The United States of Cory Booker

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Does Cory Booker, junior U.S. Senator from New Jersey, see a way forward for America that everyone else has missed? “I can't pay back the blessings that I inherited…you've got to pay it forward.” (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New Jersey senator Cory Booker: bipartisanship is possible. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “The United States of Cory Booker.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

The junior U.S. Senator from New Jersey thinks bipartisanship is right around the corner. Is he just an idealistic newbie or does he see a way forward that everyone else has missed? 

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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[MUSIC: Torches, “Tongues” (from Tongues)]

Cory Booker, the junior United States Senator from New Jersey, is 46 years old. He was a superstar athlete in high school, went to Stanford on a football scholarship, won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Oxford, then got a law degree at Yale. With that pedigree, and with any number of options open to him, what did he do? He moved to Newark, one of the poorest big cities in the U.S. He served on the City Council and then as mayor. By most accounts, he did a good job, uniting longtime rivals and lifting the city up. But as one journalist wrote, Booker’s detractors saw him as, quote, “an infuriating phony who cares more about national fame than problem-solving.”


Huffington Post Live: Newark Mayor Cory Booker is prepared for a food stamp challenge. He plans to live for a week on the monetary equivalent of food stamps or less.

CBS: On the way to the shore, Senator Booker made a stop to help with some shoveling.

MSNBC: The Mayor is digging his people out, one constituent at a time.

CBS: He’d just gotten home when he saw the house next door on fire. A woman trapped inside.

ABC: He ran into a burning building to save a neighbor.

CBS: They got her out alive, and Mayor Booker was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation.

ABC: They are calling the mayor the super mayor tonight.

Today on Freakonomics Radio: if Cory Booker is indeed a superhero, he just found his Kryptonite: writing a book.

CORY BOOKER: I literally hit the heaviest I’ve been in my life as I ate my way through the stress of working full long days and then starting at midnight and then finishing at four in the morning of trying to write as well.

DUBNER: It’s not an easy thing to write a book.

BOOKER: When you say “not an easy thing,” it was a year of hell. I just have respect for authors that I never had before. For anybody who is considering writing a book, please know you are about to descend into Dante’s “Inferno.” It was a much harder thing, and I feel blessed to have finished it, but it definitely took me to dark places and some of my worst vices came out in the process.

DUBNER: So, for people who are trying to lose weight, the best advice would be to not write a book.  

BOOKER: Yeah, I’ve learned now that our vices come out amid stress and my vice is to turn to a gross amount of empty carbohydrates.  Don’t write a book if your vice is empty carbs.

[MUSIC: The Hitchhikers, “Mr. Fortune” ]

Cory Booker, a Democrat, has been in the U.S. Senate since 2013, when longtime New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg died in office. Booker easily won a special election that year, and one year later, he won the regularly scheduled election. When we spoke, he was in the throes of a tour for his new book, which is called United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.

DUBNER: All right, question number one, which is more fun: book tour or Senate campaign?  

BOOKER: Book tour is a lot more fun…

DUBNER: Really? I’ve never done a Senate campaign. I’ve done a book tour. I didn’t think it was that much fun, so I’m glad you’re enjoying it.  

BOOKER: Yeah, I mean, look. The thing I loved about the Senate campaign, and having two in a row — which is rare thing given that it’s usually six-year terms — is that you get to every corner of your state and meet incredible people and so every day I’d be inspired, but at the same time then you have someone one the other side of the aisle and a large conservative media posse taking shots at you every single day.

DUBNER: So, since you’re so comfortable on your book tour now, I’ll stand in. I’ll be the proxy for that posse taking shots at if you if that’s what makes you comfortable, if that’s what you’re used to; I don’t want to let you down.

BOOKER: No sir, you have no idea. I literally tell myself all the time, God bless the founders for the six-year terms so I don’t have to go through that hell again for a while.

DUBNER: All right, we will try to make this somewhat less hellish than that although not entirely un-hellish.

