Ten Years of Freakonomics (Ep. 206): Full Transcript
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Ten Years of Freakonomics.”
[MUSIC: Matthew Tishler, “Two of a Kind” (from Radio Hits)]
Stephen J. DUBNER: You rolling?
Suzie LECHTENBERG: Yeah.
DUBNER: Hey Levitt.
Steven LEVITT: Dubner.
DUBNER: You nervous?
LEVITT: No, I’m not nervous. We’ve done this before.
DUBNER: What have we done before?
LEVITT: We’ve gone on stage together with a moderator who has the fate of this show in her hands.
DUBNER: Tell the people where we are, what we are doing and why.
LEVITT: We are at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. And we are bringing our new book When to Rob a Bank into the public spectacle. Does that make any sense?
DUBNER: Yeah, that was good. I don’t think that’s a real idiom, but I like how you pretended it was one and just went with it. That’s good. And it is May 5, 2015 — “pub” day — so this is the day that the book is coming out.
LEVITT: And we are in a green room which is actually green.
VOICE BACKSTAGE: We are ready to start.
DUBNER: Okay. Let’s do it!
LECHTENBERG: Tell me what you are about to do.
DUBNER: We are lurking in the wings of the 92nd Street Y as the introducer introduces the moderator. Then the moderator will introduce us. Then we’ll go out there and talk.
LECHTENBERG: Are you excited?
LEVITT: I am. It should be fun.
DUBNER: He just called us “distinguished guests.”
LEVITT: He said he had a man crush on us. This is getting crazy. I don’t think anyone has ever said they had a man crush on me before.
LECHTENBERG: Not true.
INTRODUCER: Please join me in giving a warm welcome to our moderator and our distinguished guests.
* * *
[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “Rhythm Oil” (from Mystery Pacific)]
Steve Levitt and I just put out a new book called When to Rob a Bank. It’s a collection of the best writing from our blog — 10 years’ worth. As part of the book tour, we were invited to speak at the 92nd Street Y in New York, which is one of my favorite cultural institutions in the world — partly because I live in New York, but mostly because over the years the Y has hosted a who’s who of artists, politicians, intellectuals — and now, even us. The event was called “The Best of Freakonomics,” and the moderator was the great Faith Salie. You may know her from public radio’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! or from CBS Sunday Morning. She’s also working on her first book. Faith got the evening started by offering up a summary of Freakonomics that was better than anything we could have come up with.
Faith SALIE: Let’s, in broad strokes, do a little refresher about what Freakonomics means. If you don’t already know that a lot of drug dealers live with their mothers, if you named your daughter Olivia and are shocked to find out that seven other girls in her class are named Olivia. If you don’t know why David Lee Roth didn’t want any brown M&Ms in his backstage dressing room, then you need to go back to their books. Freakonomics is a way of looking at the world. It’s bucking conventional wisdom or at least being skeptical of it. It’s following data and not trying to mold it, not trying to put order on it and tell it to behave. And saying, “I don’t know.” You guys like to say that a lot.
SALIE: And —
DUBNER: Well, I don’t know how often. But, yeah.
DUBNER: You just used “penultimate” in a sentence. I’ve never heard that.
SALIE: Did I use it correctly?
DUBNER: You did it really well.
SALIE: Oh, thank you. All right, so on the childlike note, I want to read this description of Levitt. This is from Time magazine: “Imagine a whip-smart economist with a sprawling imagination. Now imagine he’s 9 years old and wants to know everything. That’s the basic profile of Steven Levitt.” What’s the average age of Dubner, would you say?
LEVITT: I think Dubner’s about 17.
SALIE: Oh! So you’re like the elder in this?
LEVITT: Yeah. Don’t you? You think you’re younger?
DUBNER: Younger than you?
DUBNER: I do feel I’m more responsible than you, somehow.
LEVITT: You have more of a plan.
DUBNER: I have more of a plan.
LEVITT: You worry more.
DUBNER: Levitt, it’s not that you’re childlike in the way that you’re reckless, necessarily, but childlike in the way that a child can be oblivious, because he or she is so enmeshed in the thinking. You’ll be thinking or having a conversation on a phone in a place where it is just inappropriate in every way to do what you’re doing. And you have no idea and therefore it becomes not inappropriate.
SALIE: For example?
DUBNER: I remember we were riding a train.
LEVITT: I remember that train.
