In Praise of Incrementalism
What do Renaissance painting, civil-rights movements, and Olympic cycling have in common? In each case, huge breakthroughs came from taking tiny steps. In a world where everyone is looking for the next moonshot, we shouldn’t ignore the power of incrementalism.
MUSIC: Eric Goetz, “Everything You Know” (from Present and Accounted For)
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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Our previous episode of Freakonomics Radio was called “In Praise of Maintenance.” We asked if our cultural obsession with innovation has led us to neglect the fact that things also need to be taken care of. We talked about sewers:
Ed GLAESER: Certainly, Rome understood that engineering and infrastructure was a huge part of making its city function.
Larry SUMMERS: It’s a remarkable and not a very happy tale.
We talked about housework:
Ruth SCHWARTZ COWAN: They’re doing almost as much unpaid maintenance work as they are paid work.
And we talked about the nuts and bolts of the digital economy:
Martin CASADO: I mean, all of that is infrastructure.
We wound up talking about a pet project of mine — which is trying to digitally archive all my work and personal files:
Chris LACINACK: So this is about maintenance. It’s losing the 200 pounds and then staying that weight.
This project was daunting — until someone helped me frame it differently:
One step at a time. Increment by increment. It got me to thinking about the value of incrementalism in a moonshot world. It got me to thinking that incrementalism is to the moonshot, what maintenance is to innovation. And so, this week on Freakonomics Radio: “In Praise of Incrementalism.” Or, if that’s too wonky for you, how about this: What do the Italian Renaissance, the Tour de France, and the civil-rights movement have in common?
Linda HIRSHMAN: We all like a dramatic story. But things don’t happen out of the blue, and it’s so interesting to get a true picture of why change happens, rather than this sort of phony all of a sudden picture.
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Ed Glaeser is an economics professor at Harvard. I wanted to ask him about my “incrementalism” idea.
DUBNER: So my argument here is that, um, generally we are encouraged and trained, really, to look for big-bang successes, in all realms — education, health care, politics, you name it — and while I understand the impulse to find these magic bullets — it’s exciting, it’s sexy, it’s all those things — it strikes me that much progress if not most throughout history has really been a series of incremental gains. What’s your take on that?
GLAESER: Oh, I think almost surely that’s true. You know, I like these examples from the arts, you know, you can really see each innovation in each painting and each step along the way. If you think about the glory of the Italian Renaissance, it’s a piecemeal process. When Brunelleschi first puts together the mathematics of linear perspective, of making two-dimensional spaces seem three-dimensional — you know, Donatello, his friend, puts it in low-relief sculpture. It moves to Masaccio, who finally puts it into a painting, in, in in Brancacci Chapel, St. Peter finding the, the coin in the belly of a fish. Fra’ Filippo Lippi takes up the ball. Botticelli takes up the ball, each person incrementally improving on the last person. Each person exploring the implications of this new idea. It’s not that, you know, Da Vinci comes along and then all of a sudden the world is different. It’s that he’s built on a century of incrementalists, some of whom are pretty big incrementalists but incrementalists nonetheless, who are really creating this revolution.
Glaeser is plainly an erudite fellow, especially for an economist. But just so you don’t think he spends all his time thinking about Renaissance art and ignoring his own discipline – well, we talked about that too.
GLAESER: You know, within the field of economics, there are larger or smaller parts of those increments, but we’re a field that builds on itself, and it’s sort of a striking fact that within economics, that the Nobel Prize doesn’t really give awards for single papers, so much as it does for a series of contributions by a particular person. And that’s surely as it should be, because there’s rarely, truly, sort of one paper on itself is so, revolutionary that it changes things. It’s more that people build on things. It often takes dozens of extra ones to figure out what it means, and what it what it implies for the wider world.
DUBNER: So plainly you appreciate incrementalism in your own field, and in other fields. Uh, do you feel that puts you a little bit in the minority? Do you feel that our culture and political and social culture is always looking for some version of the moon shot?
GLAESER: I don’t know. I mean, I think this is more a Silicon Valley thing than a Cambridge thing. I think maybe I believe in incrementalism because I’m so painfully aware of the very incremental nature of my own contributions. But it’s certainly true that in the political sphere we are always looking big bang solutions. We’re looking for a leader who will make everything right by coming around the corner, and inevitably we’re incredibly disappointed that somehow or other this new leader didn’t magically change everything. The more that you just think that the right answer is just to elect one person who will magically fix anything, the less that you actually pay attention to what really matters, which is the nit and grit of everyday decision-making, of everyday governance.
