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Episode Transcript

I’m always fascinated by people who defy my expectations, and in my whole life, I’ve met very few people who’ve surprised me the way Amaryllis Fox did. I thought I had a clear idea of what a C.I.A. operative would be like, and Amaryllis was nothing like that. And even though it’s been many months since we talked, I still think about that conversation on a daily basis. So, when it came time to choose a past episode to rebroadcast, the choice was obvious.

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When I was a kid, I had all sorts of wild fantasies about how my life would turn out. I would become a secret agent working undercover for the C.I.A. I would have my own T.V. show. I would marry into the Kennedy clan. Although none of those childhood dreams came true for me, my guest today, Amaryllis Fox, has done them all.

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

Amaryllis Fox spent nearly a decade working as a C.I.A. operative, recounting her experiences in the best-selling book Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the C.I.A. More recently, she helped create and hosted the Netflix series The Business of Drugs. She’s also married to the grandson of Robert Kennedy. But describing what she’s done doesn’t begin to capture who she is. Amaryllis is unlike anyone I’ve ever met. She’s an impossible mix of fearlessness, intelligence, empathy, and charisma.

LEVITT: Amaryllis Fox, it is such a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you today.  

FOX: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for the invitation.

LEVITT: So, you were not exactly a typical teenager. How did you spend the money your mom gave you for a prom dress?

FOX: Well, much to my mother’s chagrin, I took that money and added it to a little bit of savings that I had for schoolbooks in college, and I bought a plane ticket to Southeast Asia to go volunteer on the Thai-Burmese border for what was supposed to be a couple of weeks but ended up being a year of really full exposure to the fight for Burmese democracy which, unfortunately, I think we all thought was farther along than it turns out to have been.

LEVITT: You interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi. She’s the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the dissident in Burma who, at that time — and now for that matter — was under house arrest by the military. Can you describe how that happened?

FOX: So, at the end of that supposed two-week trip, I was back down in Bangkok at the airport with my volunteer group about to go back to the States and just had this very strong instinct that the work I was supposed to do there and whatever I was supposed to learn there wasn’t finished yet. And I told the team leader, “You know, I think I’m going to stay.” And he was not remotely comfortable with leaving a teenager in Thailand, but he ultimately let me go. And I got on a bus, went back up, worked for the rest of the year in that camp. And while I was there, came to know a group of freedom fighters who had escaped from being in hiding, in persecution from the Burmese government, gotten across the border, and were publishing the Irrawaddy, which was the Democratic newspaper in opposition.

And they asked me whether I would be willing to cross the border posing as a tourist in order to be in Yangon when a planned demonstration was going to happen on the ninth of September 1999, in case there was the same kind of violence that there had been in 1988, when thousands of students had been killed. And I had that kind of sense of immortality that you have as a teenager and just said, “Sure.”  So, anyway, I had to find some way to get in there. They weren’t doing tourist visas at the time. And I was a 17-year-old kid who really didn’t have much of an argument for a business visa. So, ended up calling someone I had met at a Free Burma conference who I knew was an investment banker and asking him whether he would take two weeks off work, come to Thailand, and pretend to be my husband so that we could pretend to go into Burma on our honeymoon and document this protest. And to his eternal credit, that’s exactly what he did.

And while we were there, the protest was cut off at the knees in advance. Everybody was arrested the night before. And those who had sent us in asked that instead we go and interview Aung San Suu Kyi to get her words out so that they could be broadcast on shortwave radio back into the country because nobody was allowed to hear what she was saying, even though she had already been elected and had already won the Nobel Peace Prize.  So, of course, we said, “Yes,” and went and sat with this woman whose hand fit in mine like a child’s, even though I was still a child myself, basically, and had this extraordinary conversation about democracy and about truth-telling and about the ability of true words to bring an entire military dictatorship to its knees.

LEVITT: So, the part of the story you left out is that you had this brilliant idea to sneak the film you captured out of the country by hiding it in BIC pens so the military wouldn’t confiscate it.