DUBNER: You remember the train? Yeah. And he’s having this phone conversation literally as if there’s no one else in the world, which is a sign of focus or some oblivion. But I realized a long time ago, when you write about or with people who do unusual things, right? Levitt is an unusual scholar. A lot of the people that we’ve written about in our books are similarly unusual scholars or researchers. Sudhir Venkatesh comes to mind, this guy who Levitt worked with a lot who did research on drug dealers and other stuff. You realize that when people do very unusual things — particularly for a living — that we really appreciate, we can’t also then turn it around and say, “But I want them to be exactly normal in every other way.” Right?
The things that make people extraordinary almost inherently dictate that they’re going to be not normal in the way that we think are normal people. Rather than say, “Well, I love that guy’s work, but he’s really weird in this way,” or whatnot, I like to think of them as unusual people, and we appreciate the upside. And the other oblivious part? It’s cool. We just live with it.
SALIE: Well, you’re a great thinker and talented in your own right.
DUBNER: Thank you very much. Nice of you to say.
SALIE: Levitt, is Dubner not normal in meaningful ways?
LEVITT: No, I think he’s pretty normal. What he has an amazing touch for listening and getting people to talk about things they wouldn’t talk to anyone else about. It’s a really hard thing, and not many people can do it. But you do it in a very puppy dog-ish way. You get excited about what people have to say. And I think that’s a great, infectious quality.
SALIE: And that’s kind of childlike too. Can you guys talk about what you mean when you suggest that we all think like a freak, that we use childlike minds?
LEVITT: Me or you? Me?
DUBNER: You can have it.
LEVITT: There’s a sense in which society pins us down. Like there’s things you’re supposed to do and not supposed to do. You think a lot about the other person. And you learn not to follow the thing that interests you or the joy and live for the moment. A lot of pressure, I think. I wrote this this paper about abortion and crime. It was a long time ago in the ’90s, and my co-author was John Donohue. And after it became controversial, he was very upset. He said, “I don’t get invited to parties anymore. People are so upset at what we wrote in that paper, I don’t get invited to parties.” He thought that was bad. I think if you live in a world where you care about whether you get invited to parties, then you have a hard time being true to what you want to be.
We’ve adopted a stance of, “We don’t care if we get invited to parties.” We’re lucky enough to have a platform and the freedom to not have real jobs and pursue what we love. That’s a wonderful thing to have. We just live in it and don’t worry about it. What do you think?
DUBNER: Yeah, I agree with you. I think the other thing of thinking like a child that’s valuable to me, at least, is that when you have — like, my kids are 14 and 13 now. And especially when they’re younger, children are always asking these questions that seem outlandish, outrageous, ridiculous and maybe even worthless a lot, right? But then some of them are just the questions that a very curious mind has when you’re trying to figure out the way the world works and what a system is. But then that gets beaten out of us as we get older. But that true curiosity about trying to figure out how things really work, rather than just say, “I guess that’s because everybody says — ”
SALIE: That’s the way it is.
DUBNER: Right. That’s the part of the childlikeness that I like to carry forth, [and] think that we can inspire other people to carry forth. It’s also just a lot more fun to be around people who have — whether it’s an infectious curiosity or a genuine interest in learning how things work rather than accepting what gets fed. That’s the fun. And then figuring out stuff on your own too, the way kids will muck around to try to put together something. To have a question one day about, “Hey, where’d all the hitchhikers go?” Or, “Hey, I wonder why there are more Teslas, these $90,000 cars, being driven in Norway than anywhere else on earth except for the United States?”
And you just walk around and ask these ridiculous questions. But then some of them are worth following. And then you find a way to follow them, get data, and talk to smart people. And you solve the riddle.
SALIE: And what you said, “Where did all the hitchhikers go?” Are you working on this?
DUBNER: We did that one, yeah. We did a podcast on that. It turns out that as best as we can tell, media coverage of hitchhiker violence — violence against hitchhikers, sometimes by hitchhikers — was one of those classic, like, shark attacks. It happened a few times, but not that much. But it was blown totally out of proportion, so everybody got scared. Everybody thought that hitchhiking was basically a fatal practice. If you hitchhike, you will die. Which is not the case. But then additionally the economic part of it was transportation became a lot cheaper. Cars got to be better over time, which meant they lasted longer, which meant that rather than have a family where there was no second car, there might be a 15-year-old car, that before would have been not running, and now gets handed off.
Transportation overall became better, cheaper, and so there wasn’t so much need. Now, of course, we might be on the cusp of what would have been a hitchhiker renaissance. But now we have Uber instead, which is essentially paid hitchhiking. So that’s cool.
SALIE: Do you guys walk through your lives coming up with these questions all the time? Is it second nature to you now, in a way that it probably wasn’t before Freakonomics became a thing?
DUBNER: I don’t think we’re very different than we were before. Do you?