BOOKER: A little hell keeps you appreciating heaven. You can’t appreciate heaven without a little hell.

DUBNER: Let me ask you this Senator Booker. Most politicians books are pegged to running for office, most. And you’re not running for anything anytime soon that we know of.

BOOKER: I’m running from things.

DUBNER: So why— look, you have a great story to tell and you have a lot of things to talk about, that you do well in this book. But I am curious about the timing. Why now?

BOOKER: Well, I’m really finished with this stage of my life. Being a mayor is different from any other political job in America. I still remember my first time coming to Senate as a mayor, Dianne Feinstein, a Senator from California runs over to me, I don’t know her and she looks at me and says, “You have the hardest job in American politics.” Well, a big city mayor, especially the mayor of a city with a lot of challenges, high poverty, crime, it’s a 24-7 non-stop job. I finished that and then I had to do two successive races for the United States Senate which was very intense in and of itself. And after going through a long period of intense living, I had a chance to take a deep breath and then I realized, hey, everywhere I went around the state, people on the left side of the aisle, right side of the aisle, suburban, urban, were all saying to me how much they bemoaned how divided our country was, how divided our politics were.

In Booker’s view, this division is the biggest problem in modern politics. And he gets to see a lot of it these days, as an active campaigner for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.

[MUSIC: The Wandas, “Feel It” (from The Wandas)]


DONALD TRUMP: Even a race to Obama. She was going to beat Obama, I don’t know who’d be worse.

TED CRUZ: ‘Cause every country you touched as Secretary of State is a disaster.

CARLY FIORINA: Hillary Clinton will do anything to gain and hang on to power. Anything. Listen, if my husband did what Bill Clinton did, I would have let him go a long time ago.

TRUMP: In a certain way, evil.

CLINTON: I know it makes great TV. I think the guy went way overboard. Offensive, outrageous. Pick your adjective.


DUBNER: I do wonder how much more difficult is the notion of finding common ground during a presidential campaign.

BOOKER: It is incredibly difficult, period, and more difficult in a, silly season, as many call it, during a presidential election. But, you know, as Kennedy said, “We do things because it is hard, not because it is easy.”  The most worthwhile things in life are difficult. And you say “common ground,” and I use very purposefully the word “love.” I reject words like “tolerance,” where we say we’re a nation of tolerance. That’s kind of a cynical or lazy state of being that I’m just going to stomach your right to be different; if you disappear off the face of the earth, I’m no better or worse off. That love or we say patriotism, love of country, which therefore demands a love of Americans, is a much harder way to go; you become much more vulnerable; you’re much more prone to be broken and to fail. But the rewards of love, that difficult, challenging road, will always be greater than a cynical way that short-term gain or short-term political points.

Maybe it’s because he’s still relatively new in the Senate, but Booker seems to believe that partisanship is not insurmountable.

BOOKER: I’m so proud that I’ve got bills and amendments passed with everybody from Ted Cruz to Chairman Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the EPW committee who famously brought a snowball to the Senate floor.  I’ve found friendships in unexpected places, a genuine goodness in folks that I would not have discovered if I labeled them as Tea-Party or Republican, but I found that common ground and it’s resulted in some good things.

Booker’s biggest legislative priority is criminal-justice reform. Back in October, he and nine other Senators introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act; the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill and it’s now awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.

BOOKER: Our federal prison population has exploded 800 percent since 1980. Our state prison population is about 500 percent overall since 1980. And it is probably one of the worst self-inflicted wounds in tough economies, where other countries are investing in public universities, the speed of rail, the quality of their ports, America’s percentage of investment in infrastructure, percentage of GDP, has been going down except in one area: we’ve had this massive expense that no other country has done to themselves, in this country where we have just five percent of the population but one out of every four imprisoned people on the planet earth are here in America. And, so this something that hurts everybody in America, from the money we’re spending, the assault on liberty, to the destruction, the destruction of many communities and the perpetuation of violence because when somebody gets out of prison for a non-violent drug offense, they suddenly can’t get, in many states, food-stamps; they can’t get housing, public housing; they can’t get business licenses.

