay. Then you buy correlation. You’ll see they are more desensitize. They’re more eager to get back to work because they have more on the line. Alternatively, if you’re a big saving business, if you’re one of the things Facebook or Google or whatever, they are being more sensitive because they have a little less to lose and they’re still winning that, my friend Marco. Give me that framework, by the way. So thanks to Marco for that. And the fourth thing is what you’re referring to about about Laurie, what you took away from that, which is just to put a fine point on it. There’s a deep sense of pessimism in what she shared with us. And that’s hard to hear. And even, you know, even me 20 years working with her, writing a chapter about her in that book where she predicted today in stark detail, she told us in 2017, you’re going to be here right now, here shortly. Here’s what will look like. And then my coauthor, Dick and I spent a lot of time thinking about that. It’s actually my favorite chapter in the book Before the Pandemic. It’s online. You can read Chapter 11. I would encourage you to do so because it talks about Laurie and some other experts. I think it’s a gorgeous chapter. I’m very proud of it. And in that chapter, working on the chapter with her spending 20 years working with her, then listening and then listening to her the other day, even I am like, oh, no, no, no. She’s too pessimistic. She’s too pessimistic. I have felt that for 20 years with her for 20 years. I thought, no, can’t be. So that can’t be so bad. She’s been right every time. So, you know, now let’s be very specific. I don’t want to create this my asthma of of of of fear. What she said in our call with her, which is available online and you should watch it. Is the vaccine may not come as fast as we think and there will probably be some false starts on the way. That was the one nugget from her. I thought that was really like Earth shakingly negative. Everything else. You know this, let’s pin it on the one thing that she was concerned about. That was it. And as we said yesterday, maybe hoping against hope, hoping against the two time Cassandra. Maybe she’s wrong. Maybe the Maderna vaccine trials prove there is some light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s on a train. We’ll see. But I would never, ever count her opinion out, even though it hurts to hear it.

Tom Scott [00:16:57] Well, the other one I wanted to have a look at. Vivek Murthy. You know, the first thing I thought when I when I got to know him was I love the calm in his voice. I felt this sense of resolve in him, clarity in him that felt very nice. And. And I think he did a nice job. You know, you think of him. He was a surgeon general of the United States. He’s a he’s a medic. Medical scientific type guy. But I think the humanity of him was was something that’s very memorable to me. Let’s run that.

Vivek Murthy [00:17:31] What happened to me is I was really educated by people I met and all across the country in living rooms and town halls and community centers. Behind so many of these stories where these threads of loneliness, people would often say, I feel like I have to deal with all of these issues on my own, or I feel if I disappear tomorrow, no one would even notice or I feel invisible. And this was this was coming from people all across the country of all ages and also… And I’m excited as I was hearing this from people in fishing villages in Alaska and from members of Congress in Washington, D.C. as a country, if we want to get beyond what we’re dealing with today, we’ve got to start on a real grassroots level, figuring out how do we build stronger connections between families, between neighbors, between communities. How do we create a sense that people are invested in one another and they actually know one another? And if we do that, then we’ll make it easier to dialog that we dialog. It’ll be easier to come together and solve the big problems that we’re facing chronically and even acutely in moments like this.

Tom Scott [00:18:43] RP, that that’s the ethos of The Neighborhood Project. You know, there’s something about him I really like. I also, you know, it’s been our experience. We see the same thing. I mean, the one thing I just want to point out, I think these can sound like tales and they can sound like, you know, sad stories of American life. These are real problems. These are problems in American life. These are problems in modern life. And and it’s what I see when I’m out here. It’s this connection question that really is relates to so much of what we’re going through right now anyway. And I really enjoyed getting to know him. I mean, he and I have talked on the phone a couple of times as well. And it’s just I thought that was a really, particularly good episode.