FOX: That’s right. I mean, it turned out to not be as brilliant as Suu Kyi herself, because at the end of the interview taking the film out of the cassettes and getting ready to wrap it in these BIC pens. And Suu Kyi said, “No, that’s where you put the film that you want them to find. The real film — nature has given you a better hiding place.” And she told me the loo was down the hallway and rolled it up to be about the size of a tampon and sent me on my first lesson in tradecraft, I guess you could say, down the hall.

LEVITT: And then you were, of course, immediately arrested by the military and taken in. But they let you go eventually?

FOX: They did, yeah. 

LEVITT: And they didn’t torture you or kill you?

FOX: They didn’t.

LEVITT: Why didn’t they torture you a little bit? Probably you would have caved really easily at that point in your life, no?

FOX: I think that one of the things that we see time and again with military dictatorships is that they’re incredibly brave when it comes to bullying the weak, especially in their own country but it’s different when it comes to antagonizing a country like the United States, which had a record of concern about the human rights record in Burma and the power to increase sanctions and use other levers that the military generals worried about. And so, one of the things that I think sat very heavily with me when I left was the recognition that the other people who I had seen at the detention center were not afforded that same human dignity simply because they didn’t have an American passport.  

LEVITT: Looking back now with more training and experience, how crazy do you think that Myanmar escapade really was?

FOX: Well, now I have a two-year-old and a 12-year-old, both daughters, both fiery and fierce. As a mother, I have incredible empathy now for my parents who didn’t know about any of it until it was over — thankfully for them. But as myself, I look back on it and it’s actually really deeply consistent with who I am and who I still am. I’ve kind of come full circle to that young person who really believed that going and telling the ground truth and humanizing a very distant and foreign situation for people back home was worth almost any danger, that truth-telling is what we’re here to do as humans and as society. And I think that in some sense, intelligence and journalism at their best — both of them have that in common, right? Is this goal of going and humanizing the other in distant places — whether those are physical or emotional — for an audience. In the intelligence world, that audience is 200 people around the president, and in journalism, it’s potentially the entire world.  

LEVITT: I really want to go back further because it seems like you were raised as a citizen of the world rather than a typical American. Your mother was British and you lived in England for a time and you ran around Moscow and St. Petersburg visiting your father at work — he’s an economist who actually taught at the University of Chicago a you attended Oxford. I’m curious how you think that global upbringing affected you.

FOX: I’m incredibly grateful for it. My birthday’s in September, and I moved pretty much every year of my childhood. And there were times where for the 11th or 12th year in a row, I didn’t know anybody in a new place on my birthday — that I wasn’t really thrilled about it as a kid. But looking back on it, I think it was this extraordinary gift to feel at home in the world and to understand the immense commonality of humans everywhere. Because, as a kid, what you do when you move, is to look for all of the familiar archetypes that you know from wherever you were before to have some sense of how to operate in this new environment.  There’s always the woman whose kids have grown up, and she’s always there to take care of you on a Sunday afternoon when your parents are at work or the kids who hang out at the park who you can make friends with by dropping a soccer ball on the ground.

LEVITT: I have to say, that really resonates with me. I’ve got two toddlers and my wife is German, and she’s adventurous. And so, these little girls are being dragged all over the world.  We’re trying to create these super special lives for them. It sounds like you’re trying to do the same for your daughters?

FOX: Absolutely. I mean, my two-year-old during pregnancy alone, I think she was in Iraq, in Colombia, in Kenya, in northern Burma, in Thailand, in Turkey and that was because I was working as a journalist during that time. But in their childhoods, for both of my girls, it’s really important to me that they come face to face with the places that otherwise they would only hear about through the filter of the media or the news and receive a kind of very limited perspective about.  And that isn’t to say that there isn’t incredibly destructive and brutal conflict happening in the world. There is. And it’s very important to report on it. But my experience growing up overseas and also in the work that I did, is that the world is a lot scarier a place when people can tell you about monsters that you haven’t experienced yourself.

On December 21, 1988, a Pan Am flight exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. It was a terrorist attack executed by Libyan intelligence operatives. Eleven people on the ground died, along with all 259 people aboard, including a girl named Laura. Amaryllis was eight years old at the time and Laura was a close friend of hers. She cited this experience, along with the attacks on September 11 as reasons why she was drawn to operative work. Just a couple of years after 9/11, she started graduate studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, which led to her eventual recruitment by the C.I.A.