DUBNER: As I understand it, you were making good progress but now things have slowed down. I’m curious if things have slowed down because of the presidential campaign but also I’d love to hear you talk for just a couple of minutes about what you’re trying to accomplish.  

BOOKER: So I go to the Senate with a mission to undermine what I think is a cancer on the soul of our country. Find incredible allies across the aisle, working closely with Koch brothers’ team, with Newt Gingrich, even Grover Norquist.

DUBNER: Can you go back and say that again, just in case anybody missed who you were working together with as a Democratic Senator from New Jersey?

BOOKER: You know, I just got a sweetest note from the wife of the Koch brothers’ general counsel, Mark Holden and his wife, we have become legitimate friends; I love and respect them. Grover Norquist who’s castigated by many people on my side of the aisle, sat in my office when I first came to the Senate and talked passionately about this issue. Newt Gingrich is an activist in this issue and involved in it. You know, on the Senate floor, people like Mike Lee, people like Rand Paul, people like Chuck Grassley has become a leader and a champion on this issue. And so I’ve introduced a lot of pieces of legislation; some of them have gotten bicameral and bipartisan support. But you’re right. Right now, we have had this good legislation in the Senate move out Judiciary Committee, hit the floor, and we’re seeing some challenges to it. So, there’s ongoing negotiations right now to try and shore up our base on the Republican and Democratic side in the Senate and now there’s challenges with Supreme Court fight. Will this get to the floor? So I have been feverishly working the phones to try and make sure that this legislation, which by the way, it’s compromised legislation. I don’t think it’s great; I think it’s very good. And it, more importantly, it reverses the trend of this country to get us back on the track of moving towards common sense in our criminal justice system as well as ideals towards redemption where we are a nation that, if you — you know there has been great people from James Baldwin to Nelson Mandela who say, if you want to see the truth of a country, don’t visit their halls of power; go to their prisons and jails and see who they are incarcerating. We, in America, shamefully, overwhelmingly incarcerate the mentally ill, the drug-addicted, the poor and the brown people of our country. And we do not have a justice system, which we say over the Supreme Court when I walk out of the Capitol, I see it’s an equal justice under law. So, I’m hoping that we’re going to make some progress. I’m increasingly worried as we get closer and closer to the presidential election, but I’m going to be fighting with all my grit to get this over the finish line.

DUBNER: You write about the irony, what you call the irony, that Congress passed the so-called Crime Bill of 1995 after crime had begun to decline and you cite research — this is on page 164 of your book — you cite research by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Research Council that shows, I’ll quote you to yourself, “No correlation between our massive increases in sentencing and imprisonment and this decline,” — the crime decline. Now, I do know of research, that we’ve written about actually in Freakonomics, that argues the opposite. That imprisonment, as many reasons there are to not like massive imprisonment, and I think that’s easy to come up with a long list, and as much as we can agree that a lot of imprisonment is completely not appropriate to the crime, there is evidence that suggests that imprisonment does reduce crime overall.  But, when I went to look at the research that you’re citing in the book, I found that there was no index in your book but also no notes at all in the back as there usually is with non-fiction books. There’s no citation of sources or bibliography. So why is that? I realize that the book is a politician’s story, but it’s also read by some people like me, as a book about non-fiction arguments and I want that stuff. So I am curious why you as the author didn’t include the cites so that a skeptic like me can be assured that you’re telling the full truth.  

BOOKER: Oh, well, that’s first of all, fair criticism because we made a conscious decision, number one to back up everything we had, so if a reporter was to say, OK, “you say X where did you get it from?” So I can definitely get you the information if you want it. But, we didn’t put it in the back of the book and that’s a fair criticism.

DUBNER: Why — I am actually curious as an author — why do you not? Because it’s not like you have to pay for the extra pages, the publisher will pick that up.

