Method To The Madness

Share

Rev Lebaredian

Rev Lebaredian, Vice President of Simulation Technology at Bay Area based company, NVIDIA speaks about innovations in artificial intelligence, gaming, and robotics as well as how technology is impacting our humanity.



Transcript:


Ojig Yeretsian: This is Method to the Madness, a biweekly public affairs show on KALX Berkeley, celebrating Bay Area innovators. I'm your host, Ojig Yeretsian. Today I'm speaking with Rev Lebaredian, vice president of simulation and technology at NVIDIA, where he leads gaming technology and simulation efforts. Welcome to the show, Rev. What is VR?


Rev Lebaredian: Well, VR stands for virtual reality, obviously. What most people imagine when we say VR are these clunky headsets that you put on your face or some little receptacle you place your phone into before putting it on your face. VR is actually something that we've been experiencing throughout mankind from the very beginning. All of our perception actually happens in our brains. You're not seeing with your eyes, you're seeing the world around you interpreted through what your brain is actually doing. When we sit around and we talk to each other like we are right now, [inaudible] elephant, and you just got an image of an elephant in your brain. There's not one around here. You conjure up this image and that's me incepting this image into your brain a virtual reality that we're constructing. Here we are talking, having this conversation, we're constructing a reality amongst ourselves.


These new versions of virtual reality that we're starting to see are just a more direct way to create an immersive virtual reality experience. It's not actually the end yet. We're not totally at the end of this thing, it's just one of the steps along the way. Humanity has figured out ways of creating this virtual reality, this just communicating, telling stories to each other verbally. Eventually we had books, you can write them in there. You could do recordings like the one we're making right now, movies, video games, but the end game is going to be where we can start communicating even without words, potentially. I highly recommend you look up Ken Perlin from NYU. He's one of the greats of computer graphics, where he describes what virtual reality means to him. I completely agree with what he's saying. My piece in this is construction of virtual realities and virtual worlds through simulation, that's fundamentally what we do at NVIDIA. Our core as a computer graphics company, we power most of the computer graphics in the world, at least the serious stuff.


Constructing these virtual worlds so we can inject them into these virtual realities is what our currency is.


Ojig Yeretsian: What is AR?


Rev Lebaredian: They're actually related. So, virtual reality is a new reality that you create that you're completely immersed in, but it's on its own. AR stands for augmented reality. Another term is mixed reality, MR. Some people use that term instead. Currently we're in a reality of our own right here. We're sitting in this room talking to each other and I'm perceiving you sitting there. Mixed realities or augmented realities are ones where I can blend in other realities into this world more directly. The current manifestations of this, the beginnings of AR, we're seeing through your phones. I mean, every iPhone and Android phone nowadays has something, that crude thing we call AR, where you can point your phone at something in your environment and it creates a digital representation of some reality mixed into it. The first one to make this popular, the first app, was the Pokemon Go. It was very cool but still extremely crude. A few years from now it's going to be far more compelling and far more immersive.


Ojig Yeretsian: AI versus deep AI.


Rev Lebaredian: These terms are very contentious. What is AI? What is intelligence? We still haven't really defined that. Generally speaking, when we colloquially speak about artificial intelligence today we're talking about algorithms. Computers doing things that we used to think only humans could do. We've been going through series of these things throughout computing history. One of the first challenges that we had for computers that we thought only humans would be able to do is playing chess. In the 90s, Garry Kasparov, the world champion at the time, was beat by Deep Blue. It reshaped what we thought computers could do and what is the domain of humans. Interestingly, it didn't kill chess which is what one of the things that people assumed would happen once a computer wins. Turns out, we don't really care what computers can do. We mostly care what humans do. So, I'm sure we'll make a robot one day that could play basketball better than any NBA player, but that won't kill basketball.


Ojig Yeretsian: It won't replace it, no.


Rev Lebaredian: We have people that run really fast and we really care about how fast they can run, and we go measure that at the Olympics, but just because cars exist or even horses that can run faster, it's just not particularly interesting. What we've assumed all of these years, that there are things that only humans can do. It's something special. So, we've defined artificial intelligence as the things that computers can't do and that humans do. We're inching along over here, occasionally make big steps. We have computers do things that we thought would be impossible. The big one in recent history, it was around 2011 in Geoff Hinton's group at the University of Toronto, there were a few grad students, they took some of our processors, our GPUs that were used for gaming and they were able to use a machine learning, a deep learning algorithm to train, to create a new algorithm to do computer vision. To do classification of images. There's a longstanding contest called ImageNet where all these computer vision experts in the world would have their algorithms compete with each other to see who could get the highest accuracy classification.

Look at an image and you say, "This is a dog. This is a blue bicycle." Traditionally extremely hard problem. It's been there since the beginning of computer science. We wanted to solve this problem. At first we thought that it would actually be pretty simple and then we realized it's extremely hard. I mean, I've been coding since I was a little kid. I never believed I would see the day when a computer would be able to tell the difference between a cat and a dog properly. This magic moment happened when these grad students took their gaming processors and they applied an older algorithm, but modified, using the computing available to them. This extreme performance that they could get was a super computer inside their PC, afforded to them by the fact that there's a large market that wants to do computer games. They took that and they created a new kind of algorithm where instead of them writing an algorithm directly, they trained this algorithm. They fed data into it which was only available because the internet had existed long enough for us to have these images to begin with.


They shattered all the previous records in terms of accuracy. A few years later these algorithms started to become superhuman, and by superhuman I mean humans when they look at these images are sometimes not accurate. They don't know exactly what kind of dog is in the image, or maybe sometimes they think it's a dog but it's really a hyena in the dark. Humans make mistakes but now the algorithms are superhuman. Before that moment we believed that only humans could do that kind of classification, but that changed. That changed over night. Now computers are actually better than us for doing that. What does that mean? Is that intelligence? It's hard to say but the trend, if you look at it, we keep figuring out new ways to make computers do things that we didn't think was possible. It's happening so fast. If you extrapolate, you imagine maybe at some point we will have machines that are superhuman in a lot of the things that we consider the domain of humans. Emotions, humor, things that we call human. Or, maybe not. Or, maybe they'll be some other thing that we don't quite understand.


Ojig Yeretsian: What are you working on these days?


Rev Lebaredian: I've been here for almost two decades. I really found my calling when I was around 10 or 11 years old. I saw this image in an [inaudible] magazine of two spheres, these balls, floating above a checkerboard floor. They looked so strange. I'd never seen anything quite like it. I couldn't make out whether it was drawn or whether it was some kind of weird photo of something. I read a little bit more and I realized that it was an algorithm that produced that image. That it wasn't actually drawn by someone, nor was it real, or a photograph of something. I was hooked. This image was created by Turner Whitted, who invented ray tracing back in 1980. He published [inaudible] on this. Luckily I got to work with Turner years later. He was with us until he retired recently at NVIDIA doing some amazing work. I got to tell him that, that the reason I was there at NVIDIA working with him was because of that image.


What really excited me was that I could finally draw without having to know how to draw. I could use the tools that I'm good at, which was programming a computer to produce these images.


Ojig Yeretsian: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness, a biweekly public affairs show on KALX Berkeley, celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today's guest is Rev Lebaredian, vice president of simulation and technology at NVIDIA. He's speaking about gaming technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence. 


Rev Lebaredian: So, what is computer graphics, what is a digital image that's been constructed? Basically, computers aren't really drawing or drawing in the traditional sense. What we have that computers do is through simulation. We have some understanding of how light works and the physics of light, and the images that you see are the products of this simulation that's happening around us in the real world. We're trying to approximate that. Light travels through space. It interacts with matter that's present all around us. It reflects, it absorbs, transmits, it refracts, it diffracts. There's all of these things that happen, and so what we do with computer graphics is we try to get as close as possible to what reality is and simulate that. So, those images that we're producing for a video game, or for the Avengers movie many of the people probably just went and saw, it's fundamentally a simulation of the physics of light. 


When NVIDIA started before I joined, our CEO Jensen Huang who's probably the smartest person I've ever met, he realized how important the computer graphics is, the simulation of light, but also realized that it's important to find a large market that could support the development, the amount of R and D that goes into creating something like this. Previous to then, most of the companies doing really advanced graphics were in fairly niche areas like making movies, or professional CAD design and stuff like that. What we did was we took this to the masses through video games. Realized people love playing video games. What we're creating in a video game is a simulation of some world, and in this world you have to do the simulation of light. That's the graphics that we produce, and you have to do it really fast because it has to be interactive. We do it in a 60th of a second instead of the hours it takes to produce one of the frames in the Avengers movie. 


We have to simulate physics and the interaction of objects, how they collide with each other. We have to introduce some kinds of AIs to drive the opponents or the virtual cohorts and people you have on your team. You need to collaborate with other people or play against them and deal with the interaction of people in these virtual worlds and large distances between them. They may be on the other side of the globe. They have to interact with each other and make it all feel like they're present there at the moment. Video games are actually the hardest problem, if you think about it, for computer science because you have to do everything in order to make the best experience. One day when we have the ultimate video game experience, it'll feel no different than being in reality here. We're actually going to feel like we're inside it. That's the ultimate game. 


So what Jensen realized was that there's demand here, and the fundamental technology needed to create that is one that's important for mankind in general, but you need this large market in order to pay for the development of this thing. There's an entertainment purpose over here that's large enough where we can afford every generation GPUs we create. It's $3, $4 billion dollars that we invest in creating that. None of the other single markets can support the development of that, but through video games we get this core, and then we can have adjacence. Simulation for robotics, for autonomous vehicles, for design of products, for collaboration. Maybe one of these days we'll be doing an interview like this inside a virtual reality that's powered by that same gaming technology. So, my team is focused on building the tooling and the fundamental technologies at that layer to create these possibilities with these applications. Whether they be video games or simulation for some of the things I mentioned like robotics and autonomous vehicles. 


Ojig Yeretsian: What are some of the problems you're trying to solve?


Rev Lebaredian: There's a whole lot of them. We still haven't solved rendering. Simulating light is really, really hard, and then doing it fast is even harder. We understand the principles of light, physics, well enough so that we can do approximations but what we have to do is simulate billions and billions of photons bouncing around in a scene, and figure out which ones hit your sensor whether it's your eyeball, or a camera that you're modeling. Doing that extremely fast, in a 60th of a second, it's hard. Even the best that we do for movies, which don't have that restriction, they can afford to have supercomputers. Thousands of computers they put in the data center to calculate those final pixels that you end up seeing in the movie theater. They can spend hours and hours, or even days rendering a single frame. We have to do that in a 60th of a second in real time. So, the first problem that's on my mind always is, how do I take the things that we are doing that take hours for a film and make it so that we can do it in a 60th of a second? 


Once we can do that, then we can really approach, get close to making a virtual reality that's believable. So that if I stick you in this virtual reality, you might not actually know that you're in it. 


Ojig Yeretsian: Sounds to me, from all that we're talking about, is that the future is coming faster and earlier, and it's forcing us to contend with our understanding. It's like a culture shift. It's like a paradigm shift for us. AI is already here. There's technology to do gene editing. There's facial recognition, there is amputees with robotic limbs, sensors on the steering wheels for cars that if they sense that you're getting sleepy or your mood is changing, the car will start talking to you to keep you awake and engage you. These are all these that were unimaginable.


Rev Lebaredian: There's a lot of technology we're building inside the car, not just for self driving cars, but for assisting drivers. Technologies like that where we have cameras in there that can see if your eyelids are drooping or if you're agitated, and try to help you, it's remarkable.


Ojig Yeretsian: To help reduce road rage perhaps. Sebastian Thrun developed machine learning algorithm to help diagnose cancer, and that radiologist's role is going to change as a result of this. That they're not going to be necessarily replaced, but they're going to have augmentation of what you mentioned, with classifying and reading of the CAT scans and the MRIs and the X-rays, and do better classifying, and the radiologist will be more of the cognitive end of thinking about disease. So, how do you see technology impacting our lives and humanity?