LEVITT: It’s so clear from how you talk and the way you describe yourself that you are very attuned to the pain of others whether it’s the suffering of the Burmese people or the deep shock and pain you felt over 9/11, which you describe in your book —  it’s called Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the C.I.A. And that doesn’t really strike me as the typical recipe for success as a C.I.A. operative, being extremely empathetic, or am I wrong about that?

FOX: Well, it turns out actually to be, in my experience, a great recipe for success. It’s not the universally taught one. But when you go through intelligence training, one of the things that I recognized early on is how different the real work of human intelligence is. What you see in the movies is a lot of kind of roof gymnastics and Glock juggling and chase sequences and it’s really a very, very small sliver of what the Central Intelligence Agency is tasked with doing. The vast majority of human intelligence is about — over weeks or months or years — building trust and relationships with people who are members of groups that are trying to attack us or members of governments that are at war with us. It’s almost a secret backchannel diplomacy with our adversaries.

LEVITT: So, I absolutely loved your book.  I was really stunned at the extensiveness and the creativity of the training you were given on what’s called “The Farm.” Could you describe that a little bit?

FOX: Yeah, it’s one of the things that I actually think the agency should be proudest of, is the amount of man-hours and creativity and focus that is invested in this training program. Basically, after a few months doing kind of preparatory courses, you go down to this space that is kind of affectionately known as “The Farm.” The entire thing is a six-month-long simulation where you are “deployed,” as a first-tour officer to a fictional country. And that fictional country has 50 years worth of history that has unfolded during each of the previous classes that is all recorded that you’re expected to be familiar with. And you start out as any officer would — you start out going to the diplomatic parties, and being subject to the same kind of stops and searches and seizures by police officers, and watching the 24-hour news channel. But the difference is that every police officer that stops you and every newscaster on the 24-hour news channel and every person you talk to at every cocktail party is actually a C.I.A. officer themselves who has taken a tour away from the field to come back and help to train you.

So, you’re in this kind of giant Truman Show simulation. And the terror attacks begin to pick up and people’s sources walking into the embassy at three in the morning with critical information begin to happen. And you’re eventually managing multiple meetings a day and multiple sources with all of these foreign countries that exist in this make-believe map. So, it’s very immersive, I guess you could say, to the degree that by the time it finishes, it’s almost a surprise that the real world is still out there.

LEVITT: What is the ratio of people who will pass this course to the set of actors who are acting for six months in the background training them?

FOX: Gosh, that’s a good question. I know that just in surveillance training alone, I think each of us had a team of 12 or so on us. And then you’re running a couple of dozen sources, and then, there are entire police forces, and then, of course, there are faculties that teach different particular skill sets like land navigation and defensive driving. And you qualify on the Glock and the M4, though I never carried either one of those in the field. I would say several dozen to each student.

LEVITT: Yeah, 25 or 30 to one. I mean, think about that and how different that is about everything else we do in education, where the ratios, instead of being 30 to one, are one to 25 or one to 30.

FOX: I do think that it’s appropriate if you are going to do human-intelligence work to make that investment and make that expenditure. Outside of headquarters at Langley, there are three trees. And each of them has a plaque that doesn’t bear the source’s name because they haven’t been revealed, but each of the three trees is dedicated to one of three different sources in the Soviet leadership during the Cold War that are each at different times credited with preventing a nuclear war — a nuclear exchange. And when you realize that the young people who go through this training program, when they leave they’re completely by themselves as very young people out in the field building relationships with sources that have the potential to actually save life on Earth. And when you give a 25-year-old kid the chance and the responsibility of being the difference between whether that person lives and provides that information or is rounded up and thrown in prison or worse, they better be well prepared.

LEVITT: So, you were indeed incredibly successful in your training at the C.I.A. and you came to operate under what’s called “non-official cover.” Could you explain quickly what that means?