DUBNER: So civil-rights reform strikes me as one where, incrementally, there have been massive improvements, and yet it seems as though the appetite for an overnight solution to every civil-rights issue is kind of expected. And when that doesn’t happen, there’s massive hue and cry — even though, overall, the trend has been moving in the right direction. You see that as well, or do you think I’m wrong on that?
GLAESER: No, no I agree totally with that. And it required people who — the NAACP for example, which worked for decades before the Civil Rights Act, right, to move the ball forward. Often in, you know, ways that were important, but seem today quite modest. I mean fighting up to the Supreme Court. Fighting the attempts to zone by race, for example, which it did in the teens. Right? You know, American segregation would’ve been even worse if cities could explicitly zoned by, by race, but they couldn’t. Fighting restrictive covenants as it did in the 40s. Fighting segregation in American schools as it did in the 50s. Decade by decade, increment by increment. And once we start thinking that there’s a silver bullet, we lose that, we lose the fact that we need to be working day by day, over decades, to affect change.
MUSIC: Lucy Bland, “Backseat” (from The Ruiner)
So let’s take a look at a recent story that’s been decades in the making.
JUSTICE KENNEDY: The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry in all states; no longer may this liberty be denied to them.
SCOTT PELLEY: Today, in one of the most momentous civil-right decisions in its history, the Supreme Court found gay and lesbian Americans have a Constitutional right to marry.
In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage. “Marriage,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion, “is a keystone of the Nation’s social order … There is no difference between same- and opposite-sex couples with respect to this principle.”
JUSTICE KENNEDY:The challenged laws excluding same-sex couples from marriage cannot stand under the Constitution.
In 2001, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. The margin was 57 percent against to 35 percent in favor. But by 2015, those numbers had practically flipped. Which would seem to indicate a rather sudden shift.
Linda HIRSHMAN: People often say to me, “Wow, gay marriage. It succeeded so quickly!” They say that all the time. We all like a dramatic story. But things don’t happen out of the blue, and it’s so interesting to get a true picture of why change happens, rather than this sort of phony, all-of-a-sudden picture.
That’s Linda Hirshman. She’s a legal scholar who used to practice labor law – she argued two cases before the Supreme Court and briefed and managed a third. She’s also the author of several books, including Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. The revolution, Hirshman argues, was incremental.
HIRSHMAN: It wasn’t the explosion that the popular narrative makes it out to be.
So, to understand how we got here:
PAMELA BROWN: A historic day here at the Supreme Court, Jay. You can probably hear gay-rights advocates to my right cheering this decision.
You have to go back to a time when life for gay men and women in America was very different.
JOSEPH McCARTHY: There’s another group about which I hesitate to talk, but I think the picture isn’t complete unless we do.
HIRSHMAN: It got very bad during the Joseph McCarthy period.
JOSEPH McCARTHY: This unusual State Department affliction, homosexuals…
HIRSHMAN: So the sort of Red Scare stuff that went on in America started in World War II. And right after WWII it really ramped up and the government used the fact that people were gay as evidence that they were subversive. And they fired them if they worked for the government, so it was a very dark period in gay history.
One of those people was Frank Kameny. He was a Ph.D. astronomer from Harvard.
HIRSHMAN: He was hoping to become an astronaut.
Kameny worked with the Army Map Service of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
HIRSHMAN: And they caught him in a bathroom in San Francisco and they fired him.
This was in 1957.
HIRSHMAN: And he said that’s unconstitutional. You can’t fire me just because I’m gay. And he sued the United States.
Kameny lost, and appealed. He lost again on appeal. In 1961, Kameny petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, but was turned down.
HIRSHMAN: It was too soon. But things in America were starting to break up. And just at that moment, Frank Kameny had the courage to resist.
The civil-rights movement was growing – sit-ins, Freedom Rides, eventually the March on Washington, D.C., in 1963. Frank Kameny wanted to do something similar for gays and lesbians. There was a gay-rights group, founded in Los Angeles in 1950, called the Mattachine Society. The name came from mattachino – Italian for a court jester who spoke truth to power. Kameny started a Washington chapter of the Mattachine Society, and he organized protests outside the White House and other federal buildings.
FRANK KAMENY: Every American citizen has the right to be considered by his government on the basis of his own personal merit, as an individual.