BOOKER: No, well, for me a lot of the things that we cite, and we tested it, a simple Google search, “Pew studies of incarceration” we give enough hints there that if a dutiful person wanted to find it, it’s easily found.

DUBNER: In other words, I am an old-fashioned old guy who is paging through the paper version and there aren’t enough of me to count. OK, I accept your answer.

BOOKER: And then, look, we have now the majority of states, pretty much all of them with a few exceptions, three state exceptions, who have lower and it’s been more than half of American states have been making criminal-justice reform, lowering the prison populations and most of them have seen, overwhelming most of them have seen, a drop in crime at the same time. Now that’s correlation, isn’t causation but the flames are often fanned with people saying, “Oh, lock them all up.” But you can look at other nations, from similar nations like us, Canada to ones like Russia with a much lower incarceration rates, much less expenditures of taxpayer dollars that are not experiencing the levels of crime that we are. What is the most humane way and the most economically sound way, fiscally conservative way, to deal with the problem of crime? Is it to do things that disempower people, that make them more likely to commit crime? Because by the way, when you take a non-violent offender, lock them up, they often lose their job and then you do things like incredible use of solitary confinement in this country, which again, put in solitary confinement you will find a lot of data on how that actually triggers mental health problems, worsens mental health problems. The way we conduct our criminal justice system belies common sense, fiscal sense, and moral sense.

As a former mayor of a city like Newark, Booker has seen more and thought more than most Senators about the knock-on effects of high incarceration, especially for drug crimes.

BOOKER: And since we persecute the drug war in the poor neighborhoods, we persecute the drug war disproportionately against minorities, because there is no difference between blacks and whites at all in using drugs or even dealing drugs. But we know now from a lot of data that blacks are about 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for it, and when arrested for the same crime, again, lots of data, shows that blacks will on average get about a 20 percent longer sentence. What we’re doing with particularly men in these communities, for doing things that I witnessed in my affluent town I grew up in, especially on college campuses where dorms are not being raided, people coming home from a frat party are not being stopped and frisked, and if they were, they’d be a lot more arrests on college campuses. What we’re doing in these particularly poor communities is driving the very things we’re then condemning people. In fact, lots of data shows we’d have 20 percent less poverty in America if we had incarceration rates that were similar to our industrial peers.

DUBNER: Let me ask you about family for a moment. The share of kids in the U.S. living with a single parent has risen a lot over the recent decades, as I’m sure you know. It was nine percent in 1960, 19 percent in 1980, roughly 34 percent today, roughly one in three kids today living with a single parent. And research shows that a two-parent home is generally much more desirable. So I am curious, for all the reforms that the Democratic Party in particular talks about, it doesn’t talk about much about “family reform,” maybe a less-loaded way of putting that would be parental responsibility. But especially as the Democratic Party attracts many minority voters and a large share of the single-parent families are minority families only 16 percent of white kids live in single-mother families compared to 27 percent of Latino kids and 52 percent of African-American kids. So I’m curious, as someone who happens to be a minority from a two-parent household whose father was from a single-parent household, with the rise in single parenthood over these years, what you think should be done, if anything? I know you are working from the government side of things not from the family side of things but where should the two meet?  

BOOKER: Well, first of all, I love data and this is one of reasons why I think you have a great show. Because when I was mayor, I said, “In God we trust, but everyone else bring me data.” And, you know, any American that doesn’t understand the differences between single-parent households it’s dramatically different in terms of socio-economic status, college attendance, a lot of very dramatic data on that that is worthy of digging into. And I was mayor of a city where about roughly 70 percent of my kids were born in poverty and, I’m not saying there is any correlation here but about 70 percent of my kids were born to single parents. But there is a nexus here between policy and what some would like to call family values. Because the policy we have in this country works against the development of strong families and strong children, especially when you look at our competitors globally and what they’re doing to support families and children and what we’re not doing.  And one of the great examples of this: we’re the only country, industrialized country, in fact the Congo and Afghanistan have paid family leave, but yet we put American parents, every single day, who are working full time jobs, often double shifts because the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation since 1960 be about 30 percent higher if it just kept up with inflation; be much higher than that if it kept up with productivity — that you have parents who are having these tragic choices every day in America between being there for a sick child or missing a payday, missing a paycheck which would plunge them into poverty or might even put them at risk of losing their car or losing their apartment.

