Can Britain Get Its “Great” Back? (Ep. 393)

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London retains just seven percent of taxes raised, compared to cities like New York (50 percent) and Tokyo (70 percent). Mayor Sadiq Khan says the city should have a larger say in how this revenue is used. (Photo: Taylor/Getty)

It used to be a global capital of innovation, invention, and exploration. Now it’s best known for its messy European divorce. We visit London to see if the British spirit of discovery is still alive. Guests include the mayor of London, undersea explorers, a time-use researcher, and a theoretical physicist who helped Liverpool win the Champions League. Dan Schreiber from No Such Thing as a Fish rides shotgun.

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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On last week’s episode, we spoke with former British prime minister David Cameron about his fateful decision to hold the Brexit referendum, and how things did not turn out as he’d planned. This week: an episode we recorded live in London, just a brisk walk away from No. 10 Downing Street, where Cameron lived and worked when he pulled the Brexit trigger. We’d gone to London with a very particular purpose in mind — and, as you will hear, we were not the least bit disappointed. Hope you feel the same.

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Stephen J. DUBNER: Thank you so much. Thank you. This week’s show is being recorded live at the historic Cadogan Hall, which is in London, which is in England, which is part of the United Kingdom, although by the time this airs none of that may be true. Now, in any case, we’ve come here with a particular mission. As we all know, Britain has had an extraordinary history of discovery, in just about every realm you can imagine. You’ve discovered oxygen and penicillin and the circulation of blood. The electron, the first practical steam engine, the first jet engine. You’ve produced extraordinary literature and all those Scottish philosophers. You’ve produced some of the best dead economists ever as well as the modern banking industry. And of course you’ve explored massive swaths of the planet Earth — and promptly colonized most of it. So a tremendous history of discovery. But: emphasis, if we’re being honest, on history.

It strikes us — and maybe this is just because we’re arrogant Americans — that for the past century or so, you’ve been pretty crap. We’ve been busy inventing the internet and, life-saving drugs, sending people to the moon. You’ve been busy deciding whether to break up with Malta and Cyprus and Scotland.

But let me say this: we’ve still got faith in you. We believe in you. And we thought that if we came over here and we invited some very clever people to this beautiful auditorium, we might find that rather than just limping into the future like some sclerotic former empire, that London and England and the U.K. are in fact brimming with remarkable new ideas and discoveries. So that is our mission tonight, to discover the discoveries that may be lying just out of sight. And I’ve got a friend to help me, who’s a Londoner. He is host of the massively popular, and massively wonderful podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. Would you please welcome Dan Schreiber.

Dan SCHREIBER: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

DUBNER: So on the topic of discovery, Dan, I’d love you to share with us maybe one of your favorite personal discoveries.

SCHREIBER: So I’m constantly discovering stories that may have got lost in time. And years and years ago I was in Sydney, and I discovered a book called My Amazon Adventure, by Sebastian Snow, a British explorer. Never heard of him. I went online, couldn’t really find anything out about him. He was born 1929, died 2001. So, didn’t quite make the Internet. But he discovered three lost Incan cities. He travelled the length of the Amazon — first person to do that. And he climbed two previously un-summited Andes peaks.

But what’s most amazing is that according to every explorer who ever met him, he was the most accident-prone person to ever live. He once had to be rescued from the side of a mountain because he trapped himself in his own sleeping bag. They found him wriggling inside and had to unzip him. Should have died at every single moment. He was just completely useless. Never carried a gun with him. Should’ve carried a gun. Didn’t carry a gun, not because he was a pacifist but because his friends didn’t let him. They were worried he would shoot himself. And I’ve not found anything about him, largely as I say, because he’s not on the Internet. But also because when I do Google him, there’s another Sebastian Snow, who’s a chef who gets in the way the whole time. Any time I’m Googling, this chef in Oxfordshire comes up. And as a result Google is just messed for me, I can’t find anything. So that’s been a huge problem.

And I finally had a breakthrough two years ago, when I was talking to an explorer and I said to them, “Did you ever meet Sebastian Snow?” And they said, “Yeah, I went on an expedition with him.” I said, “Can you put me in contact with anyone who knows him?” And they said, “You could try and contact his sons. One of them’s a chef. He lives in Oxfordshire, actually.” It was his son. My Google nemesis was his son, all this time. And I messaged him and we’re now friends and he’s hopefully going to write a book on him so the world can know about Sebastian Snow.

DUBNER: Dan Schreiber, thanks for that, and thanks for joining us tonight to hunt down what other discoveries may be happening in Britain right now. Our first guest tonight — and we are starting at the very top — would you please welcome the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Mayor Khan, we so appreciate your joining us tonight. First question, what is one remarkable thing that you’ve discovered about London that you didn’t know until you became mayor? I know you grew up here. But I — I’d like to know something nice and specific please, as opposed to the standard, “it’s-a- beautiful-tapestry-of-people-from-all-over-the-world-living-in-harmony,” kind of thing.

Sadiq KHAN: Firstly, that is true, but many people outside of our country think London is home only to wealthy people. But in fact in London we have the largest number of households and the largest number of children living in poverty of any region in the U.K. Thirty-seven percent of London children live in relative poverty. And one of my missions is to try and reduce the inequalities in our city.

DUBNER: I’ve read that, due to the encroaching Brexit that roughly $1 trillion of assets from London’s financial district have already moved elsewhere.

KHAN: So there is a big concern if we have Brexit — but even worse, a catastrophic no-deal Brexit — that could lead to an exodus of jobs, growth, prosperity, but also businesses. At the moment, businesses are waiting. Look, even if we do leave the E.U., the underlying strengths of our city will still be there, which are our people. We’ve got the best universities in the world. Our economy is not just finance. It is finance, it is legal, it is accountancy, it is life sciences, it is tourism, it is culture, it is tech. The underlying strengths of our city aren’t going to change.