That’s Kameny speaking outside the State Department in 1965. At the time, the State Department argued that gay men and women were national-security risks because they could be easily blackmailed.
KAMENY: Certainly some homosexuals are poor risks. This is no excuse for penalizing all homosexuals.
Their protests were ineffective. Here’s then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
Dean RUSK: Well, I understand that we’re being picketed by a group of homosexuals. [Laughter] The policy of the department is that we do not employ homosexuals knowingly. And if we discover homosexuals in our department, we discharge them.
From the tone of Rusk’s voice, you get a sense of just how much stigma was attached to homosexuality. You have to remember – being gay at the time could not only get you fired; it could also land you in jail. Nearly every state at the time had sodomy laws. Was there at least some support from the medical community? Hardly:
Charles SOCARIDES: Homosexuality is in fact a mental illness, which has reached epidemiological proportions.
That’s Charles Socarides, a psychiatry professor, interviewed for a 1967 CBS News report called “The Homosexual.”
SOCARIDES: The fact that somebody’s homosexual — a true, obligatory homosexual — automatically rules out the possibility that he will remain happy for long in my opinion.
HIRSHMAN: Kameny had figured out as soon as he got active that there could be no equality for gay and lesbian people while they were classified as crazy.
Indeed, Socarides’s view was hardly a marginal one. The American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. The Mattachine Society and other groups set out to change that classification.
HIRSHMAN: And they went about it in a very incrementalist way. They went to the people in the American Psychiatric Association who were studying the question of the diagnoses. They’re a medical association, so they had scholars who were studying it. So the gay organizers approached the scholars and said, “You’re wrong. You’ve got to do real research into this.”
It helped, perhaps, that Frank Kameny was himself a scientist. Hirshman says he could spot flaws in the scholarship about homosexuality. For instance, most of the studies relied solely on gay psychiatric patients.
HIRSHMAN: I mean once somebody is going to the psychiatrist to be helped, he’s part of a population that’s not representative of the whole gay population, right? He’s already in need of psychiatric help or he wouldn’t be there in the first place. You have to look at a representative sample of the whole population and see if they seem to be in distress, which they did not, except from the persecution of course. And to see if they were functioning according to the other indices of good mental health. And they were. The numbers were overwhelming, once the psychiatrists stopped looking at their own patients.
Homosexuality was finally removed from the list of mental illnesses in 1973.
HIRSHMAN: To their credit, these doctors, at the end of the day confronted with the science, did change their position. I interviewed, before he died, the psychiatrist who was in charge of the APA at the time and he said it was the greatest accomplishment of his life.
So that was progress. But consensual sex between two people of the same gender was still illegal in most states, and those laws gave the police enormous power over gays and lesbians.
MARTIN BOYCE: They were always on the lookout for us. They tormented us. They just didn’t leave us alone.
That’s Martin Boyce, a longtime New Yorker who participated in the famous Stonewall riots in 1969.
BOYCE: The amount of people that had trouble with the police or were sent to some sort of institution or were brutalized one way or another, with the police not intervening or being on the side of the brutalizer, was growing. I don’t think any of us did not know someone who really, really suffered real consequences. If not ourselves, then somebody.
The riots were set off by a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. In retrospect, the riots were a turning point in the gay-rights movement. But it would take a long time to gather enough momentum to challenge the legal system.
HIRSHMAN: Quietly during those years in various states and around the country, state courts and state legislators had been decriminalizing sodomy. So gays were now not crazy, and they then attacked the premise that their behavior was criminal. And they were succeeding pretty well.
But many states still had sodomy laws. The movement’s ultimate goal was to take the fight all the way to the Supreme Court, which could invalidate all the state laws at once. In 1986, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the American Civil Liberties Union thought it found a perfect test case in Michael Hardwick, a gay man who’d been arrested for sodomy in Georgia.
HIRSHMAN: In the gay legal bureaucracy, it was felt they reasonably could expect now to get a national judgment that criminalizing gay sex, as opposed to not gay sex, which is not criminal, was a violation of the equal-protection clause.
The ACLU did take the case, known as Bowers v. Hardwick, to the Supreme Court. And …
HIRSHMAN: They lost it, 5-4.
The majority ruled that the right to engage in sodomy was not constitutionally protected. Linda Hirshman says it was a devastating defeat for the gay community.
HIRSHMAN: The opinion is reprehensible and they were already suffering from AIDS.
But, she says, it also made gay-rights advocates even more determined.