Rev Lebaredian: Understandably, all of this technology happens so fast it's scary. It's even scary for me even though I'm in the middle of it. It's happening at a pace that mankind hasn't experienced before, so it's hard for us to just digest how fast it's happening, what the repercussions are to each of these things. So, we have to be very careful about how we integrate technology into our lives, and really be thoughtful about it and not just assume that they're by default good. Technology is neutral, but the application of it isn't necessarily, right?


Ojig Yeretsian: Yeah.


Rev Lebaredian: That being said, one of the biggest fears is that AIs are going to make people obsolete. I just don't see that. It doesn't make sense to me that we would feel that way. A lot of the things that we think about are manufacturing jobs, and stuff that robots can go replace. If you look at it traditionally, those jobs didn't exist to begin with. It's kind of weird to think that the pinnacle of mankind is a human standing in an assembly line, toiling away hour after hour doing mundane, monotonous tasks. We were mechanizing mankind, which is odd. Humans are creative, they're wonderful creatures that are interesting. We should try to do everything possible to make it so that they can reach their potential without having to do the mundane and monotonous things. 


We were just discussing virtual worlds and simulating them, but one of the bigger problems actually with virtual worlds is the creation part of it. Creating a virtual world is extremely expensive. It takes thousands and thousands of people to construct a really large virtual world experience. One of the most important ones in recent times is a game called Grand Theft Auto V. It was released in 2013, I believe. If I recall, they spent about seven years building this game and they had, at some points, probably 1,000 artists constructing this virtual world. It's still extremely popular. People play it all the time. If you go search on YouTube, you'll find millions of videos of people creating movies inside the Grand Theft Auto world. They take it and they modify it and they insert their own characters, they put Marvel superheroes in there. The reason why it's so popular is because it is the most accessible, the largest virtual world that you can go access that's of high quality, but it took 1,000 artists seven years to create this. 


It's a micro version of Los Angeles. They call it San Andreas in there, and it's great but it's nowhere near what we really want. Something that's as rich as the real world we live in, and even more, except we've reached the limit. There's only so many hundreds of millions of dollars you can put into creating these virtual worlds. So to construct them, how do we take these thousands of artists and augment them with AI tools, not so we can put them out of business, but so that they can create not just this little micro version of Los Angeles but they create the whole globe? So that you can go walk into any building, into any alley, into any basement and it's detailed, and rich, and filled with all of the objects that you would expect there to be in the real world. It'd be based on maybe the real world. We can take our Google Maps data that exists, satellite data, and use AI to go augment that and build these worlds out.


When we introduce these AIs, I don't believe there's going to be a single artist that goes out of business. What we're going to do is we're going to take away the monotonous task of handcrafting every single piece of geometry, every single little thing in there, and I think that's what's going to happen in general. Now, the scary part is when it happens fast. There's this period where you have people who have been doing something for a long time. Sometimes they're not even capable of adjusting to the new thing, so there's pain there. We need to get better at that as a society. How do we make people not dependent on one specific task as their job or career their whole lives? People should be adaptable, and creative, and we should be progressing together and learning to do new things. 


Ojig Yeretsian: So, you believe that we're not prepared?


Rev Lebaredian: I don't think so, and I particularly don't think we're prepared here in the US. We're actually notoriously bad at dealing with new technology. If you look at it in the political landscape, I don't think we have leaders in politics that truly, really understand what's happening as we speak, and there's no plan for this. Hopefully that'll change soon. There are of course smart people in government, in our various agencies and whatnot, but just in terms of leadership you could see it any time congress calls tech leaders to-


Ojig Yeretsian: Fly them out there [crosstalk].


Rev Lebaredian: Summon them out there to talk. There seems to be no understanding or even respect for what it is they're talking about.


Ojig Yeretsian: The European Union has the General Data Protections Regulation. Article 22 that states Europeans have a right to know how an automated decision involving them was reached and a right to know how an automated process is using their personal information. Is this something that you welcome?


Rev Lebaredian: Well, I welcome governments thinking about these things. I don't know if the particular way they've implemented is the best, but at least they're doing something. We comply with all those, and as far as I can tell so far there hasn't been any negative repercussions except we had to do extra work to go comply with them. All of those things are important, but I think something is necessary and society should be engaged. These are important questions.


Ojig Yeretsian: There's a lot of concern that machines are making decisions instead of people, and that there's an inherent bias embedded within algorithms. Is this something you encounter in your work?


Rev Lebaredian: The algorithms that we deal with usually are not probably the ones that you're thinking about there. We're not Facebook or Google where we're dealing with peoples' personal information and social media. So, bias to us means something else. It's this car thinks there's a lane to the left here versus to the right. Something like that. That being said, I'm actually less worried about machine bias than I am human bias. Human bias we definitely know exists and we know it's really bad. Machines might have bias right now, but we know how to fix that, and we know how to test it, and we know how to measure it. I don't think we know how to fix humans yet as far as their biases are concerned. I can imagine that sometime in the future, maybe not so far future, we'll have judges and arbitrators that are AIs that make decisions. I trust them to make a decision on a criminal case involving a minority holding up a liquor store or something like that over most of the judges that are currently in place, and probably do it in a far less biased way. 


Ojig Yeretsian: I've heard the example of in a hospital exam room, where a machine assisted healthcare is actually reducing the numbers of hospital acquired infections and sepsis. I had never heard it on the more moral and [inaudible] realm such as the judicial system.


Rev Lebaredian: Yeah, we trust humans to be arbiters of things that they probably have no business doing. I'd rather have an algorithm or math to decide these things.


Ojig Yeretsian: What could go wrong?


Rev Lebaredian: The work that I'm doing is actually to help us solve these problems before they cause harm. Simulation is actually the key to do that. So, one of the most direct examples is a simulation we're doing for autonomous vehicles. Before we put these cars out in the road and really sell them to people, we need to make sure that they're going to work well in every possible environment and every possible situation. With other crazy humans around them, driving around doing crazy things. There's actually no good ethical way to do a lot of the tests we would really like to do. How are you going to be sure that the self driving car doesn't run over a parent pushing their baby in a baby carriage when they go out into the road without looking both ways? Can't test that in real life. We can try to mock it up with some cardboard cutouts of those humans or something like that, but it's not the same thing.


Ojig Yeretsian: Yeah, it's scary.


Rev Lebaredian: So, all this work that we're doing to construct these virtual worlds and do them in real time, that ends up helping us here. We need to put humans inside these worlds that we test our cars in, and have them drive millions of miles and fool these cars. We're building a brain for this car that perceives the world and decides to act upon it. Our simulators are virtual reality for those car brains. We produce these graphics and pipe those pixels directly into the sensor inputs on the computer that's running inside the car, and the car, if we do our job right, doesn't really know the difference between reality and the virtual reality we're giving it. So, if we can simulate it beforehand, the better we can do these simulations, the higher fidelity simulations, we have a better chance of averting some of the really tragic things that might happen. We can all imagines what happens if an autonomous vehicle goes awry, but I'd actually argue that we already know what happens when humans go awry. There's plenty of-


Ojig Yeretsian: Examples.


Rev Lebaredian: Plenty of bad drivers. I'm sure you've experienced some of them driving out here earlier.


Ojig Yeretsian: Absolutely.


Rev Lebaredian: So again, I think in a lot of these realms, best chance is to make algorithms that are less biased and not as flawed as humans.


Ojig Yeretsian: How might this create a better world?


Rev Lebaredian: That's a good question in general, and what does that mean even? A better world. I think there's some simple metrics of better worlds. They have less babies dying. That would be a good thing. People living longer, more people with enough food in their bellies so they don't have to worry about it. People getting educated so that they can keep their minds busy. Without technological progress, we wouldn't be where we are today. I know things seem pretty crazy, but it wasn't that long ago that a good portion of our babies used to just die at birth, and the mothers along with them. We take it for granted now. Babies are born early, like my sons, they were born weeks early. That would have been a death sentence for them before, but they're alive and kicking right now and thriving because of technology. Everything that we're doing, there's the dangerous aspect of it, but generally the world has always gotten better as a result of it.


Ojig Yeretsian: What's exciting for you in terms of new technologies? What do we have to look forward to? 


Rev Lebaredian: Well, in the near term the things that we were just discussing, the things that I've been working on for the past few decades. In terms of virtual worlds and computer graphics, I feel like we haven't realized the full potential to them. We've been primarily using them for entertainment, which is great, but we're almost there where we're going to start weaving these virtual realities into our daily lives. 40, 50 years ago the average person didn't have a video camera. The average person barely had a camera, and if they did, it wasn't something that they could use all the time. To go get film developed, it was expensive and cumbersome. You look at our children now and they're all videographers, they're all photographers, and they're creating content and worlds themselves. Everybody is. I want to do the same thing for 3D worlds, for virtual worlds. I want to get to the point where my grandchildren hopefully, hopefully before but at least my grandchildren, are going to be able to construct virtual worlds that are more complex, richer, and more beautiful than what Grand Theft Auto has done or what we saw with Avengers: Endgame.


By using whatever device is there or just by speaking, I want to see my grandchild step into a virtual world and say, "I want a forest here," and a forest appears. "I want a stream with a unicorn jumping over the stream." Just describe it and have this world unfold in front of them. Once we get to that point, I can't even imagine the things that people are going to do with it. So, that's the thing that gets me excited.


Ojig Yeretsian: How can folks get more information about your innovative work?


Rev Lebaredian: Well, you can definitely go to our webpage and all our social media feeds. NVIDIA.com or find us on Facebook and Twitter. If you're a developer or into the technology directly, we have Developer.NVIDIA.com where we provide most of the technology I've been speaking about directly for free for people to download and go incorporate into their tools. One of the most interesting things I've ever worked on, and my passion right now, is a new project that we just announced that we kind of hinted at about a month or two ago. We call it NVIDIA Omniverse. It's a platform that we're building that allows for a lot of the things that I've been talking about here. We want to connect various tools in different domains whether you're an architect, or a product designer, or a video game creator, or a director for a movie. All of these domains have different tools that they use to describe, things that are actually quite similar. They're constructing objects, and worlds, and scenes.


So what we're building is a platform where all of these can come connected together, and we can allow people to create these worlds together using the tools that are specific to their domain. We showed an example of this. We called it the Google Docs of 3D. Just like how you can go and edit a spreadsheet with your colleagues or friends simultaneously, we want to provide these and we are starting to provide this for people creating 3D worlds. So, you and I can be in completely different parts of the globe using our own tools. You might be using a tool to paint textures on a model, and I could be using a tool to construct a building using something like Revit from Autodesk, which many architects use. We can be collaborating together, building these worlds together. So, you can go check that out if you search for NVIDIA Omniverse. We're doing some cool stuff.


Ojig Yeretsian: Thank you so much, Rev.


You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a biweekly public affairs show on KALX Berkeley, celebrating Bay Area innovators. You can find all our podcasts on iTunes University. We'll see you again in two weeks.

