Into it: John Stossel

John Stossel, anchorman of ABC's 20/20, what are you ...

... Reading?

Charles Murray's In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government was a good stimulus to my mind. It approached basic questions, which, from Aristotle, have been, "How do we best pursue happiness?" "What is happiness?" It just asked and answered many of the basic questions about which form of government is likely to provide happiness for more people. The essence of that turned me on to other libertarian concepts. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is an endless book with some too-long speeches about how the creeping regulation destroys opportunity in America. A group of the most creative people decide they will move to a remote part of the country and start over. Without their contribution, much of modern life, which is taken for granted by the smug regulators, falls apart. I'm on book tour – I'm barely able to keep up with periodicals at the moment. I certainly am reading Reason, Forbes, National Review, The New Republic, and The American Prospect. I read The Freeman [published by The Foundation for Economic Education]. I particularly like the writing of Sheldon Richman, who's the editor, and Walter Williams, who is always terrific.

... Listening to?

I like piano concertos of Bach and Mozart – piano in general. I like Carly Simon and Billy Joel.

... Watching?

I loved Thank You For Smoking. The satire made me laugh very hard. The essence of the film is how the PR man for the tobacco business would meet with the gun industry and the alcohol industry; and since capitalism is demonized in America, these companies are particularly demonized. It was refreshing to have their good and evil and ordinariness spun in a funny way.

John Stossel's new book, "Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Why Everything You Know is Wrong," sets out to debunk commonly held ideas about everything from environmental concerns to education to parenting techniques to whether its safe to go swimming right after lunch. He even discovers that anyone can take a brisk walk on hot coals because wood and charcoal don't conduct heat very well.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

Really the subtitle says it – my repeated experience at finding out what I thought was so, was not. My ["20/20"] boss, David Sloan, pushed the myth/truth format.

You've used that format on "20/20"...

I had done some "myth" shows for "20/20." I had done some debunking of "myths" – and even my "Give Me a Break" [segments] you could say are myth-busting.

Of all the myths in the book that you debunk and demolish, which one surprised you the most?

What I learned about education was the biggest jolt, which was also my learning experience doing my show "Stupid in America" recently. It so crystalized my thinking as to how outrageous it is to have a government monopoly ... to rely on that to educate children.

There's a constant barrage of complaints that education isn't funded enough. What's your response to those claims?

I believed it. I pay more so my kid can get a private-school education. But then I discovered that the government schools are spending, on average, $10,000 per student. That's $200,000 plus per classroom. I would think I could hire three teachers to do a better job for that money. But government monopolies squander that money. The Catholic schools in New York City do a better job for $5,000 per student, while the government schools spend up to $13,000.

Where does all the money go?

Nobody really knows. The head of the [teacher's] union says, "Ask the chancellor." How did we get $600 hammers at the Pentagon? Monopolies make money disappear. And worse, monopolies don't innovate. Competition forces the private sector to innovate constantly.

In the book, you talk a lot about the media's propensity to go after scaremongering stories. But there's a flipside to that, too. There's a demand for it. Why do people love being scared?

It makes us feel like we're watching something important, and being frightened makes us feel alive. People like to go to horror movies! Above all, if you can give somebody something to do that makes them think they are reducing the scare, it makes them feel good.

Why don't more journalists debunk these sorts of myths?

Journalists I know are very hard working ... risking their lives in pursuit of today's news. But when it comes to science and economics, there's little knowledge and not much interest. I'm aware that I'm ignorant when it comes to art, theater, music, literature, so I don't report on it. But many reporters even have a pride in their ignorance about math. There's a joke in newsrooms about the guy who can't do his expense report. But you'd think they'd be embarrassed about it and wouldn't rush to accept the claims of the alarmist who's going to tell us we're all going to die from Sweet 'n Low, and Nitrite, or global warming.

What's your take on "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's documentary about global warming?

I will see it, I haven't yet.... I should see it before I can comment further. I wonder what he wants us to do? I fear that it is a conceit to think that man could do much about climate change. The climate has always changed. I suspect [Gore's proposals] would lead to vast government boondoggles along the lines of the synfuels project.

You mentioned that in your book. Tell me more about it.

It was one of the last attempts to have the government – the wise elites in Washington – pick the scientists who would lead us out of our dependency on oil. Billions were wasted on coming up with nothing. But Charles Schumer [the Democratic senior senator for New York] today talks about a Manhattan project. This time, they'll let the scientists decide, rather than the politicians, he says. I don't believe it because the politicians will have a huge honey pot, a huge birthday cake, and the people with the best political connections will get the frosting.

The thing that surprised me most in your book was that anyone can walk on hot coals.

I was pretty hesitant, myself. I wasn't the first to go. You can feel some heat but, if you kept moving, it didn't burn.

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