LEVITT: In academics you get rewarded for having these ideas. So I walked around for years, I looked at every single thing and I would say, “How could I turn that into an academic paper?” Then what’s interesting in light of our new book is that the blog — the good and bad thing about the blog — it took a lot of effort, but I felt an obligation, maybe 3 or 4 times a week, to write something. So desperately, it puts you in the mind frame of, “Okay, is there anything in the world that’s halfway interesting that I can somehow turn into a blog post?” Of all the things we’ve ever done, I think the blog is the thing which most warps you into always being alert, always listening to what the world has to say.
DUBNER: But I would argue that’s what any journalist — or not any journalist — but most journalists do. You’re constantly trying to observe the world and see what looks a little out of place, or a little unexplored, or a little interesting. I remember one of my very favorite days as a writer — I went to graduate school here and I was writing for New York Magazine. I would write these short, front-of-the-book pieces in this section that was then called “Fast Track.” Basically the only way I could get in the magazine was to come up with an idea, then pitch it, and write it. So all I did, basically, was walk around the city or whatever, looking for things that were interesting.
I remember this one day, in this neighborhood actually, where I came up with what turned out to be 3 pieces in one Saturday afternoon wandering around. My favorite of them was like a totally childlike inquiry that — I don’t know whether it was good or not. I liked it. Basically, I was at the Metropolitan Museum, probably on the outside first, where there’s the big fountain that’s now been redone. Then you go inside to the Temple of Dendur, and that’s not a fountain, but it’s a big reflecting pool. People throw their coins in a fountain, and it’s the Metropolitan Museum. People come from all over the world. You look down, there’s all these coins. I thought, “I wonder what happens to those coins? Who does what with them?” First of all, if you just leave them in there, they’re gonna pile up and it won’t be a fountain anymore. It’ll just be a pile of wet coins.
So I went to them and said, “I would like to find out what you do.” It turned out that there was a guy at the Met whose job on Monday — which I think was their dark day — his job was to clean out the coins from the fountains and the Temple of Dendur. I basically spent the day with him in big muckity muck muck muck boots. He would sweep them all up, collect them, and then he’d take them downstairs. He’d put them on these big screens, and wash them. Then you have the problem that you have all this currency from a hundred countries which is worth basically nothing. But they went to the trouble to collate it, bring it to a bank, turn it in, and convert it into money for the Met operating fund.
To me that was a fun thing to do. If somebody’s gonna pay me $200 to write that article, I’m gonna write that article every time. For me, the best part is: as a writer then, every time I walk by the Met, I’m going to have that memory. To me, the act of writing is a way to — as with travel, as with conversation, or all the things we do to make life larger and bigger and better — it’s to create memories to make life a little richer, a little warmer. When I have my kids, we walk by the Met. I’ll tell them, “You know what happens to the coins in there? Let me tell you what happens to the coins in there.” That’s all I do.
LEVITT: How much did the guy steal? What car did he drive? Did he drive a Tesla?
DUBNER: He did not drive a car to work. He did not drive a Tesla. He took the subway to work, so I guess he wasn’t doing a very good job of recognizing the high-value coins.
LEVITT: How much did you steal?
DUBNER: We’re recording.
SALIE: That’s part of the amazing thing that you guys pull off. These very everyday, could-be-considered-mundane questions, once you articulate them — once they come from somebody like you who are now, “experts,” everyone [says], “That’s a great question.” Like your book: “Why does KFC run out of chicken?”
DUBNER: We’ve already heard from KFC. Did you see that email?
SALIE: What happened?
LEVITT: Yeah, what happened?
DUBNER: Well, you should describe the post. You should describe what you wrote.
LEVITT: Yeah, so I’ve always loved Kentucky Fried Chicken.
SALIE: You’re old school if you call it ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken,’ by the way.
LEVITT: Yeah, KFC, yeah.
LEVITT: Well, it goes back to — because my parents, even though we weren’t particularly poor, acted like we were incredibly poor. So literally once a year they would splurge and we would get to go to what was then called ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken.’ And that was the big event in our house. I think because of that restriction of the amount I was able to have, I’ve always pined for Kentucky Fried Chicken. But my customer service experiences have been incredibly bad, like consistently running out of chicken. And, you think, “It’s a strange thing. It’s KFC. The only thing they serve is chicken, and they don’t have chicken.”
SALIE: Wait, you’d go once a year, and more than once a year they would run out of chicken on the day you were there?
LEVITT: No, I used to go once a year. Now I’m an adult. I can do whatever I want. I go all the time.
LEVITT: And so at some point we were thinking about calling the book, “Why Does KFC Run Out of Chicken?” But I didn’t read the email, what happened?