HIRSHMAN: Sometimes a defeat like that is so insulting that it radicalizes the community.
By now, the right to marry was becoming another significant plank in the gay-rights platform. Here, from back in 1974, is Frank Kameny talking about it on PBS:
KAMENY: Exercise by homosexual couples of the right to marry detracts not one iota from the rights of heterosexual couples to marry. Homosexual marriages interfere with no one individually. And such marriages impair or interfere with no societal interests.
The question was how the goal of gay marriage could be achieved through the courts. Hirshman says that one source of inspiration was found in the African-American leadership, particularly the NAACP, that pursued civil-rights legislation in the 1950s and 60s.
HIRSHMAN: They followed an incremental pattern more cleanly than any other social movement because the NAACP controlled it.
Thurgood Marshall, who eventually became the first black Supreme Court Justice, was head of the NAACP’s legal strategy. In that capacity, he argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which in 1954 desegregated public schools.
HIRSHMAN: The closest that we’ve come in American social history to having a dictator is Thurgood Marshall. The Inc. fund, the NAACP legal-defense fund, controlled the money that you needed to spend to prove a school desegregation case. And accordingly, they got to say in what order that very fundamental question of school desegregation was presented to the Supreme Court. So they challenged, for instance, a law school that segregated its one black law student out from the class of white law students by roping him off. I mean they didn’t tie him up, but so important was the maintenance of racial caste. And it’s hard for a Supreme Court in the 50s to look at that and say, “Oh, that’s okay.” So in fact the court said it was unconstitutional. Okay now, if it’s unconstitutional to segregate a state law school, why isn’t it unconstitutional to segregate state colleges? And from there to the grade schools, which was the socially the most explosive decision.
The gay-rights movement had no dictator, like Thurgood Marshall. Nor was there a single, dominant organization like the NAACP. But, Linda Hirshman says, there was a consensus beginning to form among activists that the gay-marriage fight would be the hardest one to win. Which meant continuing to focus on the sodomy laws – and fighting anti-gay discrimination in the labor and housing markets and elsewhere.
HIRSHMAN: They very smartly went back to the drawing board with the sodomy laws. And kept getting them struck down by state courts and reformed and reversed in state legislatures until it was an outlier in America to make sodomy criminal.
Finally, in a 2003 case called Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court overturned Bowers v. Hardwick, thus invalidating all remaining sodomy laws.
BOYCE: And that I think was the most important decision of them all.
That again is Martin Boyce, veteran of the Stonewall riots.
BOYCE: I mean once that happened, then it was going to be a matter of time. I don’t know how much time. It could have been many more years of incrementalism. But I knew it was going to happen.
“It” being the legal right for same-sex marriage. Gay-rights advocates won the legal battle in a number of states – Massachusetts was first, in 2004 – although they subsequently had to fight off a proposed federal amendment to the Constitution that would have defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. They kept working to shift public opinion. In 2012, President Obama, who had previously opposed same-sex marriage, changed his position:
Barack OBAMA: At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.
The same-sex marriage movement, as triumphant as it was, in some ways came out of order. There were other, perhaps more fundamental goals to still accomplish — for instance, winning nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community throughout the U.S. Still, as Linda Hirshman points out, the marriage movement did work, and it worked because of the incremental steps that added up to victory. Hirshman has written a number of books on social movements. We asked if she had any advice for one social movement that’s dominating headlines these days: Black Lives Matter.
HIRSHMAN: I have lessons that I think any future movement can learn from the gay-rights movement, and they are as follows: Put your own interest first. Do not take up every conceivable progressive issue that somebody in your movement thinks is interesting. At the beginning, new movements don’t have a lot of spare capital and they need to spend it on their issues and the things that will keep them together rather than fragment them. The gay movement did that. Two, take the moral high ground. The AIDS epidemic forced the gay movement to take the moral high ground, and they did it beautifully and then they used it in the marriage fight perfectly. And the third lesson is have weekly meetings. I am not convinced that social media is a substitute for the kind of social, deep rich social contacts that emerge from physical proximity to one another. The next steps that Black Lives Matter can take are reasonable ones for them to take next, okay? The availability of technology in the form of video cameras and phone cameras empowers them to take bolder action than they would be able to take without the technology. So their next steps look about right to me. They’re bold, but they are in a sense incremental. I mean saying, “Don’t shoot me while I’ve got my hands in the air” does not strike me as a radical position. They then have to move to much more profound issues like the organization of the police force and their training and the way that people use local taxes against communities of color like in Ferguson. Those are bigger bites, but it’s time I think for those to be addressed as well.