We are a country compared to our peers who are not investing in, again, something else that makes for strong families, strong children, which is universal pre-k. Our competitor nations are understood that there is a direct economic link between kids who are involved in the preschool and kids that are not, in terms of their productivity in the long term.  So there’s all these policies that other countries do to support families, to support children, that we, really the anomaly, the outlier, don’t do and then we turn around and point fingers at families for being bad parents.

[MUSIC: Paperchaser, “Hometown Hero”]

DUBNER: You write very movingly in the book of your parents. You call them your “constant mentors, my first and greatest teachers.”  You refer to your dad, in particular, as a “superhero to me, throughout my life.” Your book is the memoir of someone raised in an extremely loving and an extremely solid two-parent household with additional support from grandparents. How important would you say that has been to your success?

BOOKER: I mean, it is all that I am, and added to that was a community that I grew up in, where I became an all-American high school football player because of men and women in a small town in northern New Jersey, who worked full-time jobs and still came home and coached me. People on my block who, when my parents, both working parents, couldn’t necessarily let me come in they’d have me over their homes and give me food as I did my homework. So, I am in many ways what my father said, that result of a conspiracy of love. He would recount to me what black people and white people and Christians and Jews, all these folks that dislodged my family from poverty, not through some big piece of legislation, not through some big speech or campaign but ordinary Americans committed to these ideals of our country who showed extraordinary love, kindness and decency, that they may have been small acts but in their aggregate they amounted to a transformative change of a family that really shouldn’t have broken out of poverty but that did not just because of a hard-working dad but because of this interdependency that was made manifest in spirit and in action.

But you have to understand, my parents never hesitated to show me the wretchedness, the bigotry, the darkness of American life and telling me the stories of the challenges still to go. And that’s what I love is: I’ve never been one that wanted us to sanitize or whitewash  our history or our present. That to be a hopeful American doesn’t mean ignoring the challenges. And so, you’re right. I had this incredible foundation but my parents pointed my moral compass directly at the unfinished business of this country and said I can’t pay back the blessings that I inherited, as my father said, you now can’t pay that back but you’ve got to pay it forward.

[MUSIC: Laura Ault, “Give Us A Try” (from The Greatest Thing)]

[MUSIC: Louis, “Life In Boxes” (from Life in Boxes)]

Cory Booker grew up in a middle-class black family in the mostly-white town of Harrington Park, N.J. His parents were among the first black executives to work at IBM; his father in sales, his mother in marketing. Today, Booker is one of just two African-Americans in the U.S. Senate. In his book, United, he writes about race through his own experience. Chapter 1, for instance, begins…

BOOKER: The chapter begins “I hate Henry Louis Gates,” because of some very humbling things he did to me.

DUBNER: It’s a great chapter about your white ancestry — how Skip Gates led you on this DNA hunt — and it’s fascinating. And you discover that you have nearly as much European DNA as African-American DNA. I think you are 47 to 45, is that right?

BOOKER: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

DUBNER: But here’s what I want to ask you: Is it not strange that race in the U.S. and elsewhere is still so extraordinarily, I guess, black or white rather than black and white? What I mean by this is look, you have white ancestors as do many African Americans. President Obama has a white mother and yet he is rarely referred to as half-white; he’s viewed as black, for the most part. I know it’s been a long time since the old one-drop of blood rule, but it seems to be almost in strong effect now, and I am really curious about your views on this and the way we look at and talk about and agonize over race generally.  