More Episodes

11/22/2019

UC Berkeley Professor Gabriel Zucman

TranscriptLisa Kiefer:[00:00:03]This is method to the madness, a biweekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. I'm your host Lisa Kiefer. And today I'm speaking with Gabriel Zucman Professor of Economics and Public Policy here at UC Berkeley. He has just co-authored a book with Emmanuel Saezcalled The Triumph of Injustice --How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. Welcome to the program, Gabriel.Gabriel Zucman:[00:00:36]Thanks for having me.Lisa Kiefer:[00:00:37]Why did you write this book. What was the problem or problems you were trying to solve?Gabriel Zucman:[00:00:42]So the main problem is the rise of inequality in the US. So if you look for instance at what has happened to income concentration, in 1980, the top 1 percent highest earners in the U.S. earned about 10 percent of total U.S. national income today they earn 20 percent of U.S. national income. Now contrast that with what has happened for the working class for the bottom 50 percent of earners. They used to earn 20 percent of income and now about 12 percent. So essentially the top 1 percent and the bottom 50 percent have have switched their income share. And the reality of the U.S. today is that the 1 percent earns twice as much income in total than the bottom 50 percent a group that by definition is 50 times larger. So you have this huge level of inequality and this big increase in inequality and the tax system is a key institution to regulate inequality. And so we wanted to know OK does it do a good job? Does the tax system limit inequality or does it exacerbate the rise of inequality?Lisa Kiefer:[00:01:58]And as you say in your book all the way back to James Madison the whole point of taxes yes is to raise revenue but the other significant point was to reduce inequality.Gabriel Zucman:[00:02:07]Exactly.Lisa Kiefer:[00:02:08]And that's something that's been kind of forgotten since 1980.Gabriel Zucman:[00:02:11]That's been forgotten despite the fact that it's deeply rooted in American society. The U.S. was created in large part in reaction against the highly unequal aristocratic societies of of Europe in the 18th century and ever since, many people in the US have been concerned about becoming as unequal as Europe. Europe for a long time was perceived as as an anti model, too unequal, at least until the middle of the 20th century. Now it's the opposite, it's funny to see how these beliefs and perceptions have changed over time. Now many people in the US feel that Europe is too equal, but in fact for most of US history it was it was the opposite. The US invented some of the key progressive fiscal institutions designed to limit inequality to regulate inequality. Let me just give one example. In 1943 Franklin Roosevelt goes to Congress. He makes a famous speech. He says I think that no American should have an income after paying taxes of more than twenty five thousand dollars which is the equivalent of a few million dollars today. Therefore I propose to create a top marginal income tax rate of 100 percent above twenty five thousand dollars. And that's the idea of a legal maximum income. That's an American, a Roosevelt invention. And people in Congress they hesitate a little bit you know 100 percent, maybe it's too much, but they agree on 93 percent which when you think about it is that very far from 100 percent. And then the U.S. kept these very high modern 90 percent top marginal income tax rates for a long time. So there is this deeply rooted tradition in the U.S. of using the tax system to limit the concentration of income. The idea being that wealth is a good thing for the working class, for the middle class. It provides safety, provides security. But for the very rich,wealth is not safety or security. Wealth is power. And an extreme concentration of wealth means an extreme concentration of power, of political power, of economic power, which is detrimental to the rest of society and so one key function of the tax system is to prevent such a concentration of wealth and such a concentration of power from happening.Lisa Kiefer:[00:04:52]You've been consulting with Elizabeth Warren and others adopting pieces of some of the ideas that you had. How does Elizabeth Warren's plan, when you plug it into your model in the book, your 1980 model,what was the outcome of plugging in her wealth tax.Gabriel Zucman:[00:05:09]So Elizabeth Warren proposes to create a wealth tax at a rate of 2 percent above 50 million dollars and 6 percent above 1 billion dollars. So just let me explain what this would do. It means that if you have 50 million dollars in wealth or less, you pay zero. One of the things we do in the book we tried to imagine how the U.S. economy would have looked like if such a tax had been in place since 1982. So let me first start with what has happened to wealth concentration since 1982. If you look at the 400 richest Americans, you know Forbes magazine has estimates every year of their wealth. And according to Forbes magazine, the 400 richest Americans owned about 1 percent of U.S. wealth in 1982. And today they own about three point five percent of U.S. wealth. That is their wealth has been growing much much much faster than the economy as a whole and than average wealth in the economy. If the Warren wealth tax had been in place since 1982, inequality, wealth concentration would have increased much less, it would have increased a little bit. That is, today, the top 400 richest Americans would own about one point five percent of U.S. wealth. So a bit more than 82 but that would be much less than the current three point five percent. So this shows something which is very, to me, is very striking, a 6 percent tax on wealth. It's a big deal. You know it means that someone who has a hundred billion dollars has to pay six billion dollars a year in taxes. So it's big. And even if that tax had been in place since 1982, billionaires would still have seen their share of wealth increase.Lisa Kiefer:[00:07:00]In other words they'd still be billionaires.Gabriel Zucman:[00:07:02]Not only billionaires but multi billionaires. Some of them would still have tens of billions of dollars because the rise of wealth inequality has been so massive. The growth rate of wealth of billionaires has been so much higher than the growth rate of wealth for the rest of the population that even with a big wealth tax you know it would not have been enough to reduce inequality.Lisa Kiefer:[00:07:26]Well you give a good example about Warren Buffett. You know he's always bragging about how "I pay taxes. I pay a lot of taxes."Gabriel Zucman:[00:07:32]Yeah. So Warren Buffett is a good illustration for why we need a wealth tax. He's one of the main shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. His wealth, according to Forbes magazine again, is about 80 billion dollars. His true economic income is his share of Berkshire Hathaway's profits. It's something like five billion dollars a year. That's his income. But what he does is that he instructs this company that he owns, Berkshire Hathaway, not to pay dividends. And so his only taxable income is when he sells a few shares every year of his company, is a taxable income of the order of 10 to 20 million dollars. And on that 10 or 20 million dollars he pays three or six million in capital gains taxes. And now you do the math. His true economic income is 5 billion. His tax bill is something like 5 million. So his effective tax rate is essentially zero percent.Lisa Kiefer:[00:08:41]It's lower than his secretary.Gabriel Zucman:[00:08:43]It's not only lower than its secretary, it's it's zero. Essentially you know five million compared to five billion. It's nothing. Then you have a number of proposals such as oh but let's just increase the top marginal income tax rate or let's just increase the tax rate on capital gains.But you see the problem....Lisa Kiefer:[00:09:01]That's what Bill Gates says.Gabriel Zucman:[00:09:03]That's what Bill Gates, Warren Buffett himself, there is this so-called Buffett Rule that was popular at some point among Democrats and the idea was we need to increase the tax rate on capital gains. Fine. You know it's not a bad idea. But you have to realize that the Buffett rule itself would make essentially no difference to Warren Buffett's tax bill, because even if you increase the capital gains tax rate to 100 percent let's say, then Warren Buffett would have to pay let's say 20 million in taxes. 20 million divided by five billion, which again is his true income, would still be zero percent. So if you want to tax billionaires like Warren Buffett or like Jeff Bezos or like Mark Zuckerberg, the proper way to do that is with a tax on the stock of wealth itself, with a wealth tax. Because when you're extremely rich it's very easy to own billions or tens of billions while having very little taxable income. And so you cannot tax billionaires well just with the income tax. You also need a wealth tax.Lisa Kiefer:[00:10:10]Gates also argues estate taxes and I like your argument in the book, you say well you know fine but are we going to wait around all these years? Some of these billionaires are very young.Gabriel Zucman:[00:10:21]Yeah exactly. You look at Mark Zuckerberg you know he's in his 30s. He's not paying much taxes today. Just like the Warren Buffett example because Facebook doesn't pay dividends. Facebook doesn't pay a lot of corporate tax. So is it wise to wait for 50 years or more before some of the country's wealthiest individuals stopped paying taxes. I don't think that's very wise.You Know, essentially because there are all these needs for revenue for early education, for university, for health care, for infrastructure. These are immediate needs and some billionaires can contribute much much more than they do today. There's no good reason to wait for 50 years to make them contribute.Lisa Kiefer:[00:11:12]If you're just tuning in, you're listening to method to the madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. I'm speaking with Professor Gabriel Zucman about his new book The Triumph of injustice how the rich dodge taxes and how to make them pay, co-authored by another economics professor here Emmanuel Saez. They advocate for a progressive wealth tax as a solution to global inequality, one that rethinks both evasion and the goals of taxation.Lisa Kiefer:[00:11:48]You talk about labor versus capital and I want you to explain that a little bit because you said for the first time in history labor pays more than capital. Why do the working class pay so many taxes right now. And that has to do with that labor capital crossover.Gabriel Zucman:[00:12:04]Absolutely. So historically the U.S. has taxed capital a lot. The corporate tax was high. The estate tax. Taxes and dividends, on interest. Property taxes. So there is a long tradition of relatively heavy capital taxation in the US.The main change that has happened since the 1980s is that these capital taxes have been rolled back, have have been cut massively, so the corporate income tax is a prime example. In December 2017, the Trump tax reform slashed the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. Another good example is the estate tax which used to generate quite a lot of revenue in the 1970s. Today almost nobody pays the estate tax and even the very wealthy who are supposed to pay it can claim valuation discount and avoid it in many ways so that the revenue generated by the estate tax is extremely small. Dividends are taxed less than wages and so on and so on so capital taxation is essentially disappearing,it has not disappeared completely but has it has been dramatically reduced. And at the same time Labor taxation has increased. So Labor taxation, what is it? Taxes on wages, you know the income tax, but also the payroll taxes. So no matter how low your wage is in the United States today, 15 percent of that wage is paid in payroll taxes, that fund Social Security and Medicare, and these payroll taxes they used to be quite small you know in the 50s-60s, less than 5 percent of income. And they've grown a lot and these are taxes that are essentially only on wage income. And so you have this process where wages have stagnated for the working class for the middle class. In fact at the bottom of the wage distribution, wages have declined a lot because the federal minimum wage has declined enormously since the 1970s. Today it's only seven point twenty five dollars. It's a number of states and and municipalities like Berkeley have higher minimum wages. But if you look at Southern states for instance they only have the federal minimum wage seven point twenty five dollars an hour, much lower than in the 70s, and at the same time as minimum wage workers so their income fall, their taxes have increased because of the big increase in payroll taxes. And I don't think that's a sustainable process.Lisa Kiefer:[00:14:40]And not only that, the cost of childcare, education, I mean when you think about it, they could be considered taxes on the working people. You know you're out of pocket for everything and not to mention medical care and a lot of people do not even have medical care.Gabriel Zucman:[00:14:55]Absolutely. And that's a very important point. When you look for instance at health care, health insurance, it is in effect a giant tax today on working families. If you are lucky enough to work for a firm or an employer that has more than 50 workers, the firm has to provide you with health insurance, that's mandatory. And the way this works is that employers pay premiums to insurance companies and these premiums are enormous, the costs for covered work today on average is thirteen thousand dollars. That thirteen thousand dollars that in effect reduces the wage of employees. Okay. That's something that could be added to their wage for instance if there was a public insurance program, if everybody was covered by Medicare, workers could get thirteen thousand dollars more in wages and it would make no difference for employers. These insurance premiums are in effect a huge tax on labor, a huge hidden tax. There mandatory.Lisa Kiefer:[00:16:04]You call it a poll tax.Gabriel Zucman:[00:16:05]We call them a poll tax or head tax because they are of a fixed amount per head, that is, the employer pays those same essentially for a secretary and for an executive-- thirteen thousand dollars. So it's the most regressive type of tax. It doesn't depend on income, it doesn't depend on your ability to pay. It reduces wages by thirteen thousand dollars for all work workers no matter what their wage is. This is a huge problem.This is a big part of the reason why wages have stagnated since the 1980s for the working class and the middle class. Their wages have stagnated because employers have to pay more and more to private health insurance companies and so that leaves less and less money that can be paid in wages.Lisa Kiefer:[00:16:56]In the Democratic debates, why are they not explaining this. They seem to defend the choice of a private insurance tax. "Oh let people choose." It doesn't sound like people truly understand what they are choosing.Gabriel Zucman:[00:17:11]I agree. We are trying to explain that in the book and we are trying to explain that to as many people as we can. There are many problems with the way that healthcare and health insurance currently works in the US, but the main problem is how it reduces wages dramatically for the working class and for the middle class. And we have a solution. In my opinion, this is how things should be presented. If you move to a universal public health insurance program let's call it Medicare for all. What would happen the first Year? Employers would be required to convert insurance premiums into wages. That is, an employer that used to pay thirteen thousand dollars for the health care of each employees, would add thirteen thousand dollars to their wages, so this would be the biggest pay raise in a generation. First year of Medicare for all, everybody's wage increases by thirteen thousand dollars. And then of course you need