MUSIC: Andrea Wittgens and Sugartown, “Alibi Was Just An Afterthought” (from Alibi)
Coming up next on Freakonomics Radio: if the incremental approach can help produce widespread social change, what can it do for your retirement savings?
DAVID LAIBSON: It’s hard to imagine how you go from what seems like a little bit of money to being a millionaire but that’s exactly the way it works when you work out the math.
And… can incrementalism win you the Tour de France?
DAVE BRAILSFORD: Probably not, but it can contribute.
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MUSIC: Nicholas Pesci, “Feeling Quirky”
Let me ask you a question: where do you get your financial advice?
Jim CRAMER: Let me tell you how I see it.
Maybe you tune in Jim Cramer to see where the market’s headed?
CRAMER: Crystal-clear short-term signal [Sell! Sell! Sell!] to sell the automakers for the moment.
Or maybe you follow a different money guru.
CLIP: Squawk Box! Weekdays at 6am on CNBC!
Mike SANTOLI: We know why these stocks look cheap.
PRESENTER: Dan, walk over to the smart board.
David LAIBSON: It depresses me that so many people giving so much bad advice have such a big audience and get paid for it.
That’s David Laibson
LAIBSON: I’m a behavioral economist at Harvard University.
Laibson’s done a lot of amazing research over the years – really amazing, you should look it up – mainly focused on how people make decisions. And how a lot of those decisions are suboptimal – and what should be done about that. Consider saving for retirement. A lot of people don’t follow the incremental approach.
LAIBSON: They love to hear the get-rich-quick story, and people dispensing those stories get big audiences. And some of them even have good historical track records and they get even bigger audiences, until of course they get a bad track record. It’s very easy to get sucked into a false prophet, and there’s so many of them in the financial-services industry.
In study after study, the data overwhelmingly show that individual investors are no good at picking stocks.
LAIBSON: Even the pros are no good at that game. The ability of a mutual fund that does well in one year to do well in the next year is close to perfect chance. So you’re just making a mistake. It’s a very natural mistake. I understand the mistake, because we all look out at the world and say, “Hey, I can see good companies and bad companies.” The problem is that that goodness and badness is already priced in. So you’re not the first one to figure out that Amazon’s a good company. You’re not the first one to notice that this car maker is starting to make bad products and no one is buying their vehicles. Everyone is seeing what you’re seeing. All that information is priced in already. You don’t have an advantage in playing the market.
So what’s a better way to think about saving for retirement?
LAIBSON: One has the impression that it’s impossible to save enough for retirement — and to a certain extent, it is impossible if you start at age 50. But if you start early in life, and every year, you contribute let’s say 10 percent of your income, and maybe there’s an employer match, so now we’re up to maybe 15 percent, and you invest that savings in a diversified mutual fund, stocks and bonds, and you have low fees, and you keep going at that year in and year out, and you don’t decumulate prematurely — it’s amazing how that process produces millions of dollars of retirement savings. So it’s kind of hard to imagine how you go from what seems like a little bit of money each year to being a millionaire but that’s exactly the way it works when you work out the math.
DUBNER: So what you’re describing is not at all a secret to anyone who’s ever read any basic personal-finance or investing book. And yet, as we know, there are a lot of people who don’t follow that. Talk to me for a minute about what we know about the people who have the ability and the resources, the income to accomplish exactly that plan but don’t do it. Is it just too boring, is it too much work, is spending here and now just too exciting to divert that saving today?
LAIBSON: It’s a lot of elements. One element is investing is complicated. So one of the ways that success is achieved is by employers auto-enrolling their employees in these plans and then auto-escalating their savings rates. Also the employer picks a good default investment fund, again diversified, stocks and bonds, mostly stocks when young, moving more and more to bonds as you age. Low fees. Passive investments, so rather than having active management, which is costly, you have passive investments that implies lower fees. And when the employer puts all those pieces in place, people go with the flow. They don’t opt out. They don’t say no. In fact, they say, “Thank you so much. I’m so glad you did this for me.’” But if all those pieces aren’t there, we go off the rails. So our employer may not offer such a plan. That’s a problem for approximately half of the private-sector workforce. There are so many ways in which, unless the right conditions are there, we end up doing what comes natural, which is postponing saving or, even if we save, decumulating. That’s another big risk factor. Maybe I’m at a firm for 10 years; I’ve now accumulated a considerable pool of funds. I leave that firm to go to another firm. Rather than rolling the money over to an IRA or leaving the money in the original employer’s plan, I take that savings as a distribution and now I’m spending that money. So in fact, rather than building the beginning of the snowball that’s going to roll into something enormous, I’ve made my savings vanish and I start again from zero at the next firm. So there’s a lot of ways in which, even though we know we should save for retirement, we fail unless the right conditions exist for us to succeed. It’s those workers who accept those defaults and who take advantage of these modern retirement savings systems, employer-based retirement savings systems, who end up thriving in retirement.