DUBNER: Now, Londoners, in particular, and those throughout England are pretty familiar with your personal biography, but many of our listeners do not know. So can you give us a quick version?

KHAN: Sure, I — I’m quite shy about talking about my family. And not many people may have heard this from me. It may be an exclusive to Freakonomics. My dad was a bus driver—

DUBNER: Now, wait a minute. I know he was a bus driver, but he trained as an engineer. Correct?

KHAN: Correct. Yeah, he was he was in the Air Force and he was an engineer. So I’m the first in three generations of Khans who’s not an emigrant. My grandparents migrated from India to Pakistan at Partition. My parents came to London. My dad first went from Pakistan to Australia and said, “I don’t really like Australia.” And then came to London and fell in love with London notwithstanding the challenges then. And then he called for my mum to come over and my three eldest siblings, two brothers and sister, were born in Pakistan. But the rest of us were born in London. And my cousins in Pakistan and India make the point that what we’ve managed to achieve in London, they’ve never achieved and could never achieve in Pakistan or India. That’s the wonders of London.

DUBNER: So you became a lawyer. You held many posts in government. People outside of England may be surprised to learn that you are just the third mayor of London. So why did it take so long for London to have a mayor? I’m assuming it could have used one at some earlier point?

KHAN: Yeah, and we are ironically — bearing in mind we claim to be one of the exporters of democracy. We are the most centralized democracy in the western world. Whitehall and Westminster hoard a lot of power. It took us some time to move towards the mayor model, which America’s had for decades and decades.

DUBNER: So some of your top priorities include better public transportation, cleaner air, more housing and more affordable housing. So the sort of standard mayoral issues. But as I understand it, the mayor of London retains just 7 percent of taxes raised in the city — versus for instance 50 percent in New York and 70 percent in Tokyo. So does this mean that London is essentially subsidizing the rest of the U.K.? And if so, why does the rest of the U.K. hate on London so much, accusing you of snobbery, greed, and whatnot?

KHAN: Well, firstly yes, London does benefit the rest of the country but that’s not a bad thing. I believe in the nation-state. I think it is really important as those with the broader shoulders to carry the greatest burden and help those parts of the country that need our support. So I’m not in favor of unilaterally declaring independence.

DUBNER: But it sounds like you’re open to it.

KHAN: Well, listen. I love the sound of “El Presidente.” But my point to our friends in government is, look, we think we can do even better with more devolution. So I’ve got no problems sharing some of the tax revenues with the rest of the country. My argument to the government is, give us more control over the monies we raise in London, and we can do a better job.

DUBNER: All right, let’s take this conversation back to the Brexit vote. You were elected Mayor of London in May of 2016 and one month later, voters in the U.K. decided to leave the European Union.

KHAN: But there’s no link to that and me being elected. They’re separate.

DUBNER: If you say so. And just to be clear, London voted overwhelmingly to remain. But now, there is an official Londependence Party. You have talked publicly —including just a moment ago when you nominated yourself El Presidente — you’ve talked about the appeal of running some kind of city-state. I am curious about the degree of independence you would like to see— and: was the Brexit vote then, I’m starting to wonder, just a conspiracy engineered by Londoners to get rid of the rest of the country, perhaps?

KHAN: Yeah. So my argument to the government is we should have more control over our taxes — fiscal devolution. So we pay a huge amount of money, not just in income tax and corporation tax, but think of stamp duty, the property taxes we pay. We’re in charge of the tubes, the buses, the trams, and we run them very well. We’re not in charge of the commuter trains coming into London, we think we should be in charge of those. We think we should be in charge of the types of homes built in our city. We have lots and lots of homes, luxury homes, which sit empty, which are bought by foreigners as gold bricks. I have nothing against foreigners. Some of my best friends and family are foreigners. But I think we should be building homes that Londoners can afford to live in. And there’s — there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that at the head of the government is somebody who should understand this stuff because he used to be the mayor. The bad news is it’s Boris Johnson. We’re going to — Londoners, we’re going to use a charm offensive to try and lobby him to give us more powers. You can be the charm. I’ll be the offensive.

DUBNER: So we actually interviewed Boris Johnson several years ago when he was mayor and we talked about this very topic — here’s what he told us then:

Boris JOHNSON: We have now in London 72 billionaires, which is more than New York. New York has only 43 billionaires. And how about that? Paris has only 18 billionaires, and Moscow has, I think, 40. So you know, London is to the billionaire as the jungles of Sumatra are to the orangutan.

DUBNER: So, I don’t really have a question for you other than: “Would you agree that London is to the billionaire as the jungles of Sumatra are to the orangutan?”

KHAN: Can I just say to all the Freakonomics listeners from outside this country: I apologize for Boris Johnson. Please don’t judge us.

DUBNER: I’d like to ask you a bit about immigration and integration in Britain, especially in light of your family’s background. So there is a law professor and philosopher named Hasko Von Kriegstein who recently made the argument that “it is logically impossible for an immigrant to Britain to not integrate. The immigrant can adopt British values and attitudes; the immigrant would therefore be perfectly British. Or the immigrant can reject British values and attitudes. But since moving to another country and then spurning that country’s values, language, and attitudes is a quintessentially British behavior, the immigrant is again perfectly British.” So I’m curious how you see immigration and integration in Britain these days, especially for someone whose skin is not white.