BOOKER: Well sure, for me it’s very, very straightforward.  First of all, how nice would it be to say, “there’s no black; there’s no white; we’re all just shades of the rainbow, all equal” and that sounds really nice. But we live in a society in which you experience institutions in this country very differently based upon your race. Fascinating studies, out of places like Harvard, where just changing the picture on a resume changes the outcome of the job that the person will get. Fascinating studies about the criminal justice system or things like the death penalty where you are dramatically more likely to get the death penalty if you’re a minority that has killed someone who is white. To not talk about race in America with its profound consequential nature, to not confront these things, to say as a society this is not a black or white issue, this is an American issue where we are all invested in this because of our values as a country equality under the law, common destiny to me is fallacy, to say that we’re beyond race at this point in our country’s history when we still should be talking about it. And so for me, I was taught to revere my parents, God bless them, because they were like “Cory, your liberty has come about through the struggles of blacks and whites, gay folk and straight folk.” They really wanted to let me know the debt that I owed. When we moved into Harrington Park, we were denied, my parents were racially steered out of there. They got a white couple to pose as them.

DUBNER: You tell this great story about a sting that had to occur for your parents to buy the house that they were fully entitled to buy but were kept from buying.

BOOKER: Right, and involved in this elaborate sting operation were black people and white people, and so this is what my parents wanted me to celebrate in my life. The beauty, the magnanimity, the love of all races that enabled my family to move to where we are. But we would be, it would be folly to the legacy of struggle of those blacks and white Americans to not continue to move until we can get to that point in our country where and you love statistics where the statistical outcomes are not so deeply affected by the color of someone’s skin.

[MUSIC: Love in October, “Dance Johanes Kepler” (from Love in October)]

DUBNER: If I type the words “Cory Booker” and then the letter “v” into Google, the auto fill gives me “vice-president Cory Booker,” before either voting record or vegan which you are a vegan, I assume, as well?

BOOKER: Yes. Yes.

DUBNER: So, I’m curious, you’ve endorsed Hillary Clinton and have been campaigning with her and for her and you have been mentioned as a potential VP candidate. So let’s say on a scale of 1-10, how excited would you be, or interested would you be in accepted an offer to run with her as VP on the ticket?  

BOOKER: Well, you saw my joke as VP, and I responded to somebody on Twitter who asked the question with VP and I said, “yes, I will be Hillary Clinton’s vegan practitioner.” So I’m very excited about that role. But you stepped all over my joke. You know, us politicians, we only have a few jokes that work.

DUBNER: You want me to give you a few seconds to you want me to vamp for a bit  so you can think of a fill in?

BOOKER: Yeah, look, it is to me folly to focus on hypotheticals like that. This is in the trenches of a fight, and I’m going to do everything I can to help her win and focus on the real urgencies of my life which is being a great senator and passing some infrastructure stuff I want to do for New Jersey to criminal justice reform. So I don’t even entertain that because I think it’s so, at this point, it’s farcical to focus there.

DUBNER: All right, can I just tell you for a minute why I personally hate politics and maybe you tell me why I should hate it a little bit less? Would you be willing to defend your occupation? And I’m sure I’m not speaking just for myself; I think I’m speaking for many many people. So, let’s start with this: In economics and elsewhere there is a principle that I’m guessing you’ve run across called the principal-agent problem and that means, you know, when there are variety of people involved in what seems to a be a team pursuit a principal and an agent or a bunch of agents, were all kind of rowing in the same direction the fact is that often the principal and the agent have misaligned incentives. And I think that’s the way it feels for certainly me and a lot of people when you look at politics. It seems as though most people who get into politics and into electoral politics, really do have great priorities; they really want to represent their constituents and accomplish the most good they can. And yet, the way the system is set up, it seems as though many, if not most politicians, once they’re in office, in the game, they start to respond to their private incentives rather than those public incentives. And I wonder if you could just talk about that struggle? Maybe you’re so relatively new into national politics that you’re still pure and still feel like you’re representing constituencies and ideas as best as you can. But I’d be really curious to tell, if you could tell people why politics is less rotten than we all think?