One more conversation today, before we wrap things up, on incrementalism.
DUBNER: Shall I call you Sir Brailsford, Sir Dave, how does that work?
Dave BRAILSFORD: No, no. It was a nice thing to happen at the time but in reality gets you an upgrade on flights and a few hotels rooms but that’s about it really. So let’s stick to “Dave.”
Dave Brailsford was knighted for helping turn Great Britain into a perennial titan in the sport of cycling.
BRAILSFORD: Prior to the year 2000, Great Britain was a nation that only won one gold medal in 76 years of trying.
In Rio, in 2016? Team GB won 12 cycling medals, including 6 gold. At the 2012 Games, in London? Eight gold medals. Brailsford was the performance director of the British Cycling team from 2003 until 2014. In 2009, he helped found the professional cycling outfit Team Sky. The stated goal of Team Sky at the time was to have a British winner of the Tour de France within five years. In fact, Team Sky won two Tours within its first five years, and then two more in 2015 and 2016. Brailsford grew up in Wales, the son of a mountain climber. He wanted to be a professional cyclist, maybe even win the Tour de France himself.
BRAILSFORD: So I decided to pack my bags, rucksack, bike in a box and saved all my money, took enough and went to France.
He found a team willing to take him on – perhaps out of pity, he says now.
BRAILSFORD: I realized pretty early on that I wasn’t going to make it as a top-level professional cyclist. So I thought, Well if I can’t win the Tour de France myself then maybe the future lies in helping other people do that.
So Brailsford returned to the U.K. and went to university. He studied sport science and psychology, then got an M.B.A. He first started working for British Cycling back in 1997. Over the years, he developed a strategy based on a principle called “marginal gains.”
BRAILSFORD: Physics and cycling go hand in hand. It’s a sport that lends itself nicely to physics, data collection, measurement, power and speed. And so, we could collect lots of data and analyze performance and we could feed that back to riders. And then we could work with them on small, very small, minor tweaks, minor changes that probably felt relatively insignificant at the time, but over time, would stick.
DUBNER: Give me a for-instance. Is it something like posture, it is something like pacing, is it mental?
BRAILSFORD: Yeah, positional. You know, across the whole continuum of sport, of the performance. Some of it could be the position of the bike, the position of the head. We fight against the wind in cycling all the time. It’s the biggest thing that slows us down. And just literally dropping the head between the shoulders, dropping it down just a centimeter will improve the aerodynamics and for the same power, you’ll go a little bit further. And the more you can think about holding that position and being cognizant of that position whilst you’re riding at your limit, it makes a difference.
But the marginal-gains approach went well beyond aerodynamics. The idea was to produce at least a one-percent improvement in every facet of the enterprise. From the mechanical – like installing a tire perfectly straight on the rim. To the physiological – like managing the riders’ nutrition and choosing the best massage gel.
BRAILSFORD: We’d look at hand-washing, for example, an area where we’d go to the Olympic Games and we’d be in great form and then we’d be terrified of the riders getting ill or catching a bug. So we started to think about, Wow, how are you going to optimize or reduce the chances of us getting an illness within the team in the Olympic Village for example, and then for that to run through the team and create havoc. So we got a surgeon in who showed everybody how to wash their hands properly. We had people who cleaned all the handles, cleaned the lifts buttons, we obviously encouraged people not to shake hands and be very mindful of this and use hand gels all the time. And I mean, it’s common practice now but when we were starting out, there were small little things that, we’d think, Is that going win us a medal? Well, no, it’s not. But is it going to contribute to it? Yeah, potentially.
DUBNER: How did you first come to embrace the notion that marginal gains could be fruitful? How did you go about learning or deciding which areas to apply it to?