KHAN: So let me share my family’s own experience. When my dad first came here in London, and it’s hard to believe now, there were signs in guest houses, restaurants, pubs, that said, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs.” And by “blacks,” they meant anybody who wasn’t white. And then a government, a Labor government, passed a law to make it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of race. So those signs could no longer be put up.

DUBNER: This was what year?

KHAN: Sixty-eight. Legislation was passed, the Race Relations Act. My dad came here — signs up saying, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs” — the city he came to, his city voted his son to be the mayor of that city. That’s London. So when you wonder how great is London as a city — London is a city that can vote for the son of an immigrant, with working-class parents from a council estate, who is not just an ethnic minority but a Muslim at a time of the greatest amount of Islamophobia the Western world has seen. What I say in response to your question, how worried are you about Brexit? Of course I’m worried. Of course I’m worried about a no-deal Brexit. Of course I’m worried about the impression that may give to non-Londoners and non-Brits. But I am so confident in our ability as Londoners to deal with that head-on.

DUBNER: So along those lines. Let me ask you this. You’re the mayor of London, you grew up in south London, but when it comes to soccer, what you call football, you are a Liverpool supporter. Can you tell us that story?

KHAN: The true story about why I support Liverpool is — and it goes back to what we were talking about, about integration. So my big brothers used to support Chelsea. And on one occasion, they went to this Chelsea game and, they were basically chased away by the National Front because they were not the color skin that those in the stadium, and support should be. I didn’t go to any matches except for one I went to, where I also didn’t have the best experience because of the color of my skin. So my own experience of football was watching it on TV or listening to it on radio. And the Liverpool team of those days were just a great, great team, there’s a great saying, “You can change your job, you can change the house you live in, you can even change your partner, but you don’t change your team.” So, yeah.

DUBNER: So Liverpool’s best player these days is Mohamed Salah, who’s Egyptian and like you a devout Muslim. And he is extraordinarily popular among hardcore Liverpool fans — who are, shall we say, not always the most inclusive fans in the world. And yet one chant that they’ve been singing lately goes like this.

Chant: Mohamed Salah, a gift from Allah, he came from Roma to Liverpool. He’s always scoring. It’s almost boring. So please don’t take Mohamed away.

KHAN: There’s a better one. There’s a better one.

DUBNER: You can sing it.

KHAN: Right.

KHAN: “If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. If he scores a few more goals, I’ll be a Muslim too. “Mo Salah, Mo Salah!”

DUBNER: So several political scientists at Stanford recently did a study looking at whether Salah’s popularity has had any effect on Islamophobia in England. They did this by surveying Liverpool fans and measuring changes in hate crimes and anti-Muslim tweets. And they found that indeed Salah’s popularity has significantly decreased anti-Muslim sentiment in England. So I’m really curious, Mayor Khan, what you think about this research, whether that rings true to you, and whether it might have a lasting effect. Because when Salah or any player starts to decline or if he messes up, will it make life worse for Britain’s Muslims? And along those lines what about you as one of the most prominent Muslims in the country? If you decline or mess up, does that change public sentiment toward Muslims?

KHAN: So I remember as a Liverpool fan, when John Barnes — John Barnes is a black, British person who played football, very talented. In those days when he played, the 80s, it wasn’t uncommon for bananas to be thrown in the pitch to the black players. But because he was so talented, he changed the way people thought about black footballers, including some Liverpool fans who may have been racist, but their actions changed because they were mixing, mingling, and idolizing this black footballer. And the same goes with Mo Salah — Mane, Shaqiri, three different players, all Muslims, and they start the game at the beginning praying in front of their teammates. And you heard from the football chant — it’s educating ordinary people about a religion that, I could do a thousand speeches, and you could do a million pieces of research, you won’t change people’s attitude, unless they experience it themselves. So, I’m confident that the attitudes people have towards Muslims aren’t going to regress. As long as we aren’t complacent. We’ve always got to be vigilant. There’s an assumption that many of us who are progressive make, which is progress only goes one way — whether it’s gender equality, whether it’s to do with sexual orientation, to do with ethnicity. It doesn’t. It can go backwards. And we’re seen that around the world with the rise of nativist, populist movements from America to Hungary to Italy to Poland. In our country as well. So yeah, of course it’s possible if players of a certain ethnicity or religion miss a penalty, or play a run of a few games, then some people can revert to the prejudices. But I hope over a period of time people will understand that actually whether it’s Salah, Mane, Shaqiri, whether it’s a Brazilian goalkeeper — it makes people realize that we’re a team, owned by Americans, managed by a German, with representatives from all around the world. We are the United Nations. And we’re champions of Europe.

DUBNER: So it’s very interesting to me how fragile that is. The sociologists and political scientists talk about the difference between contact theory and exposure theory. If you’re just exposed to someone different, it may not change. If you have contact with someone that’s unlike you, it can establish a different relationship. I’m sure you’ve met a lot of people who probably thought they were not going to take a liking to you, for whatever reason, a hundred reasons. And I’m curious what you’ve learned, to have that much contact with so many people outside your circle.

KHAN: That’s a cracking question. I have realized, often through no fault of their own, there are some people who will have prejudged me, may have preconceptions for a variety of reasons. Because of the party I belong to, because of the color of my skin, because of my religion. I make an extra effort to try and get them to know me. Get them to meet me. Not just going to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, but going to big companies, small companies, schools — that’s the best way to change people’s attitudes, by spending time with them and breaking bread. So for those people who may for example think there are parts of London that are no-go areas, or may think that it’s not possible to be a Muslim and a Westerner, I hope you will realize that actually your life would be enriched by really understanding that diversity is a strength, and nothing to be scared of.