FOX: Yeah. The best culture example, I guess, is that movie Argo, where Ben Affleck plays an officer who poses as a producer who is looking to make a film in order to get hostages out of Iran. For the most part, intelligence officers deploy under State Department cover. They work out of United States embassies around the world. But when you’re working against certain terror groups or arms dealers, it doesn’t really matter much to them whether you work for C.I.A. or you work for the State Department. They just don’t want anything to do with anyone who works for the United States government.  And so, rather than working in the embassy, you’re out there on your own without that kind of diplomatic safety net. So, it’s a little bit more challenging, but you have the ability to build relationships with the more far-flung groups that we’re currently at odds with.

LEVITT: And you spent almost a decade masquerading as an art dealer who also dabbled in weapons of mass destruction. Are you surprised that people would believe that a 26-year-old art dealer also was out in search of nuclear weapons?

FOX: I was incredibly skeptical and surprised about my ability to do this work in the first place. But the advice that was given to me all the way through was “Look, you have to lean into who you are. You’re not going to be able to create a cover that makes you look like whatever you perceive an arms dealer or an intelligence officer to look like. You’re always going to be you. So, what is some gray area in the Venn diagram between the circle of who you actually are in the world and the other circle of people who might plausibly be in a place where they could build a relationship with a terrorist?” And my family had kind of a generalized interest in art. And my sister worked in the art world. And at the time, the emerging art market was really heating up. And there were artists coming out of pretty far-flung areas that were either active combat theaters, or in the kind of precursor stages.

So, it seemed believable for me to be the kid of an art family that was working in the places that I needed to be in. Your cover is really to get you where you need to be and maybe have your first or second meeting with somebody who you think could be a source of when a planned attack is going to happen. But from then on, you’re slowly dropping your cover more each and every time. The trope that you see in the movies of pulling out your camera to take photos of documents while the person’s in the bathroom or whatever is not the reality. These are consensual long-built relationships of trust where both parties are putting their safety in one another’s hands in order to prevent an attack from happening.

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt, and his conversation with Amaryllis Fox. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about weapons of mass destruction and Fox’s Netflix series The Business of Drugs. 

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LEVEY: Hey, Steve. I wanted to know — how’s your attempt to learn German going?

LEVITT: Not so good.

LEVEY: So, we’ve recently had two listeners write in to ask questions about languages. Jonathan E. wanted to know: “Does knowing certain languages have an economic worth?” Do you have an answer for him?

LEVITT: I have a little bit of data and a lot of common sense that I think gets to the bottom of this. So, the little bit of data looks at Americans and shows that the returns to knowing foreign languages are really low on the order of maybe a 2-percent increase in your average wage. I think it’s just obvious that in the U.S. where everything is conducted in English, you just won’t get a very big return to knowing a foreign language. There may be reasons to learn languages, but I don’t think it’s because you’re going to collect a bigger paycheck, at least not if you live in the United States. Maybe if you could learn Mandarin, it might be a different story. Now, the problem with Mandarin is it is impossible to learn. But that’s exactly why there might be big returns, there are so many companies now where business with China will be so important. And the fact that skill is so scarce and so hard to learn means that there should be, I think, a really big return to it.

LEVEY: What if you’re not American though?

LEVITT: I think if you’re not American, then it’s a totally different story, because English is the language of business. If you don’t speak English, all sorts of opportunities are cut off. I spent three or four days, a few years ago, wandering around in the slums of Mumbai, and it really seemed to me that there were very few ways out of the slums, but one obvious way was knowing English, because it opened up the hospitality industry to you. It opened up call centers. And a project I’ve been working on — without success — ever since then is how can I find a way to help motivated children or adults who are living in the slums of India learn English because it’s not easy. I went to the grammar schools and the teachers who were supposed to be teaching English didn’t really speak any English. So, you weren’t going to learn good English from going to school. If we could create that opportunity, there’d be some set of people who could really benefit from access to learning English.

LEVEY: So, we had another listener write in, David L. He’s a freshman in college, and he’s wondering if he should continue taking French because it’ll be beneficial. Or if you should just forget French and take classes he’s actually more interested in.