to collect extra taxes to fund Medicare for all. But if these taxes are smart enough, if they are not head taxes or poll taxes that doesn't vary with income but rather if they are taxes based on your income or your wealth or if you tax corporate profits, you can make sure that the new tax would be much lower for the vast majority of workers than the extra wage that they gained. And so you can make sure that 90 percent of workers would benefit from a transition to Medicare for All in the sense that they would have a huge wage boost. They would have to pay a bit more in taxes but the extra tax would be much less than thirteen thousand dollars. Any my way is the proper way to explain Medicare for all. Your wages have stagnated. Big part of the explanation is there so much money that goes to private health insurance. There's going to be a law that says all the premiums are converted back into wages. Part of your wage was stolen. Now we're giving it back to you. You have a huge wage boost. We're going to raise taxes. But in a progressive manner so that the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution has a big net of tax pay increase.Lisa Kiefer:[00:19:33]With a wealth tax, it seems like the taxes for middle class and lower class would actually go down, even paying for Medicare for all.Gabriel Zucman:[00:19:41]Yes that is, if you include current health insurance premiums in your measure of the tax rate which I think is legitimate since these premiums are essentially like private taxes, mandatory payments. And if you abolish these premiums and replace those by progressive taxes, you get a big tax cut for essentially 90 percent of the population.Lisa Kiefer:[00:20:05]That's something no one's talking about.Gabriel Zucman:[00:20:07]Not yet. I'm not losing hope.Lisa Kiefer:[00:20:09]One of your most interesting chapters is on tax evasion and tax competition, which is going to be a challenge to any kind of change to our tax system. Can you talk about what you discovered and actually it goes back to when you were working as a young man at Exane.Gabriel Zucman:[00:20:26]Yes. So many people have that view that in a globalized world it's impossible to tax multinational companies, impossible to tax corporations, because if you do that they would move their profits to tax havens, the Cayman Islands or Bermuda. Or they will move their factories or their headquarters, their production activities, to low tax places like Ireland. And so according to that view, the only possible future is the race to the bottom with respect to the corporate income tax rate. So countries slashing their rates one after another. And we are very much in that situation today where countries are slashing their corporate tax rate. And for a long time I thought OK no this this makes sense. I understand why in a globalized world, countries want to attract some activity by offering lower rate and there's going to be tax competition and it's the huge pressure that pushes towards lower rates. But what we understood by doing research, that the research is summarised in the book is that this view is actually wrong. That is tax competition, just like tax avoidance or tax evasion, these are not laws of nature. These are policy choices. So we've embraced as nations, collectively we've embraced a certain form of globalization, which is characterized by tax competition and tax avoidance. But that's a choice. It's not a very democratic or very transparent choice, not a very well-informed choice, but it's a choice that's been made, and we can make other choices. There's another form of globalization that's possible. There's no tax competition. There's no profit shifting. There's there's much less tax evasion. So the way this would work for instance is this: right now if you are a U.S. multinational company and you book your profits in Bermuda, for instance, where the corporate tax rate is 0 percent, you don't have to pay taxes. Bermuda chooses not to collect taxes and the U.S. essentially doesn't tax the profits booked by its companies abroad. Okay that's that's a choice but we can make another choice. We could say the U.S. is going to tax all the foreign profits of its companies. It's going to collect the taxes that other countries choose not to collect. If Apple for instance, books a billion dollars in profits in Bermuda, taxed at 0 percent, and then the corporate tax rate is 30 percent in the U.S., the U.S. is going to tax that billion dollar at a rate of 30 percent in the U.S.. If Apple Books profits in Ireland taxed at 2 percent in Ireland the U.S. is going to collect 28 percent, so that the total rate would be 30 percent on a country by country basis.Lisa Kiefer:[00:23:12]So that would change everything.Gabriel Zucman:[00:23:14]That changes everything because then it removes any incentive for firms to book profits in tax havens, or to move real activity to low tax places, one. And second, since firms wouldn't have incentives anymore to do these things, it removes any incentive for tax havens to offer low tax rates in the first place. Now they would have incentives to actually increase that tax rate as so you see how you change the race to the bottom into a race to the top.Lisa Kiefer:[00:23:48]Yes and manufacturing might start to happen more in the countries that had previously been taking them offshore.Gabriel Zucman:[00:23:54]Exactly and what might also happen is that instead of competing by offering low tax rates as countries do today, a very negative form of international competition, we would move to a more positive form of competition, where countries would compete by providing the best infrastructure for companies or by having the most productive workforce thanks to good universities, good schools, good hospitals. So that's how globalization could look like. You know it's good to have some competition but the form of competition that we have today, which is you know countries are competing by slashing their rates, a very negative and bad form of competition. We could have a much more positive form of competition once you put taxes out of the picture.Lisa Kiefer:[00:24:46]So this would require cooperation amongst countries and just the will to do this.Gabriel Zucman:[00:24:52]Yeah and look there's already a lot of international economic cooperation. We've made a lot of progress. For instance, when it comes to trade agreements, some of that is is unraveling today with the Trump administration. But if you take the longer view. We've made tons of progress. Reducing tariffs in terms of facilitating accessLisa Kiefer:[00:25:14]Access to data which helped you with this book.Gabriel Zucman:[00:25:16]Exactly, in terms of access to data, so does there is international coordination. But the problem is that there's way too little coordination on the tax rates themselves. So for instance when countries talk about free trade agreements these days, these free trade agreements are essentially about property protection, protecting the rights of foreign investors and dispute resolution settlements. So know how to protect the rights of investors, but property cannot come with only rights and no duty, no, property also comes with the duty to pay taxes. And so the way to make progress, to reach an international agreement on taxes, in my view. is to put taxes at the center of free trade agreements, is to say, we are not going to sign any of any new free trade agreement if it's only to guarantee new rights to investors and ignores taxes. Any new free trade agreement should have taxes at the center stage and that's how it would become possible to make quickly a lot of progress in terms of tax coordination.Lisa Kiefer:[00:26:19]And that's also true when you think about the constitutionality of any tax reform here in this country, it's going to require the will and the cooperation of our legislatures. It can happen.Gabriel Zucman:[00:26:32]Yeah it can happen because the current situation is issimilar in many ways to the discussion during the Gilded Age in the late 19th century early 20th century. Inequality was rising a lot with industrialized nation, with urbanization, you know huge fortunes were being created. And second, the tax system was very unfair. At the time, the only or the biggest federal tax was the tariff. So taxes that essentially exempted the very wealthy and that that made the price of goods more expensive and so that hurt the working class, the middle class. The situation today is pretty much the same. Inequality is rising a lot, the tax system is less regressive than than during the Gilded Age, but this is much less progressive than what people think it is. During the Gilded Age you have all these debates about the creation of a progressive federal income tax. The 16th Amendment 1913 allows the federal government to levy progressive income tax and it was a huge success. So the income tax very quickly became extremely progressive with rates in 1917 of close to 70 percent. So it's it's a huge change in just a few years. In 1912. There's no income tax. People say it would never happen. It's unconstitutional. You know there's no way this is going to become reality. And then in 1913 the constitution changes. 1917, ,70 percent of marginal income tax rates for the highest earners. So I'm not saying that the same process is actually going to happen for the wealth tax today. But when I look at history, I see dramatic U-turns and changes and reversals and retreats so the history of taxation is far from linear. There is progress and that's what fundamentally makes me optimistic about the possibility for change and for reform.Lisa Kiefer:[00:28:27]Well when 50 percent of the population makes eighteen thousand five hundred dollars a year, it's untenable. You created a Web site. Tax Justice now dot org. That's all one word.Gabriel Zucman:[00:28:40]We developed this website to make the tax debate more democratic, because it's not for economists, it's not for experts, to say what taxes should be. It's for the people through democratic deliberation and the vote. And we want to give the tools, the knowledge, to the people. So it's a tool for the people to simulate their own tax reform. It's user friendly, it's very simple to use. Everything is is transparent. It's fully open source, with all the code you know onlinefor people who want to dig into this. But the Web site itself is extremely simple. You don't need to be an expert or to know anything about economics. What the Website does is two things. One, it shows how regressive the U.S. tax system is today. When you take into account all taxes paid at all levels of government, the website shows what the effective tax rate for a group of the population and how it has changed over time. And then you can change taxes. You can change let's say the top marginal income tax rate. You can change a corporate tax rate. You can create new taxes like a wealth tax, change the rates, change the exemption threshold. And the website shows how this would affect the progressivity of the tax system, one. And second, it shows how much revenue would be collected. So let's say you want to fund Medicare for All, or free college, or student debt relief. These things have a cost and there's several ways to fund these things. And so the user can very simply say OK, with that combination of taxes, with that tax refund, I can collect enough revenue to do these important policy changes.Lisa Kiefer:[00:30:24]Obviously you guys have plugged in all the numbers and come up with the ideal type of tax and you call it the national tax. Can you describe that and how it might be different from or in addition to a wealth tax?Gabriel Zucman:[00:30:37]The idea here is, how do we fund universal public health insurance and more broadly how could the U.S. increase its tax collection in a sustainable manner? The way that European countries do this is with value added taxes which are taxes essentially on consumption, better than sales taxes, but still pretty regressive because they're only on consumption and the rich consume a small fraction of their income whereas the poor consume most or even sometimes more than 100 percent of their income. And so what we are saying is look the U.S. doesn't have to introduce a V A T --A value added tax like other countries, it can leapfrog the V.A.T. and create a new tax which like the V.A.T. can collect a ton of revenue, but can do it in a much more progressive manner. And we call it the national income tax. And so the idea is for instance, if you want to fund Medicare for all. Step one is you convert the premiums into wages and so everybody's wage increases by thirteen thousand dollars. Step two, maybe year or year three. You create this new national income tax, which essentially is a tax on all labor costs and all profits made by corporations. So it's the broadest possible form of income taxation. And the beauty of it is that because it's so broad with a tax rate of only 5 percent, you can generate a lot of revenue, enough to replace all the insurance premiums that employers pay today.Lisa Kiefer:[00:32:20]What about education?[00:32:20]And you can increase the rates,go to 6 percent or 7 percent and that generates a lot of revenue that can be spent on early education, an area where there's nothing in the US in terms of public spending essentially, something municipalities do spend some money, but the U.S. is at the bottom of the international ranking when it comes to a public child care and early education in general. So that's a high priority. It's easy to collect a percent of GDP with that national income tax to fund universal early education. It's easy to collect an extra 1 percent if you want to make public universities,much more progressive than than anything else that exists.Lisa Kiefer:[00:33:01]And it's still less than what I would be paying today.Gabriel Zucman:[00:33:03]Of course.Lisa Kiefer:[00:33:04]Way less!Gabriel Zucman:[00:33:05]That's the beauty of it because today you're paying so much in child care, for college, for health, in a way that's very unfair because it doesn't depend on your income. It's the same amount essentially for each individual.Gabriel Zucman:[00:33:22]Essentially what's at stake is the future of globalization and the future of democracy. If globalization means ever lower taxes for its main winners, big multinational companies and their shareholders, and at the same time, higher and higher taxes for those who don't benefit a lot from globalization or sometimes suffer from it, retirees or small businesses, then it's not sustainable, neither economically nor politically. The problem with high and rising income and wealth inequality as as the Founding Fathers themselves understood at the time is that excessive wealth concentration corrodes democracy, corrodes the social contract, and we're seeing this today when you look at, for instance, what has been the main piece of legislation of the Trump presidency so far, it's been a big tax cut for wealthy individuals. So you've had three full decades of rising inequality and then on top of that, a law that adds fuel to that phenomenon. And it's hard to analyze this other than by saying that it reflects a form of political capture of plutocratic drift. That's the reality of the U.S. today and so if democracy is to prevail, and if we want to have a more sustainable form of globalization, we need to tackle this issue of tax injustice.Lisa Kiefer:[00:34:53]Thank you for being on the program,Gabriel.Gabriel Zucman:[00:34:56]Thank you so much for having me.Lisa Kiefer:[00:34:58]The book is The Triumph of Injustice --How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. The website: TaxJusticeNow.org and you also have a profile in the October New Yorker which is really great reading. So thanks again for being on the program.Lisa Kiefer:[00:35:24]You've been listening to method to the madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on KALX Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today's guest was Gabriel Zucman, professor of economics and public policy here at UC Berkeley. We'll be back again in two weeks.
10/11/2019