DUBNER: The email said, “I see you have a book coming out.” This was a week or two ago. “And I see that in the promotional material it says something about, “Why does KFC always run out of chicken?” And I’d like to know what your experience has been, and why you felt it was necessary to write that.” But it was written in a very sweet way somehow, even though it was threatening. So I sent the fellow a link to the original blog post. I said, “It’s as simple as this: Levitt goes to KFC to get chicken, and there isn’t enough chicken. I don’t know. I guess you could sue him for that. But, you know, it’s kind of your fault.” But then he wrote back. I thought this was great corporate communication. He wrote back and said something like, “Sorry to hear you had that experience. We’re a company that really tries our hardest, and if you’re ever in the neighborhood…” Of wherever they are. Do you know where they are? Indiana, Illinois, somewhere? Kentucky maybe.
He said, “If you’re ever in the neighborhood, we’d love you to stop in. We’ll show you how we hand-bread our chicken and give it that fantastic taste.” So we [have] got to go to Kentucky, plainly. Or at least you do.
SALIE: And did you find out why they run out of chicken?
LEVITT: No. I mean, I hypothesized. It’s interesting thing. If you go to a McDonalds, just look around. There are people working. There’s often 20 people crammed in, working at McDonalds. The next time you — if you’re the kind of person who does this — when you go into KFC, look at how many people are there. And there’s usually like 2 or 3, and I think it was somehow a corporate choice. Part of it’s about the production function. You put the chicken in and you let it sit as opposed to put a lot of sauce and stuff on top. But I think that’s part of it. They just made a choice to be bad. But economists say — you laugh at that, but economists say, “It’s fine.” They’re just trying to figure out how to maximize their profits.
But the other thing, which I think is maybe more dangerous than what I just said, is that their clientele is much poorer on average than other fast food. That income is associated with quality of service. I spent a year living in Palo Alto by Stanford and the quality of service you got was absolutely unbelievable at every place. I came to believe it was because everyone is so rich. When people are rich — I don’t know if they’re willing to pay for it or they appreciate it or they have different preferences — but rich people get really good service. KFC has again decided to provide bad service because it’s not what their customers are buying. I don’t know if it’s true but that’s certainly been my impression.
[MUSIC: Three Day Threshold, “It’s Alright” (from Against the Grain)]
Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: does Levitt regret anything he wrote on the Freakonomics blog all those years?
LEVITT: The one that I only fake regret, that I pretend I regret, that I don’t really.
And have we actually changed the world in any way, no matter how small?
DUBNER: Do you remember dog poop DNA?
LEVITT: Yes, very well.
DUBNER: You remember dog poop DNA?
SALIE: Please tell us.
LEVITT: Before the penny, his obsession was dog poop.
* * *
[MUSIC: Dorian Charnis, “Jazzy Lounge”]
Steve Levitt and I were up on stage at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, just minding our own business, when this busybody named Faith Salie started asking us all these questions.
SALIE: This book is a collection of blog posts, right? A lot of them are elliptical, you pose questions, and you hypothesize. But there aren’t a lot of firm answers. Are there questions that haunt you? What’s the one question that you wish you could just have a empirically solid answer to?
DUBNER: My question is: what makes people happy?
DUBNER: Yeah, yeah
SALIE: That’s haunting me.
SALIE: But what makes people happy? How do you pursue that question in a Freakonomics way?
DUBNER: Well, there’s a big happiness literature or hedonics literature, as it’s called. But it’s very unsatisfying because those are the kind of data — Well, I don’t know if I should… I’d be curious to know what you have to say, Levitt, because you know data is great and there are limitations of data. If you want to know something like what makes a given person or a given population happy or satisfied, it’s not as simple as asking them because people say what they might feel at the moment and not feel at a different moment. They may say what they think you want them to say or what you want to hear. If you could get hold of, commission any data possible and/or invade privacy in any way possible to find out what makes people truly satisfied and happy, what would you do?
LEVITT: It’s such a hard question because when people respond to those surveys, there’s a tremendous equilibration over time. When something good happens to you, you go from being a 7 on a scale of 1-10 to a 9. Then somehow you always end up at 7 again. The psychologists have done these studies where they take people who win the lottery, and people who have become paraplegic from diving accidents. After a couple years, they’re all saying 7. Everyone always equilibrates. It’s hard. Sometimes the lottery winner will say, “I wish I didn’t win the lottery.” But it’s super confusing to — a strong evolutionary tendency — to figure whatever situation you’re in, [if] you’re reasonably happy with it. Not too happy, because if you’re too happy, you don’t work hard enough to make your situation better. But if you’re too upset, you can’t deal with it.