BOOKER: Well, I’ve had now two dramatically different experiences. I was executive as a mayor, and then it was the big picture for me always, and I used to get frustrated with my legislature who seemed to be concerned about short-term things or things that weren’t to the bigger issues that we were dealing with. And I remember when I told a friend of mine, Mike Bloomberg, that I was going to be running for the Senate and he, having been an executive too, gave me this gruff answer, almost like I disappointed a big brother — who by the way, Mayor Bloomberg for those interested in politics gave me the best advice in politics I’ve ever gotten which is “Cory, before you become a Mayor, become a billionaire”

DUBNER: Not beholden to anybody forever then, right?

BOOKER: Exactly. But he just said to me something I’ll never forget, he said, “Cory, legislators in Congress are concerned with these first three priorities before anything else,” and he said very skeptically, “re-election, re-election, re-election.” And so now I’ve been down there for two years, and we’ve put a lot of great people in a broken system where there’s a lot of things that I think work against us getting things done, from the campaign finance system that is profoundly broken, and I think perverse, to just the way we draw our congressional lines. We draw our district lines, bluer and bluer and redder and redder, and we wonder then why the margins seem to control the center. So, in the legislature I see a lot of forces like that happening and then the thing that for me, as a former executive that sort of bothers me sometimes, is that you get caught up in just this two-year cycle or the next crisis as opposed to looking at this larger way. And in fact, I often say that if we were running this country like America, Inc., we would be making much better decisions about what to do.” Companies are often concerned with their physical plant, staying ahead of the competition, the quality of their employees. We’ve stopped investing in our physical plan, our infrastructure the way we should; we’ve stopped being concerned about staying ahead of the competition, research and development; we’re going down on that percentage of our GDP. And then the quality of our employees, the training of the next generation of American workers, we’re not doing the common sense things that our competitors are doing.  

But this is the final thing I will say to you who used the word, used a very strong word, which is “hate.” And I’m not going to project onto cynicism, but I often say cynicism is a refuge for cowards. That it is a toxic spiritual state; that is so clouds our ability to see faint possibilities and hope amidst the glaring problems, that we often wipe our hands of any engagement whatsoever. We allow our inability to do everything, to undermine our determination to do something about the problem. One of the biggest challenges, I think, in our democracy is because of feelings like you have, more and more people get less involved, which then creates the very problems that we are worried about because it’s lack of accountability. The Coliseum in Rome, the Latin says, “who will watch the watchers?” Latin or Greek, I’m not sure what the language is. “Who will watch the watchers?” And the best example I give of this — and forgive me if this sounds a little partisan to you — but in 2008 when I went to vote, there was a line wrapped around my voting place like I had never seen before. Barack Obama versus John McCain and the turn out all across New Jersey was like, set records. One year later is the gubernatorial race in New Jersey Jon Corzine, incumbent governor running against a guy you may not have heard of but his name is Chris Christie, and there was no line. I went in and voted easily, I hugged the poll worker that was there because she looked lonely and then Jon Corzine lost; Chris Christie won. And the turnout in urban spaces especially had been just maybe 75 percent of what it had been the year before, John Corzine would have won. Different priorities and so Chris Christie gets in office and pulls us out of what’s called regional greenhouse gas agreements, agreements to lower pollutants in the air. Remember in cities like mine, asthma rates are incredibly high. He cuts funding to Planned Parenthoods; people coming to me about Planned Parenthood doors closing. He lowers the earned income tax credit which is a virtual tax increase on low-income workers. He cuts funding to cities. Every major city in New Jersey had to lay off cops or cut their police force. So people start coming to me, complaining to me about all of this and I say: What are you talking about? Why are we complaining or pointing the fingers at Chris Christie, when it really wasn’t about him; it was about our lack of action and engagement?

And so when I encounter skepticism about politics, I just tell people, “don’t expect the politics of our country to change unless you do.” Who are we in this day and age — where we are relative to the globe enjoying such comforts and conveniences — why would give up right now or surrender to cynicism at a time when our politics and our nation demand more engagement or else we will start to veer off course and become a country that is a shadow of our greatness of our past?