Ashley Grosh

TranscriptLisa Kiefer: [00:00:06] This is Method to the Madness, a bi-weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating innovators. I'm your host, Lisa Kiefer. And today, I'm speaking with Ashley Grosh, the CEO of PIP's Rewards. Thank you for coming on the show, Ashley. What is PIPs?Ashley Grosh: [00:00:36] So PIPs Rewards is an app and it's a technology platform that is owned and operated by our company 3P Partners. We call ourselves an impact tech company. What we really do is we turn a verifiable engagement in beneficial behaviors, things happening daily, riding your bike, bus riding, taking a workout class. All these beneficial behaviors that you might be doing throughout the day, we verify that and we award you our digital currency when you do those things. So Pip's is our digital currency, which stands for Positive Impact Points.Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:09] That's interesting. It sounds complex how you would measure this. So walk me through the application as a user. An example.Ashley Grosh: [00:01:18] Yeah. So from a user perspective, it's actually very lightweight and easy. You just would download the app in the app store for iPhone or Android. You download Pip's rewards. Today we're targeted in higher education, so you would use your university email through a single sign on. We would capture who you are. You'd set up an account and then you'd really begin to start using the platform. It takes you through a quick tutorial of what you need to do. You'd want to have your Bluetooth enabled and it shows you ways in which you can now start going out into the community and around campus and earning the currency. So a day in the life of a Pip's user, you may wake up in the morning, you fill up your water bottle, which has our little QR code sticker on it, which you may have gone to pick up an environmental center on campus. So you carry that water bottle with you. But when you fill it up, you take your phone out, you take a picture of your QR code and then you've earned 10 points. You can only refill your water bottle three times per day. So if you try to do that again, you'll get an error message. And that's really more just the behavior, we want you just to be in the habit of carrying that water bottle.Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:19] You don't want people scamming this system.Ashley Grosh: [00:02:20] That's right. So we set barriers in place to make sure that doesn't happen. So then let's say you're going to a study group in the morning, so you hop on one of the bike shares programs that's here on campus and we are automatically already integrated with that bike sharing platform. So when you check out that bike, we know who you are. We know you're on that bike. And all the sudden immediately our currency goes into your digital wallet with inside the app. And now you've earned for refilling your water bottle. Now you've taken a bike to a meeting and now you've earned again. Let's say you're coming back up to campus for a class in the afternoon and you hop on the bus. Well, now we have either a beacon or an API integration installed with the transit company, and you don't even have to have your phone out for this. In some cases, we might use near-field communication. So we're using a lot of technologies, right, to integrate innovative technologies. If we think about the connected city, smart cities. Right. All these things to track and measure. So you come back up the bus to class and then again in your digital wallet, you see your currency being added for that behavior. :et's say in the afternoon then, there's a speaker coming onto campus that's talking about climate finance on an environmental or health related topic. So let's say you go to that event and that's one of the activities that we award for. We also capture that you've gone to that event and you've earned our currency than you maybe go refill your water bottle again. Then you go into housing and dining. You go have some lunch and let's say you brought your own silverware. So let's say you brought your own bamboo silverware and then let's say you're composting and you're doing all these things. We have different mechanisms to capture that as well within the dining hall. And if if the campus is interested in financial literacy, then students can take EDquity financial literacy modules and earn our currency. I'm giving you kind of a flavor, right, of you go about your day and you're earning all this currency.Lisa Kiefer: [00:04:08] And it's very transparent to the user, it sounds like.Ashley Grosh: [00:04:11] Yeah, it happens in real time. So you can see your digital dashboard in your wallet.Lisa Kiefer: [00:04:15] What is a a data point worth?Ashley Grosh: [00:04:17] So that's a great point. So one pip is worth one cent. And so then we we do this, you know, kind of carbon pricing on your actions. So when you're refilling a water bottle, you may only get 10 pips for that. But if you're riding the bus. Right, that's got a bigger implication in terms of your carbon savings. So maybe you'll get 50 pips, in that case, if you go to volunteer at a tree planning event in the community, maybe that's a thousand. So we work with the university to really put the value behind each of these actions.Lisa Kiefer: [00:04:48] And then is this accumulated reward money, can it pay for education and books and things to do with college?Ashley Grosh: [00:04:55] There you go. That whole secret sauce. So what happens is when you accumulate your your pips in your wallet, well, then the question becomes, what can you do with it? Right. And so there's really kind of three key things that you can do. We have an in app e-commerce platform. And so we screen for green, though, any company that we partner with in there has to be promoting sustainability or have a sustainable product. And so we have some food companies in there. So Whole Foods, Chipotle, Patagonia's an example. Roffey shoes, right? These are sustainable companies and brands. And so you can convert your pip's into either gift cards or discounts with those vendors. It's really cool. So you can, you know, use that in app e-commerce site to redeem your currency. You also could donate your currency. So we work with a number of nonprofits, both national and local. So if you're really interested in a cause, an environmental justice or the Nature Conservancy or something happening right here in your community, you can donate your pip's and we will cut a check to that organization from 3P on your behalf. And then the real secret sauce that we just rolled out last spring is the Pip's for Schools program. So this is where it now you can take the Pip's that you've earned and convert it to pay down tuition, books, school fees. We do that through the Office of Financial Aid and then we have a separate fund called the Pips Education Fund in which we provide a match. So let's say you have $100 that you've accumulated. You put that towards your books. We provide you a one to one match. Now you've gotten a $200 scholarship.Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:27] Who's matching it?Ashley Grosh: [00:06:32] So we have a separate fund and it's a 501 C 3 non-profit. We're raising for that fund separately.Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:34] And so people can donate to that fund.Ashley Grosh: [00:06:36] Absolutely. So, alumni or corporate partners, charitable institutions, community foundations, people that are really interested in supporting education, sustainability, student success and higher ed can make a contribution and donate to that fund. And then we use that fund to make the match. And our goal over time is to get to a two or three to one match. So all the sudden you go about your daily life, you're doing all these good things. You're earning the currency that has real value and you're putting that towards your education. When students are taking those earned pips and converting them to tuition dollars, the money's then flowing back to the university through the Office of Financial Aid. And then we are providing through our separate 501 C-3, the Pip's Education Fund, a match. And so really the university is recouping their initial investment of the subscription back through the Office of Financial Aid. So it's a really great ROI for the university. It's really a win win win.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:33] The technology behind this is mind boggling to me. It seems like there's a lot of tech pieces, a lot of data points.Ashley Grosh: [00:07:40] It is. It is.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:41] It's very I mean, it's transparent to the user. But can you talk to me about the technology that is in place and how that all works?Ashley Grosh: [00:07:49] Yeah. So some of it, you know, we install so there is an infrastructure component. So I mentioned on buses or on transit or if you're going to an event on campus, we may use little beacons or sensors. And these sensors can know that if you're in the building, it's Bluetooth enabled. And so we can pick up on that, that that student ID is there, we verify that you're there.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:10] So do you have to turn that on, the behavior tracking system?Ashley Grosh: [00:08:12] You just turn on your Bluetooth and actually people may or may not know this, but these beacons and sensors are used in retail stores. So if I go into Target, for example, they want to know how long am I spending in each section? How long am I spending in the food, in the women's clothing? I'm a mom. So how long am I spending in the baby section? Right. So beacons and sensors have been used in the retail market too.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:34] From your phones.Ashley Grosh: [00:08:35] From your phones through location based services. Right. If those are enabled on your phone to get data. And now that's a different use case. Right. So we're not using that. We're using it in more of a closed loop system.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:46] There's a lot of talk about giving you back money for your data that you're giving to like, say, Facebook or Amazon. And there are some parallels as far as, you know, verification and the tracking.Ashley Grosh: [00:08:56] You're right on. I mean, this question comes up a lot, but we follow the privacy policy of the university so we don't do anything with that data other than analyze it, look at it and share it with the university. And then the university looks at, wow, look at the impact, look how many bike rides or look how many bus rides. And wow maybe we need another bus station over here because we're seeing so much action and so we only share the data with the university and we use it to measure retention, engagement, a bunch of things related to the platform. We would never sell that data anywhere outside of the campus.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:34] If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness a bi weekly public affairs show on K.A.L.X. Berkeley celebrating innovators. Today, I'm speaking with Ashley Grosh, the COO of Pip's. Pip's uses a behavior tracking platform to reward positive behavior.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:00] How do you know that a company or a service that I use as a student is sustainable?Ashley Grosh: [00:10:05] In the case of like Patagonia, for example, who we bring onto the platform,.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:08] That one's pretty obvious.Ashley Grosh: [00:10:09] That one's pretty obvious, right. But, you know, Rothey's is a good example or Blue Planet that makes sustainable sunglasses. So we really do as a B Corp Right. So we're a certified B Corp. Okay.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:21] And just so our audience knows, a benefit corporation is for profit, but you are required to consider the society and the environment in addition to profit. Correct?Ashley Grosh: [00:10:31] That's right. So it's that triple bottom line that we hear about where we want to see an environmental return, a social return and then a financial return. Right. So we're looking at the triple bottom line and we screen for other companies and partners to be a part of our ecosystem. You've also got to have those same values. Air BnB is a partner of ours. Again, that's a circular economy. The shared economy. I can convert my pip's to a gift card for AirBnb.You know, we provide gift cards to Wholefoods, which is technically Amazon's the parent company, but Wholefoods is still a wonderful partner of ours and we'd like to see Amazon learn more about our platform and figure out other ways to partner with us and then offer maybe even further discounts. Could we also work with Amazon on other features, you know, other sustainable products? That's a huge area of opportunity for us. So I think Amazon, you know, will continue to have those conversations through the door of working with Whole Foods. You know, we're selectively screened for green companies. And so Panera is one that we just added, Chipotle,right, that are thoughtful about their supply chain. We love to really promote local. So when we come onto a campus, we also will go around to all the local vendors. In Boulder, for example, our flagship university, CU Boulder, there is a store called Refill Revolution where you can fill up bulk laundry detergent, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, things like that. And so they're a partner of ours. They accept our currency as well as you earn. So there are certain sort of a dual partner. But we love to go locally and find partners like that in the community, local stores. And we haven't had anybody turn us away yet in wanting to be a part of the program.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:10] Where are you happening? You say you're focusing on universities.Ashley Grosh: [00:12:14] CU Boulder, as I mentioned, was our early adopter. They are our flagship university, Univeristy of Colorado Boulder and very similar, a sister campus, I would say, to Berkeley. But so CU is really interested in this technology. When they learned about it really from two aspects from a retention standpoint and from a sustainability standpoint. So they want to be leaders in promoting sustainable actions on campus. They want to measure that. They want to put that into their climate action planning. They really want to better understand that the footprint they're having in the city and then retention, retention is probably the number one buzz word on campuses. Right. If you don't get students to stay engaged and to graduate the four, five plus years, you're leaving big money on the table. There's a lot of reasons why students come to campus and they don't continue. And partly it's the cost. Partly it's food insecurity and then it's mental stress and it's not finding friends. And so those are some of the top reasons that we've we've studied a lot of surveys around retention data. And so our thought is, if we can help with food insecurity. Right. We're helping to offset and subsidize the cost of healthy food by providing more access and more funding to food, healthy food choices, transportation costs. We can help to offset that. Financial aid. Right. If we're now starting to contribute in, you know, a couple thousand dollars per semester that a student could earn. Now, it doesn't seem so overwhelming, the burden of debt and then mental health. We also have mindfulness trainings. We also have financial literacy that we can do through the app and then we make it fun. You can gamify it..Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:44] So you get points for taking care of yourself.Ashley Grosh: [00:13:46] Yeah.Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:46] So how long have you been doing Boulder?Ashley Grosh: [00:13:48] We started a pilot there in the fall of 2017. That was our pilot year. And then we took the outcomes. We targeted just freshman that year and we took all the results back to the university and they really saw the opportunity to scale this. So they in 2018 signed a three year contract with us. And so we're now in that contract. We've we keep adding to it. We're constantly measuring, really working on the user adoption and then adding new actions, adding new partners, building the ecosystem.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:17] So it's actually working there and it's successful.Ashley Grosh: [00:14:19] Yes, we've got about 5000 users on the platform. We initially set out to get about 10 percent of the student body and now we've exceeded that. Now we've added staff and faculty onto the platform. And what's cool about that is the staff or faculty can donate their pip's to individual student or to the Pip's Education Fund. It's really booming over there. And it's we now just launch refer a friend feature. So if you bring a friend onto the platform, you're rewarded. The origin of this is really around behavior, you know, neuroscience kind of the way that we act. Dopamine, the way that we're engaged, incented. And we know that rewards work. We know that gamification works. And so. We gamify, we do a lot of contests where you can count constantly be earning. And then we make it really fun with our prizes. We also have ski passes. That's what makes us different if you think about the value of these rewards. You know, you're getting food, you're getting Patagonia gear. You're getting tuition. Ski passes.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:15] And it's not interfering with academic study.Ashley Grosh: [00:15:18] It's actually aiding in helping them with basic needs support.