Probably one of the strangest studies I ever did, but one of the ones that I liked the best was very much aimed at the idea of happiness. Dubner had an idea for a podcast, which I thought at the time was completely and totally ridiculous, which was about the upside of quitting. And so with essentially no evidence or data in any way, shape, or form — except a belief — Dubner did this podcast in which he implored people to quit much more than they did. What was crazy is that hundreds of people wrote and said, “Oh my God, I just quit. It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
SALIE: I’m divorced! Thank you! Right?
DUBNER: You’re welcome, yeah.
LEVITT: And tons of people did that.
SALIE: What, they were quitting jobs?
LEVITT: Marriages. Everything.
LEVITT: Quitting everything. After that, I had just a flash, some moment, and I said, “Wow. If people listen to us, we can actually start to answer interesting questions.” Riding on the back of that, we set up a webpage. We called it Freakonomics Experiments [DEFUNCT], and we said to anyone who had a hard decision that they’re having trouble making, they should come to our webpage. We give them advice about how to make their decision with the ultimate hope that at the end of all our advice they were still as confused as they were when they got there. In which case, we would solve their problem by — we would flip a virtual coin. It would flip on the screen, and it would either come up heads or tails. Then we would say, “If it comes up heads, you [have] got to promise us that you’ll quit” — whatever — “you’ll quit your job. And if it comes up tails you [have] got to promise you’ll keep your job.”
People couldn’t act because of the rules of stuff about human subjects and introducing IRBs. We couldn’t compel people to keep their jobs but we hoped that we could put enough pressure on them, moral pressure and scientific need, that they would do it. The amazing thing is: we had this crazy idea. We built this webpage. We publicized it and by the time we got to writing the book, 25,000 people had come and flipped these coins. You can look at the all the people who got heads, say if it came to quitting a job. It turned out if the people who got heads saying you should quit your job, maybe 40% of them quit their jobs. Of the people who got tails which says stay at your job, only maybe 20% of those people quit their jobs. We actually influenced — something like 20% of the people who came to our webpage actually did something different because of the coin toss.
Then we waited 6 months. We surveyed people and we asked them how happy they were. The comparison is really just a comparison of: did you get heads or did you get tails when you came to the Freakonomics website? The amazing thing is, on almost every different question we asked, the people who got heads said they were happier 6 months later than the people who got tails. Those people had quit a lot more. To make sure it wasn’t just people saying what we wanted to hear, we also asked people to give us a 3rd party. Some trusted friend who would help them stick to their decision. Then we would ask those people, and they also would report that the people who got heads were happier than the people who got tails. For me, it was one of the neatest things.
As an academic, I’m not very mathematical. I’m not very technical. There’s all sorts of things that I can’t do. But I’ve always liked to explore interesting ideas. This was the one time when we’ve been able to put together the uniqueness of what we do, our reach and our ability to actually, through social media, talk to people to answer a question that no one else could answer. Because we had a way to get thousands and thousands of people to divorce their husbands, quit their jobs, not have babies or have babies. For me, in some ways that was the most fun project I’ve ever done because it answered such a fundamental question, which there’s never been good academic research [on] before.
We just came up with a basic truth, which is: when you’re not sure what to do, you should quit. This is what the data tells us: if you can’t decide, it means you should have quit already and you should quit right away.
DUBNER: Should we go now?
SALIE: Well this evening is billed as “The Best of Freakonomics” which —
DUBNER: That was the best.
SALIE: — which I feel like is more pressure on me than you. What’s nice about reading this book [is] you get a sense of how personal you guys did get with your blog posts. I’m talking in past tense, by the way, because you’re not blogging like you used to, right?
DUBNER: It’s a little bit funny. We hit the heyday of blogs by mistake. We don’t do it as much anymore in part because it’s really hard to blog every day and also do all the other stuff we try to do. Radio, podcasting takes a lot of writing. Writing academic papers theoretically takes a little bit of time. But also the whole idea of blogging — it did go away. Not entirely.
SALIE: Why blog when you can tweet? Right?
DUBNER: Right. Between Twitter and Facebook — even though they’re not really very good substitutes for blogging, and I miss it. We mostly, now, use the blog to tell the world what we’re doing on our radio show, which is a great use of it. We write on there, but I miss it. I miss every morning waking up and saying, “Do I have anything worth saying?” And going right there, and publishing it. Growing up as a journalist — where there was a hierarchy, someone controlled the printing press, and above and below that were editors who controlled what went to the printing press — the whole notion of publishing yourself with the click of a button so that thousands of people can read it is incredibly intoxicating. That’s my favorite thing about the digital revolution.