BRAILSFORD: It wasn’t something overnight, like I just woke up morning and thought, “Okay, well, we’ll do it like this. We’re human beings. And when someone says, I’d like a perfect performance, that is daunting. So I thought, let’s break our performance to all of its component parts, map them all out, and then let’s have a look and see is it is possible to progress in each one of the areas? And can we be bothered to do it? Because it takes a lot of work and energy And then you’ve got something that people are in control of and they feel empowered to move forward. So, yeah, they’ll say, “I might not be able to see how I’m going to get to top of that massive mountain over there, but boy I tell you what, I can improve a small amount in my nutrition, in my diet, I can move my weight program forward, I can get another five minutes sleep a night, I can do all the recovery protocols as necessary. You know, and on and on it goes. Now, there’s a big psychological component of this where there’s a team and support team — if everyone buys into that philosophy, you’re creating a culture which is actually moving forward and is actually kind of building a little bit of momentum. Now there’s no denying, there’s no point to doing anything in the periphery unless the absolute critical elements, which are going to account for 40 or 50 percent of the performance, are in place.
DUBNER: What are you talking about when you talk about that 40 or 50 percent baseline? Is that talent, is that riders who are very, very good already?
BRAILSFORD: So, you have to have a hunger and a willingness. And it’s not so much a hunger of wanting to be an Olympic champion. It’s a hunger towards, “I can break down what it would take to get from where I am now to be an Olympic champion and I can see the sacrifices, I can see the suffering, and doing all of that work.” So, that’s for me what we mark down as a “hunger index.” We then look at the talent obviously, and then you have barriers. So, remove the barriers and that will then equal success.
DUBNER: I’m guessing back when you were trying to break into cycling yourself, there was probably no such thing as a “hunger index” there. I’m guessing, if there had been — what do you think your hunger index was back then, Dave?
BRAILSFORD: Very high. I’m a trier, there’s no doubt about that. I think that’s something that’s just set I guess, maybe part of my psychology, my personality.
DUBNER: Well, being the son of a mountain climber probably doesn’t hurt, huh?
BRAILSFORD: No, that’s right, that’s right. You know the one thing he always used to tell me was, “You’ve got to be professional,” always “you’ve got to be professional, professional, professional.” And I used to roll my eyes every time he said it, like, “Come on Dad, shut up.” And then somewhere down the line, it seems to have stuck.
MUSIC: Paul Avgerinos, “Playful Light Delight”
Team Sky, the professional cycling team that Brailsford now runs, competes in big-time races like the Tour de France, where you cover more than 2,000 miles over three weeks. Which means a new day, a new hotel, and a new bed. And, again, Brailsford saw an opportunity for a marginal gain.
BRAILSFORD: The hotel is given to you by the organization, you can’t change it, you don’t know what the mattress is going to be like, you don’t know what the room is going to be like. So we have a forward team that go into the hotels and they have a room protocol. Basically, they lift the bed up, they Hoover under the bed, they clean the room, they have antibacterial protocol which cleans all the room including the television, remote control, the tap handles, etc. We take the shower head off and clean the shower. And then they have their own mattresses, their own pillows specifically for each rider. And so they can sleep in the same posture every night. Now is that going to win you the Tour de France? Probably not, but it can contribute.
DUBNER: Let me ask you: your teams have been phenomenally successful. To what extent do you believe that the marginal gains approach is actually responsible? I get the sense from previous interviews that you think that maybe too much has been made of the marginal-gains business.
BRAILSFORD: I think it gave us a methodology, it gave us an approach which allowed the support staff and the riders, to be of a certain mindset and approach things in a certain way. And there’s no doubt about it, it was like a contagious enthusiasm, if you’d like. I think equally, at times, it’s too simplistic, just to say, “Well, all we have to do is adopt this marginal-gains approach,” and I think people misunderstood the concept of marginal gains being the latest bit of technology or improvement to the bike or aerodynamics, etc. I think what they missed was the whole tacit psychological component, which created a culture and a mindset within a group which allowed the whole group to buy in to something, to have a collective approach where hundredths of a second could be the difference between winning and losing.
DUBNER: Now, of course even casual cycling fans, they know that Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour de France seven times, vehemently denied doping for many years until he eventually admitted it; and that many, many cyclists have doped, which really put a huge stain on the sport. So how does a group of cyclist as dominant as yours, with both Team Sky and Team GB, expect all of us to believe that there’s no doping going on?