DUBNER: Mayor Khan, it’s been great having you. Dan Schreiber, before we let the mayor go, I’m curious whether you have any facts about Mayor Khan, or mayors generally, that you might want to share with us?

SCHREIBER: So, first interesting fact about Mayor Khan here is he’s human. In America you can’t always guarantee that when you have a mayor. This year actually in Fair Haven, Vermont, a three-year-old Nubian goat was voted in and made mayor. She’s called Lincoln and her first action after being sworn in was to defecate on the floor. Actually a former mayor in America was born in London in the Underground, and that was Jerry Springer. Very cool fact.

KHAN: I’ve got a fact as good as that by the way.

SCHREIBER: Oh, yeah go for it.

KHAN: In the entire history of the underground, only three people have been born on the tube. Jerry Springer is one of them. He was born because his mum, during the Second World War, the underground were air-raid shelters. So his mum didn’t fancy having a baby in the tube.

SCHREIBER: Well, actually I’m gonna throw another Underground fact back at you.. It’s quite fun, having a fact-off with the mayor about the Underground. Whitechapel, the Underground there, it’s a station in London which has — we have an overground as well. It’s the station where the two meet. And it’s the only station in London where the underground is above ground and the above-ground is underground.

DUBNER: Dan, I thank you and Mayor Sadiq Khan — thank you so much for being on our show tonight.

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Hey there, this is Stephen Dubner. We recently spent an evening in London, with a live audience and a series of guests who, in the spirit of Britain’s rich tradition of exploration and discovery, told us about their discoveries. Dan Schreiber from the No Such Thing as a Fish podcast was riding shotgun. And what have we learned so far? London Mayor Sadiq Khan revealed that London — the city that did not want the U.K. to break off from the E.U. in the Brexit vote — may in fact want to break off itself from the rest of England. Our next guest was a professor of the sociology of gender at University College London and co-director of UCL’s Center for Time-Use Research. Her name is Oriel Sullivan.

Oriel SULLIVAN: Thank you. Thank you.

DUBNER: So first, if you would talk about the data you’ve used: where the data come from, how good the data are, and whether these are the typical sort of data that have been used in the past to measure how people spend their time.

SULLIVAN: So what we do is we collect time-use data surveys using diaries. And archive it in a way that makes it comparable both across time and across the country.

DUBNER: And these go back how far?

SULLIVAN: These go back to the 1960s.

DUBNER: And when you say “diaries,” is it what we think of as a diary, with paragraphs of writing, or?

SULLIVAN: Well, some people do wax lyrical about what they’re doing, but in general people’s answers tend to be relatively shorter. You have a record through the day where you record what you’re doing in sequence. And we also have some interesting additional fields like who you were doing it with, whether you were enjoying yourself at the time. And the reason that it’s good data, is that in the past when people were asked how they spent their time, those questions tended to be just conventional survey questions, like, “Last week, how much time did you spend doing unpaid work?”

DUBNER: Now, I understand that one impetus of your research was to look at the notion of whether technology has sped us up otherwise changed the way that we spend our time?

SULLIVAN: There’s a kind of “media panic,” we call it in sociology, about the way in which our life is constantly speeding up and we never have enough time to do the things we want to do. And we always have too much to do. And one of the surprising things that we found is that in fact when you look at the actual evidence of how many activities people are doing, and how much they’re multitasking — because multitasking is also something that appears in the literature as being a major contributor to having too much to do — we don’t really find any change in that over time. And we also don’t find that people’s perceptions of feeling always rushed have changed over time. If anything, there’s been a general decrease in people’s reports of feeling always rushed for time.

DUBNER: That is so interesting because what your data say seem to be the opposite of what the media say and what most people feel, yes?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. Yes it is.

DUBNER: So why is the perception thus and the data — what’s the opposite of “thus”? I’m sure you have a word for it here.

SULLIVAN: There may be several things involved but I think one of the things is that the kinds of people who write about feeling terribly rushed are not students living on their own. They’re also not retired people. Both categories who might have a certain amount of time on their hands. They tend to be people in mid-career. Possibly also with small children.

DUBNER: Are you saying that journalists are not 100 percent excellent at representing the reality in the world?

SULLIVAN: Well, not just journalists but professors as well, because we exist in the same category of mid-career professionals and we have families, we have children, and our perceptions are largely determined by how things used to be for us.

DUBNER: I’m very curious to know whether your data reveal interesting differences in different demographic groups, particularly gender. You mentioned unpaid work. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

SULLIVAN: Sure. Women report feeling always rushed. Considerably more than men. And that was true in 2000 and it’s also true in 2015. The gender difference is far larger than the difference between social classes, for example. That’s a really interesting finding. And I think it reflects women’s double burden of continuing to be thought to be responsible for the domestic work. But at the same time being increasingly expected to participate in the labor force.

DUBNER: Women spend how much more time doing unpaid work than men?

SULLIVAN: Well, they do about three to four times the unpaid work of men.

DUBNER: Three to four times?

SULLIVAN: Three to four times, yes. Since the 1960s, we’ve seen women’s time spent in unpaid work — this is all unpaid work, and childcare as well — has gone down from about five to four hours a day, whereas for men it’s increased from about one to just under two hours a day. But most of that increase for men has come in perhaps more desirable activities like shopping and childcare activities rather than in the core housework activities.

DUBNER: Can you put some numbers on the value of the unpaid work?

SULLIVAN: Sure. In 2015, the value of unpaid work came to £450 billion. That is one-quarter of total national GDP. And that proportion has been pretty constant since 1961. So imagine that all these people who do these kinds of unpaid work activities stop doing that, okay? And then our entire social-care system would collapse under the weight. Our elder-care system would collapse. Our child-care system would collapse. So that gives an indication of the extent of the contribution that is made by this kind of work.