R.P. Eddy [00:19:24] I love that episode. I never had met him before. And I entered the episode very deeply, personally curious about him from a position of competition because I was a young, rising star in government and I was the youngest, this youngest that for a while. And that mattered a lot to me. And then I meet a guy who is surgeon general at 35. Like, how could that be? And I kind of wanted to meet him to see, you know, how he had done that. And it took all of about two or three minutes was like, I get it. Just the talent, the communication, the breadth and the deep care. Yeah. I mean, I you know, the different class, there’s. There’s a great quote, we’ll jump over quickly for a second to Kerry Wood. This will make sense in the second. Wood, who was one of our great guests as well, pitched the greatest game in history, baseball against as a as a 20 year old against a bunch of Major League Baseball pros who ended up in the Hall of Fame. And he was just throwing these pitches. No one, literally no one had ever seen before against future Hall of Famers. And one of them said, you know, who’s this kid? What’s going on? And remember the quote. “He made us look like he was a man among boys.” But there’s one quote where the guy goes, oh, you’re throwing that kind of nastiness. I get it. And he just walked off the plate. Right. And that’s sort of what I felt when I was watching Vivek, like just the talent then. And thank God we had him as leader and he still is. What was interesting to me about that talk. Also, was this vicious cycle versus a virtuous cycle, the vicious cycle that we’re finding ourselves in now. Not over the biology of the disease, not of the economic economy that’s collapsing and 30 percent unemployment, but the vicious cycle of a lack of leadership across all levels leading to leads to panic and fear. Right. So we’re in the midst of this battle, in the midst of this fire, in midst of this pandemic. We’re not we don’t have a leader with his hand on our shoulders saying, I’ve got you. I’ll take care of you. Everything’s going to be all right. We don’t have that right now from a father or mother. And since we don’t have that, as he describes, that leads to isolation, feelings of isolation and fear, and that leads to panic and that leads to horrible outcomes. And that leads to actually leads to death. Right. So it’s not from the disease because we don’t know where we’re headed. We don’t know that there’s competence at the wheel. I think we’re getting better at that right now. I think a lot of governors obviously have stated stood up. And I think we’re we’re past that. Oh, my God. Is there a hand on the helm? Where’s the ship going? Is that a reef over there? Someone paying attention. But for a while, that was a really dangerous thing. I like the way he describes that vicious cycle. And if you see it, you confront the brutal truth of things as he helps us do, you know then you can help fix them? Yeah.

Tom Scott [00:22:30] Yeah. I mean, I think back so. So like the letter from my friend Zach, who was at Columbia, and he described the situation within the emergency rooms and these newly made emergency rooms, you know, converted rooms, the struggles they were going through, you know that all, you know, people in beds, in the hallways. And then I go up to northern Minnesota and I meet a woman who’s going to close a restaurant after 28 years who doesn’t even feel the disease near her. You know, you get some extremes there down in New Orleans. You know, you felt like an aftershock down there as we as we were down there. There was some of that in Memphis as well. But you have a whole variety of of the kinds of people that we’ve met and the point of points of view, which, by the way, are valid. These are valid points of view because of, you know, just their ability to I think I think most people are empathetic. I think sometimes if you can’t connect to the information and the emotion and the humanity of it, you know, empathy is is a difficult thing to discover in some ways. It’s you know, you talk a lot about the limbic brain and. I think it actually makes sense. I think we need to be sympathetic to two people who are kind of doing their best every day. So, again, the journey has been great. And I we’re gonna go on. But, you know, the work to date, it’s been an honor to do it with you, as I mentioned before.

R.P. Eddy [00:23:49] Well, we. Tom, I can’t I can’t say enough about how much I’ve enjoyed this and working with all these guys. And and we were talking about awards earlier. We have a Emmy Award winner on your staff. Right. And I said that Laurie was a two time Pulitzer winner. She’s a two time Polk winner. So she won the Pulitzer, the Polk and the Peabody, the three piece of journalism and the Polk twice. I think I misspoke about the Pulitzer twice.

Tom Scott [00:24:13] But, you know, I want to I’m going to shout out to Dan as well. Dan, I know between us, we’ve got ourselves some Emmys as well. And they were, you know, they were years ago. But Dan, I think, is another Emmy winner on this call as well. Anyway, we’re not trying to rack up the awards, but I did want to call out the…

R.P. Eddy [00:24:30] Saying you’ve got a world class team behind you. And I didn’t know that. The the other thing that, you know, there’s a lot of other great guests. We didn’t talk about that maybe we could do this again and talk about Clint Watts. Michael… , you know, Clint Watts talking about disinformation in Russia and China. Michael, a story. You talk about what it really means to lead and innovate and how to connect between capital Labor and Professor Christakis. And I just wanted to mention one thing about that. I wrote a memo to our clients in February saying, if this is really real, it’s going to happen. And here’s what I think it’s going to look like. And what turned me on to do that was something I had found on Twitter. And it was a story of a doctor in Italy, because we learn by stories, not by stats. Right. That I realized after we interviewed Christakis, the Twitter feed I read that had the letter from the doctor was by Nick Christakis. Yeah. And so that’s what. Like activated my limbic brain. Got me writing my memo. I’ve had clients come back and say that memo, you know, maybe help save lives, certainly helps save parts of our business. And that was because of Nick’s storytelling. And then we circle back with him. So you’ve done a great job getting some great guests on here. Thank you. It’s been an honor for me to get to hang out with them and and learn from them. And there’s also Shadyac. I mean, it’s awesome.

Tom Scott [00:25:51] Yeah, no, I know. And I feel badly even leaving anybody out. The Clint Watts thing was a big wake up call for me. Every day I sort of make these observations like, wow, this is Clint Watts stuff. This is going on this, this is disinformation. There’s just so much of it. And we’re so busy anyway trying to fit all these thoughts into your soul. It’s just it’s just a difficult challenge. OK. So thank you, RP. I hope everyone has a great Memorial Day. And we’ll see you after the weekend.

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