[MUSIC: Mamahawk, “Reset” (from Mamahawk)]

DUBNER: Senator, I accept your challenge to shed my cynicism — although I would argue it’s more skepticism — but I take your point entirely. But, just to prove that I haven’t divorced myself from thinking about improving the system, I do want to run one idea I’ve had by you.  I’ve run this past a lot of politicians. I’ve never gotten much traction with it but I think you might be the man.  Let me say, it’s impossible, it would never happen, but here is one proposal. How about we change the incentives in our legislative system —  let’s think about U.S. Congress or U.S. Senate. And rather than inviting people to run for office and then be dogged by the need to be reelected and raise more money and then engage in short-termism legislatively because of the need for reflection and so-on, what if legislators were remunerated differently? What if they were essentially awarded the equivalent of stock options when their work pays off? So if you working on a transportation project, education, whatever and it might not be for 10 or 20 years, you might be long out office, but I as a taxpayer would love to write a check for a few million dollars to someone who actually did work that worked in the long run and accepted the responsibility if it didn’t. And so I guess there would have to be a claw back as well as the vesting. Can I get you on board my campaign to institute this new legislative incentive system?  Please?

BOOKER: Yeah, so first of all I want to tell you, I hate the word “impossible.” And so when I hear people start with that, this may be impossible, that gets me more excited.  And so, just to give you some confidence in your stance of what your think is impossible but needed, there are a lot of governmental, especially at the local level that are experimenting with exactly what you’re saying in terms of incentivizing government actors, like we did it when I first got in office about “Hey, if you can give me an idea that will save the city of Newark $5 million, why don’t you get a little bonus in pay?” There is now,  I love this trend in government at the local level that you’re seeing that is pay-for-performance. In other words, if I have a program that could save, that could do prison reentry programs and I save the federal government a significant amount of money, why shouldn’t I enjoy some of that? So I would love ways to tinker with the incentives of legislators down in Washington, especially if it came around saving money or creating growth or some of our shared priorities.

The only thing I have to warn you about is the law of unintended consequences, and that’s something that I look at everywhere.  And by the way, two big tinkers that would be at the top of my list would be again the changing of the district lines and changing the way we finance campaigns because we are definitely creating rational actors within government that are doing things in their own incentive to be re-elected that create a more perverse reality for the democracy as a whole.

DUBNER:  I have one final question. This is a question we ask many people on the show: Senator Cory Booker, what is something that you believed to be true for a long time until you found out you were wrong?  

BOOKER: God. Um. God. So I think the thing that I believed for the longest time — and please, please if my mom is not listening to this get her the clip — is I believed for years and years that by the time I was 46, I would be married with children. And I am single and childless, and so that’s a sad day to wake up and realize that your life plan that you made when you were 18 and writing your goals is nowhere near true.

DUBNER: Look, a lot of people listen to this show. Do you want to turn this into a very brief online dating ad? You want to kind of verbally state your profile, what you’re looking for?

BOOKER: You know my staff has done a pre-emptive strike on that by saying we will never ever go on online dating. If they hear me say the word “Tinder” ever, which I have now just violated or J-date or Christian Mingle, they have a little buzzer on my iPhone that actually shocks me. So no, I am a believer in love not just in the Eros way, but I believe that the greatest love — going back to my book — is the Agape way and societal love. And so I will be a purveyor of the latter in hope that one day I stumble over the former.

DUBNER: Senator Booker, thank you so much. Congratulations on the book. It’s called United. I very much appreciate the time.  

BOOKER: Thank you for this great conversation. I’ve been an admirer of you and your show for a long time.

DUBNER: Thanks so much, really nice of you to say. Be well.  

BOOKER: All right, bye, bye now.

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[MUSIC: Torches, “Tongues” (from Tongues)]

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Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:


  • Cory Booker, junior United States Senator from New Jersey