DUBNER: I am very curious to know, what’s your preferred way to spend a day and whether during this research, you noticed or realized anything about yourself.

SULLIVAN: Not really. No. Because—

DUBNER: This is what we call in the business a dead-end question.

SULLIVAN: Yes. Absolutely. I hope you’ll cut it from the finished version.

DUBNER: I think we’re making great radio right here and now. So Dan, I’m sure you have some interesting additional facts about time use?

SCHREIBER: Yes. I read that according to the Vatican, you can reduce the time you spend in purgatory by following the pope on Twitter. And this is probably my favorite little time-related fact that I found. So Dolly Parton has a theme park in America, which is called Dollywood. Do you guys know that? Yes. Big theme park. Okay. So does anyone here know what the opening hours of Dollywood are?

AUDIENCE: 9 to 5!

SCHREIBER: It’s 10 to 6. What is she doing? What a missed opportunity.

Next up, we welcomed to the stage two guests: Lucy Woodall and Oliver Steeds, from an outfit called Nekton Mission, which conducts undersea expeditions. Woodall, a marine biologist at Oxford, is Nekton’s principal scientist; Steeds is the firm’s chief executive. We began by asking them about the primary goals of their project.

Oliver STEEDS: To explore and conserve the ocean. To try and gather more understanding of how the ocean is changing and trying to gather that data to help inform the protection. Scientific consensus is we need about 30 percent of the ocean protected by 2030. Currently we’ve got about seven and a half percent. We’ve got a long way to go.

They’ve begun an ambitious project to explore the Indian Ocean — the least-explored ocean, even though it covers 14 percent of the Earth’s surface.

Lucy WOODALL: Yeah, we are often the first humans ever to see that bit of our planet. Some people consider it the forlorn ocean but actually it’s an amazing — very, very important ocean. There is a large percent of the population that rely on the Indian Ocean. And it’s one of the least protected as well.

DUBNER: So how does it work? Do you own ships? Do you rent ships? What kind of ships, etc. etc.?

STEEDS: No, we don’t own the ships, we don’t own the subs. That’s part of the challenge, if you’re going to go do deep ocean work that we do, you’re either an oil-and-gas company and you’ve got billions or you’re big government or you’re backed by a billionaire. We are a small charity, we’re neither. So, no, we go out and charter everything and, so our last expedition was to the Seychelles, we chartered a vessel which was 87 meters, we adapted it so it could launch and recover submersibles, remotely operated vehicles, and robots. We put a team on board, but it was hugely challenging.

DUBNER: So as much as you can, just paint a picture. What’s it like to go down? What’s it look like? What’s it sound like? And what’s it feel like?

WOODALL: Firstly, amazing. But I guess you want slightly more than that. You’re very hot. And then slowly as you descend, you come out of the light and as you go down you lose those large vistas. It gets cooler and cooler and then you’re starting to notice the sharks, the manta rays, often a turtle as well. And as we go down from the light-loving animals and plants down through the water column, there’s less light. We’ve got more pressure. We have temperatures that decrease as well. So this means the whole host of animals and plants that live there change. So we go from some of these typical coral reefs that we might have seen on the T.V. We get to different types of corals. These are black corals. Their stem is black, but actually they have amazing vibrant colors. Yellows and oranges. And they look just a little bit more like trees wafting around. And this is a really important zone that actually until 2016 we did not know existed.

DUBNER: Is this the Rariphotic zone that you’re describing?

WOODALL: Absolutely. So the Rariphotic Zone isn’t one of our discoveries. It’s something that we found that another researcher, Carole Baldwin in the Caribbean, had already discovered.

DUBNER: So is it safe to say that most ocean explorers in the past have looked at the surface and the floor and you’re doing the middle? The neglected middle?

WOODALL: Yes. So traditionally there has been a lot of work done on the surface, because it’s easy to get there. We all like scuba diving. But that’s generally to 30 meters. And then we really like the deep diving as well because that sounds cool.

DUBNER: Let me ask you a quick question about the difference between, I guess, biomass and biodiversity, and whether the volume of living organisms happens in one place, but in another place or in maybe less volume, there may actually be more variance?

WOODALL: Yeah. So on the surface of the ocean, we have a lot of life. So that’s the amount of life. But actually as we go down into those middle zones, at around about 1,000 meters, that’s where we have our highest diversity. And that’s really interesting and as scientists we’re really still trying to understand the reasons why.

DUBNER: Are you discovering new species hand over fist, or what?

WOODALL: Yeah sure. Do you want one named after you, what sort of thing? Because actually every time we go into the ocean, we find something new. It’s because nobody has been to these places before and if they’ve been there, maybe they haven’t collected everything. They haven’t observed what we’re able to do in the submersibles. All of these new things that we’re discovering have already had benefits to human life. We call this bioprospecting. There is medicines and other industrial processes that are only possible because people have gone into the ocean, just collected one small thing, and then for years and years they have looked at those molecules.

DUBNER: So I’m curious. Given what we’ve read about pollution in the oceans, about overfishing, about climate change and how that may affect the oceans: as you’ve gotten in there yourselves with these expeditions to parts of the ocean that perhaps have never been seen before, are you more or less optimistic about the general welfare of our oceans?

WOODALL: I’m more optimistic, because I’ve met the most amazing people who are doing fantastic work in their own nations and trying to help people understand why our oceans are important.

STEEDS: I want to be optimistic, I really do. And we need to be optimistic. Martin Luther King, he didn’t say, “I have a nightmare.” He said, “I have a dream,” and we need to give people dreams.

DUBNER: That would have been a whole different movie.