SALIE: Although, you do say that you both blogged things that you came to regret. What do you regret blogging about, Levitt?
DUBNER: Most of it, probably, right? In retrospect?
LEVITT: The one that I only fake regret, that I pretend to regret, but I don’t really, is the first post. We had just been blogging, minding our own business, and then we became a blog for The New York Times. Dubner said, “We need something really good for the first day.” I said, “I know the perfect thing.” I didn’t really think very hard about it and he’s already talked about how oblivious I am. So I wrote this whole post about, if I were a terrorist how I would do a terrorist attack. Laying out the details of what I thought would be a great —
SALIE: You were only trying to help.
LEVITT: Exactly, just trying to help. Then I asked the readers because the most fun thing, the most rewarding thing about the blog was there was immediate feedback and we had such smart, interesting readers that you learned a lot. I thought, “Why don’t I have all of the blog readers tell us their favorite ideas for terrorist attacks. How interesting would that be?” But it turned out just the opposite. I don’t think hardly anyone put up good ideas about fighting terrorism. Everyone just attacked us and said, “Are you like incredibly stupid? Are you a moron? You’re evil! What is your problem?”
DUBNER: And I remember what you said is, “I can’t be both?”
LEVITT: But I don’t really regret it, because I actually think it was a really good poin. It’s in the boo. Then I responded a day or two later. It’s one of those incredibly obvious things where people are like, “How can you be so unpatriotic and be telling the terrorists all the answers?” To which I said, “What do you think the terrorists do all day other than sit around and try to think of great ways to try to do a terrorist attack?” My idea about a terrorist attack was completely and totally obvious. It was just playing off of what had happened in Washington, D.C., where those 2 guys drove around in an El Camino and would shoot at random every once in a while. The entire city of Washington, D.C. shut down.
You can imagine, if you had 20 of those — the terrorists let loose 20 cars with people who at pre-agreed[-upon] times were just going to drive across the entire U.S., shoot people, then just keep on driving … They’d be essentially impossible to stop. Every American would think, “Oh my God, I’m going to be the next one to get shot.” They would completely shut down the entire country. It’s not like it takes a lot of imagination to do that, right? If you saw what happened in Washington, D.C., you know it would work. The real terrorists would never do that because it’s not their style. It’s not what they’re trying to do. The terrorists are trying to send a message. It’s theater, in some sense. It’s a show and this is not theatrical. This is logistics.
This is like the difference between working for Google and working for a trucking company. When you graduate college, you don’t want to go work for a trucking company, even if it is a really effective thing. The problem that limits our ability to fight terrorists is that the people whose job [it is] to fight it don’t know what they should be trying to fight, right? They’re usually fighting whatever happened the last time instead of thinking about the next time. I thought it could be useful. I really think that, on net, if a bunch of smart people put out a bunch of ideas for terrorist attacks, the people whose job it is to fight it would have a much better shot at stopping the next one than sitting around.
SALIE: Do you have any regrets, Dubner?
DUBNER: What I’ve written? I somehow spent way too much time writing about why we should kill the penny for some reason, right? This goes back to my Metropolitan Museum of Art fountain days, of course. But I don’t even want to waste your guys’ ears right now for two minutes talking about it, but the fact that we still use a penny in this country is ridiculous. Can we agree?
SALIE: You’re right.
DUBNER: Inflation has rendered it useless. The only people who really want the penny are people who are totally inert, who are just way too lazy to do anything, who are very nostalgic.
SALIE: Wait, doesn’t sound like you regret talking about this Dubner.
DUBNER: Apparently I don’t. Or people who are very nostalgic, love the penny, what it represents, who love Abraham Lincoln even though he’s on the five dollar bill or if you happen to be one of the 15 people who work in the zinc lobby. It turns out that pennies are made mostly from zin. It turns out that the zinc lobby is largely responsible for having kept the penny in circulation.
SALIE: Big zinc.
DUBNER: Big zinc. This sounds so terrible: when I get change from a store, I try to give the pennies back and if they won’t take them back then I just throw the pennies away. I teach my children to throw away their pennies, and I’m gonna say it right here, to throw away nickels too. Here’s what the argument made by Americans for Common Cents — c-e-n-t-s — which, by the way, is a front for the zinc lobby. I’m not kidding. Americans for Common Cents says, “If you got rid of the penny, what would all those school children do for their penny drives?” I say, “Teach them to collect dollars that are actually worth some money.” Then I knew that I was really right when I saw that the Standard Hotel here in New York, when they opened one of their floors in the hotel was made of pennies.
Then I looked at the price: you add up the price of what each penny costs and it turns out that making a floor out of pennies was cheaper than the cheapest tile, recycled wood, anything. They’re great for flooring. But for currency, not so good. I regret that because, like I said — see! I can’t stop!