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:22] What were some of the challenges that, what were your biggest challenges?Ashley Grosh: [00:15:25] There's a lot of different parts of campus that you want to engage. So you want to engage housing and dining, you know, Office of Financial Aid, the communications group, because you want to message this out in any way you can. So you really got to work and integrate with the communications teams on campus. Hey, how can we get included in newsletters? Where can we get some signage? So it really is a collaboration I think, when you're first setting it up, the messaging, how do we fit into the brand in the brand voice on campus? And so it takes, you know, a couple of of different groups to come together on campus.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:58] Campuses are noisy with groups.Ashley Grosh: [00:16:00] That's right.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:01] There's a lot going.Ashley Grosh: [00:16:02] That's that's exactly right. So there's clubs every which way. There's a lot of competing interest. That's why the refer a friend. Right. We know that things get sticky when other people talk about it. So if I'm a student and I have my phone out and I'm doing something. It seems like. What are you doing? Oh, well, I'm doing this cool app where I can earn currency and I can pay my tuition. tuition.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:19] How did you get the word out initially?Ashley Grosh: [00:16:22] The strategy that we used at Boulder was to integrate it into welcome week. And so as students are coming to campus, even before they came to campus, we had a welcome letter that went to the parents and the students. Download this app before you come to campus. And then when you come to campus, we set up a scavenger hunt so that students could really learn, hey, here's the library, here's the dining hall, here's the rec center. And they used our appto go through this scavenger hunt. And then they got Pip's at every place they went. And so we got really clever about welcome week. All the students filed into the football stadium and we got a big P.A. message, hey, have you heard about the Pip's app? And we got thousands of downloads in a matter of a week. And so that, you know, integrating into welcome week, but otherwise you can do it into other events on campus. So there's lots of different ways. But the welcome week one is is really a trick of ours.Lisa Kiefer: [00:17:14] Where are your other applications happening?Ashley Grosh: [00:17:14] Yeah, we're pretty early in our journey. So CU was the early adopter. But now we like to take a systems approach. So we're looking at the University of Colorado system. So we've launched to their second largest campus, which is in Colorado Springs. And then we're looking to roll out at U.C. Denver. And so that would capture the entire system so we're at two of those system wide campuses now and then we've got proposals really throughout the country into large university systems. And so really looking at a systems approach in different parts of the country, but also within Colorado, we've got a handful of other universities coming on in 2020 to help us regionally gain some traction, gain some visibility, get some of the regional transit partners on board, getting a ubiquitous feel to the currency across higher ed in one state, and then we can go regionally and plug and play. But what's really great is we're getting all of these in-bounds now. So people, sustainability officers are talking about this. You know, Forbes did an article on us, hey, turn your actions into tuition money. There's a lot of talk right now around basic needs support, food insecurity. Just this week, I talked to somebody at University of Miami that said, hey, we're on the frontlines of climate change. Our students and our staff and community need to be doing everything we can. Can you please come here and help us? And so that's what's really starting to get exciting is is the inbound buzz that we're getting.So I think we'll continue to really lead in Colorado, but then you'll start to see us regionally as we head into 2020.Lisa Kiefer: [00:18:41] And California is on your map?Ashley Grosh: [00:18:43] California is... all things lead back to California in some ways, just from the leadership standpoint that California has taken, in so many measures. And so, you know, we really would love to be out in California. There's a lot we could do. And even in the UC system, you could imagine two of the two or three or handful, the universities competing. Right. Who could draw down the most carbon. So we have a carbon drawdown challenge. And so that becomes really fun, right? In the storytelling there. We can also integrate into athletics. So we could have a green game, you know, through the PAC Twelve and do some fun things there. But really getting a system on board is a significant goal. And where we're spending a lot of our focus right now, talking to the UC system, talking to the California state system, the community college system, too, if we think about some rural places, Bakersfield and others, you know, how can we promote alternative transportation, how can we promote some of these healthy behaviors in more rural communities?Lisa Kiefer: [00:19:37] You're giving currency back to people, social currency. But how are you as a company making money off of this?Ashley Grosh: [00:19:44] Great question. So I'm a trained banker and I spent my whole career working on businesses, scaling technologies, looking at business models, a program I actually in my former role worked with here on campus at Berkeley is the Clean Tech to Market program, the C-2M Program with Brian Steele and Beverly Alexander, I have to give them a shout out. But really looking at right, how do you take an innovative technology platform and scale it? And so we make revenue in a couple of different ways. So it's a subscription model. So first and foremost, the university pays us a subscription to have the Pip's Rewards platform deployed on campus that unlocks the pool of pips then that we divvy out. But then we also have action partners that pay to join our programs. So that could be ridesharing companies, companies like Zipcar, Car2Go, you know, Lyft and Uber really want to dominate the university place. We've got proposals into both of them. If I come to the university and I pick a ridesharing company, when I leave the university, I'm probably going to use that one. Bike sharing platforms pay to be on our platform. So that's another source of revenue. Within our catalog, our E commerce catalogue, our affiliate catalog, we also earn a small commission. If somebody uses their pip's to buy something, we may have a commission that comes back to us. And then sponsorship is another source of revenue. And this is when I really get excited about too. So I mentioned, Chipotle and some other partners that are on the platform. But thinking about large corporate brands. Right, that spend so much money on marketing, if they have a really strong CSR, corporate social responsibility mission, an initiative, you know, their brands are really working hard across communities to promote sustainability, promote maybe their products. So we really see sponsorship in underwriting as an opportunity. A beverage company, for example, could come in and underwrite the recycling behaviors on our platform. As we know in most California campuses that have divested from plastic. But that takes a little bit of behavior change to think about. What are the alternative sources? CU Boulder just rolled out some new aluminum type refillable cans for their stadiums or cups, I should say. But there's some behavior change that has to happen there so we can use our app to educate. But brands that really want to be associated with an app like ours, we're in front of young people, we're in front of their customers. Sponsorship is it is a big opportunity for us to go and work with large corporate and small corporate brands.Lisa Kiefer: [00:22:01] Tell me how this idea even got started.Ashley Grosh: [00:22:04] So Wendy Gordon is our co-founder. There's several co-founders. And so Wendy has a fascinating history. She's a serial entrepreneur and she's always tackled this riddle of how do we change the behavior? How do we get consumers, you know, to think about smarter products, to think about their footprint? She launched and co-founded Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet with Meryl Streep, which was the original green guide, and that ended up being acquired by National Geographic. And then Wendy was an environmentalist at the National Resource Defense Council, NRDC. And so she's got a really fascinating background all around, you know, sustainability, the sciences in consumer. And so, Wendy, you know, really thought how could we think about rewards points? So if we look at traditional credit card, frequent flyer miles, they sound really good on the surface, but the redemption rates of those are very low. And so, Wendy and one of her college classmates, David Sands, got together. They went to Princeton. And they've kind of been thinking about this riddle of how do we how do we get people to do things, right? It's through incentives and rewards. So they came up with this initial idea and then they were introduced to two developers. So technical folks, Evan and Ynev and Ynevactually has a neuroscience background. And he ran a dopamine lab. So he started bringing in the science and started to look at loss aversion and all these different, you know, scientific ways of the way that we interact in the way that we're, you know, incentivized and what works and what does it what keeps us coming back, what makes things sticky. That's why we bring in gamification. So you had the business side that, you know, Wendy and David were building and then you had the technical side and Evan and Ynev said, think about all the wearables, the wearable market, Fitbit, if you think about the connected economy, that there's so many things that we could plug into. If we build an open source platform with API, we can connect into all these tracking devices and start to verify the actions. We don't want to see greenwashing. We don't want to say, I pledge to do this or I pledge to do that. We really want to verify that you took an action. So the company got formed and then really started to think about where could this application where's the best use case? They tested it in a new enterprise locations, some real estate firms doing fitness competitions and things like that. But then really it was CU Boulder that said, you know, we think this is a higher ed solution. So spend a couple of years.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:24] So they came to you?Ashley Grosh: [00:24:25] Yeah. Yeah. Sue Boulder came to Wendy and said, you know, we really think this is best served in the higher ed space. And so they completely pivoted and decided to focus all the actions, all the technical side on Boulder and in really targeting higher, higher institutions, higher ed.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:44] What are some of your future plans?Ashley Grosh: [00:24:46] So longer term, I think there is absolutely an enterprise solution here. So that's an employee engagement platform. Again, retention is another key issue we know with employers. And so if you could. Offer meaningful rewards for employees. You know, Google we've talked to, they have a problem with transportation. They have too many people driving single occupancy vehicles or this is a case of a lot of employers, right. So how can you change the behavior and get them to carpool or get them to ride the bus system? And then how do you incentivize them to do that? So you could use our rewards platform to do that. And we have proposals into some other large corporates that, you know, see it as a benefit from a fun currency. But if they need to change behavior.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:26] So are you reaching out to cities, city governments?Ashley Grosh: [00:25:29] We have proposals into municipalities as well. You know, a lot of the team members within municipalities, they want them to be riding buses, going to certain events. And so it's a similar program that you would do at higher ed, but you would change the actions based on what that individual employer municipality would want to do. And then you you can customize the rewards. One day, what if you just had the city of Berkeley and that included the campus and that included and that's actually the goal is to get it to be a ubiquitous currency. So I think to get there right, you've got to start traction and so you start traction among the universities. But then that can lead over into the cities and they adopt it. And then you're right, it just becomes, you know, a taxpayer benefit. So we also have a carbon footprint calculator. And so I can see.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:13] Where's that?Ashley Grosh: [00:26:14] In the app.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:15] In the app.Ashley Grosh: [00:26:15] And it's individualized. So I can see my individual footprint and then I can see my community's footprint. And I can see, you know what? We are making an impact. And so then it doesn't seem so daunting. Right. And I'm doing my part. The other thing is we're building environmental stewards in higher education. We have stories about this, case studies, students that have graduated from C.U. that were on our platform. They've moved to big cities. And their first inclination is to not get into a car or buy a car. They're used to doing public transportation. So Pip's has really led them to those behaviors. And so then they go on and carry them forward.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:53] Do you have competition in this space?Ashley Grosh: [00:26:54] So that's a great question, right? You always want to know kind of who's in the rear view mirror or off to the side. And we haven't come across anybody that's doing exactly what we're doing in the way that we're doing it. And especially from the technology integration, the verification and the scholarship component and the matching. Right. That's really unique. There are a couple other pledge based systems, pledging that you rode the bus or pledging to do a Meatless Monday or something like that. And then they don't have a reward platform. So they might say you get a gold star or or.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:27] You don't get any monetary.Ashley Grosh: [00:27:29] Right. You might get a badge. They call it. And then two students have five badges and they get eligible for a pizza party or, you know, something. So they don't have the high value rewards into the system, which we know are the drivers to get students to stay on this. And then they don't have all the other bells and whistles that, you know, carbon footprint calculators and all those things, verified actions and the currency. Right. The currency component with the scholarship piece. So that's really what we believe sets us apart. I really think we're on the cutting edge, because if you look at 5G, right. That's getting rolled out. Things are gonna be happening a lot faster, more devices. I'm seeing more wired, you know, clothing and wearable rings that that track your your health metrics and send them to your doctor in real time. So, you know, 5G is really going to enable us to do more of this. And so we're, you know, at the forefront of that. And we're really excited about being able to plug in to the new wearables and the new companies that are coming into the space.Lisa Kiefer: [00:28:30] Tell our listeners how to get your website and what they can expect to find there.Ashley Grosh: [00:28:34] Yeah. So if you go to www.pipsrewards.com and then you won't want to sign in because you're not a user... yet. There's some graphics you can start to see our story. You can get a list of all of our partners. As we mentioned some of them on the show today. The earn, redeem, the donate, the nonprofits that we also support that you can donate to, and then you can reach us that suppor@pipsrewards.com.If you want to learn more or bring this to your campus or if you have any other questions or ideas, we're always open to discussions.Lisa Kiefer: [00:29:09] Are you looking for volunteers or interns at any point?Ashley Grosh: [00:29:11] We are. So we we have two interns right now and we are growing like crazy. So for folks that are interested, reach out to us. You know, the reason this is so important to me, you know, I've worked in climate and sustainability almost my entire career, but I'm a mom and I also spend a lot of time on college campuses. And I think about these students and I think about my own kids and how successful I want them to be, and any boost that we can give them, any head start, if we can help them chip away at their debt sooner, if we can help them really have healthy behaviors and habits, we're going to better equip them when they head out into the into the big, real scary world. Your actions can make a difference and added up together, they can have a really big impact. You know, that's what we want to do.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:01] Thank you, Ashley, for coming on Method to the Madness.Ashley Grosh: [00:30:04] Thank you.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:06] You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K.A.L.X. Berkeley celebrating innovators. We'll be back again in two weeks.
9/13/2019