LEVITT: I would tell you whether it’s languages or anything else, I think every college student should take what they like, take what they enjoy. The specific things you learn in college aren’t that important. It’s really about exploration, about learning how to think about being excited about the world around you and finding what you’ll be good at. And so, in that regard my advice to my own kids and to the people I advise just take what you love. I think the economic outcomes for people who study stuff they don’t love anyway, aren’t good. I’m really all in favor of exploration, taking chances, having intellectual fun while you’re in college. I wish I had done so much more of it myself.

LEVEY: I should note that there are two Freakonomics Radio episodes that cover languages one’s called: “Is learning a foreign language really worth it?” Number 158. And the other one’s called, “Why don’t we speak the same language?” Number 300. Thanks for writing in David and Jonathan, if you have a question for us, our email address is pima@freakonomics.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s the acronym for our show. Steve and I read every email that’s sent. We look forward to reading yours. Thanks.

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When Amaryllis describes C.I.A. training, I have to say it sounds pretty fun. But then I think about the reality of life undercover, isolated from everything and everyone you knew before, every day filled with lies and deception, constantly under threat. It sounds awful. I want to ask her whether life as a spy was as brutal as it seems it would be. But before that, I want to get her opinion on whether or not I should be afraid of terrorists.

LEVITT: So, a second thing that I found really surprising about your book was the suggestion that a lot of terror groups have — close to within their reach — or within their reach, access to some kind of nuclear capabilities. And as one example of this, you mentioned that the Russians somehow had lost track of over 100 suitcase-sized nuclear weapons?

FOX: Yeah, I mean, the other side of that is that with every passing year, these weapons do begin to fail. They do break down. And the technology requires people who are familiar with now 30-year-old technology in order to operate it. So, it is simultaneously cause for great alertness in the intelligence community, but it’s also, I think, important to recognize that there is a reason we haven’t seen these kinds of attacks. And I think actually, first and foremost, the reason is the common humanity that we talked about earlier, the notion that I think everybody recognizes the line that you’re stepping over once you begin to put all of life on Earth in danger. I do think that it is important to recognize that technology is marching on and that the weapons of mass destruction of the last century — I think this century we will not limit the list to nuclear, bio, and chem.

You see the ability to 3D-print viruses using nucleotides as your printing matter based on recipes that are available on the Internet. It used to be that when you were fighting biological attacks, your job was to actually ensure that the samples that were kept in biolabs were secure.  That becomes very different when people can actually create them on their own. And we see, of course, cyber being added as a new vector here where nation-states that were not ahead in the nuclear race have invested enormous amounts in cyber that are beginning to pay off in a way that I think may end up overtaking the original W.M.D. concerns.

LEVITT: Someone I knew high up in intelligence once told me that, on this whole tech computer side, offense was way ahead of defense. So, basically, with a sophisticated state actor, there was just no way to defend yourself if they decided they wanted a certain piece of information. It sounds like you confirm that view.

FOX: I think there’s a general recognition that the groundwork has been laid by most of the major geopolitical actors, including our allies, but certainly, those who have attacked us or have already demonstrated their capabilities in cyber, to have that threat be lying dormant, whether it’s in their adversary’s electrical grids or access to government personnel files or ability to turn on and off at will their nuclear capabilities. I think we’re finding ourselves in a place where we have to grapple with that inherent vulnerability, and what does this new version of mutually assured destruction look like? Do we even have sufficient thought and international agreement — the equivalent of the chemical weapons ban, but for cyber? No. And I hope that it doesn’t require a traumatic event for us to really work on containing that.

LEVITT: I know it’s hard to prognosticate, but what do you think the chances are that something absolutely disastrous would happen in a major city done by a terror group in the next five years, whether it’s a dirty bomb or some kind of biological attack?