STEEDS: It would be. But you look at how the ocean’s reported at the moment and we’re hearing about the nightmare of the oceans constantly and that only gets us so far. We know what we need to do. We know that we need to protect 30 percent of our ocean by 2030. The solutions are out there, but we’re moving too slowly. Can we fix it? Yes we can. Are we able to? I hope we can. We have to be optimistic. So, yeah.

DUBNER: No offense, I liked Lucy’s answer better.

STEEDS: Yeah. Me too.

DUBNER: Dan Schreiber, some fascinating stuff here from Lucy Woodall and Oliver Steeds about the ocean. Do you have any oceanic discoveries to add to that?

SCHREIBER: Yeah, one is that scientists have discovered that if you drop your shoes into the sea, the right foot will go one way and the left foot will go another. A consignment of Nike shoes fell off the back of a cargo and slowly they’ve been washing up on various shores but largely the left shoe is on one shore and the right shoe was going on the other. And it’s all to do with asymmetry in the shoe and the way that the currents and winds send it. So that’s just a nice little nugget. And probably my favorite bit of ocean news from the year is that two students from Christchurch Academy in Florida were swept out to sea and with no help in sight, they prayed to God to save them. Soon after they were saved by a passing boat called Amen. 

DUBNER: Dan, thank you. Lucy Woodall, Oliver Steeds thank you so much for telling us about your mission. And would you please welcome our final guest this evening. He is, as chance would have it, one of the men responsible for bringing the Mayor of London’s favorite soccer player, Mohamed Salah, to Liverpool. Would you please welcome the director of research at Liverpool Football Club, Mr. Ian Graham. Ian, great to have you here. Congratulations on the Champions League trophy. I’m sure that was mostly your doing.

Ian GRAHAM: Yeah. Oh, only 80 percent.

DUBNER: Let’s start with the discovery idea. Which football player would you claim as your favorite discovery?

GRAHAM: So it’s important to say that signing a player is a multidisciplinary exercise. So you’ve got the traditional methods of scouting, some newer methods of video scouting, the coaches and the manager have to be on board and enthusiastic about the player. My role is the data-analysis side of analyzing football, which is the newer side. And the sorts of players that I really like are players who shine through in the data, but don’t naturally shine through for your typical football fan or even your typical scout. These are sort of awkward, ungainly- looking players or players that have been overlooked for various other purposes. One of my favorite players is Andy Robertson, our left back, one of the best left backs in Europe, and now European champion of course.

DUBNER: And is he horribly ugly or something? What was the problem?

GRAHAM: No, so, Andy Robinson’s problem was his background as much as anything. So he only started playing English Premier League football maybe at the age of 22. And he played for Hull City, which was not a very good football team. They got relegated from the Premier League. And he was the best young fullback in Britain at the time. He was a really strange case of a really attacking fullback playing in a really poor defensive team.

DUBNER: And which metrics particularly could you look at that would identify that ability?

GRAHAM: So we get data on every ball touch that every player makes in a game, where it was on the pitch, and what happened next. We can see where all of the players are, at 25 frames per second. It’s done with optical tracking. The same technology that is used for missile-tracking, originally. It’s much easier to track a person than a missile. They travel a little slower.

DUBNER: Can you name just one or two on-field metrics that are measurable, that really matter a lot, but which are not obvious to fans and maybe even managers and scouts, but you can identify in the data?

GRAHAM: Yes. That’s a really good question. We tried to put everything into one currency. So football is measured in goals because that’s what gets you a win. We try to take whatever action a player does on a pitch — whether it’s a pass or a shot or a tackle if you’re a defender — and ask the question, “What was this team’s chance of scoring a goal before this action happened?” And then, “What was this team’s chance of scoring a goal after that action happened?” And we call that “goal probability added,” which is a really catchy name. The thing that I’m really obsessed about is the risk-reward payoff of passes. So, some of the best passers in the game have some of the lowest pass-completion percentages in the game. And that’s because the risk-reward payoff is very, very skewed in soccer or football. We are in London, not in New York. So it’s very easy to massage your statistics and get a high pass-completion percentage by playing very conservative passes that do nothing for your team’s chance of scoring a goal. And the passes I really love are the passes that go in behind the opposition defense, that take four or five defenders out of the game. Those passes are really hard to make. But someone who gets those passes correct half the time would be a world-class attacking midfielder.

DUBNER: That is really fascinating, and a great illustration. Is it difficult to identify those high-risk passes in the data?

GRAHAM: When we look through the lens of the data, it’s not a perfect lens, you see a smeared-out view because you don’t see all of the details of exactly how much pressure this player was under or exactly where the defenders were. But the players who play a full season of football attempt that sort of pass, or the good ones at least, attempt that sort of pass often enough that the law of large numbers starts coming into play, and you can get a good statistical reading of the player.

DUBNER: So let me ask you this: you got a Ph.D. in theoretical physics at Cambridge. I didn’t mean to laugh at that part—

GRAHAM: It’s a good university.

DUBNER: Yeah, no— but how do you go from that pursuit to analyzing football?

GRAHAM: Lots of luck and questionable career decisions is the answer. So I was doing a post-doc after my Ph.D. and responded to an advert that asked, “Would you like to do football statistics for a living?”

DUBNER: So it was pretty straightforward, really.

GRAHAM: Yeah.

DUBNER: All right, so let me just ask you a very basic question: in your job as director of research for Liverpool Football Club, in which way is analytics more important — on-field play, the actual game and the athletes? Or the allocation of resources when it comes to buying and selling players?