Mohamed Shehk

TranscriptLisa Kiefer: [00:00:01] You're listening to Method to the Madness. A biweekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:12] I'm your host, Lisa Kiefer. And today, I'm speaking with Mohamed Shehk, co-director and media and communications director of Critical Resources. Welcome to Method to the Madness.Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:28] Thank you for having me.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:29] I've been hearing a whole lot with the upcoming presidential election and all the debates, about prison reform. I find it kind of interesting that for the past over 20 years, your organization has said "forget reform, we need to abolish prisons."Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:43] Yes. Critical Resistance was founded in 1998. It was founded in Berkeley. There was a conference called Critical Resistance Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:53] Yes. And you had a lot of heavy hitters, Angela Davis.Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:55] Angela Davis was one of our co-founders,.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:57] And, Ruth Wilson Gilmore!Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:59] And we're actually doing an event with Ruthie down in L.A.. Yeah. So we began using a term that was actually coined by Mike Davis, the prison industrial complex. And it was a way to begin thinking about the interrelated systems of imprisonment, policing, surveillance and other forms of state violence and control. Really looking at this system as being built intentionally to control, repress and inflict harm and violence in communities. So if we understand that its purpose is to control communities, then we don't want to fix it. Right. We want to chip away at its power. We want to abolish it. So we really popularized the notion of prison industrial complex abolition. And for the past 20 years, we've been working on various projects and campaigns toward eliminating the prison industrial complex in our society.Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:51] So of all the candidates, who do you think is most onboard or at least understanding of what your strategy is toward prisons?Mohamed Shehk: [00:02:00] It's really interesting with the current presidential candidates that have approached criminal justice reform in a variety of ways. I mean, you just had Bernie Sanders releasea platform that actually picks up a lot of some of the concepts and community based approaches rather than continuing to invest and waste millions and millions and millions of dollars into the system of policing, into imprisonment. What are the reforms that appear to be liberal or progressive but are actually entrenching the system?Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:36] Right. They're kind of co-opting.Mohamed Shehk: [00:02:37] Yeah. After the death of Mike Brown and Eric Garner back in 2014 with the, you know, upsurge of Black Lives Matter and the enormous amount of attention being focused on policing, and you had an array of reforms being discussed, such as body cameras, such as,more training for police officers. And we see that these kinds of reforms are actually pouring money into the system of policing. They're expanding the role of policing. We're giving surveillance technology to policing. Right. So these reforms aren't actually chipping away at the power, but actually legitimizing and entrenching the system of policing itself. So these are the kinds of reforms that we want to be cautious of and use this framework of thinking about abolitionist reforms vs. reformist reforms.What are the reforms that are actually cutting away resources from the systems that we're fighting rather than continuing to waste investments into these systems.Lisa Kiefer: [00:03:36] And so what are some of the strategies that you are using in your organization? And you're located in four cities.You're headquartered in Oakland in the Temescal. You're in New York City, L.A. and Portland.Mohamed Shehk: [00:03:48] Yes. Our national office is based in Oakland. We are a nonprofit organization and we function primarily through our chapters and our chapters, the ones that you named, our volunteer members really make up the bulk of the organization and we work with them and they decide what local projects and campaigns are most relevant to the political geography that they're operating in, to attack the prison industrial complex. So, for instance, in Portland, we started a campaign called Care Not Cops. Initially, that campaign was really focused on cutting policing away from mental health crisis response. We want to divest resources away from policing, take money away from the police budget and put that into community based and user determined mental health resources. One strategy is to really focus on the city budget and to use that as a method to organize communities and to say these are actually where we want our resources going, not continuing to go into the Police Bureau's budget. We use a variety of different strategies and tactics, so we do a lot of media and communications work to kind of shift how we understand safety, how we understand what strong and healthy communities actually look like. We do a lot of work around the legislative realm. We work with decision makers and also put pressure on decision makers to put forth policies that are actually in line with what we're advocating for.Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:28] So let's talk about what you're doing in the Bay Area... Urban Shield, for one thing. Can you talk about that a little bit and some of the other successes you've had locally?Mohamed Shehk: [00:05:36] Yeah. Thank you for raising that. Critical Resistance along with a number of other organizations, including the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Chicano Moratorium Coalition, the American Friends Service Committee. We're part of a coalition called the Stop Urban Shield Coalition. And we came together to put an end to Urban Shield, which was the world's largest SWAT training, and also included a weapons expo. That organizing happened for five plus years. We built a grassroots campaign to essentially pressure and empower the Board of supervisors in Alameda County to say to the sheriff, no, we do not want this kind of program anymore. Urban Shield was justified under the guise of emergency preparedness. Right. And so the sheriff would say, well, we need this kind of program because of all these different kinds of emergencies. But obviously, just as with many programs that came after 9/11, it was funded through and bolstered by the logic of militarization and counter-terrorism and was effectively a program that endorsed war on black and brown communities. So last year, the Board of Supervisors made a decision to end Urban Shield. They said after this year, Urban Shield is no longer.Then this year, a gain, after some kind of foul play by the sheriff to attempt to kind of reverse their decision and even just ignore that it actually happened. Earlier this year, they reaffirmed their decision and Urban Shield was effectively defunded.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:08] Does that money then go to the programs that you are backing?Mohamed Shehk: [00:07:12] Yes. So we have been working alongside various city and county agencies to really put in place what emergency preparedness and disaster response looks like. So one of the things that we did with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors is part of their decision to end Urban Shield was to put together a task force to say, okay, let's actually look at how this money could be funded. And they adopted a number of recommendations, which was about 60 recommendations that called for things like no more SWAT centered scenarios. You know, we want inclusive programs and transparency that include community members in the planning and the implementation. And so these recommendations were adopted. We also took them to San Francisco because San Francisco is the fiscal agent of this money that's coming from the federal government. And they also looked and adopted many of the recommendations. And so for what comes next, we are hopeful that it really embodies the kind of program, the kind of framing that we were after.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:23] Can you tell me also about the project called Oakland Power Projects?Mohamed Shehk: [00:08:27] So there was a coalition, the Stop the Injunctions Coalition, that put an end to gang injunctions in Oakland. It was the first instance of a city in the United States ending gang injunctions as a result of grassroots mobilization and pressure. And so after that, we said, OK, we ended gang injunctions. This is tremendous. What do we want to do next? So we started surveying and interviewing Oakland community members around things like what does safety look like to you? Do you have instances where you feel like you need to call the cops? What kind of investments do you want to see in your community? And so we compiled all of these interviews. We started picking through them and found a common theme which was around health related emergencies and people saying, when these emergencies happen, I don't want to call the cops, but they're the only options that I have.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:19] Give me an example of something like that.Mohamed Shehk: [00:09:21] So it could be someone gets in a car accident. Someone is having a or experience as someone else, having a mental health crisis or someone just badly cuts themselves or injured themselves. They have to call 9 1 1. And in many instances, the police show up and either don't really help in what's often the case or exacerbate the situation.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:45] By criminalizing it.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:46] Exactly. What we did is we got together a number of health workers from counselors to kind of traditional like EMT as doctors, nurses, acupuncturists, the whole range, right? Street medics and we said, okay, now we want you to come up with different resources and come up with a number of different workshops that you can provide to communities on knowing your options when situations occur. They did exactly that and it was really powerful. They came up with three different tracks. One was acute emergencies. Another was mental health and behavioral crises. And another one was chronic illnesses and also tied in opiate overdoses. And so we began to offer these workshops to different community organizations, to places of business, to community groups, neighborhoods. And the workshops are really geared toward ending our reliance on policing by building up our know how and our capacity to be able to respond to situations in our communities.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:54] You must've gotten a lot of resistance because it sounds very radical when you say abolish prison.Mohamed Shehk: [00:10:59] We really want to understand the root causes of harm and violence. Right. Because oftentimes what the status quo has been is that when something happens, we're reactive and we respond. And oftentimes what that looks like is targeting black and brown people and putting them in cages. So if we really are to want to address harm and violence in our communities, social injustices, we have to understand the root causes. And we have to begin to see how we can transform the underlying conditions that gave rise to harm and violence in the first place. When we say prison industrial complex and when we say prison industrial complex abolition, we know full well that just taking the prisons away from society is not going to be the end of the game. Right. We have to understand that prisons don't exist in a vacuum. Policing does not exist in a vacuum. That we're gonna have to also look at the ways that different dynamics in society are integral to the prison industrial complex. And so changing social conditions and transforming the ways that we relate to each other is fundamental to understanding and achieving abolition.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:21] If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness,a bi-weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley, celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today, I'm speaking with Mohammed Scheck, the media and communications director of Critical Resistance.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:43] And you've been successful. You're stopping a prison from being built locally here in San Francisco, is that correct?Mohamed Shehk: [00:12:49] Yeah. So one of our one of our campaigns here in the Bay Area is the No New S.F. Jail Coalition. What that essentially is, is the sheriff back in 2013 or so or even a little bit before, but that's when the coalition really came together. The sheriff wanted to build a replacement jail to one that already exists at 850 Bryant Street, which is known as the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. The interesting thing about the Hall of Justice is that nearly all of San Francisco, it's it's unanimous that that building needs to be torn down because it's seismically unsafe, it's decrepit, it's falling apart. And the sheriff wanted to build a replacement saying that that was his only option. What we did was we formed a coalition with a number of other organizations and effectively put a halt to that plan. So in 2015, we got the supervisors to vote unanimously and say we don't want to build a new jail. We actually want to look at alternatives. We want to look at ways to reduce the jail population while building up resources and looking at investments that actually support people coming back home and can support communities in need where we don't have to respond by criminalizing.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:08] So you guys are active participants in this new solution?Mohamed Shehk: [00:14:12] Yes, absolutely. And so right now, our effort is to actually close the jail at 850 Bryant Street. That's that's kind of the main thrust that we're working on right now. We do have one supervisor who has stepped up and is willing to put forward legislation toward shutting the jail this year. What we're looking at is opposing different kinds of reforms and different proposals that would actually legitimize other forms of punishment as a response. So like they'll say, OK, we're going to close this jail, let's put everyone on electronic monitoring and we're like, no, we don't want to expand surveillance. We don't want to expand the jail beyond its reach, which is essentially what electronic monitor shackles are. We don't want to move people to Alameda County, to Santa Rita jail. We want people to remain close to their families, close to their communities. And we don't want to reopen new jails or reopen old jails and refurbish them. So it really is about looking at what are the resources that we can build, what already exists, and then what do we need to build up around. Housing is a big one. I mean, you have nearly 30 percent of the jail population that was house less before they were arrested and booked. You have enormous racial disparities in the jail population in San Francisco,.