FOX: I think that it’s very difficult to — it’s almost like quantum mechanics, right? These are clouds of probability. But I do think that the democratized grievances that we’re seeing right now don’t feel new to me at all. For anyone who was overseas and paying attention over the last 20, 30, 40 years — the frustrations and eventually the rage that result from the same policies that I think now are fueling wealth inequality in the United States have been simmering around the world for a long time. And a lot of the divisions that we’re seeing domestically are very familiar to me as someone who has looked at extremism overseas. And in both cases they are fueled by this feeling of being unheard and unseen for so long that grievances begin to metastasize and become increasingly dangerous. The first level is something like graffiti, which is completely benign, really, but is a sense of like, “I am here. See me. I matter.” And when that continues to become more and more virulent and more and more dangerous, you end up getting to spasms of violence that can eventually bubble up into attacks and eventually into mass-casualty attacks. The question that you ask — are we going to see one of these things in the next five years — depends enormously on the work that we do communally and the work that each of us does individually. I really do think that finding common ground is the greatest act of patriotism any of us can engage in right now.

LEVITT: So, it sounds like you’re suggesting that the greatest domestic threat right now is from domestic terrorism, not from foreigners.

FOX: I think that’s right, on the balance of where we are right now. In a broader sense, I don’t really see them as two different things. In both cases, they grow out of this sense of objectifying the other and feeling completely unheard. And those are very human experiences.

LEVITT: And again, I know you’re not a prognosticator, but let me ask you to do one more. So, domestically, the words you’ve used, I think, could equally well describe the far right and the far left. Do you see one of those as being a greater threat for mass-casualty attacks than the other?

FOX: In general, what I’ve seen in extremism is that the actual attacks are often perpetrated either by lone wolves or small splinter groups. And those individual people or small groups of people splinter from actually quite unlikely places. So, I think it’s very difficult to say a particular group could or could not give rise to them. The importance is recognizing the scale of alienation and how far along it a particular person or a particular group is and feels. And one of the important components of this is recognizing that listening to does not mean agreeing with. This is something that we often forget in our country. It became really clear to me in working against the people who hated us most in the world that, that as uncomfortable and often abhorrent it is to listen, it’s the only way to anticipate attacks, and more importantly, to be alert to any possibility of actually bringing the temperature down and finding some path to peace. In the war on terror context, there was this really dramatic oversimplification that the leadership and the media engaged in, which was this like “they hate us because we’re free” narrative, right?

I’ve never in my entire time in the Middle East — even in the most traditional settings — ever heard anybody back that up. What I have seen is that over the 10 years prior to 9/11, there was a very consistent drumbeat of expression from the Al-Qaeda leadership, from Egyptian Islamic Jihad — a lot of the leadership of Al-Qaeda came from E.I.J. — of saying, “Here are the very specific grievances we have.” And one of them was supporting financially the security services in Egypt that were so notorious for torture.  That’s one I don’t think that most Americans would want to withstand a terror attack in order to continue to fund the Egyptian security services. I think if you put that to a vote, most Americans would say, “Nah, we’re good on that.” But then, there are others — support for the state of Israel that I think probably, if you put it to a vote, there would be the tolerance of periodic attacks in order to continue. That’s the kind of adult conversation that I think was really important for leaders to have following 9/11. But instead, it was this series of “They hate us because we’re free,” tropes.

LEVITT: And my hunch is we have a tough path because the academics who’ve studied this have come to the somewhat obvious conclusion that if you occupy someone’s territory and you kill their father or their brother, you create really serious enemies who have long memories about what you’ve done. And we’ve done a lot of that over the last three or four decades.  

FOX: I was down in Houston after Hurricane Harvey volunteering with Team Rubicon, which is a really awesome veterans’ organization that goes in after natural disasters. And the last house we mucked out on this Friday, the guy, you know, he had a bunch of live rounds in the floodwater. And he was very pro-Second Amendment, I guess you could say. And he said while we were working “I just don’t know how all y’all were willing to be over there among those A-Rabs.” And I said, “Let’s have a beer after this, because you’re our last house.” And when we were sitting there, I said, “Imagine that the Iranians stood up in front of the United Nations and said, ‘We love the American people, but their government is failing them. Their police are killing people in the streets. They’ve got mobs storming their capital. Their country is a mess. On behalf of the American people, we’re going to liberate them. And you’re going to see some Iranian bases on Fifth Avenue and on La Cienega. Don’t worry about it. We’re here for you.