SALIE: Here’s a great question from the audience: what advice would you give each other if you didn’t write books together?
DUBNER: Like what advice would I give him if he’s an economist? If we didn’t write books together?
DUBNER: Well, we wouldn’t know each other. That’s easy. Hey. Hey buddy, get off the phone.
SALIE: Let’s take out the second half of the sentence: what advice do you have for each other?
LEVITT: Dubner should move out of New York City but he’s doing just the opposite.
DUBNER: Oh, really? Why should I move out of New York City? By the way, they’re on my side.
LEVITT: I know they are.
SALIE: Yes, why?
LEVITT: Not that you should move out of New York City now, but you should be prepared to move out of New York City in the future.
DUBNER: Is this a tax dodge?
SALIE: That sounds ominous.
LEVITT: What’s that? Ominous?
LEVITT: No, New York City’s a great place. You are making all of these very expensive investments when it’s quite possible they’ll come a time when you don’t want to be there.
DUBNER: You’re totally wrong because the older I get, the better New York gets for me. There’s nowhere else in the world I would want to live. My goal in life, as my children know, is to get to a hundred. That’s the thing I’m really into.
DUBNER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I really want to do it.
SALIE: You mean get to 100 Street? On the east side or west?
DUBNER: Years old, thank you. If there’s any good medical advice out there, please let me know later. But to me, there’s literally no place better in the world to get older and old than New York City where you can actually still do stuff and be around people.
DUBNER: I’m the youngest of 8 kids and I’m the only one who lives in New York City. None of my siblings live in any city, really. Right after 9/11, they all called, of course, very concerned. We had one kid: Solomon was, I guess, had just turned one year old. It was obviously upsetting. We were all, thank God, safe. But a lot of people we knew were involved and it was scary. You didn’t know what came next. All my siblings called, and one of my sisters, Beth, who I love very much, she’s closest to me in age. She lives in Buffalo with her family — great family, love the extended family. She called and Beth [does not have] a very forceful-type personality at all. She’s very docile generally. She said, “Steve, I really think that you, Ellen and Solomon need to leave New York now, forever. You can come to Buffalo and you can live with us until you get your footing, until you find your own place.”
I said to her, “Beth, I love you, but I really would rather die in New York than live in Buffalo.” This is not against Buffalo. I like Buffalo. I like where they live. But it’s like New York is a thing that gets in your blood. It is who you are. That’s what you’re up against, brother. That’s right.
LEVITT: Right, right.
SALIE: Can you talk about that story?
LEVITT: Way back, we’re writing this book. It didn’t really have a theme. We really struggled trying to come up with a title. Between us and the publisher, we’d gone back over 15 or 20 bad titles. She died and actually 2 of the posts in this book are about her — one by me and one by my father.
SALIE: They’re my favorite posts. They’re really beautiful.
SALIE: She was an extraordinary person.
LEVITT: She sure was. She was the most creative person I ever met and transformed me completely, literally transformed me. When I was 12, she made it her mission to turn me from a little weaselly loser into a cool kid, and I was weird enough to actually be willing to let her mold me in whatever way she wanted.
SALIE: What did she call you? Oink Baby?
LEVITT: Yeah, Oink Baby. wxactly.
SALIE: Oink Baby. Yeah.
LEVITT:But then I knew she would — I told Dubner from the beginning, “My sister will be the one to name this book.” Within literally 10 minutes of me sending her the first version of the book, she said, “It’s Freakonomics.” It took a while to get people on board. There was a lot of resistance to it, but honestly it just it was such a perfect title. It so captured what we were doing and it was so far from any of the titles we were thinking about. It would be neat to play back a counterfactual, in a world in which we called it —
DUBNER: “E-Ray Vision.” “Ain’t Necessarily So.”
SALIE: Really? “E-ray Vision?” Wow.
DUBNER: “E-Ray Vision,” as in “Economist Vision.”
SALIE: Right. Sure.
DUBNER: Oh, you got it. Yeah. Even when you get it, it’s not good.
SALIE: That is the post that you write — Linda was your sister?
SALIE: Is really moving. In fact that’s something that I really like about When to Rob a Bank is how personal you guys get. It’s really wonderful. In the past 10 years, what has surprised you the most about what you do?
DUBNER: The one that comes to mind for me is a bummer so I don’t want this to be the last words said here. What surprised me the most is how on balance, brutally ineffective most current treatments are for cancer. That we still do them at massive expense: financial, emotional and other ways. When we began to look at the data on that, [it] was just crushing to me because you know everybody knows someone who’s suffered from cancer and often someone who’s died from it. But then we always hear about new drugs, new treatments. There was the war on cancer, Nixon, 40 years ago, now. The fact is that when you look at the data for most solid organ cancers, particularly, we’re just not very good yet.