BRAILSFORD: It’s a very good question. And I don’t think given the past that we can expect everybody to just believe everything that they see. And I think they’re right to question. There were questions asked in the past, and people trusted Lance and it came as a big blow and big shock to a lot of people. And I think that would inevitably lead to a level of suspicion and a lack of trust that was going to be a hangover from that period. So I fully understand why people do question us. And I think our job then is to try and be as transparent and open as possible about what we do and how we do it. And also over time, I think people will see that we are doing it the right way. We are doing it clean and like I say, we just have to be accepting of the situation we find ourselves in and be patient and tolerant and transparent.
Not long after this interview with Brailsford, he and Team Sky found themselves in a situation. Computer hackers released Team Sky documents showing that its two star riders of the past several years – Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins, both of whom have won the Tour de France — that they used banned substances under what’s known as a therapeutic use exemption, or a TUE. A TUE allows a rider to use an otherwise off-limits drug for legitimate medical reasons. In Wiggins’s case, for instance, in order to treat his pollen allergies before the Tour in 2011 and 2012, he injected a banned corticosteroid called triamcinolone, which some say acts as a performance enhancer.
There’s no evidence that Wiggins or anyone else on Team Sky broke the rules – it was, after all, a therapeutic use exemption. Which is supposed to be kept confidential. But when it wasn’t kept confidential, and when you run a team that’s been hugely successful, and when you’ve been touting something called “marginal gains” as a key component of that success – well, people will talk, especially in Britain, where cycling is a national obsession.
Here’s the Sunday Times sportswriter David Walsh talking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:
David WALSH: The problem that Team Sky have got with this is not only the act itself, which is at the very least highly questionable, but they’re the team that set themselves up as whiter than white. They’re the team that set themselves up as totally transparent. They have been anything but transparent in their response to this. They have basically refused to go into any detail about how this was authorized and they’re basically sticking to the line: it was approved by the authorities and therefore it was technically legal. And for lots of people that’s not good enough, because ethics still matter in sport. Morals still matter.
MUSIC: Judson Lee Music, “Stars Falling”
The U.K. Anti-Doping agency is looking into the charges. Team Sky’s response? The kind of statement that won’t surprise anyone who’s ever heard a statement issued in this kind of case. “We hope people understand why it would not be helpful for us to comment further whilst that investigation is taking place,” the statement says. Furthermore: “We are confident there has been no wrongdoing” and “Team Sky abide by the rules and we 100 percent stand by our competition to clean commitment.”
It’s impossible to say, at this moment, the degree to which Team Sky may have broken or stretched the rules — or the extent to which their success will be downgraded if they are found to have broken the rules. Just as progress in civil rights and investing and cycling itself is an incremental exercise, so too is the revelation of truth. What I do think we can agree on is this: if you want to accomplish something, especially something large and meaningful, it pays to at least think hard about an incremental approach.
Let’s say you weigh 30 pounds more than you should. And you decide to lose it. What’s your expectation – that you can lose it all in just a few weeks, even just a few months? That’s ridiculous. Do you know how long it took you to put on those 30 pounds? A long time! It’s a lot of work to put on 30 extra pounds – well, not work, it’s actually quite fun, eating all that delicious food. But still, it took a lot of nachos and rice bowls and sugary drinks to put on 30 extra pounds. Go to the supermarket and look at a five-pound bag of potatoes. Now look at six of them – that’s how much you’ve accumulated, over time. So you know what? It’s going to take some time to decumulate. Little by little. Choice by choice. Increment by increment. If you expect otherwise – well, your expectations are likely to be dashed. By lowering your expectations, you can actually raise your chances of success.
So … good luck — whether your goal is losing weight or saving money or contributing to a social movement. As always, we’d love to hear from you. Let us know how it’s going. We’re at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.
Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Christopher Werth. Our staff also includes Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Noah Kernis, Alison Hockenberry, Emma Morgenstern, and Harry Huggins. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your podcasts. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, check out our archive, where we have every past episode. And you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook.
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Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Ed Glaeser, professor of economics, Harvard
- Chris Lacinak, founder and president, AVPreserve
- Linda Hirshman, legal scholar and author
- David Laibson, professor of economics, Harvard
- Dave Brailsford, cycling performance director (Team Sky and Team Great Britain)
- Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, by Ed Glaeser
- “Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage,” by the Pew Research Center.
- “Frank Kameny — Astronomer, Activist, and Organizer“
Additional music scoring by Jay Cowit