You’re going to see some Iranian drones flying over Chicago and Kansas City and the odd explosion, but it’ll just be against targets that are protecting you. We’ll probably be here for 20 years or so.’ Like, what would you do?” And he goes, “That’s why we have the Second Amendment. I would never stand for that. We would be down there in a second and get them the hell out of our country.” And I said, “Exactly. Whether that’s right or wrong, we shouldn’t be shocked that certain parts of the communities in other countries have met us with the same approach, right?” And he got actually quite teary — and, you know, maybe it was the beer — but he got quite teary, and said, “I can’t believe that I’ve gotten to this point in my life and I’d never actually thought about something that simple.” So, yeah, I think we do have a lot of work to do. And we have incredible legacies of oppression and violence here and economic cruelty. We have this very old, entrenched, human problem, right, which is, “Let’s make peace, but you go first.”

And I just found that if you sit down with someone, whether — in my case, somebody that is trying to kill your countrymen or maybe just a family member that is tricky at Thanksgiving, right? But if you go first with something vulnerable, something that you’ve made a mistake about or changed your mind about, it is really amazing how that immediately gives the person that you’re talking to permission to do the same thing.

LEVITT: So, can I play conspiracy theorist for a moment?

FOX: It does seem to be going around.

LEVITT: Why shouldn’t I believe that your book is something very different than it appears — a trap for someone being set by the C.I.A. or a set of stories designed to mislead our enemies or protect some current operatives?

FOX: Two of the questions that I got a lot, just like playfully from my husband’s friends are like, “Can you kill me with your pinky finger?” The answer to which is “No.” And then, “But do you actually still work there?” And then, I say, “No.” And then, they go, “But that’s what you would say.”  So, look, there is this misconception that once you’re there, you never leave. I actually found it to be almost disconcertingly the opposite. I write in the book about leaving and what my mentor had told me, which was like, “When you leave, however much you think you did good work here, it’s like getting out of a swimming pool. The water will close in behind you, and no one will ever be able to see that you were here. I remember thinking, like, “Huh, okay, I guess that’s part of the sacrifice.” You hand it on to the next generation. And the veil drops behind you. And you turn left on Route 123. And that’s that. For me, it was really important to leave as soon as I couldn’t look a source in the eye and truthfully say that keeping them alive was the most important thing in the world to me. And once I had my daughter, I just couldn’t do that. I think actually having my daughter made me a better officer, but it also certainly made me aware of how much there was to lose.

LEVITT: You don’t explicitly talk about it in the book, but there’s such a brutality somehow associated with the career path you were on. You give up everything from your past. You spend all day masquerading as something you’re not. When you leave, as you just described, you’re gone, and it disappears. I guess it has to be that way, but it sure makes the price seem high.  

FOX: It’s a tough form of service for sure. I’m always torn when people ask me whether I think they should do it. A lot of young women read this book and reach out to me, and I think that on a personal level, if I were just their friend or their mom, there’s not a lot of personal happiness to be had. There’s a lot of purpose, but it’s a very lonely way to spend your 20s. And I think, on the other hand, for me, as an American citizen and as a citizen of the world, I want the people who do this work to be the kind of people who it doesn’t make happy. If you want to join the agency because you want to run around and shoot guns and feel powerful, that’s not who we need doing this work. And if you’re somebody who will feel the weight of the moral responsibility incredibly heavily and will feel very lonely and isolated because you’re not able to have those moral conversations with people whose advice you respect, then you’re the kind of person that I hope will do this kind of work.

LEVITT: I’d love to talk to you about the Netflix documentary The Business of Drugs that you narrate. How did you get involved?

FOX: Well, I actually first came to the project because the creator and executive producer, Kaj Larsen — who’s a former Navy SEAL and a wonderful journalist and a great friend of mine — I first met because he was the down-range arm of an operation that I was doing the research and analysis for when I very, very first got to the agency. And we’ve had many conversations over the years about the illicit financial networks that drive so much of the conflict that we see in the world. And the one that we kept coming back to over and over again was the narcotics trade because of the complexity of the levers and players involved, but also because the economic reality seemed so clear that either demand had to go away — which there didn’t seem to be any sign that that was going to happen — or to legalize and regulate.  