That, like I said is obviously not a happy thing to have learned, but it’s a thing I’m glad I learned because then you look for other people who are trying to do things very differently.
SALIE: So when you guys make a discovery like that, what can you do with that? We all hear that knowledge is power, so how can you take what you learn and make a change?
DUBNER: Well, we wrote about it.
DUBNER: We’re two pretty feeble people. Overall we don’t have much leverage in the real world at all, but writing is the best leverage that we can muster.
SALIE: Have you had responses? Do you feel like it’s made for meaningful responses?
DUBNER: I know that now to say that in public is not necessarily heresy, but I don’t think much more than that. Some things that we write really do influence people.Sometimes people really change their behavior, even legislation, because of what we do.
SALIE: What’s an example of legislation that changed?
LEVITT: That was one of our proudest moments, when we showed that drunk walking was eight times worse than drunk driving and encouraged everyone to — if they were drunk — to certainly drive home drunk as opposed to walking home drunk. This one city in Alaska took those words to heart, and made it a punishable crime to walk drunk. But literally I cannot think of another piece of legislation that passed ever.
DUBNER: I got another one for you. Do you remember dog poop DNA?
LEVITT: Yes. Very well.
SALIE: Please tell us.
LEVITT: Before the penny, his obsession was dog poop in New York.
DUBNER: Honestly, this would come from walking my daughter to nursery school in this building, right? You’re walking down the street and like you’re thinking about a lot of things. “Is the lunch there? Is the lunch smooshed? Is my daughter walking into traffic? Is my daughter walking drunk into traffic?” All kinds of issues. The last thing you wanna do is —
SALIE: Step in it.
DUBNER: Step in it, right? It happens, especially if you live near the park. We came up with a plan that I thought was a good plan, right? Which is, if you wanna own a dog somewhere like New York City —
SALIE: The poop database.
DUBNER: A poop database.
SALIE: That’s brilliant
DUBNER: When you register your dog to get a license, you just have to submit a saliva swab or some swab. You can get the DNA from that. Poop, as it turns out, is a very rich DNA source. Once you get the poop, you can match the poop to all dogs on the registry, send them a ticket. Bam. If you make a ticket $500 —
SALIE: The city would make so much money.
DUBNER: Wouldn’t it? Right? It hasn’t happened in New York, but it has happened in other places.
SALIE: It has happened?
DUBNER: It has happened. I believe. I want to say in Petah Tikva, Israel there’s a poop DNA law on the books. I want to say in some other smaller jurisdictions like certain condos/condo communities on Long Island have invoked it, which isn’t quite legislation, but —
SALIE: Changing the world one poop at a time. Levitt, what surprised you the most?
LEVITT: What surprised me the most is that anyone cares. This is something that we did almost for ourselves. We were super lucky and in the right place at the right time. I don’t think anyone ever would’ve imagined — if we had been with you at cocktail party 10 years and 2 weeks ago and said, “Hey, I’m writing this book with Dubner.” That anyone would say, “10 years from now 500 people will come out and hear what you have to say about what you’ve been doing the last 10.” It really defies logic, it’s surprising, and it’s fun.
DUBNER: This is really an indictment more of them than us.
SALIE: No, we do care! Thank you for the four books, these last 10 years of making us think and writing great stories. Thank you very much.
LEVITT: Thank you.
DUBNER: Thank you very much.
[MUSIC: 3 Theory, “You’re My Sunshine”]
LEVITT: Hey, we survived.
LECHTENBERG: Any final thoughts?
DUBNER: Not really. I used them all out there. I didn’t have that many tonight.
LEVITT: You were on fire.
DUBNER: No. On fire? I was not on fire.
LEVITT: You were funny! You were so funny.
DUBNER: You were good!
LEVITT: I talked a lot but you were funny.
DUBNER: No, you were good.
Hey, podcast listeners: next time we’re in your town, I hope you’ll come out and see us. Thanks so much to all of those who came out to see us in New York and especially to Faith Salie and to everyone at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. This recording was provided courtesy of the 92nd Street Y. Next week on Freakonomics Radio: we talk about how failure can be your friend.
Gary KLEIN: I failed for the first five or seven years. Now I look back and I say, “Why did I keep going that long?” Because of the shame. I didn’t want to admit failure.
Are we thinking all wrong about failure? That’s next time, on Freakonomics Radio.
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Ten Years of Freakonomics.”