GRAHAM: So, it can help a lot with both things but the place where it really can help is the acquisition of players in terms of helping our scouting process. In Premier League football and European football in general, there’s a worldwide free market of football players. So if we spot a player that we would like to play for Liverpool and we can pay the price that the selling club demands, then we can buy him. And the real power of data analysis is when the data set is large. We have detailed data on hundreds of thousands of players. Maybe only five percent of those would be anywhere near a Premier League level player. But that’s still 5,000 players, which is too big a set of players to scout everyone in depth and in detail. So we can really help that filtering and identification process.

DUBNER: Now, I understand that you played a role in hiring Jürgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool now. Correct?

GRAHAM: Yes, it’s a small role.

DUBNER: Tell us about that quickly.

GRAHAM: So our owners, and me and all my colleagues were huge fans of Jürgen and his Dortmund team. In the early 2010s they played the most exciting brand of football in Europe and coming from a place really not of financial dominance. So they won the German Bundesliga twice, at a huge financial deficit compared to Bayern Munich. And so he was always one of our dream hires for a manager. But his last season at Dortmund was disastrous. So they were in the relegation zone. And the German media said it’s all over for Dortmund, Klopp’s lost it, and there’s no way back for them. Our analysis showed something quite different. Which was that they were still clearly the second-best team in Germany. But the performances did not match the results. So I analyzed 10 seasons of Bundesliga performances, and Dortmund were the second-unluckiest team in that 10-year history. It was just some terrible luck that cost Jürgen that one season.

DUBNER: In addition to being a wildly successful manager with Liverpool and Dortmund before, Jürgen Klopp also appears to be an extraordinarily kind and thoughtful human being. Can you please tell us about something horrible that he’s done?

GRAHAM: I’m going to have to disappoint you, I’m afraid. My concern about Jürgen was his act that you see on the cameras every week, was just that, an act, and that the real person would be someone different. But it really isn’t.

DUBNER: That is disappointing.

GRAHAM: It’s very disappointing. I mean, data analysis, because it’s new and because football is a very conservative sport, it’s something that is difficult to get across and it’s very understandable for a manager who has a hundred other things to worry about to just say, “You know what, I’m not interested in this.” But Jürgen took the time and was kind enough to let me explain our approach. He understood it and appreciated it, which already puts him in the top 5 percent of managers, in my opinion.

DUBNER: Okay, but I’ve got something on him. I’ve also read that when Klopp came to Liverpool, and you needed a striker, that you brought to Klopp a list of what you thought were the 10 best available strikers. And at the top of the list I believe, was Mohamed Salah, who at that point was playing for Roma. And Klopp came to you and said, “This list, my friend, Ian Graham, is not good enough. We don’t want those players. Give me more.” You gave him more, then he said, “These are even worse.” And then went back, and ultimately you did hire Mo Salah. So what did he not see that the rest of you did see, and how much nicer was he to you after it all worked out well?

GRAHAM: So luckily enough, in the aggressive way that Jürgen would have asked this question, I wasn’t the person that he was demanding these answers from.

DUBNER: Can we do some role-play? I’ll be you and you’ll be him. Sorry. I’ll be the person who’s not you, that he’s yelling at and you’ll be him. So what would he say?

GRAHAM: I’m afraid my German accent would be culturally insensitive.

DUBNER: Do you want to do it in a neutral— you’re Welsh, yes? Do you want to just do it in neutral Welsh then, and we’ll imagine?

GRAHAM: Well, I think so. The process that we go through is to—

DUBNER: I can tell by your dissembling you’re not going to tell me, are you?

GRAHAM: Oh yeah. I can be direct if you like. No.

DUBNER: So Liverpool, you, paid Roma $41 million for Salah, yes?

GRAHAM: I’m not sure about the exchange rate, but sounds about right.

DUBNER: What’s he worth now — I realize he’s only a year-and-a-bit into a five-year contract.

GRAHAM: Yes, that’s true, and he’s not for sale.

DUBNER: If he were, what’s he worth of the transfer market right now do you think?

GRAHAM: I think if we could benchmark him against a recent player that we sold, that was Philip Coutinho, to Barcelona, your minimum starting bid would be 150 million euros.

DUBNER: Yeah.

GRAHAM: At which point the answer would be, “No. Stop wasting our time.”

DUBNER: Last year, you had a phenomenal year. Won the Champions League. Came in second in the Prem, with enough points to have won in just about any other year. So there is this statistical concept we all know called regression to the mean, which suggests that a particularly good result — or a particularly bad result — is usually followed by a more average result. So considering your season last year, how many trophies do you think Liverpool wins this year?

GRAHAM: Well, I shall give you a straight answer. Just over half. And let me give you the details and you can check, the bookmakers kind of agree with our internal opinion, which is nice. So Premier League, 25 percent. Champions League, maybe 12 to 15 percent. League Cup, 12 percent. FA Cup, 12. So the chance of at least one trophy is greater than 50 percent.

DUBNER: Which trophy do you want more this year?

GRAHAM: Premier League. Well, as a rational person I should say the Champions League, because the income, the difference between winning the Champions League and the semifinal for example, absolutely dwarfs the difference between first and fourth in the Premier League. So rationally, I’d take the Champions League.

DUBNER: Does the director of research get a pretty nice cut from the Champions League victory?

GRAHAM: A small cut.

DUBNER: Do you want to tell us how small?

GRAHAM: I do not.

DUBNER: Dan Schreiber do you have some other football discoveries to share with us?

SCHREIBER: Yeah, I discovered that for the last 12 years there is an annual football cup that’s been played, called the Tolstoy’s Cup. Have you heard of that, Ian?

GRAHAM: I have not.