So, we approached it with very open, analytical, curious minds and decided that the only way to really get to the truth was to be on the ground. And actually, I filmed all six episodes in the third trimester of my pregnancy with my two-year-old. I mean, that was part of, actually, what I think helped to be very disarming for a lot of the sort of quite fierce drug lords and militia members and others that I interviewed for the series. You walk in quite aggressively pregnant. And I think it kind of startled them and allowed a very human interview in many cases that I might not have been able to do otherwise.

LEVITT: So, I’ve studied crime, academically, for decades, and I thought there were things in particular that were absolutely fabulous about the series. And the first was how you so effectively captured the voices and the lives of the various players in these markets. From coca growers to street dealers and customs officials and chemists. And I know for my undergraduate students who take a course I teach called “Economics of Crime,” this will be absolutely required viewing from now on because I think it brings to life something I’ve never been able to bring to life in the classroom.

FOX: Gosh, that means a lot to me. What struck me over and over and over again is the tendency of media and politicians and other cultural storytellers to oversimplify people who participate in illicit economies as monsters or criminals. And the reality is, in every circumstance that we found ourselves in, each and every person is a completely rational human economic actor who’s making really completely predictable decisions based on the incentives that are available and that are presented to them in their environment. And that is enormously reassuring and exciting because it means that when we’re looking at the suffering and the violence and the conflict that are part of the narcotics trade, that this isn’t just a kind of, “Well, some humans are evil, and they will be no matter what. Throw up your hands,” kind of a thing.

LEVITT: So, you grew up the daughter of an economist — a University of Chicago economist, no less.  Was it fun to put on your economist hat for the series?  

FOX: It was. I was very aware of economics as a kid because my dad really drilled us in it. It gave me a lot of tools as I got older for sort of interrogating my own thinking and understanding what was happening in a given environment. And that came in very handy doing the work that I did because Kaj and I often talk about how these economies — you can kind of imagine them like different-colored spider webs that share nodes where money can move from one spider web to another. And you have the weapons-trafficking networks. You have the drug-trafficking networks. You have gems. You have human-trafficking networks. And the legal economy shares nodes with all of those different-colored spider webs as well. It’s very difficult to understand any part of our society, without looking at all of those webs as an interlocked whole. And so, it was really important to me — somebody who thinks about conflict and terrorism and how humans resolve conflict — to understand the economics that drives so much of it.  

LEVITT: So, Amaryllis, you approach everything seemingly through the lens of empathy. And I’m wondering, do you think empathy is something that can be learned?

FOX: I actually kind of approach the question differently, which is I think we’re all born with empathy. I think it can be unlearned, and our job as parents and as educators and as community leaders as we get older is to do our best not to un-teach our children the empathy that they already have. The compassion and empathy that we’re all born with I think is one of our strongest common human traits. It has to be systematically shut down through abuse, through ignoring, through the lack of recognition, and common humanity. And I think we are seeing that play out in certain parts of our geopolitics. And really, the younger the kids are when we can engage with them and allow them to keep that common humanity, the less we risk them losing it as adults, I think.

I’ve spent my whole life thinking like an economist, and one of the central ideas of economics is that most people, most of the time, act in their own self-interest. Standard economics, essentially, is a way of modeling behavior when people don’t care about others. Where people have little empathy. I expect a lot of people who value economic thinking and who believe in the power of markets end up confusing themselves when it comes to the notion of self-interest versus empathy. They start to believe that traits like empathy aren’t important or even worse, that economics suggests that self-interest is a virtue and empathy is a mistake. But that’s complete nonsense. The world would be a much better place if we could find a way to make people more empathetic. In the language of economics, empathy is a type of positive externality and the market undersupplies positive externalities. You can both think like an economist and be nice to other people. Indeed, I highly recommend both.

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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. Dan Dzula mixed this episode. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Theme music composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at pima@freakonomics.com, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.

LEVITT: How weird is it to have married into the Kennedy clan?  It doesn’t feel like American royalty?

FOX: Definitely not. Definitely not.

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  • Amaryllis Fox, former undercover C.I.A. operative, television host, and writer.

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