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:34] And in the nation.[00:15:36] Yeah, but I was going to say even more so than the rates that we see across the country where the city of San Francisco has about a 4 percent black population that is on the decline and black people make up 80 percent of the jail population. So you look at that enormous disparity and say what's really going on wrong? Right? What is, what's wrong? You have a significant number of people that face mental health issues and substance abuse. Just looking at these numbers, we can easily begin to say a new jail is not necessary. We do not need to be locking these people up. We can easily be thinking about other kinds of investments that would actually strengthen communities and make new jails obsolete.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:16] Tell me how you're getting funding for these programs, because they sound like they might be pretty expensive.Mohamed Shehk: [00:16:22] We do fund raising. We are actually fortunate to be majority grassroots funded. So about 65 percent of our of our funding comes from people, you know, donating monthly, giving us onetime gifts. We hold events, you know, fundraising benefits. In terms of the funding for the programs,were advocating for those to be taken away from the police, sheriffs, other agencies that are about criminalization. And we want to divert funding away from them into the resources that we want and need.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:57] Have you seen an upsurge in interest over the 20 years that you guys have been working hard at this? It seems like there's more of an opening now.Mohamed Shehk: [00:17:05] We definitely have seen a tremendous upsurge in the popularity and interest in just in the concept of abolition. Right. What we've done and other community members, other organizations have done is to really make this concept common sense. Because you mentioned earlier that, you know, this can be kind of a scary radical concept for people. One of the things that we really do is to show how practical it is. We show the the way that abolition can be worked on, can be practiced on a day to day level.Lisa Kiefer: [00:17:38] How did you personally get involved with Critical Resistance. How long have you been there?Mohamed Shehk: [00:17:44] I've been involved in Critical Resistance for just over five years now. The way that I came to Critical Resistance was really beginning to recognize the role of policing and imprisonment in this country. My background as a Palestinian, as someone who has long been involved in organizing and in different activism around Palestine, solidarity, began to really look at what are the intersections between what's happening there and what we're experiencing here. When you see that the state of Israel imprisons such a significant portion of the Palestinian population, the aid that they get from the U.S. government in order to do so, that helps them and and allows them to do so. And then the ways that Israel really practices its tools of repression on the Palestinian population. So for many that follow this issue closely, you might know that Gaza is essentially a laboratory experiment for the state of Israel to test different tools, tactics, technologies, and then they export those technologies to governments all around the world by billing them as battlefield tested.Lisa Kiefer: [00:19:03] And I assume we are one of the recipients?Mohamed Shehk: [00:19:05] Absolutely.Mohamed Shehk: [00:19:06] And that's kind of what we get back for our military aid that we provide. When you look at this, the interconnections between policing and imprisonment there and in other places with the systems here, you begin to see that they're playing a fundamental role in whatever issue that you work on, whether that be environmental justice, whether that be public education, climate change, women's rights, LGBTQ rights and liberation, the prison industrial complex is tied to all of those issues. The prison industrial complex is fundamentally patriarchal. It's fundamentally toxic to the environment. It's fundamentally why we have such a disinvestment from public education. Right. Because of how many how much resources are being squandered on this enormous system. That for me, became very central in the kind of activism and organizing that I wanted to do.Lisa Kiefer: [00:20:02] Are you also working inside prisons?Mohamed Shehk: [00:20:05] Yes. So our Oakland chapter has a inside, outside working group. Their primary drive is to communicate with people on the inside and to share resources on how to support organizing that's happening. We also do a lot of work in communicating with people on the inside to help inform the work that we're doing out here. We have a reading group that we do where we read articles from a newspaper that we published with people on the inside and then share and give reflections and circulate those. We publish a newspaper called the Abolitionists that goes to now over 7500 people in prisons, jails and detention centers across the country. Much of that content is actually composed and written by people that are currently or formerly imprisoned.Lisa Kiefer: [00:20:55] How about education programs inside?Mohamed Shehk: [00:20:58] We don't do education programs like formally, although we do share a lot of educational resources and organizing resources with folks on the inside. One of the main campaigns that we supported is the California Prisoner Hunger Strikes that happened. And so this was an effort that was organized by and led by people that were in prison in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. They had a list of demands and they initiated a hunger strike effectively aimed at ending solitary confinement, improving conditions, getting rights, ending discriminatory and criminalization policies. That hunger strike in 2013 reached over 30000 people in California prisons that joined in solidarity.Lisa Kiefer: [00:21:45] And what was the outcome?Mohamed Shehk: [00:21:46] That had a huge impact. It gained national and international attention and drew widespread condemnation on the practice of solitary, of locking someone up in a windowless cell for 23 hours a day. Because of that attention, the United Nations rapporteur on torture said that solitary confinement is a form of torture. The California legislature held a number of hearings on the use of solitary confinement. Mow in the midst of this happening, there was also a lawsuit that was initially brought by the prisoners themselves and then was taken up against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CDCR. That was then taken up by a number of lawyers and legal organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights and that lawsuit in 2015 ended in a settlement by which the prisoners achieved a tremendous victory and effectively ended indefinite solitary sentences, which a lot of the prisoners were being held for five, 10, 15, 20 years in solitary confinement and were were put in indefinitely. It also greatly reduced and restricted the rationale by which someone could be placed in solitary confinement. Yeah, so we supported that as part of a coalition, the prisoner hunger strike solidarity coalition and Critical Resistance specifically kind of played the media house for the campaign.Lisa Kiefer: [00:23:25] I recently read about your new headquarters location in the Temescal, which used to be Baby World, and it's such an interesting story. Would you mind sharing that?Mohamed Shehk: [00:23:35] Yeah, we had already been talking about needing to find a new location because the place that we're currently at, which is in downtown Oakland, the rents have been rising exponentially. And so we said to ourselves, we really have to start looking. This is just unsustainable. During the same time, some of us, you know, just through kind of personal and political connections, were having conversations with with other folks and the family that owned the building, the Cabello family, we had conversations with their daughter, Danya Cabello, and realized that this building was for sale. When we found that out, we jumped onto the opportunity and reached out to a loyal donor, Rachel Gilman, who is part of an organization called Resource Generation, which is essentially an organization that seeks to bring in people with wealth in order to redistribute their wealth to social justice causes. In talking with Rachel, we kind of put that on the table and just had kind of a frank conversation. This is what we're thinking. What do you think? And she loved the idea.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:43] She's only twenty nine.Mohamed Shehk: [00:24:44] Yeah.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:45] She said herself that she thinks of giving as a "way to help up end the forces of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy that underlie her very own inheritance." And she said, "I believe ending this economic system that creates such drastic wealth inequality is necessary for all people's humanity and dignity, including my own and that of my family." I think this is revolutionary.Mohamed Shehk: [00:25:10] Yeah. Absolutely. And it's a beautiful space. We're in the process now of renovating the building to serve community organizations that are operating in the Bay Area. We want it to be a hub for social and racial justice organizing of all stripes. We want it to be a place where organizations and communities that are fighting to resist gentrification can have a place to hold their meetings, to have events, fundraisers. So we really want it to serve the community and to really pay homage to the legacy of organizing in Oakland.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:46] And it's kind of interesting because the owners, the Cabello's, their family had suffered under Pinochet in Chile. So they there was just all this serendipity that happened between you and them.Mohamed Shehk: [00:25:57] Yeah. No, absolutely. They come from a very kind of rough political history and also are very much tied to resistance movements. Right? So they were part of the first suit against basically the horrors of the Pinochet regime, the School of the Americas, and the role that the U.S. played in supporting the horrors of Pinochet.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:21] I did want to ask you what your greatest challenge has been in the time that you've been in this organization.Mohamed Shehk: [00:26:28] One of the greatest challenges that we face today is the way that the prison industrial complex is shifting, how much technological innovation is going on, the ways that technological innovation is being integrated into the prison industrial complex to expand its reach. Now, this can be like the physical tools and technologies that are developed or something that isn't so tangible, but it's just as dangerous, such as predictive policing or risk assessment algorithms. These are, in a way kind of taking away the the human element, so to speak, and putting in place algorithms and technologies that are actually serving to criminalize people in an automated fashion. It's a very scary concept to think about. We really need to resist attempts to say that we're going to make the prison industrial complex better by removing the bias of humans, by introducing technology. The society that we live in is built on racial oppression, gender oppression, oppression against sex. And so technologies are not going to solve that. We have to actually begin to transform those dynamics, eradicate systems of oppression if we want to achieve liberation.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:50] What's coming up for your organization?Mohamed Shehk: [00:27:52] As I mentioned, we are working on the NO NEW SF Jail effort to close 850 Bryant Street. Be on the lookout. Join our mailing list, visit our web site, sign up, because we'll be putting out information on how folks can can really plug into that fight and and close the jail. For folks in Los Angeles, we're gonna have an amazing event. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who's an amazing, inspiring, brilliant scholar, is going to be speaking. This comes after a huge victory where we, along with the Justice L.A. Coalition, stopped L.A. County from building a, quote unquote, mental health jail. That was an enormous victory. You've been fighting jails in Los Angeles for 10 years. And we wanted to celebrate and bring our communities together. We really just encourage folks to check us out.Lisa Kiefer: [00:28:40] What is your web site?Mohamed Shehk: [00:28:41] criticalresistance.orgLisa Kiefer: [00:28:43] And can people volunteer in your organization?Mohamed Shehk: [00:28:45] Absolutely. Our Oakland chapter holds volunteer nights every Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. And that's in our current office. Not the not the new building, 1904 Franklin Street, Suite 5 0 4. And so come through, volunteer. We find ourselves in a very trying political moment. You know, the current presidential administration is unrelentless and attacks that it's waging on our communities, blatant racism and sexism and xenophobia that has come from this administration. We also have seen the ways that communities are resilient and resistant.Mohamed Shehk: [00:29:24] You saw the massive energy into opposition to shut down airports in response to the Muslim ban. We see opposition from ICE raids. We also want to resist the tendency or maybe even the appeal to want to go back to how things were, because there were a lot of things wrong and violent and racist in the policies in former administrations. Rather than shy away in this political moment, actually to raise up radical ideas like abolition as the tools, as the strategies that are actually going to get us to where we want to be, to a society where we truly have equity, self-determination and freedom.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:10] That's a nice, positive way to end this. Thank you, Mohamed, for coming in.Mohamed Shehk: [00:30:15] Thank you.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:16] You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. We'll be back again in two weeks.