SCHREIBER: It’s amazing. Okay, there’s only two teams that play actually. It’s the War Studies Department at King’s College London and the Peace Studies Department at the University of Bradford. So they’ve met 12 times. Peace has beaten war eight games to four. And then this is — I got told this by a fellow researcher, I really hope it’s true. As part of a holistic training regime, footballers at Sweden’s Östersunds football club are contractually obliged to read Dostoyevsky. I don’t know if that’s put into your training with Liverpool.

GRAHAM: It’s not mandatory. It’s advisory.

DUBNER: Dan, good stuff. So Ian, I’m guessing you’re not aware of this but Freakonomics Radio actually sponsors a soccer team, or football club. They’re called Dun Cow FC. They’re in Shrewsbury, and this began with an email out of the blue from the club’s media manager and third-string goalkeeper. His name is Alex Simpson and we decided to sponsor the club when we realized that Alex Simpson was actually 15 years old at the time, and had worked up the gumption to write and ask for sponsorship. His dad is the team’s manager and the star player on the team is his older brother. So Dun Cow, they are a Sunday league amateur club who are playing right now about 17 tiers below the Premier League. But they’ve received three promotions in the past few years so it’s possible that in 17 more years, they’ll be playing with you in the Premier League.

And Alex Simpson is now studying history and politics at Keele University, and he’s actually here tonight and he’s got something for you, Ian Graham. Alex, would you come on up? So what we’ve got here is an official Dun Cow FC jersey. Freakonomics Radio logo on the breast. And you can see on the back, “Graham.” So, before you actually take permanent ownership of it though, Ian, let me ask Alex to ask you — Alex, I know that your ultimate goal is to get Dun Cow all the way to the Prem, and you’ve got here a guy who probably has some good analytics software he could maybe loan you. And I’m just curious if you have a shot here with Ian Graham and he’s on the spot and you’ve just given him a beautiful free jersey with his name on it. I think you should try to get some info from him.

Alex SIMPSON: So we’ve just been building our squad for the new season and there’s one position we think we slightly could do with an extra body there, which is a quick center back who can also play at right back, like Joe Gomez for Liverpool. So from your analytic side, what we should see in those players?

GRAHAM: And you’re — you’re playing the 17th tier of English football? So the fuel of data analysis is data, and in the English game, our data probably only goes down to the eighth level. We might know some names of players that low. So in terms of specific recommendations, I’m stuck.

DUBNER: You seemed so nice up until this moment.

GRAHAM: Without data, I’m nothing. I mean, my general observations about lower-league football is that the level of quality flattens out quick, so as you go down the levels, the impact of athleticism becomes higher and higher and higher. So just get big strong players who can run for 90 minutes, because that’s going to be your limiting factor.

DUBNER: I am curious, though. Alex, when you’re trying to recruit players to an amateur team, you’re dealing with different issues than just athleticism — like reliability, right?

SIMPSON: One hundred percent. One hundred percent, yeah.

DUBNER: And I know that, Ian, even at the top level of all sports, there are athletes who are 100 percent on the physical-ability scale and very low on the reliability scale.

GRAHAM: Yeah, absolutely.

DUBNER: Do you have anything to help Alex scout for reliability?

GRAHAM: That’s a really good question. Many years ago, we did a study with an unnamed club’s academy, where we asked the players to rate themselves on talent, and we asked the coaches to rate the players. And we also asked the players, the coaches, a personality questionnaire to say, are you strong-minded, are you punctual? And the correlation between the player’s self-rating of ability and the coaches’ rating of the player’s ability was zero. The coaches’ rating of ability was only correlated with ability to obey instructions and punctuality. So the way to get far, even at sort of good academy level, is to do what your coach says and turn up on time. Those are not necessarily the best players. So if you have a mercurial talent, as long as you can somehow get him on the pitch, they might be difficult to manage, but that’s the sort of player that will be overlooked by your rivals.

DUBNER: Alex, your dad, the manager, is former military. Does he do a pretty good job of getting people to show up and fall in line?

SIMPSON: Yeah, oh yeah, yeah, definitely. We have one club rule for signing players, which is “no dickheads.”

GRAHAM: The problem is that if everyone has that rule there’s gonna be a surplus of really talented dickheads that could win you the league.

DUBNER: Ah yes. I love my job, I really do. I’m afraid, however, it’s time for us to go. It’s been a remarkably interesting evening, at least for me, and I very much hope for all of you as well. I have to say, I feel that our faith in the spirit of British discovery has been at least partially restored tonight. Thanks to all our guests tonight: Ian Graham of Liverpool FC and Alex Simpson of Dun Cow FC; Lucy Woodall and Oliver Steeds of Nekton Mission; Oriel Sullivan of University College London; Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London; the truly wonderful Dan Schreiber; but most of all thanks to all of you for listening this week and every week to Freakonomics Radio. Good night.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Matt Hickey, Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, and Harry Huggins. Our staff also includes Zack Lapinski, Daphne Chen, and Corinne Wallace. Our intern is Ben Shaiman. We had help this week from Stephanie Tam; thanks to everyone at Cadogan Hall in London, and a hat tip to Robert Cottrell of the Browser for alerting us to that essay about Britain and integration by Hasko Von Kriegstein. If you don’t read the Browser regularly, you are really missing out. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

SOURCES

  • Dan Schreiber, host of No Such Thing as a Fish.
  • Sadiq Khan, mayor of London.
  • Oriel Sullivan, professor of the sociology of gender at University College London and co-director of UCL’s Center for Time-Use Research.
  • Lucy Woodall, marine biologist at Oxford and Nekton’s principal scientist.
  • Oliver Steeds, Chief Executive and Founder of Nekton.
  • Ian Graham, Liverpool Football Club’s director of research.

EXTRA